Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Skid Row stories

Eye of the beholder: John Hwang sees beauty in the most unlikely of places.

When John Hwang steps into the night and walks through Los Angeles' Skid Row neighborhood, he says a prayer. It's the same one every time. Guide me. Guide my steps. I'm open to anything. That warm August evening, he walked east toward the iconic Sixth Street Bridge. 

The city was breathtaking from his vantage point. As the sun set, the sky burned amber. Downtown LA's skyline seemed to glow. John feasted on the scene before him. But he also noticed he was all alone.

"God, what am I doing here?" he wondered. 

Downtown LA nightscape. (Photos: John Hwang)

He kept walking. For some reason, John felt like he was supposed to continue on the bridge, even though he had no idea why. He took more photos of the city when suddenly a figure appeared. Startled, John looked up and saw a scruffy, bearded man standing there. 

"What time is it?" the man asked. 

It was a curious question. Had they met at a busy intersection or a crowded Metro stop the man's inquiry would have made sense. But here? In the middle of the bridge at night with no other human being in sight?

John told the man the time. Close to 7 o'clock. Then he introduced himself. The man nodded in acknowledgement and said his name was Quinn.

"I don't want to sound weird or anything," Quinn started. "A few moments before you walked by, I felt like I had to get up. I was sleeping but something was telling me, 'Get up!' Then I saw you. I didn't want to scare you. That's why I asked you what time it was."

The circumstance was weird. But in that cool, unexplainable, cosmic kind of way. Call it kismet. Call it fate. John knew he was supposed to meet Quinn. The men exchanged easy conversation that night. As they enjoyed the view of LA from the bridge, John learned more about Quinn. How he lost his construction job after falling from a roof. How the accident left him with a shattered ankle. How he struggled daily with humiliation, hunger and despair.

Take a shower! You stink, man! the gang of kids would yell to Quinn, sometimes throwing rocks at him as they sped by on their skateboards. His tent got slashed. His things were stolen. But the worst was waking up to someone urinating on him. "Where you sleep, that's my shithole," the burly man scoffed.

So Quinn moved under the bridge. Where no one would bother him.

"I've been really down," Quinn confided. "Been thinking about jumping off this bridge. But then I saw you... I feel like God sent you here to give me hope."

As John put out his hand out to shake Quinn's, Quinn looked down in embarrassment at his hands, dirty and covered with cuts from rummaging through the trash for recyclables -- evidence of a day's work. So instead, John gave Quinn a hug. That night, the two became friends.

Quinn refuses to beg or panhandle. "It's a way to hold onto my dignity," he says.
So he collects recyclables to make a living. (Photos: John Hwang)

More to this life
Everything was going his way. Everything society says makes a man successful -- a great job, a beautiful girlfriend, a loving family and loyal friends. But John couldn't shake the feeling of boredom. He longed for something more.

"I had nothing to complain about, everything was good -- too good," he recalls. "But I thought, 'This is it? This is everything I wanted?'"

Depressed and wanting to dig deeper, John, a devout Christian, re-visited the Gospels. He devoured the Book of Matthew. 

"A lot of it is about caring for the poor, how much Jesus was reaching out to the outcasts, the most marginalized people of society," he says. "That really stuck out to me and I thought, 'That's what I want to do.'"

So he went to Skid Row. 

Containing one of the largest homeless populations in the US, Skid Row is home to thousands like Quinn. This 54-block section of downtown LA became Skid Row in the late 1800s. It was an ideal congregating spot for runaways, hobos, aimless rail riders and transient workers because it was the last stop on the train for the whole country. Today, experts estimate some 3,000 homeless people call Skid Row home.

A native Angeleno, John had always known about Skid Row. In the past, he had volunteered at homeless shelters and served meals at soup kitchens on Thanksgiving. 

"But of course it's way safer and more comfortable when you go with a group of people, when you drive in your car and drive back home," he says. "As opposed to now, when I go by myself."

Six months ago, John ventured to Skid Row for the first time solo. Every day after work (he's an Occupational Therapist at Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park) he drove to the corner of 4th and Alameda, parked his car in the lot of a Korean supermarket and just walked. He had no plan, no agenda, no idea what would unfold and who, if anybody, he would meet. 

What am I doing here? John thought as he walked past empty lots, abandoned warehouse buildings and rows and rows of tents. The sickly sweet smell of urine punctuated the surrounding despair. Used needles. Feces. Trash. Like a foreigner in a foreign land, John looked sorely misplaced. People thought he was there to buy drugs. He refused to make eye contact with anyone. That first night was terrifying.  

But he went again the next night. And the night after that. John spent hours after work wandering Skid Row, saying prayers asking God to give him eyes to see. He became brave. Nerves gave way to a warrior-like spirit. He made eye contact. He started discerning the ones who wanted to connect.

"There are certain people, the way they look at you, there's something there," he says. "I smile. They smile. I ask, 'How are you?' and they open up."

And then he discovered stories. Fascinating, heartbreaking, wonderful stories. 

"I was like, 'Wow! I need to document this!' That's when I started taking my camera."
Images of the inner city -- poverty, drug use, homelessness -- portrayed by mainstream media are often cliche. Depicted through the lens of an outsider, these photos evoke at best, emotions of sympathy and at worst, a sense of schadenfreude. But John's work captures friendship, beauty, humanity.    

We see what he sees.

John writes eloquent captions to accompany his photos. He gives his reader a window into the many lives he encounters.

Like Walter, who has become one of his closest friends.

