Sunday, April 28, 2013

Things that have saved my life

  • Boxing gyms
  • Books
  • Teachers
  • Write about your life on Tuesdays
  • AP Ridahs
  • Drugs
  • The Rainbow Circle High Five Aires Club
  • Import Tuner
  • Watching the UW rowing team at six in the morning
  • The Bumblebee Boxing Club
  • Squiggly
  • Desayuno completo
  • Oso de Chocolate Sexual
  • Dancing in the street
  • That smile
  • The Guggenheim
  • Mohammad and Mohammad
  • La Vaina
  • Mi Alma
  • Hombres del Destino
  • Bukowski
  • My Austrian Wife
  • My Bird from Yorkshire
  • 8 Limbs Yoga
  • A Bluebird
  • Strong women
  • My mother
  • Meditation
  • Degrassi dates
  • Cheveres
  • Singing Toby Keith in a Guatemalan hotel room
  • Casa de la Musica
  • Porn and masturbation
  • Loneliness
  • Shadowboxing in the rain
  • My Dutchy friend
  • Luz Daddy
  • Donnie Darko
  • Cancer scares
  • Crepes on Sundays at Saley's with my father
  • The $ Crew
  • DJ Daddy Douche
  • "Follow your bliss"
  • Touch
  • VONA
  • La Loba
  • The places that scare you
  • Tattoos
  • Buying chocolates from PPC market and running back to Landmark
  • Hijo de Puta Palenquero
  • Writing at EBC on Thursdays
  • Photography
  • The Fighting Preacher
  • 6AM training at Gracie Barra
  • Wanderlust
  • Rentals
  • Late night queijos quentes at Cafe Lamas
  • Porto Alegre
  • The POA squad
  • Youth
  • Being near death
  • Experience
  • A broken heart.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A place between Love and Anger

I don’t remember much of my life before the age of nineteen. I mean I remember everything I had been doing, but not what any of it meant, about where I stood in life. I was in a haze, a cow in a herd of cattle being led through a field. It wasn’t until my ninetieth birthday did things start to change. My birthday that year was the first and last major party I ever had. My friend Heide had hers the day before and thought it’d be a good idea to celebrate both together in her small two bedroom government housing complex. How very much that wasn’t a good idea.

Mix drugs, alcohol and youth with an excuse to party and something is bound to happen. I remember everything that night, just pretended like I didn’t so people would stop pouring alcohol down my gullet and forcing me to smoke whatever-the-fuck was in those pipes. You bring different groups of people together and fights break out. Guns were pulled out between different groups of friends, police squads arrived in drones, and at some point of the night I ended up kissing someone right in front of my then girlfriend at the time. She kindly smacked me in the face a couple of times for that one. 

I woke up the next day to an absolute shithole. I grogged around with a partially ingested concoction of alcohol and methamphetamines brewing in my belly, mopping up caked mud and dry blood off Heide’s linoleum floor. Because of me, my friends held grudges against one another. Because of me, the police patrolled the neighborhood for the coming weeks. I managed to ruin a four-year relationship in a moment of weakness, but that was always a pressure cooker ready to pop; I just happen to strike first.

It was my first time I became aware that I wasn't really doing shit with my life, but also the first time I felt alive. The second I let go of the mundane, the rest of the world began to fall into place. Things started to reveal themselves. The workings of the world began to tie into my life and the lives of everyone I ever cared about. Don’t ask me how any of this makes sense, it just does when I replay the movie reel in my mind.

I threw myself into socially conscious projects. I’d find out about how systems were built to fuck people in the ass for personal gain. I started to poke at this vague question of purpose, and what poked back was this equally vague question of happiness, of how much joy I had in my life. It was strange for me that I asked a question about the world and got an answer about myself in return. Thinking about personal happiness seemed completely selfish at the time, and it wasn’t until I started traveling did I understand the connection.

I started traveling when I was 22 and haven’t stopped ever since. Everywhere I went, I somehow always noticed the suffering, always found a way to make the fucked up parts of a place the focus of my time. I found a home for my anger to live comfortably, an excuse to be upset, a way to exist inside my miserable world and think that it was the right place to be.

I’ve always criticized the tourists, the ones who sought refuge in the resorts of recreation and freely chose to be oblivious to the pain in the world. Part of it was true. I was legitimately upset and I think blind tourism causes some of the worst injustices in the world. But a lot of it also stemmed from jealousy, jealous that despite how much I knew about the world, they could somehow find a way to be happy and I couldn’t. 

