A Day of Family Traumas

My daughter got her 6-month vaccines today. Azul howled with great fury as the needle sunk not once, but twice, into her virgin baby quad. ‘Twas a helpless semi-newborn shriek punctuated by melon-sized crocodile tears that slinky’d down her cherubic cheeks. Sucks to see her cry, but yo, that’s life and it’s for her own good. We had her smiling in three minutes flat thanks to a colorful (and empty) Tylenol box, anyhow. Then came the superior – and unexpected – trauma. This one materialized when my wife felt such remorse over our cria’s ordeal that I was compelled to drop inflation bank on a large Domino’s pizza and 2-liter bottle of carbonated beverage – no cheap endeavor in post-World Cup Rio de Janeiro – the solitary remedy to bring Maria back from the self-loathing cliffs of mommy catatonia. At least, this was the remedy adequate in my famished mind when I could see my beloved in dire need of a pick-me-up. I am pleased to report that the traditional-crusted pie delivered the goods; happiness has now returned to my family’s moo-shoo palace. The only remaining trauma to be resolved is that of Jinx, the pet feline of my neighbors and which we are presently cat-sitting, who bit me and Maria’s ankles every time Zuli cried as the flux capacitor of her baby’s mind took her back to the morning’s needle and bade her sob anew.

Faux Mexi-Morsels: Living Pancho Villa-ishly with a Brazilian Twist

…in which we learn of the gut-rumbling effect of Taco Bell caliber “Mexican food” in Rota 66, one of Rio de Janeiro’s f-i-n-e-s-t Latin-esque eateries.

December 26, 2014 – 8 PM

I’m forcing Maria to eat – what else? – Mexican food tonight at the Rota 66, just around the corner from our crib. I’ve been threatening the staff for nearly a year that my Ciudad Juarez-dwelling wife would descend upon their humble establishment, like a locust to a summer crop, to take their Pepsi Challenge. Now verily mayeth we discern if a Juarense finds their wares worthy of carrying Pancho Villa’s lineage… And the hour is upon us. We’re taking a small vial of Tabasco sauce, since it’s highly doubtful they’ll have anything spicy enough for my beloved hot tamale’s palate.

December 27, 2014 – 9:30 AM

The reviews are in about last night’s Rota 66 experience. In Maria’s words, when asked a moment ago with the benefit of 12 hours of hindsight and a steaming Saturday morning coffee molding her assessment, “Um, me gusta y tiene buen sabor.” This she spoke decidedly and dead-pan, after precisely two seconds of pondrance, with the hint of a smirk and in the same manner a Foreign Service Officer prompted to comment on the competency of a colleague might reply, “Well, he’s just a really nice person…” In other words, mighty diplomatic of my wife. When I tried to put it another light and asked that she rank it on the 1-10 scale, she chuckled me out of the room, roundly refusing to acquiesce to my silly whims. This is why I married her: seldom does one encounter such benevolence in a partner. (She also tells me I’m guapo and that she can’t even see my head spots.)

Now, before you go thinking Maria’s vagueness is an implicit denunciation of the eatery, let me “esclarecer as duvidas” as they’d say in Brazil. Caveat the first: Maria and I ain’t foodies. I eat for function, fuel. Occasionally I gorge if it’s my momma’s cookin’, probably the one time I do eat for the sheer oomph of it. Maria, for her part, eats for at least some degree of pleasure, but bear in mind that Ciudad Juarez, for all which it is known contemporarily, isn’t recognized as a gastronomic capital of any ranking. Caveat the second: I’m also the cheapest SOB you’ll ever meet, not apt to go out for dinner given the cost of most places in Rio. To quote former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, when asked why he didn’t order room service much, “I got plans for those millions, and it ain’t for sandwiches.” Hell, I could take you back to my first real job, from 1992-1995 doing 2.5 years’ hard time at the McDonalds in Quantico, Virginia. I distinctly recall preparing Frankenstein-ish sandwiches combining breaded fish and chicken patties plus Big Mac meat and literally stacks of pickles, my adolescent notion of gourmet. The goal post hasn’t moved far since.

So at the Rota 66, then, I had the chimichanga, and Maria had the 3 taco combo. We both drank Swiss lemonades, which tasted neither like Lemonade nor anything Swiss, at least not per my recollection of my trip to Basel in 2007, though keep in mind that all I know are three Swiss products: cheese, chocolate, and Swiss enchiladas (this last item may be an invention of rich Mexicans trying to seem worldly, admittedly). Were I to offer a highlight of our meal, it’d be the the Nacho Imperial, of the Taco Bell variety, which we ordered at the outset. These served as the opening salvo launched ‘cross the bow of my sinking gut. The nachos were delivered unto us as a confection of plain Doritos, refried beans, melted cheese doubtless squeezed from a Brazilian moo cow’s teat that very afternoon, diced green chiles, and something special. I know not what ’twas, this mystery ingredient. I asked the waiter and yet he, too, found himself confounded in its identification. Thus only can I imagine that in the kitchen, when someone orders the Nacho Imperial, they call over Cleberson the Chef, who likely hails from the interior of Minas Gerais state: “Oi, Cleberson, it’s TIME!!!!” And voila: Cleberson makes the magic happen.

