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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 lunacythat 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.
I came home from Oaxaca ahead of schedule, something I’ve never done before. After 15 days, I was exhausted. Each day the heat and the humidity sapped me. At night, I’d recover, but not 100 percent, so I started each subsequent day with less than a full recharge. I walked five to eight miles a day. I had a thirst I could not slake, even with a several bottles of water at a time. I lost nearly five pounds. My rented room held the heat and sleep never really arrived for long. The day before I decided to leave, I played basketball with a group of kids for 90 minutes. Afterward, my body barked in loud protest. I answered by changing my flight.
Part of me feels like I gave in, like I allowed a bit of discomfort to drive my decision. That’s my 30-year-old ego talking. Another part of me is soothed by the cool ocean air and the opportunity to stand in the scalding stream of the shower for as long as I want. That is the sound of seven biological decades exhaling in relief.
I returned with a few strong photographs and with memories whose images are even more powerful. Together, they illustrate the great challenge of photography, the effort to preserve with the camera what is seen by the mind’s eye and felt by the soul. I am proud of my photographs, but I am also frustrated by my inability to gather into a frame the vividness, in all its glory and in all its pain, of life in Oaxaca.
When I stand on a Oaxacan street corner and see and hear and smell the chaos around me, I want the camera to vacuum it all in – the noise of the buses, the smell of the sewage and the food vendors, the hunched shoulders of the working men, the wide-bodied grandmothers making passage on the sidewalks with their hips, the sweat and the sun and the steam of the humidity. I want all that in a photograph. That is the picture I have yet to make.
In that sense, I return this time as I always do also with a sense of inadequacy, of lacking either the technology or the skill or both to fill a frame with all that I see and all that I feel. In this image I want the mothers and the children and the dark rooms of dead air in which they live; I want the four Hondurans sleeping on the floor waiting for a chance to sneak into the United States; I want the boy with leukemia being pushed in a wheelchair by his mother between buses on the street because the sidewalks are too narrow to navigate; I want the food – the chicken cooked over a wood fire with tomatoes and chilies, the lentil soup a mother made me before she went to work, the huge plastic glasses of jamaica, the tortas of breaded pork sold on the corner for a $1.50, the smoky, silky mescal that burns and then drains the pain from the body; I want the eyes, dark all of them, bright with laughter, reddened with tears, empty of expectations; I want the nascent beauty of the children and the fading dignity of the grandfathers; I want the conversations – with the taxi driver deported from L.A. who practices his English with me, with the obese sweaty cop and his elegant Belgian shepherd, with the mom who is happy to be pregnant at 35 even though she is without work or husband.
I feel as if I need to make this one picture. I need it to remind me of everything I have done and I do in Oaxaca. I need it to show to people when they ask me why I go there because to explain it with words takes too long.
It is a fanciful desire, to be sure, but still one that nags me.
Some other thoughts from the trip:
* Poverty is relative. For a while, I visited a mother and her two kids who lived high on a dry hill in a tin shack. There was no water. The toilet was a hole in the ground. Electricity was boot-legged off a shared power pole. The road was nothing more than rutted trail that ran thick with mud when it rained. Still, I never felt as deep in the Third World at this mother’s house as I did in Oaxaca’s public hospital, where I went one afternoon with one of my favorite children, who had fallen and was visiting a neurologist to see if she had epilepsy.
Outside the hospital, dozens of people camped on the concrete patio, family members visiting hospitalized relatives, or sick people waiting days for appointments. Many slept on cardboard boxes, others used the cheap, synthetic blanks that are so common here to create seating areas that converted to beds at night, and still others had commandeered a row of chairs, stuffed cardboard into the gaps between them and slept on the hard plastic. Buckets of food, scraps of garbage, empty liter bottles of soda and backpacks were everywhere. The faces of the people on the patio bore the weight of lifetime of acceptance of these conditions. This hospital is in one of Oaxaca’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Four blocks from this desperation, moneyed Oaxacans buy Frappuccino’s from Starbucks and shop for clothes in fancy European stores.
