Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cowboy Bebop vs. Ernest Hemingway; Harry dies, Spike Lives.

            The children sing of the Messiah as our Hero lies motionless on the steps. Friends and enemies alike stand in reverent silence. Doves fly heavenward. But wait, can’t you see?  Spike is not dead!
             Many people were disappointed, even saddened, by the abrupt ending to the 1998 Anime series Cowboy Bebop.  The finality in Spike’s last gesture to the camera, the sense of a family lost just as it was solidified, a hero destroyed just as he defeats his enemy, finally freeing himself from the past, to many it was crushing.  But I maintain that to assume Spike died at the end of the series is not only unwarranted but absurd. 
            Spike’s death would go against his character, the presented story line, and the very essence of Bebop as a post-modern Japanese masterpiece.  Now, I know that all literary interpretation is biased by the attitudes and preconceived ideas of the reader.  I do not pretend that my analysis is any different and I do not claim to understand the “truth” of what happened at the end of the series, but my interpretation is supported. Here’s how:
             First, Spike’s character:
             Many who interpret the last episode of Bebop as a death scene point to Spike’s melancholy, recklessly-pessimistic attitude about life and fate, claiming that he somehow desires death. When he charges Vicious’s fortress, they assume he is acting on that desire.  They believe he is on a suicide mission, bent on bringing the world down with him, but this assumption is false, as is this characterization of Spike.  Remember that in Bebop every character is multidimensional.  Each lives behind a mask. 

Jet – On the outside he appears disillusioned, an x-cop, a fallen public defender.  Through the first few episodes, it is easy to assume that he quit the police force because he no longer cared about justice or issues of right and wrong.  He handed in his badge and became a hired gun.  But, as the series progresses, we learn that his sense of justice is what made him leave the police force.  He quit the corrupt system to continue fighting.  He claims to act only for himself, yet he faithfully serves and protects his crew, cooking the food, fixing ships and acting as a general father figure to Spike, Faye, Ed and even Ein. He claims to hunt bounty heads for the money, but he does not, we know his intentions are noble. 
Faye –She pretends to be completely self-absorbed, untrusting and deceitful, alone in time and independent in space.  Yet, we know she craves companionship.  She joined Bebop on her own, without any invitation, and her frequent runaway acts are a desperate attempt to get Spike and Jet to chase her.  She’s the oldest and least connected character in the show, yet acts like a child in her desperate plea for a family. 

Ed – Her split character is the easiest to identify. She appears idiotic yet she is really a genius.  

Ein – Even the dog has two sides, a worthless animal, not even strong or fierce, yet somehow he’s intelligent, he can identify criminals, understands computer systems and even plays chess.

Spike – If we recognize that all the characters are double layered, why would we assume Spike’s character is flat?  He seems reckless but he’s careful, he seems to care about nothing but he does care, deeply. It would be a shallow interpretation to take Spike at his word when he says he wants to die. When Jet asks him if he’s going to meet Vicious “for the girl,” and Spike replies simply, “she’s dead there’s nothing I can do for her,” he’s lying.  He is doing it for her, but dying does not serve her memory.  He must avenge her and go on living.  He is not committing suicide, he is destroying the path fate has outlined for him, deigning his death, and improvising his own ending to the song. We catch glimpses of the true Spike throughout the series but he shows himself completely only once, in the final episode, when he speaks to Faye of his eyes. (Faye and Spike)

 In this scene his façade falls, he explains that one part of him lives in the past, one part lives in the present, but the dream of the past is over, the costumes are off, for the first time, he opens up and tells Faye the truth, he is NOT going to die; he is going to see if he is truly alive.  

Some argue that Spike must die because he’s a parallel to Vicious. Vicious also claims this parallel but it is false.  Spike is not Vicious.  Spike quit the syndicate, he is not hungry for power, or thirsty for blood.  Vicious thinks they are reflections of each other, but they are not. 

If you think Spike is Vicious, you don't know what Vicious is.

             Second the story itself;
             Many still insist that Spike dies, because he gets cut with a sword and falls face down on the steps.  That is the cheapest interpretation of what happened.  I submit the following Clips;

               Spike’s chest is torn open, he is strangled, crashed through a window, shot through the chest and drops a hundred feet or more out of the train but he doesn’t die.  We can tell from his sarcastic remark to Vincent, that Spike thinks the whole “dying and going into an endless dream” thing is cliché. So do I.  Jet is also wrong, Vincent doesn’t die in this scene and neither does Spike.  They are not “dead from the beginning.” 

               In this next clip Spike denies that he is destined to die and explains to Vicious why they are not the same. 

