Friday, October 28, 2005

Honeymoon's Over!

Our glorious 36 hours of freedom came to an abrupt end on Monday morning (of last week), as the curtain of reality fell shut behind us, severing our material existence from the misty dreamlike recollections of our fantasy weekend. Was it real? Did we dream it? Within 48 hours of our return from Petropolis, the memories already seemed illusory and indistinct-- the intensity of daily routine had nearly drowned out the invigorating effects of our tranquil respite. Throughout most of last week, Petropolis seemed so distant, in fact, that it would have been far easier to write about the trials and tribulations of parenthood than dredge up the memories of our wonderful weekend.

Domestic life has been all-consuming, and I have been absent from blogging. Ahhh ... would that my absence were due to our having resolved to extend our stay in Petropolis indefinitely!

Alas, 'tis not to be! But give me another fifteen years until we can send Kevin off to college! Until then, I'm hanging out around here, so here's an update to fill in the lacuna between Petropolis and today.


Notwithstanding its name sounding like a setting straight from a Marvel superhero comic book, Petropolis is indeed an Imperial city, founded by imperial decree in 1843, by Emperor of Brazil Dom Pedro II (Petropolis = "pedro - polis" = "Pedro's - City"). It is located in the mountainous region of Atlantic rainforest that encircles Rio de Janeiro on nearly all sides, about 53 km from the capital, at an altitude of 809 m above sea level. Its altitude and forested terrain means that it has a cool and refreshing climate in the summer, and can get downright chilly in the winter.

When Petropolis was founded, Brazil was a young empire, having recently declared its independence from Portugal. Pedro II's father, Emperor Pedro I, had long dreamed of building his palace in the mountains outside of Rio, due to its pleasant climate. Within a few years of Pedro II's decree, contracted German settlers had carved a European-style village out of the mountainous jungle, complete with the massive chateau that was to be the Emperor's official residence and imperial seat during Rio's scalding and disease-prone summer months, which Brazil's mostly European-born nobility found so unpleasant.

Petropolis quickly grew into a prosperous city, as the Brazilian aristocracy and its rich merchants and peerage took up residence there. Its tree-lined avenues reveal mansion after mansion; the elite of European high society of the 19th-century would most assuredly have felt right at home on Petropolis' cobblestone streets. Petropolis continued as the summertime capitol of Brazil until 1889, when the Empire was overthrown and Brazil became a Republic. Dom Pedro II was forced into exile with the royal family after reigning for nearly 50 years. Petropolis' importance gradually waned; today Petropolis is a small city in its own right, but its principal importance still lies in its proximity to Rio de Janeiro, and its attraction as a pleasant escape from Rio's urban chaos and summer heat.

Cristina and I stayed in a charming bed and breakfast called the Monte Imperial located in a serene woodland setting, on a hilltop behind the Imperial Palace (which is now the Imperial Museum). The small inn is located in what was once the "Emperor's Wood", a large park that belonged to the royal family that has mostly been lotted out. The strange thing is that the Imperial Museum is now right in the middle of downtown Petropolis, but you would never know it from the locale in which the hotel is situated. It really feels like you are in the middle of a forest.

The highlight of our visit ... besides just relaxing, far from the demands of domestic affairs and children ... was the nighttime show of Sounds and Lights at the Imperial Museum, on Saturday night. It is a truly first-class production, with a sophisticated surround-sound system and light show coreography; shadow projections from the inside of the museum make it look like people are attending an Imperial ball during a dramatized video projection on curtains of water of the wedding ceremonies of Pedro II's two daughters (all pre-recorded ... not theatrical). The only unfortunate thing about the production is that it is presented exclusively in portuguese; if you are a non-portuguese speaking tourist you will have to bring your own simultaneous translator if you want to get much out of it.

On Sunday, we slept in (yes!!!), and awoke to the hotel's spectacular buffet-style breakfast, amply served with fruits, breads, cheeses, and cakes. We then strolled about Petropolis, taking in the ambience, the many stately manors and mansions, visited a nunnery and bought chocolates made by the sisters, and arrived at the city's cathedral just in time for mass. We then visited the Imperial Museum once again (by day); although we have been there before with the kids, we find that (for some reason!) we don't get as much out of it as when alone. It was nice to be able to stop long enough to read the descriptions of each exhibit!

