Author Archives: Tim Porter

Day 58 — Fear Itself

When we see photos of people crowded into a Castle Rock, Colorado, restaurant on Mother’s Day, defying not only a state order that bans in-restaurant dining, but also the common-sense behavior a pandemic demands, we are seeing how difficult it is to be comfortable with fear.

Setting aside politics – if that is possible these days when patriotism is defined by carrying a rocket launcher into a sandwich shop – those queuing up at C&C Coffee and Kitchen claim they want to get back to normal life, that they’ve suffered and given up enough.

Adverse circumstances, be they medical, financial or social, force us to abandon our routines and we become uncomfortable, anxious and fearful. We wonder when it – the disease, the recession, the social change – will end and we can return to how we were before. It was not perfect (it never is), but it was familiar, it was comfortable.

Uncertainty produces fear. Just ask any stock trader or someone awaiting the results of a biopsy. Nobody likes being afraid. No one save the admirable ilk who jump out of airplanes with chutes attached to their backs and similar risk-loving souls, willingly chooses fear over comfort. There are times, though, when fear is the only wise choice. This is one of them. Fear keeps us apart, so we don’t infect one another or our families. Fear makes us respect the social guidelines because unless we do the pandemic will persist, and normalcy will be further postponed. Fear teaches us to avoid doing what is dangerous (don’t touch the hot stove; don’t be around someone who is coughing.)

Fear is exhausting, though. It wears you down. To withstand it, whether it’s for a few seconds before you point the kayak into the whitewater or for several months while giving up haircuts, cappuccinos and a suntan, requires two things: discipline and a leap of faith.

The first is obvious: Being afraid is not easy. It’s not for sissies (as my mother, God love her, uses to say about getting older). Living with fear does not demand the iron discipline of a Seal Team member (although if you’ve got that, go with it), but more of the slushy stubbornness of the guy who runs a marathon and comes in last. It ain’t pretty, but it works, and it gets you to the finish line.

Most Americans suck at discipline or even at being stubborn. That want what they want an they want it now – one-hour delivery, Instapot, medical miracles, the right to carry weapons of war while ordering a Chicken & Bacon Ranch Melt at Subway. As a nation, we are fat (42 percent prevalence of obesity), illiterate (27 percent haven’t a book in the past year), and stupefied (nearly one in four adults struggle with substance use – booze or drugs). This is not the army I want to go to war with. No wonder that eight weeks into a pandemic that has infected more than 1 million of Americans and killed 80,000 – with tens of thousands more to come – so many Americans have battle fatigue.

The fear, the fear of never being “normal” again, is winning.

Even more than discipline (iron or slushy), fighting fear requires a leap of faith. It amazes me that so many conservatives who root their political leanings in the parables of the bible seem incapable of applying the faith they have in an ephemeral kingdom located on the far side of universe populated by toga-wearing men with wings to the idea that fighting fear requires us to believe we will succeed.

The skier tips her toes over the cornice believing she will arrive at the bottom of the run in one piece. The skydiver steps into the air believing the chute will open. The young couple in love marry believing their lives will be long and peaceful. The writer fills the page believing the book will come. On and on and on. All of human life and endeavor, from the quotidian to the audacious, depends on overcoming uncertainty, in believing in a favorable outcome.

Yet, here we are, in a nation infected by two diseases: a microbial invader that propagates by our carelessness, and an intolerance of uncertainty, discomfort and inconvenience nourished and encouraged by the most childly selfish man to ever occupy the Oval Office. Ironically, a good portion of the American population is more afraid of the latter than the former. Fear doesn’t kill you. Covid-19 does.

We all know FDR’s line, delivered in 1933 in his first inaugural speech and addressed to a nation that was four years – not eight weeks! – into a depression that was devastating not just families but entire regions of the county. “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he said – and that is the most quoted line, but he continued: “—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

These words remind us that the battle against fear requires one more thing beyond discipline and faith – leadership.

“In every dark hour of our national life,” Roosevelt said, “a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

Absent that leadership – and, sadly, the nation is – we, we the people, need to hold our ground, dig in, have faith in ourselves and get comfortable with the fear. Don’t run. Stare it down. Laugh at it. When confronted, fear loses potency. It retreats. You want your normal life back, then first get control of your fear. Don’t give it the power to make you stupid, to do things that could kill you or your family. That’s something that should really scare you.

My Oaxaca — La Vida de la Madre

Mother’s Day – el Día de la Madre.

No one deserves a day of recognition more than single mothers who hold their families together through force of love, work and will. Doing so is never easy, and it is even more challenging in Oaxaca, where single women head up at least a quarter of all families.

Many are women abandoned by men who have gone north or moved on to another warm bed. Many are women who have left partners who drank too much or ruled the house with their fists. All of them have learned to be independent, both from necessity and desire, in a culture that in almost every circumstance values men more than women.

These mothers welcome me into their homes. They insist on feeding me; they invite me to graduations, baptisms and birthdays; and they bestow on me the gift I treasure the most: their trust.

They humble me with their work; they inspire me with their dedication to family; they make me laugh with their antics; and, when they are not looking, they sometimes bring me to tears.

