Author Archives: Tim Porter

A Poverty Story

Poverty kills.

Not all at once – although the bullets that breed in poverty will do that. Poverty kills slowly. It grinds and grinds and grinds. Until it reduces whatever hope you had to a dusty smudge of resentment, befouls whatever innocence you had with the daily excrement of your reality, erases completely whatever childhood you had and replaces it with a ten-hour-a-day-ten-dollar-a-day job in a Mexican greasy spoon.

Poverty snatches children from their dreams and sells them to the demons of despair and depression.

Poverty forces adults to decide to choose between their children and their own dignity.

Think about all that, then add in Covid. Schools closed. Studying on cheap cell phones. No socializing. Alone at home with your poverty, watching it suffocate your youth. Two years of this. In a country where public school education is already atrocious, and there is nowhere to go but down.

You know what happens. Kids fail. Kids drop out. Kids stop being kids and take their seat on the merry-go-round of poverty. Spin that wheel. Watch the viciousness of the whirling circle.

A number: After two years of closed schools “71 percent of (Latin American) lower secondary education students may not be able to understand a text of moderate length,” says a new World Bank study.

More numbers: A 13-year-old girl enters middle school with second-highest grade in her class: 9.7 out of 10. Three years later, during the pandemic, she scrapes her way into high school with an average of 7.2.

Last number: One. That is how many high-school semesters she will finish before dropping out. One. In a few weeks, the former brightest girl on the block becomes just another Oaxacan teenage dropout wearing an apron and serving up slop for a buck an hour.

Unless there’s a miracle. I’m not a believer, though.

That’s it. That’s the story.

I’d Like to Thank the Academy

I have a life many would envy. The infrastructure is one of comfort: a small (by the standards of the neighborhood) but distinctive home; plenty to eat and drink; all the mechanical and digital accoutrements of the age; friends who believe in me even when I can’t bring myself to do that; and a woman who loves me no matter how I unlovable I become.

When I channel David Byrne and ask, “Well, how did I get her?”, I see myself standing on an award show stage, rummaging through the pocket of my rented tux, looking for the paper scrap where I’d written the names of those who played a role in creating the pleasant circumstances which surround me. I pull the paper from the pocket, and it just gets longer and longer and longer. It seems to be endless. Stupefied into silence, I am unable to read it. All I do is keep pulling and staring at the names of the unnumbered thousands of people whose paths have crossed mine.

There is the fourth-grade nun who told me I could be president. There is the rough kid who lived around the corner, the first to beat me up. There is the high-school teacher, a broad-backed boxer and a Catholic friar, who punched me in the jaw as told me to shape up or get ready for hell. There is the grocer who gave me a job after I got arrested the first time. There are the older guys who worked for him and introduced me to bars. There is the big-mouth doper who bloodied my face while in a courtroom holding cell, the last guy to beat me up.

There is the poli-sci teacher at the city college, a golden-haired California beauty who enchanted me and compelled me to write essays in search of her praise, which she gave and which I treasured so much (they made me believe I could climb out of the hole I’d thrown myself into) that I kept her comments for years, using them as a restorative on the bluest of days.

There are all the women, each of them exceedingly enticing at the moment, all of whom I left behind, save one – the earnest young reporter, a real striver; the wannabe Madonna, lace gloves and all; the white-water rafter, my first real love, to whom I compared all who followed even though she traded me in for a cowboy; the first woman I married, which I did for her innocence, thinking it would compensate for my own lack of it; all of those others – the waitress, dancer, shrink, bartender, coke addict, librarian, reporter, editor, girlfriends of good friends, runaways from South Carolina and Upstate New York, broken women, smart women, needy women, really, anyone who would have me; and, finally, the second woman I married, the best of all before her.

There are the other women, friends, not lovers. The one who introduced me to yoga, knowing I needed it. The founder of the children’s orchestra, who trusted me. The famous photographer who saw my fears and pushed me toward them. The kind, lovely, giving woman whose presence instantly tranquilizes me. The Venezuelan who taught me the subjunctive and maintains our friendship even when I am brutishly American.

There is the photo editor who told me I was talentless. There is the news editor who offered me a job. There is assistant managing editor who told me to control my temper. There is the executive editor who gave me a department to run, which changed the course of my career.

There are my parents, good people, solid people, caring people, who gave me everything they could and continued to do so despite a clueless and rebellious me telling them that it wasn’t enough. There are my sisters, mysteries to me then, mysteries to me now. There is my younger brother, who I never knew until he was a man, a gift long in the coming.

There are the cops, so many of them. The one who knelt next to me on the road after the crash and told me I wasn’t dead when I asked him if I was. There are state troopers who stopped me and let me go, and the highway patrolmen who stopped me and didn’t. There are the bearded bikers, members of a gang called Sons of Hawaii, accused of sexual violence, sleeping on bunk beds across from me for a couple of months. There is the judge berating me for being foolishly exuberant. There are my friends, those who brought me California, waiting outside the courthouse.

There is the mayor of San Francisco, drunk and, for some reason, in a long conversation with me. There is the governor of Nevada, getting his hair cut while I ask him naïve questions. There is the famous actress, married to a friend, showing me how to cook bratwurst in beer. There is the famous actor, friend of a friend who is getting married in his house, smoking Marlboros and doing coke, and then offering me both. There is the governor of California, the one who became president, peeing two urinals from me in the ballroom bathroom of a fancy San Francisco hotel.

I see names in Spanish, the people from Mexico. There are the mothers, damaged but strong, and the children, innocent and unaware of their hard futures – until they suddenly are not. There is the family who built their house and are sustained by belief in their own effort. There is the mother who told me a twenty-second hug makes everything better (it does). There is the mom who loves chocolate and the mom who loves chayote and the mom who puts leftovers in my camera bag. There is the teenage girl who I cherish most of all but I who fear will not outgrow adolescence. There are the sick people – the sweet boy with leukemia; the middle-aged women with some nerve disorder; the drunken man who returned to his family, only to lose a leg, go blind and die from diabetes.

I am thankful for all of them. Honestly. The arithmetic of life includes additions and subtractions. All these names. Some conjure up regrets for the damage I did, but it can’t be undone, so I drag the weight of it forward, hoping to do better. Most of the names, though, flicker with warmth, a comforting flame of intimacy, of shared endeavor, of touch, of the simple wonder of human exchange.

One more name is on list – mine. There is me, still around, miraculously, still waking up, still wondering how I got here, still thankful for all of you.

My Oaxaca — The Long Return

I have not told you about Oaxaca, the last visit, now a full month ago, because there is so much to say, even though most of it is the same, and so little of it comes out spare you the details and speak only of feelings, or the facts might spatter into a gory mess on the page.

My strength, if it is such, is not to regard the contents of the glass as half-full or half empty, although the latter is my natural bent, rather to ask where the rest of the water is, who has it, and why isn’t it in the glass. These are the questions of a mind that is not so much focused and inquisitive as of one that is restless and anxious, poor qualities in a human being, but nonetheless useful in the practice of journalism, which I practiced, but never conquered, for a long period.

Applying this mindset to Oaxaca, where I’d gone to find what I was missing and then soon began missing what I found, I routinely returned home to my American comforts after visits with mothers and children and meanderings through city streets more saddened by the experiences than heartened by them. As time passed, the only lives that seemed to improve were those of children who were born in the United States and returned there to live with a family friend or a relative. Everyone else continued their slow-motion collision with cultural and institutional walls that kept them encaged in a world with little work, less education, almost no health care, and the absence of long-term hope.

The pandemic made everything worse.