"When I take the time to listen, I find this gentle and beautiful man has many
intelligent and insightful things to say," John says. "Walter has become
one of my dearest friends on Skid Row." (Photos: John Hwang)

                "Walter is often the one to see me first. From far away he enthusiastically waves his 
                hands and calls my name. He hobbles over with his shopping cart and gives me a 
                hug. He calls his shopping cart his best friend because he spends all his waking 
                hours looking for recyclables, and the shopping cart also helps him keep his balance
                as he walks. He frequents all the local recycle centers, going 5-6 times a day. Sadly
                one recycling center he often goes to mistreats him. Even when he waits in line he is 
                the last to be helped. He is talked down to and treated like he is dumb or crazy. 
                When actually he is a bright, hard working and sensitive man. It hurts him deeply. 
                I can see it in his eyes. Walter grew up in rural Texas, during the time of segregation. 
                So it brings back some painful memories. But Walter refuses to feel sorry for himself. 
                He refuses to feel bitter. He knows his worth as a human being. And I am honored to 
                know him and call him my friend."

And TC.

"When TC and I walk the streets of Skid Row together, it seems like
 everyone knows him," John says. (Photo: John Hwang)

               "When TC was a small child he was crying on the street alone. His father was in 
               jail and his mother was in the hospital because his dad had beat her up so bad. 
               At that time, his sister got molested by a neighbor. He was 10 years old and the 
               man of the house. He felt powerless. Until some older guys offered to protect him 
               and his sister by beating up this neighbor. It turns out these guys belonged to the 
               Bloods, one of the most notorious street gangs of Los Angeles. They became his 
               new family. He lived a life of violence, robbery, hustling drugs and weapons. 
               Often in and out of jail, he quickly rose to become one of the highest ranking 
               members of the gang. What turned his life around was when he was shot in the 
               head by a rival gang, he had a near-death experience that led him to place his faith 
               in God. Now TC lives his life to improve the world around him." 

And Ronnie, aka Pepper.

Ronnie, who goes by the name of "Pepper," lives along the LA River. (Photos: John Hwang)

               "Pepper has a tattoo of 'Lisa' on his arm, to honor the one person who gave him 
               true love, his mother. He is HIV positive and knows that his days are numbered. 
               He told me that what keeps him going is that he wants to make people smile and 
               spread love as much as he can. He has a beautiful attitude about life despite his 
               father being a very violent and hateful man. His dad was a member of the Ku Klux 
               Klan and beat him and his mother often. There was a time when Pepper also lived 
               a life of violence and addiction. Despite losing much of his material possessions 
               and knowing that he is dying, Pepper has gained something far greater. 
               The capacity to love."

An army of light
It was especially dark that November evening. Someone had come earlier -- nobody knew exactly when -- to strip the street lamps of its copper wires. John was keeping company with a group of homeless men playing chess when suddenly a car pulled up. The driver got out and John was struck with how much the man looked like he could be the frontman of a British boy band. The kind stranger invited the group to a hot meal they were serving a few blocks away. 

When they arrived, John and his friends smelled the aromas of marinated fish, rice, fruits and cookies. As they ate, John learned more about Tyler Madsen, owner and designer of a socially-conscious clothing company called Love Nail Tree, located in the heart of Skid Row. 

That conversation sparked a small fire. John and Tyler shared about their hopes for the inner-city and talked about collaborating on future projects to help the homeless.  

 When Love Nail Tree owner Tyler Madsen and his staff close up shop for the night,
they are often busy feeding homeless residents at night. (Photo: John Hwang)

When John pounds Skid Row pavement night after night, it produces countless encounters with an army of men and women shining light throughout the dark corners of Skid Row. 

In the 90s, Stephen "Cue" Jn-Marie was part of the hip hop group College Boyz.
Part rapper part preacher, he leads a church service every Friday night on a
Skid Row street corner once notorious for drug dealers. (Photo: John Hwang)

               "Today I had lunch with Cue Jn-Marie. Absolutely amazing guy! He has spent 
               the past seven years loving the people of Skid Row; providing for their physical 
               needs, being their advocate at city council meetings, connecting them to 
               community resources and giving out hugs. Every Friday night he has a church 
               service he calls 'a church without walls.' Cue himself used to be a drug 
               dealer. He was also an up-and-coming name in the hip hop scene back in the 
               90s, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tupac Shakur. After living the fast life 
               of fame, violence and drug abuse, he gave his life over to God. Now he provides 
               much-needed hope and love to the homeless and marginalized." 

Spread the love, lay it on thick
John keeps a virtual scrapbook of his Skid Row photos and stories on Facebook. His work has grown a loyal following. Each post receives hundreds of Likes and countless comments and positive feedback. "You really need to write a book!" "Your kindness is contagious!" "You always move me man, and I'm not that moveable...".

It makes people want to do something.

When John recently shared with Walter personal messages from Facebook readers, Walter was floored. "'People see in me things that I don't see in myself...' that's what Walter told me last night. He was referring to all the beautiful and encouraging emails he was receiving from all of you, my dear friends,'" John writes in a Facebook post. "He was excitedly telling everyone he knows on Skid Row, 'I am on Facebook and people are emailing me from all over the world!'"

One of John's friends, Giao Nguyen of San Jose, Calif., was so moved by Walter's story on Facebook that she sent him a brand new Coleman camping tent.

"When I gave it to [Walter] last night, he was in tears," John writes. "Giao, you are AMAZING!"

