Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fan letter from Spain

The Portuguese diaspora

It was almost two years ago that a visitor to this blog posted a comment:
You can't imagine how much I identify with you when you talk about your family. I'm Portuguese (living in Spain for the last 10 years) and I too have part of my family scattered around the world, mainly due to the big emigration that happened during the 50's and the 60's.
That was the beginning of a series of entertaining observations and comments by João Paulo. Last January, when I bemoaned my lack of success in getting a literary agent to take on the job of getting my book manuscript published, João Paulo gave me another thumbs up:
Por favor avisa se decidires publicar o livro. Sabes que adoro as tuas histórias de família.
For those of you who cannot read Portuguese (not that I'm particularly good at it), I think it says, “Please let me know if someone publishes your book. You know that I love the stories about your family.”

I promptly replied:
If it gets published, João, I will be sure to make it known. Perhaps it will need a translation into Portuguese!
That's when João Paulo took an exceedingly dangerous step:
I'd be honoured. And if you don't publish it, I would love to read it anyway.
You would? Really? I wrote João Paulo a personal e-mail message and offered to let him read the manuscript. He replied quickly, accepting the offer. I sent him the pdf.

Then, silence.


I was certain I had overwhelmed him with my 380-page tome. While several of my friends had read the manuscript and given me comments and suggestions, others found the effort too onerous and declined the honor. I figured João Paulo had not bargained on getting as much as he had received. And he was a busy man.

No problem. I understood.

But I was wrong. João Paulo was just biding his time, dealing with the demands of working in Spain while using his free time to visit family and friends in Portugal. He had printed out the manuscript and bound it for convenient reading, but it had to wait for a window of opportunity. The window arrived in November. Soon thereafter, a new message popped into my in-box. It was a fan letter!
I have just finished reading your book. WOW! JUST WOW!!!! I read it in just 4 days. I couldn’t stop!
I have to admit that I like the way this starts. He did, however, offer a cautionary note or two.
So, let me tell you my impression on your Masterpiece.

The book does not have an easy start, mainly because of the avalanche of characters. You deliberately included a list of the main characters in boxes on the page before page i (which is very handy and I used it constantly) and a list of the Dramatis Personae that is difficult to manage when you’re looking for someone while reading the book but it’s totally necessary. I just think it needs some categorizing instead of being a simple list of characters.
Yeah, I'm going to have to do something about those crowd scenes, and do a better job of distinguishing the characters. It's a family-based drama where characters have similar behavior patterns and similar names, but distinctions must be drawn—and not just the distinction between good guys and bad guys, both of which abound.
Apart from that, the book is absolutely brilliant. The court scenes are hilarious and if I did not know that it is a true story I wouldn’t believe that the petitioners' attorney could be that stupid (or incompetent). You have a done great job carefully delivering it piece by piece to keep the reader asking for more. I cheated a bit because I could not wait to know what happened when you took the stand (or rather, Paul took the stand) and skipped a few pages forward (but after reading it twice and laughing out loud I went back to read what I had skipped).
Yes, it is as obvious as it can be that the character Paul is based on me. (Paul is my confirmation name and a family name as well.) The novel is, however, a work of fiction. In real life I have never testified in a trial. The nice thing about fact-based fiction is that you can move the characters around to smooth out gaps in the narrative while the real-life history lends the story structure.
The whole book is a great story and looking back at it the feeling is amazing. You have created a coherent story out of three generations in a span of 60+ years with characters so well-defined that it’s almost like I’ve known these people all my life. Your extended vocabulary is a great treat but has forced me to use the dictionary more times this week than during the last few years.
I suspect that a potential publisher will be less than charmed by that last observation. Does “You're going to need a dictionary!” make a good cover blurb? Probably not.

João Paulo then gave me a lesson on Portuguese grammar and usage. Although he praised my rendering of Azorean dialect phrases (“I can’t read them without a grin on my face because you’ve written them exactly the way Azorean people pronounce and it’s almost as I can hear someone from Terceira or São Miguel speaking”), he pointed out the proper way to use the presente do conjuntivo and the pretérito perfeito. Now it's my turn to need a dictionary! João Paulo flatters me and does me a kindness when he assumes I can follow all that.

