Category Archives: Personal

Home from Oaxaca — Comforts and Discomforts

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d Like to Thank the Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Lou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I am Still Here

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

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

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

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

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

What’s not to like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke and Covid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Comes Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garrett Loube

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

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

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

Right you were, Dad.

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

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

What held us together is absent.

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

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

The wheel is broken. The center did not hold.

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

Goodbye, my friend.

What Photography is to Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I know.

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.