The Company

 

As part of my research for a new book, I have been reading the work of Irish priest and author Malachi Martin. Former Professor of Paleography at the Vatican’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, from 1958 to 1964 Father Malachi served as secretary to Cardinal Bea during preparations for the Second Vatican Council. Disappointed in the Church reform, he asked to be released from certain of his vows in 1964 and moved to New York City, where he later became an American citizen.

Author of 17 novels and non-fiction books – of which I have only read three – he was often critical of the Catholic Church, for a myriad of reasons, and made no secret of it. Wikipedia lists his most significant works as The Scribal Character of The Dead Sea Scrolls (1958), Hostage to the Devil (1976), and The Final Conclave (1978).

My favorite Malachi book so far is a non-fiction, called SJ – Jesuits – The Society of Jesus and the Betrayal of the Roman Catholic Church, published in 1987. The SJ in the title stands for Society of Jesus – that’s how Ignatius of Loyola intended the religious order he founded in 1540 to be called.

Before we move on with more on Malachi’s book, let me rewind almost five hundred years into the past, to Ignatius of Loyola’s days (1491-1556). A Spanish knight, from a Basque noble family of warriors, his resume includes hermit, theologian (studied at the university of Alcala and then in Paris), and, finally, priest. His real name was Inigo, adapted to Ignatius – the closest Latin version Loyola himself could find of his Basque name – when he enrolled for classes in Paris. On April 19 1541, at the age of 50, Loyola became the first Superior General of the religious order he started. The main characteristic of his organization: total devotion to the Catholic Church and absolute obedience to the Pope. All through History, true to its roots, the order came to be referred to as “Pope’s Men”.

Loyola’s conversion from soldier to priest developed as the result of his survival at the Battle of Pamplona in 1521. While convalescing from gruesome wounds, complicated by improper medical care, and in great physical pain for months, he decided to abandon the military and pledged his life to the service of God, following the example of spiritual leaders such as Francis of Assisi. Loyola composed the Society’s Constitutions and bound himself and his followers by vows of poverty, charity, and obedience. He called the organization the Company of Jesus. In Latin it became Societas Jesu, and soon, as a contemptuous nickname given them by their enemies – the Jesuits.  A muscular, brainy, and vigorous kind of Catholic faith emerged from Loyola’s company.

Now back to where we started: Malachi’s book on the Jesuits. Here is how it opens:

“A state of war exists between the papacy and the Religious Order of the Jesuits – the Society of Jesus – to give the Order its official name.  That war signals the most lethal change to take place within the ranks of the professional Roman clergy over the last thousand years. And, as with all important events in the Roman Catholic Church, it involves the interests, the lives, and the destinies of ordinary men and women in the millions…”

“All wars are about power”, as Malachi writes in the book’s introduction. And this one was not different. The battle between the papacy and the Company entailed two fundamental issues: Authority – who is in command of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, decides what Roman Catholics must believe and how they should morally behave? And the second issue: Purpose – what is the purpose of the Roman Catholic Church in the world?  For many Jesuits the Church’s centralized authority and structure through which command is exercised and its purpose are no longer relevant. In the place of a hierarchic Church, they were proposing a church formed of small and independent communities – “the people of God” or “the people’s Church”; all associated by faith, however not by this two thousand year old central authority – the Pope. Instead of worrying about the next life, the new Jesuit approach went, the Church should strive to assist and liberate the millions of men and women who suffer from social, economic, and political injustice today, in this life.

And so it happened that class struggle become an important subject to the Company, perfectly aligned with its new mission; if needed be, allowing them even to associate with Marxist groups anywhere on the globe. The picture perfect of the new Jesuit, explains Malachi, metamorphosed into an individual with these traits:  “a sociopolitical scientist, a devoted guerrilla, and a formidable theologian-teacher”. Somehow along the years after the Vatican’s Second Council of 1962 – 1965, the Company adopted an anticapitalistic behavior. Jesus identified with the poor, therefore acknowledging class struggle and endorsing revolution became the new Jesuit mantra. The updated and revised message was delivered in written, encapsulated in a novel theology– the Theology of Liberation, whose handbook was written by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, S.J..

Though an international movement, with tentacles spreading all over the world since its inception, it was in South America that this peculiar alliance between Jesuits and Marxists got its strongest momentum. In Nicaragua, in 1979 (and then through 1990), when the Sandinistas took power, a good number of Jesuit priests were nominated for crucial government posts.

“Drunk on the ignorance-laden idealism of Liberation Theologians”, Malachi writes of some of the most prominent of these Jesuits, some came to believe that “a Marxist is not dogmatic, but dialectical. A Christian does not dogmatically condemn anyone but respects the beliefs of others. A dogmatic anticommunist Christian is not a real Christian; and a dogmatic anti-Christian Marxist is not a real Marxist.” One of those new religious stars – Chicago-born James Francis Carney, S.J. – volunteered for work in Central America and was sent there in 1961.

Carney became convinced that the purpose of the dialectic of struggle was to overcome the sin of conservatism of the Roman Catholic Church; that “God’s very plan for the world’s evolution and human society would unfold in conflict and armed revolution.” Carney – just one of the many immensely capable and influential Jesuits of that time, ends his autobiography with a plea to all Christians: “Get rid of any unfair and un-Christian prejudices you have against armed revolutions, socialism, Marxism, and communism…. There is no third way between being a Christian and being a revolutionary.” In the spring of 1971, authorized by his superiors, Carney illegally entered Honduras to become a guerrilla commando for the next 12 years.

Malachi is right; the Theology of Liberation spread all over Latin America as wild fire. In an extreme Catholic and mostly poor environment, when priests spoke of a classless world and armed revolution, it sounded like military Gospel; Jesus armed to the teeth. It turned explosive. Nicaraguan’s Sandinistas originated the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the Motoneros in Argentina and the Paraguayan guerrilla. Soviet Union –supported Cuba was the crown jewel of Marxist Latin America, with its history of brutality and violence turned into glorious tales of heroism by popular and seemingly immortal legends as Che Guevara.

I recall echoes of the Theology of Liberation well when it took Brazil’s Catholic Church by storm in the 1970’s and well into 1980’s. It was mind-boggling to me that priests could advocate Marxism when Marxism is basically an atheist credo. It took me four decades to find an author who could help me make sense of such impasse; how the Gospel was changed to conform and justify Liberation Theology teachings; how Christ became a revolutionary – which justified even priests carrying and using guns – while hell and the devil were equaled to capitalism and wealth.

South American revolutionary groups incensed by anti-capitalism ideals were very intimidating and violent; I saw nothing heavenly or sacred in their actions and became allergic to anything remotely resemblant of community activism because I remember well the disruption – and destruction – those groups brought about. Nothing positive and constructive ever came from their actions; no progress was ever achieved in South America through their angry movements, no matter how desperately the Marxists and Communists back then and the Socialists or Progressives today try to sugarcoat the pill. It was bitter poison disguised in medicine and healed no one. It only scarred people and nations further, making recovery twice as hard if possible at all. Fidel Castro’s Cuba never recovered. Venezuela has just fallen into that old trap again. Brazil, the 8th economy in the world, struggles against an ocean of deep government corruption inherited from its leftist leaders now 13 years in power – the Esquerda Furiosa, the Furious Left – a populist leadership as ignorant and incompetent as it is shameless.  The “class struggle” in reality has always been a surge of violence to obtain and retain power – all wars are for power as we said before – never to help people in need. The ones in need –  those are the ones always used to justify wars –  in the hands of the agitators who led Latin American often to bankruptcy,  were made poorer as armed revolution  scared away any possible foreign or local investments that could create jobs; it destroyed any possibility of a  healthily growing middle class. Nothing is more elitist than the elite in a communist society; the true Intoccabili (Untouchables). Class struggle has always been a hoax for power shift.

Here’s is Malachi Martin’s portrait on how the Jesuit priests behave in Sandinist Nicaragua, after being appointed to high government posts, under the excuse of their “preferential option for the poor”:

“For (Father Fernando) Cardenal and other political priests have stayed on within the hierarchy of terror, the Sandinista nomenklatura, enjoying all the perquisites of power and privilege of a Marxist elite. They live in homes expropriated from the ousted middle class, in comfortable Managua suburbs such as Las Collinas. They shop at specially designated hard-currency and ‘dollar’ stores, where there is no ‘preferential option for the poor.’ They dine at luxury restaurants restricted to Party officials, and lunch in their government offices on the daily loads, delivered by official vans, of ham, lobster, and other delicacies unobtainable elsewhere in Sandinista Nicaragua. They relax in reserved box seats at the baseball stadium, enjoy unlimited supply of gasoline and water that are rationed to the people, and vacation in mansions of the (ousted) Somoza dynasty, suitably rebaptized by the Sandinistas as ‘protocol houses’. They travel around their native Nicaragua with personal bodyguards of Cubans and East Germans who are armed with Soviet automatics, ostensibly to be pointed at potential assailants (…) With such incentives to fuel their ‘theological’ ardor, Fernando Cardenal and his brother priests tour other Latin American countries organizing revolution, and jet at Soviet expense on diplomatic missions to the United States, the Middle East, and Europe.”

Soldiers of Christ and the Second Vatican Council

“The more universal your operation is,” said Loyola, “the more divine is becomes.” While most global corporations would gladly adopt this motto as their own were it not for the implication of God in its context – not very popular these days – Loyola’s meaning for those words were a complex mix of both the practical and the divine. The more the Company expanded around the world, bringing the Church of Christ closer to foreign peoples in foreign lands, closer we would be to God.

With that in mind, before half a century had passed after its foundation, the Jesuits were indeed working all over the world. “There was no continent they did not reach, no language they did not speak and study, no culture they did not penetrate, no branch of learning and science they did note explore, no work in humanism,  in the arts, in popular education they did not undertake and do better than anyone else”, Malachi recalls. Also, “no form of violence they did not undergo (…) Jesuits were hanged, drawn, quartered,  disemboweled, eaten alive, poisoned, flayed to death, crucified, starved to death, beheaded.” The Company gave the Church 38 canonized saint and 243 martyrs – they were put to death for their beliefs; for defending the Catholic Church and the Pope. They were justly called Pope’s Men. A special fighting unit at the total and excusive disposal of the Roman Pope. From the beginning, the Jesuits were conceived as a military mode – Soldiers of Christ.

Father Malachi is a true admirer of Loyola’s company, as it shines clear in his comments:

“They were giants with one only purpose underlining every single one of their efforts and actions: the defense and propagation of papal authority and papal teaching. Less than one century after the founding of the Society, Jesuits became the first Europeans to penetrate Tibet and then proceed to China. Father Matteo Ricci was the first person to prove that Marco Polo’s Cathay was identical with China and not a different country. Jesuit brother Benito de Goes lies buried at the northwest terminus of China’s Great wall. No hidden corner of the world was too far away or too inhospitable that a Jesuit missionary could not reach for the glory of Christ and his Church under the pope.”

The world knew the Jesuits were champions of that authority and primacy; they had been the first body of Catholic scholars to became preeminent in secular sciences – math, physics, astronomy, archaeology, linguistics, biology, chemistry, zoology, paleography, genetics. Their manuals, textbooks, treatises, and studies, as Malachi points, were authoritative in every branch of Catholic and secular learning.

