Essentially, Spaghetti with Beans

It’s December 10. I don’t know it yet, but this will be the last time I see Dad for many months. We have no idea what’s coming. We have no idea that I’ll decide, last minute, to cancel my next visit in the first week of March, just before his retirement home goes into lockdown.

But on this icy December day, things progress as usual. Normal. Dad and I discuss dinner plans sometime between breakfast and lunch; he debates spaghetti and chili. Both of them were recipes in Mom’s repertoire. Let me be clear: chili with an i. Chili without chile. Unfathomable in New Mexico, where I have lived for many years. But it is what I grew up believing chili/chile to be: ground meat, tomato sauce, bell pepper, onion, a smidgen of garlic, beans, pasta, and several shakes of Penzeys chili powder (which is very tasty, and certainly has its uses, but it’s not chile-with-an-e chile). And suddenly, I realize what Mom’s chili really is: it’s a kind of spaghetti with beans.

So that’s what we’ll do. We shop at Sendik’s, and Dad pushes the cart to give himself balance. I stop first for a bottle of red – merlot – because he says M likes it. M is Dad’s next-door neighbor, and he’s invited her to dinner, as I knew he would. Since Mom died, Dad and M have become close friends.

She arrives promptly at 5 for cocktail hour. We’ve met a couple times, but we don’t know each other, haven’t spent time together. She hugs me in a first step toward something because neither of us, I think, knows where to begin. And beginning at this age and stage feels a bit strange because of all the life and memories that came before.

We sit in the living room and chat, the TV on low (thank you!), and I soon cross the room to the kitchen alcove to make dinner. It’s an open-floor plan, so I can hear them talking as I open cans of tomatoes and get all teary while chopping an onion. I boil water for the noodles (Mom always used shells, which I couldn’t find, so I use elbows instead – gluten-free. Shhh! Don’t tell Dad! Not that he’ll notice. I know he won’t.)

Dad and M sit side-by-side on the couch, holding hands, watching the news. I brown the ground beef with garlic, onion, and green bell pepper. Then a large can of crushed tomatoes and a can of tomato sauce, followed by sprinkles of spices left in the pantry from Mom’s era – the Penzeys chili, of course, and a bit of dried oregano and cumin, salt, pepper. I stir, then add the beans – a can of tri-colored “chili beans” with pintos, kidneys, and black. The pasta bubbles in the rear pot. When it’s ready, I rinse and add to the chili. A little more salt, more chili, more cumin. Done.

As I was growing up, Dad was known for his spectacularly reserved assessments of dinner. “Fine” meant good. “Good” almost never came out of his mouth. And I’m not sure he’s ever in his life eaten anything “great.”

Maybe it’s his 85-year-old taste buds. Maybe it’s the fact that M is sitting beside him at the table. Or maybe it’s the organic tomatoes and grass-fed beef. But Dad declares this chili “very good!” M says she really likes it, too, and even I think: for spaghetti with beans, this is pretty darn fine.

***

It’s four months later, and we all know what happens. As the virus spreads, Dad’s place closes its doors to all but the most essential workers and medical visits. The nightly cocktail hours with friends have ceased. Dad is alone in his room, though he still sees M next door. But she’s battling a condition that has only grown worse.

Here in New Mexico, spring is springing, and the temperatures rise. It doesn’t really feel like chili weather, but somehow, one night between every-other-week grocery runs, it seems the most sensible dinner decision. We have canned tomatoes and one last package of frozen ground beef (though Mom’s chili can easily be made with crumbled tofu or textured vegetable protein instead). We even have a tiny jar of Penzeys chili powder, which came in a gift box of assorted spices.

I go through the motions, browning the meat, adding way more garlic than I did that night in December. I cheat a little, too – Mom would expect no less of me! – adding a few glugs of wine (from an open bottle made from our homegrown grapes) and a fair bit of powdered New Mexican red chile with an e – the hot kind. But that doesn’t change the dinner. It’s still Mom’s chili with an i, and on that particular night, it’s exactly what my stomach needs.

***

Another month passes. We have a jar of that leftover chili in the freezer for another night when it seems right. Dad moves to my sister’s for a while. M suffers a setback and moves to another facility. After several attempts at window visits, Dad is finally able to see her in person, briefly, though she sleeps much of the time.

***

M died this week. I never saw her again, never really got to know her at all. But she was a very good companion to Dad – and he to her. That cold December night when we all sat down to bowls of chili, I never thought it would be the last time the three of us would eat together in his (badly lit) dining area. I envisioned more meals there – and also dinners out. Noisy restaurants packed with people, food we didn’t cook, cocktails we didn’t pour. Different tables, different views, different conversations. But the universe had different plans.

When Mom was in her third year of cancer in 2016, I visited multiple times between summer and fall. I was there in October, and we talked of Thanksgiving. She was slowing down at that point, so I planned to bring my gear and record a series of conversations with her when I returned for the holiday. But she didn’t make it to Thanksgiving. The next time I saw her, she was in hospice – able to recognize me one last time before the morphine knocked her out and a few days later she slipped away.

