Monday, March 29, 2010

Now He Turns Five

Tomorrow is Lucas' fifth birthday, and like probably every parent on the planet, I can't believe he's already five.

As I have written in past posts (and my fellow expat bloggers have done as well) Brazilians make a really big deal of kid's birthdays. Thank goodness this is winding down somewhat in Casa Pfohl, as it seems the rule is the smaller the kid the bigger the birthday. This plus the fact that I am suffering from fairly severe underemployment and can't be throwing the big bashes like we used to. This year bashes will be simply bash, as for the past couple years he's had both a party at school and a party at home. This year, just the school party. Last year I noted that Evani and some friends worked for three days to prepare for the party, this year, she started this evening.

This is a good thing. I like this scaled down business very much.

I've pretty much wrapped up my part, which was to go out and buy all the accoutrements. Kid's parties are always themed here, with little girls having Barbie or Disney Princess parties, while little boys do Hulk or The Incredibles or Cars. I must say I think the boys have much better options, and the same thing goes for cheapo presents, like the ones we buy for other kid's parties at school. For most of the past year, Lucas had planned to do a Ben 10 birthday, but at the last minute he changed his mind to Homem Aranha, better know as Spider-Man to all you English speakers.

As I was doing my shopping, I regretted a bit his change of theme. You can buy everything to match your chosen theme, from party hats to cups to napkins, etc. Everything but cutlery. This year, I only got the Spider-Man party hats and Spider-Man gift bags and Spider-Man cardboard cutouts to tape on the wall in the Spider-Man theme. Oh yeah- and a Spider-Man candle for the cake. There are actually several flavors of Spider-Man, and Lucas is getting a blend, although I don't think he cares. He's got the modern red and blue Spider-Man popularized by the blockbuster films mixed in with the younger-kid-targeted Spidey & Friends version. None of the evil alien black suit Spider-Man in the mix. The reason I came to regret Lucas' change in theme is because Spider-Man is much harder to find this year than Ben 10. I had to go in a bunch of stores just to find the hats. And the worst was the costume.

I know, I didn't have to buy Lucas a Spider-Man costume. But you have to understand- of all the toys he will receive (I'll get to those later), none will receive half as much play time as the costume. He was wearing his Batman costume from last year just this morning. He loves his costumes. His Superman costume was forgotten in the States on our last visit and that's a good thing, because it was disintegrating. This year, I looked everywhere for a Spider-Man costume. Actually, I found one fairly early on, but it was eighty reis (about forty bucks) and I just wasn't ready to pay that much for the thing. Luckily for us, we live close to the main kid-party-shopping district, where there are probably two dozen stores that cater to these kid's parties. I went in every single store. One of them had 12 boxes of brand new Ben 10 costumes, several Batmans and Supermen, but no Spider-Men. Another had one for rent, but it looked to be sized for an eight year old, not a five year old. Finally, in the very last store, in a poorly lit aisle in the back on a tiny rack, I found about a half dozen cheesy Spider-Man costumes for a reasonable price. Yeah!!

So about those presents. When I was a kid, I got tons of presents for my birthday. I got so many that my brother used to get presents too so he wouldn't feel bad. I realized as I was finishing up with the present buying this year that the number of presents Lucas will get on his birthday is probably about equal to what my brother used to get on my birthday.

I think this is a good thing. We train our kids to be consumers right out of the gate, and we get a lot of help from a lot of corporations trying to market their goods (or bads) to our little ones. I like me a good bit of consumerism myself on occasion, and I like to get things for the kids, but it's good to have limits, even if they are artificially imposed financial starvation limits. Well, I like to think I'd be sparing anyways. My wife (don't tell her I mentioned this) never got a single toy as she was growing up, for birthdays or Christmas. Ruan, the first year I was here, also didn't get anything for Christmas except a trip to Pelourinho, which was more than his mom got. This might explain why my wife considers toys to be nothing but clutter. I mean, she has a point- most of them don't get much use- but for me toys are sacred. Just like books. But that's a different post.