The Society of Jesus, an institution from the beginning bound to the Pope by a sacred oath of absolute obedience, for over 400 years, never deviating from that mission… Until 1965. In that year the Second Vatican Council ended the last of its four sessions and Pedro de Arrupe Y Gondra was elected the 27th Father General of the Company. The rapid and complete transformation of the organization in its mission and core purpose developed easily under the enthusiastic leadership of Arrupe and met almost no resistance from the Church under popes John XIII and Paul VI. The Pope’s Men were fast becoming Arrupe’s Men. They took a sharp turn against the very leader and the institution they were sworn to defend. The Bishop of Rome is successor to Peter the Apostle upon whom Christ founded his Church – was their motto under Loyola. Under Father General Pedro Arrupe the motto turned into something like, class struggle and proletarian revolution as integral parts of genuine Christianity.

It did not matter that occupying high government posts, as it happened in Sandinista Nicaragua, without special permission by the Holy See, was forbidden to priests – all priests, not only Jesuits – per Cannon Law # 285. It mattered even less that, as Malachi reminds, “In Church teaching, neither poverty nor riches confer union and solidarity with Christ. Only the grace of Christ himself effects that. Grace is open to all, not exclusively or even ‘especially” to the poor. (…) To say that one cannot partake of the Eucharist ‘without struggling against poverty through personal sacrifice, selling one’s goods and seeking solidarity with the victims of misery’, (words from Father General Kolvenbach, who replaced Father Arrupe as the leader of the Company in 1983, following his predecessor legacy), “is more than simply bad theology; it is theology at the service of economics, and overshadowed by prejudice against capitalism as a way of life. It is, finally, a doctrine condemned by the Roman Church as far back as the fifteenth century.”

As I read on I started to understand how and why Father Malachi Martin requested dispensation of some of his vows in the 1960’s and relocated to America.

The Company and Four Popes

“John XXIII (1958-1963) in his efforts to establish and ‘open window, open fields’ policy in Rome, to induce others to revise their own policies even went so far as to guarantee immunity to the old USSR from attacks by the Church, lowering as many barriers as he could”, describes Malachi, calling it “a huge gamble”. A gamble that failed, as it often happens when odds are stretched to impossible levels, under too much risk and with little gain at stake. Instead, the Church under John XXIII began seen by the world as weak.

Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) merely expanded on his predecessor’s deficiencies. Still it was Paul VI, “the gentlest of the modern popes”, per Malachi, who realized, toward the end of his papacy, that the purpose of the Company had radically changed. He ordered an extensive dossier. What emerged from that report was that for the Jesuits the papacy no longer held primordial importance: “The corporate aim of the Society was now to place itself at the disposal of a radical and purely sociopolitical change in the world, without reference and indeed independent of papal strategy and policies.” Alarmed, Paul met with the head of the order, Father General Pedro Arrupe several times and more than once wanted him to resign.

Following Paul VI’s death, cardinal Albino Luciani – Pope John Paul I – was elected on August 26 1978. He too had made up his mind about the changes needed in the Jesuit order. “Let it not happen that the teachings and publications of Jesuits contain anything to cause confusion among the faithful”, he planned to say in a speech addressing the Society. Based on John Paul’s memoranda  and notes, unless the order  obeyed , he had in mind an extreme measure –  its liquidation; perhaps to be reconstituted later, in a more manageable form.  John Paul I had received petitions of many Jesuits asking him to do just that. But he never delivered that speech of warning. On the morning of September 29, after 33 days as Pope, on the day he was to address the Jesuits’s General Congregation (that’s how the Company calls its general meetings), he was found dead in his bed.

Next came Karol Wojtyla, in 1978. John Paul II was no Paul VI or John XXIII. Schooled in how to deal with the communist regime that ruled his beloved Poland, the recalcitrant Jesuits under Arrupe’s leadership (by the way, the Superior General of the Jesuit Order is called the Black Pope because he dresses in black – whereas the Pope is always in white – and their headquarters are also located in Rome, not far from Vatican City) were not expecting a strong Pope. He ordered a meeting with six of his highest cardinals to decide the fate of the Jesuits. The Church had already dissolved the order once and according to Malachi, it is possible that John Paul II was willing to do it again if needed.

(Here is Wikipedia, briefly, on the historical dissolutions of the Society through the years:

The suppression of the Jesuits in the Portuguese Empire (1759), France (1764), the Two Sicilies, Malta, Parma and the Spanish Empire (1767) is a highly controversial subject. It has been argued that it was a result of a series of political moves in each polity rather than a theological controversy.[1] Monarchies attempting to centralize and secularize political power viewed the Jesuits as being too international, too strongly allied to the papacy, and too autonomous from the monarchs in whose territory they operated.[2] By the brief Dominus ac Redemptor (21 July 1773) Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits took refuge in non-Catholic nations, particularly in Prussia and Russia, where the order was either ignored or formally rejected. The Jesuits were allowed to return to many places starting in the late nineteenth century.)

John Paul II and his Cardinals

The description of that meeting between John Paul II and his six top cardinals is one of the best things I have ever read. John Paul heard his fellow cardinals’ comments and advice one by one, mostly in silence, and ended the meeting with one single remark: Well, my cardinal brothers took eight ballots to elect me pope. No one knew exactly what he meant by that.  All they knew was that the Pope had ordered a General Congregation to take place the following year. Whether he planned on the dissolution of the order in that meeting or the dismissal of Jesuit leader Father Arrupe, your guess is as good as any. A couple of weeks after that private meeting, on May 13 1981, John Paul II was shot in Saint Peter’s square.

Two bullets went into the 60-year old body. Blamed on the confusion, the Pope was taken to the wrong hospital where he was submitted to surgery and blood transfusion – the blood saved for such emergencies was not used. Instead, the blood was taken from the general public bank and, as it was later found, infected with hepatitis. Divine influence of strong physique – call it what you prefer –John Paul II survived. His life-long friend in Poland, Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski, was found dead in Warsaw two weeks later, on May 28, while the pope himself fought for his life at the hospital in Rome.

Anyway, all this history, ancient and contemporary, to get to this one specific point: in that 1981 meeting with the six top cardinals, a lengthy report was presented to them by John Paul II,  containing a long list of irregularities committed by Jesuits around the world.  This one was particularly interesting to me:

“There was the matter of a devastating report received in the Vatican in 1979. Their Venerable Brother Cardinal Vicente Scherer of Porto Alegre, Brazil, had written at length about the Jesuit Colegio Anchieta in that same city. According to Scherer, Marxists textbook were used in the classrooms, Marxist principles were inculcated into students, the Sacraments of Confession and Communion were derided as anachronistic. What, the cardinal puzzled, had happened to that report? The Jesuit colegio had gone along its marry way. Why hadn’t Father General Arrupe corrected those grave errors?”

Three or four decades later things come full circle to me, I thought. I was myself a student of the prestigious Jesuit “colegio” in that report. I remember as if it was yesterday a project assigned to us by our first high-school Philosophy teacher (a very angry and bitter personality), that entailed a visit to one of the city’s favelas (slums) where we were to interview some of the residents.  Parents, especially of girl students, frontally opposed and the project was eventually cancelled. We were no older than 14. Furthermore, I remember cardinal Scherer well (1903 – 1996)  – he was often present to public celebrations in the city; the white-haired and soft-spoken uncle of one or our elementary school teachers, a Franciscan nun, at Our Lady of Good Counsel.  For many years Cardinal Scherer led the remodeling and reorganization of the largest Catholic/Charitable hospital in town, which became a world-class facility – Hospital Santa Casa de Misericordia (Holy House of Mercy Hospital).

I could not believe when I saw Cardinal Scherer’s name and the name of my high school in that Vatican report, used in a historical meeting between John Paul II and his top cardinals. Apparently Cardinal Scherer’s report had been buried in a folder somewhere for the longest time, until a Pope came to Rome from Poland.

With both the White and the Black popes in this war sharing a deep sense of divine mission, each claiming to be acting for the well-being of God’s people and for the exaltation of the Church Christ started with Peter (Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam; Latin for You are Peter and upon this rock I shall build my Church) – it is not certain who will win or has won. The decision of dissolving the order, as done in the past, would be an extremely disrupting and costly one, considering its 17,000 priests and brothers around the world, in schools, hospitals, missions and charity institutions.

John Paul II was canonized in 2014. He passed on April 2nd 2005, long  after the Berlin Wall had fallen (November 9 1989), ending the Cold War era, under Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his own papacy. He struggled for a word without communism and I can only imagine his dismay at seeing some of that same ideology infiltrated in the ranks of the Company of Jesus. I have not finished Malachi Martin’s lengthy book (472 pages, published by Simon & Schuster and a New York Times bestseller) yet and the Roman Catholic Church has had two popes since John Paul II: Ratzinger (Benedict XVI, from Germany, 2005-2013),and the now ultra-popular Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis since March 2013), a Jesuit too, from Argentina.  As for Father Malachi Martin, great author, professor, and disenchanted priest, he died in July 1999, before the world became even more complicated by 9/11-like events. He was himself a Company’s man, by the way, a Jesuit…

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New book now live at Amazon.com

It’s Thanksgiving again and I had to say thank you to all the readers, family and friends who nominated Yesterday Lies Ahead in Amazon’s program “Kindle Scouts”.  It received nearly 800 nominations but it was not selected for a contract. The bad news about not having a contract with Amazon is that  I have to keep on doing my own marketing… The good news is I get to keep the copyrights. There’s always good and bad in everything. I chose to celebrate and appreciate the good things; like the time people took out of their busy days just to nominate Yesterday Lies Ahead – thank you ! The book is now available at Amazon.com  in Kindle and paperback. Here are the link and the product description:

http://www.amazon.com/Yesterday-Lies-Ahead-Liv-Lugara-ebook/dp/B018IJT4GU/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1448543574&sr=1-1&keywords=Yesterday+Lies+Ahead

“In the sequel to The Traveler’s [K]Night, it’s now 2024, and Ali Kharan’s sons, Ben and Jeff, have moved on with their lives, not knowing whether the series of unexplained phenomena that swept Philadelphia in 2012 or a failed marriage was responsible for their father’s disappearance.
Ben has become the chief technology officer of Volstaad Labs. Ben and his millionaire boss, local genius and technology guru Eric Volstaad, work remarkably well together. In fact, they’re in perfect unison—until Eric starts acting strangely.
Things get even stranger when Ben is forced to enter a new world that Eric has secretly created. Stranded there, Ben fears that—like father, like son—his marriage may also be doomed to fail. Surrounded by people whose intentions could spell disaster, Ben trusts no one but Virginia Volstaad—Eric’s daughter. The boss’s only child is recovering from her own family tragedy when she bursts into Ben’s world bearing unsettling information about her father’s mysterious enterprise—as well as surprising news about Ben’s missing father, Ali.
Linking Philadelphia of 2024 with Denmark and Germany of medieval times, Yesterday Lies Ahead delivers intrigue, action, suspense, and a twist of epic romance.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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You too

It was a decision that startled the music world, last year, when Apple announced the album would be downloadable (is that even a real word?) to half a billion iTunes Store customers worldwide at no cost. I am sure a lot of people shook their heads in disbelief.  What a different, strange world we live in, where one of the most popular and enduring bands in history has its new album given away just like that? I saw the TV commercial and only registered the unmistakable singer’s voice in passing; somehow my brain acknowledged that a new album was out and that it, somehow, was sponsored by Apple. That was September 2014 and honestly I did not think about it again until one month ago when I realized the album had been made available on my Apple devices for free and decided to give it a try.

I am not a marketing expert to judge whether or not Apple’s strategy worked, but the album is phenomenal; as phenomenal as the enduring success achieved by this band.  You too may be a fan, like me. I mean U2.

