Author Archives: Tim Porter

Birthday Advice

Today is my birthday. I am almost a quarter of the way into this new century after having been alive for more than half of the latter one.

A recent podcast tipped me to a list of gained wisdoms compiled by Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Herewith, I offer my own list. As always, your mileage may vary:

  1. Never be ashamed of borrowing a good idea, but always hat-tip the source.
  2. Take credit for your successes and responsibility for your losses.
  3. Eat a good breakfast.
  4. Make time to be with friends.
  5. Make as much time to be alone.
  6. No matter how smart you think you are, it’s not enough.
  7. Everything breaks, including people.
  8. Nothing you’ve fixed, whether it’s a software conflict or an education system, stays fixed forever.
  9. It’s likely that many people think more highly of you than you do of yourself.
  10. To keep your body alive, walk; to keep your mind alive, read.
  11. No win is worth hurting someone.
  12. Take care of your teeth.
  13. You will never feel as old as your face looks.
  14. The past is gone. Get over it.
  15. Being successful often depends more on where you were born, your economic level, and your race than how hard you worked. It’s a lottery.
  16. That said, work hard. It feels good.
  17. Learn another language. It will change your life.
  18. When someone speaks to you in their second, or third, language, listen closely. This person is doing the work.
  19. Resumes are useless.
  20. Always listen to your gut – even if all it tells you is that it’s time to eat.
  21. Sleep more rather than less.
  22. If you get the upgrade, take the window seat so no one climbs over you while you sleep. If you don’t, take the aisle so you have the extra legroom.
  23. Good shoes are worth the extra money.
  24. No one cares about your version of God.
  25. If it seems too good to be true, it is.
  26. When you interview someone for a job don’t ask them what they’ve done, ask them: What do you know how to do?
  27. Failure is an option.
  28. Don’t eat crap food.
  29. If you’re an addictive person, get it out of your system when you’re young. Aging is hard enough without a habit.
  30. Don’t lie – especially not to yourself.
  31. If you say you will do something, do it – whether it’s make a phone call or love somebody.
  32. Keep children in your life. They don’t need to be yours.
  33. Stuff is fun, but it’s just stuff.
  34. Learn how to do something really well that is not your work.
  35. Sometimes pain is nothing more than a reminder that you’re alive.
  36. When given a choice, take happiness.
  37. Apologize as needed.
  38. Hug whenever possible.
  39. When you’re talking to someone from another culture and don’t understand them, chances are they don’t understand you either.
  40. Success cannot be sustained simply by doing what made you successful.
  41. Yes, young people don’t know what you know, but neither do you see as wide a horizon they do.
  42. Inexperience is a teaching opportunity.
  43. If you have more than you need, start giving.
  44. After a conversation with someone, if you don’t know more about that person that when you started then you didn’t ask enough questions.
  45. Why is more important to understanding than who, what, when, or where.
  46. Eat food that seems weird to you. At least once.
  47. It is not necessary to like everything – books, music, food, whatever. Not everything is for everybody.
  48. A good sunrise can erase a night of bad dreams.
  49. Stretch.
  50. If you mother’s alive, call her often. She won’t always be there.
  51. Take nothing for granted.
  52. No one likes a complainer. If you need help, ask. Otherwise, work the problem.
  53. A smile is the best greeting.
  54. Please will open almost any door; thank you will keep it open.
  55. Try before you buy.
  56. Everyone is dealing with something you know nothing about.
  57. Kindness multiplies.
  58. Aging requires you to ignore your body most of the time, except when its most critical. Learn how to tell the difference.
  59. When you’re young, take chances; when you’re older, use the lessons learned from those chances.
  60. Don’t assume that everyone – or even anyone – thinks like you.
  61. Learn the names of as many plants and animals as you can. You’ll feel smarter when you’re outdoors.
  62. Have a bad habit that doesn’t hurt anyone else (mine are tortilla chips).
  63. Words have consequences. Choose with care.
  64. Children believe what adults tell them. Honor their innocence.
  65. What happened yesterday does not have to happen again today. Change is both possible and inevitable.
  66. Listen more.
  67. You have no control over what other people do – even if those things make you feel terrible. Your only choice is to do things that make you feel good.
  68. Having money is better than not having money, but sometimes the greatest rewards come from doing something for free.
  69. Look out the window each morning. What you see might be your last day alive. Then get going.
  70. Tell someone you love them every day.
  71. Say something nice to everyone you meet. Small talk produces big rewards.
  72. Be grateful you’re here – at any age. So many aren’t.
  73. Don’t look back. It’s what ahead that matters.