We finished off our stay with a delicious lunch at a little bistro / tea house on the museum grounds before heading down the mountains and back into reality. Our arrival home was uneventful. We were pleased to find that Kevin took our absence in stride; although he was happy to see us, he had enjoyed his stay with his aunt and cousins, apparently barely even noting our disappearance.

I've posted some more pictures from our visit in the gallery, here. Also, there are a few more pictures from our visit to Petropolis last year with the kids, and Regina and Gustavo, here.

Last Week

This has been a particularly tiring couple of weeks, in part because Daylight Savings Time arrived last Sunday (Oct. 16). Resetting the kids' biological clocks (and our own!) has been exhausting, since it means trying to get the kids to bed an hour earlier and getting them up at what is the equivalent of 5 am (remember, we are in the Southern Hemisphere: it's spring, going on summer, which means spring forward!). During this week, Kevin came down with some kind of cold virus that made his mouth break out with canker sores. Unfortunately, during the first day or so we saw no visible signs to explain his frequent irritability ... his refusal to eat, and his difficulty sleeping at night. Only by Thursday did the source of his misery become apparent, so we could start treating it.

Last Wednesday night, my tennis lesson was rained out again. There was even another brief power outage to drive home the message that I am not meant to be playing tennis, as if the rain was not enough.

These were just some of several harbingers of the storm that seemed to threaten. The thunderheads continued building throughout the week, an ominous sense of foreboding stretching like overcast skies in all directions. The crescendo was to be on Thursday afternoon, the meeting scheduled to discuss our oldest child's difficulties with math, with his teacher and the school counseling staff.

As it happened, the tempest did not materialize, and in fact, the meeting had somewhat of an opposite effect: we were encouraged by the teacher and counselers, who basically convinced us that there is nothing abnormal about our fourth-grader's frustrations with math. They also assured us that he would be getting extra attention to prevent him from lagging behind. We came away with the sensation of a great burden lifted from our shoulders; granted, much of this burden may have been a product of our own imagination, but we also perceived how important it can be to maintain frank channels of communication open with the other caretakers responsible for our children's education. We had a strong feeling that we should have had this meeting a couple of months ago. Ah, well ....

Afterwards, Cristina and I went out for our traditional Thursday night pizza, and managed to recoup some of the light-heartedness of our Petropolis weekend. We also drove around some local neighborhoods to help give us ideas for painting our house.

Friday night, I met Sergio at the club to play tennis. We spoke in code over the phone to set up the time, so as not to invoke nature's malediction against my tennis playing by openly declaring our intentions. Christian also went along and knocked some balls around with Sergio's son Daniel. They seemed to hit it off well: they played for nearly two hours while we finished our game and then had a pizza.

Over the weekend, we took the kids to an exposition downtown of pre-Columbian art and artefacts (Aztec, Incan, Mayan, Nasca, etc.). Truly spectacular ... even the kids enjoyed it. We also took them for a ride on the subway, which they declared as their "favorite" part of the day. You'd never know that they have been raised in the suburbs of one of the worlds major urban metropolises ... they are our own veritable urban hillbillys!

This Week

So I had played tennis on Friday... and it hadn't rained. In my hubris, I saw fit to declare openly that the tennis curse had been broken.

Monday morning arrived, and I awoke to the perception that Nature had adopted a new, more personal tactic. I knew something was wrong as I awoke to an uncomfortable itching sensation in my nose, and realized that I barely had the energy to get out of bed. Throughout the day, my condition worsened, and it became clear that some kind of nasty cold virus had penetrated my immune system's defenses. It felt like my muscles were whithering away ... like superman on a kryptonite trip. However, my tennis lesson was only on Wednesday... surely I would be better by than, wouldn't I?

Throughout most of Monday morning we accompanied with apprehension the advance of hurricane Wilma, which chose with astonishing precision a path that took it straight from Cancun and over my brother-in-law and Cristina's sister -- Gustavo and Regina's -- house in Weston, Florida (just west of Fort Lauderdale). By a bizarre quirk of fate, Cristina's parents were there visiting. Gustavo and Regina hadn't seemed very concerned; they have lived in Florida long enough to acquire a certain immunity to hurricane fear. While we had the utmost confidence in their "hurricane-proof" house, shuttered and stocked with water and other necessities, we were somewhat concerned about Cristina's mother, Clea, who has an irrational phobia of even normal thunderstorms. We were relieved to receive word on Monday evening that they had all weathered Wilma's wrath unscathed. They were even among south Florida's lucky few whose power was returned later that very night.

