Curtain Raiser

Brazil’s 3-Decade Democracy, Colltalers

For at least one reason, Brazilians could be celebrating tomorrow the 30 years since the military dictatorship got bumped down from power: there hasn’t been any threat to Brazil’s constitution ever since. Instead, there may be no party as many are angry at their democratically elected government, and a minority has even asked for another coup to depose President Dilma Rousseff and her ruling Workers’ Party, the PT.
Credit that to the majority of the population, not yet born in 1964 and with no memory of what the military did then. Or to a staggering string of corruption scandals plaguing the PT. Or even to the apparent inability by Dilma, as she’s known in Brazil, to provide economic relief and fresh ideas for the country. Either one or all of the above, plus other factors, the fact is that there’s a distinctly sour mood permeating Brazil nowadays.
Granted, to some corners of the world, Brazilians not willing to party is sort of an oxymoron. But even if much of what’s going on is still growing pains of a young democracy, with opposition parties typically engaging to magnify PT’s woes, there is the underlying reality that, for a country with such a gargantuan ambition to play a bigger global role, these days it’s simply not looking the part with the confidence it requires.
Thus as Dilma fights for political survival, just as her mentor, and Brazil’s arguably most popular politician, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, struggles to protect his own legacy, Brazilians look as if on the verge of reaching a risky boiling point. They’re still unsure whether showing discontentment in the streets is enough to force change, and restore morality in all levels of power, that they see crucially necessary.
But whereas the most visible part of such discontent is political and involves painful reforms the congress seems incapable to promote (Americans can certainly relate to that), Continue reading

Before Afterlife

Upon Departing, Would You
Tell a Story or Leave an App?

The flip side of living longer is that death now may also take longer to finally succeed. That allows some to rehearse their award acceptance speech, and others, to compose long goodbyes. Here’s to your own, self-penned obituary, and the app and avatar that’ll outlive you. People do wish to control their own narrative, and obituaries are potentially the final word about it. And soon there may be more Websites of those who went before than the breathing kind like us (knock on wood). Just like the current humanity, counting in the billions as it is, is but a fraction of everyone who’s ever lived.
We should be careful about what we wish for, though. One of the gifts of being alive is that, mercifully, we have no idea when our time is up. Long, extended diseases, and the industry of the ‘cure’ making sure that we last, however, may be changing even that most gracious of nature’s charities.
But heaven forbid if we were to take away such a precious comfort from those on the death watch. After all, to have time to prepare one’s affairs, and everyone around, for that announced demise is no small miracle. Hence, the wills, the lists, the requests for forgiveness, and the peaceful way to depart from this realm.
The same with this new, decades-old world we’ve created to keep our distance from each other, the Internet. How many of those you know know your passwords, your Wed identities, above all, your wishes about what to do with it all? Not many and most are not too eager to give that sort of advance notice away either.
You can always program, though. Better than to leave behind a wake of digital detritus, why not set something up, or find a way to terminate it all for good? A few predated posts may just do the trick. And there won’t be any need to deputize someone else to run things afterwards.
Granted, the person who’s gone won’t particularly care one way or another. So it’s just an ethical matter of some consideration, on whether you’d like to continue, so to speak, indefinitely, or would rather leave space for those who actually stand to be affected by it: the living.

Marilyn Johnson has helped disperse the common idea that newspaper obituaries, for instance, should be shallow and phony in their eulogy to the dead. In her intriguing The Dead Beat, she demonstrates how obituary writing is an important art form, usually assigned only to experienced journalists. One of the most read sections of any paper, the death notice must tell a compelling story starting by what’s known as Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Drink it But Lose the Bottle, Colltalers