My Oaxaca — El Caballo Rápido

When I met Axia, she drew horses. In the bedroom she shared with her mom and two younger siblings, she had papered one wall with sketches of horses. She’d given each a name; for example, El Caballo que Vuela – the Horse that Flies.

I made some photos of Axia while she sat and drew in the light coming through the bedroom door. She asked me for a piece of paper, so I handed her my notebook. A while later, when I was on the patio talking to her mom, Axia walked out of the bedroom and handed me this drawing – El Caballo Rápido — The Fast Horse.

A few months later, I returned to the farm town where Axia lived and brought her a large sketchpad and pens I’d bought in the U.S. She filled all the pages with drawings of horses and added many of them to the gallery on the wall.

The following year, on my next visit, I was surprised to see the wall was empty; all the horses were gone. I asked Axia’s mom what happened. She said Axia’s younger sister, angry about something, had ripped up the drawings and the sketchbook as well.

Axia, whose full name is Axianeydt Ramirez Ojeda, is older now and has moved to New York. She still draws, but mostly anime characters. She seems to be done with horses.

My Oaxaca — Azul

Azul is one of four sisters who lived in Hijos de la Luna, a children’s shelter so named because the kids’ mothers supposedly worked as prostitutes at night (under the moon – la luna). A few did, but most were just hard-working and poor. They cleaned houses, washed clothes, worked in markets, making enough to pay the rent but not enough to care for their kids.

Someone told me Azul’s mother was a prostitute, but I never met her, so I didn’t know for sure. What I knew was that Azul lived deep inside of herself. She stared at me like no else ever did or has. In the 10 or so times I photographed her, she never said more than 10 words to me. One day, when she put on a red clown’s nose, her face fell into the closest thing I’d seen to a smile on her.

After the government closed the shelter on charges of abuse, the children scattered. I heard that Azul and her sisters moved in with their mother, who afterward had a baby boy who died in infancy. Before each trip to Oaxaca, I message Azul’s older sister, asking her to ask her mother if I may visit. Sometimes I hear back, sometimes I don’t. She’s never said yes.

Day 50 — Quarantine, Guns & Stephen King

In The Stand, Stephen King’s book about a lethal pandemic let loose upon the world by an accident at a U.S. Army biological weapons facility, social order collapses as the disease spreads. King does not explain whether the rioting and mayhem results from the illness itself, that is, whether the virus induces madness, or whether it is instinctual human behavior to shed the trappings of civility when facing certain death and embrace in our last hours the survivalist responses of the herd – kill or be killed, muscle matters, what is yours is mine.

Had I read this book when it was first written, in 1978, I no doubt would have found the story entertaining because in those days I read a fair amount of science fiction, but I would not have put much credence in King’s dystopian scenario. Now, I am not so sure.

A couple of days ago, here in the most heavily armed country in the world, hundreds of men (and some women) clad in military costumes and armed with high-powered weapons attempted to enter the legislative chamber of the state of Michigan. State police stood in a line to prevent their entry. No shots were fired. No one was hurt. But, what if … ?

What if a cop couldn’t take any more guff from a frothing protestor screaming at him from inches away or decided that one the toy soldiers was as dangerous as any of the unarmed black men shot to death by police in recent years?  What if a camouflaged, masked, Kevlar-clad, goateed, self-described patriot, surrendered to the rush of testosterone coursing through his beefy body, lost trigger discipline and emptied a clip into the crowd? The ensuing violence would ricochet far beyond the foyer of the Capitol in Lansing, Mich.

These over-fed, self-styled militias have become de rigueur at right-wing rallies, lethal equivalents of the sign-language interpreters who stand stage left at more progressive events. No patriotic march is replete without firearms, the bigger, the nastier looking the better. Sad to say, the threat of violence has become a cliché in America.

We are not yet the blood-thirsty, and bloodied, hordes of the future imagined by Stephen King, but we are standing on a road that runs in that direction. Personally, I don’t care about guns. Own them, collect them, shoot them, none of it bothers me. Live and let live. That works for me from the rifle range to the bedroom. But just as I don’t want to see rampant sex on the street, I don’t want to see guns there either. They don’t need to be standing in line at Starbucks, walking through the public parks, or carried across the chest into the Capitol of any state. Especially if the guy strapped to an AR-15 is spewing spit along with his profanity.

I’ve screamed at cops, so I get that it. I grew up in an age of protest and even if I myself think that someone who is yelling because he can’t take a six-pack of Corona Light to the beach is a few cards short of a full deck I grant him the right to demand his dose of Vitamin D. However, I never would have held a loaded gun (Isn’t that what they say: always assume a gun is loaded?) in front of a cop, much less got in his face while I was doing so? So much can go so wrong.

Somehow, some way, we’ve got to dial this down. The crack in the Liberty Bell has widened. The cradle of Democracy creaks like a MF. The fabric of our society is growing threadbare. But none of it is yet damaged beyond repair.

How do we fix this?

My Oaxaca – Agua Para Uso Humano

In the dry months, after the winter green fades and before the summer rains fall, the city thrums with the sounds of pipa trucks, ungainly vehicles whose oval tanks contain up to 10,000 liters of “water for human use.” Not for drinking, though. Not unless you enjoy a forced intestinal purge. For bathing and washing dishes and cleaning the cement patios.

