Is there such a thing as the right day of the year to have all your rugs washed? Yes, there is. It’s when someone opens the backyard door for the dog to go out to do its first business of the day, and allows it back inside after being sprayed by a skunk. I must clarify that said person isn’t genetically related to me. In the person’s defense it could be said that it happened at 6:00 AM, and before the first cup of coffee of the day. Still, how could someone open the door to a small backyard that had been taken by such pungent odor as to make all other members in the household run to the bathroom plagued by the most disconcerting nausea, and say he didn’t smell it? It’s beyond my comprehension, but in the name of a long term relationship, one must try to forgive.
The situation was aggravated by the dog’s daily habit of running all over the house and rolling on every rug, in every room, in a sort of morning greeting frenzy.
Not only all rugs, from the 3’x5’ that decorate the entry hall to the 10’x16’ that anchor the living room, had to be taken to be professionally washed, no, not only that, but the entire house had to be deeply cleaned with undiluted vinegar. Even then, I could swear the smell was still there. Apparently there is a thing called olfactory memory and mine had been forever branded by “eau de skunk.”
The house smells “fresh” again. To achieve that we had to open all windows and brave the cold, and while my husband took the rugs to be washed, I “febrezed” the heck out of the whole house. As he carried the smelly rugs out, he said: “I don’t think they will fit in my car. I’m taking yours.” I said: “Did I let a skunked dog inside?” He managed to make all rugs fit in his car, and off he went. When he arrived back, completely distraught by the sizable dent that “de-skunking” four oriental rugs—all at once—caused in our bank account, he sniffed the air and said: “Don’t you think you went overboard with the febreze?”
I was born in Brazil in 1968. In 1964 the Brazilian Armed Forces, supported by the United States under Lyndon B. Johnson, staged a coup d’état and deposed Brazil’s democratically elected president, the leftist João Goulart from the Labor Party. Through political maneuvers, the Brazilian Congress—under extreme right majority—eased the military takeover. Although the US Army was ready to support the Brazilian military factions aligned with its interests in case of civil war, it was avoided. Nonetheless, during the 21 years of repression that followed “nearly 500 people died or disappeared, and many more were detained or tortured” (Remembering Brazil’s decades of military repression, Pablo Ushoa, BBC.com 03/31/2014).
I was in my late teens when millions of Brazilians took to the streets in the “Diretas Já”—Direct Vote Now Movement. It started in 1983 and led to an indirect election—by Electoral College—of Tancredo Neves in 1985, and finally democratic presidential elections in 1989. I still have goose bumps thinking about it. So much loss. So much fear. To this day many families have no idea what happened to their loved ones.
When the laws that gave the Brazilian people its democratic rights back were being drawn, those in charge of that extremely important job for the country’s future knew that democracy is under constant threat. To keep it, all of us, the people, must guarantee its permanence by exercising it through our vote. In Brazil all citizens between 18 and 60 years of age must vote by law.
I’m American now, but because of my growing up in Brazil during dark times, I don’t see voting as a right. For me, it’s a duty I owe to all those who sacrificed so I can have a voice, so I can choose the life I want to live, so we all have rights. Rights as trivial as choosing to wear makeup—or not, as basic as choosing what food to eat and how many kids to have, some as essential as disagreeing without risking jail, torture and death.
So VOTE. Because you can; you must.
Why do I have a dog? I’ve been asking myself more often than I used to; a few times a day actually. That isn’t good. It’s like asking yourself: Why am I married? Or, why is there so much hair in my shower drain? You know, those kinds of questions that make you feel uncomfortable. There’s obviously something wrong going on, but you don’t want to face it, because if you do, you will need to solve it somehow. Or worst, accept there’s no solution. Worst because I’m more of a doer, and have a hard time dealing with things that are out of my control. Case in point, the dog.
Why did I get it in the first place? The straight forward answer is guilt. I got it because I felt terribly guilty for all the sacrifices my husband and I imposed on our children. When they were younger we moved often, every other year in average. We both had satisfying careers, and we were doing well financially, but when my husband was offered an assignment in the US we embraced the opportunity full heartedly. We left our big extended family in Brazil, and embarked in a new journey. We didn’t have children then, and it all seemed like a wonderful adventure. After a couple of months alone inside an empty house—the company didn’t get me a working visa, and my husband had business trips at least one week every month—I decided it was time to have kids. Fantastic. There was I, alone, without the support of family and friends, with a new appendix attached to my chest. Even though my husband and I had always said we would have two kids, after three sleepless months I declared that would be our only child. No way would I go through all that, all over again. It took my husband three years, but he convinced me a sibling would be essential to a well-rounded child. As everyone who grew up in a catholic family, I’m easily manipulated through guilt, especially in what relates to my kids, and my husband is a master communicator. The man can sell the proverbial sand in the dessert.
When my older daughter was 4 and her baby sister only 6 months old, my husband was sent back to Brazil on a 2 year assignment. Both my daughters loved having the grandparents around. My older daughter was delighted to meet her cousins every weekend. They had a dog. She decided she needed one as well. She campaigned relentlessly for it. At first I said NO, which turned into no, and eventually my husband let me know he always wanted a dog as a child, but my mother-in-law didn’t give him one. The final blow to my resolve came from my older daughter a few months before we moved back to the US. She lamented: no grandmas, no grandpas, no aunties, no uncles, no cousins, and not even a little dog to play with. We stroke a deal. We would get a dog once we were settled down in our new home.
During 7 years all was well. I was a staying at home mom living near Atlanta, in Georgia, and had time to walk the dog every day. When the kids came home from school, they would spend at least an hour a day playing in our big backyard with their dog. They learned to brush, feed, and bathe it. The little rascal even moved with us to China. The poor creature had to endure a 2 week quarantine period in a special section of the Shanghai International Airport before being allowed in the country to live with us though. It survived. It learned to behave in an airplane, and in hotels when we were on the move. But even the most well behaved dog needs a lot of attention. As my daughters became more independent every year, I decided to go back to work, but the dog remained 100% dependent. The girls are busier with school work, sports, orchestras, and friends. On top of a part time job that occupies half of my day, Monday through Saturday, I decided to go back to school and get a degree in writing. Back in Georgia I used to live the dog loose in the gated, grassy backyard for hours. But we moved to California where big backyards are a luxury we can’t afford. The dog turned into a constant source of worry.
