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Genoa Now and Then

 

 

After three years in Florence, we returned to California shortly before the flood of November 1966. We watched our heroic friends in the news, cleaning oily mud from priceless paintings and manuscripts. 

We flew out of Damascus just months before Syria first began to implode in March 2011 and cannot forget the backdrop for the human and historical disasters of the past seven years.

This spring we happened to spend some time in Genoa, not entirely by choice, but that’s another story.  In fact, we had always wanted to explore this live, functioning port on the other side of the Italian boot from Venice, our alternate reality. Arriving and departing from Genoa Brignole by train, we never had reason to cross or even to view the deadly Morandi Bridge.

The tragedy of the bridge’s failure, the death and destruction, was immediately blamed on every political or institutional body extant in the past fifty years. The left chalked it up to the corrupt privatization of the Italian infrastructure. Before long the lion’s share of the blame settled on defective maintenance by Autostrade per L’Italia, a division of Atlantia SpA.  Atlantia’s owners are the Benettons, whose dossier also includes the 2013 collapse of a Bangladeshi clothing factory that killed 1,134 workers. You may remember the Benettons from a cloying ad campaign touting the putative diversity of the “United Colors of Benetton”. (A rags-to-riches family from Treviso, they might have done better to invest in local prosecco vineyards.)  

Autostrade per l’Italia’s license to manage the Italian freeway network may (or may not) be revoked. Atlantia has offered 500 million euros toward helping the victims as well as a quick reconstruction of the bridge. The Italian government is (or may be) debating nationalization of the whole highway infrastructure, which may (or may not) result in less corruption and safer roads and bridges.     

“Genoa is fragile, but nobody cares,” said native son Renzo Piano in an interview discussing the collapse of the Morandi Bridge, in a rainstorm. “I do not know what happened, but I can say that I do not believe in the fatalism that considers nature, lightning and rain uncontrollable. Nobody can come and tell us that it was an accident.”

We stayed in the eastern part of Genoa, where the old city slopes down the hill to the port. The quarter is still called the Maddalena, after the winding street where women have been marketing themselves all day and all night for several centuries. Recent municipal efforts to restore the ancient neighborhood have apparently not affected the puttane.

As early as the 1300s, the Maddalena was the financial center of the city. Now the narrow streets near the harbor are home to various mild-mannered immigrant communities. We were often lost in the web of alleys, threading our way past dark-skinned people clustering at markets and sitting in rows in doorways, all much more interested in their own pursuits than in us. There seemed to be no mendicants, perhaps because of a large police and military presence, also mild-mannered, not to mention a 75-euro fine for begging. Last year a conservative anti-immigrant city administration was elected.

(Note: Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded the populist Five-Star Movement, is from Genoa.) The new Italian government is headed by an uneasy coalition of the Five Stars and the neo-fascist League.

Five hundred years ago, there was no Italian state to be consumed by conflicting interests or rampant xenophobia.  In the vicious battles among the merchant republics of the Renaissance, Genoa’s mercenary soldiers and ships for hire brought enormous wealth to their city.  Genoa had at that time the greatest concentration of successful bankers on this planet. Their families built the outsize columned and marbled palaces along the Strada Nuova, the new street. They paid Rubens, Van Dyck and Caravaggio to paint portraits and decorate walls, and local artists imitated them quite successfully.

Of their famous shipyard (in no way a rival to the Venetian Arsenale) they have made an excellent naval museum, with myriad mythological and literary allusions to the sea, interactive historical maps, and the reconstruction of a full-size galley. In the entry is Renzo Piano’s blueprint for a new waterfront. Meanwhile, he left a large glass sphere and the Bigo panoramic lift, modeled on the old derricks for loading and unloading merchandise in the port.

 

Since the early 20th century, funiculars have run up and down the steep slopes of the city. Whether or not their cost is justified by commuting residents, tourists are happy to find pleasant restaurants at the top. However, panoramic views of the city have been cut in half by the construction of cheap public housing and a huge belt of highway above the waterfront. This is not unlike the situation in San Francisco, before they decided to demolish their Embarcadero freeway–rather than rebuild it after the Loma Prieta quake.  

Of course blue jeans originated in Genoa, not San Francisco. Denim was a twill fabric of Nîmes (de Nîmes) manufacture that was used for sailors’ trousers in Genoa (Gênes in French). Levi Strauss only added the rivets.

