Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Changing For The Better

Technological and scientific developments have resulted in tremendous lifestyle changes throughout the history of mankind. Despite many significant historic developments of the past century, these changes have appeared more rapidly over the past few decades. Such changes are necessary and essential for human survival and I personally have been affected by them, as I constantly have to adjust to new circumstances. The use of computers in my daily life has made it possible for me to use my time more effectively at work and otherwise. Only in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined that someday I would be processing bank transactions without the need of standing in line or being helped by a bank teller. Computers and their applications have been instrumental at promoting change in our society’s way of thinking and behavior. They have become important tools for improved communication, decision making and discoveries in many different fronts. Several scientific fields, such as agriculture and the life sciences in particular, have been affected by such technological changes.

With such powerful tools at hand, scientists have made significant advancements in the field of agriculture by addressing the problem of food shortage as the populations of the world increases sharply every year. Consequently, there has been a need for improved strategies as there is a close correlation between population growth and food consumption. More resistant crops have been introduced in the fields as an option for farmers to overcome problems that may compromise the quality of their harvest and product cost. Companies like Monsanto have been established worldwide as a resource for local governments and private sectors. These companies evaluate specific environmental trends of a particular area and introduce grains that are resistant to certain diseases in order to bust quality and productivity. In light of these and many other promising discoveries, there have been heated discussions over the safety of such products. Many argue that genetically engineered foods are not proven to be safe for human consumption and could potentially trigger some kind of mutation in the human organism. That would become a very serious public health issue but the companies have rebuffed such allegations and sustain that their products are safe.

Due to prices of crude oil and natural gas and their environmental concerns, governments from industrialized nations have searched for ways to replace these sources of fuel into renewable, safe and environmentally acceptable alternatives. The utilization of sugarcane and corn have proven to be the best sources for producing Ethanol as an alternative fuel source opposed to the status quo which has the disadvantage of polluting the environment in addition to being very costly. The Brazilian government, for example, has followed that path very successfully after more than three decades of exhaustive scientific studies on the production of Ethanol from sugar cane. Currently every single small vehicle engine is adjusted to use a mixture of 25% Ethanol and 75% gasoline. The country’s agro fuel production has soared and shown very significant indicators as Brazil, at this time, is exporting its technology to many different countries. Most of the Ethanol production from Brazil is sold to the United States and Europe. This is an indication that all the initial investment made by the government really paid off. There has been a growing concern on the part of environmentalists that the vast areas being used for sugar cane plantations may restrict the production of foods which eventually may drive the cost of other products up.

There have been many new developments in the Life Sciences field as well. Life expectancy has increased dramatically as a result of advanced studies in the medical field. New treatments of chronic diseases such as Cancer and Aids have given people suffering from such diseases more time and the ability to live longer. The most astounding for me is the ongoing studies in the field of stem cell research. A new window has opened for potential discoveries of new drugs that will treat or even cure certain diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Another development of significance is the human genome project in which the purpose is to identify human genes and sequence the base pairs which make up human DNA to be used as a data base for facilitating medical research. Computer software application is one key element for the success of many of these projects and it is used for performing complex calculations.

These are just a few examples which illustrate how fast the world is changing and the way computer technology has become a key element in the course of such changes. Despite being a natural course of human existence, changes are commonly viewed with skepticism and fear. That may be based on lack of knowledge and may not be backed up with substantial evidence to prove this antagonist point of view. Companies have become more proactive in preparing themselves to deal with both legal and ethical issues which could surface in response to those actions. Such issues would be certain to arise especially if the subject in question is public health. Some hot topics which have raised questions have to do with new methods utilizing genetic engineering for producing foods and drugs and the possibility for them to become a cumbersome health threat far greater compared to the benefits they claim to produce. Cloning and stem cell research are leading to such great medical achievements which will aid in the cure of genetic diseases but have become very touchy subjects and created great resistance from lobbyists.

I embrace change as a natural course for my own survival and the survival of future generations. It is common for me to feel uneasy when trying new methods and ideas with which I am unfamiliar. For example, as identity theft was on the rise I always felt uncomfortable using the computer to pay bills or to make any purchases online. Suddenly I am doing just that. I very rarely write a check or feel the need to go to the bank as most operations can be done online. I still have to deal with a certain level of discomfort as the chance for people to steal my identity has not gone away, but the benefits of my behavior change are far greater than the discomfort I have of being exposed to a criminal act. This scenario may apply to many other situations. In order to meet the demand for food and energy as the world population grows, scientists have to present solutions that represent change and which in turn will impact people’s behavior. Because such changes may act against people’s beliefs and values, such proposals will always face resistance from interest groups no matter what the benefits will be. Thus, what is viewed as uncomfortable or offensive by some may be viewed as inevitable and necessary by many others. In short, we are either struggling to find the best conditions for surviving in a continuous changing environment or fighting to preserve existing circumstances for fear that the change may be more harmful than beneficial. Regardless of how we feel about change, technological and scientific advances are inevitable and will continue to change our world.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Tightrope Walker

A scene from my childhood that I will never forget was a tightrope walker performing his piece in a circus. I was just about twelve years old and that was the first time that I ever saw such a performance. I was really impressed with the artist’s ability to move his body in the open space with only a tightrope under his feet and an open umbrella used to keep his balance. I was excited but fearful that he could miss his step and fall. Somehow he kept moving right along until he finally made it to safety. The audience applauded him very enthusiastically. I was excited but also relieved. I look back and review that moment at the circus as I try to define the meaning of “learning”. As a kid I was really impressed to see that performance but never thought of what it took for the artist to reach such a level of excellence. I realize now that no matter how talented someone is, it takes years of practice to be able to perform such skill, let alone doing it in front of an audience. Learning in that case is very intense. Considering that learning is a very subjective matter, I can only express how it applies to me. Learning is a process that evolves from motivation or necessity. In either case, I need to be willing to sacrifice myself in exchange for some kind of compensation later which may be professional recognition, or simple pleasure. Some important factors of learning are motivation, repetition, concentration, discipline and hard work.

Motivation is the driving force in the process of learning. Just having the desire to learn something does not do much for me. I must be convinced that I will benefit somehow from the experience. I must ask myself the following questions several times before engaging in the learning process: Why is it important? What are the benefits? What I am accomplishing with that experience? Where is it going to take me? Once I answer some of these questions satisfactorily it becomes the fuel for me to move along with the plan. I then willingly accept the commitment of working towards the desired goal. Motivation could also be based on others experiences or influenced by someone else’s opinion.

Learning is a continuous thing in my day-to-day life on the job. In order to perform my work in a satisfactory manner, I need to be as consistent as possible. Consistency comes from repetition which plays a very important role in giving me the confidence required to deliver the results that the company wants; however, because clients are constantly changing, so are the projects and processes. Just when I get comfortable in doing things a particular way, it is time for me to move on to something else. Learning for me is a gradual thing. I only become better at something when I am continuously exposed to the job at hand. Initially, I learn to get a grasp on it and eventually I am comfortable enough to focus on the details. In other words, learning never really stops and repetition is one key element of it.

When it comes to concentration, I draw a parallel with the scene of the artist who performed the tightrope act in the circus. Similarly to him, I also walk a fine line under the attentive eyes of an audience. When performing my experiments, there is no room for distractions, as for the tightrope walker performing in front of the crowd. His shaky and timed step on the rope resembles the careful considerations I have to take before moving on to the next process step. Each detail is important and I need to focus just like him. Experience gives me an edge but it is not a guarantee of absolute success. There is always a discomfort I have to deal with associated with learning a new process from scratch. That feeling comes from the fear of messing things up and causing downtime and spending valuable company resources. For that reason I need to concentrate twice as hard when performing new tasks until it becomes second nature.

Discipline and hard work are both important factors. The expression: “no pain, no gain” literally applies for just about anything I do in life. It implies that if I am not willing to go through the discomforts associated with learning, I would never be able to reach a satisfactorily level in terms of knowledge and skill. When learning, I need to plan accordingly and be able to track my progress over time. As a kid I marveled at the artist’s great performance. I never really thought of what it took for him to reach his level of success. No doubt, his performance was the finished product of his hard work, commitment and self-determination.

