Sunday, November 30, 2008

Yin-Yang, Opposition and Balance

I recently helped my eleven-year-old son on a project. He had been studying religions of the world, and his focus was to study Taoism for school. Isaac had already written a short paper on what he learned about Taoism and drawn a map of where it is practiced. The assignment now was to make a three dimensional object which characterized Taoism. He chose the Yin-Yang, black and white figure so many of us are familiar with.

In our garage, he found an old solid wooden wheel, which we had found at the dump and which I believe had been originally used as a platform to hold a candle, for a reddish wax had hardened on one of its sides. Isaac cleaned the wheel of the wax, and used sandpaper to smooth the wood and remove the splinters. I watched my busy bee of a son in the garage, his sleeves rolled up, perfecting the wheel before he started painting it white. I gave him a can of white primer from our basement, and held the wooden wheel as he painted first one side and then the other. Outside, a granular sleet had already covered our driveway, and I could see my breath in the garage.

Once the wheel was white, Isaac drew the curvy S that separates the black and the white, with pencil, adjusting the curve so that he got it just right. He had to erase his work several times before he was satisfied with the symmetry of his Yin-Yang. Finally, I gave him a small bottle of black enamel paint I have had in my desk for years, which I believe was originally used by my wife Laura to touch up the frame to an old mirror she loves. With the care of a brain surgeon, Isaac colored his Yin-Yang black, following the S curve with an amazing precision. He also took a yogurt container and drew the dots of the Yin-Yang.

I mention this minutiae of our Thanksgiving weekend, because watching my son work reminded me of several important things. Work bestows pride on the worker, for his accomplishment, for his product, for his craftsmanship. Isaac beamed when he placed the finished Yin-Yang on his desk, away from our pesky, but affectionate cat, Ocistar. He could not wait to show his class what he had done.

When you are working hard on a project, when you feel you have the skills to accomplish something on your own, you lose yourself in your work. Time becomes irrelevant in a way. I feel the same way when I am working on a story. I have written stories before, so I feel I have the skills to do a good job. Perhaps, as with a story I am working on now, I have written half of it, and I have not thrown out what I have written, but I don’t quite yet know how it will end. So the ‘good product’ is not a foregone conclusion. It may in fact be a story that is never told, because it was never a ‘fully formed story’ to begin with. Whatever that means, and it seems to mean something different for every story.

But the point, at least for me, is the work. The work to finish the story. The work to lose myself in the quiet I steal away from my family obligations and daily responsibilities to try to write. The work is what matters, even if you don’t end up with a good representation of what you imagined your ‘story’ to be, as you wrote it. Because this moment, when you say this is a ‘story,’ instead of saying this is garbage I should throw away and forget about, is a moment that is probably impossible to pin down, to regularize, or even to explain clearly. Yet it is a moment that becomes easier to appreciate the more you work at writing stories. The more you work, the easier it will be to have that judgment, like Isaac, to tell when your work is done, when you have in front of you what you imagined you wanted to create.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

600 Pages of Patience

I have been reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and had found it truly a slog. Before, Anna Karenina had swept me off my feet, and I truly looked forward to War and Peace. Until I started reading it. The Russians have for decades mesmerized me with their novels, particularly Dostoyevsky, and I often wish I had been born in the nineteenth century, before TV and movies, before the computer, and before the 10-second rants on CNN that nowadays pass as ‘political discussion.’

For weeks now, I have only been able to read War and Peace at night, at home, the book (the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation) too heavy to carry around the frenetic streets and subways of New York City. It’s 1,215 pages long! War and Peace is certainly a book out of time, and perhaps today out of mind. Books, for me, have always been a reflection of how I think, or how I want to experience the world, or how I imagine it. But what happens when the world thoroughly commercializes time, and reading, when storytelling is reduced to two hours on a movie screen, if that? Our mind changes. What our mind expects, wants, gets accustomed to, changes. And perhaps many of us don’t know what to do anymore with this massive doorstop called War and Peace.

So I felt guilty as I read page after page of Tolstoy’s ‘historical novel’ about Russia during the Napoleonic war at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I thought perhaps that I was becoming too modern, my mind needing that fix of another Seinfeld rerun, or the mindless quick-talking of television pundits. Had I been irretrievably poisoned by this modern world I have no choice but to inhabit?

I was also angry at Tolstoy. What happened to the wonderful plots and subplots of Anna Karenina? To the type of characters whose obsessions, jealousies, insecurities, and rivalries drive the action of a novel? The first 600 pages of War and Peace, to my mind, were a blur of fancy soirees and half-hearted descriptions of the war, a fox hunt, and proposals to marry among the elite.

I even skipped ahead to the end of the book, to an 1868 note the translators reprinted, where Tolstoy discussed his intentions for War and Peace. What is power? What force produces the movements of people? What is man’s relationship to history? To what extent does man have free will in the history of his time? With these questions in mind, perhaps, I thought, I myself had no free will anymore, and could only read snippets of prose and listen to ditties selling chocolate. I was about to quit this book, and move on to something else. The character Pierre Bezukhov, a good man trapped in an immoral world, seemed my only reward as a reader.