* A lot of money for someone who has nothing changes nothing in the long term. My generous friends contributed enough money to help the mother of a boy with leukemia live for months without working, which she needs to do after the live-saving transplant she hopes will come. When I gave her the thick wad of Mexican pesos, her face lifted momentarily in gratitude only to return quickly to its resting visage of resignation, a recognition that no matter how much hardship she endures it cannot guarantee her son’s survival in a society where one’s chances of a long life or an early death are determined at birth. Hers is not a poverty that be bought off with a few thousand pesos.
* Two types of Americans live in Oaxaca. There are those, like the ex-community organizer from California and his wife, an attorney, who use their retirement hours and their professional skills to involve themselves in the community and improve the lives of those who have less than they do. They are in the minority. The majority, most of whom seem to be women, live amongst themselves in an ex-pat bubble, don’t speak Spanish and mix with the locals only when it is time for a festival or an art opening, where they show up dressed in indigenous blouses and skirts and are the first to attack the free food and drinks.
* Intimacy and distance don’t play well together. The closer I get to the families in Oaxaca, the further away I feel when I leave. This is not a new sensation, but on this trip, it grew stronger than ever. I return to a life of comfort, and to a personal calendar that holds fewer and fewer pages, and I leave behind young people with a long future in front of them. For some, the years to come will be good ones of education and family and achievement. For others, there will be decades of labor and sorrow. I wonder how much more of them I will see. I wonder if the goodness I wish for them will ever come to be. I wonder what they will be like at my age, when I am a memory to them, if that.
During the early years of the digital revolution, I wrote a wrote a blog that focused on the challenges journalism and newspapers faced in an increasingly digitized society, and the entrenched cultural traditions that inhibited the ability of individual journalists as well as entire institutions to adapt to a changing world that was eroding their relevance and siphoning off their audiences.
I called the blog First Draft, a nod to the description of journalism as “the first rough draft of history.” The blog coincided with a three-year project I did on newsroom culture and learning for a journalism foundation (which resulted in this slim volume of advice) and served as my exit ramp from the professional world of daily newspapers where I’d lived for a quarter-century.
I left voluntarily and more or less at the top of my game – unlike the many thousands of my former fellow wretches who were riffed or bought out of their careers by collapsing newspaper companies. I was seeking something to fill holes the newspaper couldn’t, especially in those days, when news was defined rigidly, when hidebound hierarchies shaped what was covered and how and by whom, and when middle-age managers like myself saw a future in which deep shadows of uncertainty dulled any glow of promise.
A decade has passed. In that time, I’ve been freelancing wherever I can – and celebrating the hustle and the paltry paychecks as rewards for my liberation from management – and immersing myself more and more in photography, the pursuit that drew me into journalism in the first place.
For the last few years, I’ve been photography poor single mothers, repatriated families, children’s shelters and more in Oaxaca, Mexico. It is documentary work and is both intense and, at times, terribly saddening because of its intimacy. It is also immensely satisfying. I feel privileged to be allowed into the lives of these families and angry at the injustice, indifference and corruption that touches them every day. I regularly return home inflamed with the same passion to tell their stories that I felt decades ago in San Francisco during my first years in journalism as an enthusiastic, but unaccomplished photographer.
Therein lies the irony: I am working in what I love the most, photography and journalism, but it is not good work.
Good work? Yes, good work – “work of expert quality that benefits the broader society.” In other words, “good work” is at once personally satisfying and socially beneficial. The concept was the focus of a book (Good Work, When Excellence and Ethics Meet) by three Stanford psychologists that explored the challenges and rewards of doing “good work” in various fields, including journalism. The authors found a direct connection between the ability to do good work and self-fulfillment.
“Doing good work feels good,” they write. “Few things in life are as enjoyable as when we concentrate on a difficult task, using all our skills, knowing what has to be done.” … Good work is “something that allows the full expression of what is best in us.”