I could have gotten a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, I love the breed. But when I was researching it, I talked to a very nice lady who had that breed for decades, having to get a new puppy every 7 years in average. She went over the sadness of burying her cherished dog every so often because the breed has serious heart issues. I couldn’t possibly make my daughters go through that. I couldn’t go through that. My silly past-self thought: I need a healthy breed. After researching I came across this charming cross breed said to be the perfect companion for children; a smart and loving little creature called shih-poo. It’s true. Our shih-poo is smart and loving, and very, very healthy. The little thing is nearly 11 years old, but still behaves like a puppy. There, I said it. Now I feel terribly guilty because I wish I had chosen a not-so-healthy-breed. I have at least 6 more years of dog care ahead of me. The girls will go to college and I’ll still have the dog following me everywhere. Of all the people in the house I’m the least pet-loving-person possible, but the thing chose me. Seriously, it thinks I’m its mother.
Although it used to quietly sleep in its little bed in the laundry room, a while back it started barking many times overnight, keeping me awake. After four days dragging myself trying to get some work done. I called the vet’s office. I thought, that’s it. It turned 10. It’s an old lady now. I should prepare the kids for the big loss. I took it for a general check-up anticipating bad news. It’s as healthy as can be, the vet said. We’ve been having raccoons in the neighborhood. You should call a creatures-specialist. I couldn’t believe it when the pest-control guy found signs that rats had been enjoying the crawl space under my house. He set up traps, and in a week he returned to “collect” and clean up.
“You’re lucky you have a dog,” the pest-control guy said. “It certainly prevented the rats from getting to comfortable, and entering inside the house.”
Good grief. There was I, having mean thoughts about the dog, and it was protecting us from a rat infestation. I feel so terribly guilty I think I finally love her.
Not the shorter days,
nor the longer nights,
not the fallen leaves,
nor the birds flight,
I know it’s fall
because of the overwhelming pumpkin sights.
Bagels and lattes,
teas and muffins,
pies and cakes,
all are pumpkin.
Potpourris and other decorative melanges,
Flowers and tree branches, candles and hats,
in 2016 even a presidential candidate is orange.
Traditionally in the fall
Shades of pumpkin-orange color our houses and store fronts.
The aroma of pumpkin-spice lingers inside coffee shops and markets
promising delights for all.
But in 2016 we have so much more
to be thankful for:
lazy afternoons by the fireplace,
comfortable weather for long walks,
and intriguing presidential debates
where it seems a pumpkin talks.
Unexpected Challenges I Faced When Raising My Bilingual Kids
by Adriana T. Gomes
As a writer I treasure the gift of communication. Maybe that was my problem when I had my first baby. I insisted on teaching her Portuguese and English simultaneously. It’s not easy. No wonder so many children of immigrants speak only English. The system is rigid, and pediatricians and teachers won’t always support you. Not because they dislike bilingualism, but for lack of understanding. So when I decided to take that road, I faced a few challenges.
Unfortunately babies don’t come with manuals. So, as many new moms do, I bought a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and watched for milestones. Was the baby nursing, turning, sleeping through the night—first baby was a stellar sleeper for mommy and dada, second baby, not so much—crawling, babbling, forming comprehensible words, etc.? Everything happened according to the statistically expected, except for the speaking part. My older daughter stared at us with her big brown eyes showing her eagerness to communicate, but only said dada and mama when she was nearly two. A few more articulated words came closer to three. During that time I took her to Gymboree classes and she happily played around following the other kids silently. I organized play dates with a couple of other parents, and one of my closest friends at the time spoke Spanish, which I speak as well, so we would have been jumping from English to Spanish constantly, and I would have been addressing my daughter exclusively in Portuguese quite frequently. She uttered a bunch of funny syllables pointing at things when she wanted something. I believed she was taking a little longer because of the cacophony of languages around her. Is it a car, um carro, or un auto? The other kids didn’t care one bit, and neither did I. Before the three year checkup, that is. The pediatrician demanded I take her to see a speech therapist and told me to speak with her exclusively in English. I agreed with the speech therapy, but stood my ground: at home my husband and I spoke Portuguese exclusively. After four sessions I had to return for an update visit. The doctor and the therapist agreed that my daughter spoke gibberish and moved from activity to activity too fast. She was sent to an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) doctor for a detailed evaluation of her hearing. He was wonderful. He clearly stated my daughter was perfect. Some kids take longer than others to speak and she was being exposed to three languages at once. The pediatrician insisted I take her to another specialist. She let me know she suspect my daughter could be mildly autistic. The thing is, once she started looking at my daughter, and I, with a funny expression of condescension, the kid started trying to hide under the examining cot and there she would have stayed till the end of all those very uncomfortable conversations, me insisting she was within the parameters for an expat child, the pediatrician insisting she needed further evaluation to accept that.
The waiting room of the children’s psychotherapist was packed with kids with serious issues, from Down syndrome, to clearly autistic kids who would be sitting facing the walls, and a couple of kids in sophisticated wheelchairs because they couldn’t control their own movements. My daughter entered that room like a ray of sun, she walked from child to child, and she touched their arms and caressed their hands with her chubby fingers, and she smiled and talked to them in her funny language, and only those with extreme disabilities didn’t smile back, but every single one of the parents in there did, thankful for a child that didn’t show any discomfort being with their babies. There was a play corner with some basic games there; blocks and shape puzzles mainly. It was empty. I remember guessing that the mildly autistic kids weren’t there that day. My daughter assembled all the puzzles in lightning speed, and started walking around the room taking the games to the other children. She would place a game in front of a child and speak gibberish without expecting any answers, then move to the next. I’m so thankful for the long wait on that day. I can see how she could have come across as a child in her own world, but all I could see was how happy she was, and how she tried to share her funny language with the other kids in the room. Dr. Franck Scola, a French research author on the health and medical needs of expatriated families, explains that “When code mixing [in language development] continues beyond three years of age, despite sustained daily learning of both languages, it is mostly a case of ‘typical bilingual talk’. This is not a display of linguistic ineptitude, but rather a communication strategy adhering to a precise set of rules.” (Scola, Frank. “Suspecting Language and Speech Delay in Bilingual Children.” Expatclic. Nov 2015. Check the box for more information).