That Mr. Paul David Hewson is the owner of a peculiarly beautiful and warm voice, capable of reaching high notes, at this point, after decades of listening to him, it comes as no surprise. If the singer’s triple name is puzzling you, we’ll go with his nickname. Bono is actually short for BonoVox (and bona vox is Latin for good voice by the way). After four kids and a marriage as lasting as his relationship with Edge, (guitar), Adam Clayton (bass guitar), and Larry Mullen, Jr. (percussion) – his fellow U2 musicians – Bono’s voice does not sound one day older than the first time I listened to Where the Streets Have no Name. If anything, he is more precise, clearer, stronger, and in control. It fills you ears with sounds no other band on earth can reproduce. I can tell a U2 song right at the very first seconds so unique they are. I once thought Cold Play was going to be able to do something similar, but it never really happened. They were not able to give me the goose bumps U2 does, after all these years… The U2 guitar starts and the magic begins in me.

This realization – I don’t forget lyrics and melody to which I attach a deep emotion and most songs by most popular bands fail to do so – only came after years of listening to music and choosing my favorites. I finally figured out that the ones that stick with me, the ones whose lyrics I know word by word – be it English, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian- from memory, many years after I heard it for the first time, are those to which I attached a deep feeling. The emotional imprint could be triggered by a verse, a rhyme, a guitar solo, the unmistakable piano or drums… And once my brain learns to identify it as special, remarkable, I don’t forget it anymore. As U2 puts it, friendship once is won, is won.

The song featured in the Apple commercial one year ago is very engaging – The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone); before you know you are humming the melody to yourself and it only makes sense it was picked to be the opening track. It’s a perfect display of U2’s energy and vitality.  But it is when the second track begins, Every Breaking Wave, that Bono will remind you why he has been the super musician he is all these years. Everything works perfectly; his voice is at its best shape ever, the lyrics are of that type – unforgettable:

Every breaking weave on the shore

Tells the next one there’ll be one more

Every gambler knows

That to lose

Is what you’re really there for…

In From the Sky Down, a 2011 documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim on the production and release of U2’s album Achtung Baby (Berlin, 1991) the band’s evolution was growing apparent, transitioning from a strong politically activist style to a much more personal and introspective point of view. It was then that it became clear they were reaching for something different – not musical identity, but spiritual identity. You need faith to move from one note to the next, as Bono remarks. Music is a living thing; we have a low opinion of musicians and a high opinion of music.

I did not know about that statement – not musical but spiritual identity – until I had listened to their 2014 album – Songs of Innocence – many times. This is exactly what the band achieved; that is why I can tell them from any other successful group – they have something unique that goes way further and above talent and musical skills. We are loyal and kind to each other. A group of people not genetically related who pledged allegiance to one another – Bono adds, in From the Sky Down, describing not their marriages and families but how the band members relate to one another. How devastating it was for all of them, including Bono’s wife, for example, when the first divorce happened among the group in the early 1990’s. How saddened they all were at the first serious breakup suffered in their “community” – Bono’s word for the link uniting them – since high school.

It was only then that I began understanding the reasons behind U2’s stability through the years; how they managed to remain intact, apparently immune to the breakups and exclusions that affected most bands. Besides U2 the only other group that comes to mind is The Rolling Stones – I have never been an admirer but they do stick together…

Songs of Innocence took almost six years in the making – the longest gap in U2’s career – and the delays prompted Bono to declare he was not sure the band was still “musically relevant”, as they struggled with the quality of the material until it was finally deemed acceptable per their obvious high standards.

Son of a Catholic father and a protestant mother, Bono admitted in an interview that growing up in Ireland in the 1970’s (the golden era of the IRA activities in the UK) thought him a thing or two.  I was a war zone in my teens, he sings in Cedarwood Road (track # 8). Songs of Innocence is all about first trips, Bono also said of their album; the first time we fall in love, our first trip to LA (thus the song California – There is no End to Love, track # 3).  As for the war zone teenager Bono was and probably lived in sometimes, it did not help that he lost his mother at 14 to a brain aneurism. IRIS is the song he wrote for her:

The star that gives us light/ Has been gone a while/ But is not an illusion/The ache in my heart/Is so much a part of who I am (…) Iris standing in the hall/ She tells me I could do it all/ Iris wakes to my nightmares/ Don’t fear the world; It Isn’t there/ Iris playing on the strand/ She buries the boy beneath the sand/ Iris says that I will be the death of her/ It was not me…

(If you happen to be wondering if Bono has siblings, yes – one older brother named Norman, who is a restaurateur in Dublin, according to Google).

Songs of Innocence dives deep into another fundamental relationship: Song for Someone (track # 4), inspired by Bono’s wife of many years Allyson (Ali) Hewson and their romance since both were very young.  I was told I’d feel/ Nothing the first time/ I don’t know how these cuts heal/ But in you I found a rhyme (…) You lead me into conversation/ A conversation only we could make/ You’re breaking into my imagination/ Whatever is in there is yours to take…

Every time I hear U2’s Edge or Adam Clayton on their guitars I feel renewed in my dream to learn to play it one day. So far the guitar I own has been standing in a corner in my office, shinning and pretty,  and I dust it regularly, waiting  for the miracle to occur (Bono’s words in The Miracle of Joey Ramone), that will give me the courage to look for actual guitar classes. I tried online lessons but I am too bad a student for those to work; broke two strings trying to tune it up properly… I will need a real teacher – the poor thing – and will probably give up in pain and despair shortly after, realizing not all the sincere admiration and heartfelt respect I have for competent and well-accomplished musicians will ever make me one of them.

In the meantime, I can only hope U2 never stops making beautiful music; I hope Bono never feels that the band is no longer musically relevant. If it takes them another six years to release the next album and if one day the band doesn’t have the energy to travel the world promoting their work, that is okay by me – just keep writing songs, keep singing please, until you have no voice left.

If you ever liked U2 in the 1880’s and the 1990’s, try Songs of Innocence; you too will be (as Every Breaking Wave predicts) swept off your feet

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Yesterday Lies Ahead – New book campaign launches at Amazon.com

 

Amazon offered me a different deal this time: they made the book available for 30 days on their Kindle Scout site. If the book gets clicks enough, at the end of  the 30 day trial period they may offer me a contract.

It would be great if you could click the link below and nominate Yesterday Lies Ahead:

https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/3RWVB0MB51QS1

You don’t have to purchase anything. As you click the link, the page with the book cover and a sample opens up. All you have to do is to click NOMINATE IT!

If possible, please tell your friends as well – every click counts!

Thank you so very much for your support; a writer is nothing without her readers…

Liv Lugara

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Afraid to Ask

We all like heroes and we love them even more when they show their imperfections and admit to them in public. Not only did I know this intuitively, I also read it in an article once, about how to create unforgettable characters in fiction. That was at least 15 years ago and I have no idea where the magazine went or even who the author was. What brought it to mind and how true the observation had been, as valid one decade and a half ago as much as today, was Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, Lean In (Deckle Edge, 2013).

I confess I began reading her book for a project at work and did not have high expectations. I am in my fiction-only phase; reading any other genre feels like too strong an effort to make – a sacrifice. I also tend to find books about how top executives lead their lives, men or women, repetitive; variations on the same theme. But I downloaded it into my Kindle two weeks or so ago and read it with genuine interest from page one on.

(After a full decade in this country, I still am faced – more often than I’d like to admit – with phrases and idioms that puzzle me at first sight. Lean in was one of those. I had to ask someone what exactly the phrase meant. Of course it makes total sense in the context of the book, now that I have been enlightened off my initial ignorance.)

Once I solved the title enigma, another question popped. What kind of book is Lean In? I found very difficult to determine the book’s category. Is it a self-help guide? Should it be under the sign Business in a book store? It does not feel like a memoir and it’s obviously not fiction. It’s not a feminist manifesto, neither is it a glorification of business people in America or the thrills and perils of working for two of the most popular companies; two that are a constant presence in most people’s daily lives around the world: Google and Facebook. Actually, there is much more hard work than glory in the way Sheryl Sandberg describes her career. It’s a tale of little victories earned step by step and the long way that still lies ahead if we are honest about fostering a fair society.

Sheryl is obviously a savvy business woman, one of the 50 most powerful in the world according to Fortune Magazine, which did not prevent her from gaining 70 pounds during her first troublesome pregnancy; did not make her immune to gossip and deceit, nor did it make her so strong that she would not dissolve in tears in front of her boss in a particularly delicate moment of her career (her boss being no other than Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg). Did not spare her moments of deep embarrassment at important events either (how about finding out your young daughter has lice and cannot stop scratching her head while you’re flying a private jet with a bunch of Silicon Valley top names?). That brings me to how I opened this post: We love when our heroes have an under-dog moment, not because of schadenfreude but because we enjoy seeing how they bounce back; how they recover, dust themselves off, and move on; just like we would like to be able to do if faced with the same kind of adversity.

More impressive than Sheryl’s stellar resume was to me her clear insight on how women make it hard on themselves to thrive in these two equally important spheres, family and work. Sheryl relies on statistics and psychology research to show how women are far more reluctant than men to embrace success and then ask for more.

For starters, we all suffer from what she calls the impostor syndrome. Feeling like a fraud, fearing someone will soon discover we are not as smart, prepared or strong as the world thinks we are. Each new achievement only reinforces our self-imposed panic that the end is near; that our moment of glory will last only until someone finds out the expiration date stamped on the palms of our hands and marches on to uncover what impostors we are.

Many years ago I saw evidence of this behavior in a major Hollywood movie. Harrison Ford is in serious trouble after having an affair with his colleague – both lawyers – and is now accused of murdering her. Presumed Innocent was a blockbuster in the early 1990’s. Curiously enough, what left a lasting mark on me was not the trial scenes or the surprising ending and the flawless acting. I clearly remember Ford’s character asking his wife (actress Bonnie Bedelia), in a rare moment of quiet domestic normalcy, how her interview for a new job had gone. Her first job interview in quite some time, after the kids were old enough for her to leave the house. Sheepishly then, almost embarrassed, she reveals she got the job. “I fooled them all”, she adds. In her mind, she did not get the job because of her value as a professional, intelligence and experience– she had tricked them into hiring her!

Adding to their agony, women are often reluctant to reach for new opportunities at work because they are not sure they are ready to take on challenges and then learn by doing. Men almost never feel like that. And since women ask less and not as often as men, well, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-perpetuating. Don’t ask and you shan’t receive.

When it rains it pours and not only women tend to feel like a fraud, fearful of asserting themselves at work (Am I too bossy? Am I abandoning my family?), we also feel like we don’t deserve that much attention and glory. Sandberg herself is living proof of this female trait when she describes her behavior after the Fortune Magazine nomination. She responded apologetically and tried to play it down whenever people congratulated her on the achievement until one close coworker just couldn’t take it anymore, pulled her aside and plainly told her to stop justifying herself and instead say thanks to those who praised her.

Our heads and hearts together are the perfect storm. To make absolute hell inside our minds, we are perfectionists by nature. Done is better than perfect, is the antidote Sandberg prescribes, quoting one of her favorite posters on the walls of Facebook’s offices. She goes on, offering more personal examples, now in the context of her own family: Dave, her husband, was always proud of the time he spent with their kids; whereas she constantly worried about taking too much time away from their kids… Leave it to a woman to worry about things she cannot control and them feel guilty for it. Men seem to suffer much less of such maladies.

All through the book the author struggles with the label feminist. To the point we readers start questioning ourselves. I turned the last page of the book uncertain of the answer; am I or am I not a feminist? Took me a couple of days to come up with my own verdict.