Now, at about midpoint in this gargantuan novel-like experiment, I have met Natasha Rostov. She has actually appeared before, but now Natasha is thrust into the plot front and center. She’s betrothed to the indecisive Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Indeed, Pierre Bezukhov also loves her. But at this point in the novel, a scoundrel by the name of Prince Anatole Kuragin, who is secretly married, is attempting to seduce Natasha. Now the novel seems to have life in it, and I look forward to reading it every chance I get. I have even started lugging it around, to steal more reading time here and there. I don’t know why it took 600 pages for me to get into this novel, whether it is the novel itself, and how the characters and plot change, or even perhaps how I changed as a reader by forcing myself to keep reading, to keep hitting that book even though I wanted to quit.

Perhaps that, in a way, is one of Tolstoy’s points. We are set in our time, in our place, puny atoms in a great historical maelstrom, amid this unprecedented financial crisis, the slow decline of America as the sole center of international power, and an overly commercialized world that prizes glib intelligence, great visuals, and a trashy popular culture. Yes, we are set in our time, but with enough willpower, with perhaps a crazy stubbornness and a bit of luck, we may reach beyond our historic trap to make the best of it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Writing and Investing

I have always had interests in two, somewhat incompatible areas: writing stories, often with philosophical questions in mind, and investing money. I tell friends who have known, or discovered, these long-standing interests in me that I love stories, language, immersing myself in working out hard philosophical problems and in creating characters to play out the questions in my mind, and I also love numbers, discovering the ‘story’ of a small company, and the detail work of finding a good business or management before many other investors do. But there is more to it than that.

Right after college and during graduate school, I had in my mind that I wanted to write what I wanted to write, without the pressures of writing what the prevailing commercial book market wanted of any writer, including a ‘Latino’ writer. I wanted to hone my craft in my own way; I wanted to keep reading Aristotle and Nietzsche; I don’t ever like being under anybody’s boot. Also, when I read what was routinely published, and promoted, at local bookstores, I did not want to have to compromise my work for the sake of making money. Perhaps this was too self-righteous and even stupid, but that’s me. I think I have mellowed over the years, but as my mother would say, “Eres demasiado terco.” I am too stubborn.

To pay for this cursed independence, to pay for not wanting a boss, years ago I began learning how to invest money. I finished finance and accounting books my friends who were in MBA programs recommended to me. I studied the annual reports of Berkshire Hathaway, read Graham and Dodd’s Security Analysis, read Peter Lynch and Ralph Wanger and many others. I began ordering annual and quarterly reports from companies, and to my amazement, every report arrived free, in my mailbox, and I just had to understand the company, the business, and find out as much as I could through the Internet. I did this, and continue to do this, for dozens of potential investments every year. Most of the company reports are now online. Alas, this year has indeed been brutal for my stocks, yet I am still surviving this bear market.

The stubbornness and independence that have propelled my writing have also informed my investing. I do not want to be part of the crowd, as an investor, or as a writer. I have little interest in the latest literary fad, or what will make a big splash at the bookstore, just as much as I have no interest in day-trading, or any other speculative way of making money. I do not market-time, as an investor, nor as a writer. My intention is to write stories that I hope will still be good stories ten years from now, and I buy shares of companies that I intend to keep just as long.

I am not sure I would recommend this path to any writer. I did it out of necessity, and perhaps because I also knew myself only too well (Socrates’ exhortation). I also did it because I like to work, and the value that work bestows upon my soul, and because I love doing my own work, in my own way. It is a cage, this self, and I have tried to make the best of my cage, to turn my weaknesses into strengths, and perhaps to make this cage into the key for my freedom. What else can we do?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obama, the Mestizo Mutt

How gratifying to hear our new president-elect, Barack Obama, offhandedly characterize himself as a “mutt” at his first press conference after the presidential election. I sensed a self-deprecation meant to keep himself grounded. Also, it was a revealing look at how he might see himself, between black and white, a representative of the new world of the United States, as a society comprised not just of many races, but also a society where the races are often mixing to create something unique. We were already this new world a long time ago, but it has taken the election of Barack Obama to see ourselves more clearly than ever before.

Mestizo, as some of you may know, means ‘mixed blood,’ and has been the reality in Latin America for centuries. Spanish blood. Aztec blood. Incan blood. Portuguese blood. Mayan blood. African blood. Asian blood. Mexicanos are mestizos, and this history has often been a source of shame, rather than pride, of being conquered and of losing our heritage. Perhaps there is great difference when the union of races begins out of domination, rather than out of an uneasy, unexpected love.

In the United States, as Mexicanos and other Latinos inhabit parts of the country beyond the Southwest, to Kansas and Minnesota and Iowa, there has been a reaction against these newcomers, their brown faces, the Spanish language, and even their religion. Can we be open-minded enough not just to accept them for who they are, but to take them in, to change ourselves as we learn from them? Can these Mexicanos, outsiders in a new land, can they change themselves too? Are they flexible enough, and adaptable enough, to change and become an integral part of America? Are we all practical enough to search for and discover a new middle ground for all of us?

For this is what being mestizo, a mutt, has always meant for me. It has meant the promise and reality of new possibilities. It has been to value practicality and adaptability to the circumstances above all. Being mestizo is the opposite of trying to be pure, or of thinking there was ever any heritage, or history, that was pure. Being mestizo is about being suspicious of categorizations, that ‘whites’ are this way, that ‘blacks’ are that way, or that ‘Latinos’ are always so and so. Categorical thinking has always been at the heart of racism, and really, at the heart of non-thinking, meant to ‘understand’ quickly so as to appease an irrational fear or a doubt. Mestizaje breaks the established category, and creates something new, perhaps over time just another category that has to be broken again to escape yet another rigidity. Remember: ‘white’ America is composed of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, German, and other immigrants who were once the outsiders in our new world.

So being a mutt mestizo is about the details. I married a Jewish woman. Why? Because she was the one who took my heart away junior year at Harvard. I wasn’t looking for a ‘Mexicana,’ or a ‘woman from Harvard,’ or ‘somebody who could speak Spanish with my parents.’ I saw Laura, and how she was, and how we were together, these wonderful details, and they trumped any category I had in my mind about who I wanted to be with forever. Love is about the details, and so this Mexican mestizo created another mixture with a Jewish woman, and now with our children. The cycle of mixing and remixing continues. We are all mestizo mutts now, and we are a family.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why Chico Lingo?

In two days we vote, in a momentous presidential election, and it’s about as good a time as any to start a blog. Why start another blog? The Internet is already a vast sea of words and ideas and rants and offbeat perspectives, and do we really need one more? I’m not sure we do, but I am sure my voice should count, and that’s why I’ll vote on Tuesday, even knowing that tens of millions of others will do the same, and that’s also why I have decided to start a blog, to leave my voice behind, even if it’s just a nearly quotidian voice I start on Friday evening, and edit on Sunday night.

I do have selfish reasons to start a blog. I want to force myself to write more, particularly at those times when I have not in the past. I also want to explore the tidbits of ideas that occur to me, questions perhaps that pop up about writing, reading, Latinos in America, money and investments, families and fathers, and so many other issues that do comprise my daily life. This weekly blog: between an aphorism and an editorial.

Dear reader, what I can promise you is that I will make an effort to be honest about why I am writing whatever it is that I am writing. That honesty won’t be without bias, but it certainly will be chock-full of questions I ask myself, and try to answer for you and for me. Perhaps, dear reader, you will help me to develop my self-consciousness, certainly one important, yet never-ending goal of my writing and reading.

Why is it that the United States is fast becoming a nation that doesn’t read? And what I mean by reading is not the ten-minute sit-down to read this blog, but a multi-day focus on a good novel, for example. What has this lack of literary patience done to our thinking? To our discourse? Of course, TV and movies are the imaginary vehicles through which we now lose ourselves, but if that’s so, what flimsy selves we must have. And as time goes on, we forget that perhaps we were once not like that. Or was reading and thinking, for hours upon hours, and days upon days, only a nostalgic, non-existent past? Perhaps this kind of reading was only the luxury of an elite. I don’t know, and I’m not sure, but I do know that when I read, when I take the time to read, when I read to my children slowly, and deliciously, immersing ourselves in a good story, there is nothing else like it in the world.

So perhaps another reason to write this blog is to create a different blog. A semi-thoughtful blog, yet still immersed in this self and its peculiar, momentary questions. I don’t condemn the medium of the current Internet, but often, yes, the message. I will also be guilty, I’m sure, of being petty, immediately reactive, rather than truly thoughtful, but I will try to catch myself. That’s what I promise.

Why ‘Chico Lingo’? The two words came to me whimsically, after I imagined my abuelita saying them to me, as in “Mira, este Chico Lingo!” That is, “Look at this little upstart, this imp!” Doña Dolores Rivero may have actually said ‘Chicolito’ or ‘Chiringo,’ or some other half-admiring admonition, also invented by her. Let’s just say Chico Lingo means ‘little gadfly,’ perhaps Socratic if you like philosophy, with a hint of the literary, in ‘lingo,’ and ‘chico’ for tidbits of ideas, for ‘Chico’s Tacos’ in El Paso, for once being a boy who always loved stories under oak trees and next to irrigation canals. That sort of thing. You can make up your own meaning to ‘Chico Lingo,’ or you can even ask yourself why we demand that many things we say, or write, must have a clear-cut meaning or reason behind them. What kind of odd creature demands that? How, moreover, does play spur a new way of thinking, a new language?