Even though I didn’t know all this fifteen years ago, I noticed the other parents looking at me curiously. What was that girl doing there? And I had an epiphany; my daughter couldn’t possibly be autistic. I stood up and left. As anxious as I was, I trusted my gut—and the constant curiosity I saw in her eyes—and kept doing my thing. I read to her every evening in both English and Portuguese, I organized play dates—with Spanish speaking friends and all—I took her to the park, and I allowed her to watch American and Brazilian age appropriate TV shows. By the age of four that girl talked so much, in both English and Portuguese, and something in between, that on and off I had to control myself not to tell her to “please be quiet, for the love of God.” Oh, I ditched that pediatrician, and the speech therapist. My younger daughter was also late in her speech development, not as much as my older daughter, but probably because of having an older sister chatting with her non-stop since she started growing inside of me.
There certainly are many pediatricians in the US nowadays who are supportive of bilingualism. Probably there were many back when I had my baby, just not that one. The ENT specialist I was lucky enough to meet had a lot to do with me holding on to my resolve. Still, it took a lot of courage to stick to my original plan. I had my fair share of sleepless nights until my older daughter finally started making full sentences in either Portuguese or English. But every time I hear both my daughters speaking in Portuguese with their grand-parents over the phone, or on Skype, I feel proud of my stubbornness. I made the right call.
Growing Up Expatriate
by Adriana T. Gomes
The laptop was open on top of the counter between the living room and the kitchen. Staring at us were more faces than could possibly fit on the screen. The in-laws—mother, father, brother and sister—aunts, uncles and cousins, first, second and thrice removed—a big, fat Greek family has nothing on my husband’s extended family—all squeezed together forming a jigsaw puzzle of love and attention we joyfully soaked in. It was our first Mothers’ Day since we moved to the US, and we were celebrating via Skype; a tradition we carry on to this day. That was particularly special though, not for being the first, but because that’s when my husband and I broke the news that we were expecting our first child.
On our side of the screen I could feel that my husband—same as me—wished we could be there receiving all the warmth in person. I felt his hand squeezing my shoulder as he rested his head against mine. Had we made the right choice?
When are you coming back? That was my mother in law’s first question after the compliments and well wishes. My husband didn’t have the heart to say we wouldn’t be going back any time soon, maybe never—except on vacation—so he reminded her we were only five months into a three year expatriate contract. That’s how he communicates with his family, in installments. He was thrilled when he was offered the position in the US, but kept telling his mother he was conflicted until we were fully packed to leave, two weeks before departure. Throughout the years I learned to read him, and he learned not to do that to me.
My parents understood immediately, if we were finally having a baby—after more than six years together, three as a married couple who were fully dedicated to our careers—it meant we had decided to lay down roots. They were happy for us. My family has a strong adventurous streak. My father was first generation Brazilian on both sides; the son of Spanish immigrants who left Europe in search of a better future during the famine that fueled WWI. My mother is the granddaughter of an Italian engineer who arrived in Brazil in the late eighteen hundreds to build a bridge over a river, and fell hopelessly in love with the daughter of a prosperous Italian merchant. The sixteen year old beauty had been disgraced by being kidnapped, raped and impregnated by a famous countryside bandit. So my great-grandfather struck a deal with my great-great-grandfather, married the girl, and visited her in Brazil for a couple of months every year—One day I’ll write their whole story. For now, please pardon the detour, which was to show you my husband with globetrotter aspirations certainly married the right woman. Anyway, as we closed the laptop for the day I felt as if we were closing a door to a part of us that we wouldn’t be living, as if we were turning our backs on the way we grew up by saying we didn’t want that for our kids, and that wasn’t it at all. We were choosing something different not because we didn’t love our family and their way of life, but because of the wonderment of exploring the world in all its possibilities. We had the opportunity to live differently, to experience something out of our ordinary lives, and we wanted to try. We knew that choice meant we would have raised our children alone, without the daily support of our families. But whatever we would have made out of it—right and wrong—would be our own. Excitement, and certainly fear, filled our thoughts—together with anticipation for our new baby—as we embarked on the parenthood adventure, initially as expatriates, and in time as immigrants in the US.
The first big barrier we faced was language, or my stubbornness, or both. Because of my insistence on exclusively speaking Portuguese at home, it took my older daughter three years to master understandable sentences in English—I’ll explore that further in a future post, suffice to say that finding a pediatrician I felt comfortable with wasn’t easy. My younger daughter was also late in her speech development, not as much as my older daughter, but probably because of having an older sister chatting with her non-stop since she started growing inside of me.
School was another big challenge. When we moved and the girls attended international schools, such as it happened in a two year assignment back in Brazil and a one year in China, it was easier. In international schools, teachers and staff are used to the idiosyncrasies of expat kids: they speak at least two languages—their parents’ one, and the one from the country where they lived the longest to date; they adapt easily—it’s common for families to need to relocate mid-school-year; on average they become independent early—they do their homework without being asked, they pack for school by themselves, they pack for trips by themselves—because dad is usually on some business trip and will be back on the moving day, and mom is busy either packing or unpacking the whole house—on the other hand, sometimes schools teach things in different grades, for example when it comes to social studies, expat children’s learned curriculum resembles a collection of mismatched parts, which teachers in international schools use to the advantage of the class by asking everyone to share what they’ve learned. But every time I move back to the US I’m called to meet the teachers in the first couple of weeks for very interesting reasons. Why didn’t my second grader memorize all days of the week and months of the year yet? Why didn’t my sixth grader learn about the American Civil War? To which I answered respectively: Well, she can count till one hundred in Mandarin, and she learned about the French Revolution. Teachers look at me puzzled and I always ask them to give my daughters some time. I explain the situation, and I promise them the girls will keep up, and every time, at the end of the first year, the teachers come to me saying how much my daughters surprised them. It’s the moving cycle. It takes us one year to get fully settled. When we repeat the rituals of going back to the same school for a second year in a row, it’s easier. The teachers know us, and there are no more askance looks. I’m all right.