So Lucas is going to get one overpriced action figure sitting in a car, several Hot Wheels cars (nice and cheap), a DVD of Finding Nemo I found on sale, and a very few other odds and ends. Plus whatever his classmates give him, which will be thirty toys out of which only four or five will survive until next week.

I'll try to post some Happy Five Year Old pics in the next couple days- wish me luck!

Monday, March 22, 2010

What China is Known For

When you read that title, what pops into your mind?

And how does that make you feeeeeeeeel??

The other day a friend of mine made a joke on Facebook about potty training her 1 year old kid. It was a visual joke, and I'm not going to try to describe it. Let's leave my friend out of this. But someone she knows, who I've never met, left the following comment:
on what planet does a one year old toilet train? i hope you do not mean it
I happen to know that there are places on this planet where they toilet train at that age. So I told my friend I thought it was funny, and then I added the following for the unenlightened other person:
K_________, they toilet train regularly at 1 yr. in China
When I was trying to toilet train my own kid, at an age far beyond when they get started in Asia, I thought that was a pretty neat and remarkable feat and (silly me) thought that maybe she would too.

So today I got up, got my coffee like I always do, sat down with my laptop like I always do, and settled in to bask a bit in the glory of the convoluted victory for 'universal health care' in the States, something that has eluded me up until this point. The glory, that is. And then I read the response from K___________ to my comment:
China is not known for their child development practices, the are know for infantcide (sic)
Well that pretty much ruined my morning. Actually, it pretty much ruined my day. I never fail to be appalled at the utter lack of decorum that people feel free to display on the internet, but I generally associate that kind of idiocy with comments on YouTube videos. I'd never been subjected to it on Facebook, but most of my contact on Facebook is with friends of mine and like I said, I've never met this woman. Don't particularly want to either. And I can't imagine saying something like that out of the blue to anyone.

I get the feeling this same post gets written ten different ways every day across the globe.

Unfortunately, she's half right. China is, tragically, known for infanticide. But she's wrong that it is not known for 'child development practices.' I knew, and I've never been to China. I read about it on the New York Times, see for yourself.

Infanticide does happen in China, which is horrible. I was reading about it online today as a result of this exchange, and it is a truly evil and horrific practice. But saying 'Chinese are baby killers' is the same as saying 'Muslims are suicide bombers' or 'Hispanics beat their wives' or 'Americans are fat racist assholes with guns who eat at McDonald's every day.' It doesn't exactly tell the whole story.


Am I overreacting?

About an hour ago I asked myself if there is a shred of decorum still in existence between virtual strangers, a line that (almost) no one would cross: would K__________ have left the same comment if my last name had been 'Chen' instead of 'Pfohl'?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Meeting

Thanks to everyone who guessed at what 'the object' was, I enjoyed that. If I come up with something suitably absurd which could serve as a follow up, we can do it again.

I thought it was kind of funny that nobody remarked on my impending fame and fortune... well, fame at least... make that possible fame... due to my email from the TV producer. Maybe my downplaying of the whole thing was so successful that nobody took it seriously. Hell, maybe you thought I made it up.

Well, I didn't make it up, and the meeting I had been asked to attend happened today. I was dying of curiosity, re-reading emails for any hints as to what they might be planning. I had imagined all kinds of scenarios, each more fanciful than the last, up to today's scenario du jour in which I envisioned myself lured into a trap where an assault team of journalists would pounce on me and start asking me all kinds of uncomfortable questions about my graffiti.

It didn't turn out like that at all.

They didn't have us sign a non-disclosure agreement, and I specifically asked them if it was okay for us to talk about what they have planned, and they said no problem. So I will. Actually, I won't. I'm not going to say anything about the program they are putting on- hopefully I'll get a chance to do that later. I'll just tell you about the meeting.

I showed up early, early enough to make my momma proud, which is saying something- she has a physical aversion to being late for things and I've partially inherited it. I wasn't even sure if there were going to be other graffiterios there. That was the first mystery solved- I discovered about ten of us had been contacted. Okay, that's cool. I sat down and looked at magazines, of which they had a rich and arty assortment.

