Category Archives: Personal

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.

Bookshelf – A Promised Land, Barack Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just imagine.

A Confession of Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thanksgiving Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

A Sense of Arrival

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

— Julian Barnes, A Sense of an Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 244 — My Father’s Son

Seven-plus months into the pandemic, most of that time spent at home or nearby, nearly none of it doing the work I am accustomed to be doing, I have two sobering realizations to share:

First, I have trouble defining myself without the work. I am not doing any journalism and precious little photography, so if I am not a journalist and if I am not a photographer, then who am I?

Second, after all the youthful years of tears, after the long era of running from my past and my family, after entanglements with the law and abuse of substances both legal and legal, something very ordinary happened to me: I ended up becoming my father’s son.

Perhaps that’s inevitable. Even a cultural revolution can’t erase the imprinting of nurture and the insistence of genetics. As much as I said to my young self that I would never be like him, I resemble him more now than I do not, especially at this age when we lions lose our fangs.

To be like my father is not a bad thing. He was a good man, a decent man, a hard-working man, loyal to his wife and family, a man who loved music, believed in God and shouldered and soldiered on with whatever befell him in life. And there was much. Of those qualities, I have an assortment, and for those I thank him. All in all, though, he was the better man. He had more to bear. My burdens are few and still I falter.

My father was not perfect, nor am I. We share many of the same imperfections. He was prone to nervousness and anxiety, as am I. He had a temper, as I do. A streak of resentment ran through him, flaring to the surface at times when he felt wronged or stewed about what might have been, as it does in me. He never said so, but I thought he focused more on what he didn’t have than what he did, just as I often do. There was more self-criticism than self-congratulation. In those moments, like many in his family, myself included, he drank too much.

Most of all, he identified himself as a man by his work, as I do as well. Through my juvenile eyes, my father and his job were synonymous. He was a self-taught accountant who worked all the time. For much of the year, he returned to the office after dinner. He never took vacation during the summer when we kids were off school. He worked most Saturdays, either in his office or at home in the living room, where he set up a folding card table and prepared tax returns. He never retired. He kept at it, as much as he could, until his body gave out. He didn’t die on the job, but he would have if he could have.

All I knew about my father as a boy was connected to his work. The stories of co-workers. The promotion he didn’t get. The boozy nights out with the boys, the laughing lunches with the girls. When my mother talked about him, she did so in the context of the job – your dad has to work, your dad is tired because of work, your dad works so much because he loves you.

Years later, when I was married and putting in long hours on a dying newspaper, I wondered why he didn’t retire. The house was paid for, the golf course was nearby, a big stack of books awaited on the bedside table. Now, I am past the age he was when I asked those questions and I know the answer: He didn’t retire because he couldn’t. The work defined him. The job was his oxygen. Retirement would have been suffocation.

Like him, I hated the very concept of retirement. I don’t want to be retired and, officially, I am not, but the corona (and a nagging injury) has thrown me off. I have time, too much of it. Take advantage, friends say. Relax. Do those things you always wanted to do. Good advice, I suppose, for those who didn’t have the opportunity. For me, though, what I most wanted to do was the photography and the journalism and I still do. I never had further ambitions.

I don’t find fulfillment in the idleness. I am not comfortable with comfort. I am not content with contentment. I miss the stress, I miss the need to solve problems, I miss being sought out for what skills I have. I miss the work.

My father would not tolerate such whinging, if that’s what this is (it can be so difficult to separate contemplation from grievance). I can’t tell you what advice he’d give because I don’t recall every receiving any from him. The work was his voice, and he spoke to me through it. Carry on. Do the necessary thing, do the responsible thing. Don’t ever stop because if you do you might not get it back.

The Rapids Ahead

Circumstances have consequences. Take too many things for granted, lose an election. Turn over the White House to a family of thugs, grant the sycophants, the supremacists and the spineless control of the Congress. Gut the Senate of whatever honor remained in it, and convert the Supreme Court into bulldozer driven by retrograde theocrats determined to plow under the advances we’ve made in recent decades toward equalizing rights in our country – the right to vote, the right to be treated with justice, the right to control the fate of your own body.

These are sad days in the United States. As the virus marches forward, we do an about-face to the repressive days of the Eisenhower era (although even Ike couldn’t get elected as a Republican these days). With more than 226,000 Americans dead, killed as much by incompetency and indifference than by the actual lethality of Covid-19, more than 66 million of us have already voted, a flexing of the democratic muscle that only partly offsets the fear that Trump, with the aid of his newly-packed Court, will steal the victory that every poll declares will belong to Biden and Harris.

