Monday, August 15, 2011

Water for the soul and a little insanity

It’s strange how inspiration flows abundantly at times and then at others is so lacking that one all but relinquishes to the idea of trying to fight for it. That’s all you can really do in those periods of drought, struggle through the weighted muck that the creative block inevitably brings, conserving your energies as best you can and using whatever tools you have to remind yourself that if you were once on fire you’ll likely find your way there again. The rain does return at some point. It always does. It’s just that when you find yourself in this place of blah you forget, over and over again, just how simple it often is to get you gears moving again. And then someone shows you the way by merely sharing their light and exposing you to their creative energy. It’s like a kick to the head and suddenly feeling yourself flooded with oxygen after holding your breath for several minutes (or months) all at once. Exactly what you needed. Thank you, Michelle, for reminding me to get my feet wet again.


I’m not a big fan of reality TV. In fact I find that most people who subject themselves and their families to that kind of absurdity should be stoned for so readily contributing to the dumbing-down of this country. That said, my new favorite show is a horrific Wednesday night reality called “Dance Moms”. And it’s not just the f***ed-up factor that catches my interest. The show catapults me back to my early teens in such a way that I’m caught in a mix of appall, joy, longing, and anger.

My mom prides herself on not having been one of the “dance moms” so accurately portrayed in this Lifetime atrocity. She was, in fact, struggling with severe depression and a three-volume doctoral dissertation through most of my childhood and teenage years and was thus rather absent when it came to things that most of the moms at my small, cheeky dance studio liked to do—namely complain about so-and-so dancer’s solo being too (fill in the blank), gossip about other moms, argue over what shade of whorish-red lipstick best shows up on stage, and when out of earshot of our prudish studio owner, alter our costumes to show a little more skin so we might actually have a shot at competing with the ultra sexy twelve-year-olds from the studio across town. No, my mom didn’t do any of that. She pretty much ran away in fear anytime another dance mom tried to rope her into their circle.

During those years, I thought I had the oldest, strictest, most boring mom around. I felt like I was missing out on a true “Mother-Daughter Experience” when I compared my own to the other fun, uber-involved dance moms ever present at the studio, obsessively watching us practice and contributing their two cents whenever allotted the opportunity. Over the last couple years my relationship with my mother has shifted and I’ve come to understand and appreciate her on a different level. Yet it wasn’t until I discovered “Dance Moms” that I came to understand exactly how lucky I was, having the mother I had as a teenager. I might have thought so at the time, given that she was the one different from the rest, but now I see the truth: she wasn’t a complete whack job like the rest of them.

Come to think of it, this probably explains why the only long-lasting trauma I took away from my dance career was the residual eating-disorder/body image struggle that has carried me through my twenties. Looking at my former dance mates, things could have turned out a whole lot worse…

Love you, Mom

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Letter to self

You're close, but don't fool yourself; you still have a ways to go.

Sure, this time you managed to pull yourself rather quickly out of the hole-- you know, that hole you keep falling into, over and over, and every time you do you ask yourself how the hell you got there again, after all the lessons, all the struggle to learn from your mistakes and all the proclaiming to the world that you have evolved, all to misstep yet again and find yourself in that place of feeling utterly stuck, lost and without direction. That place where doubt and fear rule without mercy. This time you actually utilized the momentum gained from the ass-kicking and simultaneously grasped hold of the relentless drive provided by a new friend in order to, as your dear coach has been encouraging you to do for months, get out of your head and do something tangible-- to prove to yourself it's real. You got your body and mind into motion and are already feeling pulled by the inertia you've created. You're still a little scared but you're excited and starting to feel like all of this is finally shifting, the tires have stopped spinning in place and have caught a little traction, just enough to push you to the next level. This is good. But don't get ahead of yourself.

There is still no denying the fact that you're terrified of selling yourself to the world, complacent sitting around waiting for *them* to magically discover what you have to offer without you having to put yourself out there. Your fear of conflict, your incessant need to please others and your inability to say no still get the best of you most of the time. You rarely contact those friends you still proclaim to be your closest, and it kills you that your partner makes it look so damn easy.

You feel satisfied with the newly vacuumed house and clean sheets, yet you let the filth on the car build up in such a way that you "suddenly" couldn't see out the windshield driving home this afternoon. You really need to get around to refilling the wiper fluid, by the way. And please-- next time don't let four days of sweaty running clothes accumulate in the hamper. It's just gross, and a little embarrassing when your uber-clean mother-in-law stops by and asks what smells like garbage...