I’m not going to go further into the book, but it is well worth reading by anyone who has more than a passing interest in the current collision of values in what is now lumped under the term “the news media” and also between journalists who wish to adhere to the profession’s traditions of truth, fairness and, hopefully, justice, and the politicians and government institutions on which they report. In other words, in a world of lies and liars, how much currency does the truth retain?
What I lack the most, I believe, is the opportunity to publish. An image that hides in a computer file is not “good work.” Stories that languish untold are not “good work.” A reporter who doesn’t empty her notebook or a photographer who does little more than fill his archives is not doing “good work.”
That’s what organized journalism provides, not only the opportunity to publish but the obligation to. Journalism does not happen in a vacuum. It is not just the academic, but also the journalist who must publish less the work perish. If good work, as Damon wrote, “allows the full expression” of the best inside each of us, then I am falling short because I have always expressed myself publicly.
In this context, I miss the newsroom. I have yet to accomplish alone what I did with other journalists, imperfect as it was. I miss the sense of purpose journalism provides. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the demands of deadlines. I miss waking each day with the belief, however misplaced or self-delusional it might be at times, that the day’s work ahead will matter to someone and perhaps make the world a more informed, more just or perhaps simply more functional place.
That desire is a universal characteristic among good journalists. In June 2004, after interviewing dozens of journalists for a project, I wrote that they possessed a common goodness: “ … the deep, abiding desire … to do good journalistic work. They believed to a person that the purpose of journalism is to provide, at the least, information and, at its best, knowledge to their fellow citizens with the purpose of bettering society.”
When these journalists could overcome “the oppressive troika of tradition, convention and production that combine to prevent most newspaper journalists from realizing these good intentions on a frequent basis” they achieved that purpose.
One reason I left the newsroom was that felt I could not otherwise escape that tyranny. What I have since discovered is just as there can be too much tyranny for some people there can be too much liberty for others, of which I am one.
I work better with structure. I work better on deadline. I work better under pressure. I need these things to do “good work.”
All that I had when I was younger even though I was less skilled, less accomplished and more full of myself. However, and I can say this now with the clarified vision of hindsight, I didn’t truly appreciate the work, the people and the basic purpose of journalism until I had it no more.
I want it back. Or as much of it as I can get back at my age. But how? I am too old to be hired somewhere, too experienced to be naïve and to hope to begin anew, and I carry far too much baggage filled with failures and (fewer) successes to share company with those who view reporting and photography as “content” designed to drive clicks.
You might think, given my age, that what I miss is not journalism, but my youth. That’s a reasonable assumption, but I can assure you that my longing for good work is not the waning pang of an aging heart. I would not wish my younger days on anyone (although I admit that certain less salubrious traits of those years served me well in newspapers, which at the time celebrated the aberrant as long as you could hit a deadline.)
No, what I want reflects a desire that only comes with age – the opportunity to do work that encompasses what I’ve learned over the years, that utilizes the skills I’ve acquired and forces me to challenge myself and confront the truths of the world around me. Good work.
How was Oaxaca? That’s what everyone asks each time I return. It’s a polite, succinct question and what’s expected in return in the form of an answer is something similar in character, such as: “It was great, thanks.”
And after dozens of trips to Oaxaca I’ve learned to limit my answer to what people are expecting, sometimes adding a short augmentation: “It was great, thanks. Complicated, but great.”
Most folks leave it at that and move on in the conversation because in reality only a small percentage of our fellow humans want to hear about our vacations (even though for me Oaxaca is not a vacation; nonetheless, most of my friends see it that way).
The other day, though, someone asked me in Spanish about my recent trip, from which I returned home a week ago, and when I delivered my stock answer she then asked: What do you mean when you say complicated?Qué quieres decir cuando dices complicado?
So, I told her.
I told her about the single mothers from the children’s shelter that was closed nearly a year-and-a-half ago when the state accused the founder and her family of mismanagement and physical and sexual abuse. I have stayed in touch with some of the mothers and continue to photograph some of them and their kids.
