I’m in Bangladesh, doing the kind of work I love – planning to stay for quite a few more months if possible. Even as work occupies and inspires me here, many things draw my thoughts home as well. Next week is Thanksgiving, the most family-oriented of our US holidays — and I’m rather sad to be away yet again on this holiday, even if my vegetarian-ness means the traditional main course doesn’t float my boat. 🙂 My mother expects to start a new treatment the following week. And back home in California, many more lives have been lost and communities harmed by another record-breaking wildfire.
Plus, I already missed Halloween and the joy of watching kids go sugar-crazy… So I’ve sorted through photos I took during the autumn and winter seasons last year, when I was able to spend much good holiday and other time with my family and my friends on both coasts back home. These photos were all taken in NYC and NJ last year in October – December…aside from a few from CT in May 2017, a paean to a loved mentor and friend now gone. Andrew & Tom, I hope you don’t mind…or anyone else. (Tell me and I’ll take photos out if you wish.) Fond memories for me, and I hope you. Much love to you all, this holiday week. Peace, health, human dignity.
I’m back from a short assignment in Sierra Leone, furnished with a new computer and the renewed ability to get photos off both my camera and my phone and then edit them more or less as I like. So I’ll be trying to update my readers – be you known friends & family, or some of my many much-appreciated but unknown viewers from around the world – with all the various things I’ve been seeing and doing in recent months. A thing I’ve learned from my many MSF friends and colleagues is that, even for those who could afford the airplane flights to the US, the idea of visiting the US is very unappealing to many in the world. Either the active adventure travelers assume it’s a destination for one’s older age when the energy to hike and live rough is reduced…or many of my friends and colleagues are understandably concerned about the warmth and humanity of their reception in a country whose “elected” government has gone so bitter, angry, and unwelcoming. I find that a pity since there’s so much worth seeing in the US and also so many people of all backgrounds and perspectives, many or even most of them really quite lovely as individuals, even in states currently driven by the most angry and unwelcoming people. All but one of these photos were taken on the island of Manhattan, the heart of New York City, between April and June. The photo just below, in which my brother Steve & I join our old family friend Jill to celebrate my mother’s 81st birthday, was taken on the far side of the George Washington Bridge (see the slide show below), in New Jersey. Since the GWB is Mom’s favorite bridge in the world, the gallery is a small tribute to her also. Though I love my work and how it exposes me to the realities of a world beyond our shores here in North America…well, it’s always nice when I get back to my family, even if being here means living in denial about the fact that our classy, smart & cosmopolitan President Obama seems to have left the white house… As usual, captions will try to tell you what each photo is, and I’ll write nothing more but let you appreciate NYC and its architecture, skyline and hidden corners.
Sunday afternoon in Port au Prince. There’s a great big mass of clouds, wind and rain named Hurricane Matthew, currently a few hundred miles south of us in the Caribbean and slowly working its way north. Seems that tomorrow, parts of Haiti will see massive rain, probably flooding, and very likely substantial risks to homes and lives and communities. For now, not much to do but wait: hasn’t yet started raining. My tennis buddy is taking a weekend in the mountains, so I’m at loose ends while also behind on both sleep and de-stressing recreation.
So I started thinking about all the clouds I’ve looked at from airplane windows the past two months. Figured I’d share some of them with you.
Trip one: late July (all the files are named yymmdd so you can tell which flight it was, and numbered in sequence, so if you think of the plane’s route, you can guess as I do roughly what we’re looking at – some landforms are obvious, others less so), the first time on a flight from PaP to Maimi that we went as far east as we did. Usually, the flights have passed just west of Ile la Tortue; this time the plane clearly diverted to the east, and I think it must have been to avoid a storm system: I think the first photo you see above is that storm system. Nothing like Matthew…but certainly on that day, flights were delayed all across North America due to storm systems, and we here had our little flight adjustments as well.
Trip two: the return leg from Miami to PaP, from the same vacation trip, in later August. I just love looking down at the islands, sandy bottoms and coral formations of the Bahamas. Then watching the shores of Haiti creep slowly closer and become landforms, towns and cities that I recognize and can place on a map.
