Tag Archives: Ipanema

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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Coincidence, Kindness, and White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks Ipanema

I am reminded today of the power of coincidence. The subtext might well reference the multiplier effect of human kindness and the portals it opens to those who shine a minute ray of relief into the lives of the afflicted.

Two weeks ago on the sort of brilliant Sunday Rio concocts, I was waiting for a friend at a Starbucks in Ipanema. She would accompany me to the Alemao slum complex, since I knew¬†not the way and, more importantly, did not wish to venture into those specific unknown parts sozinho. But having overslept, she was late. Half an hour beyond when we would have left and sitting in front of the cash register countenancing a serpentine line of Brazilians patiently stepping closer to soothing sips of a white chocolate mocha, I observed a very young child in a stroller. His left eye was nearly shut, and at first glance I believed he was in the midst of cherubic repose; but upon noting his right eye still open and determining he was not a subscriber to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” dictum (“…sleep with one eye open…”), I realized he had a condition called “ptosis”, of which I know something about, having been born with it myself.

A ptosis is usually congenital. It’s when the muscles in your eyelid fail to function correctly from an early age, causing the eye to shut. If uncorrected, a ptosis can affect the amount of sunlight entering the cornea, stunting overall visual development. While it’s true a surgery (or two, in my case) can correct this, the lingering unforeseen social effect is the sensitive period of time in which healing occurs (this can take several years) and the eyelid muscles calibrate. During this period, the affected eye looks either bigger or smaller than the other, creating a bizarre lack of symmetry and, by extension, gifting mischievous children a big, honking target onto which they will readily project their angst. I vividly recall being called “left eye” (long before the artist/performer Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez of TLC fame made the term cool) and a host of other more insulting things, and looking back on in, none of them was particularly cruel by, say, gangsta rap standards, but to an eight-year old wishing nothing more than to fit in, it was at times mentally torturous enduring the all-too-direct interrogatives and commentaries of my sometimes-malevolent classmates.

And so I felt compelled to act. I introduced myself to his mother, a young woman of about 30. In a move bolder than I would normally make (admittedly, this could have been really awkward for us both, and certainly for her, but I only wanted to help), I told her that I couldn’t help but notice her son’s eye, and asked if he had a ptosis. She confirmed it, and said she and her husband were concerned about it, not sure how to proceed or if a surgery would hurt more than help. I reassured her: look at my bald ass, I totally had the same thing and turned out just fine. I had my surgery in the late 1970s when debate about the earth’s flatness still raged hard in some sectors of science, and I even rubbed the stitches out the first time accidentally, necessitating a second procedure. Even after all that, it still turned out ok. She seemed relieved, and though it might have seemed a bit interventionist for me to say anything at all, I considered it my good deed for the day.

Fast forward two weeks to last night. I attended a book-signing event sponsored by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture. It was around the corner from work, and gave me an excuse to eat McDonald’s for dinner (what would YOU be doing between 4:30 and 6 PM waiting for an event to begin?). When I finally arrived in front of the author to get my copy autographed, who should approach but the very woman from Starbucks two weeks ago.

She kissed the author, introduced herself to me as his wife, thanked me again for the counsel provided and assured me that it really helped alleviate their parental concerns. The author stopped everything he was doing and told me how the wife had come home that day detailing a brief utilitarian chat she’d enjoyed with a random gringo in Starbucks about his son’s welfare, and how much he appreciated hearing from someone of similar ocular history that the chips were long from being down, that in the casino of life this kid could still hit a jackpot. We exchanged information and pledged to meet soon for coffee, and they offered to show me around the city and introduce me to other local authors if I was so inclined to delve into Rio’s literary scene.

I am reminded of how often our paths cross people with whom we share multi-layered commonalities, yet we are too busy or slothful or careless to make note of it.

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