Clea had ridden out the storm like a trooper, although I strongly suspect she resorted to medically prescribed soporifics to help anesthesize herself when the roaring winds started getting loud! It's funny how sometimes events like this can seem more dramatic for those of us far away than even for those who are in the midst of it. Of course, I am sure that our perception had nothing to do with the live Fox News coverage we were watching of a bunch of idiots standing out in the open in windbreakers while getting buffeted around by hurricane force gusts. How much do you suppose they pay these guys to do that?


Throughout Tuesday and most of Wednesday, my physical state improved little. But by Wednesday evening, I began to feel like I was recuperating. My energy was returning, and I no longer had that dizzy sensation. By later that evening, I was pretty sure I could defy the dark forces which sought to thwart my tennis activities, and attend my lesson. So, after popping a couple of Advils, I headed to the club for tennis.

The lesson went well ... I still sucked, but since I was a bit under the weather, my performance was more excusable. I arrived home feeling exhilarated, and proud of myself for not giving in to my virally-induced lethargy.

That night, however, my sleep was fitful. I awoke to chills and a throbbing headache, and the realization that I may have committed a grave error. I didn't need a thermometer to conclude that I was running a temperature. My state deteriotated throughout the day; my headache continued, and my nose ran, with a thick yellow and greenish ... ok, I will spare the details!

By noon I realized I needed to see a doctor. I set up an appointment for 4:15 and tried to get some rest. I was interrupted by the mailman, who required my signature for a registered letter ... a letter from the Receita Federal , which is the Brazilian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. The letter was a notification that I am being audited for the 2001 tax year. They gave me a deadline of five days to present receipts and the other documentation they are requesting. So you can imagine what that news did to my headache!

At 4:15 I left the boxes I was digging through in the garage looking for my old receipts, and went to the doctor's office. I can still see him shaking his head with a disgusted look on his face, after I explained to him what had happened:

"You were almost well! Then you went and played tennis? What were you thinking?!?"

I didn't bother to tell him about my tennis curse because he probably would just think I was crazy; and even if he didn't, I'm sure he wouldn't have a cure. He sent me to get an x-ray of my sinuses, and then promptly declared his diagnosis: sinusitis, a sinus infection. He prescribed a small fortune in antibiotics and other medications, and sent me on my way.


So that about brings us up to date: two weeks of blog posting in one rambling post.

Today Cristina took the kids downtown to buy halloween costumes. No ... Halloween isn't really traditionally celebrated in Brazil, although it has become more and more popular year after year, mostly due to its propagation through english courses and American movies and television programs. There is no trick or treating; just partying in costume, and Brazilian's are known to love any excuse for partying. Even so, there is an active campaign by several nationalistic Brazilian groups against Halloween, which see it as another example of American cultural imperialism.

Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. But James and Christian love Halloween, and they have a party at a friends house to go to tomorrow.

I think I've rambled enough for tonight.

Time for bed ... I've got convalescing to do!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Conversation

Overheard in the car, driving to Petropolis

Him: "Wow. I can't believe we are finally getting away!"

Her: "Yeah! It's been so long! Do you think the kids will be all right?"

Him: "Oh, I'm sure they will. Do you realize how long it's been since we've gone anywhere together? Just the two of us?"

Her: "We went to Casa Shopping just a couple of weeks ago to pick out ceramic for the floors..."

Him: "No! I mean since we've gone somewhere for the night! No kids ... no noise ... nobody to keep us up until midnight then wake us up at the crack of dawn! No obligations! No one to entertain!"

Her: "Oh, yeah! It has been a really long time... when was the last time, anyway? I'm sure it was before Kevin was born ...."

Him: "Yeah it was before Kevin was born! It was ... umm..." (thinking) "It was ... "

Her: "I think ... ummm... let's see ... ummm ???"

(silence. look of consternation crosses his face.)

Him: "Actually ...

(pause for dramatic effect)

Him: "Actually ... It was before James was born."

Her: "Huh? No way!!!"

Him: "Yes way! I know... it's hard to believe! It was in July of 1995 ... over ten years ago! You were 7 months pregnant with James!"

Her: "Oh yeah, I remember! We went to Visconde de Maua!"

Him: "Yes! That's it!"

Her: "Are you sure that was the last time?! That can't be ... surely ... we must have ..."

Him: "No ... that was it. Never again."

Her: "But ... but why??? How could we be so complacent??? Ten years???"


