Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Shake your moneymaker.

Today's earthquake was one of the biggest I've felt in a long time, but definitely not panic-worthy. It actually provided an inexplicable thrill, maybe due to the fact that I haven't felt one that big in so long, yet without the sheer terror that accompanied the 1994 Northridge Quake. The automatic instinct after an earthquake is to go outside and see if--well, I'm not sure what people go outside to see, but they end up finding each other out there, briefly discussing objects that teetered ominously on the shelf, and then going back in the house to call family and turn on the local news. Upon stepping outside, I was disappointed to see that nobody in my building felt like observing the time-honored post-earthquake block party tradition. The television did not let me down, though, faithfully displaying the needle that still hopped around reminding us that tectonic plates never stop moving, as if to say, "This isn't over yet." Then for the rest of the day there were the standard shots of schools, brick walls, and shiny supermarket aisles littered with fallen merchandise. Still, aftershocks and speculations of "the Big One" notwithstanding, this one appears to be over.

On CNN, Wolf Blitzer actually seemed disappointed by this. I guess now that Obama's back in America and McCain has yet to choose a running-mate the election just doesn't have the same punch it did a week ago, so as they covered major news stories around the world CNN for some time maintained a split screen displaying a live shot of an empty podium. Eventually Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped up and Blitzer interrupted another report to hear the Governator spend a few minutes assuring Californians that everything is fine before moving on to address questions about the state's budget problems.

Serves CNN right for expecting so much with so little sensationalism. The local stations--now those guys can squeeze water from a stone. You don't see Anderson Cooper in a Honda dealership pointing out weather sealing strips falling from the windows and staff moving the merchandise to safety "in record time." I bet nobody at CNN even knows what the previous world record was for moving Hondas out of a showroom.

photo: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) sunshiny day."

Walking home from the optometrist today I changed course and hung a quick left at Pereira to head for Albertson's. Just because I could see. It felt a bit silly to be so awestruck by contact lenses--not exactly a new technology--but I've never had them, so it was a big deal. I could see, and there was no sliding a frame back up my nose, no sweating on and then wiping off the lens. Just walking to the supermarket, seeing things, stupidly amazed.

It occurred to me at some point that I've become more timid as my vision has worsened. This is actually good news, as lately I've found myself worrying that graduate school is ruining my personality. As it turns out, it's only ruining my vision.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Call me, Ishmael. (Hey! Ishmael! Call me, bro.)

This weekend I went to a bar in Long Beach with a few friends from the English program. On our way into the Auld Dubliner, I spotted my second cousin (also named Brian) in another bar and text-messaged him to come and meet us at the Dubliner. About an hour later he and some of his friends--nearly all people with whom I'm acquainted--joined us. One of these, a guy that I have not seen in about a year, had two very different reactions to seeing me. The first was expected: he pulled my hair. I had a shaved head the last time we met, so he was not prepared for my disheveled locks. The second reaction came as a bit of a surprise, as he happily slapped me on the back and yelled, "Hey! Call me Ishmael!"

"Call me Ishmael." Is there is a more recognizable opening line in the English language? The occasional literary scholar for whom Moby Dick has slipped through the cracks (yes, they exist) can still identify those three words as the opening salvo of Melville's opus. I'd like to say that anyone who reads--period--is familiar with it. I imagine that this assumed recognition of what we consider to be common knowledge abounds with the potential for disappointment when confronted with those folks that, despite apparent intelligence in other areas, just don't know it.

I have never experienced this profound disappointment, but it is not due to any shortage of folks who haven't read Moby Dick. It has more to do with low expectations, stemming from the fact that I have never actually been surrounded by readers. In fact, sadly, I can't think of one lifelong friend or family member with whom I've ever been able to discuss literature. For me, reading has always been either solitary or pedagogical--if I was not reading on my own, I was learning, teaching, or even evangelizing to a non-reader.