As a young man, the tide of protest swept me into movements against the war in Vietnam (which, by the way, killed 58,000 U.S. soldiers, a quarter of the number now dead from Covid) and in support of rights for women, Blacks and gays. I was against the policies of the government, but not the government itself. I believed a new president, a new Congress, a new mayor could provoke change. And it did.

As an adult, a professional, a journalist, I worked in an institution that saw itself as the watchdog of politicians and government. At times we watched with great vigilance; at other times we were unwittingly complicit in supporting traditional perspectives, both governmental and cultural, that oppressed the very groups I had championed as a long-haired rebel two decades earlier.

As whatever I am now, an over-read, under-educated, highly-opinionated, multi-lingual, more-or-less forcibly retired curmudgeon, I confess that for the first time in my life to having lost my faith in government – or are least what government on all levels has morphed into in these United States: a cage match of hate, distrust, greed, cowardice, and self-interest and self-dealing, a putrid buffet of humanity’s ugliest traits that were never more on display than in the last week during the shotgun wedding of Amy “The Crusader” Barrett to the Supremes.

I could say that we as a nation have lost our way, but it might be more accurate, given that Barrett and her the-Constitution-is-enough-for-me compadres on the court are such strict interpreters of the document’s 4,543 words, to say the nation has found its way back to its beginnings – when women couldn’t vote, when Blacks were not only permitted to be owned but were counted as only 60 percent of a human being, and when the fledgling nation was controlled by an oligarchy of wealthy “patriots” who were so distrustful of the judgment of their lesser countrymen that they created the Electoral College to ensure that a majority of the rabble couldn’t elect a fool or a criminal to the White House.

That worked out well.

To say I am nervous is an understatement. I felt more certain of Gore trouncing Bush II than I am of a Biden win, and we know how that went. I am not alone in my trembling. A Venezuelan fellow I know, an academic who fled his country’s chaos for Madrid, where he now offers $10-an-hour Spanish classes via Skype, says all of his more than 20 American students are popping tranquilizers and speed-chanting mantras trying to stay calm.

I am not a fan of Valium and my chakras are mis-aligned beyond repair. To pacify myself, I think of my short stint as a whitewater river guide. For a couple of summers during the ‘70s, after my profligacies had diminished enough to enable sufficient social functioning, I ferried rafts of people seeking thrills – but not danger – down rivers in Northern California. It was great fun, paid $50 a day and granted me opportunities with the opposite sex I had not previously imagined.

Guiding a fifteen-foot rubber raft through the bumps and waves and drops of medium-rough river is not too tough, but there are a few basic wisdoms that are best adhered to lest you, the guide, and the clients, who want thrills but not danger, find yourselves head down underwater stuck in a whirling, riparian rinse-cycle.

Here is the most important thing:

Just as the raft approaches the lip of the rapid, in the last few feet before the nose tips down into the froth, the water rises behind whatever rocks are the cause of the rapid. The higher water flattens and stills. For a moment, the forward progress of the raft stops. This is when the guide, even while staring at the turbulence ahead, even while anticipating the heart-thumping that is coming, must align the boat with the thin curl of water that slips, first gently and then with unfettered urgency, from the higher water through the barrier of rocks and into the rapid. If the raft is not lined up correctly, it slides into the rapid askew and risks being flipped over by the waves.

As much as I loved rafting, I was scared most of the time – except for one moment: When I poised the boat in the still water above the rapid and pointed its nose toward the slipstream. Once I felt I’d aligned us as best I could, a calm always came to me. And then I slid into the whitewater.

This is where we are now: Atop the rapid. It is a time to be steady, to line ourselves up, to see the turbulence ahead but, more importantly, to concentrate on the chore at hand. Get the boat ready, point the bow forward, put the oars in the water. Be calm. The whitewater is coming.

Returning — The Photography of Time

In the early days, when I bought 100-foot-long spools of Kodak film and hand-rolled it into reusable cartridges, when water temperature and strength of developer and acidic pungency were the alchemy of imagery, when the camera clunked and clicked, and when photography seduced me with its promise of capturing, in an instant, the subtle complexities of a baffling world, I walked amid familiar places, hoping to discover the extraordinary amid the ordinary.

