Susan Zakin Writer Editor Professor Journalist Susan Zakin Coyotes and Town Dogs Earth First! and the Environmental Movement In Katrina's Wake Waiting for Charlie http://www.susanzakin.com/ Men in the Dunes Wed, 06 Sep 2017 03:29:01 -0700 http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/men-in-the-dunes http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/men-in-the-dunes <p>“We’re the bad people who are ruining the earth.”</p><p>I smile. He smiles. He looks like Sam Peckinpah, road-worn and grizzled. His friend is younger, a Brad Pitt lookalike stalled out east of Hollywood. The Southern California desert always reminds me of Charlie Manson and I am alone with two unshaven stragglers from this year’s orgy of off-road vehicle recreation in the Algodones Dunes, one hundred miles southeast of Palm Springs.</p><p>Dunes, even these dunes, any dunes, have a look of eternity about them. They mark time, moving in the wind, yet their spareness evokes timelessness. <em>Dust to dust</em>, one recalls, seeing the way sand dunes reach for, yet never quite touch, the horizon. The Algodones Dunes have in our time become notable for just such a paradoxical evocation of the eternal and the immediate. Perhaps it’s the proximity to Los Angeles, but here the elevated and the profane to rub up against each other in a desperately casual post-modern way: the director of the campy sci-fi movie <em>StarGate</em> used the dunes as a backdrop for Egypt in 8,000 B.C., where a malevolent alien took over the body of a young boy who might easily have been Isaac Mizrahi’s assistant during Fashion Week. (“Give my regards to King Tut, asshole!” was one of the film’s more memorable lines.)</p><p>Well, this is America, where eternity is a mass-market enterprise. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts flock to the dunes on winter weekends and holidays for big fun and some of them find something more profound; to wit, mortality. One Thanksgiving weekend saw a veritable pu-pu platter of violent crime among off-roaders: murder, two stabbings, two fatal accidents, and in the words of a <em>New York Times</em> reporter “innumerable brawls.”</p><p>I drove out here on the advice of an environmental lawyer who told me that this lookout point would be a good place to see the damage done by off-road vehicles: this is the line between the protected wilderness and the degraded landscape,...<a href=http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/men-in-the-dunes>Read More</a> The Hunters and The Hunted Wed, 09 Oct 2013 12:51:35 -0700 http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/bordercrossing http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/bordercrossing <p>“Don’t touch it!” Don Barnett shouted.</p><p>The former Cochise County, Arizona sheriff’s deputy was acting as if I’d reached for the stuffed polar bear in his living room. For a second, I wondered if my arm might have moved without my conscious command. I’d been writing for hunting and fishing magazines, even though I wasn’t a hunter myself. Was the atavistic urge to go for the kill contagious? But when I looked down, my arms hung by my sides. It was Don who was on a hair-trigger.</p><p>My good old gal cred as a <i>Field and Stream</i> writer was the reason I’d been able to talk my way into Don’s doublewide outside Bisbee, Arizona. The brothers had become wary of reporters after making headlines for a 21st-century variation on the most dangerous game: hunting down migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. The brothers, sometimes accompanied by Roger’s wife Barbara, spent their weekends riding around Roger’s 22,000-acre ranch, most of it land leased from the state of Arizona, armed with semi-automatic rifles and night vision goggles. The official-looking patches on their jackets were indistinguishable from those worn by Border Patrol agents except for the words “Patriot Patrol,” unreadable by non-English-speakers. “Humans, the greatest prey on earth,” Barnett had explained to a reporter from London’s <i>Independent</i> in May.</p><p>Unfortunately for the Barnetts, unlike polar bears, humans do not go quietly. Several of the migrants who had been “detained” by the Barnetts have brought civil suit, claiming the brothers had been both violent and verbally abusive. These legal actions came after federal, state, and county prosecutors had refused to prosecute despite calls by human rights activists. Tensions were rising as Arizona and other border states struggled to assimilate a wave of migration many were calling Biblical, not only because of its magnitude but also because of the human suffering — and death — trailing in its wake.</p><p>Half an hour...<a href=http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/bordercrossing>Read More</a> The Season of Our Disillusionment Tue, 25 Dec 2012 16:45:17 -0800 http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/philadelphiastory http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/philadelphiastory <p>During the December holidays I feel the urge to watch old black and white movies, preferably those starring Jimmy Stewart. This year, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is too painful, a reminder of what we used to be but aren’t anymore. I prefer screwball comedies like “The Philadelphia Story” with its sympathy for alcoholics and philanderers, and its schizophrenic alternation between class rage and craven worship of old money.</p><p>In “The Philadelphia Story,” Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn play an upper crust couple who, though divorced, still love each other. Hepburn almost, but not quite, falls for Stewart, a writer from a modest background. Every time Hepburn waxes nostalgic about the sailboat Grant designed for their honeymoon, the True Love, she murmurs in that wonderful Connecticut lockjaw, “My, she was yare.” This means, in boat language, fast, agile and resilient. When she says this, my eyes brim with tears along with hers.