But am I? When we moved to California back in 2013, my younger daughter, who was learning to write argumentative essays, created a masterpiece of self-pity with me as the reason for all her sorrows. How could I have allowed dad to change jobs again? Why didn’t I tell him that moving so much is bad for children? Didn’t I know that stability is important? She went on writing that she would never, ever allow herself to get close to anyone again and make real friends. Because she knew we would eventually move and she would suffer, all over, again. Best to keep a distance, she concluded. Her teacher called me for a meeting on the third week of school. She showed me the essay and asked if I would like for my daughter to meet with a counselor once a week. I thanked her very much. I promised it would be all right and that soon enough my daughter would have many friends. It’s been three years and she does have many friends. We did stop moving around though; I was tired. It was time for us all to quiet down. My husband and I bought a house, got ourselves into a mortgage, and became American citizens. So you’re never coming back, my mother-in-law said when my husband finally spilled all that to his family through Skype. Her voice betrayed her resignation, and reverberated from São Paulo all the way to our home in California. I felt it too; some choices are easy, chocolate or vanilla ice cream—chocolate for me, please—still, becoming an American citizen felt like assuming another identity, one I’m certainly proud of, but I will always carry the other version of me, the Brazilian woman, regardless, and she regrets all closed doors. My mother told my mother-in-law that they would always be part of my daughters’ lives though. My mother, who was also in that conference—all the way from a different state in Brazil—reminded us all how lucky we are to live in a day and age where we can be in touch as often as we like. Her mother—my Italian grandmother—didn’t see her father sometimes for a full year, even letters took months to arrive. My grandparents from Spain, who left a large extended family in a small village outside of Madrid, in time lost contact with them entirely. Through conference calls, emails, Facebook and WhatsApp, not to mention many summers spent in Brazil, my daughters developed a strong bond with their very large family. They also have many friends spread all over the world. Our extended family is global.
My older daughter is in high school now, and she’ll be leaving to attend college in one year. Junior year wasn’t as hard on her as it was on her friends because of the experiences she’s been through growing up as an expat. Applying to colleges isn’t easy, but she applied to so many schools and she’s been through so many tests and interviews, this is just one more application process. The attending a new school itself, which for most kids is a very big deal, will be just another one in her list. Adapting to a new environment, check. Being patient with the settling down cycle, check. Making new friends, check. These are the things that make me feel confident we made the right decision for them, but have my husband and I made the right decision for ourselves?
As I grow older, I think about my family back in Brazil. I’m not there to help my mother now that my father passed away. That’s my biggest regret. I give her tickets to visit often, but she doesn’t speak English and doesn’t feel comfortable enough to live with us permanently. My in-laws though, have an immense network of family and friends around them. Am I going to have that kind of support, or am I going to end up alone? I hope that together, the four of us, will support each other. Somehow, I hope we can live relatively close and expand the family. Oh no, I’m sounding like my mother in law. I hope I can be as strong as my mother who rebuilt her life after losing my father and lives comfortably with a few friends to visit, and the constant company of her books. I’m already missing my daughters, even though they are still here. That’s the real challenge for all parents, regardless of having perused through three continents, or lived in the same address all their lives. Our children leave us to embark on their own journeys. I can only expect that my choices have given them better tools to navigate the challenges they will face, than I had when I embarked on my journey through life.
My husband and I started in this adventure wishing to enjoy all the opportunities that would have come our way while the kids were young—we planned on having two kids regardless of gender—and we would have settled down when they reached their teen years. Maybe it’s been one of those self-fulfilling prophecies, because that’s exactly what we did, and notwithstanding the insane amount of challenges we had to face for that decision—and the probable hours of therapy that will certainly be blamed on us—our daughters are strong, independent young ladies, whom I’m extremely proud of.
wet, cold and uncomfortable,
like a full diaper.
Crying or sucking are the only options.
bright and warm,
like a cozy blanket,
perfect for napping.
gentle breeze on the hair,
like tickles on the toes.
Kicking arms and legs in the air is a must.
A little rain,
a fresh shower over the head,
puddles to jump in;
let’s go out and play.
A little sun,
blue skies, colorful day,
green grass, swings and slides;
let’s go out and play.
A little wind,
leaves flying through the air,
falling in big piles to jump on;
let’s go out and play.
water running through the gutters,
cascading down the streets.
The world is washed anew ready to be rediscovered.
light at lightning speed,
heating up the blood,
crackling skin and lips, and stretching bones.
blowing over old ideas,
blowing up minds,
bringing about change.
Not a little rain, a poring one,
to wash clothes all the way to the underwear,
and dampen shoes,
until only cleanliness and freshness remains.
Not a little sun, a scalding one,
to heat up the skin all through the flesh,
and warm the air in the lungs,
until old wounds melt away.
Not a little wind, a gusting one,
to tousle the hair down to its roots,
and tangle the overcoat around the legs,
until balance is lost.
From errand to errand,
From work to carpool and back.
Sometimes I inadvertently nap.