In my eighteen-month separation from Oaxaca, teenage boys stopped going to high school and began working for five dollars a day; the brightest girl I knew, forced to study via her cellphone, sought refuge in a violent video game, lost interest in school, and allowed her grades to drop – on a scale of 10 – from 9.5 to 7.2; another teenager, a girl, one who never showed interest in studying, ran away from home, and her mother hears reports of her wandering drugged on the streets; one mother left her son at home and took up with a guy hoping for love but found he only wanted her womb so he could sire a son, and then kicked her out when he learned she lacked the necessary female plumbing; a teenage boy I’d met years before in a shelter, headed for the U.S., got a woman his mother’s age pregnant on the why, crossed the Texas border, got arrested, and sat in a state prison the day his child was born.

That’s enough, isn’t it? Multiply these tragedies by thousands, at least. The work lost, the classes missed, the families separated as parents left Oaxaca for other cities in search of jobs. COVID arrived in Oaxaca as a ravenous beast and feasted on the poor.

Truthfully, I didn’t deal with it well. After a conversation with a mother who showed me sheets of medical bills for her son, who has had leukemia for several years and is somehow still alive, and then withdrew from a folder another set of papers having to do with the search for her constant pain, I sat in silence in the car of a mutual friend who had driven me to the mother’s house. The friend, too, didn’t speak. We were, I would say, overwhelmed. By the enormity of it all. By the relentlessness. By the incessant march of calamity.

I felt small and impotent. I began blaming myself. I could have done more than I’d done, I thought, which, to be honest with everyone, was not that much. I’d applied a few financial bandages on a sucking chest wound that needs a surgical suite. Even the child I’d most focused on, having pled to some unknown deity, just this one, please, just this one girl, dangled from a gossamer string of hope over an adolescent abyss from which, in Mexico, there is no return. I thought about a woman named Becca Stevens I’d met earlier on the trip who, driven by will and passion, founded an organization named Thistle Farms that throws lifelines to woman who have been abused by men (and by society), and wondered why I couldn’t be more like her. She located the means within herself to focus and to do the work that results in resurrecting hundreds of women. I couldn’t manage somehow get one promising young woman through high school.

Here at home, tucked into the trees on the damp north side of a hill, I realize that what drew me to Oaxaca may no longer be there, and that was the intimacy of the experience, the ability, not my own, but one gifted to me by the families, to witness the scope of their lives – smiles and sadness, joy and tears, hope and despair. The stories of child abuse, rape, and beatings, told to me at kitchen tables, in cafés, or via Whats, were leavened with birthday cakes, new-born babies, grade-school graduations, weddings, baptisms, and long, silent hugs that shrunk the great distance between our lives into a space where we could not tell one from another.

That’s what may be gone. Time claims everything. Another voracious beast, it consumes the terrible and the delightful with equal persistence. All that remains is change.

Old age, or to be more gentle with myself, older age, does not care much for change. It prefers consistency. Clothes it knows well, food it finds agreeable, familiar faces, and well-trodden paths. Change is for the young. In fact, for the young change is obligatory. If they don’t adapt, they get stuck right where they’re born – and for many that isn’t so great.

Once more, I tell myself, do it once more. Molt, shed the skin of current expectations and allow another to grow. Brace for the moment between the old and the new when I am emotionally naked and once again clad only in uncertainty. Preconception shields us from both the world’s harder realities and its more alluring charms. In looking for what we expect, we are blind to the surprising.

The timing is right. The fallen leaves of the red maple litter the patio bricks of the same color. The big buckeye plunks its fist-sized nuts onto the wooden stairs below the street. The mornings are moist, promising chill and, we hope, rain to our parched, fiery north state. Winter and change are close cousins.

This is what I return to, a change of season, a change of reason, a chance to once more begin anew.

My Oaxaca — A Return

If there ever was going to be a return to what we once knew as normal for me it was going to come in a trip to Oaxaca, where I am now.

In ten days here, in the city where a passionate photographer revived me with her insistence on doing the work and her remarkable belief in the talent I’d allowed to lie fallow for decades, I’ve found pretty much what I thought I would find – endurance and loss, celebration and sorrow, an obdurate adherence to traditions that reward self-interest and tolerate impunity, and a double-fisted defiance of the norms by the rising generation.

I was so worried about Covid before I came that at one point I canceled my flight. The fretting was not without merit because Mexico still lags in vaccinations and the government is notoriously mendacious when it comes to public reporting. What I see is a mix of sensible safety measures (everyone wears a mask everywhere except in restaurants) and illogical practices that do nothing to slow viral spread (stepping on rubber mats of bleach to enter any business). At every entrance someone squirts antiseptic gel onto your hands. By day’s end, my hands are gooey with it.

What concerned me most was getting around. When it is too far to walk, I am a public transportation guy – cabs, buses, even the five-people-to-a-Nissan collectivos, all of which I saw as Covid factories. A week-and-a-half in, I’ve set aside caution for convenience, at times questioning my own judgment (especially one evening while my complaining legs held me upright for thirty minutes on a vomit-inducing bus ride so full that my nauseous stomach was pressed against a grandmother’s ample indigenous behind the whole time.

Half of the people I’ve met aren’t vaccinated, some for lack of opportunity (the government controls the vaccination schedule; the dates are few, the lines hours long) and others for lack of understanding (rumors of chips and side effects, and belief in divine intervention). Many of the vaccinated lack a second dose (see government above). Everyone knows people who have died (one woman’s doctor, a gynecologist, just died a few days ago). And many have been sick and survived, a few with lingering conditions such as chest pain or persistent shortness of breath.

There are tourists, quite a few. The grey-haired Americans fill their usual haunts, cafes that serve smoothies and muffins; the tall, blonder and younger Europeans hang out in the mescal bars. Of which there is more, expresso machines or mescalerias, it is hard to say, but there are more than enough of both to absorb the influx of dollars and euros the businesses in the central historic district hope arrives this peak season, which begins with Muertos at the end of this month and continues through New Year’s.

Beyond the cobble-stoned downtown streets, in the sprawling chaos of Oaxaca’s urbanized municipios like Xoxocotlán and San Antonio de la Cal, everyday life remains a scramble for survival. A mother who lives with her three sons (twins and a teenager) on a dirt road only a block off the main highway that goes to the airport and two blocks from a Walmart, tells me she is lucky because her house is secure. There is no water, but there is a tall metal gate that keeps out the lost boys who roam the colonia at night. A mile way, a 17-year-old boy, a first-year architecture student at the local university, cares for his four younger siblings. Their mother has been gone for six months, working in other cities because she couldn’t make a living in Oaxaca. This family, too, lives on a dirt road in a muddle of rooms built from tin. The floors, though, are cement, and swept clean of dust.

The pandemic didn’t diminish the inequality that lives behind the brightly painted facades of the tourist zone. I suspect it got worse here, just as it did he United States.

Some reunions for me have been very emotional. After spending a wonderful Sunday with a family whose mother was on the edge of Covid hospitalization, but is now recovered enough to cook and feed me two sumptuous meals in five hours, I cried as I left them. Don’t do that again, I said between hugs. Don’t. I have come to love some of the people I’ve been photographing for years more than my own family, which is dispersed. Here, there is the intimacy that eludes me at home. Even as I type these words my eyes fill.

I first came to Oaxaca for love, that of my wife. Then I came for curiosity, and later the photography. Now I come for these families. Even though they break my heart over and over, they fill it so abundantly that the inevitable ache that comes as I see the vise of poverty squeezing them into smaller and smaller lives is tolerable.

Truthfully, I also come for myself. As an adolescent a part of me ran from home in search of anything other than what I had (although hindsight later showed me the stigmatism of my perspective). That part, that yearning for life lived fully, finds a home here.

Oaxaca survived. The empanadas stuffed with potatoes and chorizo still satisfy beyond description. The mescal still burns – until the second one. The dark eyes above the masks still gleam. The women are still beautiful, the men still strong. The buses still spout fumes, but – hey – we all have masks!

It is not as it was, of course. My favorite corner restaurant, where enchiladas were cheap and tortas even cheaper, is closed, a Covid victim. Yet another useless folk art store occupies the space. The bookstore is gone, as is the first mescal bar I went to long ago. A friend died, not of Covid, but dead nonetheless. Children have moved – four returned to the U.S., where they were born – and others have dropped out of school (see the heartache reference above).