</p><p>Christmas has become the time when we take stock of our collective disillusionment. The season lost its innocence in the 1970s, around the same time we did. In my Manhattan barrio, children spent the holidays being passed back and forth between divorced parents, teenage girls devoured Vogue articles about Christmas in St. Bart’s and Mustique (Mick Jagger and Princess Margaret sightings obligatory), and parents engaged in the holiday standbys of drunkenness and depression.</p><p>In the 1980s, Mom and Dad settled into corporate harness, the stock market boomed, greed was good. We agonized about the commercialization of Christmas, but it didn’t stop us from buying things.</p><p>In retrospect, these stirrings of disquiet seem like relics of innocence. In the 2000s, “the season of giving” just adds to the overload of marketing. I’m beginning to wonder whether forking over cash on “Giving Tuesday” actually makes things worse. This is perhaps best exemplified by a tweet I saw from celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito. After announcing that 50...<a href=http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/philadelphiastory>Read More</a> Blue Man Coup Wed, 16 May 2012 03:11:03 -0700 http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/blue-man-coup http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/blue-man-coup <p><em>Everything that rises must converge, and in 2012, an uprising at the ancient crossroads of Timbuktu kicked up a decades-in-the-making sandstorm of global capitalism, U.S. counterterrorism, cocaine smuggling and the long-denied rights of the most romantic nomads on earth.</em></p><p>The 12th century Saharan city of Timbuktu has always carried the scent of adventure. The reality, many people say, disappoints: Bruce Chatwin, the uber-traveler, called Timbuktu a "tired caravan city" where mud walls crumble to dust and all the color is sucked out by the sun.</p><p>And yet. On April 1, when the Tuareg, the fabled blue men of the desert, captured Timbuktu, along with a hunk of northern Mali roughly the size of France, the world took notice. A military coup March 21 had thrown Mali's government into disarray when well-armed Tuareg mercenaries from Moammar Gadhafi's militia seized control of ancestral Tuareg lands in the Sahara—a remote region believed to contain some of the world's last unexploited reserves of oil, gold and uranium.</p><p>Timbuktu, a capital of Africa's 12th century golden age built on trading gold, salt and divine knowledge, once again became a bellwether for the commerce and culture of empires. And Mali, considered one of Africa's most stable countries, faced an emergency that threatened to turn it into a failed state and the world's next humanitarian crisis.</p><p>With French mercenaries circling like vultures around the corpse of a country once believed to be a thriving democracy, it's disturbing to think that it all could have been avoided if Western nations hadn't made their usual mistakes.</p><p>It's a story straight from George Clooney's stack of yet-to-be-produced screenplays: al-Qaida, global cocaine smuggling and a resource-rich African country crippled at birth by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. And the cast is rife with movie star charisma. The Tuareg are among the world's last remaining true nomads. Their own name...<a href=http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/blue-man-coup>Read More</a> We're All Economists Now Wed, 09 May 2012 15:14:14 -0700 http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/shame-on-us-we-re-all-economists-now http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/shame-on-us-we-re-all-economists-now <p>When I was in college, economics was a major for uninspired boys from good families who planned to transfer their drug dealing skills to Wall Street.</p><p>But we’re all economists now, whether we like it or not.</p><p>I recently got a facial – OK, you can scoff, but I’d waited months to make the appointment, until a much-anticipated chunk’o’cash came my way. I could have used a full-tilt vacation, but instead I went to see Lisa, a cool, rock-climbing esthetician.</p><p>I hadn’t seen Lisa in several years. She always struck me as tough-minded, but this time she seemed subdued. She’s gone back to school to study to be a pharmacy tech, because as a self-employed woman over fifty (still drop dead gorgeous, of course) she can no longer afford to pay for health insurance. As we chatted after the treatment, she talked about a friend who has backed off, and Lisa thinks it’s because of the “marginal” lives she and her boyfriend lead.</p><p>Marginal? Lisa has owned her own home for years, and her boyfriend just graduated from a master’s program in landscape architecture.</p><p>The gap between the rich and the rest of us is an abstract concept but the small, shaming moments it creates are real and concrete. I feel them, too. As a working writer, I’ve always had financial ups and downs. But now, because of the rising cost of living, tight credit, and flat pay, there are many things that I cannot do: buy a house, for instance, even though I’ve owned several. Travel to New York – unless, maybe, I can crash on a friend’s couch. Live in San Francisco. Feel hopeful about the future.</p><p>We constantly see people with enviable lives, so why aren’t we among them? Lisa’s job keeps her in contact with the 1 percent of wealthy people in the U.S., and, as economist Robert Frank has told us, feeling rich or poor depends on your social context. But the reality is that the lives of Lisa, and me, and many other people, have become circumscribed – and, quite frankly, frightening. The...