Two Hearts

Two Hearts

I always go to the first car – the Quiet Car. To read. Conversations, if they are absolutely necessary, are supposed to be kept at whisper level on SEPTA’s Quiet Ride – no phone conversations. My kind of train ride.

The iPhone in my handbag buzzes and I pick it up, careful not to elbow anyone around me. It’s about 4:50 pm, hot June day in Philly, and Suburban station is crowded.  An email from my sister, saying Neymar, Brazil’s attacker, scored twice against Cameroon. Brazil leads 2 X 1. As soon as I get a seat on the Quiet Car, I start browsing the Web for footage of the match. I hit the arrow to roll the video and the sound explodes in the Quiet Ride car – Goooooooaaaaaaal!!! In my haste to watch Neymar’s two scores, I forgot to minimize the sound. God almighty. That same God everybody claims is Brazilian (Deus e Brasileiro!) and that stands atop the Corcovado mount, arms wide open, embracing the Bay of Guanabara in Rio. The same God we always ask to bless America. My face turns as red as my nail polish.

Saint Neymar, as the country is calling him now, lighting up candles for him and for God to keep him strong and inspired and unhurt. The Cameroon guys were rough on Neymar and although he never flinched, it is clear a lot of people would like to see him injured or expelled from the pitch via red card; soccer’s ultimate punishment. When asked how he dealt with this World Cup’s pressure (his first), Neymar shrugged. No pressure. I am doing what I always dreamt of doing, since I was a little boy. Cool, Neymar! I am glad you feel no pressure because I am terrified.

Considering Brazil’s performance as a team up to now, I do believe Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, 22, winner of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup Best Player Award, is the country’s only hope. So skinny, so young, so fast. So famous now, too; let’s hope that all this glory does not turn his head the wrong way, however, that is almost too much to ask – even from that same Brazilian-American God. His name written on the stars, his smiling face on the cover of magazines, Neymar is already dating a local celebrity – Bruna Marquezine, 18, a soap opera actress. It doesn’t get any more Brazilian than this – a famous World Cup player dating a soap opera actress!

If soap opera is serious business in Brazil, the World Cup is a national concern; a matter of life or death. Classes are suspended on the days Brazil enters the pitch; employees go home early, people who couldn’t care less about sports in general and soccer in particular drop everything to turn on their TVs.  Fans of both genders and all ages cry, laugh, scream, pass out, jump of joy, pray with fervor they did not even think they possessed. It’s hard to find words, in Portuguese or English, to express and justify such passion, after all Brazilians did not invent soccer.

It is with a deep mix of bliss and pain that the country watches Neymar – jersey number 10 as soccer icon Pele, Neymar’s idol – and his fellow team players run for 90+ minutes in the heat and humidity of the Northern Brazilian so- called winter. You cheer for them with all your heart and you fear for them as if they were playing for their lives. It means the world when you hear someone on the train describing how he loved Brazil’s match last night; how Neymar’s strong leg and precise foot left the goal keeper scrambling for the ball, found at the back of the net at last; alas too late. Nothing triggers patriotism in Brazilians like a win in a World Cup match, played at home, in stadiums Brazilians themselves did not believe would be erected one day, let alone in the four years since Brazil was announced as the venue for the 2014 World Cup.

My husband asked how long the World Cup, the event itself, lasts. Two weeks? I hope not !!! We will be suffering and rejoicing for each beloved country until mid July ! I never cared much for local soccer in Brazil – the weekend matches, the Thursday evenings at the stadium (my city, Porto Alegre, has two; one featured in this World Cup). In fact, after a few years in America, I came to enjoy football more than I ever did soccer. But the World Cup is a different story. The World Cup changes everything.

Even more so this June because of all the horror stories we heard for months. Behind-schedule construction, accidents resulting in serious injuries and even life loss; protests on the streets against the funds spent ($11 billion) on new construction and remodeling, and endless tales of FIFA’s arrogance and straight faced corruption. For months I heard alarming news about the preparations for the mega event. Coworkers asked a thousand times whether I would be going to Brazil for the World Cup this June. Based on those pessimistic (and often realistic) views from family and friends, horrified, I said no, God forbid. From South, where I was born, to North, which I never visited, twelve Brazilian cities – including Manaus, two steps away from the Amazon rain forest – rushed against the clock to finalize construction or remodeling of stadiums that, to my surprise, look great on TV. Everything turned out fine. The mother of all World Cups, as Brazil’s president is said to have declared. God almighty. Wish He could have spared us of cheap politician babbling. But that may be beyond even Him…

(John Oliver has a hilarious take on FIFA and the World Cup passion. Here is the link, thanks to my good friend and co-worker, Andie Kirschner, always well informed:

The 2014 World Cup is special because this time I cheer and root and suffer and celebrate for two nations. It’s not like having a divided heart. It’s like having two hearts! I love Dempsey as much as I love Neymar. It hurt when Altidore fell injured and Dempsey’s nose got broken as much as it hurt when the Cameroon player pushed Neymar, sending him sliding on the green of Mane Garrincha stadium, in Brasilia, for no reason at all. When the Cameroon player finally turned to apologize, Neymar simply avoided him, visibly annoyed, and to get even, scored twice !

A special World Cup because Brazil’s coach is from a town near mine. I cringe when he talks to reporters (in Portuguese, with subtitled translation) – he has absolutely no people skills. He doesn’t like the press and saves no effort making it clear for the world – I do mean the world – to see. His name is Luiz Felipe Scolari, nick named Felipao (Big Phil) as everything about him is huge and heavy. A good old gaucho (that’s how we call natives of our state, Rio Grande do Sul, a type of Brazilian Texas), as opposed as night and day can be, to the U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann, soft spoken, slim, pleasant, and perfectly comfortable around the press. “It’s a World Cup of many surprises”, he recently said. “And we want to be one of those surprises.”

It would be America’s first World Cup win in history. For Brazil, it would be World Cup number six. From what I’ve seen so far, America is perfectly equipped to win – except that most Americans don’t seem to care much whether their national soccer team wins or loses. I see nothing wrong with America’s soccer; we can win as much as anyone – it’s just that Americans are not into it.

