Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Goldman Case

One thing I wanted to write about before I got sidetracked by the unexpected death of our friend was this whole Sean Goldman case, at least to say thank goodness the guy got his kid back! I don't plan to dwell on it for long as I think most of everything that can possibly be said about the case already has, but I did want to say that my heart goes out to the kid. I mean, he got yanked away from the family he's known for the past five years on Christmas Eve, and unless Sean's stepdad was a real-life Vernon Dursley, that's got to suck. And he's got a tough road ahead getting used to what is essentially a new culture, a new language, a new climate... not that it ever should have gotten to the point where it was a new culture for him, all over again.

My mother asked me how my wife felt about the whole ordeal, as she watches the news religiously and has been following the story. I thought that she was pretty sympathetic to the father's point of view, but it turns out I hadn't asked the right questions because when the subject came up on Christmas Eve I discovered that she wasn't as sympathetic as I thought. I won't go into any more detail than that.

Which brings me to the last point I'm going to make about this, which relates to the differing media coverage of the story. I must confess I get most of my news from U.S. news sources, and (for better or worse) that includes my news about Brazil. I try watching stuff on TV and even though I've been here for eight years now I still only feel like I'm getting half the story. But it was very interesting to watch the two bits of video posted by Rio Gringa- one from MSNBC and one from Globo, the Brazilian super-news-and-entertainment conglomerate. As you might imagine, the one from the U.S. news source makes the Brazilian family look like evil incarnate, running the poor kid through a nightmare of cameras and reporters, despite efforts on the part of the Americans to make the transfer minimally traumatic. The clip from the Brazilian news source, in the form of a commentator's narrative over video of the Goldman's plane taking off, is much more sympathetic to the Brazilian family. It states that it was the Brazilians who wanted to make the hand-off mais suave, and there was no offer from the Americans, that all of their requests were ignored by the Americans. There's also an interesting bit about how Sean had promised to wear the same t-shirt for the whole journey, and if he was to get off the plane wearing a different shirt this was supposed to signal the family back in Brazil that things weren't going well for him.

I have no idea what he was wearing when he got off the plane. I'm not that obsessed with the story.

Obviously someone is lying about one of these versions of events. And I hate to say it, but I think the U.S. version is closer to the truth.

I could go on, but I won't. All I really wanted to say was congrats to David Goldman for persevering, and kudos to Rio Gringa for keeping the story alive and covering it so closely. And now let's hope the two Goldmans will fade into happy obscurity.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ciro


Today, December 24th, is the day we celebrate Christmas here. And sadly, the day has started off with a tragedy.

One of our neighbors, who everyone called Ciro even though that wasn't his real name, who we called Deu because he used to walk around yelling 'Celebredeu!' and Lucas could only say "Deu," has died. He was 34. Medics have been trying to resuscitate him for... too long... and have finally just given up.

Deu was one of our best friends here in our neighborhood. We invited him to our parties and we used to keep a bottle of ginger brandy in the house just for him. He was actually the very first person we had contact with here on the street, as he saw us looking at the for sale sign on the house we eventually bought and ran to get the son of the owner to show us the house. He worked in the little store a couple doors down and always brought us our bottled water, which is why we kept the brandy for him. He worked constantly, wheeling cases of beer all over the largo, and he was friends with everyone. He was a devoted Chicleteiro, a fan of the Axé band Chiclete com Banana.

He was loud and boisterous, and kind of a bobo, apparently content to work every day of the week and hardly ever going anywhere. We used to kid him that he was king of the street and he should run for mayor. He used to brag about how tough he was, but he never acted on it as far as we could tell. He loved Pagode, Bahian style, and we'd often hear him playing pandeiro (tambourine) in front of the house. Recently he started a relationship with an older woman who lives down the street who has a young son, who he's been taking around to swimming lessons and such.

His boss, the owner of the mercearia (a store that sells beverages and some food items) worked him ragged. Deu worked seven days a week and would even give up his month's vacation in exchange for an extra month's pay. He would open the store at 7:30 in the morning, close it at 8 PM, and sometimes he'd even open it after hours if someone needed a pack of cigarettes or a couple beers. It was clear that his boss took advantage of him, and he'll never be able to find someone to take his place. Apparently they've worked together for fifteen years. Evani doesn't agree with me that he was content to work this hard, and said that he resented missing out on events and so forth because he had to work, but he felt trapped and didn't know how to leave.

A siren woke Evani up this morning, and she went to the window to see what was happening. A crowd of about one hundred people were standing around, very quiet, and a rapid response vehicle was on the scene. They were trying to defibrillate him. I could see Deu's feet sticking out of the store where he spent all his time- apparently he opened the store, gave a yell, and fell to the ground, never to rise again.

At first we didn't know who it was, and Evani told me to go down and see what was happening. When we found out it was Deu, thanks to a neighbor who called up to us, I decided I didn't want to see him like that, didn't want to remember him like that. Ruan went down to look. Evani went down to look. Lucas wanted to go see too, but I wouldn't let him, something my wife dismissed as silly. She's been looking at dead bodies in the street since she was a little girl, but I don't want Lucas to have the same experience.

Apparently Deu hadn't been feeling well lately, and had been to the doctor and to have some tests run. They apparently didn't turn up anything. He ate an extremely heavy, fatty diet and drank quite a bit, but he wasn't a smoker and he'd given up hard liquor, for what it's worth. His mother also died young of heart failure, so he may have had inherited a bad heart from her. I doubt they'll do an autopsy so we will probably never know exactly what killed him.

There's an attitude here, I'm not sure if I could call it prevailing, that when your time is up you're gone. It's fate, it's the Lord calling you back. I've heard a couple people say that about Deu this morning. I don't agree. They all said the same thing about another friend of Evani's who backed off of a scaffolding: his time has come. My feeling was, if he'd been more careful, if he had used some additional precautions, his time wouldn't have come just then. Similarly if Deu had had access to better health care, if he'd been better informed, and if he'd paid more attention to his potentially genetic health problems, this might not have happened.

Not to mention it took the emergency crew most of an hour to arrive.

Tradition here is to bury the dead as soon as possible, none of this planning a funeral for a convenient weekend a couple weeks down the road. Apparently the funeral will be tomorrow, and we will go. I don't go to many funerals here, there are just too many of them, but I want to go to this one. Deu was a true friend.

Goodbye, Ciro. I'm sorry you left us so soon. We're going to miss you.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Infantil Cinco

He passed!

Now, of course, I can't believe I ever had any doubt. Here is the pertinent bit of his 'report card':

Lucas has acquired the skills necessary to proceed to Infantil V.

'Infantil V' being preschool for the five year olds. Here's a couple other choice bits written by his teacher:

(Lucas) is a boy who is clever, communicative, and friends with everyone.

And from a list of things he 'always says':

"Teacher, will you sit next to me today?"

I could go on and on- the proud papa. I like how she says he is very creative with the art projects. She does mention that he has trouble with the numbers from one to ten.

Although tired, and with other stuff I should be doing, I roused myself to make the following short film of an absolutely delightful document they assembled for us at the school: it is eleven drawings, glued side-by-side, one from each month of the past year. I love how it shows his progression from simple lines and squiggles to fully colored pages. My apologies for the atrociously bad production, including the shadows and my feet- I did take the time to swap out the soundtrack for one of YouTube's authorized tunes- the first on the list of instrumental cuts. But hey- I kinda like it!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Summer Vacation

Both of the kids are now on summer vacation, which must seem odd to those of you in the northern hemisphere, or those of you teaching at the Pan American School (I know there's at least three of you out there that read my blog). Ruan has passed the year and will enter 5th grade, and there is a parent/teacher conference for Lucas tomorrow at two.

I must confess I'm a bit nervous about this conference. Lucas is only four, and still in preschool, but I'm concerned they might suggest that he repeat a year. I know my kid is smart, I'm not worried about that, but there's a couple reasons I'm nervous.