A few minutes later three other graffiteiros walked in, all of whom I knew. A couple of them looked surprised to see me. They are all 'Big Guns' in the Salvador graffiti scene, which... isn't saying a lot, but it is saying something. They were probably thinking, as I was, that I wasn't in the same league with them. They were friendly enough and we all sat around and chatted. A bit later a fourth graffiteiro showed up, another very visible and prolific artist here in the city, and someone I've wanted to meet for some time. Then the meeting got started.

There's something I should mention before I proceed. I was nervous when I got there, but after the other guys showed up I started to get self-conscious. This happens to me when I'm surrounded by people who I think are out of my league. I get self-conscious, and I think it must be really obvious, which it probably is. Contributing to this is the fact that I figure one of the reasons they had us all sit down in a room together was to see just how telegenic we all are, and the self-conscious guy looking small in the group probably doesn't come away with high marks for telegenosticy. Plus I don't have dreads or a shaved head or any tattoos, other things that would help in the visual selection process.

This brings me to the next item- the selection process. They told us pretty early on that they were only going to need three of us for their pilot program. I think that caused us all to deflate a bit. They might want more, for a future program, but for now, just three. I surveyed The League (of which I am out of) once more and figured my chances of being selected were quite slim. Especially because they are holding a second meeting tomorrow, with a bunch of other graffiteiros to pick from.

I had been wondering if we would be asked to say anything, any kind of audition/interview section of the meeting. I had thought of all different kinds of things to say- about how my work is different from what everyone else is painting, how I'm older, my experience is different because I'm an estrangeiro, stuff like that. Of course, I promptly forgot all that in the meeting and I sat there desperately trying to remember what it was that made me so special. As it turned out, all they wanted from us was to know if we liked the idea and if we had any questions or previous commitments. There was very little of any of that.

I'll know soon enough if I got selected- I believe they want to start shooting next Tuesday. But even if I don't get picked for the show, they told us something that I liked very much. They told us they'd done a pretty careful pre-selection process to arrive at the group of ten that got invited to the meeting. That means that at least as far as they are concerned, I'm one of the ten best (or perhaps most interesting) graffiteiros in the city. That's pretty cool, especially when you consider I haven't really been at it that long, and I figure I still have a ways to go before I get to be really good at it.

It's a bit strange being a semi-hermit and then going out and doing these large-scale artworks in very public places- I never really know what people think. I'm not tied in to the art community, so I get no feedback from them. Since I know the other graffiteiros, I know that they look at my work, and at least claim to like it, but if the other graffiteiros aren't looking at what you're doing then you aren't trying very hard. It's nice to know that other people are looking too, and that they can find me online if they make an effort.

If there's one thing I'm going to take away from this I believe it can be summed up in two words:


Monday, March 15, 2010

What It Is

Okay, it's bean spillin' time.

On my last several posts I've asked what this strange object could possibly be:

I gave the following hints, in the posts and in the comments:
  • It is not my four-year-old's latest carpentry project.
  • It looks exactly what it's supposed to look like.
  • It is functional-face-down in this picture.
  • It is not a kluge.
  • It is 'secured.'
  • All the bent nails were hammered into pre-drilled holes.
  • It is not hollow.
  • Once properly installed (which it now is) it disappeared.
  • The black rubber ring around the nail in the center of the image is not essential to its function, nor does it interfere.
  • The object does not sit on the ground as shown in the photo above.
  • It could be described as a 'hanger.'
I received the following guesses as to its function:
  • A boot scraper
  • A person-repeller (so they can't sit on my doorstep)
  • My four-year-old's carpentry project
  • A mailbox
  • A 'hanger for something'
  • A key hanger
  • Something fixed up to handle gatos (a 'gato' in this sense is a way of stealing electricity, not a kitty-cat)
I posted the photo on my Facebook page to see if I'd get any additional guesses, and this is what all my 257 brilliant friends came up with:
  • A petrified porcupine
  • A Medieval coat rack
  • Wood with bent nails
  • I am getting tired of this game, Mark! How long will it take till we know what it is??
And this final response, which receives a special place: not because he guessed it, but because it's very amusing. This from Chris in Brattleboro:
It's a musical instrument called a Kalurmba. Every one of those nails on the side is hammered in and bent to sound each note of the scale. Two of the nails on top change the octave of the scale. The nail with the black (rubber?) collar on it is the "whammy" nail.
Great find!
So what is it?

Let me tell you.

Aside from the technically accurate 'wood with nails' response, the best guess was from Fabio, who thought it was 'a hanger for something,' which it is, although probably not in the way he intended. As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words, so here's a picture of it properly installed:

Where is it? you are asking. Remember my hint that it would disappear once installed? It's embedded in the wall, and the black bracket is bolted to it.

Let me tell you a little story about something that happened shortly after we moved into our house. We had but one television, and it was downstairs in the living room. My wife, who watches a LOT of television, really wanted a TV in the bedroom, so being the indulgent fool that I sometimes am, I got her one. For a while, months I believe, it sat upon the cardboard box it was shipped in, with a couple boards separating the two so the box wouldn't collapse under the considerable weight of the TV. Finally I bought a wall bracket and asked a pedreiro who was working at the house to install it. It had shipped with some lag bolts and some big plastic masonry anchors, so he drilled some holes and screwed it to the wall some six feet off the floor. It seemed pretty strong. We put the TV, which probably weighs between 30 and 40 pounds, on the thing and it looked okay. I was nervous about it however, so I left the cardboard shipping box underneath it, flipped over so the taped bottom side was facing up, and I removed the boards that had previously supported it.

Several hours later, we were downstairs and we heard a whumph or a crumph or something to that effect, fairly loud, but we didn't think much of it. We live in Bahia, we're used to loud noises we can't identify! It wasn't until I went back upstairs a while later that I discovered the television had fallen off the wall, right onto the cardboard box. The masonry anchors had been ripped right out of the wall. There was no shattered glass on the ground, so I picked it up, plugged it back in, and lo and behold- it still worked!

I would like to take credit for my brilliant foresight in placing the box just so under the TV, but the truth is, I have to thank David Blane and his Vertigo stunt for that, an event that happened in New York while I was living there. I didn't go check him out on his teeny tiny platform, 100 feet above the ground, but I did read that he was going to jump off said platform into a pile of cardboard boxes, which he did, and he survived. It made an impression on me- I love stuff like that. Not people standing on tall pillars for days on end, but stuff like using an absolutely pedestrian object in a novel and innovative way. I've stuffed my head full of almost useless things like that, which is probably why I can't remember other, more important things like birthdays and doctor's appointments.

So enter the Mystery Block. As I've mentioned previously on this blog, I'm not much of a builder but I am fascinated by building and how things are built and all that builder stuff. One thing I've learned about how they build things here is that there are ways to wed concrete with other materials, some of which are better than others. I watched my brother-in-law install a door-frame once, and he took a whole bunch of nails and banged them around the edges, about a half inch in, intentionally bending them over in the middle. It looked crazy.

Do you see where this is headed?

Those nails are the perfect thing to embed in wet concrete, and once that concrete dries, the wooden object ain't going anywhere. It's much much stronger than trying to secure something with masonry anchors, especially if the wall in question is old and crumbly like mine are.

So after the TV fell off the wall, the pedreiro carved a hole in the wall, prepared a block very similar to the one in the photo above, and cemented it into the wall. After it was dry and the wall was all fixed up again, he drilled some holes in the face of the block and bolted the TV bracket to it. The TV never fell again, but I never entirely trusted it either- I always kept a dresser or other item of furniture underneath it so no children or other humans would happen to be under it in case it decided to come loose again.

When we moved to our new room, I had to repeat the whole operation with a new block of wood, and that's what the mystery object is. Despite its clumsy appearance, I spent some time preparing it- figuring out where to put the nails so they wouldn't interfere with the lag bolts, and pre-drilling holes for all the nails. This kind of wood is called massaranduba; it's super strong and dense and termites don't like it, but it will split if you nail into it willy nilly.