Rebecca Martin of Los Angeles donated her prized collection of National Geographic magazines to Richard:

A car accident left Richard disabled. Reading sets his mind free. (Photo: John Hwang)

               "His eyes lit up when I handed him the National Geographic magazine. "It takes 
               me to places I've never gone," he told me. As he gently turned each page, his 
               eyes scanned over every article and photograph. I could see how much he savored 
               each page." 

John's work changes hearts, too.

He went up to the homeless man, grabbed him by the hand
and gave him three new cigarettes. (Photo: John Hwang)

               "My dad was never a charitable man. He once gave my mom a hard time for 
               donating money to World Vision. Recently, he was in downtown LA purchasing 
               merchandise for his store. He was outside having a cigarette. He has been trying 
               to quit for years. Halfway through the cigarette, he decides to throw it away on 
               the street. Immediately he sees a homeless man pick it up and try to smoke it. 
               Then my dad did something totally uncharacteristic. He went up to the homeless 
               man, grabbed him by the hand and gave him three new cigarettes. Later on, my 
               dad told my mom that normally he wouldn't pay attention to homeless people, 
               but after reading my stories on Facebook, he had compassion for them. He said 
               that the homeless man had a look of surprise and gratitude towards him. 
               And that left an impression on my dad."

A beginning, a middle and an end

He saw her sleeping on the sidewalk across the street from the Greyhound bus station. Her sweet face, wrinkled and worn, caught John's eye. He was drawn to this elderly Asian woman. She looked like she could have been a long lost relative.

He wanted to talk to her but he was already late to his friend's party. He made a mental note to come back. The next day John found her in the same spot. He asked if she wanted to have breakfast with him. They went to McDonald's.

John bought Cam an Egg McMuffin but no matter how much he insisted she refused to eat unless he did, too. He was full, but ordered pancakes to make her happy.     

There was food around Cam's mouth. John got a napkin and gently wiped her face.
Tears began to well up in her eyes. No words were needed then.
(Photos: John Hwang)  

"She had the most amazing eyes, not just the way they looked but what was behind them," John says. "Like she was so happy to see me. Like I was visiting an aunt I hadn't seen in a long time."

He tried to make conversation. But Cam mumbled words to herself silently, as if saying a prayer. Probably dementia, John thought. He asked if she had any form of identification. Cam pulled out her senior citizen ID card. He snapped a photo of it.

He posted Cam's portrait and ID card on Facebook. "Does anyone have any connection to the Vietnamese community up in the Bay Area?" he asked on his post.

The image went viral and that night a case manager from Northern California contacted John. Cam was reported missing in San Francisco, the case manager said. She had escaped from her assisted living facility and somehow managed to travel 380 miles to Los Angeles. 

Two days later, Cam was reunited with her family.

"That was the most memorable [encounter] because most of these stories have a 'to be continued' feel to them," John says. "But Cam's story had a beginning, a middle and an end. That left me with a feeling of amazement. It had a happy ending."

The greatest rush
John's friends always tell him to be careful when he heads to Skid Row by himself every night. Something could happen to you, they say. 

"I tell God, whatever happens, if I lose my life, if this is my last moment on earth, I'm OK with it," he says. "Because every time I go to [Skid Row] I get this rush -- like a high -- from when you truly care about somebody. You go to the darkest place and you try to be a light. You try to be a glimmer of hope and you get something so beautiful in return."

That nagging feeling of emptiness has disappeared.

He's at peace. 

"Maybe I'll do this in another part of the world," John says. "I want to go to the darkest, most hopeless, most rejected places. Because even the tiniest spark can be really bright."

"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the
utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer
and richer experiences." --Eleanor Roosevelt

Monday, November 25, 2013

Links nov25

The beards are amazing. Their chocolate is supposed to be pretty good, too.

As we ponder what we are grateful for this Thanksgiving week, I offer up the following individuals. They sure do make the world a better, more interesting place.


  • Aussie beatbox extraordinaire Tom Thum uses his mouth in strange ways in exchange for cash. (TEDxSydney)
  • The Mast Brothers of Brooklyn do it all for the love of chocolate. (The Scout)
  • Part rapper part preacher, Stephen "Cue" Jn-Marie leads a church service every Friday night on a Skid Row street corner once notorious for drug deals. (Make)
  • Rally driver Ken Block has a serious need for speed; this one from San Francisco is my favorite. (Gymkhana Five)
  • I went to school with Mariana van Zeller and Darren Foster and I'm proud of them for doing some important, ballsy journalism. (Muck Media) 

Friday, November 22, 2013

This week's obsession: Lorde

I recently discovered this badass, self-assured, only 17-year-old New Zealand singer-songwriter who calls herself Lorde. I'm absolutely hypnotized and can only aspire to be 1/10th as cool as her. 

Her voice drips with gold. Delicious.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Best comics, ever

Snider's comic strip about surviving the first year
of parenting is one of my favorites. 

I've become a bit obsessed with Grant Snider's work. Click here and you'll see why.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Thoughts on loss (lovely, lovely words)

"Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you."
-The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
(Illustration: Sarah Wilkins)

My best friend recently lost someone very close to her. For the past few months I have watched her navigate grief like a warrior, heartbroken and gasping for breath but never defeated. 

We've cried a river of tears together and the gaping hole in her heart has made mine in tune with hers, taking in sadness and reflecting on a life cut short (Michael died at 34) but lived well. It's caused me to contemplate my own loved ones, the risks we take when we give ourselves so fully and willingly in our relationships, and life's opportunities both seized and missed. 

