Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Tamales in Ysleta

Laura and I drove through Ysleta in search of masa natural for champurrado.  La Tapatia was packed, they were out of masa, but I did escape with two packets of Licon’s asaderos.  I didn’t want to brave Wal-Mart (a quagmire the day before Christmas), but we still needed a few ingredients for Laura's guacamole.  Yesterday she, Aaron, Isaac, and their cousins, Caleb and Joshua, baked and decorated dozens of gingerbread cookies.  Today we are cooking for the-night-before-Christmas meal, but really it is a day to be with la familia.

My Muslim sister is here with two of her daughters; my Jewish wife and my kids are in the kitchen, munching on tostadas and chopping vegetables for the turkey’s stuffing and trimmings.  My brothers, Oscar and Rudy, who live in El Paso, cut and shaped tree branches and created a nativity scene for my parents in the living room.  Everybody is exhausted from shopping, and later we have to wrap our Secret-Santa gifts to place under el niño Jesus.  At midnight, we will rip the wrapping paper off the presents, the kids will shout and compare their booty, and everybody will sit around the living room catching up and telling more stories.

This is probably a repeat of what happens all across the country.  We don’t really question the different religions anymore, we rarely have anything but humorous, if occasionally pointed exchanges (mainly I love needling everybody while they roll their eyes), and we enjoy each other.  The different branches of our familia are seldom together, so when we do descend on Ysleta, from New York, Washington, D.C. and beyond, we are simply happy to see each other.

This morning, in the breaking news section of the online El Paso Times, I read a report about a traffic jam in front of Lupita’s Tamales in Canutillo.  The Wal-Mart shelves for dried tamale leaves and molasses have been ransacked.  All the masa, natural and preparada, at tortillerias and tamale shops is gone.  A few moments ago, I swiped half a tamale from an abandoned plate next to me: “Dad!  That was mine!  How could you?”

I understand the shocked tone, as if I have committed a sacrilege.  But I gulp down the tamale quickly, and delightfully.  La Tapatia’s tamales are heaven on earth.  Zeke’s chorizo, I could write an entire column about it.  The unique smoky taste, the fresh pork meat.  Zeke’s tostadas are nothing like the facsimiles they peddle in the Northeast to the unknowing multitudes.  Fresh Licon’s asaderos, the mere thought of them, make my mouth water.  Oh, how joyous to be back home, and hungry!

I know it’s not all about the food.  But family togetherness, at the preparation of a feast, is an ancient ritual.  It is a messy, tumultuous, chaotic affair, which probably few outsiders would endure.  I am glad we do it.  I look forward to it all year.  We have grown over time to accept each other, and to accept each other’s choices, even though we probably would have not made the same ones.

This year no severe conflicts punctuate the air.  No old recriminations.  I don’t know why.  A few years ago, during a Christmas vacation, I had a fight with my father that took years to overcome.  But this year is blessed, with our family together, laughter in faraway corners, disparate cousins working and playing together as one, and everybody remembering why it was such a good idea to return to Ysleta for Christmas.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Latinos and Jews on Hanukah

Laura is traveling for work, and tonight Aaron, Isaac, and I lit the candles for the sixth night of Hanukah, the Jewish festival of light. We took turns lighting different candles, sang the prayers. I knew the first part, but hummed the rest. The kids were my guide. In a few more days, we will be in El Paso. If we go to a Christmas posada in Ysleta or midnight mass at Mount Carmel, Laura and the kids will also join me.

How did we become this interfaith, multicultural family? It all began at Harvard, in Economics 10, when I saw this composed, attractive sophomore sitting a few rows in front of me. We chatted a few times that year. She thought I was Greek; I thought she was English. We were both way off. I was a Chicano from El Paso, Texas, and she was a Jew from Chicago and Concord, Massachusetts.

I really became friends with Laura at a Mexico seminar the next year. Laura was majoring in Government, fluent in Spanish, and focusing on Latin America. We jogged together for months along the Charles River, before we began dating. If you want to get a sense of our first kiss, read my short story, “Remembering Possibilities,” in The Last Tortilla and Other Stories. Laura is always embarrassed when I mention this, but it is a moment I wanted to immortalize in my work. That’s one of the hazards of living with a writer: parts of your life may end up in the lives of literary characters.

I can’t tell you it was easy to become one. My parents adored Laura, primarily because she spoke Spanish, but also because she was easygoing, “suavecita” and “muy gente,” as my parents would say, while I was sometimes stubborn and mean, “el terco que no se aguanta.” Laura fit better in semi-rural, small-town Ysleta than I did. Laura’s parents, however, did not like me because I was not a Jew. Sure, this got better over time, after years of their understanding that I loved their daughter and wasn’t going away. I also grew to appreciate their focus on family and the intellectual debates at the kitchen table. Today, our harmony, mutual respect, and yes, even love are achievements, but they were hard-won.

A few years ago, an engineer with the same last name wrote to me, and sent me a research paper on our surname, which is unusual in Mexico. He had traveled to obscure archives in Mexico, traced the Troncoso name to the same town of my father’s family, and even traveled to Spain to study the archives of the Catholic Church. His findings? Our surname originates from ‘Trancoso,’ and has Sephardic origins in Toledo, where ‘los judios de Trancoso’ were either cypto-Jews hiding their heritage because of the Spanish Inquisition, or Jews kicked out of Spain to the New World in 1492. I have a book, by Pere Bonnín, Sangre Judía: Españoles de Ascendencia Hebrea y Antisemitismo Cristiano, a bestseller in Spain already in its fourth edition. This book is a compilation of research on Spanish Jewish ancestry. My last name is in this book.

As Laura quipped, once I told her, “Now I now understand the attraction.”

So I may have Sephardic ancestors, but given my mother’s fervent, unyielding Catholicism, I probably have Tomás de Torquemada’s ancestors too. Perhaps we became one big, messy familia long ago. But I believe Laura is my family, and her family is my family, not because of what happened five hundred years ago, but because I love Laura. I know the quality of the person. That’s why I light the Hanukah candles even though Laura is not at home. It is what our family would do. It is what I do.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Support Free Public Libraries

I am sitting inside a cathedral to reading and writing, the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library. It is an astonishingly beautiful place to work as a writer. I could not have found anything better at Harvard or Yale, my alma maters. The difference, of course, is that the NYPL’s reading room is free to the public.
You can walk right in off the street, at 42nd and Fifth Avenue, turn on your laptop, and enjoy peace and quiet while taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. This reading room and the New York Public Library’s elaborate system of branch libraries are the kind of things that make New York City a great place to live.

The NYPL's main reading room is an inherently democratic place to work. Students from immigrant families study for GMATs or LSATs at long oak tables, expertly refurbished some years ago. Oldsters on their laptops work quietly under brass laps, this morning’s cold rain in Manhattan only a distant memory. Men and women in suits type frantically, glancing at journals or books. Tourists stroll in, mouths agape at the painted clouds on the ornate ceiling.

I wrote my second book in this reading room, and back then no guards checked your laptops or packages when you walked in. Now they do. They check on the way in and on the way out, perhaps a consequence of 9/11. I remember how quiet the reading room was back then, and it is still a serious place to work. No loud disturbances are allowed, and guards make sure you follow the rules.

The outside of the NYPL’s Research Library, as this magnificent Beaux-arts building is known, is also sheathed in white this morning, and perhaps the marble lions and exterior are undergoing yet another renovation. It must be difficult to keep something so precious, yet so old, up-to-date and in fine condition.

In the 1930s, the famed Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named the lions Patience and Fortitude, for what he felt New Yorkers needed to survive the economic depression. Today, as the reading room is again packed with people, I am certain some in this grand room are struggling to find work and survive in our current economic downturn. But haven’t free public libraries always been places to fortify yourself when the world turned for the worse? Hasn’t the free public library always been a refuge?

For years, I have always contributed a modest $100 to the New York Public Library, because I like libraries, I love books, and any place that gives you the space and time to ponder quietly and deeply should be supported. But today, when I return home, I will add to my donation to the NYPL. It’s an invaluable resource for everybody, and I hope many of you will be inspired to support your own local public library.

