U-kraine Now and Then

Half drowned in the deluge of opinion pieces on the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion, I still clung stubbornly to my view of the bloody conflict as a civil war gone amok.

Back in the day, the U.S. Civil War was much bloodier, but international intervention was mainly undercover and not a daily media feast. England and France pretended neutrality. Russia, interestingly, was the single open supporter of the Union, if mainly to counter the dominance of the imperial British. For seven months Russia kept a dozen warships at the ready in New York and San Francisco.

Six thousand miles from Ukraine, it was storming, at last, in California. Around our table–fish stew again–were a few dear friends and neighbors. As rain rattled noisily down the dry gutters, talk ranged from the weather to cancel culture and the recent rush to rename buildings, institutions, countries. Someone suggested that the time was ripe for opening a new field of Grievance Studies. Everyone laughed. We didn’t approach the war right away, maybe assuming a consensus  favoring  Ukraine.

Not everyone remembered George Kennan, the  historian and diplomat. Twenty-five years ago he warned that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era, quite likely to inflame Russia’s nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies.” Politicians and generals are often deaf to the counsel of historians and diplomats. NATO went right on expanding.  And around our table and across our country, the plucky Zelensky and the indomitable Ukrainians had the most support.

What’s in a word:  U-kraine? In Slavic languages “u” is an adverb meaning “at” or “in”. And “Kraj” or Krajina” means a border region. Oukraina first appeared in 1187. Through the centuries, this Slavic term signified “borderlands,” often far from the territory of modern Ukraine.

Not so long ago, we elders had known today’s embattled land as THE Ukraine. “In the Borderland” does sound a bit vague for a sovereign nation. So in 1993, after the declaration of an independent Ukrainian state, officials removed the article “the,” presumably to lend the name of their country more formal dignity.

More than six months before Rusia’s “Special Operation in Ukraine,” Vladimir Putin published a 5,000-word article on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians. Nobody at our table could remember its appearance, and I only happened on it by chance. But I did read it, every word, in the English translation thoughtfully supplied by the Kremlin.

Yes, Putin is hoping to restore the territory of the former Russian empire. But his account of imbricated Russian and Ukrainian history and culture basically follows more public histories.There is some cherry-picking and blurring of the conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia as well as the Holodomor famine–blaming the worst bits on the Bolsheviks. (Of course Putin may also have written the Wikipedia entries.) We could but don’t read elsewhere about ninth-century Varangian (Viking) prince Oleg, who sailed downriver to settle Kiev(Kyiv) and to found Mother Rus. Somewhere—not in Putin’s history—I also learned that the Black Sea port of Kherson, recently decimated, had been a Greek colony some 2500 years ago. So far Greece has not lodged any territorial claims on Ukraine or Russia.

More recent history:  after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO negotiators agreed not to expand “one inch eastward”, according to recently declassified documents . Other agreements followed—Budapest, Minsk and Minsk II, etc. Since then, an even dozen Eastern European countries have been welcomed into NATO.

On various occasions, Vladimir Putin has found reason to protest against the NATO powers’ security risk to Russia. If Ukraine joined the West, and then Sweden and Finland,  the threat would be vastly increased. Then  in 2014 the Russophile Ukrainian leader was overthrown in the Orange Revolution, and Russia occupied Crimea, whose population was already 70 percent Russian. Two nominally independent regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, also majority Russian speakers, were absorbed into the Russian federation. No major international protests ensued. 

Fast forward to 2021 and Ukraine’s increasing lean westward. President Joe Biden, far from suggesting serious talks about Russian security issues, warned in every news cycle that Vladimir Putin was about to invade Ukraine.

At some point I decided to ask an old friend in Prague for his views on the new war. I could imagine him pacing up and down the room stroking his handsome beard. He sent me a judicious analysis, including a reminder of Munich and the failure to stop Hitler from taking over Czechoslovakia in 1938, and finishing with the Soviet putsch in Prague in 1968. Be it noted that Czech president-elect Petr Pavel was a NATO general and/but has a degree in international relations from King’s College London. Pavel professes to be for Ukraine but against war–a tricky position to maintain just now. 

Some years ago a young Polish couple, in the U.S. on fellowships, stayed for a term in our back cottage. The Polish government was just turning rightward, and the couple seemed a bit wary of political talk with their Berkeley landlords. But we were friends, went to the beach together, exchanged silly gifts, and they would walk down our driveway holding hands, her blonde hair swinging like a Disney princess.

Hungary accounts for a relatively short stretch of the Ukrainian border, while Poland shares 330 kilometers of it, but both have historically fraught relations with Russia. We have close Hungarian friends, have exchanged children some summers and followed, ruefully each other’s national politics. In his youth Viktor Orban was eloquently anti-Soviet. Now in power, he thrives on anti-migrant ad anti-semitic sentiments, most notably against George Soros, whose foundation subsidized Orban’s brief youthful interval at Oxford. Orban now deals amicably with Putin.

 The father of our secretary of state—-Antony Blinken, should you have forgotten—was U.S. ambassador to Hungary.  Secretary Blinken speaks fluent French, but not, alas, the present language of diplomacy. In his first official remarks he opened with warnings to China and Russia that the U.S. would stand firm on whatever position it chose. He continues to avoid any diplomatic cordiality.

Diplomacy comes from the ancient Greek diploma, which means “an object folded in two.” Folding a document, before there were envelopes, served to protect its privacy. The term came to apply to all official documents, such as those containing agreements between governments.  Five months of the Ukrainian war passed last year without any dialogue, folded or open, between Antony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart. For millennia, another major diplomatic tool has been alliance by marriage. Alexander the Great married the Sogdian princess Roxana to subdue the angry and defeated Sogdians (an ancient Iranian people, trending now). And so on. Let’s say that Volodymyr Zelensky could become betrothed to Sergey Lavrov’s daughter, Ekaterina Vinokurova. True, they both have living spouses. But serial marriage has been widely practiced through the ages, seldom for such positive reasons as world peace. You read it here first.