America being America, the large screen TV placed in my office’s kitchen area is largely ignored while it broadcasts soccer. I don’t think most people know that England, Spain, and Italy went home early and that the U.S. and Brazil are not safe by any stretch of the imagination, as Germany, Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica, to name a few, are still alive and kicking However, some Americans must enjoy soccer as America was the foreign country to purchase the largest number of tickets for the matches, losing only to Brazil and followed by Australia.

Considering that you are having a glimpse of Brazilian soccer and the World Cup through the eyes of a woman, what happens when women watch soccer? We notice different things. Celebratory dancing, for example, when someone scores. I love that in football, I adore it in soccer, no matter who scores, no matter who dances. National anthem emotions – another item high on my list. Dempsey’s tense face, right hand on his chest as the American anthem sounded. Neymar’s heartfelt tears, impossible to disguise. If I forget everything else about this World Cup, I will forever remember the teams entering the pitch with kids by the hand, one child per player, so serious, so well-behaved.

Another example of what a woman sees when she watches the World Cup: the colorful shoes! Electric yellow, orange, green; and how about one shoe of each color – one blue and one pink? How about the hair styles? From U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman’s long dreadlocks to all types and variations of the Mohawk style and shaved heads and the glorious mess of Neymar’s dyed blonde coiffeur (Brazilian kids will now want that same disastrous haircut). My sister swears Cristiano Rolando, the acclaimed Portuguese player, fixes his hair every time he notices the camera approaching. He knows millions of female fans will be sighing in front of the screen.

As for the uniforms, two thumbs up to the longer shorts, up to or beyond knee height. I know soccer jerseys try reflecting each nation’s flag colors. Got it. But nothing beats the jerseys of US football players; like the Eagles’ handsome combination of silver and dark green or the Saints’ gorgeous mix of gold, black, and white. As far as jerseys go, American football is light years ahead of FIFA fashion designers.

On the down side, soccer injuries. They are far more – what? exotic? colorful? – than football’s. A Uruguayan player bit his Italian opponent on the shoulder! Uruguay ! Always so polite and gentleman-like; who would say such a wild thing could come from that tiny South American country, Brazil’s friendly neighbor, and so close to my heart? We see fit and muscular young men rolling on the field as if they had instantly sustained multiple fractures, in agony, making faces. Just to stand up and get on with their running thirty seconds later if that long. Hmm… do they need better equipment? Sturdier leg and foot protection? Helmets like football players? Hmm… I don’t think so. After almost ten years without watching a good soccer match seriously, with interest and intent, from begin to end, I suspect the acting is now part of the game. No pain no gain, right? So let’s be in horrible pain to increase the gain. Not saying real injuries don’t happen in soccer. In a match performed at Beira Rio stadium, in Porto Alegre, one of the players sustained a concussion and was rushed to the hospital. The point is, so many interruptions caused by fake injuries not only make us doubt when someone is truly hurt, but they also make the match hard and boring to watch. We want the game to flow, the passes to grow and multiply, the dancing feet to mesmerize us. Add too many interruptions and I will go water my flowers or put the dishes in the dishwasher.

It’s a remarkable World Cup, most of all, for the matches played in Manaus, almost in the jungle. A two-million people city, capital of the state of Amazonas, where soccer had never been played with such grandeur, for the entire planet to watch. For the first time in decades of World Cup, bowing to the Amazon’s relentless humidity and heat, FIFA instituted a water break. For those who watched U.S. Vs Portugal biting nails (I don’t bite my nails; I walk back and forth like a caged lion the moment the match starts to the end of the 90 minutes plus extra time ), that was a historic moment. The referee interrupted the match, wet-to-the-bone soccer players approached the coolers of water and Gatorade alongside the pitch, had their drinks and then returned to their positions thirty seconds later, orderly and quietly. I was proud of everyone!

I guess by now you figure I am enjoying this World Cup so much I could go on and on about it. But I am not a sports commentator, this is not a sports blog and by now my poor U.S. readers probably had enough about soccer to last them two life times. Let me run, light up a few candles for good measure and post this before both the U.S. and Brazil enter the pitch again. May the Force be with Neymar Junior and Captain Clint Dempsey!


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Wheel of Life – A Novel recommended by the US Review of Books

Thank you all for the support and kind words Wheel of Life received. It has been rated “recommended” by the US Review of Books.

Wheel of Life – A Novel by Liv Lugara

Reviewed by Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW

The US Review of Books

The US Review of Books

“McCoy was either a good guy or a brilliant pervert. That was the most exasperating thing on earth.”

A novel of love, murder, Buddhism, and healing, Wheel of Life takes the reader through a mystery that also offers insight into the Six Realms of Existence regarding the Wheel of Samsara. Set in the United States as well as in the East, Elisa Mitchell decides to leave the States to help others in need. She has been coping with the death of her husband who was killed in 9/11 and who she discovered had been cheating on her. Along the way, she meets William McCoy, who falls in love with her but who is a suspect in murders in their home town of Philadelphia. He seems to be too good to be true, and while the police let him go to India to see Elisa, the psychologist on the case follows him in order to warn Elisa about his suspicions, which begets the question about the psychologist’s real purpose.

The author offers a revealing story line regarding Buddhism with quotations from the book, Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein, which interlaces each pertinent section of this five-part book that is based on five of the six realms of existence. Combining Buddhist beliefs and practices within the story of murder adds to the flavor of this book, for who is truly compassionate, following the Buddhist path, and who appears to be of goodness but is really a murderer? The rich details of India, interwoven with the plight of the Tibetan refugees and abandoned children, as well as prejudices regarding the culture, provides an excellent setting for this mystery. While this is a quick read, it holds the reader’s interest not only with the plot line and odd assortment of characters, but with the teachings provided.


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A Box of Chocolates for Memorial Day


My first impression wasn’t good. Not much to praise about the opening dialogue between the main character and his wife, driving from home to the airport, just before he flies to his new assignment overseas. So stereotyped and banal I was appalled. A very insipid conversation on how times changed and how hard it became for young people to get into the work force, with endless candidates competing for one job position.

The only reason for that prologue to be there at all, I like to think, is because in real life – this movie is based on facts – the couple had that conversation on that specific morning, unaware of the tragedy looming ahead, in April 2009. Otherwise, I wished that dialogue could be cut off; the entire piece removed, leaving the scenes of them in the car framed by background music or highway traffic noise only, culminating with their arrival at the airport; the quick kiss and embrace the couple exchanged seen from a distance.