Trip three: from JFK down to PaP this time, leaving quite early in the morning on a clear Sunday. Saw the moon rise; saw rainbows in clouds as we approached a somewhat cloudy Haiti. Saw deforestation runoff coming into the bay near Port au Prince, and the bump of the Commune de Carrefour just west of downtown PaP. Saw the mountains to the south of downtown PaP, which I’ve explored a bit by car and on foot. Again – numbered in sequence from sitting on the runway at JFK, to a view at Jamaica Bay as we took off…and all the miles of ocean, clouds, moon and rainbows and bays and islands between.
My wandering field life passed the ten-year mark earlier this year. That’s ten years of finding my way into a new work environment and getting to know new colleagues once a year or so. In a more mundane way, it’s ten years worth of photo files to keep up-to-date and to try to remember to share on my blog. A cousin (thanks, Juliette!) noticed that the entries from my earliest days had lost their photos: mine was a rather early blog, and the ways of uploading photos have changed since then. (Many of those earliest posts appear frankly so embarrassingly shallow to me now that I’m tempted to simply wave my editorial wand and have done with them…but thus far my sense for historical accuracy is controlling that temptation…) If my continued research succeeds, many of those photos will be directly restored onto the blog as I find their originals in backup hard drives and other obscure locations: ah, new year’s resolutions before the old year has even wrapped up!
In the meantime, I’m uncovering little treasures that never made it up here, while fondly remembering where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I was recently saddened to learn that Nancy Schrom Dye, former president of Oberlin College, had passed this year. During my years of active alumni-association work I greatly appreciated her contributions to my alma mater – so I was proud to join some other colleagues in taking her for an end-of-year meal which, the digital date stamp tells me, occurred in Beijing on December 31, in 2005. Up above are also a few rediscovered December 2005 Beijing-area shots which somehow didn’t get posted at the time. (Posting photos was more challenging in those early days…)
Just below are some previously-unposted 2015 shots: early-morning moonset at my home here in Haiti; me with my brother and a colleague when I gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year; and some shots from the lovely Frick House & museum in Pittsburgh, from the same visit. And since this put me in the mood, I’ve wandered through the many countries & continents, family meals & trips & assignments on four continents that have filled the years between these two sets of photos so very fully. Assembling them’s been fun for me so I hope viewing them is fun for you too :-).
This time last year? In December 2014, I returned from Sierra Leone & later went with great friends to enjoy the Ai WeiWei exhibit on Alcatraz Island (more photos from that one in the original post….though that particular set of great friends – you know who you are! – are remarkably camera-resistant):
Where’d I spend 2013? Living in PNG, participating in meetings in Amsterdam & dive trips in Australia, then celebrating the holidays with Steve & Mom in New Zealand:
I began 2012 in the US (where I visited Washington, DC in cherry-blossom season), turned 50 in the company of Howard & Gene at Kakadu National Park in Australia, and finished the year in PNG:
2011 was mostly Mweso, a little Lamu, a little London and a year-end back home seeing Frank Lloyd Wright homes of Pennsylvania with family:
2010…wow, what a year. Just seeing all the continents and countries where I spent time (actually meaningful time, with friends and family and work) makes my head spin even now. The photos evoked so much for me that I just couldn’t narrow it down to three or four…so I’m giving you a lot from 2010, a mix of Manipur (start of year) and Mweso (end of year), with a sprinkling of Sweden, Berlin, Paris & California in between:
I entered 2009 in Tahiti, yes it’s true: during the year I took off from work to help Mom with her house, I dedicated two months to exploring Australia (and watching the Australian Open!) and New Zealand, flying in via Tahiti with a few nights in Papeete, just because I could. The year ended, of course, in Manipur and included a great trip to see excellent sites of Rajasthan with Howard & Gene:
2008 started in Nigeria, and ended in Tahiti…with a lot of good work in Nigeria, a short assignment for the earthquake in China, visits in Germany with my exchange family friends there….and a good deal of time in and around NYC (Mom, aunt Judy & I enjoyed a harbor trip past Ellis Island where our own immigrant ancestors entered the country, and also a trip to our favorite sculpture park up th Husdon)…with a side trip for some hiking in Sequoia and other California adventures:
2007…I began the year based in Colombo but spend the new year’s period with Mom & Steve at Angkor Wat, returned to Colombo to finish out an assignment, headed on for training in Paris where I also got celebrate Mom’s 71st birthday…back to the US to reorganize my life after my first two years in the field, and then off for a new assignment in Nigeria. At the time it felt big. Now it’s all fond memories:
…which will bring us back to year two of this current phase of life’s great adventure, the lovely year 2006. From Beijing & Yunnan in China, to Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (where I was based at year’s end), with family time on Cumberland Island (Mom’s 70th birthday dinner!) and in Germany in between. With a special souvenir from Seoul, where I had the opportunity to work a bit with the young ladies pictured with their daffodils. In a small-world twist, I had dinner with one of those two young ladies just a few nights ago in Port au Prince, which she visits sometimes in her current work with the CDC. So much small world, so little time for it all. Happy end of 2015, and many good hopes for a 2016 of more peace and health to everyone, everywhere.