Maybe school has changed a lot in the States since I was a kid, but it seems like they push kids a lot harder at an early age here in Brazil. Evani is always telling me how Lucas' cousin who is almost the same age as him has been able to write her name for almost two years now, and has homework, and writes, and maybe is even reading some already. I know another little girl, who I believe is eight, who has forty minutes of homework every day. Ruan used to have the same thing, although it used to stretch to an hour or longer depending on how much he wanted to fight us to not do what he was assigned.

I know very little about early child development but this seems like too much too soon to me. I had no homework until the fifth grade, and was not reading until first grade. Even here, alfabetização, which seems to imply learning to read by its very name, won't happen for Lucas for two years- if so, this is out of date- most kids here are already expected to read by that time.

I was discussing this with a Brazilian friend of mine and he said the reason for teaching someone to write their name at such an early age is very cynical- it allows them to vote. They may not learn to read, may not learn to write, may drop out of school at eight years old (there are no truancy laws here) but if they can write their name and pick out a number on a voting form then by gum they can fulfill their civic duty.

One of the things I really like about Lucas' school is that they have a different teaching method- they don't try to jam reading and writing down a kid's throat at three years old. For the past two years Lucas has been painting pictures and having books read to him and such, and then this year he learned his vowels and his numbers, did a big unit on colors and plants, and also learned how to write his name. So now he can vote. Well, he'll need to learn his last name first, and with a name like 'Pfohl' that could take a while. Oh yeah, and he does get homework, on Fridays- things like "color the animal on top of the table green," or "draw a line between the triangles." You know, starter homework.

So why am I concerned? Well, for one thing, my wife thinks he's woefully unprepared for the coming year and blames the teachers. She's not nearly as fond of the school as I am. The other thing is that Lucas still has a really hard time with a couple of those numbers, particularly '9' and '6.' And he gets confused with the vowels sometimes as well. And he keeps leaving the 'c' out of his name.

But the big thing is something I learned just yesterday: there is a new law here that sets the cutoff for a given school year at April 1st - no joke (har har, couldn't resist). That means that Lucas, whose birthday is March 30th, is within one day of being the youngest possible student in his class. And anyone who has had kids (and raised them, and paid attention) knows how much of a difference a year, or six months, makes at this age. I found this out because a student who left his school, and now wants to come back, is being asked to repeat a year. He's only a week younger than Lucas.

I can't believe I'm even worrying about this. He's only four years old! He's probably going to be fine. But I'm one of these idiots that hears a story on the news and then lets it unduly influence me- like the one I read about parents deliberately holding their kids back a year so they'll be more intellectually developed. Or the one about how the kids that exceed in sports are more likely to be born during some three or four month period during the year, because they end up being the oldest kids in the class. (does that mean it's the opposite 3 or 4 months here in the southern hemisphere?) My brother was born on one of those cusp periods, and she opted to let him be one of the oldest rather than one of the youngest in the class. She claims to this day that he resented that- and he ended up graduating a year early anyways.

And then I hear stories about kids who have to be in the 90th percentile to get into kindergarten at the best private schools in NYC. Well, that's clearly over the top, not to mention the many thousands of dollars a school like that must cost. I don't want to put that kind of pressure on my kid.

And there's one other factor. The public schools here are utter, total, crap. The public elementary school I attended in the sticks in Western Massachusetts had better facilities than the private school Lucas is attending. And even though it's not one of the more expensive schools here in Salvador, it's still a lot more than I would ideally be paying for a decent education for my kid. And I can't afford to repeat a year, especially if he's only four. And I really don't want him to switch schools- not at all, if I can afford it, but at least not until he's really reading so he doesn't get thrown into a class where they are all reading and writing already.

I would prefer that to be sooner rather than later.

I will post an update tomorrow on what happens at the meeting.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fire!!

Just to prove I'm not the only one here in Salvador that has crazy adventures without even leaving the house, I'm going to reprint this email I received today from my friend Pardal. Pardal is the driving force behind the incredibly informative Bahia Online and also runs Cana Brava Records in Pelourinho. I've made a couple notes in square brackets for the non-Portuguese speakers out there.
If your building/house is burning down here in Salvador, don't count on well-organized, well-equipped bombeiros [firemen] to show up.

Approaching 4 a.m. this morning a car in the garage in our building caught fire (don't ask me how). The fire eventually spread to a total of 6 cars, and in the meantime we residents skedaddled down the back stairway in panic, with smoke and the sound of explosions coming up.

Talk about a rude awakening!

Half an hour later or so a fire truck pulled up, with barely any water in the tank, the barely water soon exhausted. But there was another truck on the way, it took another half an hour or so, the only other functioning truck in this city of millions (these two trucks had been broken down and had beer repaired yesterday evening, thank god!). Two other trucks (four in Salvador?) are still not running.

Two old ladies hadn't come down, one bedridden, the other the aged mother of a guy in the building who'd been told by some moron that the fire was no big deal. The guy'd descended, leaving his mother up there to look after the other woman (his mother-in-law) because of the idiot advice, and soon thereafter it was impossible to get back up that back stairway. I know because I tried and it was thick, black, blinding sooty smoke...very scary.

There was a chefe [fire chief] there. I asked him if there was one mask with a breathing apparatus anywhere in Salvador, told him I'd get in a taxi and go get it.

He responded that the firemen were doing everything they could.

I said no, there were two old ladies (at least) trapped up there, and asked if he could find out about a mask.

He said I was nervous. I said no, there were two trapped women, he said...

You get the idea. Total incompetent dumb fuck!

So the son, one brave fireman, and myself got into the smoky elevator and went up (all three of us scared shitless), stopping at several floors along the way to see if we'd be able to breathe, hoping we wouldn't get trapped. We got to the women and brought them down. There were several other older people up there and we got them down as well (I haven't felt so young for quite some time!).

The Corpo do Bombeiros [Fire Department] is run by o Estado da Bahia [the State of Bahia], run (down) by Jacques Wagner [our current state governor]. Broken and non-existent equipment! No funding! A disgustingly dangerous disgrace!

Well. That was alarming. I wrote Pardal and told him thank goodness most of the city is constructed of non-flammable materials. When I lived in Putney, Vermont, I knew a guy who worked on the (much more organized and equipped) volunteer fire department, and he told me the majority of the fires they got called to were car fires. I figure that's why even though there's no annual inspection of cars here (even for such minor safety equipment as say... brakes) every car is required to have a fire extinguisher in it, with a valid one-year sticker, and they will ticket you for it if you don't. I know- I've been ticketed.

Stories like this are why my house bristles with smoke detectors and fire safety equipment. My house, as I mentioned in this previous post, is not built exclusively of non-flammable materials.

Which reminds me: I need to check the validation on my fire extinguisher...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Return Of The...

...I don't want to say it.

I don't even want to think it.

I was already planning on writing an 'annoyed' post this evening when I came home and had to ask to be excused to get into my own house. That was before... the evil return...

I read once that, counter-intuitively, blog posts that complain are more popular than those that don't. Can't quote the source, as usual, but if that's so then this post should be more popular than the recent update on my artwork that I have been planning.

So the problem, as usual, is my stupid neighbors. Their latest thing has been sitting on my doorstep. A doorstep which is, by the way, not even six inches wide. They've never done that before, but all of a sudden it's become the latest fad and they have been sitting there in increased numbers and with increased frequency until it's become an almost daily occurrence. Usually with these things they go on for a couple months and then they stop- like the soccer games in front of the house, the gang of screaming, foul-mouthed children who used to scream and say foul things in front of the house, the bar that gets loud and then quiet again. All of these things are currently not in favor.

But this one of them sitting on my doorstep really bugs me. It seems so incredibly rude, and you'd think if I had to ask them once to please move so I could get into my house they might get the point that I don't like them there, especially when I look at them like I want to throttle the life from them. At the beginning, they would say to one another "Ushi! Sitting in front of someone else's doorway!" like this was something clearly scandalous, and according to Evani, my primary source on all Brazilian cultural do's and do-not's, it is not okay to sit in front of someone's house, so that the owner has to ask you to move your fat ass out of the way so he can get in or out.