Water, Earth’s arguably most important element, is having quite a busy time. From playing villain in the climate change drama to disappearing in vast regions, while showing up unannounced in distant moons, it seems now ready for its top billing closeup.
Since 1993, when the United Nations began to observe March 22 as World Water Day, increased demand has caused extended droughts where people need it the most, and, indirectly, the threat of rising sea levels to billions living in coastal areas.
What appears as a contradiction has, in fact, a common cause in our predatory way of living and wasteful use of natural resources, combined with overpopulation. We tend to forget how finite and vulnerable a resource water really is.
Even when it’s tangential to progress, water can determine the fate of entire ecosystems and the communities depending on them. In this context, its commoditization has aggravated both its scarcity and the possibility that it’ll choke the livelihood of so many.
Consider bottle water, whose over consumption – Americans, for instance, consume an average of 30 gallons a year – has created an explosion in plastic pollution in landfills and, specially, the oceans, wreaking havoc with marine life and metastasizing the effects of environmental damage on climate. From manufacture to discarding, everything about a bottle of water is wasteful.
And yet, its main consumers are irony-free advocates of a ‘natural’ lifestyle. Most would be interested in replacing soda in their diet for water. It’s when the conversation veers to what to do with the containers that the room usually gets quickly empty.
Water also closely tracks the staggering inequalities of our world: while we pay top dollar for our designer bottle, even when tap water in most Western cities is often superior, billions lack the potable kind, or risk life and limb walking miles for it.
Rising sea levels are triggered by the daily release of tons of heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide, Continue reading

Village People

Three Towns: Sudden Slumber,
Aging Dreams & Cozy Oblivion

In one, people are falling asleep without warning. In another, they’ve dropped out long ago. And yet, the other shelters the mentally afflicted. There are places we move to, and places we’d rather stay clear of. And then there are the ones we visit for a life-changing experience.
This being the first day of Spring in the northeast, despite the snow forecast, discerning globetrotters would be already pressed to plan that skew, cultural-enhancing time off. Let us introduce them to three places capable of matching their inquisitive minds. Still with us?
There would be little sense in talking about the blue of the Caribbean sea, or the gusts of the Mongolian steppes. There’s even less to tell to those seeking the familiarity of pool attendants and the exotic sway of foreign shores. Let them go and pray that they keep their memories for themselves.
It’d also be unsound to send light-headed travelers to places where daily gunfire chases away beauty, and extreme poverty strips locals of dignity. Let’s let that to unsavory tourist guides, with their slick packages and greased brochures, and take a moment to mourn those stranded in bloody beaches.
Still, it’s a vast and mostly uncovered world, if one cares enough to learn while traveling, and leave a gentle impression before returning. Just like Sahara sands cross the Atlantic and fertilize the Amazon Rainforest, a journey should sow some seeds for every root uncovered.
Then again, why invoke a haboob, or a bad pun, to make a cross-pollination point? A trip is often worthier for the places it opens up within the traveler’s mind than the ones visited by the body. Thus our urge to introduce these towns, where residents may have something to uncover within you.

Few outside this town of less than 700 people in Kazakhstan had heard of it before 2010. That’s when the outbreak of a still unidentified malady was first reported: people would suddenly fall asleep and remain like that for hours and even days. It continues to happen.
Five years later, and countless outbreaks since then, Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Hoping for a New Israel, Colltalers

The most important political event this week, relevant to the U.S., the Middle East, and to the world, is tomorrow’s Prime Minister election, in Israel. It’s a crucial vote even if it grants an unprecedented, but expected, fourth term to incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu.
But unlike what he and his Likud Party would like us to believe, a win won’t necessarily represent an endorsement to the aggressive settlement expansion and military policies, along the paralyzing fear, with what his leadership has subjugated the Israeli society.
Before going any further, though, a word about approaching this highly sensitive subject, which often entangles even seasoned political commentators – which we’re definitely not -, and provokes exacerbated reactions and passionate opinions from anyone.
For what’s usually lost in most views about Israel and its troubled neighbors is the fact that criticism of its political leadership does not ultimately translates into anti-Semitism, or support to the terrorist tactics of its enemies, however justified they may feel about them.
Also, it’s important to note that there’s no historical equivalence between the systematic extermination of Jews, by Nazi Germany during WW2, and the current oppression and denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people by Israel, even if the specific brutality of the conflicts between the two is indeed comparable, and that the Israeli military is overwhelmingly superior to the Palestinians.
Finally, and that’s what makes this even harder to discuss with an even mindset, it’s necessary to emphasize that, according to generally accepted democratic principles, one doesn’t need a set of pre-conditions before being allowed to express his or her opinion.
Such principles should apply even if said opinion is not politically correct or fair, or accurate, and the person expressing it hasn’t physically visited the area, or holds an elective office, or has even marginally an interest on the issue, apart from a personal view.
On to the theme. Israel election hangs on three major issues, only one of which Netanyahu discussed on his speech to Republicans in Congress two weeks ago: the Palestinians, domestic social policies, and the one-note samba he seems to always invoke whenever he comes to the U.S., Iran. We’ll come back to the speech later, but let’s focus on his favorite foe for just a moment.
First of all, Israel has the same right of fearing Iran’s nuclear capability, as any New Yorker now fears being crushed by a commercial airliner, just as an Iraqi farmer must be constantly afraid of Continue reading

