Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sanibel Island

I am on vacation on Florida’s Sanibel Island for one week. It is a trip we always take after visiting my family in El Paso, and it is a trip that Laura’s family has been taking for over forty years. With champagne held high in my plastic cup, I have celebrated only eighteen New Years in Sanibel, so I am a relative newcomer to this family tradition. Yet over the years, Sanibel has truly become my family tradition as well. Laura, Aaron, and Isaac could not live without our spending time together on this island, and neither could I.

How do you metamorphose from an outsider, cautious and even suspicious of the family you are adopting by marriage, to an insider, a member of the family, someone who belongs in the most intimate moments an extended family can share? I think one answer to this question is persistence. If you don’t leave, if members of your wife’s family see you act and react in many different situations, and grow to respect how you do things, what you think, how you hold your own in an argument, then perhaps over many years they begin to accept you.

For in Sanibel, I was adopting my wife’s Jewish family. I remember my first year in Sanibel; it was a bit overwhelming. It is basically a hothouse, in which Laura’s parents, sister, brother, aunt, and cousins, and their extended families, are all in adjacent rooms at a small hotel on the beach, many often sitting together at the pool, or barging in and out of your room to make dinner plans. Each night we take turns cooking dinner in our rooms, which are meant for two adults, but into which we drag chairs and extra tables and cram as many as eighteen people for a free-for-all dining experience. Grandparents, babies, children, teenagers, middle-aged adults. In Sanibel you press the flesh to the max, and there is no place to hide.

Over the years, as I grew to know the different personalities in my wife’s family, as some became truly good friends, I became more relaxed about going to Sanibel. Everybody had successes and failures over the years, just as we did. We gossiped about each other, we asked for advice, and we argued politics, sometimes bitterly. Often old family squabbles, which predated my arrival into the Sanibel scene, erupted out of nowhere. Yet every year, almost everybody returned to Sanibel. This year we have a full house.

Is this a family then? When you don’t leave whom you are with, even after the bitterest of fights, or even after your fortunes may have diverged dramatically over the many long roads of the past? You could ask why do we return here, why with these people? No doubt, there are selfish reasons to return to Sanibel: the gorgeous beaches, magnificent shelling, biking to Captiva, the simple pleasure of walking on the white sand at dawn.

But no, those are not the reasons why I come back. I come back to remember who I am; I come back to see who I might be; I come back to be with the people I miss all year. Yes, sometimes a few of them rub me the wrong way, but not always. I myself, as my wife has often reminded me, possess a prickly pear cactus of a personality, and so perhaps I am lucky to have found this family whose appearance may seem forbidding, but whose insides contain the sweetest of rewards.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

An Ysleta Christmas

I arrived in El Paso, Texas yesterday, my hometown. For Christmas. To visit with my mother, and to see my brothers and their kids. Laura and my kids have always relished this holiday visit, a trek we have made since we have been married. It releases Laura's inner shopper, and for a week before Christmas she gets to pump prime the economy at El Paso’s bustling malls. Aaron and Isaac love their cousins --they are similar ages-- and they have spent the first two days playing New Yorkers against Texans (their version of Cowboys and Indians) and exploring the irrigation canal behind my parents’ house.

For the past three years, however, this visit has been an awkward one for me. Three Christmases ago, I had a vicious argument with my father, ostensibly over something trivial, but in reality over old, deep resentments and that bitterness that can sometimes build between a prideful and headstrong father and a son with the same blood in his veins. For three years, my father would not speak to me whenever I called from New York. Instead, at the moment he heard my voice, he would pass the phone to my mother. For three years, even after I apologized for my harsh words to him, my father would not forgive me, and he would not say hello or goodbye whenever I saw him at Christmastime.

I thought about so many things during those three years. I thought about the argument, and why it happened, and even wrote an essay about it, which I called, “This Wicked Patch of Dust.” I thought about how I had hated my father’s macho personality as a child, his domineering control over my mother throughout the years, his bad decisions made by fiat. I thought about how I hated my own temper, and why I did not roll my eyes behind my father’s back, as my brothers did, but instead confronted my father, challenging him to a fight. I thought about how my mother agonized over our family's rift, my mother the avid reader, my mother who is relentlessly curious about the world, my mother whom I have always believed deserves to stop sacrificing for others, and do more for herself. I thought about my father’s deteriorating body, how he cannot walk more than six feet at a time and is now totally dependent on my mother, and how he cannot stand to be so weak when throughout his life he was indefatigably strong.

Indeed, my father was a good father. Yes, he was tough and occasionally mean. But he did push us to work hard for our family, for ourselves. In Ysleta, my father was there to help me make posters when I ran for Sophomore Class President in high school, to fashion an intricate puppet theater for a play I wrote for an English class, and to teach me how to handle the stick shift of our Volkswagen Beetle. He had to compromise in his life, primarily by adopting a country in which he could speak the language, but with an accent that still embarrasses him. My father truly loved Mexico, but he knew his family would have a better life in the United States. He gained the possibility of a better future, but he relinquished his voice. He cannot stand how his beloved hometown of Juarez, which he visited with my mother every week for decades, has descended into an orgy of drug violence in 2008. Their loss: they have not crossed the border all year.

So as Laura, Aaron, Isaac, and I arrived in Ysleta yesterday, I expected, again, just to make the best of another awkward Christmas. But my father surprised me. As soon as I stumbled through the door with suitcases in both hands, he reached up from his chair --he can’t easily stand without his walker anymore-- and hugged me. At the kitchen table, we talked for a precious forty-five minutes, exchanging news, before I finished bringing in our luggage. I thought perhaps this was a first-day aberration, a momentarily lapse in his anger at his prodigal son. But today, again, my father and I have talked, and we have even laughed together, and although we have not yet uttered the words to each other, we have finally forgiven each other for being Troncosos.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Disastrous 2008, and the Need for Simplicity

Madoff. Blagojevich. Paulson’s bumbling of the bailout funds. Predatory lenders. Ted Stevens. Detroit’s Big Three Dinosaurs. Credit-card lifestyles. College funds and retirement savings going up in smoke. George W. Bush, and an Iraqi journalist who can’t aim a shoe. The news has given me a headache. The relentless scandals, the unseemly corruptions, moral responsibility in our culture in tatters, our economy shedding jobs quicker than Ocistar sheds his hair. The news in 2008 has often been a series of financial and political disasters.

We don’t trust our financial institutions to help us manage our money; instead many of them are out to sell you what will do you harm, to nickel-and-dime you with a barrage of fees, or to outright rip you off. We don’t trust our political leaders, who seem at best out of touch, or already sold-out to the highest bidder, or stupid and unapologetic and even proud of asserting that the fiascoes of their own creation aren’t really that bad, or are akin to ‘natural tragedies’ in which no one is truly responsible for anything.

It would be a miracle not to be depressed during the holidays during such a year, but I am not. I am indeed worried, I am cautiously hopeful about January 20, 2009, but I am not depressed. Why? Because I have always tried to keep my life simple, or at least as simple as I can make it given living in New York, and having a wife and two boys, and a stream of bills to pay every month, and so on. Here’s how I have kept it simple, and how those choices have helped me during these difficult times.

I take care of my family. That means, when my children come home from school, I am there to answer their questions on their homework, to help them discuss school issues, to cook dinner for them. Every night, before they go to sleep, my wife and I kiss our children goodnight. I rarely go out by myself, and the upcoming AWP conference in February 2009, in Chicago, will be that rare time when I travel without Laura and the kids. I like being a homebody. Perhaps I am not popular with those writer-friends who are constantly recounting their late-nights at poetry readings, or who are in residence at far-flung retreats, sequestered from their families, productive yet solitary. But that’s okay. I know who I am, and I love being with my family.

My wife and I spend only on what we need. I wear Gap pants, and about half of them have holes above the back pocket where my laptop rubs against me when I lug it around the Upper Westside. In our living room, we still have my speakers and Laura’s stereo receiver from college: we just attended our 25th Reunion at Harvard! We do have nice things --high speed Internet, an iMac, MacBooks-- but we tend to keep them forever, and we do spend on books. Hundreds of dollars on books. The kids’ bookshelves are double-stacked. We are not fancy people. We are book people. We love to read. We often do it together.