I considered making a sign, politely telling them not to sit there, but Evani thought that might stir up unwanted trouble. She suggested making something that would prevent them from sitting there, something analogous to a mechanism that prevents pigeons from roosting in the cornices of buildings so they don't shit all over everything. I was planning to do just that; in fact, I had a simple, ingenious device all planned out and I measured for it this morning.

Then I came home this evening, and there was a cluster of women talking loudly right in front of my doorway. I had to ask them, also loudly, to get their attention, to excuse me so I could get to the door. The woman sitting right in front of my door, a daft woman named Ana, got up and stepped forward just enough for me to squeeze by. As soon as I locked the gate behind me, she went to sit down again. What is with these people? I told her to please not sit there. There was a moment of silence, as they all considered what an unpleasant and uptight person I am, and, miracle of miracles, they moved away.

Evani now thinks I don't need a sign, and I also don't need a pigeon-stopper. She thinks the word is going to get around that the asshole gringo doesn't want people sitting in front of his house (can you believe the nerve of that guy?) and the problem will be solved. I hope so. But if I see one more person in front of the house I'm making the sign. And then I'll make the pigeon-stopper. And then, if that doesn't work, I'll electrify the whole thing and we'll have ourselves a barbecue.

So I was all ready to sit down to write the above, having calmed myself down, having set up the Christmas tree with Lucas, having read him a book, when I looked out the back and the storm clouds descended once again.

It's the Return Of The Flying Shit Sack.

After I wrote the above-linked post, at the end of April, there was only one other balão as Evani calls them. They stopped pretty much right after I talked to my neanderthal neighbor Mario, which leads me to believe that he knows exactly who was doing it. I heard the final sack land out back as I was working at about one in the morning. I went out and pondered how I could create a pigeon-stopper for this situation and decided to leave it where it landed until the next day. When I got up, miraculously it had disappeared and they stopped entirely after that.

And now, after a nine month lull, we get another charmingly fragrant gift from the anonymous neighbor. Hey, thanks! I took the foul, filthy thing and tossed it in front of Mario's house- this has become a popular neighborhood dumping ground, which is probably why the people who live there have gravitated to the front of my house, which doesn't have a pile of trash in front of it. And if there's any connection between my telling Ana not to sit in front of the house and the return of the balão, then this is all wonderfully circular...

When I disposed of the stinking thing I told the three people hanging out in the street, one of whom I kind of know, that someone in Mario's house is crapping in plastic bags and throwing it onto my property. That should get around. They were all sympathetic and offered advice.

Anyhow, I'm pissed. In case you couldn't tell. I'm going to talk to Mario again, which usually gets results, and if it doesn't, I'm going to start to complain. Official complaints. And there's a couple TV programs I could call that love to broadcast scandalous nonsense to huge daytime audiences here in the city. If I could get one of those things on video, soaring through the air from his house to mine, they'd play it twenty or thirty times in a row, with ongoing vituperative commentary. A public shaming! I think that's why Mario's so responsive, he doesn't want me to do stuff like that. He's got enough trouble on his hands.

Aaah, I feel better now. Maybe that's why this kind of post is so popular.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Get Out of Bahia

Today I was working on a drawing that I've been doing over the last few weeks, in short sessions- it's on a utility box that controls a whole bunch of phone lines in the Largo. Suddenly someone said "Hey Mark."

Not something I hear very often, especially in English, and there's only a few people who could have said it. It was my Canadian friend and neighbor, the one I hardly ever see, the one who thought about buying my house before she bought her own.

Her own house, which has a view of the ocean.

Mine does not.

And although I completely renovated our house in six months, just in time for our wedding and the birth of Lucas, she has been renovating hers over the five years I've known her. The results are spectacular, but the end is still some years off.

"I want to leave Bahia," was the first thing she told me, not commenting on my drawing. "Don't you find you can't trust anybody here?"

"Yes," I said, without mentioning that I think we've had this conversation before, and without asking if it's taken her this long to figure that out. We only see each other every six months to a year. Maybe it's me, thinking I've covered this subject with every estrangeiro I know in Salvador.

Then she tells me that the only thing she's enjoying at the moment is some group of people she's recently hooked up with, some group that does a ritualized tea-drinking drug-trip-of-discovery kinda thing. "I trust those people," she tells me. I don't ask why. She goes on at some length about it. I can't stay and talk so I ask her again if she's really leaving. She tells me she wants to, but doesn't know what to do with the house- apparently she doesn't want to sell it.

All of a sudden a lot of things are changing around me. The graffiti store, which has accompanied my two year stint in street art, is closing, and the owner, who is probably my best friend at this point, won't be around for me to drop in on anymore. I'm getting rid of my precious office and moving into a more dubious, but much cheaper, one. I'm doing some minor renovations in the house. Ruan is leaving another school, and we're going to enroll him in a new one.

And now my neighbor is giving up on Bahia. My guess is she's giving up on Brazil, and moving back to the calmer waters of Canada. I can't blame her really, and I'm a little surprised she beat me to it. Then again, she's not married, she doesn't have kids... but then again she was involved in a whole other aspect of the city that I've only had peripheral contact with: the artists/dancers/yoga scene. She really seemed to love it here, whereas my feelings about the place could only be described as 'mixed.'

I've always been kind of jealous of her actually.

She's not gone yet, she might change her mind.

I wonder when I'll make up my mind.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Building, Brazilian Style

I found myself this evening with a power tool in one hand and a hose in the other. I thought to myself that something was very wrong with this picture and I checked to make sure the extension cord wasn't immersed in a puddle...

But when the objective is to keep a cancerous dust suspended in water and out of the air it doesn't seem so outrageous to do something like that. It seems downright sensible. And then the question becomes: why am I working with cancerous materials?

There's an easy answer to that: because they are cheap. The products in question are telhas of Eternit, or roofing tiles of some 'eternal' cancer causing substance... it is stamped right on them that inhaling the dust produced by cutting them is extremely prejudicial to your health. And I don't know where the 'eternal' comes from- bump the damn things on the ground and a corner busts off.

But at last the things are prepared and ready to nail into place. I painted them white- on the top, so they would reflect heat back at the sky, and on the bottom so they would reflect light back toward the ground and keep everything from getting... dark.

What am I doing? I'm doing two things- I'm making the area where we dry our clothes into a little workshop room so I can screenprint shirts there, and also have a space for my carpentry projects and such. I'm making a shop- a teeny tiny one, and one without a drill press or table saw, but all my brothers already have one so I think I deserve one too. I'm also covering up a bit more of the precious sky over our patio so that we have a new place to dry clothes and also so my plants won't be blasted by sun in the summer and drenched to a moldy miserableness in the winter. It's going to have the added benefit that our neighbors will no longer be able to peer into our house, and I think it will also make the patio area more usable, at least when it's not full of drying clothes.

Why am I doing it? For two reasons- partly because I like building things, and partly because my shiftless, no-good brother-in-law who started the work decided not to show up on Monday to finish the job. He didn't show up today either, so I did a bunch of work myself, and if he doesn't show up tomorrow, I'll finish the job and tell him not to bother.

The problem is that of all my brothers-in-law, this one is the best of the bunch. He's the only one I can have an interesting conversation with. He's the only one who enjoys knowledge for knowledge's sake. And even though all Bahian men are pedreiros (builders), kind of like all New England men are carpenters (as well as most of the women), he's also the best of the group in that regard. Too bad he's not reliable. This is not the first time he's done this to us- more like the third or fourth. I only bring him back because I have developed a fierce aversion to hiring other pedreiros for fear they will rip me off- I know this brother-in-law won't do that. Whether he'll finish the job, that's a different story. At least I'm practical enough to do it myself, too bad I've got other things I really should be doing.

There is another fringe benefit, for someone who spends way too many hours in front of the computer, and doesn't get any decent exercise, and suffers from insomnia... it's that feeling of tired soreness in my body, that feeling that is so good because it comes from having done something real, something you can look at and be proud of. I'll sleep well tonight, no fear.

