Triumph of the underdogs

Josh Davis discusses his latest book, 'Spare Parts'

Journalist Joshua Davis knows firsthand what it feels like to be the underdog. Back when he was a 129-pound data entry clerk with a Stanford diploma, looking for a way to break in as a freelance writer, even his friends were baffled when he set out to compete in the lightweight division of the U.S. National Armwrestling Championship.

Well, Davis showed them and all the rest of the doubters. He finished in fourth place (in a field of four) and went on to the world championship in Poland. From there, he embarked on a series of adventures that led to a career as a magazine writer and the publication in 2005 of "The Underdog: How I Survived the World's Most Outlandish Competitions." Now a contributing editor at Wired and the co-founder of Epic Magazine, a purveyor of long-form, evergreen journalism suitable for adaptation for film and television, Davis is the author of the new non-fiction title, "Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream."

Joshua Davis will appear in conversation with Wired magazine features editor Mark Robinson at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Tuesday, Jan. 13 at 7:30 p.m.

Reached by phone, Davis spoke fondly of "The Underdog" and his days of sumo wrestling, bullfighting and sneaking into Iraq at the start of the war.

"Fundamentally, that book is about how I became a journalist. I didn't necessarily think of it that way when I was writing it, but now that I look back on it, it really chronicles how I came to be who I am."

Despite contributing to the New Yorker and having his work anthologized in various "best-of-the-year" journalism collections, Davis is still intimately familiar with underdoggedness. In fact, it's the subject of his new book.

The genesis of "Spare Parts" stretches back to 2004, when Davis received an odd, unusually formatted press release about an award-winning robotics team at a high school in Arizona. The missive was sufficiently intriguing for him to hang onto it for a month before calling Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix. He ended up speaking with Fredi Lajvardi, a science instructor and one of the teachers in charge of the school's robotics program.

Davis learned that the robotics team consisted of four Mexican-born Latino teenagers -- Oscar Vazquez, Lorenzo Santillan, Cristian Arcega and Luis Aranda -- three of whom were undocumented and lived in fear of being deported. Working from an impoverished school without a swimming pool and located hundreds of miles from the ocean, the boys, Lajvardi and science teacher Allan Cameron had nevertheless decided to enter the third annual Marine Advanced Technology Education Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Competition.

Sponsored by NASA and the Navy and held at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the event featured teams from the likes of MIT, with budgets in the five figures and grants from Exxon-Mobil. With less than a grand to work with, the Carl Hayden team had to scrounge the parts they needed and rely on their own ingenuity to fix unforeseen setbacks. Dubbed "Stinky," due to the powerful odor of the glue that held its PVC piping together, their ROV ultimately outperformed its well-equipped competition in various underwater tasks.

It sounds like a scenario for a feel-good Hollywood movie, and the story has indeed been adapted for the screen by director Sean McNamara. George Lopez portrays "Fredi Cameron" as part of a cast that includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Marisa Tomei and Esai Morales. "Spare Parts" the movie opens Jan. 16.

Although it serves as the climax for the movie, the championship in Santa Barbara was not the end of the story. Davis didn't want to conclude the book on a single moment of triumph.

He said, "It becomes a much richer story and a much more important story when you look at the fact that the second-place winners, the students from MIT, went on to great jobs, but the kids who placed first struggled enormously and in many cases failed to achieve the American Dream."

Davis' book chronicles the teammates' fortunes over the ensuing decades, which include a heart-breaking struggle against a bureaucracy that has little idea of how to deal with exceptional individuals who don't fit within the established immigration system.

Part of the reason Davis wanted to write the book was to encourage a realistic conversation about the immigration debate.

"In the reporting I've done over the past decade, immigrants are here not to be criminals," he said. "They're here to work. Not only to work, but work very hard. And that is a great, good thing for America."

Writing "Spare Parts" also gave Davis a new perspective on education. At one point, he questioned whether a school like Carl Hayden, with so many other challenges, really needed a robotics team.

"Fredi said something that still resonates with me: 'Nobody wants to sit down and look at a workbook. Nobody learns that way.'"

Davis explained that Fredi's fundamental point was, "You have to inspire the students. That's why you offer them a challenge that may seem quixotic. Even if they don't win, you've at least broadened their horizons, and that's worth an immense amount."

What: Author Joshua Davis in conversation with Mark Robinson

Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park

When: Tuesday, Jan. 13, at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $20 general admission; $10 student (with ID)

Info: Go to keplers.com or call 650-324-4321

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the cost of admission. PaloAltoOnline.com regrets the error.

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