Robin Williams: The Death of Our Imaginary Friend

•August 13, 2014 • 10 Comments

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Imaginary friends populated my youth.

In childhood, my sister and I each had an invisible elephant (one pink, one blue) that we’d ride around the col-de-sac.  Mythical creatures inhabited my backyard and the trees all had names.

As a pre-teen my entire family became obsessed with the Addam’s Family because they seemed like the most apt pop-culture-parallel to our own familial experience.  One day my mother and her boyfriend came home from the video store with a life-size cardboard cutout of the Addams – a promo from the film.  From that day on, they became members of the family.  They stood in our living room for years and it became hard to imagine the house without them.  Last year when my childhood home was foreclosed on, we found them up in our asbestos filled attic.  It felt wrong to throw them away after all we’d shared – so we left them there for the new owners to discover.

In high school, my mother was in love with a rock star who she was sure was in love with her.  Although they never met, he became a fixture in our lives – he and every member of his band were discussed daily, referred to by first name, like dear, well-known friends.

It was only today, when I woke up to hear the shocking news, that I realized just how much Robin Williams, in all his incarnations, was also a part of that odd, motley, imaginary crew for me and my sister both.

***

Unlike people in the western hemisphere, I didn’t hear about Robin Williams suicide (I still can’t believe those words could fit together as I type them) until I woke up on this morning.

At first I just felt strange.  And then the numbness slowly left me, and I realized “oh, that was shock.” Then I felt gut-punched.  And it’s weird…I keep bursting into tears.  And I am struggling to understand why.

I feel sad at celebrity deaths, but usually in that vague way of stuff that you know is sad but doesn’t quite hit a true nerve, doesn’t quite pull a string deep in your heart.  Usually it’s kind of an intellectual sadness.

But this is different.

It’s strange to feel such intense emotion about someone I don’t know, and at first I felt a bit confused and almost creeped out by myself.  I am not a celebrity worshipper, and I tend to not be impressed by fame.  Why do I feel such a deep, deep sense of loss?

***

I think people born in the 80’s have a very particular, special relationship with Robin Williams.   His face, voice, gestures and humor became part of the fabric of lives.  He became a kind of secret magical friend that kept reappearing in new forms, whether as a genie, or a man trapped in a board game, or a frog prince in green spandex, or a lost boy stuck in a man’s body, or a nanny, or a penguin, or Theodore Roosevelt.   It felt like he might pop up at any moment again, just like the genie.

My sister just wrote me this in an email:

“everything about this is totally devastating. and it’s hard to feel so … grief stricken about a personality, a celebrity. but I do.

but when you think about it… when you add up all the times I watched Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin and the Birdcage and countless others.. when you add up the endless hours I spent feeling better because his face and voice and energy were coming through the tv to me… that’s probably more up close face time than I’ve had with most of the people I’ve ever known except my family and closest friends. So that’s weird to think about. and maybe explains it a little.

it’s like losing part of that imaginary family we were just joking about a couple days ago. “

I remember being perhaps 13-years old, sitting with my best friend in her living room watching “Dead Poet’s Society.”  Everything about that movie struck deep into our sensitive, literary, awkward, misunderstood sweet little adolescent souls.  From that day on we would loudly chant “Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black, Cutting through the forest with a golden track” pretty much whenever we were excited about anything…or wanted to be loud and weird (which was often).  We’d chant it faster and faster and louder and louder until we could no longer breathe and we’d collapse in a satisfied, euphoric heap of laughter.

And still the phrase Oh Captain, My Captain makes me feel connected to the inspiring mentor I always hoped I would find, but never did.  Another imaginary friend.

***

But it’s more than just that.

This particular death and all the details of it hits so close to home in a lot of different painful ways.   My mother is bipolar and self-medicates in an effort to numb her pain, insecurity and crippling fear of not being loved.  She has flirted with the idea of suicide and the fear of her depression and the possibility of her  death has been a theme throughout my life.

But it’s more than just that as well…

I am from Marin County, the place where Robin Williams lived and worked and rose to fame.   So he was not really an elusive mythical celebrity for me, but a real person who lived where I lived and knew many of the people I knew.  In high school for example, my boyfriend (who also had bipolar and in later years ended up deep in drug addiction and on the edge of suicide) and his family were close with the Williams family; spending time at each others’ homes, sending gifts around the holidays.

When I think of him, it’s in the context of all that was once home and the familiar. He belonged to my community

And it’s more than that too…

There is also a shock in the passing of someone like this, in part for how tremendously, vibrantly, frenetically alive he seemed.  He exuded so much spirit, so much life, so much energy. And so very, very, very much heart.  He gave SO MUCH of himself and was so honest and wide open.  He was more available in many ways to us than many real people – and he made us laugh, cry and feel good.   He made us feel alive.

Story after story online right now is about nice things he did for people, how kind and generous he was, and how good he  made everyone feel.  He had time and energy and words and warmth for seemingly everyone that crossed his path.  It seems he was incredibly empathetic – very, very aware of other people’s emotional states, and able to immediately understand when someone was down and in need of some kind of pick me up – and then he took it upon himself to be the pick-me-up.  You get the sense that he was that empathetic because of how familiar he was with pain.

I saw a little clip of an interview he did with Ellen Degeneres – where he was talking about the open-heart surgery he had in 2009 – and how vulnerable,  and emotional he felt afterwards.  Though, as always, he’s reeling off jokes a mile a minute, there are a few sentences where he’s really revealing how he feels before leaping back into being entertaining.  In that brief moment you can see right into that heart and see how big it was and how sensitive and how fragile.  And how complicated his relationship to life was – he didn’t just suffer life, but also was deeply in love with ‘the whole catastrophe.’

You can imagine how his genius for comedy helped him protect himself – his sensitive, loving, vulnerable, probably insecure underbelly. These kinds of clips just make me want to wrap him up in warmth and love, and somehow keep him safe.  But in the end no one could do that for him.  The horror of suicide from depression is that you kind of know that if that August 11th had gone just a bit differently for him, if the timing had been different somehow, he might not have followed through on the impulse, he might have found his way back to a safe place in his head, as he had probably had to do so many times before.

And you also know that for him, some days were better than others – and that on the good days he loved life, felt joy, treasured his friends and family and felt GRATEFUL.  It’s just that the hard days can be so very hard.  No matter who you are, how well loved, how “successful” or what gifts you have to offer…life can be so difficult to bear.

***

But there’s more …

I cried the hardest when I saw that the last tweet Robin Williams sent was one wishing his 25-year-old daughter happy birthday and sharing a photo of them together when she was just a toddler.

It made me realize that beyond everything else, this is hitting me in my gut because Robin Williams has always reminded me in some ways of my father.

I’ve seen a lot of people say how they feel like they’ve lost their weird uncle.  But for me the weirdest one has always been my dad.  My dad has always been part alien, part Rain Man, and part  soft, squishy loving heart.  He’s the sort of person who can get along with just about everyone, and yet also seems separate… different from everyone, often on his own special little planet (that I sometimes get to visit).

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Robin Williams, ready to Ride

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My father, biking through Southern Spain

Robin Williams and my father are around the same age, and shared other random things as well – like a passion for cycling.

Robin Williams even looks a little like my dad…

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Dad taking selfie with a fish in front of posh restaurant in San Francisco

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Dad with aforementioned fish

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Dad’s Birthday Present Impression

***

My parents divorced a few years before the movie Hook came out.  At the time we were learning to navigate the complications of having a father living on another side of the country (Alaska).

On top of that my father was/is a workaholic – who owns his own company and is responsible for an entire salmon empire.  Though he tried very hard to make time for us, he was a very busy man with a lot on his plate.

When Hook came out, I think both my sister and I were very emotionally affected by it.  Although the quality of this film now is dubious, the emotional relevance at the time was unquestionable.  For us, this movie was both painful and therapeutic.

Robin Williams as Peter Pan reminded us of dad at the time  – in his business man armor which often hid the boyish, whimsical heart.  Peter struggled with fatherhood, not really understanding what it was that his children most needed from him. The pain of Peter’s children mirrored our own pain, and tapped into our feeling of not quite knowing how to reach our father, how to find him, how to connect.

Hook helped us work through these confusing feelings somehow, when it cracked open the hardened shell of the distant father, allowing his heart through, allowing his children to believe in him again.  And it went both ways – when Peter was able to see and feel their love and belief in him, it helped him remember how to fly.

I think I liked the idea of a Neverland where we could have our father be all heart, and all to ourselves, with all the time in the world to learn to fly together.

Many of Williams’ movies contain the concept of the flawed or absent dad  – especially Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire – and those of us who felt pain and longing in our relationships with our own dads, connected some of that pain and that love to Williams himself.  So my feeling of loss is most tied into the loss of a father-figure.  And it really does hurt.

And that’s really why, beyond everything else, when I see a picture of Robin Williams I find myself crying – because I see the father.

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At the heart of it, it’s because he’s a dad with a daughter near my own age, a young woman who must love her father just like I love my father.  The grief and pain his children must be feeling right now is beyond  what I can even try to imagine… it’s just too much…

This event has triggered my deepest fears of loss.

My father, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from depression.  But that doesn’t make him invincible or immortal.  Just like anyone, he could disappear at any time.  And that terrifies me. Any time would be far, far too soon.

I can’t help it, I want him to be here forever … all I can think today is Daddy please don’t ever go…

I love you papa.

 ***

And I love you too Robin Williams.  Thank you for always being my imaginary friend, mentor and flawed father figure.  I’m really going to miss you.

Here to Give Ourselves Away

•August 8, 2014 • 1 Comment

It  had been a very long time since I’d been alone in a cemetery.

 

I was walking down a hill into the village of Gavarnie in the middle of the Pyrenees, looking for a good place to sit and write… IMG_3349

when I glanced over a wall into the church graveyard. IMG_3381

I was held where I stood by three faces staring at me. IMG_3359

Actually before I even saw the faces, I saw the uniforms: three young soldiers killed in World War I.  I had forgotten how much I love graveyards for all the stories they have to tell, but these faces reminded me. IMG_3358 So I went inside.

***

Graveyard walking is to search for clues; it is to remember that these were once real people and therefore be constantly searching for the power somehow to breathe life into them and let them stand once more, say a few words, tell us a bit about themselves and what they saw, what they knew, what they felt.

