Online Dating: responding to emails

A few months ago, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece containing advice for women writing profiles for online dating sites, notably It was meant to be humorous and helpful, particularly about the use of photos, and – thankfully! – if it has offended anyone, they haven’t let me have it with both barrels! (That may be also due to this blog being by invitation or serendipity, i.e. I make no effort to publicize it.)

I have read hundreds of profiles by women. My appetite – and stamina! – for doing so may, in part, be attributed to being accustomed to reading a different kind of profile in my professional life: resumes and CVs. Almost unconsciously, my “eye” is trained to evaluate, assess, and draw conclusions, based on the information at hand about the individuals represented. Call it an occupational hazard combined with the curiosity about people (and what makes them “tick”) that led me to both majoring in psychology and falling into my profession….which leads me to the topic of this posting and human behavior.

The one thing that baffles me the most is the non-response rate when I (finally) read a profile that is of interest. I don’t mean “non-response” as in the interest not being mutual. I mean “non-response” as in someone not even taking the 2 seconds to click the “no thanks” button Match provides for sending an auto-reply.

I am bothered by this for several reasons. On a general level, I see it as a lack of courtesy towards someone who has taken their time to write, which is flattering, i.e. a stranger found something about you attractive and interesting. Thus, it’s rude (to me) NOT hitting that button or, better, penning a short “thank you, no thank you” when someone writes. I always try to write something: it’s kind and considerate. On a personal level, my emails to profiles are thoughtful and show I READ the profile and see points of connectivity (or else I wouldn’t be writing…duh!). It’s perfectly fine that they disagree or don’t find my profile to be interesting or me “attractive”: one only needs to be accepted by the right person.

My question, dear reader, if you are a woman and have done online dating, is: “Do you think I am being too ‘sensitive’ on this issue?”

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Online Dating Profile “Dos and Don’ts” for Women

Many – myself included – have used online dating services to fill what Margaret Mead called one of the most basic of human needs, to have: “…someone to wonder where you are when you don’t come home at night…”. (No, she didn’t mean your probation officer!)

Everyone deserves a chance to find that person who completes their sentences, stirs their pot in the kitchen (and bedroom!), and thinks her collecting barbed-wire (really: there is a museum dedicated to barbed-wire….)  and him loving bisque dolls is just fine…though  pretty kinky displayed together in the  same cabinet!  (For the record, I collect(ed) fountain pens, hip flasks and single malt whiskeys, mechanical watches,  stones from places visited, and stories about stupid criminals.  Nothing eyebrow-raising…)    To each their own, and each of us deserves the best chance possible to find the right cell-mate for that special asylum of two that is a marriage or a long-term relationship.

Ever wonder what men think when they read an online dating profile?

It’s been cringingly painful – NOT entertaining – to see how so many of these profiles, particularly when it comes to the use of photos, do a disservice to the women posting them.  This happens because they are not thinking about the way the average man will react, no matter how “evolved” he is (or thinks he is).  Reams of research show men to be “wired” to be more visual and women’s online profile photos should reflect that awareness when making choices about what they show (or hide).

Below are some examples and my observations.  Since there is a focus on what to avoid, please do not castigate me for “cruelty” or “insensitivity” in my use of photos from real ads. First, they are in public view already – and downloadable, which should serve as warning about what photos you want strangers to not just see but “keep” – and, secondly, there is no better way to illustrate the issues.  However, if one of the photos happens to be from your profile, just email me about which one and I will substitute another.  (Sadly, there are so many…) My comments are meant to be humorous, not mean-spirited, so I apologize in advance if they miss the mark with you.   (And if it does, it means we are not a “match”!)  So.

If men had their choice, the women’s photos in an online profile would mirror the requirements of The Miss America Pageant.  Plus one.  Every woman’s posting would be required to have:

a) a swimsuit photo
b) an evening-gown photo
c) a well-lit head-shot
d) an activity photo.
e) a photo showing all the pets in the household

“A” through “D” are obvious.  “E” is to prevent the surprise of a large and/or exotic menagerie.   As you will see, this set of rules would save many from making egregious choices!  (Aside: there is a wonderful scene in the early Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper where he is suffering a mental breakdown and thinks that he’s competing for – and is crowned! – Miss America. It’s hilarious and priceless, complete with the vapid answers to the inane questions that contestants are asked!)

I am certain that men’s profiles can be as ridiculous, if not more so.  In fact, I count on that being true because it just might make mine a little more normal!  And yes, I didn’t practice what I preach here about my photo selection.  That’s because I am a man.  (Another aside: there is a hilarious Canadian comedy show called “The Red and Green Show” where the members of the men’s lodge have a Man’s Prayer that goes: “I’m a man. (pause)   But I can change. (long pause)   If I have to.  (longest pause)   I guess.“)

By the same token, and to pre-empt charges of “sexism” on my part, I also propose that male profiles would have to have the following:

a) a shirtless profile-shot wearing pants and belt (to show any belly overhang);
b) a photo in a tuxedo (black or white tie)
c) three mug-shot style photos: clean-shaven, 2-3 day stubble, and with beard and/or mustache
d) wearing a clown-costume and make-up (clown-shoes the only optional out) to make amends for the woman’s swim-suit photo

Optional photo: police booking-shot with the height scale IF the women’s includes one on a scale. (Studies show men lie about height and women about weight…)

Satisfied?  (Sorry, this is a G-rated blog by choice, so I won’t add the other requirement  you are thinking.)

Moving on…

A photo should NOT scare a viewer – male or female – into having concerns about either your mental state OR their safety. I thought that this would be obvious, but seeing the photo below made it clear that if noting the obvious helps just ONE person, it was worth doing: 

Likewise, a photo with a WAX likeness of Woody “I-don’t-know-the-boundaries” Allen makes the Creepy-Factor needle jump into the red zone…. It’s also completely distracting and takes the viewer’s mind to places that have nothing to do with her.  Besides, he (it?) looks like he’s doing his best to avoid having anything to do with her!  (And if even Woody Allen is slinking away, would a normal guy stay??)

Avoid group shots. At best, it’s distracting, especially trying to hunt a new face among several.  I still have NO idea, despite several other photos, about which one was the ad-placer in the group photo below:

At worse, it makes him think he could do better:

Or both at the same time :

…..unless you are calculating and cunning enough to make sure you are the most attractive woman in the group shot.  And if you did – and are THAT cunning! – would you really want him to find that out about you THIS early?  (And yes,  for most men, ONE of these women below is decidedly cuter than the others.)

Avoid photos with a hand over the shoulder, around the waist, or – especially! – a partial male face….but missing their owner. (This one below commits two of the those three sins PLUS the bonus one of not knowing her dress size…)   

However, if you like a particular photo of yourself THAT much, then get Photoshop, learn to use Photoshop, and make the cropping look professional ….. which also applies to both photos.