Personally, I loved the whole ensemble. But then you must remember my standard for gourmet. I could see her countenance of doubt across the table, and part of me was prompted to proclaim defiantly, “Woman, you NEVER had it so GOOD!” But the prudent part of me – admittedly still in its early stages of development – filtered all this down and opted for keeping the proverbial trap shut. Dutifully, Maria partook of these Mexi-morsels and cleaned her plate to all but one taco, which she kindly offered to her husband, knowing full well that I’m a Dirt Devil in human form. As for Zuli, slumbered did she the entire eve, waking only hours later to kick her old man in the ribs whilst I tried to slough off the coma induced by the redonkulous amount of faux-Mexi ingested at the Rota 66.

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“If you’re not first, you’re last.” – Ricky Bobby’s dad.

My mother – Angel of Grace and Tolerator of Her Eldest Son’s Irrepressible Verbosity – always told me I’m a winner. And when pressed, my wife – whose womb bore me a tiny sliver of Heaven and who, indeed, is also a Suave Putter-Upper of Her Marido’s Loquacity – will likewise admit her station in life improved at least somewhat after having hitched her wagon to my locomotive. Though I didn’t get promoted at work on the first go ’round, I did pick up tenure as soon as I was eligible for it. So this tells me I’m slugging at least .500, well above the baseline Hall of Fame batting average. The significance of this sports metaphor: the cosmos lines up occasionally in my favor, and I reap a concurrent bounty.

And yet this morning when I embarked on what was supposed to be a bland weekly grocery run, little did I anticipate hitting the Brazilian jackpot. What transpired at the cash register, as I pulled forth my debit card to pay for the goods, was the supermarket equivalent of a game-winning, goal-scoring reverse-bicycle kick with three milliseconds seconds left on the clock.

There was something in the air this morn, and my mood was uncommonly uppity for a domingo. Perhaps ’twas due to spending last night jamming metal songs on dual guitars with a buddy at his apartment in Copacabana; and my levity of being ’twas aided in no small measure by the weather being 10 degree cooler today in Rio. Thus I set foot inside the Horti Fruti humming random tracks from Exodus’ “Bonded by Blood” and Death’s “The Sound of Perseverance”, even playing air guitar in the cart-infested aisles. I grabbed Tabasco sauce and a box of Choco-Krispies for my soon-to-arrive wife, a bag of frozen French fries, and enough fruits to eliminate a small nation’s worth of scurvy. Then I approached the cash register and placed my intended purchases onto the conveyer belt, striking up convo with Patricia, in whose line I always seem to end up.

About to pay, a woman with a microphone materialized before me. Her nametag bore the moniker “Sandra”. And indeed, Sandra represented the Horti Fruti Prize Patrol. Flanked she was on the right by a man toting a plastic Christmas tree adorned with folded pieces of paper on all sides. Another man to her left held aloft a box with a hand-sized hole in the top, and colored pieces of paper contained within its depths.

Sandra announced to the now-gawking assemblage of customers that I was selected at random to participate in their holiday contest. I was asked, first, to pull a piece of paper from the box and present it to her. Sandra would then open it and read the number written on it. That number would correspond to the number of one of the cash registers. She would then approach the customer in line at that specific register, and that person would snatch a paper from the plastic Christmas tree, open it, and read aloud his/her prize contained with it to the whole store.

This is where the Brazilian “jeitinho” enters the picture. I’m not a naturally competitive man, but do we not all enjoy winning something once in awhile? Even Ralphie’s toiling blue-collar dad netted the leg lamp in A Christmas Story. My winnings are of the Haley’s Comet variety: exceptionally infrequent, but slammin’ when they do roll down range. And so when I selected a paper from the box and opened it, it appeared to contain a 6. Or maybe ’twas a 9, depending on which end you thought was up.

It was not lost on me that I happened to be standing at register 6.

And so felt I a victory close at hand!

A look of understanding was then exchanged bewteen Sandra and I. My eyes spake unto her, “Sandra, oh with Rio’s inflation forever on the rise, my creeks are rising, for now I buy for three mouths!” And Sandra’s eyes responded to me, “Gringo, I live in Rocinha, and well I know the difficulties of purchasing for an entire litter of mouths.” This shared moment lasted no longer than two fleeting nano-seconds, but ’twas sufficient to turn the tide in my favor. And so Sandra announced that ’twas register 6.

Proclaiming me the winner, Sandra let me pick a piece of paper from the plastic Christmas tree. Upon opening it, elated was I to discover that I’d just won half off my next grocery purchase at Horti Fruti. I turned around to face the crowd – a covetous bunch of shoppers applauding in a muted fashion, a rotund player hate springing from their eyes – and pumped my metal-horned hands skyward, declaring myself “ganhador”. Sandra passed me the mic, that I might comment on the senstation invading my entire soul as the realization dawned upon me that I’d just beaten the odds. Clutching the mic in a triumphant right fist, I raised it to my mouth, took a deep breath, and loudly extolled the virtues of Horiti Fruti’s quality produce, reasonable prices, and above all else, righteous business model.

I cannot fault the lookers-on for believing that, somehow, the fix was in. They will doubtless contemplate this next week, when all of them are paying full price for their groceries. Let them eat cake, though sadly not a discounted one.

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Sungas Gone Wild

…in which we learn of the life cycle of conflict in Brazil, a lesson wrought by observing muffin-topped men in itty-bitty beachwear puffing their chests this gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Leblon.

An hour ago I was on the beach exercising. Sunny, lower 90s, a touch of humidity sufficient to provoke a healthy sweat but not enough to suffocate a man, surrounded by the archetypical Beautiful Ones of the cidade maravilhosa. Not one to tug at Mother Nature’s whiskers, as the summer sets in I’m playing it smart: toting a water bottle swishing with chill fluids to help me avoid stroking out, my endurance stretched into obliveon and, indeed, I felt not a muscled or tatted man in Leblon this day could hold a candle to what I envisioned were my striated forearms, over-developed pecs and jutting jawline. In other words, between benevolent climatic conditions and my fantastically overactive imagination, ’twas a textbook-perfect afternoon for catching a swell on the pull-up bars so kindly implaced by Rio’s municipal authorities.