I have no recollection of the last meal that Mom, Dad, and I ate in that badly lit dining area of their apartment. I have no idea the last time we all sat down to her chili.

We never suspect the bowl we’re eating together will be the last.

Essentially, Spaghetti with Beans

Ingredients:
1 package ground beef, firm tofu, or textured vegetable protein
1 large can diced or crushed tomatoes
1 can tomato sauce
1 onion, diced
garlic (how much do you like?), minced
1 green bell pepper, diced
Penzeys or other chili powder (contains ancho, cumin, garlic, and Mexican oregano)
1 package pasta shells or elbows
1 can chili beans
hot chile powder (if you like)
extra cumin & oregano (if you like)
glug of red wine (if you like)
salt and pepper to taste
sour cream for topping

Method:
Sauté the meat and slowly add onion, garlic, bell pepper, salt, and pepper; continue until browned. Meanwhile, boil a pot of water for the pasta. Add to the meat the tomatoes, tomato sauce, and spices; let simmer for several minutes. Add a touch of water if needed. Add beans, more spices if you prefer, and wine. Simmer until all ingredients and flavors are mixed. When pasta is al dente (don’t over-cook), rinse under cool water and add to chili. Stir well and let simmer another minute. Remove from heat. Serve with sour cream.

Dear Earth:

Rio Grande River, New Mexico

April 22, 2020

Dear Earth:

I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my species and the abuse we inflict. The contempt and disregard. The decision that we have a right to dig you up and chop you down, raze you, blaze you, poison your veins. We tunnel into your heart for a thing we hold dearer than life itself – then weep when no one wants our pilfered treasure anymore.

It’s as though we think money is the thing that feeds and shelters and sustains us. We fail to see it is you who gives us a billion dinners sprouted from a billion tiny seeds. It is you who provides the ground on which we build our homes, the air we breathe, the water we drink. In return, we do nothing as our leaders annihilate the very laws enacted to protect your soil, your air, your water.

We think the ivory is worth more than the living being, the coal worth more than the mountain vista.

We speak of our rights, our needs, our fears of a shattered economy – with blind eyes to your demise.

We think we are somehow separate from you. We think we can destroy you – without destroying ourselves.

We stand idly by, handing our children the remnants of their own future.

We ignore the beauty in your every moment – sunrise to sunset, bird wings on a breeze, bee buzz in rosemary bush. We sit inside, staring at pixels, oblivious to every instant of wonder outside.

We are here because you are here. To live and love, eat and drink, dance and study, drive and fly; to suffer pain and loss, disease and death; to endure, even, the isolation of pandemic – everything we are and experience is possible because of you.

And, in fact, you ensure that we are not alone in our isolation. We are here among your billions of insects and creatures that know no bounds. The coyotes yelp at night, the fish still flop in the river. Far away, in places I have visited in safer times, the elephants still shake the ground with their seismic rumbles.

Even the elephants know when to mourn a death.

All around, every day, you give us reasons to treat you better. Reasons to thank you.

All we have to do is look. And think beyond ourselves.

Georgia/Russia border
Moab, Utah
Redwood forest ferns, California
Sandia Mountains, Albuquerque, New Mexico
River Walk, San Antonio, Texas
North Sea sunrise, England (no filter)
North Sea, England
Hadrian’s Wall, England
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico

Fragmentation: Why the US was so not ready for a pandemic

We should have been ready. This country has what it needs to fight an outbreak. When world experts created the Global Health Security Index to assess 195 countries and their capability of preventing and mitigating epidemics and pandemics, the United States ranked No. 1. “Out of all the countries that were assessed, the United States has the highest score – 83.5, a solid B. But if you look at how the country has actually reacted to the pandemic, I think we probably get something like an F,” science writer Ed Yong told Terry Gross on Fresh Air this month.

So what went wrong?

Many scientists point to our fragmented healthcare system. “We have no way to centralize things in this country, short of declaring martial law,” Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina said last week in a forum on problems in the US medical supply chain. “There’s little ability for a central sort of command unit to pool all of the resources from around the country,” he said. “Just getting the hospitals within given cities to coordinate has been a tremendous feat.” We’ve been short on tests, as well as swabs for taking nasal samples. And we have no hub for lab supplies and testing equipment, Mina said. “Every lab that has tried to get this test up and running has kind of had to start from scratch… and sort of do it on their own.”

There isn’t even a comprehensive list of who needs what, where. “State by state, county by county, these databases are being constructed,” Mina said. It’s a piecemeal effort. “We’re very fragmented.” And a lot of it’s happening through grassroots campaigns, donation pages, and individuals stepping up to say, hey, my family has connections to a factory in China that can produce swabs or masks – “I can put you in touch with them; how many do you need?”

That’s generous, and helpful, but far short of what a nation needs at the height of crisis.