Most graves give very little information – but even just the name, age and year of death is its own little story.  The first thing I learned in the graveyard of Gavarnie is that if you survived youth in this village, you tended to have a very long life.  The majority of the graves were for those who were very old – people in their  80’s, 90’s and even one woman who had reached 100; these were hardy people.  I could imagine most of them lived a quiet mountain life, perhaps rarely or never leaving the region.

I also saw a lot of young men.  There were many of course that died in war, but later there were also those that had challenged the mountains to take them, and mountains had won.  It seems that even here, the audacity of youth can be dangerous.IMG_3369 - Version 2 IMG_3365 - Version 2IMG_3367IMG_3370 - Version 2

And then there was Madeleine.  She died in 1955 at the age of 17.  There are indications to suggest she may have been a nun in training at Lourdes, or perhaps went to Lourdes for healing.  They call her sister in a way that suggests “sister of the cloth” not the flesh.  Perhaps she went there and devoted herself to god, believing she would either be cured or else die in grace. IMG_3373 IMG_3376 IMG_3377

While most of the graves in Gavarnie are granite – smooth, polished and geometric, there are also some graves marked by just mound of earth. These have their own special impact because they gives the sense of a body under there, taking up space; it reminds me of how we look when we bury each other in sand as a game at the beach.  Just a body in earth.  It makes the once-upon-a-time flesh seem closer.   IMG_3372 - Version 2

There is something disconcerting yet poignant about a grave without a name – knowing that something that was once someone is there, but knowing no moret.  Yet knowing just that much is something. In that earth lie bones, that once contained life, consciousness.  And now those bones are an empty, derelict house, hinting at the life that was once inside. For me a ghost is just that: the consciousness that has gone, and the trail it has left behind. Even without a name there are still traces of what once was.  In my mind, a ghost can live in the idea of a person that has vanished.

***

My grandfather died a long time before I was born.  It is always so weird to me that someone who played such an fundamental role in my own father’s life, is someone who I actually cannot imagine at all.  I have seen pictures and heard stories about him but I know that no matter how much more I learn I will never be able to actually imagine anything close to what the real man was like.  For me he remains two-dimensional, limited to the space within a faded photograph, and the confines of conflicting anecdotes.

I know I’ll never be able to reconstruct him, but there’s something in me that is always wishing I had more to work with.  I keep thinking that if I just had a bit more information – if I could hear his voice, or see a video with him in it, so I could know how he moved his face, how he laughed, a bit of how he expressed himself, I could come closer somehow.

I knew very little about him when I was growing up (besides how much he loved the outdoors, camping, hiking, etc.) so I found my own way to give him a voice.  When I read Steinbeck as a teenager, for some reason I decided that his was a good voice to give my grandfather.  In putting a writer in that surrogate role I think I was expressing the desire, more than anything, to know how my grandfather thought about things, to be able to hear his interior monologue.  Lacking access to that, I found the voice that most closely matched the image I had constructed.  When I told my father this he laughed.  I think he laughed because I am not sure he ever really knew how his father felt about things either…

***

The gravestones that move me the most are ones that give me enough information that I can bring an idea of a human to life.  A young nun dying of a wasting disease in Lourdes, young soldiers from a mountain village who know nothing of the world, who finally leave, only to see the outside world in a time of war, and never return.  The young athletic 20-year old, dead from a fall, dead perhaps for trying to pack too much living in.

The combination of the information on and around the grave, and now sometimes even the very face itself of the person creates at least a ghost of a form.  I know it does not come close to the people themselves  – but in a way does it matter?  Even famous historical figures about whom we have endless information still elude us when we try to reconstruct them.  No matter how much information you have there is still something missing – perhaps the sound of the voice or the way they crinkle their eyes when they smile.  And yet it’s still alway worthwhile to try to imagine…

I was thinking how archaeologists must feel something like this all the time – the way they reconstruct bones and try to imagine civilizations through the contours of broken pottery, and yet  know they can never fully recreate what was.  Or paleontologists imagining dinosaurs and other ancient animals – yet always wondering if perhaps they were an entirely different color.

There’s the beauty of the reconstruction – and the frustration at your distance from what actually WAS…and how you’ll never know far that distance actually was and what part of the picture you were missing entirely.

***

The massive medieval citadel of Carcassonne in the Languedoc region is one of the most visited places in France; a UNESCO heritage site, it supposedly furnishes the tourist with the vision of a proper medieval city.

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The thing that most tourists don’t know is that in the  in 1850’s the French Government decided to restore the Cité de Carcassonne,  hiring architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, to oversee the renovation. Viollet-Le-Duc decided to remake it to match his idea of what this medieval fortress should look like rather than attempting to restore it according to what had already been there.  Carcassonne for him was not supposed to just be what it had been in the past – but stand for something about France of the present, a kind of conversation about France over the ages.

“Viollet-le-Duc’s aim in restoring the Cité was to reintroduce meaning into a set of ruins — meaning, of course, for the culture of nineteenth-century France. For us, therefore, Carcassonne stands as a meaningful architectural monument of the nineteenth century, speaking for its nationalist passion for history. The restored Cité fundamentally expresses the architectural interests and thought of an architect in the 1850s. As architectural intervention is never neutral, as it is always an exercise in interpretation, it deserves as much attention as the original object. From the perspective of our day. Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration is as expressive of the architect and his time as were the medieval remains of their era.” –  Francesc Xavier Costa Guix

So many elements of the restoration of Carcassonne say way more about the mindset and aesthetic and ideology of the 1850’s, than of the medieval era.  For example – the famous towers that circle the city are pretty much Viollet-le-Duc’s interpretation of medieval – their conical tops that give Carcassonne so much of its particular flavor, were completely imagined by him, and had never existed previous to the restoration project.

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People visit this impressive place and leave feeling they’ve seen what a medieval city looked like when in fact they are seeing what an 1850’s architect decided a medieval city should look like.

But is it important that they know this?  Or is it really just as good that they carry away the simpler version of the story, and walking through those streets and imagining them just like that a thousand years ago?

***

I have never seen faces in a cemetery before – but there were so many in Gavarnie.

Here is the Family Germain Bordes.

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Baby Philippe Bordes was buried here. He was exactly 1 year old – born December 17th, 1961, Died December 17th, 1962.  A beautiful baby.  It was disconcerting to see that face, his smile and chubby cheeks, in this place of death.

And then there was Serge Bordes.  Probably Philippe’s brother – born in 1959.

IMG_3364We see him pictured, as a handsome young man – who died 19 years after his baby brother – at the age of 21 or 22.  A year before, it seems his Grandfather Justin died, aged 74.  We see him in his beret and traditional mountain clothes.  A man who lived a full life, next to his kin who lived such short lives.

I felt strange taking these photographs, like there was something grotesque in the stealing of these faces, much more problematic than photographing a headstone.  It felt so much more intrusive.

What right did I have to read these names and dates and look at these faces and create something out of them that was so far from the truth known by those that truly loved them?  What right did I have to imagine them, stereotype them, make assumptions, take pictures, and carry pieces of them away for my own purpose?

But their loved ones put their faces there so that people would see them and remember them.  I don’t think they would be there otherwise. I think maybe part of the purpose is to be able, years later, to have someone walk by these graves and be able to look at these faces and get some small sense of the human however faint and inaccurate, and take it with them.  I think a graveyard represents the desire for those traces of of the dead, the ghosts of them, to continue to have a voice, albeit distorted, and thus still have some impact on the living world.

And maybe those men are now not just who they were – but now they are also the picture on a plaque in a cemetery and the imagined human ghost in the head of an American woman passing through and taking their image with her.

***

One day when I was in Paris I was walking along the Rue Mouffetard during market day.  A man walked by me and handed me a rose and then walked on.  I stood on a street corner there, holding the rose to my face, delighting in the ridiculous romance of moment.

A few moments later I spotted a tourist with a large camera trying to secretly photograph me standing there with my rose to my cheek – stealing an image of me, an idea of me. He probably thought I was French and he’d just managed to catch some minute inhale and exhale of the city.  Whatever he thought, he stole some piece of me and made it into something new, whatever he believed it to be.

And I think that is beautiful.  We are here to give ourselves away to each other in one form or another, maybe even after we are gone.  We shed pieces of ourselves like skin cells – in the form of people’s impressions that they carry away – the smallest gesture that they inflate into a new form. This form may not resemble us from our own perspective, but perhaps we are so much more than what we think we are from our own perspective. Perhaps we are all these things that people take away from us too, even the things that we’d argue are wrong.  And these assumptions, misconceptions, and perceptions tie us all to one in another in the most complex and amazing web of ideas.

We don’t have to be dead for people to steal our faces and fill them with new thoughts, new personality, new motivations.  It happens all the time every day.  We are all body and brain snatchers, writing the world around us like a fiction.  We turn living, breathing humans into ideas.   And in doing so, we hope to understand each other in a way that, despite not being accurate, is still somehow true.

***

When I write here I struggle to express feelings and get them translated somehow into thoughts. I never quite know what ideas I am actually transmitting, and how closely they resemble what I was hoping to communicate – but that isn’t so important.   Because once words are let go, just like images, they take on their own life.  I think that’s why it feels so necessary to release them.

 ***

Staying Alive: Time for a Change

•July 23, 2014 • 6 Comments

I don’t think I know very many people who aren’t struggling a lot of the time to feel alive.

Sometimes the days, weeks, even months drain by, but they don’t speak to us – they almost don’t say a word.  They pass, but we are not quite sure how, because we did not often stop and step back and take notice.  If they do speak, we are usually not there to listen.

Television. Net-surfing our free time away.  Lethargy.  Compulsive snacking.  Food that lives in plastic.  Hours spent in traffic.  Bad posture.    Cell phone and email addiction.  Obesity.   Prozac.  Distracting ourselves to death or at least away from life.  Modern life in all its glory.

More people are on anti-depressants than ever – trying to escape the vacancy that they feel when they do step back and pause and look around and don’t see anything but the abyss, but the big question why, or don’t feel anything but the numbness – the lack of feeling alive. Where is the joy lying hidden?  Where is the sensation?

Most of the time it’s not so bad because we distract ourselves just enough to feel like everything is ok, maybe even mildly pleasant, certainly bearable.  We live for tiny tidbits – the increasingly diminishing ups and downs – like the high: the buzz of receiving a text message, versus the low: the glum feeling of having no one like a Facebook status you posted.  This is what life is getting reduced to for so many people so much of the time.  Life getting narrower and narrower and the feeling of being alive is less and less common.

