During the humid summers of Oaxaca, spiritual warmth and physical heat are partners in houses of prayer. On a wedding day in July, a 17th-century church seals guests in its ancient stone as the southern sun warms the nave to roasting temperatures. Fidelity is measured in sweat.
Religion is theater, and a catholic wedding in Mexico is a work of many acts: the mass, the blessings, the exchanges of everlasting devotion, the honoring of the many padrinos, the signing of official documents. There is no intermission.
The bridesmaids – las damas de honor – whose duties of procession are part of the opening and closing acts, wait off-stage as the play progresses, attendant to the script, but also wilting in the heat, which intensifies as the day lengthens. Unlike the flowers on the altar, they have no water for their stems.
In front of them, a boy whose walk-on role is done, takes advantage of his parents’ absence to do what everyone else in the church wishes they could do.
The dead don’t sense the loss; that falls to the living.
What the dead leave is absence. The emptiness of where they once were hangs between those who remain. There are feelings, yes, and memories and stories, recalled, retold and reconfigured, but displays of emotion and arrays of narration do not fill the void; they define it further by drawing attention to what is gone.
I am not one to think much about death and dying even though at my age – now into my third half-century as the calendar goes – it increasingly disrupts my focus to live day by day with a reminder that someone I know is no longer doing just that. My father, who could whistle past the graveyard with the best of them as long as he had a highball in one hand and a Camel in the other, was known to remark, usually upon the seeing the number of obituaries in the morning paper, “Look at this! People are dying who never died before.” Ba-dum-dump.
Right you were, Dad.
A friend died the other day. He was younger than I am, and a better person as well. Happy, generous, and accepting. A good soul. Magnetic also. He drew others toward him. Their presence nourished him and in return he yielded a benevolent harvest. Some were like-minded, that is fearless and open to the world. Others were weaker and more susceptible to doubt, and to them he spread wide his boughs of friendship, beneath which they took shelter from their individual storms.
Within circles of people, there is always a hub, a center who connects the spokes and locks them in place as the wheel of life spins and spins. To borrow from Didion (who in turn borrowed from Yeats), the center did not hold and “anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
What held us together is absent.
I am lousy at mourning, as I am at most emotional experiences, and, to give notice now to my contemporaries who are still above ground, I do not intend to get better at it. I am working on empathy and love, and these are such a chore for me that they occupy all the available shifts in the emotion factory. No tears have fallen from me for the absence of this good man, although I feel them gathering in my heart and I know this interior leakage eventually will result in a flood.
I haven’t absorbed it yet, said someone who loved him. I know what she meant, but absorbing death is like trying to bottle lightning. It is so sudden, so fleeting. The dying takes time, but death is not only instantaneous but also penurious, leaving behind nothing in return for what it takes. What is there to absorb? How do we sponge up a null set? How do we digest emptiness?
The wheel is broken. The center did not hold.
I don’t think I will write about death again any time soon. Maybe never. There is both so little and so much to say about it, and neither choice appeals to me.
For the first time in a year, I saw the whole frame yesterday, all of the edges as well as the corners. I saw the shapes and the shadows shift across the rectangle, blocking the light in some spaces, permitting more in others. My left thumb and index finger held the focus ring of the stubby German lens, nudging it left or right, following the big guy with the baby or the brown-skinned boy wearing a mandarin jacket or whoever was in the frame. They moved, I moved. A dance of unintroduced partners. A rush of pleasure filled me. The moment was both timeless and fleeting. To preserve it, I pressed my right index finger down and heard the satisfying squish of the shutter.
That instant symbolizes everything photography is to me. I’ll explain.
There was a time, when I was working less, drinking more and prone to bouts of gloom, during which I took comfort in watching videos of those singing competitions like American Idol. What I enjoyed most were the timorous contestants, those so lacking in presence or self-confidence that the judges and audience alike flinched at the performance to come, as if they involuntarily turned their gaze from an accident so they would not feel more of the pain that was palpable on the stage.
Of course, you know what happened. The instant the garbage man or bullied teenager or rejected girlfriend opened his or her mouth they transformed themselves into the brilliant, fearless soul they always were at heart but never had the courage to display to the world. As they sang, they became eternal. Forever that voice, forever that fulfillment of self, forever freed from the everyday fetters of life. I think this is the enduring appeal of these shows – the triumph of the ordinary, the tempting dangling of hope, the instantaneous miracle that results from the momentary repudiation of fear, the possibility, shown right there on the stage, of bending the world to fit you instead of the reverse.
When I am seeing well with the camera, I am in that world of my own creation. There is no time, no sound, no tactile connection to what’s around me, even if I am physically standing amid a large crowd of people, as I often am. The horizontal rectangle – fifty percent wider than it is high – occupies all my attention and draws my eye deeper and deeper into it, looking, looking, looking.
Perhaps this sounds silly, even childish. Well, it is childish. The great gift of childhood that fades as we age is the ability to see the world with wonder. Children stare unabashedly. They focus on the new, the different. They engage visually, drawn to movement and shape and color. They absorb what they see, and allow it to fill their mind.