Imagine a city where you have no place to go to read, write, or think. Imagine a city without an institution promoting the free exchange of ideas, the dissemination of a plurality of ideas, through books, the Internet, newspapers, and journals. Imagine what a bleak place that would be, not just for you, but for your parents and grandparents, for your children. Sometimes we take for granted what we have, and the unique institutions that promote the essence of our democracy. Today I will do my part to help my library. Let’s do it together.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guadalajara: Feria Internacional del Libro

It has been an astonishing trip to Guadalajara, Mexico to be part of the gigantic book fair, one of the largest (I am told) for the Spanish-speaking world. I have to thank Director Franz Josef Kunz of the Goethe-Institut of Guadalajara for inviting me to be part of the panel on “Literatura y Migración.”

I knew it was a good start when I was wending my way into the American Airlines plane in Dallas to Guadalajara, and seated in first class (!) I find none other than Dagoberto Gilb, a good friend and a great writer. Of course, once the flight left rainy Dallas, I squeezed my way to first class to chat with Dago. I gave him a hard time for the white wine and warm nuts the ‘elite’ of first class enjoyed, while the plebes of coach went hungry. But it was great to see Dago up and about.

The next day I was waiting to have lunch at the Hilton across the street from the book fair, with Mr. Kunz, Carlos López de Alba, and Yuri Herrera, both on our panel, and who did I spot with her Blogger file open, and typing away, just as I’m doing now? Catherine Mayo. Seeing Catherine in Guadalajara was just literary nirvana. She is one of those writers you learn from and whose standards are nothing but excellent. Catherine is here to discuss her book, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, recently selected by Library Journal as one of the top thirty books for 2009.

The highlight of Guadalajara for me has been “Literatura y Migracion.” Carlos, editor of the literary magazine Reverso, moderated the panel, and it included Yuri who wrote the novel Trabajos del Reino, María Cecilia Barbetta, an Argentine who writes in German, and Léda Forgó, who was born in Hungary but also writes in German.

What the free-wheeling discussion focused on was this literature of writers who are writing in languages not necessarily their mother tongues. But the discussion quickly turned philosophical (I brought up Heidegger and the influence of German philosophers on my own writing), or how adopting a new language forced ‘immigrant writers’ to choose words purposely, to take on the roles of outsiders in their adopted cultures, to find their place in words rather than in a ‘home country.’ For us, I believe, language has become our country.

It a funny and often disquieting existence to be neither here nor there, to have your existence, particularly your literary existence, in play, a question rather than a settled home. It certainly forces you to think about what you want to say, to take a step away to consider what and how you write, because that is how you start when you don’t quiet belong as an immigrant. Sometimes this perspective turns political, sometimes reflexive, and at other times it is simply an advantage to write about Hungary or Argentina or the Mexican-American community in a language that already is a step removed from that home. In some, this perspective is a way to work through self-alienation, or even to become a bridge between two worlds.

I came away from this panel with only deep admiration for Carlos, María Cecilia, Yuri, and Léda. Writers from across the globe struggling with similar questions I struggle with everyday. Writers who are intelligent and should be read enthusiastically. Writers who embody why seeking international alliances, when your literary endeavor is unique, will allow you to understand exactly how a community can be formed from the most disparate of individuals.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Know Thyself and Buyer Beware

Know thyself and buyer beware. These are phrases I not only preach but also practice, particularly when I make financial decisions each year. I have been talking about the importance of financial literacy with friends and also leaders in the Latino community. Here are a few thoughts.

I believe in self-honesty and knowing what you don’t know, self-education, and self-reliance. Let me take the last first, and tell you why and how they apply in becoming a financially literate individual.

Self-reliance. When I graduated from Harvard in the mid-1980s, I had no money, I was in debt, and I was about to enter graduate school at Yale, to assume even more debt and continue my education. I watched every penny. My bed for years was cinderblocks I found on the street covered by an old sheet of plywood and topped by a thick piece of foam. I saved money, even while at school, and opened my first money market fund.

Self-reliance and my cost-cutting ways were my methods of increasing the amount of capital even when I was earning small salaries as a teaching assistant. Yet even then, I knew that unless I made my savings grow, I would never go beyond a hand-to-mouth existence. So I also began investing in mutual funds. It was the beginning of one of the greatest bull markets in history, so I was also lucky.

Because I used my own investment money, no committee had to be consulted, no outside investor would ring my phone in the middle of the night to cry about losses, and I could choose out-of-favor or even unknown companies (except to me) and invest in them for the long-term. Self-reliance also meant patient money.

Self-education. As I invested, I also began to read. Benjamin Graham. Peter Lynch. Ralph Wanger. Warren Buffett. Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal. John Bogle. Jeremy Siegel. Philip A. Fisher. I am still reading books about investing, by investors and fund managers, and professors of finance. I also taught myself financial accounting, by reading accounting books. I wanted to be able to read and understand 10-K reports and annual reports, and how companies work to make profits.

But my education was not just book-learning. As I invested and learned on the fly, I saw how the financial press was manipulated by many mutual fund companies that trumpeted ‘stellar funds’ with great short-term records, only to have these same funds explode with assets the next year and the managers produce mediocre returns or leave for more money to other fund firms. These ‘stellar funds’ also carried high costs: win or lose, the fund managers still made money for themselves.

Costs matter. Costs are permanent. Invest in index funds, which are the lowest cost funds, particularly at a place like Vanguard. Index funds also have no prima donna fund managers. Buy three or four index funds that represent the stock and bond categories you want to be in, and that should be the plan for the majority of investors who are passive. Passive simply means you are not buying and selling individual stocks, you don’t have the time and inclination, and it’s better to know what you don’t know and invest in index funds. Investing is Socratic: those who don’t know who they are as investors will soon be ripped off by manipulators who appeal to the greed and vanity of the hapless.

Self-honesty. I made many investing mistakes. In my early years, I invested with ‘stellar stock funds,’ which soon tanked. Taco Cabana, another mistake. Stay away from restaurants and airlines. I know certain industries pretty well, but others are too difficult for me to understand, or too unpredictable as businesses. I stay away from what I don’t know, and if I want to know I do hours, even years, of homework.

I have not made many mistakes selling; I don’t know why. I do have a sense of when to get out when I have followed and invested in a company for years. But I have made mistakes buying early, a bit too high, for example. Over-enthusiasm. In a market rout, I don’t panic. I have thick skin, and I don’t report to anybody on my investments. Last March, the nadir of recent stock market valuations, I was indeed worried, yet I stuck to my individual stocks and index funds. I did nothing, which was the smartest thing I did all year.

Investing is about being efficient with the extra capital you have. Invest it well, learn who you are as an investor, and make saving money your constant priority. Then investing will be your path to independence.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Week To Remember

Last week was quite a week for me. I read with Reyna Grande at the famed El Museo Del Barrio, and loved meeting Reyna for the first time. Aurora Anaya-Cerda of La Casa Azul Bookstore arranged the East-meets-West reading of Latino writers.

I hope the readers of Chico Lingo enthusiastically support Aurora’s online bookstore: independent bookstores like hers offer a much-needed perspective in literature, a multicultural voice for variety and quality. Aurora is also one of those people who simply lights up a room with her enthusiasm for books, authors, events for the people, la comunidad. She’s a treasure, and I think of her as mi hermana.

Also last week I read at La Junta, an event presented by the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute and La Menta Collective. Let me just tell you, I was blown away. I had been invited by Glendaliz Camacho, who knew Aurora. The place was packed, the walls were covered with the eye-catching artwork of Alta Berri and Adrian Roman, poets Mundo Rivera and J. F. Seary mesmerized the crowd, and Glendaliz and I read our stories. At the end, the band Mona Passage rocked the roof off the joint.

The La Junta evening was one of those nights you keep replaying in your head. I loved the people I met there, into literature, music, and art. I marveled at the setting, a beautiful brownstone dedicated for decades, behind the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, to promoting the cultures of people of African descent. It was a place where I knew the people “get it,” that is, they understand that literature and art should be not for a self-selected elite but for la gente.