One of the mothers has put her son and daughter in two others shelters run by the Catholic church and now lives in a 12-by-12 room paid for by an older doctor who seems to use her for sex and companionship but doesn’t want anything to do with her kids. The children are the product of a marriage that went bad when the husband’s business failed and he began to drink. He beat her, locked her in the house and made her dress like a man so that other men wouldn’t look for her. I took her to lunch and when we walked by the house in which I rent a room she sat on the steps and began to cry, saying the beautiful colonial building reminded her of the happy life she had before her husband became violent. On the day before I left, we met again briefly in a tiny chapel near her room so I could see her daughter. The doctor won’t let me visit where she lives. He appears to be jealous. The daughter has grown taller in the year since I last saw her and in the chapel she modeled a paper mask she’d made in school as her mother and I sat in a pew. I made a few frames of the girl. The mother took my hand and we sat in silence.
Another of the mothers lives outside of the center of town. She works every day, cleaning houses in the morning, cooking food in the afternoon to sell at her daughter’s school during recess and doing haircuts in the evening. She and her kids – a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old daughter – also live in a single room, this one about 10 by 15, for which they pay 600 pesos a month. The neighborhood is poor-ish and safe except for one thing: There is a guy on her block who is killing cats and dogs. He poisoned this mother’s two dogs and then her cat. When the mom got another dog, he ran it over in the street and left it to die from suffocation, the result of its shattered ribs piercing its lungs. The mother wants to make a poster to hang from the front of her building that will say: Beware! We have a neighbor who kills.
The mother has a new dog now, the uncle of one of the dead ones. To keep the dog from being killed, she keeps it on a small plot of land owned by a friend. We walked there one morning carrying a heavy plastic pot of gruel made from noodles, tortillas and rice and a bag of day-old bolillos – dogs love bread, she told me. It’s a 45-minute slog, most of it up a steep hill. What I lacked in breath when I got there, I gained in view. A half-dozen dogs live on the land, which also features an unfinished cement house. She fed the dogs the bread and gave them water she’d collected from a well we passed on the route, hung around for about 10 minutes and began to walk back. Ninety minutes of walking for 10 minutes of dog time. She loves this dog as much as she hates her murderous neighbor.
A third of the mothers I’d only met a few months ago. She is a smart, street-savvy, tattooed young woman with a 5-year-old boy. This trip we met in her aunt’s house, which sits a dusty rise overlooking the west side of the Oaxacan valley. The house is new, built of cinder blocks and concrete – all of it gray. The floor, the walls, the ceiling – all of it unfinished concrete. Were it not a two-story structure located above ground, it would seem like a bunker. An impressive black-and-gold metal door fronts the street. The second floor has a terrace. The roof grants an immense vista. The house is the product of 14 years of work in a San Diego suburb by the aunt’s husband, who she last saw five years ago. They have two children, a boy 14 who wants to study gastronomy and another boy 5. The father needs another year or two in the States to finish the house.
There were the mother and the father and their four daughters who drove two-and-a-half hours to Oaxaca, much of the journey over sinuous dirt roads, to pick up a photographer friend and I and then continued driving another two-and-a-half hours to the lovely mountain town of Capulálpam so that two of those daughters – the two who aren’t twins and who aren’t deaf – could participate in a folk dance festival that didn’t end until well after nightfall. Ten hours of vomit-inducing driving (not for them, but for me) in a 25-year-old car so their kids could dance. Don’t talk me about how American parents support their children until you meet this family.
There was the day at the horse races in the countryside when I met a fierce looking cowboy whose buddies had nicknamed Bin Laden because, well, because he looked just like the dead Al Qaeda leader. The whole group of them was pretty far drunk when I stumbled upon them. My presence triggered a round of jokes and insults, which didn’t stop until one of the largest of them told me he had a big dick and asked me if mine was bigger. When I answered that I didn’t know, but that he could ask his mother, all his pals roared and one of them offered me a beer. Ice broken.