Things that have become an integral part of many people’s lives – television, internet, long commutes, cell phones, fast and faster food, social media, text messages, apps, long work hours – things that on the one hand we are often grateful for, also are the things that are helping drain us of sensation.

We forget how a live band sounds, how a real ripe, summer fresh, garden grown tomato tastes, what cool, unpolluted mountain air smells like, and how a sea breeze feels.  We forget how to dance, how to skip, how to run.  We don’t play anymore.  We even start forgetting the deliciousness of a hot shower though we take one every day, or the intense pleasure of taking a bite of food when we are really hungry, though we have to feed ourselves regularly, because we so often aren’t awake when we do these things at all.

We become willing to accept less and less as we accumulate more and more.  Music piped through a crappy speaker compressing all the sound into something tinny, all the complexity and depth lost – but we are willing to take it because it reminds us of the real experience.  Until eventually we stop noticing the difference.

In fact I think at a certain point we start becoming afraid of feeling truly alive.  Because feeling alive can mean all sorts of things – yes it can be beautiful and pleasurable, but it can also be deeply painful and shocking, when we are shaken into momentarily realization of our tininess or helplessness or briefness.  It can be when we see the fragility of the balance that’s holding things in place; the constancy of change and the very instability of the ground we are walking on that we are pretending is so solid.

Because feeling alive can mean letting go of what we have loved and held onto – and letting ourselves start from scratch from time to time.

I think at a certain point people become willing to exchange feeling truly, intensely alive, for feeling comfortable, safe, secure, having the sense that they know what’s happening and what will happen, what to expect, to have the illusion of some control, to feel they are shutting the door on uncertainty.  I think a lot of people call that growing up.

***

We have lived in Pau for 4.5 years.  I never really thought that at this age I’d have lived anywhere that long – let alone a quiet French town in the middle of nowhere that I don’t fit into and don’t connect with.  I don’t dislike it per se – but I don’t madly love it either. We thought we’d be here about 2 years – but when my husband David’s company switched him to a new position (as they do every 2-4 years) it happened to be …in Pau…again.  We thought we’d have spent a few years in Uganda or Brazil or Angola by now.  But nope, we’re still here.

Still in the same apartment, still with the crappy white Ikea furniture that was here when we moved in, and the chipped yellow dishes that I hate, and no frames on the wall.  We’ve lived all this time as though we’d be moving soon, as though it were temporary.

I have wanted to move for years – but it hasn’t happened.  When we found out a month or two ago that David might not be switching positions again for at least another year, we decided we should just move anyway.  We wanted to feel like we had some control over our lives, to remind ourselves we actually have some choice about where we want to be.

We began thinking about moving to a city called Bayonne, in the Basque region near the Atlantic coast, about an hour from Pau. We could live in a new place, have a change of pace, be around a different culture, be close to Spain, close to the beach – and in a really, really lovely, fun area.

Last week we went to look at an apartment there. When we saw it we loved it.  I was ready to move that instant, totally enthusiastic, charmed, persuaded, READY.

But then I got back home to Pau and I started feeling doubts.  I slunk back down into thinking that maybe it would be better to do what is easier – and just stay in Pau until we know we HAVE to move. I slipped into some weird idea that there’s too much I love about our apartment to let it go – (when in fact a lot of things about it drive me absolutely crazy every day).

I felt a hesitance, a lethargy, a gravity, thinking how HARD it would be to move.  I felt sad and unsure thinking about how I’d have to give up having both my gym and the farmer’s market just 1 block away.  How I’d be farther from my friends and maybe not see them enough.  I started fretting about how much smaller the new apartment would be, how it didn’t have a view of the Pyrenees like we have now, or a big balcony like we have now, or a bathtub like we have now, or lots of light and a big living room like we have now, or a window that looks at the sky and sings the rain like we have now. Suddenly all those things seemed VERY important.  Essential maybe.  Certainly too nice to just give up on a whim.

But I have had all of these things now for 4.5 years. I have had the view, the space, and the light, the gym and the market.  Will MORE time with them make the difference – will I appreciate them anymore? Will I really squeeze any more life or joy out of them?

***

I have never actually been good at letting go.  I’ve always been afraid or unwilling to say goodbye – whether it’s to a person or a place or a piece of clothing or a stuffed animal or even some silly scrap of paper that somehow connects me to a memory of an experience I once had.

Every time I’ve said goodbye to a place I’ve always told myself it was temporary and that I’d be back soon. Even though that was usually not true.

I have almost never actually ended relationships – instead I just sort of faded away from them. I drifted towards other things but never actually put them to rest. Never actually told someone a definitive goodbye.

I guess I’ve liked to pretend that there is always a way back – and let other people pretend that too.  Maybe that’s what made it easier somehow to become a world traveller, a gypsy sort with no permanent residence.  Because I thought that I could always go back someday to whatever I’d found along the way – whether it was a love or a home.  But I’ve learned the hard way that this is not the case.

You carry things with you or you leave them behind.  There is not much middle ground.  Because when you go back, you go back changed and often find what you left has changed as well.

***

Given that I am not even all that content or comfortable in Pau, what the hell is holding me back?

What is it I am afraid of?

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I feel myself weighted down by habit lately – and strangely, uncharacteristically faltering around the idea of new experience.  It makes me feel not quite myself.

But maybe it’s because I’ve finally learned that letting go really means saying goodbye and closing a door.  Maybe now that I can’t pretend that the door stays open, it is making it harder.  Maybe I have to learn a new way of seeking new experience.  A more honest way.

I think part of the problem is a fear of scarcity. One feels a need to hold on to what one has, fearing that somehow it isn’t replaceable.  Comfort zones have a tremendous gravity.  Pau represents what is easier and therefore safer.  More comfortable in the short term even if in the long term it’s keeping me from feeling quite as alive.

But look at this big bright crazy world – so many place to live and things to try. So many apartments to enjoy and homes to make in different places. Would I rather just hold on tight to one thing? Or experience more and more?

Do I ever wish I had just stayed home instead of going on a trip?  Do I regret any of the places I lived, wishing I’d lived somewhere else longer instead? No…I don’t…I’m glad for each diverse experience – because each new thing enriched my life and my understanding and my perspective.

So here I must face myself and what I really want from life. Do I want to just keep what I have because there are some things about it I like – or do I want to try something new?

***

Humans are all so different.  We have different affinities and needs and things that suit us or don’t suit us at all – different things that make us feel more or less alive. It is up to us to find those things and live our life in accordance.

Some people are happier living in a familiar place – staying close to home.  Others, like myself, thrive on new experience and start feeling rusty and creaky if they’ve been stationary too long.

But I see that lately I have actually been weighted down, tethered by the idea of comfort over the idea of experiment.  The idea of “it’ll do” versus “let’s try something else.”

But I am not willing to get tied down by the siren song of what is easiest anymore.

I want to fall back in love with adventure and moving on as a lifestyle choice.  I want to practice the lightness of touch. Practice the willingness to let life be about endless endings and beginning, hellos and goodbyes. Loving and leaving. Practice not being afraid of opening my heart up and letting things come to an end. Practice not being so afraid of what is actually inevitable – change.

And I am strong enough to carry that which is really important with me always – my friendships, my family and my memories.

Because I know that the willingness to sometimes let go of what you have loved is what makes life rich, abundant, surprising – by opening up new space and allowing life, in all its complexity, mystery and color, to come rushing in.

Time to do what it takes to feel more alive again.  One way or another, it is time for a change.

***

To Be Continued…

***

“Nostalgia has no place for the woman traveling alone.  Our motion is forward, whether by train or daydream.” – the great travel writer Mary Morris

World Cup Showdown Part 3: Sporting Subjectivity and the Fun of a Little Hate

•July 18, 2014 • 3 Comments

This is Part 3 or a four part series narrating the entire story of the 2014 World Cup as a game fought between the Beautiful Game and the Ugly Deception.  I invite you to read (or at least skim!) Part 1 and 2 first for a bit of context.

 

It’s halftime!  

Now for some commercials…

Just do it…Impossible is…Everywhere you want to be…people are going to hear…sound matters …Hello tomorrow…be good to yourself…i’m lovin’ it…just…buy it. Buy it…just buy it…just buy it…

Cup O’Noodle Soccer Samurai

Just Buy It.

Nike…Adidas…Emirates…McDonalds…Beats…Sony…Visa…and on….and on…

The money involved in football is beyond fathomable.   World Cup Brazil will generate $4 billion in total revenue for FIFA – the vast majority of the money will come from the sale of television and marketing rights.  FIFA’s major partners reportedly pay $25-50 million per year for the privilege.  While life-changing and even life-saving technologies have trouble finding funding, subsidies for the arts are drying up and become a desert landscape, education and healthcare get continuously leaner fare – sports grow ever fatter.  But we understand – money likes to hang out where money already is… it’s a demographics thing.

And some World Cup related news…

US Right Wing Pundits Say Growing Popularity of Soccer is Clear Sign of National Moral Decay and Government Conspiracy 

One of the best things about the World Cup this year was hearing right-wingers like Ann Coulter froth at the mouth about the degradation of American culture evidenced by the increasing interest in soccer or Fox News pundits suggest the World Cup was a clever ploy designed to distract Americans from Obama’s leadership failures.

“I am suspect because, here’s the thing. Why, at a time when there are so many national and international issues of such prominence — I’m a little suspicious of yet another bread-and-circus routine. Let’s roll out the marijuana, pull back the laws, and get people even more crazy about yet another entertainment event.” – Dr. Keith Ablow

I have found the increased interest in and passion for the World Cup in the United States exciting.  It’s not often that  my country of birth takes part in something as just a regular country.  No reference to that whole awkward Superpower thing.  The US in the sports arena sometimes seems like a spoiled only child that never learned how to play with others, and has gotten used to having its own sandbox all to itself.  So it’s really pleasant watching the country play with the other kids around the block and learn how to share the glory.

Algerians So Happy To Get to Round of 16 That They Burn Cars

We have to admit – usually sports are a far less harmful way of competing than warfare.  Standing behind your team and hating the other competitors is a relatively harmless method of finding something to love and hate, something to care about, something that stimulates emotion.  The exception is when the hatred becomes genuine and translates into the real world. When anger over a loss turns into violence, or happiness over a win becomes an excuse for vandalism, rioting or worse.

Violence in the name of sports is not often actually rooted in the sport itself.  It usually has social, economic, historical and sometimes racial or religious reasons that stretch far beyond sports but end up intertwined with them, using them as an excuse for agresssion.

