TII: This Is Italy, A Beautiful Den of Thieves

Spanish Steps in Rome. Photo/Keith Schneider

SOMERSET, KY — A traveler’s story. One I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

It was 6:30 p.m. about 12 hours before our scheduled flight home from Rome to Chicago. Gabrielle, Maggie, and I had just gotten off the train from Florence and I was exchanging dollars for euros at the central Rome station. The shoulder bag I’ve carried across six continents lay on the floor at my feet. Inside was $1,000 cash, my camera, glasses, IPad, keyboard, car keys, notebooks, tickets, and the passport I’d just zipped into its secure pocket.

I averted my sight from the bag to the teller to receive the cash. It was a single blink, a lone moment. When I looked down to pick up the bag the space where it lay was empty.

In the course of a lengthening life I never encountered any emotion that encompassed the dissolving, frustrating, infuriating, desperate feeling of that sight. Nothing there but smudged floor tiles. I’ve been emptied and weakened by deaths of loved ones. I’ve been embarrassed by failures and slights. I’ll never forget the electric shock that slid up my spine the morning that my college physical chem professor handed me an exam with the score of 18 scrawled in murderous red ink.

Losing my shoulder bag felt like desolation. In a decade of global travel I’ve lost stuff, twice had money stolen, and once had a wallet and credit cards lifted from my coat in Bratislava, Slovakia. But never something as urgent as a stolen shoulder bag, and especially a stolen passport. I felt stranded. I knew instantly that it meant big trouble for returning to the U.S., and smaller trouble for replacing all that the bag contained.

The next few moments, and the hours spent afterwards in anger and remorse, were studies in unerring helplessness. I screamed for help, ran for the main exit, and hoped somebody had seen something to prompt the thief to drop the bag. No such luck. I alerted Maggie and Gabrielle who were in line for a taxi, reported the incident to the Rome Police, and traveled to the Rome airport to confirm that boarding would be impossible without a passport. Before midnight we holed up in a lousy hotel room near the airport to plan next steps.

We decided Maggie and Gabrielle would fly as scheduled and I’d stay back to gain a new passport. All night I projected the negative consequences and what ifs. What if it took a week to get home. What if thieves could use the digital data and signatures in my Ipad to hack my accounts. What if Gabrielle and Maggie encountered trouble and I wasn’t around to help. What if I’d also had my wallet stolen.

Florence basilica. Photo/Gabrielle Gray

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Mara Bates Weds Brandon Rushton

A union of two lovely people. Mara Bates and Brandon Rushton are wed in Traverse City. Photo/Keith Schneider

TRAVERSE CITY, MI —Romance, certainly the most elemental energy we know, flows like human life itself. Its headwaters charge off the slopes of new love, adventurous, boiling, unstoppable. Further along, the currents of romance grow powerful and certain. The way ahead, after all, promises eddies of delight and shoals of distress. There is no way around that. Those fortunate to have married the right partner know that marriage is the sacred pact that ties two people to romance, to the love of life, to the certainty that the journey is much better made together.

On Saturday, October 6, 2018, two people that I know well and love immensely committed themselves to lifelong romance. Mara Bates, my daughter, a delightful woman raised in Benzonia, Michigan married Brandon Rushton, a thoughtful man raised in Clio, Michigan. She is a hotel management executive in Charleston, South Carolina now. He is a poet who teaches at the College of Charleston. Their romance was kindled during a college spring break trip to Florida. That was over eight years ago. They have been together ever since.

It is a good union. Mara is a strong woman, capable, intelligent, beautiful, and ambitious — especially for the relationships she cultivates with the tight circle of family and friends that she keeps close. Those assets translate well to her work in the lodging industry. Mara’s emotional depth and compassion shows itself in her steadiness, her perceptiveness, her instinct for making good choices. Her friends and her family know well those traits. Now they are admired by Mara’s professional colleagues. She is, in short, a formidable leader — hard to rattle and easy to love. They are such distinctive qualities that Mara’s teachers at Benzie Central High School honored her with a citizenship award when she was 15 years old. It was like being named her school’s MVP.