It got worse though. When the captain boards the mastodonic MAERSK cargo ship he would be taking from Salalah, Oman to Mombasa, Kenya, his exchange with first officer Shane is erratic, shallow, and one-dimensioned. I cringed, clinging on to memories of that remarkable actor in Cast Away, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, Road to Perdition, and my favorite of all, Forrest Gump. Or of a younger Hanks, happy and funny as in Big, The Man with One Red Shoe, Dragnet, The Money Pit. We all have seen what Tom Hanks can do and play cargo ship captain was simply not working; at least not in the first 20-30 minutes of Captain Phillips.

Whether Hanks was holding himself back until the right moment to come alive, I will never know. In contrast, the acting by a group of unknown actors – the Somali pirates – on the shores of their impoverished country the morning the local warlord recruits volunteers for the next job, was perfect. Heart-breaking perfect. You’ll hate them for what they’re just about to do, and you’ll admire them for their insane courage. Then you’ll pity them for the miserable life they live. Skinny fishermen (armed to their teeth, true), hijacking a giant cargo ship off small frail boats whose old engines barely ran, so mal-nourished and poorly clad, so ignorant and desperate for money; for any tiny bit of hope for their families’ future…

It’s a wealthy world from our point of view. No one should have to face the choices those young men – one of them couldn’t be older than 17 – did. I am not defending piracy, violence and crime. I am criticizing the incompetence of international organizations and the corruption of governments that fail to help people before they turn into the pirates in Captain Phillips.

As Phillips tells to one of his captors, he should have choices other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people. To what the pirate responds, Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America. And to America he ends up coming, in jail for the next 30 years. Better luck than his associates, killed by the Navy Seals in charge of rescuing Phillips.

The involvement of Washington and the Seals is a story apart as the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama was the first American cargo ship hijacked in two hundred years. I had forgotten how good it feels to watch a movie where the heroes are American. Where everything works as planned, each step of the process a success, lead by people whose hearts and minds are in the right place. They knew what they were doing; they had been trained, prepared; their strategy worked, their equipment worked, their knowledge was put to good use. There is no business like show business in America and there are no heroes like American heroes in movies – we just seem to have forgotten it as of lately.

Holding off his tremendous acting capacity or not, it’s when the pirates force him into the lifeboat that Tom Hanks’ talent explodes in the movie. As if at that very moment the actor had said to himself, ok, now I’m needed. Now I can work. Sadly, Hanks’ talent is evidenced by all the risks and dangers the Somali pirates subjected Phillips to for hours. No food, no water, no fresh air in the suffocating heat of the life boat; the yelling and the fighting among the pirates (human condition rarely descends so low in the movies) while I keep telling myself Phillips’ relatively controlled demeanor and calm cannot last much longer. He does go off when one of the pirates tears to pieces the note he is trying to write to his family and the captain pays dearly for losing his temper.

The acting by everyone in that claustrophobic lifeboat is so realistic it got me shivering; the perfect evening to start biting on my nails. Phillips is bleeding, he is in pain, and they tied up his hands and blindfolded him. The little lifeboat rocks like crazy in the wake created by the large US Navy vessel now – the seals cannot get a good look into it to shoot; they risk shooting Phillips as well. Fifteen agonizing minutes later, I’m no longer shaking; my eyes are tearing as the captain is examined by Navy Hospital Corpsman Danielle Albert (a real one by the way – not just someone pretending to be a Navy doc).

What makes a good movie good? What is the difference between a good movie and an excellent one? It makes you want to write about it. It makes you cry along with its heroes. Of course you never know that in the beginning… I didn’t think Captain Phillips would be one of those. As a very wise man named Forrest Gump once pointed, you’ll never know what you’ll get next. Life is a box of chocolates.

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Wheel of Life – A Novel – Paperback available now at

Wheel of Life – A Novel

By Liv Lugara

Paperback– April 30, 2014 –


Wheel of Life – A Novel

When the Philadelphia Special Investigations squad hired a criminal profiler a series of murders stirred up public opinion that summer. Highly trained in reading micro facial expressions, psychologist Vincent Mills found himself surrounded by animosity, starting with his own supervisor, who saw no use for a psychologist in the department. William McCoy, the only suspect, has an impeccable alibi. As McCoy appears on national TV to proclaim his innocence, Mills struggles to convince his bosses that there is more behind William McCoy’s star quarterback looks than meets the eye. McCoy’s former girlfriend, the troubled daughter of a prominent family in Philadelphia, was just found dead and he is already pursuing a new lover. On her way out of the country for volunteer work, Elisa Mitchell is leaving no one behind. No family, no close friends; William McCoy is the first person to whom she opened up a little in years. Everybody loves William and Vince fears the worst if Elisa falls for him. Vince Mills needs to reach Elisa soon, before that relationship too turns deadly.

For more details click the link:

The Kindle version will also be available at after May 15 2014.

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Tooth and Nail


When my sister emailed me the alarming news that her best friend had been hospitalized with a brain tumor last Friday I was horrified enough to stare at the two or three lines of text in her message, not knowing exactly what to write back. Not writer’s block. It was something much worse. It was as if I could feel her panic in each word she typed.

And yet I managed to respond that we often see young people recover from these things well enough. Soon enough, to take their lives back. I asked my sister please to tell her friend when she woke up at the hospital, after the surgery, that I wished her a quick and easy recovery. I told my sister I was going to be saying many Santo Anjos (that’s how we call the Guardian Angel prayer in Portuguese) as we always do, since we were little, and which my seven-year old nephew Arthur now says as well, before going to bed every night.

Gabrielle – Gabi – and my sister Aline have been friends since before Art’s age. Our parents built a house at the shore by Gabi’s grandparents’ home and the friendship that began in a summer vacation at some point in the 1970’s would last their entire lives. While my sister was fair and plump as a little girl, Gabi was skinny and darker. Whereas Aline and I as sisters over the years had our disagreements over different things, I can’t remember one single time where she and Gabi had a fight. They have always been soul mates in many ways.

We lost our grandparents and mom as the years passed. Gabi and her two sisters lost their own grandparents and dad. My sister went on to marry Gabi’s second cousin Andre, which only increased the intertwining of both our families. I can’t recall one birthday party since my nephew was born that was not attended by Gabi and occasionally her mother. To remember my sister’s childhood and teenage days at the beach house we so loved is to remember Gabi’s childhood – they were always together. If their professional choices took them to different schools and occupations years later, that never stopped them from being best friends.

