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


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


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.