OK, so I figure if off-angle shots of SF seem to have appealed to enough of my viewers a few weeks ago, I’d finally put up the grab-bag of odd shots from NYC and its region which couldn’t be made to fit in that last entry from Storm King. What you’ll see here are shots from a flat, gray day in Red Hook, which used to be a rather gnarly neighborhood when I lived in Brooklyn. It now seems to be hipster central, and has a few big box stores (most of these were shot in and around the Ikea parking lot), which were not yet permitted inside the 5 boroughs by the time I went west in the late 90s. These shots include some odd views of Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the lovely new One World Trade Center building. Some people are calling it, in classic American let’s-use-terms-without-considering-what-we-mean-by-them manner, freedom tower. I never quite get which freedoms that kind of folks mean, since they’re always wanting to take away my own freedom to disagree with the foreign wars they like to start start (or to take away my friends’ freedom of choice in matters of reproduction or of life & love partner) – but hey, who ever expected words to actually mean something?!
OK, off that soap box for now. Other things in this entry: the impressive Great Falls at Paterson, NJ; a couple shots from the reservoir in central park; and pond scum at a wonderful bird haven in northern NJ. Paterson began its life as an important and powerful mill town, driven by the force of these waterfalls and the river that creates them. Its manufacturing glory days are long since past, but these falls, like the history of the Erie Canal which I’ve been visiting & will document later here on the blog, remind me of how the country was built and grew and prospered in our formative years.
I’ve noticed a lot more views and viewers on the blog recently, and I want to thank viewers both new and old for your interest. I hope you’ll come back, and I hope you’ll leave comments and let me know what you’d like more (or less!) of. Ciao.
Some of my readers haven’t been to NYC and I’ve mostly aimed my NYC blog posts at folks outside the US who might consider visiting some time. I’ve always told European friends, in particular, that American cities are nothing special compared to European cities, and I stand by that; it’s our vast natural landscapes of endless variety and (underfunded) national parks that make the US a top-notch tourist destination, in my view. That said, the US has several cities that are chock full of great architecture, museums, parks, restaurants and people – even if none can hold a candle to ‘old-world’ cities like Athens, Istanbul, Varanasi or Beijing when it comes to history. The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens were one of my favorite weekend haunts when I lived in NYC. You see why, I’m sure.
I’m still pretty deeply embedded in this north American continent, still quite deeply enmeshed in this project to set Mom up for a safer, gentler ongoing retirement by, well, nearly tearing down and rebuilding her house. This raises questions both deep and shallow. The most-common question asked by new acquaintances (read: usually guys I wish I could be dating) is ‘What do you do.’ For some time now I’ve taken disproportionate pride and joy in being able to say I’m a humanitarian worker – it usually launches interesting conversations, and it pretty well always garners me some approving feelings and comments from my conversation partner. However, for a guy of my years and experience to be…sort of an unemployed homeless person, formerly a humanitarian worker but now engaged in the humanitarian ‘Mom Project,’ – well, that just doesn’t come across quite so glamorous. There are deeper pleasures and rewards of family closeness and connection to my Mom, though; one came this past week, as my brothers and I gathered to help move Mom into her new temporary residence, and a few days later when I saw this house in which she (and we) had been accumulating detritus and stuff since 1975 emptied completely. It awaits now only building approval for the demolition and excavation to begin.
