Category Archives: Personal

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.

Quarantine Notes: Small Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Oaxaca – The Girl in the Uniform

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

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

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

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

Circumstances & Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is an example (translated from the Spanish):

Name: (I am leaving out the name)

Age: 16 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When It’s Over

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

I don’t see it that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Through It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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