Contrast that with Taiwan, which established a National Health Command Center in the wake of SARS in 2003. Today, the NHCC implements exactly the sort of central coordination Mina talked about. Similarly, Singapore created a national task force to manage outbreak response, which it used during H1N1, Zika, and now COVID-19 (plus, coronavirus testing and care are covered by the government).

Or Iceland, whose government is testing anyone who wants to be tested – some 19,500 people as of early this week – and paying up to 75% of salaries so workers can take cuts in hours without losing their jobs.

But things haven’t worked that way in the United States. Here, we have always prided ourselves on being individual, independent, exceptional. We don’t like big government. We don’t like conformity, either.

But we do need leadership, coordination, and collective vision when we face a common enemy. (Instead, for better or worse, we have Gavin Newsom declaring California a “nation-state.”)

Much of the chaos and calamity we’re seeing comes down to “a failure of mankind to find collaborative and cooperative ways of living and working together,” our friend Mike Boddington wrote to us this week. (We first met Mike a decade ago, while he was working on UXO issues in Laos. He’s one of those genius high-achievers with a resume that runs to the moon. When I asked Mike how he wanted me to identify him, he said call him “friend.” But I feel compelled to tell you he is in fact Mike Boddington, a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire!)

Mike’s been trying to weigh the potential economic fallout of this crisis globally. He’s been looking at the history of capitalism and communism from his home in the heart of Lao PDR, a one-party socialist republic that underwent New Economic Mechanism reforms back in the 1980s. Laos has had its taste of communism and capitalism, and when Mike asked colleagues what their country could offer as a message in the time of COVID-19, he received this succinct and poignant reply: tolerance.

“The one thing that Lao folk have always been admired for is their good-natured, easy-going tolerance towards all and everyone,” Mike said. “I don’t know whether COVID-19 will harden Laos and the Lao people on the anvil of its passage, or whether they will turn more fully to tolerance as a way of getting through these tough times, but I would appreciate it so much if some contribution to the international order – something that incorporates tolerance and compassion – could come out of this country.

Tolerance and compassion.

That brings me back to the Q&A with Harvard’s Michael Mina. When he talked about shortcomings in US medical supplies, he talked about two kinds of responses: federal efforts to “cajole” manufacturers into ramping up production, and grassroots efforts of goodwill. The success of the former relies on economic stimuli, a.k.a., money. But the success of the latter relies on compassion.

In our system, we need money to survive. But as a society, we need compassion to thrive.

Biscuit Muffin: a story & a recipe

Several cats live in our yard. We did not put them there. They chose this space – though they didn’t choose us, per se. We live in a residential/agricultural community with a lot of cats roaming the fields and acequias. They all look like cousins – because they probably are. And yes, I know all the arguments against having outdoor cats, and I don’t want to get into a debate. But I will say this: Jerry has ensured that “our” cats are all “fixed.” There’s a catch-and-release program that does the job for free, so long as the cat is released back into the “wild,” a.k.a., the neighborhood. All in all, Jerry put 14 cats through that program, and most bolted as soon as the cage was opened, never to be seen in this yard again. But three stayed: Darth (dark gray, fluffy, kinda cranky), Fluffer (orange, exceedingly fluffy, kinda spacey), and Snow Leopard (spotted, short-haired, terribly neurotic).

We can’t touch these cats. They will NOT come inside (though we have tried and tried). They occupy our yard, we feed them, and we have something of a symbiotic relationship: since their arrival, we’ve had no problems with mice. (After the first winter we spent in Asia, we returned to a serious mouse problem and had to disinfect everything we owned, for fear of hantavirus.)

And so it went for a few years, until last year, another cat appeared in the far back of the yard. For months, he kept a distance from us and the other cats, though he accepted food and water. We could tell he’d already been through the “fixing” program, as part of an ear was clipped. And over time, he came nearer. He talked to us. He started rubbing our ankles. And it soon became clear that he had experienced human affection in a previous life.

Let’s just say our relationship has evolved, and that cat is now a dear friend. He follows us all over the yard, eager for hugs and scratching, and the companionship of bipedal creatures. But for some time, he still didn’t have a name – and that had to change.

Now, know this: Jerry bakes. He bakes bread, he bakes biscuits, and he bakes muffins… and our breakfasts often consist of these baked goods with fruit and yogurt.

So one morning, we decided to name this creature, a lovable, talkative kitty-cat with a deep, thick coat of black-and-white fur (soft like a muffin) but a body beneath that’s all beefy muscle (sturdy like a biscuit) the only name that perfectly fit: Biscuit Muffin.

And here he is:

And here’s Jerry’s gluten-free, COVID-free pandemic recipe:

Biscuit Muffins

Ingredients:
1 cup almond flour
3/4 cup corn flour (fine grind)
1/3 cup rice flour
3/4 cup gram (a.k.a chickpea) flour
1/3 cup brown rice flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoon melted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 eggs
1 cup milk

Method:

Whisk all dry ingredients together thoroughly.

Whisk all wet ingredients together thoroughly (butter might congeal and clump a bit – don’t worry about it).