I clearly understand that, in a broad sense, learning has always been the natural path for human survival. Despite technological advancements and how they have made my life easier, ultimately, learning rests with my mind’s ability to process and assimilate the information presented to me. In order for me to learn my brain needs to be stimulated and motivated. At work, I am constantly engaged in learning new processes and ways to improve existing ones. Learning is the only way for me to succeed not only as a professional but also as an individual. Perhaps my understanding and thirst for learning will enable me to someday walk the tightrope of my own life as graciously as the gentleman from the circus that I saw so long ago.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Workplace

It is close to eight thirty when I pull in to the company parking lot. I walk out of my brown Toyota Camry carrying my backpack and holding a still warm cup of hazelnut coffee in my left hand. I am not in a hurry. I approach the glass building’s main entrance at a slow but continuous pace. I think of the things I must do today. I need to get to my desk, finish my coffee and check my email for any instructions from my supervisor before I can go to the lab area. I reach for my security card inside my pants pocket. I swipe it through the reader, hold the tempered glass door firmly with my right hand and, in one stroke, pull it hard to get it open. I step into the foyer, a rectangle literally made of glass. I swipe the card again to open a second door and to gain access to the premises. I hear two consecutive clicks as I go in. Both doors lock behind me one after another. I am inside the forty five thousand square foot, partial glass building located at ninety nine South Street in Hopkinton. This is the installation of Lonza, a Swiss based biopharmaceutical contract manufacturing company which it commonly referred to as Lonza Biologics Inc. This is the place I have spent a good part of my life over the past two years. The outside of the building looks anything but unusual. In fact, it may go unnoticed by many commuters who drive by South Street on a daily basis. For me it has significance. I depend on it and its resources to generate income for supporting my personal needs. The company depends on me to produce and deliver quality work. We are partners as long as we have a common understanding and a contract in force. This is also the place where I have the opportunity to come across many talented individuals from different departments.

The rectangular shaped building has one of its short sides facing the street and the adjacent long side facing the shipping and receiving area which also has an independent driveway. The main entrance is on the opposite side of the building, facing the parking lot, about forty feet from the corner which is conveniently accessible from the parking lot. As I go in the main entrance I am faced with large black letters on the wall which when put together read: Lonza. They are positioned about five to six feet high from the floor. The walls are painted with a semi-gloss, off-white finish. To my left I view the long hallway which separates the offices and cubes, along the glass wall facing the parking lot, from the laboratories. There are twelve rectangular, fashionable fluorescent lights each hanging from two metal rods which extend about one foot below the white drop down ceiling tiles. They all seem to be perfectly aligned. At the end of the hall there is a door which gives access to the cafeteria. To my right, the hallway continues for about twenty to thirty feet and then turns at a ninety degree angle following the path of more offices and cubes all along the front of the building. As I start walking to the right headed for my desk, I am facing the largest office on the corner. That is the office of our research and development manager, Dr. Chris Dale. I walk by it as I make a turn going left. This side of the building is facing the street. I keep walking and pass by more offices and cubes on my right. There are three offices starting from the corner and a cluster of six gray cubes. They are all conveniently arranged in a way that three people sit facing each other with a partition between them. The cubes are positioned back to back in a space between sets of two offices. There are four clusters of cubes following the same arrangement and nine offices on the front side of the building. All of the offices are occupied by senior position employees.

On my left there are four glass windows, each one of them with a view to the inside of the lab areas. There is a large conference room also on the left, close to the door which is the main access to the labs. In the space between the windows, I see four file cabinets and several shelves filled with documents. I also see a color printer, two copiers, a water cooler and three recycle bins lined up along the wall which divides the office area from the labs. My desk is in the last cluster of cubes located along the hallway. I sit in the middle cube with my back turned to the wall facing the shipping and receiving area. As I reach my desk, I put my backpack away, turn my computer on and read my email as I sip my almost cold coffee. With my email read and my coffee gone, I am finally prepared to go to the lab.

I enter the door by the conference room to gain access to the lab area. There is a small hall of about fourteen by five feet and another door at the other end of it. Once I open the second door there is a rest room and a shower on the left hand side. I pass through a doorway and I am in the locker room and changing area. The walls are a light green color with trim painted a darker shade of green. I open my locker and grab my personal protection equipment including a lab coat, safety glasses, shoe covers and gloves. I put them on, walk towards the door and swipe my security card on the reader to access the hallway that connects the locker room with the entire lab area. As I come out of the locker room, I see two double doors at both ends of the hall. They can not be accessed from the outside and can only be used in case of emergency. All of the labs have the same finish, an off-white tone of green on the walls and a darker shade of green on the doors and trim. I follow the main hallway toward the dock area. I pass by lab 142, the protein purification lab on the right. Then I reach the fermentation lab, room 143, the lab where I work most often.

It is a huge lab space and measures approximately fifty feet long by twenty feet wide. The room has all of the equipment necessary to carry on the fermentation process. The biggest piece of equipment is a stainless steel biological flow hood which is an environment I use to manipulate items which must be kept from getting any kind of contamination. There is an incubator shaker, a bulky piece of equipment which looks like a horizontal commercial freezer. It is used to grow the first and second stage culture of cells until it they reache a population necessary to inoculate the fermenter vessel. There is also a white minus eighty centigrade freezer used for storing retain samples and a four degree deli box used to keep solutions cold. The flow hood, shaker and freezer are all positioned against the right wall by the sink. The double glass door, four degree centigrade deli box is slightly bigger than a refrigerator and it is placed at the end of the long bench on the left side. On top of that bench are other smaller pieces of equipment such as: a pH and conductivity meter; a vortex, an piece of equipment used to mix samples; an Eppendorf micro centrifuge, used to separate cells from supernatant, the liquid portion of the broth; and an analytical scale, used to measure the weight of cell paste. There is also a spectrophotometer, which measure the intensity of light that goes through a sample and translates it into a number giving me the concentration of cell mass in the culture. Another piece of equipment on the bench is a YSI Chemistry Analyzer which I use to measure the concentration of residual methanol in the culture. The culture of yeast metabolizes carbon from two different sources: Glycerol and Methanol in order to synthesize our protein of interest.
The two main pieces of equipment in that lab are fermenters model SF-116 made by New Brunswick which are located side by side right in the center of the room. They are sitting on top of two stainless steel benches which are parallel to the side walls. These vessels have the capacity of a ten liter volume and are made of a stainless steel. They have been used to produce the Botulinum toxin protein in yeast cells which will be utilized in the manufacturing of a vaccine. In the ceiling, above the equipment, there are some stainless steel drop down feed lines hooked up to the fermenters with clean air, clean steam and potable water (pure grade water). In the back there are cylindrical canisters with Nitrogen and an Oxygen gases. They are used for calibrating the probe that measures the mixture of oxygen and air concentration during the run. A rectangular glass window on the front of the vessel allows the operator to visually see the culture during the process with the help of a halogen light attached to the back of the fermenter. Some of the parameters which control the fermentation process are, agitation, pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen concentration. The growth of cells and equipment behavior are closely monitored throughout the process. Two computer screens are used to track the profiles of the fermentation. It is the operator’s responsibility to observe and troubleshoot any abnormality that may occur during the run. The whole process takes about seventy two hours. The combination of pipe connections, gauges and wires connected to the reactor give an impression of a very complex operation, but in short, it is quite simple. All of these items are in place to provide the right environment and to monitor the growth of the culture which ultimately will produce the desired material and help me to secure my job for the time being.

In order to produce and deliver the product desired, I do not just rely on equipment optimum performance and my individual expertise to operate them. I need to comply with a series of regulations and company policies. Above all, I need to demonstrate the ability to work together with other scientists and learn from their experience. My contribution is just a small portion of the entire process. I have to ensure that things go smoothly on my end in order to guarantee the success of the entire group and ultimately for the company. On many occasions I have had the opportunity to work in collaboration with different departments and learn about the many different processes we carry out in the research and development department. The more I learn the better I am able to perform my job. That gives me an edge in securing my position until it is time for me to move on to a different professional endeavor. Considering I am not planning to go anywhere soon, I have to treat the place like my own home.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Unexpected Visit

It was spring of 1982 in Sao Paulo City. In two weeks I was going on vacation. I was very excited with the prospect of traveling to my birthplace, I town called Itororo in the northern state of Bahia. I had not been up there for about ten years and I really missed my cousins. Since I left Itororo with my family at the age of eight, I had only been back three times. I was so excited, I could not stop thinking about the upcoming trip. I had everything already planned out. I intended to travel by bus on the 18th of October and would celebrate my birthday there with my relatives. I was going to be twenty three on October 22nd and I anticipated that it was going to be very exciting, but as it turns out, life has its surprises and I do not always get things exactly the way I plan. The road which led me to my destination was longer than anticipated and filled with elements of surprise. Periodically my mind has drifted away and brought back the memories of that experience, but despite of all of the shortcomings, I ended up having a great vacation that year.

I worked at a clothing manufacturing company called Glu’s at the time, located in Sao Paulo for three and a half years. I held the position of office aide and the company was relatively small with no more than thirty staff members onsite and half a dozen field representatives. I really enjoyed the time I spent working there. I had a good relationship with my co-workers and the customers as well, but among all of the people that I worked with, Tony was the person I had the best connection with. We played soccer together and at times he would invite me to go to his house for dinner. I would say we became friends. Tony held the position of sales representative and spent most of his time visiting clients. He used to show up at the company once a day for limited time. He was very concerned with the work ethics and treated his clients and friends very fairly and with respect. He was in his mid thirties, had a great sense of humor and an impressive ability to persuade people to see things his way. I really liked his style. One Friday we both went for lunch and I discussed him about my vacation plans. To my surprise he was also scheduled to take a vacation the same week as me. Not only that but he was also going to the same region. He was headed for Pernambuco, a state located further north from where I was going.