And that’s why when Aline called me on Saturday, crying, to say her best friend had suffered brain hemorrhage, that the damage was just too massive and that she was not coming back, I felt like we both had crossed into a different dimension. A second type of reality where Gabi did not exist anymore. All I wanted was to get back to the other side, the good one, where healthy ladies in their forties don’t wake up in the morning for work, suffer a sudden dizziness and strong headache never to leave the hospital alive. Although the technical name for what happened to Gabrielle is death, I call these sudden passings disappearances. They are brutal. The only positive thing I can come up with is that Gabi never saw it coming and therefore never endured any physical or psychological agony. But for those around her, who like my sister had just talked on the phone with Gabi the prior evening, the shock is just too brutal.

I spent most of the Sunday afternoon in tears, imagining what my sister was going through, hoping she would call me at any moment to say a miracle had happened and that Gabi was out of danger. When she finally called it was late evening. They had decided to keep the machines on for another twelve hours at the hospital but there was no way around Gabi’s brain death. Aline spent most of the her Sunday between the hospital and Gabi’s condo, along with one Gabi’s sister’s, choosing clothes, shoes, jewelry, perfume for her viewing and funeral. She described Gabi’s daily book open over her desk, the nail polish and manicure tools on the table, waiting for her to return and put them away in the bathroom. Photos of my nephew Arthur all over the place. Aline described scenes of an interrupted life.

My husband said the biggest shock of losing someone of about our age and generation is that we are forced to face our own morality; it cuts deep. There may be some truth to that but the worse to me is the speed of how Gabi vanished. Too young and too good to leave so soon and so unexpectedly – no one had any chance to say good-bye. That’s what hurts so much. So many bad people should go first and free our world of their horrible presences – why should the good ones go so soon? My sister will grow old without her best friend now and my nephew will be denied the loving presence of someone who adored him.

This is an old song from and old band that may have broken apart years ago – I lost track of them; they were already old when I was a teenager. The Eagles. I think the name of the song is In a New York Minute:

You find somebody to love in this world

You gotta hang on tooth and nail

The wolf is always at the door.

One day they’re here

Next day they’re gone…

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Wheel of Life

Something was not right. She tilted her head unconsciously, and for a moment the surroundings of luscious green—pond, flower beds, and strategically pruned bushes and trees—disappeared as she stared at the man approaching fast. None of the employees she knew looked quite like that. And he wasn’t carrying a set of clubs either. Someone called her name from behind, one of the women in the party of four. She ignored the call, intrigued by the sudden appearance.

The stranger grew in size and shape as he got closer. And boy, did he look out of place.

“Hello there. I’m looking for Dr. Julie Freeman,” he shouted.

The voice of one her companions sounded impatient now. “What’s the holdup?”

She did not speak until he was near enough to touch her. “Who is looking for her?”

The stranger took the sunglasses off, and his eyes went beyond her, all the way to where the other women stood waiting a few yards up the gentle hill, suspicion and curiosity all over their faces. “I spoke with her husband this morning, and then someone at the clubhouse told me she had tee time at eleven.”

“You spoke with Robert this morning?”

“Your husband was very helpful. I got him on the driveway, going to his own golf outing,” the stranger said with a smile, now that he confirmed who she was. “He described how you were dressed. We tried your cell, but you were not picking up. He told me I’d find you here. Wonderful place! Wish I could’ve learned to play years ago,” he added, looking around. “I’m in my forties now. Is that too late?”

He had striking blue eyes, almost a violet hue. The shapeless sweat shirt had once been navy blue but had now faded to a washed-out purplish color. His wrinkled tan pants looked as if he had been sleeping in them. Old shoes completed the outfit of somebody who obviously didn’t care much for appearances. Not his own, at least. In sharp contrast with his pale face, more often exposed to indoor luminosity than sunlight, it seemed, and in desperate need of a good shave, the unruly hair was dark, thick, and straight, turning gray around his ears.

 “You are?”

“Vincent Mills. I’m currently the profiler working with the Philadelphia Special Investigations Unit.”

“You are not here for golf lessons.”

“I wish. Have you heard of the Philadelphia murders?” Vince plunged right in, counting on the subject’s popularity to capture her attention.

“I’ve heard of them, but I don’t have time to follow the news.”

Vince could tell by the choice of words and posture she was more curious than annoyed. Her I don’t have time to follow the news had sounded one note shy of apologetic. She had not stepped back or aside, attempting to put more distance between them. And her arms had remained relaxed along the body. Julie Freeman was not trying to shield herself from him. Therefore no need to flash any credentials; he had never liked that part anyway. Vince moved on. “You had a patient not too long ago whose name may be implicated in that case.”

“I hope that by paying me such an informal visit you are not implying that I should relax my ethics. You know how privileged patient information is in our world.”

Vince had been counting the seconds for that to come up. Behind thick lenses, the middle-aged woman had delicate features. He did not expect to be greeted with fireworks. After all, in that profession, he almost never was. Dr. Freeman belonged to the group of professionals to whom people came of their own free will, looking for answers, solutions for a healthier mental life. Whereas his presence—for as long as he could remember, far into those first years fresh from graduation—had always been imposed. Patients had always come to him because a higher authority so dictated. A school principal to a troubled student, the state and the people of Pennsylvania to a manic depressive accused of assault. Or worse.

“Besides, this is hardly the place for us to be discussing your cases, my patients, and ethics. Why don’t you call my assistant at—”

He sympathized with her resistance. From within the rolling greens of Overbrook Golf Club on the Main Line, and in old mansions built with even older money, life and reality seemed all too perfect. The Philadelphia murders had no place in those 120 acres and eighteen-hole course. Who wants to hear about violent death when life looks and smells that good?

“I tried both numbers. Got your voice mail at the university and your secretary in the office. She said you’ll be on your way to a series of conventions in Toronto and San Francisco after tomorrow. This couldn’t really wait for your return two or three weeks from now.”