Add wet ingredients to dry and quickly whisk until smooth-ish (it will be pretty stiff – can add some warm water if it’s too thick to whisk).

Plop big spoonfuls into pre-greased muffin tin. Don’t top up the spaces, the dough will rise. Cook for 25-30 minutes at 385° F. Let cool in pan for a bit. The muffins should then pop out with little difficulty.

Notes: You can find the flours at an Indian market. Because of that, the corn flour here is a fine grind. Coarser, American-style grinds will end up crunchy in this. Which you may like. You can also pre-soak coarse corn flour in a bit of just-boiled water for 15 minutes or so. Use only enough water to soak the flour. You may then want to decrease the milk &/or increase the cooking time by a bit or the biscuit muffins may end up soggy.

We are altogether all together

Many years ago, while working on my master’s, I took Vietnamese classes at the University of Oregon in preparation for a semester in Hanoi. My instructor taught language by explaining the cultural protocols of daily life. I will never forget the way she described Vietnamese society in an anatomical analogy. She likened individuals to blood, villages to organs, country to body. Everyone was essential to the whole. Each person had a critical role in a functioning village; each village had a necessary place in the country/body.

There is much in this notion that doesn’t jibe with American ideals. We are individualistic and independent, dammit! But this virus is proving how interconnected we all are – all 7.8 billion individuals of us, even those we dislike and disagree with. We are connected. When a novel virus (such as COVID-19) emerges, every human being is vulnerable, no matter race, ethnicity, class, creed, color, politics, age, or anything else. Some are more vulnerable than others – but no one is immune. Lucky, perhaps. But not immune. I think about the Vietnamese country/body analogy a lot, but especially in these times. And I take it even further, to link world to species, Planet Earth/Humanity.

Yet it doesn’t end there! Yesterday, I interviewed an astronomer (an upbeat COVID interview!) who noted the wonders of the night sky (this is a GREAT time to view it, BTW). If you watch the sky over the course of a week or a month or longer, you will begin to see patterns and movement. And you may very well begin to feel a profound connection to something much, much, much larger than we wee ones here on Earth. We are but a minute component of a solar system (genus? family?), a galaxy (order? class? kingdom?), and the universe of all matter and life.

Scientists know similar connections exist in nature, here on Earth. In a fascinating podcast episode from 2016, From Tree to Shining Tree, Radiolab features the work of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who studies a remarkable underground network connecting trees and fungi in a system that allows them to “talk” to each other. And not just trees of the same type – this happens across species. In troubling times and conditions (like inordinate heat), ailing trees warn their neighbors and share their nutrients. They support each other, moving water and nitrogen through this efficient system. Every tree is an individual…

But.

Every tree is an essential component of a network of forests and ecosystems across our planet. The death of one tree sends ripples through the delicate, wondrous chain.

Knowing that, and knowing the function of a virus, I find it impossible to deny that every human being is also part of a village, a nation, a world; the blood, the organs, the bodies that form our species. That doesn’t mean we all agree. It doesn’t mean we all like each other, or that our world will ever be conflict-free. But it does mean that individual actions have implications for all of us. We may recognize this. We may not. Regardless, the suffering of others, near and far, is universally linked to each of us, as human beings.

Does that shape what we think and what we do in the age of coronavirus?

(Next up: Jerry’s DIY gluten-free, COVID-free muffins. Stay tuned….)

How we get through this

Spring leads to summer. Pear blossoms lead to pears. Hope in the time of coronavirus.

Ten days, and the world has changed. Last week, I had planned to visit my dad at his apartment in a retirement home. He lives independently – alone – in a complex that also houses dozens of assisted-living and memory-care residents. They all get meals from a community dining room, and my dad has a coterie of friends who, in normal times, gather each evening for cocktail hour and chit-chat before their meal.

The evening before my scheduled flight, I’d packed my bag, checked in for my flight, even paid for a seat (on an aisle, to avoid the middle). But a knot in my gut kept nudging me. I finally checked online and discovered that American Airlines was offering travel waivers on ALL TICKETS purchased before March 1. (This feels so very long ago now.) So I called customer service, waited two and a half hours for a callback, and around 11:30 p.m., spoke to a human being. She canceled my reservation and told me to use the same booking code to reschedule anytime within 12 months of purchase.

A day later, my dad’s facility started restricting visitors to family only. Now: the whole place is in lockdown. No leaving the apartment except to get mail and food. Meals are served in take-away boxes for residents to eat in their own kitchens. And my dad is drinking his cocktails alone.

Meanwhile, I’ve been posting facts on social media and attending webinars for journalists covering COVID-19. Many of us independent journalists, like workers around the world, are losing gigs and facing the need to adapt in unprecedented ways. I’m so very lucky in that my work for the past year has centered largely on a few big projects with many tasks that can be done from home. Our documentary – almost done! – is in the final editing stages that require long hours in our home offices, in front of screens. But I’m also working with a partner on an hourlong radio documentary and we’re now faced with the challenge of reporting from afar – asking sources to record themselves. These are surreal, extraordinary times, and they’re bringing out our innate skills in adaptation and survival.

