Sunday, August 24, 2014

To Return, Perchance To Stay

"To return ... with a withered face, the snows of time have turned silver my templea ..." I'm not tango devotee, nor a fan of Carlos Gardel, but there are lyrics that say it all and this one, upon returning from a trip to South America (and cybernetically reconnecting with former school classmates as a result of the emergency of one), feels appropriate.

No, I don't long to return. That's only the paradox Thomas Wolfe (not the modern Tom Wolfe) proposed in his novel You Can't Go Home Again, which is, ultimately, a version of the rejection of Jesus in his childhood Nazareth. We can't go back. Or as they sang after World War I, "How ya gonna keep'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?"

I "returned" to São Paulo, where I never lived but had visited before. I have relatives in Brazil, as I have in many other countries. To that was added a brief stop in Bogotá. Furthermore, I "returned" once already via the cyberworld while remaining on the terra firma of the good ol' U.S. of A., after hearing via email of a temporary health crisis (the reader is welcome to thank the god of choice) of a former classmate.

Sometimes distance from the daily occurrences of even people and places we know let us discern differences that have happened to them over time. Call it the Rip Van Winkle Outsider Effect, if you will.

Bogotá, for example, no longer has those packs of street urchins engaged in begging or street vending. Or perhaps they hide them better today from the tourists. You do see in their place some grungy old and obviously very poor men. Are they the children of yesteryear grown old? At least their descendants don't seem to lead similar lives.

São Paulo has always been a thriving hub of commerce. I was amazed that its newyorkization (all Latin American cities aspire, in my view foolishly, to have New York skyscrapers) is not absurdly functional. Instead of the square, sterile and high blocks, the Paulistas have been concerned to build modern art objects.

Sure, being in the country of architectural genius Oscar Niemeyer gives them some incentive to avoid modernizing without rhyme or reason. But I can declare: modern Paulista buildings have a grace that is not found even in the big cities of the First World. Really!

While the consensus among those with whom I spoke is that the economic miracle of Lula is fading (and the efforts of Dilma to build stadiums for the World Cup has been an inexcusable waste), it is still remarkable that Brazil's poverty fell from 22% in 2002 to 9% in 2012 As a point of comparison, in the United States, the rate is 15%, having never dropped below 11%.

These rapid declines are slowing. Perhaps it's like dieting.

Of course, the Third World poverty based on poor or unevenly accessed infrastructure persists. You see people in the 21st century still without electricity, power, fresh drinking water and weather-worthy housing. That's not to mention the social problems that are of a more First World type, such as education, work and opportunity.

And there is the kind of return.

I got a mass email from my secondary school "litter" announcing that a former classmate was in intensive care and suddenly saw names that had never been in my inbox before. They were people whose names evoke a variety of experiences in my youth.

Other names, of course, yield nothing. ("This guy attended school with me?")

Then there's the fact that at a certain age, the numbers begin to diminish. Five of my fiftysomething classmates have died. Any day now, I is listed among them.

We are not intimates, except for two or three who kept up a friendship through the years. There's at least one who is not in the list and I don't want to see even if it is only an email address. Yet for better or worse, all of us are part of each other's youth.

In my case they are men (I went to a boys' school, where the existence of beings called "girls" was mostly theoretical) who are intelligent, vigorous that have managed to stay afloat despite everything that has happened to Argentina since 1968.

(Yes, I know, some readers were not alive then. You are forgiven.)

It occurs to me that many of my concerns will be echoed in theirs. The values ​​that were instilled in us are the same. The intellectual reference points are, in essence, the same.

We will have had failures. You can't reach a certain age without failing; the absence of failure yields no success. I would have liked to say that my former colleagues and I made the world better, as we once expected. But no.

All these things make returning to people and place in the past desirable and undesirable at the same time, leaving a bittersweet taste. Nostalgia has pulled us back to a reality that somehow did not welcome us or serve us well enough to keep us there.