Here it is, bluntly: to the average male viewing profiles, a photo that adds NO information about body-shape, size, and/or facial features is not going to be of real interest.  Not photos of your kids – I personally believe one should NOT be posting photos that have their children in them – not your pets, not your parents (!).  Really.  Photos in exotic locales are fine as long as you are in them AND the shots provide the information listed above, i.e. no large-brimmed hats and sunglasses, and you are not the size of an ant.

This particular one goes out of the way to be unhelpful towards that goal:

It also suggests that she won’t be a good pole-dancer, as her sense of balance is questionable.  (Not quite sure what is being demonstrated, but one hopes she has a good chiropractor….)

Skip vampy, “peek-a-boo” or any photo deliberately trying to be sexy. Unless you are a trained model or actress.  Remember that men don’t need much to think about sex early and often, so you are throwing oil on the fire with poses like that.  (A great motto to keep in mind,  for this and for many other life-situations is :  Under-promise and OVER-DELIVER!!)

By the way, the last person to pull off “peek-a-boo” with success was Veronica Lake (“Who?”)   Besides, do you REALLY want sex to be the focus of his thoughts when you just spent dozens of words on all the wholesome activities – not that sex isn’t wholesome, if it’s done wrong – for which you want to be loved, first?  (And could there at least be a smile, to show that you would actually enjoy the act(s) seemingly being suggested?)

Watch out for inappropriate photo props. A pool table is to be used for …. well, playing pool!   Its use for other purposes is ingrained in the public imagination thanks to depictions in movies and horrific accounts in news stories.  Either way, the associations are not, shall we way …..  “classy”.  So, better know what you are suggesting (and saying about yourself – hint: rhymes with “stamp” ).

About pets. Photos of the dog or cat propped on cushions and – worse! – in bed with you are NOT a turn-on for 99% of men.  And you don’t want the other 1%!  Men aren’t looking at photos to admire your dog’s “cuteness” factor.  ONE photo is sufficient, preferably without any props and with “Scout” or “Old Yeller” doing something active or, at least, normal.  (If you don’t get why just one photo, how many photos of a guy and his truck/car/motorcycle/boat or 2nd-second favorite tool would it take to turn YOU off?  Also, notice the names I picked for the example, both are names the future love-of-your-life can roll off his tongue without embarrassment,  unlike: “Pookie”, “Polly”, or “Patty”.  (Now, if your dog’s name is “Palin” or “Bachmann”, I would award extra-points, simply for being able to answer: “Palin/Bachmann is spayed”, if asked.)

Try NOT to combine a photo of yourself AND your dog (or cat) in an other-than-normal pose.   Especially when the dog looks like it’s been grafted onto you like a science experiment gone wrong!  Is this one wearing a matching sweater (eccentric) or is it INSIDE her sweater (kinky)?  It also heightens the Scary Factor when both human and pet have the same wistful expression…)

A bonus-tip re: pets: generally, from an informal survey, men aren’t crazy about  “accessory” dog-breeds.  It’s up to you whether you want to get him “hooked” before he sees yours OR screen himself out by showing a photo of “Precious” or “Peaches” in your purse.  Personally, I prefer the honest approach.  You’ll lose some guys, but better early than after wasting both of your times.

This one is actually one of the less objectionable, as the dog is at least NOT a purse-dog.  (I LIKE dogs, so it’s not about them.  It’s about owners not making them into a liability in a personals ad!)

Especially avoid photos of your dog wearing clothes. IF there is justice in the next world, there is a special circle of Hell for people who do that to an animal’s dignity.  There is nothing wrong about an utilitarian winter-coat for a short-haired dog to keep warm while stepping out for a brewski: 

I’m talking about something that robs the last vestige of nobility from a helpless animal.

Below is probably the worse offender I’ve yet encountered:

Pleeeease understand that a man’s reaction to this photo is NOT: “Aww… isn’t that cute!”   He’s looking away to check for the nearest exit before he becomes the next model.

(Can someone please explain what would make a woman – no regular guy would EVER! – do that to a defenseless animal?  Or think that a man is going to find that “cute”??)

On the general subject of photos, using a blurry photo is inexcusable, be it of you, your house, the Taj Mahal or the pets.   At the least, it’s annoying: these photos are tough to see already, and if your readers are in the 40+ age, they don’t need the aggravation of squinting or getting out the reading-glasses.  (Also, unless you are planning to NEVER meet, that one photo that hides the botched surgery and/or tattoos from your Motorcycle Momma days is only postponing a moment of reckoning, be it at the first meeting or the first, ahem, intimate encounter….)

The last word on photos. NO photos in swimsuits or bikinis unless the dating site makes it mandatory and everyone has to submit one.  (See earlier comment about “Miss America“.)  Otherwise, you lose either way.  If you have a stunning body, you’ll attract the wrong attention…. unless that’s the kind you want. If you don’t, you just opened yourself to being judged.  And judged cruelly, not because they are men, but because they are human.  (I have been privy to women dissecting other women’s looks with an intensity and detail that made me glad I wasn’t a woman….

Onto the ad copy.

If you have posted a photo, avoid using “pretty” or “beautiful” in the self-description. Yes, you have overcome body-image issues and are proud of how beautiful you are, inside and outside.  This is NOT about that.  This is about that shallow external-beauty aesthetic of which we are all guilty.  First, the reader has eyes.  Secondly, rare is the man who hasn’t calibrated his definition of those adjectives by certain society and media-provided standards and examples.  Unless YOUR image jumps up first when the term “beautiful woman” is uttered – thus beating out every lingerie and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model –  your looks will be measured against those images.  And that’s not fair to you.

Skip descriptors such as “witty”, “funny”, and “smart” unless the rest of your ad copy supports the claim or, at least, doesn’t display the opposite. Nothing is more counterproductive than building an expectation for the reader….. and then deflating it.  (Remember: “underpromise, overdeliver”?)

Don’t use words whose meaning you are unsure about or can’t spell!!  Yes, grammar and spelling count when one claims to be “intalligent”, because if  one were smart/intelligent, one woulda knowed better than to misspell wurds when trying to make a positive first-impreshun…..  Did you know that even poor spellers don’t like seeing poor spelling and will “grade” them down?  Really!

It’s baffling that women will spend time making sure every single eyelash is in place – something few (heterosexual) men would notice! – before a date, yet will write a personals ad copy that is the equivalent of walking out wearing their bra on the outside, hobbling on one shoe, and with spinach on their teeth!  But then, Oscar Wilde wrote that: ” Women are made to be loved, not understood“….. something that a man never ceases learning.

In general, stick to adjectives where evidence for – or against – their truth cannot be gleaned from the rest of the ad.  Adjectives like: “kind”, “compassionate”, “happy”, “loving”, “strong”, “independent” are good examples.  None of those can be disproved at the stage when the poor sucker – I mean, the future love-of-your-life – is reading the profile.  (He’ll have plenty of time to learn the truth later….)