I am for all people Sandberg describes in her book; the mom who invests time in her career because she loves her work as much as the woman who decided not to have kids; for the one who left the work force for her children or elderly parents, and the dads out there who face discrimination, open or covert, because they decided to become stay-home fathers.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Freedom, equality, brotherhood was the French Revolution’s popular motto before the movement turned into a blood bath; proof that these words are only good if they carry in them real meaning instead of a representation of the ideal reality. I abhor class divisions, racial and gender discrimination, nepotism, favoritism, privilege based on blind and unfair tradition instead of merit. Injustice ruins a day for me, if not several, and turns my stomach. If that makes me a feminist, the label itself feels a bit too restricting and incomplete. So far this was the only answer with which I could come up…

Feminist or not, I enjoyed reading Lean In, the book by Facebook’s (a $200 billion company) Chief Operating Officer. As I was nearing the last page, I Googled (another Sandberg’s company. She was Google’s VP of Global Online Sales and Operations before joining Facebook) the author to see if there was any record of upcoming books by her, and instead sadly found that her husband, Dave Goldberg, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, passed in May, at the age of 47. Sheryl and their two children live in California

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Flip a Coin

An ink-black thoroughbred paces on cobblestoned streets, hooves clacking nicely. Such a proud head. A very unlikely scenario, since handsome race horses don’t belong in that kind of environment. Very industrial revolution-like. The smoke, the pollution, the darkened walls of sorrowful-looking little homes piled up onto one another without yards, without any green in between. No trees, no shrubs; every bit of nature’s color banished from view. The horse’s appearance sends everybody scattered; tiny ants running for shelter, from kids to grownups, men and women. A ghost would not have spooked them so badly.

Since I read Black Beauty when I was a child, dark horses became a favorite. I find nothing scary about them, but what I failed to grasp in those first two minutes of show was that not the horse but its rider was to blame. The man is riding bareback and seems perfectly at ease in doing so. He is slim, face hidden by a tweed cap, slightly hunched over. To add to my curiosity, a Chinese fortune-teller, a very young girl, blows some red powder on the horse’s muzzle. A spell, for good luck.

As questions multiply even before five minutes of show have elapsed, the same rider is now walking the same cobble streets; it’s daylight. He is smoking, walks with his head down, still half-hidden by the woolen cap, as if ready to declare war on the world. Everybody along the way salutes him by the name with a mix of respect and fear. He barely acknowledges them. He throws the half-consumed cigarette away and enters a small house. The living room is narrow but well furnished. Maybe too furnished, too busy, cramped. Flowery wallpaper. A little boy is sitting in front of the fireplace, smoking. The man says hi to him in a friendly way. (His father? His uncle?) The boy is visibly alarmed; the man slightly amused. Ten years of age is too young for cigarettes, the man observes. I’ll be eleven in one week, justifies the boy, getting rid of the cigarette anyway. What’s going on? asks the man, dropping the issue. Art’s as mad as hell, goes the little boy and with that comment I made up my mind. The show got me; I had no idea but I was just about to become a huge fan. Arthur is my nephew’s name. The man opens up a set of double doors in the back of the room and that changes everything. A new world invades the screen – it’s a loud, crowded, hectic, convoluted reality – he’s got a huge gambling operation in his living room!

The boy and the man are Finn and Thomas Shelby respectively. Thomas – the family’s leader – a war hero who fought in France and threw his two gallantry medals in the river – only that with his very thick Birmingham accent and vocabulary, the river is actually referred to as “ the cut” – something like a canal. Are you impressed by medals?, this war hero will ask his girlfriend one day, in season II. Felt like he was asking us, the audience. We know what carnage WW I was and the show spares no viewer of bloody scenes, as brothers Tom and Art Shelby are constantly plagued by gruesome memories. Turns out, because Art fought in France madness is his natural state of mind.

The family in the movie, the Shelbys, is composed by four brothers (Thomas, Arthur, John, and Finn), one sister (Ada) and their very charismatic and strong Aunt Polly (short for Elizabeth – actually Elizabeth Gray, nee Shelby). As the only sister among four brothers, Ada Shelby is said to be as pretty as an angel, however as wild as her brothers, and madly in love with a communist agitator, Freddy, who also fought in France.

Produced in England by BBC (filmed in Birmingham and Liverpool) and distributed in America by Netflix, Peaky Blinders is awesome. A word of caution though: this is definitely not a show for kids. The brutality of certain scenes made me stand up quite a few times – I had to walk to the kitchen or something, or else just closed my eyes… The Peaky Blinders were a gang of organized crime, led by the Shelby family in Birmingham in those post-WW I days. “They were one of the urban youth gangs in the era, which were among the earliest of modern street subcultures”, according to Wikipedia. The year is 1919 – my grandpa Jose would have been eight; younger than Finn Shelby…

Tom Shelby is the brains in the family and often enters intense arguments with Aunt Polly, who managed the family business while the boys were away. With them back now, she resents the loss of her authority and decision power. The Shelbys are half gipsy, feared and respected in the working class neighborhood where everyone is employed by a foundry. Oh, don’t mess with him/her – he/she is a Shelby… They do everything illegal under the sun, from bootlegging to fixing horse races, but Thomas’s dream is to form a legitimate business and be wealthy and respectable – the Shelby Company Limited – where all brothers will be partners. They often hold meetings to discuss their decisions and the dialogues in those meetings are a perfect mix of strategy, intelligence, and irony. The dialogues in this movie are a piece of work, speaking of conversations. The answers are never what you expect and sometimes there are no answers. Nothing is predictable, like life itself. Thomas speaks very little and briefly – he does not like to talk about himself or his business and prefers short sentences. Not a large man he is, but with a deep voice. He often leaves everybody wondering what he’s thinking – including me. It’s great when a movie does that – it excites the viewer’s imagination, makes you think.

In this dog-eat-dog sub-world of Birmingham, the Shelbys could not care less for politics and politicians– all they want is to make money. If that means bribing the local cops and physically blinding members of a local hostile gipsy group, so what? However, the Shelbys are not invincible – they pay dearly for each of the deadly sins they commit. It’s right in the first episode of season I that Thomas Shelby comes across an illegal load of guns meant for the IRA – the Irish Republican Army. He did not ask for that, it fell from sheer heaven (or hell) right into his hands and he is not a man of letting opportunities go by.untouched. Those guns, as Tom Shelby sees them, are his passport to higher ground.

As businessman-like as Tom Shelby may appear most of the time, If you get him cross he’ll blind you with the thin razor kept in the brim of his woolen cap; the Peaky Blinders trademark. You blink and they cut your face for life, so fast you would feel the blood run before you even experience any pain… But when it’s all said and done, Tom Shelby is a master in reading people – that is his ultimate skill; the one thing that keeps him alive more often that the razor in his hat.

The actor who breathes life into the character of Thomas Shelby is Irish– Cillian Murphy. He plays the villain more often that the hero and is outstanding. You may have seem him in Inception, Batman Begins, The Red Eye, The Dark Knight, The Wind that Shakes the Barley – to mention a few titles only. There is something very sinister about his acclaimed blue eyes. Strange, peculiar, ghostly. Full of angles, at times  his face looks like that of an android. Then he smiles – he smiles very little as Tom Shelby – and becomes incredibly human again. Forty years old, father of two boys, Murphy was supposed to have been a lawyer but chose the acting career instead – thank God. In Thomas Shelby’s skin he has scars from the war all over his chest and back and is constantly haunted by traumas of their battles against the Germans in France, in tunnels. He can only sleep after smoking some opium and even then his sleep is full of nightmares.

Tommy, as his aunt Polly calls him, loves horses – prior to the war all he ever wanted was to work with horses – and horse whispering (in Romani) runs in his gipsy gangster blood. It’s the strangest thing ever – the words sound like Portuguese but you keep waiting for them to make sense in your ears,  for the meaning to reach your brain, and waiting and waiting… And then the talking is over and you are left without understanding a single word (of course, there were subtitles).  It feels like you will be able to figure out the words because their sound is so familiar… But no, false alarm… I don’t speak Romani.

Ah, and the haircuts! All Peaky Blinders wear the same – head shaved from the ear-line down and hair kept long on the top of the head. I had never seen that hairstyle before but it is known how ignorant I am of the WW I period in Europe and the world in general. Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes the Peaky Blinders’ looks and style:

“(…) the name Peaky Blinders is popularly said to derive from the practice of stitching razor blades into the peak of their flat caps, which could then be used as weapons (…) a more mundane explanation is that “peakys” was a common nickname for popular flat caps with peaks. The gangs were known to have a distinctive clothing style, wearing the peaked caps and cravats (…) while a line of brass buttons down the front gave added distinction. Their style of dress was similar to that of the Manchester-based gangs of the same period known as Scuttlers.”

The Peaky Blinders’ empire thrived round the time when the IRA began organizing itself as a military/terrorist group, to liberate Ireland from England, and not surprisingly, Thomas Shelby will also find a bone to pick with the Irish Republican Army. He doesn’t like them; they don’t like the Shelbys. And if rival gipsy gangs, the “coppers”, and Irish revolutionaries were not enough, oh well, Sir Winston Churchill sends in a special police officer from Belfast to clean up Birmingham… Trouble is coming, in Art Shelby’s prophetic words.

The police chief is played by Sam Neil, the actor in The Piano, Jurassic Park, The Hunt for the Red October, and so many other movies. He is the best villain ever; twice as cruel and dirty as any gangster can be. He speaks of honor but has none; he preaches about loyalty but is always the first to break his word. I just loved to hate Sam Neil’s Major Chester Campbell. Campbell, for all the good work he did in Belfast for the Crown, never went to the war – never fought in France, never got any medals. He doesn’t have the soldier’s heart Thomas and Arthur Shelby share. Campbell is so malign and corrupt it will turn your stomach. Born in New Zealand, Sam Neil had to work out a Belfast accent. His coach was actor Liam Neeson. In the end, production had to tell Neil to go easy on his newly-acquired thick Irish accent as the show would be also marketed in America.

Funny how we end up rooting for the bad guys in these movies. Campbell is after all the police, working for the king and directly answering to Mr. Churchill. So now Tom Shelby, the gangster, is my hero; how did that happen? He drinks a lot but is never drunk, he smokes a lot but always looks fresh and well-scrubbed; elegantly dressed, even when walking the filthy alleys of Birmingham around the foundry. As he walks down those dreary streets, the foundry’s many furnaces glow behind large windows and arched doorways never disturbing him. Tommy Shelby walks looking down, so intently, always smoking; the ideas burning in his mind just like the red and orange of the furnaces along his way. Perhaps a metaphor for his risky life style.

To recap, we have the admirable underdog, the evil cop, fights with IRA and groups of organized crime (Solomons, the Jewish and Sabini, the Italians) for the control of the races in London. Plus  family dramas and disputes. Not only has Thomas Shelby to protect his own life – always at risk – but also the lives of his hard to control brother (Art Shelby is a loose cannon; his hair style is even more prominent than Thomas’s and he drinks twice as much in his post-war depression) and the hot-tempered aunt Polly. Brother John Shelby lost his wife to the latest influenza pandemic and has a bunch of kids – he needs to find them a mother and wants to marry a local well-known prostitute named Lizzie.

In a great demonstration of his power of persuasion and strategy, Thomas convinces John not to marry Lizzie. The scene between Thomas and Lizzie is one of the most astute dialogues I’ve ever seen in a movie. Instead, Thomas forces John to marry the youngest daughter of the enemy gipsy leader, ending their conflicts – at least for now. In the beginning John kicked and screamed but as soon as he saw the girl – Esme – he calmed down. The Peaky Blinders are stronger now, with the addition of dozens of gipsy men. Thomas Shelby is a splendid chess player – always anticipating everyone’s moves and keeping his own concealed. That’s what I do, Arthur. I think so you don’t have to, as he tells his brother.

