Monday, March 30, 2009

Pearls Before Swine

One of my favorite syndicated cartoon strips (click on the image to view the entire strip): 

Pearls Before Swine

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I'm Not The Only One Killing the Language

There is a store across the street from the deli where we eat most of our meals (good, cheap food, proof of God's love). The sign above the store says "Casa de Coco." Now, Coco has two meanings, depending on the position of stress: COco or coCO. COco means coconut. coCO means shit. The sign above the store literally says: House of Shit. 

Someone told me she passed a supermarket whose sign translates to: Good Thief's Supermarket. I immediately thought of the wise thief who died on the cross beside Christ, who asked Christ to "remember me." I am very touched by the story, but I agree with my friend: not a good thing to name a store. But pious storefronts abound. Every town has some form of Lanchonette de Bom Jesus. "Well, you know there's an Evil Jesus Diner right around the corner," my love observed as we passed one the other day. And that's one reason she's my love. 


Mania do Brasileiro

So I tried a glass of Pitu, a local brand of cachaça. To me, it tasted weaker than vodka, but, drink being rare to me, I can't say for sure. I didn't order a vodka to compare, which might have proved enlightening, because we were at a bar, not a laboratory, thank you very much. The catch phrase for Pitu is Mania do Brasileiro, the Brazilian's madness, I suppose. 

One of the little hipsters that accompanied us told me to be careful with the Pitu. The strength of cachaça seems to be a point of pride in Brazil. Although I stopped at one, it wasn't because I was in over my head. Don't kill yourself in one night, that's my motto. Draw it out a bit, take your time, enjoy yourself.  

Mostly just drank beers. A popular way to order beer for a table of friends is to order a chopp (draft beer) in a huge cylindrical tap plopped own in the middle of the table. It's self-service. You press your glass to the white plastic spigot, and there's your golden ambrosia. I am not sure, but I think they call the apparatus itself a chopp. I drank cerveja -- beer, yes, but distinguished from chopp because served in a bottle. I told you this is a precise language

I have no idea why I have spent all this time talking about drinks when the real pleasure last night came from the people. I alluded to a hipster, there were a few. One of my worst moments in recent history involved being stuck in a car with a bunch of hipsters in the back seat prattling on about how to classify various indie and post-punk musical stylings. The low point of the evening was hearing a bespectacled, skinny guy in a Western shirt with pearl buttons declare, "Uhh, I prefer older Modest Mouse" as if they were talking wine vintages, and with a tone of voice that seemed to say, "I prefer older Modest Mouse, which is all the evidence you need that I am a wise and well cultivated gentleman with superior taste." As much as I hate pomposity in general (especially when I notice it in my own behavior, I hasten to add), I particularly loathe the transformation of pop culture into some graded course in connoisseurship. It's only rock n' roll.

The Brazilian hipsters, if they should be so-called, were the opposite. We spoke a combination of broken English and broken Portuguese. Guess whose Portuguese was broken. Anyway, the conversation mostly consisted of listing various bands and singers we enjoyed. I believe that, during the whole night, I only mentioned two artists they didn’t know: Elliott Smith and the aforementioned Modest Mouse. The conversation ranged over oldies but goodies like David Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Beatles (I was reminded of how much I used to enjoy the Fab 4) to Belle and Sebastian, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, etc.

Also, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet also earned high praise in the form of Ah! Yes! and Eu gosto, eu gosto!

It was a good night.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Estou loco, sim? Sim.

We are back in Arcoverde this weekend; arrived to a full house. Two sisters and a niece are staying here before moving to Garanhuns. It's becoming a popular city in this family, for good reason.

My Portuguese is improving. Or, I should say, my willingness to speak. My shyness is receding. I realized that no matter what I will go through a period of sounding like the village idiot, and so I must accept this as the worm stage presaging diaphanous wings of fluency. Or some flowery shit like that.

Speaking of higher diction, I finally read Anthony Hecht in Conversation with Philip Hoy. Previously, I had only read snippets here and there. It is inspiring me to revisit his poems, which thankfully I brought back with me. In some ways I think it would serve as an apt introduction to anyone not already familiar with his work, if only to dispel the notion that it is entirely, or even mostly, autobiographical. I wonder just how many readers automatically assume that all poetry is about the poet. I try never to make that assumption. There is always "the speaker."