There was night at the dances when another mother, this one a tall beauty from a farm town who had returned to Mexico after living with her three U.S.-born kids in Chicago and New York for more than a decade, put on a beautiful huipil from the Pinotepa and danced with the other moms from her kids’ primary school carrying pineapples.
There was the lunch on a Sunday in another farm town, where I ate outside the cinder block-and-lamina home of a teen-age girl who is about to graduate from high school – the first in family to do so – during which she told me, as she looked at her two grandmothers seated at the wobbly table: This is why I wanted to come back to Mexico from Los Angeles; my friends there talked about things they did with their grandmothers and I never had that. Now I do. … I couldn’t hide my tears.
There was the nauseous van ride to a valley a few hours east of Oaxaca where a religious man, who with wife runs another children’s shelter, is building a massive round church in the butt end of lush green canyon split by a river that provides the only relief from the valley’s oven-like temperatures.
There were the new kids at the other shelter in Oaxaca – three 3-year-old triplets and a 6-year-old boy whose sweet disposition and engaging smile belie the abuse he’s clearly suffered. At age 6, his legs remain infant-like, soft, flexible and too weak to be able to walk. He cannot talk. He has the height of a 3-year-old (although some of the hardness of facial features betray his years).
There was – as always – the food: The entomadas in Ocotlán, the chilaquilies one of the moms made on the stove in her room; the vegetable soup eaten with the grandmothers; the 40-peso plate of tasajo, frijoles and onion in another market, the nieves in the plaza (several times) and the mescal, the mescal and the mescal.
And there was the photo exhibition at the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo – the reason for making the trip at this time. Seven of us went, those participating in the show, as well as a few spouses and friends. We talked one evening at the gallery (although I mostly croaked, the sound effect of a bad cold), ate together much more, went shooting together and left, well, I’m not sure how we left. We’ll see what next year brings.
It is unsettling to me, someone who has spent the better part of his doing one form of journalism or another, that the brazen embrace of The Big Lie by politicians has become so prevalent that those of us who prefer facts over fiction find ourselves making a case for the importance of truth.
Certainly, the rise of Donald Trump from Manhattan con man to Tweeter-in-Chief and the both intentional and unwitting acceptance by his stooges and other supporters of his fact-free self-serving version of reality has not only fueled the outrage more than half of America feels about their incoming president’s manipulative use of the lie, but has also confronted journalists with a challenge they are increasingly lesser-equipped to face in this age of declining revenue: How to shine the light of truth onto the dark web of lies woven by Trump and his ilk.
I found one answer to this question in the unflinching photography and reporting by photographer Daniel Berehulakin today’s New York Times about the brutal ant-drug campaign by Philippine Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte has unleashed his nation’s police and armed forces on the citizenry. More than 2,000 Filipinos have been killed by authorities since June 30, when he took office, and another 3,500 slain in other unsolved murders. The slaughter – the word used in the headline of Berehulak’s piece – continues with impunity with each murder wrapped in an official lie. The dead, as described in police reports, are often accused of “nanlaban,” which Berehulak describes as “what the police call a case when a suspect resists arrest and ends up dead. It means ‘he fought it out.’ ”
Berehulak’s report, and his savagely honest images, expose Duterte’s lie. Will the truth deter Duterte and save lives? Probably not. But it informs us, we Americans who must now live in nation led by a man whose first instinct is self-preservation and whose first tool is the lie.
Trump and Duterte talked by phone a week ago. Trump applauded Duterte’s brutality and invited him to the U.S. Liars are attracted to one another (see Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin). They need – and use – one another as partners and foils against the truth.
Trump is mendacious (to say the least) and not murderous (for now), but his looming occupancy of the presidency highlights like never before in recent American history the need for truth and its importance to civil society and our democracy.
What can each of us do? One thing is to demand hard truths from journalism and support journalists and news organizations that deliver it. Many Americans are already doing this, as evidenced by the 70,000 new subscribers the New York Times has enrolled since Trump’s election. Truth comes with a price. If we want the truth that we need, then we must pay for it.