Saturday, March 15, 2014

Media

Media

By Bobby Neal Winters
At the hotel I stayed at in Rio, when the waiter came to fill up my cup with coffee, he knew I was a foreigner and would always ask, "Media?"  (pronounced meh-jee-a) in order to determine whether I wanted it half full with the other half milk.  This is because Brazilian coffee is strong.

I now approach "media" of my time in South America.  I will be home one week from tomorrow and this makes today effectively half-time.  There are some tentative plans, but there is no big half-time show in the works.  I would like to ride on the Sao Paulo subway, which I hear is clean and safe.  I'd like to kick around aimlessly. buying small items with the idea of improving my Portuguese.  Most of all, I need to rest a little bit because the second half is coming up as I leave for Asuncion in the morning.

Plans are (men make plans and God laughs) that I will meet the rest of the PSU-Paraguay contingent at the Sao Paulo airport tomorrow and we share the same flight to Asuncion.  We then will be together in Asuncion and I can show them the ropes, as it were. I always like to take the group to Shopping del Sol to get pineapple juice and chipa cuartro queso.  It is a great way to get calibrated.  Maybe we will dine at Bolsi? 
In any case, today I will recuperate and ready myself for the second half.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

São Paulo novamente

São Paulo novamente

By Bobby Neal Winters
Today a bit after 1pm, I got on the fifth plane that I've been on since Saturday. Ordinarily, I sit silently, trying not to bother my seat-mate.  This trip the rule has been that I've sit by talkers.  Today followed the rule except that the talker was across the aisle from me.  The fellow was originally from Belgium, lived in South Africa for many years, married a Scot, and has moved back to Belgium.
Oh, yeah, and he's executive producer for the World Cup.  At least one of them.
Anyway, he kept me entertained on the flight.
Today, I finish the first quarter of my trip and I passed an important milestone I'd set for myself: Getting from the São Paulo airport to the Tryp São Paulo Paulista Hotel alive.  I took a cab.  I know the taxi Portuguese for this. It is: "Gostaria de ir para Tryp São Paulo Paulista Hotel.  However, the problem comes if the drive responds "Onde?" and wants you to give him the address.  With this very moment in mind, I got some 3 by 5 cards and wrote the address on one of them.
When I got to the airport, I took 300 reals out of the ATM and walked outside.  Much to my delight, I saw a cashiers desk with the word Taxi above it.  I went to them, showed them the card, and they directed me to a cab.  I showed the card to the cab driver, and he drove me to the hotel with Frank Sinatra playing on his stereo all the way here. It cost 126 reals. 
I am in a busy part of town. I am only two blocks off of Paulista street, which is one happening place.  There are two nice sandwich shops right next to the hotel.  Got supper for 18 reals. File mignon sandwich, batatas fritas, and a coke.  There is an ice cream parlor (a big one) across the street and a nice bookstore by it.  I bought an ingles Portugues dictionary.
I also did a bit of exploring. I walked over to Boteco, which is my favorite cafe in SP.  I will try to hit it before I leave, but you have to cross Paulista street to get there and that is a non trivial undertaking. 
I have a long day tomorrow. I will begin rolling to Sorocaba by 7am and have a full day there, getting to renew old aquaintances and create new ones.

Saida Caxias

Saida Caxias

By Bobby Neal Winters
Bob Walter told me this was a great city and he was right.  The area is wonderful.  And I love the campus.  I felt so at home there. I talked to an intercultural relations class on Monday night and had a wonderful time.  They are very curious about the United States. That is the nature of the class.
Yesterday I took part in orientation activities for the international students.  They had a Samba class for them as an ice breaker, but I didn't take part: I can't dance even in English.
Last night, Gustavo Pezzi, former student of mine, took me out for a wonderful dinner. Italian!  Great food, great wine; I ate too much. Again. We talked for hours.  
I am now packed and ready to head out to Porto Alegre and from there to São Paulo. Maybe I will add something to the blog this evening. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Caxias do Sul

Caxias do Sul

By Bobby Neal Winters
This is my first full day in Caxias do Sul.  (If you are going to have any luck reading this, I need to tell you that Caxias is pronounced Ca-SHEE-us doo soow.  The x is pronounced sh except when it's not; they pronouce do exactly like we do; and l on the end of a word sounds like a w to my ear.)

