Sunday, July 31, 2005

Way Too Cool!

I've got a couple of blog topics that I've started but haven't finished, and a bunch of pictures to post; but until I get around to doing that, and since I'm too tired to write, I decided to post about two things that I've ran across that I just thought were really cool.

The first is an illustration of why I think that Google Earth is the neatest thing since sliced bread. Without getting technical, I'll just say that it revolves around the feature called "Network Link" (an original and catchy name, isn't it?!): basically, it's an open interface that allows anyone to provide dynamic data to Google Earth (or Google Maps, for that matter). It's the kind of thing that users of GPS software have been doing for awhile, but with GE it's gone mainstream, and it's free.

The picture above is an example of a really cool GE hack that I ran across that illustrates this feature (at Ogle Earth); the author wrote a routine that scrapes NASA's web sites for live coordinates, and serves it in KML format to Google Earth. Basically, you can download a file (at the link above) and it will automatically track the position of the space shuttle Discovery and the ISS, drawing a line to show its altitude. It updates itself every minute. The picture above shows the shuttle somewhere over central Missouri. Click on the picture to see it full size.


This next item is kind of an optical illusion, that demonstrates how color perception can be affected by surrounding colors. Click here to see the effect.

This is kind of hard to believe, but I've personally verified the RGB values and they are the same in each picture. I also captured the images into paintbrush and used the color picker to fill larger squares and compare the colors. Check it out ... it's amazing!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Here Comes the Sun

Ok ... I'll admit it. A sunny day on the beach can be pretty nice too!

Deadly UV rays and skin cancer be damned! Frolicking at the seashore under a clear sky at noontime also has its charms! I managed not to get burned too!

Of course, it's "winter", so the sun is lower in the sky... not quite so blazing hot. With this post I finish off my Saquarema pictures from last weekend; Sunday and Monday. The special moment was when vôvo (Grandpa in portuguese) showed up on the beach with a kite for the little one's entertainment.

The pictures are here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Relaxing Moments ...

My favorite time to be on the beach is late afternoon ... I guess because, different from many native "cariocas", I'm not much into sunbathing: I can't seem to associate getting nuked by high-energy ultraviolet rays under a sweltering noon sun with the concept of "relaxing". But hey! that's just me. For me, the sun holds more painful connotations, like burned and peeling skin, blisters, and melanomas. As I bake in the sun, I can just feel the solar radiation penetrating my epidermal cells and ripping apart my DNA strands. Since I'm apparently too dumb (and/or stubborn) to adequately apply the proper sunsceen, whenever we go to the beach in the summertime this is what happens: I fry myself on the first day, and have to spend the remainder of the time we are there under a beach umbrella, in a t-shirt, and bathed in Aloe Vera. And I'm not even that fair skinned.


In the late afternoon, however, when the shadows on the sand stretch long and the setting sun nears the horizon, a miraculous transformation takes place; the shorter-wavelength, lethal rays-of-death are scattered by the thicker layer of atmosphere that must be traversed, and what's left is a sky-show of soothing orange, red, and pink friendly-rays.

That's my beach time. Cool ocean breeze ... waves lapping at the shore ... no need to chase down the kids every fifteen minutes for another layer of sunscreen (me either, for that matter!). It's especially nice when it's in the middle of winter, but warm enough to hang out on the beach until well after sundown.

That's how it was last weekend in Saquarema, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On Monday, an invasion of cold air, overcast skies, and drizzling rain moved in and cut short the party ... but for nearly three days we enjoyed nearly perfect beach weather (by my standards!). It was more than we could have hoped for.

Check out the pictures from Day 2, last Saturday (July 16) in Saquarema: in the gallery, Saquarema - Day 2.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Winter Break!

It's winter in Brazil, and the kids are on their winter break from school: they get just over two weeks off. We've been out of town since the Friday before last (July 15, no internet, no phone!), and my backlog of pictures is growing astronomically. After spending a few days in Saquarema (at the beach), we headed to a hotel in the mountains for a more wintery experience. I'm going to try and post the pictures over the next few days. I also missed a few more birthdays... Steve's and Lane's in particular ... :-(

So here goes another (belated) Happy Birthday Steve and Lane!