<a href=http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/shame-on-us-we-re-all-economists-now>Read More</a> Dancing With Girls Sun, 24 Apr 2011 15:42:14 -0700 http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/africawomen http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/africawomen <p>After whining unconvincingly about having a headache, my Kenyan husband explained why he didn’t want to go to my god-daughter’s dance performance at Lowell, a public high school in San Francisco.</p><p>“You remember when you went to a wedding?” he demanded.</p><p>I thought back to the Swahili wedding I attended on Lamu before we were married. I was recovering from what I thought was flu but I realize now was probably an allergic reaction to the black mold creeping up the walls of our Shela flat. Our physician (and part-time Swahili poet) Dr. Abdallah prescribed a one-two punch consisting of a fantabulous steroid and a knockoff Indian version of Zyrtec. Blissfully uncongested, if woozy, I was helping Gabriel with dinner when I was nearly blasted out of the kitchen by Zanzibari music. Think Sheherazade as a drag queen on meth in charge of a drum machine with the control stuck on reggaeton.</p><p>“It’s a wedding,” Gabriel said. “You should check it out.”</p><p>“Ugh. I hate weddings.”</p><p>He shrugged. “It’s culture.”</p><p>“I’ll go if you come with me.”</p><p>Gabriel looked at me uncomprehendingly. Then he laughed.</p><p>“I can’t,” he said. “It’s only for women.”</p><p>“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” I told him. “Who do you dance with?”</p><p>“The women dance together,” he said.</p><p>Indeed, your basic Swahili wedding is more Heloise and Abelard than Father of the Bride. The bride and groom don’t get together until after the ceremony, at the bride’s parents’ house. The “reception” consists of a men’s stick dance, followed by a bachelor party. (The bachelor party features porn, since there are no strippers on the island, and as we now know from Osama’s stockpile, pornography doesn’t seem to violate the Koran.)</p><p>I had seen the stick dance the previous day. It was a mock fight, limp-wristed by American standards. Not that Swahili men can’t be macho, but their swaggering is usually related to dhow races, soccer, women, and clothing. (Pastel-colored cotton...<a href=http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/africawomen>Read More</a> It's Complicated Thu, 15 Jul 2010 16:05:33 -0700 http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/it-s-complicated http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/it-s-complicated <p>The long rains are ending in Kenya, and Shela village, the tiny outpost of Islamic fundamentalism and Eurotrash, is open for business.</p><p>Blinking like a naked mole rat in the sun, I awkwardly greet people I didn’t remember that I knew, often feeling surprisingly warm toward them. Intimate conversations spring up like volunteer plants; unexpected and alive.</p><p>Before the rains, I had met a delicate-featured, very pretty Ugandan girl of twenty-seven who is living with a much older British man. I’ll call her Honor (I’m terrible at creating pseudonyms because people’s actual names always seem inevitable to me once I know them, but let’s say Honor. I have my reasons.)</p><p>People from Uganda are so different from Kenyans. They have exquisite manners, good conversation, and approachability rather than aggressiveness. Honor is no exception. Today when I ran into her, we talked – really talked – for the first time. She is opening a hair salon on the first floor of her lover’s house and she is excited, although he is insisting that she pay for all of her hairdressing equipment herself, which means she will use a basin and a dining room chair for now.</p><p>I wonder why he is not buying her professional equipment. Perhaps he feels that she will have more of a stake in succeeding if she builds up her own capital. As she explains, her eyes look mildly hurt, but she says it is fair enough. His house is in a fashionable place, and there is not a single hairdresser here, so she should do well.</p><p>“I have a lot to do,” she said. “I hope it will work here, and then maybe I can go to Nairobi.”</p><p>She has ambition, and responsibility: an eleven-year-old daughter who lives with her, and a mother to support in northern Uganda.</p><p>How do we end up talking about men? Who knows? That is what women do. Oh, yes. She mentions among her ambitions, “and I would like to get married – of course,” she says, shyly.</p><p>I look at her questioningly, wondering if she wants to...<a href=http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/it-s-complicated>Read More</a> The Efficacy of Boredom Fri, 21 May 2010 15:54:22 -0700 http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/boredom http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/boredom <p><em>Gustave Flaubert </em></p><p><em>Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos </em><em>œuvres</em>.</p><p>This advice from Flaubert has been translated as: <em>Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.</em></p><p>I’m fonder of the punchier version that reads: One must live like a bourgeois but think like a demigod.</p><p>Either way, this has always struck me as good advice for writers. Certain kinds of writers.</p><p>Not my kind.</p><p>I have been bored before but never like this, living on a small island during the rainy season when it stubbornly refuses to rain.