This particularly loud Melville reference at the Auld Dubliner was the result of one of the more interesting "pedagogical" moments, one that I had long forgotten. In April of 2007 I attended the Long Beach Grand Prix with some friends. After a long day of drinking we all piled into a car (with a designated driver, of course) and headed to a restaurant managed by an old friend of mine. He and the owner had opened the place up privately for a party, and once the word got out we continued to drink late into the night. Around 2 am, with the place now empty except for the people we'd come in with (and some women we'd managed to keep interested), I got into a conversation with three or four guys about my plans for graduate school. I had just accepted admission to UCI and was explaining my interest in Hawthorne and Melville when somebody interjected, "Melville! I know that name! What did he write?"
"Moby Dick," I answered, and waited for the inevitable snickers.
"That's right! That was my dad's favorite book. I always wanted to read it, but I don't have the patience."
"You should read it," I told him. "It's a great book."

Somehow this exchange led to me quite drunkenly retelling the entire narrative of Moby Dick to four or five other well-oiled individuals on the patio of a bar. I remember stopping occasionally to tell them that if they were bored or if they wanted me to shut up I wouldn't be offended, but they wanted me to go on. Unaccustomed to people at bars having any interest whatsoever in literature, I delighted in the attention and giddily continued. Whether they were enraptured by the story itself, by my occasional self-interruptions for personal interpretation and historical context, or by my unusual enthusiasm I can't say, but when I was done they seemed to have gained a certain degree of appreciation for a novel whose value to most of them was simply that of providing a slightly dirty pun. Of course, simply telling the story (especially when drunk) is not by any means what we do, but I was just happy that someone seemed interested for once.

Still, I never expected any of those gentlemen to go out and read the book. Yet a few months later I ran into one of my captive audience members who, lo and behold, had read--and thoroughly enjoyed--the story of the white whale. I have no shame in sentimentally admitting that this filled me with pride. Furthermore, I was absolutely tickled to hear this same guy yell out that iconic opening line in a crowded bar over a year later.

Maybe this seems quaint, this thrill at having inspired someone to remember the most famous line from the most famous book of one of America's most famous writers; but to me that's something, and I think that approach will come in handy in my chosen profession. In a way we're guardians of a threatened form, one which will only survive if we can convince society at large (and that includes a world of literate illiterates) that it matters. We're literary evangelists.

So sure, it's just one book. One guy reading one book once a year. That's a start. I suppose that if we're doing anything worthwhile in this business, we're going to have to do it one book at a time anyway.

Maybe God still speaks Portuguese.

The Portuguese community in Artesia has for many years circulated a statue of Our Lady of Fatima to homes of community members for increments of a week at a time. The idea is that during that week families are to pray the rosary together. Despite its nod to devotion, such an affirmation of faith seems to me an unintended yet rather obvious acknowledgment of the failure of the very thing it aims to safeguard. That is, if we really believe, why don't we pray the rosary more often? Putting a statue in one's living room (although voluntary) practically makes devotion obligatory. That is probably the point to many, but forced devotion can't be called faith anymore than forced obedience (playing with Machiavelli here) can be called love.

The fact that I can even still pray the rosary in Portuguese is something of a source of pride despite the fact that I haven't been a practicing Catholic or praying Christian in quite some time. I was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy when I was younger; even now I must admit that I've remained more than a little enamored with the pageantry and imagery of Catholicism. Furthermore, deaths in the community (and, in a tightly-knit community such as ours, one stays updated on plenty) are always observed with a rosary, resulting in frequent opportunities to practice over the years. For me the rosary, prayed in Portuguese, has always been more of a way of remaining connected with my culture and community. Sometimes I wonder if that's disingenuous, but I do not think it's particularly unique.

It has always seemed to me that the apparition at Fatima has more significance to Portuguese people as a national event than a religious one. The Catholic Church does not mandate belief in it, and I've known people whose avid faith results in unquestioning adherence to the story of the shepherd children as told by Lucia dos Santos even as they give rational explanations for their disbelief in the apparitions at Guadalupe or Lourdes. From any skeptic's perspective, the only substantive difference between the three stories is the nation in which each takes place. So we venerate Nossa Senhora de Fatima as a matter of Portuguese pride rather than Catholic faith and, in doing so, pray the same rosary that the French pray in honor of the Lourdes sighting and Mexicans pray in honor of the Guadalupe sighting.

