Note: This is a re-post/re-written entry based on a post I wrote in September of 2015. Some of what I had written nearly five years prior has not only become more pertinent, but down right prophetic. So I’ve decided to make my first update in a month by re-writing an entry from the past. Go on and laugh. I do this for your entertainment, dear reader.
It was September 2015 and our arms were burning, metaphorically speaking, from rowing around the resort island in the midst of the Andaman Sea for nearly two hours. My ex and I had made the next-to-last turn on our trip and had just begun to notice that our arms, along with legs, faces and anything else so exposed to the South East Asian sun, were also quite literally burning as we had not adequately applied enough sunblock to defeat the beautiful Thai daylight. And at the time, unbeknownst to us, our home state of California also burned, with flames and smoke enough to dark the evening sun of a day to which we had already said our good nights.
The fires presented palatable fear. Eight thousand miles and fifteen time zones away, information was scarce and the fire perilously close to my parent’s house. They were there at the time of the fire, idling in their retirement until the dark smoke and orange glow became a nightmare of heat and day-turned-night. They had a little time to escape, but escape they did, a harrowing early nighttime journey along unfamiliar roads, unsure when — or if — they would see their house again. When all was finally said and done, their house was spared; several others in the same town were not. The nearby town of Middletown was ravaged, so much so that initially the news had reported that village no longer existed. All told, it was a harrowing fire, one of California’s most destructive in some twelve years, and the most destructive Northern California had seen since the Tunnel Fire, or as many know it, the Oakland Firestorm.
It would be outdone repeatedly since, like a badly scratching record of “and then…”.
I didn’t know this. I didn’t know much. I knew that there was a terrible fire ravaging a place I knew well and that it had threatened my family but thankfully, they were safe. I knew — obviously — about the terrible haze back in Singapore experienced from the forest fires, some wild, many not, raging in Sumatra. Winds pushed that Sumatran smoke and haze east and north into Singapore and Malaysia, who suffered for the profits of palm oil farmers clear cutting massive swaths of jungle with seemingly little regard for the environment or people’s health. Even if I hadn’t just come from my adopted home on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, a quick look south to the horizon confirmed that yellow smoky mess still lingered in Malaysia airspace.
And of course I didn’t know what would happen since. It was September 2015, and we hadn’t yet entered this timeline yet, or at least if we had, nobody really knew it. Beverly and I were taking a long weekend off, escaping the town and the haze while our host city had their elections, a decisive defeat for parties in opposition to the long-ruling People’s Action Party. (The PAP is the ruling political party of Singapore and has been since their inception in 1965. Founded by Lee Kuan Yew, their worst defeat was in 2011 when they lost 6 — six! — of the 87 available ministry seats.) It was a mild shock, but not a massive one. Though many Singaporeans had hoped for a bit more plurality in their government, they certainly didn’t vote one in. And while the PAP has been a conservative government, they could certainly be described as ‘center-right’. This was more of the same in conservative Singapore, not some nationalistic populist shake up of the powers that be. Hardly a bellwether for what would come in 2016. So I can be forgiven for lacking precognition.
There in the Andaman, under a beaming and cloudless sky, all I knew was this; that my arms burned (both literally and figuratively), that the world’s sixth largest island burned, and that as tired and sore and sun burnt as I was, I had been here before, on the third lap.
I used to run the mile in high school. In track, the mile is four laps around a 400 meter loop, each lap a new race in its own right. None are so much as a sprint as they are a test of will. Each lap has its own challenges and strategies, and to me, none were as bad as the third, whose only challenge is to endure. The final lap, at least, the goal is in sight, the positions set. The pieces in place and all that remains to do is expend every last bit of energy you have to cross the finish. But that third lap, to me at least, was that penultimate stretch of exertion where fatigue meets the ebb of hope.
This is a story about a really long third lap.
In October 2017, I sat in the outside patio at the Sky Lounge restaurant at Santa Rosa’s Charles Schultz airport, enjoying the moment as I waited for my flight back up to Portland. My heart was a bit heavy, truth be told. I had just moved out of the house I had called home for nine years and my marriage was dissolved in all but name. Here was the rare moment of peace, though I couldn’t ignore the incredibly high and unseasonable winds for an early October day, though I thought no more of it once I boarded my plane back to Portland. As I was making my final decent into the City of Roses, several transformers exploded along Tubbs Lane in Calistoga. Fanned by near hurricane winds, by the time I had laid my head down to rest, the “Tubbs Fire” had taken a bee-line at Santa Rosa, destroying several neighborhoods I had just passed through not eight hours prior.
At the time, the Tubbs fire had become the most destructive fire in California history, and, stop me if you’re heard this one before, the deadliest since the Oakland firestorm. Twenty other fires burned at the same time, late into the 2017 fire season, becoming what would be called the Northern Californian firestorm. And then not a year later, as if to make a footnote out of a deadly and dangerous event, the Carr fire would start and threaten the city of Redding. A few months later, the Camp Fire would start, become by the far the most destructive and deadliest fire in California history, and one of the worst wildfires in human history. That time it was the ironically named village of Paradise who suffered Mother Nature’s wrath. And then…
This year has seen a number of ill-boding records broken for fires. Record setting heat and dryness have continued the growing trend of climate change. That all exploded last month into the west’s worst fire season on record, with at this point of writing, over four & half million acres burned. The smoke has been miserable at best. My beloved Rose City had the worst air quality of any major city in the world, a fact more depressing considering that the Northwest usually ranks on the other end of the spectrum.