He mentioned briefly that he did not see his mother for many years and he wanted to persuade her to come to Sao Paulo with him. “This is not really a vacation. It is something I’ve got to do.”, he said in a quite serious tone. I could tell how important that it was to him. “How are you getting up there?” he asked.” I responded I was planning to ride the bus mainly because of the dangers we face on the road especially if driving alone. He then mentioned that he was going to drive by himself but he was joining a group of thirteen people who were all traveling together for safety. “There will be a group of five cars, all headed for the same region” he said. “Why don’t you come along and ride with us?” he asked. ”Well, I need to think about it” I said. “There is nothing to think about, just say yes or no.” Tony said in a resolute tone. “I cannot promise I will drive you all the way to your hometown but I can drop you off at a bus station when we arrive in Vitoria da Conquista” he said. Regardless of whether I was going to ride the bus or not, I would have to get off at Conquista station and swap buses anyway. That was not a bad idea after all. Certainly it would be better than riding alone on a bus all the way from Sao Paulo. I then decided to accept the offer to ride with him.

I was filled with anxiety prior to my departure. At 7:30 am on October 19th I was dropped off at Tony’s house where everyone was supposed to meet. I would travel with him until Vitoria da Conquista and then, I would take a bus to Itororo for another hour and a half. We left Sao Paulo at eight in the morning as planned. I did not know most of the people I was traveling with but soon enough, I made friends as everyone agreed to travel in different cars every time we stopped at a service station or rest area. Each individual had a different destination and at some point we all would go our separate ways. We would have to travel more than twelve hundred miles before people started to reach their destination. There were a couple of incidents in which one person had trouble with their car and everybody would stop and help. The incidents involved a flat tire and an over-heated engine.

I was really tired by the time we stopped at a hotel. The time was almost nine pm. We had arrived at a town called Teofilo Otoni in the state of Minas Gerais. By then we had traveled more than six hundred miles. From Teofilo Otoni I had another two hundred and forty seven miles to go to get to Vitoria da Conquista. Tony and I talked about many things as we spent all that time traveling together. He expressed that he was very thankful that I decided to go with him and keep him company for the long journey. I was also thankful that he was willing to take me along. We talked about family, future endeavors and inevitably we brought up our work.

I asked him about his mother. He told me that going to Petrolina was a long shot in trying to find her. He had not seen her for more than twenty years and the prospect was not great but he had some leads and believed it was worth to try. That sounded like an adventure out of the pages of a book and I listened to him with a lot of interest. How could someone be away from his parents for so long and why after all these years did he decide it was important to find her? As we kept talking , he started opening his life in a way that he may not have been willing to do in any other circumstances. He told me he was the son of a single mother and he never heard from his father. In fact, he had two brothers which he had never met. He was basically in search of his own identity and it was very important for him to find out where he came from. At the age of seven or so, his mother gave him away to a family from Sao Paulo because she didn’t have the means to raise him. During his youth he was angry and could not find room for forgiveness but that changed as he matured. I was thrilled with his story and was very curious to find out how it would unfold.

In a way I sympathized with his situation because our stories had some similarities. I was also born in the northeast and because of some family problems, my parents got separated. At the age of eight I went to Sao Paulo with my mother and siblings. I also had a hard time dealing with the psychological aspects of my parent’s separation. For some time I blamed my father for not trying to work things out and thought he could have prevented all the suffering we went through as a result of that separation. Many years had passed when I finally recognized that going to Sao Paulo was one of the key elements needed for my personal and professional growth.

After driving almost five hours since we left Teofilo Otoni, we were finally approaching Vitoria da Conquista. Soon I would be on a bus headed for my hometown, I thought. However, Tony tried to convince me to go with him all the way to Pernambuco. He was feeling very uneasy about the prospect of not finding his mother and having to come back all by himself. Initially I thought he was joking, but then I realized that he really meant it. “You’ve got to be joking. This is my vacation man, I have the intention of spending it with my relatives”, I said. But he did not seem to give up so easily and used many arguments to convince me to go with him. He guaranteed he would cover all of the costs If I could just spend a couple of days up there with him. Then he would drive me to Itororo after two days. I was not convinced that he would do all this driving and spend just a couple of days up there, especially if he ended up finding his mother. “Worst comes to worst and I get held up there I will put you on a bus to Itororo by tomorrow night, how is that?” he said. There was a battle going on inside me. I did not feel like going the rest of the way with him but faced with such a strong pressure I ended up saying yes almost against my will. However, I did take into consideration whether or not he would meet the conditions he proposed as I did not have extra cash to cover this unforeseen expense.

By the time we stopped for lunch, it was almost two pm. He was so afraid that if we stopped in Conquista for lunch I would bail out and not enter his car to continue the trip. We all stopped at some barbecue place in a town called Feira de Santana. At that point I was more familiar with everybody as we had continuously swapped cars during the trip and had the chance to get to know one another. They were all professionals based in Sao Paulo who traveled like this every year to visit their families in the northern states of Brazil.

At eleven pm I finally arrived in Petrolina, Pernambuco. I was exhausted from the trip. All I cared about was taking a shower and going to bed. First we need to find a hotel to spend the night. The next morning I would go with Tony to help him find his mothers whereabouts. “Excuse me. Do you know any good hotels in this area?” Tony asked a person who was passing by. We ended up checking in to a Hotel called Grande Rio which was considered an above average hotel. I was dead tired. Soon after we checked in, I took a shower and crashed. The next day we were up by eight in the morning. We had breakfast and checked out of the hotel. I was really shocked when I found out how much one night for two people cost. I could not believe Tony spent all that money when all we needed was to take a shower and sleep. But I could not interfere with his decision. He knew what he was doing.

It was about nine thirty by the time we left the hotel. Now the challenge was to locate Dona Maria, Tony’s mother. I could not stop thinking that my vacation was being placed on hold until this was over. Tony was relying on an address that one of his relatives gave him before leaving Sao Paulo. He was confident that the address was the key to finding his mother. It was the address of a lady that lived in Petrolina who had had some kind of connection with Dona Maria for a long time. As soon as I left the hotel with Tony we followed the only lead we had. It took us a while to find the address considering we were not familiar with the place. We finally located it. It was a very simple house located in the suburbs of Petrolina. I parked the car as I was the one doing the driving. Tony got off and walked towards the front entrance while I waited for him. Five minutes later he came back very excited. “That lady thinks she knows where my mom is but she has not heard from her for about six months or so” he said. The house owner, an obese lady in her mid fifties named Silvia, invited us in for a coffee. She was very curious about this unexpected visit from a son who had not seen his mother for so long. She was very cooperative and decided to help us out by volunteering one of her sons to guide us to the place. I found out that the place was about sixty miles away. We were going to head south on a winding dirt road for approximately two hours.

It was October 20th and I was feeling quite uneasy with the prospect of spending my birthday in the middle of nowhere among strangers. Maybe it did not really have anything to do with my birthday. The fact is that I had built a high expectation to be with my relatives. “If it was not for that incident I would have been there by now”, I thought. I tried not to show I was upset about that and just hoped for the best. I just decided to give Tony a break for I realized he genuinely needed my help. Otherwise, he would not have insisted so much for me to come with him. Half an hour later I left Silvia’s house in the company of Tony and Valdo, Silvia’s son. We headed out on a dirt road south of Petrolina.


Valdo, our guide, was 18 years old. He was soft spoken and had a very thin mustache. He seemed to be quite familiar with the area. His father was a truck driver and periodically he would ride with him. We drove for about one hour and I noticed Tony was getting very anxious as we approached the area where his mother supposedly lived. Valdo reported to us about the drought conditions the region had gone through in recent years. I learned that the year of nineteen eighty three happened to be one of the worst droughts in the history of northeast Brazil. Many people and animals died as a result of extensive periods of dry conditions. Tony expressed concern on his face and his silence was a confirmation that he was familiar with the situation. The scenario of poverty and misery was intensified drastically by a combination of factors: environment natural conditions and lack of interest on the part of politicians and the private sector. I was aware of the situation in the region from media sources but the experience of being there to witness all of it was a thrilling experience for me.