I came across these heartbreaking and wonderfully-written stories on loss. I don't know if I was looking for them or if they found me but their words still linger, almost haunting me. In "Thanksgiving in Mongolia" reporter Ariel Levy recounts miscarrying at five months pregnant while on assignment halfway around the world. The second piece, "After a Parent's Death, A Rush of Change," writer E.J. Levy, reeling from her father's death, decides she wants to become a mother. And lastly, my best friend's own words on loss and legacy.

Read, and be moved.

Thanksgiving in Mongolia

By Ariel Levy

The New Yorker

Nov. 18, 2013

My favorite game when I was a child was Mummy and Explorer. My father and I would trade off roles: one of us had to lie very still with eyes closed and arms crossed over the chest, and the other had to complain, “I’ve been searching these pyramids for so many years. When will I ever find the tomb of Tutankhamun?” (This was in the late seventies, when Tut was at the Met, and we came in from the suburbs to visit him frequently.) At the climax of the game, the explorer stumbles on the embalmed Pharaoh and—brace yourself—the mummy opens his eyes and comes to life. The explorer has to express shock, and then says, “So, what’s new?” To which the mummy replies, “You.”
I was not big on playing house. I preferred make-believe that revolved around adventure, featuring pirates and knights. I was also domineering, impatient, relentlessly verbal, and, as an only child, often baffled by the mores of other kids. I was not a popular little girl. I played Robinson Crusoe in a small wooden fort that my parents built for me in the back yard. In the fort, I was neither ostracized nor ill at ease—I was self-reliant, brave, ingeniously surviving, if lost.
The other natural habitat for a child who loves words and adventure is the page, and I was content when my parents read me “Moby-Dick,” “Pippi Longstocking,” or “The Hobbit.” I decided early that I would be a writer when I grew up. That, I thought, was the profession that went with the kind of woman I wanted to become: one who is free to do whatever she chooses. I started keeping a diary in third grade and, in solidarity with Anne Frank, gave it a name and made it my confidante. To this day, I feel comforted and relieved of loneliness, no matter how foreign my surroundings, if I have a pad and a pen with which to record my experiences.
I’ve spent the past twenty years putting myself in foreign surroundings as frequently as possible. There is nothing I love more than travelling to a place where I know nobody, and where everything will be a surprise, and then writing about it. The first time I went to Africa for a story, I was so excited that I barely slept during the entire two-week trip. Everything was new: the taste of springbok meat, the pink haze over Cape Town, the noise and chaos of the corrugated-tin alleyways in Khayelitsha township. I could still feel spikes of adrenaline when I was back at my desk in New York, typing, while my spouse cooked a chicken in the kitchen.
But as my friends, one after another, made the journey from young woman to mother, it glared at me that I had not. I would often listen to a Lou Reed song called “Beginning of a Great Adventure,” about the possibilities of imminent parenthood. “A little me or he or she to fill up with my dreams,” Lou sings, with ragged hopefulness, “a way of saying life is not a loss.” It became the soundtrack to my mulling on motherhood. I knew that a child would make life as a professional explorer largely impossible. But having a kid seemed in many ways like the wildest trip of all.
I always get terrified right before I travel. I become convinced that this time will be different: I won’t be able to figure out the map, or communicate with non-English speakers, or find the people I need in order to write the story I’ve been sent in search of. I will be lost and incompetent and vulnerable. I know that my panic will turn to excitement once I’m there—it always does—but that doesn’t make the fear before takeoff any less vivid. So it was with childbearing: I was afraid for ten years. I didn’t like childhood, and I was afraid that I’d have a child who didn’t, either. I was afraid I would be an awful mother. And I was afraid of being grounded, sessile—stuck in one spot for eighteen years of oboe lessons and math homework that I couldn’t finish the first time around.

I was on book tour in Athens when I decided that I would do it. My partner—who had always indicated that I would need to cast the deciding vote on parenthood—had come with me, and we were having one of those magical moments in a marriage when you find each other completely delightful. My Greek publisher and his wife took us out dancing and drinking, and cooked for us one night in their little apartment, which was overrun with children, friends, moussaka, and cigarette smoke. “Americans are not relaxed,” one of the other guests told me, holding his three-year-old and drinking an ouzo. Greece was falling apart. The streets of Athens were crawling with cats and dogs that people had abandoned because they could no longer afford pet food. But our hosts were jubilant. Their family didn’t seem like a burden; it seemed like a party. The idea bloomed in my head that being governed by something other than my own wishes and wanderlust might be a pleasure, a release.
I got pregnant quickly, to my surprise and delight, shortly before my thirty-eighth birthday. It felt like making it onto a plane the moment before the gate closes—you can’t help but thrill. After only two months, I could hear the heartbeat of the creature inside me at the doctor’s office. It seemed like magic: a little eye of newt in my cauldron and suddenly I was a witch with the power to brew life into being. Even if you are not Robinson Crusoe in a solitary fort, as a human being you walk this world by yourself. But when you are pregnant you are never alone.