Although the manuscript has already gone through multiple readings and proofings, João Paulo picked out a few more errata (one peripheral character's name was rendered in three different ways!). He offered some more cautionary notes, suggesting that I had been unduly cruel in my descriptions of certain individuals. The cousins on whom they are based might take offense (or would, if they could read). I confess that he's probably right and I expect to drop a couple of paragraphs and pull a few adjectives before I'm done with the manuscript.

Then João Paulo closed on a high note:
All I all, I loved reading your book. As I said, I read it in four days and I just couldn’t stop. It’s funny, it’s got rhythm, great characters, a beautiful story and a perfect ending. I thank you for the opportunity you gave me to read it and I really hope someone prints it because it is well deserved. I’m saying this not only as a Portuguese emigrant (which has a special meaning to me, of course) but because it is very well written and is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
I promptly sent João Paulo's entire message to the editor considering my manuscript. He needs to know about my European fan base!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

How red is my valley

Red in the old-fashioned sense

I frequently refer to my old stomping grounds in Central California as the reddest part of the state. By this I mean, of course, that Californians in the Central Valley love to cast right-wing votes and support conservative causes.

Now, to my great surprise, I have uncovered a red brigade calling for collective action and government interference in free enterprise. It's really quite shocking. The conspirators are naturally rather coy about portraying themselves as advocates of statism and a planned economy, but they cannot help but give it away.

One clue lies in their name. Just as countries in the Soviet bloc used to glory in misleading names—“People's Republic,” “Democratic Republic”—the red threat in the San Joaquin Valley marches under the banner of “Families Protecting the Valley.” Sounds nice and harmless, doesn't it? But check out this excerpt from their manifesto:
Current attacks on the Valley’s water take two forms. One is the view that water is nothing but a commodity and must be sold to the highest bidder. This is a foolhardy concept which, if followed, will condemn the United States to depend upon foreign sources with unreliable health protections for its food supply.

There it is, folks. They oppose capitalism. They want intervention in the free market economy of California.

I agree with them, of course, but then I was long ago accused by a certain family member of being a socialist. We socialists love planned economies, you know.

Or perhaps I just see a role for the public sector in setting policy that might forestall the abuses of unfettered capitalism. Remember the robber barons? (They're back, by the way.) If the highest bidder always wins, we fall instantly into a plutocracy. It appears that the members of Families Protecting the Valley have awakened to this stark reality. Perhaps too late.

If the principles of the free market are applied too rigorously to California's water resources, Central Valley agriculture is doomed. People living in the San Joaquin's burgeoning towns and cities will almost certainly pay lip service to the notion that farming is a crucial industry that deserves their support, but don't expect that lip service to turn into votes for growth limits and municipal water rationing. Farm families are hugely outnumbered by the city and town dwellers, and the latter will balk at anything that reduces the flow of water from their faucets (or forces them to drain their swimming pools).

Absent a strong government policy establishing a water allocation program to preserve agriculture in California's arid Central Valley, that agriculture will fall prey to competing demands from the growing urban regions. While many of the townies are in farm-related enterprises, most of the people in Bakersfield, Visalia, Tulare, and Fresno don't think of themselves as farmers. It's not a majority bloc.

Furthermore, the water in the Central Valley is diverted from sources in Northern California. Diversions from the Delta damages those wetlands and blights the fishing industry in the Bay Area. These are legitimate competing interests for California's water (and they had the water first, too). Valley farmers who sneer at fisheries and declare that the fishes should die to preserve farm crops are conveniently forgetting that they're really talking about killing the livelihood of fishermen. The competition is keen and the supplies are short. It's not a pretty picture. 