Speaking of adjectives, my personal pet peeve is “classy”. Pleeease NEVER, EVER use “classy” because truly “classy” women do not self-describe as that!!  It’s part of BEING “classy”, DUH!  It’d be like a man saying he is “debonair” (especially if his French is poor and he tells you: ” I am de-boner“….or, worse yet, he is a Boehner – c’mon, you KNOW how the Speaker’s name SHOULD be pronounced!). Like “charming” and “elegant”, “classy” is a term others will use about you IF you qualify by your comportment.

Lastly, since a man can give any word a sexual meaning, it’s critical to avoid using certain ones in a profile…. unless you want that interpretation.  (My particular super-power is being able to make anything become a double-entendre.  But I only use for Good.)  It’s not something we do on purpose.  Really.  It’s part of that faulty male “wiring” and in the fact that, in the context of a dating site, sexual tension is ever-present (or should be).

Granted, it’s a delicate – and tough – task to let your readers know that you are not an ice-maiden, indiscriminate with your affections, or inexperienced. (Consider how even MORE difficult it is for men to allude to their virility and/or “qualifications” or expertise as a lover!  There’s just no way.)  Ladies, men need little encouragement in order to read so much into certain words!  Below – only slightly tongue-in-cheek – is how certain descriptors in your personals ad might be being read subconsciously:

  • o      Passionate (“hot sex”)
  • o      Sexy (“easy sex”)
  • o      Fun-loving (“kinky sex”)
  • o      Creative (“really kinky sex”)
  • o      Playful (“anywhere sex”)
  • o      Loving (“submissive sex”)

Is that really what you wanted?  (If it was, couldn’t you have written to me first?)

Oh yeah… NO emoticons in your ad, please! 🙂

Good luck and happy hunting!

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New words: Durly…..Bobbitt…..MTBF

I have always been interested in words.

Had my family stayed in Brazil, I don’t know whether this would have been the case.  However, learning English as my third language coincided with that period when the need for self-expression increases exponentially: the teenage years.  And unless you are a Valley Girl, the burning themes suffusing that life-stage can’t be articulated with a limited vocabulary!  As my daily use of Brazilian Portuguese ceased overnight, the need to learn and use English well was an imperative.

I recently found the notebook in which I wrote the titles of all the books read that first Summer in America, starting a month after arriving.   As I knew no one, my days were spent watching TV, reading, and Summer school classes for Math and English so that I would have a fighting chance entering 7th grade in September.  (ESOL classes?  Hah!  Full-immersion, with the added challenge of being the only Asian kid in the school.)   So I read.  A lot.  The choices, as you can see if interested (1964 books read. ), were reflective of being a 13 yr. old boy and the limitations of the one-room library in my Brazilian home-town.  My reading became a self-selected crash-course in American history and folklore, the bloodier, the better.  To this day, I remember the Dewey decimal call number for books about World War II: 940.54…

An additional incentive to read was a deal with my mother: I could have 30 minutes of TV-watching for every 60 minutes of reading.  As I had not been exposed to TV until the week before we left Brazil, it was my crack that Summer.  I would do anything for a “fix” and watched everything from Astro Boy cartoons to Sally Starr (a Philadelphia-based children’s show hosted by Cowgirl Sally Starr where I got my introduction to “The Three Stooges”) to now-classic sitcoms (Mr. Ed, My Favorite Martian, The Lucy Show) and westerns/war-centered dramas (Bonanza, The Virginian, Gallant Men, Combat).  And movies.  Good movies, bad movies, classics…. it didn’t matter: if it was on TV, it passed a test and therefore it had to be worth watching….

But I digress.  Back to words.

Over time, as the reading and writing of poetry became a more permanent – and important – part of my inner-life, my interest in words evolved from survival to a pleasurable hobby.  I fell in love with specific words, e.g. sussurationantidisestablishmentarianism*, delirium, moribund, tryst, for different reasons: sound, meaning, playfulnesss, to name just the obvious.  And I developed an amateur’s interest in their origin.  (For instance, I was just told a few days ago by a friend about the origin of the name “Wendy” for girls.  It seems that  J.M. Barrie (photo below), the author Peter Pan, made it up for the character of, well, Wendy. (He based on a young friend’s inability to make the sound “fr” in “friendly”: it came out as as “w”.)

Every year, new words are added, some entering popular usage, while others are confined to the obscurity of the specialized fields where they were invented.  Some are brand names that come to have broader meanings  (xerox, scotch tape), others are proper names or their modifications that suffered the same fate (sandwich, mesmerize).   And that made me think of one word that never became mainstream (durly), one that I think could have made it if I had made a bigger effort (bobbitt), and a term (MTBFthat might yet have a chance.

“Durly”  was a word Norman Mailer made up and tried to popularize for those occasions when we use the word “funny” in situations where “funny” is not quite right.  For example: ” ‘Funny’ how we use ‘funny’ for something that is not funny but just a little odd or curious or ironic…but not enough so to use those words.”  Obviously, he never succeeded.  I read about this in the 70s – the photo is of him in 1963 –  and somehow the factoid  remained part of the flotsam and jetsam that is my brain.   How durly that someone of Mailer’s stature couldn’t get it done…..

“Bobbitt” is from John Bobbitt, whose male pride was severed by his wife following an incident of spousal abuse.   As it was a rare act then (1993) – not that it has become common since! – the sordid details became widely publicized by the media.   It occurred to me that the word could be invested with a new meaning, one far more useful than its namesake was going to be, even after re-attachment.  Had I been more invested in this project, the following might now be in the dictionary under bobbitt:

bob•bitt ⎪bob, bit⎪  no plural.
1 – a unit of linear measure in the sports of tennis, golf, and football whose length is dependent on the gender of the user and the context of its usage.  It is generally accepted to be between zero and a hand’s width (by women) or a hand’s span (by men).   It is measured with the eye only, as there is no universal standardIt is also deliberately not converted into “inches”.  USAGE:

TENNIS – To describe the distance by which a ball is called “out” or “in” from a line, as in “My shot was in by a bobbitt!”.  Particularly in mixed doubles, as both genders will have their own internal sense of the length of a bobbitt, men tend to use it more for balls that are significantly out.  As it is never a plural, there can be no argument about the call, as can happen with other units of measure.

FOOTBALL – Mostly by sportscasters in announcing the distance by which a ball may be short of a first-down or a touchdown, as in “Well, folks, it looks like the Dolphins are a bobbitt short of a first-down”.  As all parties have their personal sense of a bobbitt‘s length, this usage has cut down on broadcast-booth arguments about exactly how many traditional units of measure away the ball is from the objective.

GOLF – To describe the distance between the ball and the hole when a “gimme” or a tap-in is in order, as in “The ball is a bobbitt from the cup, so it will be a “gimme”.

I missed a golden opportunity to spread my idea when Mr. Bobbitt was still in the national news for weeks. While”Bobbitt” is still recognized and while my proposed definition for it is still useful, it would be difficult to make it a household word again.