That is life, though, isn’t it? We are more defined by change than consistency. Oaxaca lives on, just as I do. The same, but different.

Mary Lou

The Pretty One. That’s who she was amid the gang of sisters.

She was also the quiet one, the creative one, the sweetest one of all – if we admit to the truth.

She is also, now, the first to go. Too soon, of course, but also at the right time for the journey she traveled.

You all know the smile, broad and given easily. You all know the eyes, large, lit with curiosity and whimsy. You all know the heart, doors wide open, permitting passage of both blessings and troubles.

I didn’t know her well enough, at least not as a brother of so many decades should have. For a time, while I was writing a book and lonely after a day of scribbling, I called her regularly in the evenings, she in Dallas, me in San Francisco. We talked a lot, but now I realize, as I try to recall what she told me in those conversations, that she did most of the listening. It was an imbalance I wish I could correct.

To say I miss her does not seem right because in many ways the disease took her long ago. What remains is an absence, a sense of something – someone – being gone who was once here, who was part of this random grouping of humans we call a family.

Most of us, as families and as individuals, live without expectation of death. We must. It is how we get through what life tosses at us. Children don’t imagine their parents dying – but then they do. And the line moves forward. Siblings march on to their generational cadence, advancing, traveling through time as a unit – until they don’t. Until one is missing.

Mary Lou lives on in our hearts and our heads, but what remains is more than these memories. More evident than any photograph or anecdote is what she leaves us – a crack in our foundation, a link fallen from the chain, an empty chair, an icy plastic mug sweating on a kitchen counter.

Now it is up to us. To live on. To honor her absence by embracing it and using it to hold ourselves together.

Mexico, I Have a few Questions for You – Tengo unas preguntas para ti

México, México, lindo México, ¿por qué me castigas tanto, por qué sigues rompiéndome el corazón?

There is nothing easy in Mexico. There is nothing that once fixed or settled or mended stays that way. The country drifts toward the broken. ¿México, por qué se descompone tanto?

Tell me, mi amigo Mexico, why do you make education so hard? Why do you take the dreams of smart little girls, the one’s with the highest grades in their classes, and toss them like sacks of plastic soda bottles alongside your pot-holed roads? Why do you make teenage boys drop of out of school and work for casi nada selling trinkets on the streets or busting up rocks for their mamas’ ex-lovers? Why is it easier for a teenager to get into the United States than it is into college – or even high school?

I want to know, mi querido Mexico, why do you make poverty so agreeable? I want to know why single mothers who work so much – ten hours a day, six days a week – must tell their children que el dinero no alcanza for their school supplies as they sit in the single room that is their house and make a bowl of oatmeal that is their dinner.

I wonder, mi cielito Mexico, why there are pesos for a Mayan train and a freeway to the beach and a paved road en el medio de la nada, but there no centavos for water that runs clean from the tap, for toilets that flush, for schools whose task is to educate everyone instead of to weed out those who lack the resources to continue.

What can you say to me Mexico – more, what can you do to show the world, Mexico – that you take these questions seriously and do not use the obvious answers para chingar al pueblo every six years?

Do I sound fed up, Mexico, disheartened, saddened, angry? ¿Sueno harto, México, descorazonado, triste, enojado? Then, yes, you hear me correctly. Imagine how the world sees you, Mexico, when I, a friend – y todavia somos amigos – feel this way. What do other people think of your empty promises, your corruption and impunity, and your insane rate of violence?

Oye, Mexico, you cannot break my heart further, because the pieces are already too small. You cannot sadden me more because my soul is full of tears. You can not disappoint me again, because I no long expect anything of you.

Pero no soy de allí, Mexico, I am not from there. I am gringo, extranjero, gabacho. I am not what matters. What matters are the children and their mothers. They are your future, Mexico. Why, Mexico, do you care so little about your future?

Why I am Still Here

I have friends who have recently gone to: Hawaii, Nicaragua, Italy, Idaho, Iceland, Spain, New York, Florida, Mexico City, Belize and Morocco.

I have gone to: Nowhere (well, once to Texas, but that was for a death).

What gives? Covid, of course, because even double-dosed with Pfizer I get trepidatious when I read about breakthroughs and waning immunity and vulnerable people who are the same age I am. But it’s more than just being bugged by the bug.

What’s happened is that I’ve gotten used to the ease and comforts of life at home (and here I will acknowledge my good fortune). Anything more complicated and stressful, such as taking two plane flights, crossing an international border, and comingling with the un-vaxxed masses, doesn’t entice me.

I enjoy my routine: Up early, tasty breakfast, strong coffee, an empty page begging for words, emails and texts and What’s to friends, some work, Spanish with someone in Chile or Mexico or Peru, indulgent lunch, the deck with a book, a walk in the woods or through town, some whiskey, home-made dinner with my wife, news or a ball game, an hour of TV, the book again, sleep. It doesn’t change much. Every few days, I add in a visit, a meal, or a walk with a friend.

What’s not to like?

When I consider a trip, say to Mexico, the complications outweigh the appeal: a cramped rented room, only cafes or restaurants for food, transportation that is either public, cheap and Covid-risky or private and expensive, solitary nights, and bad wifi, bad water, and bad weather.

For a long time, I ignored such inconveniences and costs. I wanted the adventure, I wanted the discomfort, I wanted to be out on the far side of my zone. Now, not so much.

Why the change? I am older, yes, but eighteen months ago I was in Mexico doing all the things I do there, so I haven’t aged that much. In fact, thanks to all the walking I’m in better shape now than I was before the pandemic.

No, it’s more than age, although it’s something equally irreversible – the realization that I don’t need everything I thought I needed. BC – before Covid – I believed I had to challenge myself and confront what made me uncomfortable. I was always eying the next thing while still doing the first thing. I leered at the grass on the other side of the fence, lusting for its greenery. I never wanted to feel limited in any way. It was a state of being that teetered between freedom and arrogancy. Very American in that sense.

Now, I own my limitations, I autograph my fears, I find no discomfort in my comforts. This has been Covid’s gift to me – an unwarped mirror, a soulful and satisfying inner transparency.

I have plane tickets for Oaxaca, bought back in April when I was sure the pandemic would be a thing of the past by now. I doubt I’ll be using them.

Today, on the third day of September, a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the fog still clings to the redwood planks of the deck well into the morning, I put on a thick wool shirt, Pendleton, marking my embrace of the new season. The world turns, life moves on. For now, at least, I don’t feel a need to do the same.

Two Covid Stories

A pretty young woman from a small country town in southern Mexico finds her way to the United States. There amid the ocean of immigrants in Los Angeles she meets, improbably, a young man from her hometown who had arrived a couple of years earlier. He is short, but muscled, and appraises others with an unabashed directness. He is handsome, rugged looking even, a country boy working hard in the big city.  The young woman falls for him and him for her, as anyone would with her sweet, round face, bright, lively eyes the color of the night sky, and a smile that comes with its own blush.

Two decades later, the couple is home again, having returned ten years ago after deciding a poor life in Mexico is richer than a poor life in the United States. They are parents of two daughters, one born in Mexico, the older one, and the other in the U.S. The husband works with cement and brick; the wife cares for the home of a wealthy woman. They live in a small house he has been building during all the seven years I’ve known them. It sits on a dusty rise where the wind blows all day and there is a striking view of the serrated mountains that rim the valley.

A couple of weeks ago, both of them got Covid, even though they’d each had the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. He got better in a few days, nothing more than a cough and a fever. His wife, though, who is diabetic, is still quite sick. She’s been breathing with a nebulizer for more than a week and an IV tube drips antibiotics into her. Her oxygen level dropped once to below 90, but has since risen. A doctor from a larger town visits twice a day, a sign of the seriousness of her condition. She prescribes the medicine and the older daughter takes a cab and then a bus to the city to buy it – if it can be found because at times there are shortages.

