Brasilmagic\’s Weblog

Venting to the World

Michelle Obama and health initiatives

I was pleased to hear First Lady Michelle Obama encouraging Americans to eat healthier and exercise more often, targeting school children in particular. I also agree with her incentives in breastfeeding. I actually let out a big sigh upon hearing these initiatives, followed by a “Finally!”

Since moving to the United States for the third time in 1997, I have been bothered by the large number of obese individuals, and particularly sad to see overweight teenagers and twenty-something’s. That is supposed to be the best decade of one’s life, when young people have a wide number of physical activities and start their romantic lives. Instead, they are bogged down by weight. We all know the cause of this epidemic: the urban sprawl and cheap food. That is, riding cars everywhere and sugar-fat-salt based fast food accessible to all.

I missed seeing ads on TV educating the population, which are common in Brazil, and I missed seeing those in power taking the initiative to stop the insanity. It seemed no politician wanted to anger Kraft, Coca-Cola or MacDonald’s. There were an infinite number of diet ads, magazines and books, but no real government led movement to teach the population to stop killing themselves.

The most appalling to me were the school cafeterias. I still feel very guilty of those times I gave my daughters money to buy lunch at the school cafeteria because I lacked time to prepare something for them when I was running late for work. How could schools sell soda, hamburgers and pizza for children who were developing? Why not adopt the big soup kitchen method Brazil has employed so effectively by cooking grains, vegetables and bean based meals in big pans for school lunches?

I applaud Michelle Obama, and I hope that if Barack Obama is re-elected, we will see an improvement in the country’s general health in the next 6 years. See picture below of Brazilian school children eating healthful meals:

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February 16, 2011 Posted by | Difference between cultures, Health | Leave a comment

How envy destroys relationships

Envy is a very common human feeling. It is natural to covet things other people have. Sometimes envy works in our behalf, by making us more motivated and willing to achieve, but other times it paralyzes us, by making us waste energy in negative feelings that are detrimental to our well being.

For some reason, human beings feel more envious when someone close to them has something they don’t have. Sibling rivalry comes to mind, as well as friendships torn apart with envy when life hands people different cards. Who doesn’t have friends who like us more when we are down? Or who disappear when something amazing happens in our lives? Why don’t we envy Bill Gates more than our friend Bill who bought the new expensive car? Why do we envy our childhood friend who married this amazing guy more than the Hollywood celebrity who just got married? Simple: we envy what’s closest to us. Somehow, we think that we deserve the same our sibling, best friend or co-worker has, because we see ourselves as similar to them, in the same level. Celebrities are demi-gods, unattainable, unreachable and far “superior” to us. They deserve what they have because of their special intelligence, talent or beauty.

I have already talked here about how envy between couples is harmful for the marriage and is completely opposed to the idea that marriage is a partnership.

It takes practice and maturity to accept that life isn’t fair, that people achieve different things, and that we will always meet people who have nicer things than we do. It takes wisdom to keep that negative feeling at bay and to be able to be genuinely happy for the lucky ones. Also, remember that life is full of surprises: your successful friend may one day have setbacks, and you may one day achieve the things you desire if you stop wasting time wallowing in envy.

February 16, 2011 Posted by | Psychology | 1 Comment

Human survival instinct

Once you study the theory of evolution and understand that we are evolved beings, and that we are related to all animals and therefore we still demonstrate many animalistic instincts, we can actually become more tolerant of human defects. You can feel more sympathetic for those who are not so bright, for those who are born with mental illnesses, for those who are born gay and for those who are not so “nice”. Due to our survival instinct, sometimes human beings are not nice. When being nice means losing something, those with a stronger sense of survival sometimes show a very mean and aggressive side. Sometimes our survival instinct does not affect our fellow human beings (such as in the movie “127 Hours”), but many times it does.

What are the examples of human survival instinct at play?

-At work, when people steal ideas or betray coworkers;
-In catastrophic situations, such a fire in a closed space, when humans trample each other to get out;
-In life, when women protect their men from other women (exes and other relatives included), so their man spends their money with them and not with others);
-In business, when people lie and try to portray a false impression of their product or financial situation;
-When siblings become enemies fighting for their parents’ inheritance;
-Corruption, in politics or business;
-When children lie to their parents to avoid their wrath;
-When married people lie to each other to avoid losing them, and facing consequences;
-In social climbing people, who will do anything to meet and “hang out” with important people?
-In war, where killing your enemy means your survival;
-In traffic, where aggressive people want to get ahead of others;
-When you don’t speak up about some kind of injustice, afraid of either losing your job or suffering backlash;
-When charity and giving is done to make one feel good-about themselves.