              Spike is shot, stabbed and falls from a window onto the asphalt yet doesn’t die. Vicious can't understand why Spike is still alive but we do.  It's because of Bebop.  Compare this scene to the first clip.  It is only reasonable to assume that, in both cases, Spike will wake up to Faye’s off key singing, bandaged from head to toe by Jet. 
               Faye’s words to him are also important.  First that he’s been asleep for three days( resurrection symbolism, underlining Spike’s immortal nature)  Second that he should be “Glad she came back.” Faye puts up a front that she doesn’t care but she came back, Spike puts up a front that he needs to die but he doesn’t.   They both escape their fate.
            The various plots in Bebop all focus around the same timeless theme; can a person escape his or her fate?  Jet alludes to this theme when he recounts Ernest Hemingway's “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
            But Jet hates that story.  He has a hurt leg, he is flying over the desert, but he isn’t dying.  He escapes his fate, Bebop saves him. 
            Faye also feels destined to return to her home on earth, to “find where she belongs,” but she turns away from that path. She finds herself at home on Bebop. 
            Spike’s destiny may be to die at the hands of Vicious but, for the story to be truly Bebop, he has to break free from that fate.
            In the final episode Spike tells the story of  “The Tiger Striped Cat,”

           But Spike hates the story. He is not the cat any more than Jets is Harry in Kilimanjaro. Spike is not trapped in the past any more than Faye is.  Neither Jet or Spike die.  Faye comes back to Bebop and so will Spike. They all overcome their destiny. 
           Third the essence of Bebop;
           Some may be surprised at my insistence that that Spike lives and by invocation of “Bebop,” as a type of story, but let me explain.  I, like Jet, hate the story of Kilimanjaro. I have grown tiered of the entire twentieth-century modernist pattern of stories. There is nothing more typical to modern literature, than a doomed hero fighting tooth and nail against fate, but dying all the same. Hemingway rehashes it over and over again, from Harry in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, to Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, to Cantwell in Across the River and Into the Trees.   Jack London plays on the old storyline in, To Build a Fire, and Faulkner in, Barn Burning.  Many a university student has spent semesters reading about men sealing their fate in their own blood. 
            Bebop sprang from the modernist movement but transcends it. After World War II, modernism became central to Japanese literature and film. The "film cowboy" of the twentieth century was a mixture of Western folklore and Japanese Samurai tales.  (Bebop nods at this in episode #22 Cowboy Funk.) The first Japanese Nobel Laureate, Yasunari Kawabata, wrote several notable books during this period. All his characters live under an ever-present, looming death.  A terrible and inescapable, “Sound of the Mountain.” This Japanese/Modernist mix produced countless characters in Japanese literature, cinema and television, all marching on toward the inevitable and extremely predictable death. Hemingway and Kawabata were so obsessed with the inevitability of death that they both committed suicide.
            But Bebop is a post-modern creation.  The way it blends traditional music, art and theme, with  pop culture; the way it plays with and challenges archetypes; the vivacity and humor, the color and eccentric forms are all post-modern.  Just as post modern art and architecture broke free of the bleak modernist conformity, Bebop spares its character’s from a modern fate.  Bebop gives us a Cowboy who likes Jazz, who doesn’t follow the same tune but improvises, who writes his own story. 
            In the end we never see Spike wake up, so I suppose you can believe him dead, if you want, but if Spike dies, then his dynamic character deflates into a cliché tragic hero, the intricate story loses all its innovative forms and plot lines, and Cowboy Bebop turns from a artful, humorous, and deeply complex Anime masterpiece, to one more tiered example the modernist fascination with death and the inevitable.     I say Spike lives. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sister Selma

Really funny Brazilian Nun.  (I did the sub titles)

She tells a joke...and then you it?

Watch here

Or on Youtube

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Today's Haiku

Oct 22, 2012
Ima take my head off
just pop it like a ken doll's
Ima breathing torso

Jan 9 2012
Sitting with a pen
the writing is strange tonight
just too much star trek?

Jan 3 2012

The first day of class
just the same old chairs
with no back support

Jan 2 2012

The Facts are just a
Lack of imagination
so face the fiction

Aug 23, 2011 Sunset

Summer sweet summer
inevitably ends
and so it grows cold

Jan 19, 2011 Girl and Boy

 When she was a girl

Her hair smelled like red fruit loops

and I was a boy







Jan 12, 2011; To Sherylee- 

Surgely magurg

Uncle Harold, Grandpa Joe

Well whats in a name




Jan 10, 2011; Notes from English 6240; Literary Criticism.