Gas-powered pumps snort like un-muffled lawn mowers and push the water through corrugated rubber hoses into the cisterns of upscale homes, hotels, and trendy new businesses like French cafés and fusion restaurants that delight those willing to pay first-world prices in a third-world city.

Those without the money to buy thousands of liters, the working class and the poor, go without water for days when the city shuts off the tap. To drink and cook and bathe, they buy a 20-liter jug, a garrafón. Others drop buckets into deep wells and draw up undrinkable water, good enough for cleaning and boiling.

This is the conundrum: There is mescal that costs $10 a shot, there are hotels that charge $250 a night, there are iced frappuccinos from Starbucks, but there is not enough “agua para uso humano” to go around.

My Oaxaca – The Woman and the Umbrella

“Come in, she said, I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.” – Bob Dylan

The umbrellas float atop the crowd, bobbing like comic word bubbles above the women – always women – who snap them open and thrust them skyward as they step from the shade of street corners, churches and buses into the glare of the Mexican sun.

Beneath the umbrella, beyond shelter from the solar storm, the canopy creates a protective sphere. Inside, the woman navigates the eddies and swirls of the sidewalks, fends off unwanted solicitations, commercial and libidinous, and broadcasts, with a portentous downward tilt of the umbrella’s pointed tip, that she is about her business and is not to be messed with.

My Oaxaca — The Dead Dog

Mexico is tough on dogs. They die from starvation on sidewalks. They die on highways, flattened by buses and left as a feast for the crows. The die from poison in farm towns because folks prefer dead dogs over dead chickens. They die from fights with other street dogs, clawed, bitten and infected.

This dog died in a children’s shelter. It ate something toxic, perhaps poison, maybe rotted meat. Death came slowly, performing its last rites before an audience of children. All afternoon they watched the dog lie on a slab of cement and gasp for the breath its flooded lungs could not produce.

When stillness finally came, the children stood over the corpse. A few touched its fur, moist with sweat from the exertion of dying; others, less adventurous, poked the body with their shoes.

Day 43: New Season

The season has changed. When I got home from Mexico seven weeks ago, it was still winter in Northern California, if not by the calendar then by the temperament of the weather. The nights were cold and damp, the days not much better. It rained enough to brighten the grass and quench the thirst of the trees. When I sat on the deck to read, I wore corporate fleece and Pendleton wool.

The wool now mopes in the closet, the fleece drapes over a dining-room chair, both furloughed for lack of work. Eighty degrees yesterday and the day before, sunshine from the first light of dawn to the last of the evening. A t-shirt on the deck. What didn’t bloom in March is bursting now. New leaves, flamboyant with their fill of chorophyll, adorn the decorative maples. The wild grass in the open space aside the house is thigh high, heaven for the deer, paradise for the ticks.

This morning, as I walked the stairs to the street to retrieve the Sunday news, I stopped on a landing to watch how the sunlight sparkled in a wayward spray of water leaking from the irrigation system. It seemed too pretty to repair, so I will leave it like that for a day or two. On the next landing, I walked face first into a sticky grid of webs erected overnight by industrious spiders, work intended for prey smaller, and more digestible, than I. On the third, and last, landing, a swarm of tiny insects danced in the air, their translucent wings backlit by the sun. A fresh hatch. How many days of life will they have?

Before I opened the wooden gate to the street, where the newspapers awaited, the national paper sheathed in blue plastic and the local effort bagged in beige, I thought about all the life that happens around me while I shelter in my place – the blooming and bursting of camellias, azaleas, and magnolias, the nocturnal industry of arachnids, the bomb of insects exploding before my eyes. All of this – and more – in my small slice of the world, a quarter-acre on a hillside. I am but a traveler here, passing through. The bushes bloomed, the spiders spun and the bugs were born before Mother Earth stamped my passport and issued me a visa, and will continue to do so when she denies my application for renewal.

Day 41: First trip out

Before yesterday, I’d been out of the house only twice in 41 days. Both times I drove my wife to do an errand and never got out of the car. Because I torqued a knee on my last trip to Mexico in March, I couldn’t walk much at all, much less do any of the shopping. The knee is healing, slowly, but it felt strong yesterday so I decided to drive to a farmer’s market that assembles once a week in the parking lot of a nearby drug store.

With my wife’s guidance, who now has a Mad Max-ian wardrobe for shopping, I geared up: My new mask bought by email from a women’s boutique that has turned its talents to face-ware, a neck gaiter that could double as another layer of facial protection, two pairs of rubber gloves, two antiseptic wipes (placed in a plastic baggie to keep them moist) and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Oh, and cash, something I haven’t needed for six weeks.

My first surprise was the number of people at the market, at least 40, which seemed like a lot for a guy who had not been in the company of another person other than his spouse for a month and a half. Everyone wore a mask, some hand-made like mine, some of the blue surgical type, and a few N95s, and gloves covered most everyone’s hands. The market is small, about 10 stands, and there were several lines of people. The longest of those queued in front of a woman selling bouquets of flowers, which I took as a symbol of people needed something bright in their homes. I placed myself in the vegetable line. They wait was short, but long enough for me to identify three types of people in the market:

· The good neighbors, those aware of their personal space and their hygiene. They kept their distance from others, didn’t touch the food with their hands (as requested) and maintained a cheery air about them, as forced as it might be.