Well, enough of that. A fellow English teacher invited us over for lunch today before we left for Arcoverde. Cous-cous, rice, vinagrette, and rack of lamb in a fine gravy. Followed by the best chocolate mousse I have ever had (considering I only recall trying this once or twice before, that's not saying much--but it would be obscene to describe exactly how orgasmic this dessert was). We are scheming to get invited to more such dinners. We are thinking of an exchange of English lessons for delicious meals every Saturday.

On the ride to Arcoverde today, a man overheard us speaking English, turned around and said, "Beautiful, yes?" Meaning the hills through which we were winding. "Sim, Beautiful," I said. "Students?" he asked. "Professores," we answered.

He spoke mostly with my girl, in Portuguese, asking her how to phrase certain questions, then had a simple conversation with me in English, and I was all too happy to oblige. Students of English here are not at all shy. Most of them, that is. I have encountered some actual English teachers who will not say a word of English to me, so frightened are they of embarrassing themselves. Life is an embarrassment. So, get over it.

The highway landscape ... it floors me with its majesty. "Majestic" -- sounds so hackneyed, but at the moment a better adjective or description is impossible. I'm travel weary and about to get bleary eyed (God willing!) ... will hopefully finally sample some Pitu, a local brand of some distilled spirit which is supposed to put more hair on my chest. I'll report my findings at the next available opportunity.

Friday, March 27, 2009

God I Love that Rock n Roll

This post will probably have nothing to do with rock and/or roll.

According to the NEA, poetry readership continues to decline.

I have begun teaching English. I have one class right now, but will start a conversation course next week. The director of the language school, my girl, and I were at the local radio station to promote the school. Plus, there is a sign over the school announcing a new professor with a degree in English, a native speaker. Within a month, not only have I secured a job but my employer was so happy to hire me she had a sign made announcing my employment to the world. And I have been on the radio. Talk about undue attention! But I am grateful. I am giving this job all of the energy and attention I have, and am loving it. The students are wonderful--I am very impressed with the immersion method used. Judging most students' knowledge of the language, it is very effective. The secret is to present as much information in English as possible, and only referring to the students' native language as a last ditch effort. In the advanced levels, which I teach, you are not to use the students' native language at all (no problem for me... even the one or two month students here have a better command of English than I have of Portuguese).

Which fact shames me. I keep telling myself that I am not the typical American unwilling to learn another language, but sometimes I definitely play that part. The problem is we dont speak Portuguese in the house. If we spend all day at home, that is a day in which I have probably not heard a single phrase in Portuguese.

But I am able to function a little. Just a few minutes ago, I asked for, received, and paid for a bottle of water at the Internet cafe where I am composing this post. No small feat. And don't you ever take such small things for granted.

In other news... well, I don't think there is any other news to report. The heat is sometimes overwhelming. We spent much of this morning scouring Garanhuns for adhesive envelopes. All of the envelopes we have found do not include a strip of adhesive. Common sense tells me this is because of the chronic humidity coupled with a dearth of air conditioning. I am preparing snail mail submissions to editors in the States, and I hope that a non-adhesive SASE won't terribly inconvenience them. Using that common sense mentioned above, it occurred to me that there is no way any student worker or other saintly worker stuffing envelopes for a literary rag would actually lick each SASE. Every office I have ever worked in has kept a supply of glue sticks for that purpose. It is safer and faster.

Unfortunately, these are the things that keep me up at night.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Miller Williams Poem

Check it out.  Highly recommend Living on the Surface, his selected poems, to anyone who hasn't read it. His new collection is mighty fine as well. 

Lotado de Pessoas

The title of this post means "full of people." As in, the theatre was full of people. But I can't say "O copo esta lotado de aqua." (the glass is full of water) I must say "O copo esta cheio de aqua," with cheio meaning "full." I think I am grasping the distinction when I say lotado = things, people, books, cars, toys... objects. Cheio = water, sand, joy, sadness, etc. Two words for full. While English is full of many synonyms, the word full basically encompasses both distinctions made by the two words in Portuguese. I am beginning to realize the truth in what my girl said about Portuguese, that it is a very precise language. I am reading this aloud to her, for her comments, and she just added: "Precise, sim. Just like German." I am reminded, too, that some of our greatest philosophers were German, and that Western Philosophy begins in Ancient Greece, in another exacting group of languages. 