Those were lonely days, part of the long hangover from an over-extended adolescence, so I meandered  by myself – through the great green swath of Golden Gate Park; up and down the salted ruins of Sutro Baths on the rim of the continent; in the varied neighborhood parks of San Francisco: Dolores, Buena Vista, Alta Plaza, Alamo Square; and inside Fort Point, the stout brick fortress that squats beneath the beams of the Golden Gate bridge.

During my walkabouts, I made photographs. I pointed my second-hand camera with its inexpensive manual lens at trees and rocks and buildings and an occasional human being, trying to create an image that resembled those I found in the library at City College of San Francisco, where I’d washed ashore when the turbulent tide of the Sixties receded. In my mind, I was a young Edward Weston or Minor White or Imogene Cunningham. In reality, I was an immature young man with little sense of what he was doing. What resulted were terrible photographs. But the act of photographing, the moment of the shutter forcing open the curtain, gave me solace, and that was something in short supply in my life, so I continued.

As you know, the years go by. Many things change. Many things don’t. Friends and lovers come and go, families form and then drift apart, bodies deteriorate and perhaps the mind as well. A women of 57 tells me she sees herself as a teenager. My mother, now dead five years, said in her ninth decade she felt like she was 20. Even I, a grown man whose self-identity resembles a walk through the hall of mirrors in a carnival funhouse, do not “feel” my age. The truth is I don’t remember how I felt at 20 or 30 or 40 so I cannot say with any certainty that I feel different now. I’d say I feel like myself, and some days that is OK and other days I’d prefer another option. Press 2 to continue as another person; Press 1 to be yourself.

What has stuck through the decades is the simple contentment of making a photograph. I still walk to the familiar places, framing again and again the same corners, the same angles, the same perspectives. I carry a better camera, a slick German instrument whose polished metal seems molded to the shape of my right hand. It contains an electronic sensor, but the lens attached to it is manual. The measurement of light – the basic ingenious equation of aperture and time – happens mostly in my head, which is how I was taught. Thus equipped, I revisit my beginnings, looking for shape and shadow and shades of black and white: charcoal, crème, ebony, beige, dun, ivory, onyx, bone, licorice.

Black and white. Strip out the color, let the eye decide on its own, without a rainbow of distraction, what has value, what is worth lingering upon and what merits no consideration.

A simplification in a life of complexity. I am complicated, or so they say. I confess, as I should, because complication often leads to confession and then, if we acquiesce to judgment, apology. Of each of those, I have a substantial inventory. Within the endless array of gray, I find focus. A teacher of yoga once said, with the purpose of us recognizing certain limits: The pose you’re in is your pose. It is as much of a mantra as I have. A concise acceptance of how things are. I return. I go back. I am sticky that way, unable to let go. This is the pose I’m in.

In the fort I find what I’ve come to see: the conical stairwells, the ample hallways, the bounce of the light off the brick, the breezy expanse of the decommissioned rooftop battery, where tourists snap selfies on concrete cannon placements. A uniformed ranger, poised to be helpful, asks through his mask if the visit is my first. I smile beneath my own mask. No, I say, my fiftieth. He is an older man, but younger than I – as so many now are – and I see his eyes twinkle with appreciation. He seems to understand.

I photograph the familiar place. The comfort of being there is almost deeper than any other, that of being wrapped in the entirety of my time. On each return, the images change. I see a shift, a subtle slant of light or shadow due to the hour of the day or the state of the weather. I am more alert – or less. I focus on the photograph, or I allow my gaze to drift to the sea. All of it is just as it should be.

This is the value of returning: to experience the conundrum: everything is different even though it is all the same.

My Oaxaca — Shade

A hot day. A long walk on a dusty road. A sliver of shade cast by a concrete pole. A man carries a camera and a folding chair. At this moment only one of these objects is of use. He sits.

San Juan Bautista Cuicatlán. From Oaxaca to the north. Over a high ridge. Through a forest of pine, then another of tall cactus. Down from the mountain air into the oven of the valley. Across a glimmering river, around the clusters of mango groves, to the house of the couple who care for lost children.

The husband is good man. A working man. A man of faith. He is building a round church at the stub end of the valley to honor what he believes. An invitation to see the church. A walk in the heat. A footbridge suspended over a creek burbling with freshness. Into the water. Clothes and all. Salvation. Not biblical, not eternal, but soul-saving nonetheless.

The family bakes bread and sells it in town. The pesos pay for the children and the church. On the way home, we stop to collect a makeshift street stand and take home what didn’t sell that day. Two boxes of bread, a small table, a folding chair. I pick up the chair. A good choice.