While traditional diplomacy falters, countries far from Russia and Ukraine suffer from famine and joblessness. Some, like Syria, have their own punishing civil wars. No grain came out of Ukraine’ breadbasket for many months, and the energy supply was delayed or broken.  More than 200,000 casualties have been counted on both sides.. Hundreds of thousands of factories, schools, hospitals and homes have been bombed to the ground, not to mention roads, railways and ports. 

“What about postwar reconstruction?” wondered the economist at our table, rearranging mussel shells on his plate.

Following the billions of dollars the war has earned for NATO armaments industries, as well as windfall profits for oil producers, Ukraine’s postwar recovery will open another huge economic opportunity. After World War II the U.S. Marshall Plan provided some $150 billion in aid to the ravaged countries of Western Europe. Their reconstruction was a key investment in the financial recovery of the U.S. as well as an advertisement for capitalism against communism.

Early cost estimates for rebuilding Ukraine’s physical infrastructure range from $138 to $750 billions. Whether this money comes from Russian reparations, or from Ukraine’s steadfast allies, will not signify. It will be used to develop what the Ukrainian chamber of commerce describes as “the world’s largest construction site.”

And so will end—-somehow, sometime—another “civil” war.

In the southern city of Kandahar, after long years of bloody war, a royal proclamation forbade the taking of life from humans, and all other animals as well.

“. . . hunters and fishermen have given up hunting. And those who were intemperate have put a stop to their intemperance according to their ability and [become] obedient to their father and mother and elders, unlike the past. And in the future, they will live better and more happily, by acting in this manner at all times.”

Inscribed in Greek and Aramaic on a rock in Kandahar in 260 B.C.E.,  the imperial edict was broadcast as far as north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

Ruins of Kandahar

The singular peace may have lasted until the death of its author, the emperor Ashoka, in 232 B.C.E.  The Kandahar Edicts–thirteen or fourteen in all–were still legible when found in the 20th century. A cast of the peace proclamation is in the Kabul museum in the unlikely event that you are planning a trip to Afghanistan.

In  another familiar scene of recent imperial devastation, in southern Iraq, excavation has begun on the site of a 4,000 year-old city in the middle of a desert known as the “Fertile Crescent,” which sustained ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. 

The Tigris and Euphrates were the first rivers used for large-scale irrigation, beginning about 7500 years ago. The first water war was also recorded here, when the king of Umma cut the banks of irrigation canals alongside the Euphrates dug by his neighbor, the king of Girsu. 

In recent years,Turkey’s damming of the Euphrates threatens parts of Syria and drought-parched Iraq. International conferences have been convened to deal with the crisis, to increase release of dammed water to flow downstream.

 California, where I live, is normally dry and now, besieged by climate change, with persistent drought and rampant wildfires. Farmers and agronomists are testing  drought-resistant strains of olives, vines, almonds and pistachios from the Middle East. California’s own fertile delta has always been heavily dependent on declining snow runoff from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and on government subsidies.

Dams and water supply are a flammable issue everywhere, in California as well as the Middle East. In Syria, drought was recognized late as a major cause of their ongoing civil war. Bashar al Assad might have maintained  a precarious and even ecumenical peace, but drought in 2006-9 brought crop failures and hordes of youth without work.  

Children collecting water — credit My Beautiful Kandahar

In October 2010 I was traveling through the Syrian desert, passing through Palmyra’s storied ruins, toward the eastern border with Iraq. At the town of Deir Ezzor the suspension bridge leading across the Euphrates to Iraq was lined with youths on display, evidently selling themselves. Farther down the Euphrates, we visited the ancient sites of Dura Europus and Mari. In the course of the war, they were looted, and the suspension bridge, built by another imperial power, in this case the French, was destroyed by Assad’s army.  

Back to Afghanistan, where the latest atrocity in the U.S. withdrawal involved a poorly judged drone attack which killed ten members of the family of an Afghan aid worker. Seven were children. There were no U.S. casualties, and President Biden has assured us that U.S. troop withdrawal is being replaced by “over the horizon” warfare–of which that drone attack is only one sample. 

Over the Horizon in Kandahar

Breaking news which may not outlive one or two news cycles: U.S. forces evacuating Afghanistan are not going home; they are shipping out to Iraq.Meanwhile, massive mosque bombings in Kunduz and Kandahar continue, even without western intervention, the sectarian violence of Sunni against Shiites.  But also without western intervention, Afghanistan and Iran have finally reached an agreement on the water rights for the Helmand River. 

Amid the long rotations of civilization and destruction in Kandahar, there was that one early ruler who called for an end to all killing. Ashoka was surely less benign than the Kandahar Edict suggests. Yet after a violent close to the latest imperial occupation of Afghanistan, the ancient king’s vision of peace seems restorative. And somehow the ancient rivers still curve through the dunes and the fields, and humans still struggle for the land and for a share of the life-giving waters. 

People’s Park in August 2021: an Update

People’s Park is a block and a half away Continue reading

As the world knows, California is ablaze once again, and there is blame enough to go around–starting with Trump, our climate science denier-in-chief and crown prince of fossil fuel protection.

Despite the repeated charring of millions of acres of the Pacific northwest, as well as the planetary pandemic and social and economic collapse, we continue to engage in the pettiest local squabbles over race and gender, history and hearsay. Along with news from the so-called Cancel Culture come daily reports of moving and removing statues and statutes, un-naming and renaming schools, streets and soup kitchens.

In a rare glimmer of light from the murky swamp of identity politics, a 1936 mural on the history of medicine in California, seems likely to survive the demolition of the building that holds it.

The History of Medicine, by Bernard Zakheim in Toland auditorium, Parnassus Heights Campus, University of California, San Francisco

The mural, a fresco in a lecture hall on the Parnassus campus of the University of California, San Francisco, shows in one of its panels a Black nurse, Bridget (Biddy) Mason, ministering to a plague-stricken citizen. In this case the plague is malaria. But the point is that she is standing elbow-to-elbow with various bearded white elders of the Gold Rush state. To the right is a laboratory table where three of the hirsute gentlemen appear to be researching a vaccine or a cure. There is no sinister imperial or racist subtext to this scene’s narrative. Biddy Mason, a former slave, having worked as a midwife and healer, became known–in whatever order–as a church founder, a real estate entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. But how, in this time of racial and feminist turbulence, can this mural not be valued, and prominently displayed in the new Parnassus campus?