The only thing making the scene viably better was the brawl that broke out 30 paces before me. And so like the rest of of the crowd gathering with the speed of thunderstorm clouds yet the glee of a child on Christman morn, so too did I sprint over to see what, by God, was all the ruckus. I call it here a brawl, but as it goes in conflict-averse Brazil, ’twas really more a spirited shouting match replete with all the posturing and verbally sparring men and women in opposing camps you might expect, balking juuuuuust short of actual fisticuffs. And between the disputing parties intervened the beach police, truncheons at the ready, attempting to negotiate a settlement. Each side shouted its point of view on the issue at hand, gesturing broadly as if to beseech the audience of the rightness and validity of their respective argument. They poked fingers damn close to each others’ faces, gesticulated defiantly, and bellowed promises of violence even they realized they likely would not keep. I looked closely for cauliflower ears: for if at least one of them was an MMA fighter, than this was about to get AWESOME. Alas, nothing of the sort occurred.

But back on point: what WAS the issue at hand? ‘Twas hard to discern, actually. Like Dante’s rings of hell, so too was this broo-ha-ha apportioned into concentric circles. While I’m sure those at the epicenter grasped the true nature of the joust, we on the outside were “viajando na mayonesa”, as the saying goes. And as with all fragmentary gaps in human understanding, so began those constituting the outermost circle airing rife speculation on what may have been the precipitating event. A pilfered patch of coveted beach space? Made the more urgent by a spilt Bohemia in the sand? A cross eye directed at another man’s wife, a radish thus wrongly rubbed? Or an unapologetic sandal kicking sand in the face of a child? Knoweth not do I, for as we say in The Fed, ’twas ruefully above my paygrade.

What I do know, however, is what my own eyes observed, greedily soaking up this high drama played out against the background of a stunning Brazilian Saturday at the beach. The muffin-topped (and likely inebriated) men both sported sungas, that littlest of Brazilian men’s beachwear. Semi-guts billowing over their apparel’s waistline, they boldly attempted to cut through the glut of the now 10 beach cops keeping them apart. (It is a fact that we men are bolder when separated with no real chance of contact, for The Show is always worth acting out well.) The women were craftier, “aproveitando” slap-shots at one another behind the cops’ backs and thus below the authorities’ level of conscious realization. I had to admire these be-thonged ladies’ acumen for mutual covert action: aside from the pleasure of not being caught with one’s hand in the cookie jar, the legal ramifications are fewer when the cops don’t actually SEE you strike an opponent.

The would-be fighters passed through variants on their way to closure. First it was man on man; then woman on woman; then one of the men went after one of the women; then one of the women after a man; and so forth the action progressed until every configuration of angry gender-distinct interaction was exhausted, every plot line pursued, every revenge motive dispensed. I’d venture this went on a good 15 minutes. And then as quickly as it began, so ’twas over. The crowd dissipated, a cool breeze plundered the last vestiges of anger, and sun worshippers focused their attention heavenward anew. The warring factions now sat next to one another, if not in peace then uneasy coexistence, and went about their days as though the venting of threats merely moments before was but a distant dream.

And so we see the life cycle of conflict in Brazil: first something happens… Then we hear what people say has happened… And then nothing ever actually happened.

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On Brazil’s Humiliation and its Relation to an Impulse Purchase

In 1999, I began Peace Corps service in El Salvador. After three months of in-country training in the central city of San Vicente, I received a one-time deposit into my Peace Corps bank account of about $400 USD (for initial purchases as a full-time volunteer) and was ordered to go forth and conquer the peril and poverty doubtless awaiting at my site, which was located deep in the mountains of Morazan department in the country’s extreme northeast. Before leaving capital city San Salvador – where my Peace Corps group spent a few days taking care of administrative hullabaloo and eleventh-hour benders before dispersing to the four corners – I made a final trip to the mall and made one of the stupidest impulse buys of my life: a Brazilian soccer jersey. And not some knock-off cheap shit, either. I snatched the real McCoy, an official issue thing from FIFA and Adidas that shot a third of my site allowance squarely in the ass. Wearing that yellow polyester nightmare, which boiled my jizzos in El Sal’s tropical lowland tropical climate, I set forth to my site chuffed, righteous, and justified in my purchase.

Nay, caveat emptor: the problems that soccer jersey would bring never occurred to me beforehand. Besides the obvious – I had to shirk on furniture and grocery purchases because I’d blown my wad on a non-crucial clothing item – my Brazilian soccer jersey contained a handful of frailties hazardous to both fashion sense and the shirt’s very survivability in an environment as extreme as the Central American mountains. Like the Brazilian selection in yesterday’s game against Germany, a few things simply weren’t right about it. First, the collar tips curled up in the humidity, which was relentless and unabating year-round in El Salvador. So every 10 minutes, I found myself pressing them down against my clavicle. And second, I learned firsthand how weak even official apparel is when succumbing to the sharpened fangs of the neighbor’s dog, Muneca, whose general docility was counterbalanced by a penchant for gnawing to shreds, in short order, anything that fell from the clothesline. And fall my Brazilian soccer jersey did, after its very first wash, when a light wind blew it clean off the neighbor’s clothesline and onto the dirt below. The neighbors tried sewing it back together for me, but the Frankensteined jersey was never the same again.

