Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Richard Rodriguez

Okay, I'll admit it: I went to Monday night's Richard Rodriguez reading AMA (against medical advice). Since the Thursday before I had been roasting with fever, keeping my husband up at night with my barking seal cough, and I was done, DONE, HEAR ME?, with illness causing me to miss out on life. No matter that the doc, who sent me for a chest x-ray, had that very Monday afternoon slapped me with a diagnosis of pneumonia. I had already missed my Thursday hair appointment, Friday writing group and the entire weekend. I knew I couldn't go to dinner before the reading with Mr. Rodriguez and the Butler group -- who would want to sit next to me? Besides, I was afraid of infecting our visiting author. But the reading? My physician husband looked at me and shook his head. " Do whatever you want," he said. This really meant 'I know you're going to do what you want so I'm washing my hands of the entire matter.' My physician friend tsk-tsked, said oh, no. But, when pressed, she acquiesced and said that if I sat alone, suppressed my cough, and didn't touch anything, I could probably live without the gnawing guilt that comes with infecting a crowd of undergraduates with pneumonia.

So Monday night I slugged back an antibiotic, two Tylenol, half a dose of cough syrup and headed off. (I know this isn't SOP. I certainly don't recommend anyone else ever do this. Because I know how my body reacts to all these medication, though, I knew I could pull it off.) Purposefully waiting until the crowd was seated, I slid into Butler's Reilly room and sat on the floor, slumped against the back wall. No matter, I was there. Rodriguez didn't disappoint.

Richard Rodriguez is an intriguing man: an academic who, because he felt affirmative action gave him an unfair advantage, eschewed an academic career. A Hispanic who is outspoken about his belief that immigrants should learn their new country's language. A homosexual who doesn't want to be labeled gay. A nonfiction writer with three memoirs, who writes essays for some of the countries most prestigious publications.

Rodriguez focused on "Brown," his most recent memoir. Despite that he's now working on a book about the Abrahamic religions and their connection to the desert, he still has plenty of fire for "Brown," and its thesis, that increasingly, few of us can claim pure heritage, and that's a good thing. He began by telling us that he wants us to feel that "Brown" is about us, and not him. Then he raised his hands to his head, smoothed back his silver hair and demanded, "I want to know, what is brown? Once I decided to write about 'brown,' it was everywhere I looked."

Mr. Rodriguez spoke in measured, precise words. Following his thoughts was a little like watching a paint-by-numbers canvas fill in magically. Here are some on Rodriguez's thoughts about 'brown': Hispanic is not a racial category, but an ethnic one; Mexico came about as a result of the love story between Indians and Spaniards; some day our kids will all look mixed, like Keanu Reeves; Many people have blood that is so mixed they no longer know what to call themselves.

Rodriguez shared a story: He corresponded for a long time with a prisoner, incarcerated for bank robbery. The man described his road away from the law. He wrote that he had a brother, and their mother died when they were young. Their father despised them, and once held the head of one underwater while the other slashed at the father's neck with a kitchen knife, trying to free the other. The prisoner wrote that the reason he never became completely evil is that he was taken to Chinese restaurants and saw chopsticks. The chopsticks showed him there was another world, one that extended beyond the confines of the horrible one in which he was stuck.

One fascinating question posed by the audience: If all people are blending, won't we lose our specific, rich cultures? Rodriguez answered Yes. Maybe. But then he added that there is a biological notion that will keep reinventing separateness. And then he added a touching statement, saying that he wants to know that others are part of him.

I'm sure my husband, who I know had only my best interests at heart, thought I'd regret going out Monday night. But I don't. Four days later and, yes, I'm still sick, but I don't think Monday night's outing impacted the length of my illness one bit. Look, how many times am I going to get the chance to hear a speaker as unique, insightful and articulate as Richard Rodriguez? And it was better than being at the dinner, where I would have been trying to figure out how to politely suck up Pad Thai noodles without making slurping sounds. Not that I'm bitter.

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