Laboratory Lit

I'd rather be Jane Goodall 

 Just live with the Chimps.

Jan 9, 2011

So it's a new year 

and so it's back to the books

and back to Haiku










November 29, 2010 Ani Difranco Adaptaion


Laughed until we cried

because the world is absurd

beautiful and small







November 28, 2010 Just some Bebop 


Time spent with cartoons

when there's homework to be done 

never been so sweet




November 27, 2010 - For her 




Just some cheap flowers 

But the best that I could do

and so she thanked me 






November 26, 2010 - Holidays


It's far too early

Uncle Shaun will you wake up?

Lego Starwars? Yeah







November 25, 2010 - Thanks Giving







 Grandma bakes all day 

to see her son hold his son 

as she once held him.












November 24, 2010 - Computer Age

Why is this marked spam?

Why's it all in Japanese

Writers should write books.








November 23, 2001 - Winter Again

Bus driver reaches
out to close the door again
"Got to save the heat."









November 22, 2010 Wild Open Skies

Body scanners...So?
Who gives a crap? Just strip down.
We'll all fly naked

Women of the Favela Part 5; Eliane and Aliane

            The orphans were not the only children in Perus without parents.  The twins, Eliane and Aliane, are not orphans by the strict definition.  Technically they have a father, but in all my months in Perus I never met him.  We always talked to the girls on their front patio.
            “Dad doesn’t want religion in the house,” Aliane smiled, nodding her head toward the dark front window.  The girls told me their father is not a bad man, just lazy.  He is not cruel, but not kind, he doesn’t work, but he doesn’t bother them. He doesn’t scold or forbid or shout.  He stays indoors watching their small T.V.
            “And he drinks?” I asked them.
            “Yeah,” they giggled together. “He drinks a lot.”
            “What about your mom?”
            “I’m Eliane’s mom,” Aliane answered quickly.
“And I’m Aliane’s,” Eliane added smiling.  The answer was rehearsed. They must have given it many times.   
            The girls, since age ten, looked after themselves.  For three years they’d run a small laundry business out of their home. The picture shows the twins standing surrounded by their day’s work.  They washed clothes by hand for a year before they saved enough to buy a basic washing machine.  Daily, they lug bags back and forth over the railroad and across the highway. They work everyday except Sunday and they never miss church.  They’re mothers to each other. 
            “It’s not so bad, we make good money.”
            “Except for our hands, the water dries them out.”
            “Yeah but Rose Angela gets us this medicated lotion, it helps a lot.”
            I nod my head. Of course Rose Angela would help.

Monday, November 22, 2010

November 22, 2010 Wild Open Skies

Body scanners...So?
Who gives a crap? Just strip down.
We'll all fly naked

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Her Twilight Years; Tales of a Granny Vampire. Part 3, "Friends and Enemies"