All of these suppressed memories were recalled painfully yesterday, when Germany so brutally humiliated Brazil in the World Cup semi-finals. A stricken Neymar wasn’t playing and the team didn’t seem to be communicating well whilst on the pitch: like the up-curling points of my shitty shirt collar, something just wasn’t right. And Germany gnawed a fallen and dusty Brazil to tatters: not dissimilar from Muneca’s prying incisors on my shirt. Worse yet is the decimated pride Brazilians will feel for years in the aftermath of that train wreck of a match: uncannily similar to the sting my ego felt every time I appeared in public with my sewn-together soccer jersey, which had to look downright pathetic to even the most casual observer who rightly expected more from someone sporting the Brazilian colors.

7-to-1, with 5 goals in 9 minutes, and 3 of them in just 179 seconds? And by the fourth goal, it seemed Muller, Klose, and the rest of the Deutschlanders weren’t even TRYING. Indeed – or was it just me? – the Germans were repeatedly dribbling the ball down to the Brazilian goal, toying around with Hulk and crew via a lil’ magic passing, then patty-caking the ball into the net, dazed Brazilians scattering in every direction EXCEPT the one the ball was actually traveling. Seriously?

My soccer jersey… A glory short-lived, a graceless abdication of a once-mighty throne, just like the Brazilian team itself, defeated “em casa” and in its sulking and silent locker room wake countless dozens of gargantuan stadiums erected at the cost of gazillions of dollars that Brazilians themselves, at least in the finals of the 2014 World Cup, won’t get the luxury of enjoying.

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Mexican Birthday Clowns: I’m Glad They Don’t Have These in Brazil

Mexico is a land of traditions: Day of the Dead festivities, Cinco de Mayo drunken revelry, and conspiracy theories about gringo intervention in the Aztec nation’s internal affairs. These, among multitudinous traditions, are part and parcel of Mexico’s heritage and cultural landscape. A few hours ago, I discovered yet another tradition, one to which I will lamentably be irretrievably adhered in the coming years when Zuli is old enough to demand it: the Mexican birthday clown.

I’ll wade in slowly by stating that I despise, even fear, clowns of all stripes. I’ve never known a clown to make a positive impression. They’re all sinister, addicts, or just plain suck. Pennywise from Stephen King’s “It”; serial killer John Wayne Gacy, also known as the “Killer Clown” since he performed as one (Pogo the Clown) at children’s parties; the Joker from Batman; Sideshow Bob, whose life is devoted to murdering Bart Simpson; and Dr. Rockso, the drug addled and alcoholic clown from the Metalacolypse cartoon. Then there’s the Insane Clown Posse, who cut the most wholly loathsome profile in the music scene, even worse than Fred Durst, which is REALLY saying something. In sum, I want absolutely nothing to do with clowns.

People go, “But dude, clowns are FUN. They’re HARMLESS. What’s your BEEF?” And to that I retort: I’m not alone. According to Wikipedia, “[…] the irrational fear of clowns, known as coulrophobia” is the anchoring concept for the hatred of the so-called evil clown. So there are at least enough of us that a psychological condition has been thus defined. And I take exception to Wikipedia or anyone else categorizing my fear as irrational; indeed, it can be scientifically measured. A study at England’s Sheffield University found that children universally dislike clowns.

That is, of course, unless you’re a Mexican kid, in which case painted faces jeering at you, bulbous red noses, and oversized floppy shoes are the funniest f**king thing you’ve ever witnessed. I got to experience this first-hand tonight at the second birthday party of one of Maria’s friend’s children, Bruno.

I ask very little of life, and this simplicity keeps me satisfied: a large Mountain Dew, some good metal, and to spend as little time as possible at children’s birthday celebrations. It’s nothing against the kids; instead, it’s the parents, who put me to sleep force feeding me their boring diatribes about the merits of diaper genies, which stroller has the best wheels, and their potty training childrens’ bowel movements. So all I wanted was to roll up to Bruno’s party, say hey to everyone, eat some pizza, and bust out, maybe come back to the apartment and “clown around” with Maria, since it’s Friday night and papi chulo needs his m-e-d-i-c-i-n-e. But then there was the clown show, intervening for an hour in the middle of Bruno’s fiesta. This particular troupe of payasos, “Los Amigos Munequitos” (“Little Doll Friends”), treated their clownery with the pomp of an Iron Maiden gig, coming prepared with a lighting truss, smoke machine, and sound system. But like former Seinfeld actor Michael Richards’ last ill-fated stand up performance, they also brought a baker’s dozen tasteless tricks which, I was convinced, would result in a brawl with the fathers and husbands present.

Early on, the clowns riled the kids up by asking a series of questions designed to elicit each child’s competitive participation in hopes of winning a prize. But the result was red-faced parents, given the nature of the questions to which the kids were prompted to screaming responses, thrusting hands into the air and shouting ME, ME, ME: “Who’s got the most alcoholic dad?” “Who’s got the hottest mom?” The kids were SO down with this, some of them even racing amongst the tables to locate and out their alcoholic dads and sex kitten moms to the rest of the audience. Then they held a dance competition, putting a bunch of brats in line and bading them shake their moneymakers. One of the kids was especially adroit, a fleet-footed nine year old boy whose Jagger-like moves cut a sexually suggestive rug under the glare of the payasos’ beer lights, “You Spin Me Right Round” blaring over the speaker system. He finished, folks applauded, and instead of dissipating the bizarre kiddie-eros tension in the room, the lead clown accelerated it by asking the kid if his mom works at a strip club (ironically, the big local one is called Joker’s). Cue nervous snickers all over. Then the clowns called up Bruno’s parents, who went thru a divorce last year and are still sweeping up the shards of their relationship, and began asking invasive questions about their status. This resulted in a lot of shoe-gazing by the parents and rabbit laughter ’round the uneasy room. Finally, the clowns fired up a cow-themed piñata. Once the kids busted it, some walked off with candy, but others walked off with entire paper mache limbs. I feel like if the limbs, and not the candy, were the objective, then this bodes poorly for PETA’s future in Mexico.