In a more enlightened age, the state legislature promulgated the California Land Conservation Act of 1965. It was an example of singling out agriculture for special treatment because it was deemed a key state interest (and not just a majoritarian concern). The handiwork of Assemblyman John Williamson, the “Williamson Act” provided tax benefits to agricultural landholders who agreed to preserve their farmlands from commercial development for a period of ten years. Recently the state saw fit to strengthen the Williamson Act with an infusion of money to allow it to continue in operation and to fund tax breaks for more ten-year moritoriums on farmland development.

The Williamson Act is a survivor of the time when the state enacted formal policies to maintain the viability of California agriculture. Now it has gotten all but impossible to act in concert this way. The rugged individualists in California farming who regarded subsidized water as their birthright apparently assumed the situation was sustainable. Naturally and understandably wary of government control, they preferred to pretend to stand alone. In many cases, unfortunately, the lack of sufficiently strong policies to protect family farms meant that they were swallowed up by corporate interests. Agricultural land is now concentrated in the hands of a few large agribusiness companies. Individual family farms continue to dwindle in number and those that survive are perched on the edge of commercial nonviability. While farmers carp and complain about federal programs like the Endangered Species Act, they should have been looking for some similar protection for themselves.

It was the partnership of government and family farms that made the valley bloom. State and federal subsidies for huge water projects irrigated the San Joaquin at bargain prices—once. Today California's urban population is larger and thirstier than the state's farms. By the numbers, they win and farms lose. Clearly, Families Protecting the Valley does not want that to happen, but signs demanding that the governor simply “turn the pumps back on” demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of reality in a drought-stricken state. A slow-motion tragedy is unfolding before us while the victims rail at the only entity that can preserve them—at least some of them.

Ironically, Families Protecting the Valley had a prominent place at the big Tea Party event at the Tulare International Agri-Center last July, where banners denounced big government and extolled unfettered free markets. Yet no one objected to the presence of these anti-capitalist interventionists.

Can I get you some water for your tea? Sorry. Fresh out.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A milestone for America

Handed a lemon

Four years ago the nation witnessed the elevation of the first woman to occupy the office of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi's two terms as speaker witnessed some remarkable events, including the last-minute rescue of health care reform, better regulation of Wall Street, enactment of a crucial (if undersized) stimulus package, and continuing pressure to end Don't Ask Don't Tell—which we can hope the lame-duck congress will bury before the new congress is seated.

Speaking of the new congress, it would be petty of me to deny the new milestone in our near future. Although I'm not happy about it the way I was about Pelosi's rise to the speakership, last week's Republican caucus vote to choose John Boehner as the leader of the new majority makes him Pelosi's putative successor. This has to be acknowledged as a major breakthrough for Citrus-Americans.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Post hoc planning

Transfixed by time's arrow

My English teachers in high school were all clear on the importance of preparation. A good outline was the sine qua non of good writing. It provided the armature on which one could construct a solid, coherent, and well-organized essay. To drive home the point, most of the time they insisted that we students hand in our outlines together with our finished compositions. I could follow their reasoning, but I did not find it compelling enough for compliance.

As the wild and rebellious youth I was [pause for amusement of the LOL variety], I naturally preferred to dash off my papers at one go and then sketch out an outline, executing my instructions backward. My outlines were thus more like abstracts, and they certainly weren't planning tools. Since my assignments routinely came back with A's on them (and little notes of approbation and encouragement in the margins), I saw no reason to change my perverse practice.

A colleague inadvertently reminded me of this as we had lunch together at an Italian (or, rather, Italian-themed) restaurant near our college. She was an English professor who had been lured into management, but the composition instructor still lingered within her, lurking just below the surface. It emerged as we forked up our pasta and she asked a question about my novel.

“You know, Zee,” she said conversationally, “every work of composition is seeking to answer a question. What was the question you were trying to answer with your novel?”

Fortunately my mouth was full and it was impolite to answer immediately. I continued to chew in a genteel and ruminative fashion, taking the opportunity to compose a response. Since I obviously didn't have time to write an outline, I had to dash off something extemporaneously. It had, of course, never occurred to me before that I might have been asking a question. Nevertheless, my colleague was doing me the honor of treating me like a serious writer instead of as a madcap, slapdash chronicler of family lore, legend, rumor, and scandal. She deserved a considered answer.

