Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Your Life Is An Impossibility realises with alarm that he is pushing 40. A bout of self-examination is quickly undertaken. Memory: has been an empty husk for years. Hair: thinning, but not too much. Vision: fading, but not too fast. Waistline: spreading, but not too abundantly. YLIAI feels relieved. There may be a few years of pointless wittering in the old dog yet.

And then he considers the positives. Because 40, truly, might be the best age, and is certainly the first age when you can truly say that you are no longer stupid (though there are of course plenty of stupid 40 year olds). You are no longer stupid because by 40 it has become apparent that in all probability you have failed, and worse, or better, that this failure is unlikely to change.

You learn that there are no great surprises lurking around the corner – no Bookers or Pulitzers, no Bolas De Ouro. Before 40, it is quite possible that you have maintained faint hope that all dreams will come true. Now, you know they won’t.

This is not a bad thing, of course, and other things can change – love, and its opposite number, not love anymore, can sprout like weeds at any time. The appearance of children remains an ever present threat.

But overall life may even be better after 40. Because now, free from pressure, filled with the knowledge that disappointing self-awareness brings, life can go on, better than before, the work becoming more important than whether people like it or not.

At 40, if you are lucky, you will no longer believe you are more intelligent, more able, more alpha, than the next man. You will know simply that you are you; unremarkable, average, even happy, hopefully.

Having written this YLIAI feels wiser than ever, which might be defeating the object a little. He feels, perhaps, that it is time for a new theory on Brazilian life. He believes that he might be just the man to write it. He picks up his pen (or turns on his computer) and thinks of....

Geometry, oddly enough. Recently YLIAI took a trip to Brazil’s most geometric, and also most unloveable, city, Brasilia. He waited patiently in line at the TV Tower, then rode up a hundred metres or so in an elevator. At the top, he peered out over Mr Costa's and Mr Niemeyer’s* marvellously symmetrical handiwork.

Brasilia is a masterpiece of urban planning, with only one small oversight. Mr Costa and Mr Niemeyer forgot to put any poor people in. The poor in Brasilia, with a few exceptions, don´t live in Brasilia, at least not in the Plano Piloto. Instead they´re shipped off to the cidade satélites, where, without the resources of the capital’s police force to take care of things, they’re basically left to tear each other to bits as best they can. The cidades satélites are Brazil’s new murder hotspots.

But Costa and Niemeyer (and YLIAI finds himself overcoming an almost insurmountable urge to type Neymar every time he has to use Oscar’s name) were onto something when they dreamt of a geometric Brazil. In other words, simply put: horizontal relations = good, vertical relations = bad.

If life is lived here on a simple plane, then it is a tolerable enough business. An honest day’s work will bring in enough of an honest day’s pay to afford a decent lunch of rice, beans and chicken most days, plus a few palavras at the weekend, and maybe the price of a ticket to the football too. With credit cards flying around like confetti, these days even social classes C1 or C2 might be able to afford the price of a plane ticket down to see Auntie Edicleide and the kids in São Paulo, though they´ll spend the next ten months paying it off. All so good, all so horizontal.

What you must avoid like the dengue, if you can, is any kind of vertical relationship. Our friends in social classes C1 or C2 can take a trip to the big supermarkets like Carrefour or Hyper Bom Preço like anyone else, but shouldn’t let their eyes stray over to the imported cheeses section. If they do they’ll either be appalled or amused to see that 100gs of Stilton will cost them r$379**. Stilton is not part of their reality, therefore to covet it is to desire a vertical relationship, where you are situated below the item you desire – such a relationship will only bring pain and suffering.

Vertical relationships also appear wherever someone has power over someone else. This can take many forms. In a previous life YLIAI lived in an old apartment in Boa Vista, downtown Recife (long-term readers will remember this as being the era of days spent looking over one’s shoulder in case a hired gun, out to get The Ex-Girlfriend, was lurking behind a bush). One balmy summer night thieves broke in and stole the water pump. We´ll all chip in and get a new one, the owner of the apartment building informed YLIAI. YLIAI was perplexed. Isn’t the water supply, and all its workings, rather the responsibility of the building owner? he asked. No, came the retort, and while we´re at it you still owe me for the copy of the keys I cut for you when you moved in. A better example – when vacating an apartment, it is the responsibility of tenants to paint the property, regardless of its state upon arrival. Landlords above, tenants below = pain and suffering.