As soon as John’s marital status is assured and peace achieved with the Lees, chaos explodes on another family front.   Sister Ada’s husband Freddy, was thrown in jail on account of his communist protests a few days before their baby is expected. Can Thomas get Freddy out and what would the price be?

With this much going on, what’s missing?

Romance, of course! And that came into Thomas Shelby’s life in the form of a blonde bartender that likes to sing Irish songs and does not mind a few dangerous missions. Her name is Grace and she holds a great secret (production gave her a new nose in season II, after her secret was revealed). Grace just found herself a job at the local pub, The Garrison, where the Shelbys meet often to discuss business and strategy, with Art always mad as hell, talking too much and too loud. The moment Thomas Shelby looked at her we all knew where that was going. Grace fell for him even harder. Their romance takes time to ignite and when it does is of such a delicacy, in the middle of such a harsh environment, that it breaks the viewer’s heart. Season I ends with Thomas asking himself what to do about Grace. And just how he decides? The same way he used to make decisions before the war – by flipping a coin!

Peaky Blinders got better and better at each new episode (even when I had no stomach to watch some of the violent scenes) and I am itching to write about how the last episode of season II ends so spectacular it was, which I won’t; wont; spoil the fun its many twists and turns brought about. For the first time in a long while I watched the final episode of a show twice, just to make sure I had not missed anything of importance as the accent can be tricky in my ears. That and because I enjoyed it so much I had to watch it again! I would give everybody Emmy awards, from best actor to wardrobe, music (phenomenal songs, very dark and touching, probably by Irish singers and groups I never heard of, played at the most appropriate moments of the movie; I’d love to be able to purchase the soundtrack CD), photography, makeup, direction, production, screenplay, you name it… They did everything – everything – right. How many times can we say this about a movie or show? I wish I could write something half as good one day… Can’t wait for season III!

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I Told You

Being attached to two countries is more often a pain than a blessing. As the number of things that go wrong in our imperfect world always tops the number of things that go right, I grieve more often than I rejoice. At the World Cup I suffered for both the U.S. and Brazil. If the Philadelphia Eagles are doing poorly I get disheartened as much as I do when Dad tells me my former soccer team, in the southern city of Porto Alegre, the once glorious Colorado, cannot catch a break. I suffer for Americans killed overseas and for the rising criminality in Rio. I worry about terrorism in America as much as I despair about the blatant corruption of Brazil’s federal government, rooting for the masses of people on the streets that demand the ousting of President Dilma Rousseff.

Here I’ll take a break to mention John Oliver’s excellent take on the corruption scandal in Brazil, involving giant state-owned oil company Petrobras – the icon of Brazil’s proprietary technology in locating and extracting oil from deep ocean underground – now associated with an eight hundred million dollar scandal. Oliver almost chokes when he says the amount out loud. It’s not a mere couple of millions, which would be enough to make any serious leader resign. It’s an astronomical number, with more zeroes than many developing nations’ GNP. As a result, Petrobras stocks have eroded more than 80% in the past five years, hurting the pensions of millions of Brazilians (according to http://www.forbes.com).

Below is the link to John Oliver’s expose on Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff’s misadventures, her astonishingly arrogant reaction and the popular protests, affectionately called PANELACO, (form of mass protest by banging pots and pans) across the country. Dad tells me there will be another public protest on April 12 and he and my stepmother plan on joining it. May be Force be with them…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51W2N68zckY

I hate when people go “I tooooold you” on me and I try never to do that onto others, but, Brazil, I so thus informed you (in The Big Bang Theory’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s words), years ago, when the country was falling in love with the idea of electing Lula da Silva, a union activist sponsored by Brazil’s PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party) turned into presidential candidate in the post 9/11 era because he hated the military government (far from perfect) and basically everything related to capitalism and free markets. He did not openly say so, but his adoration of communist idols Fidel Castro and Che Guevara spoke volumes.

Lula’s speeches (and the ones by all of PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores – Workers Party’s – activists) always sounded empty. He promised to fix all of Brazil’s problems but offered no tangible solutions. He was just angry all the time, he shouted a lot during his campaigns. His followers looked menacing and violent; violence erupted many times on the streets as a matter of fact, during the Workers Party’s protests, in the 1990’s.

In one particularly disturbing episode in my city, a police officer was murdered by some of Lula’s supporters, the Sem-TerraThe Landless – as they called themselves. Lula’s newest thing was that once in office, he would redistribute the country’s real estate, including the vast farm land Brazil possesses (vast and productive and profitable when well administered as it has been, by business owners, companies, and well-funded, experienced, and highly technological enterprises) would be divided into small tracks and given away to unemployed people – poor, unexperienced in farming, barely knowing how to operate a tractor… That thought alone was enough to scare away investors, both nationally and from overseas.

Seriously, Brazil, how did you think Lula da Silva could ever do anything good for the country? I remember staring at Lula’s presidential campaign poster in disbelief. It was this huge black-&-white close-up of Mr. Lula’s face, a rare half smile on his lips, under the slogan SEM MEDO DE SER FELIZ – Not Afraid of Being Happy. What a joke, I thought, when that was the angriest creature I had ever seen on TV and press photos. That smile was a fake or else he was thinking of the many millions he would accumulate at the end of his second term in office. How does one go from being a simple metalurgico (metal worker), a laborer, into becoming an immensely wealthy individual? I am all for working hard to prosper; more power always to all self-made men and women, to business owners, entrepreneurs, innovators, even to lottery winners – may the sky of the free markets always be the limit to them. Lula was neither and we all know fully well no one gets rich with a president’s salary in Brazil, no matter how generous the perks and tax cuts may be.

Mr. Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, more than anything else on earth, would have liked to become Brazil’s dictator ad infinitum. Just like the military government he so fiercely criticized in years past. Here’s the thing: the left wing in South America is against all dictatorships on the planet unless they are the dictators themselves – ai pode, as people say in Portuguese. Then it’s OK. Kicking and screaming Lula left after his second presidential term (he would have changed the constitution if possible, to be allowed to run for reelection again) only to pass his legacy on to Dilma Rousseff, his own former Secretary of Power and Energy and always a top official within the party. Also reelected for her second term in office last October, but by a narrow margin in a run-off vote, Dilma proved equally bad. As royalty, the Workers Party in Brazil never leaves…

All through South America, since I was old enough to understand that the so-called progressives did not make any serious plans to govern and manage based on knowledge, principles, honor, goodwill, compassion, respect, patriotism honesty, reliable intelligence and strategy, the likes of Lula and Dilma have reigned based on empty promises. As a matter of fact, the cruelty of their machinations goes as deep as purposefully aim for keeping society as dumb, poor, and uneducated as possible; the only soil where their ineptitude has any chance to thrive.

There is the classic under- my-government-not-a-single-person-will-go-hungry-in-this- country-again. Or my favorite ever, vote-for-me-and-I’ll-create-jobs-for-everyone. Please. People go hungry in America sometimes; the ghost of unemployment never ceases to haunt the U.S. economy itself, let alone the slums of Rio, the impoverished villages in northeast Brazil… Not to mention the leftist ancient mantra, that any economic crisis, no matter of what proportions and how it came into being, inflation or depression and everything in between , can always be solved with higher taxes and huge government. If you are not convinced yet, look at Greece.

Anyway, this is all so old, it makes me so tired, it pushes me to repeat myself and I feel so frustrated that Brazil has once again to go through this weary process, wasting precious time, resources, the hearts and souls of its citizens; so, Brazil: I told you, I told you, I told you; just can’t say that enough this time.

My antipathy toward these highly politicized, hypocrite and anarchy-loving union activists go back decades; to when my city was electing its first left-wing mayor in a long time, amply supported by the usual noisy crowd of unionized workers, arrogant intellectuals, and the press. The Workers Party, for nearly three decades banished and persecuted by the military government due to their communist orientation, was now able to organize themselves legitimately, its members free to run for election, be elected! A love story that endured to this day in many South American countries, and look how it is ending: Brazil, who for most of my adult life fought an arduous battle against inflation, who finally emerged from it, deeply scarred and bruised, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, is now facing its old enemy again. Thanks to the Workers Party’s incompetency and corruption, the country is back to a yearly inflation rate of 7.70%. I am not socially blind and insensitive – I understand unions had to be created at one point in human history to protect workers from being abused. However, in Brazil, history also shows, the Workers Party is simply not fit for government; they don’t know how to do it; they are not serious about it.

Lula’s and Dilma’s incompetency was there for everyone to see; written on the stars, on the palm of the voters’ hands.The corruption we now witness in Dilma’s presidency was the natural consequence – these Workers Party activists are mere self-serving politicians; no one in their group had any intention ever of doing something noble for the country, something to be passed on with pride and honor to future generations; there wasn’t a single statesman or woman among them; nothing constructive is ever coming from their rise to power if they remain as they are. The country forgot how mighty a tool the popular vote is and how we should always be mindful of the ways we use it; it is paying the price now. Ah, Brazil, did you not see this coming???

When I feel this powerless, I mostly shut myself off. I don’t want to see anything about the crisis in Brazil and the rampant corruption of its leaders. I did not create it, I cannot solve it; the Workers Party once frightened me with their crazed ferocity and now I am just disgusted at their arrogance and impunity.

And that was my state of mind, just disheartened beyond words, when my husband told me about this skinny 19 year-old kid, a college dropout, of Japanese descent, leading the anti-Dilma protest in Sao Paulo on March 15 (Please click the link to see the photos of Kim Kataguirri and crowds as huge as the country had not seen in three decades):

http://www.chron.com/news/world/article/Teen-libertarian-is-face-of-Brazil-s-young-6167004.php#photo-7737895

A teen libertarian, conservative and free-market idealist, who makes fun of Fidel Castro on the Web, reads classics of Economics, leads the Free Brazil Movement and preaches that Dilma Rousseff should not only be ousted via impeachment but actually go to jail? I tried to remain cold. South America has seen so many of these fly-by-night flamboyant personalities… It took me 24 hours to get the courage I needed to read about this wonder kid Kataguirri. Brazil broke my heart several times; once bitten and twice shy

The popular vote that pushed Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff into power was born at the core of Brazil’s industrialized urban center – Sao Paulo. A 20-million people megalopolis around which multinational groups flourished for decades; from auto makers to pharmaceutical companies. No wonder unions grew strong in such an environment. A call for strike at the Volkswagen plant for higher wages could spread like wildfire through all auto makers in the area and then across the country. From the anger-infused meetings of Sindicato dos Metalurgicos (Metal Workers Union) headquartered in Sao Paulo, came the idea that one of his most out-spoken leaders, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, could one day be a good president to South America’s largest economy (back in the 1990’s Brazil was 8th economy in the world – now I don’t know anymore and as I am afraid of Googling it, let’s stay with that memorable number).

It is now from Sao Paulo again that a young voice is rising, not to support the Workers Party dynasty but to protest it. Brazil’s newest and youngest anti-establishment agitator, from the same Sao Paulo that brought us Lula. How ironic.

I don’t know how many Kim Kataguirris and panelacos it will take for the country to wake up before corruption gets so ingrained that doing business with Brazil is virtually impossible. Once foreign and national investments halt, unemployment will be on the rise – the perfect environment for high inflation once more. Once high inflation settles in, it may take years of harsh measures to reverse the process. Unpunished corruption in the upper echelons of the federal government also means the country lost respect for itself. Once that is the general feeling, morale and self-esteem sink to the bottom. Such pervasive feelings of impotency and hopelessness are as difficult to fight as galloping inflation; it is each man for himself – the sense of community and national pride tumble.