Research has linked the World Cup not just to general violence, but to domestic abuse.  One study revealed that in one force area in England and Wales, violent incidents increased by 38% when England lost – but also rose by 26% when they won.

Men don’t abuse women because of soccer. Men don’t abuse women because of what the women have done, nor do they abuse them because of what their team has done -these are excuses.  People become abusive because of complicated histories, childhoods, brain chemistry, and/or perhaps a general rage against the machine etc.  But that rage wants an outlet and looks for any reason.  Sports fuel intense emotion and allow people to push past restraints within themselves.  This means people weep and laugh and scream and bounce up and down because of games.  This also means they are more liable to beat their partners or attack people and property.

The ills are deep, and football can push the poison and pus to the surface in grotesque and terrifying ways.

But figures from Surrey Police saw a 15 per cent reduction in the number of domestic violence incidents reported during this year’s World Cup compared with the tournament four years ago.  So…umm…yay…?

Cameroon are to investigate claims that seven of their players were involved in match-fixing at the World Cup

Cameroon’s soccer federation announced late Monday that it would investigate its World Cup team for match fixing, paying particular attention to a heavy defeat by Croatia in the opening round.  “Last year Europol alleged that more than 380 professional matches in Europe and more than 300 matches played in Africa Asia and central and South America were under suspicion as the scale of the activities of match fixing gangs from eastern Europe and Asia became clear.”

There it is – the real dark underbelly of this sport.  When the curtain is drawn back at moments like this and you see into the world of match fixing, mafias, corruption and so much money moving around it’s easy to get a bit dizzy, a bit spun around.  Is this a real sport or a reality show with actors playing athletes, referees and coaches.  And who are the directors, the invisible puppeteers?  How much is real and how much is just for show?  And if this is not a true sport, if money is the thing that is deciding the outcome so often, why do we still care?  Why do we still feel so much?

Well it’s a good thing all of this news went down at the halftime, or the Beautiful Game would be suffering another goal concession.  As it is – no one seems to be paying much attention…

And we’ve returned for the second half!  Brazil has the ball – but the players aren’t moving it at the moment.  They appear to be collectively kneeling on the ground, praying, gesticulating to the heavens.  

Is God a sports fanatic?  Does God think football is important enough to nudge one way or the other?  Maradona and all of Argentina think so.  And apparently Brazil does as well – they have been the most flamboyantly religious team in the cup so far.  Perhaps they think that buttering God up is the only way they really have a chance.  But if God won’t help out- maybe FIFA will.  

I think it’s hilarious when both sides – both the teams and the fans – are aggressively praying. How can God possibly choose sides?  Does he tally the prayers up and base the winner on quantity – strict number of fans praying for a goal? Or are there some points for style as well?  Gesture and facial expression points, flowery words, what about a bit of singing?  Surely a corner at least for singing of prayers.

The Dutch take to the field – horned helmets on, teeth bared – ready to do battle and win, whatever it takes.

I really try to be fair-minded.  I really really do try see things from multiple, complex perspectives.  I don’t always succeed – but I do almost always try.  When Zinedine Zidane famously head-butted – I didn’t want to villify him so much as understand what on earth drove him to that level of confrontational anger and physicality in such an important moment.  With Luis Suarez I am curious about his childhood and his fears and what wells up inside of him and gets unleashed when he stops thinking and impulsively bares his teeth down into another human being’s flesh.

But…every now and then I enjoy giving my empathy muscles a little break.  I let myself get comfy and squat down in some arbitrary and probably pretty unfair dislike for something or someone.

Because sometimes…sometimes it’s really fun to just let yourself hate someone for awhile.  Not think about the complex human being under the 2-dimensional media creature.I love to be allowed, briefly to have an enemy.

There’s some kind of cathartic release in being AGAINST someone or something.  Football occasionally provides me with this opportunity.   I love being able to believe in a bad guy and hope for his comeuppance.

Every World Cup there is one team or two that gets to be that bad guy for me.  The Dutch have held that place of honor now for not just this World Cup but the last World Cup and Eurocup as well.  They have become the team I love to hate.  Whether it’s for their nasty brutal physical tactics meant to damage the other players or at least make them fall or whether it’s the theatrical Oscar-worthy diving, or whether it’s the hyena like speed and the feeling of true danger that they produce in viewers when they make a break for it down the field.  Yes the Dutch win my award for Most Loathable Team.  And Robben for most loathable player.

Mexico is dominating the game folks and the previously formidable Dutch haven’t found a way to strike.  Time is running out… oh and there it is, the classic Dutch move – the one they’ve drilled time and time again, and tried already so many times this tournament.  Let’s see if they can pull it off…Robben runs run to the penalty box, dives and screams…and YES!  The Referee has been moved by the tormented anguished flopping Robben has practiced so diligently.  It will be a penalty kick…and GOOOOOOOL GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL FOR THE UGLY DECEPTION.  CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?  A goal for theatrics!  An oscar-winning goal!  The score is now 2-2!

I was sitting in a bar with two Venezuelans and a Dutchman.  The Venezuelans and I were rooting for Mexico and the Dutchman was of course decked out in orange and rooting for his team.  When Robben scored the 2nd Dutch goal, this man did not smile but shook his head sadly.  He said, “I do not like winning that way. Yes of course, like anyone I want to see my team win, and continue into the next round.  But no, it doesn’t feel good, winning this way.”

Costa Rica doesn’t lag in whisking up the ball and whizzing past the Greeks .  The Greeks can’t seem to do much of anything. And now it’s too late.  The Greek fans in the audience are weeping.

I admit it – I love watching people cry at the World Cup.  Ok not the kids.  But yes the grownups.  Not because I am happy to see them sad – actually it usually makes me cry too.  But I do really value seeing people expressing grief openly for all to see.  I think collective grieving is healthy and it’s not something we partake in all that much in most cultures anymore.

This is particularly true for men. When else do we see men openly weeping?  Tears streaming down their faces?  Players who have just lost a game and know they are going home, heads bent to the earth or tears falling on each others shoulders as they embrace?  Fans wailing gushingly, the flag colored paint dripping down their faces in little colorful rivulets?

The World Cup creates an environment in which riotous joyful celebration and terrible, wracking, gut-bursting grief are totally acceptable forms of expression.  There is no shame to the expansiveness of these feelings.  In fact there is a certain pride in them – that fans care so much and feel so deeply.

That’s part of my theory as to why people love sports – it allows them to feel and express more heightened emotions than in their daily lives.  It’s a kind of high where they feel more alive than usual.  There’s something almost holy, almost divine in that.

I just wish men could weep outside the arena.  I wish people could get this collectively passionate about living their real lives…and let the joy and sorrow fill them and move them.  So that they could feel THIS alive more often.  And over things that really, truly matter…

Algeria has appeared from nowhere and seems to be making a challenge against the Germans.  Well this is a surprise – they are pushing, pushing towards the goal.  The Germans don’t seem to quite know what to make of the situation nor how to respond.  

The team that was considered to be one of the weakest in the tournament is putting up one of the biggest challenges to perhaps the best team in the tournament.  You just never know.

You can have two good friends that are kind and mild-mannered – but when they meet rub each other the wrong way and bring out the worst in each other.  Every boyfriend or girlfriend or friend for that matter that you ever have will bring out different facets of your personality and vice versa – highlighting certain things and shading in others.  We are not just ourselves but ourselves reflected in others.  We all transform each other in every interaction.  We are fluid creatures, tuned to the vibration of the people around us, sounding different notes and different melodies as we play through life together.

And football teams are no different.  The World Cup is gorgeous in this way because the personality of each team – their skills and weaknesses and then the specific lineup chosen by the coach that day, the injuries, the moods – all of these things mix in strange and sometimes unpredictable ways.

Germany was a different team with Algeria than on any other day.  They had to really really work for the win they finally achieved, and Algeria could walk away knowing that they had held their own on the world cup stage and shown that ranking is always relative.

Argentina and Switzerland pass the ball around and finally the Uglies steal it and shoot .  The ball glances right off the goalpost. That should have been exciting but the fans don’t seem to notice because they are snoozing.  

Sometimes football is boring.  Sometimes it’s really, really boring.  Sometimes neither team does much of anything and 90 minutes later you wipe the drool off your chin and wonder what you are doing with your life.  Sometimes trying to get interested in a game is like trying to drag yourself into a really dense novel where the first 30 pages are mostly dates and names, no plot , no story, no movement.  Argentina has played a lot of games like this this World Cup unfortunately.  This kind of soccer where words are traded but nothing is said, is perhaps the worst kind of soccer.  At least with the diving and grotesque cheating and violent movements there is some drama, some spectacle, something to get worked up about.  This kind of game does the opposite of make you feel alive.  It is anything but beautiful.

But again that’s part of the fun of soccer – you never know what you’re going to get!

Thankfully for our lagging attention and spirits, the game seems to be heating up a bit as Switzerland leaves the field, passing the ball to Belgium.  And oh wow…they are pushing, they are on fire, they are charging down that field again and again.  The US can’t seem to get hold of the ball.  

This is an amazing game full of excitement.

Oh wait, no.  This is actually a frustrating horrible game where one of the teams never seems to get a foothold and the other totally dominates.

It always looks different depending on your seats.

So much about the game depends on how much you as a viewer are willing to put in it. So much of it depends upon what you want to see

During one and the same game a person might accuse the referee of being too lax, while another might praise his forbearance.  One person might say the game was one of the best and most exciting games they’d seen in a long time because there were so many shots on goal, so much action, so much drama, so many closeups of Tim Howard’s sweating, focused face.

Others might say that while it was an exciting game it was frustrating.  It was one-sided.  The other team’s midfield was a mess and they didn’t succeed in getting and keeping the ball.  Exciting, but in that sort of miserable, pummeling way, like being stuck in undertow is exciting.

Shot after shot…the attack just goes on and on 

There is something difficult and wonderful about caring about something and yet having no control over it and not actually being able to guess the outcome. Not having the story on paper yet. The beauty of the unwritten, unpredictable and unfolding.

Well it was inevitable – there’s only so long Tim Howard could hold out against a frenzied drive like that.  The US is leaving the pitch.

And it’s over!  The World Cup is over!  Or at least that’s probably how most US fans feel. A lot of them aren’t quite up to watching the whole thing yet…

I was disappointed – but I felt a lot worse for some reason when other teams were knocked out.  I think sometimes I feel more pain over other people’s suffering than my own, imagining how absolutely horrible they must feel.  My own disappointment in comparison is quite manageable.