So Fabio, you were right, it is a kind of hanger, it's for hanging a TV support from so the TV won't fall on the floor.

I hope, dear readers, that that was worth the wait.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Last Chance...

I've gotten some good guesses as to what this mysterious object is on my last post:

This is it- last chance!

A couple more hints:
  • Once properly installed (which it now is) it disappeared.
  • The black rubber ring around the nail in the center of the image is not essential to its function, nor does it interfere.
  • The object does not sit on the ground as shown in the photo above.
Have at it folks! Isn't this fun? Well, it is for me at least.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What Doth My Blog Bringeth Today?

I keep waiting to 'get discovered' via this blog, or some other aspect of my robust online presence. This is silly, because I don't do anything to promote myself other than the most basic stuff. Occasionally I do get to meet interesting people, and then I get the odd nibble, like the aforementioned reality show. I was all coy about what this was about, but beans, they spilleth now: it was some house buying show, international version, where they follow people around looking for houses. Since I've been a homeowner for five years I didn't exactly qualify, and they didn't exactly offer to buy me a new house, so ixnay on atthay.

Then a few days ago I got this enticing tidbit in my inbox:
I am trying to get a hold of you to see if you wish to accept the award for winning the 2010 TA Expat writing contest. I am not sure if my emails are falling into your spam folder or if you are not interested in the $500.
Well, sure I'm interested in the five hundred dollars! Unfortunately they wanted to give it to someone else. At least I only had to read the next email in my inbox to have the nascent bubble burst.

Okay. So today I get this, submitted via my website:
Oi, markuza, Sou produtora de TV, e queria conversar com vc sobre a possibilidade de uma participação sua num programa. Vc me manda seu telefone? O meu é xxxx xxxx. Aguardo seu contato, abraço!
I just read how Google robusticized its online translator, so I decided to run it through and see what I got (not that I couldn't read it on my own):
Hi, markuza, I am TV producer, and wanted to talk with you about the possibility of its participation in a program. You let me have your phone? Mine is xxxx xxxx. I await your touch, hug!
Not bad, except for the amusing last sentence. A faithful translation, but somehow the meaning got skewed... As the NY Times article mentioned, human translators need not fear the breadline just yet.

So what? Third time's a charm? I am seriously considering not publishing this yet so I don't jinx myself, but I'm not superstitious, am I? No, of course not! I'm going to publish it anyways, as in all likelihood this is as far as it's gonna go.

So I know I promised to tell you what this is in my last post:

And I will. But it might take a couple more days. Any guesses? Here's another hint: it is functional-face-down in this picture. And it is not a kluge.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Grand Shuffle

After weeks of work and moving things from one place to another, I finally have a home office again. Only one problem: I have a zit on my ass so big that I can't sit comfortably in a chair.

I've been trying to write a post for some time- first I took a couple stabs at writing about my new Kindle, but I couldn't get it to come together. I wrote something yesterday but it was way too personal so I won't publish it. This is, after all, the Internet. Instead I've decided to write about something which I can shout from the rooftops, which is the aforementioned ZIT.

Actually, it's not a zit. In Portuguese it would be called a furúnculo, or furunco, and in English it would be called a boil. The doctor I saw at 7 AM this morning, when I couldn't take it anymore and went to the hospital, called it an abcess- a word I don't like very much. He also told me to go home and do exactly what my wife had instructed me until it ripens and is ready to blow.

The really weird thing is I have a second one on my neck, although the size of it pales in comparison. I've never had two of these beasts at the same time- I don't think I've had five in my entire lifetime.

I'll be much happier when they are gone.

So that was fun. Glad I got that off my chest. I didn't actually plan to write about that at all, but I did anyways. I could just stop now, and call it a post, and publish it, and go to bed early, and read from my new Kindle. But then I'd have to change the title and rework the cryptic first paragraph, so I'll proceed.

