Monthly Archives: July 2007

Miraculous Flourishing

A few weeks ago I posted a story — or rather, a confession — about a plant I am trying to baby-sit (and not kill). I am pleased to report that the plant is still alive. Not only that, it is actually flourishing! That’s right: to my surprise, I walked in this morning to find that during the weekend the plant had produced dozens of baby-leaves! I had never seen more than three or four at a time before!

Let’s look at the facts:

Fact #1: I water “my” plant every Monday, emptying half of the contents of a 250ml Tim Hortons plastic water bottle. Until last Monday, these contents consisted simply of 100% plain tap water.

Fact #2: When the plant was on the verge of dying, a few friends recommended I gave her some plant fertilizer. But I didn’t really know where to go buy it, and while I searched, the plant miraculously stopped dying, which made the fertilizer less of an emergency.

Fact #3: Then a week ago last Friday, I passed by a flower shop, and decided to ask them if they had something general enough and (crucial pre-requisite) easy to apply. After asking all sorts of questions about the plant, the guy sold me a little bottle whose label said: “Liquid Plant Food – 7 drops per liter of water: everytime you water, everything will grow.” Just what I needed, I thought. Despite of all my urban skepticism, for the bargain price of $6.99 I bought 118ml of this fantastic elixir, and went home.

Fact #4: 7 divided by 2 equals 3.5. The capacity of my plastic bottle, as I said, is 250ml, which is a quarter of a litre. Hence I neded to divide 3.5 by 2 again how many drops to drop into the Tim Hortons bottle. My skills in basic arithmetic quickly gave me the desired answer: 1.75 drops per TH plastic water bottle. My philosophical accounting skills reasoned that that would be approximately one large drop and one smaller drop. So off goes big drop and little drop into bottle.

Fact #5: Then, exactly a week ago, I meticulously poured half of the concoction obtained through the procedure described at #4 above, and saved the rest for today.

Fact #6: And the rest of the story you know: I walk into my office this morning to find dozens of baby leaves! Without having to handle any smelly manure. Urban skepticism has been completly uprooted!

Conclusion: I’ll never again roll my eyes when I hear a farmer or a gardener go into raptures about their greens. I’ll just tell stories about my own babies too, with pictures and all. Aren’t they adorable?

Picture 1: The exilir and the TH bottle. This picture could well pass for an ad for the concoction, no?
(NB: Notice the cheeky branch with three baby leafs sneaking into the foreground.)

Picture 2: Said sneaky branch up close. Can you see the three little leafs?

Picture 3: Baby close-up: cute, no?
(Disclaimer: no baby-leafs were hurt or suffocated in the process of taking this photograph.)

Picture 4: And there’s tons of them in every single branch! Ester so proud!

Sprinkles of a big splash

The news of the plane crash in Brazil really shook me yesterday. I couldn’t think about anything else all day long, and spent way too much time reading whatever news there was about it online.

It all seemed so near. I had spent a good part of the day before, nay, the week, month, year, thinking of the logistics of going back home in August. I always have to change planes in São Paulo whenever I go home, some times change airports. But this time I actually have a couple of errands to run there, and couldn’t decide whether to stop over for a couple of days, or just carry on with my move. Since I’ll be moving from Canada to Brasilia, maybe it be best to go straight to Brasilia first to drop all the luggage and think about errands in São Paulo after. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, more and more as the moving date approaches.

But this week there was something that made the whole logistics of passing through São Paulo in August even more interesting: one of my colleagues in Toronto would like me to accompany her in a trip to Porto Alegre. So two days ago we were debating whether we should combine it with my trip to São Paulo in August, or make a separate trip in October. We were discussing this two days ago. I’m don’t know what her plans are like now, but I’m sure what happened less than 24 hours after has put a completely different spin on things.

When I went home last Christmas, the effects of the plane crash in the Amazon last September were still very conspicuous (see my post of January 5). It had been the biggest aircrash in Brazilian history up to that point. My aunt works in the airport in Brasília, and she knew people who had died, and people who almost did, but decided to take another plane at the last minute. She had pictures of some of those people. If it hadn’t sunk in yet, seeing the faces and hearing the stories of two of dozens of the passengers that had died really made me go, “wow”. Ramifications were everywhere I looked.

These were ripple effects of an accident that had happened months before, in the middle of the rainforest. The one this week was right in the middle of the largest city in South America, less than a year after the other one. Ripple effect intensity goes up exponentially. Shivers go down my spine.