Him: "Well... first James was a little baby. Then Christian was born when James was only 18 months old. So for the first few years we had our hands full."

Her: "That's true..."

Him: "And Christian wasn't exactly a piece of cake. Remember those late nights! Remember the crying."

Her: "Yeah..."

Him: "Then later ... he was a little wildcat. If you took an eye off him for one second he would be into something."

Her: "Yes, but ... there must be some mistake! Christian was six when Kevin was born! Why wouldn't we do something before that!!!"

Him: "Ah, but how soon we forget! Remember ... it hasn't always been smooth sailing. There was a time in which we could barely turn our backs without them trying to tear each others hair out ... and that went right up to about the time Kevin was born."

Her: (in a subdued tone of voice) "Yes. You're right."

Him: "Oh, and also ..."

Her: "Enough already!!! I get it. There's always been something."

Him: "So that's it. It's been 10 years."

Her: "Ten years."

(extended period of silence)

Her: "It's almost as if this were ... our first date..."

(awkward silence)

Him: (clearing throat) "So! Do you think the kids miss us yet?"

Saturday, October 15, 2005


I don't have time for a decent blog post, so here goes a brief update of the more significant events of the last few days. I just keep getting behind ... I've got several planned posts and a bunch of pictures, but can't seem to get caught up.

Oh, and ... Happy Birthday Kim (yesterday!). Actually I mentioned this in the last post's comments, late last night ... but now it's officially blogged!


Since my last post was about tennis, it seems fitting to start out with an update on my progress.

In short, there has been no progress. But it's not my fault. Really.

This Wednesday's class was cancelled because it was a holiday in Brazil. Children's day. That's right ... as if every day weren't enough, Brazil has created a day specifically for spoiling your kids. Children's day is one of the big three kids' day's in Brazil, along with Christmas and their birthday, complete with presents and no school.

So anyway, that was the reason that I had no tennis class on Wednesday. Still, so as not to pass the whole week without at least hitting the courts once, Sergio and I planned to get together Friday evening (last night) at the club.

I think God or some other supernatural force doesn't want me to play tennis.

This is a long story, and I'm sure I could draw it out into an interesting blog entry, but I'm kind of in a hurry, so I'll just restrict this account to the basic facts.

Yesterday was stifling hot. I mean, really hot ... scorching, sweltering, torrid, searing, sizzling, blistering, boiling, and several-other-adjectives-from-the-thesaurus hot. At approximately 5 pm yesterday, about the time I was waiting for Sergio to call me to meet him at the club, a heat-related blackout knocked out power to all of Ilha do Governador (the island I live on), and much of the surrounding region. Cristina had just left to pick up James and Christian from their catechism class, and Kevin was at home with me.

Sergio called me from the club within minutes of the start of the power outage. What ensued was a series of events so complex that it would be impossible to effectively describe them in a few paragraphs. To simplify it, I'll just say that, basically, I couldn't leave home because my heavy steel swinging garage doors can't easily be opened without power. (Of course, they can be opened; but it would mean removing bolts and more effort than I thought it was worth at the time.)

So I was waiting for Cristina to return with the boys; but their class was delayed, and by the time Cristina arrived it was after 6 pm. Realizing that her staying to bake at home with the kids without power, fans, or air conditioning was not going to be fun, we decided to load up the whole gang and head to the club. Before we even left home, however, the power had returned.

It turns out that, in this interval, just about everyone who lives on Ilha had decided the same thing. By the time we arrived, there were no courts available until 8:30 pm. I signed up for a court reservation, and we went to the park for the kids to run free a little.

Just before 8:30, Sergio and I approached the court and were informed that our reservation had been delayed due to court maintenance. While we were waiting, wind started picking up and distant flashes of lightning threatened ominously. Then, in a span of time that was literally less than five minutes-- just as we were to take the court-- the light gusting wind grew to a gale, the "distant" lightning enveloped us, and heavy drops of rain began falling all about. Power again was knocked out. In a hail of leaves, branches, and other flying objects, we fled the tempest, running to the car, avoiding as much as possible passing beneath the huge trees that loom over most of the club. The gusts literally knocked us from side to side. With the exception of Kevin, the kids loved it, thinking it was all great fun and adventurous. Kevin was somewhat alarmed: he kept saying, "just like Mickey!", referring to an episode of his Mickey Mouse DVD in which Mickey Mouse is chased by a bunch of tornadoes. The exodus was reminiscent of scenes from TV coverage of Hurricane Rita: lines of cars trying to escape the storm, navigating downed limbs, fallen signs, no traffic lights.