Milk Man: The Human Moo Cow

Since Zuli’s birth, my life has become one of many things: the sterilizing of bottles, the installation of Chicco Key Fit car seats, the covering of bills. And yet the most pressing issue is one that doesn’t really involve me directly at all: lactation, with Maria on the delivering end and Zuli on the receiving one. Indeed, though I play no direct role in that equation, I do find myself acutely attentive to all matters of the boob, and not in the same way I was during my teenage years. This recent re-focus on, um, mammalian life (get it?) has been a virtual flux capacitor – a time machine, if you will – transporting me way back to a story of the lactating variety, but not like you’d expect.

While residing in Kaneohe, Hawaii from 1989-1992 as a secondary school student, I had the explicit displeasure of knowing a kid my same age named Hank (real name changed to protect the innocent). Of the angular and chatty variety, this Napoleonic cuss was a trash talker of the highest caliber even at 13 years of age. Verily did Hank possess a talent for invective-spewing loquacity that even Dave Mustaine might envy. So tall his tales, so weighty the Marlin he’d snared! And though none of us swallowed it, he insisted that his personal Rolodex contained oodles of famous rappers with whom he was intimately associated.

Though I’m not sure Hank realized it himself, his false claims of association with temporary pop icons typically foresaged their downfall. No sooner would he whisper a rapper’s name, and the weather vane would point toward that rapper’s impending departure from the Billboard Top 200. Fortunately for us all, Hank was a youth possessed of despicably poor taste, only claiming association with stars upon whom the rest of us wished rueful deaths in the first place. He never lied about knowing NWA, MC Hammer, De La Soul, or Biz Markee. But boy, did Hank love him some Vanilla Ice. He told us one day, his tongue polishing the lie as it rolled crisp as a fallen autumn leaf from his lips, “Yeah, me and Dave Van Winkle – that’s Vanilla’s REAL name – used to go on drive-by shootings to kill the Bloods in Dallas, since we were both Crips…” While it’s true that we all stopped believing in the Easter Bunny only a brief handful of years earlier, and the fairy dust of Dumbo-styled suspended disbelief hadn’t fully cleared from our pre-pubescent minds, Hank’s b.s. was a bridge too far. Unbelievable by any standard. He even pumped up the street creds of innocuous non-gangsta wanna-be boy bands like Color Me Badd, and guess what? When he mentioned having done drive-bys with them, CMB’s irridescent stage lights fell similarly dim.

When we left Hawaii in mid-1992 and returned to Virginia for my dad’s next military assignment, it was therefore a time of rejoice. I’d finally been rid of Hank. But like Brokeback Mountain, we simply couldn’t quit him, though we’d have loved nothing more than to relegate him in the dust bin of history. Thus one can appreciate the trauma I was caused a month later, at the tail end of the summer and just before the first day of 10th grade, my brother Ben came home with Hank on his tail. And my bro was not pleased to shuffle in the door with this specific straggler. Turns out Hank’s dad had also been reassigned to our same Marine base. Hank showed himself into our kitchen, popped a Coke, and told us he’d just saved all our lives when squashing a black widow spider near our front door. A smart-ass by nature, I asked him if he’d been on any drive-bys with third-rate rappers lately. Hank stared back at me blankly, then pulled the ultimate trump card and did something I’ll never forget: he pulled up his tee-shirt, locked index finger and thumb around his right nipple, and began to squeeze. We waited uncomfortably, not entirely sure where lay the punchline in Hank’s bizarre non-sequitor. But he hit payday a few pregnant seconds later when a single drop of milk trickled down his scrawny chest. Hank had milked himself, contradicting everything we’d learned in bio class ’til that point.

We stood aghast. And then we recovered and attempted to replicate the feat, which to a bunch of teenage boys was admittedly the most singularly astounding act we’d witnessed. And I’d seen MOTLEY CRUE on the Dr. Feelgood tour, mind you. Not that any of us really wanted to milk ourselves, but how could we let Hank have a monopoly on something this cool? None of us were able to do it, though. Our manly mammilla were barren and destitute landscapes, arid as the Sahara. And so we had to give some respect to the little joker, for he achieved the un-achievable as a manly human moo cow.

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Zuli and the Human Layer Cake

…whereupon we find out how one gringo burro, very much a pendejo in his close-minded thinking and tunnel vision approach to dressing his newborn daughter, is out of keeping with canonized medical philosophy involving the baby fashion equivalent of wearing a wool serape on the beach.

Our lives are full of things with layers: Taco Bell’s 7-layer burrito. Layer cake. The Big Mac. Club sandwiches. Multi-layered dips. An onion. The Pentagon. Late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s security detail: all those concentric rings of guards. The last three episodes of Star Wars: all those layers of dung! Yet these pale in comparison to the layers my beloved Maria – verily, apple of my ojo and mamasota to my mamacita! – drapes upon our Azul Eileen. Last time Zuli slept, I counted 37, excluding the diaper. Why do Mexican women do this to their newborns?