I moved around a lot as a kid. Every couple of years or so. Not that we generally went very far, for instance we lived in four different places in one small town. One time when I was in high school we moved from the first floor to the second floor of a house. I never considered this to be traumatic, although a couple of the early moves that I don't remember probably were. I used to actually enjoy it- I'd get to pack all my stuff up in boxes so I knew exactly what I had, vacate an old space and then set up a new one with all my junk. From the beginning of college until I moved into our current house I never lived in the same place for more than nine months, with only one exception, and that was for only two years.

I contrast this to my son's experience. He'll be five at the end of the month, and he's lived in the same house his whole life. Had the same room for all that time. And so have I, sleeping in the same bedroom for five whole years. The longest stretch of my entire life. Man did those years go fast.

As 2009 drew to a close, I was began preparing for some moving around. I decided to give up the office space I'd rented for two years, which meant moving out of there. I decided to create a workshop space at the back of our house, which required more in-house shuffling and some construction. I took another office space that was much cheaper, but then the building was sold and I gave it up after only one month, so I moved (very little) in and out of there. At Carnaval time I always vacate my home office so we can turn it into a 'dorm' and fill it up with travelers, and then after Carnaval I move back in, which is always a relief as I hate to be displaced. Evani sometimes complains to me that I shouldn't have a whole room in the house devoted just to my personal pursuits, manias, and oh yeah, work, but I'm not sure she really realizes just how key it is to maintaining my sanity.

Anyhow, this year we decided I wouldn't move back into my home office. Instead, our home office would become our bedroom, and vice-versa.

This turned out to be a much more involved task than I ever could have imagined, and it's a good thing that it coincided with a (hopefully temporary) slowdown in my workload, so I could apply myself properly. Evani wanted the room painted, no problem. I used to paint professionally, so I know how it's done. Only problem is, I'm very much of a perfectionist and it needed a lot of prep, so there was at least a week of extremely dusty conditions in the room. Then I opted to personalize one of the walls with some spray paint, an idea I've been kicking around for the last year or so. That also took some doing, even though I only ended up using two cans of paint. Finally, I opted to mix all my own colors from white paint and little bottles of color called biznagas (a marvelous word) in order to save some cash. This also ended up slowing things down quite a bit.

Along with the actual painting, I did way too much of moving things in and out of this room and that room and into the back where my workshop is mostly finished and in and out of the airshaft where we sometimes stick things until I finally got a wall completed in our new room and I could start moving things into their new 'permanent' positions. Most of what I own is still hopelessly jumbled and I spend a part of every day fuming as I try to track down random errant items.

I must say it was all much more traumatic than it used to be when I was younger. I didn't get any of the thrill I used to from packing things up and moving them around- maybe because I'm older, maybe because it took almost a month to get my desk set up again so I could escape the kitchen table. And I wasn't the only one. Evani told me one evening as I was finally wrapping things up that she had changed her mind, she was too accustomed to our old room and didn't want to move any longer. I wasn't prepared to stop at that point. The person who was most excited about the whole ordeal was Lucas, he enjoyed the whole process and really wanted to hang out and watch me paint, but I wouldn't let him as I only have one respirator and it was protecting my respiratory tract, something I've gotten very paranoid about. Which brings me back to the beginning of the story, remember the furunco? No, not that one- the one on my neck. That was caused by excessive respirator use. The other one, the one that has me sitting sideways on my chair? No idea what caused that one.

So I bet you're curious how the paint job came out- well, I'll show ya. Here's the best shot I could get of the new wall with the spray paint. Flowers and butterflies was what Evani requested, so that's what I did. It's only half finished, but it will have to do for now. Here it is:

After only a couple nights in our new room, I'm already feeling very good about our decision. We have moved from the eternal drama at the front of the house, with our loud and often drunk and fighting neighbors, to the relative quiet at the back of the house. I have also craftily isolated myself from much of the in-house TV racket, but more on that in my next post, when I will answer the question what the hell is this??

I'll give you one hint: it is not Lucas' latest carpentry project. It looks exactly what it's supposed to look like.

And what is this?

That, my friends, is a self-portrait made by an almost five-year-old boy.

Now I'm gonna go read on that Kindle.