You should have seen us on Saturday, trying to seat three hundred-pound beams into the walls at a height of about twelve feet up. That was hairy. But that wood, let me tell you- the termites won't touch it. Which is really important when you're building in the tropics, and why most everything is made of cement. Or Eternit.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Just Another Thursday

Here it is, Thursday, end of November, and I keep having to remind myself that somewhere else in the world it's a big holiday.

It's kinda funny actually, because the first Thanksgiving that I missed out on was because of a Capoeira workshop I went to in Montreal, one of my first major brushes with Brazilian culture. Ultimately it was Capoeira that brought me to Brazil, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Capoeira's gone, I stayed, and still I miss Thanksgiving. I've tried to improvise a feast here a couple times, but I can't get real excited about a turkey that's got MSG injected under the skin, and there are no other varieties available, at least not that I've been able to track down. Not to mention the complete lack of cranberry anything, and you can't get a bag of stuffing at the supermarket. If I was a more inspired cook I'm sure I could get something together, but this year I'm stressed out and I've got a nasty cold, so since I'm the only one who cares, I'm just gonna let it slide.

But I do have to keep reminding myself, so I remember to call my family later on. Last year I called them all at one of my brother's houses who actually has broadband, and Skype, so I was treated to all of them on my computer screen at once, staring at me expectantly as I sat there with a stupid grin and tried to contain Lucas who was going wild in the background. I believe this year there are all in a broadband-less house, which is a relief, as it means I don't have to endure another edition of the Mark Pfohl Show.

Cough, cough- Evani says we are singing a duet, or I am her echo, as we both have these dry, hacking coughs. By some miracle, we are sick and the kids are not, a miracle I'm not sure is going to last. We are both on the mend which is always so nice- you never realize how pleasant it is to not cough all the time unless you've spent the last week coughing all the time.

The first year I spent here in Brazil I had one cold after another for almost the entire time. Between that, and the nearly constant intestinal battle I fought with the South American microbes, it's amazing I stayed. Actually, no matter how you cut it it's amazing I stayed, but here I am! Still! Missing countless holidays and snowfalls and whatnot. And now my body has thoroughly adjusted, so I have gone back to getting sick extremely rarely, and the food doesn't backfire on me.

I'm thankful for that- my health. And the family is healthy, beyond this cold, I'm thankful for that too. And we went to the supermarket today and bought a ton of food, even if we didn't make a huge meal. I'm thankful for that too.

I have a lot to be thankful for.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nzinga Meets Lula

Looks like I quit training Capoeira a year too early- I found out today that my old group, Grupo Nzinga de Capoeira Angola, is going to be doing a demo tomorrow for the president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Wow!

Grupo Nzinga is not a large group, at least not here in Salvador, but they are very well connected. At the last roda I attended (but didn't play in), Angela Davis showed up.

I'm only mildly disappointed I won't be in attendance tomorrow. As time goes by, I find that I don't miss training capoeira very much. I generally only have saudades if I see a roda. I really liked Grupo Nzinga, and if I was to start training again (who knows, right?) I would definitely return to them.

I made a funny realization a month or so ago. I heard a This American Life story about 'frenemies' and found it immensely entertaining- I had never heard the term before. I like this definition, taken from the Urban Dictionary:
The type of "friend" whose words or actions bring you down.(whether you realize it as intentional or not) The type of friend you ought to cut off but don't cuz...they're nice... good ...you've had good times with them. U know...they're good people that you can count on to bring you down again sometime in the near future.The friend you may or may not have cornered about their quicksand like ways and keep around because "its in the past"...and so was one minute ago. The person that will continue to bring you down until you demand better for yourself.
It made me start thinking about the frenemies in my own life, of which there are quite a few (me being something of a misanthrope myself). I realized that there were more than a few that were people I knew from Capoeira. And then I made the realization that Capoeira itself is one of my frenemies. Although I love parts of it, there have always been aspects of it that enrage me, and it hasn't gotten better over time. I've trained with a number of groups, and every group has its quirks, but Grupo Nzinga was the best of the bunch, at least that I'd encountered. But I was not enjoying it consistently enough to make it worth while. On top of that, I couldn't give it the time required to play well and not kill myself, and also the time that the group itself deserves of a participant. What started as a temporary break has now extended to over a year.

But I wish them all the best at their event tomorrow.

Parabens! E muito Axé!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

My Civic Duty

I'm going to try to rewrite/finish a post I started a couple weeks ago. Although I find it easy to write stories about things that happen to me, It's more difficult for me to write stuff that touches on controversial issues- I write something, I'm not sure it's what I want to say, I decide to come back to it, I don't come back to it. Well, I'm going to try to come back to this one.

The following happened on my way home from doing these paintings. I wrote:

On my way home, I did my civic duty. What was my civic duty? Let me show you as they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Before:


After:


There has been a plague of swastikas here in Salvador. I hate hate hate swastikas and I am deeply offended that people are shoving them into my face. According to this blog post (in Portuguese) they are the result of a labor dispute between Basf, which is the largest chemical company in the world (according to Wikipedia), and a labor union. The rankled union is apparently hiring people to go out and paint these things. It says 'Basf, don't forget your past.'

At about this point in writing my post, I decided that I should find out exactly what Basf's ties were to Nazi Germany. So I did some googling. According to Wikipedia, which as we all know is not always the most reliable source of information in the world, they helped found a company called IG Farben, which, I was horrified to discover, used slave labor and produced and even held the patent for Zyklon-B, a poison gas used in gas chambers.

That's horrible. Ghastly. Who would want to do business with a company after finding that out?

As I kept googling and kept reading, I became so demoralized by my detour into the evil past that I couldn't publish my post. I began to wonder if I was wrong to have painted over the swastika- maybe these people are doing the right thing by exposing this company for what it really is.

But here's the thing: this labor dispute that's going on? If the blog post I cited earlier is right, it has absolutely nothing to do with the company's ties to Nazi Germany. They don't want to expose the company's evil past for the greater good. They're not looking for a boycott of the company, or for them to make a public apology or anything like that. All they want is leverage in their negotiations with the company, which presumably aren't going so well. It's like the union, for lack of better ammunition, has been reduced to name calling. Really nasty name calling.

And the other thing is: now that I know this, what can or should I do about it? I can't exactly boycott the company- as the biggest chemical company in the world, they probably have a hand in making pretty much everything. It would be like trying to boycott products made in China. And I did a little more research. One of the other co-founders of IG Farben? Bayer. Yeah, like the aspirin. Another? Agfa, which made some of my favorite photo papers when I was in college. A couple other names that came up were DuPont and Standard Oil. Should I now boycott all these companies? Could I boycott all these companies?

And another thing: Volkswagen is huge here in Brazil. You see their cars all over the roads, and they are a huge employer in this country. Didn't they get their start in Nazi Germany? I don't see any swastikas being painted about them.

For the record, IG Farben was dissolved after World War II.

I have a brother who loves conspiracy theories. I tend to think he's a little nuts when he starts ranting and raving about things, but for me the truth is this: you don't need to believe in conspiracy theories to discover that the world is a really fucked up place. You don't even have to scratch the surface very hard to find really ugly stuff right in front of your face.

I googled 'ig farben nazi' which came up with 'about 105,000' hits. Check this out:

Hit number four: IG Farben/Nazi Coalition Founded the "Brussels EU"

And hit number five: How Bush's grandfather helped Hitler's rise to power

Conspiracy theories or reality? I don't know. I stopped looking. When I start going down one of these dark paths online I have to pull myself up short quickly or I get very depressed and I can't sleep.

Well, if whoever is painting those swastikas wanted someone like me to find out about Basf's ugly past, they were successful. Have they successfully embarrassed Basf and shaken hands on whatever deal they were after? I have no idea.

I painted over two swastikas, and was prepared to paint over a third, but someone beat me to it. Luckily I'm not the only one trying to rid the city of this plague. After some momentary self-doubt, I now believe I did the right thing.