I saw the suffering stamped on people’s faces as we passed by open bed trucks loaded with peasants being carried away to hospitals and shelters in nearby towns. I did not have a good feeling about finding Tony’s mother in “good spirits” at that point but I hoped I was wrong. We had been driving through a region called the Polygon of Drought for about two hours. The car was covered with some red dust which was lifted by other vehicles coming in our direction. That left a trail of dust that rushed onto our direction as we kept driving. I could not believe my eyes. The combination of intense heat, dust and very dry vegetation gave me the impression I was driving on a desert. We were on top of a hill when Valdo asked us to stop the car. “I need to go” he said. Everyone got out to stretch their legs and relieve themselves. There was no gas station, rest area or anyplace we could go for that matter. The restroom was wherever place our eyes could reach. Good thing we had plenty of water bottles in the car. “How far do we still have to go?” I asked. “Not far at all, we are five to ten minutes away” Valdo responded. “Do you see that house on that hill on the other side? Asked Valdo. “That is Dona Maria’s.” Tony seemed very excited with the news. Soon after we all got in the car and started going down the hill. Valdo spotted Dona Maria from a distance and pointed her out to us. We could barely see her because it was still quite far away. I estimated about a quarter mile. As we approached, Tony asked Valdo, “Are you sure it is her?” ” I am positive“ he said. Tony rehearsed a little drama and asked Valdo not to reveal to her who he was. “I wonder if she will be able to guess who I am.“ said Tony.


As the car got closer, I was able to have a better visual of the scene. I saw this tiny lady in her late sixties, weary faced and dressed in ragged clothes. She looked visibly uncomfortable with our impending presence. There was a man with her who appeared to be a lot younger than her. She was scooping some water from a pit and dumping it into a drum sitting on a garden cart. The water looked very muddy and I wondered if they used that for drinking and cooking. We got off the car and Valdo greeted the couple. “Good morning Dona Maria, It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.” said Valdo. He also looked at the man and nodded. Apparently, Valdo did not appear to know the man by the way he greeted him. “Hello Valdo. We are still here, suffering”. She did not make any eye contact while she spoke. She looked embarrassed and visibly uncomfortable. Then Valdo asked her, Dona Maria do you recognize these men and pointed to us. “No, I do not” she responded point blank. “Are you sure? Take a good look at them.” said Valdo. Then she made an effort to look at us and took a guess. “Are they health inspectors?” She asked. Valdo insisted on intensifying the drama a little further. “Dona Maria, one of these two men is Antonio, your oldest son.” She was in shock. She dropped the dish she was holding and then let out a very nervous laugh. She held her cheeks with both hands in a display of deep surprise. She looked at both of us and initially appeared confused but then she recognized her little boy on the face of Tony as he removed his sunglasses. They both looked silly for a brief moment and appeared not to know what to do next. Then Tony approached her and they hugged intensely. Tony could not contain himself and sobbed silently. I confess that I was emotionally touched by that scene. This was not just an encounter of a mother and a son. It marked the end of twenty three years of separation between them. It was something very special for them and for me a lesson of love.

After a few moments of quick updates I followed them back to Dona Maria’s house by foot. It was a tiny shack on top of the hill made of mud. She shared the modest house with Joao, the man I met when I first arrived. The little hut had only two tiny rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom. There was no furniture besides a wood stove in the kitchen and a poorly handcrafted bed in the other room. I was really shocked to see how they lived. How could they manage to survive in such a precarious place? I thought of the contrast of life style between Dona Maria and Tony. He lived a very comfortable life, drove nice cars, and ate in the best restaurants, while his mother was nearly starved to death. I kept those thoughts to myself and did not dare ask him why he waited so long. At the same time I had great respect for him for taking on such a courageous act to come in search of this missing link of his identity while he still could.

I felt somewhat relieved that Tony was able to locate his mother so quickly but the day was coming to an end and I needed to head back to Petrolina so I could get on a bus to Vitoria da Conquista. I was unsure how I was going to go back. It was apparent that Tony needed time alone with his mother to mend things up. They surely had plenty of things to talk about. My best bet was to ride back in one of those open bed trucks with Valdo. However, I found out that the next transportation would not come until the morning of next day. That meant I was trapped there and my trip back to Vitoria was delayed another day. Tony felt really bad about it and in an apologetic tone tried to fix things up. I realized that not even he knew how this thing was going to turn out. Valdo and I ended up spending the night with some of his relatives at a farm five kilometers away from Dona Maria’s home.

It was nine in the morning of October 21th when I finally took the transportation to Petrolina. It was an indescribable experience to ride on top of that open bed truck along with another thirty or forty people. Every five to ten minutes a cloud of red dust approached us and rushed into our faces and lungs as the cars would periodically come towards us. Sitting on a wooden bench was not fun either. As the truck hit any depression on the road, I was lifted from my seat continuously until my bottom started to get really sore. That was one of the worst commutes I ever had. I was really relieved once we arrived in the city of Petrolina. By the time I arrived back at Valdo’s house, it was about one pm. All I had in mind was to find that bus station and take off but I was covered with dust head to toe and needed to take a shower as well as eat something before I went anywhere. Silvia was kind enough to let me in to take a shower and eat some lunch.

It was eleven pm when I finally took the bus headed to Conquista, Bahia. I was feeling quite tired and slept through the whole trip. I arrived at about seven in the morning and then I bought another ticket to Itororo, my final destination. I arrived at eleven am on October 22nd. I got off the bus, took a few steps and breathed deeply. I felt that I had just landed in paradise. Being back in my hometown was one of the best presents I’ve ever had for my birthday. I spent some exciting moments with my uncles and cousins for the next twenty days while I was in Itororo; however, that is a different story for another occasion.

I met with Tony about a month later in Sao Paulo. He had a hard time convincing his mother to come and live with him and his wife. She only accepted the offer because she needed to seek health treatment but he had to assure her he would take her back as soon as she was recovered from her health condition. I learned from Tony a year later that he granted her wish to be taken back to home (I called it ground zero of misery), as she could not adapt to life in the big city. He kept giving her continuous support to make sure she lived a decent life and visited her whenever he could.

Despite all of the shortcomings, the unplanned visit to the Drought Polygon added value to my life. I got a better understanding of the region and the struggle the local peasants go through during the drought periods. Despite the fact that I was drawn into that adventure literally against my will, I recognize it was a good opportunity and the only one for me to come in close contact with elements I would never be able to otherwise. The dust on my face, the smell of death, intense heat and lifeless landscape were some of the elements which invaded all of my senses and left images imprinted on my brain in such a way that the media and the books could never do.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

About "Sister Flowers", An Essay Written by Maya Angelou

Mrs. Flowers was a very important reference in the life of the narrator Maya Angelou. She was portrayed by Maya as being a person who was kind, respectful, highly educated and a source of inspiration. She was a well to do, elegant and highly sofisticated person who had the ability to touch the lives of people that belonged to her community. I dare say that Mrs. Flowers was one of the main people responsible for allowing Maya to flourish and reach higher ground. Mrs. Flowers had an unimaginable power over Maya and over time became a great influence in her life. She was highly supportive and helped Maya to break the walls which may have prevented her from growing as a human being. Maya lived a decent working, middle class life but was going through a moment of vulnerability when she first met with Mrs. Flowers. It is evident that despite being a good student and having some financial support she was going through very difficult psychological problems. Mrs. Flowers was instrumental in her life and appeared at a time of despair. She taught Maya great lessons, as Maya was totally open for absorbing her teachings. Maya really needed a helping hand and Mrs. Flowers provided the extra push necessary for Maya to grow. A few passages in the text, such as, “I met…,the lady who threw my first life lines” and “She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be”, really validate the importance that she had and represented for Maya. These statements translate all the emotions of a person who saw in Mrs. Flowers a living picture of high standards and kindness. I really enjoyed reading this essay. As a reader, I could visualize Maya’s struggle in her teenage years and ultimately reaching maturity and becoming nothing else but a personification of what Mrs. Flowers represented to her.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Inside a Post Card


Driven by the desire to have a break from my weekly routine and stress, I started going away more often starting last summer. I really enjoy going sightseeing. Something about exploring the unknown exicites me no matter how insignificant the place is. My favorite scenario is driving on rural roads where I have close contact with natural elements. In order to choose a destination, I do a quick search on the internet to find key places of interest. Then I make arrangements for the trip along with my wife. Most places I go are located in Massachusetts and neighboring states. The fun part of it is that I am usually not in such a hurry to get wherever I intend to go. I like to take my time and not follow a schedule. I usually stop several times especially if I am traveling on a secondary road and I see a scenic area or anything that captures my attention. It is not uncommon for me to stop along the way at places like flea markets, street fairs or craft shops. I find sightseeing to be very educational. I learn a whole lot about cultural values, history, and also about the environment as a result of those short trips. They are also a fun way to get familiar with my surrounding.