Carolina once told me in Ibiza that whatever we see in a place is a reflection of what we have inside of ourselves. Those are our demons and my demon is my anger. I’ve been trying to fight it for as long as I can remember, and I find myself growing tired in a losing battle. But Carolina also told me, “Demons are not bad, they are just there.” They have to coexist with everything, like a roommate from hell sentenced to share the same home, and when let astray, their poison seeps into anything else living there too.

It’s funny the way that the Fulbright timeline works. Application to departure is about two years, for me it was three. You’re a completely different person by the time you finally leave. I didn’t necessarily want to come here. I was happy where I was. Comfortable, at least. I would say the last seven months in Seattle was the longest consecutive stretch of happiness in my life.

Like any good story, there is a girl involved, my lifeline before I left home. We decided that things wouldn’t work in Brazil, my stint here would be longer than we even knew each other. Our relationship was always on borrowed time, but I guess until now, I never accepted the obvious, never allowed the inevitable. I’ve been living here under some illusion that things would work out, that all would be well if I just fought hard enough. Your heart will do that from time to time. Sometimes an illusion is all that keeps it alive. 

We broke up once back in December and I remember waking up every morning feeling like the lowliest piece of shit that crawled out of a back-alley toilet. Absolutely fucking worthless. But it told me something. It told me that even after all these years of searching, I still hadn’t found that self-sustaining strength to carry myself through life. I was still lacking something within. I vowed that if I could make it to Brazil, I’d never fall in love again. If I could make it to Brazil. If I could just make it to Brazil…

I managed to get her back, thinking I could break clean here. But you can never break clean from love, no matter how far you go. She was my angel, a mirror that made me believe in a part of myself that I doubted, the one space where I never felt anger. But now that she’s gone, that is all I have left. All I feel is anger.

Love and anger. The strange amalgamation that rules my life. When one leaves, the other takes over. I’m not really familiar with anything else beyond that.

I think about all the people that I’ve met up until this point in my life, from the romantic to the platonic, the manic nutjobs to the beautiful souls, and all those in between. I’ve had a good life so far, a story filled with colorful characters, whether their presence pulsed compassion through my veins or pulled every strand of hair out of my head. I loved them all. I wouldn’t trade knowing them for anything in the world. They would have never come into my life had I stopped for love, but goddamn does it hurt to keep going.

Here on most nights, I find myself alone, mostly by choice, a little by chance, trying to find a place between love and anger. I try my best to not let my personal life affect how I treat others, but right now I’m kind of a dick to most people and feel oddly at ease about it. Hell, I almost feel proud about it. But it’s only because I'm hurt. Anger comes from pain. Love comes from pain. All addictions comes from a place of suffering. There is always something deep inside that really hurts. 

One day, I would like to find the courage to be kind, but I'm not yet strong enough. Every so often I encounter these moments where I’m willing to be generous, in fact, I want  to be generous, and those moments are truly gifts. But they aren’t coming often enough. I feel like I am starting to lose some humanity living here.

I shadowbox every other night in the park outside my apartment. Every so often people come up and ask me questions, but I've been leery of strangers ever since some ass-monkey body slammed me onto the pavement after I agreed to play Capoeira with him. Now I create stories in my mind about everyone I see before a word is even spoken.

Tonight there was a group of young boys in the park, maybe between the ages of 18 to 21, loosely using the exercise equipment, but generally fucking around. They began staring at me as I shadowboxed, and soon all of them surrounded me in a circle, waiting. I thought about how I would take them. There were eight. I saw a large stick on the ground. Maybe I could bash one of their skulls in, smash another's head into the metal pole next to me, then throw a flurry of punches to the face of one more to clear an opening and make a dash for the restaurant next door to my building. The owner there liked me and seemed like the type of guy that had a solid Louisville under the counter. "I can take em," I thought. "Bring it on."

One of them finally got my attention by waving his hands. I lowered my headphones with one hand, balled the other one in a tight fist ready to dig into his jaw. Turns out, they were employees at the hotel next door. His friend wanted a picture with me because he thought I was a professional fighter. Jesus. What the fuck is happening to me here? 

I thought Brazil would be a place that would embrace me with open arms, at least that was the image I saw in my mind when I was tripping off DMT the last day I was in Seattle. But so far it’s been kicking the shit out of me and serving it back to me as breakfast. It wasn't supposed to be like this. This was supposed to be great. But I'm starting to realize Brazil is not here to be nice to me; it is here to make me a better person.