In 1945, my family moved to San Francisco so that my veteran father could study for an engineering degree. Meanwhile, my mother worked on Parnassus Avenue above Golden Gate Park at the medical center. My doughty little grandmother looked after me and my brother. Sometimes she walked us over to meet my mother after work, with me on my skates circling them self-importantly.

Parnassus Heights had been the site of the University of California’s first anthropology museum before it moved across the bay to Berkeley.

Tent city in Golden Gate Park after 1906 earthquake. Many sought medical help from the hospital at the Parnassus campus, visible in distance.

 In that old museum, Ishi, the “last wild Indian in America,” brought there in 1911 by the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, spent the last five years of his life. He  chipped arrowheads, sang songs, and made fire for scores of fascinated visitors to the museum. Above the museum, Ishi had a brush hut, and perhaps a cave further up the slope.

Sixty years later, my anthropologist son traced the original hideout in the mountains where Ishi had survived as last of his tribe. He describes the networks of tribal and institutional interests that emerged as he recorded the saga of the search for Ishi’s brain and the repatriation of his remains (Ishi’s Brain, Orin Starn, Norton 2004).

Fifteen years later, in a related instance of identity politics, UC-Berkeley felt obliged to establish a Building Un-naming Review Committee to accommodate our recently reawakened anti-racist ardor. Kroeber Hall and the anthropology museum’s number soon came up.

Sadly, un-naming and other symbolic changes such as renaming buildings, seldom appear to affect the substance or tenor of what happens within them. In removal of monuments and names from our shared racist past, we run the risk of confusing re-branding with reform. With repentance, perhaps, for the many thousands of California Indians killed and displaced by the time Ishi was discovered.

Whether Alfred Kroeber was truly Ishi’s friend or merely his patron has been much discussed—most recently in the charges and counter-charges in the case of the “Un-naming” of Kroeber Hall. After a hundred years the issue is still unclear. No, Kroeber was not responsible for the wholesale excavation of Indian graves and mass storage of their bones. He did write a great deal about the California Indian cultures, did testify importantly about them to the Indian Affairs Commission. But yes, he did ship off Ishi’s brain to float in a tank at the Smithsonian Institution.

Unlike un-naming, toppling or defacing a statue has at least an immediate visual effect– not to mention another alternative, which is banishment to a civic graveyard of politically superannuated statues like that in Budapest.

Imre Nagy memorial near Parliament before his recent demotion

Last year saw the disappearance of a popular statue of Hungarian Resistance leader and anti-Soviet prime minister Imre Nagy. In a rather obvious maneuver of historic revision by the government, Nagy’s statue was shunted off to a less central location.

As yet there is no monumental statue of the current Hungarian autocrat, who presently has most cordial relations with Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, if not with most leaders of western democracies.

Here Orban appears 25 years ago, eloquently denouncing the Russian occupation–at the ceremonial reburial–of none other than Imre Nagy.

But that was then and this is now.

It’s perhaps cheering to Viktor Orban’s detractors that the Budapest Memento Museum has space to accommodate any number of rejected politicians in the near or distant future.

And Kroeber Hall may be re-named after Ishi. Of course we don’t know his real name: “Ishi” was the word for “man” in his Yana language.

Fires and Floods Now Then and Later

Fires and Floods, Now, Then, Later

Again in October, California burst into flames. Winds to 100mph, 250,000 acres charred. Blackouts imposed capriciously by a bankrupt energy company, crippling campuses and hospitals. 

Once again we watched from six thousand miles away, perched in an old city in the middle of a laguna. After yet another flood tide, we joined a crowd of Venetians gathered in pouring rain to protest the failure of their government to cope with the rising waters and the sinking city. In Rome a panicked parliament voted more millions of euros to complete the MOSE sea barrier network, still untested, already rusting, encrusted with mussels, clotted with sand. 

Unlikely as it seems, Venice has also had a long and terrible history of fire. Palaces and bridges of brick or stone rest on ancient wooden pilings, their interiors lined with wood. Given bone-chilling marine winters, buildings were heated with fireplaces, later with large tiled stoves. Creative chimney design, on display in Carpaccio’s view of the Rialto Bridge, in did not stop every spark. In 1105, great fires decimated 23 churches across the city. A truncated campanile is all that remains of the church on Campo San Boldo, where we were living. It burned first in 1105 and several times thereafter. By 1291, fires had become so frequent and destructive that the great Venetian industry of glassmaking, with its red-hot furnaces, had been ordered by the city government to move to Murano. 

The nearest functioning church to San Boldo is in Campo San Giacomo, where in the early evenings children play and old men shout into their telefoninos.  Instead of fires, the neighborhood is now threatened by the gutting of old buildings to house a boutique inn or yet another fish restaurant. Several mornings a week we went to the Rialto market. The pretty neo-gothic loggia of the fish market dates only to the last century, when it was finally rebuilt after the last big fire. Today the fishmongers (6), butchers (3), and produce stands(20) at the Rialto are fast disappearing. Not only because of the depredations of tourism: German supermarket chains and Dutch coops are everywhere.

Last year Chinese investors proposed establishing a cooking school in the loggia above the fish market. This failed, although the space had been empty for three years. Now an Italian foodie forum, Gambero Rosso (Red Shrimp) proposes to slick up the fish market to offer prepared street food, local specialties of course. The upstairs may house a museum of the history of Venetian commerce and some kind of unspecified commercial activity. Mayor Brugnaro blessed, but did not fund the project, estimated to cost 7-10 million euros. An enraged local activist saw this is the latest move to make Venice into a soulless “toll city.”   

La Fenice, (Phoenix) the Venice opera house, burned to the ground in 1996, not for the first time. Aside from the romantic tale of arson and corruption, in 2004 it was rebuilt, with international funding. Only last October, another fire broke out in the theater, blamed on the backup power system. Failure of electrical providers, ENEL in Italy, PG&E in California,has become common in the age of climate-driven disasters. 