If I have failed to mention anyone else's birthday, please let me know! And don't feel offended ... if no one reminded me, my own birthday would pass unnoticed. Thus I depend on Cristina to remind me. Now Cristina... if you ask her, she doesn't even remember how old she herself is (I kid you not... well, she knows within a range of +/- 2 years). So you see that we have real problems. I wonder who will take care of us when we get feeble(r)?


"Winter" in Rio de Janeiro is a relative concept: while average and maximum temperatures are definitely much cooler than summer, you can still get some really warm days (although at night it can get downright cold). The nightly spell of cold air means that, even if the sun is hot tomorrow, the pool water will continue to be icy. It will probably be September or October before anyone will dare enter the pool again, which is a shame, since on warmer days the pool can seem inviting. Winter in Rio can be just cold enough to keep people on the beaches and out of the water. But when "arctic air" pushes up from Argentina, and the skies are cloudy, temperatures can plummet. A lot of tourists are caught by surprise, with only shorts and short-sleeve shirts. This time of year, Cariocas head to the mountains, dig out their sweaters, hats, gloves and heavy coats (usually bought while in New York on vacation), and make fondue.

We spent last weekend in Saquarema, and miraculously the weather was mostly spectacular. The clear skies and hot sun meant the kids could spend the days on the beach; a taste of summer in mid-winter.

Saquarema is a sleepy little beach town about 40 miles up the coast from Rio de Janeiro. It's greatest claim to fame are its waves, which attract surf championships and surfers from all over Brazil and the world. A few months ago, Saquarema did make international news for another reason, when one of the FBI's top-ten most wanted, Jesse James Hollywood, was arrested there (that's really his name!).

This guy seems to have been a real character... a true Californian bad boy, or teenage "gangsta", rather. At 5 foot five and 140 pounds, a product of white suburban middle-class Los Angeles, he had built up his own drug ring (formed mostly of kids that had played in Little League with him). At the age of 19, he was living on an income of something around $50 K / year dealing pot and had his own $200000 home just down the street from his father (who was also involved in some shady activities). At the age of 20, he was the youngest American ever to make the most wanted list, for kidnapping and murder of a 15 year old boy, brother of one of his rivals. His "gang" were all captured and tried, but he managed to flee. For five years, he lived anonymously, under an assumed name with false documents, first in Rio, then in Saquarema.

I won't recount the whole story (but you can read it here if you want), however, I will say that it does have all the makings of a movie ... in fact, the story is being made into a movie (Alpha Dog, starring Justin Timberlake and Bruce Willis). And I will recount the ending of his story.

Apparently, Jesse had always seen in the movies that, if you are on the run from the law, Rio de Janeiro is the place to go. Well ... it is true that Brazil doesn't have an extradition treaty with the US, and there have been precedents. But things are different these days; when Jesse was caught in March, he was deported summarily, in spite of the fact that he was living with a Brazilian woman who was pregnant with his child. The poor woman had no idea of his background; he had told her he was a Canadian student in Brazil to study portuguese. His deportation was guaranteed based on the fact that he was in Brazil illegally, with false documents.

Still, it might have worked out if he had been smarter: apparently he was caught because he maintained contact with his father, who sent him $1000 each month for him to live on. Police tapped his father's phone line, so they knew for sometime that he was somewhere in Brazil. Brazilian Federal Police were alerted, and they finally figured out where he was; apparently, they set up a sting operation with his own father's collaboration, and arrested him in a little open-air shopping mall in Saquarema.

So anyway, that's just a bit of trivia... not that big of a deal. It's kind of a curiosity to us, 'cause we hang out alot at the little shopping mall (Lake's Shopping), although I don't recall ever running across this guy. Lately, it's made my visits to Saquarema a little more interesting ... as if I didn't have enough prejudice against me just for being a gringo, now I have the additional stigma of sharing part of my name and nationality with an outlaw. I've caught a couple of double-takes, or at least curious looks, particularly when I flash a credit card in Saquarema (the James seems to stand out).

So in honor of Jesse James, tonight I'm posting the first batch of pictures from Saquarema, most of which are from exactly the same Lake's Shopping, where he was taken into custody. We stopped there last Friday (July 15) for lunch, and for the kids to unwind a little.

