28 July 2014

Back in Our Own Backyard

"You'll find your happiness lies
Right under your eyes,
Back in your own backyard"*

Part of the NJ backyard

I grew up in a New Jersey suburb, in a house with the proverbial backyard. The backyard was the place where you could run around to your heart’s content or lie in the grass and contemplate the clouds; it was the place you mowed in the summer, raked in the autumn and shoveled in the winter; it was where you could picnic and party, or read and nap. In later years, it was where my mother grew her vegetable garden. It was our private little piece of nature.

Our new house in Búzios had something akin to a backyard, but then again, it was nothing like what I thought of as a backyard. We called it our quintal, which means backyard, among other things, but that was just to give it a name and distinguish it from other parts of the property. Our quintal stood about 8 feet above beach level, and about 17 feet below our terrace, which is the lowest level of the house. It was steeply sloped, many-leveled and, though fairly compact, it was full of trees and bushes and weeds and (I was convinced) snakes and other creepy-crawlies. You can reach the quintal in one of three ways: via a gate at the beach, which we had early on nailed shut to stop people pushing their way in and using the area for — um, for their needs; via the "service" side of the house, a steep series of ramps and steps used by the caseiro-caretaker; and, on the opposite side of the house, via a more civilized set of 68 stairs. (The very stairs we just had to have rebuilt for reasons explained in the post of June 23, 2014). Because the area was something of a jungly mess, and because 68 steps down and 68 steps back up seemed daunting, I rarely went down to the quintal.

Summer jungle
Winter jungle

However, when we hired a young man by the name of Sandoval as our new caseiro-caretaker, things started moving fast, quintal-wise. Sandoval, who grew up on a farm in the northeastern state of Bahia, took one excited look at our quintal and before we knew it he was cleaning and pruning and weeding and chopping. All of a sudden, we could actually see the area clearly. Sandoval rescued the baby shoot of a banana tree, which now towers over me, soon to bear fruit. He planted other fruit trees (pitanga, passion fruit, avocado, fruta de conde) and hopes to plant more. We’re putting up a new, more solid gate so that we can actually go in and out our own back door. At long last, we are taking possession of our backyard! I mean, it turns out it’s really nice down there, so close to the beach, so peaceful. It brings a completely new dimension to our house. And it turns out that Sandoval, who is going to law school at night, uses the quintal often, to read and to study. One thing that Mark and I mean to do right away is put a couple of chairs down there for all of us. Beyond that, we’re waiting for inspiration. Any ideas?

*With a tip of the hat to songwriters Billy Rose, Al Jolson and Dave Dreyer

21 July 2014

On the Subject of Whether or Not Brazil Could Handle the 2014 World Cup

Well, there were plenty of naysayers. They said the stadiums wouldn’t be ready, but for the most part they were. They said the airports wouldn’t be ready, but for the most part they were. The worst airport problems were weather-related. Brazil’s glorified golden team had its embarrassing "senior moment," but by now most Brazilians have gotten over it. Yes, Brazil pulled it off. And Brazil did it the Brazilian way, which means that they did it at the last minute, they were a bit disorganized, but they did it with tons of good humor and warmth and caring and creativity. And style, lots of style. Brazil really showed the world a good time, a better time, I’d wager, than anyone has ever had at a World Cup before.

I’d also wager that nobody, but nobody, thought that the one place Brazil would really shine would be in Law & Order. I’ve written many times that Brazil is world-famous as a country where lawbreaking fugitives can hole up in peace, but that image may well be near to cracking. An impressive number of internationally-wanted criminals were captured during this World Cup, thanks to super cooperation between Brazilian police and Interpol. Let’s see, they arrested an Argentine "Dirty War" torturer and murderer; they arrested a long-sought after Mexican drug trafficker; they arrested a German tax evader who fled to Brazil two years ago; and all of these crooks, and more, now await extradition. Amazing how soccer arouses such passion that the bad guys are willing to risk their freedom to watch a game!

Gang that led to Copacabana Palace, FIFA's HQ
The Brazilian federal police also managed to do what no police force has had the balls to do up to now. They caught an extremely high-level gang, some of whose members have ties to FIFA, which has been selling tickets on the black market for the last four World Cups! FIFA is furious, and not because such high-level people are involved in black marketeering. Oh, no, they’re furious that the Brazilian police have been relentlessly investigating this crime, and are naming names and making arrests! Ironic, isn’t it — so many people thought that Brazil wasn’t ready for the World Cup, when it turned out it was FIFA that wasn’t ready for Brazil.

The great and all-powerful FIFA had little good to say about Brazil’s preparedness before the games started, but ultimately it was FIFA that failed in many of its responsibilities. Stadium security? They blew it in the first week, when groups of Argentine and Chilean fans without tickets crashed stadium barriers. Food service? Non-existent the first week or so of games. And even so, FIFA continued to prohibit fans from bringing their own food to the stadiums. Alcoholic beverage service? FIFA insisted early on that Brazil temporarily suspend its very sound law which prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages in sports stadiums. Then halfway through the games Jérôme Valcke, FIFA’s general secretary, announced that he was shocked, shocked, at the amount of alcohol sold during the games and the level of drunkenness of the fans! Oh, Mr. Valcke, who was going to give whom a kick in the ass a few years ago?

Wake me when it's over . . .
And let’s not even mention that opening ceremony — bland, colorless and way below Brazil’s talents and capabilities. It was FIFA that insisted the event be contracted out to a third party, under the aegis of a Belgian choreographer. Nothing at all against Belgium, but — booooooring! Okay, it’s all over, and in the balance I think Brazil (the country, I’m speaking of now, not the team) was a winner. Even so, we can’t seem to stop the infernal countdowns. Get out your calendars! It’s 76 days to the presidential election; 746 days to the 2016 Olympics; and 1,423 days to World Cup 2018!

14 July 2014

The Heartbreaking Semifinal Loss

Confidence was high last Tuesday --

But within minutes, all one could do was look on in shock and disbelief --

Or not look at all --

You could pray --

Or cry --

And console the children --

The winners were to be congratulated --

And the losers consoled --

And then we could all  --

Because it’s just four years to World Cup 2018.

07 July 2014

An Attempt to Assist Soccer-Challenged Americans

To all the sports lovers in the United States: I know many of you are trying real hard to follow the soccer World Cup and to understand the rules and regulations, the ins and outs, the passion, the emotion, the celebration, the spontaneity, the sheer brilliance of what the athletes are doing. I know it’s a hard game to get behind for a country that didn’t grow up playing it, watching it or idolizing its players. I came to Brazil a complete soccer know-nothing. I was an inveterate Yankees fan, a Knicks fan (the 1973 team, when the Knicks were the Knicks), a lover of volleyball (which I played in high school) and an avid tennis fan. It took a long time for me to absorb even a part of what there is to know and love about futebol — soccer to you. (And I’ll continue to refer to it as soccer, too, so as not to confuse you.) Anyway, if you think the game is boring, or is otherwise just not to your taste, try to look at it my way.

For example, try focusing on the players’ hairdos! They’re stunning! They’re creative! And very varied. Count the number of shaved heads, the ones with beards and the ones without. That’ll keep you busy, at least until a goal is scored . . .

I, of course, have come to really love the players who have hair just like mine —

Ochoa (Mexico)

David Luiz (Brazil)

I can’t help but love the dreads —

Jones & Beckerman (USA)

Then there are all those mohawk styles —

Neymar (Brazil)

Mario Balotelli (Italy)

And the long hair done up the way I do mine when I’m doing housework —

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden)

Ricardo Rodriquez (Switzerland)

Gotta love all the Yul Brynner clones —

Tim Howard (USA)

Rais M’Bolhi (Algeria)
Bradley (USA)

Robben (Netherlands)

Even the coaches get into the act —

A Beatle? A Monkee? No, just Joaquim Loew, coach of the German team

Van Gaal, Dutch coach, sporting something between a mohawk and a really bad piece

And then, there’s this eye-catching coiffure . . .

Palacio (Argentina)

Have we exhausted hairstyles? Why not see how many national anthems you can sing along to. During the World Cup games, patriotism is in full throttle, which is one of the things that makes it so much fun to follow. And speaking of patriotism, an incredible thing happened in this World Cup. First consider this: would Americans stand up to sing their national anthem and stop in the middle, at about the "Were so gallantly streaming" part, just because some sports organization thinks it's time to play ball? I seriously doubt it. Would the French sing their anthem up to "Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes" just because the music stopped? Tu blagues! Well, those two countries didn’t have this problem because FIFA played their anthems in full before their games. But for some reason, when it came to host-country Brazil, FIFA played a ridiculously truncated version of their national anthem. This infuriated the Brazilians. So, led by their team, the Brazilians kept singing their anthem after the music ended, a cappella and full-throated, everyone arm-in-arm. It was rousing. It was spectacular. It gave me goose bumps.

American baseball may call its final tournament the World Series, but give me a break. What world are they talking about? The World Cup of soccer, now that brings people from all over the planet together in a way that the United Nations never has and never will. This is an extremely diverting side of a soccer tournament. The interaction between players, fans, people from the host country — at least as it’s been playing out in Brazil — has been the high point of the 2014 World Cup. Unfortunately, it’s the one thing the USA team lost out on. Of all the teams here, the USA is the only one that kept to its own. They hid in their hotels, and went out only under heavy police escort (which included two helicopters). They never went out to "mingle." In the mingling department, the Dutch won hands-down. Here’s a great video showing how people from very different cultures can bridge differences:

I will admit that sports — and in this case soccer — are best enjoyed if you have a dog in the fight. It’s especially exciting if an international tournament is being played in your own backyard. But take heart, my compatriots. The U.S. soccer team may have lost in its round of eight, but it won respect and admiration from soccer fans around the world. And it was well on its way to becoming the second favorite team for people from other countries, including host country Brazil. That ought to boost soccer’s importance in the United States. Maybe you’ll all see it more clearly by the next World Cup. Or maybe not.