A dramatic winged phoenix emerged in Berkeley, California’s environmental art show, made of lacquered eucalyptus leaves by Sophie Dua. We hope to give it to friends who rebuilt their house following the Oroville fire of 2017–also caused by an electrical malfunction.

The penetrating fragrance of eucalyptus trees stays with me from a childhood on the California coast. That tree, native to Australia, is now prey to fire safety removal measures. The Oakland firestorm of 1991 had spread more quickly via the flammable migrants. Driving back to the bay from the north coast with a Czech friend, I told her that the blazes we could see along the Oakland ridge were reflections of the sunset in hilltop windows. She, with darker experience of war and revolution, thought not.   

A centenarian eucalyptus stands in front of our Berkeley house. Corymbia ficifolia, with abundant pink flowers and tough little urn-shaped nuts that resident squirrels use to sharpen their teeth–and a sturdy trunk that pretends to be supported by a scrawny iron pole. One winter day, gazing vaguely out an upstairs window, I noticed a soft slow drift of white through the eucalyptus leaves. Snow seldom falls in Berkeley. I looked more closely, and made out on a branch a hawk, perched atop a dove, sending feathers floating as it pecked at its prey.  

 Just before the California fires, news from Berkeley had focused on an attack on the Gourmet Ghetto–not upon that unassuming stretch of shops and eateries between the campus and the hills, but upon the breezy sobriquet it had borne for decades. Probably it was christened by a young comedian then working for the Cheese Board Collective. Serious people tend not to traffic in irony. Alice Waters  never liked the term in the first place, and street banners celebrating the “Gourmet Ghetto” have been furled forever.

In 2016 the Venetian ghetto marked its 500th anniversary with a new production of Merchant of Venice. The shallows of political correctness surrounded the project from the start, provoking strained comparisons of Shakespeare’s Venetian ghetto with the current status of refugee enclaves in Europe. William Shakespeare, in any event, appears not to have visited Italy, although thirteen of his plays are set there. 

In 1516, when the Venetians cleared one of their islands to house Jews, this was no act of benevolence: the city at that moment was in sore need of moneylenders. Venetian commerce was suffering because of the new trade routes across the Atlantic, and because of the costly War of Cambrai. In fact, the Jews themselves had to pay the guards who enforced the curfew on the walled ghetto. 

Ghetto came from the Venetian word “geto,” or foundry, which had preceded the Jewish settlement on the Venetian site. Later, “ghetto” came to be the name for any closed community of Jews across Europe. The Venetian ghetto was not opened until 1797, in one of Napoleon’s liberal reforms. Later still, in 1866 when Jews gained full Italian citizenship, many moved into palaces in other parts of the city. After World War II, of some 200 Venetian Jews sent to the camps, eight returned. In Venice today, of 500 Jews resident in the city, few choose to live in the historic ghetto. 

Today, 1500 years after Marco Polo and William Shakespeare, China hopes to recreate the famous if somewhat apocryphal Silk Road trade route, Their BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) invests in the infrastructure of Adriatic ports such as Genoa– and Trieste, already activated– as a gateway to Central European markets. Venice, with its troubled laguna, does not much interest them.

Mayor Brugnaro has been assuring all tour planners, so basic to the Venetian economy, that Venice is still beautiful and awaiting more visitors. Meanwhile, the flood tides have continued through December, and the incomplete MOSE network of underwater barriers has failed to protect most of the laguna. There is no Plan B.

Marine archaeologists continue to excavate the ruins of the ancient port city of Thonis-Heracleion, located thirty feet underwater near Alexandria, Egypt. Temple columns litter the floor of the bay, and a retrieved boat from the 5th century B.C. exactly jibes with Herodotus’ description. 


Early in 4,000 C.E., let’s say, in the northeastern corner of what was once known as the Adriatic Sea, underwater excavations reveal ruins of what appears to be an ancient port. The site is crisscrossed by a network of canals that give some credence to identifying it as the lost city of Venezia. Further evidence is provided by the remains of various slender boats, distinguished by their high prows and extensive traces of black varnish, often mentioned in records of the lost city. Also present on the excavation site are the hulls of very large ships, with space for thousands of passengers.

In the same time frame, but 6,000 miles away on the southwestern edge of the continent once known as North America, significant remains have been found at a depth of a thirty feet in the mud at the bottom of what appears to have been a deep bay, narrowly open to the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by urban settlements. The finds include a wheeled transport system, tunnels, and several large bridges.

Each of these sites appears to have been abandoned during the rising of the seas in the Great Planetary Meltdown that began in the 21st century C.E. 

Acqua alta

14 November 2019 This year, from the other side of the Grand Canal, the warning siren keens closer– and longer, as if keyed to the 50-year flood tide approaching in the laguna. Not much is otherwise different: another video of someone swimming in the floodwaters in front of San Marco, photos of boats stranded on … Continue reading

Antioch–Tales of Two Cities

Now that impeachment has slid off the table into history, and the Capitol attack boasts an ongoing commission, we return to Topic A, the pandemic. Everyone agrees that the shameful disorder of our government and economy–and now even the wintry weather–made a shambles of the vaccine roll-outs. Angry citizens claim to be deprived of access to vaccine, while others are faulted for rejecting it.

Our best vaccination option was some thirty miles away in a town we had never had reason to visit.

In Antioch, California, the January sun was warm, and people, mostly men with hard hats, were eating lunch on concrete benches in the middle of a parking lot. Sutter Health Foundation anchors a modest medical mall with fueling stations such as Xtreme Burger, Subway, and Starbucks. We found an empty bench and ate burgers prepared by one small, efficient Asian man who seemed to be working alone. Unemployment in Antioch is upwards of 10 percent, highest in Contra Costa County. This figure was not available on the City of Antioch’s website, which features a photo of a dapper administrator flanked by an eye-catching but empty template. 