The pictures are here. Tomorrow I'll try and post the rest.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Gramlingville from Space!

Today I finally got around to downloading Google Earth and spent half of the day zooming around and exploring the entire world... in consequence, I never got around to finishing another blog entry that I started, so this will be it. I'll save the other for a rainy day ;-)

The picture above is Gramlingville as seen from space... or rather, as has been rendered by Google Earth's satellite view, whenever the picture was taken. "Gramlingville" is a term that was coined by my college roommate, and refers to the house and farm we lived at in Basehor, Kansas, up until about 1988. The house can be clearly seen, along with the meandering Wolf Creek, the road, and surrounding fields and woods. Last year, Rick and I hiked around the 80 acres we grew up on and witnessed the extent of the changes which, at the time were just beginning (the pictures of our visit can be seen here). The front field had been completely filled in, and the building that once housed a series of family businesses had been apparently buried. The entire area was zoned industrial/residential, and was already earmarked for earthmovers. That was in February of last year... when I drove by there again in December with the kids, sadly the house was gone. Clearly Google Earth's satellite pictures are not extremely recent, although they are not that old either, since heavy equipment can clearly be seen in the front field. You can find this view on Google Maps here.

I'm usually hesitant to download and install internet apps on my computer ... I drag my feet until the software seems consecrated. Examples are the various Messengers (Yahoo, MSN, AIM) , Skype (which I resisted as long as possible before becoming a True Believer) and most all peer-to-peer applications (music downloaders). I don't like not knowing what the software is doing ... what kind of spyware or adware it's installing along with it. But I've been hearing so much about Google Earth... along with Gustavo's insistance... that I could no longer resist. The thing about Google Earth is that, if you really want to get technical, it is itself a kind of adware (or soon will be) : but like Google's search or the Yellow Pages, the ads themselves will add value by being shown in context. I know that mapping software has been around for awhile, but Google Earth maps the world and more; and before long will probably be the de facto directory of everything on Earth (At least, everything that's physical location is relevant) Yes... that's my prediction. Google is already the internet standard search engine, and with Google Earth and Maps, they may very well redefine the internet. In fact, since they have opened their API, lots of other people and company are using the Google server for mapping apps. (For some creative examples, check this out).

Therefore, if you have a broadband connection and haven't seen Google Earth ... get it! If you haven't, you can have a little fun with Google Maps, but there's really no comparison. Google Earth is simply incredible. You can drag the globe and zoom in on any spot on earth... see topography, cities, buildings, roads, landmarks, elevations, lodging, restaurants ....

I zoomed in on our house here in Rio, and could see the rooftops, trees and swimming pool ... but that's nothing. Try flying to New York; enable the buildings checkbox, adjust the tilt, and you can literally fly along the streets of Manhattan. Want to find somewhere to eat? Click on "Dining" and be prepared to be overwhelmed: so many restaurants will appear that you can barely see the map. Want to find the nearest Starbucks? Click on the Local Search tab and it will point them all out. Obviously the tool is new, so very few cities are mapped in as much detail as New York; still, it is surprising how many are. Even downtown Kansas City has its buildings mapped and quite a few restaurants.

No big deal? Type "Nepal" in the "Fly To" search field, adjust the tilt, and you can zoom through the valleys of the Himalayas, and climb the slopes of Annapurna (Mt. Everest). It's just ... really cool! It's kind of like Flight Simulator, but it's real.

It already has overlays for dining, lodging, banks, grocery stores, parks, bars, landmarks, gas stations, schools, hospitals and numerous other types of locations. I can imagine so many future possibilities... besides being the definitive tourist guide, how about interfacing it with a news server: you just click on a region and see what's going on. Or click on a headline and it will take you straight to the location of whatever event. How about historical events? Overlay Google Earth with a timeline and drill down to anywhere in the world, any time in history. As an educational tool, its value could be tremendous.

I've just been flying around the Lake of the Ozarks ... down Lake Road "P" and Morgan Hill's Road... I can cleary see Page's Boat Yard (if that's what it's still called).

It seems like the world just keeps getting smaller and smaller ....