Lastly, “MTBF”….  In current usage, “MTBF” (Mean Time Between Failures) is the “..predicted elapsed time between inherent failures of a system during operation”.  It can be applied to both a single part (a gear, a relay switch, a whatchamacalit inside a whoosis) or  a large whole unit made up of many parts (an iPhone, a dish-washer, a car).  It is calculated as the arithmetic mean (average) time between failures and carries the assumption that the failed system (the part or the whole) will be immediately repaired. Depending on what it is, it could be hours, days, weeks, months, years, even decades.

I propose that the term “MTBF”  be adopted into the language of dating as a quick short-hand for providing critical information to both parties.  Instead of dancing around the subject and/or teasing out pieces of the puzzle, persons in the coupling process can just ask “What’s your MTBF?”  and get a quick assessment of just how capable, by past performance, the other person is as a prospective mate.

There is no right or wrong MTBF or a judgement on cause(s).  Of course, just using the word “failure” is probably very dampening….

What do you think?  Worth a shot?

* Kidding!

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Poem to (a)Muse

I was recently reminded that the cello is my favorite string instrument.

It is, by far, the sexiest and the most sensual – aurally and visually – of the string instruments. As it has so many voices – wise, playful, soothing, seductive, meditative, mournful – it would be my choice if I were to be re-incarnated as a musical instrument.

A cello can invoke a State funeral, your grandfather imparting his version of the Wisdom of the Ages… or Marlene Dietrich across a cabaret table, her smoky gaze promising more than a man (or woman) could dream (or handle!).

It can also transform a classic from one musical genre into something entirely unexpected and also beautiful, as in this arrangement for eight (8) cellos of Queen’s (!) Somebody to Love :

Somebody to love for cellos

or Bicycle Race:

Or sound unexpected in the hands of a virtuoso, like these Brazilian pieces with Yo-Yo Ma.  (No video available.)

1 x 0 (Um A Zero)


Alma Brasileira

When a cello speaks, first you close your eyes and then you listen. When a woman connubiates* with a cello, you keep your eyes open, you thank God, and then you listen…

So, in appreciation and more…

Like A Cello

We met
through words
you read:
brushing your hair,
drinking cold coffee,
when the screen
was open
to that page
and you were tired
of reading,
of wishing,
of having
no one…

a mirror,
no hand
above your head,
no arm encircling
skin-to-skin, your rising
falling breath (a gentle bellows)
the way you hold your cello. I would
warm my hands, attend to the seen
and unseen scratches, use a perfect
ear to hum you to the right pitch,
and bow a smile from every tear and
tune re-tune.. and play, again and
again, the notes that chase all
fears… if you were my


Combine a cello with a piano and the effect of the interplay’s tempo can be allegro enough to make me clean house at triple speed…..or so lento that I’ll head to a hammock, as even the clouds will gather to listen. Here’s a brief example with Lynn Harrell (cello) and Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano):

Romance (1890) – Rachmaninoff

*a new word! And like Justice Steward defining “pornography” (“I know it when I see it”), you have your own definition of connubiate now that you’ve reached the end of this post, don’t you?

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Tru and truly green… K.Y.Tao – 1915 – Oct. 30, 1999

Today, October 30, is the 12th anniversary of my father’s death.   It’s a hard date to forget, as it is also the birthday of Julia’s mother. And the day before Halloween.

I have commemorated this occasion before in other ways, but something happened yesterday that will make future remembrances effortless.

Years ago, I wrote a 3-voice poem, Forms of Blue (<–“clicking” will take you to an article that includes the text)  Eventually, transformed into a recorded dramatic reading, it came to be presented in the late 1990s at various venues, including synagogues, during Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations . The piece was inspired by a particular encounter with the color blueThis was the closing verse in the coda:

The dead do not eat the bread,
smell the flowers,
raise their voices.
Yet they live, released from this room,
in every glimpse of blue
the open eyes cannot avoid.

I thought of this on Friday when a truck from a national lawn-care crossed in front while I was stopped at a traffic light.  Emblazoned on its side was the name of the company:            TRU  GREEN

It was the company that had licensed and commercialized the process for which my my father was granted a patent in 1982.  (The president of the company is also listed – with his name first for alphabetical reasons –  though it was ALL my father’s work as chief chemist and bottle-washer for W.A. Cleary Corp. in New Jersey. )

My father was a graduate of both Tianjin Nankai High School, the elite western-style education school whose alumni include Zhou En-Lai (who succeeded Mao as Premier) and Wen Jiabao (the current Chinese Premier), and Tsing-Hua University, still the top science university in China.  He majored in Chemistry/Chemical Engineering (Class of 1937), and became an expert in vegetable oil processing.

In order to provide me (both an only child and a son)  with a better educational opportunity here, he gave up his role with the Chinese group in Brazil that made soybean there the major crop it is today.  After our move from there to New Jersey, he spent the remainder of his career with W.A. Cleary, a small manufacturer of chemical formulations used mainly in the food industry.

Below is a family photo, late 1970s, the period when he was working on the patent.  (Yes, I still had a bowl/Prince Valiant/Beatles hair-cut, though my hair was no longer shoulder-length…..)  My father rarely smiled for photos, though he laughed easily, often from cracking himself up.  (Naturally, it embarrassed me then as much as my doing it now has embarrassed Julia…)  I chose this one because of the expression on his face is so stiff, even formal.  And so different from how he could be.

Alas, while I did well in Chemistry courses (until Organic!), he was never able to instill in me either the interest or dedication required for a career.  I know that it was a disappointment to him, though he never spoke of it once I took a different path.  It’s why, as he lapsed into a coma following a massive heart-attack and I knelt bed-side in the emergency room talking and crying into his right ear as he expired, all my words of love were in the form of apologies for not having become what he had hoped.  “So it goes”, as Vonnegut wrote…

The invention,  Patent 4,298,512, was titled: “Urea formaldehyde dispersions modified with higher aldehydes.” 

In simple language, my father invented a way for applying liquid fertilizers to large areas of lawn grass that would keep lawns greener and healthier for longer and with less frequent spraying, thus resulting in lower costs and hassle in upkeep.  It was a huge hit. Cleary Corp. named it  “Tru Green” and subsequently licensed it to commercial lawn care services and nurseries as they signed on to use it, particularly on golf courses.  (We used to note the irony – we were both tennis players – since he never took up golf, despite the company OWNING (!) a golf course adjacent to its headquarters!)  His invention has been the standard for those applications and venues since the early 1980s.

And this is what I realized is his legacy when that truck crossed in front of me on the eve of this anniversary:

While blue became my color for memorializing the Holocaust, I had never recognized before – nor will now ever forget – that from his vantage point now, he could say that he made the grass greener on the other side.

And that would crack me up, too.

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“Talking about love is like dancing about architecture.”*

(I started the rumination below about Love some time ago but couldn’t get traction. Then I got a new batch of mushrooms and……(KIDDING!!!))


What on earth do I know of love?  What I don’t know has filled journals spanning decades.  Until I stopped because I realized one of many truths: writing about it brought me no closer to it.  Reading about it was marginally more useful, if only to discover all the other blind describing their piece of the elephant.