For crying out loud, Portuguese has two words for "to be." Ser, which denotes a noun's essential being or identity: I am Kevin, I am a man, I am a human being, I am a poet. Estar denotes things that can change: I am happy, I am sad, I am hungry (although the phrase for this would be estou com fome, I am with hunger). Now, French has two unique conjugations for verbs based on this same distinction. There is the passe compose which deals with things that did happen at a specific time, and the imparfait dealing with ongoing actions. The link above goes into detail about that. But French only has etre meaning "to be," although in certain phrases avoir and faire can also mean "to be." 

What I am getting at is that, in the Portuguese language, the age-old dilemma of Being v. Becoming is embodied in the language itself. I know no German, but am aware of Heidegger's explorations of Dasein as a way to explore Sein. Admittedly, it's all mostly over my head. 

Ser (getting back to Portuguese) seems to express the age-old proclamation that everything IS, the arrow never reaches the target, etc. Estar agrees with the equally old assertion that everything is in flux, becoming, you never step in the same river twice, etc. But not exactly. The existence of these two verbs reveals a willingness, I believe, to entertain both notions. In the world, there is both being and becoming. 

Of course, I have no clue what I am talking about. My reading in this subject, as well as my knowledge of any language (including English, honestly) is miniscule. Please, dear Reader, share your insights... and please correct any errors I have made! 

All of this just to get to a pointless vignette: yesterday we were going to take a bus from Garanhuns to Arcoverde. Instead, we took what is called a Lotado ... basically a large van that takes passengers on the same routes as the bus. Lotado, meaning "full." Yes, they stuff as many people into their van as they can. The driver claimed he would get us there quicker than the bus. I had my doubts, and my doubts were confirmed. The trip was about the same duration as a bus trip -- two hours -- due to many little stops along the way. Would you rather ride in a crowded van or a crowded bus? Bus, believe me. It wasn't my idea to take the damn Lotado. And we never will, again. 

In Garanhuns we haggled with the driver. Or, I should say she haggled with the driver. I kept saying, in English of course, we should take the bus, but I did not explain why. Frankly, I trust a bus more than I trust some dude in a van. I was sure his business was as legitimate as any Brazilian venture (if you have a cooler and a supply of popsicles, you have a business here). But I had my doubts that his service held any advantages over the bus. I hate being right all the time. 

The trip was not unenjoyable, mind you. We admired a brilliant sunset over the hills, and our view was probably better than it would have been in the bus. And I don't necessarily hate being crowded in with a bunch of people. I love people. Our fellow passengers were courteous (each one, as she was leaving, said "tchau" to people I presumed were strangers... although in this country, everyone seems to know everyone else, for better or for worse). I can honestly say I "rubbed elbows" with the natives. 

Ah, the sunset. A various fire of rich roses, oranges, mauves, lilacs all scorched with looming clouds. Let me compare it with the Visualizer in iTunes only to say that those programers have a lot of catching up to do with the stratosphere. 

It was a wonderful ending to a pretty blah weekend. Sunday was hell. I was startled awake by the barking of Tio Abrahao's dogs. Tio had left for Recife this weekend, leaving us to care for them. I fed them, but could not go back to sleep, and spent much of a cranky day addictively browsing the internet, catching up on what I had missed throughout the week. Seth Abramson's blog was a happy discovery. I enjoy his poetry very much, although his theoretical statements often have me scratching my head. But I should add that when anyone starts talking theory, I usually walk the other way. Especially when said theory involves reinventing or creating a new poetics. I guess I don't give much conscious thought to these matters. What surprised me about Abramson was that a poet of such fine accomplishment could leave me utterly cold when discussing the art. I wonder if I'm missing something. I think it ultimately has to do with style as much as the current critical lexicon. For instance, I could read essays on poetry by Anthony Hecht all day long. 