The answer lies in the resfriado, which basically means getting cold. I saw this for the first time under a different name, “la mojada caliente”, in El Salvador while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there in the late 1990s. Farmers slaved all morning on their hillside plots, lathering up in sweat equity. Returning to their shacks after the corn was shucked and with machetes spent and hanging from their thin leather belts, however, the farmers refused to bathe until late in the evening, for putting col water on their hot bodies could only result in the mojada caliente. When I asked why this was bad, they looked at me dumbfounded: didn’t I know the mojada caliente caused all manner and variety malady including, but not limited to, arthritis, lumbar spine pain, and heart problems? Wasn’t I aware that the mojada caliente, if occurring with sufficient frequency, could shorten one’s life by numerous years?

No doctor myself, but assessing their arguments begin of dubious premises, I once posed a counter-argument. Could it not be that a such pains and discomforts were actually rooted in a lifetime of working in subsistence agriculture (which involves constant bending at the waist and heaving hefty loads onto the back and shoulders), eating nothing but meager servings of beans, rice, and maiz-based tortillas (zero veggies in the diet there), and having practically no access to medical care of any sort? Not to mention, you know, routine natural disasters and, until 1993, the civil war? Could all of this not warp your body and even kill you sooner than your time? My theory was never taken up for serious investigation by Don Chepe or any of his constituents, but at least they listened to me politely whilst I expounded it over coffee and sweet bread one afternoon.

Mexico’s resfriado is a mojada caliente by a different name, but the concept is identical. Like the mojada caliente, the resfriado is derived from the Aristotelian humors, a medical theory first brought to popular lighten 1025 when the Persian philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna to us Farsi-impaired Westerners) published The Canon of Medicine, a work of five books that compiled and presented all the known medical knowledge at the time, including stuff passed down by the Greeks. The four humors – sanguineous, serous, bilious and atribilious – were the fluids coursing thru the human corpus. Aristotle believed them linked directly to the brain and heart, our core organs. Any imbalance of one humor over another leads invariably to a system out of whack, hence sickness, disease, even death. According to this school of thought, external elements like hot and cold can have adverse affects on humor equilibrium. And who wants THAT?

And so I stand corrected. When our daughter finds herself outfitted in 53 layers of clothing and blankets before setting forth on a visit to WalMart on a 106 degree day without shade in the Mexican borderlands, it’s in keeping with canonized medical philosophy. A thousand years old, but canonized none the less. And so I should be stop being humor-less about the whole affair.

(***And no, Maria and I aren’t fighting over this. It’s humor. She doesn’t put THAT many layers on Zuli. I just think it’s funny, that’s all. No one’s gotten boiled like a crab in a crock pot yet, so I’m going to assume Maria knows what she’s doing and this is all good.)

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Maria Vega: Wife Extraordinaire

…whereupon you will enjoy a major aside from living Brazilishly in which the author marries a Mexican woman and chronicles the virtues of her affections.

On June 12, 2014 I married Maria, and have the ring to prove it. Not being a jewelry sort of guy, I was 15 the last time I attempted sporting phalangeal adornment. ‘Twas Christmas 1991. At the apex of an incipient thrash metal obsession, and desirous to bear likeness to Chuck Billy of Testament, Santa Claus gifted me a set of chrome-cast heavy metal skull and spike rings. My flirtation with them lasted the better part of a week, ’til I tired of cleaning cheese and sesame seeds off the spikes every time I ate a Big Mac, a frequent occurrence in those chubby mid-teen days. Even at age 15, I was practical if nothing else. I retired those metallic accouterments, therefore, in early 1992 and until the moment that I committed my life to Maria during a discreet ceremony at the El Paso Country Clerk’s office three days ago, no further rings weighed down my lil’ digits.

The marriage itself was a simple affair. On the morning of June 12, Maria and I conjured ourselves from bed, got ourselves and Zuli ready, dropped Zuli off with the suegra (we’re waiting on her American passport, so our daughter can’t cross international boundaries just yet), and crossed the border from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso. We made a beeline directly to the El Paso County Clerk’s office. We applied for, and were granted, a marriage license, then took it to the 11th floor to seek a judge who would marry us that same morning. The first one whose chambers we knocked accepted. A brief ceremony followed: a few words, quick tears, and then it was official and we were legitimate before The Law. The whole enterprise required less than an hour from the time we arrived at the clerk’s office, and that includes bathroom breaks and administrative processing time. On the surface, it was the single most monumental input/output disequilibrium when you consider the nature of this lifetime commitment. Even if I’m fortunate enough to reach the life expectancy of the average American male, Maria’s got a good 40 years of me to put up with. I ask this question to anyone pretending to possess the answer: how the hell do you get the next four decades from 45 minutes?

Well, THAT’s easy: I love Maria for being the most bad-ass chick ever to take a breath. Not that I’m a checklist kind of guy, but were I to have one, Maria would have long satisfied every romantic and practical prerequisite on it.

We met shortly after my arrival in Ciudad Juarez in April 2011. At the time, it was still the world’s most murderous city. 230,000 people had fled the city (a fifth of its pre-cartel wars population) and an estimated 10,000 small businesses shuttered their doors due to lack of commerce, extortion, or both. The city’s main thoroughfares evinced scant life of any kind. Really, Juarez felt like a ghost city. It was in this context that, my second Saturday in town, I went out site seeing and ended up at a Starbucks after a few hours. And there was Maria, lipstick staining the edge of the hot chocolate her lips were pursing, rayon hair pulled back into a tight bun, laboring studiously on her laptop. Each impressed that the other was actually out unguarded in this most murderous of villas, we struck up a quick friendship.