Water break!  It’s hotter than ever here in Brazil.  These players need some time to cool off after this rather second half.  

It’s getting tense out here in this very close game… tied 2-2!  There’s still plenty of time left for either team to win.  It’s truly still anyone’s game… stay tuned for the Fourth and Final portion of the World Cup Showdown.  

 

 

***

Part 1 and Part 2 of the World Cup Showdown can be read here:

World Cup Showdown Part 2: the Narrative Value of Soccer

•July 10, 2014 • 4 Comments

NOTE: This is a continuation of a previous post on the World Cup in which the tournament is itself one large game played between two sides:  The Beautiful Game and the Ugly Deception. If you’d like to read the first section please click here:  World Cup Showdown Part 1: The Beautiful Game vs The Ugly Deception

***

I hated sports as a child.  I couldn’t imagine playing them for fun, let alone watching them on TV.  I think that this in part sprang from the fact that my father, an avid player and viewer of sports, desperately wished to have with whom child he could share this passion.  I kind of rebelled and refused to take part, thinking it meant that he had probably wanted a son rather than two daughters – and two non-sporty daughters at that.  I became as much a non-sporty person as possible so that I wouldn’t have to deal with being too-much-in-the-middle. In childhood I tended to recoil from the things that weren’t immediately easy for me, and didn’t just come naturally and effortlessly, because I did not want to show I was bad at something (I think I can kinda thank dad for that too!  Thanks Dad, also known as “He Who Shall Admit No Weakness!”).  I also didn’t want to admit “weakness.”  So I stuck with things I was labeled as “precocious” and “talented” in and veered violently away from stuff that made me look silly or inept.  Instead of trying them enough to get better at them I developed elaborate schemes to avoid them altogether.  This included repeatedly spraining my own ankles – sometimes ON PURPOSE –  all in order to avoid PE class. I was a very determined child.

As a teenager I no longer had such a strong aversion to physical activity – I started exercising and taking dance classes, slowly re-learning how to enjoy being in my own body – something that had been easy as a very young child but I lost touch with as I ventured into adolescence.  However it still took me a long time to embrace sports because somehow as a literary/artsy/academic type of person, sports were not supposed to be something people like me were in to.  They were for the opposite of people like me and I associated them with superficiality. I saw them as frivolous and mind-numbingly boring.

But every supposition one holds about oneself has to regularly be re-examined.  I’m not really sure when – but at some point I started to realize that sports were a lot more than brute acts of physicality. I guess I started to get hints of this on trips with my dad where we’d sit down in some restaurant or bar (I’d have to sit 3 feet from the actual bar because I was only 12 years old) and watch a basketball game together.  I started to understand that sports were partially about spending time with someone caring about something together.  Rooting for something and being invested in it as the game unfolds.

And then awhile later I started to see that sports were stories.  Each game or tournament or race has an entire narrative with its plot points, its primary, secondary and tertiary characters, its ups and downs, emotions, themes, and symbolism.  Each game, like each story that is ever told, can show us something about humanity.  Seriously.

Mind you – just like novels – some games aren’t very well-written.  Some games are boring.  Some games have 2-dimensional characters that never seem to have the time to be fleshed out.  But the wide variety of quality is part of what makes it fun and surprising – just like when you crack open a book for the first time, you never know quite what kind of story you are going to get nor can you know for sure how the writing or plot will sit with you.  But you always hope it’s going to be good!

Those who criticise sports for being pointless and a waste of time and money, all just for a GAME miss the point.  Human beings not only need competition – but we need to actively participate in storytelling – both in the listening and in the retelling.  Because sports are also for community building – just like storytelling has always been. After any game you’ll see that anyone who watches is more likely than not going to want to talk about it – go over the plot structure, the pivotal moments, the villains and heros, the tragedies and victories. Just as we narrate our own lives and the lives of our people.

 

If you speak Spanish you’ll see what I mean in this video where 3 minutes out of one single soccer game are made into a metaphor for an entire country.  And it’s a beautiful thing: http://observador.com.uy/noticia/282768/uruguay-en-el-rostro-de-palito/ But we should get back to the game.

 ***

  The water break is over and the ball is back in play.  Brazil give the ball away in midfield again. Mexico picks it up and makes easy work of scurrying past Alves on the right, but his cross has no venom and is easily headed clear by Silva. Brazil rush forwards and you just know they’re going to give it away. And the two teams do this and do this some more and tie 0-0.

In the US people make fun of how low scoring soccer is.  What’s the point, they wonder, in watching a game it’s highly possible not a single goal will be scored?

I understand their point.  Football is one of those things that is not immediately accessible.  When I first started watching the game all I really understood was who had the ball – and all I could really get excited about was when it seemed to be getting closer to one goal or the other.

But one’s vision changes as you watch this game.  Once all I really saw was stopping or kicking the ball, but now I see the whole team – I see all 11 players moving in different directions.  I see the players in the periphery trying to make an opening.  I see the context.  I see all the drama that’s unfolding all over the whole field.

This new vision kind of reminds me of those 3D paintings that used to be so popular – where you put your eyes out of focus until suddenly they locked into place and you could see new images that were previously invisible – a whole new landscape of information.  Football has sprung from two into three dimensions for me.

It is like learning any language – you have to spend time listening/watching and then you not only understand more but also can begin to speak the language.  You understand context not just stray vocabulary.

The world cup has deepened my football fluency to a new level – it’s been like immersion learning techniques.  Almost all I’ve done all month is soccer and I can feel my brain has grown and stretched around it revealing why it is called a beautiful game.

And Italy has the ball but they are moving like slugs across the field, passing like they are playing in a rest home…

You think you know a team.  But never be sure.  Teams are moody, teams are unpredictable.  Teams, just like people have bad days, emotional days, angry days, uncoordinated days.  Italy looked strong, solid, strategic in their first game, and in the 2nd game they looked old and tired, unable to keep up with the spritely, energetic Costa Rican attack.  Italy tripped and plodded whereas the game before they had leapt and galloped.  What happened?

The amazing matrix that is a team spirit on any given day fascinates me.  How all the moods and feelings of the individuals mix and mingle and affect one another – a team is more than the sum of its parts, it has it’s own character and emotion and personality. And then that personality is effected in different ways by the personality of the competition – a solid team against one foe may become suddenly strangely toothless against another.

It’s so complex, and many-layered, and ever-changing and  and that’s what makes it beautiful. If you are interested in the endless complexity of human nature, then the idea of “team nature” and “team mood” and “team personality” is equally intriguing.

The Italians lose the ball to Costa Rica who have been solid at the back, dynamic all over and incisive going forward.  A superb Diaz cross from the left is rewarded with a well-directed header in off the crossbar from Ruiz… GOOOOOOOOL!! GOAL BY COSTA RICA FOR THE BEAUTIFUL!

ALL HAIL THE UNDERDOGS!  All hail the team that no one took seriously and SURPRISES THEM ALL!  This little country and this little team just beat two World Champions and made it look easy!

In so many other sports statistics mean something. In soccer sometimes they don’t.  There are ALWAYS surprises in the World Cup.

Football is unpredictable. The underdogs always have a chance.

I think this is why it has become the sport of the world.  Yes, usually to become a World Champion you need money and training and talent.  And money.

However…

All the world over, every dusty alley can become a football field.  Round found objects can become soccer balls – and the game can be played.  Soccer in it’s most fundamental form is a very egalitarian sport. It doesn’t require money or private school.  It can be played anywhere and by anybody.

And so people connect to it, cherish it, all over the world regardless of the continent.

And unlike so many professional sports, there are always beautiful surprises. Always teams that vastly exceed expectations and teams that never meet them.  Costa Rica, a team everyone trivialized, surprised the world.  I love a team where every team does have SOME sort of fighting chance. Costa Rica also showed important good leadership can be.  Every country has raw talent – but it takes a special sort of coach to train players to work together so beautifully and effectively.  In soccer the smallest of nations can compete with the largest.

Meanwhile in the stands, the French fans are showing unusual exuberance, as they sing the Marseillaise like the war chant it really kinda is.  They sound ready to spill the blood of their enemies onto the earth just as their national anthem demands. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpMGmWeC2oQ

There is nothing quite like being surrounded by a group of fans when their team is playing.  The anxious energy when they are just barely losing, the sinking dejectedness when they are badly behind and running out of time, and the raucous confident joy when they get a goal that puts them in the lead.

My very first experience of what makes the World Cup special was in 1998.  I was on a summer trip to Europe with my best friend and a group of other students.  We were in London the night the English were eliminated from the Cup and it was truly remarkable to watch the mood of an entire city change from excitement and anticipation, to nervousness, to utter, undeniable depression and dejection.  I had never really seen an entire city doing something together like that before.

We then went to Paris and happened to be in town the day France won the World Cup.  I had never and may never again see celebration on that scale.  I was totally enthralled – this heretofore basically unknown sport (don’t be harsh – I’m from the US – knowing about soccer and understanding how deeply important it is, is much much less common than even learning how to drive stick shift) had the power to rock an entire nation into 3 days worth of deafening, jubilant, almost violent celebration.  A sport could do this…

It means something to us as creatures.  I am still trying to figure out why it is able to have such collective power – but that mystery is part of what keeps me coming back again and again, game after game, tournament after tournament.  Why are we so often so much more moved by the made up stories, than the real ones?  Why does play feel so much more moving and important at times than real life?  What is it that playtime allows us to be that real life doesn’t?  And why?

Watching my cats play it is clear that they have more fun playing with toys than trying to catch real prey.  When an animal is real, they suddenly are quite serious, it’s not a game anymore.  And some of the joyfulness leaves them.  It becomes work somehow.  It seems even they have a different relationship to work versus play.

There is something to be learned here…something that could be applied… how do we make ourselves take work as passionately as we take what is ostensibly an unserious thing?  Maybe we need to find ways of making that which is serious work a bit more like play – so we can find a way to let a bit of the joy, the passion and creativity, and recklessness and emotion come creeping into responsible adult life.

A Frenchman and a Swiss both head for the ball and the Swiss man is down.  He’s on the ground, rocking back and forth clutching his face.  This is no flop… this one is for real.  He appears to be bleeding profusely from his eye socket   His led off the field, momentarily blinded… we can only hope his eye will be alright…

When a player is seriously injured a game stops being a game.  When you see gushing blood out there on the field or a concussion or a broken vertebrae it’s hard to find it entertaining anymore and you have to wonder why something verging so constantly close to violence is that which seems to most please us.

