Middle Brother

Thanks to Him, I Got My
First Yellow Plastic Bus

Norris Coll would’ve been 68 today. Eighteen years since he’s gone, I still struggle to place his life in a coherent timeline, one that would make him justice, and ease my heartfelt emotions.
Fact is, I could never draw a decent portrait of my brother, whose sharp wit I still hear at times. Like a blade sliding through soft butter, even in the most casual of the moments, there was always a chance for bleedings.
And there were quite a few of them, along with flareups, recriminations, little betrayals, and several years squeezed between our times together and apart.
Fortunately, there were laughter too, and joy, and discoveries shared and explored. And much of what I am today, I thank to Dois, who at least once, played the big brother to my advantage, and chased some bullies away from me.
In the perforated fabric of my memories, none forms a complete picture, but many have an underlying narrative of challenge, of daring to be bold and get away with it, or almost. He certainly would’ve never looked back, like I’m doing now.
***
I was there the morning he got married by a judge. And we were together in the afternoon too, when he decided not to show up for his own wedding. Once he made up his mind, I couldn’t change it back.
Somehow, he made me his emissary to the puzzled guests crowding the sidewalk in front of the church. Even though I managed to face them all, I never had the guts to ask his wife why she stood by him as she did. Till the end.
There must be some measure of irony and good karma in the fact that their baby girl is now an accomplished trapezist, an aerial performer, and the only certified artist of the whole family.
***
In the early 1980s, we would often walk down a busy São Paulo avenue, smoking joints and watching thundering planes passing overhead on their way to land at his neighborhood airport.
That’s when his volatility would run the gamut, reaching its highest point even before a single airliner would touch down. But our sibling fights never lasted too long, and we’d wake up the next day with no hangovers.
Because we were so different, they could never be as vicious as the ones he battled with our old man, who was truly his double in candor
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and determination. I’ll never know who broke the other one first, but neither quite recovered from their clashes.
In hindsight, he must’ve treasured our times together, as I did, since he always knew he could trust me like no one else. Things I’m telling you now I’ve told no soul for all these years. It was a thought I had the day I became ‘older’ than him, too.
***
We both also knew when the last of those times finally got behind us. We’ve cried our goodbyes in a cool hospital corner, a few months before he left us. He was gone before the first dawn of the 21th century.
It was the year my first born came to this world, and a decade from Dad’s own passing. Numbers can never make up for missing words, though. And about this great guy, there are so many. In all his youthful eloquence, when the end came, he didn’t care to say much.
***
We were with father once when I got one of the toys that defined my childhood, a bus. We used to make constant short trips to the countryside, where Dad would tend to small missions, as a pastor.

So I loved buses back then, and immediately got attracted to one at the children’s section. It was yellow and plastic and, gosh so simple, and so beautiful. Naturally, I had to have it. Not so, said Father Heitor.
That’s when Norris, still a teenager, stepped up and pleaded my case, saying something like, come on, Dad. I think that was my puppy eyes moment, because the pastor looked at me and actually asked me, do you really want this?
And how? I’ve kept it, and played with it even when it’d lost its wheels, was always covered in mud, and its once bright yellow had all but faded. I don’t think I ever got to thank my brother for such a gesture.
***
So, if you don’t mind, let me take this moment to say, thank you for that bus, Norris. Thank you for your life, for giving me this moment to share with the world, for having been such a loving and caring partner.
You’ll always be missed. Happy Birthday, my ‘little’ brother.

(*) Originally published on Oct. 4, 2012.