There is still time though; the once 8th largest economy can still stop the bleeding caused by years of corruption (800 million dollars are not spent overnight) by ousting this president and steering clear from that kind of cheap and self-serving leadership in future elections.

My sister is an entrepreneur – she and her business partner own and operate a shopping mall fashion store – and is obviously appalled at the suicidal route Dilma Rousseff chose for her country. The U.S. Dollar rate is now R$3.30; the highest in a long time. You need tree Reais and thirty centavos (cents) to purchase one single dollar. This high rate is basically a self-perpetuating fear thermometer –the higher the rate goes, the less the country believes in itself. The less the country believes in itself, the higher the rate dollar/real jumps…

The Workers Party has been Brazil’s worst nightmare for too long; a smiling face as friendly and trustworthy as The Joker’s. Sorry, sorry, sorry, but I so thus informed you…

(P.S.: I got brave again and Googled Brazil’s economy rank in the world – it’s the 7th largest economy; a GDP of US$2,253 trillion in 2012, according http://www.worldbank .com)

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Yesterday Lies Ahead

 

Back in 2012 when The Traveler’s [K] Night was released, many readers asked for a sequel. They wanted Ali Kharan and Virginia Volstaad to have a second chance as the book closed with their parting, and against their will. I did, too. However, as the circumstances leading to their separation were so unusual I was not sure I could do it. We all know how sequels go; rarely is a sequel as good as the previous story, etc. Besides, I am not a sci-fi author and the task of reuniting my two main characters, entertainably and  believably (as believably as a work of fiction can be) so, appeared impossible at first. I saw no way of building that sequel without loading it with sci-fi material, and that I did not want. I told myself it was best to leave it alone; there was no way around the mess I had created for that poor couple. Besides, two new writing projects were taking shape and I had scribbled one of the drafts already. But the emails and comments from readers stuck with me.

Looking back now I don’t recall what exactly made me postpone those two new projects and embrace my first attempt to a sequel – it was not a split-second decision, I don’t think; rather a decision –making process. But Ali and Virginia got their second chance and The Traveler’s [K] Night‘s sequel – Yesterday Lies Aheadwas recently finalized. If everything goes as planned, it should be released in paperback and Kindle around October, available at Amazon.com. Contrary to my initial fears, I ended up having fun as the story moved on. Hope the readers will not be disappointed; in particular those who wanted the sequel…

Here’s an excerpt:

________________

“Is this real?” he asked, as if to himself, only to remember what he had just read. Everything you will hear is true. That was his father’s handwriting on a document ten centuries old. The copy of a document ten centuries old, according to Eric’s video. And then the echo of Sebby Pereira’s voice in the car. It’s all true. But how could it be?

“Sorry to keep you in the dark about all this for so long,” Virginia had shaken his hand with an assertiveness Ben was not prepared to find. For the first time in many years, Eric Volstaad’s daughter did not appear ill, weak and surrounded by the ocean of sadness that seemed to involve each little thing she did, from a simple smile to the way she moved.

Sebby had vanished into the depths of the family room, claimed by the Volstaad kids. He could hear their shrieks and laughter. They were having fun with Sebby, who seemed to operate as grandfather number two. Virginia had just returned from the kitchen with a freshly brewed cup of coffee as Ben was in no mood for dinner.

“If this is a copy, where is the original?”

Across from them, fake flames danced in the handsome gas fireplace, flanked by two walls covered with book shelves, floor to ceiling.

“In an air-tight chamber, at NuVida, along with Ali’s original journal,” she answered as if that was the most commonplace fact ever. Ben looked at her astonished; she spoke of his dad as if he was an acquaintance who had just sent her a book. “It was given to me two years ago.”

The two paragraph note had a much too familiar signature on it. Even more confusing was the looks of the document; a very real and convincing parchment, like something from a museum display, much older than the oldest copy of the U.S. Constitution Ben had once seen in a commemorative exhibit in Philadelphia, with his brother and dad.

Dear Ben and Jeff,

                                         It’s been a long time since I last saw you and I miss you both very much.

                                         Be patient with the person handing you this message. It may be Virginia Volstaad or someone appointed by her, her father, or a member of the Volstaad family. In any case, I hope it is Virginia because she better than anyone knows what happened. Everything you will hear is true.   And if by any chance the person delivering this to you is a stranger, who cannot provide a logical explanation, then all you’ll ever need to know is how proud I‘ve always been of the two of you and how much I love you both.

                                                       Your father

Ali Kharan

                                                       Vereuela Abbey, Zaragoza, September 1150.

“We developed this synthetic material at NuVida, imitating the original parchment on which he wrote, wrinkle by wrinkle, matching even the tiniest discoloration. We believe museums and libraries all around the word will be buying from us once we can produce it in large scale.   It’s not impossible once you master the technology to parallel even human skin tissue… For the prosthetic limbs we built, I mean,” she added so matter-of-factly Ben found nothing to say. Eric’s daughter was sounding more and more like her dad.

“You mentioned you received this two years ago,” Ben insisted. He couldn’t help but being skeptical. “From whom?”

“From him; Ali. There was a letter to me as well, explaining how he managed to reach us.”

“You know my father,” Ben commented after a long and chagrin silence. Besides the letter, the briefcase sent by Eric contained a mini DVD player with footage filmed before he had been hospitalized plus a pair of thick notebooks, overused and abused, covered with Eric’s small and precise handwriting; all caps and no punctuation as if the man’s brain never paused. Drawings, formulas, graphs, equations. Ben had yet to investigate their meaning and relevance to the fact Ali Kharan had been closer to the Volstaads than he ever suspected. “ I thought the only time you and Dad saw one another was when he drove me to the internship interview with Eric and we were in the lobby, the three of us, for, maybe a couple of minutes.”

“It was a long time ago.”

“Everything about my dad is a long time ago.” Ben’s voice sounded harsh but he did not seem to realize or did not care. “Mom got married one exact year after dad’s file was archived by the police. Jeff and I knew how miserable our parents’ marriage was. We avoided being with them together – it was agonizing. Her new husband is a businessman in Florida. We are not close, but she is all smiles all the time, even over the phone.  They are very wealthy,  always traveling and entertaining in Coral Gables. There’s nothing left from her first marriage, except for Jeff and me. We lost contact with Dad’s colleagues at the university too. It feels like my father never existed.”

The words poured out of Ben Kharan and he did know whether it was because he needed to find something to talk about or because he had finally found a chance to vent the frustration accumulated through more than a decade.

“And yet, I did not think he would leave us without an explanation. As miserable as they both felt in that marriage, it was not Dad’s style just to disappear. I knew something serious had happened; outside his control. All the lessons he pounded on about responsibility and ethics…. He wouldn’t just leave.” Ben stood up and touched his own forehead. The skin was moist. “Why would he send you, not us, the letter and the journal Eric described?”

Virginia shifted on the couch.

“Because I had been there with him.”

“Where?”

“In Jutland. Actually Denmark. Year 1111. We met Niels there.”

Sweat trickled down Ben’s temples and cheeks.

“Your husband, Niels Dane?”

“You are not comfortable. I’ll lower the heat; my apologies. Give me you jacket,” Virginia said, helping him off the garment. She hung it on the coat tree by the front door, just peripherally registering the coffee stain on the lapel. While she was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with long sleeves, Ben had preferred his day-to-day formality – suit and tie. The dancing flames in the fire place decreased as soon as she pressed a key on the wall.

“I can tell you how we lived in Niels’s castle since day one; since our arrival. What we ate, the people we met… Or you can ask me questions. I don’t really know where to start as Eric was supposed to be having this initial conversation with you…”

“How’s Eric?” Ben managed to ask, absent-minded, out of his habitual politeness.

“He is…slower. You will see it by yourself on Tuesday. Would you like a soda, cold water?”

“I want a drink. Something with alcohol in it, if you don’t mind. Lots of it.”

Virginia busied herself preparing a gin and tonic away from Ben, by the kitchen island that led into the dining area. The table had been set for two; a large tray of lasagna remained in the oven, green salad in the fridge. She poured in more gin than tonic, thinking of how Niels had enjoyed all kinds of liquor while he lived in the house. She handed Ben the tall glass with a napkin, quietly, knowing the worst was yet to come.

“Jeff wished our dad had vanished out of irresponsibility. He said that a thousand times. That he hoped dad had found a happier life somewhere, because the alternative was too painful to accept; that he had been the victim of some random cruelty, kidnapped… murdered. Not many people liked his ideas about small government and total freedom of speech, inside and outside academia. Mom used to say he spoke too much and would get himself in trouble one day. Serious trouble.”

“You father was a bright man.”

Ben took a large gulp of his gin tonic and collapsed on the couch. His knees were wobbling; his legs giving up the way he used to feel after running the second mile alongside Ali.

“What’s in the journal?”

“Everything about your father’s life ten centuries ago. Until… very close to the day he passed. “

“Did you and Eric read it all?”

“Each paragraph. I have a full copy of his journal, done with the same technology employed to reproduce the letter. We call it NuSkin.” Virginia tapped a TV remote and a door slid open at the bottom of the book shelf; slowly and silently. The secret chamber had been perfectly disguised. She kneeled down on the thick rug and produced a huge volume, so heavy she used both hands to handle it, with difficulty. “We had this one especially made for you and your brother.”

Virginia placed the heavy book by his side on the couch and took a seat on the chair across from him, by the fire place.

“How did you obtain a journal from my dad, written ten centuries ago? Ben asked, unable to touch the journal. “No, wait, you answered that already. What I really mean is, how did you end up there with him in the first place?”

“That you will have to ask Eric. I cannot give you a decent account of what his experiments involved.”

“He sent you and my dad one thousand years into the past on purpose?”

“By accident. He had no control over his own technology. We were not supposed to transfer in time.”

“Why did he want to go back in time?”

“He didn’t. Actually he was trying to bring someone from the past.”

Ben took another large gulp of his drink, waiting.

“My mom. She got ill and died when I was little. Dad wanted to bring her back and treat her. He had been working on this since after she passed…. That’s what NuVida is most about; medical technology. Volstaad’s medical division grew enough to be a sole company. We do make state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs and organs, especially for military veterans. Not everyone can pay for our products though. But that’s what you see. The NuVida you don’t see is my dad’s life since before you met him. As for the journal, Ali wrote such a detailed description you’ll feel as if you were there with him,” she finished, motioning to the huge book with leathery pages worn out around the edges. It looked each day of its ten-century long life and then some.

“The night he brought me back,” Virginia continued after a while, “Niels came along instead of Ali. Niels had been wounded by his uncle and Ali walked away momentarily. I stayed with Niels, in the same room. Do you remember all those boxes that had been shipped to the plant back then? I still remember Sebby telling me Dad was getting help from the new interns to open up and assemble those things. There were huge boxes all over the halls. ..

“I remember,” Ben confirmed. “We never had a clue of what those things were and Eric was not talking; he would answer no questions.” The more things change the more they remain the same.

             “He would not eat or sleep either. Lived on cigarettes, coffee and snacks from the vending machines. I knew something big was coming. Sebby may have known more. I believe Dad made him swear he would not say a word. The magnitude of the storm overwhelmed his systems. Everything got out of control, he panicked…”

Since Ben could remember, Virginia had seemed delicate, almost frail, and sad. Tonight, despite the family tragedy she was going through, none of that fragility remained. She was still too skinny and pale, however the determination in her voice and assurance of her manners made Ben think of her father’s vitality. Most of all, he could not get over the way she kept referring to his father, casually and intimately as Ali, like a friend, as if ignoring the one decade gap since his disappearance.

“All this time I hoped for an explanation for his absence…. and you and Eric had all the answers from the beginning.”