  • Photo — Lori Barra

Our Times

The air is clearer this morning, but still infused with enough particulate to qualify as unhealthy on the air-quality index. Someone quipped last night on social media how perverse it felt to celebrate the improvement of the air from very unhealthy to simply unhealthy.

These are our times. It is not the End Time or the End of Days, the apocalyptic doomsday foreseen by many religions, but it is the end of an epoch for humankind, the last steps of a long march across the planet during which we Homo sapiens appropriated all the planet offered for own comfort and aggrandizement and left in our wake a swath of vanished species, wastelands of depleted resources, and teeming warrens where millions of our fellow humans live in scarcity, poverty and oppression because the most powerful among us care next to nothing for the least of us.

This is our legacy – a ravaged planet, species-cide, and obdurate indifference.

Clearly, I am not feeling great today. If you indulge me a moment of complaint, I will tell you of the foul, gray, chalky air that encompasses my cabin on the hill and how my body bemoans the necessity to inhale this sludge 15 times a minute. The eyes water and itch. The nose fills. The head aches behind the eyes.

I recognize the weakness of these grievances. Annoyances, really, compared to the afflictions and sufferings of so many others. My house stands, not reduced to ash, as hundreds have been up and down the coast. The Covid has not claimed me, as it has 200,000 of my countrymen. There is food on the table, and more in the freezer. I have resources that many other don’t. Yet, my whinges are also warnings, flags flying ahead of the coming storm. I said the other day that what is happening in California (and now Oregon) is a harbinger. Listen to the canaries in our coal mine. What do you hear?

Another era is ending as well – my own. The state of affairs in which I find myself is evidence we are not the drivers of our own destinies. The times choose us, not the reverse. Life is random. At best we hold the reins as the years gallop onward, guiding the steeds in one direction or another but never managing to break their stride. Some of us are born in war and poverty, others into peace and prosperity. The circumstances of our birth contribute almost everything to the consequences of our lives.

The same is true of the end game. How and when we leave the planet is as arbitrary as how and when we arrived. Chance is the great master of fate. An unfortunate few drop dead early, victims of genetics, violence or simply actuarial realities. The rest of us ride own, falling off at increasing rates to tumors, expired organs, overworked hearts, underworked muscles and, more and more, worn out brains.

I’ve reached an age where my past throws a long shadow. I am well and I am as fit as a man of my decades could be, yet I am dying – as I have been since Day 1. Our first breath is also the initial step toward the last. The infernal pandemic and the California infernos raise my awareness of the tick-tock of the biological clock. It is the tinnitus of our time, the sound of the passing of days whose primary purpose is to get through them.

Someone commented on one of these scribblings that I don’t seem like myself, and she urged me in so many words to break free of the funk she saw me in and find the version of myself she thought I’ve lost. She misread what I said. I am neither sad nor depressed. I am chastened. Six months mostly in the house, a month of lightning, fire, and smoke. A rearrangement by chance, by random interference of circumstances and consequences, of everything I spent a lifetime arranging. No, I am not sad or angry or disillusioned – at least for myself. I have not gone missing. In fact, in the last six months I have found more of myself than I knew I had.

Red Dawn

The party’s done. The bacchanalia that was California, the orgy of consumption, the decades-long bender of natural exploitation and the wanton disregard for the consequence of our excesses is over. Don’t point your fingers at us, because what happens in California never stays here. We export our culture, our technology and our food. Coming soon to you will be our apocalypse.

The hangover is painful.

The day dawned red today. Where there was supposed to be the waning blacks of the night, there was red. Where there was supposed to be the wash of the morning grays, there was red. Where tones of blue and gold once tinted the sky, there were shades of red. A red dawn so dense, so foreboding that even now, an hour past sunrise, the streetlights remain lit, reminders of the darkness we have brought to our land.

We partied like there was no tomorrow. There was, though, and it is today. The fires to the north, the east, the south and, even, as improbable as it sounds because I live twenty minutes from the beach, to the west; the post-A-Bomb-ish pryocumulus towers rising six miles in the sky; the homes turned to charcoal; the animals, wild and domestic, murdered by our greed; the dystopic scenes of backpackers, jet skiers and campers airlifted by twin-rotored Chinooks. This is the tomorrow we thought would never come.

Red in the morning, sailor’s warning. So goes the mariner’s adage, an alert of rough seas to come. The addition of a vowel changes the admonition: Red is the mourning.

Human beings, by nature, are deniers of the negative (as are all creatures). This is how we get through the day. Most of us don’t greet the morning worrying about eventual illness or certain death or improbable tragedies.. We plan to finish our days as we start them – at home, amid our comforts and our companions. As such, we have denied, either from convenience, neglect or simple stubborn adherence to a belief that tomorrow is somebody else’s problem, that we have damaged the planet to the point where its instinctive revenge is to kill us and drive us from its terrains. Fires, drought, storms from the sea, rising waters. This is the tomorrow we created. This is nature’s planetary payback.

I am as guilty as anyone. My car, my home, my travels consume fossil fuels. I assuage my concerns by recycling milk cartons, buying kale from local farmers and not turning on the heat so early in the winter. If I am not Nero fiddling amid the embers of Rome, then I am the man who tuned his violin. Together, we are an orchestra of shame. I don’t know how we stop. I don’t know if we can.

Catching Up, Keeping Up

Down the street from me is a house in disrepair. Sections of the fence fronting the road lie on the ground, and a disheveled assemblage of vines and bramble cover what remains standing. Mold advances boldly across the wood of the garage. Scrap lumber and shards of shelving block the pathway to the front door. Most notably, a small blue car, German in make and of recent vintage, sits abandoned in the driveway, parked sideways so as to not just into the road. Four flat tires anchor it to the ground. A sunroof left ajar allows rain and pine needles and spiders to enter. No one has moved the car for several years.

It is not unusual, even in my over-priced neighborhood, to see a house gone to seed. Some people are just that way, not at all interested in gardening or maintenance or upkeep. The car, though, seemingly discarded and wedged into the driveway, was a mystery. Even the most negligent of homeowners tend to keep their vehicles running. I thought the owner might be dead – or dying – and his or her children cared little about their parents or their possessions. One day, I thought, I will walk by and the car will be gone. But there it sits still.

Not long ago, some of the mystery resolved itself. I saw an old woman, unsteady on her feet, sweeping handfuls of dirt and pine needles from the driveway into a plastic dustpan. Given the amount she was picking up she might as well have been emptying a beach of its sand with a teaspoon. I was driving and I didn’t stop to say hello. I should have because I have questions I would like answered.

I have walked past the house many times since and not seen her again. Then, just the other day it came to me. I knew what was happening. The lady, who I suspect has lived on our woodsy hill for a long time, just can’t keep up any longer. Not that she doesn’t want to. She does. The dustpan and the broom are evidence of that. She just can’t. It’s too much. The house, the garden, the repairs, the car, her health, whatever emotional amusement park ride she is on with her family – or by herself – all of it is just too much. She can’t keep up, so everything gradually falls apart.

Age does this to us. The world moves forward, and we fall further and further behind. The fence rots, the pines drop needles, the blackberry bramble roots into everything. A spouse dies, an organ fails, a family stops visiting. Onward and onward, a timeless parade of every imaginable attraction and horror of life, and our place in it inevitably and inexorably retreats toward the back until one day we find ourselves standing alone in the road, inhaling the dust of the parade as it advances into its endless tomorrows without us.

Being old is about keeping up, an ironic fact because being young is about catching up. We drop out of the chute and a doctor or a nurse practitioner or a midwife whacks us into consciousness, and we immediately begin screaming for what everyone else who arrived before us already has: food, fun, education, career, comfort, maybe even satisfaction over the long arc. We strive throughout youth to be capable of self-sustenance, however meekly or grandly each of us defines that state. We study, we work, we take risks, we fail, we love, we marry, we procreate, we divorce, we celebrate, and we suffer – all to have what we didn’t have at birth. Even as adults, many of us continue. We lust for fancier cars, bigger houses (or second ones or third ones), loftier titles. Others, less material but no less ambitious, reach for personal or social pinnacles. We are working on ourselves, we like to say. If I could just …

We do all that until we can’t. At that moment, we shift from catching up to keeping up.

The past lengthens and the future shortens. A new twenty-year roof on the house seems  unreasonable when the sell-by date on the body is five years off – or less. Physical aches increase, as do emotional ones. Old wounds once thought healed reopen, reminders that the past is inescapable. People go missing, either gone for good or absent because they simply can no longer feign interest in being with us. What once was sensible, even essential – repairing a fence, sweeping the walk, starting the car – fades into an indulgence remaindered for days when energy is high and spirits are strong, moments that lessen as the calendar advances. What matters a flat tire when there is a tumor to be dealt with? Who cares about a messy front yard when there is soul that needs mending? Why do today what you can put off until a tomorrow that might not come?