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Amazon Via Acre

I Know Why the
Vultures Laughed

We were all set, strapped onto metal seats, when the captain announced: everybody out, we got stuck. After two days flying, and two flawless landings, only the Guajará Mirim ‘runaway’ mud to stop our fearless DC-3 on its tracks. Everyone got dirty pushing the plane.
On the sideways, Native Brazilian Indians laughed out loud. It was not their first time having a blast with visitors, but I never went back for seconds. Once we took off, my mind was racing towards the Acre State, where I’d spend three months with my friend Tonho and his family.
We got to know a stretch of the majestic Amazon Rainforest, three times as big then as it is now. I flew for free as a military officer’s son, aboard a Douglas from the National Air Mail. Tonho left Rio three days later, on a commercial flight, but we got to Rio Branco together.
My place was next to piles of letters and parcels, as DC-3s were still being used on regular post routes within Brazil. No complaints; I didn’t know then, but it turned out to be one of the greatest trips of my life, a real miracle, as I hadn’t a cent to my name but was treated like a king.
On the way, I’ve spent a night in Porto Velho, whose downtown area on that rainy winter of 1973, was occupied by a huge gypsy camp. I had already realized that I was visiting another country, but I felt even more foreigner having a hard time understanding them. Pure prejudice made me weary of the Roma and not to ask for directions.

SYRUP & SPAGHETTI WESTERNS
Brazil’s vast distances and geographical north-south set up has a lot to do with the radical differences among its regions. Getting to the northwest, wild and racially mixed, coming from the south, urban and white European, is like a kick in the ass. You get on all your fours and it’s better to take your time getting up again.
Things seemed so odd, that the first thing the two teenagers got was cough medicine, which used to be unwittingly loaded with codeine. We were not into alcohol, and weed was rarer than snow, so pharma high was our tour guide exploring the sights and city blocks.
By far, the two weathers within a single day were our main source of amusement. The whole city life revolved around things happening before and after the rain. Dawn would break already in the 80s and while the thermometer would rise with the sun, sweat would drench us. Suddenly, all would change.
At just few degrees shy of the 100s, the sky would turn and a monsoon of biblical proportions would come down, all thunder and flood. It’d last less than an hour, though, and then, it’d be gone. Clouds would get quickly driven away and the sun would return to set, at the conclusion of yet another beautiful day.
Many a bottle of syrup we knocked down on our way to the movies – we may have watched the entire Sergio Leone collection, plus every one of the Zapata series – or the ‘boate,’ where a long-haired crooner singing Roberto Carlos‘ Amada Amante, was a nightly hit. What a life.

DEEP IN THE DYING JUNGLE
When we headed to Xapuri, to try Ayahuasca, we had no idea who Chico Mendes was. Deforestation was all around us, piles of downed trees by the side of the road. At one point, our bus stopped: ahead of us, a tractor-trailer was fully submerged in a small lagoon. Only the top of the cabin was out of the water.
We got to Brasiléia late at night, and rented a room in the back of a rest stop. There was no power and we were intrigued when the owner handed us a little fumigator, loaded with kerosene. It didn’t take long to know why: bugs were big as mice, and would fly around. We almost suffocated to death, trying to keep them away.
We woke up early, sweaty and nearly deaf. Heat was expected, but what was that loud noise, as if someone was scratching our zinc rooftop with metal nails. Zeeeep, zeeeep, zeeeep, one after another. (more)
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Evolving Mores

Undies, Mother Teresa & Brazilian
Prostitutes: They All Got Upgrades

We all have expiration dates. In fact, pretty much everything about us, life and everything has a rotting point, beyond which it must evolve or it’ll dissipate. The same with clothing, reputations, and things people do for a living: it’s either reboot, or become as good as an old BlackBerry.
Take underwear, for instance. There’s no telling what they mean to so many, even those who don’t consider them a priority. Or Princess Di’s favorite poor of West Bengal, whose notoriety is under heavy artillery right now. As for the Brazilians, it’s all about professional improvement.
More often than not, change is good. One needs to keep on tiptoes if something will ever get done, and many a fine and exquisite way of doing things, in a certain, exquisite way, well, went the way of the Dodo. It simply couldn’t withstand these times of instant reward and viral videos.
Then again, some industries take advantage of this natural cycle to push their wares, as anyone who’s ever wondered why they wound up being stuck with this year’s model, when the one parked nearby is still running, would rush to tell you. We’d tell you more, but your smartphone probably would need an upgrade to put up with so much data.
In any event, we can’t help it. We crave the new, as long as it’s shiny, and smells fresh, and has a big logo, or set of functions, we’ve convinced ourselves we absolutely can’t live without. Even if last year’s is still perfectly fine, and running, and takes all calls, thank you very much. We just never care to pick it up.
So in anticipation of the new season, and whatever new crap they have in store for us, at a premium price, we’re got this first-world problems thing really down. After all, there’s something else common about these three themes that follow: they’re all much older than your mother.

CAGE-FREE-RANGE PANTIES
It seems that everywhere you look, everything is getting an organic version of it. This wave of labels may have started with food, but now it’s spreading like a malware throughout the fabric of our society, to use a pompous old-fashioned dictum. To the point that such labels may as (more)
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Vice to Meat Ya

Eating Animals May
Be Coming To a Boil

The short-comings of public campaigns about bad health habits are well known.  One the best selling foods ever is not even food – cheerios. But despite knowing that full well, those who eat it, eat it. Period.
That may illustrate without explaining why chastising people only makes them double down on their ways. Rightly so. After all, healthy eaters don’t necessarily preach about it. They just, well, eat.
A week ago, Brazil got embroiled in a stinky scandal of rotten meat, which was already packaged to be shipped to schools, and exported to its trading partners. Major plants were raided and low management was paraded like criminals straight to jail.
The affair is particularly putrid because involves government corruption, and wouldn’t you know it?, and because it exposes once again a multibillion industry which consistently cares little about public health.
But, like the billions spent shaming people about cigarette smoking, with little impact on global tobacco sales, scandals don’t usually dismantle a malodorous industry. Education and awareness do.
Graphic depictions of terminal diseases caused by some nasty habit, tough rhetoric, and draconian laws restricting its practice, do little to curb social habits. A turnaround in public sentiment is all it takes.

NOTHING TO SEE HERE, SAYS THE FOX
In Brazil, social networks reacted to the ‘Carne Fraca’ (weak flesh, as the scandal was called, for some reason) in typical fashion: blame meat eaters. Meat eaters replied in kind. Nastiness ensued, trolls jubilated.
Meanwhile, the pseud0-president went to a churrascaria to show buyers of Brazilian steak, that all was fine, and would’ve gotten away with it, if he wasn’t dumb enough to eat meat imported from Argentina.
Trade partners pressured on, and prices of the commodity collapsed, which is the least that should happen. But will the crisis lead to tighten regulations and stiffen penalties and jail terms and, shock, the closing of some plants? No likely, of course.
No one was cast out from society for smoking; they just had to take their business to the curb and open air. And restaurant and service workers thanked it all, very much; finally their underwear stopped smelling like an ashtray at the end of the night.
But in major economies, the tobacco industry did take a hit when smoked was stripped of its glamour, and the price tag of the public health damage it causes came finally into light. That happened only after stricter laws went into effect and were dutifully enforced.
Government officials and politicians who lied and hid they were sponsored by big tobacco, were also exposed and put out of business. As for smokers, it’s their business what they take a drag on. No one else needs to follow suit, or berate them.
At the end of the day, scary tactics notwithstanding, to quit smoking remains a deeply personal decision, akin of choosing a particular diet regime, or becoming a vegetarian.
ARE YOU GOING TO FINISH THAT?
Which brings us to the age-old discussion over whether we should or are we even supposed to have the flesh of dead animals as so central a staple of our food consumption.
Growing criticism of the meat industry has reached strident levels. Beyond the usual health-minded professionals, the anti-meat activist movement, and the slow build-up of awareness about animal rights, the industry now is facing a new, formidable foe: climate change.
Scientists are already compiling comprehensive lists of all other contributing factors to climate change, besides our still all-too-encompassing reliance on carbon fuels for energy.
Topping such lists is usually the cycle of raising cattle for human consumption. All over the planet, millions of herds (more)
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Guilty As Charged