And let's face it. You are NOT the gardening type. It wasn't a fluke that you killed the cactus you were gifted your first year at MHC...

Nevertheless, you're trying. I commend you for that. You're learning to prioritize-- sort of. And for the most part you're taking care of YOU. Brava. If you can keep building on this, if you can keep pushing forward and little by little adding to the list, a regular call to Granny perhaps, or learning how to use your own website, then you'll really become unstoppable. You'll overcome the fear. You'll REALLY believe in yourself.

And I'd offer you a pony if you were to actually pull this off, as I know the power of bribery works wonders on you, but let's face it: at this point in life, you'd much rather have a chow chow...

Monday, April 18, 2011


Once again this space finds itself in a state of abandonment as daily stresses and lack of routine feed the demons that impede the flow and courage required in writing.

This post is merely an effort to brush off the dust and meet the challenge posed by a friend to, for once, write something succinct and without the use of a single first-person pronoun-- an intimidating prospect to someone bent on creating something meaningful every time she writes and one that has admittedly postponed the revival of this blog.

The photo below, taken inside an elevator at what from the outside appears to be a rather nice hotel in the heart of Ipanema, illustrates, on both a metaphoric and a very literal level, the lesson one repeatedly learns in Brazil:

Friday, December 17, 2010


Painting made by moi at Squam by the Sea--October 2010. Note the writing in the upper left-hand corner; the choice of image for this post wasn't totally random.

The human autopilot switch is a funny thing. Not funny-ha-ha. Just, well...funny. In my most recent post, I mention that I had been scared and resistant about stepping into the next chapter, but that once I was on the move, autopilot took over and my hesitation dissipated. Writing this triggered a realization of sorts about those instinctive, programmed responses I have to given situations: they make me temporarily fearless.

One particular event during my recent work trip to Brazil comes to mind. It was one of those days where the sun and the heat had drained me of any lingering energy and turned my brain to mush, rendering me a fairly useless translator. The photographer was desperately trying to make something out of an extremely boring and nearly vacant event while I stood propped against a building, wishing that he would soon give up on the fruitless situation so I could go back to the hotel and nap.

Serendipity sided with the photographer and suddenly waves of people came running up the street, yelling warnings that there would soon be gunfire. A moment later, a group of some 50 police officers in full combat armor, guns and shields in hand, formed out of nowhere and began marching towards the commotion down the block. I knew this was the end of my fantasy about leaving any time soon. Within seconds, the photographer burst into a full sprint in the direction of the chaos, all but knocking over the civilians fleeing in the opposite direction.

I wanted none of it. Having lived in Rio for a few years and having worked in the favelas far before Police Pacification Units existed, I knew that the presence of Brazil's gun-happy and notoriously corrupt police force would only heighten the tension of the situation. The reaction of everyone around me-- to move AWAY from the epicenter of potential danger-- only validated my instincts. I hung back, dreading the inevitable call which came only a few minutes later-- the photographer, telling me to get down into the middle of the riot with him because he needed names and information from the individuals he was photographing.

"It's totally calm," he assured me. "The police are just standing guard to intimidate the protesters."

Bullshit, I thought. I KNOW how crazy the cops are here. More than once did I get stuck for hours inside the shantytown schoolhouse, waiting for the police to stop shooting aimlessly and leave the community. You have no idea how quickly this can turn ugly.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to kick and scream and run in the opposite direction and abandon any ideas of being a journalist. No part of me felt drawn to go interview people in the middle of it. But it was part of the job I had fought for and accepted willingly. So there I went, heart in the throat, waves of nausea making my knees buckle with every few steps, bracing for who knows what.

I elbowed my way through the panicky crowd and found my way to the photographer. He was clearly calm, which helped to diminish my fears only slightly. He pointed out two of the cops he had been photographing and then disappeared back into the group of protesters.

Deep breaths. Get centered. And move your feet. And I did. I stepped towards the first police officer and suddenly something clicked inside me. The words started pouring out on their own: "Com licença. Estou aqui com aquele fotógrafo da National Geographic..."