By the way, did I mention that the painting of swastikas is illegal here in Brazil? According to this article published by the Globo news conglomerate:

A fabricação, comercialização, distribuição e exibição de símbolos nazistas são crime federal. A pena prevista varia de dois a cinco anos de prisão.


Or, in English, "the creation, marketing, distribution and exhibition of nazi symbols are federal crimes, punishable from between two and five years in prison."

If I see any more, I'll paint over them too.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Monday is a Pleasant Painting Day

Yesterday was a holiday here in Brazil- Dia de Finados, or Day of the Dead. It doesn't bear any resemblance to the Mexican Day of the Dead, but then again, not much of Brazilian culture resembles Mexican culture in any way. I had the day to myself, so I took advantage and went out painting.

Back in June or thereabouts I marked a wall to paint on in the neighborhood of Rio Vermelho, on a sidestreet that is an access route to a neat little beach called the Praia do Buracão. This is a pretty common practice here- for graffiteiros to mark a wall, sometimes with nothing more than their name and a straight line, so they can come back and paint it later. Amazingly, this is almost universally respected and the odds of having someone steal your spot are practically nonexistent. Sure enough, five months after 'claiming' my spot, it was exactly as I had left it. But what was really amazing is that most of the rest of the wall was still untouched.

Due to a nasty attack of insomnia on Sunday night I got a very late start, so I hustled down there to try to get something done before dark. I slopped on some suntan lotion in the car, but it turned out I didn't need it- the wall was completely shaded. Even better, I scored a parking space right in front of my spot, so I was able to listen to my sound system as I worked. I don't generally like to use headphones when I'm painting, they make me just a little too oblivious to what is going on around me. I started painting and I decided to paint quickly, and not be a perfectionist, and be relaxed and have fun and then be on my way. Which is exactly what I did.

Here's the result:


I found out last week that the wall I painted with the two cars got knocked down in the name of progress, so here are two of the critters from one of the cars, I think Salvador will be seeing more of them. And I had been wanting to combine the 'future contraptions' stuff I've been drawing and painting with the monsters, this was my first attempt at that. The painting is not perfect, but it's usually better for me to relax and not try for perfection: I never achieve it and I just get all stressed out.

It was a very pleasant and satisfying experience, and I finished the whole thing in about two hours. I had a few people hang out and watch me for quite a while. Being on the main route to the Buracão beach, lots of people walked by and generally responded favorably to what I was doing. Several people wanted me to let them try painting something, a tag or whatever, which was annoying. One guy went as far as to start grabbing at my cans to try them out and I had to tell him to cut it out. Another woman I discouraged simply by telling her that the cans cost 'a fortune,' which is true.

Wanting to finish off a can of paint so I didn't have to lug it home I painted these guys next to my larger painting:


I've been doing a number of these guys but I'm already getting kind of bored of them. They generally appear in sets of threes, and I call them interlopers.

Then, on my way home, I did my civic duty. I was going to write about it here, but it made the post take such a radical change in tone that I've decided to split off that part and publish it in a separate post.

So I'll leave you with this last picture and a final thought:


As you can see, I have effectively reserved another portion of the wall with my interlopers. And there's more blank wall below my painting. And you can't see it but there's more above it as well. I'm thinking I could just keep going with this, and end up with 50+ yards of wall, all painted by me. Which would be super cool, a real milestone. It doesn't even take that much paint to do these squiggly lines and skinny little monsters. I think I won't wait five months to go back to this spot.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Gay Pride and Fake Fossils

Right now the Gay Pride Parade is happening within earshot of where I am sitting. I think it was in 2003 when I was living close to where I am now I heard what was obviously a trio electrico nearby and I went to check it out- it was an earlier incarnation of the same event, with three trios and maybe a thousand people present. Twenty minutes and it had gone by. It has grown almost exponentially since then, and there are supposedly 12 trios today and many thousands of people I'm sure, I haven't gone out to have a look although I probably will in a little while. My wife loves these parades, and she's out there with a gaggle of friends having a blast I'm sure. It's like a little flash of Carnaval out of season.

Yesterday I went out and did a drawing with my paint markers right by the Mercado Modelo, one of the major tourist traps here in the city. I don't have a picture of it yet. As I was finishing up the drawing, I took a look at the pile of rubble next to me. These piles are quite common, as whenever someone does work in their house, they tend to produce great quantities of busted up concrete and tile and so forth- generally folks just find a place to dump it and it's not their problem anymore. I assumed that was what this pile was, and I was right, to a point. Thing was, there were some odd smoothed stones mixed in, flat on one side. I took a look and they appear to be fossils, mostly of fish. My first instinct was that they had to be fakes, but if they are, they are quite well done. And if they aren't, why were they just thrown away like that? I am sure they aren't worth anything, but I took a few of the best ones just because they were intriguing. Have a look and tell me if you think they are real. Click on the images to see the whole thing.




Now I think I'll go have a look at the craziness going on outside.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I Really Don't Like Ants

Well, after a week of a malfunctioning refrigerator that didn't want to cool things off anymore and lots of annoying phone calls with unreliable and overpriced service persons, and hours of wasted time, and a large chunk of money gone, we now have a functioning fridge again.

What was the problem?

You guessed it...

Ants.

Ants in the motherboard.

Let me say right now that unless you really need something that has silicon chips in it... in other words if you have the option to buy something without them, get the non-chip version. The next chunk of money I am going to throw away is for a new motherboard/control panel for our blender/food processor thingie, which wasn't damaged by ants, mostly by juice.

These big honkin' ants we have in our kitchen have given us various problems, but this is by far the most costly one yet. I've pulled out cabinets and thrown out food and even swatted them with newspapers. If I wasn't so reticent to use insecticides this might never have happened, I may not be so reticent in the future.

The bonehead 'technician' that finally replaced the control panel in the fridge pulled the thing off this evening and hundreds of ants poured out- ants, and eggs, and ants with wings, and even little new ants that didn't appear to have chitined up yet.

They're mostly dead now. I don't like to kill things if I can avoid it, but you gotta draw the line somewhere. Ants and electronics don't mix- take my word for it!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Birds and Luck

Today a bird took a dump on my head.

I've been the victim of such nastiness in the past, but this was a real bullseye. Dead center. Oddly enough, Evani says this is good luck, which is encouraging, if somewhat counter-intuitive. I hope she's right- we could use some good luck around here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Artwork to Iran

Today I sent an envelope to Tehran, with three paintings on cardboard inside. Two were painted by me, and one by my friend Sins. They will be part of the '20 x 20 Tehran' street art show/event, in which all the pieces need to be 20 by 20 centimeters. That's about 8 inches square for all you Luddites. They tell me it will take from 8 to 15 business days for them to get there. I can't help wondering, as a result of a piece I heard on NPR about a show of Iranian street art that took place in the US, whether the package will be scrutinized by government censors- not that I did anything offensive.

Judge for yourself:



I don't know why I'm so excited by this show- I guess because Iran is so much in the news, so mysterious, so potentially dangerous (hmm- kinda like another place I know). But the best thing about doing this is that it's making me see another side to the place- a side apart from the whole media madness. And that's a good thing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fire Alarm

Well I got the shit scared out of me today.

It happened as I was leaving my house, I was literally walking out the door. I heard a beeping that took me a second to identify, and then I realized what it was- a smoke alarm. As I am the only person on my street (as far as I know) who owns such exotic items, I knew it must be coming from somewhere in my house. I sighed and shut the door, and I sighed again when I realized that it wasn't any of the alarms in the house itself, but was coming from the one I installed in my attic. This meant I had to unlock more doors, get my ladder, carry it upstairs, and check the attic. I wasn't taking this very seriously yet.

I installed the smoke detector in my attic for two reasons: first, in case something catches fire in my attic I want to know about it, but second and more importantly in case something catches fire in my stupid neighbor Mario's house. I know he has no smoke alarms, I know he has really shoddy wiring, I know he has stupid tenants, and I share a wall with him, so his problems potentially become my problems. I figured that any smoke on his side would pass to mine quite easily, so I placed the smoke detector in the peak, as close to the wall I share with Mario as possible.