A few last minute updates... I've been taking a little bit of flack for my failure to filter pictures posted to the gallery. So, if your picture appears in the gallery and you feel like you've been the victim of unflattering photography, feel free to email with references the specific offending images and I'll be glad to consider removing them.

If you're not already on the update list and you would like me to email you every time I update the blog or gallery, just drop me an email or post a message and I will add you to the list.

Also ... Tomorrow is Sandy's birthday, so, since I haven't got around to calling yet ... Happy Birthday Sandy!

According to, it's also Lea-Ann's birthday ... so Happy Birthday to Lea-Ann as well!

Friday, July 08, 2005

More Birthdays ...

Today's entry will be blessedly short ... I get the impression that many of you still haven't managed to wade through my "Sam" posts yet, so I'll try to be less wordy for a while!

Just an update on this weeks events around here (I mean "family" events, not current events):

Sunday: I took James and Bruno to see "Batman Begins"; really cool! Three Thumbs Up!

Wednesday: Ana's birthday... with a surprise. I won't go into it any detail, but those who know what I am talking about will see what I mean in the gallery.

Thursday: Bruno's birthday... no surprises, but the cheesecake Ana made, with Mom's recipe, was very well received! Pictures can be seen here.

It's COLD down here in Rio! The last couple of days has seen a tremendous shift in the weather, from dry, sunny and warm, to damn cold, overcast and rainy. I mean "Damn Cold", by a carioca's standards, by which I mean that it got down to around 10 deg C last night (50 deg F.). I've come down with a nasty cold, so all in all, it seems pretty miserable to me.

Now if I could get some more of that cheesecake ...

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Sam and I - Part II

Back to my "battle" with Sam. If you haven't read yesterday's blog entry (part I), you should read it first before continuing.

As I said, Sam controls the yard beyond the veranda. Any object left within his territory is fair game, and make no mistake: it will be destroyed. Sandals, shoes, toys, plants, brooms, buckets, garden implements ... you name it.

Miraculously, he knows that the veranda itself is off-limits. I've managed to enforce this rule through a mixture of brute force and subterfuge. Brute force, because if I catch him placing one paw on the veranda, he will catch hell. Subterfuge, because to keep him off the veranda at night (when everyone is sleeping), I set up an elaborate trap involving a nylon monofilament trip wire, mouse traps, and a large tin can filled with nails. It worked flawlessly; he only tripped the wire twice before he decided that sneaking onto the veranda isn't worth getting the crap scared out of him. Later, however, he did figure out that it was the nylon tripwire that caused the noise; as a result, he will sometimes, in the middle of the night or when nobody is around, test the defenses. If he senses the tripwire, he will back off. If not... it's party time! I lost my brand new $80 sandals that way. Unfortunately, this means that, to be sure we are protected, I have to set up the trap every single night! It's like the old Lost in Space episodes where the Robinsons have to turn on the "Force Field" at sundown to protect them from marauding alien creatures.

Since the house is at the back of the yard, arriving visitors must pass through a 45 yard "gauntlet of drool" to make it to the "safe zone". If they are lucky, they will only get sniffed and muzzled. Sam sees most strangers as potential playmates, however, and won't hesitate to demonstrate his excitement, which usually means jumping and licking. Out of necessity, I had a steel fence built around Sam's doghouse area, so we would have a place to pen him in when we have guests. Of course, Sam has decided he doesn't like being penned in one bit, and it didn't take him long to figure out he could dig his way underneath the fence. He will actually tip his water dish over to soften the ground and help him slide easier (using the mud to lubricate his passage!). I've used everything from rocks to logs to fill in the holes and make his "cell" escape proof. I've come to the conclusion that the only sure solution will be to pour a concrete pallet within the confines so that there will be nothing left to dig.

If keeping Sam in the pen is difficult, getting him into the pen in the first place is an even tougher challenge. Attempts to lure him in and trap him with tasty treats worked initially, but it didn't take long for him to figure out what was going on. I've tried cajoling him, tricking him, threatening him with a stick and screaming at him, generally while the potential visitor/victim looks on. As a result, I've made a fool of myself in front of visitors countless times trying to forcefully drag or even carry Sam across the yard, as he does everything in his power to foil me.