Julie raised her eyes to the group of women still waiting at a distance, the golf cart parked by them. It was such a gorgeous morning, and she had longed for her Sunday golf. The early October breeze was just the right touch, and after her many trips, scheduled for the upcoming weeks, there would be no such days again for golf. The trees were already turning orange, yellow, and burgundy. One day you wake up, and it’s just too cold—winter is here. Julie would have to retire her brand-new set of clubs until next spring.

“What’s the patient’s name?”

From the back pocket in his pants, Mills produced a leather wallet, as overused as everything else in his attire. And from the wallet, a color photo cut in half. Whoever the other person was who had been in the picture, he or she had been carefully cut off. “Sorry for this. I’m not at liberty to disclose the second individual in the picture.”

Julie’s Sunday plans had suddenly changed. Nobody knew how close she had once been to losing that one.


The text above is an excerpt from  my next novel Wheel of Life, to be released in April.  It will be available in paperback and Kindle via

Thank you for reading and commenting on my writing; fiction and blog alike. As an independent author, without the mass marketing tools of a large publishing house, the support of each reader is key.  Every time a co-worker stops me down the hall to say a few words about a character she liked in The Traveler’s [K]Night or a movie he watched and enjoyed after reading the blog, it makes my day. My week! My month! Thank you for all the nice emails as well. It thrills me that a reader finds the time in his or her busy schedule to write a few lines or send me a Congratulations on your Novel! card.

We are now working on the interior design of Wheel of Life and next is my favorite piece in the process – the cover designing!

I will keep writing and I hope you keep reading. Most of all, I hope you come to enjoy Wheel of Life – A Novel. I will let everyone know when the book has been released.

Thank you for your support!


Liv Lugara

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The Sequel

Very rarely do my blogs require a sequel. Actually, this is the first.

Dad read the previous post about Rodrigo Santoro’s movie – Heleno – and wrote me a two-part email in response. He doesn’t write many long letters, good engineer he is. He is in the business of numbers. Calculations. Complex equations I will never be able to read let alone comprehend. But Heleno de Freitas made him write two emails. Now that’s a powerful character.

A hero in my dad’s childhood, in his own words. A fleeting one, as Dad grew to understand human nature and came to admire Heleno for the incredible soccer player he was. Only. A soccer player like he had never seen before. In case I had forgotten, Dad reminded me, Grandpa Joao Ibanez (Dad and Grandpa share bits of DNA and the same name) always took the family to Rio in July, running away from the cold weather in South Brazil (nothing remotely close to the mildest of Pennsylvania winters), bad for his asthma.

Before this gets confusing for those who read the previous blog – Soccer’s Best Loved Villain – the grandpa I mentioned back then (the judge) is actually my mom’s dad, therefore Dad’s father-in-law. That grandfather was of Portuguese descent. The one vacationing in Rio is from Spain. I never met him for he passed when Dad was very young. Not a judge this one, but a business owner in the jewelry industry.

The Ibanez clan’s July trips to Rio were also used as research and purchasing ventures into Rio’s jewelry suppliers. Back then Rio was the country’s main urban center. The most glamorous for sure, until Sao Paulo emerged as the power house it still is today. Brazil’s industrial heart and soul, powerful and impressive, but, begging your pardon, proud Sao Paulo natives (Paulistas), never half as gorgeous as Rio.

In my dad’s email, it is July 1946. Joao Ibanez, Sr. takes Joao Ibanez, Jr. to a soccer match: Botafogo vs. Fluminense. Joao Ibanez, Jr. is ten years old. Final score:  Botafogo 2, Fluminense 1. Thanks to Heleno de Freitas, Jr. is smitten, becoming a Botafogo fan on the spot. Not only was Heleno a superb athlete, Dad recalls, he was also highly educated; he held a law degree.  People called him Dr. Heleno as “doctor” in Portuguese (doutor) is  commonly used to refer to attorneys as well as to physicians;  a sign of respect.

Naturally, Heleno was always surrounded by high society ladies, good looking guy he was, despite the irritability Santoro’s movie so vividly depicted. Irascible, in my dad’s words. Irrationally temperamental. Such a bad temper was perhaps a harbinger of the schizophrenia that would take hold of his brain in not so distant a future. They called him Gilda, Dad recounts, just like the movie showed; Rita Hayworth’s diva-like character in the famous motion picture. Here Dad paused and said he was going to write more the next day.

And so he did.  Dad wrote about Heleno’s hiring by the Argentine team Boca Juniors as, he added, the Argentine people always had a knack for drama; after all, Buenos Aires is the cradle of Tango – can you think of a more dramatic and intense type of dancing? – and in the 1980’s home of another convoluted soccer star, Diego Maradona. But even for drama kings of such magnitude, Heleno proved too much (Soccer differences apart, I have lovely memories of vacations in Buenos Aires, a great city; and the frozen beauty of ski areas and resorts in the Argentine Andes, south of South America).

Back in Rio, hired by Vasco da Gama (favorite team of the Portuguese community), due to his poor health condition already, Heleno was scratched off the list of players who would represent the country in the 1950 World Cup, in Brazil. A Brazilian fiasco, Dad interjected. Maybe a tale for another blog. The last time Dad saw Heleno play was in our town, Porto Alegre, in 1949, against a local team extinct before I was born – Renner.

Dad ended his second email comparing  Heleno to Poe, “talentoso na literatura e na poesia, mas de vida curta e infeliz, quase miserável.” Talented in literature and poetry but of a short and unhappy, almost miserable life. Heleno could have been soccer’s best poet ever, had his life not turned so tragic. This is why, Dad closed, he never cared to watch Rodrigo Santoro in Heleno. The story of everything a man could have been. It hurts.

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Soccer’s Best Loved Villain

Articles on the Web describe him as “one of the most talented Brazilian soccer players of all times”. “The best ever soccer player across South America.” “The man who could have been Pele.” Before this sounds too much like a tribute to Brazilian soccer, I am not a soccer fan and the best player I grew up knowing of was Pele. Never had I heard of one Mr. Heleno de Freitas, a striker (artilheiro is the Portuguese word) for Botago, a team in Rio, in the years after WWII. It’s not a pretty story.

Outstanding athletes are usually equipped to become heroes – they crystallize all our human wishes and aspirations for physical and moral perfection because we tend to associate a healthy physique with a virtuous psyche. Mens sana in corpore sano, the Romans summarized. Sound mind in sound body. Not the case with Heleno de Freitas. His immense talent for soccer was not linked to a very nice personality. From another angle, his immense talent for soccer and the public adoration that followed made him believe he was invincible, granting him license to be reckless.