My doctor told me that it was fine to fly up until the third trimester, so when I was five months pregnant I decided to take one last big trip. It would be at least a year, maybe two, before I’d be able to leave home for weeks on end and feel the elation of a new place revealing itself. (It’s like having a new lover—even the parts you aren’t crazy about have the crackling fascination of the unfamiliar.) Just before Thanksgiving, I went to Mongolia.
People were alarmed when I told them where I was going, but I was pleased with myself. I liked the idea of being the kind of woman who’d go to the Gobi Desert pregnant, just as, at twenty-two, I’d liked the idea of being the kind of girl who’d go to India by herself. And I liked the idea of telling my kid, “When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.” I wasn’t truly scared of anything but the Mongolian winter. The tourist season winds down in October, and by late November, when I got on the plane, the nights drop to twenty degrees below zero. But I was prepared: I’d bought snow pants big enough to fit around my convex gut and long underwear two sizes larger than I usually wear.
To be pregnant is to be in some kind of discomfort pretty much all the time. For the first few months, it was like waking up with a bad hangover every single morning but never getting to drink—I was nauseated but hungry, afflicted with a perpetual headache, and really qualified only to watch television and moan. That passed, but a week before I left for Mongolia I started feeling an ache in my abdomen that was new. “Round-ligament pain” is what I heard from everyone I knew who’d been pregnant, and what I read on every prenatal Web site: the uterus expanding to accommodate the baby, as he finally grew big enough to make me look actually pregnant, instead of just chunky. That thought comforted me on the fourteen-hour flight to Beijing, while I shifted endlessly, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt my round ligaments.
When my connecting flight landed in Mongolia, it was morning, but the gray haze made it look like dusk. Ulaanbaatar is among the most polluted capital cities in the world, as well as the coldest. The drive into town wound through frozen fields and clusters of felt tents—gers, they’re called there—into a crowded city of stocky, Soviet-era municipal buildings, crisscrossing telephone and trolley lines, and old Tibetan Buddhist temples with pagoda roofs. The people on the streets moved quickly and clumsily, burdened with layers against the bitter weather.
I was there to report a story on the country’s impending transformation, as money flooded in through the mining industry. Mongolia has vast supplies of coal, gold, and copper ore; its wealth was expected to double in five years. But a third of the population still lives nomadically, herding animals and sleeping in gers, burning coal or garbage for heat. Until the boom, Mongolia’s best-known export was cashmere. As Jackson Cox, a young consultant from Tennessee who’d lived in Ulaanbaatar for twelve years, told me, “You’re talking about an economy based on yak meat and goat hair.”
I got together with Cox on my first night in town. He sent a chauffeured car to pick me up—every Westerner I met in U.B. had a car and a driver—at the Blue Sky Hotel, a new and sharply pointed glass tower that split the cold sky like a shark fin. When I arrived at his apartment, he and a friend, a mining-industry lawyer from New Jersey, were listening to Beyonc√© and pouring champagne. The place was clean and modern, but modest: for expats in U.B., it’s far easier to accumulate wealth than it is to spend it. We went to dinner at a French restaurant, where we all ordered beef, because seafood is generally terrible in Mongolia, which is separated from the sea by its hulking neighbors (and former occupiers) China and Russia. Then they took me to an underground gay bar called 100 Per Cent—which could have been in Brooklyn, except that everyone in Mongolia still smoked indoors. I liked sitting in a booth in a dark room full of smoking, gay Mongolians, but my body was feeling strange. I ended the night early.

When I woke up the next morning, the pain in my abdomen was insistent; I wondered if the baby was starting to kick, which everyone said would be happening soon. I called home to complain, and my spouse told me to find a Western clinic. I e-mailed Cox to get his doctor’s phone number, thinking that I’d call if the pain got any worse, and then I went out to interview people: the minister of the environment, the president of a mining concern, and, finally, a herdsman and conservationist named Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, who became a folk hero after he fired shots at mining operations that were diverting water from nomadic communities. I met him in the sleek lobby of the Blue Sky with Yondon Badral—a smart, sardonic man I’d hired to translate for me in U.B. and to accompany me a few days later to the Gobi, where we would drive a Land Rover across the cold sands to meet with miners and nomads. Badral wore jeans and a sweater; Munkhbayar was dressed in a long, traditional deel robe and a fur hat with a small metal falcon perched on top. It felt like having a latte with Genghis Khan.

In the middle of the interview, Badral stopped talking and looked at my face; I must have been showing my discomfort. He said that it was the same for his wife, who was pregnant, just a few weeks further along than I was, and he explained the situation to Munkhbayar. The nomad’s skin was chapped pink from the wind; his nostrils, eyes, and ears all looked as if they had receded into his face to escape the cold. I felt a little surge of pride when he said that I was brave to travel so far in my condition. But I was also starting to worry.
I nearly cancelled my second dinner with the Americans that evening, but I figured that I needed to eat, and they offered to meet me at the Japanese restaurant in my hotel. Cox was leaving the next day to visit his family for Thanksgiving, and he was feeling guilty that he’d spent a fortune on a business-class ticket. I thought about my uncomfortable flight over and said that it was probably worth it. “You’re being a princess,” Cox’s friend told him tartly, but I couldn’t laugh. Something was happening inside me. I had to leave before the food came.
I ran back to my room, pulled off my pants, and squatted on the floor of the bathroom, just as I had in Cambodia when I had dysentery, a decade earlier. But the pain in that position was unbearable. I got on my knees and put my shoulders on the floor and pressed my cheek against the cool tile. I remember thinking, This is going to be the craziest shit in history.
I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.” But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell.
He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders—all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.
I was vaguely aware that there was an enormous volume of blood rushing out of me, and eventually that seemed interesting, too. I looked back and forth between my offspring and the lake of blood consuming the bathroom floor and I wondered what to do about the umbilical cord connecting those two things. It was surprisingly thick and ghostly white, a twisted human rope. I felt sure that it needed to be severed—that’s always the first thing that happens in the movies. I was afraid that if I didn’t cut that cord my baby would somehow suffocate. I didn’t have scissors. I yanked it out of myself with one swift, violent tug.
In my hand, his skin started to turn a soft shade of purple. I bled my way across the room to my phone and dialled the number for Cox’s doctor. I told the voice that answered that I had given birth in the Blue Sky Hotel and that I had been pregnant for nineteen weeks. The voice said that the baby would not live. “He’s alive now,” I said, looking at the person in my left hand. The voice said that he understood, but that it wouldn’t last, and that he would send an ambulance for us right away. I told him that if there was no chance the baby would make it I might as well take a cab. He said that that was not a good idea.