In the Gold Rush years and after, San Francisco and the north-central coast were settled by  Italian immigrants, the first wave largely Genoese fishermen and farmers. 

My mother grew up in the fishing town of Santa Cruz, California and went to school with the Stagnaro boys  whose fathers came from Riva Trigosa near Genoa.  When my father went overseas during World War II, she returned to her home town with her small children. Another young “war widow “with a child lived across the street, and her Italian in-laws often invited us all to Sunday lunch at their farm in Soquel.  Mrs. Conrado made delicious ravioli and memorable marinated artichoke hearts–although my mother had trouble downing the roasted uccelletti.  

Many of the Italians who came to San Francisco left the city for the suburbs as soon as they could. Among those who stayed, some entered politics, others ran popular restaurants, and still others did both.  But Little Italy in North Beach has been nearly absorbed by the growth of Chinatown, which now counts for more than 20 percent of the San Francisco population.

In 2014  Genoa’s immigrant population was 55,000 of almost 600,000.  18,000 came from Ecuador, the rest from Albania, Bangladesh, China, India, Morocco, Peru, Roumania, Russia, Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine. Most recent immigrants come from North African and sub-Saharan countries.

Given that the Genoese have the lowest birth rate in Italy and the oldest population in all Europe, the fast-growing immigrant presence will play an increasingly important role in the city’s future, for better or for worse, depending on one’s political views.

Immigrants, anyway, cannot be blamed for the failure of the Morandi Bridge.   

What’s the old Chinese curse?  May you live in interesting times!

 

 

Rings of Fire

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In May this was a Tuscan landscape at sunset,  an etching by the friend of a friend.  Yesterday, our copy, fresh from the framing shop, had morphed into a row of blackened trees in the foreground of an inferno.

In the interim, we had spent several days on the Mendocino coast, just a few hours from what became the largest fire in the recorded history of California. We had rented a house with gas grill, bird feeders, and wifi. We watched the birds, grilled salmon, combed the beaches, hiked Fern Canyon under a blue sky. Upstairs we identified orioles and woodpeckers and kept track of the fire news and presidential gaffes, while others below stairs engaged the video screens and hot tub.  Meanwhile, the west wind kept the coast gloriously clear as it continued inland to feed the flames.

We had also been watching the Carr Fire’s progress above Redding and around the Whiskeytown Lake. The fire had begun in French Gulch, a former stagecoach stop southwest of our family camp on Scott Mountain. We heard that the local Van Ness cousin, a kindly fellow with a deep voice and a long, weedy beard, a legendary grasshopper fisherman, had been burned out.

The good news was a photo of my Smith cousin, one who had, like us, been exiled for decades. She was astride the ceremonial cedar stump in the middle of the camp, smiling through the smoky haze.

The several hundred thousands of incinerated acres would have been many more if not for tens of thousands of firefighters from as far away as New Zealand.  Some 3,500 of them were firefighters from California’s prisons. The women receive two days off their term for each day of service, two dollars a day for active firefighting.  After they are released, it might reasonably be assumed that these incarcerated but experienced firefighters would find work as professional firefighters, who make $73,000 annually, but they are presently excluded from this possibility. Governor Brown may or may not be presenting a bill to change this. He has a lot on his plate.   

Naturally wildfires would be political. The Oakland firestorm of 1991 was blamed partly on the local defense of flammable stands of non-native eucalyptus from the east bay hills.  

“I go with what the Australians say about eucalyptus — they call them ‘gasoline on a stick,’” said an Oakland resident who had watched a flaming eucalyptus grove explode just yards away from her family van, stuck in a line of evacuating cars. But other residents still want to preserve the ridgeline pines and eucalyptus, although those that survived the 1991 fire are yet more flammable today, and many more have matured since.

 

In other news, I read, not long after midnight last Thursday, that shortly after Thursday midday,  a third major earthquake had struck (or would have struck) the island of Lombok, Indonesia.

Indonesia has three time zones, and Lombok appears to be in the middle longitudes, so let’s say that the Lombok quake struck about fourteen hours ahead of the hour that I read about it on the Pacific coast. WIB (Western Indonesian Time) = GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) + 7 hours.

I boated once along the Thames to Greenwich, the home of GMT, Greenwich Mean Time.  The Old Royal Observatory was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, an astronomer better known for his architecture, and of course I had my photo taken astride the Prime Meridian.