It’s not the proximity of the thing that is so overwhelming. Sure, I do think “this could have been me”. I’ve flown into that airport many times before, and will likely have to do it again. But there’s also something about the sheer magnitude of an accident like this, about the number of people and activities that it affects directly or indirectly, that is just, I don’t know, unfathomable.
I think of the families of each of those 200 people, what they must be thinking now, how their lives have changed all of a sudden. I think of the people who were in the building that was hit, and at the gas station. I think of the cars at the rush hour that missed being hit by an airplane by a hairline. I think of what must have gone in the head not only of the passengers, but of the pilot, and the flight attendants. I think of the people that work in or around that airport, or in any airport or aircraft. And the people that work for or with them. And those who live with or next to them, or know them somehow or other. Something like this affects a lot of people, and it affects them a lot.

So big, so close. Unfathomable, innefable. It makes anything I say or can say about it so shallow in comparison. It’s like complaining of being soaked by the littlest sneeze of a sprinkle of a big splash. So I’ll just stop here, with a moment of respectful silence.

"Social" Security

A couple of months ago I realized that I had forgotten to inform the the Brazilian government that I didn’t need to file a tax return because I hadn’t made any money. Such neglect caused my Brazilian Social Security Number to become “irregular”, and now I needed to make it regular again.

I went to the website for Revenue Brazil, as I do every year. But this time it was different. Very different. They had redone the whole website, and I couldn’t find the place to renew my SSN. To be precise, it wasn’t that they had redone the website: they were in the process of redoing it. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t find the place to renew my SSN: the links were there, but they kept sending me back and forth on a loop.

So I had two other three options: 1) call a 1-800 number; 2) file a petition in person; 3) forget about it.

Option number 1 was out of the question: you can’t make an international 1-800 call. Option number 2 was equally impractical. Unless, of course, I went to the consulate, or gave someone the power of attorney. So I went with option 3.

Until yesterday, out of the blue, the thought emerged again, and I finally decided to go to the consulate. I knew from before that the consulate kept unusual hours: 10-2. I work 10-4. But I do get an hour off for lunch. And the consulate is a 15 minute esterical walk away. So yesterday, after lunch, I rushed off to the consulate.

Turns out the hours have changed to 9-1. But this time I was determined to get this done at the very next oportunity. Which was as soon as the consulate opened today.

This morning, I quickly gobbled my breakfast and then rushed off to the consulate, a 5-minute esterical bike-ride away. Got there, three counters, one line up that filled the entire space, only one grumpy guy serving the public (grumpy guy who I knew from the time when they lost my BA and MA diplomas. And also from the time he decided to convince me not to transfer my voting station to Toronto, because it was a lot of work and what difference did my vote make anyways?).

After a while, grumpy guy (henceforth referred to as “GG”) finishes “helping” the people he’s supposed to be helping, and calls: “Next!” The next person happens to be an elegantly dressed size 14-plus lady, who needs a business visa for the Panamerican games. GG sends the lady over to another counter, because that’s the visa counter (though there’s no one there to take up visa requests).

Next person in line is an old gentleman, who also needs a visa to go see the Panamerican games. GG very rudely sends the old gentleman to the deserted counter, where size 14+ lady is still waiting for someone to come help her. GG then, at what maybe have been his attempt at something like efficiency and/or helpfulness, looks up to the ceiling and yells something to the effect that there are people waiting to be helped at the visa counter, could someone please come do something (I guess turning the head around 90 degrees towards the inner part of the consulate was just too much to be expected from him: hence the glance to the ceiling).

Next person in line was a stylish brunette (think Catherine Zeta-Jones), very tall in her stiletto heels and fresh in her lovely summer dress. She needs a visa to go to the Panamerican games, she says. GG opens his eyes out of their sockets, and drops his jaw. “What kind of game do you play?”, he asks. Ms. Zeta-Jones drily replies that the visa is not for her, it’s her boss who is volunteering at the games. All of us in the consulate then have the pleasure of finding out that GG worked for years with the Paraolympics committee, and he’s generally very committed to the organizational part of any sports event. He then kindly offers to look over Catherine’s papers, to see if anything is missing, so she won’t waste her time lining up for the other counter.

At this point, it became clear that, unlike GG, 14+size lady could turn her head much more than 90 degrees. Old gentleman’s head’s rotation in turn got close to a full 180. Catherine blushed, collected her documents, thanked GG for his kindness, and elegantly moved to the visa line, where someone eventually came to help and all necks got straightened.

