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.)