“I Am the Proud Parent of an Honor Roll Student.” Good for you, I say. You clearly have it together. Your Tesla tells me you’re eco-conscious and the red candy color makes a statement. You’re edgy, and exuberant. Look at the tennis racket by the Nike duffel bag. You can do it, girl. You fit, fit girl. Wow, so clean and tidied up. I heard you have self-driving capability, I didn’t know you were self-cleaning as well. No scrap of food on the carpet, no crumpled Kleenex in the cup holders and no forgotten business papers left on the floor. Look at that, the cup holder is actually neatly collapsed in its compartment, it isn’t stuck half way through with part of a cereal bar forever stuck in its collapsible mechanism. Collapsed, collapsible, I would love to collapse on your luxurious tan leather seat. Wow, no collection of stomped mismatched shopping bags on the floor behind the driver’s seat. You don’t need them, you plan your supermarket visits and you have a perfectly organized shopping list, I bet you plan weekly menus. No need to fit in a rushed pit stop at the convenience store for basic necessities like bread and milk after the breakfast fiasco that morning. In your life there are no breakfast fiascos, there are Eggs Benedict and French toast with fresh strawberries and mascarpone cheese. Oh, would you look at that, I was mistaken, you do run surprise errands. After all, surprises can be good. Like your husband calling to let you know he will be home early to cook for the family “sole a la meuniere,” that light and savory, buttery, lemony, melt in your mouth fish he does so well; and he told you to buy something nice to wear tonight. He has wonderful news to share. No, you’re not moving for the “umpteenth” time because of his job. He bought a two week vacation package to Europe with a four day stop in New York on the way there, and another four day stop, in Hawaii, on the way back. What else would you have one of those foldable monogrammed shopping bags with a leather flap and handles hanging from a little hook on the back of your seat?
If I had your remote control in my pocket you would automatically unlock for me as I approached you and I would be enveloped by that new car smell, that leathery, sharp, precision electronics and mechanics smell, smog and guilty free aroma, so like newly printed money you earn when you work smart and hard and your boss value your commitment and dedication, and appreciate the results you bring to the organization. I detect something else in the air, a minimal residue of a scent; it smells like a patch of wild flowers at the edge of a redwood forest, but close enough to a lovely Frank Lloyd Wright home with smoke coming out of the chimney. It’s light and fresh and it ends in a warm note. I sight and could swear I felt the top of my head warming up. You smell fabulous. You would never resemble a sweaty pile of dirty clothes that skipped a laundry day. Not even when you walk eight thousand steps, you don’t.
A notebook rests in your console. It’s part weekly organizer part journal. You have two busy kids, your health checkup is up to date, and you had a mani-pedi last week and one is scheduled for next week. SPA every other week, that’s the way to go. Your hair is lustrous and nicely coifed, but not pretentious like the word coifed. You don’t need to pretend. You never need to make a quick pony-tail, or a bun using a lot of hair-jell to hide you haven’t washed your hair in four days. You only use hair jell to go out for dinner after a day at the beach to keep the wet look that matches your sarong dress. Look at your kids’ report cards; Language & Arts – A; Math, no, Advanced Math – A; Sciences – A; Social Studies – A; French, who takes French nowadays? Your kids do – A. You have never seen a D+ in your life. What’s that silly + doing there? A D is a D. Is the teacher trying to disguise something? I don’t know, maybe the teacher doesn’t want the kid to give up all together. It was one test in a very hard honors chemistry class, all right. Back to you though. What do you have in your glove compartment? A bottle of anti-acid, or maybe some anti-depressants. No, of course not, your stomach doesn’t burn, you meditate for thirty minutes every day to deal with stress. No gastritis will prevent you from drinking coffee and enjoying the foods you like. And you’re the opposite of depressed, when you’re sad, after all everyone has sad moments, you cry a little, have one glass of wine and retire to your lovely bedroom where crisp, sixteen hundred count, one hundred percent cotton awaits. Your life isn’t a sequence of too much coffee during the day and too much wine at night, and you certainly never received a letter from the gastroenterologist stating you have severe inflammation on your stomach lining and need to cut on some foods with a mile long list of restrictions attached. Upon reading such letter you wouldn’t have felt the acidic eruption going up to your ears and called your psychiatrist asking him to increase your dose; because how else could you deal with that blow. From the passenger’s seat I see you coming. You have a spring in your walk. Your white summer dress hugs your flat stomach and swings around your toned legs. Your smile holds the promise of a perfect life. Do I want it though? Would I trade what I have? We face each other through the windshield. “Tap-tap-tap,” a sound rouses me.
“Mom, did you fall asleep in the carpool line again?” my daughter stares at me through the opened car window. I look around and blink slightly startled. The familiar chaos of my SUV surrounds me.
“Oops, hop in, honey. I have a meeting in the city. How was the test?” Ahead of me the honor roll student enters the Model S and the line moves on.
“I got a solid B. Thanks for helping mom. You’re the best. Who’s picking me up after rehearsal?”
“Dad. Please ask him to order a pizza for dinner. Ah, and let him know I’ll be late.”
“I’m getting a mani-pedi.”
I was in Dallas for a sports event, and ended up having to re-think my opinion—or lack thereof—regarding gun-control. After a long day watching my thirteen-year-old daughter compete in the 2016 Summer Fencing US National Championships in Dallas on July 7th, I was ready for an evening of friendly chitchat with the other parents from our fencing club. Instead, I was faced by the worst America has to show, and my daughter and I had to run for our lives. In a time when gun violence has declined worldwide, here it remains steadily, unsurprisingly, even expectedly, high. The same way we come together to create the opportunities our children need to thrive in education, arts and sports, we must come together to stop the proliferation of assault weapons, and prevent any gun from getting into the wrong hands.
The Summer Fencing US National Championships is a shining example of American exceptionalism, where dedicated athletes, and their families, come together to compete, and to share in the camaraderie of the sport. The 2016 championships were held at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas. A vast, well lit, and thank goodness, well ventilated venue. It was my first visit to Dallas, and let me tell you, that’s one hot summer spot, and bear in mind that I have lived in Florida for 6 years. If I was relieved by the powerful air conditioning running all day, imagine the fencers under 4 layers of gear. Think of hockey players with metal net masks covering their faces and surrounding their heads, moving without the aid of skates sliding smoothly over ice, but holding a sword instead, and attacking and defending at lighting speed—Fencing is the second fastest Olympic sport, losing only to Olympic Shooting. At the end of many hours of competition, as the athletes stepped out of their gear, you could have seen their bodies and faces covered in sweat, their hairs glued to their scalps. At the end of that day, it was in that state that my daughter, rolling her heavy gear bag behind her, stepped outside to face the Dallas heat by my side.