Anyway, I'm quite sure this account hasn't done justice to the irony of the situation. I'm just amazed at the lengths to which nature will go to prevent me from playing tennis!

Time's Up

Time's up for my update; I'm going to have to cut this short. I meant to mention my birthday on Thursday (just mentioned it!), the progress on the house construction, and other facts from the week.

But I took too long. The kids are up, and it's time to go. Today, Cristina and I plan to spend the night in Petropolis, a small mountain town about an hour from Rio. This was Cristina's birthday present for me ... or, more appropriately, it's my sister-in-law Ana's present, since she has "volunteered" to take care of the kids this weekend! (All three of them!!!)

So, within minutes, we will be taking the kids to her house, and we will be leaving for Petropolis. This is a historic event, and will be the first time that Kevin has spent the night without one or the other of us!

Hope everyone has a great weekend! I think I will....


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Teaching an old dog ...

Last Wednesday night I had my first tennis lesson.

But before I say anything about the lesson, let me go back and provide a little background:

Tennis and I have a long and somewhat troubled history. I used to play it ... way back when... (ahem) ... when I was younger, (although I never took formal lessons). I got by ok, and I basically liked playing tennis, although I was never either a very avid player nor exceptionally skilled. Truth is, I never really took tennis very seriously: as a teenager, my idea of a "sport" was playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I only really started getting into tennis about the time I started college. By the time I was starting to get any good at all, circumstances were conspiring to make playing tennis a less than pleasurable activity. This is a long story, from before I came to Brazil, that I won't go into (most of my family will know what I am talking about anyway); suffice it to say that it has to do with an old high school friend and tennis partner who never grew up, and whose annoying enthusiasm for tennis turned the sport into an agonizing obligation for me rather than the recreational pastime that it could have been. (I refer you to the first season episode #4 of Seinfeld -- entitled "Male Unbonding" -- for a good example of what my predicament was like ....)

Nearly 15 years have passed; for this reason and many others, until last year I almost never again played tennis-- in spite of the fact that, for the last few years, I have been member of a club that has tennis courts, and have a nephew (Bruno) who plays tennis... and who actually takes lessons.

Then, last year, circumstances suggested an opportunity to return to the game. The first was my doctor, who didn't specifically suggest tennis, but did recommend that, as I encroached on my second score of years in age, an aerobic activity would be a wise move for health reasons. Of course I didn't really need the doctor to tell me this: the diagnosis had been tangibly manifesting itself through an unmistakable burgeoning of my waistline over the last few years.

The second circumstance was that my brother-in-law Gustavo and his wife Regina (Cristina's sister) had temporarily moved back to Brazil. Gustavo had been taking tennis lessons in the US, and was interested in playing here in Brazil, if he had someone to play with. Our nephew Bruno was a natural candidate; but I also saw it as my chance to get in some much needed physical activity and maybe have some fun too.

So the three of us got together and played a few times... not as often as we wanted, but it was a start. I began to feel enthusiastic about the idea: physical activity, besides being a salubrious undertaking, can be mentally therapeutic, and I was passing through a moment in life in which I felt like I needed the distraction as well as the exercise. (I still do, for that matter!). I bought a racket. Bruno gave me the telephone number of his tennis instructor, and all I had to do was call him and agree on a day and time to start taking my lessons.

My enthusiasm was to be short lived, however; Gustavo and Regina decided to move back to the US. Having lost my potential partner, I procrastinated calling the tennis instructor until my fervor had cooled almost completely.

"I still want to play tennis ... " I would tell myself, "but there's no use in starting now because I have to <fill in the blank> first. As soon as <fill in the blank> is done, I'll give the instructor a call."

Another year passed by, and I was still putting off calling the tennis instructor when Gustavo and Regina came back to Rio for a visit in July. Just before they left to return to the states (actually, on the very day of their return flight), we got together for an impromptu match, this time joined by Sergio, my sister-in-law Ana's boyfriend, who is an avid tennis player. The picture shown above, of me in action, and the one below, of the four of us, were from this outing. I post these pictures mostly for the benefit of my brother-in-law Celinho, who was somewhat dubious of my claims that I still know how to play tennis after 15 years!