I also received an invitation to the Guadalajara Book Fair (all expenses paid) for a panel entitled, "Literatura y Migracion." So I’ll drag my bones to Guadalajara on December 2, and force myself to have the time of my life in Mexico. Finally, Literary El Paso came out, and the Texas Observer gave it a great review in which they featured my story, “The Abuelita,” the first story I ever wrote.

I know, I know, I’m bragging a bit. But weeks like these are few and far between. It’s usually struggling alone to write, and failing. Or cursing yourself for being no good. Or nursing another rejection. Or simply not measuring up, in my eyes, as a father or as a husband. You might be surprised, if you possessed a kind of moral or psychological vision, to see the hundreds of invisible, but permanent scars on me. Many self-inflicted.

So forgive me, dear reader, if I rejoice in this good week. I just don’t try to hide anymore behind a façade that always advertises all-is-ill or all-is-well. That’s one of the reasons I started writing Chico Lingo a year ago. I didn’t care anymore what people thought, what imagined or real restrictions constrained this writer’s life, or whether ‘this’ or ‘that’ would be best for my career. I wanted to tell it like it is. I wanted to write about it. Period.

So I had a helluva week. It will keep me going for a while, during the tough, 51-other weeks in the year. I will never stop trying to capture that astonishing presence of life, and that’s what I can do to honor each day.

(The La Junta picture, with the Puerto Rican and Dominican flags behind me, was taken by Vivien I. Perez, VIPhotos.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Radio Yankee Baseball and Hideki Matsui

Last night was almost the perfect night for me. On TV, I saw the New York Yankees win the World Series and Hideki Matsui, my favorite player, was the hero. 6 RBI’s in the clinching game. It doesn’t get much better than that. The only thing missing was John Sterling’s play-by-play, but even then I was able to hear Matsui’s heroics this morning on the Yankees’ website in Sterling’s voice.

As I have mentioned in Chico Lingo before, I have over the years become a Yankee fan. During the regular season, Yankee losses twisted in my gut for weeks, while Yankee wins propelled me into a giddy joy. I used to laugh at my brother Rudy who is an inveterate Dallas Cowboy fan, how he would lock himself in his room whenever the Cowboys lost and refuse to speak to anyone, how he would not eat.

Now I was up past midnight until the last out was made in a Yankee game. I thought the Phillies were focused and dangerous, always threatening to regroup and deny the Yankees their 27th championship. I rooted for Matsui whenever he came up to bat. I wanted A-Rod to get rid of his demons, Damon to outthink them again with his feet and bat, Teixeira to prove why a superstar is worth the dollars flung at him. Whenever the Yankees lost in the post-season, I couldn’t sleep. I had become my big brother Rudy.

But absolutely the best time I experienced Yankee games, better than even going to the stadium, was to hear them on the radio at night, as we drove to Connecticut to our weekend house. John Sterling, the voice of the Yankees on WCBS 880, and Suzyn Waldman are just an excellent radio team. Both are knowledgeable about the game, provide interesting, intelligent baseball conversation as each game slowly unfolds, and something about their repartee is genuine and easy to hear. It’s hard to explain.

At night, as I guided my Honda Pilot through the traffic on 684 and Route 22, the children asleep in the back and Laura on her Blackberry, it might be raining outside, or wind might be whipping the car around, or an idiot might be zooming past at 100 mph, but Sterling’s voice assured and expertly guided me through the game. When Matsui hit a homer (“A Thrilla by Godzilla!”), or the game ended (“The Yankees win! Thhheeee Yankees win!”), I could hear the roar of the crowd, I could see the field, and I imagined I was there, but in a better way: I was playing it in my head with Sterling’s help. His infectious excitement and his play-by-play are really light years ahead of the plodding, inane, even boring commentary I too often heard on TV during the post-season. I understand now why my brother Rudy would turn off the sound of the TV and listen to Cowboy games with his favorite radio announcer.

Cashman, Steinbrenner, Girardi, please don’t let Hideki Matsui leave as a free agent. I know Matsui has bad knees, and I know he’s getting old, but can youth have as much character, professionalism, or focus as Matsui? How much are those worth on a team? How much is that example worth on a team?

Matsui was and is an enigma, and I like that. I have taught many Japanese students, and one point I find interesting, and have researched, is that for many Japanese talking too much means not thinking. For American students, talking, debating in class is to have a voice, to declare who you are. But for the Japanese, it’s almost like verbal diarrhea: if you are talking, you must not be pondering seriously the issue at hand. I have been given articles on the different cultural meanings of silence, for example, in Japanese versus typical American business meetings.

I am also not a schmoozer, I like to observe, and so I also liked when Matsui would say little on TV. Pretending he knew no English helped him to stay within himself, to be left a relative unknown to American baseball fans. I didn’t find him flashy, or confused emotionally, or a bad sport about his limited role as a DH. He did his job, and that was that. A sort of anti-hero in our overexposed, overstylized media world. Keep him in New York.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Is the Texas Library Association excluding Latino writers?

I had a wonderful time at the Texas Book Festival, which was well-organized and full of lively literary parties. On Saturday, I walked through the white tents next to the state capitol, gathering handouts from commercial publishers, lit organizations, and university presses. My panel was not until Sunday, so this was my day to play.

But as I stopped at the Texas Library Association’s (TLA) table and perused a yellow handout entitled “2009 Tayshas Annotated Reading List,” a book list compiled by public and school librarians from the Young Adult Round Table (YART), I noticed precious few Latino authors or subjects. In fact, as I counted and reread the book summaries (later confirmed by studying the books online at booksellers), only three were by or about Latinos. Three out of 68 young adult books recommended by TLA.

This fact was disturbing enough, but then I walked to the panel on the Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Awards, with Benjamin Saenz (He Forgot to Say Goodbye) and Carmen Tafolla (The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans), and previous winner Francisco Jiménez. Saenz’s and Tafolla’s award-winning books are aimed at young adults. Both authors are from Texas. Both books are published in the time period covered by the TLA list, 2007-2008. And both books are excluded from the list. (Margarita Engle’s The Surrender Tree (a Newbury Honor book) and Oscar Hijuelos’s Dark Dude (Starred review from Booklist) are also not on the TLA list, and that's just a cursory look at 2008.)

As I sat listening to the panelists talk about fighting to have Mexican-American literature included in the canon of American literature, as I heard them talk about their struggles to reach young Latinos with stories that reflect their lives, I admired the careful words of Saenz, Tafolla, and Jiménez at the same time that I seethed at the TLA. What was going on here? The juxtaposition between what the TLA was peddling at their table and the Tomás Rivera panel was jarring.

My anger burst out during conversations at the Texas Book Festival, and I asked for explanations. One well-known Texas writer said it was the “morality police” mentality of certain Texas librarians, who enforced their morality more strictly with anything Latino, a sophisticated kind of ethnic discrimination. A Texas librarian said it had to do with the YART panel itself, who was on it, who recommended books, but even she was surprised the TLA list contained only three books by or about Latinos. “That’s pathetic,” she said.

Indeed, it is. Latinos comprise about half the current students enrolled in Texas K-12 schools. When we or the media decry the high Hispanic high school drop-out rates, are we also training school administrators to be bilingual? Welcoming non-English-speaking parents to become involved in the schooling of their children is essential. I know my mother did not feel, nor was she ever treated, like an alien when she went to talk to my teachers or the principal at South Loop School. Why? They spoke Spanish, even the güeritos who were not Latinos. But that was El Paso. What about Houston, east Texas, the Panhandle?

When we complain about low Hispanic high school test scores, are we also providing reading lists that inspire kids throughout their schooling, books that say the stuff of their lives is real literature? The School Library Journal said of Carmen Tafolla’s book: “This collection will be sought after by both teens and teachers looking for strong characters and an eloquent voice in Chicana literature. While regional appeal will certainly drive purchase of this book, libraries looking to diversify and modernize their story collections will also want to consider adding this worthy title.” But apparently not in Texas, if the TLA has any say-so about it.

The issue is not creating an ‘affirmative action’ literary list. That’s a great way to put down Latino literature while pretending to help it. We do have high quality literature, by any standard, by national standards, in the Latino community. We have writers who are craftsmen, who are highly educated, who are creating stories that win national awards and sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

So I am not asking to lower standards and make a new TLA list with 45.6 percent Latino writers. That’s ridiculous. But the effort has to be made to look at the new reality in writing and in Latino literature in particular, and to understand that there need not be a sacrifice anymore between diversity and quality. But to do that, we need open minds and their goodwill.

I don't want any librarians (from Texas or anywhere else) mad at me; I truly don't. El Paso public libraries changed my life and opened my mind to writing. I just want the Texas Library Association to think about what it's doing, and to consider a better way.

(Note: The TLA list did have three books about girls at “elite boarding schools,” and two books on Australian teenagers.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Texas Two-Step

I will be at the Texas Book Festival this Friday, to meet with friends (my real reason for flying to Austin), but also to read from and talk about new anthologies which include two of my stories: Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, and Literary El Paso.

Hit List has one of my newer stories, “A New York Chicano,” about a transplanted Texan in New York who decides to do something about the biased news against Latinos he sees on TV every night. Literary El Paso has the first story I wrote at Yale as a graduate student in philosophy, when I was deciding how to bridge the gap between my love of literature and my interest in philosophy. “The Abuelita” was what I wrote one night in Sterling Library.

It’s always a wonder when you see yourself in print, and every book, even when you are just a small part of it, gives you memorable experiences. For Hit List, it was meeting wonderful writers like Richie Narvaez and Carlos Hernandez and reading with them in New York. At the Texas Book Festival, I’ll be reading with Rolando Hinojosa, Lucha Corpi, and Sarah Cortez (editor, with Liz Martínez, of the anthology). Lucha is the only one I don’t know, but I can’t wait to make another new literary friend.

Literary El Paso was published this month, and friends (some más, others menos) are in it like Dagoberto Gilb, David Romo, Ramon Rentería, Alicia Gaspar de Alba (she’s also in both anthologies), Denise Chávez (la querida Denise!), Ana Castillo (loved The Guardians), Christine Granados, Bobby and Lee Byrd, Lex Williford, Daniel Chacón (kudos on the American Book Award for the Burciaga book!), Rich Yañez, Sheryl Luna, Ben Saenz, Ray Gonzalez, and Carolina Monsivaís. Man, my fingers are sore from all the name-dropping typing, but note, El Paso has plenty of talent. Editor Marcia Hatfield Daudistel has done an admirable job and produced a gem for my bookshelf.

But for me the most interesting Literary El Paso experience (so far) has been making a YouTube video reading parts of “The Abuelita.” I received an email from the El Paso Media group, asking authors to make a short video reading excerpts of their stories or essays. I decided to play with my iMac, sit in front of it for intimacy (like an online chat), record the video, add music, and most importantly, add a picture of my abuelitos, Doña Dolores Rivero and Don José Rivero. You can take a look at my video here: “The Abuelita.”

I became a writer because of Doña Dolores. She was a force of nature, a survivor of the Mexican Revolution who had shot and killed two men attempting to rape her. (“Mi’jo, there was no police, nada, in the middle of the desert. In el rancho, you had to defend yourself, or die trying.”) When I wrote “The Abuelita,” I wanted people never to forget Doña Dolores. Not only was I writing about her, but I was writing for her. These people, the salt of the earth, deserve their stories be told, deserve their voices be heard.

I have met many accomplished, wealthy, and famous people in Harvard, Yale, the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, and Manhattan, but no one has possessed half the character of my abuelita. Look into those eyes at the beginning of the video, and you will see what I mean. If you lied to her, she’d know before you finished the sentence and she wouldn’t let you get away with it. I miss her every single day. Maybe in Austin I can find a musician with an acordeón to play a corrido in her honor.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mysterious Creatures

I have been reading a fabulous little book, The Mythical Creatures Bible, by Brenda Rosen, about dwarves, unicorns, Greek vs. Chinese vampires, Egypt’s Seth and Horus, Tibet’s wrathful protectors, Kachinas, Mayan Jaguars, and Quetzalcoatl. Perhaps I have done this intentionally, to get away from the idiocy of the healthcare debate, particularly on that paranoid cable channel, Fox News.

Yes, I tortured myself by watching a few hours of that alternate reality of mysterious and evil government plots, the grand wisdom and beneficence of big business, the machinations of the archenemy Obama, and blond, pithy talking-heads who know everything by knowing nothing. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about, but watching Fox News was indeed terrifying, while falling into the world of Child-eaters and Trolls was a delight. An ‘intentionally foxy, warped view of reality’ makes little sense, and is less fun, than a fantasy. The former attempts to fool me, while the latter edifies me about human nature.

As a child in El Paso, I loved the night. I imagined mysterious creatures lurking outside our doors, in the backyard chasing our German shepherds, Lobo and Prince, or perhaps on the roof emanating strange noises, afloat with the desert wind. I roamed the rooms of our house on San Lorenzo at ungodly hours, and my mother said I was a duende.

The darkest hours prompt the imagination of those ready to be prompted, and not already dead to the world of possibilities. I also think certain streets, houses, rooms, and corners elicit my impish as well as my wildest imaginations. It’s the darkness of a place, the absolute quiet that forebodes danger or the cryptic, and the remoteness of a situation, that you are alone and must rely on only your senses to escape if necessary. These characteristics transform places into fertile ground for the imagination.

Part of adulthood, the bad part, is when you stop looking for these places. Under a bunk bed with your child as you experience the magic of a good story. The reading light a small but steady beacon. The mind an unexplored country. The sore limbs of the street abandoned for a moment. This is one of the many things I cherish about my children, Aaron and Isaac: they have reminded me of being a duende, of seeing the world with unleashed curiosity and possibility, of wanting to learn about the struggle of heroes against demons.

After reading The Mythical Creatures Bible, in keeping with my current mood, I also reread Garcia Lorca’s lecture, “Theory and Play of the Duende.” Lorca talks about being possessed by an “authentic emotion,” within “dark sounds,” as when an artist or writer in a moment or a story ‘has duende.’ Different from a Muse or an Angel, ‘having duende or being with duende’ reaches into the artist’s blood, to take momentary possession of what calls you primordially. For Lorca: “The spirit of the earth.”

So I reread Lorca to think about the mysterious force he meant, even though he claims no philosopher can explain it. I believe him, but that doesn’t stop me from struggling with his words and possible meanings, from exercising my curiosity, and for a moment positing an answer I find worthwhile.

The process reaches deep within yourself, which I think Nietzsche advocated as well, to find a world, to experience your separation from the inanimate, to unleash the joy and heartache of being human, a place where skill and struggle meet ecstatically. I don’t know if that is where Lorca’s duende lives, but it is where I find I am alive.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Getting Ready For Winter

As I write this tonight, my arm muscles are still twitching from the trauma. I was splitting wood this weekend, getting our firewood stack ready for the winter. Our woodpile, hidden behind two small maples in front of our house in Connecticut, has blackened, three-year-old wood. That’s where I started.

I carted one twelve-pound, double-faced sledgehammer to the woodpile. I have two, one is newer, and from the second, the one in my hand, the hickory had split just below the head. I taped it last year with duct tape, and it seemed to be holding. The newer one’s my backup. I also carried two two-pound black metal wedges. I made a second trip to the garage, for my Husqvarna chainsaw.

We need to burn aggressively this year. Already I have two dead trees on our property that will soon be added to our woodpile. We have two fireplaces and a wood-burning stove, and there’s nothing more sublime than the fall display of colors in Litchfield County and the smell of fireplaces keeping homes warm in rural Connecticut. It takes you back in time. It instantly transports you to the antithesis of the City. It saves on heating bills.