Before I put down my phone, I took a picture of my son. I worried that if I didn’t I would never believe he had existed.
When the pair of Mongolian E.M.T.s came through the door, I stopped feeling competent and numb. One offered me a tampon, which I knew not to accept, but the realization that of the two of us I had more information stirred a sickening panic in me and I said I needed to throw up. She asked if I was drunk, and I said, offended, No, I’m upset. “Cry,” she said. “You just cry, cry, cry.” Her partner bent to insert a thick needle in my forearm and I wondered if it would give me Mongolian aids, but I felt unable to do anything but cry, cry, cry. She tried to take the baby from me, and I had the urge to bite her hand. As I lay on a gurney in the back of the ambulance with his body wrapped in a towel on top of my chest, I watched the frozen city flash by the windows. It occurred to me that perhaps I was going to go mad.
In the clinic, there were very bright lights and more needles and I.V.s and I let go of the baby and that was the last I ever saw him. He was on one table and I was on another, far away, lying still under the screaming lights, and then, confusingly, the handsomest man in the world came through the door and said he was my doctor. His voice sounded nice, familiar. I asked if he was South African. He was surprised that I could tell, and I explained that I had spent time reporting in his country, and then we talked a bit about the future of the A.N.C. and about how beautiful it is in Cape Town. I realized that I was covered in blood, sobbing, and flirting.
Soon, he said that he was going home and that I could not return to the Blue Sky Hotel, where I might bleed to death in my room without anyone knowing. I stayed in the clinic overnight, wearing a T-shirt and an adult diaper that a kind, fat, giggling young nurse gave me. After she dressed me, she asked, “You want toast and tea?” It was milky and sweet and reminded me of the chai I drank in Nepal, where I went backpacking in the Himalayas with a friend long before I was old enough to worry about the expiration of my fertility. It had been a trip spent pushing my young body up the mountains, past green-and-yellow terraced fields and villages full of goats, across rope bridges that hung tenuously over black ravines with death at the bottom. We consumed a steady diet of hashish and Snickers bars and ended up in a blizzard that killed several hikers but somehow left us only chilly.
I had been so lucky. Very little had ever truly gone wrong for me before that night on the bathroom floor. And I knew, as surely as I now knew that I wanted a child, that this change in fortune was my fault. I had boarded a plane out of vanity and selfishness, and the dark Mongolian sky had punished me. I was still a witch, but my powers were all gone.
That is not what the doctor said when he came back to the clinic in the morning. He told me that I’d had a placental abruption, a very rare problem that, I later read, usually befalls women who are heavy cocaine users or who have high blood pressure. But sometimes it happens just because you’re old. It could have happened anywhere, the doctor told me, and he repeated what he’d said the night before: there is no correlation between air travel and miscarriage. I said that I suspected he was being a gentleman, and that I needed to get out of the clinic in time for my eleven-o’clock meeting with the secretary of the interior, whose office I arrived at promptly, after I went back to the Blue Sky and showered in my room, which looked like the site of a murder.
I spent the next five days in that room. Slowly, it set in that it was probably best if I went home instead of to the Gobi, but at first I could not leave. Thanksgiving came and went. There were rolling brownouts when everything went dark and still. I lay in my bed and ate Snickers and drank little bottles of whiskey from the minibar while I watched television programs that seemed as strange and bleak as my new life. Someone had put a white bath mat on top of the biggest bloodstain, the one next to my bed, where I had crouched when I called for help, and little by little the white went red and then brown as the blood seeped through it and oxidized. I stared at it. I looked at the snow outside my window falling on the Soviet architecture. But mostly I looked at the picture of the baby.
When I got back from Mongolia, I was so sad I could barely breathe. On five or six occasions, I ran into mothers who had heard what had happened, and they took one look at me and burst into tears. (Once, this happened with a man.) Within a week, the apartment we were supposed to move into with the baby fell through. Within three, my marriage had shattered. I started lactating. I continued bleeding. I cried ferociously and without warning—in bed, in the middle of meetings, sitting on the subway. It seemed to me that grief was leaking out of me from every orifice.
I could not keep the story of what had happened in Mongolia inside my mouth. I went to buy clothes that would fit my big body but that didn’t have bands of stretchy maternity elastic to accommodate a baby who wasn’t there. I heard myself tell a horrified saleswoman, “I don’t know what size I am, because I just had a baby. He died, but the good news is, now I’m fat.” Well-meaning women would tell me, “I had a miscarriage, too,” and I would reply, with unnerving intensity, “He was alive.” I had given birth, however briefly, to another human being, and it seemed crucial that people understand this. Often, after I told them, I tried to get them to look at the picture of the baby on my phone.
After several weeks, I was looking at it only once a day. It was months before I got it down to once a week. I don’t look at it much anymore, but people I haven’t seen in a while will say, “I’m so sorry about what happened to you.” And their compassion pleases me.
But the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen. Sometimes, when I think about it, I still feel a dark hurt from some primal part of myself, and if I’m alone in my apartment when this happens I will hear myself making sounds that I never made before I went to Mongolia. I realize that I have turned back into a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone.
Most of the time it seems sort of O.K., though, natural. Nature. Mother Nature. She is free to do whatever she chooses.