I went out my back door to get my ladder, which I keep outside. I looked up at Mario's roof, and my mood changed instantly. There was smoke rising from his house.

I freaked out and ran back through the house and into the house next door. There's at least a dozen people who live there, and they already knew something was burning. Nobody knew where Mario was, but he never goes too far away. Someone said there was nobody in the burning room, somebody else said they were going to break down the door. I ran back to my house.

I got the ladder and scurried upstairs with it, opened the trapdoor into the attic and had a look. It was filling up with dark smoke and the smell of burning plastic. It didn't look like my side was in imminent danger of catching fire, so I descended the ladder once more on my way back to Mario's house.

As I went back downstairs I grabbed my second-floor fire extinguisher, the one filled with water. Once I got to the front door, I had second thoughts and left it inside rather than run into Mario's place with it. I'd already emptied an extinguisher at a neighbor's house when I probably didn't need to, so I decided to have a look first.

I ran up the stairs in Mario's house. It was full of people coming out of the various rooms, some dealing with the emergency, some just standing there. The door to the room in question had been knocked down, and the fire had been put out already. It had been a mattress burning- the same thing that killed my neighbor Antonio.

I have a friend who used to live in a gentrifying building in the Lower East Side. Most of his neighbors were of Chinese descent, living in run-down apartments. Whenever someone moved out, the landlord completely renovated the vacant apartment and probably quadrupled the rent. One time something went wrong in his apartment, and all his neighbors used it as an excuse to go in and have a look around- suddenly his apartment was filled with curious ethnic Chinese.

I took the opportunity to do the same thing in Mario's house. I knew I wasn't needed, I hadn't been invited, but I was sure as shit going to have a look around while I had an excuse. I wanted to see what these rooms looked like, and what other potential hazards might be lurking there. The wiring was dubious at best, the floors were wobbly and the place looks only marginally fit for human habitation. Mario had shown up at this point, looking as keyed up and freaked out as I was. I asked him about the wiring and he said it was fine. He showed me the circuit breakers he had installed and said all was well. I expressed skepticism, and advised him to have a look at his wiring. A couple times.

Apparently it was a cell phone charger that had caused the fire, or at least that was the best we could figure out. The burned mattress was dragged outside, the blackened wall was washed down, the downstairs roomers started complaining that water was pouring down the wall into their room. I left. I still had stuff to do. I doubt the fire department got called, not that they would have been much help if and when they eventually showed up.

I have another longish post waiting to be proofread before I post it. It's mostly me grumbling about how I don't exactly love my neighborhood. One of my first post-emergency thoughts this afternoon is that maybe it's time to sell this house and move on. Ironically, in spite of its faults, this is the house I have lived in the longest in my entire life- a full five years in January. Also, I own it and don't owe on it, and it's about the only thing of real value I have at this point.

The smoke detector that got my attention this afternoon was only installed about a month ago. I bought it in the US, which is where all my smoke detectors have come from- some bought by me, some brought by family and friends. I've never actually seen them for sale here in Brazil. I'm not sure if it was what got the attention of my neighbors, they very likely would not have recognized the sound, but it may have. It may have averted a disaster. I sure am glad it's there. I thought I was done with buying and installing smoke detectors, now that I have eight installed in my house. But I'm thinking maybe I should pick up a few more and give them to my neighbors. It might be a worthwhile investment.

When I first saw this house, one of the things that appealed to me most about it was its wooden floors and big old wooden staircase. They reminded me of home. I didn't even think about this as a potential liability- I mean, I grew up in houses made entirely of wood and we even had wood heat in most of them. You learn to be careful so your house doesn't burn down. But here, they aren't careful like that- most of them are used to living in houses of concrete, which don't burn down so easily. And like I said, fire safety equipment is not easily available and the fire department is not exactly on the ball. There are no fire safety laws hanging over my neighbors to keep them on their toes. And if his house burns, it's almost guaranteed that mine will too. I feel like my house is a disaster waiting to happen.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday is Street Art Day - Once Again

"Não Pode," or you can't, the guy said to me, looking a little worse for wear with his missing teeth and marginal flip-flops.

"Do what?" I asked, but I knew very well he was telling me not to paint where I was painting, wich was on some plywood surrounding a construction site.

"You can't paint there," he said, but he used the verb pichar, which is used for the Brazilian form of tagging. Most of the rest of the construction enclosure was pretty well covered with tags.

"But I'm not tagging. I'm painting." I explained, which was quite literally true, I was using an actual paintbrush and acrylic to fill in a drawing that I then outlined with markers. "This is much nicer than tagging. If I paint this here, the taggers will leave it alone." This was all true, even if the first part is my opinion. Pichadores respect the work of others, for the most part, and vice-versa. It should also be said that you can pichar with normal paint too, although this is generally done with rollers and not 1/4 inch paintbrushes.

"What is it?"

"A machine"

"What does it do?"

"I don't know."

"Huh- you're the one painting it and you don't even know."

With that dismissal he crossed the street and sat down with the Shovel Guy. These two were apparently 'employed' watching over the construction site, protecting it from Pichadores and other miscreants like myself.

Evani doesn't like it that I go out by myself to paint on Sundays. She thinks it's dangerous, and she's probably right. Even though the spot in question is on one of the primary streets here in Salvador, and during the week it is swarming with people and vendors, on Sunday is is essentially deserted and left to the homeless and other charming fellows like Shovel Guy and his scruffy companion.

Shovel Guy proved Evani's point when he got my attention about a half hour earlier by banging a shovel against the curb just behind me. He wasn't trying to knock any dried cement off of it even though some did come off, and he wasn't planning on doing any digging either. The shovel was clearly meant to intimidate and/or scare me off. Ask anyone who's been hit over the head with a shovel if it's not an effective weapon. And this guy had gotten right up behind me with it and I hadn't even noticed- that's what Evani's concerned about. I get all involved in what I'm doing and I don't really pay attention to the people who might want to threaten me with a shovel, so they are forced to bang it on the ground until I notice.

In response I said "Tudo bem?" or How's it going? in my most disarming, naive gringo manner (not entirely an act) and he crossed the street to sit down in a beat up chair, declaiming loudly "Desgraçado quer riscar as coisas dos outros," which means Bastard wants to draw on other people's things, more or less, which to some people might be fightin' words, but I'm not a fightin' type. I just kept painting, as he sat down and glowered at me, and I tried to paint faster.

As I worked to finish up the piece, I was thinking about what I should do, and what might happen to my nascent piece of street art. I wondered if I would be able to finish it, and if so, what the expected life span of the completed piece would be. These two guys were clearly not impressed with the fine artwork I was creating, but on the other hand, they hadn't stopped me, at least not yet. They sat there staring at me and I wished I had my camera with me so I could take a picture in case they decided to paint over it right away. I was only about a ten minute walk from my house but these guys were clearly aggrieved. I thought how I could possibly defuse the situation- maybe offer to buy them some beers but I didn't know how I should go about it. I painted as quickly as possible, and then started outlining everything with a sharpie.

All of a sudden, Scruffy called out to me - "Ei," he said, and motioned me over. Here it comes, I think, and go over to where they are sitting.

"Give us 100 reis," he says, or at least that's what I think he says: the words Cinco and Cem are theoretically confusable and he has no teeth in the front of his mouth, plus I'm partially deaf. "That guy that was over there checking you out is in charge of the construction and he's not happy- he's going to tell us to paint over all of this, maybe even today, but if you give us 100 reis I'll talk to him." I had noticed a guy, much better dressed than these two, but if he was annoyed by what I was doing he certainly hadn't seemed it. If he was in fact the guy in charge.

I could have told him that painting over it was pointless, that the pichadores would just tag it all over again, and so it was in their best interest to leave something attractive there and be done with it. I thought to mention that the Guy in Charge hadn't looked too upset to me, but I didn't feel like arguing and they wouldn't have cared anyways. I was being shaken down and I knew it, so I did a quick mental calculation of the money in my pocket versus the potential temporary reprieve for my painting, and I said "One hundred reis??"