Fortunately for humans, we know we cannot go too far in protecting ourselves. We know we need other people. We cannot alienate them, or we pay a huge price. We need to live in society, so there are limits to our selfishness and individualism.

February 15, 2011 Posted by | Atheism, Society | 7 Comments

Being gay in Brazil vs. the USA

I have always been a defender of gay people. In the early 90’s I was a panelist in a debate show on TV in the city of Curitiba, Brazil, as a Sociologist. It was kind of a “The View” where many different topics were discussed, especially controversial ones. There was a moderator and 3 other professionals. One was a psychologist. There was also an audience that could make comments and questions. For many years I participated in this show until I moved away from Curitiba.

In one particular show where homosexuality was discussed, I recall saying that gay couples should have the same “rights” as heterosexual couples. I did not say “marriage” or even “legal union’ since back them gay marriage was not on the plate worldwide. Nevertheless, the first studies showing that gay people are born gay were being advertised, and I felt that discriminating and making gay people ”ashamed” of being gay just led to immense suffering and unfair treatment.

Which brings me to an interesting difference between gay men in America and gay men in Brazil: in Brazil, gay men are more out. They like to dress different from other men, and mix some feminine styles with a masculine wardrobe. Simply put, there is no doubt they are gay. They also act and talk more effeminate, oblivious to stares or sneering behind their backs. In America, gay men seem to hide their feminine side more. A few dare to wear earrings or a colorful scarf. The majority just dresses like any other guy. I have seen women hit on gay men without realizing they were not interested-because they were gay.

Does that mean that the Brazilian society is more tolerant to gay men? I don’t think so. Brazilians are more “out” in everything, including sexuality. Women dress sexier and show their bodies more. It is normal for straight men to wear small swim trunks (so called Speedos in America) and walk around without a shirt even in the streets. The entire nation of Brazil is more out, in every aspect. Therefore, gay men (and women) seem to be more out about their sexuality as well.

However, Brazil is far from accepting gay marriage. The Catholic Church makes sure of that (and now the growth of Evangelical churches makes it even worse). Abortion is not legal in Brazil, which is absurd. While in America discriminating against gay people at work or in life is protected by law, in Brazil people still make fun of gay people without any consequences. Gay couples walking hand in hand are cause shock (for that matter, most parts of America are also like that). But as with many other social advances, the gay cause is becoming stronger in America (I foresee gay marriage accepted in more and more states), which will spill over to Brazil eventually. Hopefully Brazil will also become a more secular society, with less influence of the old fashioned Catholic Church.

Here’s a good article about how gay people are born gay, for those who think they have a choice: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/jquirk/detail?entry_id=48335

February 15, 2011 Posted by | Difference between cultures, Lifestyle, Society | 23 Comments

Are real estate agents still necessary?

The internet has undoubtedly changed the nature of various professions. Just as the typewriter has become obsolete, some professional services have become less necessary and are fading away. Film developers, mail carriers, typists, travel agents and now real estate agents are becoming less important. Those who need real estate agents are people who need to be babysat through documentation and are unable to do a house search by themselves. The internet through the MLS has listing of properties with detailed information and pictures. You can also drive around and find properties for sale or rent. If you know the market and read about the property (every county has information on each property), you can pretty much find what suits you without someone else guiding you. I have met real estate agents who just didn’t get what I needed. Or those trying to push you into something you clearly don’t want. Or those who get lost and still use the paper copies for each property instead of a lap top or tablet.

Real estate agents have become door openers. Informed customers can find online and through careful research all they need to know about properties. The same is not true about commercial real estate. Commercial real estate is trickier. It is advisable to have someone negotiate the terms for you. Real estate agents get very defensive when people say they are becoming obsolete. For many people without formal education or training and those who want a flexible schedule, selling houses has been the quickest path to making money. What they need to realize is that some people just don’t need them. And with the internet, their “secret listings” are no longer secret.

Real estate agents are now catering to recent immigrants or people who don’t want to do the work. They are the middleman, and for many people, that 3% (or 6% for those who are selling) is a lot of money to part with. I have heard that doctors can one day become obsolete. That is a far reach, since our bodies are way too complex and medicine is not mathematics. If someone wants to get in real estate at this date and age, prepare to be technologically inclined and to concentrate in customers who are not very independent or internet savvy.