If you've seen the movie "Beethoven", which is basically about the desperation of a grumpy father (played by the perfectly-cast Charles Grodin) trying to keep his family-life in order while having to put up with the chaos provoked by an enormous slobbering adopted St. Bernard, then you will be able to imagine exactly what I am talking about: That's me: Charles Grodin, over and over again. Sam repeatedly manages to make me look, act and feel like a complete idiot. He's nearly convinced me that I am a complete idiot. If you don't believe me , try and visualize the following real life scenario as if it were a scene from the movie:


It's a Monday night: Capoeira night. Capoeira is kind of a mix of martial art with dance that is practiced in Brazil. Every Monday night we host Capoeira lessons for James and Christian, together with a group of friends from their school (the parents got together and hired a private teacher; we just offer the space at our house). Sam is safely locked away in his pen (so I think), with rocks and wood reinforcements piled aesthetically around its perimeter. A light rain has fallen off and on throughout the day making his pen appear more like a "sty" then a kennel. It's worth mentioning that, thanks mostly to Sam, the grass covering the yard itself is, at best, patchy. That means mud; lots of it.

The kids are still warming up; the lesson has just begun. Suddenly it happens: an enormous four-legged ball of mud and fur explodes seemingly from out of nowhere and barrels into the middle of the group; children, dressed in white Capoeira uniforms, are scattered like bowling pins amidst screams of terror. Sam, having detected and exploited a vulnerability in his detention system, is thrilled: "Fun! Kids to play with!". Like the most efficient predators of the Serengeti, Sam chooses carefully his prey: he hones in on the weakest victim, the most frightened little girl, who as it happens, is also most intent on flight. By the time he sees her, she has covered nearly half of the 40 yard distance to the veranda... "safe haven" is almost within her grasp....

But she's not fast enough. Legs pounding like a cheetah, muscles rippling beneath a coating of mud, Sam sprints effortlessly to within striking distance and silently pounces. Knocked from her feet like a rag-doll, his prey flails wildly as she struggles to defend herself from the raking mud-caked paws and lolling tongue. Pinned to the ground, there is no escape.

But then a blood-curdling shriek pierces the night; the remaining children stare in awe and horror as a phantom-like figure leaps from the veranda and charges like a maddened wildebeest, covering the 20 yards that separates him from Sam in what seems like the blink of an eye. Foam and spittle spews from his mouth as he roars with wild fury; violence is in the air, the Great White Hunter has arrived. (Or is that the Great White Ape?)

By the time Sam perceives his danger, it’s almost too late: I'm nearly upon him. He releases his prey in a futile attempt at escape. He runs; I follow. He dodges; I dive. We roll. Mud flys.

How does that saying go? "Hell hath no fury like a dog-owner scorned". I have him by the throat. Completely lost to a blind rage, I pound him to the ground repeatedly. Instinct has taken over: I have every intention of strangling him to death.

Sam, of course, doesn't resist. His body language virtually screams "submission". He will let me kill him before biting me in his own defense.

Seconds pass; it seems like an eternity. As awareness descends upon me, my grip begins to relax. I become uncomfortably aware of the group of wide-eyed, slack-jawed 9-year olds watching furtively from the shadows. My angry growl through clenched teeth ... Die! Die! Die!... slowly transforms into something that sounds more like plaintive sobs; Why? Why? Why me?

Impressed by my performance, one of James' friends turns to him and comments admiringly, without a hint of sarcasm in his voice: "Wow! Your dad sure knows how to deal with dogs!".


"Uhh... Show's over everyone..." I declare hoarsely, somehow managing a weak, thoroughly unconvincing smile: "Back to your lesson!" . I am trying to defuse the tension and recover some semblance of dignity from my embarassing predicament. Unfortunately, the show isn't over: I still have to get Sam back to his pen, somehow crossing over 30 yards of muddy turf.

Sam's leash is nowhere to be seen; since I can't let him go to look for it, I opt for leading him by his collar. Rather than collaborate, Sam chooses to maintain the classic "submission" posture: lying on his back, on the ground turned to one side. My "leading" turns out to be "dragging" for the first couple of yards. Keenly aware of the onlookers, I try a change of strategy: "Come on, boy!", I pat him lovingly and coo in the most soothing voice I can manage under the circumstances. "Let's go back to your house! Come on! Come on!". Unable to get him to obey, I drag him another couple of yards before losing my temper again.

