The People Problem

I am about 8 years old.

My parents are out for the evening, and I am home with my younger sister, and Beverly, a baby-sitter we both like.

Beverly introduced my sister and me to Happy Days, which at the time struck me as the coolest, most amazing half-hour of television I had ever seen. (Aayeee!)

But not tonight.

Tonight we will watch Soylent Green, which will be my introduction to the dystopic tone that will characterize most of the best example of science fiction movies from my youth. (“You maniacs! You Blew it up!”)

In 1992 I left my mentor’s shop and opened my own commercial photography studio in a defunct swine slaughter house in Ashland, Oregon. The very first job I landed was shooting for a local appliance store. I don’t remember what I was shooting, but I remember the only place they had for me to set up a little table-top studio was in the television department.

I remember this because as it happens that was the day the Rodney King riots broke out in Los Angeles, and coverage of the riots was on every TV set in the store.

It was surreal.

It also confirmed all of my suspicions about what the future held.

Then, and against expectations, the 1990s turned out very well for me.

Within a year I had closed up my shop in Ashland and moved to New York City.

Less than seven years later I was signing a lease on a mid-town loft office space, and in that time I had also collected a wife, a child, a dog, an apartment in Manhattan and a house at the end of Long Island. I was not yet 34 and that was, in terms of material wealth and social entrenchment, far far more abundance than I imagined, or even hoped for when I was 14, or 24. I began to wonder if the age and attitudes in which I was raised were an aberration. That maybe what I was experiencing now was this wonderful American stability and normalcy I had read about, seen on TV, but never thought I’d experience.

Then the bubble burst and wrecked my wife’s business.

Then the planes flew into the Trade Center Towers and wrecked everything.

We had not intended for so much time to elapse after the birth of our first child to begin to try to have another, but our apple-cart had been upset. The stability and normalcy we enjoyed in the late Nineties that gave us the confidence to undertake (at the time) daunting proposition of creating and being responsible for another human being was gone. “Soon, but not yet,” we kept saying to one another, and the years ticked by.

Two things happened to change that.

The first was that sometime in 2004 I tracked down an old friend and colleague and when I caught up with him and found out he and his wife had had a second child.

“My wife and I started late,” he explained (he was in his late 40s when his first was born), “and that we realized that Isaac (their son) is not going to have us around as long, and if we didn’t make him a sibling, after we die he’d have no immediate, life-long family members.”

The other thing was the day after Christmas there was a terrible tsunami in the Indian ocean, and two stories came out of the disaster that helped me understand why I had always found the framing of human beings as a plague, a framing not uncommon on the Left side of political thought, discomfiting.

The first was the story of an English family on holiday in a Balanisian resort.

Ahead of the tsunami, the water had receded out onto the reef, and tourists and locals alike were delighting in exploring the exposed rock (this reasonates with me especially, because as I child, I lived for the extra-low minus tides that came two or three times a year to the beach near our house. I would have been one of those people oblivously poking around the rocks.)

Then a young girl in the English tourist family remebered something she’d just been taught a few weeks earlier.

“It’s a tsunami, mummy! The water’s going to rush back!”

Of course when she said, many other people who knew this but had forgotten realized she was right, and hundreds, maybe even thousands of people rushed to high ground and were saved.

At the very same time, the Mokens were having one of their jamborees where they all get together to trade, share stories, make marriages, swap wives and whatever else they do at these jamborees.

Then water rushed out, exposed the reef, and most of the Moken thought “This is awesome! Let’s go get some fish.”

But an old man warned, “As fast as the water rushed out, it will rush in three times as fast. We have to get in our boats and go out to sea.” The Mokens, who number only a few thousand, got in their boats, went out to sea, and were saved.

What I realized is that whatever problems we face as a species, the answers are going to come out of someone’s head, and it’s very hard to know ahead of time which problem is going to emerge as the most pressing, or who is going to have the answer. And by March of 2005, and with no more  stability and normalcy in our lives (less, actually) my wife was pregnant with our second child.

I’m prompted to write all of the above by a recent series of posts by Pascal-Emmanuel Gogry over at the

On of the first things I remember noticing about PEG (That’s what he likes to be called. He’s French, and aspires to be known by three letters, like Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Bernard-Henri Lévy) is that PEG didn’t seem to suffer the sort of anxiety about becoming a parent that seems to be commonplace among young adults from middle-class backgrounds.  If anything, he seemed positively giddy about marrying his girlfriend, knocking her up, and being a father.

And then about a year and a half after I notice this about him, he did just that. He got married, his wife got pregnant (by him, I think) and now he’s one of those people who (charmingly in his case) pollutes my tweet-stream with insipid boast and inane observations about parenthood. (And just to be clear, I admire him tremendously for it.)

PEG credits his Catholic faith for inspiring and fueling his enthusiasm for parenthood and children. As the secular child of a mixed Catholic/Jewish marriage, I say whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright, it’s alright.

The People Problem

My family, playing at being sea-people, The Abacos, 2008


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