But yesterday, a voice said, “Write about love“ and I have learned to listen to that voice; when I don’t, I usually end up being very, very sorry.


“Talking about love is like dancing about architecture.” — Elvis Costello

What is love?

a)  Baby, don’t hurt me. b)  A battlefield.  c)  Like a rock.  d)  All you need.

Before you answer, consider this:  At first blush, English seems like a fairly stupid language.  We have one word for the condition that governs our hearts, sways our days, forges our bonds, breaks us open, makes us stronger.  One tiny four-letter word.  But that is because this one word is like J.R. Tolkien’s  The One Ring: it rules the rest by the complexity in its simplicity.  It is inevitable, impossible, invincible…. and indescribable.  Which is why I will try.

One must be very careful when one chooses to write about love.  In general, whatever you focus on tends to increase. And, like any force in the universe, love, when invited in, especially after a long wait on the porch, tends to put its feet up on your furniture, eat all your snacks, make itself comfortable, stay a while.  Love lights you up like radium, widens your field of vision, tears you apart, again.  Dangerous, heady stuff.  Not to be denied.

And from that realization, it can grow like Jack’s beanstalk: overnight.  You learn a lot.  You soften around the edges.  Food tastes better, and you begin thinking again about healthier foods because you want to be alive longer.  The sun feels deliciously warm on your skin, now sun-blocked.  Colors begin to sneak into your all-black wardrobe, like my blue-cuffed Guido shirt.  And my other Guido shirt. (!)  You become lighter than air, hotter than fire, more solid than earth, clearer than water, faster than light.  Or at least you so imagine.

You must.  Be very.  Careful.  And.  Very.  Brave.

You start to see everyone in your life — and I do mean everyone — in a new light.  Some old hurts may heal.  You find myself feeling softer, more compassionate, in general, and more loving toward certain people and situations in particular.

More importantly, you also begin being more gentle, compassionate and forgiving with yourself, giving yourself the freedom to let more peek from underneath the protective covering you know so well.  You could argue, in fact, that all love starts — though, obviously, should not stop — with self-love.  For if you do not love yourself, how can you love someone else?  If you do not know your own heart, how can you seek to know that of another?  But when you know your heart, you must be able to pole-vault and/or crash through those barriers that silence the sharing of it, especially the old ones erected for threats no longer present.  You can not let your heart be afraid.

So.  Love is not this, OR this, OR this, OR that.  Love is this, AND this, AND this, AND that.  It is all.  It is everything.  While we are limited by our own perspectives and desires, and, thus, do not see the bright and magnificent whole, we are all connected in a grand design.  And we grope and grasp to find that piece that, connected to ours, helps form a larger piece of that design.

And then one day you hear a voice; perhaps it is singing, or laughing, or maybe it just calls a name, a name that’s yours.  Or it’s been calling you all along but you let it be drowned out.  Pay attention, because you didn’t think a voice would call you again. Because you didn’t know you were meant to answer to it until that very moment.   Because it didn’t sound the way you thought it would sound.  But, finally, because it is the voice meant for you, the ears of your ears awake, and the eyes of your eyes are opened.

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The Fool or: You Shouldn’t Go Home Again

I am often asked if I have gone back to Brazil since leaving.  It has a simple answer (“Yes”) and an existential one: “How do you go back to a place you never really think you left?”

This is the account of my first – and only – trip back to my hometown, though I have made others to Rio.

I left Santa Rosa in 1964, barely a teenager, and returned, sixteen years later, married and the father of a newborn daughter.

As the title says, it was a fateful and life-changing trip.

(click inside any photo or highlighted word to enlarge of get additional information)

The ground was a brick-red spotted with infrequent clumps of green (tree groves) and brown (short-horn cattle) in no discernible pattern.  Now and then, a cultivated field bordered by narrow roads appeared and eased away beneath our low-flying twin-prop. 

I had not seen this this land from any any in sixteen years.  It was the last leg of a 6000 mile and 28-hour journey begun in Philadelphia and about to end shortly on a dirt-strip in the interior of Brazil’s southernmost state.  I longed for and yet dreaded what awaited me at the one-room terminal.

It has been almost a lifetime since those two weeks in July of 1980, yet they proved to be the balance point to eighteen years of my adult life. None of it was apparent at the time, none of it foreseeable.

I was born in Hong-Kong, where my parents had temporarily settled after fleeing China ahead of the Communist take-over in 1949.  Being both university-educated and of “bourgeois” heritage (my paternal grandfather had been the last of five generations to serve the Ch’ing Dynasty in military posts), they had had little faith in a future under Communism. And, having already lived the turmoiled history of modern China from the end of the Empire through the civil chaos of the 1920s, the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, and World War II (and civil war again) in the 1940s, their desire in middle age was for stability and security. Thus, despite their six years there, the Hong-Kong of the early 1950s — like the politically unstable Brazil of the early 1960’s — was always regarded as only a way-station on the journey to America.

The United States was a choice based not on its historical appeal to generations of southern Chinese, but rather on my father’s personal experience at the end of WWII. In preparation for China’s post-war reconstruction, he had been one of a select three hundred “best and brightest” sponsored by both governments to spend a year in America touring facilities in their fields of expertise. It was a trip that had begun auspiciously, first with Germany’s surrender while the ship was just out of Bombay (and still choosing between the risks of sailing the eastward or westward routes to America) and then with Japan’s capitulation while undergoing orientation in New York. (My father was clearly not the sailor kissing the girl in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo taken on Time Square on V-J Day, but he was there that day!)

My father spent his year visiting USDA research stations in the Midwest and Deep South, deeply affected by a land untouched — unlike China — by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Famine, Conquest, and Death.  It was also quite an eye-opener into the Jim Crow-era of separate water-fountains and being told to come up to the front of the bus because the Colored sign did not apply to him..

By l956, when we left Hong Kong, Chinese expatriates had laid the foundation for many industries in Brazil: my father’s contribution would be in the area of vegetable oil refining, particularly of soy-beans. He accepted a position with friends who had been more adventurous in preceding him, and after a month-long sea voyage on the M.V. Tegelberg (see blog entry) whose sights and experiences remain the strongest set of my early memories, we landed in Santos, the port city for Rio de Janeiro.

Although it had lost scheduled air service to the state capital of Porto Alegre by the time of my return visit in 1980, Santa Rosa in 1956 was still the commercial center for the farming and cattle area in the northwest corner of Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul:

From its beginnings as a dependency of one of the Seven Missions founded by Jesuits in the early 1600s, Santa Rosa (upper left on map, close to border with Argentina) had become a town of some 15,000 inhabitants by the late 1950’s. It had an Old City and a New City, and a statue of Columbus (“one of only three in the Continent” according to the 1980 town-guide). At the time, it was neither famous nor infamous for any of its native sons, and possessed no natural attractions. (In the late 1980s and 1990s, it would be known as the home-town of Xuxa, the top children’s entertainer then, not just Brazil but in all of Latin America, and, later, of a World Cup-winning goal-keeper for Brazil’s team, Claudio Taffarel.)