"Damn you, Sam! Come on!!!". I grab him around the middle and force him to his feet, but he plants his paws firmly and spreads his legs. Out of pure futility, I give his collar a massive heave; but the gesture backfires: with a sickening lurch, his collar pops off, and I tumble forward. Sam, siezing the chance, makes another mad dash for freedom. (Flashback to earlier in the day: Cristina says, "Gosh, Jim... Sam's collar is too tight! Poor thing! I'm going to loosen it up a little ...").

It takes me me nearly three circuits of the entire yard before I manage to capture him once again; he knows he's in big trouble, and probably believes his struggle is life or death. When I finally grab him by the rear legs, he immediately falls into submission. This time I take no chances: ignoring the stares, I hoist him over my shoulder and carry him across the yard, finally dumping him uncerimoniously into his pen. To make sure there is no escape, I clamp his collar back on (tightened three or four notches) and securely attach him to his chain within his pen. I then proceed to fill in his escape hole. Redundancy is the key to a successful security policy.

Ok ... having said all that... I have one final point to add: a bone for the dog-lovers, as it were.
Yes... there are days that I want to strangle Sam. (Most days, in fact...) But, I won't claim that Sam has no positive qualities whatsoever. In fact, if he were the size of a chihuahua, I think I could actually like having him around. In some aspects, Sam is surprising: for example, it's amazing how well he gets along with Kevin, and Kevin with him. Kevin can spend hours playing with Sam out in the yard. Sam seems to know where the limit is: he never jumps on Kevin like he does with Christian and James, and Kevin can literally walk all over him. For Kevin, Sam is a great friend. If James and Christian can learn how to set their limits with Sam also, there's no denying that having a dog around will be great for the kids.
My only hope is that Sam will calm down as he grows older and more mature; I've learned that the concept of "obedience training" for a Labrador is a myth. At most, you can teach him where the limits are. In the meantime, I've got concrete to pour....

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Sam and I - Part I

I have a confession to make: I am not a "dog person".

This won't come as a shock to anyone who's been around me recently; my relationship with Tição (Celio and Clea's black Lab) was anything but harmonious, especially when he was young and ornery. And now, I have to deal with Sam, who is proving to be a serious challenge to my self-esteem, not to mention my capacity for self-control.

Not that I have anything specifically against dogs in particular, compared with other animals. Quite the opposite; in fact, the ironic thing is that I always thought that I was a "dog person". I grew up around dogs, and have always had good relationships with them. I don't mind dogs. I like dogs. I especially like other people's dogs.

But I've recently come to the conclusion that I'm just not the kind of person who loves dogs. The kind that gets all enthusiastic and emotional and treats them as if they were people, that rolls around on the grass when they jump on you; that can take a slobbery kiss on the lips while baby-talking to them; the kind that can cuddle up to a shedding hound on your bed or feed him scraps from the kitchen table all the while getting that warm-and-fuzzy feeling that your best friend is at your feet.

Some people are like that. I know quite a few people who are like that, actually. But I guess I'm different.

I am the kind that can't stand getting licked, sniffed, slobbered on, nipped, humped, or jumped on with muddy paws. I am the kind that can't stand having to pick dog-hair out of my dinner plate, or walking across my white ceramic floor with wet feet only to find that they have been literally coated with fur. I don't like having to skim a layer of fur off the pool every day; and I can literally lose it when I find my garden hose has been stretched across the yard and chewed into a dozen pieces. It's profoundly irritating to me when I note that Kevin is tracking dog crap all over the living room floor and up the stairs.

Maybe that means I'm uptight; but I am trying to convince myself that it means I'm basically normal.

Our yellow Lab Sam turned a year old last week. In fact, by popular demand (James and Christian), we were obliged to hold a "birthday party" for him last Saturday. That was OK with me... any excuse to have family over for a barbecue is a good excuse as far as I'm concerned.

We bought Sam when he was still just a puppy, just after he had turned a month old (I find it incredible that you have to buy a dog! People should pay you to take them!). We had been putting this step in our life off for as long as possible: we had always told the kids that we couldn't get a dog because we lived in an apartment; so when we moved to the new house with a expansive yard, our excuse was gone. We still managed to string the kids along for nearly two years, but in the end, we were forced to yield.