For my thirteen-year-old daughter, July 7th 2016 was the last of two days of intense competition doing what she loves, fencing. It was a rough day. She lost her last DE (Direct Elimination bout)—in the round of 64—3 to 4 in a tense, brainy bout. She finished the season ranked 47th in Y12 (Youth who are 12 years old in the beginning of the season). She was disappointed with her overall performance, and not just a little disheartened. At the end of the day we were both exhausted, and very, very hungry.
We left the Convention Center, dropped her gear in our hotel, and walked three blocks to the Omni Hotel in downtown Dallas to have dinner with other families from our team in one of the restaurants surrounding it. Feeling much better after a nice meal among friends, we stepped outside and waited for an Uber, which never came. A couple approached the restaurant and stopped by our group. “Two cops have been shot, be careful out here,” the gentleman said. He pointed toward the crossing of Lamar and Young, some 700 feet from us. We crossed the street and there it was, from afar we saw dozens of police cars lighted up as the brightest Christmas trees. The glare made me blink. Could it be true? Could two police officers have really been shot? A security guard from Omni ran to us. “Quickly, step inside,” she opened a side door and rushed us in. We saw dozens of people had already found refuge inside the hotel.
As we walked toward the main lobby we saw protesters everywhere. Young and old, black, white, Latino and Asian, all leaned against the walls and columns, and each other. Many sat on the floor, their signs against violence resting on their laps. Regardless of background, creed, or color, all had the same look of fear, and some sort of morbid anticipation on their faces, like mourners waiting to carry a coffin. My daughter and I weren’t fully aware of the situation yet, but we would soon have the same look of dread.
As the main lobby came into view the doors opened up and a crowd ran inside. I turned back to where we came from. I unnecessarily called out my daughter’s name, and yelled run. She was already ten feet ahead of me. I ran after her and heard a shot. What to do, my brain raced as my eyes scanned all corners looking for a safe place to hide. Two more shots, one immediately after the other.
My daughter kept changing directions to avoid colliding with other runners. I changed directions accordingly, to make sure I was between her and whatever was happening behind us. She made a big turn left, I miraculously followed closely. She’s a young athlete, I’m a middle aged woman who’s been leading a sedentary lifestyle of late. She ducked behind a group of people who tried to hide behind a low wall that encircled a bar area. Anyone coming through either side would easily get them. I looked to both sides of the street and didn’t see anyone. I didn’t stop. I didn’t crouch. I called her name and kept running across the empty street toward a restaurant. It was locked. I squashed my daughter’s body against the glass door as I hit it with both my hands. A waiter opened it up, and told me they were closed for the night. I pushed the door with all my strength and closed it behind me. “You don’t know.” I said, but couldn’t continue. Whatever I had to say, he noticed I was in panic for some reason. He showed me a booth and told me to rest. He walked to the bar and came back with two glasses of water. I still couldn’t speak. I looked at my daughter who told him what we’d been through.
They had three TV monitors above the bar that had been turned off for the night. They turned them back on and everyone watched in horror. At that time 11 police officers had been shot, 2 were dead.
When I moved to the US, back in 1997, I was in awe of the American spirit. To me, the “If you can dream it, you can do it” attitude was new and intoxicating. I was particularly impressed by how much Americans get involved in their children’s school activities, and volunteer in sport and art organizations to support their communities. I was in awe of how much Americans give to peoples in crisis, and how positively and energetically Americans act.
When I became a parent I jumped on the bandwagon. I volunteered for the Book Fairs, the Teacher Appreciation Lunches, and the neighborhood Swim Meets. I joined the PTA. I attended dinners to help build schools in Africa, and Bingo Nights to help buy supplies for the teachers, and other Bingo Nights to support the choir, the orchestra, and the visual art studio. I was hooked on the American way of getting involved, of getting things done, of making it happen.
How could such an extraordinary people let the pro-gun lobbyists, which are minority in the country, take over to such an extent that children leaving a sports event are suddenly in danger of dying from a gunshot wound? I’m having a hard time reconciling the America I chose to call home with this America, hostage to an association whose sole purpose is commercial. The NRA doesn’t care about our rights, they care about sales. “The NRA has successfully forged a partnership with the [firearms] industry—shielding it from criticism while protecting its product—to the point where it has become nothing less than a manufacturers’ trade association. The NRA’s “slippery slope” argument against gun control dovetails perfectly with the needs of an unregulated firearms industry searching for new markets. Both the NRA and the industry share a common goal: to increase gun sales and expand the universe of those who buy them. For the industry it means dollars. For the NRA it means members to fight their battles” (NRA Money, Firepower & Fear, 18). And we, the American people, are the hostages of their marketing strategy. A marketing strategy that invades American politics through the money they invest in the candidacy of congressmen and congresswomen who become their pawns once elected. Through its political action committee, Political Victory Fund, the NRA invests “millions of dollars… on direct campaign donations, independent campaign expenditures and on mobilizing [its] aggressive grassroots operation[s]. The NRA-PVF ranks political candidates – irrespective of party affiliation – based on voting records, public statements and their responses to an NRA-PVF questionnaire. NRA relies on a very simple premise: when provided with the facts, the nation’s elected officials will recognize that “gun control” schemes are an infringement on the Second Amendment and a proven failure in fighting crime. The importance of this premise lies in the knowledge that, as one U.S. Congressman put it: “The gun lobby is people.”” (www.nrapvf.or/about-pvf/, July 30th 2016). In 2004 the NRA-PVF PAC spent $12.8 million dollars mostly in “independent expenditures [which] include money spent on behalf of candidates. But not given directly to them, such as renting a billboard sign or airing a television advertisement endorsing John McCain and opposing Barack Obama for president” (Gun Crusaders – The NRA Culture War, 226).