There it was. Autopilot. The nerves vanished and I became calm and confident as I scribbled answers to the routine series of questions in my pocket-sized red notebook. Of course I only became aware of this shift in state after I had finished interviewing the police officers and rioters eager to publicize their cause. In the moment, my actions were entirely automated.

I find it fascinating that the mind works this way. It's not quite an adrenaline rush, with the I-can-conquer-the-world strength during and huge energy crash afterward, but it does numb the fear that would otherwise impede me from doing any number of things. I'd love to learn to harness this mechanism in order to have more control over when and where it kicks in. I hate when it happens in those early morning hours, leaving me questioning whether or not I locked the door...

Just to clarify, in the end there was no gunfire--just a bunch of people demanding their rights and cops standing around looking tough to deter any further violence or looting. And no, Mom, had there been gunfire, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near the protest. I may be brave and I may put myself in situations that inspire excessive worry and candle burning on your part, but I'm not totally crazy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shifting gears

Brazil feels like the distant past already. It's been nearly two weeks since I boarded the plane in São Paulo, exhausted and relieved to be returning to a place where things work properly. I've said it before: I've never been much of a patriot, but the more I travel the world-Europe included-the more I'm grateful to carry a US passport and have access to things like online bill pay and Target. Not that I want or need them all the time- but I'm thankful for the simplicity and ease of it all when I'm State-side.

I can't report that São Paulo was any more productive or any less frustrating than our other stops in Brazil. Nevertheless, I did have some of the most intense, enlightening experiences of my life. Here are a few highlights:

Amazing vegetarian buffet:

Cheesy love:

More amazing vegetarian buffet. We had to repeat:

And the best pizza in the world, found at Braz. The ultimate "happy ender" to the trip:

That's right. We went to São Paulo and ate. And ate and ate. And holy shit was the food good. I'm salivating just thinking about it. For all you foodies, add São Paulo to your list of destination pig-outs. The city isn't what I would describe as 'visually appealing', but it doesn't matter-- spend all of your time restaurant-hopping. Besides, in the time it takes you to travel via cab from one restaurant to another, you'll have fully digested your meal and be ready for the next.

I flew straight to Minnesota to visit my parents and be a vegetable for a few days. I arrived to massive snowstorms and temperatures much below freezing. It was perfect. I spent far more time in my pijamas than in 'real clothing' and soaked up the sounds, smells, and loving energy that can only be described as home. And for the first time in years, I had a very hard time leaving. I felt compelled to extend my visit and hide from the world. I longed for more cozy days filled with nothing but my dad's Southern New Mexico cooking (or alternatively, spicy hummus and micro-brewed beer at Barley John's) and endless episodes of The Office on Netflix. (I'm noting that this post brings up food quite a bit. It's nowhere near lunchtime...) The morning my alarm went off at 3AM, marking the end of my visit to the Arctic Tundra, I felt a dead weight in my heart begging me to stay put as I reluctantly showered and headed to the airport.

Perhaps it was that I really needed a few more days of rest (and for someone who loves to laze in bed, waking up at that early hour is absolutely torturous), but I think in truth I was apprehensive about the next chapter. What lay ahead was a leap of faith onto a new career path and into a new life with my partner. While I've been able to let go of many fears in the last few months, my controlling nature still fights to survive in moments like these that require the utmost trust in the process and acceptance that others are capable and don't need to be micromanaged.

When I passed through security and began the time-juggle to put on my boots and sweater, store my laptop and threatening liquids in the appropriate bags and throw my yoga mat on my back, and to do all of these things gracefully and before the next impatient passenger started to breath heavily in annoyance, I felt the subtle shift. I went on autopilot and felt suddenly calm about the journey ahead. It had been a matter of taking the first step forward. After that, things become far less scary.

Now in Cali, Colombia, my mind and body are adjusting to the tropical weather and the perpetual sound of salsa music in the background. The familiar chaos of Latin America is present but somehow more enjoyable than in Brazil. Maybe it's that the Colombians are such a happy and well-read people. Maybe it's that they make plans and follow through with them. And maybe it's that I'm finally dedicating my work and play hours entirely to what I want to do and that as a result, I'm failing to notice things around me that would otherwise make me crazy. What I'm certain of, however, is that the empanadas, arepas and pandebono make the experience quite enjoyable. That, and that after weeks of binging, I'll need to go on a mega-cleanse when I return to the States in January.