Not actually my tennies

In 1851, Sir George Airy established the Royal Observatory as the zero degree line of longitude. His line is the starting point for longitudinal lines that run north-south, the measurements that form the basis of our geographic reference grid.

And yes, I do accept the concept of global time zones, but there’s that occasional seismic disjuncture that fogs the brain.  Along with global time gaps, anxiety about the Indonesian temblors led me to look up the so-called “Ring of Fire,” the horseshoe of active volcanoes and faults around the coast of the Pacific Ocean. 

More specifically, I was wondering about the chain reaction among quakes, faults, and volcanoes along the Ring of Fire, flames and faults colliding along the horseshoe and curving south along the Pacific Coast. This line of insomnia may seem on a par with anxiety about our president’s late-night tweets, but I live with my near and dear atop the Hayward Fault, recently assessed as more dangerous than the San Andreas Fault that ravaged San Francisco in 1906.   

In 1989 the Loma Prieta quake clocked in at 6.9:  I was sitting in a corner of the living room, complacently perusing proofs of my novel, when the house began to shake, wrenching around like an unbalanced washer. On TV, cars were hanging off the broken Bay Bridge. Husband returned, having felt nothing on campus, but noting plume of fire downtown, where our car, in for a new headlight, had been incinerated in the body shop. Calls began to arrive, from children across the bay, from Italy, from Prague.  

Somewhat earlier in the century, at my Girl Scout camp on Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains, my counselor’s camp name was Cedar. I l loved that camp, the hikes and the singing, and would gladly have spent the whole summer there.  Cedar was smallish and acerbic, with short hair and a sharp jaw. One night she helped us insert a dead rattlesnake into the sleeping bag of the head counsellor. The backstory of my own encounter with that rattlesnake is perhaps too well-known in my family.

This summer the youngest grandson stoically suffered several weeks of camp, but was reported early on for having filled his water bottle (twice) with dirt. An older grandson actively resented the interruption of his electronic pursuits but kept his water bottle potable. At his age, his big sister had already assembled her own earthquake survival kit. 

Our president has at latest count nine grandchildren. He doesn’t seem to tweet about them or their future on this dirty, shaky, and ever hotter planet.      

 

WAITING FOR VERDI

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Last month I was in Italy, where summer had steamed in early and politics had moved into operatic extremes of drama and imbroglio only slightly leavened by farce. Finally running the new coalition government are the boy wonder of the Five Stars populist movement, founded by a comedian, and the head of the proto-fascist League, who is no longer a joke. The two chose as the new premier an amiable law professor with a  CV padded by drive-through sojourns at prestigious universities in Europe and the U.S.

Five Stars leaders

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Luigi di Maio and Matteo Salvini

While peculiar politics also reign in my own land, in Italy we tend to see their aberrations as a familiar comedy rather than a dark threat to the survival of the planet. Hard to remember that our Yankee republic was founded almost a hundred years before the bickering regions of the Italian boot could be laced together.   

At least Italy’s revolution was accompanied, if not actually orchestrated, by music—with Giuseppe Verdi as its figurehead.  Verdi’s poignant chorus from Nabucco, “Va Pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” sung by homesick Hebrew slaves, has come to symbolize the patriotic fervor that led finally to Italian unification.

  Waiting for Verdi is the title of a long-awaited new book by Mary Ann Smart, a music historian who writes brilliantly about opera and society. The title clearly contains an ironic reference to Samuel Beckett’s play, but also  to the high anxiety shared by struggling Risorgimento patriots, artists and revolutionaries as they struggled toward Unification.

 

     Often as Verdi’s work is linked to Italian revolution, A Masked Ball  is set instead in colonial Boston, replete with an a doomed romance, an assassination, and a dusky-skinned fortune teller. Not very diligent research has revealed that the original libretto required Ulrica, the fortune teller, to be played by a “negro.”

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

Thus the Metropolitan Opera debut of the sublime contralto Marian Anderson, in 1955 the first African-American to sing there.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nabucco was also playing at the Vienna State Opera when I was a student living with the family of an impoverished baron just a block from the opera house. But the concert and opera posters reminded me of periodic tables, and knowing next to nothing about opera, I went to the Richards, Wagner and Strauss, but never to Nabucco. Little did I know that it was a thrilling tale of King Nebuchednezzar, proprietor of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and featured madness, passion, betrayal, and wanton destruction of selected temples and gods.