One factor that I always take into consideration is the traveling distance. I try not to exceed the limit of a two or three hour drive. The reason for that is because they usually equate to a one day trip. I generally leave on a Sunday morning and by nightfall I am back home. A couple of days before the trip I go online and print directions and also get a sense of the time it will take to get to my destination. I read any information I see online so I can get some perspective of what I should look for once I am there. Based on the distance information, I have a better idea of when I should leave in the morning and the best time to return. I also like to take some precautions to minimize any kind of annoyance while I am on the road. Previous to my trip I usually take the car to a service station and have all the fluid levels and tire pressure checked. One thing that I find really useful is to have a valid AAA card. As my car gets older, my level of confidence in it decreases. I drive a 2000 Toyota Camry and any eight year old car is expected to have problems arise more often. I also carry some cash in my wallet and do not rely entirely on my debit card. I never know when I may have some issue which could prevent me from using it. If I am a few blocks from the house it is easy to handle but it could spoil my weekend if I am a distant away. On a number of occasions, I end up checking into a hotel to spend the night but that does not happen too often. Another thing I find really useful on theses day trips is to have a road map in the car just in case I need it. Once all these items are checked on, I am good to go. My wife and I then hit the road early on Sunday morning.

Driving is always fun. I love driving long distances as long as I have a companion to talk to. I am particularly fond of driving on rural, winding roads. Those are the best! I love to watch the scenery. It feels like being inside a post card at times. It makes me very excited to drive in areas with some peculiar landscape. My eyes keep moving restlessly in an attempt to capture every single image that comes into sight after every curve. Each place I go is unique. One place is like no other. This past summer, I was traveling through a farming area in Vermont when a large number of cows and horses grazing in a field caught my attention. The scenario was really phenomenal, not just because of the animals, they just happened to be there, but each element in that landscape contributed to such a rich picture. Different tones of blue tinted the mountains on the horizon. A cluster of pine trees heavily populated the base of the mountains. A vast area of field dominated most of the scenario. I was so thrilled that I had to stop the car and take in the scene for a while. It felt so peaceful.


Over the past few months I have been in different places: Newport, RI, Gloucester, MA, on the coast, and Amherst and Northampton, MA, both located on the Pioneer Valley in Western MA, just to name a few. The furthest place I went this summer was Woodstock, VT. It is about a three hour drive North of Worcester, MA. I was particularly impressed with the covered bridges found in that region. I also thought the architecture of houses and churches were somewhat different than what I am used to seeing. As I was traveling on Woodstock Road I could not help but to stop at Quechee Gorge Village. There I was able to samp different styles and flavors of the prestigious Cabot cheese. I also tried some of the corn on the cob cooked over an open fire at a country store just a few miles up the road.

Shelburne Falls, MA is another place I visited in the spring and really thought it was worth the trip. The town itself is very small and there is not much there, but the scenery is absolutely incredible. I was really astonished when I saw the glacial formation called Glacial Potholes. I also went to see the Bridge of Flowers which is walking distance from the Potholes. I thought it was neat to learn that the Bridge of Flowers was actually built in 1908 to be a trolley crossing the Deerfield River. Eventually progress forced the trolley to be phased out and it officially became the Bridge of Flowers in 1929.

Among the many things I gained from sightseeing, the awareness of my surroundings and also a sense of appreciation for the environment were the most impressive. I often learn new things about the cultures and historic facts that I would otherwise not come across. Each time I visit a certain town or a tourist site, I get thrilled by something I see. By the time I return home I feel more energized. The experience helps me to recuperate from stress and gives me motivation to get through another week or another month. Some of those experiences are simply unforgettable. How could I not be inspired and seduced as I come across the dance of colors such as that in a place like Newport? I will always be amazed when I stand at the foot of the white giant, Killington. Shelburne Falls, with its bridge of flowers dressed with simplistic beauty, moves me. Moments of reflections take me back to a roaring Flume Gorge and its glacial boulders. The way some of these places captures my imagination just reinforce that sightseeing is an insightful and rewarding experience in my life.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Definition of Freedom

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary freedom means “The absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice of action”. However, regardless what the dictionary says, the arguments of freedom are quite diverse and opinions differ according to a wide variety of factors such as: race, age, gender, social status and the environment. At first glance the word freedom sounds positive, powerful. It is so powerful that often it is used by politicians to deceive and mold public opinion in support of their actions and to benefit themselves. The Iraq war is a classical example of that. Freedom may be the right I have to exercise the power of choice. The question is how much power I actually have when for every decision made there are consequences. The constant thought of possible implications is a factor that impacts my ability to make choices. That makes me feel as free as a bird inside a cage. In short, freedom is not really free.

The first idea that comes to mind when I think of the word free is to be of constraint of something. I recognize that I am always free to shape up my thoughts and develop myself seeking knowledge and understanding the nature of the environment around me. I am in control over my actions. I can change my attitude, my religious beliefs and my physical appearance. I can carry myself however I please and it is nobody’s business if all of a sudden I decide to grow a beard or long hair. I am free to change my job, buy a new car or take a vacation in the Bahamas or in Hawaii. Even though I may perceive the possibility of doing these things as freedom, deep inside I know that accomplishing these and many other things is just an illusion or wishful thinking because in reality I am locked in a complex set of rules. I have responsibilities with my marriage, my job, the mortgage, and many other obligations. I cannot really do any of these things without consequence. Is this really freedom? The controversial thing is that no one put a gun to my head and forced me into signing a contract holding me to these rules. I simply elected to engage myself in them, perhaps willingly driven by the thought that these commitments were necessary and beneficial to me.

I am free in the sense that I have self determination and the ability to make a sound judgment of what is achievable and what is not. I can only go on vacation if I plan ahead of time and allocate sufficient funds to cover out of ordinary expenses. In order for me to go on vacation my employer would have to release me for a period of time that would be convenient not only for me but also for the company. I wish I could buy a new car but I am aware that that is not the wisest thing to do at this moment. The extra car payments would put a burden on my already tight budget. I have to be very careful and consider all the possibilities which will result from my actions. In choosing an alternative I should consider the benefits and inconveniences such choice would bring upon me. It was my choice to come to the “land of the free” and live the American dream. I recognize that the advantages of being here today are enormous. But I pay a high price for that. The years I spent away from my family created a big void between us. Among the things I miss the most is gathering around the dinner table on Sundays with my mother, siblings and nephews and engaging in conversations with them. Over time a natural sense of disconnect has developed resulting from my absence.

In trying to gather different meanings of the word freedom I read some articles I found on the internet about the Brazilian slavery which happened from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Brazil had the record of being the last Western nation to retain slavery when it was finally emancipated in 1888 by Princess Isabel. Slavery only ended after mounting pressure from the British government and intense abolitionist movements within the country forcing Brazil to end the cycle of slavery trade that last for three centuries. I can comprehend that for a person who lived through slavery, the word freedom had a very special and powerful meaning. Abolishing slavery was a necessary and wise thing to do mainly because it became less profitable and riskier for traders to transport their “product” across the Atlantic as the British vowed to intercept and confiscate any transporting vessel with African slave headed for Brazil. The country was forced to open the doors for immigrants who came mainly from Europe. That was a signal that human trade was coming to an end and freedom was on its way for those who were physically exploited and psychologically diminished for so long.

Emancipation from slavery brought serious consequences for the former enslaved population who had to be acclimated to the condition of common citizens. They had difficulty getting used to the new set of rules and obligations that “free” people had to live by. They had problems finding jobs and making a living on their own because the land owners were not willing to pay a salary to them. Suddenly there were thousands of people roaming around the cities with nothing to do. Some of these individuals chose to go back to the rural areas where they came from and keep on living as “slaves” in exchange for food and a place to sleep as they could not find work opportunities in other areas. Even though freedom from slavery would prove to be positive thing to happen to the Brazilian society in the long run, for the first few years it brought serious consequences to the government, society and the former slaves themselves who had to adjust to their new reality as free individuals.

Freedom is not really a license to do whatever I want to do. I am free as long as I abide to certain rules and responsibilities. It is hard to find an absolute and precise definition of freedom. I may be free, but that freedom is set by a number of limitations. In the democratic societies where people are said to be free and are protected by laws, there are inequalities. People may not have the same experiences of freedom. Do the poor enjoy the same freedom as the rich when they lack resources and opportunities? How much freedom do the wealthy really have when they live with the fear of losing their status or with the expectation of becoming richer? Are the uneducated or illiterate people free when the number of choices they can make is very limited? Are people who are afraid to take on responsibility free? None of the mentioned above is free and this shows that freedom has many faces. Political freedom usually comes to mind when I use the word, but that is only one aspect of it. We may be politically free but, psychologically, we can be slaves. I really believe that what is important is to lead a free life is to be free in spirit so that none of the restrictions I have to undergo in life will be able to make me feel dependent. Whenever possible I will fight for freedom in that light.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Believe It or Not

The scene took place in Itororo, a town of approximately ten thousand people located in the northeastern state of Bahia, Brazil. The year was 1967 and I was eight years old. The house was probably built by slaves at a time when region was mostly farmland some two hundred years back. It was bought by my daddy’s father, for a bargain at least twenty years before I was born. He lived there for awhile but spent most of his time on the farm. Periodically, it was used by some family members as a resting place as some of my uncles would ride long distances on horse back to go to town in order to take care of personal or family business. It was a common scene to see a jeep parked alongside one or two horses in the back yard. Some people stayed overnight while others spent the weekend whenever they needed to do any shopping or other errands in the city. The memories I have of the house are still crystal clear and they do not seem to go away so easily, despite the distance in time. Even though I enjoyed going to town to see new things and people, I was never particularly excited about the prospect of spending the night at the house. It always gave me the creeps because of the association I made with ghosts or phenomenon I was never able to explain. I hated that house and found, it particularly difficult staying alone or sleeping alone in there.