I feel like the last 10 years of my life have been spent preparing for this trip. Every practice I’ve ever followed, every night I stayed up reading Bukowski, every word, every round. All of it has accumulated to this moment. I’ve seen the two extremes of this city, from the barren wastelands of poverty to the pristine beaches of privilege. I have no idea what to make of it all, but I think I'm starting to find enough courage to reject the illusions that keep us alive. The illusions that keep us from questioning. What is behind that curtain? Is there any truth behind that curtain? 

Monday, April 15, 2013

For Pepina

That smile lives in my thoughts.
The one I used to pry for shyly
ever since our eyes first met.
I go back daily
fishing for that smile.
It made the space 
between the heart and the belly
feel lighter.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Michel and Maicelo

I go in last week for my first day of actual training in Maré. I try to go in on Monday but fail at finding a bus even though I took one two weeks back. “Just take any one that says, Parrador  on it,” my friend Patricia tells me. I hop on the first one that has the digital letters streaming across like they would on a little league scoreboard. I ask the driver if he goes by Passerela 9. He tells me it does. What he doesn’t tell me is that it drives through downtown during rush hour. It takes me an hour and a half to arrive nine blocks from the gym. I think about the reality of doing this everyday. Fuck it. I’ll learn to read and write on a moving bus. I’ll learn to sleep standing up. The whole reason I came to Brazil was to train at this gym. I’m not letting something like petty comfort stop me now.

I show up to the gym and everyone is pretty much done with the warmup exercises. This massive block of a Brazilian sporting a “Muay Thai Campeón do Brasil” shirt stands in front of me and looks down at my shoes. I’m wearing my Vibram five-fingers, which basically look like rubber feet gloves. 

“Nossa! Que é isso cara?” he chuckles. I look back and give a thumbs-up. He laughs and gives me a high five in return. I’m feeling pretty cool at the moment.

Brazilians always get a kick out of my footwear. The trend hasn’t really caught on here. The only other person I’ve seen wearing them was some crazy homeless dude selling bracelets at some ungodly hour in Lapa. I remember thinking he was the craziest motherfucker that I’ve ever met in my life, but then again, we did have the same shoes. 

I run into Michel as we start trotting outside. He comes up with a warm smile and gives a slight embrace. I ask him what we’re doing. “Running,” he indicates by gyrating his arms. “Just a little. Maybe like twenty minutes.” We walk past a mechanical junkyard into an open field. I would describe the field but we’re running under borrowed light from the lamp posts on the adjacent freeway so I can hardly make out the terrain under the orange haze. I just know that it wasn’t built to accommodate any sort of athletic activity.

This shit is like an obstacle course from Legends of the Hidden Temple. The rain earlier left huge puddles of muddy water everywhere and I’m doing my best to avoid them while not twisting my ankle, hopping around like I’m doing knee-high drills through field of tires. A loud voice blares behind me. “Vai! Vai! Vai!”  I hear something that sounds like the grunt of a horse. I look back. Yup. It’s a fucking horse. There are three riders sprinting around on horseback while we’re busy making circles around the track. Before I can even conjure a reason as to why there are three horses galloping in an empty field at this hour, I step into something soft; not like a muddy-dog-shit soft, but more like a loose-hay-horse-shit soft. Yes. It’s definitely horse shit. I can feel the grains of horse excrement shift between my toes. Suddenly my rubber feet gloves don’t seem that cool. 

I see a couple of motorcycle headlights rushing towards us. What the fuck, really?  The riders yell something indecipherable at us. The coach yells something back, something along the lines of, “Hey we got champions training here!”  The riders give a big middle-finger “fuck you” in return. Suddenly the line of boxers in front of me change directions. I follow thinking that all of us will turn around, but only half of us do. 

So now there is half a platoon of fighters, mechanical horses and actual fucking horses, all darting towards me while I run laps in the dark. Then one of the riders decides to dismount and tie his horse to a broken lamp post, creating a trip wire that we have to hop over after every lap. It’s a complete mess of roadwork for twenty minutes. I’m wondering exactly what kind of training I signed up for. 

We get back into the gym and everyone bursts into different directions. Gloves and headgear are unloaded. I’m confused as to why they’re being brought out since sparring days were told to me to be only on Saturdays. Half of them start jumping rope, half of them start gearing up. I’m standing there in the middle, twiddling my fucking thumbs.

GB tells me to start jumping rope. Ok, simple enough. I tell him both my wrists are injured so I gotta to take it easy. He replies with a concording thumbs-up. I’m relieved for the moment. I start jumping rope and the boxer next to me starts talking. He looks like a Brazilian version of Floyd Mayweather Jr. After discovering that I hail from the United States, the first thing he asks is about the price for a pair of Oakley sunglasses. 