Different strokes for different folks, that's what I'm always getting at. And, the more I think of it, I do agree with Abramson (if this is indeed what he was getting at): the metaphor ought to be taken down a peg. 

I've just skimmed over this post--what a damn mess. And yet it's one big mess, not a bunch of little ones. Should be easier to sweep up.  

Saturday, March 21, 2009


As one would gather from my last post, it has been a busy week. We're renting an apartment in downtown Garanhuns and expect to move in ASAP next week (we're getting the super to repaint the rooms and install a new shower head in the meantime... exciting moving-in stuff). It's cheap, quaint, and close to everything we need in town ... work, favorite restaurants, super markets, etc. Because our school is on the other side of town, we do a lot of walking around in this hilly city, and as a result are getting quite a work out every day. Good news for these two spoiled, American slobs. We've been training at the language school. I was supposed to teach my first class today, a class of one. She called in sick. So, we're rescheduling. But I spent about four hours at the school today, sitting in on classes, observing how the methodology works, etc. It's an immersion method, and apparently very effective. The students I spoke with today seemed to have quite a bit of comprehension, despite having only studied English for about a month. It's making me rethink my methods for learning Portuguese ("Eh, I'll move to Brazil and, you know, just wing it.")

There is a nice bookstore/cafe in the same neighborhood as the language school. They stock many classic Brazilian titles, as well as world literature in translation (of all books to have in stock, they had The Yage Letters by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, most likely of local interest due to its South American setting... I am not sure, but I think that they procure the yage concoction in the Amazon. I picked up a copy of Pessoa's selected poems, and have translated (or transliterated) some stanzas with basic vocabulary. I think it's helping.

I made the mistake of leaving my iPod back in Arcoverde. I only brought one book (Ted Hughes's Essential Shakespeare) other than my Portuguese textbook. Brazilian TV isn't worth the time, at least not the original programming. So far, I've only noticed two different novelas: one set in India/Rio, and the other set in California/Rio. Other than that, it's BBB (Big Brother: Brazil). There are news broadcasts, of course, and kid's shows (some with racy material by the standards of American children's programming... but I guess a woman in a bikini does help one learn simple phrases like Bate as maos (clap hands)... I know I'll never forget it).

So I'm a little short on entertainment (not that I have had much time for lounging around the house reading ... we've been crawling through the streets of Garanhuns like rats in a maze, mostly buying stuff for the apartment, and meeting with our boss at the school). I've been writing a lot in my notebook, sketches for new works, observations, etc.

Interesting note about Portuguese. Aparently the noun saudade has no English equivalent. The closest is "longing," but that is really a gerund phrase. It reminds me of the French ennui which is often translated as "boredom" but has no true English equivalent.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

In Case Anyone Is Reading This

I will probably not post to this blog for an entire week due to limited internet access. The girl and I are going back to Garanhuns (see below). She's starting a job there, and I have training for an upcoming gig as well. Meanwhile I'm scrambling to make sure I have all my paperwork. Pity the poor immigrant.  

Speaking of the blog,  if you love or hate something you read here, please leave a comment. I'm having fun. Hope you are, too. 

Periodical Madness

An article from the New Republic about Socialism Re: Obama.  

From the article: "But it isn't just the right that has worked itself into a frenzy; on the question of whether we are approaching a new age of socialism, there seems to be remarkable political consensus. In recent weeks, the covers of National Review ("OUR SOCIALIST FUTURE"), The Nation("REINVENTING CAPITALISM, REIMAGINING SOCIALISM"), and Newsweek ("WE ARE ALL SOCIALISTS NOW") have--respectively--lamented, heralded, and observed the coming rise of socialism."

This is something that annoys me about glossy magazines. Because of its relative success, a glossy has to work ever harder to secure the readers it already has, as well as cater to the impulse buyer at the newsstand who came for a pack of gum but only has a 20 the cashier won't break. Therefore, the covers of the glossies are the prophets of our day. IS GOOGLE MAKING US STOOPID? I can't remember which magazine printed this headline, but whenever I see this kind of simplistic hucksterism I turn the other cheek. Everywhere you turn, some slick and shiny cover is going to tell you HOW this new thing or development is going to affect YOU. I guarantee you'll never see this on the cover of such a magazine: "A reasonable look at the pros and cons of xyz social issue," much less this: "We really don't know what any of this means, and we're not going to waste your time with 5,000 words of self-important speculation." 