After a Parent’s Death, A Rush of Change
By E.J. Levy
The New York Times
Nov. 07, 2013

When my father died six months shy of his 83rd birthday and my 42nd, I was shocked to find that in the midst of grief, one clear desire emerged, uncontestable: I wanted a child. This was not a decision, or even really a thought; it was more like a reflex.

I was sure of two things growing up: that I adored my parents and that I never wanted to have children. Like the writers I most admired, I wanted my legacy to be literary, not genetic.

I had a vague notion that, like Cary Grant, I might get around to having a child in my 60s. When a few writer friends began to have children in their 30s, I felt vague pity, as if they had admitted to something I refused: that my one life was not enough.

Twenty years ago, a friend was so devastated by grief after her mother died that she fell into heroin addiction. I’d felt for her, but I had not understood the depth of her sorrow, the disorienting nature of loss.

Now, I did. Like her, I was frantic with pain, desperate to give my life the slip. She became an addict; I would become heterosexual, which seemed an equally outlandish choice, each of us seeking to escape who we had been.
I had been a lesbian my whole adult life, happily involved with women. But three months after my father’s death, I started dating a man for the first time in almost 20 years. My friend Marcela asked if this was about having a child. It seemed a ruthless question, but I couldn’t deny it. Much as I dislike the reduction of love and desire to biology, a mechanical rather than a richly intellectual matter, my interest in men felt impersonal, hormonal, a little nuts.
I wondered if this desire would pass, with grief; I hoped it would.
I’ve often thought our life clocks are set by the age at which our parents bore us: my father was past 40 when I was born, my mother approaching that age. So it seemed fitting that in my 40s, I would consider the question of children.
I used to tell people how wonderful it was to come to things late in life, like all the books I hadn’t read in childhood, when I preferred the tidier realm of math. Discovering Austen, Eliot, Woolf and Cheever at 25 was a revelation, like watching all the lights come on. (I fell for books when I fell for women.)
Before then, books had bored me. They seemed such a lie against experience; no one led such shapely lives. But now I understood that was the point. The artifice revealed truth.
But discovering late what you long for can be heartbreaking, as any woman over 40 learns when she finds that pregnancy is a long shot. It didn’t matter that people mistook my age, that I looked younger than my years. Biology brooked no argument.
After 40, a pregnancy is considered “geriatric,” a nurse told me during a brief bout of in-vitro fertilization that I tried the summer after my father died. By 43, the chance of pregnancy by I.V.F. was less than 3 percent; by 45, it would be near zero.
It did not matter that, while working in Brazil the autumn after my father’s death, I visited a priestess of candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion, who saw a child in my future. She cast buzios (small cowrie shells) and read the auguries. When I asked about the prospect of marrying the man I was dating then — an obsessive, destructive, marvelously distracting affair — she said, “You could marry him, but it will not make you happy.” (This was not news.)
When I asked about marrying my ex-girlfriend, who was my best friend, she said, “No!”
Disconsolate, I asked her what my future held.
“You will meet another and will marry and have a child,” she said. “But it will take a very long time.”
The priestess looked ancient, ageless, somewhere between 50 and 75. Her handsome young assistant looked up at me, skeptically I thought, as did the priestess. None of us believed I had that time.
Eventually the grief did pass, after utterly upending my life — prompting me to leave a job, a city, a relationship, a way of life — but my desire for a child did not pass. If my first love affair with a man in 20 years seemed in retrospect artificial and absurd, it also (like fiction) revealed something true. I wanted to love; I wanted a child. My one beautiful life no longer seemed enough.
When I met the man I would marry, I didn’t bring up wanting a child. There seemed no point. I was 47. It was too late.
So I was surprised when he said, early on in one of our long, rambling phone conversations, “I’d like to give you a child.”
I laughed at the presumption, even as I was touched.
“I’m not sure it’s up to you,” I said.
We hadn’t slept together; I wasn’t sure we ever would. I was both charmed and appalled by his presumption that his virility was the decisive factor, not my age.
But his confidence was contagious. Gave me hope.

A month or two later, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, we spent the night together for the first time in my Washington pied-à-terre. It was tender and passionate and as I fell asleep, I knew (from the way my cervix felt, as if swaddled in a tiny sweater) that I had conceived.

A few days later, talking to a friend, I felt a pinch in my abdomen, like a needle prick, and knew that the embryo had implanted; soon after, my nipples began to ache, my breasts swelled, my sweat took on an unfamiliar sweet scent.
But I knew better than to hope. Hope seemed preposterous at my age.
The following month, while visiting family in Minnesota and attending a Nobel conference on evolution (our version of a family reunion), I realized my period was two or three weeks late. So I bought a test, and took it. Shocked, I took it again.
Then I walked into the kitchen where my brother and mother were preparing to drive down to the conference, and said, as we piled into the family car, “You’re not going to believe this.”
Only then did I learn I’d had a great-aunt who had borne her first child at 48. That my grandmother — who had homesteaded in the Dakota Territories and was born when Queen Victoria still reigned — had given birth to my mother a few months before turning 40 — in 1926. For generations our mothers have been the age of grandmothers. Only then did I learn that I am from a long line of pregnancy procrastinators.
I was ecstatic while pregnant, blissed out for weeks, but then — predictably, heartbreakingly — I miscarried, as so many women do at that age. In time, though, against the odds, we conceived again.
And now, nearly seven months pregnant, I am wearing some other woman’s body: gone is the gamin, coltish figure that was mine. Sometimes the transformation terrifies, makes me want to weep. Sometimes I weep.
A friend says that in some ways it is easier to be a mother expecting a child than a father, because your body prepares you for the alteration of your world. Well before a child arrives, a mother’s life is changed: what she eats and can’t stand to, how she sleeps, pees, looks. It is already clear that my life is not wholly my own. What surprises me is that this is lovely. To be so altered by love, as I was by grief.
Sometimes, when I consider the fact that I am about to become a mother midlife, at the age I might have become a grandmother, I feel like a freak. I remind myself that midlife parenthood has not been considered bizarre for men; it’s been a sign of vitality. For centuries men have been able to make a name, then make a family. Henry VIII was 46 when his last child was born; Arthur Miller was 51; Norman Mailer was 55; Laurence Olivier, 59; Cary Grant, my model, was 62 when he became a parent.
I will be in my 60s when my child is in college, as my father was. A few friends my age are grandparents. But most of my friends have come late to parenting, if not quite as late as I will. I worry I may not have the energy, but I know I will not have the resentment, either.
My mother was a devoted yet thwarted parent — her potential (as a pianist, a painter, a physician) squandered for the sake of changing our diapers, attending the PTA. A fact I never forgot.
I want to bequeath to my child my mother’s brilliance, my parents’ love and a legacy of late-blooming women in my clan, of hopes discovered late, seemingly impossible and yet improbably fulfilled.