And while, on the surface, none of this is as challenging or rewarding as – say – running a surgical and emergency hospital in the Niger Delta, it keeps me busy. In addition, whether I like it or not, it forces me to sit down with questions like identity, life goals, and what it’s all about. I’m one of those Americans who’s felt rather estranged from my country, which took a turn from bad to much worse when we allowed the most destructive president of all time to remain in office after the 2004 elections. It’s much easier, when traveling internationally, to act Canadian than to have to explain that we truly have NO IDEA how that managed to happen. And since that was true – I really have had no idea why so many Americans looked at this lying, incompetent man and said ‘yeah, four more years in the White House sounds like a great idea for him.’ So it’s been much easier to just act like I’m not really part of it.
Being back has made me recognize, again, the complicated reality that is America, that is being American. And that complicated multi-faceted contradictory reality is more than ever present in our current circumstances. We’ve passed a presidential election that’s brought hope to folks around the world for a more constructive, engaged and positive American influence in the world – not to mention more realistic and honorable policies at home. At the same time, the US has spurred another global economic downturn that’s clearly one of the worst in 100 years, and whose bottom we’ve probably not yet found. Four and six years ago, I was totally bearish on America when others were betting our stock ever higher and acting like the high-flying leveraged days of irresponsibility could last forever. Now I find myself unusually bullish and confident, at a time when many seem quite lost and fearful.
The most worrisome aspect to me of our current situation is the deliberate know-nothing approach that many Americans take to our social and political realities. And I don’t say that lightly. A democratic nation whose citizens choose, quite deliberately, to show no interest in the complex and challenging realities of the world they live in simply cannot succeed over the long term. Those who’ve fallen deeply in love with Sarah Palin reflect a deeply-rooted, uniquely American idea that complicated answers are bad, and sound bites are good; that intellect is the enemy, irrational simplicity our friend. I’ve wondered constantly how mothers and fathers in middle America, who I’m certain can barely manage to find solutions to their own family’s belt-tightening crisis, can possibly think that simple sound-bite answers will be found for the largest economy and most complicated government structure the world has ever know. And YES, our government DOES need to be the most complicated the world has ever known, since it manages the largest military, biggest economy, and third largest population the world has ever known. How could there possibly be simple answers for such an entity?
But this is the country where you can’t run for president without mouthing the mandatory ‘America is the greatest nation on earth’ formula. Do those mouthing or hearing the words have concrete ideas (as in, why we’re necessarily greater than Bhutan, Ethiopia or Italy?) in mind when they say it or hear it? I AM proud to be American; I DO think there’s much to be proud of in what we’ve done over the years. Sadly, there’s very much to be terribly ashamed of more recently, and those who re-elected Bush and brought more death and torture to remote corners of the globe, funded by their tax dollars, need to acknowledge their responsibility for what was done by the government they voted for, with their tax dollars. And I’d love to hear their list of concrete things that make them so proud, that make this the ‘greatest nation.’ I have my own list – though I reject utterly the notion that any nation is, or should expect to be, the ‘greatest nation.’ All citizens in all nations are doing what they can to put food on the tables of their families, and most governments, to a greater or lesser extent, are trying to find ways of meeting at least the most basic needs of their citizens.
Still and all, considering the fear and worry on the minds of many Americans, it’s a good time to remember things we can be reasonably proud of. This country, in creative dialogue with Franceth century, created a meaningful new model of democracy that helped fire political and social imaginations throughout the world. This country has been the leading nation composed of immigrants from all cultures, languages and ethnicities; and that diversity has usually given us the kind of health and creative vitality that most mutts have. At times we could learn well from our great northern neighbor, Canada, how better to create a cultural quilt that honors our differences rather than trying to melt them in a pot and fit everyone into the same mold; but still, we’ve done pretty well at taking the energies and experiences of people from all over the world and using them grow an endlessly creative and energetic nation. And we’ll need all that energy and creativity to find our way out of the mess Bush & Co have sunk us so deeply into. I could go on, but the point is made –like all nations and groups, we’ve made contributions both good and bad to the world as a whole, but consistent with our size and place in history, we’ve had a larger impact that most other nations in the past couple hundred years. And we can really be proud of a lot. But it’s been too long since our government did much that we can really be proud of: I’d say the last truly visionary thing we did was use the Marshall plan to invest in a devastated Europe (including Germany) and Japan at the end of World War II. We’ve been coasting on the good will that created ever since – and that well done run dry. We need to get out there and create some meaningful good will, by dropping help rather than bombs on people in developing nations around the world. In fairness to Shrub, he’s left at least one meaningful, positive legacy in the plus column – his serious commitment to AIDS help for nations in Africa. Would that he’d done more of that, and less of the bombs and torture.