There is a tendency in periodical nonfiction these days to make sense of overlying trends. The thinking goes, I suppose, that focusing on piles of statistics somehow gives one a handle on reality. I am not fully condemning the practice. It is important to take stock of mass developments in the social, political, and educational fields. But it seems to me that piles of statistical figures are used to draw arbitrary conclusions that, ultimately, cannot be honestly measured. It goes a long to way sell magazines that promise to guide you through whatever brave new world they claim we're entering. But does it offer anything more than opinion? 

The article linked above is a prime example of how this strange realm of false zeitgeist mongering can be put to bed. A far better antidote: read small magazines and quarterlies. Just let a conspicuous lack of advertisement be your guide. 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

France's Highest Honor

The Legion d'honneur is going to David Cronenberg. Director of The Fly. From the article: "He once explained his status in France by saying that the French, unlike North Americans, do not look down on genre films and appreciate films that do not fit the Hollywood format."

Fair enough. And I admit an opera version of The Fly sounds interesting.  The few Cronenberg films I've seen have not whetted my appetite for more. His adaptation of Naked Lunch was just as feeble as the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. That is, it is cinematic porn for Burroughs-philes and little else. And don't get me started on the Dylan travesty. The script culled some great talent, not limited to Kate Blanchett and Charlotte Gainsbourg, but the film is nothing more than a mish-mash of insider references to Dylan fans, a cut-up of interviews and anecdotes sloppily pasted together in the interests of trendy surrealism. I went into the theatre expecting something different from the usual rock-star biopic, but was handed more of the same, only this time on acid. Almost two years later, and I'm still disgruntled over the whole mess. 


We spent Wednesday and Thursday with a favorite uncle in Garanhuns, an hour or so away by bus. It wasn't a pleasure trip (we spent most of our time handing out our resumes, with promising results), although pleasures abounded at every turn. It is several degrees cooler there due to the surrounding small mountains (not sure if the proper designation is hill, or mountain... the few sources I've checked still leave me in doubt. I am from a very flat, pine-encompassed land). There are real restaurants in Garanhuns. Arcoverde, for all its small town charm, has a number of fried food stands, a pizza parlor or two, and one barbecue place that I know of. There's a fondue restaurant in Garanhuns. Yeah, I know! Fondue! There are also a few Chinese restaurants, some fine a la carte Brazilian restaurants, actual movie theaters, etc. There's something comforting about a place that resembles what I am used to in America. I don't mean to short-change Arcoverde, but even native Brazilians share my lack of enthusiasm for this little place. While I tolerate the heat well enough, the prospect of living in a city that more resembles California weather than Arizona would be appealing to anyone, I think. So we have designs on Garanhuns. The pronunciation, by the way, makes sense if you know a smattering of Portuguese (like me), but I can't imagine any American without such knowledge coming close. The "huns" at the end is pronounced "yuhhhz," utilizing a nasal vowel similar to the French "un" nasal. Actually, come to think of it, the "huns" sounds more like the vowel in "coins." (you can see my command of the phonetics is shaky at best) When describing the pronunciation to a friend recently, I said, "It sounds like they are mumbling something about "Gary's Loins." Scary Loins is another private nickname I have for the place. 

Getting back to the landscape. On the road to Tio Abrahao's (Uncle Abraham's) house, there is a point in the road where the car heads uphill, and the landscape is more gorgeous than anything I can think of. There are a number of large hills covered with houses and businesses, all painted in the local light pastel color scheme (this must be due to the heat, lighter colors reflecting the sunlight... it also contributes to the blinding brightness of the towns). When you are in a dip in the road, and the land directly in front of you is a steep incline uphill, the oceanic rolling of the landscape is breathtaking. At the farthest point of the horizon, with clusters of buildings clinging to the hill, it looks as though the world drops off forever beyond that cresting of earth. And the palatial cumulus clouds that are ubiquitous to the region, fat and bright with dark bellies, rival the landscape in immensity. Indeed, when you are on top of one of these hills, you feel as if you could reach and touch the clouds. This view of the landscape, when you are in the car, only lasts for a few moments... the car or bus overtakes the incline, and the horizon evens out, putting the human dwellings at eye-level or lower. I don't recall ever seeing anything quite like it, not even in mountainous areas of New Hampshire or Massachusetts (I may not have paid attention, though). I snapped a few pictures, none of which did the view any justice. But we are leaving tomorrow to spend all of next week there, so there will be more opportunities. 