February 15, 2011 Posted by | Society | 3 Comments

Being fake at work

What prompted me to bring this up is a conversation I had with a European friend. It’s normal for foreigners in the USA to get together and exchange impressions of life in America. It’s not meant for Americans to hear, as most would be offended, but it’s inevitable. For an American, just imagine if you ran into another American in, let’s say, Singapore, you would also make comments about the advantages and disadvantages of living there.

Which brings me back to the point my friend and I discussed: when Americans at work smile and say “how are you doing”, are they really interested? Do they really want to know how you are doing? The answer is no. They really don’t give a damn. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. See, most of us have to spend the whole day at work. Everybody has problems in their personal lives once and awhile. We cannot be in a good mood every day. But what happens when people bring their personal problems to work too often? The work day can become unbearable. Do we really want to see sourpuss faces for 8 or more hours a day? Do we really want to carry the heavy burden of hearing that Cindy’s grandma has cancer or that Saed can’t make his mortgage? Do we want Allen barking at his subordinates because his wife refused sex last night? Do we want to hear Lakisha complaining about how many bills she has? Or Doris constantly complaining about her arthritis? I don’t think so. We want work to be a civil, neutral and peaceful place where we can concentrate in work. We want to have friendly conversations and even get a few laughs during our work day. We should use our spouses, close friends and therapists to discuss our personal troubles.

To illustrate this, my friend mentioned his experience working in a lab in Europe where he said people were always complaining, always in a bad mood. Once he came to work in America, he noticed how everybody smiled and had a positive attitude, as if no one had problems outside work. He said that made his work day smoother and more productive.

I also have learned to leave my personal problems outside work. I have learned to smile at everyone no matter how awful I am feeling inside. I have learned to never release anger or frustration on strangers or co-workers. Do I tell my co-workers personal things? Sure, as long as they don’t compromise my image. Do I joke and talk about general things? Sure. Do I sometimes complain? Yes I do, but carefully. We are not robots devoid of emotion. We cannot be fun and nice all the time. But we can learn to be more often. We can train ourselves to make the workplace a pleasant place instead of a war zone. We can be considerate without burdening others and not letting others burden us.

February 15, 2011 Posted by | Difference between cultures, Workplace | 2 Comments

Do kids leave home too early?

I have mentioned the difference between the Brazilian and American cultures when it comes to kids living with their parents. American kids who go to College usually live in dorms, fraternities and sororities as early as age 17.

Brazilian kids live with their parents through College, and sometimes even after graduation. Many still live with their parents even though they earn a decent living. Many only leave the parental home when they get married. The sense of family is so strong that some young Brazilians like the comfort of home-cooked meals and laundry by mom or the maid. Furthermore, homes are very expensive in Brazil, and people in their 20’s cannot usually afford a decent apartment. Living with roommates is considered less desirable than living with Mom and Dad. What are the upsides and downsides of young adults living with their parents?

Upsides:

– When American children go to College, they are usually 17. That is an age when kids still need parental guidance. For some kids, losing the parental influence makes them more prone of getting into trouble. Thus, Brazilian kids observe curfews and know they cannot sleep with boys or girls that easily.

– It’s a lot cheaper. Parents spend fortunes (namely retirement money) to pay for their kids’ room and board. Even when it’s the kids that pay, they graduate with huge debts that are will follow them into their middle-aged years.

– Kids living at home in their early 20’s have to gain with their parents’ life experience. The daily contact with Mom and Dad creates a bond that is for life. Conversations around the lunch (Brazil)/dinner table are fruitful. It is undeniable that even though kids come home during holidays and summer vacations, they don’t have the same level of interaction than kids who live at home during early adulthood.

– Kids usually live with more comfort at their parents’ house, and don’t have to worry so much about laundry and cleaning.

– College students and young adults eat healthier if they live at home and have family meals. The “freshman 15” is a sign that pizza and burgers sometimes becomes the staple of some College kids’ lives.

Downsides:

– Sometimes living with Mom and Dad way into adulthood is really a fear of facing reality and hard work. It can be an easy way out. It often happens when lonely or unhappily married parents project their neediness into their children. In that case, it is the parent who doesn’t want their child to move on.

– Children who live at home until they are well into adulthood don’t learn to be independent. They have trouble in performing simple housework tasks when they are finally on their own.

