Monday, June 29, 2009

Why I Write Simply

My prose tends to be simple and direct. I don’t use words like ‘ideation,’ ‘deconstructing dynamics of power and authority,’ and ‘synthesizing structure.’ Perhaps when I was at Yale as a graduate student in philosophy, I may have written like that, but I made it a point of eschewing such language forever. I still however use words like ‘eschewing.’ I can’t help it. Why?

When I started writing fiction, which was late in life for a writer, as a grad student, I wanted to get away from the meaningless abstractions of philosophical seminars. This linguistic pretension removed me from my community, from my father and mother, from my abuelita. The first story I wrote, “The Abuelita,” was specifically for readers to remember who my abuelita had been, and to criticize my study of Heidegger and Nietzsche at Yale, for its isolation, for its anti-humanity.

For in classrooms within the Gothic fortress of Yale’s Old Campus (and I suspect at many of the seminars in academies across the country), a human being is a mind, first and foremost. But in Ysleta, my home less than a mile from the Mexican-American border, the human being was, and is, feet. Feet in pain. Callused hands. Adobe houses built by those hands and feet. La gente humilde of Ysleta.

At Yale I was reacting against the elitism of the academy, an elitism that is hard to overcome when you can immerse yourself in books and forget the workers who make that world possible. I was also reacting against myself. I loved reading German and Greek philosophers. They did provide unique, unconventional insights into the human being. I had become an Ivy Leaguer in many ways. I was torn, between the people I loved at home and the ideas I devoured away from home.

I also noticed that many of the practitioners of academic fancy language, as I’ll call it, were individuals who treated people poorly. Their education and facility with argument and power encouraged lying, deception, and manipulation. The nature of truth, the pursuit of abstraction in universities, was a passive aggressive violence. Eliminate your opponent, not by killing him, but by warping arguments to win at any cost, by murdering his mind. The nature of truth was hate.

When you view human beings as abstractions, then it is easy to abuse those abstractions without guilt. Judging a person as a category is the root of racism; it is the root of cruelty. Moreover, writing about the world of people is an exercise in abstraction, and explains my deep ambivalence about being a writer. Too often my writer friends forget themselves in their world of words.

So I took a different tack with my fiction. I wanted to write so my father and mother could understand me. I was writing for them, and to give voice to those from Ysleta. I wrote simply. I also wrote prose obsessed with details, personal stories, to give meat to those understanding my community outside the mainstream. I used myself as an example to provide a meaningful character struggling with complex issues, within the murk between right and wrong.

Yet I also wanted to explore the ideas from Yale, and beyond, which I thought were worthwhile, so I wrote philosophical stories questioning the basis of morality. I wrote stories that asked whether murder was always wrong, or belief in god always holy, or success the root of moral failure. Most importantly, I believed the people of Ysleta had a lot to teach the people at Yale about being good human beings. I still believe that.

But this effort to be clear and direct about difficult questions has sometimes condemned me in academic circles or among those who prize the beauty of language above all. I am also condemned by those who never think beyond the obvious and popular, because I write philosophical stories. You will never find my fiction at Costco.

I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It’s a borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Show-Me State

I am in Independence, Missouri, the home of Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the U.S. Indeed, I am staying at this wonderful place called the Inn at Ophelia’s, across the street from Clinton’s Soda Shop where Harry, as a young teenager, was a soda jerk. This is my second visit to Independence and the greater Kansas City metropolitan area to teach writing workshops, and I can’t get enough of the Midwest.

A different sensibility exists here, which reminds me of Ysleta, the colonia on the outskirts of El Paso where I grew up. It’s a genteel quality, without the naiveté of the small town. People open doors for each other. Seldom are voices raised. And there is a preoccupation with chatting about life and neighbors, the ordinary and everyday, which I believe strengthens that invisible social fabric that communicates ‘we belong together on these plains.’ Of course, here ‘la hora social’ is not in Spanish, as it is on my parents’ porch in Ysleta, but in a deadpan, measured, humorously ironic version of English.

My friends who have invited me to Missouri warn me the other side of this genteel friendliness is that people will talk behind your back. In New York, I counter, people say whether or not they like you to your face. I’m not sure which is better, but I do know both are façades. The forced smile goes away, and becomes easy, once you initiate a conversation and volunteer a bit about yourself to a stranger in Missouri. On the Upper Westside, or anywhere in New York, the hard outer shell might soften too, once you show people you don’t want anything, you will gladly help them, yet you’re not a dupe.

I also noticed that my slow-talking, which aggravates my wife in New York, is not slow at all in Missouri. Perhaps this is a function of growing up in a semi-rural corner of Texas, where you weigh your words carefully before saying anything. Too much talk reveals too much of who you are, and I prefer to keep some of my self to myself. Who I am is not revealed by blabbing. I prefer to listen, absorb the situation and the people, and understand them. That internal life reveals as much, or more, about who I am as whatever comes out of my mouth. Is that a small town mentality? A Western one? Or the shyness of being an outsider in the world?

The reason I came to Independence, Missouri was Ron Clemons. I met Mr. Clemons in 1978 when I was a teenager at the Blair Summer School for Journalism. It was a seminal trip for me, because it was the first time I lived away from home. Pearl Crouch, my journalism teacher at Ysleta High, had encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to Blair, and I won it from Gannett and The El Paso Times. I was terrified, but I also wanted to become a writer, maybe even a journalist.

At Blair, I met this funny and tough man, the assistant director at Blair, Mr. Clemons. I didn’t have him for a teacher, but I listened to his stories, the humor as well as the lessons about life. When I was accepted to Harvard College a year later, he sent me an inscribed hardback copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, which I still have on my shelf.

Thirty years later, I had dinner with Mr. Clemons again. Molly Clemons, his wife and a great educator herself, was also with us. Mr. Clemons was still telling stories.

One he told tonight was about a woman who wrote to him years after she had had Mr. Clemons as a journalism teacher in Independence, Missouri. He taught at Truman High for thirty-seven years and is a legend in high school journalism. Mr. Clemons recounted how one day he received this letter. The writer wrote about how Mr. Clemons had singled out and read an excellent lead she had written to the class. It was a small thing, Mr. Clemons said at the dinner table, the kind of thing you don’t think about as a teacher. He remembered the woman as a good writer who was exceptionally quiet.

It was the first time, the woman continued in the letter, someone had singled her out in school. It made all the difference in the world to her. Meanwhile at home, this woman had been abused. She escaped her troubles, earned a college education, and became a mother. As she wrote to Mr. Clemons, “I’m not one of your famous students. I’m just a mom and I have a job, but I’m happy. You may have forgotten me, but I have never forgotten you, Mr. Clemons.”

As Mr. Clemons retold this story tonight, he took off his glasses and wiped the tears from his eyes. “This letter got to me. It was such a small thing I did. . . .” he said, his voice trailing off, and turned away. What I thought over dinner was why don’t we have more high school journalism teachers like Ron Clemons.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Henri Poincaré

Henri Poincaré: “To doubt everything, or, to believe everything, are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.”

I saw this quote on a New York City subway one week ago and have not stopped thinking about it. After I pick up The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal from my front door every morning, I read about the same world, from different ideological perspectives. What’s true anymore? This or that side? Does it even matter? Are we talking to each other anymore, trying to convince the other of our point of view? Or are we just pontificating?

This week The New York Post also ran a story about life inside our media bubbles. Yes, incredibly, I read the Post, as well as about a dozen other online news sources, from the BBC to The Kansas City Star. Fox News or MSNBC? Conservative or Liberal? Hate Obama or love Obama? That’s our opinionated, but not necessarily enlightened world. We live in self-selected bubbles that reinforce what we believe already.

So what happened to real thinking? What happened to pondering the other side’s perspective, to listening, to proffering careful to-the-point arguments, and to occasionally changing our minds due to reason and discourse? We live instead in an intellectually small world. We react. We don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt. We judge by appearances, and later fit the facts to our prejudgment.

As I learned long ago at Harvard and Yale, you can choose the same set of facts to support radically different arguments. So is all discourse rhetoric? Do we inhabit a Nietzschean world where the nature of truth is murder? I think certainly in the public arena, among the politicians and pundits on TV and radio, the exchanges are little more than fifteen-second rants. The proof of your argument (i.e. whether you ‘killed’ your opponent or not) is a successful election, or passage of a bill into law, or defeat of a proposal or Supreme Court justice nominee. The proof is not whether your argument is right, but whether you gained power in the exchange.

Why is the public arena of discourse so pathetic? One reason is the lack of time to argue, in large part because time is money on TV and radio. Another reason is the focus on appearances in the media, not on substance or nuance. But something subtler is also happening to us: we are beginning to forget that life was once otherwise, not media-saturated, not celebrity-infatuated. At what point will our brains devolve to where the corpus of James Joyce is unintelligible? Perhaps we are already there. But at least we will be oblivious to what we have lost.

If you are like me, the private arena of your family is where the real arguments occur. Why? For one, your opponents live with you, and can keep responding for years, and so you need to sharpen your arguments and reasons. There is no cut to a commercial. Second, you care about your opponents, and you’ve seen them at their best and at their worst; you know them as complete human beings. It’s not easy to smear someone like that. Finally, with your family you can experiment with positions, follow the consequences of your conclusions, retract, and renounce. They will still love you.

Those of us in the Poincaré middle, who may doubt and believe different parts of one argument, are not indecisive. The truth is that in the private arena our families have given us a strong enough sense of self to doubt and believe as we see fit, even against the crazy mobs of the public sphere. We have been taught to think for ourselves. There is no better gift.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Last Day of School

Tomorrow is the last day of school for my sons, Aaron and Isaac. For Aaron, it will be his last day at the Bank Street School for Children as a student: he graduates from the 8th grade and begins attending high school next year. Eons ago I also attended a K-8 school, South Loop in Ysleta. Recently, on a radio show from El Paso, I even sang the South Loop Eagles fight song. I remembered every word.

Why do K-8 schools hold this special place in our hearts? For one thing, you are old enough, when you graduate, to remember many details of your childhood school experience. I remember vaguely what happened in 4th and 5th grades, but I remember almost everything about 7th and 8th grades.

Interestingly enough, I don’t remember a single day of freshman year at Ysleta High. I think I was in shock. I was suddenly surrounded by older, more sophisticated high school kids. The girls were sexy, but I was intimidated. The boys were bigger and tougher than me. I just didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I looked like a Mexican Donny Osmond. Remember, it was 1979.

But at South Loop the previous year, I had been an eighth grader, at the top of the heap. I knew what was what. I also did not face the social pressures I would later face at Ysleta High. I think this is one great advantage of K-8 schools. The kids, especially in the latter grades, are protected for two extra years from pernicious high school influences.

At Bank Street, I believe, Aaron has had that extra time to develop his own sense of self. He will be ready when he is tested in high school, and I don’t just mean by his more difficult academic workload. In high school, if you know who you are, if you have a sense of what you want and what you don’t want, you will be more likely to have and keep the right priorities.

My walk to South Loop was two blocks, over a canal, and briefly into the neighborhood Calavera before entering the school’s gates. Aaron takes the uptown No. 1 subway in front of our building on Broadway, three stops, before he walks into Bank Street. He has faced more immediate dangers than I ever did, from taxis which zip across the intersection heedless of the red light to incoherent, disheveled men screaming at phantoms only they can see.

Aaron is a responsible young man, and he has managed New York City well. His high school is but eight blocks from our house, so his commute will be a breeze next fall. He will encounter a strange new world. But I know we have given him the skills and encouraged him to be independent so that he will be able to solve his own problems. Whatever he cannot figure out, we will solve together as a family.

My younger son Isaac began to come home from Bank Street by himself this year. Minutes after 3:00 p.m. every day, I look at my cell phone and wait for my boys to call me, to tell me they are on their way home. I anxiously await the buzz of our doorbell for their arrival. The sound for me means another safe journey through the streets successfully completed. Perhaps another good practical lesson learned for the future. Another day of skill enhanced by good luck.

Even after their school days are only distant memories, I will never stop worrying about my boys in the world.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Investment Analysis

I am updating my syllabus and preparing to teach Investment Analysis at Yale this summer. I am an oddball who writes fiction and teaches investment strategy. I was an economist for a short period; I love writing short stories and novels and even teaching the occasional short-story workshop. Yes, perhaps I am a bit schizoid. But I became interested in investing the few dollars I had during and immediately after college, because I had relatively little money and I wanted more. I didn’t want the riches; I wanted the freedom. I love being my own boss, and that’s exactly what a fiction writer is, as well as an individual investor. I also love numbers. Go figure.

In my course on Investment Analysis, I have students read favorite investment practitioners like Ralph Wanger, John Bogle, Jeremy Siegel, Benjamin Graham, David Swensen, and of course, Warren Buffett. The Essays of Warren Buffett is perhaps my favorite book. I teach my students how to analyze income statements, cash flow statements, and balance sheets for different companies, by looking at actual 10-K reports and annual reports.

I believe in learning by doing. The more actual companies you look at, the better you will understand the industry, and which companies are well-run, and why, and which waste the company’s capital, your money. If you keep looking at companies year-round, when the right opportunity comes along, you can analyze it at lightning speed and make a decision about investing in it. ‘Toochis ofn tish,’ a Yiddish phrase for ‘ass on the table.’ Skin in the game. Put your money where your mouth is. These all mean the same thing: if it’s your money, you will take the risk and you will have the responsibility for the decision.

There is one way in which literary writing and investing are similar. The more you write, the more you can write. The more you live in the writer’s world. The more a certain type of focus becomes your normal state, rather than a special state for the weekends, for example. Paradoxically, the less you write, the less you will be able to write. The less you will be able to pounce on a set of ideas when they strike you, at the oddest moments. So writing, like investing, is learning by doing. You have to practice both to become adept. That’s one of the reasons why I started this weekly blog, to keep my literary motor hummin’.

I tell my Investment Analysis students that, yes, you need to love the detail of financial numbers, and you need to be infinitely curious about companies, their stories, why someone would take such a risk, against all odds, to survive and thrive amid brutal competition. But beyond having abilities in number-crunching, I tell them, being a good investor is also about character.

Certain character traits are excellent for an investor. Other traits work against you. You need to be an independent thinker, and not give a damn what the crowd thinks. Particularly the Wall Street crowd. You need to be able to check how you react emotionally to money, not too excited when your stock is going up, and not too depressed when it’s going down. This emotional distance is crucial for taking advantage of opportunities. Buffett: “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”

People who invest in the stock market and are not self-aware, or acutely aware of what the crowd does and why, will be fools soon parted with their money. Crotchety. Detail-oriented. Fiercely independent. Industrious. Relentlessly curious. That's the makeup of a good investment character.