“I wish this letter could have reached us before. Without the letter and the journal, all our explanations to you would have sounded too fantastic for any credibility.”

Ben leaned back in the couch and closed his eyes.

“Why did Eric record a video instead of talking to me?”

“I didn’t know about the video until he went to the hospital on Thursday. You saw the date on the bottom of the screen. Two years ago, a few days after I received the package from Ali.”

“You make it sound as if my dad couriered you a parcel, from overseas; not century twelve Denmark. How did he manage to send you a package from the past? Do you realize how absurd this sounds?”

“As I said, there is another letter, from your father to me. Maybe you should read it too, later on. Things will look clearer then. As for the video, Dad did it because he had been feeling ill, complaining about chest pains again. If anything happened to him, unexpectedly, before he was ready to talk to you, he wanted to be sure you would hear most of it from him one way or the other. At the hospital, as soon as he was lucid again, he instructed me to get that suit case and invite you for dinner so we could talk in private. He was afraid he was not going to survive. Everything you saw and heard in the video, he planned to explain to you in person. That’s why he asked you to come from Florida and stay for one month. And ended having to ask Sebby to call you and cancel the meeting on Monday when Niels… when we heard about the accident. After that first meeting, he was taking you to NuVida, to show you everything. The video was just…insurance. As it turned, I’m glad he took precautions.”

Ben opened his eyes startled and jumped in the couch. The copy of Ali Kharan’s letter fell from his knees on the rug as Eric Volstaad, the younger one, passed running behind him, screeching and laughing, followed by his sister, and both of them pursued by Sebby. Hard to say who was having more fun. Virginia interrupted the chase.

“Eric, Ali, come say hello to Ben. He works with Grandpa, you know.”

They both halted to a sudden stop, crimson cheeks and panting, and circled the couch. Ben shook hands with them.

“I remember you now,” said Eric, picking up the letter from the floor and placing it on the table, carefully. “Cool book! Pirate stories?”

But his sister was not interested in ancient looking volumes.

“Are you sleeping over too, with Sebby?” Ali asked. “We have two guest rooms now that –“Ali interrupted herself and looked at her mother for guidance.

“It’s all right, Ali. Ben is here on business. However, he’s welcome to spend the night if our discussion extends for too long. I know you guys will force poor Sebby into camping in the family room as usual. I left the sleeping bags out already. Ben can have the guest room.”

“Can we watch a horror movie? Please?” begged Eric, addressing Sebby. Ali rolled her eyes.

“No horror movies; you’ll have night terrors and I want a good night of sleep,” was Selby’s response, carrying Eric away over his shoulder, as if the boy was a sack of potatoes, triggering more giggles.

“How are they doing?” Ben asked after their voices faded away.

“Eric refuses to eat and Ali cried for two days in a row. Sebby’s presence is a blessing; it’s the first time I hear them laughing since Thursday. Not sure they will be ready for school tomorrow. Thank you for asking.”

Virginia stood up and walked around the coffee table, uneasy.

“Dad will tell you more about the night he brought me back, along with Niels, and Ali stayed behind. I thought I could do it myself but I’d prefer Dad to go over it with you. I tend to get too… emotional. I have another issue to discuss with you…. Not an issue per se; it is not a problem. Although a rather personal matter -”

Virginia was now clearly embarrassed; as lost as Ben had felt all evening long. The handsome clock over the fire place marked almost nine. He had no idea where time went since Sebby Pereira had picked him at his hotel near the Philadelphia International Airport at four thirty.

“This other… issue has to do with something…Actually, not something but someone,” Virginia explained, hugging herself, uncertain on how to continue. Her voice was barely audible when she corrected herself. “Two persons. I’m so sorry, Ben, to drag you into this so sudden.” Virginia was struggling with the words and her nervousness only made him more apprehensive. “My kids, well, you know them already. Eric, my adoptive son. And Ali, she is thirteen…. Ali is not adopted. I had her when I was about your age. She always said she wanted to have older brothers. I think she has the same premonition skills her dad seemed to have. She is your sister.”

Ben kept staring at Virginia as if waiting for further information to come. He had not quite registered her last sentence. Before he could say anything, the smart phone in the pocket of his jacket rang and Ben rushed to the entry hall to retrieve it.

“Nancy! Hi…. I’m always glad to hear your voice… Where am I now? I’m in Bryn Mawr…. Yes, at her place. How do you know – Why am I here? With Eric in the hospital we had some business to –“

And that was the last thing Ben Kharan said for a period that felt too long to Virginia. When he walked back into the living room there was confusion stamped all over his face.

“She just hung up on me,” he complained, in a hurt tone, astonished.

“Your wife? Ben, what happened?”

“She was in tears, then screaming like a mad woman… Someone called her saying you and I have been having an affair for years and that Ali Volstaad is actually my daughter. Whoever called Nancy told her I was here with you tonight.”

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You just never know

 

The last trimester of 2014 was such a busy time I neglected blogging. Sounds like the Philadelphia Eagles’ former head coach, Andy Reid, repeating to the press he had to do a better job of putting the team in a position to win… Excuses, excuses. It all started in October when my family came from Brazil for a 12-day visit. I could not write a word prior to that, so excited I was to have them here for nearly two weeks, and then I could not write a word again after they left, as the volume of work hit me in November and December, when a new busy season began in the office.

After a while, you start asking yourself why blogging? In a world constantly bombarded by news and novelty, what difference does it make whether I write another post or not? That’s mostly laziness talking but I listened to it anyway because it was very convenient. Instead of making an extra effort to write about something, a fact or a person that inspired me, I went on line looking for a Christmas present to send to my parents in Brazil.

It was already mid-November and still I did not have a clue. I just seemed uninspired altogether, just feeling exhausted at the end of the day as another busy season rode on. My dad would love anything related to books, shows/music and movies – he always did. I never run out of ideas to send him presents of that type as I know his taste and how he enjoys exploring new things. And yet, this huge blank slate took over my mind. It was Thanksgiving already. Black Friday. Cyber Monday came and went. I left laptop and tablet alone and turned to the TV, not exactly hoping for enlightenment.

As for books, I had been under the spell of rereading classics since July – stories I was first introduced to in Portuguese, when I was just too young to understand them. Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre… Those are titles already known to my parents; no original ideas were coming from my recent readings either. I kept pressing the remote. Very rarely does inspiration come to me from TV shows and the very few times it did, well, the show was either cancelled or not renewed for a new season. That tells me how in tune I am with the preferences of the majority of viewers…

I clicked the remote control again and another ten or twelve channels paraded. Still I could not find something to blog about; no ideas of a good Christmas present for my parents.

I thought of my conversations with Dad when he was here in October and how he even had sent me newspaper articles about Brazil’s love affair with the Cuban government – true love never dies – for decades now and some disastrous political events involving the two nations. I was so astonished at what Dad told me I said I planned to blog about it. But honestly, this stubborn South American admiration and reverence for the Cuban tyrant wore me out so thin in the past years I can’t find the energy to write about it… Maybe it will be my new year’s resolution now that America seems to have stepped on the same boat, inaugurating an era of friendship with that unfortunate island.

I clicked away. There was a rerun of Disney’s kiddy sitcom Jessie playing and I thought of how my seven year old nephew laughed at the trials and tribulations of this New York nanny and the four children she cares for (parents always absent). There was also a rerun of Boardwalk Empire going on at some HBO channel (I liked the series very much; they killed the main character and suspended the show, obviously) however, after ten seconds of careful consideration, I decided my parents were not the audience for Nucky Thompson’s adventures during probation years. It’s very New Jerseyish, too Atlantic-City oriented. I clicked backwards now, having left the HD channels behind me.

Somewhere between channels 20 and 30, a very strong voice and a face I recalled faintly made me stop. I had reached the Public Television area. Watch it at your own risk; they will drive you crazy with five minutes of show followed by fifteen of detailed instructions on how to send them money and how in exchange for your not-so-humble contribution they will forward you either a DVD or a CD for three or four times the price you would pay at retail, Black Friday, Cyber Monday or not. Against all odds and my best judgment, knowing all the risks, I stayed. The singer on my screen had an Irish accent and a fine tenor voice. He was singing Love Thee Dearest, a couple of strophes in Italian – I recognized the words and melody. Actually, I recognized him – Paul Byrom – now considered one of Ireland’s most representative tenors and a former member of the Celtic Thunder group whose shows I had watched (suffered through was more likely just because the group was so talented) on PBS.

As soon as Mr. Byrom was done, under a blast of celebratory shouts and clapping hands from the audience, now the entire group entered the stage, in their familiar formation: five guys walking briskly to predefined positions, singing all the time – delivering their performance of Ireland’s Call, in dark gray kilt. The audience roars when they go “Shoulder to shoulder we’ll answer Ireland’s call” and execute a few choreographed movements. It’s very compelling. There is not a single drop of Irish blood in my veins and yet I almost have tears in my eyes and feel like ordering a Rosetta Stone set to learn Gaelic in thirty lessons right away.

That was it! I emailed my sister instead. Did our parents know of the Irish group called The Celtic Thunder? No, she answered immediately; she was sure they had never heard of it just as she had not. I was so excited to have found something new and inspiring for them I instantly forgot about Gaelic lessons and went on line searching for the latest album by The Celtic Thunder. I could order the CD but the DVD would be best – I wanted my parents to see how the singers perform on stage, how the audience adores them, and perhaps pick their favorite, choosing among Paul Byrom’s powerful tenor voice, Keith Harkin and Ryan Kelly’s warm tones, Damian McGinty’s young rendition of classics and, my all-time favorite, George Donaldson and his crystal-clear interpretation of Irish and Scottish folk songs, always so touching, so heartfelt.

The choices were, in short, Voyage, Mythology and Heritage, the three shows that displayed my favorite songs. Or I could go with one of their Christmas performances – very appropriate for this time of the year. As I Googled their albums further, one hyperlink stopped me in my tracks. Celtic Thunder’s George Donaldson dead at the age of 46.

They had to be kidding. They must have been talking about another George Donaldson – that was in error. Someone hacked Google’s entries on Celtic Thunder just for fun. It’s curious how our minds come up with ridiculous explanations when we just don’t want to see the truth. Mr. Donaldson died of massive heart failure in his house in Glasgow, survived by wife Carolyn and thirteen year old daughter Sarah, in March of 2014, a few days after his birthday. The only Scotsman in the group.

At first I got so saddened by the news I no longer wanted to order the DVD for my parents. Gradually, though, I changed my mind and decided that sending them the disc was my way to make sure Mr. Donaldson’s beautiful voice will now have existed for more people in the world, who would be able to admire his talent as well.

The year that now ends took away a lot of good people; some famous like George Donaldson, others not so much, like my sister’s best friend Gabi, in Brazil. It’s always like this; it’s just that sometimes we feel it more intensely. And when I feel things this intensely is when I have to write. By the way, the good folks who manage my blog site, powered by WordPress, issued a report saying 540 viewers visited the blog in 2014. Most in Brazil, but followed closely by U.S. viewers as well, and Italy. The most popular post of 2014 was Tooth and Nail. I cannot thank each and every one of those 540 names so I leave my astonished and sincere thanks here. I will keep writing; the sequel to The Traveler’s [K] Night is ready to be released at some point in September or October and I will keep listening to Celtic Thunder songs to remind myself of the impermanence of all things – we just never know what lies ahead…

Have a healthy and prosperous 2015!

Slainte! (Gaelic for “to your health!”)