"Five reis. And we'll talk to the guy." All reasonable now, no more glowering. Glowing a little bit even, knowing victory was at hand.

Just handing them the cash seemed too demeaning, and plus I now had my opening. "You guys want some beers?" I said. They liked this idea, liked it a lot actually. Suddenly they were all happy and we were all friends. Scruffy told Shovel Guy to get some cachaça for himself and beers for the rest of us. I gave him six reis and he left. Scruffy told me to go back to my painting, in the most encouraging manner possible.

Shovel Guy left and then he came back, without the beers. Scruffy had already disappeared back within the construction enclosure. I finished painting. I would have liked a beer, but I certainly didn't expect one. I considered just waking off, but that seemed really stupid- I had face to save. So I went over to where Shovel Guy was sitting.

"Couldn't get the beers, eh?" I said."

"No, the other guy is getting them. He'll be back in a minute."

"Well I'm done painting. I'll be back in fifteen minutes." I planned to run home and get my camera- I wanted a photo of my handiwork as soon as possible.

"You going to take a shower?" Shovel Guy is now my best buddy. Super friendly.

"Yeah, I'm going to take a shower. I'll be back in fifteen minutes to get my beer."

Man, these Brazilians are so clean. I have never met a people so taken with showers. They may be scruffy, like Scruffy, or barefoot, like Shovel Guy, but they'll take two or three showers a day if they can.

I came back with my camera and of course Shovel Guy was gone. That's okay- I certainly wasn't surprised. The important thing was that my painting was still there, and here it is:


I have mentioned before on this blog that I consider Salvador to be a graffiti/street art utopia- you can go out during the day and paint a wall for several hours and nobody will bother you- all the Graffiteiros and Pichadores and street artists like myself all respect each other and don't paint over one another's stuff. In the developed world, where this sort of thing is considered a crime, artists who want to paint in a very public, high-traffic area like this one either do tags or throw-ups, since they can be done quickly, or they do the hard work at home making stencils or preparing wheatpastes that can then be put up quickly. What I was doing would be completely impossible without express permission from the owner- hand-painting a piece that would take me an hour or more due to its complexity. My mistake was that I did it on private property. I would never paint on someone's house, although I consider temporary structures like the one I worked on fair game and much improved as a result of my efforts. If I'd done the same thing on an abandoned building, or some retaining wall or underpass owned by the city, nobody would have bugged me and I wouldn't have been out six reis. But the way I look at it is: this is a prime spot on one of the main drags in Salvador. Hundreds of people will see this painting every day, until it gets painted over or the enclosure is taken down. It cost me six reis, and I think it was worth it.

In other street art news, when I went home for my camera I grabbed some stickers that I finished a few weeks ago. I put them up too:



Last week I did my first 'graffiti piece,' or 'spray-paint mural,' depending on how you choose define these things, in a couple months. I have been planning this one since before I went to the United States in July, and finally it is finished:


My collaborations with Lucas are ongoing:


And finally, I have prepared some pieces for the Street Art Without Borders project, which I will be sending to Paris, where they will be distributed across the globe:


More info about this project at urbanhearts.com.

And post-finally, I got an invite to submit work to a street art show in Tehran! How cool is that?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Smile When You Call Me 'Trash Picker'

Yesterday a store in the same building as our video rental place caught fire. It was a repair shop for hairdryers, and apparently there was some kind of short circuit, which is generally not real surprising when you get a lot of hair dryers together in the same place. Luckily, nobody got hurt and due to the nature of most of the construction here in Salvador the fire was pretty much contained to the one store.

I walked by yesterday as they were hauling big bags of charred trash out to the front of the building yesterday. It stank of burnt plastic, a smell I will always associate with living in New York City during the aftermath of 9/11 - all of lower Manhattan reeked of burnt plastic for weeks afterwards.

I was eyeing the trash, and ignoring the smell.

I'm the kind of guy who keeps a list of things I need, or might need, in my head at all times and if I see free stuff that is potentially useful I compare it against the mental list, searching for a fit. I also keep a supply of (some would say dubious) materials at home in case I have a job I need to do, and if I need something, I compare the need against the materials at hand.

I had a match. It wasn't in the big, stinky bags full of charred whatnot, thank goodness. It was a set of steel utility shelves. I already have a couple of these, but I have many things that do not have shelves so I have been looking for new shelves to put the things on. Steel is without a doubt the material of choice for this kind of thing here, as wood attracts termites, plastic sags under any amount of weight, and particle board just kind of dissolves in the humidity.

There were actually several sets of shelves, but most of them were completely blackened and twisted and useless- the one I spotted had what looked like some nasty plastic/smoke/carbon glaze on the half or so, along with some melted dryer parts stuck to it, but the bottom was pretty much fine.

I wanted it.

I went inside and checked out the black orifice that used to be the store. Several people were taking dozens, maybe hundreds, of charred hairdryers and putting them into big cardboard boxes. The storefront directly in front of the ex-store had had it's plastic sign completely melted and dripping from the heat. I asked them where the owner was, and would they be interested in selling the shelving out front. When I tracked the guy down, looking very occupied and solemn, he didn't think twice- he said sure, took what I offered without argument, and went back to the probably thousands of other things that he had to deal with at that moment. One of the ladies who had been filling boxes with hairdryers helped me sweep the debris off the shelves. I told her: "My wife is going to kill me."

My wife really doesn't approve of the bringing-trash-home ethic I have cultivated over the years. It should be said I don't do it very often- there are lots of other people here with a much more vested interest in anything that is free and possibly of value, so the pickings are slim. And homeless people will sometimes try to sell trash that is 'theirs,' which usually doesn't interest me. Not like the good old days in New York. There, you can brag with like-minded trash pickers about the great stuff you found for free sitting on the sidewalk. The wife doesn't see it that way. Generally it's just trash to her, and since she's a clean person, she doesn't want trash around. Fair enough.

But you gotta have vision in this world!! I mean, if you look at the pictures of my house before I bought it, you'd have thought it was a piece of trash as well. And it kind of was. But I saw through that, just like I saw through the blackened smoke scum on the shelving to the wonderful, orderly, tool-storing shelves they will become!

Then, as I lugged the rather heavy shelves back to the house, I started to think about what Evani might object to. Being rather superstitious, I thought she might think it was a bad idea to bring something that had been in a fire into our own house. And I, not being entirely un-superstitious, started to agree with her. Suddenly I wasn't so sure about my marvelous find.

To her credit, Evani was more alarmed by the black gunk on my hands and clothing than by the actual shelves themselves. Maybe she's getting used to my scrounger ways. As it turns out, she saw some designer on TV take a set of these shelves, paint them red, and stick them in a bathroom, and said they looked great.

I like this idea. I'm going to buy some red paint for them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Looks Like Fun

Saturday we tried to go to the itinerant amusement park that passes through here about once a year. Wouldn't you know it- after a beautiful day, it decides to start raining as we are all en route in the car. My stepson was not pleased. The backup plan was the mall, where Ruan had informed me they had this 'Happy Ball' thing going on...


Man, they didn't have stuff like this when I was a kid.


Too bad it was fiendishly expensive for all of five minutes or I might have tried it myself. Good thing I had my camera with me so we can relive those glorious five minutes many times over.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Collaborations

Sunday is generally the day I get out to make street art, if I can pull it off. It's also a family day, and often these two agendas come into conflict. Well, maybe not anymore.

I took Lucas to the park with me one day and brought a bag of oil sticks and chalk, determined to get a drawing in even with the child in tow. I gave him the chalk, and drew with the oil sticks, and he was more or less satisfied:


I drew a line and said you draw on one side, and I'll draw on the other. Of course, his half washed away in the next rainstorm...