The daughter, who speaks English as well as her native Spanish, works as a translator of government documents, a steady, if not glamorous job. She stopped working to care for her parents, to do the cooking and cleaning and errand-running. She has been using her savings to buy her mother’s medicine, but the money ran out a couple of days ago. The government provides health care services, but does not pay for medicine. The public hospital is full and sometimes short of medicine as well. Worse, there is the suspicion, based on too many examples, that people who enter the hospital with Covid don’t come out.

With the help of some friends, the daughter finds enough money to fill the latest prescription and the doctor arrives over the weekend to say she thinks the mother is getting better. It looks like she is going to make it. In another couple of days we will know for sure, says the doctor.

The daughter’s grandmother, on her father’s side, was sick as well. But like her son, she recovered quickly. That’s the strong side of the family, the daughter says, and then adds about her village of 3,000 people:

Everyone’s sick. There are more people infected her than there are healthy people.

This is one case of Covid. One family doing what they can to keep a loved one alive. Leaving a job. Burning up the savings. More than two weeks of wondering, worrying, and hoping the pre-existing condition does not mean a death sentence. In Mexico, a nation of 100 million, more than 3.2 million people have gotten Covid; 253,000 of them have died.

***

In Cuzco, Peru, known most widely among travelers as the gateway town to Machu Picchu, a 30-year-old woman sits all day in a tiny apartment in front of a laptop giving Spanish lessons to Americans for ten dollars an hour. She shares the apartment with her niece, who is only a few years younger and works as a waitress.

They are both Venezuelan, from the city of Cabimas, the heart of the country’s petroleum industry. The Spanish teacher left the city, and her parents and siblings, about four years ago. She has a college degree in languages and literature, but couldn’t find work because of Venezuela’s ravaged economy. She is part of the great Venezuelan diaspora – nearly 5.5 million of them have fled from a country of 28 million, many of them, like the Spanish teacher, to nearby countries that don’t welcome their presence.

Both the Spanish teacher and her niece have Covid. The teacher, who I talk to weekly, started with a fever, which became a cough, which became a chest full of phlegm. For a couple of days, she could smell or taste nothing. Eight days into the disease, she is taking antibiotics, and exhausted. Yet, she spends her hours talking to Americans in Spanish because that pays for the medicine. She and her niece will recover – as will several friends of theirs who are also sick. They are young, their immunes systems are strong.

None of them were vaccinated. The wanted to be, but in Peru, unlike here in the U.S., there is not enough vaccine to go around (less than 10 percent of adults are vaccinated). And what there is comes from Russia or China and is considered suspect. Better than nothing, they say.

Peru is Covid country. The official death toll in June was more than 180,000, in a country of less than 33 million people, according to the BBC. Another report said Peru had the highest Covid death rate as a proportion of population in the world.

***

Here’s an obvious statement: Each number on a Covid chart is someone’s life. It is easy to overlook this reality amid the flood of statistics and the volume of polemics. It might be a life, like that of the Mexican father, that is little affected by the disease, or it could be a life, like that of the Mexican mother, that endures several weeks of distress and fear and results in depleted savings. It might be a college-educated Venezuelan refugee stuck in a room working throughout the disease because she must.

As we Americans argue over masks in schools and needles in arms, let’s not forget the privilege that allows us to have this debate, an entitlement so many millions of others in the world wish they had.

Smoke and Covid

It’s all smoke and Covid, smoke and Covid, a friend said yesterday. And it does seem that way.

Another friend said, while we walked through the neighborhood under ashen – quite literally – skies, “This is never going to end.” And so that seems, too.

I have enough years to say with without exaggeration that these fires and this disease will be with me for the rest of my life. The surety of this reality is comforting in a way because I do not need to fret about what I might do when the flames stop and the coronavirus subsides. Whatever I do from now own will be done in the company of these calamities. I am moving into the get-over-it-and-live-with-it stage.

What that means, I don’t yet know fully. There are many questions, and few answers: Will I travel as I did before, freely and with the intent of not just seeing but engaging? Will I still seek to satisfy my lingering hunger for success and accomplishment, paid or otherwise? Will I resurrect my social life – already anemic – from its mandated dormancy? And most importantly: Will I ever return to Oaxaca, where I have spent much of the last eight years photographing and developing deep relationships with several families?

The last question nags me the most. The intimacy of the “work” – defined in this case as positive industry and not contracted labor – sustained and nourished me when the last of the journalism I loved slipped from my grasp. More than that, the children and the mothers became proxies for what is lacking in my life, and I began going to Oaxaca with more frequency as much to be with them as to do the photography.

Now, I don’t know. I won’t torture you with the entire argument, all the pro’s and the cons. It’s enough to say this: Going there, the flying, does not scare me, but being there does. I am still nervous – fearful is a more honest word – about eating in a restaurant in my ninety-percent-vaccinated community here in the U.S. Imagine how I feel about spending the day in the one- or two-room home of an unvaccinated family. At the moment, it is a leap of faith I cannot bring myself to make.

No one likes being afraid, and we like even less confessing our fears. Especially men. What am I afraid of exactly? Getting sick? No. Being unlucky? Yes. Being one of the unfortunate three percent – give or take – for whom Covid is not an inconvenience but a death sentence. Feeling lucky, punk? No, I’m not.

That’s it: I don’t want to die from Covid. Yes, I’m ready to answer the door when the Reaper knocks, but I don’t want to hear him say, “Covid calling.” After all the irresponsible behavior, and resulting fractures, surgeries, and law enforcement encounters, I’ve survived, I don’t want this chingadera of a virus to do me in. No thanks. I think I’ll wait for something more traditionally fatal.

At times I label myself a coward for feeling this way and unleash the whip of self-chastisement. As a graduate of the no-pain-no-gain school, the sting of the lash has always served me well in overcoming my hesitations, but when it comes to Covid I’m going to need a bigger whip.

Now what? A question I’ve asked and answered without satisfaction often in the last seventeen months. In brief, I’ll carry on as I am, which, because of the good fortune that has come to me, is far from terrible. There are books to read, scribblings to be done, photographs to edit, a wife to love. More than enough.

The rain will arrive, soon we all hope, and wash the ash from the sky, brighten the ground, and construct a façade of hope that grants us interim refuge from our battle with the climate. Scientists will create more effective vaccines and force Covid into the cubbyhole of other conquered maladies. Tomorrow will come, as it always does.

It is human nature to live in the moment, to gain sustenance from and take pleasure in what is before us, whatever those circumstances might be, and it is this capacity that allows to accomplish the most enduring task of life, which is to get through this day so that we may take on the next.

Bag Check

The scene is a familiar one. A line of people outside an airport. A father holding a child in his arms. Another man opening his backpack for a security guard. The guard rummaging through the bag. It could be occurring in any U.S. airport. But it’s not.

The scene is Kabul, the line of people is leaving the airport – not trying to enter – and the security guard is barefoot.

Barefoot.

This photograph tells me all I need to know about the tragic, but inevitable, events taking place in Afghanistan, and that is this: All the modern weaponry in the world, all the massive military budgets, all sanctimonious politicians of all stripes, and all the beefed-up American soldiers clad as ultimate warriors are no match for a barefoot men with a rifle (or a RPG or an IED) who believes he will be liberated by the righteousness of his actions — whether they be motivated by religion, i.e., Taliban, or political, i.e., Viet Cong.

This is the lesson that seems to be lost in the maelstrom of media accusations, political recrimination, finger-pointing punditry, and in the justified chorus of lament for those likely to suffer the most under a resurgent Taliban rule – Afghans who sided with the U.S., either for self-enrichment or genuine desire to modernize their country, and Afghani women, who are headed back to the seventh century.

The United States – we – never belonged in Afghanistan. We went to punish the Taliban for harboring Al Qaeda. We did that, and a decade later we killed Osama bin Laden in his bedroom. That should have been the end of it.