NRA’s most effective actions to influence the American political process though are executed by the ILA—Institute for Legislative Action, NRA’s lobbying arm—issues “legislative alerts [that are] mailed to members to inform them of proposed local, state and federal laws, [and] ensure that when the issue is gun-control, the NRA will be heard—en masse. Steeped in emotional rhetoric, NRA mailings portray every gun-control measure as a personal attack threatening the very life of each NRA member and his family. As a result, congressional offices measure NRA mails by the bag. At the local level, whenever the issue of gun control is broached the overwhelming presence of irate… NRA members at public hearings is guaranteed” (NRA Money, Firepower & Fear, 19). Currently the NRA-PVF Chairman “has administrative responsibility over NRA-ILA’s $30 million budget” (www.nrapvf.or/about-pvf/, July 30th 2016).
Growing up in Brazil, I was always conscious of the risk of being robbed. I carried my backpack as a front-pack against my chest, always having one arm around it. I wasn’t afraid of terrorists and bullets though. That came with my American citizenship. The change wasn’t sudden. It was a gradual process that for me started on September 11th, 2001. I had taken my older daughter on a play date in one of those giant entertainment rooms in a local McDonalds, and was sipping coffee while chatting with another parent, when a TV monitor hanging from the ceiling let us know we were under attack. I drove home in complete disbelief. Like everyone else, during the subsequent months, I panicked. I would collect my mail wearing gloves and open letters on my garage floor while wearing a mask. I watched the news closely and was terrified by the idea of chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists. I wasn’t sure we should have gone to war though. But most of my American friends were absolutely certain. I believed we should have proceeded with caution, kept our guards up. They thought attack was the best defense. But who should we attack? There were a lot of grey areas in the information being shared with the general population. I am part of the general population, and I was undecided. How easy it was to think that smarter, better informed people would decide what to do. How easy it was to fall for hasty generalizations. Like most Americans, I fell for the “hidden chemical weapons story.” I started thinking it’s OK to give up my privacy for safety. I started agreeing that attack is the best defense. I decided that we should always be prepared for the worst.
I didn’t think much about gun-control in the US though. In Brazil, where I grew up, guns are part of the criminal culture. Only police and army personnel can carry guns freely. To own a gun, a private citizen must go through a lengthy process, get all sorts of checking done—universal background and mental health included—and prove proficiency in the use of the weapon he/she intends to buy. Guns are sold only by establishments controlled by the army, which keeps a detailed file of all gun owners. So, I had this wrongful notion that guns would only be in the hands of bad people, or people who knew what to do with them under pressure. Prior to July 7th I had “experienced” guns in different ways exactly 4 times. When I was a teenager, as I left the English program I attended after school, I saw a man shooting the tire of a motorcycle being driven by a criminal trying to flee after a robbery. The driver lost control of the vehicle and fell by the curb where he stayed until the police arrived. In my early twenties a robber pressed a gun against my back at a crowded bus stop and asked for my student’s monthly share of public transportation passes. I had just collected them at the central station. He had probably followed me, waiting for the right moment. “Give me your bus tickets,” that’s all he said. I couldn’t have seen him. I just felt the gun touching my spine, right above my waist. My back pack hanged from my shoulders and rested against my stomach. I opened the front pocket and handed him the envelope. He didn’t take my wallet, or anything else. No one moved or spoke. I didn’t turn my back to try to see him. From my peripheral vision I saw him walking fast. I saw the back of his gun in his hand inside his sweatshirt pocket. In Brazil we know that if we don’t react, the robber goes away. After some time a couple of people approached me to make sure I was all right. Years later, already a resident in the U.S., while visiting my family in Brazil, I saw a robber in a motorcycle—very much like the one from my teenage memory—approach a car and point a gun at the driver ahead of me on a stop light of a busy street. Only that time there was no capable shooter nearby and the robber escaped. The driver handed the robber his wallet and once the robber left he drove ahead a few feet and parked his car. He must have certainly cancelled his credit cards, before he called the police to register the robbery.
Most gun violence in Brazil is either robbery or drug related. “The northeastern region of the country [is the worst where] over 60% of the homicides have a direct connection with drug trafficking” (“Northeast Brazil: The Most Violent Region in The World,” http://www.pravdareport.com, January 28th 2014). Poverty is another factor. Brazil has “one of the highest rates of inequality in the world: its 2012 GINI index (51.9) was the 16th highest out of 136 countries worldwide (the United States ranks 42nd” (“Crime and violence in Brazil: Systematic review of time trends, prevalence rates and risk factors,” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/, September 18th 2013). Outside of such extreme environments, criminals would rather not kill anyone to avoid harsher punishments. So, growing up in São Paulo—one of Brazil’s southeastern region states—I developed this perception of guns as threats, but the rules of engagement were clear, and in my mind there was a certain sense of clarity about it. I knew that, to have a gun, a criminal would had to have robbed it somehow. I knew that, Brazil being a developing country with unemployment rates fluctuating from 3.5% to 12% and few social programs, many would have no alternative but to be on the streets, either begging or robbing. I also knew that I should avoid certain areas, whenever possible. The fact that now I feel my family’s safety threatened as much as I used to worry about being robbed in Brazil is shocking.
In my early forties, having seen the fatal attraction Americans have for guns I decided to hold one. During a holiday weekend at a resort that offered skeet shooting, I gave it a try. “Place one foot behind you and one ahead as if taking a step,” the instructor said, “this will help you hold the kick. Now, rest the riffle against your shoulder and take aim.” I was amazed. At the force of the kick, at how loud a shot is, and at how hard it is to actually hit those flying clay saucers, I was amazed. Above all, I was confronted by how emotionally disengaging the process of shooting is. The distance between the act of pulling a trigger, to the skeet exploding in the air—when I finally managed to hit it—felt like watching a cartoon. I exploded one skeet and there was another one, exactly like the previous one, flying through the air. Far away. They looked exactly the same. They were the same. From afar, so are we. The physical distance creates an emotional distance that allows for a disengagement between action and consequence. I haven’t seen, or touched a gun since. On July 7th, in Dallas, I heard it well though.
