I’d Like to Thank the Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thanksgiving Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving to all.