Ailurophile, Caturally

Cats & Their Subtle Ways
of Taking Over Our World

The Internet may be the realm of cats. But Japan has been their unofficial land for 15 centuries. Out of its over 6,800 islands, 11 are felines-only places. There, as here or everywhere, an endless stream of news about cats seems to be always pouring. Our duty is to report them. Hey, it’s their world; we just work here.
For sure, they’ve been around way before catching rides on sixth century Chinese boats. And before Egypt and Tibet and New York City threaten to suit us for misrepresentation, they’ve occupied every pore of society, from houses to cafes, from offices to retirement homes, and the very social mores of our age.
The opening of Life of Cats, a two-part show of the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection‘s of cat woodblock prints by Edo-period artists at New York’s Japan Society, presents the perfect opportunity to jump at such an omnipresent, furry, and ever so gracious, subject. The heavy-handed commentary is ours, of course.
The exhibit of almost 200 prints, some popular, others very rare, covers the influential 17th-through-18th centuries period, through works by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Utagawa Yoshiiku, and many others, depicting cats in a variety of settings and situations, both playful and thought provoking.

Divided in five sections – Cats and People, as People, and versus People, Transformed, and at Play – the selections, from the most extensive collection of ukiyo-e prints in the world, offer a journey through pre-industrial and pre-urban Japan through the mid 1800s and beyond. It’s complemented with modern artwork.
In surprising, evocative scenery, the felines are shown as companions, stand-ins for humans, threatening, and just plain child-friendly playful. The technique allows to exquisite detailing and implied hidden contexts, expertly told as stories by the shows’s curator, and Japan Society Gallery’s director, Miwako Tezuka.

Back to contemporary times, Japan’s arguably where the cat cafes first sprouted, but it’s in no way the sole sanctuary Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Racial Equality Will Set Us Free, Colltalers

The pace of social transformation takes generations to complete its cycles. That should bring some comfort to those discouraged with the continuous struggle for racial equality in America since the three voting rights marches, from Selma to Montgomery, 50 years ago.
They should take at heart that, while the walks were all violently disrupted by the police and white vigilantes – the first 54-mile trek between the two Alabama cities, on March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday – they ultimately succeeded in their original purpose.
The marches jump-started the 1960s civil rights movement, despite the assassination of several black leaders and opposition from politically conservative Americans, and culminated with a series of landmark rulings that, at least on paper, have changed the country.
But it’s not easy to see the changes we undoubtedly underwent in five decades, when the past few years have shown a particularly nasty strain of racism and lethal violence against black youth, often coming from society’s own organized forces. The police, for instance.
The spike in incidents of institutionalized brutality against racial minorities nationwide have shown how far we still are from the ideals those thousand of marchers were aiming at, and how the depth of their commitment and sacrifice can be so easily brushed aside.
‘Our march is not yet finished,’ said President Obama in Selma Saturday, in another display of his gifted oratorical skills. ‘But we’re getting closer.’ It’s arguable that an event of such magnitude would’ve deserved full White House attention if the president wasn’t black.
But his words set in a long line of inspired speeches made since those marchers forced President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act and other crucial legislation aimed at leveling the playing field and promote Americans of color to the full benefits of citizenry.
That we haven’t succeed yet speaks more of our collective inability to move on closer to ideals professed by the Founding Fathers, through the Constitution, than on the eventual fragility of such laws, even though that was made evident two years ago. That’s when the Supreme Court, in a startling display of short-sightedness and lack of judgement, gutted crucial provisions of the Voting Right Act.
Going back to constitutional times, though, throws us back in the loop of the unresolved quagmire of racial disparity. Continue reading