It’s clear the hope for renewal and meaningful leadership is shared eagerly all over the world, and this shows up in my own inbox with emails from friends all over saying things from ‘good on you, america,’ or ‘yippi yi ya for obama’ to ‘thank you all you american friends out there…you have made it for the whole of us!!!’ and ‘tears of joy and relief are in my eyes.’ I gave many hours to campaign phone-banks for Obama during October and November. I was born and grew up in Ohio, which was to 2004 what Florida was to 2000. I’m so happy to see the voters finally reject the hate, fear and consumption based approach to life we’ve followed for too long. (Don’t forget that W’s recommendation to citizens after 9/11 was that we should go shopping.) I was personally called anti-American and anti-troops by several people I thought of as friends when I opposed our imperial unilateralist war-mongering response to what, in 2001, could have been a very teachable moment for ourselves and the world. (How different would we and the world now be if we’d taken all those dollars we’ve now wasted in Iraq, and used it on a Marshall-like plan to provide healthcare, education and opportunity in the world’s most deprived places?)
One thing I’ve become increasingly clear about is the need to speak out about my own beliefs and faith. Here in the US, religion is too often used as such a bludgeon to separate and judge – making folks like me very uncomfortable about speaking out for our own beliefs and values, which differ so starkly from those judgmental, narrow-minded religions that bludgeon, but that are no less deeply based in a deep spiritual commitment to right and ethical living in this world. I’ve become convinced that traditional, hidebound religions are a terrible impediment to progress in the US, and are limiting our vision and potential far too much. We are, after all, a nation formed by religious rebels of many stripes – so it’s unsurprising that religion and ethics play a huge role in our public life. Before church recently, I sat in the one of the adult education sessions I’ve so enjoyed; this was about Jewish theologian Abraham Hershel. In one passage, he recounted being told, as a 7-year-old, about the biblical story of Abraham taking Isaac up to the mountain to be sacrificed, as he’d heard his god demand he do. Naturally the 7-year-old was pretty horrified by the notion of a father killing his son based on the say-so of some voice in the air, and wondered what would have happened if the angel hadn’t told Abraham to stop before his knife struck Isaac’s neck. The rabbi’s answer? Angels are never late – humans, maybe, Angels never.
And that, my friends, is as good an illustration as any of why organized, judgmental religions have far outlived their usefulness to humanity. What sane ethical being would stick a knife in a son’s neck, for any reason, let alone because a voice spoke in thin air? And what sane person would put stock in a holy book that calls this a test of faith? Who needs a god that tests faith by insisting on human sacrifice? Didn’t Christians kill ‘pagans’ for thinking just that when they arrived in far-flung lands throughout the 19th century? What responsible human being would cede agency and responsibility for their own actions and ethics to an unknown angel, or an unknown god, whose existence must be taken on faith? If you believe in that god, don’t you suppose he/she/it gave you that head on your shoulders to be USED rather than turned off?