In 2015, the Greco-Roman Temple of Bel at Palmyra, 32 CE, was destroyed by ISIS vandals soon after they had beheaded Khaled al Asaad, Palmyra’s much respected chief of antiquities. The Temple of Bel, according to another archaeologist, Khaled’s friend, had actually been a kind of a monument to religious coexistence. The main altar of the temple had been used for sacrifices to different gods, sometimes even side by side. The archaeologist also pointed out that ISIS had announced the destruction of Palmyra well in advance of the fact, but the international community had done nothing.

ruins of the Temple of Bel, 2015

In any case, peaceful coexistence in Syrian lands is hardly even a memory. Now the best expectations are that some 75,000 Syrian refugees fleeing Daraa—where the so-called civil war began—can be sheltered in Jordan. Four million other Syrians are still homeless.  

Meanwhile, the tragic histories of the ancient Middle East have fueled many operas besides Nabucco. How many works of art and music will commemorate the refugee flights of this century, and to what end?  

For some years it has been proposed, and rejected, that Italy’s national anthem be replaced by “Va Pensiero,” the haunting Hebrew slaves’ chorus in Nabucco. Only recently it has been adopted by the far-right League, as its official hymn.  Matteo Salvini and his League are committed to  labeling and expelling all immigrants, including thousands of Roma who are legal citizens. Here, whatever Verdi’s politics were, we could use the intervention of the Anvil Chorus.    

 

My Father and the Generals

 

 

Daughters of the American Revolution

 

Through the years I had heard occasional rumors of a distant relative on my father’s side called Indian Mary.  When my son the anthropologist was writing about Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, the time seemed ripe to research the rumor. On balance, and on record, there was also an ancestral Civil War general, Eugene Carr, who later fought in the American Indian wars.

More recently there was my own grandfather, reportedly a gentle man, who fought in almost every war in his lifetime.  It’s a challenge to calculate how he managed to sire four boys and a girl, quite closely spaced, while on leave.  An even greater challenge must have been for my small but spunky grandmother to raise them all on sporadic soldier’s allotments.

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Gen. George Armstrong Custer

My father, late in life, chose to loathe another Civil War general who went on to slaughter Indians, George Armstrong Custer. He read everything published about Custer, who was, to be fair, loathed by many others. He and my mother travelled to various Custer sites, Gettysburg and Little Big Horn, if not to Custer’s grave at West Point. I might perhaps mention that a subsidiary interest of my father’s was the Donner Party.

It gave us both considerable satisfaction for me to assign my father to review a psycho-biography of Custer for the Berkeley Gazette, where most, but not all reviewers were my more literate friends and relatives.  Alas, Evan Connell’s fine book on Custer, Son of the Morning Star, did not appear before the Gazette and its nepotistic book section folded in 1984.

The latest grand entry in the long, defiant tradition of nepotism is of course Potus 45.  Whom to cite first?  British journalist Matthew Norman predicts much nepotistic merriment to come:  Ivanka will win the $600 million contract to supply new U.S. Army uniforms, Donald Trump Jr. will replace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 dollar bill, & eleven year-old  Barron & two of his teddy bears will be appointed to replace the National Security Adviser and two four-star generals in the Situation Room.

Douglas MacArthur’s signature corncob pipe is still being manufactured….

Another American general loathed by my father was Douglas MacArthur. Here the dislike was more grounded; he had served under MacArthur’s command in the Philippines and in the occupation of Japan.  But it wasn’t until the Korean conflict that MacArthur’s megalomania came close to igniting a third world war. Luckily, President Truman had the courage to remove him from command before he could bomb China. (In our time the closest analogy might be some responsible general removing a president.) 

It comes as no surprise to learn that P-45, as one world-class narcissist to another, has expressed his admiration for the doughty General MacArthur. He would have been a bit young to have watched the Congressional hearings that determined beyond doubt that Truman was justified in firing the general, and it’s hard to imagine Trump Sr. backing the Missouri haberdasher.

George Armstrong Custer was ranked last in his West Point graduating class, and Douglas MacArthur was first in his. But they were equals in egotism, flamboyance, and blinding self-righteousness. Custer’s oblivious bravado ended his and many hundreds of others’ lives at Little Bighorn. MacArthur was booted before he could make the fatal decision to bomb China. Like other self-promoting egotists, MacArthur later considered running for president, but had the brains to decide against it in the end.