We have saved money. We do it every month. Laura and I have done it for over twenty years. We invest mostly in index funds, domestic and international, and the small portfolio of stocks I own I have owned for years. I have done my own research on these companies, years of reading annual reports and 10-K reports, and listening to analysts’ discussions with management. Saving and investing in this manner is laborious, and you can’t brag to your friends about what ‘hot stock’ you have found, because we don’t invest in hot stocks. We don’t day-trade. Indeed, we have ‘paper losses’ during the vicious bear market of 2008, but since we did not enter at the peak of the market, we will survive financially. I invest every month what we can spare for investing, and I invest wherever stocks have fallen the most. I am a contrarian, and I keep it simple.

This way of life has allowed me to make steady progress on my goals, and has kept me from making big mistakes. When the world seems to be shattering to pieces, I am still reading and I am still writing. Living a simple life, when you have friends pursuing the next million, or the next accolade, or the next conquest, requires having a sense of who you are. The night is cold outside, the wind from the Hudson River whistles through the canyons of buildings in Manhattan, and this hot cup of Red Zinger revives me for another day.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

For an Unofficial God

I was driving on Interstate 684 this morning, on my way to Connecticut to do some errands in Litchfield. I found a radio station that was playing Christmas songs exclusively, and “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” reminded me of El Paso. Soon I would be back home, with my parents and brothers and sister, and Christmas, and shopping, and the blinking lights on rooftops, and the ceramic mangers in front yards of adobe houses in Ysleta, and our nightly Posada processions, all of it overwhelming me again with God in the world. Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday to my ambivalence for and even anger toward the Catholic Church of my fathers. Happy Birthday to the simultaneous and schizophrenic materialism of the holidays. Happy Birthday to my not-so-secret existence, between believing in but not knowing of God, as an agnostic with faith.

I stopped knowing God, as I had in Ysleta, when I went to Harvard. ‘Knowing’ had meant I accepted God unconditionally, as part of the world I inhabited, as unblinking overseer, as heavenly judge, as absolute standard for my good actions. All of that stopped in college, when I met others following, and believing in, and knowing, a potpourri of religions. Why should Catholicism have predominance over these other religions? For me, there was no good answer other than it didn’t. What I assumed to be the true way was perhaps just one way among many. I certainly wasn’t about to label these other believers as ‘heathens’ or ‘infidels,’ because I would not accept that believing in your God meant you had to squash your neighbor who believed in some other God.

I also did not like to be threatened to believe in God, or to follow certain rules created by priests, without any justification other than this was ‘tradition.’ As I grew older, I did not see a reason why there should not be female priests in the Catholic Church, for example. I saw it as a matter of power, not religion, that women are kept out of the priesthood. Women can be just as holy as men. I also believe gays should be able to marry legally, and spiritually, and any other way they see fit, also because of what I have seen: gay couples I have known for years love each other as much as Laura and I do, and these couples, the ones with children, have been exemplary parents to their own children. Why are we denying gays the right to marry and pursue their happiness? There is no good answer other than those who advocate against gay marriage are prejudiced against gays. They don’t know gays, they don’t want to know them, and so they demonize them.

I grew to believe that the Catholic Church, as well as other churches, spends too much time on buildings, collecting money, power politics, and not enough time, at least for me, on helping the individual to understand how to act morally and philosophically in today’s world. Moral teachings have to be beyond platitudes and rote repetitions or scary threats. Why do some religions worship idols, figurines, bloody depictions, as if only these images will shock you into morality? The ‘you’ assumed is a weak self, one that responds to only simplistic, materialistic admonitions. What about a ‘you’ that thinks? What about a ‘you’ that not only believes in God, but wants to strive for God, and wants to do it philosophically? God as a question to answer. In organized religion, there seems to be little room for that ‘thinking, striving you.’

What do I believe now? I believe in taking care of my family. I believe in the work of helping my children everyday, and in their helping me. I believe in responsibility. I believe in being true to my word. I believe in sacrificing for others, yet I also believe in saying no, when I can’t. What will happen when I die? I will live in the memories of others, I will live in the work I leave behind, and I will live in that worm that finds my body and nourishes itself, hungry to be alive.