It’s hard to keep rooting for France when it is obvious the opposing team is deeply traumatized, unsure if their teammate will recover his vision or not.  The French score one goal after another but I feel queasy.  It is no longer a fair fight.  I wonder how the fans around me can still look so cheery and jubilant when a man might have just lost his eye for their entertainment…

It seems like it only just started, and we haven’t even gotten to half time yet – but teams are already starting to leave the field – there goes England and Japan, Honduras and Cameroon! And now Australia and Spain have the ball but they are just passing it back and forth. They seem to both know it’s over and they can’t make a difference this game.  Although they share the same fate, Spain looks dejected while Australia walks tall and proud as they finally make their way off the field.

One man’s loss is another man’s win.  One teams humiliation is another team’s pride.  Spain left this cup feeling disgraced in front of the world, Champions one Cup and out at the very beginning of the next.  Australia was proud for even being there and for holding their own against a notorious team like Holland. Australian player Cahill said,  “today I’ve enjoyed one of the most beautiful moments of my life,”  after his team held their own against the Dutch and he made a beautiful goal.  ““It was a fantastic goal and without doubt the best of my career. I’ll never forget it,” said the New York Red Bulls star. “It’s a moment of great pride for me and my country. I know that it’s all over for me now, but I’m leaving without any regrets. As well as scoring that goal, we gave as good as we got against one of the best teams in the world and their star players.”

Winning isn’t the thing that actually makes us the most proud… it’s trying our best.

 But Italy and Uruguay are in a scuffle.  They know one of them has to go but they are fighting it out literally tooth and nail as Suarez takes a chomp out of Italian Chiellini’s shoulder…

Just as we have rules of war, we also have rules of sport. We turn a blind eye to players aiming dangerous kicks at each other or tripping or doing other dangerous moves.  But we all kinda agree – biting is not ok.  Not because of the damage done, but because it reminds us of our animal nature.  We strive in sports to maintain the facade of gentlemanly good conduct.

People have been hard on Suarez and with good cause. It is clearly not ok to bite players, just as we shouldn’t claw at them or pull their hair or poke them in the eyes.

However – did the punishment fit the crime?  Why is it that he was so harshly reprimanded when other players who are just as reckless and do far more dangerous things to each other get off relatively lightly?  Why is it when Robben actual ADMITS he cheats he doesn’t get punished at all?

…And the internet is going crazy. Suarez’ teeth are going viral!

And just like that everyone in the world is ready to judge this human being.  Yes he did something crazy – and yes it’s clear it’s a problem and he needs help.  He probably needs a LOT of therapy. But the general gist of internet is that Suarez is a bad person, that Suarez is a jerk, a monster, an asshole.  Do any of us actually know anything more about him besides his unfortunate defensive tactic?

If you are at all interested in making a bit more of 3-dimensional person out of this albeit baffling sports star, I really really highly recommend this article by Wright Thompson.  It’s a lovely piece of investigative journalism and he takes the time to push past they hype and the hysteria and the stereotypes, to try and dig into why Suarez bites.  H

Again – the beauty of seeking out perspective.  In England they call Suarez an asshole creep monster, in Uruguay he is a friendly talented hero of the country who happens to be a tremendously loyal husband, father and friend.  It is always worth digging for the person behind the meme.

This could have gone either way and got pretty scrappy at the end between these two veteran teams – but Italy finally concedes and slowly limps off the field.

It’s at this point that I freshly question why it is that I like the World Cup…This happens at the end of almost every game when I feel a deep sadness.  I almost always feel more sad than happy, empathizing more with the misery of the team that just lost than I could ever hope to feel joyful for the team that has won.  I see the fans, still in bright cheerful war paint but with the look on their faces of little lost children.  And yes it’s just a game – but that heartbreak, that’s real.

Pirlo and Buffon make a bow to their fans for what is likely to be the last time they are on a World Cup field.

Buffon is one of my favorite football players of all time.  He is just a joy of a person – and an amazing goalie and captain.  He has been the heart of the Italian team for a long time and it is strange and sad and horrible thinking about the next World Cup when the team will seem gutted, lobatomized.

It’s always hard to grok that by the time a player is 35 they are an old-timer on the verge of retirement.  Forlan who was perhaps one of the very best players last world cup has been mostly relegated to the sidelines.  He will return to the field to take over for now banished Suarez, but he is slow and ineffectual. In just 4 years you go from the best to an extra.  It’s a bitter draught to swallow.

Soccer is so bitterly fleeting.  You are a young player working on getting better, getting at the top of your game – but how many years do you really get to BE there at the top of your game before your already in decline?  So few.  When life as a real proper adult is just starting for most of us, a football player is already doddering.

And then what?  Life stretching in front of you and you already had your career.  I wonder how many soccer players spin into depression cycles as they approach retirement, having gotten a taste of old-age and death, having had to stare it in the face and KNOW their body is decaying as the youthful vigor slowly drains away, at a time when most people still feel so young.

It’s Half-Time Everyone and Beautiful is ahead 2-1!  The last few minutes there didn’t have much clarity but was packed with emotion as teams left the game.  It’s two weeks in to the tournament.  At this point in the World Cup I’m a suffering a bit of Futbol Fatigue.  It’s a bit surreal to watch this much soccer in such a short period of time.  I just have to keep reminding myself every time I wake up from a soccer dream, or find myself overusing sports metaphors when I write that it’s only every 4 years, and the first two weeks are the hardest.  Now for a bit of a halftime break and we’ll be back soon for the second half of the the Tournament!

***

 The game continues here:

World Cup Showdown Part 3: Sporting Subjectivity and the Fun of a Little Hate

World Cup Showdown Part 1: The Beautiful Game vs The Ugly Deception

•July 9, 2014 • 2 Comments

(Disclaimer:  In this post I may be writing soccer and football synonymously because I’m from the US but live with a South American and we use both terms interchangeably.  Deal with it ;-)  )

Pre-game Postulation:  Things to Look Out for During the Match

Despite having seen what must be almost 100 hours of World Cup soccer/football coverage over the last 3 weeks, there are many moments when I still am very undecided about whether I love it or hate it.  I have on many, many occasions stormed from the room saying how much I hate this sport – whether it’s because of a crazy call by a referee, a horrible bloody injury, a stupid theatrical dive, an embarrassingly boring game where nothing at all is happening, or the sight of miserably sad fans and tortured players who know they are doomed and about to jeered off the world stage as losers.  So what keeps pulling me back game after game, cup after cup?

It can’t be denied that the World Cup is a pretty remarkable event in sheer magnitude alone, and increasingly so in our ever more connected and globalized world.  According to a report produced for FIFA, about 3.2 billion people around the world (roughly 46% of the global population) watched at least some of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa on TV in their homes.  The world cup was playing in almost half the homes on the planet… whoa…

As beautiful as it is to imagine that when you turn on a game, that there might be a billion other people out there watching it as well,  it also feels sad that the only thing we are able to agree on collectively and come together for is something as frivolous as sports.

So what is the World Cup?  A beautiful common language or the opiate of the masses, distracting us from all the important shit we should be collectively coming together for instead?  I go back and forth and back and forth on this, sometimes changing my mind several times in the course of a week or a day or even a game.  So I think it’s time to have it out – to have a proper matchup between sides.  Is the World Cup “The Beautiful Game” or “The Ugly Deception?”

Let the games begin.

 ***

The teams are marching onto the field.  There’s a strong lineup on both sides.  This game really could go either way.

The excitement is palpable here in the stadium.  The World Cup is Finally here!  After four long years of waiting, time to sit back for an entire beautiful month or soccer. Many of the details from 2010 are hazy in my memory, but fill me with a cozy nostalgia.  I’ve filled out my brackets and I’m feeling quite clever about my picks, personally invested now in the outcome of each game.

The National Anthems play. 

Perhaps the ball has not yet been put into play but the competition in my mind has already started.  National Anthems?  Hate them or love them?  Tough call. I love the camera panning across the players faces as they stare solemnly off into the distance.  I love seeing people singing with passion.  I love seeing people feel pride in their culture and history.

However… nationalism itself can get pretty ugly.    The rise of the nation state is one of the things that has made something like the World Cup possible – and yet trying to make a one-size-fits-all policy for cultural identity has caused the erasure of a lot of culture and the forced adoption of the dominant culture’s manner of self-identifying. For example until relatively recently France was not at ALL a country in the sense that we think of it today, and there was no common culture – but rather a roughly gathered collection of regions, each with its own language (or languages) and history.  Nations and borders and flags have made what was once grey into black and white – and often done a pretty shoddy job of it.  In the process it makes it easier than ever to have an us versus them mentality, making borders the frontier for “otherness.”

National Anthems started to become ubiquitous in the late 19th century – and it shows.  Most of them, whether they are Latin American or African or European, have the stodginess of 19th century European marching band music rather than sounding anything like the culture, country and history they are supposed to represent.  While expounding patriotic independence they also manage to reiterate a history utterly couched within colonial dominance.

And Croatia and Brazil have gotten the ball moving.  The Beautiful Game is dominating possession in the early stage as the fans are practically levitating out of their seats with joy and excitement, decked out in team colors and fantastic costumes.

Yes as the game begins I wonder, what’s not to love about soccer?  Look how happy everyone is!  People are in feathers and face paint and animal suits!  Here we are a whole big happy world, gathered together for proper sportsmanlike competition! Yay!

Penalty shot for Brazil!  Just minutes into the game the referee realizes Brazil needs to get into the next round but that they don’t seem to be capable of getting there on their own.  The referee himself enters play, kicking the ball across the field to Neymar who neatly kicks it across the line.  GOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!!! GOAL FOR THE UGLIES!

 Well that foray on the Beautiful side of the field was short-lived. Just as I was getting comfortable thinking this game was a no-brainer the referee stepped in making a bunch of pretty unfair calls seriously debilitating Croatia and more or less handing the match to Brazil.  What an embarrassing way to start the game.

Mexico now has the ball and is on the attack.  They get a corner over from the left, it’s flicked on at the near post and Dos Santos directs his header in. But a referee runs in to play 2nd goalie against the Beautiful, deflecting a goal for Mexico for the second time with the use of the offsides flag.  He then goes tearing down the field towards the other goal.  The main referee fails to call the other referee’s questionable use of flags to block well-shot goals. He gets dangerously close to the goal and shoots.   The shot goes wide due to Mexicans managing to win their game against Cameroon anyway, despite the referee playing with Cameroon – but this was a nerve-wracking moment, almost a second goal for Ugly, Corrupt and Horrible.