World Indicts 2016 For
Crimes Against Humanity

We found it. For a while, it was as if another year would’ve gone by and we’d be still at lost finding the source of the world’s ills. Not this time. 2016 has been universally named the evilest on record. Now we can all go back to our business of turning it all worst that it ever was.
It started deceivingly like any other year, but not for long. Looking back, by March it was clear that there wouldn’t be a contest, but some were still hesitant to make such an early call. Now there’s hardly anyone disagreeing about the choice. Well done everybody.
Here are, in no particular order, the Top 10 Counts brought forth against 2016, whose powerful punch has managed to beat to a pulp some of history’s most notoriously perverse, and blood-thirsty, years:
1. Failure to interrupt and/or reverse rising global temperatures, and resulting increased glacier melting, wildfires, and extreme weather.
2. Neglect to interrupt, minimize, or do away with the harrowing intensity of the era’s ever more numerous wars, carnage, and mayhem.
3. Criminal extermination of countless animal and plant species, some of which we may never have even known they existed.
4. Inability to promote a healthy, all-inclusive, comprehensive worldwide discussion of ways to improve the well being of humankind.
5. Incompetence to prioritize the fight against inequality, boosting instead the prospect of a parasitic minority to grow even wealthier.
6. All-time record for excessive casualties of well known, excellent human beings, whose lives have made the world a better place.
7. Creating conditions that conspired and befell female world leaders from positions of power, replacing them with corrupted males.
8. Relentless persecution of races, social strata, and ethnic groups, with special cruelty towards the poor, blacks, and non-white faiths.
9. Rehabilitation and promotion of hate speech and discriminatory ideologies, charged for past genocides, to the mainstream of society.
10. Shameless persecution of fact-based common truth and reality, and advancement of false theories and fake news for profit.

As we said, for a moment it seemed that we’re making the same mistake we’ve done over and over again: choosing the wrong scapegoat to blame for our disgraceful lot in life. But experts and analysts agree, all evidence does point to this malodorous 2016.
We’re so pleased to finally lift this burden off our shoulders that it’s now almost pointless to reveal the password to access this year: mankind.
Aren’t you glad that 2017’s on deck, ready to pounce? Happy New Year.

Crappy Holidays

To Those Who’ll Get Coal
& Little Else to Cheer About

Many are piling up about how bad 2016 was. We agree. Almost nothing has gone our way, the world became considerably worst, even if some disagree, and unless our brains are fooling us, we’ve lost too many great humans, who used to make this place more bearable.
These are all good but arguable points, though. To millions, this wasn’t just a bad year, but their worse. Our kind thoughts to those broken hearts, to whom a cheerful season tastes like a bitter joke. For they survived not to feel any better but to endure even more of the same.
It’s our condition to mourn and grieve; to lose what we love most, and hold on to what murders our soul. We let go when we’d love to hang on to, and look after what will finally stab us. But there’s payback due even to the afflicted: when we pass away, our troubles are over.
We leave lovers and children behind; a legacy of shattered dreams and failed hopes. But as they cry, we settle; we no longer care even as they may despair. To ashes, as they say, our bodies, clothes, and deeds. But to the left over, misery is the keeper of another day.
There are many whose absence will make us scream. But to others, tomorrow comes out of screams. We may dutifully memorialize our dead, while they have the living wounded to care about. While we lay to rest and say goodbye to dear ones, to those still standing, we may offer are our deepest sentiments.

TO ALEPPO CIVILIANS & DUMPSTER FAMILIES
As we make plans and shop and get happily drunk for the holidays, civilians in Aleppo, Syria, face carnage, ethnic cleansing, random sniper fire, and air raids by government forces, many countries and assorted  militias, plus mercenaries, out waging war to make a buck or two.
Think 2016 was bad? Over 12,000 have already been killed in the country this year, and the survivors wonder whether they’ll be next, just as your sweet niece wonders if she’ll get a brand new phone, or you’ll finally get something decent this time around.
Of course, your family could be one of thousands making a living, and actually residing, in urban garbage heaps around the world. From Cambodia to India, from Brazil to the Philippines, they breathe and, often die, picking through our dejects. Merry, merry, merry.