Shortly before my father shipped out to the Pacific, I remember awakening, wailing, from a dream of a tractor, or a tank—ratcheting up the screen of my bedroom window. And one morning as I was playing alone in the courtyard of our apartment building, a moving van began to back slowly toward the wall behind me. In each case, I waited anxiously to be crushed by a large machine. This would have been wartime San Francisco.

My baby brother was still nursing after Pearl Harbor, when my father enlisted.  Even in her nineties, my mother’s eyes would turn hard as she repeated that she could never forgive him for leaving. At thirty, with two children, he might have been deferred. In fact, the war did mark him and us for the rest of our lives.

Early on, even before he was first posted to Alaska, he stopped eating. My mother was summoned, and we went to to visit him in a Vancouver hospital. In some gloomy Kodak prints, we are sitting on a porch, my father rail-thin in his dark uniform, and my mother, also thin, clearly trying to look cheerful. She did get him to eat again, so that he could be sent back to the war, in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines, where he contracted malaria.

Meanwhile, behind our cottage in Santa Cruz, California, my mother planted a victory garden full of zucchini, chard, beans, and tomatoes. Neighbors to the west sometimes sent my dimpled little brother home with his overalls stuffed with fresh corn and secured around his ankles, while I steamed with jealousy. The other neighbors were friendly but a bit odd. Mrs. Fertig was a health food convert  and often suggested to my dubious mother common weeds that would be nourishing and delicious in a salad.

My mother had taped a large pastel map to the living room wall, moving a colored pin to show where our father was stationed. During the years he was overseas, what I could remember of him mainly was the harsh wool of his uniform, its smell and feel.

One balmy Santa Cruz night, we were allowed to stay up late. Our father was coming home. Finally the screen door creaked, and there he was, hugging us all tight against his scratchy wool uniform. He’d brought us two glass animals filled with tiny candies. Of course I immediately coveted Bill’s puppy and despised my kitten.
Eventually  he opened his foot locker and pulled out, well, booty, from Japan—silk kimonos, platform sandals, inlaid chopsticks, and, I think, a sword.
In the months just after his return, we spent day after day at the beach.  Every day after school, he would read to me tirelessly, mostly from the Oz books, as if making up for the years lost in the war.

After the war, when my father found a job as a resident engineer with the state highway department, we moved back to Santa Cruz, where much post-war construction was underway, asphalt beginning to cover the state. Occasionally we stopped by to see him on a site, where he usually worked out of a trailer on a hot and dusty roadbed carved out of a slope by big orange machines.

Before the war he had been studying journalism at San Jose State, but the Depression—and probably drink—had driven him out of school and into a job as a surveyor for the highway department. After the war, he needed to support his family, and a civil engineering degree had seemed a safe choice. California highways and car ownership were expanding virally. Through the years he never seemed to take any pleasure or pride in his work, and I could see why.

On our last birthdays our daughter gifted me and her father with DNA test kits. This seemed an opportunity to confirm or deny the existence of my father’s Indian ancestry —and on my mother’s side, there was a mysterious Hungarian great-grandfather who might have been a gypsy or a Jew.

The disappointing results had only one, to me rather surprising ramification. The test showed it to be extremely likely that I had ancestors among the first colonial settlers of New England. Thus I could probably qualify for membership in the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) a historically racist group that has spent many decades trying to improve its image.
At least the colonial New England connection fits with General Eugene Carr’s forbears. And I suppose it was obvious why his military nickname was the Black-bearded Cossack.

Changing Banks in the Ides of August

By now, you too may have concluded that Wells Fargo—or another unscrupulous megabank— should not be left alone with your money. Wells Fargo’s latest scandal involves some 570,000 customers with car loans. The poor souls were saddled with insurance that they neither needed nor in some cases even knew about. The extra costs meant borrowers fell behind in their payments and in some 20,000 cases, their cars were repossessed. Yes, lawsuits are underway, damages will be paid, and Wells Fargo shares are down. But have you checked your own megabank’s sales practices, its stakes in oil and gas versus renewable energy, its board members’ and CEO salaries? Try it.

So you have decided, reluctantly, that enough is enough? You agree that controlling the use of our money is one of the few positive actions we can take in this deranged world?