          “Back already?  Are you sure you plugged all the leaks?”
            “Yes, I spoke with Sergeant Dawkins myself, he was the first to arrive on the scene. He suspected paranormal activity immediately, quarantined the area and confiscated the security tapes. The copy you’ve been watching is the only one left.”
            “What about the witnesses.”
            “Taken care of.”
            “Memory spell?”
            “Yes, by one of our top mystics.”
            “No, Zula couldn’t come, we sent Astron.”
            “Zula would have been better.”
            “Yes sir.”
            “What about the other cops?”
            “Astron got them all.  Dawkins is the only one outside of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigation who has any knowledge of the incident.”
            Commissioner Walters nodded, put his pen down on his desk and leaned back in his chair.
            “Have a seat Parker,” he said, as he hit rewind on the old VCR.
            Parker pulled a chair around the desk, so he could see the T.V. better and sat down next to Walters. 
            Walters looked over at his Parker.  He was so young just a kid really.  He’d been with the bureau for almost six months but he was still green. Walters still resented being assigned such a young partner.  The kid had no experience, he’d only been a cop for four years, but the bosses insisted.  They hadn’t told Walters the whole story but there was something in Parker’s past that qualified him for service into the Bureau.  Probably some tragic encounter with the supernatural, vampires got his parents or something like that.  Parker never talked about it and Walters never asked. In his twenty-five years with the Bureau he’d heard enough horror stories, he didn’t need to know the details of Parker’s.
                   He hit play, the monitor flashed white for a second, then the bank scene appeared.
            “There are robbers,” Walters narrated, “the guy at the front of the line, the one next to the guard and the one by the door.”
            “They are human?”
            “They are the victims.”
            Walters hit fast forward, the man went to the teller and took out his gun, the second man moved in to cover the guard.
            “There,” Walters said, hitting pause, “see he turns there, something behind him drew his attention.”
            “But none of the hostages moved.”
            “You gotta follow his line of sight. Ghouls don’t show up on tape.”
            “He’s looking toward the back of the line.  You mean there’s something there?”
            “Just watch.”
            He hit play.  The man covering the door moved forward and spoke to the air at the end of the line. Then suddenly drew his gun then began struggling.  The gun flashed and he stepped back. 
            “Poltergeist?” Parker asked.
            Walters grunted, “maybe, but keep watching.”
            The shot had upset the other two.  The man at the teller started shoving money into his pockets.  The one who fired the shot took off out the door. The other two moved to follow but, as the man with the money passed the end of the line, he fell, tripped over something. 
            As the rest of the video played Walters watch Parker’s eyes grow wide and his face grow pale.  The kid was still too green.
            “It went for their necks,” Parker said when the tape snapped to an end. “a Vampire.”
            “Probably, but this was in broad daylight, Vamps tend to be more discrete, it could be a poltergeist tearing out their necks to throw us off course.”
            “Maybe a malevolent spirit, someone who was killed in a robbery and is taking his revenge post mortem.”
            “It’s possible but I’m still leaning toward Vampire.  The guy who fired the shot thought he was firing at someone.”
            “But people often shoot at ghosts and why would a Vampire be killing bank robbers?”
            “I’ve seen it before.  Some Vampire thinks that just because he’s a demon doesn’t mean he’s gotta be all bad and takes to killing criminals.”
            “Like some kind of super hero,”
            “Yeah but remember that the Vamp still has to feed.  Whoever it is isn’t going to wait for due process.  We’re talking about a crusader, monster on a righteous mission.  Have you any idea how bloody the crusades were.”
            Parker nodded slowly, “it’s a pity if a Vampire really could be turned, if we had one on our side…”
            “It’s impossible,” Walters interrupted, “a demon is a demon.”
            “Okay.  So what do we do now?”
            “What descriptions did we get before Astro wiped their memories?”
            “Nothing solid.  A female maybe, the witnesses were freaking out.  Two said the robbers just started sooting.  On said they were killed by an old lady.”
            “People have trouble processing this stuff, I don’t think we can trust the eye witness accounts. Go downstairs, pull up everything that could be linked to vampire activity in the area and put out an APB on the third bank robber, the one that got away. My guess is that our ghoul will be hunting him.  We’ve got to get to him first.”
            Walters watched Parker go, then stood up and walked toward the monitor. 
            “A crusader,” he said into the monitor, “I’m getting to old for this.”
            Margery sat in her living room with her grandson and his girlfriend.  They were sipping glasses of fresh blood and laughing.  Margery smiled over at Lilly.  At first she hadn’t like Billy’s girlfriend, she was a banshee after all and had piercing all over her face, but Margery had recently began to embrace her own demonic nature and, as she did, she began to enjoy the company of other monsters.  She played bridge twice a week with a couple of hags from the witch’s coven and Bloody Mary, from the graveyard, had introduced her to some fascinating ghosts.  One of them, shrieking Tom, had known her father during the war.  Best of all, since she had begun acting more like a vampire, Billy had been lest embarrassed by her. Yes, if Lilly made her grandson happy then she could get used to the piercings and the shrieking and the floating around the room. Margery still didn’t care for her Zombie friends but she tried to be pleasant and keep some brains in the fridge for them
            For the past three weeks, since incident at the bank, Lilly came by nearly every day and gone hunting with them twice.  They’d taken out that mugger and that man who lived near the park.  Everyone knew he murdered he wife several years back but the cops had never been able to pin in on him.  Well, he’d finally got his comeuppance, thanks to Grany Vamp and her righteous grandson.
            “So what’s our next plan?” Billy asked.
            “Well,” Margery said setting down her glass, “the girls from the coven say their seer has predicted a string of muggings in the city, a couple of women...street walkers…have turned up dead.”
            “Great so we should start there,” Lilly said, “I’ll talk to some of the sectors I know from the city see if they’ve seen anything and I can start haunting some alleyways tomorrow night.”
            “That would be great dear,” Margery smiled at Lilly again, “and you know I’ve been looking at patterns, if your still not against it, I really could sew us some outfits, I mean if we’re going to be evil fighting evil we should dress the part.”
            “Grandma,” Billy sighed.
            “Besides you always wear your nice sweaters and the bloodstains are terrible, if you had something in a washable polyester…”
            “Grandma,” Billy cut her off but after a pause added, “if it means that much to you I guess we could look into it.”
            “But nothing fancy.”
            “Oh and you’ll have to get the coven to enchant anything you make for me,”  Lilly added, “otherwise I won’t be able to pass through walls with it on.”
            “Of course dear.”
            They went on talking and drinking for another half an hour.  Then Margery excused herself.  The sun was coming up and she really did need to get some sleep but if Lilly wanted to stay a little longer that was fine as long as they kept the volume on the T.V. down.
            “Thanks Grandma,” Billy said as she went to her room.