For the second game in a row calls are made that are clearly incorrect.  The referee is playing by his own rules and there is no one to referee HIM.  This is one of the things I hate beyond hate about soccer.  One of the things that can completely ruin it for me…and SHOULD by all rights nearly ruin it for everyone:  the referee has got complete control over the game for better or for worse – opening every game up to his potential errors, bad judgment, bias, and often corruption – and a referee almost never backs down EVEN when he is not sure about a call he has made.  He stubbornly rides it out, unwilling to allow players to challenge him.  Referees get to be dictators out there.  Why should one guy have that much power?

There is a simple solution to this – instant replay.  Not so much that it would slow the game down at all. The amount of time players and coaches spend arguing with a referee would be neatly replaced with a referee quickly taking out a nice handheld device and being able to immediately see what just happened from another angle.  He would do so only if the coach or players vehemently insist.

Other sports do it – so why not football?  The arguments are as various as they are fatuous – a) it would ruin the flow of the game b) human error is part of what makes it beautiful c) it would undermine the referee’s power (i.e. dictatorship) d) bad decisions bring more chance and debate into the game, and therefore more “entertainment potential” e) instant replay would make soccer robotic.

Blah blah blah.  Whatever.  It hasn’t ruined basketball, and it wouldn’t ruin soccer.

They made exactly the same kinds of arguments about not integrating goal line – saying this technology would impact the human element of the game and remove the enjoyment of debating mistakes.  Sepp Blatter, the slimy and corrupt head of FIFA said, “Other sports regularly change the laws of the game to react to the new technology. … We don’t do it and this makes the fascination and the popularity of football.”  They argued it would destroy soccer by changing the weight distribution of the ball, causing the player to have to (gasp) ADAPT, therefore probably ruining “the Beautiful Game.”

Blah blah blah. Seriously WTF

Well guess what – they finally buckled and got microchips in the soccer balls – and… Football DIDN’T DIE.  In fact it’s improved!.  We now know whether or not a ball actually was in the goal rather than just trusting the referee!  Now referees can only steal deserving goals from teams with an offsides flag….

So why don’t they do instant replay?  Simple really.  If they had instant replay it would be WAY way way way WAY harder to set matches.  That’s really all there is to it.  That is why FIFA is against it.  All that money.  The Football mafias of the world would be pretty darn upset.

And that is why the “Ugly, Corrupt, Horrible” team is already in the lead, only 2 days into the world cup, minutes into this match.

I’m starting to wonder if maybe we should throw in the towel, end the game early, give the win to the “Uglies” and the Cup to Brazil…

Holland has the ball and is dribbling it around midfield, passing it back and forth, edging closer and closer to  the Ugly side.  Spain hasn’t even touched the ball, and the Spanish players are like felled men in a battle as the Dutchman trip and block and nudge and elbow them.  However a glorious header by Van Persie brings the ball flying back towards the Beautiful side of the field, and the fans cheer, thinking there may still be some life in the Beautiful Game yet, even after all the ugly Ugly playing.  

Spain vs. Holland just made me sad.  I hate the way the Dutch play – they are driven and dirty and will stop at nothing.  And they get the job done.  They have revenge in mind and as they rammed goal after goal through, they seemed to be battering the spirits of every Spanish soul.

But that Van Persie header WAS a beauty.

After this World Cup match I kind of felt similarly to how I often feel after watching a scene of Game of Thrones. Queasy and surprised and deflated yet impressed. In this instance Holland were clearly bloodthirsty, cannibal Wildlings while Spain were the VERY DEFENSELESS villagers who get slaughtered….

Watching the faces of these Spanish men who I feel like I’ve gotten to know over the years in the previous World and Euro Cups, as well as Real Madrid and Barcelona games, as they basically get stabbed through the gut, was a little bit sickening.    They are a kind team, a team that doesn’t often resort to a lot of the ugly tactics you see elsewhere, and they are champions of the idea of the “the beautiful game.”  To see them mowed down by the viking like tactics of the Dutch hurts.  And to see the world saying, “well you WERE something but now you are nothing” almost gleefully, is also sad.  We cherish you one day and mock you the next.  Human beings are creepy.

But this is the way of soccer – and life.  You can’t stay on top forever.  This is the end of an era.  One could just wish it weren’t so brutal, so definite.  And I question what the point is in any case – if following victory, even the highest of all victories, if you still end up humiliated for not being able to be immortal and reign supreme forever.

But hey – isn’t that what we all have to face?  Try our best to live a vibrant, exciting successful life – but then no matter what we do, we shrivel up and die anyway, our bodies’ slow disintegration humiliating us to death.

So – I guess that brings soccer back towards the Beautiful for so often being an appropriate metaphor for life.

 Uruguay has the ball and they are speeding down to the Beautiful side of the field.  Lugano is grabbed from behind and dragged to the floor. It’s a clear penalty. Cavani’s body shape oozes confidence as he whips this into the right-hand corner of the goal.  GOOOOOOL!  

Yeah, just as I was losing hope, the tight fitting Puma shirts worn by the Uruguayans saved soccer for me, at least for a day. And then Cavani took his off at half-time and scored one for the side of Beautiful. Not gonna lie – part of the fun of the world cup for me is all the gorgeous men.  Especially Cavani.

England and Italy pass the ball back and forth, moving fluidly across the field.  They work together to make a few beautiful set pieces aimed at the Beautiful, hitting the goalpost twice – nearly scoring a Beautiful goal…

This exquisite, well-paced game between two former World Cup Champions made me love soccer again.  It was a classically European sort of game – lots of strategy and fluidity, but not much scrabbling and chaos and surprise.  Just smooth attacking football. A lot of fearless penetration, a lot of openings and interesting opportunities made, a lot of adventurous choices – but still ringing with tactics.  Exciting young players like Sterling, Sturridge and Balotelli backed up by old reliables like Pirlo, the ever-delightful Gigi Buffon. Good stuff. It was an absolute pleasure of a game.  After a game like this I started thinking that the World Cup could be like THIS – two teams head to head using strategy, taking risks, and being bold and letting their personalities shine through – but always within the context of fair play – it would be a beautiful thing indeed.

The ball is caught by Josy Altidore, for the US, but quickly goes out of play as he falls to the ground with a hamstring injury…

Just as we get our feet on the ball our star striker falls to the ground, reminding us not of either the Ugly or the Beautiful but rather of Lady Luck the Ultimate Football Referee – regularly manipulating the outcome of nearly every game.

But Clint Dempsey is on it.  Beaten, bruised and bloody, this guy just won’t give up.  He charges down the field seemingly unaware that his nose is practically hanging from his face.  The rest of the US team are right there with him, hobbled and limping but giving it everything they’ve got. 

There is something intoxicating about being the underdogs.  So often it would be sort of embarrassing rooting for the US – it would feel like being a Yankees or a Lakers fan – it just seems kind of unfair in a lot of sports where we pump so much more money and resources in the other teams can afford to do.

But soccer is a somewhat more even playing field – which makes for delightful surprises, and allows for the eternal hopefulness of the underdogs.  And the US team doesn’t have the oppressive weight of expectation on their shoulders like other teams – doing their best and playing with that classic US Can-Do spirit will be good enough.  It sounds cheesy to say so – but after watching so much cynical soccer it feels really good to root for the home team who play so cleanly – no diving, no theatrics – just effort.  They want to win fair and square and I love and respect that.  What my team lacks in seasoning and prowess they make up for with heart and determination. It’s lovely watching the team slowly make progress over the years, becoming more and more competitive. Yes it’s brutal to have them put in the Group of Death, and then to lose our main striker 7 minutes in – but something the US does so well is rise to the challenge  when we’re down.

***

Uh oh – it looks like it’s getting hot out there on the field. The players are parched.  It seems it’s time for a Totally-Not-In-The-Rules-But-Let’s-Do-It-Anyway Water Break.  This will give the two sides some time to hydrate and regroup.  Coming back from behind, Beautiful seems to be dominating this part of the game.  Can they keep it up? Tune in tomorrow as the game continues: more dark underbelly of soccer mixed with beautiful life metaphors coming up!

***

The World Cup Showdown continues here:  

World Cup Showdown Part 2: the Narrative Value of Soccer

AND

World Cup Showdown Part 3: Sporting Subjectivity and the Fun of a Little Hate

 

 

At Home in Saudade

•June 2, 2014 • 2 Comments

Have you ever picked up a book that you had read once before, a long while back, and been struck by how different an experience it was reading it a second time?  When we repeat an experience many years later, whether it’s related to art, music or literature, a hobby or activity, or visiting a place or a person, it can reveal very interesting things about the ways in which we may have changed.

Earlier this month I saw the legendary Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso for the second time in my life.

The first time was in New York in 2004.  The first time I did not cry.  The first time I did not feel such saudade.  But the second time it was very different.

On the 18th of May, we were shown into Le Grand Rex Theatre in Paris by a lanky usher dressed in crisp black.

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It had been quite awhile since I’d been to a concert, and I was happy to be there, looking forward to an evening of excellent music.  I didn’t really expect it to be a high-energy show.  I expected a polite audience of cultured Parisians looking for an exotic experience. I expected Caetano to be someone lost in translation, his philosophical, sometimes sexual, often subversive lyrics not at all understood, and turned into a pleasant bourgeois night out.  I thought I’d find a sort of quiet room occasionally half-filled with courteous clapping, and the usual academic enthusiasm you see from a French audience when they view something they don’t necessarily understand or feel but believe is ‘quality’ and therefore profess to enjoy.