This is photography for me – the absorption of the moment. It has been so since decades ago when I walked the downtown streets of San Francisco with a used camera and a 50mm lens trying to imitate the photographers whose images I’d seen in the community college library – Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Mary Ellen Mark. I was terrible, lacking courage and absent of technique and vision, but even though the results were consistently disappointing I loved the taking of the picture.
Even now, with a nicer 50mm lens, better technique, some vision and results that occasionally don’t disappoint, what most thrills me is finding the image and seeing it in the frame. I only open the shutter to prove to myself later that I in fact saw what I imagined seeing.
When I was younger, I wanted more. I wanted to work as a photojournalist, I wanted to be part of a creative community, and, it’s fair to say, I wanted some sort of acclaim. Things didn’t work out that way, and that’s how life can go. When I returned to photography fifteen years ago – more by coincidence than plan (that, too, is how life can go) – I discovered immediately that my love for the seen moment had not faded. Like high school sweethearts who reconnect late life, the ardor still burned between the frame and me.
In the last year – the first of the Covid years – I made pictures when I could, but most were of the house or the garden or the trails on the nearby mountain. The few times I inserted myself into the crowds, I rarely made a good frame. I appeased myself by saying it was practice, that I was keeping the visual muscles in shape. Still, I wondered – as I like to ask often these days – what would remain of the photography on the other side of the pandemic?
A teenage boy dies in Mexico. Tragic, so young, you might say, but also so common. In a land of violence and poverty, the lives of young men meet regrettable ends with common frequency. The story of this boy, though, is special. I will tell what I know of it, but there is much more outside of my knowledge. First, his name. It remains with me. After enduring so much in such a short life, he deserves privacy, as do his parents. In this story, he is Kiki, and they are Guadalupe and Miguel.
Kiki’s troubles began even before he drew his first breath. As he crowned out of his mother’s birth canal, the attending doctor, who was unskilled, grabbed awkwardly, twisting the emerging boy’s head and damaging his spinal column. Kiki’s brain survived, but its connection to his extremities and his organs did not. Kiki saw and heard, but he could not control. His limbs contorted into a permanent S, and his hands and feet curled inward, in retreat from his body. His speech consisted of an array of sounds – sweet gurgles, anxious pleadings, rhythmic mouthing to the music he loved. Stunted in height and thinned by lack of muscle, he weighed no more than a first grader.
Atop this anatomical mess sat Kiki’s full-sized, beautiful head. His face was broad across the cheekbones, full around the mouth, punctuated by an assertive nose, and adorned with a pair of deep, dark, hypnotic, ovular eyes that spoke all the emotions that Kiki’s muted voice could not – sparkles for pleasure, tears for sadness, and long, unblinking stares that could have been inquisitiveness or maybe just incomprehension. From the neck up, he was as attractive as he was grotesque from the neck down.
Kiki lived in a rural village that was near a bigger city, but still remote enough that a visitor from a more developed world could walk the town’s only paved road, smell the fields of garlic that surround it, pass the empty church (closed by an earthquake that cracked its tower), and imagine being in another century. Only the satellite dishes jutting up from rooftops broke the reverie.
Guadalupe, Kiki’s mom, is a short, quiet, doe-eyed woman whose dominant expression is one of permanent suspension, of canceled expectation. Her face is young enough to still hint of the coquettish beauty of her youth, while portraying the weight of caring for Kiki for a decade and a half, feeding, bathing, dressing, changing the bag he needed to empty his waste. A deep, vertical furrow creases her forehead about her broad nose. Miguel, the father, missed most of Kiki’s life. He was in California, working in a restaurant, sending money home, but also indulging himself with dalliances in adultery and drinking. By the time Miguel returned to Mexico, he was rotting from the inside out; diabetes, brought on by the drinking, was dissolving one gangrenous leg and eroding his eyesight.
Kiki outlived his father, who died blind and minus half a leg at age 49, one more victim of a disease that plagues Mexico. In the weeks before his death, Miguel laid in a single, metal-framed bed next to that of his son, to whom he spoke in the rhythmic Spanish of the Mexican countryside. Miguel’s final act of life was to teach Kiki how to say his father’s name. I saw Guadalupe a few weeks after Miguel died. As she sat on her bed holding Kiki in her lap, she told me he was speaking his father’s name. I couldn’t understand it, but she and Kiki did. That was what was important.
When Miguel died, Kiki cried for three weeks. Silently. He had grown accustomed to hearing his father’s voice and feeling his presence in the room with him. He could not have known his father was dying, though I am sure he realized Miguel was his father because he was aware of who people were – his mother, of course, the grandmother who lived with him, and occasional visitors from other places. Three weeks of tears, three weeks of mourning.
The bed-bound intimacy of the dying, diabetic father and his physically crumpled son was, despite the hardship of caring for both of them, a gift of emotional honesty for Guadalupe, who for her entire period of motherhood was ensnared in a web of whispered lies and unspoken truths, the result of the duplicitous actions of her husband.