As the days drag on, I’m seeing a hunger for non-COVID news. Jokes and memes (coronavirus has inspired the best!), or pictures of kitty cats, puppy dogs, otters, and goats. I posted a photo of our nectarine in full bloom; that was a hit.

So here’s the deal: I’ve not used this space in a very long time – but I’m bringing it back. So much is happening so fast, I realized I wanted a place to put the news in context. That place is right here. Not only will I be writing coronavirus updates – but also stories about food, cooking, gardening, nature & art. Things we need right now. Things that have the power to help us heal.

Right around the time we started hearing grim reports from Italy, Jerry and I learned we’d been selected for a Solutions Journalism Network Reporting on Health Interventions Fellowship. We’d proposed covering the role of happiness and laughter in public and personal health. Ironic?

Now here we are, in a global outbreak of panic and anxiety. This is not a disease we can pray away or ward off with special tinctures. But we can – and must – cope because we have no choice. Our mental state is incredibly important to our physical health. There is solid science behind that. It was the basis for our SJN proposal. We have no idea how our project will play out (for now, the fellowships are on hold). But I’ve decided to start writing anyway.

We are facing an unprecedented pandemic with a disease entirely new to the human body. No one knows precisely how this will unfold. But I have lived through experiences that I hope can help put today’s news into historical and cultural context.

In many ways, this crisis is sending a message to humanity: slow down, look around, pay attention. Take stock of what’s important. And realize, now more than ever, we are all connected.

In these times, I can plant seeds and nurture new vegetables to feed us in the months ahead. It’s good for the eyes and the mind. And research shows it’s good for the immune system too (more on that another time…). Right now, I want to share a few positives about this virus, which is otherwise rife with uncertainties:

1. We know what it is. My first journalism internship, at The Albuquerque Tribune, happened to dovetail with the outbreak of a deadly form of hantavirus, “an infectious disease characterized by flu-like symptoms that can progress rapidly to potentially life-threatening breathing problems,” according to the Mayo Clinic. (Sounds a little too familiar, eh?) At first, no one knew what was sending people to the ER, unable to breathe. People were dying from a mystery. Not knowing the cause made for anxious times. The outbreak was centered right here in New Mexico, and UNM’s campus drew infectious disease experts from across the country. We reporters grew accustomed to regular press conferences with little new to report. My editors sent me to cover one of those briefings. No one expected much, just a daily update. (That’s why they sent the intern!) But to my great surprise – and journalistic excitement – that day, officials announced they had learned how the illness was transmitted, through the aerosolized droppings of deer mice.

It had taken many weeks and deaths to get to that point; so much time of panic, when no one knew what to do in order to steer clear of the disease. This time, we know what we’re dealing with. Even though it’s new, it’s not a complete mystery – which puts scientists in a far better place to fight it.

2. We know what to do. We just need to do it. Social distancing can save many, many lives. But the hardest part is doing it – everyone, everywhere, for a very long time until it’s over. Several years ago, Jerry and I visited a clinic on the border of Myanmar and Thailand that treats tuberculosis – including the extremely pernicious multidrug-resistant TB that sickens so many in that region. But this clinic made progress through isolation. It sat on a large plot of land, far from other people, sheltering sick migrants for months at a time. I remember the doctor telling us: the hardest part is doing it. Staying away from family, refraining from work, wearing masks, getting bored. Endlessly bored. And never leaving the compound. It wasn’t just the body that suffered; there was a lot of depression, too. But eventually, the patients who could endure that isolation went home healthy and hopeful, with new life ahead.

3. We have technology. We all have far faster access to information than anyone did during the hantavirus outbreak, the 1918 flu, the 14th century plague, and so many other pandemics that have frightened the world. Yes, sometimes technology offers us lies and misinformation. But it also gives us facts, the ability to see our families from afar, the chance to meet virtually with friends across the globe… and some of the funniest viral videos ever.

4. We have each other. I’ve seen the best and worst of humanity in crises. It’s our choice. We can decide to clear our minds, open our hearts, and do the right thing. We can put aside hatreds and biases – and recognize we are all the same species, all vulnerable to this and other disease. But our sameness gives us power to fight. This is not a time to let race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, politics, or anything else divide us. This is finally the time to cut the crap ­­– and realize we all live and die as human beings.  

Step by Step: Inside the Homes of US Farmworkers

South Texas farmworkers’ kitchen

Years ago, still close to wartime, many of my Cambodian friends spoke of dreams they chased step by step. Hunger and hardship were still too near to be called memories. Security and prosperity were distant visions on a road that felt vast and overwhelming. So they began that journey step by step, one foot forward toward the little goals along the way. That was how they built (and rebuilt) their lives. And they still do.