This event managed to reignite my interest: Bruno had recently stopped taking lessons, and was thinking about restarting if he had someone to split the cost of the instructor with him. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a day and time in which the three of us -- the intructor, Bruno, and myself -- were all available for the class.

Then the Fates intervened: Sergio, who also takes tennis lessons at the same club, asked me if I wanted to take a class together with him, since his current tennis partner had injured his knee in a freak rock climbing accident. This was apparently the only way to get my lethargic butt onto the tennis courts: an act of God (along with someone else taking the iniciative!)

So that's the current state of affairs ... as long as Sergio's partner can't play (at least another month), I'm playing tennis on Wednesday nights. Hopefully I will make the leap and maintain the momentum after Sergio's partner returns to play ....


But first, I will have to learn to play. Here's what I found out last Wednesday:

I suck.

Well ... I guess that's a crude way of saying that, although I know how to play tennis (i.e. I understand the rules), and I can play the game (i.e. I hit the ball back and forth over the net), my technique is all wrong: my grip is all wrong; my backhand is all wrong; My serve is all wrong.

I have to admit: I started out thinking that tennis lessons would be a piece of cake. I would augment my serve, I imagined. Polish my backhand. What I really needed, I always thought, was lots of practice. And, in the worst case scenario, I figured, I just wouldn't get any better; if perchance I found out that I really don't have a natural bent towards tennis.

What I didn't count on was that, in the first fifteen minutes of my first lesson, I would be reduced to an inept rookie, who could barely keep the ball in the court! To be sure, all I had to do was shift to my original, albeit wrong grip, and I wouldn't look like such a fool. But the instructor would quickly call me out, as would Sergio.

It's one thing to learn something new that you have never done before; quite another to break a bad habit you've spent years developing. I felt like a child trying to learn how to walk: it looks easy enough, but it's soooo awkward; I mean, crawling has gotten me where I need to go all this time... so why should I bother to blunder around on just two legs??? What's the point?

My instructor will have her work cut out for her: the main thing that I've got going for me is the fact that I've not played for a long time.

It actually reminds me of learning to snow ski as a teenager, although it wasn't exactly the same situation. It was at Keystone Colorado, with my cousin Greg and my brothers and sister. When we arrived on the slopes for the first time, Greg and I were really hyped up. Before taking the lessons, while the others were still moving about unsteadily, and falling down constantly, Greg and I were flying down those bunny slopes and having a great time. Of course we had no control over our descent: but since the bunny slopes had no curves and levelled off steadily at the bottom, there wasn't much challenge to it. We were riding high, thinking we were pretty cool.

Then came the lessons: "snow plow ... snow plow ... put your feet together and do a snow plow to control your skis."

"What the heck is a snow plow"? I just didn't get it. Neither did Greg. The subtlety of applying gentle pressure to the ski opposite the direction you wished to turn just wasn't natural... and it seemed beyond our capacity to grasp. After a few hours, we were utterly exhausted, no closer to curbing the stubborn will of our own legs than when we had started. Meanwhile, the younger kids were running circles around us, holding their skis in exagerratedly "v-shaped" little snow plows.

We eventually did "get it". And I guess that's my point, if it can be said that I have one.

I'm not really pessimistic about learning to play tennis now that I know it won't be as effortless as I thought it would; I'm trying to look at it from the positive point of view: actually, it signifies that there is a potential for radically improving my game. Or not. Time will tell.

But it's interesting to note that, sometimes, unlearning something -- letting go of something we already think we know, but that may be wrong -- can be far more difficult than just learning something new. To get someone to open their mind, you may have to empty it first.

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. I say the bigger problem is getting him to unlearn the old ones.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

I'm such an idiot ...

Here's a little story to help everyone else feel better about their weekend!

(I know it's Tuesday, but I started writing this yesterday!)


It's Sunday afternoon; we are at a birthday party for a little girl from Kevin's class. The party is being held at one of Ilha's more popular "party places" -- a rented location that caters specifically to the trend that has become part of Brazilian middle-class child-rearing culture: the practice of holding elaborate and expensive parties to celebrate your kid's birthday, even when he or she is too young to really understand what's going on. The parties are, in reality, social events, with invitations usually extended to all of the child's classmates, as well as their families. Food and draft beer (for the adults!) is served, while the recreational staff of the party facility try and keep the kids entertained with activities, music, snacks, and a variety of playground toys, a video arcade, and the like. The closest parallel I can think of to compare it with would be maybe having a wedding reception at an amusement park. It is, however, an informal environment and a good chance to get to know your child's classmates and their parents, and often close-knit groups of friends are formed. Considering a class with around 25 students, it's not uncommon to have an average of 1 or 2 parties per month to go to.