Kiki was Miguel’s third child. His first was born in California to a woman he met there. A boy or a girl, I don’t know. The mother of the second child was a local woman from the same town as Miguel and Guadalupe. They liaised long enough for her to give birth to a boy, and then Miguel’s libidinous eye landed on Guadalupe, a curvy young woman with lush black hair, a good-looking country girl. When Miguel proposed to Guadalupe, her family balked. The whole town knew he was a philanderer. Who could say if something as fragile as a marriage vow would bind him to monogamy? He persisted, though, and what followed was marriage, pregnancy, and Kiki.
By the economic standards of the village, which border on poverty, Kiki’s family made enough money for a decent life. They had a plot of land, good for growing food. Miguel sent home dollars from California, that enabled them to open a sparsely stocked hardware store. There were even pesos to pay for physical therapy for Kiki. What fortunes they had, though, flagged after Miguel’s return. First hobbled and then blinded, he was limited to simple domestic chores, such as scraping kernels of corn off dried cobs. When money got tight, therapy for Kiki stopped.
As his eyesight retreated into narrow tunnels of vision, Miguel passed hours seated in a plastic chair in front of the hardware store, whose eastern side was shaded from the afternoon sun and faced a vacant lot about the size of a soccer field that bordered the town’s church. On the south end of this land, opposite the front door of the hardware store, Miguel sunk a large wooden pole into the ground, and to the pole he tied a horse. On sunny afternoons, a boy walked over from a nearby house, untied the horse, and rode it up and down the empty field. The boy was Miguel’s other son. Miguel didn’t speak to him, and the boy didn’t know Miguel was his father. Perhaps that has changed since Miguel’s death.
Miguel always wanted a son, says Guadalupe, and he got at least two of them, maybe three. The tragedy of Miguel’s life is that he lost them all. The first – if there is one in California – he gave up because of the realities of immigration and the penalties of his depravity. The second he traded away in exchange for marriage to Guadalupe, a barter that forced Miguel to spectate from a distance as the boy grew. The last, Kiki, watched Miguel die, unable to bid him farewell even from inches away.
A boy died in Mexico, taking with him the dreams of his father.
There are many places to begin when thinking about Barack Obama’s personal, thoughtful, accessible and human recounting of his campaign for the presidency and his first term in office – the writing itself, which carries the same familiar cadence of his mesmerizing speaking voice; his relationship with Michelle, the rock that roots his dreams; the reality of being Black in America, of being, regardless of how high you rise, of how many versions of the American Dream you realize, “the other,” what W.E.B. Du Bois describes as the “two-ness” of being Black; the emergence of Donald Trump as a credible political figure, riding to prominence astride the racist pony of birtherism; Obama’s visceral belief in the transformational power of the most fundamental of American ideals – equality – and his sobering consideration of the long chain of compromises necessary to move this country, and others, closer to that promise; or the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan,
Any of these is worth a long conversation, but I am going to start at the end, with something personal: the tears that rose in my eyes as I finished the book. What triggered the emotion were not Obama’s closing words, but the five pages that followed. Five pages of acknowledgement, thanks and gratitude – to editors, friends, and researchers, to office staff, ex-colleagues and first readers, dozens upon dozens of people.
The tears sprang from the realization of how far America has fallen in four years, from a collaborative, visionary, grateful president to a selfish, petty, wannabe tyrant; from a man who worked with others to make dreams happen to an aging adolescent whose self-interest works against the interests of others and of the country.
I will not sanctify Obama. He made his mistakes and he came up short plenty of times, but to his credit he owns up to the failings of his time in office. Still, reading Obama was like drinking the from the cool waters of a desert oasis after a long trek across the sand. He reminded me of our better selves and how even though our diverse society is bubbling with hotpots of baser instincts we do not have to allow their toxic vapors to poison our hopes.
In this context, A Promised Land is both inspiring and saddening, the former because of how well Obama articulates the possible and the latter for how clear-eyed he recognizes the reality. It is well worth reading now, while the stink of the Trump shitstorm still lingers in the air so that you can inhale Obama’s freshening language and ideas and recognize, despite the despair you might have fallen into these past four years, that we were not always as we are now nor do we have to be so in the future.
I’ll end with Obama’s words, written in reference to the 2011 killing of bin Laden by a team of Navy Seals after years of investigation, pursuit and planning by hundreds – if not more – of government employees, from military personnel to CIA spooks:
“I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent day care.”
A fellow from New York is going to interview me in a few days about my photography in Mexico. In normal times, he gives tours of galleries and museums, but in these Covid days he stays active and engaged by holding on-line conversations with photographers.
He is quite taken with some of the images and, overall, very complimentary of the work, even going as far as to compare some of the frames to those of famous photographers. His words are kind and welcome, but they also make me wonder if he really knows what he is talking about – despite his art degree and experience – because his view is so distinct from mine.
It is difficult for me, as it is for many of us, to see myself as others see me. To do so requires an honesty unclouded by ego or defensiveness or yearning, and I am not free of those impediments. Even were I capable of veracious self-reflection, accepting the image I see in the mirror would demand both bravery and humility, characteristics of which I possess only in limited supply.