I grew up in a family where men truly enjoyed soccer. Grandpa (a justice of the state’s supreme court), would not watch our local team play without wearing his good luck Lacoste polo shirt (crimson red as the team’s jersey; beloved Internacional Sports Club), and could lose his temper arguing with neighbors and friends who happened to favor the rival team. The magistrate would go nuts cheering for Brazil in every World Cup. Nuts to the point of breaking furniture. Like the evening he and Dad jumped at once on the bed where they were sitting. The large screen TV refused to work in the living room so they were forced to watch Brazil Vs. Poland – this is 1974 – in my grandparents’ bedroom portable TV. Small. Black and white. Low low tech. How could they see every detail, yell at a mistaken pass, shout at the referees’ wrongdoing of Brazil, when I could barely tell jerseys apart and the numbers on the players’ backs? Both Dad and Grandpa wore glasses; how did they see stuff my sharp child’s vision could not? It remained a mystery.

Brazil lost. Dad and grandpa teamed up that night to fix the bed as true gentlemen, setting aside their soccer differences. When it came to local soccer teams, Dad’s heart beat for Gremio Futebol Clube (blue & black jerseys) and Grandpa’s for the guys in red & white, his glorious Internacional. They never swore or cursed in front of us kids, and women, and they never took us to the stadium. Not a good place for children and ladies.  Therefore we grew up in oblivion of most Portuguese bad words. Considering the appalling diagnosis of Mr. de Freitas’ causa mortis, they may have been embarrassed of mentioning his story to us. We grew up hearing the names of legends in Brazilian soccer:  Zagalo, Gerson, Pele, Tostao, Garrincha, whose feats created surges of patriotism no president or politician could have achieved. Songs and poems were written about them. And yet, no one ever said a word about this remarkable player, who passed years before I was born, in 1959, at the age of thirty nine.

The movie that brought up this whole reflection is titled Heleno (2012). A word of caution though, if you are not fond of B&W productions. (YouTube has the official trailer: and Netflix has the movie). I never had a problem with it; the latest sans color movie I watched and enjoyed being The Artist, winner of the Academy Award for best picture in 2011. As Heleno’s life develops in a world that could not have been broadcast in color to millions of Brazilian homes (color TVs arrived in the early 1970’s), it makes up for a much more realistic view of those times.

Heleno de Freitas could have been a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. From a high-middle class family, his professional choice is not fully explained except for newspaper clippings where he describes how intoxicating the fans’ roaring in the stadium was; how he felt like fluctuating, in ecstasy, and therefore knew what he wanted to do, who he wanted to be. Almost every time he had the ball at his feet or head it ended up in scoring. The more he kicked, the more he scored (209 goals for Botafogo alone). The more he scored the more infatuated he turned with his own talent. Glory morphed into addiction.

The Brazilian actor playing Heleno has a remarkable background as a big screen villain but this was by far his best performance.  I had to watch 300 twice to figure (I know; should have looked at the credits but that felt like cheating) to realize Rodrigo Santoro was actually King Xerxes, camouflaged  under a very exotic make up, tons of golden jewelry,  shaved head, apparently standing over seven feet tall, his complexion darkened by many shades and the voice electronically modified (Check YouTube’s footage on the Making of King Xerxes in 300:

Persian emperor Xerxes was the downfall of Spartan King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler, and in his skin Santoro went on to conquer the MTV Movie Award for Best Villain in 2007. Speaking of voices, Santoro’s Heleno speaks the best Portuguese I heard in a long time, almost slang-free (everybody is sir – senhor – or madam – madame), grammatically perfect and pleasant to the ear. I guess back in the 1950’s it was common for people to speak like that. Correctly. Heleno de Freitas smokes nonstop, lighting up two cigarettes at once. But then again he thought he was eternal, like King Xerxes’s fabled elite warriors – The Immortals. Besides soccer, Heleno loves women, drinks whisky with his daily meals and his favorite car is a Cadillac. Brazilians dreamt of Buicks and Cadillacs prior to BMWs, Ferraris or Alfa Romeos.

Physically, Santoro always reminded me of a South American Keanu Reeves, only slenderer. The last time I saw Santoro in action, in Portuguese, he was the emerging star of Brazilian soap opera industry. All smiles and charming Carioca-accented Portuguese. Praise also to Santoro’s Spanish speaking, as good as his Portuguese, which makes me think he functions well in at least three languages, including English, as he now lives in California.

As Heleno’s mental condition deteriorates, his behavior becomes more and more obnoxious.  The illness progresses at the same pace Rodrigo Santoro’s talented performance increases.  Towards the end, Santoro lost so much weight (comparable to Christian Bale in The Machinist and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club) his face is nearly unrecognizable. It’s painful to look at him.

When the Botafogo owners decided to trade Heleno to Argentina’s Boca Juniors it was the most anyone had ever paid for a soccer player in South America. Letting go of the star came in good time to save the team’s finances and it did not hurt to get rid of Heleno’s constant fits of anger, aggressiveness and outrageous behavior.  I’ll pause here to speculate how hard it must have been for that generation of Brazilian soccer fans to see their beloved hero traded to the enemy, for the rivalry between Argentina and Brazil in soccer is ancient and runs deep.

“What else do you, Heleno – a man that has everything – want of life?”, asks the radio talk show host in a last interview before he flies to Buenos Aires, in 1948.

“Nothing. But I’d like to meet John Wayne.”

And off to the Argentine capital Heleno went, joining every early morning practice in a heavy overcoat atop the Boca Junior’s official uniform, jersey and shorts. For a native of Southeast Brazil who lived his adult life walking the warm sands of Copacabana beach, Buenos Aires must have felt nothing short of Alaska. As it turned out, Heleno was too Carioca (native of Rio) for the Portenos (natives of the Federal Capital, Buenos Aires) and the Portenos had no idea how to interact with the crazed Brazilian soccer, no matter how good a Spanish he could pull.  The interlude was short lived if it ever happened. Back in Brazil, his problems were just beginning. Botafogo did not want him back – the troublemaker – and Vasco, his new team, soon had a taste of what it meant to have Heleno de Freitas on their payroll. He drank too much, he smoked too much, he partied too hard. His wife packed the baby boy up and left right after his return to Rio, causing him to move solo to the majestic Copacabana Palace Hotel, where he lived to the end of his money.