We lived well by local standards, but with few of the middle-class conveniences present in the America of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years.  Santa Rosa was a binary town: it either had none of something or just one of it.

– No television station or reception; one radio station. No supermarket most of our years there; one newspaper. No Chinese restaurants (!); one news stand. No municipal water-supply; one taxi company. No passenger train service; one bus-line. No department stores; one (equipped) public playground. No public tennis courts or swimming pool; one public soccer stadium. And, perhaps most amusingly, the one exception — besides churches — to the “rule”: one ostentatious hotel, but many (discreet) brothels.

The impact of these “extremes” on our daily lives was very direct. Not being interested in Brazilian music or small-town news, my parents never bothered with having a radio or reading the local newspaper. (They had a subscription to TIME magazine in English, which would arrive weeks late.) On rare occasions, it was a draw-back: we didn’t find out that JFK had been assassinated until I went to school the following Monday — my twelfth birthday. The lag time between a film’s release by Hollywood and it’s local premiere at the Cinema Odeon was measured in years. Candles and lamps supplemented the often-unreliable power supply, while food-shopping included 5:00 a.m. treks twice a week to a farmer’s market of horse-drawn wagons from the countryside. (My adult love of orange juice is due as much to its taste and nutritional value as to its now-easy availability being a triumph over the past: no more dragging loads of fruit over six blocks of cobble-stoned streets and hauling them up four flights of steep stairs.) All bath water (three potfuls in the winter months, two in the summer) was heated on a stove fueled by propane tanks refilled every few weeks, and clothes were more often homemade than store-bought. The Rotary and Lions’ Clubs dominated local social life, and soccer was, of course, the universal sport. Balancing these “minuses” was a childhood rich in everything else.

My “Wonder Bread” years, that span from four to fourteen so-labelled by an advertising firm, were probably not dissimilar to those of any boy in rural America. In contrast to the circumscribed mobility of my Philadelphia-born daughter who grew up within sight of sky-scrapers at both ends of the socio-economic scale, my friends and I freely explored our environs with the benign tolerance of the adult population. We hunted birds, small field animals — and each other — with carefully made and decorated slingshots, fished in the local streams, played soccer on the army garrison’s fields, and generally conducted ourselves as owners and not petty-tenants of our world. (We also ran errands for the garrison’s prostitutes for pocket change, with some of my friends even graduating to customer status before I left.)

Far more acceptable (and age-appropriate!) entertainment were feasts on Saints’ days, churrascos (the barbecues for which my state were famous), Carnaval celebrations, movie matinees, evenings of travel-slide shows in the school auditorium, and the Halley-like annual visit of the one-ring circus featuring a two-headed stuffed cow. The changing of the seasons was also marked by church bazaars where professionals, hired by the parish priests, ran the games of chance that fleeced the local flocks for the de facto State religion, Catholicism.

The Cinema Odéon showed what it considered children’s fare only on Sunday afternoons. For an hour before the show, timed to allow for lunch following Mass, the theater aisles would be filled with the younger children carrying stacks of comic books to trade and the older ones fighting through the pandemonium for the privacy of the balcony and quality groping-time with their dates. Reading ability was a pre-requisite for the full enjoyment of the films: the overwhelming majority were subtitled.  Italian “sword and sandal” epics pitting Hercules or Machiste against a variety of pseudo-mythological villains, Audie Murphy and Randolph Scott westerns, Bob Hope comedies, modern-day musical fairy-tales usually starring Romy Schneider as Sissi (a favorite of my mother’s)  and anything involving insects and crustaceans mutated by nuclear testing were screened for our wide-eyed entertainment.  (The movie in the poster gave me nightmares as a ten year old…  Even to this day, I can only abide crabs in “cake” form.)

During Carnaval, each of the two social clubs would set aside an afternoon for a Children’s Ball where the music and dancing released all the ebullience and joie de vivre in the Brazilian character. It was on those occasions, when the samba’s primal rhythms overcame 4000 years of Chinese culture, behavior, and inhibitions — and I danced! — that I most felt Brazil being spliced into my being. (This is why I always answer the question “What are you?” by saying “Chinese in my genes, Brazilian in my heart, passions, and expressions, and American by circumstances and necessity”.) The Balls were also my source of seasonal popularity because my father, the chemist, formulated a concoction for spraying on the revelers which competed very successfully with the commercial ones of clear perfumed-water. We named it “sangre-de-bói” (bull’s blood) because it was red at first contact but would revert to a clear state after a minute’s exposure to air.

It was against this back-drop of small-town life, when pre-teen friends were already losing their virginities in a society that was at once Catholic and casually carnal, that Romantic Love struck.

Clarisse was of German origin, her family one of a sizable number that had been drawn to that part of Brazil since the 1840’s. Her father’s dairy products company was a major employer and, by 1980, a statewide model of vertical integration and efficiency selling everything but the meat and the moo of a cow. Santa Rosa being almost medieval in its socio-economic structure, our respective families were parts of different “guilds”. Thus, the relationships between the Germans and the few Chinese were cordial but superficial. Since the two communities did not socialize, she and I did not cross paths until I changed parochial schools. We became classmates beginning with third-grade and remained so until our respective moves four years later.

 Vinícius de Morães, the boulevadier of Rio’s cafés, Brazil’s beloved poet and diplomat honored with the ambassadorship to France and best known for the lyrics to some of the the most enduring songs of the Bossa Nova era that put Brazilian music on the world map (click on any of the titles to hear them: The Girl From Ipanema   So Danca Samba (I only dance the Samba), Felicidade (Happiness)  once wrote a poem about all the diminishing “firsts” that, as life progresses, can never be shared with a new love.

To Clarisse belong my first tentative grasp of a hand in a darkened theater, my first kiss, and my first “I love you”. Yet more than any outward expression, she is responsible for my first sensation of not feeling alone anymore.

She was intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive, her beauty not obvious or empirical like a model’s, but from character, and thereby inescapable. Every feature of her face led to the eyes, their coloring now forgotten, but not their depth. There were prettier girls and — always — “easier” ones, yet even then, somehow, I could distinguish between the shallow and the lasting.  The word “soulmate” was not yet in my vocabulary, but it would have served well to describe my sense of our connection.  My contentment came as much from silent companionship as from conversation; we were Romantics, our movie dates in the orchestra seats not the balcony.  Among my male friends, both my silence about and my behavior with Clarisse — relative to their own detailed accounts of budding sexual exploits — were sources of amusement, but I had already established my own rules early on: “don’t ask, don’t tell…..always listen”. The simple explanation was that she was the kind of girl one married. In the context of that time and a Latin culture this was understood and accepted.

(Aside: I was fortunate that my “list” of desirable traits/qualities in a woman was developed through knowing Clarisse.  Discovering the importance of the invisible at that early age, was a blessing.  It has saved me – though not always – from being dazzled by just the visible.  Or at least put it in perspective.)