I am guilty on all fronts, at once unable to gain the exterior perspective of others and short of the requisite fiber to take those views to heart, be they negative or positive. That said, I more easily embrace criticism than compliment. A slam feels more natural than a slather. Must be the Catholic upbringing, a religion built on low earthly expectations. Suffer now, dance with the angels later – if you get the invite. When I am told that my photography is mediocre or unfocused – two criticisms I’ve heard – I lean toward agreement. A self-flagellate prefers the whip to the caress. Should a friend or a reader toss a kudo or two my way, I am grateful for the praise, but I am apt to dismiss it. What do they know, after all?
It doesn’t take a session on the couch – or on a Zoom call these days – to diagnose this way of thinking as a protective mechanism. What doesn’t exist can’t be killed. A critic’s barb stings less if you expect nothing more. If you don’t value your photography, your writing, your art, then what does it matter if it is labeled mediocre or unfocused? That’s just a confirmation of what you believed, anyhow.
There is an expression in Mexico that goes like this: No hay mal que por bien no venga. There’s nothing bad from which good doesn’t come. The ol’ cloud and silver lining thing. Too often, I’m the other way around: No hay bien que por mal no venga. No translation needed, right?
So uncertain am I of the work, I cannot edit it, so I ask the fellow from New York to select the images for the slides. He pulls out a few I love – a waiter with a tray, a mother and child with a bird (wonderful, he says) – and others I have consigned to the bin marked Not Good Enough, an ample space packed to overflowing – a old man in front of a wall, a masked rider on a horse (magical, he says).
As he talks about the photographs, describing the forms and the people and the intimacy he sees, the images no longer seem to be mine. I listen to his words and allow them to penetrate my protections. For a few moments, while he talks, I see what he sees. And the realization that I made these pictures amazes me. Not because I believe they merit his encomiums, but rather that I somehow maneuvered myself into the position to make them – to be in the homes of these families, to see them laugh and cry and eat and sleep, to walk amid the chaos of the streets of Oaxaca, to attend the weddings and horse races and transvestite parades. And more and more.
Most people when they see the photographs ask me: Why are you doing this? Is it for work, a book, a show? I’ve never been able to construct a concise answer. Satisfaction. Intimacy. Completion. Something like that.
Now it occurs to me there is a better question: How am I doing this? How did an aging gringo, who years earlier abandoned what he loved for something he was good at, find his way back to that first love and then, without any apparent purpose and even less skill, manage to put himself in the middle of so many lives? How did that happen? I suppose that’s another question I’ll never be able to answer well.
How does it feel, how does it feel? To have on your own, with no direction home — Bob Dylan
There was a time when I was certain of everything – what a good story was and how it should be written, what was worth reading and what should be skipped, how a newspaper should be put together, who I should listen to for guidance and who I should ignore, and where the world was headed and me along with it.
I must have seemed insufferably arrogant to many people in those years, as well as personally ignorant of all I dismissed so readily as not worth my time or attention.
Things are quite different now. These days I am certain of almost nothing. My bullshit detector still functions (which enables me to read the news and maintain both sanity and skepticism), I remain adept at detecting fundamental goodness in people, and I know my wife loves me, but when it comes to my own life and what passes for my work I am enveloped in a fog of uncertainty. Are these photographs any good? Would they by better in color or in black-and-white? Are they derivative? Do they have anything to say? Are they banal? Worse, are they exploitive? Is this story worth telling? Is the writing too clever, too whiny or too boring? Is there a reason to a tell a story if there is no one to whom to tell it?
The line between self-examination and self-flagellation is a fine one. The former enables the compass to be reset; the latter leads to circling the drain. Which am I doing? Am I judging myself, being overly harsh, too severely critical? Of even that I am not sure. Yes, it could be judgment, but I am more drawn to the explanation that the cause is indecision.
Is the doubt a product of age, an inevitable blunting of the sharpness of surety? After all, the years erode the flexibility of joints and plunder the vitality of the organs; why not, as well, rob the confidence of the mind and the clarity of the soul? If such thievery is the case, then it is an ironic equation of life that produces absolute certitude when we are young, inexperienced and bereft of acquired skills and then later, after a lifetime of learning and acquisition of capabilities, results in persistent uncertainty. Of course, the very experiences that boost intellectual capacity and expand emotional range also train the mind’s eye to concentrate more on the grays of the world than on the blacks and the whites because therein lie practicality, convenience and rationalization – the trifecta of coping. However, within this change of focus there is danger: minus the harshness of contrast, what remains is ambivalence.
After decades of writing and editing and photography, I find myself inert, fixated on the notion that I am incapable of producing anything of value. There are a couple of ways to think about this. One is that I was never any good at these pursuits and that recognition of this fact in the home stretch of a lifetime has shock-frozen me like a deer caught on the road staring into the headlights of his past. The other is, as I posited earlier, is that I have lost whatever it was I once had. Time presents its bill and to pay it we pawn our skills, our experiences and our memories. We live on, but in a lesser form, dispossessed of some, or much, of what we had acquired.