I had long vowed that I would never have a Labrador retriever because of less than positive past experiences (ahem!). They are big, overly playful, excitable, clumsy, and useless as a guard dog. However, they do have one positive trait that, after much contemplation, made me give in: I have never heard of a Labrador biting someone. They seem almost physically incapable of it (except maybe some "accidental" nips). This is an important attribute for someone with a bunch of kids around, and Kevin was still very tiny. Labs are also very cute when they are little puppies. Oh! If they could only stay that way!

Things started out OK between Sam and me. Labs are clearly very intelligent, so I figured: I'll just train him! I began trying early on (I vowed that he would be different from Tição!). I very quickly trained him to "Sit!", but success with more sophisticated dogly commands were elusive: like teaching him to crap in a specific place, or to go to his doghouse when I tell him.

The secret to controlling a dog, I had learned through intensive research into the subject, is to not allow the dog to think he is the leader of the pack. This is because, in the wild, dogs and their ilk (wolves for example) have a strong sense of hierarchy: every animal knows its place in the pack. If you let a dog walk over you, he will assume that he's the leader, and you will never get him to obey you.

That's a great fact of biology, and has a lot of scientific validity for wolves in the wild. However, this in itself is not sufficient. It fails to take into account some other important facts. The first is that, even when you have convinced the dog that you are the leader of the pack, he will still want to assert himself with the other family members; more specifically, the children. Kids have a tendency to want to play with the dog, and aren't generally disciplined enough to establish their place in the pecking order. The result is that the kids have no authority over the dog whatsoever. That may not be a problem with a Chihuahua, but a Lab is a big dog, and just playing around can unwittingly knock even an adult on his back.

The second major problem is that a dog raised with people thinks that it is a person! Therein lies my great bane, and my daily torture: this problem is of course exacerbated when the rest of the family insists on treating the damn dog like a person! Sam truly can't understand why he has different rules to live by: why he has to sleep outside, when everyone else can sleep inside. Why many times he has to be locked up when visitors are over (maybe it's because not everyone likes being knocked on their ass, licked, slobbered on, sniffed, and muddied!!!).

Rationally, I know that Sam is still just a kid. I also know that he just wants to be loved, and to be around us. I know I should be more patient with him; probably I would make more progress towards his obedience by being more patient. But Sam tempts my dark side; whenever he is near me, fury smolders just beneath the surface like magma from an ancient volcano ready to erupt. And don't think he doesn't know he is provoking me.

Over the months, a battle has raged between Sam and me, although we have settled into an uneasy truce. At the moment, Sam basically controls the yard beyond our veranda, and I control the veranda and the house. He respects me (and perhaps fears me) within my territory, but when I'm not around he is master of the domain.

I seem to be rather verbose today, so I’m going to split this blog entry. Tomorrow I will continue this tirade. Until then, I’ve posted some pictures from Sam’s “birthday party” here. (Don't expect lots of pictures of Sam ... I fear his "behaviour" sometimes precluded his active participation in the festivities!

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy 4th-o-July!!!

Happy 4th everybody!

Ahhh... how I miss it! The rocket's red glare, bombs bursting in air ... black-cats, roman candles, bottle-rocket wars! M-80s, cherry bombs! All that cool stuff!

Nothing symbolizes summer in the USA for me quite like Independence Day. Growing up in the midwest of the 1970's and 80's, it was always the high point of summer vacation; you knew that summer had officially arrived when the sprawling fireworks tents began springing up on the outskirts of town. Where else in the world do parents give a $50 bag of gunpowder and ordinance to their kids and say "go knock yourselves out!" ?.

Fourth of July (the American Independence Day) of course is not celebrated in Brazil, and could easily pass unnoticed by me if the name of the holiday didn't have the date in it. Brazil has it's own independence day, which falls on September 7th; unfortunately, fireworks are not part of the cultural tradition surrounding the separation of the Brazilian Empire from the Portuguese Empire.