Friday, March 13, 2009

Camille Paglia in Brazil (after the political commentary)

Check it out. Can't really comment on Carnival--we showed up in Brazil a day or two after it was over. Living only 90 minutes from New Orleans for most of my life, never once did I go to a Mardi Gras parade. Screaming crowds are really not my thing, but it's great to read about the experience from an enthusiast's point of view. Enjoy. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


What is it about a slice of meat between two pieces of french bread that makes even the most basic sandwich greater than the sum of its parts? Brazil is not overly friendly to the sandwich. My mother-in-law scoffed at my eating a piece of bread with my beans and rice the other day. Apparently, bread is strictly for breakfast in this house, mister. The fact that I drink black coffee qualifies me as a local legend. At least I've been immortalized. Getting back to sandwiches... sure, Brazil has the x-todo, which means x-everything... basically a hamburger with scrambled eggs, ham, niblet corn, potato straws, lettuce, cheese, and tomato. But other than that, the local culinary culture seems to ignore the many virtues of the sandwich, its sleek and compact design, its portability, etc. Today at lunch I rediscovered the sandwich. We had boneless fried chicken breast, and we had french bread, we had catsup. And for fifteen minutes of noshing, I was home. 

T.R. Hummer at Line Break

Check it out.  Another favorite of mine. Thanks to C. Dale Young for posting a link. I keep forgetting to look in on Line Break, a handsomely designed site with stellar content to match. 

B.H. Fairchild Featured Poet at Poetry Daily

Check it out.  For my money, he's one of the best we've got. And good to see Sewanee Review promoted as well.  

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tarzan and Workshop Sex, or Miscommunication

I was writing to a friend today when I suddenly recalled a poetry workshop I attended years ago. I know what you're thinking, "Oh, crap, a workshop story. Click." Brevity being the soul of wit, I'll be short and sweet. I brought a poem to the workshop that was little more than a cute vignette of a married couple painting a room in their house in preparation for the arrival of their first child. The core image was husband and wife starting at opposite ends of the wall, gradually coming together to make the final stroke side by side. Aw, shucks, how sweet. It was terrible.  The workshop leader asked another participant to read the poem aloud and then to briefly synopsize what was going on in the poem. He read it in the ubiquitous droning chant of workshops and readings everywhere, and then proceeded to describe two lovers writhing on a floor covered in newspapers, their naked bodies splattered with paint, groaning with pleasure, etc., etc. I kept blinking my eyes, looking at the poem, then looking at the interpreter, then looking again at the poem I had written, and thought, "Damn, I'm even better than I thought!"


Before leaving Louisiana, I dusted off the family's VHS copy of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan: Lord of the Apes. What a film. This movie is on a continuous loop in a basement office in the Arts building of my subconscious. I recall seeing it a few times in childhood, but those few memories are formidable. Learning Portuguese, I feel like Tarzan every day, when the sweaty little Belgian keeps repeating, "RAY-ZOR! MEE-ROAR! Razor! Mirror!" And then the climatic lesson scene, "This is your mother! This is your father! FAMILY, JOHN, FAMILY!" Like Tarzan, I sometimes get the urge to leap out of my little hut, into the trees of the jungle, beating my chest and howling at monkeys. Acquiring a new tongue is hard work. 

Apples & Apples

The apples here are out of sight, man. Ditto the grapes. I've tried a number of local fruits that are unheard of (at least by me) in the States. For example, the jaboticaba, pinha, and pitomba. Eating each of these fruits requires a large amount of work for a relatively small amount of meat. The pulp clings heartily to the seeds. Locals can strip a seed with pirana-speed. I usually spit my seeds after minutes of noshing, most of the sweet fruit still clinging to the black stone. 