Is it too obvious to declare that life’s journey consists of a series of crossroads? Onward, left, right, back. Simple choices in theory, but complex in reality. Each option leads to another intersection and on and on and until one day there are no more crossroads. The more religious among us may disagree, but I am content knowing that a Road Ends sign awaits.)
This year, this pandemic year, this year in the house, this year with myself, is the most complicated intersection I’ve encountered, more of a confusing round-about with multiple entrances and exits than the familiar square of the crossroad. Eventually, I must choose an exit and I will. For now, though, I am circling.
There is a teenage boy I know in Mexico who once a month or so asks me for money. Not much. Usually about 400 pesos — $20 give or take – enough to help pay the rent on the room he shares with his uncle or on the stall where he sells key chains in the market. Yesterday, it was for medicine because his uncle has diabetes.
Each time he asks, I tell myself I am not going to send the money because I am never sure how he actually uses it. I also know a young mother in Mexico who is a drug addict; she texts me photos of fake medical receipts for thousands of pesos, pleading for money to pay the bills. I wonder if the boy is like her.
I’ve known him for five years, though – he was 10 when his mother took me to visit him in the shelter where he then lived – and he doesn’t strike as the scamming type. He is quiet and polite. His grades were OK when he was in school (but that was before Covid). He helps his mother clean the room they shared before her boyfriend returned and forced his flight to his uncle’s.
But he is poor. Not the day-to-day poor, but the week-to-week poor, and that’s bad enough. When you live that way, what seems to be free money can be hard to resist. I think about that each time, about how he might think it’s easy to Whatsapp me, tell me a sad story and wait for the pesos to arrive.
Then I think about my life, about what I have now, about what I didn’t have years ago, and about how a few people made such a difference for me, not with money but with encouragement and support and tolerance. I look at what I own, my cherished cameras, my piles of books, the big chair by the window that overlooks the water, and the cabin on the hill that shelters me at night and holds a quiet room where blank pages await me in the morning. I see the food in the kitchen, the pricey bag of coffee, the fresh fruit and vegetables, the pungent, spicy whiskey that tempts me more than it should. I hear my wife’s voice and feel her love and know the completeness of my life.
An abundance. What I have is an abundance. More than I need, all that I want.
Each time the boy asks me for 400 pesos, each time I doubt his authentic need for fear of being played, each time he raises his hand and says, Help me, I feel shamed by my momentary hesitation. Each time I send him the money.
I could write at great length about my David Byrne-ish journey to my beautiful house, my beautiful wife and my questions about how I got here, but today is Thanksgiving and you can be thankful that I won’t.
For now, I will tell you what I tell myself each day: Be grateful, be kind, accept good fortune with grace, remember the roots of your life and feel their connection to others, and with each step forward reach back so someone else can grab on.
“We all end up belonging to the same category, that of the non-young.”
— Julian Barnes, A Sense of an Ending
I put off reading A Sense of an Endingfor long time. It was hidden deep in the guilt pile, the stack of unread books that stares accusingly at me from the bedside table. I feared the book would be about death and aging and slipping away, another depressing pre-exit confessional. I have plenty of own darker demons and saw no reason to engage with those of others. I need no help to slink into my personal nether regions.
Then came Covid. Housebound and forced to choose between a lockdown of doom-scrolling on Twitter or reducing the number of titles on the guilt pile, I began reading. I started with the hesitancy of a toddler tiptoeing into the sea for the first time and chose books based on page count, the fewer the better. A Sense of an Ending made the list early on because Barnes told his tale in only 163 pages.
It is not an overstatement to say the book, coming as it did during a string of novels by Cormac McCarthy, Ann Patchett and Margaret Atwood, revived my fascination with good writing, which years of page-skimming, post-liking and tweet-commenting had blunted. Moreover, I found the lion-in-winter wonderings of the principal character to not be depressing, but rather inspirational, even heroic. They contained the elusive truthfulness we seek during our younger years, answers replies to those fundamental queries: Who am I? Why am I here? – and the big one – What is the meaning of life? These answers present themselves more easily in the later years, especially if we maintain our attention (easier said than done because truth is an unsparing mirror).
You may be panting for the answers – what IS the meaning of life? – but this is not a pop quiz. Your exam and mine are different. My answers are not yours. I can tell you this, though: I didn’t ask the right questions, so what I learned is not what I asked.
Were I Barnes – oh, to write with the satiny fluidity he does – I would change the title to this: A Sense of Arrival. Even Barnes hints at the logic of this change, saying through his principal character: “You get toward the end of life – no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life.” You arrive at something else.
Aging is like walking on scree. To gain firm footing requires effort, what is underfoot is unstable, and a fall is going to hurt. On days when I am well-grounded, upright and steady of gait, I am taken with this sensation, that of arriving, that I’ve gotten somewhere else – perhaps surprisingly, certainly unintentionally, maybe even inevitably (because each of us is the result of the circumstances of our lives, those we chose as well as those forced upon us by genetics, society or economics).
That is not to sayI know my current location. I am like Alice, who in her wanderings through Wonderland encounters the Cheshire Cat, who, grinningly, responds to her request for directions by telling her that any road serves a traveler who has no destination, because eventually she will arrive somewhere. Without ever having passed through the looking glass, I meandered through life, guided as much by randomness as anything else. Like Alice, I eventually reached something else.