If people feel safer having guns, let them have it, I used to think. I saw a robber being prevented from fleeing the scene of his crime and being captured by the police because of a private gun owner once. Live and let live. As years passed though, I learned that some people, not a lot, but unfortunately quite a few think: “I wish to die and kill other people in the process.” And for those people, it’s very easy to make that happen in America. I used to think the issue didn’t affect me directly. I live in a safe neighborhood in California, a state with rigid gun-control legislation. Let each state decide as it chooses, I used to think. Then, one day, I came so close to the risks of the bad consequences of America’s lack of federal gun-control legislation that I had to reconsider my position. I had to say something.
On July 7th I learned the difference between the ideological fears cultivated through the media that make us want to dig a moat around us, and isolate ourselves from reality, and the real fear for my child’s life that made me realize we can’t always hide from danger, but we can work to make America safer.
Nowadays all of us Americans fret. We fret about war. We fret about terrorist attacks. We fret that someone mentally unstable may start shooting in our neighborhood school. But we are used to fretting from our sofas. Seating in front of our TV monitors we watch the world looking like it’s about to explode at any minute. Yet, somehow, we don’t think it will ever affect us directly. On July 7th it hit me in the face. It became real to me, a middle class American, while on the very American duty of a “soccer-mom.”
Hours after we had to run for our lives, we walked to another hotel—seven blocks from the one we were staying in—which was inside the perimeter of the siege. We finally lay down to rest, on July 8th at 1:30 AM. Exhausted as I was, I couldn’t have fallen asleep. I tried to focus on the beautiful sound of my living daughter deeply asleep by my side, and that’s when I started shaking. Contradictory sensations crashed within me. I shook strongly, but couldn’t have brought my body to stand up. I felt a great weight over my chest and had the distinct impression that the bed was moving. I became nauseated, but couldn’t have walked to the toilet to throw up, if it had come to that. I don’t know how long it lasted, but the first morning light was coming through the curtains when I finally fell asleep.
We all dread bad things, but when you put together fear with the “go get it” American attitude, there’s a sense of angst I’ve never experienced. That need to act, to avoid feeling helpless and afraid, pushed us to a rushed decision, and into a war, back in 2003. It certainly pushed me to agree with it. That same kind of feeling, that kind of fear of the unknown, makes us susceptible to the gun for protection rhetoric to the point that every time we have a mass shooting in America, gun sales go up. It’s a disturbing pattern. “Spikes in background checks, which must be conducted for any gun sale from a licensed dealer, have followed a number of devastating mass shootings [in 2015], including the deadly incident at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., in June  that killed nine, the shooting at Umpqua Community College in October that killed nine and injured nine, a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., in November that killed three and injured nine, and the latest shooting in San Bernardino, [California]” (“This Year’s Gun Sales Could Set Record for U.S.,” Time.com, December 7th 2015).
But contrary to what the NRA says, all those guns aren’t making us safer. They aren’t protecting us. They are injuring and killing us instead. “Every day, nearly 300 people are shot in gun related violence. Of those almost a third die. In 2015 over 13,000 people were killed by firearms. In 2015 over 27,000 people were injured by firearms in over 53,000 incidents. In 2016 we’ve already had 27,624 incidents, 14,738 injuries, and 7,145 deaths. From 1968 until 2011, research shows that more people died from gun violence in the US, than in all wars we participated in, from the American Civil War all the way through the Iraq War” (“Guns in The US: The Statistics Behind The Violence,” BBC.com, January 5th 2016).
The NRA invests millions to influence American politics to steadily increase its market size. Our elected representatives should be on their case, but they aren’t. It’s time to question the ability of the congress to make the best possible decision for our safety, and to demand change.
I was so numb by everything that happened in Dallas, I didn’t pay attention to a nagging pain on my left foot. I only managed to see a doctor five days later. Turns out my foot was broken when someone stepped on it during that insane run on July 7th. It will take six to eight weeks to heal. On the other hand, the emotional scars, I believe will stay with me far longer. Speaking up about my experience that day is part of my healing process. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. But how to forgive? I’ve been conflicted about that. Even though empathy is a beautiful word, practicing it is so very hard. “Why did that man wanted to kill white cops, mom?” my daughter asked. I had to think about that, but finally I asked her, “Do you remember when you had the flu, and you wanted to say something to me, but couldn’t because your throat was too sore, and you felt so weak and frustrated that you cried? And there was nothing I could do, but be there and hug you.” She nodded. “Then, a couple of weeks later you told me you felt like you would never be able to speak again, and that made you so very, very sad. Remember that?” “Yes,” she answered. “Sometimes, things happen that are so sad, we feel voiceless like that, and that can make some people lose hope. Being hopeless can make us very sick emotionally, and that may lead to terrible choices.” “He needed to be hugged, right mom?” she asked. “Hugged, heard, accepted, and respected,” I said. Sometimes we face moments of terrible social injustice that lead to deep feelings of despair. That understanding is also a way for me to forgive and focus on a better future. Talking about her athletic disappointment my daughter said it right: “Mom, I have a lot of work to prepare for my next year’s championships. I’m so glad I’m alive to have another chance to do better.”
I believe we all need to do better. This fatalistic attitude of accepting the worst is un-American. If there are people, sponsored by the NRA, taking the time to call and put pressure on congress to maintain the pro-gun status quo, so must we, against it. If we can organize weekly swim meets, and soccer games, and fencing tournaments, mostly through volunteerism, we can certainly come together and flood the congress with clear messages pro-strict-gun-control.
In Dallas my daughter and I had the privilege of seeing American Olympians preparing for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. We are the country of the largest Olympic Delegation in the history of the games. It takes a lot of work, patience, dedication, determination, and belief to pull that off. If we, the American People, use our resolve to change the gun-control tide, we certainly can do it.