The apples and grapes, though, they beat anything Whole Foods ever sold me in Boston. I'm not an expert on apples, but I believe the ones we bought were somehow related to the Cripps Pink. They were considerably smaller and more compact than your average North American apple, and consequently pack a lot of flavor. Can't say much about the grapes other than they were green, contained seeds, and utterly delicious. 

I would write more, but I'm afraid I've used up my wikipedia link allowance for the day. Sorry. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Drive Through the Country

This afternoon, we drove to nearby Pedra. It's named for a huge bald rock that predominates the horizon, on top of which is a small chapel where the devout make pilgrimages on their knees. There is a river of wax from the altar to the floor, from countless votives over the years. We didn't visit the chapel. We met more family; an uncle, aunt, and a little cousin. Plus their cows. The smell of hay and manure brought me back twenty years or so. Any time that smell wafts my way, I'm reminded of spending hours on a neighbor's field, playing with action figures as my brother and father fly remote control airplanes with the neighbor. On the drive home, I kept the window down and was tempted to let my head out into the wind, like a dog, to feel the rush of a country night at forty clicks.  


I have family members who will walk out of a movie at the first dropping of the dreaded F-Bomb. Yesterday I happened upon a blog- review of a favorite book of mine, and one of the reviewer's only qualms was the "intermittent dependency upon the word kcuf." (Write that last word backwards to discover what he's talking about, but be sure teacher doesn't see--that'll spell detention!) I remember when I was four or five years old, I would run outside, furtively glance about to make sure I was alone, and then spew forth all the four-lettered filth the grownups were allowed to say in anger but would earn me a sore behind. Looking back, that was probably how I first learned of the awesome "power of words" you're always hearing about from poets and philosophers. Whispering those few magical incantations in the solitude of my back yard, I realized that their power was not inherent, but drawn from an audience (of authority, no less). And it seemed to me that corporeal punishment was an unreasonable reaction to the grunting of a syllable. But there was nothing I could do about that, at least not at my size and age. And so, I learned not only the powerlessness of words out of context (mere sounds), but also the power of that context, and the necessity of knowing my boundaries. To every thing there is a season. 

I was raised by tee-totaling Baptists and, despite what some (or most) might immediately assume, I would not trade my upbringing, nor the parents, grand-parents, siblings, cousins, and uncles who managed it, for any other. And while I do love them, I do not share all of the opinions and beliefs of my family. In fact, having just spent a month with them, I imagine that the only things we really agree on are fried catfish, gumbo, and old country music (anything before the 1980's). I'm neither Baptist nor dry. Nor am I an alcoholic atheist. This comes as a major surprise to those indoctrinated in our Coke/Pepsi, Either/Or culture of opinion polls and bumper stickers. 

In the church, I was taught to loathe the lukewarm. It was either fanatical faith or none at all, and this was mistakenly translated into everything in life. You're either for us, or against us. Looking back, it seems odd that a Southern culture that values the all-you-can-eat-buffet would scorn other, intangible forms of eclecticism. Well, I'm over-simplifying. But I think that last statement is pretty funny, so I'll keep it. 

Getting back to our mother-f@#&kn' bidness. If I had unquestioningly followed the shepherd's hook of my southern fried upbringing, I would not have met the love of my life. I was not raised to consort with potty-mouthed binge-drinkers, but it was just such a low-life who introduced me to my love. Let's call him E. Taking cues from Jesus, who consorted with whores and tax-collectors, I befriended E. in Louisiana and later met up with him while we were both doing time in Boston. Much of our free time was spent imbibing the juice of the barley and sneering at the more attractive and successful people laughing and living it up at trendy bars in Harvard Square. Every other word out of his or my mouth began with fffffffff and ended with a belching uuuuccccckkkk. There are people in my life who would have fainted to hear the two of us go on in our usual manner.  But in the context, we were just two dudes talking. Albeit incoherently. Brings to mind the Modest Mouse lyric: "Talked all night but what the hell did we say?" 