Were Dickens to author my biography, it would be titled Lesser Expectations. During my formative years – a phrase that makes me smile, as if I were putty in a factory of gnomish potters — I envisioned little for myself, and certainly nothing of imagined importance. I did not foresee great education, great wealth or great recognition. I can report with certainty from the future of that young man that I fulfilled all I foresaw: I left the university sans degree or intellectual discipline; I enter the later days of my life irreparably indebted; and a careful hand could scribble my roster of achievements on a Post-It. The beauty of low expectations is that they are easily met. By that standard, I am a success.
Neither huzzahs nor tears greet my arrival. I dock at an empty pier, pass through a vast immigration hall, hear the chunk of a metal stamp on my passport, and see on the thick paper inky evidence of my continued existence: I am here, I am free to wander about some more.
In this liberation, there is comfort. I travel in this “something else” unhampered by baggage – the striving to be more, the yearning for approbation, the flinch against opprobrium. Less fettered, I am lighter of foot and fuller of heart. I carry only the knowledge that to arrive is not necessarily to end.
Seven-plus months into the pandemic, most of that time spent at home or nearby, nearly none of it doing the work I am accustomed to be doing, I have two sobering realizations to share:
First, I have trouble defining myself without the work. I am not doing any journalism and precious little photography, so if I am not a journalist and if I am not a photographer, then who am I?
Second, after all the youthful years of tears, after the long era of running from my past and my family, after entanglements with the law and abuse of substances both legal and legal, something very ordinary happened to me: I ended up becoming my father’s son.
Perhaps that’s inevitable. Even a cultural revolution can’t erase the imprinting of nurture and the insistence of genetics. As much as I said to my young self that I would never be like him, I resemble him more now than I do not, especially at this age when we lions lose our fangs.
To be like my father is not a bad thing. He was a good man, a decent man, a hard-working man, loyal to his wife and family, a man who loved music, believed in God and shouldered and soldiered on with whatever befell him in life. And there was much. Of those qualities, I have an assortment, and for those I thank him. All in all, though, he was the better man. He had more to bear. My burdens are few and still I falter.
My father was not perfect, nor am I. We share many of the same imperfections. He was prone to nervousness and anxiety, as am I. He had a temper, as I do. A streak of resentment ran through him, flaring to the surface at times when he felt wronged or stewed about what might have been, as it does in me. He never said so, but I thought he focused more on what he didn’t have than what he did, just as I often do. There was more self-criticism than self-congratulation. In those moments, like many in his family, myself included, he drank too much.
Most of all, he identified himself as a man by his work, as I do as well. Through my juvenile eyes, my father and his job were synonymous. He was a self-taught accountant who worked all the time. For much of the year, he returned to the office after dinner. He never took vacation during the summer when we kids were off school. He worked most Saturdays, either in his office or at home in the living room, where he set up a folding card table and prepared tax returns. He never retired. He kept at it, as much as he could, until his body gave out. He didn’t die on the job, but he would have if he could have.
All I knew about my father as a boy was connected to his work. The stories of co-workers. The promotion he didn’t get. The boozy nights out with the boys, the laughing lunches with the girls. When my mother talked about him, she did so in the context of the job – your dad has to work, your dad is tired because of work, your dad works so much because he loves you.
Years later, when I was married and putting in long hours on a dying newspaper, I wondered why he didn’t retire. The house was paid for, the golf course was nearby, a big stack of books awaited on the bedside table. Now, I am past the age he was when I asked those questions and I know the answer: He didn’t retire because he couldn’t. The work defined him. The job was his oxygen. Retirement would have been suffocation.
Like him, I hated the very concept of retirement. I don’t want to be retired and, officially, I am not, but the corona (and a nagging injury) has thrown me off. I have time, too much of it. Take advantage, friends say. Relax. Do those things you always wanted to do. Good advice, I suppose, for those who didn’t have the opportunity. For me, though, what I most wanted to do was the photography and the journalism and I still do. I never had further ambitions.
I don’t find fulfillment in the idleness. I am not comfortable with comfort. I am not content with contentment. I miss the stress, I miss the need to solve problems, I miss being sought out for what skills I have. I miss the work.
My father would not tolerate such whinging, if that’s what this is (it can be so difficult to separate contemplation from grievance). I can’t tell you what advice he’d give because I don’t recall every receiving any from him. The work was his voice, and he spoke to me through it. Carry on. Do the necessary thing, do the responsible thing. Don’t ever stop because if you do you might not get it back.
Intersect. To meet and cross at a point. To overlap. To share a common space.
Life consists of intersections, of crisscrossing, of bisecting and squeezing into, onto and through the public commons, bound for or coming from our more private lives.
Street corners are theaters of intersection. There is a daily playbill of drama, comedy, and tragedy – not everyone who ventures off a crowded curb navigates intact to the opposite one. In Oaxaca, the troupe of pedestrians performs to a cacophonous score – the guttural grind of diesel, the bleating grievance of car horns, and the incessant blare of amplified advertisements for cheap eyeglasses, miracle herbs, knock-off denim and dozens of other quotidian products.