Rather to my surprise, I realized that I had a good answer, and it was her question that had crystallized it in my mind. Since I talk nearly as much with my hands and with my voice, I put my fork down and spoke.

“No one has ever asked me that before,” I said. “I think, however, I was exploring the answers to two questions. On the one hand, I was writing about the forces that keep a large and contentious family together.” Suiting actions to words, I raised my right hand, facing the open palm to the left. “On the other, it was a question of what causes a family to fly apart.” My left hand mirrored my right, in opposition. “The centripetal force in our family—the binding energy—came from my grandmother. As the matriarch, she could pull us all into the neutral zone of her home, where feuds were not allowed and bickering was relegated to the deep background, out of sight. She was velvet-lined steel. Holiday gathering were conducted under a flag of truce.

“Once she was gone, however, all of the centrifugal forces came into play. My uncle felt free to set aside his wife and move in with his girlfriend. And my godfather tried to take advantage of the vacuum to seize control of part of the estate. The family shattered into contending factions, playing balance-of-power games with temporary alliances of convenience and a series of countervailing lawsuits. Those experiences provided the raw material for my novel, which is a fact-based work of fiction. I tried to sort out the motivations and make sense of the collapse and reconstruction of the extended family.”

I'm not sure that what I said actually came out as smoothly as I've rendered it here, although I've had teachers tell me that I talk the way I write (which is perhaps just a little scary—but I swear that I don't do air quotes or air parentheses). At the very least, however, what I said had the advantage of being true. Like an organism that had grown too large to survive in its ecological niche, my family fissioned into chunks that reorganized themselves into smaller and more stable versions of the original model. That's not a surprise when you think about it, is it?

The chunks have experienced a wide variety of fates. My godfather's proved unstable, breaking apart further and scattering across a great geographical expanse. My uncle's group—well, it was never even really his group. His divorce alienated both his spouse and their children. My father's chunk has been the most cohesive, perhaps because it was one of his sons, my kid brother, who pieced the family dairy farm back together and restored our reputation in the Central Valley agricultural community. That almost gives the story a happy ending, except that life and death go on. One doesn't write “The End” on the last page of a family story and expect it to mean very much.

My colleague nodded her head in satisfaction at my answer. I felt as if I had passed a test. At that moment, I realized that the questions were inherent in my writing project, even if I had not been consciously aware of them at the time. She had nudged me out of my own story and reminded me that I was my manuscript's omniscient observer. For an instant, it felt that I had figured out all of the answers to life's little questions as they were posed in the drama of my family—and rendered into a fictional story that I could tell to others. It was a pleasant illusion, but I will never really know what motivated some of the actions of the real people in my life, even if I think I succeeded in winding up the springs of their fictional counterparts and “explaining” their actions.

It's only a story.

And, as I noted a moment ago, real life continues beyond the pages of fictional life. My father lacks the diplomatic touch that his mother possessed in superabundant measure and he finds it difficult to deal with willful offspring (like yours truly). Too bad. It has led to our present estrangement and my absence from today's Thanksgiving dinner. (I find it difficult to break bread with someone who calls me a liar. I'm sort of sensitive that way.) Mom is naturally suffering from the collateral damage, so I've promised her I'll show up for Christmas. I'll pretend there's a flag of truce fluttering over the family farm.

I can do that much, at least. And perhaps I'll learn the answers to more questions that I don't know I have.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

And still counting...

Predicting the future

The 2010 general election is not yet over in California. The secretary of state's office in Sacramento continues to issue updates as it aggregates the returns trickling in from California's fifty-eight counties. As of the last report, time-stamped 5:00 p.m. on Friday, November 19, twenty-six counties still had untallied ballots to count. By adding up the counties' estimates of vote-by-mail and provisional ballots, the secretary of state announced that approximately 629,634 votes remained to be processed.