</p><p>Even my husband can’t stand it. This is a guy who revels in boredom, or wallows in it, depending on your point of view. He grew up here on Lamu, an island off the coast of Kenya where there are no cars, only donkeys and fishing dhows. When he is out of his comfort zone, which means when he is in Tucson or Dakar, or basically anywhere but Kenya, unless he’s working long hours and going out to dinner a lot, he sits and stares and smoke cigarettes, not merely for hours, but for days at a time. Sometimes there might be a music video in the background. This behavior, as you can imagine, alarms me.</p><p>In the U.S., we call it depression. He calls it meditating. In the 1700s, a period I’ve researched for the novel I’m working on, slave traders called it “the lethargy” the near-catatonic state of captured Africans who were convinced they were going to die, possibly by being eaten by their captors. I've never been brave enough to mention the similarity to him.</p><p>The lethargy is a form of self-protection, I suppose. Not my style. When I’m out of my element, I do something else: I get hyper. When I can’t find half a dozen projects to take on, I resort to being a drama queen.</p><p>My husband and I have both figured this out. We have also decided that the price of being amused...<a href=http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/boredom>Read More</a>   Chasing a Ghost Tue, 08 Aug 2006 13:40:59 -0700 http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/rodcoronado http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/rodcoronado <p><b>Rod Coronado's hair is cropped</b> so close to his skull it takes a while to notice it’s more gray than black. His face is gaunt, his cheekbones surfacing from the planes of his face like the masts of those whaling ships he sunk as a young man. While Johnny Depp entered his 40s playing a pirate onscreen, Rod Coronado is hanging up his cutlass, metaphorically speaking. You could say the onetime boy wonder of the radical environmental movement is having a midlife crisis. At the very least, he is growing up. Going back to jail can do that to a guy, even a guy who’s known as the poster boy for radical environmentalism or, depending on your point of view, ecoterrorism.</p><p>Coronado was sentenced Monday to eight months in federal prison on what many decry as trumped-up conspiracy charges, and he’s facing the prospect of serving as much as 20 years if a federal judge in California doesn’t look kindly on a motion to dismiss charges here. He weathered prison pretty well the first time, but now he’s got a 4-year-old son. This time, prison wasn’t part of the plan.</p><p>Coronado seems shell-shocked when I meet him at a café in Tucson, where he has made a home and a life after spending much of the ’90s either living underground or behind bars. It is so hot this time of year that even an environmentalist who walks Coronado’s walk has agreed that the most important criterion in choosing a place to talk is air conditioning. He orders a tamale pie made of sweet potatoes, cheese and mushrooms, and he’s drinking coffee — “I’m not a vegan anymore,” he announces.</p><p>We meet a couple of weeks before Coronado is to be sentenced. I’m one of the last journalists he will speak with before doing time. During the interview, Coronado calls himself “naive” and says he was surprised by the vehemence of the government’s reaction to his more recent political activities, innocuous compared to the daredevil stunts of his youth. But times have changed, and the word <i>terrorist</i> now...<a href=http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/rodcoronado>Read More</a> Ecology of Fire Sun, 06 Nov 2005 13:20:17 -0800 http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/fire http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/fire <p><strong>No one ever talks</strong> about the psychotic beauty of a fire when the horizon’s turned inside out like a dusky satin lining and the smoke fills the air and the smell is there and you know that you might die but you’re also in the presence of something bigger than you and where you came from.</p><p> </p><p>Surfers riding the waves last week under a burnt lowering sky had it right; everything runs together in a weird mix of adrenaline and guilt and mourning and “you might as well go for it.” You wonder if this is the irresistible cocktail to the sociopathic losers who throw the match down. Maybe they regret it afterward. Maybe they don’t.</p><p> </p><p>It doesn’t seem quite right to call this great fire of 2003, or any similar event, a disaster. Rather, it was a great shaking of nature, a course correction that hurt a lot of people but might be seen as a return, however violent, to the days when the hooded valleys of Hesperia and the Santa Susana Mountains lived by their own rules. The rules kicked in at the expense of million-dollar homes and BMWs and cabins and trucks and family photographs and wedding rings and 20 lives. Sixty thousand people fled. Photographs of women clutching their cats and children’s round faces framed by tents resembled nothing so much as an earlier migration in the 1930s. Thick-knuckled, farm-raised workingmen and -women of the Dust Bowl hadn’t taken the vagaries of nature into account either, or couldn’t afford to. A seven-year drought combined with new mechanized farm equipment tore up the soil, and it flew past their heads like money disappearing. There was no Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) then; only handbills announcing jobs in California.</p><p>Hucksters are as eternal as the chaparral. Everyone acknowledges there is a “fire problem” in the West. Decades of fire suppression and scattershot suburban development have created a tinderbox — well, you saw the results. Some scientists argue about whether these...<a href=http://www.susanzakin.com/blog/fire>Read More</a>