With each change of the signal light, a fresh queue of citizen actors strides onto the stage. Their props identify them – mothers laden with infants; students encumbered with bloated backpacks; invitees to weddings or graduations or birthday parties juggling floating balloons and shrink-wrapped gifts; vendors carrying candied apples, bottled water, or plastic bags stuffed with slices of fruit drenched in lime and salsa.
Three things never change: the flow of humanity; the asphalt, lampposts and buildings; and me. I wait in my space. For the intersection, for the overlap, for the crossing of our lives.
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.
The dead talk to us. They tell us their stories, the tales they carry from this life to the next, the underworld, the upper-world, whichever imagined destination comforts you in the absence of those who are gone.
These are the stories we want to tell; these are the stories worth the struggle of the telling. But we must retrieve them and bring them back to this side, to the world where we, the not-yet-dead, navigate our time under a sky of dim stars, always hoping for a brighter path to where we are going, to what we will become.
In the lospanteones, I walk amid the dead. I listen, I lean in, I strain to hear their voices. I have questions for them: Who were you? How did you live? Why did you die so young? What awaits me when I join you? What I hear in response are the rustle of dry leaves, the murmur of a street cat slinking amid the tombs, the pleadings of someone praying nearby.
I tell the dead: I have come for your stories. Lend them to me and I will share them with those you left behind and those who are yet to arrive. I still myself. I drop into my own silence, erasing every memory of every sound I have ever heard so I can detect the voices of the dead.
Faint but audible, a distant chorus, an eternal echo rewards my patience. The voices answer in unison: “Come closer, come closer and we will tell you everything.”
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.
Trump has been good for the media, but bad for journalism. The electronic media-sphere reeks of all Trump all the time, from the partisan jousting of the knights of cable, CNN and Fox, to a cornucopia of websites and podcasts leaning left or right, to Trump’s social media lodestone, Twitter.
As always with the interwebs, there is more noise than substance. That is what legacy news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post are supposed to provide. And they do. For a hefty meal of hard-core investigative reporting, belly up to the hundreds of column inches filled by the Times just a week ago about Trump’s heretofore hidden tax returns – a high-calorie carbo-load of facts, truths and documents. The challenge for the big-boy newspapers is that Trump doesn’t stand still. He is a Rube Goldberg machine of perpetual news, outrage and scandal. What is Page One today is gone tomorrow (or even this evening). Look how Trump’s current Covid adventure relegated the Times’ blockbuster tax reporting to the morgue.
How then, in this gopher-on-a-wheel news cycle, does a staid, old-school, war-horse of a reporter like Bob Woodward, the inventor of a form of book-length journalism best described as anonymous-sources-meet-my-daily-diary-meet-the-telephone-book-meet-C-SPAN, write a recounting of the Trump presidency that has any currency?
In part, the answer is the short lag time between Woodward’s last conversation with Trump, which was on July 21, the day the manuscript for Rage was due, and date of the book’s publication, which was on September 15, only 59 days.
Much happened in that two-month gap, most importantly another 60,000 Americans died of Covid, so here’s another question that must be asked about Rage: Is the book relevant? Yes, I say, and that makes it worth reading.
First, let’s admit that no one reads a Woodward book – and I’ve read a half-dozen – for the writing. The text accompanying a statin prescription is more compelling. Woodward’s literary style is reminiscent of the joke about the bad restaurant with hefty servings – hey, the food is bad, but there is a lot of it. In Woodward’s defense, at least he keeps his portions small.
What gives Rage value is Woodward’s dedication to persistence (he did 17 lengthy interviews with Trump) and belief in one of journalism’s core practices, a tool often overlooked in these times of tweet reporting – the power of accumulation: adding one fact to the next, following the thread of evidence from interview to interview, and stacking truths next to falsehoods. The result is a powerful condemnation of Trump as president, Trump as a man, and Trump as the enabler of others of his ilk, such as his lamprey-like son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
It is Kushner, somewhat surprisingly because of his just-woken-from-the-tomb appearance, who provides the liveliest quotes in the book. Among them:
He borrows from the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland to explain Trump’s behavior: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”
“Controversy elevates message.” Writes Woodward: “This was core understanding of communication strategy in the age of the internet and Trump. A controversy over the economy, Kushner argued – how good it is – only helps Trump because it reminds voters that the economy is good.”
Kushner on Trump and the media: “He’s just able to play the media like a fiddle, and the Democrats too. They run like dogs after a fire truck, chasing whatever he throws out there. … It’s like a buffet where they’ll always eat the worst thing you give them.”
“What I’ve learned in the world of Trump is news cycles don’t last very long.”
Rage opens with a tour of Trump’s earliest days in the White House, guiding the reader through the unease he created among his senior staff by his ignorance of the world and his unconventional, to say the least, manner of decision-making. The misgivings and the fretting of those like James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and Dan Coats (ex-Secretary of Defense, ex-Secretary of State and ex-Director of National Intelligence) have been well-reported, but even though Woodward is late to the tale he tells their stories in such simple, declarative sentences that what is no longer surprising still has the power to shock.