It's not a moot point. While attorney general Jerry Brown trounced Meg Whitman in winning his third term as governor and Barbara Boxer convincingly defeated Carly Fiorina on her way back to the U.S. senate, one statewide race remains too close to call. The Democratic nominee to succeed Brown as attorney general currently has 4,291,854 votes to her Republican rival's 4,248,804, a margin of only 43,050. Taking into account a scattering of votes among minor party candidates, that breaks down to 46.0% to 45.5%.

Democrat Kamala Harris and Republican Steve Cooley have swapped the lead back and forth a few times since the vote tallies began to be published after the November 2 election. Cooley actually declared victory election night (see the video below), but woke up the next morning to discover that Harris had edged ahead. When the vote count moved him back into the lead a few days later, he was smart enough not to make yet another premature victory speech. When Harris regained the lead, she prudently kept her own counsel.

My own opinion? For a couple of weeks now, I have been expecting a Harris victory. It's in the numbers.

I looked into the numbers because one of my friends, a retired journalist, was scoffing at the superficiality of the news articles on the election results in the attorney general's race. Except for striving heroically for different ways of saying “too close to call,” none of them offered any substantive analysis.

“It all depends of where the remaining votes are,” he said. “Instead of just paraphrasing the press releases from the candidates, the reporters ought to dig into the details. They should do some reporting.”

He prodded me into action. I downloaded the secretary of state's report on unprocessed ballots (well over two million at that time) and loaded it into a spreadsheet. Then I perused the secretary of state's report on the percentages accruing to each candidate in each county. By way of example, consider Tulare county, where California's most conservative voters gave Harris only 29.8% to Cooley's 62.4%. Tulare's county clerk estimated that 3,350 ballots remained to be processed. Applying the percentages to this number, I computed that Harris would get 998 more votes and Cooley would get 2,090. (I'm sure Mom & Dad's vote-by-mail ballots are in the latter batch.)

I applied this process to all of the counties with outstanding ballots, obtaining an estimate for the additional votes likely to be obtained by Harris and Cooley. Upon adding the estimates to the votes counted to date, I found myself looking at a razor-thin Harris victory. Every so often I would return to the secretary of state's website to tweak the percentages to reflect the completed count. Those numbers were very stable, seldom moving more than one-tenth of a percent. The predicted Harris margin varied, but never vanished.

My latest computation, based on yesterday's numbers, suggests that Kamala Harris will defeat Steve Cooley for the office of attorney general by 45,902 votes. I'm not sure about the 2, though.

If the numbers hold up, the Golden State will have handed the Democratic Party a clean sweep of every statewide office. May it make the most of its opportunity.

Note: I should give a tip of the hat to Timm Herdt of the Ventura County Star. He had the same idea that I did and published his estimate on November 9 on his blog. In my opinion, however, Herdt pulled up just a bit short by confining his attention to the 21 counties with the most votes remaining to be processed. In so close a contest, it was unwise to scorn the little counties and risk that much round-off error. On the basis of his computations, Herdt figured that Cooley had an edge.

While I obviously think Herdt was wrong, my ex-journalist friend can be relieved to learn that at least one reporter is willing to go digging for news. It's not quite obsolete yet.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reasonably accommodating

I said “reasonably”!

Sometimes my students need a little extra assistance. I understand. In the past I have printed out tests in a large font for a student with poor vision. I have set up my classroom to make space for the sign-language interpreter for a deaf student. I have used the testing center to allow time-and-a-half on exams for students with diagnosed learning disabilities. That's what our Student Assistance Program is for. It helps students succeed where they might otherwise fail. We call it “reasonable accommodation.”

Unfortunately, some of our accommodated students appear not to understand how it's supposed to work. Occasionally we get someone who decides that “accommodation” means “whatever I want”:

“Dr. Z, I can take the exam next week.”

“But the exam is this week.”

“Yeah, but I need more time.”

“Yes, you get more time to take the exam, but you still have to take the exam when your classmates do. There'll be a copy of the exam in the testing center for you.”

“But I'm not ready!”

Math isn't the only thing the student has difficulty understanding.