In the ensuing months, Maria opened a side of Ciudad Juarez to me that few outsiders were privileged to see in those dangerous days. She spirited me away to my first parties locally, drove me to all the lookout points in the mountains ringing the city, took me to my first Day of the Dead celebrations at local pantheons, and invited me to an incessant spate of mom-n’-pop eateries and cafes off the beaten path. She was never one to brag about her accomplishments, and I had to learn to ask pointed questions to draw her out. I discovered quite a bit about her once I figured this out. Chipping away at her PhD, at age 27 she was already an art professor at a local university (by far the youngest in her department). An artist in her own right, her paintings featured in local exhibitions. She had also been volunteering since her teenage years at a local school for blind kids, teaching them to paint and then putting their work on sale at exhibitions and pushing the proceeds back to the under-funded school. Her involvement in art extended beyond the classroom and canvas, though, and she was a semiprofessional ballet dancer to boot, performing throughout northern Mexico. And she did all of this not with the snobbish manner I’ve frequently noted of folks deeply ensconced in the art scene; instead, she was modest and understated, having simply found something she was passionate about and pursuing it full-tilt. Maria’s one of the only artistic types I’ve met more interested in essences than recognition.

Emotional intelligence being her forte, Maria understands interpersonal dynamics and thinks before speaking or acting, conscious of how words or deeds might affect another person adversely, even unintentionally. She treats everyone humanely and courteously, and I’ve never known her to gossip or speak ill of anyone. That simplicity and self-confidence translates into innumerable virtues in her personal life: Maria is low maintenance. She buys clothes on the basis of utility, not style. She is wholly unconcerned with image and I’ve not once seen her preoccupied with people thinks of her. A careful spender, she is loathe to purchase impulsively, and makes sure every penny counts when she does. We keep the same rhythm, preferring to take advantage of the day and hit the sack early instead of hitting the club or bar scene. She’s perfectly content to stay home on a Friday over Netflix and pizza. We read, write, paint, talk, or even sit silently together. The activity matters little; her simple physical presence has always been sufficient to sate my spirit, calm my nerves, and keep the demons – the ones that eventually come to all of us who spend far too much time alone, living as human islands – from creeping under the door.

She had no previous marriages, and had no children, so was not tied down emotionally or otherwise to any past commitments. Like me, she had zero debt, so financially we could start with a clean and healthy slate. She already had a US tourist visa and went frequently on her own, so didn’t need me for her “docs”. She was highly educated, could talk about her own subjects of interest in depth, but was always open to new themes and ideas and never approached them with prejudice of any kind: she took me to see the ballet and art shows, but accompanied me enthusiastically to see Kreator and Vince Neil. She had a solid career already and was making a good living. She held my hand with pride, laughed at my bad jokes out of respect even if she didn’t think they were funny, and looked past the cosmetic features that I despise about myself. Maria viewed in my character a palate of core values and personality attributes she appreciated and identified with, and decided to be with me on that basis alone, without consideration for my career, status, or the laundry list of superficial stuff assuring a broken foundation and wobbly future, at best. She always had time for me, and from the outset of our friendship treated me as an urgent priority in her life. In fact, Maria showered me with dignity and respect far superior to that I’d been afforded at an point in past relationships. Though she was always respectful of my space and never opposed me living a life apart from my relationship with her, from an early stage in our relationship I seldom felt the inclination to spend time with anyone else but Maria when not at work.

It was therefore a natural and logical corollary of this – the two best years of my life, spent in Juarez at Maria’s side – to begin discussing a future together when I departed Juarez in mid-2013. Her dedication and faith made it work even during the long-distance phase, and I owe her a lifelong debt of gratitude for sticking it out and believing in me. She was under no obligation and would have been just fine on her own – and I have to imagine many men would have been honored to make her acquaintance – but Maria cashed in her chips on me. Thank God, for in Maria I have found salvation from solitude and self-deprecating loneliness, the kind wrought from living as a human island far too many years.

But the path was not always so clear. Until Maria, I’d given up the ghost on the notion of marriage. All my relationships prior to her were the romantic equivalent of vampire felching, and consequently marriage was a word I spoke amidst dismissive snickers as the punch line to bad jokes about some other unlucky sucker who took his bad romance a bridge too far. On the pre-Juarez path to Maria, I dated every phylum of basket case out there. I had no luck with American women; the ones I dated were riddled with financial and personal problems, certainly more baggage than I was comfortable taking on. I remember one – a high school educated bank teller who’d never left the US – dropped me off at Dump Street for not being “cultured enough” since I didn’t drink wine or peruse publications like Cigar Aficionado, ordered a sandwich instead of pasta on a previous date, and most importantly, “you don’t wear those cool glasses with thick rims like the guys in DC… Yours are just, so ‘80s!” Another racked up college debt greater than the GDP of most small countries, and it occurred to me that sticking with her for the long haul would likely be an exercise in dodging collection agency goons sent to repo her meager possessions. And the last American woman I was seriously involved with taught foreign forensic teams how to catalog evidence found on corpses; which was fine by me, until I saw the effect that working with stiffs the day long had on her emotional state. One of her dogs died and she spent three weeks holding funerals and remembrance gatherings for it, and frequently awoke during the night bellowing for hours about wanting a time machine, that the flux capacitor might permit her leap back a few days and save the poor mutt. It struck me that she was not the most emotionally stable person, which would not bode well for a life together. My fortune in the international marketplace was likewise poor. There was a Salvadoran who, clean out of sick leave at her job but wanting to take time off to see me, yanked a molar to justify calling in sick. And she GAVE me the tooth as a gift. Then there was a Guatemalan, who feigned affection long enough to gain my trust, then went for broke, offering me $5,000 for nuptials. There was a Bolivian who informed me – on our first (and only) date – that she’d been arrested earlier that day for driving recklessly. Why was she doing that? To get to her shrink. Why did she need a shrink? Well, ‘twas court-mandated, since the previous year she’d tried to commit suicide but also killed someone else in the process. I was afraid to ask any further follow-up questions, since I envisioned they’d invariably lead to incriminating evidence on the JFK assassination. There was a Colombian who, after three reasonably decent dates, squinted at me through suddenly malicious eyes and said she couldn’t see a future for us if “you don’t start spending more money on me.” And how could I forget the Dominican feigned exclusivity until I chanced upon her in a nearby bar, gussied up as if at a Daddy Yankee gig and her hand on the thigh of a mulleted man with a porno ‘stache and trucker cap?