But it wasn’t. It never is.

American arrogance is only matched by its ignorance and stupidity (see: Covid-19 vaccine). A core component of the American identity is the belief that everyone in the world wants to be like us, that they would all live according our values if only they could, that they believe as most Americans (but not all) do that each of us is entitled to our liberty and our pursuits.

Sounds good – but it’s not true.

There are large swaths of the planet, populated by hundreds of millions of people, who think this basic American credo is bunk. These folks are in favor of inequality, especially in regard to women and children. They do not believe in the precepts of civil society – family and tribe are first. They do not even believe in the imperfect laws of men; they adhere to the perfect rules of their chosen gods.

Their fundamentalism has nothing to do with liberty. It is directed toward preservation of self and propagation of the guiding belief. It crosses all religious boundaries. The fundamentalist form or every human faith has persecuted those it declares to be apostates or non-believers. More blood has been spilled over religion (combined with ethnicity) in the history of the world than all the wars for treasure combined.

Now Afghanistan is over for us – as it was always going to be. The internal clamor will continue, of course, because the beasts of media and politics must be fed. Wars never end well. Someone wins, someone loses, and the losers always suffer. Acknowledging this doesn’t lessen the suffering, I realize, but truth is better than subterfuge or self-delusion. I like seeing wars end, no matter how it’s done.

In this case, we were no match for a barefoot man with a rifle.

— Photograph by Wakil Kohsar / AFP / Getty Images

What Comes Next

All last year, through the masks and the Zooms and the under-cut hair and the over-thought solitude and sheet-pan recipes and the books that were read and the so much that was unsaid, I told anyone who asked that I was fine. I’m good, I’d say. I’m reading books, I’m writing, I getting some work done. Then I’d apologize for my being so well while so many others were suffering.

Now, a half year gone in the second year of the pandemic, I realize I am not fine. Something happened during all those weeks in the house, all those hours in front of a screen, all that time alone with my various selves. A tether unwound. A knot slipped. A cleat gave way. I find myself afloat, unanchored,. The shore that defined me is receding into a time that appears to be ending.

What comes next? The current is so subtle, nothing more than a ripple lacking definition and direction, that I cannot imagine my destination. I am adrift on still water.

There is, though, a sense of retreat, of a falling back, of moving away instead of toward, of disengagement from a long campaign. We all battle, we all wage war against our lesser selves. I wonder if being set loose means I ceded victory to those demons that have tried to claim me for so long. While hunkered in the bunker, did I inadvertently surrender?

Is this a lament? Where is the line between truthful recognition and plaintive lamentation? What separates self-honesty from self-pity? I don’t know. I have no answers for those questions, nor for many others. I was raised to live by faith in what cannot be understood and to view doubt as weakness. Such a foolish masculine stance: To believe we must be sure of everything, to be taught we have all the answers. So damaging, as well. When men fear their insecurities, they unleash their fearful chromosomes on others, on women first, of course, then on anyone who seems to undermine the place on the hierarchical throne they’ve been taught belongs to them but which they know they don’t deserve. A trepidatious king is a dangerous one. After all these years, I still cannot separate what I’ve been taught from what I’ve learned on my own. The blur of the past clouds the vision of the present.

Most of you don’t know me well, or at all. This is the nature of the public square, digital though it may be. Those who stand both prominent and anonymous at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, revealing the meanderings of their minds to anyone who chooses to listen, and even to those who unavoidably in passing hear snatches of argument, belief or outright loonyness, are no different than those, like me, who cut and paste our scribbled sentences onto pixelated platforms.

There are a few of you, though, who have traveled longer, if not always more pleasant, paths with me. At a newspaper, in a bar, or south in Mexico. You’ve seen the ugly as well as the good, and I’ll leave it to you to weigh the two. I think you will understand what I mean when I say that for someone whose life has consisted of moving on, of always leaning toward the next, it is disorienting to come to know – not suddenly, but in a slow, persistent unfolding, the conversion of winter buds into spring flowers — that all this movement led to the discomfiting stillness than wraps me now.

This time it was not me who moved on; it was everything else. Kids got older, boys dropped out of school, girls got pregnant, friends died. I live with the absence of what was, and it is not going to return. So, yes, there is loss. Spaces unfilled. Things that have been misplaced, but not the car keys or the cell phone. Instead whole parts of my life. And, no, I don’t think I am fine. I don’t know what I am, but is it not that.

I wish honesty was enough, but it doesn’t seem to be. It does not sate the hunger of an empty heart because a heart feeds on hopes and dreams and desires. It needs meals of bountiful possibility and gluttonous imagination. Truth and reality are poor substitutes. They might sustain, but they do not satisfy. The ache a heart feels in the deep of the night is the yearning for a serving of indulgence.

These are the swirls of the current that carries me as I emerge from the chrysalis of Covid. Where to? What next? It could be anywhere. It could be right here.

My Oaxaca — Damas de Honor

During the humid summers of Oaxaca, spiritual warmth and physical heat are partners in houses of prayer. On a wedding day in July, a 17th-century church seals guests in its ancient stone as the southern sun warms the nave to roasting temperatures. Fidelity is measured in sweat.

Religion is theater, and a catholic wedding in Mexico is a work of many acts: the mass, the blessings, the exchanges of everlasting devotion, the honoring of the many padrinos, the signing of official documents. There is no intermission.

The bridesmaids – las damas de honor – whose duties of procession are part of the opening and closing acts, wait off-stage as the play progresses, attendant to the script, but also wilting in the heat, which intensifies as the day lengthens. Unlike the flowers on the altar, they have no water for their stems.

In front of them, a boy whose walk-on role is done, takes advantage of his parents’ absence to do what everyone else in the church wishes they could do.

Garrett Loube

The dead don’t sense the loss; that falls to the living.

What the dead leave is absence. The emptiness of where they once were hangs between those who remain. There are feelings, yes, and memories and stories, recalled, retold and reconfigured, but displays of emotion and arrays of narration do not fill the void; they define it further by drawing attention to what is gone.

I am not one to think much about death and dying even though at my age – now into my third half-century as the calendar goes – it increasingly disrupts my focus to live day by day with a reminder that someone I know is no longer doing just that. My father, who could whistle past the graveyard with the best of them as long as he had a highball in one hand and a Camel in the other, was known to remark, usually upon the seeing the number of obituaries in the morning paper, “Look at this! People are dying who never died before.” Ba-dum-dump.

Right you were, Dad.

A friend died the other day. He was younger than I am, and a better person as well. Happy, generous, and accepting. A good soul. Magnetic also. He drew others toward him. Their presence nourished him and in return he yielded a benevolent harvest. Some were like-minded, that is fearless and open to the world. Others were weaker and more susceptible to doubt, and to them he spread wide his boughs of friendship, beneath which they took shelter from their individual storms.

Within circles of people, there is always a hub, a center who connects the spokes and locks them in place as the wheel of life spins and spins. To borrow from Didion (who in turn borrowed from Yeats), the center did not hold and “anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

What held us together is absent.

I am lousy at mourning, as I am at most emotional experiences, and, to give notice now to my contemporaries who are still above ground, I do not intend to get better at it. I am working on empathy and love, and these are such a chore for me that they occupy all the available shifts in the emotion factory. No tears have fallen from me for the absence of this good man, although I feel them gathering in my heart and I know this interior leakage eventually will result in a flood.

I haven’t absorbed it yet, said someone who loved him. I know what she meant, but absorbing death is like trying to bottle lightning. It is so sudden, so fleeting. The dying takes time, but death is not only instantaneous but also penurious, leaving behind nothing in return for what it takes. What is there to absorb? How do we sponge up a null set? How do we digest emptiness?

The wheel is broken. The center did not hold.

I don’t think I will write about death again any time soon. Maybe never. There is both so little and so much to say about it, and neither choice appeals to me.

Goodbye, my friend.