But students like that are rare. Most students with learning disabilities leap at the opportunity to succeed and dutifully jump through the hoops my college requires in order to take advantage of its special student support services. Naturally enough, the learning disabilities related to math tend to manifest themselves most dramatically among the students taking the low-level developmental courses like arithmetic and prealgebra. Students taking higher-level courses either do not suffer from dyslexia or dyscalculia or have learned to control the problem, thereby leading to success in math.

Not too long ago, though, I ran into a striking exception to this general rule. It was in a multivariate calculus class. We were in the final weeks of the semester, with only one chapter left to cover in the textbook. (Line integrals, anyone?) One of my students came up to me after class and handed me a note. It was a memo from his private counselor, who was offering me some advice about why my student was struggling to maintain a C in the class. The counselor was a clinical psychologist who had seen my student twice. He had some specific observations and recommendations:
Based on my interviews and initial assessments, it is my opinion that Mr. X has above average intellectual capacity, but suffers from being overwhelmed with too much information after about 20 minutes. Therefore I suggest that Mr. X be granted at least two preliminary accommodations. First, he should be allowed to take frequent breaks. Second, he should be allowed additional time to complete timed assignments in class, especially exams. I would suggest he be given twice as long to complete such tasks.
A double-time accommodation on exams is quite unusual but not unheard of. The notion of frequent time-outs, however, is rather more daunting. Exactly how, pray tell, is this supposed to work? We may shift gears multiple times during a class period as we solve problems, work quizzes, review homework, and present new material, but class time is at a premium and we can't take a break every twenty minutes. It doesn't work.

And double-time on in-class quizzes isn't particularly feasible either. I use them as highly focused evaluation and teaching tools. The students' results tell me, of course, how well they're keeping up. And my immediate presentation of the solution on the board takes advantage of their momentarily intense receptivity. The students who got it right preen a bit as they see my solution matching theirs. The students who got it wrong watch wide-eyed and often have “Aha!” moments. (“Oh, is that all I had to do?”) Teachable moments.

But not if Mr. X had to be sent from the room to accommodate his extra ration of time on the quiz. By the time he came back he would have missed my presentation of the solution and missed the learning opportunity. (And even if I had sent an advance copy of the quiz to the testing center so that he could have his double-time before class began, the logistics were impossible. My class was an early morning class and the testing center wasn't even open until after my class began.)

On top of everything else, Mr. X was trying to make an end-run around the counselors and staff of our testing center, the people who evaluate students and make recommendations for accommodation. For fairly obvious reasons, faculty members don't welcome external evaluations by private counselors. We don't know the people who make them. We do know, however, that any desired opinion is available on the outside. (Court trials, after all, never seem to lack for experts on both sides of any given issue.) I told Mr. X to take his evaluation documents to the testing center for review by college personnel. He was not happy about that and said, correctly, that it was probably too late for the testing center to evaluate him before the semester ran out.

In most respects, though, Mr. X was lucky. He was pulling a solid C in my class and I was able to show him that he was in little danger of failing the class. He squeaked through with a modest margin to spare. What he wanted, of course, was a B, but I wasn't quite that accommodating.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Portuguese-American writing

Not under the influence!

Numbers are my vocation, but words are my avocation. There is always a book on my nightstand and a few (or several) minutes of relaxing reading before turning in is my reliable preventive for insomnia. There is always a book (at least one!) in the back seat of my car, just in case I need a luncheon companion. And there is always a book lying on the table next to the recliner in the living room, where I'm likely to pick it up in favor of the television remote control.

This habit of constant reading goes back at least to my grade-school days. It became such a pronounced trait of my childhood that adults occasionally tried to intervene and encourage me to “put that book down and go have some fun.”

Silly adults.

Of course, if you don't take their advice, some people (especially if they're grown-ups and you're a kid) will take more intrusive steps, e.g., confiscation. Dad, for example, didn't like it when I read in the car on the way to Sunday mass. He caught me smuggling a copy of Tarzan of the Apes into the back seat one morning and insisted that I hand it over. (I lost ten minutes of reading time on that trip that I'll never get back!) Something similar happened when I tried to take a book with me to an Oakland Athletics game at the Coliseum. I was supposed to “enjoy” myself watching grown men swing sticks at balls and run around a square. Thank goodness I managed to grab a copy of the Oakland Tribune at the stadium, which I pointedly read throughout all nine innings. (Poor Dad. The things he had to put up with.)