For most of those years our connection survived the variety of teasing and shifting pairings universal for that age group, but we were no longer formally namorados (“the enamored ones”, i.e. boy-friend/girl-friend) when she departed for boarding school six months before I left Santa Rosa forever.  We could write — and did for those months — but we said good-bye during her last visit home without knowing it was to be sixteen years until the next time. Paralleling this change, a bigger one was about to take place after two years of uncertainty.

In early 1964, my mother and I were finally granted visas to immigrate and join my father in New Jersey. It was a dream and a nightmare become reality. To my friends and me, “The United States of America” was like Oz’s Emerald City, a place filled with splendid marvels. I was a country-bumpkin only slightly more sophisticated than Dorothy. I knew I would see things — the 1964 New York World’s Fair, for example — heretofore only read about or briefly glimpsed in newsreels, yet the price would be horrific: loss of everything familiar and the unlikely prospect of return visits. My parents, particularly my mother, had no backward glance for Santa Rosa or Brazil. Being too young to know that hope is deferred despair, I left carrying the closely held (but vague) notion that Brazil would be my home again after “making my fortune” in America.

Over the next ten years, the frequency of our letters fluctuated with the crises of adolescence and early adulthood. Like prayers, there were more in times of need, and fewer when an active life made them more a habit than necessity. Yet, their flow never ceased. (I have them all still, every letter and postcard that reached me.) In hers, she recounted her unhappiness at being away from home in boarding school, her success in finally passing the competitive tests to study veterinary medicine, and the disappointing relationships with men. I wrote of the trivial and the important, comparing suburban New Jersey (and later, Philadelphia) to Santa Rosa and its pace of life, describing styles of being and values that were alien, and my own efforts and successes in assimilating them. My gradually declining writing skills in Portuguese were an increasing frustration, but our long history, emotional connection, and the fact that the shortest words and simplest sentences often convey most powerfully, made it bearable.

Our correspondence was also an oasis, a solace to my own sense of isolation and rootlessness here, and a link to what I still regarded as “home”. At different times, but often within the same moment, our connection both amplified and ameliorated my feelings of “saudade”, a word without a direct equivalent in English. “Saudade” is a home-sickness, not just for one’s own home and family, but for the smells, the vibrancy, the soul and heart of a place and a culture. It is melancholy and yearning, happy memories and the living pain of remembrance: it is looking at one’s own eyes in a mirror and seeing what was left behind.

Approaching the one-room terminal next to the dirt-strip, my first surprise was Clarisse’s very visible pregnancy.
We discovered that the letter relating it had never arrived. (This was not surprising: the Brazilian postal system was notoriously inefficient.) However, it did not diminish the impact. I knew about three-year-old Carolina, but the sight of Clarisse as an expectant mother was entirely unexpected and difficult to absorb. My visualization of her as an adult, based on how she had looked at thirteen, had been the actress Virginia Mckenna as Joy Adamson in the movie version of Born Free: blonde, trim, regal, khakied, and surrounded by animals. Here, instead, was a Clarisse so far along in a pregnancy that my eyes, drawn to an enlarged mid-section covered by a floral-patterned maternity “mumu”, missed that first eye contact and all its questions and answers it might have held.

Instead, disoriented by a host of thoughts and emotions, all I recollect about those first few minutes is the propeller-wash dusting our faces as my luggage was gathered by her driver. During the plane’s uneven descent, it had suddenly struck me that, in all of the sixteen years of imagining and planning the journey back, I had never gotten beyond that moment of arrival. My last thought before the walk down the three lowered steps had been of a card in the Tarot deck called The Fool.   It shows a finely dressed and smiling young man with eyes focused on something high in the far distance, completely unaware that his next step is over the edge of a precipice.

We spoke awkwardly during the hour-long ride to Santa Rosa and her house. The presence of the driver, my re-immersion into spoken Portuguese, the lack of sleep, our sharing of the same physical space after sixteen years; all these contributed to a very stilted conversation. I felt disjointed, as though the “me” was a homunculus peering out through a stranger’s eyes.

Over the next few days, as I met her husband, Paulo, a chain-smoking bank functionary who looked like a thin Chè Guevara, and settled into a guest room and the daily routine, this sense of strangeness and apartness continued to grow as I retraced the routes of my childhood. It was a necessary pilgrimage but also a welcomed distraction as I tried to collect myself..

My first destination the next morning was Praça da Bandeira, Number 29, a building facing the main plaza, and my last home in Santa Rosa.  Our old landlord, Fredolino Hintz, had replaced the Catholic bookstore on the street-level with his own accounting office. He remembered my family and my name though we were not visually recognizable to each other, and reminded me that I had negotiated a rent increase with him during my father’s absence. His son-in-law, who now occupied our old place on the third floor, was away, thus leaving unfulfilled my desire to see it again. It had been a prized apartment, with its commanding view of the town center.  From that balcony (in the photo above, now enclosed – the reddish wall on the right, next to the narrower white window of my bedroom), in one of many acts of mischief during my juvenile delinquent period, I had once thrown eggs at two men — Argentinians, I soon discovered — sitting on a park bench. When, egg-splattered, they bounded up the stairs and pounded on our door seeking retribution, I feigned innocence while mistranslating their words to my mother.  In her name — but without her awareness — I threatened, in turn, to call our journalist neighbor who had taken to wearing a pistol since the death threats from his lover’s husband.  (They left angry, but empty-handed.)

Continuing next door, what had been an imposing three-story Municipal Hall had now shrunk in stature before eyes that had also seen The Empire State Building, The Eiffel Tower, even Philadelphia’s own City Hall.  The one-room library on the main floor, the place where I had looked at a newspaper’s map of the Americas and seen with relief that Santa Rosa was outside the range of Cuba’s missiles during The Crisis, had been relocated to another building. Long departed was Dona Dorotéia, the librarian who had fed my imagination and reading habit with books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Conan Doyle, military history and classics from Greek mythology. The space was now haphazardly partitioned into office cubicles, the imposing floor-to-twenty-foot-ceiling windows majestic no more, their shafts of light interrupted and deflected by so many obstacles that the shadows made the room and furnishings into a Cubist painting. It was easy not to look back when I left and crossed the road to stroll through the Plaza and adjacent streets.

On the last Sunday evening in June of 1962, the mosaic stone paths had been lined with Roman candles, sparklers, and every size fire-works imaginable — just for the taking! — as the entire town had optimistically prepared for the results of the World Cup Final between Brazil and Czechoslovakia. Ghostly-still during the game, the streets flooded with people at the news of Brazil’s 3-1 victory and the World Cup Championship for the second consecutive time.  For one enchanted night there was no hyper-inflation and no class distinctions, only trucks and cars jammed with swaying, dancing bodies in joyful madness forming a pulsating, multi-colored necklace around the town center. My friends and I had darted among the adults, grabbing what we could, and setting off an endless fusillade of rockets and firecrackers in a celebration that continues still in my mind’s eye. Now, the paths were dusty, uneven, and chipped like bad dental work, and the topiary bushes, their animal shapes once so crisp and magical, just amorphous masses lost in other growth.