“Ummm…maybe 200 dollars?” I guess. Truthfully, I have no idea.

Nossa!  I bought a pair for 100 reis,” he says with a beaming grin of pride. 

The coach yells something across the gym and he puts down his rope. He brings out two pairs of creased red boxing gloves. They waft of a leather sauna steamed with the sweat of strangers. Dozens of palms have perspired in these mitts and the aroma will tell you that. The stentch is the texture of sand, corse granules of bodily fluid grinding through your nostrils. I love that smell. Any legitimate boxing gym will have that smell. 

GB motions to me to put them on, then throws a couple of punches into the air. I remind him that I can’t hit bags or mitts because of my wrist injury. He says we’re only doing shadowboxing drills, nothing hard, just light touching. Ok sure. That sounds safe enough. 

Oakleys and I start the dance. I’m shifting lightly on my feet, moving in circles as he follows suit. I flick a loose jab to which he blocks with his right. I throw three more, quick as lightning. It feels sturdy. It feels familiar. Back in the game. It feels good. Suddenly he pegs me with a stiff right. I mean really pegs me right in the fucking face. He follows up with a sharp left to the body then back up to head. All of them are carrying mustard. 

I shift back, wondering in my head what the hell that was about, then he snaps my head back with another stiff jab. Don’t ever think too long during a fight. I hit back and back pretty hard. He covers up in a turtle shell defense and I’m letting my hands go between the head and the body, finishing the combo with a straight shot right in between his gloves. He nods back in recognition. Things start heating up. Soon we both become lost in the fight. To hell with the wrists. You can’t really back down in a boxing gym, at least not as a newbie trying to gain some respect.

Oi! Oi! Sauve! Sauve!” GB blares out from across the room. Oakleys lowers his fists and the humanity returns to his face. “Was I going too hard for you?” he asks. I lie and shake my head as my wrists pulse with pain. The fighter looks back at GB. The coach waves his hand and glances the other way. The round finishes and we tap gloves. Oakleys beelines his name to me, all first, middle and lasts in the same speed of the TIM voicemail message. I ask him to repeat it a couple of times. “Zulu” he says. “Around the gym, it’s just ‘Zulu’.”

Michel begins to gear up, but has no real partner to spar. The only guy remotely in his weight class is the massive black dude who was fascinated with my shoes. He has to be at least a light heavyweight, probably more. Michel is a welterweight, three weight classes below. 

They begin their own dance and the difference is apparent in the footwork. Michel glides lightly across the canvas while his opponent plods around the ring chasing him, lunging strong, but extremely slow punches. Michel is already two steps ahead, side stepping with fleet-footed mobility and tagging crisp, sharp punches in return. The heavyweight is clearly out of his element, bouncing on his toes too much, squaring up constantly, habits that transfer poorly from Muay Thai to boxing. 

The round continues in this pattern for another minute. Lunge, side-step, pop. Lunge, side-step, pop. It’s like an oversized giant trying to catch a pesky child with a BB gun. The damage begins to accumulate and the giant is starting to show signs of wear. Pop-pop-pop. Now the lunging has nearly stopped. Michel opens up with a vicious four punch combination on his stationary foe, finishing with an audible rib-shattering left hook to the body that reverberates throughout the gym and sends the giant to one knee, like a lumberjack delivering the final chop on a falling redwood.

The action stops and the founder of the gym is watching the entire time with a hand on his chin. Luke Dowdney, a crazy English mofo who came down to Rio back in the 90s to write a master’s thesis on children in drug trade and started a boxing gym in the process. Crazy in the sense that he goes around the world and fights random boxers for no apparent reason. Crazy that at 40 years of age even he still straps on a pair of mitts and goes a few rounds. Just my kinda style.

Luke looks around and catches me with his eye. He stops to size me up. He asks my weight class. Welterweight. He asks if I’ve ever fought before. 6 times. “Ok, hop in,” he says. 

I glance over at GB who has a look of slight preoccupation, recalling the state of my wrists. He eeks a stammered attempt at an explanation. Luke deadpans. GB sighs and asks if I have a mouth piece. I tell him I forgot it, thank god. “Otro dia, proxima vez,” the coach excuses for me. Luke rolls his eyes, but let’s it go. 

Another day. Next time. Next time I’m in for a massive ass-whoppin’, but for some reason, I’m not worried. I’ve been in tighter situations than this. I’ve fought while battling massive bouts of depression and sucking down unfiltered American Spirit rollies days beforehand. I’ve played the role of sparring dummy against world champion contenders back in Peru. 

Peru. The old memories flash through my mind, probably some of the worst memories of my life. Peru. the only place to this day that I vehemently proclaimed to hate.  

To be fair, much of the disdain was more about me than about the surroundings, though the polluted cityscape of Lima didn’t exactly help. I guess isolating myself in a depressing motel room didn’t help either, but at the end of the day, the ambiance of the city and only leaving my room to eat lunch and train at the boxing gym spelled out the perfect recipe for a self-loathing pity party of one.

Looking back on it now, it was probably the severe lack of human contact that nearly drove me over the edge, but boxing was the only thing that kept me sane, and Jonathan Maicelo, my sparring partner, had everything to do with it. Maicelo was the most decorated male boxer in the country at the time, and after three brutal months of training as his sparring partner, he’s someone I loosely consider a friend. 

I followed his career on cyberspace, joined in distant cheers when he found victory both inside and outside the ring. I watched him rise in Peruvian society, creating his own clothing brand, making onto Peru’s version of “Dancing with the Stars”, and at one point even becoming a respected underwear model. And through all of that, his decency survived. I still remember when he won the WBC Latin American Championship, the first thing he did was build his mother a new home.

At the time we knew each other, he was still building his career. He had plenty of national notoriety, but none on the international level or inside the small world of the well-known in boxing. There in Peru, like it is here with Michel, Maicelo had nobody to help him train. I stepped in as the unassuming schmuck.

At first my presence was viewed as a gimmick, almost as an annoyance to the coaches in the gym, but after a while they grew to respect me. They needed me. I had a use, a purpose, and the lack of that sense, I later realized, was the source of my depression.

This past week Maicelo finally broke through to mainstream audiences, headlining ESPN2’s well regarded Friday Night Fights against the Russian contender Rustam Nugaev. It was by far the toughest of Maicelo’s challenges up to date. 

The sides were drawn like this: Maicelo the nimble boxer, Nugaev the rugged slugger, and in those equations, the slugger is always trying to draw the boxer into a fistfight. The fight started out smoothly enough for the boxer, keeping a good distance while landing laser-like right hands and moving quickly out of the way, then drumming five punch combinations with successive speed to follow. But Nugaev just ate the blows like chocolate cream pies and kept trotting forward, seemingly unfazed, almost enjoying the punches in some strange and twisted way.

As the rounds went on, commentator Teddy Atlas asked whether or not Maicelo would be willing to go into deep waters, into the dark places, or if he would rest on his accumulated laurels back in Peru. He wondered if he was already too comfortable, if he had lost his hunger.

For once in my life, I thought that Atlas didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. Maicelo was there for a reason. He’s a damn near superstar in Peru, but he came to the US to climb the ladder as a nobody. The guy puts in work. The guy sacrifices. He wanted it more than anyone I’d ever known.

But one thing Atlas wasn’t wrong about was the course of the fight. He described it as trying to keep out an ocean and there was a rising Russian tide on Maicelo’s horizon. I withered in discomfort as I watched Nugaev slowly break my friend down, making his punches a bit more wild, his footwork more and more clumsy. He finally went down on a right hand in the 8th round, the first time Maicelo had ever tasted the canvas as an amateur or a pro. Referee Jack Reid waved off the fight at the count of two and clasped Maicelo’s wrists to hold him down. But he tried to get up. It was a split second shot, but I saw it. Atlas, to his credit, saw it too. Maicelo would have made it. We shared enough blood over three months that I know. I know he would have made it.

It was hard for me to watch that, Maicelo crashing down to the hands of defeat. It was the first time I’d ever seen him in a moment of weakness, and when he crumbled, a bit of me did too. He might not know this, but sparring with him was the only thing that really kept me alive. I wish I could tell him that. I wish he could know what all those rounds meant to me, that they prepared me for all that I’m about to encounter here.

I oddly find the characters of my past reincarnating themselves here in Rio. Elvis and Akey. Gloria and Gloria. Michel and Maicelo. I sit around wondering what it's all supposed to mean, what lessons I'm supposed to learn.

All men fall at some point, but not all rise back up. The true test of character is whether or not you're willing to keep trying in the midst of battle, if you're willing to lose something for a greater purpose. I know Maicelo will be back. He’s got too much fight in him, too much on the line to quit now. He will find strength in this loss and be better for it. Maicelo taught me that back when we trained together. I may have lost to him every single day when I lived in Peru, but I never gave up. I never stopped fighting and for that reason, I'm here. Maybe that's the lesson in all of this. 

*Past stories on my time with Maicelo can be found here: