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.