This is Kevin's first party... and the first of what will be a new cycle of party after party; James & Christian have progressed to the next stage in festivities, where the parents are generally no longer invited. This party place ... called "Yabba-dabba-doo" ... is one we know well, having attended countless events there. We also held Christian's 4th birthday there, if I remember rightly.

So here we are at the party. A light rain is falling outside. Most of the place is covered, either by roof or canvas, except one part in the middle, where several larger trees rise up through an open central courtyard. Two of the trees are surrounded by suspended platforms about 10 feet off the ground-- kind of like large treehouses, but not covered. Between the two platforms is a suspended catwalk that sways in the breeze, surrounded by netting so that it's impossible to fall.
Someone has leaned a couple of chairs in front of the steep wooden stairway -- almost a ladder -- that leads up to the first platform, in what they must have hoped would be interpreted as a clear signal that the tree houses are off-limits, because of the drizzling rain that's been falling off and on throughout the day. The stairs, especially, are very slick and look rather perilous. The kids, of course, are somewhat disappointed, since the tree platforms are one of the highlights of the party place. Beer in hand, I take up a post near the stairs, where I gently but firmly steer away the kids who don't seem to capture the message that the chair-leaner was trying to impart.

Cristina and I have fallen into a pleasant conversation with a couple whose acquaintance we have just made. We chat about nothing in particular ... mostly school ... kids ... whatever. As we talk, each of us tries to keep tabs on the whereabouts of our respective two-year old. Kevin is keeping himself occupied in a playhouse right beside us. This couple's son ... a classmate of Kevin ... is Kevin's age, but of slightly more diminuitive stature, dark haired, neatly dressed in blue jeans and a sweater. He mostly roams around our perimeter, occasionally returning to the security of his Mom or Dad's pantleg. Christian is off playing video games in the arcade. James hovers around us, too old to act like he's having fun, but too young for idle conversation with the adults. Like me, he entertains himself by sampling every snack or hors-d'ouvre that passes in front of him.

Our conversation is distracting; between Cristina and I and the other couple, there are eight eyes to watch both toddlers. None of us, however, notice that the chair-levee has been breeched, and a steady flood of children is inundating the stairs. In a very short time, the flood has already risen to the platform level.

By the time I take notice, Kevin is half-way up the stairs. The other couple's child is already on the first platform. I sigh deeply, and, resigned that it is too late to stop the flood, head up the stairs to take Kevin's hand and lead him safely to the platform. At the moment, it is not raining, but the wood planks are still slick.

Kevin is delighted at his view from above. Securely surrounded by netting on all sides, there seems to be nothing to fear. Only the stairway leading back down at a vertiginous angle warrants my concern, so I again take up a position... this time at the top, so I can watch and aid the children climbing up and down the stairs.

Kevin wants to cross the hanging catwalk, but by now there are nearly half-a-dozen older kids -- most ranging from age 3 to 7 -- running back and forth between the platforms, occasionally jumping up and down to rock the bridge. He eyes it hesitantly, apparently waiting for a calmer moment to risk the crossing.

His big brother James comes to the rescue; having dutifully followed us up the stairs, he takes Kevin's hand protectively and guides his tenuous steps over the slick footbridge.

Smiling paternally, I take another sip of my beer just as I feel a tug on my pantleg. Looking down, I see the upturned face of the conversation couple's son. He extends his arms trustingly with a plaintive look on his face: "want to go there!" he says (in portuguese!), indicating the bridge with a turn of his head.

I glance around me. I'm the only adult on the platform. Down below, the boy's parents look up at us with smiling faces. Along with them, a small group of parents has formed, each watching their own kids from below. With a shrug, instinct takes over, and I take the dark-haired boy into my arms, pausing only to shift my beer into my left hand. Although he really doesn't even know me (other than having seen me talking to his parents), he trusts me implicitly: I am an adult, and adults mean security.

The crossing of the catwalk is uneventful, in spite of the fact that my hands are full (with a kid in one arm and a beer in the other), making it impossible to hold on to the railing. Although the bridge is slick, I cross it quickly and confidently, and place him on the relatively firmer ground of the second platform. Kevin is also there, running in circles under James' watchful eye and thoroughly enjoying himself.