Of course, that’s not all this year has seen. I don’t need to wax poetic about the shit show that the year 2020 has been for posterity here. Nobody is going to forget this horrible year of “and then…”, “and then…”, “and then…”
Five years ago, my ex and I made a somewhat spontaneous choice to join a good friend of mine and her husband for a weekend at a luxury resort in Phuket, Thailand. Our choice was made of two parts – spontaneity, not my strongest suit, which did not exactly serve me well in our last foray into Thailand; and disgust at the ever-present haze that had been lingering around Singapore’s lamp poles like a T.S. Eliot poem. My friend invited us along and after some internal discussion – luxury resorts aren’t usually our bag, baby – we decided to go for it, and spent a long weekend on Naka Island, sitting like a prized jewel in the Andaman.
The resort was pure luxury. Our villa, a very private bedroom with a view of the mangroves outside, included our own private pool. We got massages at a generous 50% off the regular inflated rates, but enjoyed them all the same. Tiny Thai women worked oil and aloe in our bodies, an “aromatheraphy” that, while relaxing, left us well marinated and ready to be thrown on the grill. Beverly bicycled around the island. I read in the infinity pool, a clear blue sky above Phuket doing wonders for my soul, not to mention my respiratory system.
And, we kayaked.
Encouraged by the staff that the kayak trip completely around the island only took an hour, we borrowed some Hobies and jumped in the water. We were woefully Ill-prepared, unfortunately, as we forgot to reapply sunblock after jumping into the pool/sea.
Naka is also home to a fishing village, we saw a few crews on their boats working their nets, and swung wide around. On the far side of the beach, we found locals hawking jet ski rides as well as a number of stands with beer, water, fruit, booze and food. Not having brought water, we stopped on the beach and bought some coconuts and relaxed and recharged in the shade. Back in the water, we paddled around the south side of Naka Island. White, puffy clouds floated in a clear blue sky, except for a yellow, disgusting mass to the south. Even there, hundreds of kilometers north of Malaysia, we could see the Sumatran haze clouding over the southern part of the peninsula. We paddled on.
As I said, I used to run the mile in high school and was fully aware of the dreaded third lap. Such as it was as we paddled north, against the outgoing tide and wind, earning ourselves some vicious burns in the unrelenting sun. The penultimate stretch finished as we crossed the dock we had landed on the night before, the tide and current becoming so vicious we both felt as if we weren’t moving at times. Once we crossed the dock, we took a moment, gathered ourselves in some small shade and rowed out the final 400 meters or so, triumphantly beaching our crafts to a waiting staff member. Spent and severely sun burnt, we both attempted to settle into relaxation mode, paying for our recklessness in pain.
But the world moved around us.
In Singapore, the elections came and went and new challenges appeared for those invested in the local politics. The “more of the same” result was a disappointment that had hoped the previous election in 2011 was a bellwether for greater change in the one-party-dominated system of that city state. Fire ravaged Lake County, California, which turned out to be a bellwether of climate change’s effects on daily life. And with the 2016 election season starting to spin up, a reality TV star began to draw in disgusting levels of support calling Latin American immigrants ‘rapists’.
And then, and then, and then… stop me if you’ve heard how this story goes.
Thinking of the fires raging across California1and Oregon, and Washington… again; thinking back at the yellow/grey haze that lingered outside my apartment window in Singapore as I looked upon the ash raining down in my apartment in Sacramento; remembering the horror of getting news on Twitter that something I know is on fire, first in 2015 as I sat sun burnt in Thailand, then again sick with a cold in Portland; I can’t help feel the weight of repetition, the draining of hope. But at the same time, even as I wrote five years ago, I can’t also help but feel all the connections between us. There are issues with our planet that endanger us all, some of which we have clearly played a part in creating.
Maybe it’s all connected, after all. The politics, the haze, the forest fires raging across my home states. The rising levels of water that pulled against us as our arms burned trying to gain purchase and shade. The rising tide of hatred and white supremacy that has gained purchase in my home and so many others’. The vile and naked fear of so many short sighted arch-conservative politicians, the terrible racism and decisiveness of the Trumps of the world.
Maybe this is the third lap.
There’s hope in that sentence, as there is hope as you approach 1200 meters in a 1600 meter race. As there is hope when despite your exertions, wind and current and sun and smoke conspire against you, struggling to gain purchase to move forward just an inch or two. Maybe sometime it’s enough just to not move backwards when all the world and her fury seems to push back against you. I said as much five years ago and then like so many things, I had no idea how the next five years would play out.
At times I’ve lost hope, seen darkness swell around me and considered another move, another step. Just keep running, I tell myself. It’s what I’ve always been good at. One foot in front of the other, don’t look back. Then I remember that this race is a lot longer than a mile. It’s a never-ending movement, a permanent state of impermanence, and while that could be taken that this third lap will never end, to say that would be to ignore how far we’ve come already.
Maybe it’s enough to sit in the hot sun, arms and head and body baking, fighting against the tide for just a moment longer. Maybe that’s what makes the final lap so sweet, the struggle to get there.
Maybe we’re starting to figure some of this out.