I heard that phrase, “step by step,” again in the past 16 months while working with my amazing, energetic, relentless, gutsy, and gregarious partner, Valeria Fernández, on our project to document the lives of children and families working in agriculture in South Texas. Mid-way through our reporting, Jerry joined us to photograph the story. More than 500,000 children work in agriculture nationwide, many of them starting as young as 12 (and sometimes younger). It’s legal. It’s what many American kids do to help support their families—and to kickstart their own dreams, step by step, of finding better work and a better life. Our article, with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation, was published last week in Pacific Standard as the first in a four-part series edited by Ted Genoways on “Unseen America.”

As with every story, not everything could fit. So many conversations, so many scenes had to be left out. In the process of our reporting, farmworkers opened their hearts and invited us into their homes, into the most private spaces of their lives. Spaces that revealed deeper layers of who they are: Resilient. Hopeful. Determined. Visionary. Innovative. Tough.

South Texas farmworkers’ kitchen

Many farmworkers we met had built their own homes. They started with the barest walls they could afford, and step by step, they added rooms and paint and trim and new floors and bathrooms and cabinets after they had worked enough to save a little for the supplies that could be nailed and plastered in the shape and color of their dreams. Step by step, the souls of these workers inhabit the evolving comforts of their homes.

These houses are, sadly, also sanctuaries that shelter fear. While the child workers we met are US citizens, many of their parents and grandparents are not. Many others are, but they still live with the fear of misconceptions. The Rio Grande flows swift and strong near the fields we visited. When you hear  news of “the border crisis,” you are hearing the rumors and rhetoric of a region we had the privilege to get to know for a while.

South Texas farmworker’s bedroom

South Texas farmworker’s bedroom

It was Easter Sunday when we met an elderly man named Miguel, who shared his memories of coming to Texas as a bracero decades ago. He showed us his papers. He assured us he has always followed the law. “I worked here legally, I never harmed anyone,” he said over and over. But Miguel, at 82, was terrified we would make a mistake. He was terrified someone would erroneously label him illegal.

That fear has cut through the colonias, where we learned many farmworkers no longer migrate; the risk of arrest is too great. Meanwhile, those with papers continue to work legally in a system built on the exploitation of our country’s most vulnerable. A system perpetuated by the very foundations of the American economy. It’s “like an economic ladder,” said Bobbi Ryder, then-president and CEO of the National Center for Farmworker Health. “If you took a picture of the bottom of that ladder at any point in time, it would be full of people that are struggling to survive, striving to improve their lives, striving to improve their families’ lives. And they’re trying to pull their way up the rungs of that ladder,” she said. “If I took a picture of the bottom rung of that ladder of migrant farmworkers in 1973 when I first started working with farmworkers, and I took a picture today…the picture would look very much the same.” While some families have moved up a bit, “there’s always a new influx of new faces to fill that bottom rung.”

Atop a South Texas farmworker’s dresser

South Texas farmworkers’ kitchen

There’s a particular image in my mind that I can’t shake. Our first trip to Texas for this story just happened to take place during tax season. One afternoon, Valeria and I walked into the office of a local organization that works with migrants—undocumented or not. The lobby was packed, every seat taken, every visitor awaiting assistance in filing their taxes.

Federal law requires US workers to pay US taxes, regardless of immigration status. Workers who are not eligible for social security numbers (a.k.a. undocumented immigrants) can obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). In 2015 alone, 4.4 million such workers paid $23.6 billion in taxes, feeding a system of Social Security, Medicare, and other benefits they cannot access. Why? It’s the law. And paying taxes is one way to help establish residency in an effort to boost an immigrant’s petition for citizenship. It is one step toward that dream.

South Texas farmworkers’ front door

South Texas farmworkers’ house extension

These are the workers who support our food system. They and their children and grandchildren are the laborers who pick our cilantro, onions, beets, and chard. They are the people who build their homes, piece by piece, as time and opportunity and money allow, in their ongoing dreams of making a great American life—step by step.

South Texas farmworkers’ dining room

One Man’s Story

Benjamin Ruiz, preparing tortillas for breakfast at the soup kitchen where he volunteered on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border.

Last year, I met a 34-year-old man named Benjamin Ruiz. He volunteered at a soup kitchen, spending every morning preparing tortillas to go with rice and beans and big vats of calabacitas to feed dozens. Day after day, the people arrived, bundled in hats and coats to shield the brisk winter air. Ruiz wore a silver cross on a short black string around his neck. Like many I met in that kitchen, he talked a lot about his faith in God, which guided his life. He reminded me of my childhood; of my years in Catholic school and the teachers and priests whose lessons focused on Christian values and what that meant in daily life—helping the poor, giving to those in need. Ruiz talked about hard work and service, and his words reminded me of my mother, who had passed away shortly before I met him. “To give is better than to receive,” she had always advised.

Ruiz understood hard times, and that was a big reason why he worked at the kitchen. He used to volunteer at the Red Cross in his hometown, until his life changed irrevocably one day: April 10, 2016—he remembered it vividly. “It was a Sunday, quarter to 2.” That’s when gangsters stormed the Red Cross office, guns drawn. They aimed at a fellow volunteer, 14 years old. The kid’s brother had a dispute with the gang, and the gunmen sought revenge. “They shot him eight times,” Ruiz told me. “We took him to the hospital—he was still alive, but he died the following day.” Ruiz was a witness, and after that, he feared for his own life. He quit volunteering. He couldn’t work. “I didn’t feel safe in my country.”