I tried this again a couple weeks later and he wasn't satisfied with the impermanent medium- clearly, he wanted to use the same materials I was using! Plus the paintstick colors were much better than the chalk. He finally wore me down and I let him do his first 'permanent' piece of street art:


The scene was repeated a week later:


With this result:


Believe it or not, I won't let him draw anywhere with anything. He recently drew on one of our cabinets in the house and I was not happy about it- he has the walls under the stairs as his free-for-all region. And when I let him draw in the street, I tell him where he can draw and where he can't. Yesterday we went to Pelourinho and we mostly did drawings with sharpie markers. Only draw on the paper, I told him:


Up until yesterday, I was just being an indulgent parent. But comparing the stuff he was drawing with what I was drawing, I think that he often came up with the better piece, and now I have to call him a collaborator. Check these out:



But by far my favorite picture of all of them is this one:


Way to go Lucas! In another five years I'll just hand the art supplies to you and hang out and take pictures.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Stratocasting

Today I started shopping around my poor neglected Fender Stratocaster. I brought it to four music stores within easy walking distance of my house to show it to the employees and leave my card, in case they know anyone who might be interested.

It was quite amusing to walk into the stores with my plain black gig bag, get the attention of the blasé employee, and then watch their eyes light up when I took the guitar out. Nobody bought it (I didn't expect anyone to) but man did I get some people excited. Strat copies are quite common here, as they are everywhere, but the real things are relatively rare and fairly valuable as a result. This one is particularly intriguing to those who know Stratocasters because it has a number of features that were produced by the company for a limited time only. And it's in really good shape.

What was really amusing to me about the whole exercise is that had I tried the same thing in the U.S. I would have been completely demoralized, and probably fuming, by the time I left the second store. Not only would this guitar have been much more commonplace in the U.S., but music store employees seem to make it their mission in life to cultivate a snotty, arrogant attitude with the customers- perhaps this is a coping mechanism for dealing with musicians. Or maybe it's because they are musicians. There's a great story by a cartoonist named Mary Fleener about snooty music store employees- I couldn't tell you were to find it, but if you ever get the chance you should read it.

Okay, I'm gonna be fair now- not all music store employees are assholes. I've met some really nice, real, laid-back people working in music stores. But I won't go back into the store where I bought the guitar I am now trying to sell because I didn't like the way I got treated in there a couple times.

None of this seems to apply here, or maybe I lucked into finding a way to do an end run on the snobbery. And I have been very impressed by the wealth of knowledge these people have about guitars, and Strats specifically. I've learned more about my guitar since I brought it to Brazil than in the rest of the twenty years I've owned it. They take their music seriously here, and if you don't believe me, go into any restaurant in the Pelourinho and check out the house musician- I've never heard one that wasn't at least very good. Then again, I'm not sure how many of those restaurants are still open... Pelourinho's been in free-fall for the last couple years...

The only guy who was at all negative about the guitar was a luthier that I showed it to- he said I could only expect to get half of what I'm asking for it here in Bahia, which would make it worth about as much as I could get for it in the United States, which means it wouldn't have been worth the hassle to cart the stupid thing down here in the first place. But I think he's wrong, or he may have been testing the Gullible Gringo waters to see if I'd bite.

Or he may have been right. In which case I'll be disappointed.

At any rate, it's time for this fine guitar to find it's way to someone who's going to play it a lot more than I do.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Flickr Fix

My mom told me on the phone yesterday that 'everyone misses me' on my blog. Well, to all fifteen of you that read this on a semiregular basis, I apologize. I won't go as far as to call myself something that rhymes with 'sad flogger,' but I will write a post, at least a quick one.

I actually have two unfinished posts in the queue since my last published one. I get into them a ways, lose momentum, and then never get back to them. One of them was actually pretty interesting from a drama-in-Brazil standpoint, maybe someday I'll get back to it.

So what's been up with me? Well, the family aside, way too much work, which is too boring to write about, and then my latest obsession, which has been to beef up my Flickr presence.

I pay 25 bucks a year for the privilege of unlimited uploads to Flickr.com. I post lots of photos, I participate in various groups, and I submit pictures of my artwork to them whenever I make something new. It's been fun, and I've been at it for a couple years. Because of Flickr I discovered just how much of a global phenomenon the sticker thing is, and discovered wheatpasting and my other current obsession and favorite medium industrial oil stick markers, aka 'streaks.'

But one thing that was starting to really bother me was my Flickr stats. Flickr tells you how many times your pictures have been viewed, how many people call each one a 'favorite,' how many comments you've gotten on each one, etcetera etcetera. They even have some mystical algorithm for 'interestingness' to figure out which are you most... interesting pictures.

To put it bluntly, my stats didn't rate and I didn't like it. I'd look at some other people's pictures and they would have been viewed hundreds of times and have dozens of comments and I was left saying why not me too? So about six weeks ago I set out to try to boost them stats.

The obvious way to do this is, well, to take great pictures I suppose, but barring that you need to participate in the community. So I started adding 'contacts' and 'favoriting' lots of photos and writing 'comments.' This hopefully makes me more visible and makes more people like me and make all those numbers surrounding my images larger.

It's been kinda fun, although a lot more work than I would have expected. I recently broke the 200 contacts threshold, which is a good start, but some of these people have five hundred or a thousand contacts. I would like to get to 500. And I'd like to actually be familiar with the photos and artwork of those contacts. That's part of what's making it so slow- I won't just add a person, I want to make sure they actually take pictures/make artwork that I like, and then I add them. Being somewhat picky, that takes a while. I've gotten into a kind of pattern: cruise one of the many groups I belong to until I spot an image that I like. Then I look at the rest of the person's photos, and 'favorite' a couple of them. Then I decide if I'll make them a contact. Often, the person will then make you a contact (I always do) which is the whole object of the thing- if you are their contact, then they're more likely to see your new pics and make comments and blah blah blah!!

It suddenly occurs to me that all this might be very boring to anyone who isn't into Flickr, or online networking, or anything like that. So I'll try to keep it short and relatively interesting.

I started out adding lots of graffiti and street art contacts, as that was my Flickr entry point. Then I started to get bored of that, so I began adding lots of visual artists working in other media. I'm a firm believer that if you want to be an innovator in one thing, you have to have strong influences from other things. Then you start innovating.

But the best thing about the whole process has been finding all these fantastic artists from around the world, who are making incredible stuff and posting it online for everyone to see. Here's a few of my faves:

  • Binho Martins, from here in Brazil, who paints on canvas as well as making tattoos and street art
  • Enrico infidel D'Elia Righetti De Angelis, from Rome, who does fantastically intricate drawings and bizarre portraits
  • Insane, who is my current favorite graffiti artist, from São Paulo
  • Meredith Dittmar, from Portland, Oregon, who makes fantastic sculptures out of 'polymer clay' (Fimo and the like)
Wait a minute, you are saying, Isn't this Flickr site supposed to be about photography?

And then you remember: Hold on, didn't you major in photography in college?

Where's all the photographers??

Yeah, yeah. Photographers. There's lots of photographers on flickr too. And technically most or all of these other artists are photographers too, unless they're getting someone else to take pictures of their work. But the truth is, I'm not in it for the photography. I'm trying to immerse myself in the other visual arts, and I can find lots of inspiring stuff right here on my laptop.

I started out this whole thing trying to make a parallel effort on fotolog.com, which is the preferred photo community of most of the graffiteiros around here. But I gotta confess- I don't like it very much. It has none of the bells and whistles of Flickr, and is kind of dumb. If you've already added someone as a contact, it still asks you if you want to add that person as a contact. Yo, Web 2.0 people! Let's get with the program! I did however find at least one artist I really like on the site, this guy Mateo who lives in Germany.

So what's the upshot of this whole thing? I currently have 213 contacts, and 143 of them call me a contact. Someone added me as I was writing this post. I have one photo that has been viewed 38 times since I started this six weeks ago.

I'm still getting almost no comments.

And almost nobody is favoriting my images.

Which brings me to the unfortunate question: are my pictures just not that interesting?

Or am I not trying hard enough?

Maybe things will look different when I have 500 contacts.