Let’s Give Getzamaní a Future

Getzamaní Hernández Rodríguez is 10 years old. She is blind and autistic. She needs special schooling to live an independent life. Without our help, she is condemned to a life of poverty and dependency.

Getzamaní lives with her parents, Edith and Juan Carlos, and her siblings, Nephtali, 11, Ruth, 9 and Elisa, 2, in a house made of tin and cardboard on the outskirts of Oaxaca, Mexico.

They are poor people in a poor land that does next to nothing to help children like Getzamaní. Only two public schools in the region address the needs of children of children like Getzaman. And they are full. Getzamaní’s mom must take her and the other children — because she can’t leave them home alone – across a sprawling city by moto-taxi and then on foot to a private shelter where classes in Braille and other survival skills are available.

Since Edith can’t work because she spends all day ferrying her children back and forth and waiting for them, the family routinely runs out of money to pay for transportation.

But there is a solution.

Getzamaní can study and receive speech and occupational therapy at home through private teachers. A couple of hundred dollars a month will pay for classes in Braille and other subjects and therapy, the latter to help Getzamaní become more independent – to dress and feed herself and to not have to rely on someone to help her use the bathroom.

If you give $250, you will buy a month of education for Getzamaní. Your generosity will not only change Getzamaní’s life but that of her entire family.

Please help. Give a little or a lot. Whatever you can. One hundred percent of what you give will go directly to the family.

Whatever questions you might have, please message me here or at tim@timporter.com.

I thank you. Getzamaní and her family thank you.

Bookshelf — Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson

When Donald Trump got elected president, friends who lived in other countries asked me what happened. How could the United States, they asked, elect such a mendacious, immoral con man to the most powerful democratic office on the planet? I didn’t have an answer.

Over the course of Trump’s four convulsive years, a torturous test of democracy that culminated in the madness of the January 6 riot in Washington, I asked myself the question again and again. There were, and there continue to be, plenty of theories, among them the economic stagnation of the working class; the arrogance of Hillary Clinton; and the generalized cluelessness among upper-crust Americans – the so-called elites – of the political tectonics at work in the nation.

There is one more factor, though, one which I’ve come to believe not only determined the 2016 election but underlies the accelerating rancor in the country, and that is race.

In the wake of the nation’s first black president, a Harvard-educated lawyer with a Harvard-educated wife, white Americans of moderate and lower income and education levels – which, of course, are linked – voted overwhelmingly for Trump, who shamelessly planted the seeds of his candidacy with his dog-whistling insinuations that Barack Obama was not a “real” American – not one of “us.”

Imagine, then, in the midst of a presidency rooted in racism – don’t forget Trump’s opening-day salvo about Mexican rapists – how timorous whites reacted to the sight of tens of thousands of black Americans protesting the police murders of black men and women by chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Gun sales rose nationally to record levels, conservative states made it harder for blacks to vote, and unabashed white supremacists ran for office and won (Marjorie Taylor Greene).

Yes, it is really about race. There are other culprits, of course, chiefly mind-warping religious dogma, but the specter of the United States become blacker, browner, yellower, or any shade other than white-ish frightens the living bejeezus out of many white Americans and drives them to embrace extremist thinking – such a stealing a democratic election.

The blood of racism courses through the veins of America. In Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson uses the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to time-stamp its origins.

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race,” King said. “Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society.” We are “perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population.”

I came across this book, published in 2017, during my ongoing inquest into what happened to the America I thought I knew but clearly did not. Written as “a sermon to white America,” Dyson, a widely known author and scholar who also is a Baptist minister, says his intent is “healing our nation through honest, often blunt, talk” that “will make you squirm in your seat with discomfort before, hopefully, pointing a way to relief.”

As a preacher, Dyson is both frank and avuncular. Each stinging slap of truth about white racism, whether institutional such as hiring or housing discrimination, or individual such as white retail clerks who ignore black shoppers or white cops who brace black college professors in front of their children for being in the “wrong” neighborhood – comes with the salve of, not compassion, but understanding that centuries of racist messaging causes whites to act as they do. Dyson doesn’t excuse, but he does recognize the involuntary racial reflex, an unconscious response which, he urges, can be overcome with conscious effort.

Planted in the pew, I hung on Dyson’s words when, in the heart of his sermon, he writes about what it’s like to be black in America, even for a man of letters and financial good fortune like himself. He speaks of how he was raised, to defer to whites, to defer to police, to defer to any authority, subservience learned in an unwritten manual of survival in a white world.