A cross on the wall at the soup kitchen where Ruiz worked.

That country was El Salvador. We met in Mexico. “Thank God I made it all the way here,” Ruiz said as he described his long, uncertain journey. “When I crossed from Guatemala to Mexico, I walked for five days near the train tracks, walking day and night, resting a little bit.” He arrived in a small town in Chiapas knowing he needed money to proceed. He went to a grocery store and talked to the owner. “I’m not going to lie to you,” he told her, relaying his story, sharing his fears, and explaining his desperate need for a job. The woman was wary but hired him anyway.

Ruiz was accustomed to working hard. Back at home, he’d had a job in a steel factory in addition to the Red Cross. He’d finished high school and hoped to do more. He worked by day and studied by night. He wasn’t married and didn’t have kids—his country was too violent, the economy too stagnant, the dangers too high, he said. “The situation is tough down there… As long as I don’t have stability, I’m not going to have a family.” He did have a 70-year-old father, and it pained Ruiz enormously to leave him. But he felt he had no choice.

When we met, Ruiz was much farther north, right on the border. He was working, volunteering, saving money, and planning his next steps. He wanted to apply for asylum in the United States by crossing at an entry point. That’s the only way to legally apply for asylum. One cannot apply at a consulate or embassy. One must be physically present in the United States in order to ask for refuge.

But that route presented obstacles Ruiz didn’t think he could overcome. While there is no asylum application fee, it’s a long, drawn-out legal process that typically costs thousands of dollars. Lawyers and expert witnesses, photocopies, phone calls, medical exams, court fees, translations, and mailings—word on the street was that Ruiz could expect to pay $15,000, all in all. That’s possible. It’s possible it could cost less. But that’s what people were estimating at the time—and Ruiz had nowhere near that kind of cash.

Plus, the whole asylum system is kind of a crapshoot. It’s entirely subjective, as studies show. Whether one is granted asylum depends almost entirely on the particular judge who hears the case and the strength of one’s legal representation. Some judges grant asylum in a majority of cases. But many judges deny 90 percent or more of all applications. There is no rhyme or reason. There is no hard-and-fast standard in US immigration law. It’s entirely possible Ruiz could spend every penny to his name and still end up being deported to his potential death.

Women prepare breakfast plates at the soup kitchen.

So he decided to try something different. He was planning to cross the desert into the United States, praying he would meet up with a friend who could help him find work. Getting there would cost him $5,000, and he was still saving for the journey. Ruiz didn’t want to break the law—he just wanted to survive.

Much time has passed, and I have no idea what became of Ruiz. But I think of him every time I hear about “the caravan.” I live in a state that used to be part of Mexico. My village borders a pueblo that predates any current concept of immigration. What it means to be American, who belongs here and who doesn’t—these are questions that eat at the heart of our history, and threaten to cleave our future. I have no idea how a nation, a continent, begins to heal such wounds.

But I do know that empathy plays a part in every solution. And empathy rests on an understanding of human experience that can only be achieved when we listen. I’ve spent most of my journalism career reporting in other countries and cultures, and people often ask me what that’s like—traveling so far from home, in foreign surroundings. I tell them I usually find people very much like myself, my family and friends. The more I listen to people’s stories, the more I learn about thoughts and feelings, hopes and ideas that resemble everything I find at home.

But we can’t build empathy if all we do is talk, instead of listen. And I doubt our nation will ever mend if everyone acts on rhetoric and rumor, rather than facts and human experience.

I don’t know if Ruiz made it across the desert or not—but I know he was determined to try, just as he was dedicated to helping people along the way. That, he said, he got from home. His dad was Christian, just like he was. Religion shaped his ideas about life. “That really gave me the values,” he said. It sounded a lot like the things I had heard while growing up, more than 1,800 miles north.

I asked Ruiz what he planned to do next. “I’m just going to work hard to make a living, as I always have,” he said. “If I make it.”

Framing the Picture

We’ve been back in Southeast Asia for a month now, and I’ve been thinking a lot about framing—how we convey and interpret pieces of the world around us. A couple weeks ago, we visited the Cambodian coast. We hadn’t traveled to Sihanoukville in years, and we’d heard how much has changed. My first memories of the beach date back 20 years, to a time when tourists were rare but fresh crab was abundant, cooked with Cambodian peppercorns and served at tables in the sand.

I knew things would be different this time. But we still found a little guesthouse on a lagoon with a pool on site and Ochheuteal Beach right across the street. I spent a day taking nothing but pretty pictures—of clean, white sand and coconut palms, and boats beneath a blue sky with big, pillowy clouds.