The strong pastel colors of the buildings had also faded and their physical aging, combined with the seeming lack of maintenance, gave everything I passed a tired look. Streets which were cobble-stoned in 1964, still resounded with the echo of horses’ hooves. The news-stand, the focal point at one corner of the plaza, was gone, the blind owner, a Gilbert Roland look-alike inseparable from his white German shepherd, killed a few years earlier by the husband of a lover. I remembered that he had let me read comic books in exchange for running errands.

That afternoon, following a lunch of deep-fried meat pies at a small stand, I walked through a heavy downpour to arrive outside the house where we had lived before the apartment. My eyes saw the past, like scenes from a family video no one had filmed. On this side porch, I had cried as my mother, in punishment for something now forgotten, smashed the only battery-powered, muzzle-flashing Japanese-made ray-gun in all of Santa Rosa. Around the back, the grape arbor my father built still stood, though it was bare. The extension housing the pump-house and the maid’s rooms seemed to sag under the rain and was a depressing, water-streaked sight. The side-yard where I had hidden so many times during games was now cleared of plantings and just an unadorned brick patio. And, across the street, the field of our viciously competitive “for keeps” marble tournaments was now surrounded by a wall covered with political grafitti and topped with barbed wire. It was still empty.

Encountering a young woman leaning out of an open window, I identified myself as a former resident. As I told of my association with the house, the discovery that her husband was an executive working for Clarisse’s father resulted in an invitation to come inside. Touring the rooms, I felt the out-of-body disjointedness a person might feel observing their own funeral. More time within those walls would perhaps have changed my reaction, or at least sharpened the images of 1980 for comparison with my childhood ones. However, I stayed no more than a few minutes, distracted by the dual task of absorbing everything and speaking with her and her two young children. The rosy memory of those rooms when it was my world is now surplanted by the blurred images left from that visit: the shabbiness of their furnishings, my former bedroom suffused with the dull grayness of a sunless afternoon, the wear of the additional years and little up-keep, and the syncopated sound of raindrops drumming on the red-tiled roof.

In the next days, those childhood friends that I could find had grown into adults I hardly recognized. Boys of equal or lesser height at age thirteen had outgrown me and now towered over my modest height as we stood, awkwardly, finding no commonality beyond the strangeness of my appearance from such a physical and temporal distance. My friend Eleonora, who at thirteen had been the object of much lusting by classmates (and at sixteen a Debbie Reynolds look-alike by a photograph she sent), was now a plump, clothes-ironing hausfrau in a shapeless dressing-gown, living with her journalist husband above a printing shop. Ivo, already tending to heaviness at age twelve, had transformed into a barrel-size insurance salesman with a jolliness I found disconcerting but not surprising. Ciro and Zezi, two brothers of gentle temperament matching their small sizes, and inseparable as Siamese twins, were now both oaks to my sapling but still open-faced and open-hearted. With each encounter, the same greetings and familiarities were repeated without me finding the words to move beyond them. In truth, my friends were hospitable and warm as only Brazilians can be hospitable and warm, but I was in a state of cultural and emotional shock.

I felt myself withdrawing more and more, frustrated by the realization that the visual and emotional memories, smoothed and polished for sixteen years into a near-perfect state, were being irrevocably and irreparably replaced by their contemporary reality. My vocabulary was more than adequate to speak the Portuguese of polite conversations, but not to express the full range of adult feelings and thoughts. I also missed my wife and newborn daughter terribly and telephoned them with increasing frequency, counting the days until my scheduled return flight.

Worst of all, Clarisse and I could not talk. I avoided the questions I could see forming by keeping the topics light and external. I accompanied her on rounds and observed her interacting with ranchers and farmers, marveling at her competence and the clear respect and deference these men exhibited for her veterinary skills. I asked the appropriate questions, but it was all surreal: I had focused all my planning on the logistics and mechanics but none on the emotional preparations necessary for the trip. I had not thought about what I wanted or risked. And, unbeknownst to me, a parallel disintegration of my real world and life in Philadelphia had begun, contributed to — in no small way — by this trip.

There was only one conversation during which we almost had a break-through. Paulo, Clarisse, and I had been invited to a get-together at the apartment of their friends. A dozen of us sat in a circle and played parlor games that gave the evening an oddly Victorian charm. During a break, she and I stepped out onto the balcony, slid closed the glass doors, and stared at the fog-shrouded trees and misted lights of the square. Though the noise of the group did not reach us, we could see their animated gesturing through the condensation on the glass. I could feel their camaraderie: they looked happy, in a world that was whole and solid, and to which I did not belong. We did not speak and stood quietly for a few seconds… or several minutes. I don’t know. Eventually, Clarisse broke the silence.

The words are gone, but the care and concern in her tone, the desire to transcend our other conversations: that still remains. I believe she sensed my emotional disorientation from facing, in such a concentrated form, the Santa Rosa that was the past for me but the present for those who had not left it. She struggled to make herself understood, her eyes vivid with sadness and frustration. Bypassing speech, they reached into mine and asked questions for which I had no answers. It was futile, partly because our common language was now inadequate, but mostly because I would not have been able to explain — even to myself — the timing of and my reasons for making the trip. It was not until years had passed — and the damage permanent — that I would understand.

Given a second chance, with the benefit of reflection during the ten years of hopeless purgatory which my marriage became until its dissolution, I would have told her that it was happiness and completion, with a wife and a daughter that consolidated us as a family, which gave me the freedom and confidence to face the might-have-beens of the past. I would have told her that her part in my childhood — and its ripples through years afterwards — had sustained me emotionally when nothing else had or could. I would also have told her how right she had been to see that our lives had become too different, our common ground only in memories, and that her marrying Paulo six years earlier entirely the right action. I would have thanked her for that wisdom and then extended a great abraço, the traditional bear-hug between close friends, and made peace — at last — with my past.

Instead, a multitude of emotions that included regret, sadness, and foolishness combined with a desire to get away as quickly as possible. Cowardice or confusion, it was immaterial: I lacked both the words and the emotional tools to sort out and communicate all that I felt. I pled urgent business at home in order to cut short my stay, despite knowing that something unrecoverable had been lost.

I would like to write that the actual leave-taking from my childhood was satisfying, like a quenched thirst, but all I recollect is the flat tire during the drive back to the air-strip and some strained joking about having to stay longer. Walking to the plane, I dared not look back.

I spent the extra two days in Rio, staying at the Arpoardor Inn and walking Arpoardor Beach. I needed to collect myself for the inevitable questions at home, and to cry for the things I knew I would have to remember — and to forget – for the rest of my life.

What was to have been a voyage of self-discovery, of putting into adult form a seminal relationship, became instead an act which helped destroy both a cherished past and the post-trip future. Attainment had transmuted my Holy Grail into a tin cup, and I did not yet understand what had made it so. Since that day, that Tarot card of The Fool, a young man unaware that his next step is into the precipice,  has served as a reminder.

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