The manual “tells you to make sure you lower your eyes, say yes sir, no smart mouthing, no anger, no resentment, just complete total compliance without a whiff of personality or humanity,” says Dyson, who then asks his white readers, “Ever had to endure that humiliation, my friends?”

No, I have not.

Even when, in my younger days, I had a few scrapes with the law and awoke more than once to a barred view, I never felt I shared the same fate as the black boys and men who occupied similar spaces in the same institution. I could not have articulated this then, but I see now how my whiteness elevated me to a rung above them. I was in a cell. They were a cell. But I was white.

A shameful perspective to admit to, but it was true then, just as it is still true now for so many white Americans. Not all. Not me. But many.

Like all good teachers, and preachers, too, I suppose, Dyson focuses me on my ignorance, a condition, I have found, that increases with age despite my best efforts to keep it in check. Near the end of the book, Dyson offers tonics for white Americans who’d like to detoxify themselves. One remedy is education. “You must educate yourselves about black life and culture,” he says. “Racial literacy is as necessary as it is undervalued.”

If such an education interests you, my fellow pale-skinned Americans, and I hope it does, add Tears We Cannot Stop to your syllabus.

Home from Oaxaca — Comforts and Discomforts

What strikes me when I return to California from Mexico is not the presence of affluence, but the extent of it, the width and breadth of the comforts and conveniences it buys, the immensity of the shopping areas and the efficiency of the paved corridors that connect them, the newness of the cars, the reality of their price tags – a $70,000 pickup! – the proclamation, both boldly advertised and silently intuited, that whatever you wish is available so long as you have the coin or the card of the realm.

There is also money in Mexico. Just two days ago, I watched a black Porsche Cayenne drive with Germanic haste down a 16th century street in Oaxaca. More widely seen are BMWs and Mercedes, parked in front costly hotels, watched with vigilance by uniformed men. But these are uncommon, rare birds in an environment of pigeons and sparrows: used SUVs, ancient VWs, and underpowered motorcycles with a baby on board, as well as a father and a mother. In Mexico, inequality is bottom-heavy; in the U.S., it is top-heavy.


Arriving at home, I see the solidness of my house, the thick redwood beams that anchor it to the hill, the heft of the front door, heavy on its brass hinges, and, inside, the milled cherry planks that support the stuffed chair where I read greet my feet, when I have taken off the thick shoes that bore me through two flights, with a sleek coolness.

Around me is nearly everything I’ve accumulated over the decades, the photographs of Mary Ellen (now gone), the book by Mary Ann (as well), the paintings and the pottery and my own images from Oaxaca, and all the goodies of modern life: stove, fridge, cords that connect to computers and tablets and phones.

I could not tell you how all this came to be. There was no grand plan. Things happened, one after another, one day at a time. But this I do know: I am fortunate, wealthy with friends and family, and possessing enough financially that, while being almost penurious relative to the monied community in which I live, to feel abashed at times for having so much while many others, including the people I saw only yesterday in Mexico, have so little.

Despite being uneasy about my ease, I don’t want to abandon it. Habits of comfort are hard to quit. Spending so much time in Mexico has not made me want to be more Mexican; rather, it has made me more thankful of being American, a tarnished designation these days, to be sure, but still one that affords its bearer the chance of economic success and the right of democratic pluralism, as imperfect as both are in our times.

Before Covid, family and photography took me to Oaxaca. Both still do, but now I am compelled even more by the collision of the calendar, of my waning time, with an opportunity to put to good use what skills and scars I’ve gathered in service of a non-profit dedicated to education (Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots, oaxacastreetchildren.org).

I am admittedly late to this game, but apologies for the past don’t accomplish much. Instead, here in the present I say, Thank you – thank you to everyone who brought me here, thank you for believing even when I didn’t, thank you opening doors and inviting me through, thank you for seeing what I needed when I had no clue. I find solace in knowing you are the source of my comforts and in recognizing that my discomforts are of my own making.

As I age, I realize we have a choice – to remain in the past or to move forward, to walk toward the fate that awaits us all. I choose to walk. It is more comforting to be on the move.

Bookshelf – Circle Way, Mary Ann Hogan

A writer dies, her book is not done, her husband writes the final chapter

There is no more tenuous concept than time. Hours, days and years are inventions of man, an application of accounting and order to a life whose beginning is mysterious but whose conclusion is both clear and capricious.