If I'm right about this, I suppose in a way it matters more that you remember the words than that you believe in their efficacy. There's something tragic about that realization which is not blunted for someone like myself who--even as a faithful, credulous altar boy--had severe doubts about why the hell Mary would concern herself with Soviet politics.

Getting to the point, I'm visiting my parents this weekend and they have the statue. On my way to the shower, I hear my father ask, "You want to pray the rosary with us?" Now, he can tell I don't want to; I can tell he really wants me to. "It's only ten minutes," he says. And he's right. If anything, it isn't inconvenience that bugs me but rather the creeping sense of my own disingenuousness. I sit down with them in front of the statue and my dad, almost apologetically, remarks, "Might as well. It's been here all week and we haven't even been praying." Then he proceeds to lead the rosary, occasionally stumbling over certain parts and laughing at his own mistakes.

Having personally witnessed my father's crises of faith over the years, the first thing I noted at that moment was that when I was a kid there's no way he would have chuckled in this way. He would not have likely made the little mistakes in the first place. Here again, prayer as such seemed to take the backseat: if to me it's a way of staying Portuguese, to my parents it's a way of gathering the family peacefully in one place.

Oddly enough, realizing this was a bit scandalous to me. If my parents don't fully believe, where does that leave me and my polished Portuguese-ness? For an instant I found myself the returning tourist angered that the quaint village he'd once loved had moved on and, catching myself in that sentiment, I felt ashamed. How dare I exoticize my own parents in this way? And my own culture? Shame! Yet that is (again, assuming I'm right about what really matters here) precisely what we do to ourselves with this statue, with our traditions. Exoticize our past, our culture, our ethnicity, our little blip in space and time. We Portuguese-Americans go to visit our relatives in the old country and lament the fact that nobody goes to church anymore, but it has more to do with our romanticizing of a "quaint" past than with lamenting a loss of faith.

It's patronizing and embarrassing, and yet I genuinely love my culture and its traditions. Maybe I'm a hypocrite or an impostor, but if that's so then I'm not alone. Not within the Portuguese community or any other that I may be a part of. I don't suppose any overt affirmation of a movement or belief can help but serve as a marker for its eventual downfall. Nor do I think that any tradition can help being both bastardized and sentimentalized--otherwise it would fail as a tradition. It would simply die. Then what?

Well, then you wake up in the morning and see if you still agree with what you typed after midnight the night before without giving the thing much thought. That's what.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bachelors and blackjack.

This past weekend I went to Las Vegas for a friend's bachelor party. It was probably the first time in years that we've been able to gather all "the boys" (a group that's been close since early childhood) in one place. We stayed at the Las Vegas Hilton, off the strip, taking taxis on occasion to hit the strip for gambling, eating, drinking, dancing, whatever. Vegas, my friend Carlos says, "has super powers." It's definitely got something about it that's simultaneously exhilarating and disturbing. It's a city whose function is to leave morality outside. A city where adults forget who they are, where they are, what time it is, how much money is worth. Many forget that they're married. In general we're a smart bunch, I think, and nobody got into any trouble (not counting losing a ton of money as trouble, of course). Still, it was a bachelor party. These are a whole bunch of friends that have known one another for a very long time. And this was in Vegas. Whenever I get home from Vegas I feel as though I've successfully crossed a canyon by tightrope. Then again, it turns out I'm pretty good at Blackjack--gambling, in my case, resulted in a free trip. As usual, it also resulted in weird conversation. I urge every grad student to try this: spend an entire night drinking and dancing in a Vegas night club, follow it with a few drinks at a random bar on the way out of the place that hosted the nightclub, and sit at a blackjack table sometime around 4:30 am. After a couple of complementary glasses of whiskey, strike up a conversation: it will inevitably result in "So what do you do?" Now try to explain what it is that we "do." Try to explain how your funding package works. It's really a very unique way of looking at this life we lead.
The moral of the story? None. I just came from Las Vegas, don't ask for morals.