Worse lies in store at work. Brazilian employers tell their employees when the employees are going on holiday, not the other way round. When fired in Brazil (a common enough experience, given that many employers still believe themselves to be living in the days of the Casa Grande and the Senzala) the shamed ex-employee must come skulking back a few weeks later to sign his exit papers and receive whatever pittance is owed to him. YLIAI knows of a case where a particular ex-employee was forced to return time and time again, as on each occasion his former employer had been called away on urgent business – a long leisurely lunch, a round of golf, a post-prandial nap. Boss above, worker below = pain and suffering. YLIAI could throw the plight of live-in nannies, cleaners and housekeepers, into the mix here, but doesn’t think he needs to – the image of his own (oh the hypocrisy!) once every two weeks cleaning lady eating her lunch while sitting on a paint pot in the spare room, because that’s what her other employers expected her to do, probably says it all.

Even in his free time the Brazilian (and even the gringo) must wade through great rivers of torment and agony. In some places, YLIAI has heard, there exists the maxim the customer is always right. Translated into Brazilian Portuguese, and then back again into English, this becomes: the customer is to be ignored where possible, tolerated when unavoidable, and fobbed off with promises never to be upheld when there is absolutely no other option remaining. Brazilian banks charge their clients when they withdraw money, when they deposit money, when they print off receipts confirming the withdrawal or the depositing of money, when they use their telephone banking services, when they use their internet banking services, even sometimes when they want to use the car park in front of the bank (hats off to Santander/Banco Real in As Republicas for this one).

They have this in common with Brazilian shopping malls, who charge hefty parking fees to people who want to buy things at the shops inside the shopping mall. Bills issued by the country’s telecommunications giants Oi, Tim, Claro, Vivo and friends are almost always often wrong, and by calling to complain the customer unknowingly enters into one of the Seven Circles of Hell, where he will be required to give his name, CPF, identity card number, address, date of birth, and explain the nature of his complaint, to no less than six different company representatives before finally being attended to in a (loosely) satisfactory manner. Quite often he will be cut off somewhere between representatives, and be required to go through the entire process all over again. Big business above, lowly client below = pain and suffering.

All this, of course, is just the creamy icing on the cake, with the real issue lurking somewhere amongst the glacê cherries, raisins and nuts that lie below. The Big Black, resident of harum scarum Jordão Baixo, has no rich or even middle class friends, and probably never will. He doesn’t go anywhere where he is likely to meet anyone from outside of his own social class. If he did, he would likely be met with some suspicion – handbags would be clutched tighter to chests, wallets secured in inner pockets.

On the other hand, YLIAI’s upper middle class friends don’t know any poor people, other than their nannies, cleaners, and housekeepers. A recent survey taken amongst a group of upper middle class teenagers showed that they wouldn´t mind going out with a black boy or girl, but that they couldn´t imagine going out with someone from a lower social class. Horizontal rules ok.

YLIAI has a friend from Norn Iron, no-one’s example of a shining example of anything, who grew up in the 1980s on state benefits in Taughmonagh, or Tintown, in South Belfast, a place where at night even the rottweillers prefer to attend to their necessisities indoors. But YLIAI’s friend, who we might call The Argonaut, is a clever chap (though not as clever as YLIAI), and did terribly well at school, and went to Oxford, and is now a big cheese headmaster at an awfully good private school somewhere in England.

If this happened in Brazil, not only would the big computer that makes up mathematics formulae based on Brazilian society explode, but someone would make a documentary about The Argonaut, and he would become a media celebrity and appear on programmes like Domingão Do Faustão and Fantastico.

YLIAI doesn’t know where he´s going with all of this, but he knows he has probably been banging on for long enough now. He also realises that none of the above is particularly new, save for the lame geometry gag. Oh well. He feels a craving for something to eat. He weighs his options, being careful not to consider anywhere situated at an angle of more than 45° above his current social position, and heads out into the night.

* Following the concrete abhorrence that is Mr Niemeyer’s latest work, Parque Dona Lindu in Recife, YLIAI would like to declare himself no longer a fan of Brazil’s Greatest Ever Architect ™. Instead, a round of applause to Mr Niemeyer’s Brasilia cohorts, top gardener (though no Percy Thrower) Roberto Burle Marx and painter, sculptor and mosaic maker (is there a better word?) Athos Bulcão, the men who humanised Niemeyer’s cement and white paint brutality.

** This, it must be confessed, is a fictitious example, because YLIAI didn´t have time to go to Carrefour to check just how much posh cheese costs, or what posh cheese is in stock. But the principle is pretty much true.

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