· The clueless, who unfortunately were all older (meaning my age and northward). They meandered, either from physical ailment or distress caused by the disruption of normal, closing the gap between them others, and occasionally bumping into someone. They picked up the food with their hands, examining the head of lettuce or the bag of onions. In the big booth of veggies where the line snaked from the left to the right, two of them entered via the exit.

· The assholes, of which, gladly, there were few. One was a guy who, frustrated by the tortoise-like movements of a member of the clueless in front him, approached her from behind and reached over her back to snag a bag of arugula. As he moved toward me, I called to duty my East Coast upbringing to add an edge to my voice and said. Hey, buddy, there’s a line. Really, was the response I got. Really, I said, and it begins back there. I pointed to the parking lot. He retreated, but later I saw him tailgating another shopper.

I was out of the market in 30 minutes, driving off with a fat bag of lettuce, carrots, the aforementioned arugula, a glistening bunch of rainbow chard, Pink Lady apples and mandarins. The long loaves of fresh sourdough bread cooked in a local bakery tempted me, but not enough. The quarantine is changing my diet, and bread is falling off the menu.

Aside from the mask, the gloves and the pervasive wariness all of us had about one another, it was a normal experience, and for that I was grateful. I am enjoying, if that’s the right word — yes, I think it is — my time in the house and on the deck with my wife, my books and my photographs, but I miss the routine mundanities, the chores, the shopping, the conversations with shopkeepers and barbers and neighbors passed on pathways we all took for granted. We all do.

Getting back to normal will mean more than being able to order salami slices at the deli or get a haircut or grab a beer at the corner saloon during a Giants game. It’s going to require a regeneration of social trust, which we have forcefully uprooted. We must replant and cultivate it once again. For months as we stepped out of our homes and into public spaces we’ve wondered if the person next to me could kill us. We as a society are wounded. We will heal, but it will take time.

My Oaxaca — The Man in the Street

When I photograph on the street, which I do often, I wonder if the images I make represent what is really there of if they result from something for which I am looking. In other words, do I find only what I seek?

In my pictures, I see tension and stress and pressure. Of all the thousands of people on the streets, am I only drawn to the tense, the stressed and the pressured? I must be fascinated by their difference from me – or perhaps their sameness.

Amid the crush of the crowds on street corners, on buses and in markets, I see so much isolation. People hold deep into themselves, hearts girded and faces hardened for another day’s battle in a life-long war. Mexico gives nothing freely and yields its comforts only to the most enduring or the most privileged.

Quarantine Notes: Small Steps

I walked yesterday farther than any day since I returned from Mexico six weeks ago. I made to the corner, the big curve in the road where the tall eucalyptus once stood and where they cut down the line of cypress trees that guarded the gully to make room for a new house. I stopped there, feeling the pain grabbing what’s left of the meniscus and thought about turning back. I’d walked to this spot a few days earlier and done just that. The pain was less this time, not shooting, not spreading throughout the joint. A bit farther, I said.

Small steps, small steps, small steps, testing the weight, testing the response, listening to the knee. Five minutes later I was at the stairs, a long concrete flight built in 1906 and called the Tainter Steps after the guy who developed this hillside north of San Francisco. The steps connected to a train that took residents to a ferry than crossed the Bay to the city, a tri-modal transport system that cars replaced after the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937.

Up I went. No pain. Another step. No pain. If every path led upward, I could walk anywhere, I joked to my wife. At the top, I came to a rest. Nothing hurt. Even my pride felt better. A small accomplishment in difficult times. Another 500 steps took me to my front gate, which opens onto 24 wood and brick steps that take me down to house. I descended one leg at a time. The joint is not happy when it extends and carries my body weight. Up, it tells me, not down.

Last summer, a surgeon sliced a piece of meniscus out of this knee. It was worn out, cracked and torn by a lifetime of running, tennis and other abuses. I have a trip, a work trip, in September, I told the doctor in July. It should heal fine by then, he said, and it did. I flew to New York, I walked all over, I photographed three children I met in Mexico who moved back to the U.S. to be with their father. Everything went well. No pain, plenty of gain.

I rehabbed and rehabbed. I flew to Oaxaca, Mexico, in October and walked four to six miles a day for two weeks, carrying cameras and making pictures. No pain. At the end of the year, I was back in Mexico, shooting again and also spending time with my wife. By then, six months after the surgery, I was as good as I’d been in years, which is not to say great, but good enough.

I returned home to California in mid-January. Six weeks later, I was back in Oaxaca, this time with friends. We photographed, we talked, we walked. After a week, they flew back to the U.S. I stayed to photograph a group of young transvestites I’d met a few years earlier. They were marching in a three-day festival in a local town. On the first day, I was with them from morning until night, making pictures, walking, eating, drinking, making more pictures. By the time I got back to my rented room, I’d walked more than six miles.