The next person in line to see GG was me. He said that to do what I wanted to do through him was a lot of work(a lot of work for whom?): that the consulate would only work as the courier, and that, even then, there’d be no guarantee that my request would get to the right place. Best thing would be to find someone who was going to Brazil, and give them power of attorney. Alternatively, I could go try to do it online: and he gave me a print-out of the Revenue Brazil page. You know, the part with the loops.

With that in my hands I left the consulate, and made it back with 5 minutes to spare before work. Decided to have a quick look at the website. Turns out the number is not a 1800. And that I can call it from Skype. And even punch in all the 11 digits of my SSN, and my 8-digit date of birth, starting with the day, then month, then year. Then a voice said my request was successful, and I could check the website in 24 hours to see the updated status of my SSN. And then I rushed off to work and got there with one full minute to spare.

Which only goes to show that we sometimes make things much more complicated than they need to be. Or do we?

Philosophical Accounting

This battered comic strip has been with me for years. I’ve taken it to my classes in Philosophy of Education. I have pinned it to the corkboard on my wall. It is now taped to my office door, because I feel it accurately and concisely describes all my qualifications for my current job.

As I said on my post “First of May”, I have a very simple summer job: I rent rooms to people who come to Toronto for short stays during the summer. Some of our guests are students, some aren’t. Some stay overnight, some stay for a week or two, some a month or two, some stay the whole four months. Some come from far away, some from across town. It’s a very interesting mix of people, and I like the chance to practice my interpersonal skills — something I don’t always get to do with my thesis work. And trust me: those get plenty of exercise in this job, both in quantity and variety of exercise.

The booking system has likely been the same for the last forty years, if not longer. It consists in two binders: the room binder and the people binder. My job is to keep the two synchronized at all times.

The room binder is a big grid chart. The vertical axis corresponds to the rooms we have. The horizontal axis marks the days of the month. Each page describes what happens in a particular house is any given month (five houses, four months, twenty pages).

Each time someone makes a reservation, or cancels their reservation, or decides to change rooms, I mark it on the room binder, like an elaborate game of Tetris. Only the Tetris blocks have needs and are treated with utmost respect. I always knew that all that investment of time and energy playing Tetris in my youth would pay off some day.

The people binder contains the Tetris block’s personal information, such as name, address, email, dates of arrival and departure, whether they want a single or a double room, whether they have read our rules and regulations (which most of them haven’t, I’m not sure I have myself, at least not since 2003. )

This year I revolutionized the people binder by inserting tabs that go from 1 to 31, May to August. This makes it easier to synchronize it with the room binder: if Mr. X is arriving July 6th, my mind doesn’t need to go from A to X to find Mr. X: it just goes to day needed, when needed. The tricky part is to know which is the day needed, an objector might say. To which I reply: that’s why we have the room binder. All very simple.

What about computer programs, you ask. To this I reply: we respect tradition here. Nothing has stood the test of time quite so well as the old pencil-and-paper methods we use. Cleaning staff, porters, bursar’s secretary, building supervisor: we all rely on face-to-face communication for our jobs to run well. No computerized, mechanized, mediated communication here: we want to brush up our interpersonal skills after all. It’s all millimetrically planned.

And that’s why it calls for someone trained in philosophical accounting.

Esterical Blogversary

It’s been a year today. A full year. It was a day like this when it all started. Only I was in Brazil, not in Canada. And it was winter, not summer. Well, now that I think about it, the day wasn’t really that much like today, as far as days go. But that it was July 3rd, that it was.

Since then, it’s been 40 Esterical posts in English (47 in Portuguese). The internexa side of the blog has been honoured with 1,906 page views, mainly from our captive audience at U of T and McGill University, but also from places as far as Sweden, India and New Zealand. (Interplexa, the Brazilian counterpart, has in the meantime received more than twice the number of views, no idea why…).

To celebrate a year of such esterical posts (and because I’m super busy today to write anything decent), I leave you with three highlights:

1) Mutatis Mutandi, posted 21st July 2006:

2)My Place is a Place which is Mine, posted 5th January 2007:

3) Bachelor Life, posted 29th May 2007:

(the criterion was chronology more than any thing else: it would have been an impossible selection for me to make otherwise, these texts are all so… Esterical each in their own way…):

So here’s to many happy returns: to me, to you, and to the Muses. Cheers!