I removed the green tarps covering my woodpile, starting with the oldest wood. I know when and where each pile of logs was placed every year. I rolled old massive oak stumps, which had already been cut when we bought our property years ago. As I split these stumps, using the two wedges simultaneously and bringing the sledgehammer alternately on each wedge, the crack of the wood revealed a nest of termites. Hundreds of them. Two of the old stumps were contaminated, and I wouldn’t bring them into the garage, even though I sorely wanted to incinerate the vermin. I rolled the split, contaminated stumps away from the woodpile, into the forest, and let the termites have their feast.

The rest of the wood was termite free. I held a wedge on the flat wood, smashed it hard with the sledgehammer, avoiding pulverizing my wrist or fingers. Once the wedge stuck, I lifted the sledgehammer overhead, and brought it down on the wedge, often imagining the face of a critic or nemesis, literary and political, as the wedge. The adrenalin flowed, and I didn’t feel my muscles twitching until hours later. For each log, for each split (thick logs need to be quartered, instead of just halved), three, four, five times I brought the hammer down. It’s like lifting weights and doing squats at the same time. You feel it in your shoulders, arms, and legs, as you split the logs, carry them to the pile to go into the garage, over and over again.

My trusty chainsaw? I used it to cut longer logs in half. It’s a machine you need to pay attention to, lest you lose a finger or a toe. It’s a blast of noise in the quiet forest, and I prefer hearing the crack of split wood, but you need the machine once in a while. The chainsaw also determined when I stopped. When I became too tired and my muscles and reflexes stopped responding as they should, that’s when it was time to call it a day, before I made a bloody mistake.

Some people might think it’s crazy to spend a significant part of your weekend doing this kind of work. You can certainly pay somebody else to do it. Or you can drive to a supermarket and buy neat, shrink-wrapped piles of wood. My wife Laura has threatened to buy me a wood-splitter, but so far I have resisted. I like connecting with the wood. I like the exercise and being outside. I like doing things for myself, instead of being separated from what I need and what I need to do to achieve it. I’m not about to slaughter my own chickens, but I will split my own wood. Writing itself already separates me from the world; I don’t need another activity to divorce myself from preparing for the turn of the seasons.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why We Are Not A 'We'

Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times is one of the most thoughtful newspaper columnists. Two days ago he wrote a piece about how the current political climate of the U.S. has taken a dangerous turn permanently delegitimizing the presidency and tacitly encouraging violence, particularly from the fringe far right: “Where Did ‘We’ Go?”

The Facebook poll asking respondents, “Should Obama be killed?” is the most recent example, but Friedman also mentions the crazy rhetoric of Lou Dobbs, whom I have repeatedly criticized on the pages of Chico Lingo, and too many other examples in the media, particularly in the blogosphere and cable news channels, which also hasten our downward spiral into a country no longer a community, but a country at war with itself.

But I believe Friedman does not go far enough in analyzing the ‘why,’ the reasons the United States seems more fractured than ever. Why do ‘we’ seem to be incapable of tackling problems affecting all of us without a descent into vitriol and even hatred of our opponents? What happened to compromise and practicality and giving each other the benefit of the doubt? Here are some interrelated whys:

1. We as a society do not have patience anymore. TV and visual images are in part to blame. Give your opinion in fifteen seconds, do it loudly, and that’s what we now call ‘debate.’ We have commercialized time on TV: that’s the reason for these ridiculous lightning-round debates that solve nothing, convince no one, and just end up reinforcing prejudices because that’s all the time you have on TV (the most pervasive, influential medium). Plato, eons ago, warned how the focus on images would degrade our ability to think and reason: The man or woman who focuses on images loses the highest form of the self, the thoughtful self.

2. We don’t read anymore. The market for serious books is dying. Just look at the publishing industry. In fact, what is published now is too often celebrity books, memoirs of scandal, books by pretty and famous people who have little to say beyond the adrenalin moment. Disposable literature. Our kids are not reading, but instead play video games. My kids are great readers, but it’s because I’ve kept them from turning on the TV whenever they feel like it; I’ve kept them from mainstream, materialistic American culture. “After you do your homework, watch TV for an hour, but that’s it.” I may be an anachronism, but my kids are excellent students and know who they are because of their own, real accomplishments.

3. We are a diverse culture, but now minorities possess growing power and responsibility and the traditional majority does not easily want to cede being ‘the standard,’ that is, being the face of America. Latinos, as we all know, have grown in number to become the largest minority, surpassing even African-Americans (who themselves are uncomfortable with perhaps not being the ‘official minority’ anymore). The Asian population has similarly increased. Soon, demographers predict that the traditional ‘white majority’ (comprised of families with English, Italian, Irish, German, and other European ancestry) will be the minority.

I can only imagine what these demographic trends have meant in, say, a small town in the Midwest or the South where new Latin American immigrants speak Spanish and bring strange customs to your town. The strength of New York City, where I now live, is that these cultural, religious, ethnic, racial interactions happen every day. You are not so easily susceptible to the TV or talk-radio smear that Latinos are this way, or Jews are that way, or Muslims are sinister, or strangers with accents are suspect, because you see these people every day. They may be your friends. Your kids go to school with their kids.

Prejudices based on abstractions, the raw meat of today’s dangerous political rhetoric, don’t easily take hold when you can see with your own eyes that excellent parents are in every culture, excellent friends may exist in every religion, brave characters with all sorts of funny accents ennoble you. But this is not a kumbaya moment. Irresponsible idiots also come in every shape, size, and color. But the point is that abstractions don’t work on you anymore when you actively seek out and live in diversity. You must judge the individual; you need to pay attention and listen; above all you need to have the patience to understand whoever might at first seem alien to you.

4. The United States is a mature economy, while other countries like China, Brazil, and India are gaining the kind of prosperity we took for granted. Fifty years ago, it must have been a heady time when we were unquestionably the most important economy in the world. But now that’s not true anymore. We are still the biggest, but many have caught up and surpassed our per-capita wealth. Others, the newcomers, have rapidly become significant sources of brain power, savings, and economic and military power. We can’t dictate terms anymore. Our companies have to fight it out to survive, and few have the unquestioned might of yesteryear’s behemoths. The world, most importantly, is moving away from an American-centered world economy, with negative implications for the dollar as a reserve currency.

We’ve also lost manufacturing jobs. The lowest skilled are the most vulnerable to this changing world. They are the most susceptible to zealots and slick-talking TV and radio gurus who appear to have all the answers. And many are listening, because over the years they have been trained to think ‘listening’ is just watching TV. It’s not. TV stupefies you. Period. Talk radio? Turn if off.

1, 2, 3 and 4 might lead you to think I’m pessimistic about the future of the United States. I’ll tell you how pessimistic I am. Last weekend, I went to Home Depot twice (about 30 miles total), because I had purchased the wrong-size American flag to hang next to our front door in Connecticut. Our three-year-old flag, which was faded and torn, I tucked away in my closet. I’m just gonna keep it. It fills me with pride to see our new flag fluttering amid the spectacular colors of autumn in the Litchfield Hills.

I am proud of my country. But let me give you some advice. Turn off the TV. Stop listening to Lou Dobbs, and see him for what he is: an idiot who wants to make money by making you watch him. Pick up a good book and read it carefully. Raise your children to be thinkers, to focus on their homework, to work hard. Make an effort, by picking up the phone or knocking on a door, to meet a neighbor vastly different from you, a Muslim, a Jew, a Mexicano who can barely speak English. Don’t just meet him once, but get to know the person, his kids. If his child befriends your child, and they marry (as Laura and I did nineteen years ago), work on understanding their family. Some things you will never understand. Other things you will uncannily see eye-to-eye. But no one will ever be able to tell you they don’t belong in your neighborhood.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Diario de Oaxaca

This morning I was walking south on Broadway after leaving my son Isaac at school, and two familiar faces stopped me in my tracks. Peter Kuper and his daughter Emily. Peter, a friend, is the famed political cartoonist for Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy. He gave me a copy of his new book, Diario de Oaxaca.

As I continued strolling down Broadway, I felt as if I had just won La Loteria. Right now, after you finish this blog, buy this book. It’s the best book I’ve read all year. Beautifully crafted. Well-written. Irreverent. Bilingual. The work of an artistic duende. ‘Reading’ is not quite the right word here: this book is an experience, into Oaxaca, political protests, bugs, Monarch butterflies, perros, and searching for the truth around and in front of you.