We sat down in plush chairs and waited while the theater slowly filled up, every seat eventually taken, and then the lights went down.IMG_3092

 

 

In that darkness we heard the first notes from the band sprinting towards us, a pumping rhythm punctuated by atmospheric electric guitar.   The room burst into energetic, passionate applause in time with the bass drum. Joyful whoops erupted throughout the room as Caetano Veloso appeared, guitar in hand.  IMG_3059

Although the man is 71 years old, he has an agile, lively, compact body and his bespectacled face is fresh and expressive, topped with an impressive shock of white hair.  As he trotted from one side of the stage to the other and got closer and closer to the audience there was a nearly palpable delight running through the crowd.IMG_3081IMG_3078IMG_3076IMG_3073IMG_3075

I started to look around me, and I began to tune into the voices around me, picking up on snippets of Portuguese coming from every direction.  As the band rounded the bend of a verse towards the chorus, many in the audience chanted along, bouncing with the beat.  “odeio você, odeio você, odeio você.  odei-o”

As Caetano began strumming the second song and then sang the first few notes, an audible “oooooooooh” swept through the room, the sound of satisfied recognition followed by a quiet hum of anticipation.  And then everyone began to sing along, word for word.  It was as this song played and I heard all these voices around me singing in Brazilian Portuguese, all the words known, all the words treasured, doled out preciously and lovingly, that I began to tear up. There I was in Paris, so far from Rio, and yet I was surrounded by Brazilians…hundreds maybe thousands of Brazilians.  And they were singing a love song in a shared quavering voice, a group whisper, a thousand voices singing to themselves in a hush, yet also singing together, to each other.

It was so beautiful.  And so unexpected.

The tears were just flowing down my face and I didn’t entirely know why – but I felt so profoundly moved.

The jubilation expressed by the people around me created a certain kind of energy in the space.  I no longer felt like I was in Paris; I felt like I was transported somewhere special and private.

The concert was many poignant things at once.  It was the gratitude you might expect from people getting to see one of the most beloved and iconic musicians of their country in person, and hearing songs they know word for word sung right in front of them.  But all those Brazilians shared something with one another beyond a passion for the same music: the experience, for better or worse of being Brazilian living in France.  The expatriate experience.  They all were in France for different reasons, different needs, different priorities, and for different lengths of time. Some perhaps saw their entire future in Europe while others would be returning to Brazil at some point.  But the differences aside – they were joined together by the distance separating them from their land, from their roots.

Caetano himself has been an expatriate.  In fact he spent several years living in exile in Europe.

He and his friend and fellow musician Gilberto Gil had been “two of Brazil’s biggest pop stars, leading lights in the slyly subversive Brazilian psychedelic rock scene Tropicália.”  Brazil’s government, a military dictatorship, decided they were a threat and in December 1968 they were arrested in São Paulo. They had their heads shaved, spent two months in prison and a further four months under house arrest.  And then they were sent into exile, forced to find refuge in London.

It must have been a strange time – partially exciting to be in such a vibrant new city with such a phenomenal music scene, and partially horribly painful…the ache of feeling like home was out of reach, maybe wasn’t home anymore, maybe wouldn’t be home ever again.  Not knowing when or if you’d be able to return…

Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso in Trafalgar Square in 1969

Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso in Trafalgar Square in 1969

Caetano made music while in exile – but he jokingly described his 1971 album, London London, as “a document of depression” with lyrics that speak to his homesickness, like  “One day I had to leave my country, calm beach and palm beach.”

He recently said, “It is only now that I can say that I like the music I recorded there…The things we learned in exile made us more creative musicians. It also made us stronger people.”

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 What a beautiful thing for someone like him, who knows the pain of exile, to be able to bring a crowd of his countrymen back home for awhile.

***

To be an expatriate is to accept being an outsider most of the time, knowing that many of the things that you most cherish are things that the people around you are not likely to have heard of let alone care about.  I think a lot of expats feel a great need to find others of their nationality even if they would not be friends in other circumstances, just to be around people that ground them in their national identity, their particular loves and hates, and the flavors of home, people who speaks the same language – not just the language of words – but body language, and the languages of ideas, memories, and feelings.

How special to be able to walk off the streets of Paris and enter that theater, and to go from being the minority, the stranger, the foreigner – to suddenly being mostly surrounded by other people like you, joining in the celebration of sharing something, connecting so effortlessly. There in that large theatre was the collective feeling, reminder, implication of Brazil, of a home left behind, and all those things that Europeans couldn’t understand.  There they came together and something lightened, something was easy again, like removing confining clothing and taking a deep breath.

They were home.  At least for a few hours.

***

I was struck by how different my concert experience was than the other time I had seen Caetano Veloso nearly 10 years before.  I was a college student, and my father was in town visiting.  My father loves all things Brazilian so we went to see Caetano at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side.

He had just put out an album of cover songs in English – including a surprising variety ranging from Gershwin to Nirvana.  The covers had a certain brilliance in the way he adapted them to his own persona, style and musicality. It was enjoyable and he was a fantastic performer, yet something was a bit lost in the translation.  It felt like an exercise rather than an expression, not quite as open, honest, or comfortable as he seems in his own music.

(Although I do LOVE this cover of “Come As You Are.”)

After the concert we went for a drink next door where we ran into a group of Brazilians.  My dad walked eagerly up to them and said his stockpile of Brazilian phrases, and sang them a little Brazilian song (like he does every time, without fail, that he meets a Portuguese speaker…and every time anyone even mentions Brazil).  They were pleased and amused and probably surprised.  Thinking back on that moment, I realize how unusual that might have been for them – to have their culture and language not only recognized but even exalted a bit.  In New York, people’s differences often can start blending, bleeding, growing fuzzy – because you get so used to seeing different kinds of people, hearing different accents. Strangely – in the cultural mixing pot – sometimes there is less flavor because every culture is forced into a bit of a muted state in the context of the roar and flash of the city.

And curiosity suffers.

For me to be honest they were just more of the many many people that fill up New York, speaking one of the many languages.  I had never even been to South America at that time.  We shared a city but had nothing overtly in common beyond that. I was a young, naive, inexperienced college student, in my New York bubble, where all the world comes to you. This was before I became an expatriate myself. I didn’t yet know saudade for a home that one cannot return to as you knew, or maybe cannot return to at all.

***

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“Saudade, a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”  Manuel de Melo

“We all experience within us what the Portuguese call ‘saudade’, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world … [T]he love song is never simply happy.”  Nick Cave

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I could not share the specifically Brazilian experience of seeing Caetano because he is not part of my identity or my background but just a musician I love listening to and deeply admire.  However I shared something else quite important with them and I felt it very powerfully – the saudade of living so far from where we are from.

I’ve only just recently really taken in and accepted that I’m an actual expatriate.  I don’t know why it took this long – I’ve been living outside the United States for eight or nine years already, but it never seemed like all that much time had passed, not enough time to make it official.   Perhaps it’s because we haven’t ever chosen to settle down somewhere and make a traditional home there; nowhere we’ve lived has had the equivalent solidity or meaning for me as the only places thus far that I’ve actually truly identified with as home – California, Alaska and New York.

But I think that is finally changing.

Two important events have occurred recently that have helped bring about a shift for me – one was a cutting of ties, the other was the forming of new ones.

In November of 2012, my family home was foreclosed on.  This was the house where I grew up, the house that’s been in my family for 30 years, and a place I’d hoped in some naive way to never actually have to say goodbye to. The process of cutting the ties with that piece of land, those walls, those interior spaces and all the memories they contained, was very painful and left me feeling very alone and adrift in the world, unsure of where and to whom I belonged.  I felt unrooted, untethered, floating in space.  Nowhere I went felt comfortable or safe.  I felt like a kind of global vagrant, begging to feel part of something.

But like so many difficult things, I soon realized that the cutting of these ties was a healthy and important thing to have occurred.  It has helped me to feel more present actually living where I am living, rather than feeling like part of me is caught like a butterfly behind glass, preserved elsewhere, stuck in time.

The second thing that occurred was that I got married.   I plan to write about this in depth later this month, but what’s important for the moment is that in the course of planning the wedding I rediscovered how rich my life truly is in deep, sustainable relationships with wonderful people.  I learned that despite my constant feelings and fears of scarcity I am truly wealthy in love, friendship and family.  I finally understood on a very deep level that although I am always far away from most of the people I care about, that as I move around the world I am held up by a strong, beautiful and ever growing web of amazing links to people that I have found, connected with and constructed a sustainable bonds with along the way.  We are all holding on to each other, holding each other up.

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The downside of this, and it is a beautiful downside, is that I know that there is never a place I can go now in the world where I won’t be missing other places and other people.  There is never a center now where the effect is lessened.  And there is always so much of this beautiful, aching, sweet missing. Endless Saudade, the flipside of all of that love. Life is never going to be uncomplicated.

I am a Californian living in France, married to a Venezuelan, whose family lives Colombia, and our friends are spread all over the world.  There’s no way to stuff it back into one place anymore.  I can’t ever just “go back home.”

But realizing that I am not on some trapeze, always risking falling, as I swing from place to place, changes everything.  I am finding myself more able to get beyond geography in my concept of home, and locate it instead deep inside that ever-growing web of family and friendship.  That way I can be at home wherever I go.

It’s complicated. I didn’t have any idea what it would mean to live for so long outside the United States, and how at a certain point there would be no turning back.  I didn’t do it on purpose and I didn’t understand the ramifications.  But I do now.  I know what I have lost and what I have gained. And I feel a certain sorrow – like a loss of some kind of innocence.  But I don’t regret it.  I am grateful for it every day, because I can feel myself expanding.  It is hard sometimes, but worth the growing pains.

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“In this world, time is a local phenomenon.  Two clocks close together tick at nearly the same rate.  But clocks separated by distance tick at different rates, the farther apart the more out of step… In this world, time flows at different speeds in different locations…  On occasion, a traveler will venture from one city to another.  Is he perplexed?  What took seconds in Berne might take hours in Fribourg, or days in Lucerne.  In the time for a leaf to fall in one place, a flower could bloom in another.  In the duration of a thunderclap in one place, two people could fall in love in another.  In the time that a boy grows into a man, a drop of rain might slide down a windowpane.  Yet the traveler is unaware of these discrepancies.  As he moves from one timescape to the next, the traveler’s body adjusts to the local movement of time…Only when the traveler communicates with the city of departure does he realize he has entered a new domain of time.  Then he learns that while he has been gone his daughter has lived her life and grown old, or perhaps his neighbor’s wife has just completed the song she was singing when he left his front gate.  It is then the traveler learns that he is cut off in time, as well as in space.  No traveler goes back to his city of origin…”  

– From Einstein’s Dream by Alan Lightman

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For a great article about Caetano Veloso please readDinner and philosophy with Brazil’s greatest pop star” http://www.theartsdesk.com/new-music/dinner-caetano-veloso

This is a fun piece of writing that really elucidates what is so special about both the man and the musician.

I also highly recommend Veloso’s most recent album “Abraçaço.”  I particularly love the title piece, included here for your listening pleasure:

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