The next morning, Monday, the knee barked with pain. Enough, it said. No, I said. One more day. I took some pills, returned to the festival and walked five miles more. When I woke Tuesday morning, the knee refused my weight. I stumbled through another five days in Oaxaca, taking cabs or buses, shooting in downtown neighborhoods, trying not to walk. Still, the step-counter on my phone reached 4.8 miles one day.

I flew home on March 9 and have not walked more than a block since until yesterday.

The injury is my fault. I accept that. I worry, though, that a doctor, once these days of quarantine have passed, will tell me that the damage is irreparable, either by rest or by surgery. Rest as a cure seems unlikely. The transvestite parade was seven weeks ago. After a lifetime of injuries, I know that what doesn’t heal on its own after that amount of time isn’t likely to. If surgery is the solution, or the hope of a solution, it would not happen for months given the state of the health-care system and I will lose the rest of the year to recovery.

Such is my quarantine. Books, photographs, cooking. Small steps while marooned in the big world.

My Oaxaca – The Procession in Teotitlán

When I began to photograph in Oaxaca, I avoided three things: Other photographers, Americans and religious ceremonies. A couple of years ago, though, after the death of my friend, Mary Ellen Mark, a few of us who were her students and friends returned to Oaxaca, to be there during the time of her annual workshops, to photograph together and to share our memories of her.

During her workshops, Mary Ellen sent students to photograph a religious procession marking the beginning of the Catholic season of Lent in Teotitlán del Valle, a foothills village on the outskirts of Oaxaca. I never went; doing so seemed invasive. This time, though, to honor Mary Ellen and to be with my friends, I rode with them to the town at dawn, when the procession began.

I took a Leica and a wide-angle lens, hoping to be unobtrusive. As the procession meandered through the village, the sun rose, scraping the cobblestones of the streets and brushing the stucco of the buildings. I stood in a shaded doorway across from a painted wall and waited for the parishioners to come to me. When they passed, I made a half-dozen frames. This is the one I kept.

My Oaxaca – The Girl in the Uniform

This might be the first decent image I ever made in Oaxaca. I had a new Nikon D200 that I’d gifted myself because I wanted to resurrect the photography career I’d abandoned years earlier. I was mediocre when I gave it up and not much better when I restarted, but the instant of making a photograph excited me as much at age 50 as did at age 25.

Mostly then I shot pretty pictures for a magazine near San Francisco. I enjoyed it, and they paid me, which I also enjoyed. Still, I wanted to do something more real, something more journalistic, and that meant I needed to move beyond “pretty.”

I began photographing people on the streets of Oaxaca, but I was too timid to make anything intimate or powerful. This girl was part of a group of students having their class photograph taken near the famous Santo Domingo church. I stood back from the group, hesitant, and made six frames, all of them average. Then this girl turned to look at me and I shot one more.

That was on New Year’s Eve, 2006. Six more years passed until I met Mary Ellen Mark in Oaxaca and she urged me to photograph with more passion. Ever since then I have.

My Oaxaca – The Boy and the Box

This boy, whose name is Manual, is one of four children I met by accident one day when I went to Zaachila, a town outside of Oaxaca, to photograph a group of transvestites. It was the second day of a three-day festival. The transvestites had marched in the town’s parade the day before and partied late into the night. I arrived around mid-day and they were still sleeping in a small concrete house located at the front of a long piece of land.

I heard voices on the other side of the yard and, not wanting to surprise or scare anyone by my presence, I called out. Several children emerged to greet me. They lived with their mother and father in a tin shack at the rear of the property. I walked back with them to say hello. We all talked a while and I began making pictures.

Manual and his older brother, whose name I’ve forgotten, were playing with a pair of plastic tops, wrapping them in string and flinging them onto a large cardboard box that once held a small refrigerator. The tops spun longer on the cardboard than they did on the ground. The sheet of cardboard had a hole in the middle and Manuel crawled underneath and stuck his head through it. His brother began throwing a top toward him, trying to get it to bounce off Manual’s head. That’s when I took the picture.

My Oaxaca – Meeting Irma

This is the first photograph I made of Irma. She stands in the afternoon sunlight in the front door of her beauty salon, which was located in the Colonia America Sur, a neighborhood with streets bearing the names of South American countries. Irma’s street was Brasil. She named the salon Michelle after her daughter, Betzi Michelle. Before opening the salon, Irma cleaned houses and worked in a laundry, living week to week on what she made. The founder of a shelter where Irma’s two children lived during the workweek helped her go to beauty school and set up the salon. The business was going to be her ticket out of working-class poverty, but it only lasted a few months, killed by too much competition and too little funding.

When Irma closed the salon, she took its furniture to her one-room apartment. Each time she moved, which was about once a year, she dragged the furniture with her – a reclining chair used to wash hair, a sink that drained into a bucket, a dressing table with a tall vertical mirror, a bright green chair made of mesh, and a pair of plastic tables. For a while, Irma did haircuts and styling out of where she lived, but eventually she gave it up entirely. Piles of clothes, food, cleaning products and toys now cover the furniture.

Circumstances & Consequences

In a world of uncertainty, some circumstances still guarantee certain outcomes. A hot stove burns and blisters the misplaced hand. An untended garden goes to seed. Water boiled long enough vaporizes. And a child born into poverty withers before maturity if, like the garden, not well cultivated.