The doldrums of August are not a bad time to act, or at least to contemplate the prospect. And here are a few suggestions for making the break, from my own experience and of course from the internet.

1– Locate a new bank or credit union, one that does not invest your money in fossil fuels or engage in sleazy, not to mention criminal business practices, but does offer the basic banking services you need.
You can get information on ethical, community-oriented U.S. banks and credit unions here: https//www.greenamerica.org/break-up-with-your-mega-bank
Ethics aside, U.S. banks’ financial soundness can be checked at http://www.bankrate.com/rates/safe-sound/bank-ratings-search.as
In California, we can recommend Beneficial State Bank and Mechanics Bank.

2–Moving to a smaller bank or credit union may require some sacrifices.There may not be a branch in your neighborhood. If there is, there may not be a bright-eyed, sharply-dressed young person to greet you at the entrance and help you to find your way, somehow, to a teller or the ATM.
With minimal overhead, smaller banks and credit unions can often offer lower fees and higher interest rates for savings. And if you decide to join a credit union, you will also become a voting member, with shares, not a customer.
Every bank, regardless of size, is insured through FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.) Credit unions have the same backing, ($250,000) through the NCUA (National Credit Union Association).

3–Open a new account in the institution you have chosen, with a deposit well above your new bank’s minimum, to avoid service charges.

4–Cease activity involving your old mega-bank. Stop writing checks; don’t use your debit card. Use cash and checks from your new account.

5– Re-setting all your automatic payments is really a drag, but it’s well worth the long-term peace of mind. Figure out which ones were set up through the company you’re paying, and which were set up through your old bank’s Bill Pay system. Make a list of all payments that are automatically debited from your account–utilities, mortgage, credit card payments, monthly donations.
Be sure to set up the proper online payments through your new bank, and change the account information for payments automatically debited by companies. Last, but not least, change your banking information in any other online payment systems you have set up, from Paypal to newspaper subscriptions.

6–Reroute your direct deposits, from paychecks, pensions, and Social Security. This is surprisingly simple and swifter than might be expected. You will need to have ready your new bank account’s routing number (you know, on the bottom left side of a check) and your account number (just to the right of the routing number.)
Your employer should have an easy form you can fill out to change your direct deposit information. This usually can be done by the next pay cycle, but make sure to ask how long it will take to process. For Social Security changes, go to https://www.ssa.gov/deposit where, if you are already receiving benefits, you can open a Social Security account and start or change Direct Deposit online.

7–Take one last look to make sure everything in your old bank account has cleared. If you have no outstanding payments or credits, make a trip to the bank and close your account. Call the bank ahead of time to set up a meeting with a banker. Explain why you are leaving his/her bank, and, for maximum impact, bring a letter that can be passed up to higher management.

8–Transfer remaining funds from your old checking account into your new account. You can do this electronically or with a cashier’s check. We did it with personal checks, which is easier and cheaper, but not as immediate. Once the transfer clears your new account, close the old one. Get written confirmation that the account has been closed.

*** Once you’ve left your greedy megabank, do consider replacing your credit card, issued by some other big bank such as Citi, Bank of America–or Wells Fargo. With each charge you are helping finance destructive pipelines, fracking, tar sands, predatory lending, fraudulent foreclosure practices, and famously outrageous CEO bonuses. Why not instead support investment in a clean environment, local and green businesses, fair housing loans, and more, by using a green credit card http://www.greenhttps://america.org/take-charge-your-card.

They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it they die… It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.”

― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Lions, zebras, attack stagecoach

“Elizabeth Warren was not nearly as polite as I was…”

In February I posted an open letter to Timothy Sloan, the avowedly reformist CEO at Wells Fargo, regarding his company’s regrettable sales practices and its retrograde investments in fossil fuels, and our plan to divest ourselves of ties with his bank.

In April, Mr. Sloan himself published an open letter, listing the many ways in which Wells Fargo had been “ acting to regain its customers’ trust” after last year’s nasty scandals. No, of course he didn’t mention my letter, or many others he must have received.  ( Nor did he mention his good works with the Boy Scouts of America, who have had their own image difficulties in recent years.)

Bouy Scouts of America 9th Annual Business Leaders' Breakfast

Center, Timothy J. Sloan, Greater Los Angeles’s Boy Scout Leader of the Year

My letter had circulated in the social media, while Mr. Sloan’s was a full-page ad in national newspapers.  At the time, Mr. Sloan and the head of the Wells Fargo board purchased a total of $5 million of their company’s stock in a handsome display of good faith.