– Young adults who live with their parents until they get married are basically leaving Mom and Dad for the new spouse. They never learned to live on their own, or even to be alone. Brazilian women have an exaggerated fear of being alone since most never lived by them.

With all the immigration that America has seen in recent years, it is more common to find College kids living with their parents, especially in families from China, India and Central and South America. Many of these parents are afraid of losing influence over their kids, and want to avoid the subtle discrimination that happens with kids from different cultures in dorms, sororities and fraternities. There is also a religious aspect (fear their children will be influenced by more secular philosophies or have sex before marriage) and a financial aspect (immigrant families generally have less resources).

We also see parents who WANT to see their kids out of the house early. In this highly individualistic society, the ME is always in play. After decades of child rearing, many parents want to have time for them, especially if they are divorced. They want the freedom to come and go and travel during low season. The ones who are in the dating world want the freedom to bring their new dates home without having to worry about their kids’ reactions.

Conversely, many couples fear so much being alone with each other (the only thing keeping them together are the kids) that they hold on to their children for as long as they can. Many women define themselves as mothers first, and when their kids leave the nest they lose their purpose of living. They are unable to find pleasure in other life pursuits. These are the parents who will certainly interfere in every aspect of their children’s life and marriage.

Every family is different. Instead of having to follow a certain pattern, parents need to balance independence and guidance, family influence vs. world influence. Remember the old saying that we don’t raise kids for ourselves but for the world? It’s certainly true.

February 15, 2011 Posted by | Being a mother, Difference between cultures, Family, Society | 6 Comments

Divorce, Religion and Kids

We are living in a very diverse world. Almost every continent has had its share of immigrant waves. Western Europe has received immigrants from Northern Africa and the Middle East for decades. The United States has had recent waves of Hispanic, Asian, Indian and African immigrants. One of the consequences of this multiculturalism is that there are more and more mixed marriages, not only in terms of ethnicity but also in terms of religion.

Jewish-Christian marriages have been common in the United States since the early 1900’s, when the first Jewish immigrants arrived. The number of Judeo-Christian marriages intensified after 1939 with Hitler’s hostility to Jews in Germany. Many Jewish-Christian couples in America now celebrate both traditions, with very little conflict.

More rare are marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims, but I believe they are also growing in numbers. Children tend to follow the mother’s religion, since men have been traditionally less involved with the raising of children. But what happens after there is a divorce? What happens when the father is a non-believer, and agrees to raise his children in the mother’s religion as a way to keep domestic peace but no longer is married?

Like in many divorces, differences sometimes become a point of contention. As an atheist myself who raised two great children without any religion, I know very well how religion can be a complicated issue. Take the story of this divorced father of two: a Hispanic immigrant who has abandoned Catholicism to become an Agnostic, or “almost atheist” in his words. His ex-wife is very Catholic and takes their son and daughter to Church every Sunday, as well as following in all the Catholic Church rites. Their teenage daughter recently was “confirmed” with a church ceremony. The father objected to what he called “indoctrination” of his daughter, with no success. He felt helpless and obligated to attend the service, where he was appalled at the “discrimination between middle class whites and poor Hispanic immigrants who ignored each other during the whole ceremony”. Furthermore, it pained him to see his daughter going through rituals that he understands as “based in lies and myths”.

The most famous case of divorced couples with opposed religious views is the Michael Newdow case. Michael Newdow is an atheist who opposed his daughter reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. In 2002, he filed a suit in behalf of his daughter against the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Even though the case was taken all the way to the Supreme Court, it was overruled because Newdow did not have custody of his daughter. For secular parents, the difficulty is that there is an added stigma to being non-believer in a country where religion is associated to “being good and moral”. Atheist parents are usually powerless against a religious parent who has a stamp of approval from society, school and other family members.

So what can a parent who is opposed to the religion their ex belongs to do? I think the best solution is to talk to your child as she or he grows up. Offer an alternative point of view. Teach your child about your religion or lack thereof. Tell them that you will let them decide what’s best for them when they grow up, and hope for the best. Engaging in battles with your ex over what religion or non-belief you will raise your children just adds to the tension of divorce and may alienate the child. Letting your child know what your position is and that they have a choice seems to be the most civil way to deal with a sensitive issue such as religious belief.

February 12, 2011 Posted by | Atheism, Being a mother, Religion | 2 Comments