My habit has survived all attempts to suppress it. If anything, it's grown. My taste in reading is broad. The sidebar of this blog demonstrates that, having played host to titles that involve science, history, biography, politics, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. I don't, however, make a point of keeping up with the modern novel or current bestsellers. I prefer to meander my own way through the embarrassment of literary riches without worrying about what's popular at the moment (or whether Oprah likes it, which is often the same thing).

Although the scope of my reading has been broad, I did not stumble across much Portuguese-American literature. I had not specifically sought out works by others who shared my ethnic heritage, but—had I thought of it—I would have expected to run across the occasional Luso-American writer. But I didn't.

And, before you mention him, I'll point out that John Dos Passos doesn't really count.

I casually assumed—never having thought too hard about it—that we had been assimilated beyond recognition into the mainstream of English literature.

But I was wrong, as I discovered after cranking out a book-length manuscript stuffed with Portuguese-American anecdotes and realizing I needed to do a proper literature search to learn whether my book might find a niche. Once I actually started paying attention, I learned that Reinaldo Silva had written an entire book titled Portuguese American Literature. Silva's book revealed that I had been anticipated in my literary endeavors by Alfred Lewis (Alfredo Luís) and his Sixty Acres and a Barn. Then there's Charles (Carlos) Reis Felix, the author of Through a Portagee Gate, and the award-winning Katharine Vaz, author of Fado.

Who knew we were a genre?

See how I said “we” right there? Cheeky.

I started digging into the Portuguese-American oeuvre. Sixty Acres and a Barn was a quick and enjoyable reading experience. Lewis was writing a version of his own experience of coming to the United States as a young man and earning his keep on a dairy farm in Central California. He told a story of new experiences and old traditions—and the conflict between them. When I finished the book, it seemed to me that Lewis had blazed a trail that I was following with my own novel, which is based on the history of my grandfather's dairy farm and family, also in California's central valley. Lewis, however, was recounting a more circumscribed story and his timeline was earlier in the 20th century than mine.

Then I picked up Through a Portagee Gate and was instantly grateful that I had not read it earlier. Had I already been familiar with the work of Charles Reis Felix, I would not have been able to avoid the conclusion that he was a powerful influence on my writing. Instead, reading it after the completion of my manuscript, Through a Portagee Gate became a strong validation of what I had done. Without rashly suggesting that I am Felix's equal in prose style, I can at least lay claim to sharing an innate predilection for episodic achronological storytelling.

Felix has an ear for dialog that I envy and his prose rings with authenticity. I have since read other works by this author, including Tony and Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934. I can recommend them to anyone who enjoys a good book, especially someone curious about the Portuguese immigrant experience.

Finally I turned to two collections of stories by Katharine Vaz, Our Lady of the Artichokes and Fado. Where Felix tells stories, Vaz weaves spells. Where Felix is more likely to startle you with some spot-on account of some characteristically Luso-American quirk (yes! we are so like that!), Vaz surprises us with intrusions of fantasy into the mundane. “How to Grow Orchids Without Grounds: A Manual” was an entertaining and peculiar story about clandestine nocturnal plantings of orchids and the varied reactions of those who discovered these unsanctioned efflorescences. But it suddenly got really weird when a character's nail clippings came to life and ran off to see the world. I could not help but think that Vaz was resorting to a magical gimmick (“magical realism”?) to wrap up a story whose denouement was giving her trouble. In fact, it reminded me of Graham Chapman walking into a Monty Python skit in his military uniform and wrapping it up by announcing that it had become too silly to continue.

Overall, I find Vaz a fascinating writer who fills her tales with authentic Portuguese touches. At the same time, she bends the English language to her will, creating odd phrases and metaphors that strike the eye and ear in amusing ways. I'm often tempted to read her work aloud. Here's a sentence I like from “The Man Who Was Made of Netting”:
There was a lightness about Daisy that was not weightlessness but a grip on the power of light.
The use of “light” is nicely ambiguous, drawing on both of its principal meanings: illumination and mass measure. You hear a kind of echo in your head when you read it. And “grip” and “power” are both strong words that reinforce each other, slightly startling in the context of describing a young girl.

But here's one, also from “The Man Who Was Made of Netting,” that doesn't work (at least, not for me):
Her weeping at her grandpa's funeral had broken Manny in so many places that he sometimes felt gusts of wind were bandages, scarcely holding him together.
Huh? Vaz is trying to piece together things that won't adhere to each other. Manny is broken? Okay. Wind holds him together? More likely blow him apart. Vaz doesn't give us enough to work with, no good way to reconcile the counter-intuitive linkage between shattered fragments and gusts of wind that (magically?) gather the pieces together instead of scattering them. I don't get it, but I'm sure Vaz will not be disturbed by my occasional confusion or lack of comprehension. Besides, I admire her rhetorical bravery even when I don't like (or, perhaps, understand) the results.

I have so far read only her short stories. She has written novels that may yet end up on my reading list.

The past year has slightly diminished my ignorance when it comes to Portuguese-American literature. The next year will diminish it further. And—who knows?—perhaps next year I will be a part of it.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The big blue bastion

Timing your punches

Sen. Barbara Boxer made a low-key campaign swing through northern California at the end of July. She dropped in one Saturday at the home of a former statewide office-holder. It was more of a meet-and-greet than a fundraiser, although a few bucks were collected. (I picked up a Boxer T-shirt and a Boxer bumpersticker to display on my car during my next trip down Highway 99 into reddest California.) Boxer's main purpose was to rally the troops. Several present and former elected officials were present, as were several present and former staff aides. A mix of young up-and-coming volunteers joined the old-timers and rounded out the group.

After some schmoozing and mingling, Sen. Boxer held court in the host's living room. She thanked everyone for their support and tried to assuage our fears about the summer polls that showed her in a virtual tie with Carly Fiorina. Boxer was used to running (and winning) tight races, although it would be more of a challenge in what was shaping up to be a Republican year. She outlined the sharp contrasts between her positions and those of her opponent. It was an effective motivational speech. The adrenaline level in the room went up.

Boxer ran smoothly through her remarks and then entertained questions from the attendees. One of the first queries was not about her campaign.

“Can you tell Jerry to get off his ass and start campaigning? We see nothing but Whitman ads all the time.”

The senator's hands were clasped. She squeezed them tight for a moment and then relaxed a little. It seemed to me that she had heard this question before and was just a little weary of it.

“You need to understand this,” she said. “Jerry knows what he's doing. There is no way he can match Whitman's spending. He's conserving his resources and waiting for his moment. If he tries to match her now, he'll soon have nothing left. He is doing a lot of fundraising, but he's not spending yet.”

Someone in the crowd helped Sen. Boxer look for the silver lining.

“Whitman's ad campaign is so excessive it could be counterproductive. I'm sick of them.”

Sen. Boxer smiled.

“Jerry will match her in the homestretch, when it really matters,” she said.

We now know that Boxer was right. Jerry Brown knew what he was doing. Like a guest who overstayed her welcome, Meg Whitman was incessantly in our faces with an unavoidable avalanche of political ads. Even her supporters sometimes marveled at the overkill. When the Brown campaign took to the airwaves, his low-key ads were a welcome relief from Whitman's mindless repetition of talking points. One of Brown's spots mocked Whitman as a word-for-word clone of Arnold Schwarzenegger, juxtaposing the Republican incumbent and the Republican candidate mouthing the exact same slogans and catch phrases.

The once and future governor amply justified Sen. Boxer's faith in the old politician. At the top of the Democratic ticket, Jerry led a complete sweep of California's statewide offices (with the possible exception of the attorney general's office, where the votes are still being counted). California is true blue because its Democratic candidates know what they're doing.

Welcome back, Governor Brown. I guess experience counts.