I saw the woman with the broom one more time, again as I drove by. She swept in small motions with short strokes, the bristle moving only a few inches. She is never going to clean that driveway or move that car or fix that fence. She is just trying to keep up.

A Sense of Being

Then, I lived in a big world. Far-away places. People of all tones. Tongue-twisting languages. Strolls through parks and museums and galleries. Picnics along the river, dinners aside the canal, dessert in the plaza at midnight. Overnight flights. Long holds in airports known by their initials – MEX, FRA, JFK, HND. So many miles, so many smiles.

Now, I walk in a small world. From my house to the park and back again. I move geometrically in squares and rectangles. Around the block and the next one and the next. I leave in the fading dark of the night and return in the grayness of the rising morning. Fog hugs the ground, smoke seasons the air.

I move among my sleeping neighbors in silence. A light shines here and there. Was it left on all night? Some people are not comfortable in the deep. Or is someone up early, as I am? They have somewhere to be, maybe, or they sleep poorly, wakened by age or illness or the most common of nocturnal visitors, anxiety. Do they glance up from their duties in the bathroom to see my shape, ambiguous in the dawn, slip by their home?

The streets are all but empty. Me. A teenage cyclist pumping up the hill I walk down. A dogwalker wearing a black mask that matches the fur of her tiny pet. A woman in a small SUV throwing the local paper, folded and wrapped in a red plastic bag, onto driveways, tossing, with admirable accuracy, the morning news out windows on both sides of the car. Low-tech evidence of the difficulty of the last mile.

In the park, I stop on the far side of the great lawn, where a gang of Canadian geese feasts on whatever it is they grub up out of the wet dirt, and look up the hill for my house. I can’t see it. I never can. Too many trees. Not a good angle. But every time, I look. I want to say: I live there, even though there is no one to tell that to. Proof of existence, that’s all. Since it can’t be found, I settle for circumstantial evidence. I walk, therefore I am. The goose hisses at me for interrupting its breakfast, therefore I am here.

In my small world, I see small things. A tennis ball, faded to gray and bearing the marks of canine teeth, next to a fence, where it has been for weeks. I try to imagine how I will feel when the ball is no longer there. Relieved? Curious? Deprived? A white push pin stuck into the papyrus-like bark of a crepe myrtle tree, a pointed (ahem) reminder of a lost cat or a garage sale. Two beige-colored plastic birds, parakeets, attached to a planter. Three bags of outdated trade books – how to program Java – left on the sidewalk, a lazy solution to household clutter. A blue surgical mask lying on the green grass of the lawn. A white mask hanging from a tree branch. Yet another draped over the rear-view mirror of a rugged-looking car whose license plate reads: FLUVIAL.

The feet of the geese, dampened by the grass, leave webbed imprints when they cross the asphalt path that meanders through the park. Leave nothing but footprints, we said in the bigger world. I turn around. On the street behind me there is no sign of my passing. What I wanted to see was proof of existence. Another phrase comes to mind: a sense of being.

The simplicity of the walk fascinates me. Self-propulsion seems almost miraculous. If the legs held, if the spirit didn’t flag, if the body agreed, the walk could be eternal. There are so many small things to see. Just now I think of the apple tree, laden with pale green fruit, that drapes over the wooden stick fence, and the plum tree at the corner house that young couple bought last year after the death of the old lady who had gardened the land for decades, and the four towering willows whose regal drapery dresses up the block below my house.

Coming and going, coming and going. But rarely being. That is how I lived. By choice. With volition. And certainly not without great discovery, much enjoyment and more than occasional satisfaction. No regret (about that; there are other things). No complaint. No need for a do-over.

On the final uphill turn to the house, the sun yearns to burn through the bank of fog. So powerful in the solar system. Life literally revolves around it. Such an ego the sun must have. Yet, the fog, with its pillowly passivity, thwarts the star’s aggression and it retreats once more behind the gray curtain.  From home to park and back again. The house is as still as I left it. I bend for the morning papers, a tradition, no longer a necessity. I open the redwood gate. Twenty-four steps below is the house hidden from me in the park. In late summer, the big buckeye sullies the red brick of the patio with its debris. As I step toward the front door, I hear the crunch of my footfall on the fallen leaves. Proof of existence. A sense of being.