Something that discomfits me about the unitarian church I’ve been attending here in NYC is that the G word comes up rather often in services. I’m tired of whether we do or don’t believe in G – and I think actions matter more than spoken beliefs. It’s totally clear what sane, intelligent and ethical human beings should be doing in this world — taking care of one another and the planet, reducing conflict, bringing more and more deprived and impoverished people from developing nations and deprived parts of our own nations into our communities of opportunity, restoring the earth and our human world to a more sane balance and distribution of opportunity. To those in Kansas or Alabama who want to parrot that old Puritan saw about predestination, and basically say that their god has blessed them by allowing them to be born in this rich land of milk and honey, while those poor kids in [name of developing nation here] are just shit out of luck in this life…well, I say yours is not a religious practice worthy of the name. Because if religion serves any purpose in human life, surely it is to bind humanity together and increase the safety and security of us all, not just of one people or one community, but of our ever-more-connected global village. So learn a bit more about the world, get out of the Wal Mart and off your butt and do something to help the world become a better place – and start by reducing your own consumption, and using the saved money to donate to reliable charities that give food and medicine to needy people – and not bibles, since those don’t cure tuberculosis or hunger. While you’re at it, you might get around to admitting that hormones are hormones, and abstinence-only ain’t never gonna work…but I won’t ask too much.
In Clint Eastwood’s new movie Changeling, the main character says ‘I didn’t start this fight, but I’m going to finish it.’ I’m feeling much that way now. For many years now, I and other liberal and progressive Americans have felt judged and rejected by what the media like to call ‘values voters.’ I’m tired of that – I am what I am, my values tell me to take care of my friends, family, community and world, and yes I’m proud to be far to the left and far more knowledgeable about what goes on in the world than most other Americans. Deal with it. We all have the right and responsibility both to live the lives that feel right to us – and to accept, without complaint, the consequences of those lives. For many Americans, right now, that means finding ways to tighten belts and develop some goals and values in life that involve something more than non-stop consumption, trips to the mall, and heaping more junk into their houses that will end up in the trash. There’s a lot to see and do in the world that doesn’t increase you carbon footprint. Try it – learn a little, explore a little; you might find that you like living a bit smaller in a larger world.
My first-ever pride parade came when I was 23, and since I had learned that week that my roommate had been diagnosed with AIDS, I remember crying as I watched the march. Before ARV’s, of course, this meant his prognosis was very poor indeed. In the late 80s and 90s, the parades were still fairly militant because of our anger and grief about all the friends we were losing to AIDS – I still have a picture taken at the parade in 1990 or 91 of my friend Kevin, on whom I’d had a big crush when I first met him. He had finally starting getting thin from AIDS wasting, and this was the last time I saw him; a year later a friend showed me his obituary, which contained a photo I’d taken of him on a trip to Storm King sculpture park. Things have changed during the decade or more that I’ve been away from the pride events: the fact that AIDS has become more of a chronic disease managed with ARVs has really breathed both literal and figurative life into our community. Pride seems now really to be a parade, a strutting of our confidence, variety, sexiness — and, above ALL ELSE (this is the US, after all) our purchasing power, or at least our credit cards’ purchasing power.
But this year, too, I found myself crying. I’m not sure why — maybe for Kevin or the other people we’ve all lost. Or the fact that there are still people out there who think the way we love is wrong. Or maybe in relief, inside, that I was finally among my own people. As this blog attests, I deeply loved my time in Nigeria and the people I met there. But, though my expat colleagues in general knew I date guys (or at least hope to, again, some day!), I took care not to be out to my colleagues there, since I’m pretty sure it would have had a negative impact on how I was viewed. I’m used to doing this when in the field, even though here in the US I’m pretty comfy with who I am. So I think I cried, to some extent, in relief at being able to be all the parts of me again, rather than just the hard worker and boss who has no personal feelings or desires, much. Now that I’ve been here longer, I feel my field self going deeper under ground, and I’m sort of mourning that even as I try to establish some pattern of life/work, social life, and – hey, maybe even a dating life again. And this makes me wonder who I am when I’m not a field worker with MSF – even though I firmly expect I’ll be back in the field again, doing work that challenges and enlivens me, whenever this looooooong house project is over. (Hey, maybe I’ll even find time while here to meet some fascinating smart guy who not only wants to date me, but to join me in field work — hehe, we can all dream, right?) Oh well, it’s all about balance and we’re all seeking it all the time. Enjoy the pics: an unusual set, for this blog, I know. Never fear: there’ll be shots from the mountains and hills of coastal and inland California soon enough.
Since I’m missing her, I figure putting her picture up here is a way I get to see her when I’m in China. Plus for you who know her, maybe you’ll be happy to remember her, too. I’m sure she’s happy in the
Sierra Foothills with Sue. 🙂