And there are people in my life who would have shunned E. for his unholy tongue. But having sworn my share of oaths, I saw no problem in associating with him. Not that all of our pursuits involved alcohol and lowbrow talk. I met up with him one day to visit an art gallery, in fact, and he was accompanied by a classmate from Harvard Extension, a Brazilian immigrant who happened to speak real lady-like and turned her nose at all things booze. I personally was relieved to learn this. Finally, a girl who didn't have to drink to have a good time. Because of my lukewarm approach to drinking, I didn't immediately assume we were incompatible (I have friends who will not associate with non-drinkers, as a rule of thumb). 

[sorry to interrupt the program ladies and gentlemen, but don't you find it odd that "Voodoo Chile" is followed by "Little Miss Strange" on Hendrix's Electric Lady Land? Possibly the most ass-kicking blues-rock songs ever followed by some flaccid Beatlesque pop-pap? Talk about variety, which I think is one of the themes of our little discussion. Back to the program...]

Three years and ... what, four thousand miles? ... later, and here we are. So one of the greatest blessings in my life came, however indirectly, from following a life of sin. Go fig, Adam & Eve. Go fig. 

I was at a get-together once, and for some reason the "c-word" came up. No, not cookies. Believe me, I was wishing for some cookies. We're talking lady bits here. The discussion was actually about whether it's acceptable to use such a word in a poem. My opinion, which I did not voice at the time (remember: boundaries), is that it depends on a number of factors. And it's one thing to call someone by that name, and quite another to (perhaps erotically) refer to the organ with the language of the streets (or gutter, if you'll excuse a tasteless pun). One of the prominent voices in the discussion said something along the lines of this: "I have known some despicable, horrible people in my life, and the worst among them never used that kind of language!" 

Boy, did my face turn red! Because this guy was essentially saying that, by virtue of my cussing ways, I was to some degree worse than the most despicable characters in his life. I hope to God he didn't know any Nazis. Indeed, I began to wonder: what shattering of an idyllic snow globe did this asshole fall out of? Most likely: the 1950's. I don't go around announcing my age, but it's probably obvious by now that hippies trust me (i.e., I ain't over 30). 

Speaking of getting older, I find myself cursing less. Part of it might have to do with lower stress levels (corporate America is a real bitch). But a great deal of it has to do with the wisdom of the ages. You put too much pepper on your eggs and pretty soon the asshole next to you at the diner counter is saying, "Hey, you want some eggs with that pepper?" Mind your own flippin' business. 

While I don't agree with the Baptists in my life, who believe that, at best, God cries a single tear when you utter a curse word and, at worst, it's just another sin you'll collect your wages on in the afterlife if you don't give up your no-good Godless ways, I do agree with the more reasonable objection that vulgar words are, well, vulgar. Using them assumes your audience is among the lowest common denominator, and a preponderance of F-Bombs and C-Words can become insulting to one's intelligence. The very language I have been defending happens to be the lingua franca of the Coke/Pepsi culture of my disdain. Sure, I like my rock n' roll, but that just keeps me on the ground (why do you think they call it a groove? sooner or later it's a rut). If I want to soar, I'll ride with Saint-Saens' Phaeton

Conclusion? F#*@ if I know, dude. Pass me that Coors. Nascar on? 

Saturday, March 7, 2009

First Week

We have been in Arcoverde for over a week now. Have made just a bit of progress learning the language. I'm told it will improve exponentially. Within three months I should be a functional Gringo--that is, able to understand what people are saying, and able to respond reasonably well. I get excited any time I am able to completely comprehend a phrase word-for-word. Most of the time, if I understand something, the comprehension comes from a combination of context, hearing a few familiar words, and interpreting tones of voice and gestures. Guess work, in other words. I'm learning not to trust my guess work.

The road to gaining working papers will be long but not especially arduous. I have talked with the director of a private language school here. She is interested in giving me a position as soon as one is available (despite my lack of Portuguese). She thinks I could drive business. This is the first time in my life anyone has told me, "You could be good for business." This is only the first place we've tried. We may not remain in Arcoverde for very long. Nearby Garanhuns holds more opportunities. 

I'm living off beans, rice, cous-cous, fried chicken, and the occasional coxinha