Meanwhile, lacking this good faith, my husband and I began laboriously to transfer our accounts out of Wells Fargo to more socially responsible banks.  At least a few of my readers and friends said they were doing the same.

When the Wells Fargo fake- accounts scandal first erupted in 2016, it had mattered less to us than the bank’s short-sighted investments in oil pipelines and other destructive fossil fuel projects.

Later, in October 2016, the New York Times reported at some length how employees at various Wells Fargo branches had preyed upon the most vulnerable individuals—immigrants with little English, older adults with failing memories, students opening their first accounts.

According to Kevin Pham, a former Wells Fargo employee in San Jose, California, “It was like lions hunting zebras.”  Pham mounted a Facebook campaign to hold Wells Fargo accountable.  He scored 50,000 “shares”.

While there had reportedly been no systematic targeting of vulnerable groups, demographic patterns sometimes emerged, such as Native Americans near Phoenix, looking for a safe place to stow their quarterly distribution checks and being set up with several unnecessary accounts per capita. There were other cases, and dispiriting details.

The bank has been trying to channel new lawsuits away from the two million fake-accounts scandal, by moving them into private arbitration. We just received such a mediation offer and ignored it, having already closed the gratuitous account and shredded the card. Other customers, however, are indeed pursuing litigation.

Meanwhile, the revelations continue.  Recently several plaintiffs have claimed that Wells Fargo changed the mortgage terms of bankrupt borrowers without their knowledge, much less their consent.  Generally the changes meant smaller payments over longer time periods—but with immense finance charges accruing to the bank.  As the New York Times reported in June, in its best imitation-tabloid style, “Wells Fargo, the $270 billion California- based lender, is driving its stagecoach further into the mud.”

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Also in June, Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter, this one to Federal Reserve Board chair Janet Yellen, demanding the removal of twelve Wells Fargo board members who had been present and passive during the years when bank employees were setting up the infamous two million fake accounts. While 5300 lower-level employees were fired as a result of the scandal, $185 million fines had been paid, and the CEO sacked, the original Wells Fargo board members had remained in place, drawing their annual average base salary of $187,000— with bonus and additional compensation, $319,000.  (An average Wells Fargo “personal banker” makes $37,000, a teller, $25,000. Why would one use “K” to signify all those thousands?)

Wells Fargo had been cited earlier for poor loan-servicing and foreclosure practices.  In 2012 it was among the five lenders agreeing to a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and 49 states, to rectify these “poor” practices.  In 2015 it settled $1.2 billion against claims of reckless lending under a Federal Housing Administration program.

Elizabeth Warren’s letter was not nearly as polite as mine, which may be why a super-pac has promised $10 million to “Deal Her Out” of re-election in 2018.

Meanwhile, it’s taken months to find what we hope are ethically (and fiscally) sound financial institutions, and to complete the tedious maneuvers of rerouting into new accounts our network of monthly payments to utilities, college funds, subscriptions, charities.  Rerouting our monthly deposits was the easy part.

Why are we doing this, when we could be using more time to address climate change or health care, or at least to haranguing our legislators?  Here’s the thing:  our votes and our protests often seem more self-righteous than effective because they originate in the bright blue state of California.  Our state is viewed quite negatively, it is clear, by the present Potus and his cronies—and with good reason, we hope.

Choosing not only where we spend our money, but where we keep it and who uses it, seems valuable leverage just now, in this thoroughly unhinged capitalist democracy.

To be continued, for better and for worse.

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THE GOOD NEWS!

THE GOOD NEWS!!

Where to begin? Simply typing that unlikely heading suddenly turned my screen deeply black—tracked with tiny white letters like tearstains.  

Anna, a Google emergency chatter, rescued me.  I decided to persevere.  Anna had promised to stand by in case the Dark Side returned.

Though the Comey imbroglio doesn’t qualify as Good News yet, it may prove the beginning of the end of 45’s reign.

For Genuine Good News, vetted by the UNHCR, Al Jazeera, BBC, and Wim Wenders,  please consider the following:

RIACE:  ITALIAN VILLAGE ABANDONED BY LOCALS, ADOPTED BY MIGRANTS

 

This southern Italian village saw its population plummet from 2,500 to 400 by 1998.  It’s a familiar pattern, locals moving north in hopes of better jobs.