            From the window two green eyes also watched her go. The charchol black cat, sitting in the windowsill, had been watching them for some time.  When the old woman was gone to her room the cat jumped down, slunk across the yard and disappeared into a storm drain.  Like a shadow it slipped through the endless maze of tunnels until it came out into a large cavernous chamber, a crypt directly beneath the cemetery. 
            The enormous room was dimply lit by a hundred melting candles.  An old crone sat in a high backed silver chair gazing off into nothingness.  A dark figure, dressed in a long cape and top hat, paced back and forth across the wet floor.  The cat dropped down and slipped over to the old woman’s chair.
            “Back so soon,” the woman creaked as the cat jumped into her lap, “we’ll tell me what you saw.”
            The dark figure stopped pacing, “we’ll what is it? Did she find her?”
            “Yes,” the old woman said stroking the cat’s dark fur, “she found her.  The one we’re looking for. You were right they’re planning to take down some human criminals in the city.”
            The figure turned away from the old woman.  Then it was true, they had another righteous vampire on their hands.  Why couldn’t they just feed discretely, embrace their nature, hero types like these invariably brought down the hunters.  That d*@# Bureau was probably on their scent already.  Why couldn’t these stupid vampire’s see that their flashy “heroics” were bad for all ghouls.
            “Call the boys,” the figure ordered without turning back to the chair, “we’ll put a stop to this before it gets out of hand.”
            The old woman smiled and the cat in her lap purred deeply. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Women of the Favela Part 4: Ann and the Orphanage

After a few weeks in Perus, my companion and I decided to volunteer at a local orphanage. Ann, a member of our congregation, worked part time as an orphanage administrator. The first time we visited we schemed up a surprise party. Without telling Ann we went door to door on the east hill gathering used toys. We wrapped them and bought the ingredients to make a huge birthday cake. As we opened the door to the orphanage, I realized our mistake. The large house overflowed with toys. Toys lined the tiled halls and clumped in corners. The metal cupboards were bursting with bags of beans, rice, and sweets.

“Everyone sends toys,” Ann explained, “Everyone gives food and candy to orphans. We’re funded by three separate American charities. You can bake your cake, but do it with the kids. That’s what they need. Someone to be with them, to talk to them, to ask them their names.”

She was right. The kids didn’t look twice at the toys we’d brought. Instead they grabbed our ties and made us chase them around the house. My companion stood on his head. I did a cartwheel and banged my foot on a windowsill. The children were hard to understand, they talked so quickly, but I tried to listen and catch their names. The tall girl with short hair is Marilyn. Tiago and his brother Rico are the oldest. The three little boys are all named José so they go by Ninja, Cotóco, and Pequeno. The little girls giggled too much to tell me their names. The serious one, in the red tank top, the one who only laughed when I banged my foot and only smiled for the picture is João. (Photo 5 Orphanage)

As the cake baked, Ann leaned against the old sink and told us about the problems facing the orphanage.

“We have enough funding,” she explained, “what we don’t have is someone who can do the work, who can actually care for the children. There are six of us working here, I come almost every day, but no one lives here full-time. I try to be a Mom to the kids as much as I can, but I have four children at home that need mothering.

“The children come to us at different times, for different reasons, mostly without any documentation. We think João was five when he came, but were not sure how old he really is. He came alone, with nothing but the clothes on his back, he wouldn’t tell us where he came from, or who his parents were. He just showed up. Seven years later all we really know about him is that his name is João and his favorite color is red.”

The administrators have a hard time finding openings for the orphans at school. A child from a wealthier family, or with connections like Luã, could enter school at five. But the orphanage lacked organization and connections. Of the twenty-seven children, twelve were school age but only seven attended. The others waited.

As she spoke, Cotóco came crying into the kitchen. Ann picked him up and explained; “Each year we put the kids on a waiting list. If there are no openings then they move up in priority for the next year, but some of them are set to enter first grade at age eight or even nine. They won’t graduate until they are nineteen or twenty.”

But graduation is an unlikely dream. Since the orphans have to leave the orphanage at eighteen, they will inevitably have to quit school and seek work.