The last is not science – like the heat of a stove or the physical characteristics of water – but is the nature of human beings.

Generalization often leads to misconception, yet history helps us recognize patterns of predictable consequences. All things being equal, hard-working people succeed more than lazy ones; more education leads to better incomes; bad habits – such as over-eating, over-drinking or smoking – shorten lives; and abused boys often grow up to become abusive boyfriends and husbands.

Each family, each culture, each moment of time generates its own cycles of behavior, action and consequence.

In Mexico, for example, where I spend a couple of months a year doing documentary photography, the culture and the social infrastructure create their own web of reliable relationships between circumstance and consequence. People born poor and shut out from education stay poor; corrupt government corrupts society as a whole, which, in turn, fertilizes further government corruption; the rising economic tide lifts only the boats of the already wealthy; hard work and higher education are not indicators of eventual economic success.

And teenage girls who get pregnant become middle-aged single mothers. The fathers move on – to the beds of other women, to where there is work in the U.S. or in other parts of Mexico, or to the bottle. The children of these teenage mothers, with few exceptions, are doomed from birth to lives of never-ending work, physical and economic insecurity, and, when the last roseate glow of childhood fades from their hearts, the deflating acceptance of servitude to a classist society that while dependent on their labor considers them easily replaceable.

There are many ways Mexico breaks my heart, but none rends more than seeing the children of the families I photograph arrive at adolescence, drop out of school and lose their way in the toxic labyrinth of poverty that entraps them at their most vulnerable age. For a country that attracts millions of tourists with the “warmth” of its culture, Mexico is shamefully short of compassion for its own children.

The persistent poverty, the insipid public education, and the absence of decent healthcare (especially for women) produce a relentless societal cycle that forgives no youthful mistake. A teenage girl, enamored, offers her body to an insistent boy. She becomes pregnant, he leaves town, and she is enslaved by 60-hour workweeks and an income that buys nothing more than a room or two, often without water or a bathroom. She puts her children in shelters, leaves them home alone while she works, or takes them out to the street with her to beg, raising them with the hope they don’t follow in her footsteps. But she lacks both the education and the time to teach the tools they need to break the cycle.

For boys, it is just as daunting.  A teenage boy quits school, hangs out for a couple of years with others who found the classroom too confining or the home life too abusive and then, after hustling day to day to make money and stay out of jail, decides he wants to return to school. But he can’t. Once a child is out of the public-school system in Mexico, he or she is out for good. An eighth-grader in a state boarding school steals another boy’s mobile phone. He has to transfer to another school, so he moves back in with his mother, sleeping on a cot next to the bed she shares with her daughter. He misses the high school application deadlines because his mother works from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and has no time to speak with anyone at the school. He starts classes late, lacks the money for books so goes an entire semester without them and starts his second semester so far behind he fails just about everything and drops out.

Every child below the middle class in Oaxaca is at risk. There is no safety net. It’s every family for itself. Impunity by the political class and indifference by the upper classes create a Hunger Games environment that rewards those who have the money and connections to bend the system to their benefit and ignores those who begin their lives with nothing and too often end up that way as well.

Throughout central Oaxaca, and in all of Mexico’s big cities, utility poles and the walls of buildings sport flyers that say “Ayúdanos a localizarla” (“Help us to find her”). Each poster displays the photograph and name of a missing person, most often an underaged girl. In sterile, institutional language, the poster describes the missing person, suggests what she might be wearing, and names the whereabouts of where she lived. There are flyers for men, too, but most of the posters in Oaxaca of missing people are of women.

Here is an example (translated from the Spanish):

Name: (I am leaving out the name)

Age: 16 years.

Was seen for the last time: March 13, 2020, in El Rosario, San Sebastián Tutla, Oaxaca, Oaxaca.

Clothes she normally wears: Blue jeans, short-sleeved blouse and sandals.

Physical description: Strong build; 5 feet 2 inches in height; clear dark skin; round face; large forehead; thick eyebrows; medium-sized brown eyes; medium-sized nose with a wide base; large mouth; thick lips; oval chin; curly, chestnut-colored, shoulder-length hair.

I know this girl. She once lived in a notorious children’s shelter in Oaxaca that the government  closed after reports of abuse. I met the girl several years ago at the shelter, when she was 10 years old.  In the photographs of her displayed on the missing-person poster, she appears a decade older than when I saw her a couple of months ago. She is heavily made up, the tips of her dark hair are tinted yellow and she is puckering her lips in the come-hither pose that is so common these days in selfies taken by teenage girls.

The missing girl’s mother messaged me to tell me her daughter was missing and that she feared the girl was involved in something dangerous, perhaps a prostitution ring. She showed  a Facebook post by another woman who was looking for “chicas calientes y sexys” for “trabajo con disfrute e ingresos” (“hot, sexy girls for enjoyable, well-paid work”). The post tagged her daughter’s name.

The news did not surprise me. It was the consequence of all the circumstances I mentioned about Oaxaca – no money, no education, no prospects, no one giving a damn about what happened to this girl other than her mother, who, because of her own lack of education, cannot provide the guidance her daughter needs.