After a brief stay at the second platform, in which I act mostly as a traffic guard to keep the younger kids from being mowed down by the older ones, I once again get the tug. The little boy extends his arms to me, in demonstration of his wish to make the return crossing, and I take him into my arms. James again takes Kevin's hand and carefully leads him back across the catwalk.

I step out onto the swinging footbridge and it rocks slightly beneath my feet. Several larger kids sweep past me, jumping and bouncing and nearly upsetting my balance. As the path lurches, I carefully adjust my beer to avoid spilling it, and accelerate the crossing. I am vaguely aware of the small crowd watching us from below, and I don't want to risk showering them with beer.


If you have read to this point without sensing the potential for an impending disaster, then ... well... you must be as clueless as me! You have no business being a caretaker for small children so stay away from mine!


So then, just as I reach the end of the crossing, at the point where the last few feet of span slopes up to meet the platform, another heave sways the bridge, and I stagger slightly. My sandaled-foot finds no purchase on the inclined slippery surface, and I careen forward dramatically.

"What the ..."

Suddenly the dreaded treadmill effect kicks in, and I find myself running in place on the upwardly ramped walkway. I feel like the Roadrunner, legs spinning in place before launching forward... but traction does not come.

"Oh, sh--!!!"

My hands are still full and I can't catch the handrail; although there is no time to think, I know I have but three choices:

a) drop my beer ... and bathe the people below, possibly even injuring someone if my glass happens to hit them.

b) drop the boy (not a very viable option!)

c) fall on my face; which of course probably means spilling my beer and dropping the boy.

Of course, this entire event takes place in milliseconds, so there is no time for a conscious choice: I therefore default to item (c).

Trying my best to control my fall, I raise the glass of beer over my head and twist violently to one side to avoid crushing the boy. I drive my right knee into the edge of the platform, and pivot forward, slamming my elbow hard to the wood floor in front of me in order to deflect my weight and avoid smashing the boy's legs beneath me. I manage to hold onto my glass, but my beer showers up and over me, drenching my hair and shoulders.

In the gallery below, the spectators, including Cristina and the boy's parents, release a collective gasp of horror.

As I come to rest, part of my weight still pins the boy's legs to the ground, although not hard enough to injure him (I hope). Stunned and probably feeling betrayed, he stares at me with a shocked look before breaking into a long, sobbing wail.

Somewhat in shock myself, I quickly roll him out from under me and surge to my feet on the platform. The boy's father sprints up the stairs and, practically before I am upright, rips his son from my incompetent grasp. I stagger to a standing position, blood flowing profusely from my gashed knee.

Other adults are quickly climbing the steps to retrieve their own children. Of course, they have finally woken up to the fact that it may be dangerous to let your kids play on a slick suspended catwalk! My feeling at the moment, however, is that they all must be thinking, "Let me get my kids away from this clumsy lunatic!"

Among those adults racing to the top of the platform is an extremely concerned staff member. She wants to know who removed the barrier and why we allowed the kids onto the off-limits tree-house. As the only adult involved, she seems to be implying that I am responsible for the confusion. Well ... I am responsible for the confusion. But only marginally responsible for having let the kids climb the stairs in the first place.

Back on the ground, things calm down quickly. The staff member hastily prepares a more effective barrier, adding rope to the chairs to make the passage more difficult. I apologize awkwardly to the couple, who are still trying to comfort their traumatized child, still crying despite having sustained no apparent injury. They in turn "thank" me for the attention I gave their son... my intentions were, after all, only the best.

I'm reminded of that old saying: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions".

After being alerted by six or seven different people that my leg is dripping blood, I finally go to the bathroom to "medicate" myself, with a splash of water and some paper towels. No major structural damage. My elbow is throbbing, however.

The rest of the party passes slowly. The couple seems to avoid me, and I self-consciously avoid them. I do note that, after awhile, their son is running around normally again. It comes as something of a relief when "Happy Birthday" is sung, symbolically indicating that the end of the party has arrived.


So what is the moral of this story? I think their are a number of lessons that can be learned. In all seriousness, I keep thinking that it could have been the little boy bleeding instead of me. It could have been a lot worse, and that is very distressing to me.

The message I hope to have imparted to you with this story is this:

If you are ever drinking beer on a suspended walkway in the rain, and it's really slick; and if you deign to pick up a total stranger's kid ... then