Sutter Health is the second largest employer in town. We passed through its glass portal to meet a receiving line of beaming young women who serially confirmed our identity and body temperature. The ratio of attendants to patients seemed about six to one. An attendant led us toward a receding corridor lined with additional young persons in pastel scrubs, smiling reassuringly as we passed. Magic Flute came to mind. In the room at the end of the corridor stood Krystelle, tall and lovely, with a crown of magnificent braids–and the vaccine. The jabs were painless, followed by a friendly question: had we been able to see anything much around Antioch? “In the summer, you can visit some sweet wineries in Brentwood,” she said. 

In fact we had arrived early, in time for a quick turn around the town and the waterfront. Near the river, a sign on a small weathered building said Vets Help Lunch and Medications. Around the corner at the Antioch Community Center, a long line, including several wheelchairs, was also moving slowly toward vaccinations. Down the road at the deserted marina, there were no boats on the river, which had once been the main shipping channel of the San Joaquin-Sacramento river route to San Francisco Bay.

Antioch had begun as Marsh Landing, after John Marsh (Harvard, 1823), one of the early American pioneer entrepreneurs. Marsh had made his way west as an Indian agent, merchant, doctor, and finally, rancher and real estate speculator. During his time in the pueblo of Los Angeles, he was the only “western-trained” medical doctor around, thanks to the illegible Latin of his Harvard diploma. Having saved a tidy amount in in-kind medical fees, he liquidated his inventory and went north.

For $500 (or $300, depending on your source) Marsh became the owner of the 13,000-acre Rancho Los Meganos, a cattle ranch east of San Francisco Bay. He soon became a promoter of the joys of California life, writing widely circulated letters to encourage emigration, statehood, and of course the purchase of homesteads on his property. This land he had acquired from the Mexican government, via Spain, which had first dibs, unless you count those indigenous tribes. The history of California as a continuing land grab is not unknown, beginning with the Franciscan missions and Indian slave labor.

For his part, John Marsh sold a piece of his river property to the Smith brothers, bearded twins unrelated either to the cough drop dynasty or my family. William Smith, a minister, wanted to give the town a biblical name. He must have known his history to have chosen the ancient Greek “Antioch,” another town located at a delta formed by two major rivers.

Not Contra Costa County

Siege of Antioch, 1098– 15th-century miniature

The original Antioch was founded by a general of Alexander the Great, near a delta of rivers opening onto the northeastern Mediterranean. It became a center of commerce and culture during the Hellenistic and Roman empires and beyond. It was also a religious center where the followers of Christ, including Peter and Paul, were first known as Christians. This history as well as its riches made it a target of the First Crusade.

Fall of Antioch in 1098, earlier version

 Ancient Antioch is now only ruins in the Turkish town of Antakya near the Syrian border. Just south of that border, in the Syrian province of Idlib, nearly everything is in ruins, both ancient and recent. In the years before the Syrian civil war, Idlib province was mainly known for the “Dead Cities,” hundreds of Byzantine settlements from the first through seventh centuries, preserved when trade routes changed.

Dead Cities in Idlib Province in 2010

Antiochus III the Great expanded the Seleucid empire in the usual way, through conquests and prudent marriages, and lost it in the usual way, by decisive military defeats–in his case as in so many others, by the Romans. But today, if the facts were more generally known, Antiochus would probably be more famous for being the father of Cleopatra than for Thermopylae.  Reflections on the transient glory of military conflicts tend to attract less interest over the centuries than tales of sex, incest and violence like Cleopatra’s—and some much more recent.

In 2009 Antioch, California became suddenly notorious with the discovery of a kidnapped girl who had been kept there in captivity for 18 years. International media feasted on the story of Antioch’s alleged 1,000 registered sex offenders in residence, with domestic variations on the theme from Anderson Cooper, Larry King, Diane Sawyer, Oprah, and Judge Judy. Jaycee Dugard received $20 million from the state of California, acknowledging defective law enforcement. She wrote a best-selling memoir and established a foundation to support other victims of rape and kidnapping.

Ten years after the Jaycee’s rescue, the streets of Antioch seem calm, but police blotters tell another story. In one week in February there were 48 adult arrests, including the alleged shooter of a firefighter and paramedic, as well as a lunchtime bank robbery the day before our vaccination visit.

Antioch, February 2021

The streets are lined mainly with working-class cottages and no-frills condominiums, but with California property inflation, the median house price is now $540K, affordable mainly for desperate commuters employed in the central Bay Area.

John Marsh got the 13,316 acres of Rancho los Meganos for the equivalent of about $3.75 an acre in 1850 dollars. California’s legislature never ceases to recognize the need for affordable housing, but voters are no more inclined to tax raises than John Marsh would have been.

On our way to vaccination in Antioch, California, we could see from the highway a green spread of regularly distributed bumps and cubes over many acres. It looks like, and is, camouflaged weapons storage, now, we are told, empty. After the horrendous Port Chicago disaster in July 1944, when thousands of pounds of naval ordnance exploded during loading, killing 320 and wounding 390 mostly black Americans, a new name and new uses were proposed for the site.

Aerial view of Concord Naval Weapons Station with Mt. Diablo

For a while it was the proving grounds for testing self-driving cars, most notably Mercedes Benz. Then in 2018 the Navy floated a plan to build a tent city there. As many as 47,000 immigrants could be detained on this somewhat toxic but isolated Superfund site. Local protests resulted, and Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, who called the plan “madness,” assured his constituents that the projected tent settlement would not be built. The Navy continues to work on decontamination in hopes of making the land salable for residential or park development. 

Some twenty minutes from the erstwhile naval weapons station, Marsh Creek State Historic Park now incorporates much of the former Rancho Los Meganos and the Marsh Home. John Marsh had lived alone in his adobe hacienda for decades, but for his new wife he planned a fairly grand stone manor with a tower to spy out cattle rustlers.

Marsh House

Construction was still underway when his wife died, and not long thereafter he was murdered by his own vaqueros after a wage dispute. “The meanest man I ever knew,” said John Bidwell, another early California pioneer.

The Marsh Creek State Park may reopen after the pandemic, but it appears that the house may be allowed to fall into ruin. And who will take responsibility for the hundreds of human burials discovered nearby, dating from 3,000 to 4,000 years ago–long before Antiochus the Great and his daughter sat uneasily on their respective thrones. 