The house was located on the dead end of a parallelepiped stone paved street where we could barely hear the distant noise of cars passing by on the main road. The approaching sound of a trotting horse passing by would break the silence periodically. The steps were continuous and cadenced and it sounded like music to my ears, despite having just one note. Whoever was riding it was in no hurry to get anywhere. That rhythmical sound of horseshoes hitting the stone pavement was quite loud as it passed by the house but soon decreased in intensity and finally disappeared leaving behind only silence. The house was built with considerably largebricks covered with stucco which would periodically come loose. Eventually the stucco would fall off, leaving patches of horizontally aligned bricks exposed. Despite the appearance, those walls were as strong and thick as that of a fortress. All the windows were painted white with marine blue shutters. They were huge
and appeared to be extremely heavy. They needed to be opened often to let the sun and fresh air to prevent bad smell from humidity and mold growing. There were a total of ten windows around the house. They were all the same size and had the same characteristics.

The uniqueness of architectural design reveled it to have been built by some influential figure in the region during the slavery time, probably some wealthy land owner. Looking at the house from across the street I could see the six cement stairs which led to the front door through the porch on the right side. On the sides of the stairs, two nicely crafted metal handrails painted black ended right before the two lion sculptures. They looked intimidating and caught the attention of those who were not familiar with the neighborhood. The outside walls, once painted in yellow, faded away and became discolored. The severely peeled marine blue finish on the eaves intensified the need for maintenance. In the front and back yards a few patches of grass struggled to survive among a variety of wild weed species. Castor bean, with its large palmately-lobed leaves, dominated the scene. In general the exterior and surroundings of the house looked abandoned.

In contrast with the outside, interior of the house was quite modest but pleasingly up kept and clean. Just inside the front door was the living room, a quite spacious area. The first image that always kept my attention was a faded black and white weeding picture of my grandparents hanging on the wall in which they looked young and exceedingly joyful. An old brown couch was placed on the right side against the front wall and a few chairs were facing it separated by a dark stained wood coffee table sitting in the center of the room. There was another table in the corner with some artificial white lilies and a few framed pictures of relatives and some of my grandfather long time friends. The scenario did not change much in the sense that everything looked simple but harmoniously arranged throughout the whole house. Looking up from any of the rooms we could see laths of wood running down from the roof top to the gutters making the base for rows of colonial tiles. The tiles were arranged nicely and formed a beautiful mosaic on the roof. I could see some old stains on it probably caused by water leaks. Due to the roof being made of ceramic and because the house had no ceiling, the sound produced by thunderstorms was amplified enormously creating a continuous rumbling noise from the raindrops that made it sound as if we were inside a giant percussion instrument. That draws a picture of how intense storms are in the region. I was really scared every time it rained but not nearly as scared the prospect of living there. Each time we went to town with my parents I would count the minutes to leave. However, at some point the same year of 1967, my grandfather requested that my father take care of the property for awhile because he already had his hands full with his farming business. He had cocoa bean plantations in the region at a time the business was really promising. Because of that he went to Itororo very rarely. I did not find the news of moving to the house very encouraging but at my age I did not have a say in the matter and had to go wherever my family went. The house was very unique and mysterious like no other in town.

Despite being a child of such a young age at that time, I was able to recollect in detail all of my experiences while living in that place. I remember an instance in which my father was not home and we were just about to have dinner. We were all sitting around the rectangular, dark finish wooden table in the dining room at around seven pm. The food was on the table and we were ready to eat. Suddenly we heard a continuous knock on the front door. Initially we did not know what to make of it. My mother gave it a shot and tried to guess who might have been calling at that time. “Could it be your daddy? He told me he would not be able to return until Friday” she asked. Then she stood up and went to answer the door. She looked a little frightened when she came back. “Who is it mom?” asked my younger brother, Val. She was quiet and just tried to put on her best face so as not to show she was worried. She just shook her head sideways and pressed her lips together giving an indication that no one was there. A few minutes later there were more knocks. This time a little louder. I followed my mom towards the front door. We looked through the curtain. Not a single person was on the porch either. That was very intriguing because for a person to knock on the door and manage to get away without being seeing was nearly impossible. The heavily fortified brick fence walls were at least ten or twelve feet high all the way around the house and it would take a man of extreme physical abilities to be able to knock on the door and then jump the fence before anyone could see him. We were not surprised. That was not the first time this type of thing happened. During the first few experiences we strongly believed that someone was playing a trick on us. “Who would do such a thing in their perfect mind? Who would try to scare us and for what purpose”, asked my mother. A number of other people who had stayed in that house reported having the same experience. This scene repeated every other night at dinner time. Even though my mom tried to be in control of the situation I could tell she was scared.

It was also quite common to hear the sound of somebody knocking on the front door at the time we were in bed and nearly falling asleep. The knocking would not stop and increased in intensity at times as if somebody was trying desperately to enter the house. My mom would check on us. “Mintas are you OK?” she asked. “No, I am not mom, I am very scared.” , I said. “It’s nothing, do not worry, nobody is going to hurt us”, she said it in such a way that her words would no be consistent with the expression on her face. She looked visibly disturbed. Those were troubling moments for me as for my siblings, Val, Duda and Celi and my mother as we all witnessed the same experience. The knocking went on for quite sometime, maybe for ten minutes or even longer. They were scattered but very distinctive. We could hear it clearly as we were into deep silence. By now we were well familiar with that routine. My mom did not make any effort to get up and go check on the door and at some point just decided to ignore it. Then, unexpectedly we heard the squeaking sound of grinding metal as if a key was turning in the door lock. The door sounded to be swinging inward as if somebody was applying a slight force to it. I could hear the short high-pitched sound that, like a musical instrument, changed its tone as the door moved inward and back. That sound was normally produced by the increased tension on the hinges because they were so old and dry. During the daytime it was shadowed by other noises in the environment but at night it became more audible. Then some approaching foot steps of boots with heel spurs walking towards the dining area. At that point I was scared to death. I could clearly hear the clicking sound of heel spurs as the footsteps progressed towards us. I covered my face with blankets even in the 38C heat of the summer. We then heard the sound of a chair being dragged as if somebody was going to sit on itat the dinner table. It made a squeak sound of wood being scratched on the cement floor. It was then that we could hear the sound of paper rustling . It seemed like somebody was handling paper documents. At that point, I was speechless and sweating profusely from the heat inside the blakets. The noises went on all night long and sometimes it was impossible to get to sleep.

On another occasion we heard some thump followed by an outcry in the kitchen. This time I was totally alert. The noises started to become more disturbing than before. Even though it sounded a little indistinct, I could tell somebody was sobbing. Then I heard a bunch of dishes being thrown on the floor with a lot of force. I could hear the bits of shattered porcelain flying all over cement floor. I sensed this appeared to be the works of some mad person. I was so scared that night that I started feeling a tingling sensation all over my body. The next morning we went to check and just like in the previous occasions things were in perfect order and nothing was touched. Not a single dish of broken plate was found on the floor and the door was found locked as we left it the night before. The most bizarre thing is that whoever was inside the house would witness the exact same events. In the morning we would check with one another to find out if it was the imagination of one person. But it was always confirmed that everybody witnessed exactly the same event.

One of the most dazzling events happened one day when I woke up in the middle of the night and saw some lights moving slowly on the roof top above my head. There were three of them initially. They kept moving from one side to another continuously. It did not quite look like the effect of a flashlight because it did not have a rim on the outside. The focus was intense with perfectly defined circles about five inches in diameter. Those strange lights kept switching to all spectrums of different colors. They were so beautiful and I was very attracted to them. I just could not take my eyes off of them no matter how hard I tried until I finally fell asleep.

One of the happiest days of my life was the day my father came to the conclusion that we could no longer live in that house and we had to move on. I finally woke up from the nightmare of discomfort and fear that I had experienced for one year three months and seven days. It did not seem like that energy, or god knows what that used to visit us, was doing it with the sole purpose of disturbing us in any way. At times it sounded like a human going about his everyday customary life. One might say that somehow we crossed paths involuntarily and we invaded each other’s privacy...or not. Well, let me stop right there as I have neither the authority nor the competency to analyze these incomprehensible phenomenon. As incredible as it might sound, that experience affected me enormously. It took me years to overcome some of the psychological burden that it caused me. Sharing this ghostly encounter is certainly not the most comfortable thing for me to do and regardless of the judgment one may have, this is a true story about real people who survived the adversity of a real place.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

A Matter of Distraction

Throughout the years I have learned that if I do not have clear objectives in mind I would certainly be susceptible to involvement in someone else’s plans as opposed to my own. On a few occasions in the past I really felt I was part of someone else’s dreams and that was not the greatest feeling I ever had. By living life without a clear purpose I was exposed to all sorts of distractions. At some point I realized I had to drop everything and start over to give my life a new direction. That was particularly true at a time when I was much younger and facing many adverse circumstances in my life. Today I have a different view for what was once considered important. Maybe this comes with age. As I grow older I tend to be more selective and make decisions based on mistakes of the past.