I took pictures of the squid (yes, even Jerry ate and liked it!) and scallops we ordered as an appetizer, served on an open-face shell with minced bell pepper and baked Parmesan cheese; and the whole grilled snapper we ate with my favorite dipping sauce of black pepper and lime. Jerry ordered a frosty glass of beer and I drank a decent wine. The photos I have of that day and night, I think, portray the seemingly gorgeous side of life.

The next day, I looked the other way. I changed the frame and photographed only the mess I saw amid this city’s monumental transition from little haven on the coast to a Chinese mecca of gambling and vice. Those are the changes we’d heard about, but the sight of it all exceeded my imagination.

In the past few years, several billion-dollar deals between the Cambodian government and the Chinese have resulted in a shining new stop on the One Belt, One Road Initiative that will link the world and transform global trade (with or without America). What this means in Sihanoukville, right now, is that almost every single little beachside bungalow, crab shack, drink shop, family restaurant, and bar catering to foreign and local tourists at the budget and middle-income level is gone. Flattened, razed, quashed, no more. All since the start of the year. Piles of plastic rubbish burn in the streets. Toilets sit on sidewalks. And the rubble looks like a war zone. Going up in its place: an entirely new city of high-rise casinos and hotels. And not just one but many apartment complexes fit to house tens of thousands of Chinese workers in each space.

We watched a guesthouse selling off its wares: every blanket, pillow, mattress, bathroom door, and kitchen utensil for sale. Even the toilets and air conditioners. Customers carted off loot by the wheelbarrow. It’s all happening right now, shifting by the minute.

So I’m thinking about how we crop our views of times and places and the world we interpret. These photos are all of the same place: squalor and splendor in simultaneous measure.

There was chatter recently on social media about the twin events of a royal wedding and yet another atrocity, in Texas, where a teenager shot and killed 10 and injured 13. While Britain rejoiced in the newlyweds’ happiness, in the US, online commenters questioned people’s choice to view the wedding while not dwelling (enough?) on the deaths. But others pointed out: our world is constantly good and bad at the same time. There is beauty and ugliness everywhere, always.

We need to look at it all. At times, it’s important to frame, to crop only what we want to see at the moment. But it’s equally important to remember both, the yin and yang of life, together. If we can’t laugh amid grief, our sadness has no bottom. Beauty, in all its forms, is the only antidote to tragedy—but it does no good if we forbid ourselves from enjoying it.

That is something I learned the first time I ever set foot in Cambodia. And it never changes. This country always breaks my heart, just as I fall in love with it all over again. It is constantly a place of dread and hope.

But Cambodia has taught me that I can mourn all the losses of daily life, and still enjoy grilled fish on a beautiful beach, served by a comedian of a Khmer waiter who makes us laugh with his silly jokes, even as rubbish fires burn all around us. To ignore either side of the picture is an injustice to the other.

Lao Sabai

I remember the very first trip. It was August, which meant sticky days and a heat that swelled until the skies opened with a gush of rain. The rice paddies sparkled in a light I still can’t adequately describe. Radiant. Brilliant. Electric. Cliché. They were the very definition of green.

It was our first anniversary. We’d been working in Phnom Penh, and Jerry surprised me with tickets to Laos. We had just a few short days. We stayed first in Vientiane, visiting Buddhist temples trimmed in gold. We drank wild fruit smoothies at a mom-and-pop shop with a blender out front and a concrete picnic table where we could sit and watch the life walk by. Breakfast was homemade noodle soup on the Mekong with thick Lao coffee and sweet, condensed milk. The pace was slow, and there were no smartphones or Facebook or Twitter to detract from the moment.

Mid-trip, we flew to Phonsavanh on a tiny plane. When we landed, the airline staff informed us our return flight would be canceled because government officials had fully booked the next plane out. So even before we made it to town, we were forced to stay an extra day—and I called the office in Phnom Penh to say I’d be back late.

We trekked through mud at the Plain of Jars, and stayed at a little guesthouse with an en suite bathroom and a broken pipe. Our shower was a bucket. An old mosquito net covered the bed. And I’m pretty sure we had rats in the room at night. There was no 24-hour electricity at that time, so we spent the evening on the guesthouse porch, drinking lao lao by candlelight with another guest. We ate at a little restaurant that served a heap of fried noodles on a giant plate with a military spoon marked “U.S.” I bought that spoon. I still have it today. I had no idea then how much of my later life I’d dedicate to the investigation of the US military role in Laos.

There is a limitation in the work we do as journalists: our audience sees the end report, but it doesn’t see the everyday in between. It doesn’t see sunset on the river, and it doesn’t taste fresh mango with sticky rice at the end of a spicy meal. Our readers don’t see all the little things that feed us with the intrigue that propels our story, makes us want to go back again and again. And again.

As many of you know, we’ve been working on a documentary film, the extension of our book. But even films and books have these same limitations. The story centers on problems; the dramatic question never rests on “a day in the life.”

So Jerry created this: a day in the life of Laos as we have seen. From sunrise to sunset, with rivers and monks and children at school; markets and temples, motos and boats.

It’s Lao Sabai: happy, healthy, relaxed. It’s the underlying story we experience every day that makes us love a place.