Ok, enough talk, more action. I'm going to buy a snack.

Too-good-to-be-true food photos courtesy of John Stanmeyer.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Brazilian adventures

First off: Yes. I'm still alive. I've been lost in the craziness of Brazil for nearly three weeks, so if you only have a few minutes, I recommend book-marking this and coming back to it later. It's a little long.

I knew this month-long trip would be a test of progress, as the assignment is a big departure from the direction in which I've been headed since September. I'm here as the translator and fixer (i.e. producer/assistant/project manager/etc.) for a great photographer from National Geographic. The job pays well and is loads of fun but can be equally stressful and consuming (as evidenced by the fact that it's taken me this long to post something). By day three I was becoming anxious and disappointed that I had fallen back into old habits. I was struggling to set boundaries and make time to nurture myself, and I still haven't quite mastered it. Nevertheless, while I've been unable to attend to all my needs here, I recognize that I have indeed made significant internal progress. I'm calm. I'm excited about my projects and I'm aching to write. I'm confident about my relationship and my goals and the life awaiting me. I feel like I'm finally on track, yet I'm no longer desperate to know where it's all leading. I've reached a space of trust and tranquility and flat out excitement about the unknown that lies ahead. For that, I'm both thrilled and relieved.

It's probably best I didn't post anything until now. Brazil, this far, has tested and stretched my patience to the max. I breezed through Phase One of the adjustment stages to life in Brazil, or what I call “Becoming Part of the Problem”, and quickly moved into Phase Two. (For those of you unfamiliar with the stages, Phase One consists of frustration and an inability to comprehend why things are so unbelievably complicated here. Phase Two involves resignation to the fact that nothing ever goes as planned or works properly, resulting in depression.) Now, at the end of week three, I'm deep into the acceptance phase and eagerly laugh about the absurdity of it all. There is, after all, nothing else I can do.

So, what's happened so far? (This question can also be read as “what's gone wrong?”.) Well, here is where this might start to resemble the death post...

I arrived in Rio on November 6th very nervous about the following month, despite the intense prep work I'd done throughout the week prior to traveling. Getting anything to happen in Brazil, especially in Rio, is deceivingly complicated. Multiple follow-up phone calls and incessant nagging are necessary because nobody returns emails and phone calls and more often than not people say “Sure!” to please you and then do nothing. As a good fixer is supposed to do, by the time I arrived in Rio I'd made a slew of contacts and scheduled various meetings; nevertheless, as I understand well how things operate here, I knew that the calls and scheduling were practically meaningless. Thus, I arrived feeling like I'm responsible to accomplish the impossible. And that feeling has yet to change.

Months before this trip I had contacted several soap opera stars and socialites I know in Rio requesting access to Projac, the Globo soap opera filming studios, for inclusion in the story. (In Brazil, Projac is the equivalent to Hollywood and soap stars are more famous than movie stars. That's right folks. I'm in with the Brazilian VIP crowd.) I received multiple replies with open invitations for myself and the photographer and absurdly believed it would be as simple as that. I should have known better. Three days before the trip an actress friend wrote to me because she suddenly realized that we “might have trouble photographing”. Apparently everyone that enters Projac-- actors, directors, visitors, God-- must sign a contract stating that they will not take any photos in the facility or surrounding area. You'd think someone might have warned me about this detail earlier. Soon after, the Globo press nazis got wind of my contact with my various sources and we were forced to engage in a bureaucratic process worse than those I'd encountered during my days at the State Department. To no avail. It's easier to gain access to the Pope than it is to cross the Globo threshold.

To keep this post relatively short, I only list a few highlights from the two-plus weeks in Rio:

-The photographer I'm working with is anti-fancy hotels and thus I'd found us a small hotel that I'd heard from others to be simple, clean and affordable. I'd confirmed via phone that all rooms had wifi. Not the case. Right away I had to buy a 3G modum to use the internet. I was asked to change rooms four times. Over a holiday weekend, we were forced to leave the hotel because all the rooms were booked. (Again, something I should have been warned about in advance.) And one day there was no running water for almost 24 hours. I'd be happy to recommend this hotel to anyone interested...

-One contact had suggested to meet in a well-known bookstore. I'd confirmed time and place with her minutes before leaving the hotel. We arrived at the bookstore on time and waited for nearly 45 minutes, at which point I received a message from her asking where we were. She'd been waiting for us at her apartment.