I arrived in this country in August of Nineteen Eighty Four with one thing in mind: I would take any opportunity possible to make a better life for myself and to help my family if I could. I did not really have a defined plan on how I was going to do that. I did not have a recipe to achieve success. I just had a gut feeling that being a person of good character and morals would eventually lead me to become successful if I had the right attitude and worked hard enough. I was not exactly sure what I was going to do to support myself during that time. I had a very difficult task ahead of me. I needed to get used to the new land’s language, customs, and rules. I also needed to acquire different skills to make a living. I had to reinvent myself literally. I did not know what the future would hold for me but I trusted my instinct. I would accomplish something better than the opportunities I had before. Shortly after I arrived I went to Winston Salem, North Carolina where I spent one year then I moved to the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. After that, I moved to Boston where I have lived for the past twenty years. The last eight years I spent with my brother Ad and another friend of ours Mike. I shared with a three bedroom apartment in the East Cambridge area with them. Life was good in Boston, but far from great. I was not particularly happy with what I was doing for a living and wanted to do something else. Ever since I landed in this country I made a living doing the kind of work that I was not really proud of. I was a shuttle driver for a while. Extremely boring! I also did construction work for sometime. The money was good but unpredictable and intellectually degrading. Then I had an opportunity to work for a small publication firm selling advertising space for business targeted at the Brazilian communities. Eventually, I landed in the Biopharmaceutical Industry where I have worked for the past fourteen years. Today I live a decent life and really enjoy what I do. In that regard, I consider myself successful. But I had to face many challenges along the way. I have had up and downs in the course of my personal and professional life. But I tend to look at the bright side of things. There is always a lesson to be learned from every single experience I have had.

Throughout the years I have had a collection of stories. I have been through all kinds of different situations. Some were good and some were regrettable. I wish they never happened. The event that follows is something I did because I was distracted .enough not to see that a dear friend would expose me to a disturbing situation. The event happened in the summer of 1992 while I was living in Cambridge. It highlights how it is possible to get into danger even when in the comfort of my own apartment. By saying yes to a friend, I put myself in a very odd and regrettable situation. I just wish I had never been there. I would have been spared of all the trouble if I had simply said no to an invitation. The event started when I got back from work. It was almost six o’clock. My brother Ad was already home with our roommate, Mike. They were sitting in the living room drinking beer and chatting. The TV was on but no one was really watching anything at that time. I greeted them, dropped my stuff in my bedroom and walked straight to the kitchen. I opened the fridge, grabbed a beer and went to the other room to join them in the conversation. We joked and laughed and talked about different things for a while. We seldom sat down together and talked due to always being on the run taking care of personal things. Something about that night was different. We were all relaxed, laughing and really enjoying ourselves. I was drinking my beer slowly and a momentary silence fell over us as we did not have much more to talk about.

Ad was staring at the TV screen as something caught his attention. Mike broke the silence by talking about a workshop he and his girlfriend Justine had taken recently at a hotel in Danvers. He described it as a very exciting experience. It offered key elements for him to become a better citizen and enhanced his interpersonal relations. It also helped him to become more organized with his personal life and increased his performance at work. In general his life had improved dramatically, by his accounts. He kept on and on and on with that conversation. This guy was really changed. I had never seen him so motivated and excited. Now I was listening to his experience with interest. This training must have been something really significant to transform him that much, I thought to myself. I was very receptive to his talk and decided to pay close attention to it. Who knows this might also be a good opportunity for me. Often I would interrupt and ask questions as I wanted to learn more about it. He patiently clarified all the doubts I had. It took me a while to realize that he was pushing for me to go to that seminar. He invited me to go see a presentation. It sounded something very positive so I accepted the offer. He said there was a group of people joining them for the next session. The fact is that Mike used all the words that I was dying to hear to persuade me to be part of that thing. He knew exactly where and when to push the buttons. He knew exactly how to conduct the conversation to make me interested. The fact is he was trained and prepared to convince people to show up for that workshop. Naturally, if I was told the plain truth I would change my mind very quickly and would have declined going there. I agreed to go to the seminar with him. But then, there was a little problem. Up to that moment I had not heard anything about cost. Suddenly I became hesitant and told him I would make a decision in a couple of days and would get back to him with a definitive answer. I went to bed that night kind of intrigued as I could not stop thinking about the conversation we had that night.


The seminar was going to happen in two weeks. I had to pay five hundred dollar for it, half of that amount up front and the other half on the day of the seminar. I was a little turned down as I did not have that kind of money to spare. I felt like not joining specially because of the cost. He then used all the tools he had available to prevent me from giving up. He showed up with his girlfriend the next day and she used her charm to ensure I did not back off. They used all kinds of arguments to prevent me from changing my mind. I agreed to pay half of the money upfront and then pay the remaining balance at the office the day I was going to take the seminar. With that, I was locked in and had no way to back out. Mike agreed to give me a ride to Danvers the first day to make things easy for me. Once I learned the way to get there I would drive my car.

I was a little nervous as I did not know what to expect at that first training. I also had no clue what Lifespring really was, except for what I was told by both Mike and his partner. I later learned that Lifespring was a large group awareness training program. Still, that did no help me much. I was also told that the workshop was going to be presented in the form of lectures, discussions and a whole lot of group exercises. In short, I was not really sure what I was paying for but I had already decided to take the risk. I trusted Mike very much and we had been friends for a number of years. In fact he was one of the very few friends that I really trusted. I just bought the plan that the seminar was going to be a very educational experience in my life. I had no doubts it was going to be beneficial in many ways.

I showed up at about 8:30 am on the day of the training in the company of Mike and Justine. The seminar was going to start at 9:00 am. I was introduced to one of the staff members at the reception. She was very friendly to me and put on her best face to make me feel welcome. “You are going to have one of the best experiences of your life”, she said. I hope so, I replied to her as she was preparing a name tag for me. She also asked me to sign an agreement waving any action for damages in result of that training. That was just a standard procedure according to her. I thought about what she said before. What does she mean by “the best experience of my life”? I just had to wait and find out for myself. This is very powerful stuff. Just be patient, and have your mind open for the ride. Soon all my questions were going to be answered, I was told. All of a sudden my stomach started to get a little upset. I was getting a little scared actually. Despite people pretending to act as normal human beings, something was a little odd about that place. It was not just the way they talked, it was the whole scenario. There was an effort on part of people to show that this was a very exciting place to be. I saw a group of men nicely dressed in black suits and ties. They looked serious and polite but were not engaged in conversations. They seemed cold as statues. They acted like security guards or maybe they were something of higher order, who knows. Some people were hugging and kissing and whispering in each others ears, but not like lovers do. It was more like friends who love each other dearly. The trouble was I was not used to seeing this kind of behavior everyday. There is nothing wrong with people hugging and kissing. Whatever was happening there was a little beyond the limit of what I would usually see on a regular basis. Maybe it was just me. I was probably over reacting, I thought. “C’mon, just relax”, I thought to myself.

Mike seemed to know everybody. He talked to a whole lot of people. He seemed very comfortable in the environment. I was holding back from him and everyone else because of what was going through my mind. I had already paid the remaining balance right after they checked me in. After a few minutes I was escorted to join a group of people who were already waiting by the door on the furthest side of the room. They all were going to take the workshop. My friend and his partner had no access to that area at all so they left right after I passed through the reception area. We were all standing in that room. The time was 8:50 am. I noticed a group of people talking as if they were very intimate. I was not sure if they were staff members or if they were former participants in the program. They were talking very enthusiastically. The room got filled very quickly as all the registered participants were instructed to approach the area. I could tell there were fifty people or more. One of the staff members walked to the front of the room and started a brief introduction by thanking everyone for taking the courageous decision to be there for what she described as one of the most important resolutions of our lives. At that time we were introduced to all the ground rules. Among a few things that were considered not acceptable was arriving late for each training session. Under no circumstance a participant was to walk in that room late. Unless he or she had a very justifiable and convincing reason for doing so. Every day of the training we were supposed to enter the room in a very methodic way. We would form a single line outside first and then after an alarm sounded, we would be escorted in by staff members. We were told to fill all the seat rows starting from the first one by the stage. This was supposed to be the routine every day of the training. No empty spaces between one participants and the next was allowed. This also meant that none was supposed to save space for another person. No cell phone, chatting, smoking or chewing gums during the hours of the training were allowed. She asked that if anyone would like to go to the restroom at any given time, one would have to lift his hand and wait to be escorted out by one of her assistants. No one was allowed to be wondering around during the whole training. These were all part of the ground rules and everyone agreed to follow them unconditionally. Once we “willingly” agreed to them, they became official and were referred to as “our rules”. We were then escorted to the main training area. We did it as orderly and respectfully as we were told. We quickly filled all the rows of seats. That reminded me of a group of jurors entering a court room before the session starts.