Time, as a mechanism, constructs a façade of stability behind which extends a void that defies definition. What we call “today” is a random assortment of instances, each so infinitesimally transitory that we can neither immerse ourselves in them nor extract from them any indelible depth of experience. Tomorrow is perpetually beyond reach, unattainable, because it exists only in our heads. As soon as the rising sun cracks the horizon, tomorrow disappears under the onslaught of today. Our brains are wired for now; every instant of consciousness occurs today.

What remains is the past, a grand mausoleum of dismembered memories. This unkempt charnel house of fading images, distant conversations, and joys and pains exaggerated or tempered by time tempts examination, especially by writers and others who seek to make sense in their lives. But the past is not a single, definable entity of what was. The past consists of only what we remember, and even that is unique in quantity and clarity for each of us.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said the Greek. But what of the unexamined past? Should it be disinterred?

***

When Mary Ann Hogan and I met we were journalists, she a reporter for a big newspaper, and I the editor of a smaller one. I was arrogant, aggressive, and inflated with self-worth; she was everything that was the opposite: sweet, lovely, and brimming with talent.

I fell for her at once, charmed by her Irish eyes, galactic smile, and dulcet ways. But she was taken, by a lucky fellow I’d just hired, Eric Newton. So, I settled for friendship, and we three formed a youthful bond that endured as we aged.

Mary Ann died in 2019, claimed by rampaging cells. Dying is an untidy process that always leaves something – or much – undone. When the lymphoma took Mary Ann, she hadn’t yet finished the book that was to be the culmination of her life’s work, a memoir about losing and finding herself, about leaving and returning home, and about her father, the former literary editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. The book lacked a final chapter, which Mary Ann had planned to write after returning home from the East Coast to Mill Valley, California.

Before she died, Mary Ann asked Eric to keep her book alive, to make it whole and write the last chapter. In their decades as a couple, she the writer and he the editor, they regularly wove words together. Each nourished the other. So it was a natural thing to do.

***

In the book, Eric describes one of their final conversations:

The last time we went over the manuscript, after we finished, she just looked at me. It was not the please-grab-a-towel look but the deep-blue-sky look.

And she said . . . nothing.

Not a word. No need.

She was dying. We both knew what she was asking. I hugged her pages to my chest.

“You know I’ll do it.”

***

And he did.

The result is Circle Way, a lyrical, deeply personal, honest, and often whimsical collage of Mary Ann’s artful story-telling and her father’s poetic ruminations and ephemeral drawings. It is a three-dimensional memoir that presents the life of a writer shaped as much by what she overcame and what she accomplished as by what her father, despite his professional success, failed to do, which was to write his own book.

“In so many ways,” Mary Ann writes, “I am my father’s daughter. Self-made journalists, we. Introverts, lovers of books and wine. Sufferers of ‘flying thoughts.’ We once held prized newspaper jobs, writing for the masses. But we felt like impostors with nothing to say. At times I still do.”

Flying thoughts, swirls of emotions, the curve of life, the inward spiral, the outward gleam of the nautilus shell. This is the path Mary Ann followed, avoiding the straight lines, accepting the looseness of history and ignoring the conventions of time. She didn’t want to just tell a story; she wanted to tell a whole story, using what was available, what could be grasped, what could be disinterred, and what could be intuited from what she had seen and lived.

We all live with doubt about the rightfulness of the choices we make. Knowing what to do is often more vexing than the doing. Author Katie Kitamura, in her enigmatic novel, A Separation, writes a piercing line that is apt here: “People were capable of living their lives in a state of permanent disappointment.” What Mary Ann allows us to see in Circle Way is a daughter’s recognition of her father’s discontent and how, using that perception as a beacon, she found a way to elude his legacy.

Acknowledging the prejudice of my friendship, as well as my reading of several versions of the manuscript, I can say Circle Way is a remarkable book. Or to say it in a manner that Mary Ann would approve, I saw the sausage being made and still found it delicious.

One final word: What Mary Ann did, and what Eric helped her do, was not just write a memoir, but create something uniquely personal. Anyone who attempts creative expression knows how difficult that is to do.

Mary Ann, the journalist, did not want to get scooped on the news of her death, so she wrote her own obituary, one about Mary Ann the writer. Here’s an excerpt:

“Mary Ann saw death not as an ending, but rather as the beginning of the final, infinite chamber in the nautilus shell of a creative life. . . .”

***

How to buy Circle Way:

Amazon

Bookshop

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.