The Fire Among Us

California is burning again, pockmarked with infernos sparked by lightning or fallen power lines or acts of human stupidity, and fed by the hills of golden grasses and groves of oak and the wood-framed houses of humans who wanted to live in the community of nature but never sought nature’s permission, and blown across glens and canyons and dry arroyos and even six-lane slabs of freeway by winds that descend from high deserts carrying the breath of the devil.

We knew it was going to happen, as it did last year and the decade before that and the century before that. Each year now, though, seems worse. There is less winter rain to green the land, the temperatures rise sooner and higher than what was once considered normal, and the flames sprout earlier.

Fingers point everywhere.

Climate change holds back the rain, flings heat at California and parks truculent high pressure systems over the coast, hovering on meteorological maps like the massive inter-stellar ships of alien invaders.

Government shares the blame for allowing suburbs to be built on lands where wildfires burn with regularity, for permitting builders to enrich themselves and families to mortgage their futures while ignoring one of the few certainties in California: What burned once will burn again.

Then there are the utility companies – PG&E most guilty among them – that opted for shareholder return over investment in maintenance, a choice that guaranteed transformers and towers and thousands upon thousands of miles of high-voltage lines that could not withstand the fierce vagaries of Western weather. A line drops, a transformer pops, a fire starts. If I maintained my home as PG&E protected the power grid, its roof and walls would have collapsed.

Finally, there is us, we Californians, who want to live in our version of paradise, gladly shelling out $1.5 million for a three-bedroom rancher in a leafy suburb, but flinch when confronted with the reality caused by our occupation of a terrain so arid, so temperamental and so inhospitable to human life that before we paved it over, put in the plumbing and pumped Freon into our homes that the Spanish found hardly anyone to murder and enslave when they arrived. Now there are just shy of 40 million us. We’ve overrun the place. There’s not enough water to quench our thirst, not enough power to keep our lights on, not enough space for us to grow unless we further push into Mama Nature’s diminishing territory.

What’s the result? Mama’s mad, folks. It’s payback time.

The sun rose deep red today, angry, it seems, by the effort it needed to pierce the smoke in the air. In my small cabin on the hill, the windows are open so cool morning air can flush out the heat from last night. The fresh air comes with a price: the smell of smoke and flecks of gray ash.

We pack several bags, an evacuation kit – documents, passports (almost useless these days), some cameras for me, a laptop, medicine. The bags sit by the back door, an unwelcome reminder of what we’ve become: fugitives from the world we created.

Day 148: Persistence & Fragility

In order to give the knee a workout and to award myself a change of scenery, I drove to Fort Baker in Sausalito yesterday afternoon. The sun was low when I arrived but still high enough to surmount the western ridges of the coast. Its light spilled softly into the remains of a Monterey pine forest planted by the military garrison that once occupied these last slopes of land before the Golden Gate. I walked among the trees, carrying my little Leica and looking for formations of light and shadow. Now and then I knelt to take a picture and, when I did, a thick, spongy cushion of dried pine needles greeted my knees. I followed a deer path through the trees until the last of the pines yielded to a row of white, two-story buildings that were once the quarters of Army officers and today house well-heeled hotel patrons in $700-a-night suites.

The former parade ground of the garrison remains sown with grass. It is an expansive space that slopes lazily toward a cove of still water huddling in the lee of the Golden Gate Bridge, far enough away from the capricious currents and muscular tides of the strait for yachtsmen to store their vessels in a marina and for adventurous paddlers to launch themselves toward the Pacific aboard outrigged canoes that resemble bisected arachnids. For a day as nice as yesterday was, sunny and awash with a precocious onshore breeze, the great lawn was surprisingly empty. A group of masked tourists, perhaps guests in the hotel, posed with one another for selfies. A middle-aged man, rotund and bald, lay on his side, propped up on his left elbow, reading a book in the shade of a stand of short trees. A young couple, tall and strong of stride, walked with their dog. And me, an aging man, bearded and unkempt with a half-year’s hair growth splaying from the edges of his ballcap, limped toward the sea.

At the speed of a tortoise, but with the heart of a hare, I crossed the parking area next to the Discovery Museum, normally a destination of exploration and learning for children but now an empty shell wrapped in caution tape and studded with signs prohibiting access to its outdoor playgrounds, a reminder of how far from normal we are. Seeing the shuttered buildings deflated the already tremulous exhilaration I felt at striding freely, albeit tentatively, under the open sky after months of household hibernation.

With the knee’s permission, I summited a knoll that supports the hulking concrete of Battery Yates, a stout line of bunkers constructed by the U.S. Army in 1903 that was once equipped with cannons but is now a decommissioned relic. It is a favorite place of mine and over the years I have taken many pictures there, most of them terrible. Still, I like the symmetry of the emplacements and the brutishness of the concrete. I made a few frames yesterday, as I always do, one of them less terrible than the others.

By the time I returned to my car near the Coast Guard station on the edge of Horseshoe Cove, the knee was talking to me in unpleasant tones. It is such a crank. I pleaded for a few more steps and hobbled to the fishing pier that juts into San Francisco Bay across from the jetty. A half-dozen crabbers hung over the rusted railings, tossing their nets into the water and reeling them up, hoping to find a crustacean or two of legal size and species. An equal number of fishermen reclined in unfolded camp chairs with their rods propped against the railings waiting for signs of a strike by perch, jacksmelt or even a leopard shark.

The sun had dropped and, as the far end of the pier fell into shade, the wind became more intent on chilling those in its path. I first came to this place a half-century ago and stood on this very spot, having reached the end of the continent, the last terminal in a flight from all I had known – family, home, the city where I was born and where, en route to coming of age, I lost track of who I was. Unable to go farther, I stayed and here I still am, marveling at how little all of it seems to have changed, taking in the persistence of the bay and the bridge and the breezes, how they continue just as they were when I first saw them, and how their endurance masks the one thing in this scene that has changed irrevocably: me.

What always astounds me about this durable miracle of life is how easily it allows us to forget our own fragility.

Rochester 1964 to Minneapolis 2020: Racism and Blame

Rochester, N.Y., July 1964

In the summer of 1964, a few weeks before my 15th birthday, the city I grew up in, Rochester, N.Y., suffered what was then called a race riot. The violence killed four people, injured 350 and resulted in 1,000 arrests and the looting of 200 stores — all of it triggered by the police arrest of a black man and an over-use of force.

The three days or rioting, burning and arrests presaged years of summer outbreaks of violence in U.S. cities, culminating — or so it seemed at the time — in the “Long, Hot Summer” of 1967 when 159 race riots erupted in cities as geographically diverse as Buffalo, N.Y., Newark, N.J., Saginaw, Mich., and Portland, Ore.

After that summer, President Lyndon Baines Johnson created a group to study the root causes of the violence and recommend solutions. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, produced a report in February 1968 that excoriated federal and state governments for failing black communities across the country and warned:

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” … “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The Kerner Report also chastised the news media, “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.” It was a condemnation that despite years of effort to diversify America’s newsrooms echoes today.

More than a half-century later, Minneapolis burns, set on fire by rage and anger over yet another police killing of a black man,

A Rutgers University study in 2019 found that, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, “About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a new analysis of deaths involving law enforcement officers. That makes them 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with cops.”

I, as a white man, cannot say anything about what it must be like to be black in this country, much less to be black and male and therefore be an object of suspicion and fear even in the act of doing the most routine of things, such as running on the street or bird-watching in Central Park.

I have been arrested — multiple times. I am not proud of it, but it was something that happened during those years after the Long Hot Summer when political protests took, for a time, the place of race riots and when the waves of drug abuse carried some of us to places we should not have gone. Never, though, whether it was in New York or Los Angeles or Ukiah, Calif., did I feel that when the police officer put his hands on me I was in danger of losing my life. Never.

Fifty-six years ago, the 14-year-old version of myself stood on the curb outside his suburban house and watched plumes of dark smoke rise over what was known as Rochester’s ghetto. I never saw the riot, save in black-and-white reports on the evening news, but I recall the unease I felt. I sensed, hearing the sirens in the distance and seeing the tension on the face of my mother alongside me, that the world was more complex than I knew and within that intricacy were insidious, dangerous things. In that moment, the first bricks fell from the wall of innocence behind which I lived. Within a few years, nothing but rubble would remain.

The cop in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd. That’s clear. What remains muddied is why? Not just why the cop did it — which I suspect will result in a simple answer: racism and power — but why we, the society as a whole, which remains mostly white, tolerate the deaths of black men who are dying solely because they don’t look like me. Why?

To find the answer, and to begin cleansing ourselves of the racist toxicity that is poisoning us, we can look again to where the Kerner Report lay the blame for the riots of 1967:

“White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Said another way: When black men die, we white people are to blame.

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.

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?

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.