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Traveling without Moving

Traveling without Moving

If last summer I felt overwhelmed with all the travelling needed at work for a new project, this year has been the opposite and I enjoyed a quiet summer about which my only complaint is that it felt too short. Already were the mornings of August getting cool and the trees began shedding their leaves. It was August until yesterday! It’s supposed to be hot and bright and scalding and humid; we were supposed to sweat, not to put on sweaters on the train and in the office.

To make matters worse, stores are already selling fall décor, showing off the newest arrivals for Halloween and Thanksgiving. This constant state of anticipation is just too anxious for me; I need time to slow down. In one of his songs Springsteen claims he doesn’t “see the summer as it wanes; just a subtle change of light upon your face”. Lucky him. I am painfully aware of all signs predicting the end of the warm months…Can’t make days last longer, can’t change the weather though. All I can do is to suggest the few good shows and movies that made me travel this summer, from Siberia to Switzerland, through Asia and the Himalayas and all around planet Earth.

For those who remember the epic trilogy by Frank Herbert – Dune – there is this magic substance – the spice – that made people go places without traveling: “The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its Navigators, whom the spice has mutated over four thousand years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space; that is, to travel to any part of the known universe without moving.” Cinema does that for me. Here are my favorites this summer:

Gravity –When I was 11 or 12 my dad took me to the movies to watch a rerun of 2001 A Space Odyssey. That movie set the standards for all future sci-fi productions I watched and Gravity was no exception. To a certain extent, it did make me feel like 11 again, mesmerized by the beautiful special effects. Watch Gravity for this: the perfectly orchestrated special effects. Expect little from the acting and you won’t be disappointed. As a light-hearted, bon-vivant of an astronaut, George Clooney gives up his own life to save Sandra Bullock’s character’s just too easily. It did not feel convincingly enough that a man so happy with himself and his world would give up on everything to save a fellow astronaut to whom he was not even close. Had humankind always given up on survival as easily as Clooney, gravity or not, oxygen or not, we would not be here. But the special effects were magnificent. Following Clooney’s sacrifice, the next big chunk of almost two hours are spent by Sandra Bullock trying to remember her training and consulting the user’s manual to make things work at the space ship – tiny – she is trying to pilot. When she by accident tunes the radio to an Asian-speaking (Chinese probably) frequency and starts howling like a dog I had to remind myself again how terrific the special effects had been so far and that no actress on this Earth of ours could have poorformed that painful scene half-decently. Despite Clooney’s self-immolation, Sandra’s fate is uncertain. Space walking must feel great and everything but at the end of the day we all want to set out feet on the good old soil of this blue planet we call home and experience the blessing gravity is.

The Way Back – By contrast, this never made big news in the U.S.; never won any shiny awards except for an obscure best make-up Oscar in 2011. It’s a 2010 NatGeo co-production directed by Peter Weir and starred by Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and Collin Farrell, inspired by The Long Walk (1955), a book by Stawomir Rawicz, a Polish POW in the Soviet Gulag.

As in Gravity, it’s about things we only miss when we don’t have them; like gravity itself. And freedom. Human beings do crazy things for freedom, as for example, walk four thousand miles, from the Siberian Gulag to India. In one touching scene, when the group of fugitives make it to the plains of Mongolia, their despair in seeing comrade Mao’s portrait upon a portal at the borderline made me shiver. “They are here too”, one of the travelers cries, in despair. It’s the WW II days and it would take many decades for Eastern Europe to divorce from communism. The way back to freedom was achieved step by painful step, for those fugitives and the countries to which they belonged.

Particle Fever – sounds like another sci-fi but it is actually a documentary. A U.S. production that opens the doors to the LHC at CERN. Translation: the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Geneva, Switzerland. This is one rare chance for us, mere mortals, to see how flesh-and-bone Sheldon Coopers and Leonard Hofstadters behave in real life.

In short, the LHC and the likes of it in the world exist so physicists can smash atoms at unbelievable speeds to see what particles they can come up with. Funny enough, science has to turn to the invisible world of units so small we can never hope to actually see them – only the evidence of their existence – to make sense of the giant universe around us.

For the physicists in Particle Fever, theoretical and experimentalist, life is a constant search for the Holy Grail, which in their world, for a long time – since 1970 – is called The Higgs Boson. It’s also a competition between opposing factions: the ones who advocate for the multiverse theory (predicts that the Higgs particle, if found, will have a mass of approximately 140 giga-electronwolts) and the ones who argue in favor of the supersymmetry theory (predicts the mass of the Higgs to be around 115 GeV).

Flashback to the 1970’s, when the Standard Model was formulated. The Higgs is the very last and perpetually elusive particle to hold the entire system together. Without it, the Model is incomplete – we have to go back and begin again from scratch. It means we know nothing about the Universe. As one of the Sheldons in the documentary says, with a sad voice, “If the Higgs goes, everything goes. [Not finding it] “could be the thing that destroys everything.”

Hence the LHC’s greatest challenge – to find a Higgs-like particle. Its 7 ton superconducting magnets have to be cooled by liquid helium in temperatures below the ones in outer space. One hundred thousand computers handle the data and ten thousand scientists around the world are involved in the project. Watch how a helium leak nearly puts an end to their dreams and how incredibly patient and persistent one has to be in addition to having a brilliant mind in this environment.

Basically put – very basically indeed – If the LHC finds a Higgs-like particle with 115 GeV, supersymmetry wins; all the numbers and equations we have come up with so far are what they are so life can exist. Change one little fraction of a number about any of those, and poof!we’re gone.

A Higgs particle with 140 GeV is more likely to confirm the multiverse theory: Ours is just one of an infinite number of universes – our numbers and equations work out here and here only; we can never hope to understand the entire picture because each universe has its own set of rules. This one of ours is a mere coincidence among a number that is itself incomprehensible to us.

What’s going to be – supersymmetry or multiverse? Watch the day the world came to a halt for physicists, in 2012, waiting for the CERN to announce its official findings; the standing ovation rendered to Peter Higgs – the British scientist who predicted the existence of that very particle and Nobel Prize laureate (born in 1929 and in excellent shape by the way -) wipe away tears from his eyes. 115 GeV or 140 GeV? A puzzling discovery in the end. If anything else, you’ll find out physicists are actually very entertaining people.

The Leftovers – A TV series by HBO. Just when I was feeling no other show would be as good as Game of Thrones, HBO saved the day. Based on the book by Tom Perrotta, also named The Leftovers, the story is more frightening than any version of our world being attacked by zombies. Or monsters from outer space. In both cases we would know who the enemy is. In The Leftovers we are so lost, so flabbergasted by the happenings of one fine October day, many just go postal.

Three years after the so called Rapture (no one could come up with a better name or explanation so The Rapture it became), when two percent of the world’s population simply vanished, the people of Mapleton NY, just outside New York city, are a microcosmos of how human beings are coping.

Praise to the actor who plays Police Chief Kevin Garvey, Jr. – Justin Theroux. So far all I knew about him was his ultra-famous fiancée Jennifer Aniston. He had to become a Leftover to show what he can do! Praise also the casting teams at HBO – they always pick the perfect actor or actress for the perfect role. I have been a long-time fan of HBO shows, since The Sopranos, and it gets better and better.

It’s a story without a hero. From the reverend who sets out to prove to his community that the Rapture was no Rapture at all – that it took away good and bad people alike – from babies to thieves and everyone in between – and therefore is constantly having his nose broken by furious citizens, to the police chief that sleepwalks and does despicable things he cannot remember in the morning. From a weird sect of men and women who don’t speak a word, smoke non-stop and dress in white all the time – the Guilty Remnant – to an African-American messiah who has the power of removing people’s sadness with a hug (provided that you pay a couple of thousand dollars) and has many wives, all of Asian-descent and all of them currently pregnant.

Kevin Garvey’s dad used to be the Police Chief himself (played by Scott Glenn who I missed since Silverado days!) but became violent and began hearing voices after The Rapture. Also, he was having an affair with the very attractive and young Mapleton mayor, in the pre-Rapture days, which only adds to the tension. Kevin’s wife divorced him to join the Guilty Remnant and his son became a follower of Holy Wayne, that mysterious guru. Someone is shooting all dogs in town and Kevin has no idea how to deal with his teenager daughter’s endless anger and hopelessness. Some in town lost their entire families, like Nora, whose husband and two small kids evaporated in the kitchen on that last hectic morning before school and work.

At this point in the story, when the last episode will be aired next week, your guess of what caused millions to disappear is as good as any. I made up my mind watching Nora’s frustration with her screaming kids and aloof husband. Remember Kevin, the little boy in Home Alone, when he asks himself in disbelief, “I made my own family disappear???” What if millions of Kevins around the globe had succeeded in their fleeting wishes, consciously or not, that for one brief second only everybody in their lives could be gone? A crying baby in the back seat, the accidental lover in a motel room… That would explain a lot of the guilt and anxiety the post-Rapture world exhibits in The Leftovers, wouldn’t it? But HBO will probably come up with something twice as astonishing as that. The good thing is, whether or not we will all know next Sunday what happened to the departed, HBO has renewed the show for a second season!

Himalayas – Again a documentary, by BBC’s comedian and travel presenter, Michael Palin, in six episodes. Netflix has the entire series. Like with sci-fi movies, I have to go back to childhood to explain my fascination with this region of the world.

My first good Spanish dictionary, given me by my grandfather when I was 6 or 7, brought from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was published by a now extinct publishing house named Everest. It was a great book, full of pictures and the cover, of bright orange color as I remember it, had printed on the publisher’s symbol. A mountain peak, pointy and covered in snow, under which the name Everest appeared in capitals. I was intrigued. Why would an Argentine publisher call itself Everest, which was a mountain in Asia, when South America had its own formidable mountains, the Andes? I don’t know but the fact remains that it was because of my schism with the name of the publisher that I went on reading everything I could about Mount Everest – Chomolungma, as the Tibetans called it (“Goddess Mother of the World”) since long before 1865, when England’s Royal Geographical Society officially adopted Mount Everest as the name for the highest peak in the world; one to which many famous explorers have lost their lives. A very trying mother as it turned, in the land of eternal snows. Since then I cannot resist a movie or a documentary touching the Himalayas, Nepal, Tibet and Mount Everest – the ceiling of our world.

BBC knows how to put together a documentary. Michael Palin and his troupe travelled six months, from the Khyber Pass, in Pakistan, to the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. For us viewers, comfortably seating in our air conditioned homes and soft couches, the perils of Palin’s intrepid journey (3,000 horizontal miles, not counting any mountain climbing) sound even more fantastic. He is no athlete, about 55 years old, and I would think of average constitution. Nearing a climbing that totals over 10,000 feet above sea level, Palin is so ill (maybe a cold, maybe an altitude malaise – he himself is unsure) he can barely speak the camera.

While Palin is having a hard time climbing those steep hills, his Sherpa guides seem to glide upwards. Some are small, some tall, but all of them very muscular; obviously in great shape. Work hard and workout at the same time. Eat rice and lentils for most of your days on the planet, drink Yak butter tea and die of very old age. Such a simple life; we complicated everything.

From conversations with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala to never-seen footage of Tibet’s capital Lhasa (under the Chinese rule) to head- hunting (not the HR type) tribes and villagers that swear the Yeti does exist and looks pretty much like North America’s Big Foot, Palin’s documentary is great fun; I wanted his trip never to end. Although I no longer have any aspirations to see the Everest by myself, I’m glad BBC paid Palin to take on this arduous trip. It’s the Earth’s last frontier. Once we have unveiled all the secrets of the Land of the Eternal Snows, what’s next? We’ll have to go space-walking like George Clooney. I think I’ll pass; I like my gravity.

Happy Labor Day Weekend; enjoy the rest of your summer!

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