Cleopatra, perhaps, in Altes Museum Berlin
Antiochus III, the Great, probably

In the ruins of ancient Antioch, in 1932, a consortium of American and European museums found a trove of magnificent Byzantine mosaics. Their excavations were interrupted in 1939 by the war. Half of the mosaics were immediately absorbed by the excavators’ home museums. The others were left to Antakya, and we can only hope that they are no longer on display in the Hatay Archaeological Museum, less than 90 kilometers from Idlib in the heart of Syria’s northeastern war zone.

Cupid, Psyche, and erotic missile, Antakya museum

Restoration in America and Elsewhere

Braced for the latest of Trump’s parting outrages, we can only speculate about Joe Biden’s prospects of restoring America’s mutilated democracy. A literal restoration unfolds daily as Obama-era survivors surface for Cabinet-level jobs. Some are Biden intimates with deep government experience, while others fill quotas of ethnicity and gender.

Of course the carping has commenced: is “Build Back Better” all that reassuring? It was used earlier in disasters in Haiti and the Philippines, and later by Boris Johnson, about Brexit.  






Arguably the most renowned political restoration in western history was that of the English king Charles II, in 1660. Following his father’s beheading, he had spent much of his exile in France while his boy cousin, Louis XIV, was working on becoming the Sun King.

Charles II, later

In England, Charles became known as the “Merry Monarch”, and sometimes as “Old Rowley”, a renowned breeding stallion. After the harsh strictures of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan regime, Charles’s pleasure-seeking ways prompted the rise of racy, witty Restoration comedy. 

One of the most popular of the Restoration playwrights was Aphra Behn, cited by Virginia Woolf as the first Englishwoman to make a living as a writer. We know little of her life, but she seems to have turned to writing after a  failed career as a spy for her king in the Dutch court. Although Charles evidently neglected to pay for her services, she remained a Royalist and composed nasty screeds against the Opposition Whigs.

 Years before Charles II fled to England, Aphra Behn died, seemingly of natural causes, and was buried, rather remarkably, in Westminster Abbey. (Proof that neither Wit nor Embonpoint are defense enough against Mortality.)

Aphra Behn by Peter Lely











Charles was unlucky enough to reign during the Great Plague of London in 1665, which overlapped the Great Fire in 1666.The pestilence began in the spring, and by July those who could fled the city. The king and his family and court took refuge in Oxford, where Parliament and courts soon set up for the interim.


Charles published a proper royal proclamation with extensive public health orders intended to minimize the spread of the infection—more than Trump did 355 years later. Nonetheless, an estimated 100,000, one fifth of the population, died within 18 months. Mass burials have been unearthed in so-called plague pits around the city–the latest London tourist attraction.


Hardly was the ground settled on the graves when the Great Fire engulfed the city in a mere three days of September 1666.

dramatic but anonymous oil painting




The Great Fire broke out at the end of the hot, dry summer of 1666, and consumed much of the City of London, including the homes of 70,000 of 80,000 citizens. A deranged French watchmaker claimed to have started the blaze and was hanged. Catholics were also blamed, the Dutch, and any stray foreigners. Eventually it was agreed that the fire had originated in the kitchen of a bakery in Pudding Lane near the river. Can we trust a source that claims King Charles and his brother joined and directed fire-fighting efforts? 

Afterwards, in any event, Charles did work to restore London culture, sponsoring the Royal Society and founding the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.But all was not well at court. Although Charles had a dozen offspring from various mistresses, his queen had produced no heirs. Catherine managed to keep her head and her place in court, but the stage was set for the Second Restoration, that of Charles’s brother James. Then James II too was forced into exile in France when the parliament of the Glorious Revolution invited William of Orange and Mary Stuart to occupy the English throne.

While royal fugitives from the British isles had always found comfortable exile across the channel, the post-revolutionary French had multiple restorations of their own, mainly within the House of Bourbon. After Napoleon fled to Elba, there was Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, who had ended so badly. 

“The Bourbons have learned nothing and have forgotten nothing,” said Prince Talleyrand. We could take a moment to compare Talleyrand, that shrewd and unscrupulous advisor to frivolous kings, to Antony Blinken, Biden’s head diplomat. Briefly, both were educated in France. We could take another moment to compare Joseph Robinette Biden to Charles Stuart, king of England, et al.  But tempus fugit.

An appetite for royal restoration still survives in Central Europe. The Monarchist Party of Bohemia, Moravia & Silesia marched just last year in support of the return of Habsburg rule over themselves and several other Central European republics.  The heir to this ancient dynasty would be Karl von Habsburg, archduke of Austria and royal prince of Hungary, Bohemia, and Croatia, whose resume’ includes pertinent service in the field of cultural preservation. 

Frankfurt’s new Old Town

Architectural preservation–and restoration, even more–is often politically controversial. In Germany, long after the carpet bombing of World War II, there is now the Neue Altstadt, New Old Town, quaint and costly at a time when the great need is for affordable housing. And there is the  recent reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace, not to mention the Potsdam Garrison church, built by Frederick II, visited by Bach, Czar Alexander, and Napoleon–and where the German parliament met for Hitler and Hindenburg’s handshake after the Nazi victory in 1933.

After the war, the thriving United States economy could support major rebuilding of Europe with the Marshall Plan. The U.S. was producing half of the world’s GDP. Now, what with one thing and another, it’s down to one-seventh. Yet Biden talks of restoring American “leadership”. Biden and Harris were elected to return us to “normal”, which includes our traditional political patronage system supporting our vast military industrial complex and our famously hypocritical foreign policy.

The U.S. does still lead the world in one area: arms production and trade. Decades ago we found a way to help Saudi Arabia spend its petrodollars while improving the U.S. balance of trade; each year we sell them millions of dollars’ worth of U.S weaponry, including fuel and servicing. These are currently being used most effectively against civilians in the Saudi proxy war in Yemen. 

But starting and ending military and trade wars, breaking or blocking treaties and agreements, may now proceed without reference to the price of a barrel of oil or to a late-night tweet from Trump.