October 6, 2018 was a lovely day in Traverse City, MI. Mara Bates married Brandon Rushton. Photo/Keith Schneider

Brandon, too, is a person of depth and intelligence and ambition. Outwardly, he’s a Michigan man — quiet, polite, self-effacing. Inside, though, Brandon is a keenly perceptive observer of the artifacts of contemporary America that make this an age of bile and blasphemy. A slim and handsome young man, an only son raised near Saginaw in the bosom of a stable and loving family, Brandon nevertheless writes like a street beggar with a sore foot. He sees the world through what he calls “tears and tissues.” Random fortune is “like the dividend of distance in quarters tossed at the toll booth.”

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Our Covered Wagon Stopped in Utah

Near Sugarhouse in Salt Lake City a magnificent park lies at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SALT LAKE CITY — Almost all of Utah’s 3 million residents — some 80 percent — live within ten miles or so of the Wasatch Front, which extends north to south for about 100 miles in the state’s northeast region. At the center lies Salt Lake City, a surprising city of 180,000 that is as modern, pleasant, and well situated as any in America. Near the city are magnificent trails that wind up into the mountains, which are drained by cold streams full of trout. Beyond the first ridge line are taller peaks and ski resorts that keep Park City hopping.

Restaurants are good. At Christmas the Mormon Temple grounds downtown are a festival of light. The business district is alive with foot traffic day and night. And the city has a decent NBA team, the Jazz, that this year boasts Donovan Mitchell, a University of Louisville first rounder who may be the rookie of the year in 2018.

To say that I’ve enjoyed it here is an understatement. It’s a western correspondent’s dream base. The airport is 20 minutes away, and flights anywhere in the West are two hours distant. At 85 mph, 600 mile drives to Montana or New Mexico are less than 8 hours away on clear highways, all of which are saluted by magnificent mountain ranges and expanses of tumbleweed desert.

The stories here also are compelling in ways that the East can’t really match. Because of the scale of the landscape west of the Mississippi, the tales to be told also are outsize. I’ve hustled to tell as many as I can. Almost every one has a political dimension that starts either in political Washington, or here in Salt Lake City. I’ve tried to keep the Los Angeles Times in front of other news organizations.

Salt Lake City, capital of Utah. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

A multi-billion dollar pipeline that is designed to draw billions of gallons of water annually from Lake Powell to slake the overly abundant thirst of an ambitious southwest Utah desert city. The White House effort to help the West’s struggling coal mines. The president’s attack on the Antiquities Act and his decision to shrink the boundaries of two big national monuments in Southeast Utah. The historically foolish and economically irrelevant administration gambit to lease public lands onshore and off for oil and gas development. The attack on the Endangered Species Act. A nuclear engineers’s dream of licensing an advanced reactor that could revive the U.S. commercial nuclear sector.
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In 2017, At Home On My Native Ground

Mrs. Schneider and me. The highlight of highlights of 2017 was marrying Gabrielle Gray in San Francisco on October 19. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY — Maybe because I married in October, and traveled to India in January and to Manila in May to write about environmental heroes. Maybe because I summered in Michigan without any deadlines to meet or editors to impress. Maybe because my mother regained her balance, our friends remain close, and our families and children are making their way so well in the world. Maybe because I joined the Los Angeles Times for a spell and felt the old muscle memory of daily reporting revive so easily.

Maybe because of all of these events, my despair for the nation, and certainly the world, is not nearly as profound as that expressed by so many other people.

I’m 61 now. If I was a blue whale I’d weigh 110 tons. If I was an eastern oak, I’d be 80 feet tall. If I was a bathroom I’d have been renovated three times. I’m old enough, in sum, to understand that every day is a little blessing, and a year is a prayer come true. In other words I’m happy even as I contend with the various bruises that will only mount with every new year.

Two dear friends died in 2017 — my lifelong friend and brother Andy Feinman passed in May; my Michigan friend and brother Dennis Pace died in October. Their deaths are a lingering hurt.