Diario de Oaxaca is Kuper’s sketchbook journal of his two-year stay in Oaxaca, Mexico to get away from George W. Bush, to seek peace of mind, to work. He and his family arrived when a teachers’ strike, for better pay and more funding for schools, was unfolding in the zocalo: sit-ins, barricades, marches, and eventually the response from the governor of the state of Oaxaca, which was to kill. October 27, 2006: three teachers and an American journalist dead.

The artwork of protest and death, buses aflame, bored soldiers occupying the zocalo, a woman carrying fruits on her head in front of a giant battering ram twice her size, the Day of the Dead ofrendas in Oaxaca commemorating those killed during the teachers’ strike. It’s breathtaking. It takes you to Oaxaca. It creates atmosphere in a way that prose cannot. Peter Kuper has created a remarkable eyewitness account of those turbulent times, which repeat themselves in Latin America’s version of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.

Diario de Oaxaca is visual micro-history: what Kuper experienced in Oaxaca, from the teachers’ strike to an earthquake, both of which he complains were wildly misreported in the media. How do you make sense of a world in which the ‘news’ is often not true, but mostly spin? How does your immediate world fit into the major currents of history, particularly when you have experienced what people are writing about, and the 'official reports' hardly resemble what you have seen with your own eyes? These are questions Kuper is asking about Mexico as well as the United States.

After the teachers’ strike was crushed by the government, Kuper turned his curious eye to entomology. Bugs and butterflies. His family traveled twelve hours to Michoacan, to the remote forests where millions of Monarch butterflies return to have sex and die, presumably a glorious death. Every night bugs invaded their home in Oaxaca. Scorpions. Black widow spiders. Unfathomable creepy crawlies. If only we could stomp on some of our politicians too!

Diario de Oaxaca is a remarkable book. On display is a mind that experiences the world in an astonished play that questions this world at the same time that it communicates its fractures, absurdities, and terrors. ‘Political cartoonist’ as a term to describe Peter Kuper, even though he uses it himself, does not do justice to the work. This is a book I will never give up. It’s curiosity in action. In words. In stunning, thoughtful artwork. It creates an unforgettable new world.

P.S. Take a look at Peter Kuper's show of original art from Diario de Oaxaca at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, and read a recent interview at Design Arts Daily

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Yankee Fan

How and why did I become a Yankee fan? I watch almost every game on the YES network. I have gotten to know the players’ little routines when they come up to bat. Show me only a silhouette of a batter getting ready for a pitch, and I can tell you who it is in the Yankee lineup.

Jeter seems to signal a kind of “Stop” with one hand toward the umpire right before he settles into the batter’s box. Matsui looks at his bat up and down, his back becomes straight, and his shoulder muscles twitch right before he is primed for the pitch. Teixiera has the strangest stance: his neck juts forward, his back is rigid, and he seems almost off-balance. A-Rod reminds me of a coiled snake, his bat waving languorously behind his neck, ready to strike.

I used to be a more ambivalent Yankee fan. I had never been into baseball in Texas, where I grew up. Everything was football, and my team in El Paso, my brothers’ team, was and is the Dallas Cowboys. But I did go to dozens of games at Cohen Stadium to cheer the El Paso Diablos. But major league baseball? I didn’t care in El Paso as a kid; I didn’t care in Boston, even though I pulled all-nighters at Harvard College for four years and lived a jog away from Fenway Park for another year.

I moved to New York in 1990, and I still watched more football than baseball on television. The Giants were in the same division as the Cowboys. The Yankees were winning World Series then, in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Yet even during those glorious years, I can’t honestly say I was yet a Yankee fan. I would watch the important games; I saw snippets of the parades in the news when they won another championship. But I hadn’t bought into the team with my heart. I didn’t know every player. I had never been to a Yankee game in person.

Probably two or three years after the start of the millennium, I made it a point to see a game. I think I was walking my kids to a store, a play or a movie near or around Times Square, and I stumbled into the Yankee Clubhouse. You can buy tickets here? How do you get to Yankee Stadium anyway? I had stupid questions; but thankfully somebody answered them.

From the Upper Westside, holy mole, it was so easy to get to Yankee Stadium! Just a short subway ride to the Bronx. Why hadn’t I done this before? The kids cared more about the hot dogs and chicken fingers than about that first game, which I think was against the lowly Devil Rays. For a few years in a row, I bought tickets for three or four games during the summer, and I got hooked.

I began to know the players, their habits. I started watching the Yankees more religiously on TV. I have never gotten to the point of hating the Red Sox, but I do want to crush them in the playoffs. When the Red Sox won their first World Series in a gazillion years, the next day I gave a friend of mine, a transplanted Bostonian who dies for the Red Sox, a bottle of champagne. I knew what it meant to him. I was a fan too, and I knew what it would’ve meant for me and my team.

We’re playing the Toronto Blue Jays tonight, and losing in the seventh inning, 4-2. Last night, a nasty brawl begun by Jorge Posada and some bald-headed pitcher for the Blue Jays, I forget his name, emptied the benches. The Yankees have to keep playing well; they have the best record in baseball right now. But is this the beginning of a slide, or just a blip in a great season? My heart’s into it now. It matters if we lose now. I can’t imagine missing a single game now. (Don’t trade Matsui.)

(Matusi hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning to tie the game, and Cervelli slapped a single to center to score Gardner in the ninth: 5-4, Yankees win!)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Investment Character

I am reading the biography Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder, and thoroughly enjoying it. Years ago I read Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor; I teach parts of Graham and Dodd’s Security Analysis; each year I read Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report to understand some of what they are doing and why.

I would not consider myself a Buffettologist in the sense that I copy whatever stock investments Warren Buffett makes. But I do try to understand what he does and why, and apply those principles to companies and industries I am familiar with. Do your own homework, I say. Understand where your money is, and why it’s there. That’s the way to be an intelligent, independent investor.

As I’ve read this biography, I am not surprised to learn Buffett was/is good at math and calculating odds; I am not surprised to learn his friend Charlie Munger is much the same way. Ideas pour out from their heads; they are passionate about investing, and they believe they are right. ‘Didactic,’ is how they describe themselves. Other words that come to mind are ‘relentless,’ ‘iconoclastic,’ ‘anti-social,’ and ‘obsessed with details.’ They are also honest, self-critical, and loyal to those whom they think deserve loyalty.

When I have taught my summer course on Investment Analysis, I have always argued that number-crunching is only half the battle to becoming a good investor. The other half, and maybe even the most important part, is having the right kind of character to be a successful investor. I think you can train someone to understand and calculate the right figures from annual reports, 10-K reports, and 10-Q reports. I think you can teach someone to use discounted cash flow analysis to get a sense of whether the current stock price correctly values, or undervalues, future earnings.

(I’m not surprised Ben Graham did not give much weight to future earnings, because I also believe projections into the future are dicey figures easily manipulated to prove whatever you want to prove. Understand the nature of the business at hand, and how it can remain profitable forever, or be easily susceptible to margin pressures, inflation, taxation and so on, and that’s how you can truly value ‘future earnings.’ You won’t get an exact number, but you’ll get a sense of whether this business is worth owning. It’s better to be approximately right than exactly wrong. I think Buffett said that.)

But my point is that while number-crunching is largely teachable, having the right investment character is for the most part not. I don’t care what anybody else thinks, and I don’t look for others’ approval of my investment ideas, nor for my clothing, nor for my unorthodox political positions, nor my blog entries. I have always been that way. As a toddler, my mother called me ‘viejo Josisah,’ which was the name of a crotchety old man she once knew in Chihuahua. I was grumpy; I loved being alone; I was, in a word, ‘didactic.’ Now I am a rumpled, ornery man on Broadway, with what I consider to be a plain look on my face but which my wife Laura says looks like a permanent scowl.