For me, the final third of the book is more compelling. It focuses on the rise of parallel contemporary traumas – the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and the elevation to the national consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the homicide of George Floyd.
Of these two, Trump’s antipathy to wage all-out war against the virus by mandating mask-wearing and other socially beneficial measures is the most reported (especially his early awareness of the danger of the disease and his reluctance to take action for fear of economic ruin). What Woodward adds is perspective on the tension within the White House between the need of the administration to oversee the public health battle and the desire to focus on the upcoming election. Kushner, as kin, holds the upper hand. “The goal” with Trump, Kushner said, “is to get his head from governing to campaigning.
Woodward describes himself as being “incredulous” upon hearing these words: “In the midst of the largest public health crisis in a century, Kushner thought it was time to return to campaigning.”
As craven as Kushner is about the coronavirus, Trump is even more obtuse toward the significance of the police killings of black men and women, and the resulting waves of protests by people of all shades. Woodward asks Trump multiple times in several interviews if he understands the outrage and feels any sense of white privilege, given the circumstances in which he was raised.
“No,” said Trump. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you,” he said, his voice mocking and incredulous. “Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Trump adds, repeating a common assertion of his, “I’ve don’t more for the Black community than any president in history with the possible exception of Lincoln.”
Woodward pursues the question several times, asking Trump if he understands what the protestors want and how he sees his role in responding to their demands, their fear and their pain. Trump answers in talking points and self-serving platitudes. As I said, not a single thing Trump says is surprising, but the cumulative impact of Woodward’s reporting is overwhelming. Normally, we see Trump in short-takes, yelling at reporters in soundbites or blurting out tweets. Rage is a full-length feature and like during the first (and maybe the last) Trump-Biden debate we see a long exposure of all of Trump’s ugliness – his hubris and insensitivity, his inability of see beyond himself, and, most of all, his profound ignorance.
Many times throughout the book, Trump tells Woodward he hopes the book will be positive, and just as many times says he doubts it will be. “I hope you treat me better than Bush,” he says at one point, “because you made him look like a stupid moron, which he was.”
Trump did not get his wish. Rage is a vivisection, a dismembering of Trump while he still breaths his foul breath on our nation. The book opens with an anecdote, told about the onset of the pandemic, that for the president there could be dynamite behind any door. Anything could explode. As he finishes the book, Woodward writes about Trump:
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘dynamite behind the door’ was in plain sight. It was Trump himself. The oversized personality. The failure to organize. The lack of discipline. The lack of trust in others he had picked, in experts. The undermining or the attempted undermining of so many American institutions. The failure to be a calming, healing voice. The unwillingness to acknowledge error. The failure to do his homework. To extend the olive branch. To listen carefully to others. To craft a plan.”
Woodward, the one-man journalistic judge and jury of American presidents since the days when he and Carl Bernstein drove another petty, criminally-mind man from the Oval Office, interviewed the witnesses, examined the evidence, cross-examined the accused and reached a verdict about Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of our republic: Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty on all counts.
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.
Gone missing is the current expression. A terrible phrase. Bland, imprecise and deceptive. It doesn’t mouth the truth: someone has disappeared, someone was kidnapped, enslaved, or is dead. They are not “gone missing.” They are on the run, they have been taken, or they have been killed.
Se busca. Wanted. Wanted to be found. The headline of a thousand posters pasted onto walls and stapled onto utility poles all over Mexico. Mostly women, mostly daughters and sisters and wives and nieces and cousins and friends. Runaways some, but more likely victims of femicides. Young men, too, are missing, often caught in the crossfire between poverty and crime. Plomo o plata, güey.
Se busca. Last seen wearing jeans, a white blouse and black boots. When she laughs dimples form in her cheeks. Her hair is tinted red.
Se busca. So many are wanted that the nation’s public TV channel shows several posters of the missing each day, some dating back a decade. Wanted for ten years or more. Loss and hope travel together through time.
Se busca Evelyn García Macías. Se buscan Montserrat, Cielo, Caterin, Isis, Eduardo, Misael, Cecilia, Ingrid, Haydee and Verónica. Ayúdanos localizarlos. Mexico, your children are missing. Help us find them.
Three faces caught in a moment, each frozen in falling strands of sunlight, a random assortment of movement, expression and emotion, life sliced thin, but not so much as to be transparent.
A woman on foot, her hair tousled by the labors of the day, wearing a sweatshirt dotted with symbols of a northern animal not found in Mexico, looking for safe crossing at a chaotic corner. There is more to her, given away by the furrowed brow. The distress of her life lasts longer than this instant.
A teenage boy framed in an open window, his gaze lowered, his thoughts kept to himself, a silent presentation of self, enduring the ride that connects two corners of his existence.
A young man posed with nonchalance in the doorway, a working stance, calling out the route at every stop, hustling up eight-peso passengers, being paid near nothing, but enough to style himself in fresh sneakers.
They are nameless to me. The bus, though, introduces itself in red letters: Londres – London.
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.
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.