“But these kids are lucky,” Ann almost laughed, “there are a lot worse places a kid could end up. There are…”

I held up my hand to stop her. I wasn’t ready to hear details about inner-city child trafficking. The orphanage was disturbing enough.

We ate the cake, João smiled for the picture, and then we left. We went back almost every week trying to give each child as much attention as we could. I was always expected to do cartwheels.

Front row left to right; Cotóco, Giggling girls 1,2,3,4. Elder Conner(Me), Ninja
Second row left to right; Pequeno, Elder Jarvis
Third row left to right; Tiago, Rico, João, Marilyn
Top row left to right; Beatrice, Elder Glover, Elder Stayner, Cintia, Ann

Sunday, November 14, 2010


“The present is infinitely fleeting. We live our lives in the moments after.”

-Lia Rae Markins

Two hours

He lay naked in his mother’s arms, on the damp hospital bed

Surrounded by smiling faces

His breath came in gasps

Tiny mouth open like a fish’s

His skin was warm, wrinkled, and red.

She raised his head

The light shone on his closed eyelids

His arms twitched uncontrollably

His skin hanging off his thin arms

His navy, not baby, blue eyes opened briefly

The light reflected off his eyes, tiny golden dots

He stretched out on his back

Arms open fingers spread, he soaked in the warmth of his mother’s arms

His whole life stretched out before him

He was young, fragile, innocent

Everything was new, fragile, wonderful

Seventeen years

He lay naked on the cold wooden dock, on the deep glacier lake

Surrounded by vast green forests

His breath came in gasps

His mouth open like a fish’s

His skin was icy cold, rigid, and red

He raised his head

The sun shone on his closed eyelids

His arms shivered uncontrollably

His skin tight on his strong arms

His navy, not baby, blue eyes opened for a moment

The sun reflected off the lake, a long golden stream

He stretched out on his back

Arms open, fingers spread, he soaked up the warmth of the summer sun

His whole life stretched out before him

He was young, restless, innocent

Everything was new, restless, wonderful


He lay naked in her arms on the soft warm sheets

Surrounded by her sweet smell

His breath came easy and slow

His mouth open like a fish’s

Her skin was soft, smooth, and pink

He lifted her head, kissed her closed eyelids

She trembled slightly

His hand on the skin of her arm

His navy, not baby, blue eyes held her for a moment

Light burned between them, a soft gentle passion

He stretched out on his back

Arms open, fingers spread, he soaked up the her warmth

Their whole life stretched out before them

They were young, dreaming, together

Everything was new, hopeful, wonderful

A lifetime

He lay naked in his patient gown, on the hard hospital bed

Surrounded by sobbing faces

His breath came in gasps

His mouth open like a fish’s

His skin was, clammy, wrinkled, and pale

He raised his head, the light shone on his closed eyelids

His arms trembled uncontrollably

The skin was thick on his tired arms

His navy, not baby, blue eyes opened for a moment

A light shone from his eyes, a fading golden glow

He stretched out on his back

Arms open fingers spread, he soaked up the warmth of the loved ones around him

His whole life stretched out before him

For a moment he was young, peaceful, innocent

Everything was wonderful, peaceful, finished.

Photos by DB

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Women of the Favela Part 3; Josette and her Grandmother

In the favelas rural and urban lifestyles often clash. In the photo above a boy, Luã, stands near the river. Behind him a herd of stray horses grazes. No one knows who brought them, but they must have been too costly to keep and were set loose. They roam the town eating out of dumpsters and blocking traffic.

Stray livestock was a common sight even in the most industrialized quarters of the city. The two other pictures show a herd loitering in front of a used car lot and two horses chomping at a garbage sack.Ironically the horses adapted better to city life than many Northerners.

Josette and Luã’s grandmother, the woman slumped in the pew, never adjusted to city life. She moved with her two grandchildren from Natal soon after Luã was born. (None of them ever told me what happened to Luã and Josette’s parents.) From the beginning their Grandma hated city life. She tried to farm but people trampled and built on her garden. She tried to keep chickens but the neighbors stole them or they fell prey to stray dogs. Over the years she gave up everything but five beehives she kept on their small patio, and the drums of animal lard she boiled down into soap. Eventually she took to watching T.V. and mumbling quietly to herself about the old days. Josette was left to keep her family afloat.

Luã would follow us as we worked in the neighborhoods. He taught me to build and fly my first kite. He always talked about his older sister, but after a month in Perus I still hadn’t met her. When she finally came to church one Sunday, she explained to me why she was never home. She was a substitute teacher. The schools in Perus are free, and a major draw for emigrants, but they are dangerous, under funded, and desperately overcrowded. (Not forty-students-in-a-single-classroom-overcrowded, like I’d seen in Utah, but too-many-students-to-fit-in-the-building-overcrowded.) The schools run in four shifts. From six to ten in the morning, then from ten to two, two to six, and finally from six to ten at night. Most teachers work two or three shifts but Josette, as often as she could, taught all four, a fourteen-hour day.

When I was in high school in Utah, the whole country reeled to see the school shootings at Columbine. In the few months I was in Perus, there were two shootings at the school, each was reported only once in the local news.

Josette’s situation was rough but hopeful. She could use her job to study, she spoke English well, and she was applying for a scholarship funded through our Church’s “Perpetual Education Fund.” As a substitute, she could also use her connections to help Luã. She could get him textbooks, notepads, pencils, even a calculator. Luã is a good boy and, like his sister, he works hard. They’ll survive. But many children in the system don’t have their advantages.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Women of the Favela Part 2; Maria

Maria and her Granddaughter Lauren

The first day I saw the Recanto I wasn’t scared at all. The old electric train wound its way through green hills. Shantytowns lined the tracks. Shacks clumped together in the low valleys. Despite the crowded train, the incessant heat, the unfamiliar Portuguese babble all around me, I burned with excited. My first assignment in the city, just what I’d been praying for. The Recanto dos Humildes clings to the edge of Perus, a town fifty miles or so north of São Paulo. It would be wrong to call Perus a suburb, though it may have started that way. Rather, Perus is a microcosm of the city, a mini São Paulo, facing all of the major challenges of the metropolis, only on a smaller scale.

At the train station I met my new companion. (Our missionaries always work in pairs.) He came from California and had been in Perus for six weeks. He helped carry my bags and led me into the town. I followed close behind him as we tunneled through the crowed alleyways. People pushed passed us. Chickens squawked in cages and vendors shouted over each other. Above our heads, clotheslines crisscrossed from window to window. Murky, pungent water trickled over the uneven asphalt.

“We’re going to Maria’s house for lunch,” my companion told me, looking back over his shoulder. “She’s a good cook but after, we’ll have to help her husband Claudio wash his legs. Try not to stare.”

“Stare at what?” I asked but he didn’t answer. We stopped in front of a large gate. It was solid metal, ten feet tall, with spikes on top, not at all inviting. My companion clapped loudly and called,

“Maria! It’s the missionaries.”

The gate swung inward and Maria answered, her smile shining, her granddaughter in her arms. Maria was as warm and inviting as the gate was ominous.

Maria and Claudio have been members of our congregation since they trekked down from Piauí, a state in Northern Brazil. When she met me she cried. I was surprised and sorry, not knowing what I’d done. But my companion laughed, and then Maria laughed.

“Don’t worry about it Elder, (all the missionaries are called Elder) I always cry.”

“It’s true,” my companion agreed, “Everyone calls her Irmã Chorona, (Sister Cryer).”

“Yes, Irmã Chorona,” she smiled, “I always cry, but never because I’m sad.”

She told me she didn’t cry the day they left the North with all their possessions on their backs, but she cried the day they arrived in their new home. She said she didn’t cry when her husband couldn’t find work, but she cried when he bought a wheelbarrow, filled it with wildflowers to sell, and returned home with his first day’s earnings. She said she didn’t cry when her husband’s legs started to swell and crack, and he could no longer push his wheelbarrow, but she cried the day he gave up drinking and started going to church. She didn’t cry at funerals, or at hospitals, but she cried every time a new missionary came to visit.

Slowly, over black beans and rice, interrupted many times by tears, Maria told me the history of their own little metropolis.

Perus is one of many favela-towns surrounding São Paulo and provides a textbook example of the country’s social stratification. The World Bank rates Latin America as, “the most (economically) unequal region in the world, and Brazil is the most unequal country in the region.”

In most areas the slums flood over the wealthy neighborhoods. The shacks fill every open space, built up against skyscrapers, in parks, or freeway medians. But Perus provides such an interesting example because the areas of rich, poor, poorer and poorest are clearly defined and divided. The highway, the river, and the train tracks, run together for twenty miles or so, out of São Paulo. At Perus they part, dividing the town into four distinct sections. Panning the town from East to West you pass through the entire spectrum, from rich multi-storied brick houses on the hill, to tiny slanted plywood shacks on the muddy riverbank.

The rich, legitimate part of town covers the hillside east of the highway. A poorer neighborhood fills the area between the highway and the railroad tracks. From the tracks to the river the town tumbles into the old favela, a jumbled conglomerate of houses, shops, narrow alleyways and twisted roads. Beyond the river sits the Recanto.