That kind of investment character makes it easy to go against the crowd, to not panic when others are decrying the end of capitalism as we know it, or to not join the party when the champagne corks fly to the ceiling because of Internet stocks, China, or whatever the next new fad is. I also don’t like debt. I try to keep things simple. I try to see things as they are, not as I wish them to be, at least for my investments. The recent market meltdown, although painful, was not enough to change my ways; I had enough liquidity to survive.

So ‘Know Thyself,’ that Socratic maxim, is so important to me as an investor. If you know you don’t have the right kind of investment character, then lowering your costs with an index fund is about the smartest thing you can do. If you think you have the right math skills and character, and you start running your own individual stock portfolio, and then you panic when others head for the hills, or you slavishly follow the momentum of euphoria, then learn from that. Those that learn from clear-eyed self-reflection and analysis will be winners on Wall Street. Those that don’t will embody Mr. Market’s schizophrenia.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Half-mud, half-dead

It has taken me about a week to recover from our Costa Rica vacation. We arrived at one in the morning on Monday night/Tuesday morning. I woke up with a severe head cold, and my back was killing me. The zip-lining near the Arenal Volcano was fantastic, but now I was paying the price.

I have always acted differently when I am sick. When I was younger, I ignored any ache or cold, but if my sickness truly debilitated me I either lashed out at whoever was near me or I sunk into a temporary depression. This week, barely able to walk, my head, eyes, and nose gushy with fluids, I slept. I slept until I couldn’t sleep anymore, and I kept quiet and observed everyone around me, Laura, Aaron, and Isaac going about their business without me.

It was a strange experience not having almost any reaction to my week-long illness; I was probably feverish. I wanted to recover. I thought about my father and his chronic back problems, which eventually reduced him to a walker in his mid-70’s. I really did not want to become my father. I lay in bed, wincing with pain, not quiet able to breathe right, and I felt like part of the bed, as if I were sinking into the mattress itself. I imagined I had been abandoned in a mud pile. I was now half-mud.

It’s not bad being half-mud. You have no responsibilities. You lie in bed, or mud, and look at everything. Conversations occur around you, about you, but you are not a part of them. A crash in the other room? Somebody else rushes to see what it is, to clean it up. For me, for that week, there was no drive within. That was the fascinating part. No anger. No self-loathing. No urge to do. The kids needed to get ready to go back to school? This pain-in-the-ass was the ultimate observer. ‘Action Bear’ (Laura’s oft times moniker for me) was in hibernation. Half-asleep. Probably delirious.

There was a point, later in the week, when the bed felt too soft, when I stopped thinking about the strange colors in front of my eyes, when I thought about what bills needed to get paid by the end of month. That’s when I knew I was better. I missed being half-mud, half-dead, and I even wanted to go back. I imagined for a few hours before I rose like Lazarus from the dead why Lazarus would even want to get up from being dead. I mean, if you could be half-dead, looking at the world but nothing else, that would be the ticket.

As I hobbled to the mailbox and to Broadway Farm for pounds and pounds of California yellow peaches, nectarines, and a watermelon the size and weight of a bowling ball (Do all young teenage boys eat this much fruit?), I missed my half-mud existence. Zabar’s. Dry cleaning. The mailbox again. Returning emails. Filling out back-to-school health forms. My back was killing me. But I could more or less walk now. I said to Isaac, as he watched me grimace on the sidewalk, “It feels as if a crazy carpenter has driven nails into my spine.” But yeah, I was getting better.

By this weekend, I was back. My back had but a hint of my previous torture, and what was left of my cold was a weak cough. Gone was the Pumpkin Head of the half-mud man. Did you have the swine flu? somebody asked me. No, I don’t think so, I replied. But perhaps for one week I did live the strange and sweet existence of a Pig Man in the Half-Mud.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Costa Rica

We have been trekking through Costa Rica, a lush and spectacular country. We arrived in San Jose, stayed one night, and the next morning traveled for five hours by buses and boats to remote Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast. It did not rain a single day during our three-day stay, a miracle in the rainy season.

On an expedition through the canals of Tortuguero we saw white-faced monkeys, spider monkeys, two sloths, crocodiles slicing through the muddy water, baby blue herons, howler monkeys, toucans, caimans, small, shy turtles on logs, and half-a-dozen iguanas. Laura, Aaron, and Isaac have been enthralled by the stunning variety of nature on this isthmus, and so have I.
Our second night in Tortuguero, we joined another eco-expedition to witness the giant sea turtles laying and burying their eggs and dragging their massive bodies, the size of Smart cars, back to the sea. In the pitch black, our guide, Carla, told us last year jaguars had eaten about 200 of these sea turtles, the flippers and the heads, and abandoned the bodies in their shells on the beach. As we walked through the jungle in the darkness, with only the guide’s small light ahead of us, I wondered what it would be like to be eaten by a jaguar.
The next leg of our trip was to Arenal, and we flew from Tortuguero in an Australian single-propeller plane. That was an experience. The plane barely seated seven people and their luggage, and I was in the co-pilot’s seat. We flew over mountains to get back to San Jose, the ride was smooth, and I was as fascinated by the busy panel of instruments as by the breathtaking 360-degree view of eastern Costa Rica.
After traveling on more rough, winding roads for hours, we arrived in La Fortuna, to the Hotel Nayara. Our room overlooks the Arenal Volcano, has hot water and a Jacuzzi, Internet service, which is how I can write this blog, and air conditioning. The kids: “Can we build a house just like this hotel?” I have also marveled at the construction details of this hotel: richly dark hardwood floors, an open air restaurant with friendly macaws and parrots, deliciously comfortable beds, rough-hewn exposed ceiling beams interlaced with bamboo. The Hotel Nayara is an oasis.
Yesterday we zip-lined over and through the rain forest canopy at the foot of the volcano, dangling hundreds of feet in the air on a cable, zooming through the forest from platform to platform, in the same moment terrified and thrilled.
The best was a zip-line of 760 meters (2490 feet, or eight football fields). At that moment, a cloud enveloped the forest as we stood on a platform next to the treetops. You couldn’t see the other side of the cable. The guides strapped us one at a time onto our pulley and harness, and when the line was clear and we were ready, pushed us into the white oblivion. Laura and the kids screamed with delight as they raced into the clouds. I felt like a giant cannon ball shooting through the whiteness. As openings appeared in the clouds, I marveled at the forest below and how lucky I was to have said yes to this experience.
Last night we visited the closest observation point for the Arenal Volcano. In the evening, strips of lava dribbled down the mountainside, the volcano continuously smoking. In 1968, the volcano had a massive eruption, devastated six square miles of land in minutes, and 78 people died. The last major eruption was in 2000, with minor eruptions occurring as recently as last year. Why are we fascinated by this awesome power? I have been to the volcanoes in Hawaii, and Arenal, perhaps because it is younger, pointier, and closer to human habitation, is as beguilingly ominous.
Next we travel to the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Ocean. I can’t wait for that adventure.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reaching Back In History To Stop Thinking

I read an Op-Ed article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Our Unconstitutional Census,” by John S. Baker and Elliott Stonecipher, which reaches back to a selective version of the U.S. Constitution to argue illegal aliens should not be counted in the 2010 Census because counting them undermines the equal representation of certain states and their citizens. That is, states with large populations of undocumented workers get apportioned more House members and electoral votes than states without. The current census, as authorized by Congress, counts everybody, legal or illegal.

The authors wrap themselves in the Constitution and even the first 1790 census, which counted all inhabitants, to give legitimacy and authority to their argument: “The census has drifted from its constitutional roots, and the 2010 enumeration will result in a malapportionment of Congress.”

But the article fails to mention one fact that undermines their argument: the first 1790 census counted slaves. African slaves, who did not get the right to vote until 1870, eighty years after the first census, not only were counted as three-fifths of a person (enshrined ingloriously in the Constitution), but Southern states benefited by having more electoral votes and more representation in Congress per voting citizen, to the loud complaints of Northern states, for the selfsame eighty years.

The authors of the Wall Street Journal article also perform a sleight of hand, probably unnoticed by the casual reader, but certainly noticed by this one. They take the word ‘inhabitants’ as the correct mandate of the 1790 census, but instead of mentioning that inhabitants for George Washington and his census included non-voting slaves (he was a Founding Father, wasn’t he?), the Wall Street Journal authors use the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of ‘inhabitant,’ as a bona fide member of the State, entitled to its privileges. Did African slaves have all the privileges of the State in 1790? Could they vote? Of course not.