Andy and Dennis succumbed to cancer, which is the scourge of our Baby Boom generation. As kids we were exposed to the most persistent levels of chemical and radioactive poisons in history. Cancer is the unsparing disease born in industrial mid-century America. It strikes decades later when we are well into middle age. For the Baby Boomers, the fifties and sixties amount to a generational kill zone.

If there is any personal solace it may lie in this conclusion: If you survive your sixties you’re in pretty good shape to enjoy as much of your old age as you’re willing to accept. I’m just starting to navigate that sixties kill zone. So far, so good.

In almost every other way, 2017 unfolded in chapters that were surprising, delightful, and satisfying. After a six-year romance, Gabrielle and I were engaged on April 19 in New York where I purchased a ring in the 47th Street Diamond District, dined with my brother Reed, and were serenaded by bluegrass musician friends Dominick Leslie and Phoebe Hunt at a Greenwich Village club that we closed well after midnight. Six months to the day later, we were joined by Maggie Gray and Samson Grisman in San Francisco and were wed in that city’s magnificent City Hall.

Moments after our declarations with Maggie, Samson, and wife Gabrielle. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

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Earth Day 2015 Marks Convergence of Inspiring Trends

The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country's allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country’s allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider

Earth Day, first celebrated 45 years ago in the United States, is now a grown-up international convergence that joins a reckoning with ecological deterioration to the panorama of human activity devoted to improving the planet’s condition. What’s inspiring about Earth Day is that the same principles of responsibility, collective action, pollution prevention, and natural resource conservation that informed the first Earth Day in 1970 have proven to be the durable foundation of 1) ecological repairs on every continent, and 2) social movements that are fostering public pressure and government action to solve the tough threats that remain.

My personal Earth Day history encompasses nearly all of the modern environmental movement and its myriad transitions. I was 14 years old on April 22, 1970, an eighth grader in Highlands Junior High School in White Plains, New York. Earth Day was such a big national event that the White Plains Public School administrators called a school holiday to allow students to participate in organized activities, most of them focused on some sort of clean-up. I organized a few of my friends to join me in painting the White Plains train station, and dragging old tires and appliances out of the Bronx River, which flowed past the station. Our work attracted notice from The New York Times, which reported on our work in the second to last paragraph of a front-page article on Earth Day in the April 23, 1970 edition of the newspaper.

The path I chose to embed my life in environmentalism was through journalism and story-telling. As a student at Haverford College in the late 1970s I studied chemistry and biology, literature and history, which provided the research skills required of environmental reporting and knowledge of the arcane language of two of the galvanizing threats of that era: managing toxic and nuclear wastes. Very soon after the start of my career the Love Canal toxic waste site was discovered in upstate New York, and half the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor melted during an accident in March 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the Susquehanna River, downriver from my first newspaper job in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Over the decades the risks that attracted the country’s attention, and the focus of my own reporting, steadily evolved. Water and air pollution. Conserving wild lands, wild habitats, and wild species. Activism to curb pesticide use in food production. The advent of genetic engineering in agriculture. Disastrous oil spills. The push-back from property rights groups and conservative activists about government authority to regulate wetlands, private lands, and business. Ocean pollution and the decline of coral reefs and fisheries. Suburban sprawl as an environmental problem and smart growth urban redevelopment as its cure. Climate change. Fracking. The global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food in the era of declining freshwater resources.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter

There’s no end to the reasons for pessimism about our planet’s condition. In Asia, rising coal consumption in China and India warms the atmosphere and is causing eight-year-olds in China to develop lung cancer. In South America, gold mining and forest cutting are wrecking the Amazon. In North America, unconventional fuels production is torturing the forests and water of northern Alberta Canada, contaminating drinking water and causing earthquakes in the United States, and pouring explosive fuels into flimsy rail cars for transport to coastal refineries. The planet’s population continues to grow 80 million people annually.

Yet what keeps me and so many other people devoted to the principles of Earth Day is the progress that’s been made, and the convergence of powerful trends motivating big changes in how we operate.
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