It was a spacious and nicely arranged conference room. Chairs were placed in semi-circle formation facing the stage. The room was a complete silence. Some of us made some funny looks but no one dared to chat. I man frowned his face. I though he meant to say, now what? I looked at the stage area and then all around the room looking for the presence of the trainers. No one was there except for us and those people nicely dressed in suits. They were all aligned along the wall by the main entrance behind us. These were the same cold looking people I saw outside. There were five men and three women. Their expression did not change a bit. It was clear now that they were there to assist on the training. But why are there so many of them, and why they seem to be so indifferent. These were some of the questions were going through my mind at that moment. All the suspense started to give me the creeps. Beautiful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling called my attention. As I was looking up I almost did not notice someone walking to the stage from a side door. I looked at my watch. It was five past nine.

A nicely dressed woman approached the stage and introduced herself as Nancy O’Connell. She was the person who was going to guide us throughout the three day workshop. She was probably in her late forties. She talked about her education background and all the experience she had acquired throughout the years. She held a PhD in psychology and had very extensive experience in giving seminars to groups of people all over the country, before she joined the Lifespring organization. She had a pleasant character and was highly articulate. She also presented the group of people in the back as the “guardians”. She told us they were there to help us keep our ground rules and also to ensure we were all comfortable. She told us funny stories and some of us laughed hysterically. Gosh! This lady is in the wrong business. She would have made a great comedian. She really had the ability to entertain people, I thought. That was an ice breaker for me. I was really feeling kind of intimidated in the beginning and not knowing what to expect. By irradiating the audience with such positive energy, she really made me feel more relaxed. By the end of the first day some of us already showed signs of tiredness even though the activities were highly interactive. I would imagine that one of the objectives of the first day was to make us identify with one another and feel comfortable. That would set the ground for the things to come in the next couple of days. I learned from Nancy that we were a group of seventy five people from different walks of life. There were lawyers, teachers, construction workers and college students among us. While she hoped that all the participants would make it to “graduation day”, she guaranteed that not all of us would succeed because the training was very demanding. That had very little to do with academic background. The success of it depended highly on each person’s ability to concentrate and absorb the material being presented, according to her. We were encouraged to cooperate to the fullest extent to take advantage of the program. She briefly touched again on the ground rules subject and reminded us that it was extremely important that we followed those rules.

The workshop started out with a lecture on human behavior and then it was followed by a game that always led to the next lecture. All the activities touched on the psychological aspect of human behavior and people were systematically challenged to participate in the discussions. Initially the focus was on failures and disappointment but later in the training it turned into self glorification. Some of us were very confrontational and uncooperative to the process. I saw some people being escorted out of the training floor for behaving “inappropriately”. Some people started to crack down psychologically. There was an instance in which a couple of people arrived a few minutes late after the break. They were humiliated in front of everybody. A lady broke down in tears. Each one of them had to speak into the microphone and explain why they were late and answer other embarrassing questions. Somebody else in the audience did not contain himself and laughed. I do not know why someone would laugh in such circumstance. I believe he did not mean to make fun of anyone. It was more like a manifestation of anxiety. “Why are you laughing about?”, “Do you think this is funny?” In the end that person was also embarrassed. “I am not just talking to him. A lot of you have the same habit”. Do you realize how not being on time can affect your life negatively? She would turn to everyone else as if there was no difference between the late comers and the any person sitting in the audience. The point was we all had failures no matter who we were. This kind of scene was a common setting throughout most of first and second day. Nancy sounded very mean at times. I was sure that was a purpose for her to treat people in such a harsh manner. I was momentarily uncomfortable and tired and felt like dismissing myself from the training. But leaving the floor was not that simple. I would probably be asked to go to the stage and explain in front of everybody the reasons why I was leaving. I did not want to go through that discomfort either. The best bet was just to go through that thing all the way to the end. There were good and bad things about it. I can not deny that some of the messages from the lectures were highly motivational and helpful. But I was intrigued on how our emotions were manipulated so easily. It was clear that in order for the workshop to be successful the trainer needed to fully capture the attention and imagination of the participants. During those sessions there was an atmosphere of law and order. Time was critical for anything we did I realized the training was a highly controlled exercise.

As the workshop progressed into the third day the sessions became more intense. It was almost impossible to sit there just like an ordinary observer and not being affected by what was going on. It felt as if we were being hypnotized and people were acting a little odd. Most of us became extremely vulnerable as people would share their most intimate secrets. Experiences shared by other members would shake everyone down. Some people would hug intensely to demonstrate support. This was a moment where we were walking on a psychological thin ice. One of the participants jumped on the stage and confessed in front of everyone that he was gay and he wanted us to be the first to know. He suffered enormously by being in the closet all his life. All of a sudden he had a sense of relief. Then the racial issue came up when another person shared that a number of occasions he was mistreated because of the color of his skin. He shared that he once reacted violently when someone called him “niger” at a club. A bad fight was started and just ended when the police arrived. That brought him some trouble. I could tell he was still resentful over that. “You know what, said the trainer, you are a nigger”. “You were born and will die a niger!”. “You niger”, Said the trainer very loudly. The black guy just froze and had no immediate reaction to that. Suddenly he put his hands on his face and sobbed like a baby. My god, this is crazy, I am out of here, I thought to myself. But despite of what my mind wished my body would not cooperate. The trainer went on with her lecture. “It does not matter what other people call you John. “Do not allow other people to dictate how you should live your life”. “Keep on walking on that path you always going to feel miserable and small”. Stop that thinking right now”, she demanded. “Do not let the color of your skin to prevent you from achieving greatness”. Many people would go and hug him while he was still drying his tears. It was obvious that all the exercises were designed to expose people’s grudges, break them psychologically and then reward them with nice words of encouragement, hugs and kisses.

There were two incidents that affected me the most during that training. While doing one of the exercises, I fell and hit my face violently on a chair. I lost consciousness momentarily. I was taken outside by an assistant to wash my face and have some fresh air as I felt a little disoriented. I looked my face on the mirror. I had a bad bruise on my left eye. I was offered to go to the hospital to be checked on but I did not feel it was necessary and declined the offer. I was escorted back to the training floor holding an ice pack half an hour later. Half way through the third day something clicked on my head and I began to observe that the whole program was a parallel of the Christian Gospel. I had a Christian education in my early years and that realization shocked me. I looked back to the previous exercises and I could see it clearly now. They all mimicked some important biblical events. The only aspect that differed from the bible was the fact that while it preaches eternal life and glorification to Christ and God, the Lifespring program gave emphasis to glorification to life and self. At that point I realized that this thing had to be a cult. If I was a little defensive all along the training that realization made me totally shut down. After that moment I basically dragged myself to stand there until the end. I became disturbed with those findings but I never disclosed to anyone what I saw and how I felt from that experience until now.

Soon after I took the basic course I was contacted several times by the Lifespring people to sign up for the level II workshop. I declined immediately and gave no explanation why I would not join. The truth is even though I played along with the training, in my heart I never accepted those teachings as a role model for my life. I was not able to see how I was going to be able to apply any of that in real life. I learned later that during the Level II, I would have to make stronger commitments to the organization and bringing new participants to the circle was a must. Someone insisted I went back. “Man, what a waste of talent”. “You could have made a great leader here, but if you insist in living inside your old box no one is going to force you out”, he told me. The conversation was left there. I never heard from them again. Recently I was browsing the net and found this statement from a writer who had taken a seminar very similar to Lifespring;

“…Most people assume they would know if they were being brainwashed. They think it involves great force, or some obvious, epic struggle in which the mind slowly and grudgingly succumbs. But mind control only works when the subject cooperates. And cooperation requires that a reasonable person not know what's happening. You have to lead her where you want, but she needs to think she's going someplace else”

While some of the Lifespring teachings contained positive messages, the approach was wrong and misleading. By signing up to the program I put myself in a situation of danger and discomfort. It took me quite a few weeks to recover from some of the psychological burden of the training. Overtime, it became obvious that once people were committed to the Lifespring way, they would be instrumental in bringing revenues for the organization. As they became psychologically locked in the system, they were forced to enroll as many people as possible to the program. After that experience I became very suspicious of any invitation to go see any kind of presentation especially from people that I consider friends. If it is something I am not looking for, it is probably something I can live without. Whether there is a product or good idea behind the concepts someone is trying to impose on me, it is certainly a distraction that I can prevent from becoming a very disturbing experience.

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