I am just about as far south in Brazil as you can go.  This is that state of Rio Grande do Sul.  I flew into Porto Alegre and a driver brought me to Caxias.  A student who had been on exchange at PSU last semester and her family took me to the grand finale of the Festa da Uva (grape fesitval) last night.  They have quite an ethnic mix here: Indigenous Americans, Portuguese, Italians, Germans, Poles, and most recently Haitians and Sengalese.

This morning, after a nice breakfast with coffee that would put hair on your peito I went out and street-tested my Portuguese.  They can understand me and--within short boundaries--I can understand them.  I found o Banco do Brasil to use my ATM card.  (I'd tried one of the CAIXA machines to no avail.  They have consistently rejected my car in every city of Brazil, but they are conveniently located.)

My room does not have an air-conditioner, but the weather is pleasant enough that is not an issue.  The Universidade do Caxias do Sul will  pick me up at 1:30 and I will be at it until after 8.  Between now and then, I will go out and get a little lunch.  I might try a place where I bought a Pepsi.  I  "chatted" a bit there in "Portuguese" with an old guy who asked me if I were and American.  I said yes and he said he could tell because I was fat, "gordo." Nothing mean-spirited about it.  Facts are facts.  He was cooking feijoada and it really smelled good.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead

By Bobby Neal Winters
I am in the process of cleaning out my home office.  I refuse to speculate on how long it has been since the last time I did this, though an experienced archaeologist could probably make a guess.  
I proceeded in this enterprise in a methodical way.  I first took everything that had been on the floor of the office and put it out on the front porch, some of it spilling into the yard.  I then took everything that had been on my countertops and put it on the floor.  I then cleaned.
I found the bodies of dead insects;  I found money;  I  found 29 cent stamps.  I found electronic devices, writing implements, and ... cat puke.
Then came the process of putting it all back together, and as I did so I threw things away. And threw things away. And threw things away.
I am on the second day of this, and it promises to go into a third.
It has been an instructive process in discerning the things I toss away versus the things I keep.
I threw away many pounds of computer software that I’d spent a lot of money for.  This is software that I’d been storing reverently for a decade, give or take.  It’s useless now. Progress in computing has shifted it into obsolescence.
I kept DVDs, CDs miniDV tapes, and VHS tapes of family photos and movies.  I can pay people to bring the out of date stuff to the current model.
What is the difference between these two?  The software is a means to an end. The family photos and movies are an end of themselves. They are part of my memory, part of my self that I want to preserve.  In some sense, they are what I am about: my family.  Though, when pressed, I have to admit the means I use is a big part of me as well.
I just finished reading Speaker for the Dead.  It was the sequel to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. I’d seen the movie made from Ender’s Game and it inspired me to get an audiobook of the novel. Having finished the novel I had to rush to get a Kindle version of Speaker for the Dead.
In Speaker, Card continues with Ender has his protagonist.  Ender has started a quasi-religion based on speaking for the dead.  This is not given a eulogy (good word from the Greek) for the dead, but actually laying out the life of the dead person warts and all in such a way that you understood who they really were.
Ender goes through the process of sifting through the garbage of a man’s life and in doing so pieces together who that man was and presents it to the community in such a way that reconciliation is possible for him, even in death.
The novel has many mysteries and surprised that I will not even allude to. There are no spoilers in the sequel.  However, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer up Card for some praise.
Card has grasped in a way I’ve not presently so clearly elsewhere in science fiction the nature of man as a creature of the community.  Our communities create us and if we cannot find a place within them then we suffer.  (The language I grew up hearing to describe this is that we are lost.)
I believe that it’s Card’s experience as a Mormon which has given him this understanding of the importance of community.  He himself seems to have recognized this as a commonality with Catholicism, as the community in the book is a Catholic one.
Card has crafted little presents for those who like to find theological symbols in their literature.  I will not spoil them, but there are prizes to be found for those who know a little theology whether they be Catholic or Mormon.
In the end, whether you share his particular religious views or not, Card is a craftsman with a deep understand of human nature.  If you like science fiction, religion, and good writing, I suggest you give Speaker for the Dead a try.



Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Old Man in the Cave

The Old Man in the Cave

By Bobby Neal Winters
It’s happened.
They’ve taken over.
The computers, I mean.  They’ve taken over.  
I am writing this on a computer, so you might think that I’m being brave to call them out on it, but they are so ensconced they don’t care.  When the Nazis were in Paris did they mind it when the French acknowledged they were running things?  Of course not.  Same with the computers.  When you say they’ve taken over, you’re just giving them their props.
If you admit it early enough, they might let you live.
I’ve known for a while, but spending an hour and a half on Facebook this afternoon drove it home.
Ninety minutes of clicking on “Like” and sharing things my friends had put on their walls that no one I know had originated.  The question came to me whether anyone had originated them or whether they had simply bubbled up from the bowels of the Internet.
We’ve become Facebook fanatics, cellphone slaves, YouTube yutzes.
I am old, old enough to remember Star Trek the original series in new episodes.  There was a character named Harry Mudd who was a bit of a scoundrel.  He wound up on a planet that was populated by robots who were intent on taking over the Enterprise.  When asked how they would do that Norman, who was the robot leader, said, “We will help them.”
Computers are tremendous tools.  
There was a day when I had my lectures on notes and I taught by transferring those note to the board.  Then came PowerPoint and I put those lectures on PowerPoint.  Now I project them onto the screen rather than copy them to the blackboard.
One day I went into the classroom and the computer was down.  My first thought was that I would have to cancel class.  It was only after great mental effort that I was able to remember that I actually know this stuff.  I found the chalk and proceeded to lecture the class.
It was a powerful moment of self-discovery.
We are humans and one of our defining characteristics as a species is that we use tools.  Tools extend our reach.  We organize our activities and this extends our intelligence.  Yet there are trade-offs.
When travelling between airports in Latin America and the US, one notices a difference in the level of organization.  Airports in the US are much more user-friendly.  This is more than just a difference of language.  Airports in the US flow more smoothly from the point of view of the traveller. It is more relaxing because it requires me to use less of my own intelligence to get around.  The intelligence had been taken from the traveller and transferred to the design of the airport.  
This reduces stress, of course, and I am not going to suggest we make our airport less transparent.  But we’ve been giving things we know over to machines and environmental structures for years. We are living in a world where we require machines and organizational structures--that we don’t understand!--simply to exist.
Can you build a computer?  
Very few of you can answer that yes.
I can, but that is only true because others have organized a computers production to be as easy a putting together tinker toys.  
Those who can do that are ever more rare.
Are world is being designed by an elite that is getting rarer and more remote.  Our thoughts, our likes, our dislikes are being monitored, analyzed, and catalogued.  We are just the batteries that are running the Matrix, eh, Coppertop?
In the Twilight Zone, there was that episode about the old man in the cave who told the survivors of the nuclear holocaust how to live their lives.  When it was discovered that the old man in the cave was a computer, there was an uprising.
While that was an insightful series, that ending was false.  We’ve know the old man in the cave is a computer, and we’ve done nothing.

Odds are.  If you are reading this, it is too late.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Grey