-We had an appointment to photograph a female police officer on patrol. It took an hour to get to the station, and upon arrival we were told that she had to leave almost immediately to go to her driving lesson. She re-scheduled and then canceled the second meeting. Third time's a charm. We arrived at the police station and asked one of the officers to let her know we were there. The guy nodded and sauntered out of the room. An hour later she emerged, surprised to see us, and asked why we hadn't let her know we were there. She took us on patrol for roughly 17 minutes and then asked us to wait outside briefly while she spoke with another police officer. We waited for two hours and she never came back out.

-We were invited by one of my rich socialite contacts to attend a cannot-miss fashion bazaar where everyone who's anyone goes to be seen. Turns out this classy event took place in an all-you-can-eat chain pizza restaurant.

-We had authorization to photograph at a construction site, but when we arrived we were told that nobody knew about the photo shoot. Then we were told that the project manager had changed her mind. While waiting for it all to be resolved (it never was), six giant cement trucks backed onto the construction grounds on six different occasions, each time to fill up a single, average-sized wheel barrel with cement. The cement was subsequently tested for consistency and then dumped out. I have no words.

We left Rio on Tuesday, luckily just missing the chaos induced by the latest explosion of police-gang wars of the last few days. We flew to Recife, a historic coastal city in the Northeast of the country, to document events surrounding November 25th, the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. During the flight, I was shocked to see the bright glow of fire scattered across the land below. Not a few fires. Hundreds, in every direction. And we were far, far from the Amazon. Absolutely disheartening.

In spite of the fact that the surrounding residents are destroying our planet, I immediately liked Recife. It seems much cleaner and calmer than Rio and feels more like a mix of Córdoba, Argentina and Cartagena, Colombia. What I can't understand, however, is why Recife is one hour behind Rio when it is significantly further east. The sun rises at 3:30AM. It's really weird, and yet makes total sense in a Brazilian non-nonsensical way.

On Wednesday, our first full day in Recife, we took a cab 40 minutes outside the city to the alleged meeting place of a major women's rights event. I'd been told that other important events in Recife proper had been rescheduled because of this event. Indeed. There were maybe 20 people there, myself and the photographer included, sitting in a circle in plastic chairs in the hot classroom of a tiny church. After two hours of listening to strange discussions and skits invoking every racial and sexist slur imaginable, we invented an afternoon meeting and excused ourselves, unable to tolerate any more. Before leaving, the event coordinators tried to give us a huge banner to take back to the US to promote their work. We explained that we had no room in our suitcases and they nodded, adding that since it's written in Portuguese it wouldn't be of much use there. As compensation, they handed me a packet stuffed with pamphlets and informational materials about their work-- also in Portuguese. Because in fine print it must make sense to English speakers... Then, a final treat. I got a close look at the cartoon illustration on the front of the packet, which is also the event logo posted on banners across the tiny town. Here it is:

(Translation: Seminar on Communication to Confront Gender and Race-based Violence)

Look closely at the four caricatures: a black girl, a retarded kid, an old woman and an Asian. A powerful image to help eradicate prejudice, I'm sure.

Thursday was equally strange, in it's own way. In the morning we went to the Mayor's office for a public signing related to women's rights issues. I was expecting a hassle at the door about who we are and what we're doing, but I didn't even have to take my ID out of my purse. So government buildings yes, soap operas no. I think I'm getting the hang of this. Had I been a terrorist, the Prefeitura do Recife would now be dust. A protest downtown theoretically followed the signing, and we had been told that hundreds of women would be there. And hundreds of people were there--about 30 women were actually there to protest, in addition to the passersby on their way to and from work and the crazies that live in that particular square. An impromptu street riot made for an abrupt end to the event and nice finale to my Recife visit.

I'm now in São Paulo, the last leg of this trip. I flew in this afternoon and I've already had amazing pizza and a cab driver that totally screwed me over. We'll see how it goes from here. For now, I'm happy to be in a clean hotel room with my own bathroom and running water. And like I said at the beginning of this rant-- all I can do now is sit back and laugh. That is, unless Phase Four overpowers me and I become one of them...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Água de coco

There are a few things that I desperately miss about living in Rio. Fresh coconut water + beach combo is at the top of the list.