According to Maria, the legitimate Perus was built in the 1970’s. Businessmen came, looking to get out of the city, and the highway was built to give them a speedy commute. Poor workers came as domestic servants or shopkeepers, and the government built them the railroad.

“No one built on this side of the tracks until the nineties. We were some of the first. When we got here it was a dump.”

“Literally,” my companion smiled and Maria nodded.

In fact all the land west of the tracks and east of the river was government owned and designated as a landfill. The land beyond the river belonged to an absent, and essentially faceless owner who, everyone assumed, lived in the city.

In the early nineties, slum populations in São Paulo exploded, overflowing into areas like Perus. The people carved a neighborhood right out of the landfill, building their homes with anything they could find.

“You’d be surprised what those richies throw away,” Maria says gesturing to the corrugated steel roof. “We dug this out of a mound down by the river. I insisted on real clay brick for the walls, but the Oliveiras down the alley, they built that house out of blue water barrels. Every month they cover up one or two with concrete. Whenever they can afford the cement. ”

Originally lines and pipes crossed over the tracks bringing pirated water and electricity. The Favela itself was graded from poor to poorer, with the poorest families living closest to the river.

“The river became an open sewer,” Maria said shaking her head, “drugs, violence, disease and death, they were everywhere.”

Government officials in every major city in the South faced the same dilemma. They could barely estimate how many people lived in the favelas, let alone provide for them. By 1995, Perus’ actual population was at least ten times the official head count. Half the town stole electricity and water. Children flooded the schools, and there was absolutely nowhere to send the people.

“What about the government housing?” I asked. On train rides through the city I’d seen the massive concrete apartment complexes, lined one after another like wasps nests. Called COHAB’s (co-habitation units), they must have been a massive undertaking.

“The COHAB’s,” Maria snorted. “They’re so much worse than the favelas.”

Despite the scale of the COHAB project, it fell desperately short of its goal.

“I’ve been to see them,” she went on. “My cousin lived in a COHAB for three years. Horrible, Elder, just horrible.”

She told us how large families from the North are crammed into one-room apartments. How the housing complexes breed organized crime, and are often the most dangerous parts of the city.

“People only move to the COHAB’s if they have to, if they get in trouble with the government or something. They move in, get in debt to the drug lords and the cops, and can’t leave.” She told us that many of the people in the Perus had fled the COHAB’s, often leaving behind all their possessions and bolting in the middle of the night.

“It’s true,” my companion added. “There were COHAB’s in my last area and we weren’t allowed anywhere near them after dark.”

When the COHAB’s began to fail the government tried to entice people to move back to the countryside. Brazil built a new capitol city, Brasilia, built in 1960, as an early effort to draw people into the country and away from the urban coast. In the 1990’s the government granted enormous subsidies to Northern ranchers in hopes of bolstering the agricultural economy. Today Brazil has one of the largest beef industries in the world with over190 million cattle. But cattle tycoons and foreign investors dominate the industry. The grants helped Americans get 39-cent hamburgers but gave few opportunities to farm workers. With no schools, no hospitals, no infrastructure of any kind, for families like Maria’s there was no going back North.

In the mid 1990’s, the government tried land reform; giving the favelas to their inhabitants. In Perus, they paved a few roads, built power lines, basic sewage systems, and even a primary school. The neighborhood was laid out poorly, and hastily built, but it was a neighborhood.

These land reforms, meant to ease the favela problem, only exacerbated it, causing a new major internal migration.

“At first the flow of newcomers was steady,” Maria told us, “but word reached the North that the government was giving away land. For a sharecropper or a plantation worker that’s like saying they discovered a gateway straight to heaven. The people flooded down.

“ But the government could hardly be surprised,” Maria, laughed. “The promise of free land always brings waves of people.”

These people came in the same way Europeans flooded through Ellis Island, or American pioneers pushed through the west. Many Northerners actually came to São Paulo in wagons, trailing livestock.

Maria and Claudio were both born from a long line of sharecroppers and plantation workers. São Paulo was going to be their ticket out, their “better life for their children.” For fifteen years they dug a living out of the old garbage dump. They raised their son Paulo and built a life, all on the money Claudio brought in from selling flowers. Every day for fifteen years he wheeled his barrow down to the train station, and every night he brought back beans and rice to his wife.

They succeeded. Paulo went to school, got a job in the city, married, had a daughter, and built a small brick home in the Recanto, just west of the river. But not every emigrant would succeed and as the years went by it became more and more difficult for newcomers.