That he refused medical treatment did not stop him from playing in Rio’s soccer coliseum – Maracana stadium.  He begged the doctors not to report his medical condition until his very last chance to play in Maracana – nothing else mattered. Stranded from his parents and brother,  ex-wife Sylvia now married to Alberto, long time co-player, admirer and friend (despite Heleno’s abusive behavior), Heleno is now forgetful, shakes constantly and the anger episodes become even more shockingly violent. Gilda, the Heleno-haters call him, an allusion to Rita Hayworth’s character in the then famous Hollywood production. A diva. Heleno is a live skeleton and his face aged decades in minutes of footage.

In the final stages of dementia, the only person who seems to be able to reach him is his angel of a nurse, who insists Heleno is still therein somewhere. Heleno posts old newspaper clippings on the walls just to peel them off and stuff his mouth with chunks of it, much to his nurse’s despair.

At his last days at the asylum, Heleno responds only to one word. Futebol. Soccer. Acorda, Heleno. E dia de futebol e voce vai jogar, invites his nurse, opening the window in the bare walled room, except for the wooden cross atop the bed. Wake up, Heleno. It’s soccer day and you’ll play. Heleno spits the pills and the water on the face of his nurse, struggles to put on shorts and jersey, and goes out to play with his mentally disturbed but amicable inmates.  Beyond the black and white screen, in my memory and imagination I can see all the colors of Rio’s country side. Tall and thin palm trees. Everything is warm, bright green and bright blue.  There are gently rolling hills in the back and the mansion that houses the asylum must have belonged to a sugar plantation when Brazil had slaves.  Heleno is enslaved to his worsening condition. With faulting steps he enters the field, remembering glory days, when the syphilis inside him was still latent.

All soccer players, he reflects, should listen to opera before playing a match, to let the blood and the emotions come to their heads.  There is no good soccer if your blood is not boiling. There’s no match if you don’t hold a knife between your teeth. The player dies remembering his fans and their cheering. In Heleno de Freitas’ own words, Tudo o que eu sempre quis foi jogar bola. All I ever wanted was to play ball.

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Fireflies in Soap Bubbles

This Christmas I discovered a movie that is the perfect mix of La Vita e Bella with The Artist, seasoned with everything Chaplin you can think of: BARFI!

When I first started watching Hindi movies, eyes and perception had to adapt to a whole new reality.  Most Bollywood productions tend to appear silly and exaggerated.  As pupils, ears, and brain adjusted to the bright colors, unusual sounds (voices and words), unexpected dancing and situations, a new world opened up.  Whatever technology and resources Bollywood productions may lack are plenty replaced by visual beauty.

For example, Barfi relies heavily on film editing to compensate for more expensive stunts and special effects, and it doesn’t really matter if not everything Barfi does is permitted by the laws of physics – it’s all seen through the eyes of two very special women; one deeply in love with him, the other an autistic girl.

Barfi can’t hear and therefore he doesn’t talk but the movie is anything but silent. For one, there’s music every time Barfi needs support from behind the cameras. His facial expressions are so precise (quickly-dissolving though) and so right on time that dialogue becomes dispensable.  Having seen the actor – Ranbir Kapoor – in many other productions, ranging from the silliest of comedies to big drama – Mexican and Brazilian soap opera style – his Barfi caught me off-guard. I was not expecting such a skilled performance from a comedian who made me laugh countless times while parodying  Hindi movies on stage, making open fun of god-like celebs such as Shahrukh Khan (My Name is Khan, Ra-One) and Hrithik Roshan (Guzaarish, Kites) at  the Filmfare Award evenings.

A son of the circus, as it turns out, actor Ranbir Kapoor is not. The Kapoor family has several other representatives known in the industry, most popularly and notably the two actresses – and sisters – Karisma and Kareena Kapoor – his cousins. Ranbir will soon fly even higher in Bollywood, even though he can’t dance like Hrithik Roshan and is not a ladies’ man like Shahrukh Khan. His Barfi sports a thin moustache that reminds me of Douglas Fairbanks and moves around with the same ease and vigor I remember from Errol Flynn’s pirate movies, only twice as natural. He makes the autistic girl laugh but is too intense for a clown.

Set in the 1970s, the movie tells the story of Murphy “Barfi” Johnson, and his relationship with two women, Shruti and Jhilmil. Made on a budget of  30 crore (US$4.6 million), according to Wikipedia, Barfi! “opened worldwide to wide critical acclaim in September 2012. Critics praised the performances, the direction, the screenplay, the cinematography, the music and the positive portrayal of physically disabled people. The film was a major box-office success, becoming one of the highest-grossing Bollywood films of 2012 in India and overseas, and was declared a “Super Hit” after its three-week run by Box Office India. The film went on to gross 175 crore (US$27 million) worldwide, selected as India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film nomination for the 85th Academy Awards. At the 58th Filmfare Awards, the film received thirteen nominations and won seven (more than any other film) including Best Film, and Best Actor for Kapoor.”

Murphy “Barfi” Johnson is an irreverent, mischievous young man born deaf to his Nepali parents in Darjeeling. His mother passed when he was a baby and his father raised him alone, while working as a driver. Barfi is a troublemaker – he plays practical jokes on innocent people – and is constantly chased by the local police officer. When he meets Shruti Ghosh (Ileana D’Cruz), just arrived in Darjeeling and engaged to marry in a few months, it is love at first sight from both sides. Shruti’s mother dissuades her from dating Barfi though because he cannot properly support her with his disabilities and lack of money. Barfi’s silence, warns Mrs. Ghosh, would one day engulf the couple and kill their feelings for one another.  Obedient to her mother, Shruti marries her fiancé, becomes Mrs. Sengupta, and moves to Kolkata, breaking all contact with Barfi.

If you decide to give this love story a try (available at Netflix), a few words about the two ladies in Barfi!

Barfi’s childhood acquaintance Jhilmil, the autistic girl, played by internationally acclaimed “most beautiful woman in the world” Pryianka Chopra, comes as the greatest surprise of the movie. In America she is known by her opening of the NFL’s Thursday Night Football season, dancing and singing, in high heels, shorts and long brown hair. Chopra’s acting in Barfi! proves to her legions of fans that she is both Miss World 2000 and talented enough to play an autistic young woman that is one hundred percent convincing.