What is important to note is not only how this article reaches back selectively to its version of the Constitution, but how much harsher the current authors are on non-voting inhabitants than George Washington and other Founding Fathers. Baker and Stonecipher want undocumented workers to count for zero in the 2010 census. At least, and it’s not saying much, George Washington wanted each slave to count for three-fifths of a person in the 1790 census. Perhaps the Founding Fathers had some empathy for the downtrodden, or for the businesses dependent on the downtrodden.

Many would persuasively argue that today’s undocumented workers are analogous to Washington’s and Jefferson’s slaves. Immigrants work menial jobs, often in agriculture, and suffer violence and discrimination, living outside of society and blamed conveniently for all manner of social ills. African slaves were of course forced to come to America and subjected to brutal, systematic violence. But is there any doubt that if slavery were still legal in the United States that we would be capturing our slaves from the poorest, most vulnerable parts of the Third World, including Latin America? What is the same now as before is the need for American industry and society to prosper, often on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable, and for these workers to be used to the maximum while keeping them as marginalized as possible. We win; they lose. It’s not more complicated than that, but perhaps it’s not the kind of reflection in the mirror Americans want to see.

Reaching back to ambiguous and even contradictory standards, such as the Constitution, often seems to bolster certainty and conviction, until one takes a more careful look. This reaching back is the problem. It is done to stop critical thinking and gain acceptance of a viewpoint that may have hidden biases having little to do with that ‘historic standard’ held so high. Anyone telling you there exists a pure beginning we should return to is asking you to stop thinking and march in lockstep behind them. Readers, think and analyze. That is the true measure of a good citizen.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

When Ideology Trumps Practical Reason

It’s a long, hot August, and the vote on Sotomayor nears. Why does it matter? She will win confirmation, so why does it matter if some, or a significant amount, of Republicans vote for Judge Sotomayor? It matters because it is a vote about fairness and objectivity. Do such concepts exist in American political discourse anymore?

The Republicans should have investigated Sonia Sotomayor aggressively, and they did. But the majority of Republicans, at least from their stated positions in the media, have not judged Sotomayor’s qualifications as a judge for the Supreme Court. That is their mandate. Instead of zeroing in on her judicial record, they focused on her off-the-cuff speeches. If you want to judge the qualifications of a judge, you look at how she decided cases, you look at her written opinions, you look at her legal experience, and you look at her education.

The problem, of course, for those ideologically-obsessed Republicans is that they had nothing ‘official’ to work with. They had prejudged her, and they couldn’t get the facts to fit their pre-conclusions. Sotomayor was a Phi Beta Kappa student from Princeton and graduated from Yale Law School. After hearing her in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have little doubt she is smarter and more practical than the senators from both sides of the aisle who questioned her.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, and there are thousands which are part of the record of the Second Circuit, Sotomayor voted with Republican judges who sat next to her on the Court of Appeals. When you look at her judicial record, there is little evidence of ideology, but plenty of evidence of practicality and following legal precedent.

But facts don’t matter to ideologues. Facts don’t matter to those without a spine to publicly rebuke Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich or Ralph Reed. Facts don’t matter to those who have decided they don’t like you because your name is ‘Sotomayor’ and you are a Latina. The facts, which are used to judge a nominee’s qualifications for the Supreme Court and not how she will decide specific cases, support a unanimous or near-unanimous vote in Sotomayor’s favor. But she won’t get it, and that’s the current state of the Republican Party. It’s trapped in its ideology.

Before Democrats get too cheery about themselves, it has happened to them too. No political party escapes the tug of ideology, and as a party succeeds and stays in power it begins to think that somehow it should always be there, it deserves power, and it is historically destined to win. Power corrupts, and it corrupts through ideology.

But when reasonable practicality erupts and interrupts, the country is better for it. Obama is now funding charter schools at unprecedented levels. This was a Republican cause. But perhaps this is a way to improve the education of our children, while giving parents a choice. Moreover, we need more Republicans like Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham, who declared they intend to vote for Sotomayor based on her qualifications to be a judge, not on her likelihood of being a Republican puppet on judicial matters.

I don’t know what happened to reasonable political discourse, the middle ground of give-and-take, the focus on making things work. I in part blame our current political discourse on the flash media of ten-second opinions. This show is for entertainment, even when it is labeled ‘news,’ not for edification.

I also think another problem is the discomfort the white majority feels about this country becoming more Latino, more Asian, more African, less Christian, more Secular. We are becoming a reflection of the greater world, and the United States, economically, is also becoming a smaller portion of that world over time, as the rest of the world develops by leaps and bounds. Some will exploit these inexorable trends and the discomforts they cause, for money and power, while others will try to make our community work together as one. If this American experiment is to keep succeeding, practical reason must triumph over ideology.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Business News Blather

I used to watch the TV for business news. But now Kudlow’s and Cramer’s shouting leave even more ringing in my ears than the express trains zooming past the local subway stop at 86th Street. I have read the Wall Street Journal for decades, but I have noticed that after Murdoch took over more news stories have political slants and headlines are unnecessarily more pessimistic in the age of Obama.

I don’t get the parade of blond people at Fox News. Are they really trying to be that obvious about who is in their camp and who they could care less about? The CNN anchors who read Twitter responses: are they serious about that? That isn’t democracy, but stupidity, on display for the world to see.

I have become a full-fledged media skeptic. I do think that many of the quick and easy responses encouraged by modern media are often nothing more than rants. That’s one of the reasons I have not allowed comments on Chico Lingo. I read other blogs for years, and still do, and the comments are rarely thoughtful or interesting. I figured if someone wanted to comment on what I wrote they could send me an email, and I have received dozens. Or they could start their own blog.

I know I am in the minority, in more ways than one, on turning away from the flotsam of the news cycle. My only use for democracy-as-hyper-mediocrity is that I try to take advantage of the paranoia or euphoria through my investments. I ignored the doomsday scenarios of March, and kept my investments exactly the way they were. So I have benefited from the recent run-up in stocks. New money I have added to my short-term bond portfolio, simply to have more emergency reserves in case we return to the brink of depression. I am also paying off debt in advance, even if my debt levels were relatively small compared to my net assets.

I watch the crazy flamingos of speculation, the fast money, the lightning rounds, and I am happy to be patient and contrarian and independent. Investors should do their homework, and this knowledge will allow them to ignore the garbage advice that washes up on their shores.

One of the reasons, as I pointed out to my wife Laura, that I did not panic after the recent vicious bear market was that my mutual fund and individual stock positions were still mostly in the black, or with slight losses, at the bottom of the precipitous drop. I have invested patient money, for decades in some cases, and so a downturn cuts into my gains, but isn’t deep enough to even put me in the red.

Too often I hear of friends who invest to get rich quick. To me, that’s not investing, but speculating. I even had a close friend who would invest for a major appliance, for a month or two, score a quick profit, and buy the refrigerator he needed. It was ridiculous to me then, and is ridiculous to me now. But most media outlets encourage this kind of behavior. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, oil traders who invest in oil futures for quick bucks were labeled “investors” in paragraph after paragraph. That’s editorializing in news stories, and makes the point against Obama that he is against “investors” in this market when he or his administration considers putting limits on oil traders.

I don’t think we should expect much from CNBC, the Wall Street Journal or Fox Business News in terms of investigative journalism. They are promoters of Wall Street, and sometimes that’s good and too often it’s horrible. The best single article I have read about the current shenanigans in the finance industry came from the New York Times, about how subprime brokers have resurfaced as dubious loan fixers, by Peter Goodman.

The individual investor has to protect himself. But ‘Caveat Emptor’ only works if there is full disclosure in plain English, if abusive behavior is eliminated and illegal behavior prosecuted, if you are not lied to by whoever is selling you stock in a company, a bond, or a mortgage. That’s the proper role of government and what George W. Bush could never understand.