The list could go on indefinitely; the above examples are merely the salient ones. Close friends – some reading this, doubtless – in whom I’ve confided past tribulations of the heart were wont to gawk at me in sad comedic awe, heads tilted to one side like confused puppies. How could one guy dork his way into so many problematic relationships? Nothing realistically explains why an accomplished man with a bright professional future, loving parents and loads of great friends, routinely found himself in such dire romantic straits.

And then there was Maria. So I’d like to thank Maria for being so awesome, and my exes for being so lame; for giving me confidence and believing in me; for letting me be myself; for showing me that it doesn’t have to be hard and, in fact, can be quite easy and enjoyable if you’re with the right person. The result of her patience, devotion, affection and investment in me has been the assurance of a wonderful future with the greatest human being ever to grace my life. Te amo, mamacita.

Maria and the Brake Light: A Tale of Maternal Fortitude in the Mexican Border Lands

…in which the author recounts a tale of uncommon valor taking place in a shopping mall parking lot, and ponders the good fortune that has befallen him as if by destiny, all in another aside from living Brazilishly.

In Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on pre-revolutionary China, The Good Earth, the farmer Wang Lung weds one crisp spring morn. His woman, O-Lan, ends up posing an apt companion. This point is made in the narrative after O-Lan bears Wang Lung his first man child; still heavy with the sweat and pain of her labor, she returns immediately to the rice fields and begins threshing anew at Wang Lung’s side. This humble farming bumpkin, startled by the force and commitment O-Lan evinces, muses that, indeed, fortune has blessed him with a partner distinct amongst her peers.

And so too have I ripened to cognizance that in Maria I shalt have a spouse of O-Lan’s merit firmly ensconced in my life. For today, she did something wholly singular and startling for someone who a week prior underwent the invasiveness of a C-section and is simultaneously recovering, adjusting to being a mother, and enduring the veritable slings and arrows of my bald and opinionated ass on a 24/7 basis now, the latter in itself sufficing to send any normal woman out of her own mind with the volatility of itty-bitty bottle rockets.

The day started off normal. Slated to visit the US Consulate for our daughter’s American birth certificate and passport, we made a pit-stop at the Rio Grande Mall. The parking lot was already reasonably full, thus we were forced to park the car a distance further than anticipated. Lamenting and glum about the mid-morning sun and the prospect of my still-healing wife and newborn daughter trudging through it en route to the mall entrance, I asked Maria if she would prefer that I drop her and Zuli off and find parking on my own. She insisted on staying with me, denying the comforts offered in solidarity with her man. ‘Twas a gesture appreciated genuinely. And then she spoke:

Maria: “I just remembered, papasote, one of the brake lights is out. I’m going to change it.”

Me: “You mean we need to find a mechanic later, mi honguita?”

Maria: “No, mi macho, I’ve got some extra bulbs in the trunk, and I’m going to change the light once we’re parked.”

Me: “But, mamacita, right here in the parking lot?”

Maria: “Si, padre de mi hija y mi amante ejemplar, it’s easier this way. You go ahead and take Zuli into the mall. I’ll meet you inside in about 20 minutes.”

And so Maria spent the next 20 minutes in the parking lot of the Rio Grande Mall, in 95 degree weather with zero shade on scalding tarmac, changing the brake light by herself. I will add that when I next saw her, Maria appear not to have perspired a single drop, the flesh of her forehead dry and with the slightest hint of rouge, her jet-black hair free of tussle and frizz. This is a feat besting, by orders of magnitude in my assessment, her insistence on making me a major-ass plate of nachos the eve before checking into the hospital for Zuli’s birth. Call me crazy, but I thought the period immediately before, and for a few weeks following, childbirth (especially when by C-section) ought to be a time of rest and recuperation. But Maria comes from hearty maternal stock, which aids in explaining the anomaly of her fortitude: on the morning of Zuli’s birth, Maria’s mom met us at the hospital at 5:30 AM after walking nearly 5k alone, from her house, in the wee hours of the Juarez morn.

Like Wang Lung, ‘twould be meet that I visit the local Buddhist temple and thrust a few sticks of incense before the statues of the earthen gods in praise of my favorable fortune. The Juarez equivalent of this gesture, of you may have surmised, is taking the family out for Burritos Crisostomo, an act of thanks and reciprocation I will do tomorrow. As I sit in bed typing this next to Maria, with my newborn daughter in her arms, I am awed at the dumb luck of Maria being in my life. When I wed her on Thursday, I will be hitching my wagon to an according-to-Hoyle one-in-a-million.