Legacy – Tribute to Michael Chough

By Samantha Mo

October 17, 2013

While some may associate the word with pioneering and innovation, status and accomplishment, and/or effectiveness in numbers, in the last weeks since the passing of Michael Chough, one of my most beloved best friends, none of these aspects have come to mind - nor have they mattered.

Instead, Michael Chough, who lived 34 short years on this earth, lived so well and leaves a legacy because he LOVED others so well. His heart, like a good compass, always pointed true north. And this was best reflected in how he treated family, friends, children, and dogs alike.

Michael consistently put others before him. His happiness came from the happiness he could provide for his family and loved ones. So his time and agenda was sacrificed to meet yours. An upstanding man, a devoted son, and a fiercely loyal friend, Michael blessed where he went. Those of us lucky enough to experience Michael’s big, big heart, his child-like zeal and head-bopping, and his uwavering loyalty and support, know that we received life’s most precious gift from him: LOVE. And when he said - often without fear or restraint to his brothers and sisters alike – that he loved you, he meant it from the bottom of his sincere, sweet, compassionate and pure heart.

But he didn’t make time just for his family and close friends, he noticed the waitress or cashier or stranger asking for a hand-out as well. Michael loved daily whoever came across his path. He made time to connect, to brighten another person’s day with words of encouragement, no matter what personal stress or physical pain he might have been enduring. In fact, there would be times when I was impatient and critical, wondering why he had to spend that 5-10 extra minutes talking to the waiter. And often by the end of their exchange, I would see the bright smile on that stranger’s face, and my self-focus was instantly humbled by Michael’s generosity in attention and time for others.

Warm, affable, authentic, comfortable in his skin, Michael had courage to let you in. And in turn, you felt comfortable and accepted instantly. If you were brave too and let your walls down - bam! In Michael’s eyes, you both had an instant and true connection and friendship. Michael was such the man that he was in touch with his feelings, and was willing, patient, and kind in sitting with you and yours, listening with no judgment. So good-natured was he.

In the last few months, he experienced increasing pain down his back and his sciatic nerve, yet he accomplished I believe everything God purposed for him. Limping with a cane, Michael made time to visit a close buddy after his heart surgery at 10:30 in the evening. Michael also had been praying these last few years for another close friend and recently had the privilege and blessing to experience that prayer answered; Michael led his friend to accept Christ in his own home before Michael “went home.” In addition, Michael thoughtfully printed out a thick packet of scripture verses to encourage me. And lastly, in the two weeks out in Texas on a new venture, Michael leaned into God for his needs even more than ever. If you had the chance to hear him tell the story (Michael was such an animated story-teller!) of his run-in with what seemed like the food truck underground mafia, you might have gained a glimpse into Michael’s brave heart as well as sensed that perhaps two tall angels had flanked and escorted Michael home safely that night.

So I believe, in these last months of physical pain and restriction, Michael lived well because he still managed to love others well. These are the examples I am aware of and I bet others can add more.

Michael, dearly loved by our Father in Heaven, was close to the Lord before his earthly tent was exchanged for God's temple in Heaven. I sense Michael’s spirit at peace, loving upon us right now, grateful as he always is for the present moment, and chillin’ with our Father in Heaven. He might even be beaming and wearing those diamond stud earrings I always found a bit too sparkly - right now…:-)

An optimist and truth-seeker who didn’t care about what others thought and would tell you any nay-sayers could “kick rocks,"

A warrior and fighter with Heart who persisted in “making each day a good day,”

A lover of God, family, puppies! children! the elderly, and the hurt,

A fan of dance, Crossfit, and K-pop,

Michael created beauty around him because he focused on the beauty in others. There would not be one encounter with him in which he did not exchange an encouragement for - or a good, honest, loving tease that was “en pointe” about you.

What a true and good and amazing man!

While I am so deeply sad in missing his presence, I can not help but be deeply grateful and forever changed for having experienced Michael’s love, friendship, and spirit closely. His goofiness and authenticity extended freedom for me to be me. His faithful love nourished my heart as a woman. And his support and belief in me helped me soar as a person and artist. I want to honor him and what he taught me by example by living and loving like he did, following the legacy he leaves us.

I love you and I miss you very much, Paws! And I look forward to Heaven when we see each other again, dear friend.