TO REFUGEE KIDS & VICTIMS OF HATRED
Last year, it was the photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, face down on a Turkish beach, that went viral. Now it was the bloodied but alive 5-year-old Mahmoud Raslan. Both Syrian boys unwittingly became symbols of our era’s biggest wound: the fate of millions of refugees.
They could’ve come from anywhere, as the state of permanent war keeps spreading to ever wider swaths of the world. While hawks and weapon makers profit, boys, girls, their families, relatives, friends and neighbors, flee or perish in the crossfire. Once in a while, an image floods our screens. But mostly, they shout but no one hears.
Meanwhile, hate is a booming business in the U.S., and like the Aleppo kids, the 49 shot dead at the Orlando nightclub in June didn’t deserve to stand in from all others still victimized for following their lot in life. To the ones they’ve left behind, this is a season in hell.

TO DEAD WHILE BLACK & FUTURE UNDER ATTACK
The police won’t keep track but over 200 black people were shot dead by cops in 2016. Most were unarmed, whose deaths won’t be vindicated in the court of law. Perhaps in a few years we’ll know how many more could’ve been killed too, if President Obama wasn’t in charge.
It may not seem so but the needle did move forward, and awareness has increased; not even a white supremacist-supported president will prevent the march to justice. We may suffer (more)
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Nobody’s Children

Argentina’s Stolen Babies & the
Unfair Legacy Thrust Upon Them

As far as G. knew, his was a great upbringing. Only child of a wealthy elderly couple, he grew up in a big house in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, with all the toys he ever wanted, many a happy summer spent in the Alps, and the occasional trip to Disneyland. Papá worked for the president, so he even got to play at the Casa Rosada sometimes.
It was there that he saw the old ladies. Everybody knew about ‘Las Locas de Jueves,’ as mamá used to call them. But now they were often on the evening news, ever so briefly. Then papá got arrested and G.’s world went into a downward spiral. Specially when he learned that his grandmother could be one of those Thursday Crazies.

Not the one he loved so much, and laid to rest at La Recoleta years ago. Someone else. Someone who helped sent his godfather to prison. Someone who called papá a torturer and a thief of kids. From then on, the life he knew began to unravel and almost nothing he ever thought was true, was. That was not his father. That was not his mother.
One day, someone knocked on his college dorm door. He opened it to a spitting image of his, staring back at him. ‘I’m Juan. I’m your twin,’ he said. It was the end of his studies and beginning of a heart-wrenching, gut-spilling, mind-twisting existence. It’d take long, if ever, for G., now, P., to either put pieces together or throw them all out for good.
That year, he’d part with being a teen, and with his entire history, family, and full name. He’d meet a whole new set of relatives he never knew existed, and is still not sure he’ll ever love; come to terms with his parents being monsters even as he wouldn’t be about to ever hate them; and replace his own personal, lived experience, with a narrative told by others.
He would also find out that he’s unwittingly part of one of the greatest tragedies that befell his country, and there won’t be a place for him to hide, or disappear, like what happened to his biological parents. As they, he’s now forever trapped within a tale not of his own making, and likely much bigger than his own life will ever be.
Speaking of life, his still unsure about what his is supposed to be. For the burning intensity of having an organic connection with a group of strangers, who suffered through hell to find and make him one of their own again, has no bearing on or anticipate whether any of his double lives – one of absence and the other, obliviousness – will ever belong to him.

THE SEARCH FOR THE NETOS
This fictional account of G., or P., or A., or K., has been multiplied more than a hundred times in Argentina. Ever since The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo picked a Thursday in 1977 to protest the disappearance of their sons and daughters, murdered by the military juntas that took over the country three years before, and lasted till 1983.
When it was obvious they would never return, the madres pressed for their children, many related to them, a humanitarian quest that’d sure to offer everyone hope. Historically, the theft of babies ordered by dictators is akin to the grotesque rape of women by every invading force since Antiquity, on their way to total domination and control of the blood lines of those they’ve vanquished.
It was integral to the wave of right-wing, fascist coups that swept Latin America from the 1960s on, few with the ferocity adopted in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Such nefarious weapon of subjugation (more)
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