Much could depend on the restoration of a working majority in the Senate through election of two Democrats in Georgia. All of the resources of both parties (mine, plus dark money to buy votes and/or poisonous TV ads) are engaged in this epic struggle–except for those funds needed to pursue Trump’s continuing campaign to invalidate the presidential election.

But our new president and Congress can make significant moves with or without a Congressional majority. Some actions are automatic and symbolic, such as returning to the Paris Climate accords. Others are material and obvious, such as retracting the $500 million in arms pledged to Saudi Arabia. The Internal Revenue Service could be expanded and improved without special legislation to reinforce collection of billions in corporate taxes. Aside from its economic justice, the revenue would help pay for new public works projects to repair infrastructure, build affordable housing, and construct national grids for renewable energy and universal internet. Collateral benefit: full employment. (This last might be seen as an echo if not a restoration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA in the 1930s….but hasten the day!) 

With the Georgia election, looming protest in our capital, and a surging pandemic, we still have room to worry on a cosmic scale. Worst case: a Trump Restoration in 2024…if not Donald, then Ivanka.  

*The idea of Build Back Better, as it was proposed in 2015 by the Japanese at a UN conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, was to restore local infrastructure, culture and environment to what they were before the natural disaster that disrupted them. Only substitute Donald Trump for “natural disaster” and the same dictum, BBB, obtains.



Consider the Crow

credit Takiako Nakashi

While crows in increasing numbers crowd smoky Bay Area skies, humans think of migrating to more hospitable climes. Crows, handsome and black, loud and smart, line up on electrical wires above us or linger in the middle of the street to finish a scavenged snack. Are they attracted by the spread of homeless settlements with those exposed middens so repellent to the tidily housed? 

Cities are perhaps safer now for crows than fields protected not only by scarecrows, but farmers with real guns, and enthusiastic hunters. Here the young daughter of an “NRA family” has scored her first crow kill. It seems safe to say that her parents will remain Trump voters, although Wayne LaPierre and the NRA, as well as the Republican Party, are in disarray. 

Crows, science has recently informed us, are not only crafty, but possess conscious awareness. I.e. they know what they know–which is more than can be said for many humans. Crows mate for life, although according to one source they are only “monogamish” and like a bit on the side now and then. Young crows, instead of looking to start a new family, hang around their old nest for a couple of years and help out with the chicks. Whether that is also typical of human adolescents is debatable. 

We planted some redwoods–such lovely trees– between us and the student apartments next door. “Madness,” said a friend who knew California as only a midwestern native could. “They are just giant weeds.” Years later, as redwood roots grew intimate with the neighbors’ plumbing as well as ours, the redwoods were taken over by two nests, one crows’, one squirrels’. In the spring we sometimes heard squirrely sounds of rutting, but more often it was hard to distinguish the angry scolding of a squirrel from the assertive cawing of a crow. All of them fled during the traumatic tree work, but they seem to be returning, if only to check out the new perch of the plaster seagull above the porch. 

Crows used to come uninvited to meet a few of our friends sharing distanced drinks and close-in anxieties on our pandemic terrace. Covid corvids were more likely to appear when shrimp or smoked salmon was on offer. And they seemed to be more interested in our older friends…as are we, often enough.

One summer when my mother was recovering from serious surgery, crows collected on her redwood deck in the warm Los Gatos afternoon–not, I supposed, to wish her well. I chased them away with blasts from the garden hose. Watering her garden, daily and plentifully, was an important strategy in her plan for eternal life. During a year when we were living in Italy, she took me to Venice for my birthday. On the Riva degli Schiavoni the traditional souvenirs were all arrayed: glass from Murano and China, gondolier’s hats, masks of all descriptions.

The Venetian tradition of masks is much older than Carnival, with their earliest regulation recorded in the 12th century. They were worn commonly by the prosperous and somewhat amoral citizenry, who might prefer to conceal their financial and amorous adventures. Four hundred noble families were rich and aristocratic enough to lead a life of fairly unrestrained pleasure. The families included various dissipated relatives, but not of course the enabling household servants–who sometimes benefited from hiding their own identity behind masks, as we learn from Mozart operas.

In the 1530s the master mask-makers’ guild had eleven busy members, including one Barbara Scharpetta. The decadent life of the Venetian aristocracy continued until the end of the Republic in 1797. Masks were then forbidden altogether, and Carnival itself was not resumed until 1979.

In the time of the Black Death, the curved beaks of Venetian plague doctor masks were filled with dried flowers, herbs and spices, or camphor. The mask was worn to keep away foul smells, known as miasma, that were thought to transmit the plague. 

Miasma had been regarded as the main cause of disease as far back as ancient China. A Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, Han Yu, was sent into exile. (Poets in ancient China were more politically significant than in 21st-century America.) In the unhealthy southern province, expecting to die, the poet wrote:  I know that you will come from afar. . .and lovingly gather my bones, on the banks of that plague-stricken river.

From miasma came malaria (literally “bad air”) in medieval Italian. Though miasma is mainly associated with the spread of contagious diseases, early in the 19th century the theory went rogue, suggesting, for example, that one could become obese by merely inhaling the odor of food.

Even after scientists and physicians realized that specific germs, not miasma, caused specific diseases, getting rid of odor through underground sewage systems and garbage cleanup in urban ghettos became a high priority for city governments. The observed connection between foul air, poor sanitation and disease lasted until the mid-nineteenth century and beyond. Plague doctor masks, however, are still available in any Venetian kiosk. Do we have even now a more useful term than miasma to explain the spread of our latest pandemic? Or any protection more effective than vaccine, and masks?

Five hundred years after the Black Plague, crows were still keeping bad company. In the 1830s, “Jim Crow” was a kind of dancing jester created by a popular white minstrel singer, wearing blackface. “Jim Crow” came to refer to the many forms of segregation and injustice toward African- Americans that followed Reconstruction after the American Civil War and far beyond.

In World War II, “Old Crow,” mostly known today as a cheap bourbon, was a codename for Allied military personnel carrying out fairly primitive electronic maneuvers, such as jamming enemy broadcasts. Today there is an international Association of Old Crows, boasting some 14,000 members, promoting conferences, classes, and lobbying among researchers, industry, and government in the hugely more sophisticated arena of EW, electromagnetic warfare. This seems to be a lesser known corner of the Big Picture, in which the U.S. is far and away the world’s largest arms supplier. The Old Crows are surely deep in that Washington Swamp so decried by virtuous politicians.