What Photography is to Me

For the first time in a year, I saw the whole frame yesterday, all of the edges as well as the corners. I saw the shapes and the shadows shift across the rectangle, blocking the light in some spaces, permitting more in others. My left thumb and index finger held the focus ring of the stubby German lens, nudging it left or right, following the big guy with the baby or the brown-skinned boy wearing a mandarin jacket or whoever was in the frame. They moved, I moved. A dance of unintroduced partners. A rush of pleasure filled me. The moment was both timeless and fleeting. To preserve it, I pressed my right index finger down and heard the satisfying squish of the shutter.

That instant symbolizes everything photography is to me. I’ll explain.

There was a time, when I was working less, drinking more and prone to bouts of gloom, during which I took comfort in watching videos of those singing competitions like American Idol. What I enjoyed most were the timorous contestants, those so lacking in presence or self-confidence that the judges and audience alike flinched at the performance to come, as if they involuntarily turned their gaze from an accident so they would not feel more of the pain that was palpable on the stage.

Of course, you know what happened. The instant the garbage man or bullied teenager or rejected girlfriend opened his or her mouth they transformed themselves into the brilliant, fearless soul they always were at heart but never had the courage to display to the world. As they sang, they became eternal. Forever that voice, forever that fulfillment of self, forever freed from the everyday fetters of life. I think this is the enduring appeal of these shows – the triumph of the ordinary, the tempting dangling of hope, the instantaneous miracle that results from the momentary repudiation of fear, the possibility, shown right there on the stage, of bending the world to fit you instead of the reverse.

When I am seeing well with the camera, I am in that world of my own creation. There is no time, no sound, no tactile connection to what’s around me, even if I am physically standing amid a large crowd of people, as I often am. The horizontal rectangle – fifty percent wider than it is high – occupies all my attention and draws my eye deeper and deeper into it, looking, looking, looking.

Perhaps this sounds silly, even childish. Well, it is childish. The great gift of childhood that fades as we age is the ability to see the world with wonder. Children stare unabashedly. They focus on the new, the different. They engage visually, drawn to movement and shape and color. They absorb what they see, and allow it to fill their mind.

This is photography for me – the absorption of the moment. It has been so since decades ago when I walked the downtown streets of San Francisco with a used camera and a 50mm lens trying to imitate the photographers whose images I’d seen in the community college library – Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Mary Ellen Mark. I was terrible, lacking courage and absent of technique and vision, but even though the results were consistently disappointing I loved the taking of the picture.

Even now, with a nicer 50mm lens, better technique, some vision and results that occasionally don’t disappoint, what most thrills me is finding the image and seeing it in the frame. I only open the shutter to prove to myself later that I in fact saw what I imagined seeing.

When I was younger, I wanted more. I wanted to work as a photojournalist, I wanted to be part of a creative community, and, it’s fair to say, I wanted some sort of acclaim. Things didn’t work out that way, and that’s how life can go. When I returned to photography fifteen years ago – more by coincidence than plan (that, too, is how life can go) – I discovered immediately that my love for the seen moment had not faded. Like high school sweethearts who reconnect late life, the ardor still burned between the frame and me.

In the last year – the first of the Covid years – I made pictures when I could, but most were of the house or the garden or the trails on the nearby mountain. The few times I inserted myself into the crowds, I rarely made a good frame. I appeased myself by saying it was practice, that I was keeping the visual muscles in shape. Still, I wondered – as I like to ask often these days – what would remain of the photography on the other side of the pandemic?

Now I know.

My Oaxaca — The Son Who Learned His Father’s Name

A teenage boy dies in Mexico. Tragic, so young, you might say, but also so common. In a land of violence and poverty, the lives of young men meet regrettable ends with common frequency. The story of this boy, though, is special. I will tell what I know of it, but there is much more outside of my knowledge. First, his name. It remains with me. After enduring so much in such a short life, he deserves privacy, as do his parents. In this story, he is Kiki, and they are Guadalupe and Miguel.

Kiki’s troubles began even before he drew his first breath. As he crowned out of his mother’s birth canal, the attending doctor, who was unskilled, grabbed awkwardly, twisting the emerging boy’s head and damaging his spinal column. Kiki’s brain survived, but its connection to his extremities and his organs did not. Kiki saw and heard, but he could not control. His limbs contorted into a permanent S, and his hands and feet curled inward, in retreat from his body. His speech consisted of an array of sounds – sweet gurgles, anxious pleadings, rhythmic mouthing to the music he loved. Stunted in height and thinned by lack of muscle, he weighed no more than a first grader.

Atop this anatomical mess sat Kiki’s full-sized, beautiful head. His face was broad across the cheekbones, full around the mouth, punctuated by an assertive nose, and adorned with a pair of deep, dark, hypnotic, ovular eyes that spoke all the emotions that Kiki’s muted voice could not – sparkles for pleasure, tears for sadness, and long, unblinking stares that could have been inquisitiveness or maybe just incomprehension. From the neck up, he was as attractive as he was grotesque from the neck down.

Kiki lived in a rural village that was near a bigger city, but still remote enough that a visitor from a more developed world could walk the town’s only paved road, smell the fields of garlic that surround it, pass the empty church (closed by an earthquake that cracked its tower), and imagine being in another century. Only the satellite dishes jutting up from rooftops broke the reverie.

Guadalupe, Kiki’s mom, is a short, quiet, doe-eyed woman whose dominant expression is one of permanent suspension, of canceled expectation. Her face is young enough to still hint of the coquettish beauty of her youth, while portraying the weight of caring for Kiki for a decade and a half, feeding, bathing, dressing, changing the bag he needed to empty his waste. A deep, vertical furrow creases her forehead about her broad nose. Miguel, the father, missed most of Kiki’s life. He was in California, working in a restaurant, sending money home, but also indulging himself with dalliances in adultery and drinking. By the time Miguel returned to Mexico, he was rotting from the inside out; diabetes, brought on by the drinking, was dissolving one gangrenous leg and eroding his eyesight.

Kiki outlived his father, who died blind and minus half a leg at age 49, one more victim of a disease that plagues Mexico. In the weeks before his death, Miguel laid in a single, metal-framed bed next to that of his son, to whom he spoke in the rhythmic Spanish of the Mexican countryside. Miguel’s final act of life was to teach Kiki how to say his father’s name. I saw Guadalupe a few weeks after Miguel died. As she sat on her bed holding Kiki in her lap, she told me he was speaking his father’s name. I couldn’t understand it, but she and Kiki did. That was what was important.

When Miguel died, Kiki cried for three weeks. Silently. He had grown accustomed to hearing his father’s voice and feeling his presence in the room with him. He could not have known his father was dying, though I am sure he realized Miguel was his father because he was aware of who people were – his mother, of course, the grandmother who lived with him, and occasional visitors from other places. Three weeks of tears, three weeks of mourning.

The bed-bound intimacy of the dying, diabetic father and his physically crumpled son was, despite the hardship of caring for both of them, a gift of emotional honesty for Guadalupe, who for her entire period of motherhood was ensnared in a web of whispered lies and unspoken truths, the result of the duplicitous actions of her husband.

Kiki was Miguel’s third child. His first was born in California to a woman he met there. A boy or a girl, I don’t know. The mother of the second child was a local woman from the same town as Miguel and Guadalupe. They liaised long enough for her to give birth to a boy, and then Miguel’s libidinous eye landed on Guadalupe, a curvy young woman with lush black hair, a good-looking country girl. When Miguel proposed to Guadalupe, her family balked. The whole town knew he was a philanderer. Who could say if something as fragile as a marriage vow would bind him to monogamy? He persisted, though, and what followed was marriage, pregnancy, and Kiki.

By the economic standards of the village, which border on poverty, Kiki’s family made enough money for a decent life. They had a plot of land, good for growing food. Miguel sent home dollars from California, that enabled them to open a sparsely stocked hardware store. There were even pesos to pay for physical therapy for Kiki. What fortunes they had, though, flagged after Miguel’s return. First hobbled and then blinded, he was limited to simple domestic chores, such as scraping kernels of corn off dried cobs. When money got tight, therapy for Kiki stopped.

As his eyesight retreated into narrow tunnels of vision, Miguel passed hours seated in a plastic chair in front of the hardware store, whose eastern side was shaded from the afternoon sun and faced a vacant lot about the size of a soccer field that bordered the town’s church. On the south end of this land, opposite the front door of the hardware store, Miguel sunk a large wooden pole into the ground, and to the pole he tied a horse. On sunny afternoons, a boy walked over from a nearby house, untied the horse, and rode it up and down the empty field. The boy was Miguel’s other son. Miguel didn’t speak to him, and the boy didn’t know Miguel was his father. Perhaps that has changed since Miguel’s death.

Miguel always wanted a son, says Guadalupe, and he got at least two of them, maybe three. The tragedy of Miguel’s life is that he lost them all. The first – if there is one in California – he gave up because of the realities of immigration and the penalties of his depravity. The second he traded away in exchange for marriage to Guadalupe, a barter that forced Miguel to spectate from a distance as the boy grew. The last, Kiki, watched Miguel die, unable to bid him farewell even from inches away.

A boy died in Mexico, taking with him the dreams of his father.

Bookshelf – A Promised Land, Barack Obama

There are many places to begin when thinking about Barack Obama’s personal, thoughtful, accessible and human recounting of his campaign for the presidency and his first term in office – the writing itself, which carries the same familiar cadence of his mesmerizing speaking voice; his relationship with Michelle, the rock that roots his dreams; the reality of being Black in America, of being, regardless of how high you rise, of how many versions of the American Dream you realize, “the other,” what W.E.B. Du Bois describes as the “two-ness” of being Black; the emergence of Donald Trump as a credible political figure, riding to prominence astride the racist pony of birtherism; Obama’s visceral belief in the transformational power of the most fundamental of American ideals – equality – and his sobering consideration of the long chain of compromises necessary to move this country, and others, closer to that promise; or the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan,

Any of these is worth a long conversation, but I am going to start at the end, with something personal: the tears that rose in my eyes as I finished the book. What triggered the emotion were not Obama’s closing words, but the five pages that followed. Five pages of acknowledgement, thanks and gratitude – to editors, friends, and researchers, to office staff, ex-colleagues and first readers, dozens upon dozens of people.

The tears sprang from the realization of how far America has fallen in four years, from a collaborative, visionary, grateful president to a selfish, petty, wannabe tyrant; from a man who worked with others to make dreams happen to an aging adolescent whose self-interest works against the interests of others and of the country.

I will not sanctify Obama. He made his mistakes and he came up short plenty of times, but to his credit he owns up to the failings of his time in office. Still, reading Obama was like drinking the from the cool waters of a desert oasis after a long trek across the sand. He reminded me of our better selves and how even though our diverse society is bubbling with hotpots of baser instincts we do not have to allow their toxic vapors to poison our hopes.

In this context, A Promised Land is both inspiring and saddening, the former because of how well Obama articulates the possible and the latter for how clear-eyed he recognizes the reality. It is well worth reading now, while the stink of the Trump shitstorm still lingers in the air so that you can inhale Obama’s freshening language and ideas and recognize, despite the despair you might have fallen into these past four years, that we were not always as we are now nor do we have to be so in the future.

I’ll end with Obama’s words, written in reference to the 2011 killing of bin Laden by a team of Navy Seals after years of investigation, pursuit and planning by hundreds – if not more – of government employees, from military personnel to CIA spooks:

“I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent day care.”

Just imagine.

My Oaxaca – Seeing Me (Again)

A fellow from New York is going to interview me in a few days about my photography in Mexico. In normal times, he gives tours of galleries and museums, but in these Covid days he stays active and engaged by holding on-line conversations with photographers.

He is quite taken with some of the images and, overall, very complimentary of the work, even going as far as to compare some of the frames to those of famous photographers. His words are kind and welcome, but they also make me wonder if he really knows what he is talking about – despite his art degree and experience – because his view is so distinct from mine.

It is difficult for me, as it is for many of us, to see myself as others see me. To do so requires an honesty unclouded by ego or defensiveness or yearning, and I am not free of those impediments. Even were I capable of veracious self-reflection, accepting the image I see in the mirror would demand both bravery and humility, characteristics of which I possess only in limited supply.

I am guilty on all fronts, at once unable to gain the exterior perspective of others and short of the requisite fiber to take those views to heart, be they negative or positive.  That said, I more easily embrace criticism than compliment. A slam feels more natural than a slather. Must be the Catholic upbringing, a religion built on low earthly expectations. Suffer now, dance with the angels later – if you get the invite. When I am told that my photography is mediocre or unfocused – two criticisms I’ve heard – I lean toward agreement. A self-flagellate prefers the whip to the caress. Should a friend or a reader toss a kudo or two my way, I am grateful for the praise, but I am apt to dismiss it. What do they know, after all?

It doesn’t take a session on the couch – or on a Zoom call these days – to diagnose this way of thinking as a protective mechanism. What doesn’t exist can’t be killed. A critic’s barb stings less if you expect nothing more. If you don’t value your photography, your writing, your art, then what does it matter if it is labeled mediocre or unfocused? That’s just a confirmation of what you believed, anyhow.

There is an expression in Mexico that goes like this: No hay mal que por bien no venga. There’s nothing bad from which good doesn’t come. The ol’ cloud and silver lining thing.  Too often, I’m the other way around: No hay bien que por mal no venga. No translation needed, right?

So uncertain am I of the work, I cannot edit it, so I ask the fellow from New York to select the images for the slides. He pulls out a few I love – a waiter with a tray, a mother and child with a bird (wonderful, he says) – and others I have consigned to the bin marked Not Good Enough, an ample space packed to overflowing – a old man in front of a wall, a masked rider on a horse (magical, he says).

As he talks about the photographs, describing the forms and the people and the intimacy he sees, the images no longer seem to be mine. I listen to his words and allow them to penetrate my protections. For a few moments, while he talks, I see what he sees. And the realization that I made these pictures amazes me. Not because I believe they merit his encomiums, but rather that I somehow maneuvered myself into the position to make them – to be in the homes of these families, to see them laugh and cry and eat and sleep, to walk amid the chaos of the streets of Oaxaca, to attend the weddings and horse races and transvestite parades. And more and more.

Most people when they see the photographs ask me: Why are you doing this? Is it for work, a book, a show? I’ve never been able to construct a concise answer. Satisfaction. Intimacy. Completion. Something like that.

Now it occurs to me there is a better question: How am I doing this? How did an aging gringo, who years earlier abandoned what he loved for something he was good at, find his way back to that first love and then, without any apparent purpose and even less skill, manage to put himself in the middle of so many lives? How did that happen? I suppose that’s another question I’ll never be able to answer well.

A Confession of Uncertainty

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To have on your own, with no direction home
— Bob Dylan

There was a time when I was certain of everything – what a good story was and how it should be written, what was worth reading and what should be skipped, how a newspaper should be put together, who I should listen to for guidance and who I should ignore, and where the world was headed and me along with it.

I must have seemed insufferably arrogant to many people in those years, as well as personally ignorant of all I dismissed so readily as not worth my time or attention.

Things are quite different now. These days I am certain of almost nothing. My bullshit detector still functions (which enables me to read the news and maintain both sanity and skepticism), I remain adept at detecting fundamental goodness in people, and I know my wife loves me, but when it comes to my own life and what passes for my work I am enveloped in a fog of uncertainty. Are these photographs any good? Would they by better in color or in black-and-white? Are they derivative? Do they have anything to say? Are they banal? Worse, are they exploitive? Is this story worth telling? Is the writing too clever, too whiny or too boring? Is there a reason to a tell a story if there is no one to whom to tell it?

The line between self-examination and self-flagellation is a fine one. The former enables the compass to be reset; the latter leads to circling the drain. Which am I doing? Am I judging myself, being overly harsh, too severely critical? Of even that I am not sure. Yes, it could be judgment, but I am more drawn to the explanation that the cause is indecision.

Is the doubt a product of age, an inevitable blunting of the sharpness of surety? After all, the years erode the flexibility of joints and plunder the vitality of the organs; why not, as well, rob the confidence of the mind and the clarity of the soul? If such thievery is the case, then it is an ironic equation of life that produces absolute certitude when we are young, inexperienced and bereft of acquired skills and then later, after a lifetime of learning and acquisition of capabilities, results in persistent uncertainty. Of course, the very experiences that boost intellectual capacity and expand emotional range also train the mind’s eye to concentrate more on the grays of the world than on the blacks and the whites because therein lie practicality, convenience and rationalization – the trifecta of coping. However, within this change of focus there is danger: minus the harshness of contrast, what remains is ambivalence.

After decades of writing and editing and photography, I find myself inert, fixated on the notion that I am incapable of producing anything of value. There are a couple of ways to think about this. One is that I was never any good at these pursuits and that recognition of this fact in the home stretch of a lifetime has shock-frozen me like a deer caught on the road staring into the headlights of his past. The other is, as I posited earlier, is that I have lost whatever it was I once had. Time presents its bill and to pay it we pawn our skills, our experiences and our memories. We live on, but in a lesser form, dispossessed of some, or much, of what we had acquired.

Is it too obvious to declare that life’s journey consists of a series of crossroads? Onward, left, right, back. Simple choices in theory, but complex in reality. Each option leads to another intersection and on and on and until one day there are no more crossroads. The more religious among us may disagree, but I am content knowing that a Road Ends sign awaits.)

This year, this pandemic year, this year in the house, this year with myself, is the most complicated intersection I’ve encountered, more of a confusing round-about with multiple entrances and exits than the familiar square of the crossroad. Eventually, I must choose an exit and I will. For now, though, I am circling.

A Thanksgiving Story

There is a teenage boy I know in Mexico who once a month or so asks me for money. Not much. Usually about 400 pesos — $20 give or take – enough to help pay the rent on the room he shares with his uncle or on the stall where he sells key chains in the market. Yesterday, it was for medicine because his uncle has diabetes.

Each time he asks, I tell myself I am not going to send the money because I am never sure how he actually uses it. I also know a young mother in Mexico who is a drug addict; she texts me photos of fake medical receipts for thousands of pesos, pleading for money to pay the bills. I wonder if the boy is like her.

I’ve known him for five years, though – he was 10 when his mother took me to visit him in the shelter where he then lived – and he doesn’t strike as the scamming type. He is quiet and polite. His grades were OK when he was in school (but that was before Covid). He helps his mother clean the room they shared before her boyfriend returned and forced his flight to his uncle’s.

But he is poor. Not the day-to-day poor, but the week-to-week poor, and that’s bad enough. When you live that way, what seems to be free money can be hard to resist. I think about that each time, about how he might think it’s easy to Whatsapp me, tell me a sad story and wait for the pesos to arrive.

Then I think about my life, about what I have now, about what I didn’t have years ago, and about how a few people made such a difference for me, not with money but with encouragement and support and tolerance. I look at what I own, my cherished cameras, my piles of books, the big chair by the window that overlooks the water, and the cabin on the hill that shelters me at night and holds a quiet room where blank pages await me in the morning. I see the food in the kitchen, the pricey bag of coffee, the fresh fruit and vegetables, the pungent, spicy whiskey that tempts me more than it should. I hear my wife’s voice and feel her love and know the completeness of my life.

An abundance. What I have is an abundance. More than I need, all that I want.

Each time the boy asks me for 400 pesos, each time I doubt his authentic need for fear of being played, each time he raises his hand and says, Help me, I feel shamed by my momentary hesitation. Each time I send him the money.

I could write at great length about my David Byrne-ish journey to my beautiful house, my beautiful wife and my questions about how I got here, but today is Thanksgiving and you can be thankful that I won’t.

For now, I will tell you what I tell myself each day: Be grateful, be kind, accept good fortune with grace, remember the roots of your life and feel their connection to others, and with each step forward reach back so someone else can grab on.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

A Sense of Arrival

“We all end up belonging to the same category, that of the non-young.”

— Julian Barnes, A Sense of an Ending

I put off reading A Sense of an Ending for long time. It was hidden deep in the guilt pile, the stack of unread books that stares accusingly at me from the bedside table. I feared the book would be about death and aging and slipping away, another depressing pre-exit confessional. I have plenty of own darker demons and saw no reason to engage with those of others. I need no help to slink into my personal nether regions.

Then came Covid. Housebound and forced to choose between a lockdown of doom-scrolling on Twitter or reducing the number of titles on the guilt pile, I began reading. I started with the hesitancy of a toddler tiptoeing into the sea for the first time and chose books based on page count, the fewer the better. A Sense of an Ending made the list early on because Barnes told his tale in only 163 pages.

It is not an overstatement to say the book, coming as it did during a string of novels by Cormac McCarthy, Ann Patchett and Margaret Atwood, revived my fascination with good writing, which years of page-skimming, post-liking and tweet-commenting had blunted. Moreover, I found the lion-in-winter wonderings of the principal character to not be depressing, but rather inspirational, even heroic. They contained the elusive truthfulness we seek during our younger years, answers replies to those fundamental queries: Who am I? Why am I here? – and the big one – What is the meaning of life? These answers present themselves more easily in the later years, especially if we maintain our attention (easier said than done because truth is an unsparing mirror).

You may be panting for the answers – what IS the meaning of life? – but this is not a pop quiz. Your exam and mine are different. My answers are not yours. I can tell you this, though: I didn’t ask the right questions, so what I learned is not what I asked.

Were I Barnes – oh, to write with the satiny fluidity he does – I would change the title to this: A Sense of Arrival. Even Barnes hints at the logic of this change, saying through his principal character: “You get toward the end of life – no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life.” You arrive at something else.

Aging is like walking on scree. To gain firm footing requires effort, what is underfoot is unstable, and a fall is going to hurt. On days when I am well-grounded, upright and steady of gait, I am taken with this sensation, that of arriving, that I’ve gotten somewhere else – perhaps surprisingly, certainly unintentionally, maybe even inevitably (because each of us is the result of the circumstances of our lives, those we chose as well as those forced upon us by genetics, society or economics).

That is not to say I know my current location. I am like Alice, who in her wanderings through Wonderland encounters the Cheshire Cat, who, grinningly, responds to her request for directions by telling her that any road serves a traveler who has no destination, because eventually she will arrive somewhere. Without ever having passed through the looking glass, I meandered through life, guided as much by randomness as anything else. Like Alice, I eventually reached something else.

Were Dickens to author my biography, it would be titled Lesser Expectations. During my formative years – a phrase that makes me smile, as if I were putty in a factory of gnomish potters — I envisioned little for myself, and certainly nothing of imagined importance. I did not foresee great education, great wealth or great recognition. I can report with certainty from the future of that young man that I fulfilled all I foresaw: I left the university sans degree or intellectual discipline; I enter the later days of my life irreparably indebted; and a careful hand could scribble my roster of achievements on a Post-It. The beauty of low expectations is that they are easily met. By that standard, I am a success.

Neither huzzahs nor tears greet my arrival. I dock at an empty pier, pass through a vast immigration hall, hear the chunk of a metal stamp on my passport, and see on the thick paper inky evidence of my continued existence: I am here, I am free to wander about some more.

In this liberation, there is comfort. I travel in this “something else” unhampered by baggage – the striving to be more, the yearning for approbation, the flinch against opprobrium. Less fettered, I am lighter of foot and fuller of heart. I carry only the knowledge that to arrive is not necessarily to end.