Riace mayor Domenico Lucano saw the international flood of refugees into Italy as an opportunity rather than a blight. When a boatload of Kurdish refugees landed on Riace’s beach, Lucano proposed that they remain in the village and occupy some of the hundreds of empty houses and apartments— while making themselves useful around town, in construction and gardening, learning Italian, and sending their children to school.

This they did, and before long Riace was becoming the model for other depopulated towns. Each asylum seeker receives ca. $39 a day from Rome to cover housing, food, clothing, and medical care. Much of this funding is recycled right into rentals and local shops—which have revived thanks to renewed needs..  

Obviously the welcoming policy is more economically and socially sound than financing massive refugee camps outside the big cities.  Riace is now inhabited by people from 20 countries.  

The mayor of a nearby town, Gioiosa Ionica, notes that aside from the economic benefits, the presence of refugees also brings a certain cosmopolitanism to local children, who learn that people of another color or religion may play cricket, not football. But they can all play foosball.

In Germany a couple of enterprising mayors have also welcomed migrants into their dying towns, with mixed success. On the whole, European countries are notoriously unwilling to absorb more than a tiny number of  refugees.

The question of admitting and resettling refugees has brought down governments across the world.  Domenico Lucano of Riace certainly deserved his prize in the Mayors of the World competition, but the big picture is still dark.

The first group of migrants to accept Lucano’s invitation to settle in Riace happened to be those two (or three) hundred Kurds. The Kurds do have a distinctive history, relatively unknown in the West these days—though they are increasingly viewed as the most effective military force against ISIS in the Levant.  

En route to China, Marco Polo met Kurds in Mosul, and had little good (or reliable) to say of them. The high point of Kurdish history seems to have been the reign of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the twelfth century.

 Saladin was a swashbuckling Sunni of Kurdish origin, lord of several Crusader castles.

Krac de Chevaliers, which I saw just before the outbreak of the civil war, has been many times threatened, destroyed and restored.  Saladin was defeated by Richard I of England (the Lionhearted) in the battle of Arsuf in Palestine. Arsuf had been Appollonia in the Classical Age; such are the layerings common in the Levant.)    

The Janpulat clan were Kurdish feudal lords in the north for almost a century before the Ottoman conquest of Syria. One was appointed governor of Aleppo in 1604, but that ended badly, as so many campaigns have in that ancient city.

 

A thousand years after Saladin, the United States believes that the Kurds of Syria are the most powerful indigenous force against ISIS.  Certainly the Kurds would like to reunite their fragmented holdings in northern Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.

For many years Turkey has feared establishment of a Kurdish state and would like to insert the Turkish army into the battle for the ISIS capital of Raqqa.

“Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s [IS] grave,” Erdogan said recently.  He could have added, “Without the Kurds!”

Raqqa is not so interesting, said our guide, driving us quickly into and out of the nondescript town in October 2010, shortly before Syria began to implode. In fact Raqqa was once a major capital, competing with Baghdad along the Euphrates River, until its definitive destruction by the Mongols in the 12th century.     

Erdogan and Trump will meet in Washington on May 16. It will be the first meeting between the two authoritarian heads of two NATO countries.

Trump said early on that he planned to stay out of Syria, but then changed his mind.  Mysteriously, the badly targeted bombs raised his approval ratings both at home and abroad.  

Now what?  Trump holding hands with Putin over the smoking remains of Syria.  Though the present nation of Syria was of course only a convenient figment of western imperialism. The Kurds have at least as much historical claim to a homeland as today’s Syrians.

Those Kurdish refugees who chose to settle in the little town of Riace are not only out of the line of fire, they are in a grand tradition.  In the 7th and 8th centuries BCE, the coasts of the Italian boot and the island of Sicily hosted—willingly or not—such large numbers of Greek immigrants that the area became known as Magna Graecia.  

The reasons for the ancient exodus have never been clear:  war, famine, expulsion, plague, simple overcrowding or a whim of the oracle at Delphi.

In 1972 a scuba diver discovered two bronze statues buried in the sand not far from the Riace beach.

They turned out to be splendid life-size warriors from the 5th century BCE.  Probably they were part of an ancient coastal settlement now underwater on this “subsiding coast.”  

But that’s another story, and definitely not Good News.    

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