I never made a good photo of this girl. She was always self-conscious and striking a pose for the camera, the Instagram curse. When I last saw her, she was sassy, surly and rebellious, not terribly different than so many adolescents. But Mexico is unforgiving. This girl had left school before finishing the seventh grade, she didn’t work, and she spent hours lying in the bed she shared with her mother and talking on a phone she’d somehow procured. She and her mother fought all the time about money, about her friends, about her not working. The girl began to stay out late at night, coming home at 2 a.m. or sometimes not at all.

Then she was gone. One day while her mother was working, she broke a window to get into the apartment and grabbed the few clothes she had. Her mother told me she had run off. But the daughter has another story. In a Facebook post she wrote after the mother filed a missing-person report, she said: “Hi friends. If you see my photo that says I am disappeared it is not true. In December, my mother threw me out. I had problems and I went to my aunt’s house. I didn’t want to live with her. Thank god, I am OK. Don’t pay attention (to the missing-person poster) and don’t share it either.”

Did the girl really run away? Did her mother throw her out? Does it matter why she’s gone? The result is the same: Another teenage girl on the run, uneducated, without money, angry, loose on the streets in Mexico. These are the circumstances. The consequences will not be good.

When It’s Over

When it’s over. When this is done. When we get back to normal. That’s what we say to each other these days, meaning that once the virus has had its way with us, we will pick up where we left off.

I don’t see it that way.

Yes, schools and restaurants will open, freeways and airports will fill, and friends and families will once again gather to celebrate the benchmarks of life and, for a great many, to mourn those who had to die alone with a tube down their throats.

But we will never be as we were. If we learn anything from these weeks and months of uncertainly, suffering and dying, it is that we are vulnerable. We, as individuals, as a species, and as a communal society built on interdependency, are fragile. Our bodies, each born with an expiration date, can be easily infiltrated by a “submicroscopic agent” and betray us within weeks. The assault of pandemic illness on our civic infrastructure – schools, hospitals, public transport, commercial corridors and even urban greenspaces – transforms these bulwarks of civil society from benign, at times irritating but nonetheless necessary institutions into vectors of death. Our government, increasingly suspect for the self-interest of those who staff it and the lack of competence that always accompanies those who act in favor of political purpose over general beneficence, coils armadillo-like in the face of existential danger.

The virus has pierced the façade of modern life. What we see behind it is not the grand society we imagined our world to be but rather a warren of cubicles, small and windowless, each with only one door, forcing exit and entry from the same point. Here we live, interconnected by unlit labyrinthine corridors, our vision restricted to our cell, unable to grasp the extent or even the nature of the larger organism in which we live with symbiotic dependency. Each of us, so shaped by our own desires, preoccupations and truncated perspectives, is but a molecule in this living network.

All this the virus reveals. No, it will not ever be the way it was. Once a creature feels its vulnerability, once it confronts, unwillingly, its own mortality, it is never the same. A dog, once kicked, is never as friendly. A deer, once shot it, no longer walks so incautiously in the woods. A crow, once attacked, remembers the face of its assailant.

You might say human beings are smarter than animals. Intellectually, yes, but in matters of self-survival we learn more slowly than they do. We perch atop the food-chain of self-destruction. Individually, we kill ourselves with tobacco, booze, prescription drugs and shovelfuls of fat. We humans have yet to encounter a substance we have not abused. Collectively, we pillage the planet for its resources, consume, burn and explode them at a future-be-damned pace, ignore the plaints of our children to save some of the world for them, and manage our companies and run out governments as if nothing matters more than this quarter or the next election.

We are not the dog who has been kicked. We are the dog who keeps kicking himself.

Still, despite our selfishness, ignorance and obduracy, Covid-19 and the great pandemic of 2020 will scar us. Fragility is not easily forgotten. A job disappears in a blink, and with it those few weeks of savings. A grandmother dies. A playwright. Fifty-one Italian doctors. Fifty-one! The official message is: Be cautious. But the inner voice echoes: Be afraid. Be afraid of your grandchildren, be afraid of your neighbors, be afraid of the young lady who rings up your groceries, be afraid of the dog-walker and the deliverywoman. Be afraid of the doorknob, the handle, the box, the countertop. Be afraid of the air, especially the air.

That is a lot of fear to forget, and it will take time to fade.

Eventually, as did the Spanish flu of 102 years ago, Covid-19 will recede into a Wikipedia page.  I will be dead by then, though, and so will many of you. Until then, when this is over, we will go on. But we won’t be the same. Ever.

Being Here

I am trying to be here, trying to be in the now, at home, in this house, together with my wife, alone with my thoughts, along with my fears, focusing on today and not tomorrow, wondering about friends who are also alone, some more than I, hoping I hear nothing terrible about them, nor they about me, seeing, after all these years, that what I thought mattered so much means nothing at all.

At times it goes well, at others less so. Depends on the hour or the news or just my physical state. Today it is not so good.

As bad as the numbers are, and they grow more negative by the day, the politics are worse. The petulance of the president borders on dementia, which I believe he has. His followers drink his words as a serum (some have done so literally and died). He demands liberal governors kiss his ass to be granted federal aid. Sections of the country approach a tipping-point of mass infection, economic collapse and social breakdown. The buffoon boy in the Oval Office wants Jesus to rise on Easter and deliver us from the viral evil.