Nothing reminds you more that you live in a foreign country than the holidays; holidays grow from culture and tradition, and although many are shared across international boundaries, the ways of celebrating them vary with each local culture. As Brazil is a very Christian country, Christmas and Easter, two of the "main" holidays, are pretty much the same thing as in the US, with some small differences: for example, Santa Claus, Christmas trees and decoration of houses with christmas lights (traditions mostly "imported" from American culture and media) are part of the Brazilian Christmas celebration. Of course, when it's a sweltering 40 deg. C (104 F.) outside, it's kind of hard to see Santa as plausible: you really feel sorry for the Santa-guys decked out in the shopping centers in mini-north pole dioramas complete with elves and tiny reindeer, getting their pictures taken with a steady stream of sweaty little kids.

Some other older traditions, however, have survived the cultural onslaught: in Brazil, kids leave their shoes beside the bed to receive their presents instead of hanging stockings by the fireplace (who has a fireplace in Brazil? Or stockings, for that matter?).

Strangely, Easter in Brazil shares with the US all of the Spring pagan fertility symbolism that are apparently part of the common European origins: rabbits, eggs, flowers; this, in spite of the fact that in Brazil, Easter marks the beginning of Autumn! Decoration of eggs is not part of the tradition, but the giving of chocolate Easter eggs drives a huge industry.

Halloween is another major holiday tradition in the USA that, over the last few years, has been gradually growing in stature in Brazil. It's in the process of being imported on a grass roots level, largely due to the fact that English courses in Brazil have often made Halloween parties part of their curriculum. Kids hitting the streets for "Trick-or-Treat" is not part of the Brazilian Halloween, but costume parties, complete with witches, ghosts, monsters (not to mention a few Bin Ladens and George Bush's!) have become common.

All of this, in spite of the fact that there is also a strong movement against Halloween by some nationalistic Brazilian groups that oppose further encroachment of American cultural traditions. Some of these groups claim only to be defenders of traditional brazilian culture and language, seeing the influx of foreign ways as threatening to overwhelm local traditions, while others see the massive invasion of American media and culture as a form of "cultural imperialism" that seeks to spread American political influence by promoting the American Way of Life globally.

While there is probably some truth to both claims, common sense currently seems to be the more prevalent attitude among most Brazilians: neither to deny foreign cultural influence, nor permit the extinction of local cultural traditions. Brazilians have a very strong national and cultural identity, and many aspects of Brazilian culture are known worldwide (Brazilian music, dance and Carnaval, for example). Other local traditions, such as the June Festival (Festa Junina), which is kind of a hillbilly fair with dance and food, are still as popular as ever. It's the closest thing to the Fourth of July celebration as we know it, although it doesn't involve much in the way of fireworks.

As popular as ever, I say, but of course, many Brazilians complain that the traditional holidays are no longer what they once were: they have become more commercial, less "amateur". In the past, the whole neighborhood would get together and organize a "block party"; this has become rare, as have the local neighborhood Carnaval celebrations. It's easy for some Brazilians to see these changes as the result of outside influence, but for me, it's just part of a global phenomenon. Not just excessive commercialization, but many other factors, not the least of which is heightened security concerns. Thirty years ago you wouldn't think twice about letting your kids roam free in a neighborhood block party; but in these troubled times, unless there's a wall around it and security checkpoint at the gate, there ain't gonna be no party.

So that brings me back to Fourth of July. It's been fifteen years since I've been in the USA on the 4th, and even back then the celebration had already changed much. Sure, you still have massive fireworks displays (we also have them in Brazil on New Years Eve!). And you still have summer picnics and celebrations... but what about the rest? I'm asking this sincerely, because I really don't know. How much has changed in fifteen years? Fireworks tents? Bottle-rockets? Firecrackers? Roman Candles? I don't think it can possibly be the same as it was when we were growing up.

I can't see me giving my kids bottle-rockets to play with, even if they are still legal in some areas. Sometimes I wonder what our parents were thinking of! How lucky were we that we got off with little more than an occasional powder burn and some ringing in the ears?

And yet, I can't help but look back with an ovewhelming sense of nostalgia and think: Man! Those were some good times! The Innocent Days! How lucky we were to have a pyromaniac for a father and a Mom that wasn't overly uptight about kids getting burned or burning down the house!

Anyway... hope you all have a safe and fun Fourth of July!