Lady friend number two, played by almost painfully delicate-faced Ileana D’Cruz (Mumbai is close to Goa and Goa is crowded with Portuguese and Spanish names due to Portuguese and Jesuit settlements) was new to me. She also did wonderfully; saddened most of the time, displaying the most stunning eye makeup I have ever seen on an actress. Even when she cries.

Speaking of beauty – a word that comes often to mind as I keep watching Hindi movies – I’m getting addicted to Bollywood perfect screen aesthetics. It’s the views, the towns, the faces, the colorful outdoors and outfits, the delicacy of certain scenes – like when Barfi encases fireflies in soap bubbles to catch Jhilmil’s attention and the game they play with mirrors and light.

In the end, as Shruti (D’Cruz) concludes, happiness and magic belong with those who love unconditionally.   To quote my all-time favorite pop female singer/composer (Shakira), El cielo es de los que creen/ Y no de los que dudan (Heaven belongs to those who believe/And not to those who doubt).

May 2014 be everything you believe and more!

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A hot and humid August Sunday evening in Chicago, standing in line with a hundred people to get a cab out of Midway wasn’t part of my plans this summer. We moved pretty fast though, had to admit. Easier than finding a taxi off New York’s Penn Station on a week day, around 8 AM. But then again, everything in New York is always more complicated, dramatic and claustrophobic. And expensive.  The two airport employees coordinating the taxi waiting line shouted, moved back and forth, pushed and pulled, and yet I’m convinced Midwest dwellers are the kindest people on earth. My husband swears by that, too. He was born in Minnesota…

But let us not be biased out of so very little evidence. Let me think of another example to confirm my theory. Philly Airport employees Vs their Chicago Midway counterparts. I was yelled, screamed at, reprimanded, and scolded like a five year old because I put my Kindle in the same plastic bin with my laptop and iPhone – God forbid – in Philadelphia. In Chicago, despite the much longer multiple lines through security, everyone smiles at you; they treat you with kindness and respect, and take their time explaining the rules to first time travelers. And somehow, the line flows faster.   To catch more flies with honey than vinegar, despite being an old adage, works in these high-tech-post-Sep-11 days of our lives as well as it worked in centuries past.

The cab line coordinator directed me to walk straight ahead, until the fourth car at my right and no matter what (why I never knew) not to take the cab on the left. She then smiled and wished me good evening! Ha! Try getting a single human being to treat you like that at Penn Station on a Monday evening, around 6 pm; I dare you.  This is my second turn in Chicago; on the ground for twenty minutes and  already in love with the city again – and Midwesterners (it happened in Saint Louis as well).

The Chicagoan taxi driver was actually African. As he placed my small suitcase in the trunk I said good evening.  He raised his eyes and I realized he was scared to death. Afraid I might try to engage him in passenger-driver non-sense conversation.  I was once a foreigner in America myself so I know how it feels not to be able to  fully understand what other people are saying and, worse,  not to be completely understood by them.  The hotel name and address he only seemed to grasp when I handed  the computer printout over.

My first time in The Windy City was in 2009 and I saw nothing besides O’Hare, my hotel and the offices.  This time, quietly sunk into the passenger seat, I at least had a glimpse of the Soldier Field, with white majestic and massive Roman columns framing the façade.  We are the new Romans, cheering for our gladiators in the Coliseum!

That was pretty much all I saw until we pulled over in front of the hotel. It was almost eleven o’clock and my meeting was supposed to start the next morning at nine. I’m doomed never to see much of Chicago. More than anything, I wanted to see Lake Michigan but that eluded me again. Funny enough, when I lived in Brazil, touring American destinations for vacation in the 1990s was a much more satisfying experience. Now that I live here, cities just pass me by in a blur. Chicago, New York, Washington DC, Montvale, Dallas, Tyson’s Corner, Saint Louis… It’s sad.

I paid the fare, gave the driver a tip and asked for a receipt. Very slowly, pronouncing each word as best as my Portuguese-accented English permits. He responded with a mix of mumbling, head bowing, and shy smiles.

It’s hard to be an outsider, I pondered, as the front-desk lady looks and sounds of Asian–descent, with long dark hair and a thick accent. I remember well my multiple visits to the Immigration office in Philadelphia. Finger-printed at least three times, and then three additional visits for the employment authorization card and its extension, and, finally, the green card.  Not to mention all the bureaucracy one has to endure to obtain a social security number and a driver’s license.  I’m not really complaining; I understand the reasons behind all these procedures. I just don’t miss it. Life is so much more comfortable when your wallet contains all the documentation you need to be a legal citizen, compliant with all requirements. It’s only natural that I came to work in a Risk Management division after all.

My first employment authorization card had the DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY title printed in red, big, right on the top.  For over a year that was all I had to prove it was okay for me to reside in this country and for my employer to keep me as a direct hire. That and my Free Library card.  Not even a blood donor ID, as Red Cross required one year of residence in this country for me to be able to share some blood. I had my Brazilian blood donor card, but since no one reads Portuguese, it was basically useless and I removed it from my wallet.

The first time I signed up for a blood drive, sponsored by my employer, the entire conference floor of the firm, the celebrated Thirty-Sixth, had been converted into a giant ambulatory by  Red Cross personnel. The old lady behind the front desk – the Red Cross volunteer who kept a list of our names and appointment times – as sweet and frail as my own grandmother, handed the questionnaire I now know with my eyes closed. In exchange, I gave her my temporary EAC – Employment Authorization Card – that one with HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT printed in red. I had no other U.S. valid ID back then.

I found a vacant chair and set out to work on the pro-forma health questionnaire.  Any contagious diseases? A long list of options followed. Have you been in any of these counties in the past six months? Another long list followed.  It takes ten minutes to complete it; no big deal.  Done. I went back to the American version of my granny and returned the paperwork to her. She matched the name on the paperwork with my EAC on the table in front of her.  Grandma stood up and put her hand out to me, all pomp and circumstance.  That’s when I knew, oh so badly, that granny meant trouble. I cringed and waited for an apocalypse to hit me.

“Thank you for your service to this country, miss. I see that you are with the Homeland Security Department. We are honored to have you here.”

Happy Labor Day Weekend !

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