These realities of the “now” make being “here” difficult. My mind drifts to the disheartening headlines, reports of the infection spreading by magnitudes; of people, voiceless because a tube inserted into their trachea, dying alone in ICUs; of right-wing hucksters who offer to die for their grandchildren; of evangelical sheep-herders who keep open their corrals and promise to heal the fallen among the faithful by the laying on of hands; of politicians devoid of empathy; of the millions of American, mis paisanos, who believe all of this is OK.

Plus there are the worries. All of my family, save one late-arriving younger brother, are in a risk zone, not only for age, but also for an array of otherwise manageable ailments or for having inherited the family trait of self-destructive behavior. What will become of us? If the virus eventually infects 70 to 80 percent of the population, the odds don’t look good. And with death rates among those 70 or older at 70 percent or more, the outlook is even worse.

To tell the truth, I am afraid. I have never thought much about death, although the topic arises more often at my current age than it did even a decade ago, and I have worried about it even less. What troubles me now is that I have possibly lost control of my fate. My future, my family’s future, our country’s future rest in the (probably unwashed) hands of political leaders who haven’t the competence to confront a biological peril that could kill tens of thousands of people, many of whom would likely survive under even a normal, mildly ineffectual political class capable of procuring, producing and delivering the millions of medical tests and pieces of supplies the nation needs.

It’s not that I fear dying (although I am not a big fan of it), but I don’t want the cause of death to stupidity.

As I said, at times it goes well, at others less so.

Getting Through It

Just three weeks ago I was running all over Oaxaca, walking five or six miles a day, climbing hills, carrying bags of cameras and sacks of food, squatting, kneeling, dancing, seeing a dozen people a day, hugging them, photographing them, laughing with them, crying with them, eating with them and cramming into communal cabs with them.

Now, between the virus quarantine and a knee that decided all the activity in Mexico was too much, I haven’t left the house for a week. Other than my wife, who has done the food shopping, I haven’t spoken with another human being in person. The time passes slowly, but inexorably. I read (in English and in Spanish), I edit the photographs I made in Mexico, I chat on the various platforms, I exercise each afternoon with a combination of old-school calisthenics (knee permitting) and new-age yoga, and I spend too much time cruising the news. The mornings seem long, the afternoons short.

In the evenings, my wife and I make one cocktail apiece, sit on the deck or in the tub, and talk about the news. Then we make dinner. We eat late so there is only time for one TV show. Last night it was an episode of “Homeland.”

During the days, the neighborhood is silent. The freeway, visible down the hill from the house, generates a distant, low thrum, barely audible. Two days ago, a helicopter flew over our hill in the afternoon. Last night, a delivery truck, moving quickly, startled us as it passed the house while we talked on the deck. Yesterday afternoon, as I sat outside in the Adirondack chair that used to belong to my mother-in-law, warmed in a sudden burst of spring sun and absorbed in well-reported book about the opioid plague in the United States (Dreamland), a bird screeched from the direction of the massive Monterey pine that stands in the empty lot next to ours. The shriek seemed like one of terror. I wondered if the bird was under attack. Was a hawk after its nest? The screech came again. No, I thought, it’s not a shout of fear but one of attraction. The bird is calling for company. Again it came, and again and again. Maybe eight or 10 times in five minutes. For a moment I thought it was a salutation for me. The bird was alone. I was alone. Why not talk?

This morning when I climbed the stairs to the street to get the papers (hopefully left there by a gloved hand), a man walked by with his dog. He clung to the curb opposite my house, head down, moving with purpose. He never looked up. I said nothing even though I normally would have. That is how we are now, living with purpose, just trying to get through it.

One evening while I was in Oaxaca, I went the gringo library, sort of a club for the ex-pats, to hear a friend read from a book he’d written about his experiences during the war in Vietnam, where he’d done two tours. It was not a militaristic book, nor a nostalgic one. It was more of a yard sale of memories, most of them worn and well-used, but still of value to those who treasure such things. In one episode, my friend, Tom, writes of meeting another vet. The man is battered by the years, but not yet broken. They don’t talk about war. What they talk about are moments – the dead villager, the heat, the insects, the drinking, the girls and what it was like to come home, which at times was harder than being in country. The conversation was neither heartening nor depressing. It was a recitation of what was, an unburdening of truths carried for so long.

It was that conversation that made Tom write the line in his book that most resonates with me. It is this: “The way I see it, we all got through those years, one way or another. We all know what went on.”

In the same period, the late sixties and the early seventies, I felt exactly the same. I didn’t go to Vietnam. I didn’t volunteer and I never got drafted. Instead, I got arrested and I got hooked on drugs and booze. I fought my own war and it led to a lifetime battle. Somehow, though, like Tom, I got through it, as I still do, day by day, winning more often than I lose, which is why I’m still alive.

That’s how I view the virus. It’s war. It’s a battle. Not just the disease, but the isolation, the politics, and the sheer lunacy that infects so many people. However, I’ll get through it. We’ll get through it. Somehow. Years from now, we’ll all know what went on.