The Grey

By Bobby Neal Winters
Mr. Virgil Gantt taught us in high school literature that there were three kinds of conflict: Man versus Man; Man versus Nature; and Man Versus Himself.  One might wonder whether they are all three aspects of the third or if there is a fourth all-encompassing Man Versus God.  Let’s leave that question, at least for now.
The Grey, a movie starring Liam Neeson, portrays all of these conflicts.  While Man does encompass male and female, in The Grey we might well forget that.  In my own personal taxonomy, it is what I classify as a Man’s movie.  
That part of it begins with the cast. Though women are important to the film, there are only two women in the cast who appear other than through memory or anecdote. One is a bartender and the other is a stewardess. The women who are otherwise present are wives, lovers, and daughters.  Their presence is as important to the story as that of the men, but they are present through a man’s perception of them.  They tell as much about the man as they do about themselves.
Liam Neeson plays John Ralph Ottaway whose job is hunting wolves for an oil company in a remote part of Alaska.   He is on the way out of the wilderness with a plane load of other oilfield men when the plane crashes in the mountains.  The group of survivors define axes that illustrate the masculine space: smart/stupid; aggressive/meek; spiritual/godless; wise/fool.
That which follows contains spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.
The could’ve written a movie wherein everyone immediately fell in behind Neeson’s character and after adventures he leads them to safety.  That has been done many times and isn’t bad, but this is not that film.  Most do follow his lead. The ones who don’t die quickly.  Those who do die less quickly.  After a certain point, one realizes that everyone in this movie is going to die. The question is how?
Just exactly like life.
In looking at the group dynamics of the survivors, we are asked to notice how much like wolves they are. They group together to survive; they fight each other for leadership; they establish a hierarchy.  The Romans said, “Homo homini lupus.” Man is the wolf of man.  (They might not have meant it in this sense, but I love the phrase so much, that I am going to keep using it until I use it correctly.)
All of the men carry around the women in their lives with them.  The better the man, the higher he esteems his woman, or is that vice versa?
Neeson’s character is continually flashing back to his wife who we learn through his internal monolog has left him.  We are confused because his memories contain no bitterness.  She is remembered almost as an angel of light and, much like an angel, continually telling him not to be afraid.  It is only in the very last moments of the movie when we see the IV drip and the hospital bet that we understand.
Each of the men meet death.  Neeson’s character the last.
Before his end, he calls to God and curses Him, berating him for a sign, for some help.  This being the movie it is, there is neither.  Neeson gets up then saying, “I’ll just have to do it myself.”
And at that, Neeson meets death remembering a poem taught him by his father, “Once more into the fray / once more into the fray / to live and die on this day / to live and die on this day” and using the skills he’d learned as a man.

Ultimately while this is a man’s movie about men and being a man, it is also about the struggle of life.  There is only one way out.  How do you face it?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Yerba mate

Yerba Maté

By Bobby Neal Winters
The mortar and pestle pounding the maté sounded like horses’ hooves on cobble stones as we walked past the corner and crossed Avenida Estigarribia. We then turned and headed east.
This is our last full day. Tomorrow we began travel home. As my cousin Mary told me, "No hay lugar como el hogar."  There is no place like home.
Asuncion downtown wakes slowly. This is the tropics, and the length of day and night vary only a little from season to season. We are still in winter, but the daily high is already in the 90s. At night it cools off a bit. At night you can move without the burning sun staring down at you. During the afternoon you retreat into the dark buildings with their high ceilings. At sundown, after six, you can emerge from protection and live again.
The morning is pleasant. There is a nice breeze and we try to stick to the north side of the street where the shade is. We are south of the equator and must adjust to our new reality.
Others do the same. And everywhere there are men with their guampas and bombillas drinking maté.  
Maté is made of herbs and drunk in a tea.  It is medicinal. It is ubiquitous. It is Paraguay.
We go to the sidewalk market around the Plaza to buy souvenirs. Jean gets a purse for herself and I get a mortar and pestle. We step out of the shade of the market and there is a teenage girl with a mortar and pestle crushing herbs into maté.
We walk past the fancy pharmacy with a large contingent of rent-a-cops and cross the street heading east. On the sidewalk in front of a fancy clothing store, there is a man sleeping in his own vomit on the sidewalk. No one seems to notice. No one seems concerned. None of the rent-a-cops are rousting him. Who is my neighbor?
We go on past.
We ultimately walk past him several times over the course of four hours.
We go to Plaza de Uruguayana and visit one of the bookstores there. We walk out the south side of the park and--of all things--there is a man with mortar and pestle grinding maté.
It is approaching noon now, we are getting hungry. We go seeking a place to get a lomito and succeed. It is good. It is a restaurant and so the lomito is not as good as the ones you get from street vendors who sell them. My rule of thumb is that if you are not a bit scared, then the lomito won't be as good.
We start back to the hotel and pass were the man had been sleeping. He is gone, but I know it's the right place because the vomit is still there.
We come back to the hotel, where the maté man is gone from his corner, retreated into the cool of some dark building.
We do the same.