Enters war again:  “Eating crow” is a traced to a War of 1812 incident where a British officer forced an American soldier to consume part of a crow that the Yankee had shot over the border in British territory. Whether or not the story is true, crow meat is said to taste like the dark meat of any wild bird. Roasted slowly in red wine, it has been declared delicious. On the other hand, an Australian recipe suggests simmering the bird with a stone for three hours, then draining the liquid and eating the stone.

This morning I went across town to pick up sacks of co-op-farmed vegetables to be shared with friends. Two crows were trotting around self-importantly, pretending to be supervising the operation–a fine illustration of today’s urban-agricultural interface.



Not the Majestic Hotel, but very like

Trouble at the Majestic 

The year is 1919, the scene a decaying imperial spa in County Cork, Ireland. The owner of the Majestic Hotel is an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who cares more for his dogs and piglets than for the starved villagers who raid his potato patch by night. His beloved piglets are housed in the former squash court and fed yesterday’s pastries. 

The Majestic Hotel figures in Trouble, a tragicomedy about the Irish rebellion against British rule–performed against a background of guerrilla attacks by the rebels and vicious reprisals by the British. The “Troubles” exploded again in 1970, the year that J.G.Farrell’s remarkable novel appeared.


A century after the partitioning of Ireland, amid the planetary chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, California’s vacant hotels suddenly figure in a social and economic crisis of survival. 

California governor Gavin Newsom, confronting the vulnerable and potentially infectious mass of 150,000 homeless in the state, has engineered an ingenious deal. Hotels and motels, most notably Motel Six, have made available for lease some 15,000 hotel rooms for housing the most fragile homeless–the aged and those with underlying health conditions.


Newsom announced Project Roomkey at a press conference in front of a Motel Six in Campbell,California. Campbell is an unremarkable Santa Clara Valley town where I went to high school, when prune orchards were just giving way to housing tracts, highways, and the garage startups that transformed the farmland suburbs into Silicon Valley.  


Looking west over Silicon Valley

In the early days, Campbell, California had at least one street of “affordable housing,” inhabited by poor people, then generically called “Okies”. Gilman Avenue was a few blocks of small greyish bungalows, some with junked cars as lawn furniture. Betty the Moocher lived on Gilman. She was pallid and grimy with a plaintive, small-featured face. During lunch hour she would stand nearby, gazing silently at your sandwich. Sometimes we would give her something. It never occurred to me that she could actually have been hungry, though there were no free lunch programs then. 

One of those Gilman bungalows is for sale right now as a “vintage” fixer-upper, for $1,220,000. Down half a million from its earlier listing. Most people cannot now afford any sort of home in California, but there are more free lunch programs. Just no housing.



Given the continuing pandemic lockdown, Project Roomkey hotel rooms would have been vacant anyway–a seemingly perfect solution, with FEMA ready to pay 75% of the costs. But two weeks ago only some 4,000 of the 15K available rooms were occupied. Tidy charts showed how many rooms had been leased for the project, how many were being prepared for occupancy, and the relatively few which were actually occupied.

It is not a simple process. The first challenge is the vetting of would-be occupants, by experienced social workers already overstretched by the Covid crisis. Applicants range from the responsible but roofless and medically fragile to lifelong addicts who may trash their rooms if not regularly supplied with their drugs. Medical records and background checks are needed. Staffing has to be arranged  to provide food, housecleaning, medical help–and security. 

Several counties have already signed onto Project Roomkey.  But a number of southern California townships have rejected any use of their local hotels as homeless housing, either temporary or permanent. And anecdotal reports  from some of the occupied lodgings are not good. Social distancing, along with housekeeping and private property, are unfamiliar concepts for many formerly homeless folks.

California has the fifth largest economy in the world, one of the highest costs of living in this country, and the largest number of homeless of any state. Some see this as flagrant evidence of a failed government–the inability to provide for the welfare of its least able citizens. Newsom, as governor, and earlier as mayor of San Francisco, took on homelessness as his central issue. There was the controversial Care Not Cash, which reduced cash support and increased shelter and social services. Now there is Project Roomkey.

Here in my present hometown of Berkeley, 40 homeless have moved into two Oakland hotels that are part of Project Roomkey. Each room is $186 per day, to be 75% reimbursed by FEMA. For whatever reason, Berkeley jokes aside, these are not Motel Six rooms like those claimed by other counties, which normally rent for $76 per night. Meanwhile the proposal for 16 stories of housing to be built at People’s Park brings out opponents pointing to its 50-year history as a political symbol and a refuge for the homeless.

Newsom and his allies would like to see Project Roomkey succeed and extend beyond the pandemic. This cannot happen without aligning funds from state, local, and federal sources. And so far, even money has not proven to be the answer. Homelessness was a serious problem in California long before COVID-19, and will doubtless increase afterwards, given the economic devastation of the work stoppage as well as earlier problems with local zoning and construction workers’ unions.

Bond issues for building affordable housing have been passed and then failed dismally to address the need. In California it costs $450K to construct one no-frills unit of subsidized low-cost housing. This is based on rising costs of labor and material and the expensive delays between securing funding and local approval of the project and the site. Given the cost of new construction, adapting ready-made housing seems a rational solution to the very immediate needs of California’s 150K homeless.

Some say that this apparent emergency will shrink back into perspective once our society returns to normal. Others point out that “normal” has included indifference not just to homeless encampments under our clogged freeways, but to the climate crisis, to enormous income inequality, to mass shootings, and to the continuing partitioning of our electorate that gave us Donald Trump.

Magnolia Street and the Vienna Model

  This story cut a path between impeachment fatigue and the coronavirus right into the California governor’s office and the international media. Four homeless mothers moved with their children into an abandoned house on Magnolia Street in Oakland, California. They cleaned it, connected the utilities, decorated for the holidays. Before long, of course, the owner, … Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: