Monday, August 31, 2020

Bigotry: My Early Lessons

 Annamaria on Monday

I have not the slightest illusion that what I have experienced in my life comes anywhere near what of victims of racism and antisemitism have suffered at the hands of bullies and bigots.  That they face still today, despite a great deal of hard work to the contrary.  But I did experience bigotry in my early life, and the taste I had of it helps me find empathy and common cause with those other victims, whose portion has been far worse then mine - subjugation and violence.  

I am fully aware that as a white person I have enjoyed unfair advantages over nonwhite people here in the "land of the free and the home of the brave." Crimes against what we now "call people of color" have been before my eyes all my life.  

My elegant grandfather, Genaro Pisacane, grandson of Carlo

In a small way, in my small sphere of experience as a young child, I got the bigotry treatment.  I was about the age you see in the photos above.  Four years old.  In those days, my extended family was my whole world. One of the most powerful people in it, my mother's oldest brother, held a deep-rooted prejudice against me.  Why?

Statue to my ancestor, Carlo Pisacane in Salerno

Well, you see, my mother's father, while living in an immigrant neighborhood in New Jersey, was a Neapolitan aristocrat, descendant of a baron and patriot, who is to Italian history what Patrick Henry was to the American Revolution. My mother, however, had chosen to marry a poor first generation American, the orphan of a Sicilian immigrant coal miner.  Disgraceful!  The distinction may seem trivial these days, but it was my parentage that led to my first experience of bigotry.

Do you wonder why my mom wasn't interested in someone from a "better" family?

One day, my uncle - arriving for lunch with his mother - found me on the walkway next to the two-family house my parents shared with my grandparents.  "Siggi!," he greeted me with a pejorative for a Sicilian.  "You're a nigger," he said.  "I don't think I am," I answered.  He sneered.  "There's nothing between Sicily and Africa but water," he said.  He picked me up and rubbed his stubbly chin on my cheek.  It was like sandpaper.  I can still touch the spot that burned as he laughed and walked away.

It was not until years later that I realized that there is nothing between any part of the Italian coast and Africa but water.  In fact, there is nothing between any coast in world and Africa, but water.  I learned that by looking at the map in school.

School.  The scene of my next runin with bigotry was Our Lady of Lourdes School, where the student body included all the varieties of Catholic kids, but predominantly Irish ones, most of whom were nice kids from nice families.  But quite a few were bigoted bullies who called me and my ilk (regardless of where on the "boot" our families originated) "wops," dagos," and "eye-ties," usually preceded by "filthy," "dirty," or "greasy." Or all three.  They beat us.  They threw stuff at us.

I know this is not the same as being lynched.  Italians were lynched years before, but that was in Louisiana, not in the New Jersey of my childhood.

One nun who taught me added to the picture.  I asked her when I was nine, why every year a blonde girl was chosen to play the Blessed Mother in the Christmas tableau.  "All the Jewish mommies and girls in my neighborhood look more like us Italians - dark haired."  In response, that nun said these exact words to me.  "God prefers the fair-haired peoples of the north."  This was years after my father and my uncles on both sides of my family had fought, and in one case died defeating the "master race."

Add to this the fact that my family was poor.  I don't mean that we were not rich.  Poor, as in I wore my older brother's hand-me-downs.  Poor, as in there was not enough money for shoes.

Oh, I am not asking you to feel sorry for me.  Just to believe me when I say that the economic subjugation of people of color, in the US - and the rest of the world, for that matter, multiplies the effects of bigotry.  Poverty is humiliating.  Racism tells people they are less than human.  The combination the two is a kind of psychological violence.  It's putting society's knee on a person's soul and keeping it there until their spirit dies.  It's a crime.  And one for which you can't call the cops.

The Cops!  Well, I wrote a blog here four years and a few weeks ago, called Bad Policing and Me. It tells my first-hand knowledge of bullying and racism on the part of the police.

In no way do I believe that all policemen are as evil as ones in my stories in the 2016 blog.  Many of us mystery novelists write stories in which the main characters are policeman, doing their jobs well.  What I cannot fathom is how the good cops, who everyone says are the majority, can tolerate the "bad apples" in their midst.  Why are they not siding with the public and purging their ranks of the bigots, bullies, and incompetents who are giving them all a bad name and causing the citizenry that pays their salaries to rise up against them?  It is incomprehensible.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Unexpected Joy of Japanese Manhole Cover Art

-- Susan, Every Other Sunday

As the summer of 2020 breathes its last, insanely hot and humid gasps here in Japan, my thoughts have shifted forward into autumn. While this year won't be the same as the ones that went before, I'm hoping to have the chance to spend some time on the road (technically, the rails) and in the mountains I love so much.

My thoughts, looking through the darkness into autumn.

While I wait, I'm looking through old photographs and enjoying the memories of travels past, as well as re-exploring some of the things I love most about Japan.

One case in point: manhole cover art.

Yep. "Just" a manhole cover.

In the parts of the United States I've lived in, manhole covers are generally functional--pressed metal discs engraved with the name or initials of the municipal district responsible for maintaining what lies beneath. For the most part, passersby barely notice them (and, all things being equal, prefer it that way) except when workmen access them and block the road.

In Japan, however, even the manhole covers have succumbed to the Japanese tendency to transform ordinary objects into works of art. This is true not only in Tokyo, where the various wards all have their own designs, but in the smaller cities, and even the countryside.

Manhole cover celebrating traditional courtly dance.

Sometimes, the designs are unexpectedly whimsical:

This town is not on the ocean, so I never did figure out what the whale symbolizes.

But in most places, the images depict something the location is famous for,

Spring flowers in Nakatsugawa

or a historical event or practice.

While walking the Nakasendo through the mountainous Kiso Valley last November, the covers celebrated the region's centuries of history as an important travel route:

Ochiai sits along a river that once served as a transport artery.

Bonus points for positioning the manhole where the shadows of the trees it celebrates fall on the ground around it.

Celebrating the heavily burdened porters and standard bearers of the travel road.

When I travel now, I find myself looking for the manhole covers, eager to see the next work of art and what it says about how the city, town, or village sees itself--an unexpected mirror in the mundane.

If you visit Japan (and travel is beginning to open up again here, so I trust that eventually the opportunity will come) be sure to look down occasionally while you're walking.

One of Hiroshige's famous "Views of the Nakasendo" transformed into a manhole cover near the start of the travel road.

You just might find an unexpected masterpiece.

Friday, August 28, 2020

A Prayer for US


My choice tonight—Thursday—is to watch the final night of the Republican National Convention or come up with something that will get my mind off the existential challenges confronting America. 


I wish I had the confidence of the 2000 or so folk gathered tonight on the South Lawn of the White House, bedecked in their celebratory finest, gleefully demonstrating their faithful obedience to those who preach that neither a mask nor social distancing is necessary in our nation’s battle to protect us all from a deadly, crippling pandemic. But I do not, so I chose to write this brief blog instead. May God have mercy on their souls.


I wish I had the power and resources to provide our nation’s first responders with the equipment, supplies, and support they will need to steer their communities and themselves through all that is yet to come.  I have no such power, but someone does. May God have mercy on their souls.


I wish I could watch an NBA playoff game, but they’re on hold for higher purposes as the nation braces for another night of dramatic video coverage of violence begot by violence. May God have mercy on their souls.


I wish I could be there in person to aid those battered by Hurricane Laura, but I can’t…so I’ll donate.  May God have mercy on their souls.


I wish I could move our government to bring purposeful aid and inspiration to the millions whose economic lives and dreams have crashed over the last six months.  But I (alone) cannot. May God have mercy on their souls. 


I wish I could bring our fractured nation together, but I cannot. I wish those who could, now would. May God have mercy on their souls.


May God have mercy on all our souls.





Thursday, August 27, 2020

Far from the madding crowd

Michael - Thursday

This blog is courtesy of Aron Frankental, a very good friend and superb wildlife photographer. His other claim to fame is as a character in A Carrion Death where he became one of the murder victims. Well, a lot of characters suffered that fate in the book. It was nothing personal. He and Jenny decided to abandon the slings and arrows of Covid 19 in Johannesburg and spend lockdown at the bungalow we share in the Olifants River Game Reserve, which borders the famous Kruger National Park. They have been here for about two months now, lucky devils!

Waterbuck in the Olifants river in front of the bungalow
Stan and I decided that they had the right idea, and three weeks ago headed up here to join them. The only difficulty was getting permission to travel (finessed by the need to do "maintenance" at the bungalow), and the ban on the sale and transport of alcohol. Of course, we would never do anything illegal. Maybe we did bring rather more boxes of books for the shop here to sell than was absolutely necessary given the rather limited clientele. 

On patrol
Our timing was perfect. While Knysna and Cape Town have been experiencing cold and rainy weather, it's been mostly warm and pleasant here. Sometimes very warm. Wednesday reached 95 F.

It's amazing how quickly the whole Covid stress and rigmarole falls away. Here we need no masks, wash our hands as usual, and relax. The only difference is that we keep away from the other visitors more than usual. Fortunately, we now have a good internet connection at the bungalow courtesy of a radio link to the town of Phalaborwa to the north. So we have no withdrawal symptoms requiring frequent trips to the central office half an hour away

So much to learn!
Apart from the good company, food and wine, the main attraction here is the animals and birds, many of which come down to drink at the river that flows in front of the bungalow. Game drives through the surrounding wilderness areas yield all sorts of interesting sighting and experiences. I've taken some pictures with my cellphone, but Aron's professional ones are incomparably better. The one at the top is not from this trip, but it was taken here and won the Wild Planet Photo Magazine Leopard Day photo competition. 

Here's a selection of ones from this visit.

Long day
Elephant storming down the riverbank for a drink
African hunting dogs
Seems to be a small altercation about whose pool this is
White Fronted Bee eater sunning itself
A wake of vultures
Great title for a book!
Any questions?

Once again, Thanks to Aron for sharing these great pictures!

Monday, August 24, 2020

Disease Fighting Woman: Mary Montagu

Annmaria on Monday

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu did not invent inoculation.  She found out about the practice in the 18th century, from Turkish women.  Sad to say, history did not record the Turkish women's discovery, so we cannot laud them for their priceless contribution to disease prevention. But at least, today, I can set the MIE record straight on part of the contribution of women to this critical endeavor.

Last Wednesday, my colleague Kwei Quartey told us about early advances in immunization, beginning with the Scots physician Edward Jenner's fight against smallpox.  A brilliant contributor, no doubt, but Jenner was only thirteen years old when my entry into this pantheon. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu died.  She had already brought inoculation to England.

Lady Mary and Alexander Pope

I first learned about Lady Mary while studying 18th Century lit with my mentor and forever hero Sister Mary Catharine O'Connor PhD, PhD.  (Aside: This is not a typo.  This woman who had entered the convent at fourteen had two PhDs, both from Columbia University!) While teaching the works of Alexander Pope, SMC, as those who still love her called her, told us of Mary Montagu - her relationship with Pope and her many accomplishments.

Therefore, I already knew about Mary Montagu's medical exploits when Kwei told us, last week, about Onesimus, an African slave, who introduced the Bostonian Cotton Mather to the technique of inoculation.  Kwei quite rightly decried the fact Onesimus was left out of the history he had had read as a child.  Stan also quite rightly blamed Eurocentrism as the culprit.  I applaud anyone who corrects the historical record, especially when it comes to the almost total emphasis on the accomplishments of the white men.  Today I am here to correct the record on behalf of Lady Mary, a largely ignored woman when it comes to fighting disease.

Mary Pierrepont - born 15 May 1689 - aristocratic, beautiful, powerfully intellectual, owed her accomplishments entirely to herself.  Ignoring the "superstitious tales and false notions" that her governess tried to foist upon her, Mary, as a child and young woman, spent just about all her waking hours everyday in her father's extensive library, teaching herself Latin, mastering the classics in many subjects, and beginning extensive correspondences with a couple of Bishops who added to her self-education.

A celebrated beauty, even as a small child, she was on her way to being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Her father was putting the finishing touches on her marriage contract: an alliance with the most valuable possible suitor, a man with the absurd name of Clotworthy Skeffington.  But Mary was already in love with a friend's brother, Edward Wortley Montagu.  Just in the nick of time, the young couple eloped.

In the early 18th century, smallpox was a huge curse on humanity.  Intensely infectious and deadly - it killed twenty-five percent of the people who caught it.  Those who got out of it alive remained disfigured with scars.  Standard medical practices at the time included purging with emetics and bleeding, either through cuts in the flesh or the application of leeches.

Just a year after Lady Mary married, her favorite brother died of smallpox.  Two years later (1715), she herself contracted the dreaded ailment.  She survived, but her legendary beauty was spoiled.

 Meanwhile, her husband's career was going well.  He was named Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.  She and their children went with him to Constantinople.  Her greatest claim to fame today comes for the letters she wrote while there.  As a woman, she was allowed to visit the women's quarters in Turkish court homes.  She wrote into the record vivid first-hand accounts of how those women lived.

She also learned how they prevented smallpox.  By taking live bacteria from the mildly infected and scratching it into the skin of well people.  Women practiced this technique.

Intent on protecting her own children, she talked over the issue with the British Embassy Surgeon, Charles Maitland.  Though he wasn't exactly keen on the idea, he did agree when she decided to have her nearly five-year-old son inoculated.  Young Edward Wortley Montagu was the the first English person ever to receive such a preventative treatment.  As was the ordinarily the case, the boy became mildly sick, recovered in a few weeks, and was safe from smallpox for the rest of his life.

Caroline, Princess of Wales

The family was back in England in 1721, when a major outbreak occurred.  Maitland, also then in London, agreed to inoculate Lady Mary's daughter - the first time such a treatment was used in Britain.  The medical profession was outraged.  But sisterhood took over.  Lady Mary convinced the the Princess of Wales, Caroline Ansbach to sponsor a test of the procedure.  Seven prisoners awaiting execution in Newgate Prison got an offer they couldn't refuse.  If they would agree to inoculation, they would earn their release.  They all survived and lived free.  The outcry against the procedure ramped up.  But the women involved stuck it out.  The Princess had Caroline and Amelia, her two daughters inoculated the following year.  In Russia, Catherine the Great herself and her son Paul, the future Tsar were inoculated later in the century.

In those early days, when the procedure was in its infancy, there were some dangers.  A small percentage of the people treated did develop serious cases.  But most lived on with immunity.

When Lady Mary died in 1762, Edward Jenner was still a child.  He did, as Kwei reported last week, develop a safer protection against smallpox using cowpox bacteria.  I maintain that these later improvements, while certainly great achievements, would not have been possible were not for the pioneering work done by the anonymous Turkish women and Lady Mary's insistence that the technique had merit.  They led the way.  The men who came along later built on the base of the women's idea.  And took the credit.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

How DNA Caught the Golden State Killer

 Zoë Sharp


Between 1973 and 1986, 13 murders, over 50 rapes, and more than 120 burglaries were committed all over California by the same man—Joseph James DeAngelo. During his extended crime spree, DeAngelo was known by a variety of nicknames, including the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Golden State Killer.


As the original name suggests, he began in Visalia, California in 1973 by breaking into houses and vandalising them during his robbery. DeAngelo tended to take small, personal items of low value rather than large amounts of cash or expensive objects, scattering female underwear about the place and even helping himself to food and drink. In 1975, he killed Claude Snelling.


During this time, DeAngelo was a serving police officer, having joined after an internship and going on to work on burglaries. In 1979, however, he was fired after being prosecuted for shoplifting. He had also fought in the Vietnam War and, at the time of his retirement in 2017, was a truck mechanic.

Joseph DeAngelo when he was part of the Exeter Police Department


Early in 2018, Detective Paul Holes and FBI lawyer Steve Kramer uploaded the unknown Golden State Killer’s DNA into the GEDmatch website. This free online database was founded in 2010 with the aim of helping amateur and professional researchers and genealogists, including adoptees searching for their birth parents. It compared autosomal DNA data files from different testing companies, allowing users to search for relatives who had submitted their DNA, and also became much frequented by law enforcement. (In May 2019, however, GEDmatch increased its privacy guidelines so that users had to opt-in to sharing their data with law enforcement.)


By running a search through GEDmatch’s more than one million profiles, a team of investigators and genealogists were able to identify between 10 and 20 people who shared distant relatives with the Golden Gate Killer. This may seem fortuitous, but if you are of European ancestry and live in the USA, there is currently a 60% chance that a third cousin or closer relation will be in the database already. And this is when GEDmatch encompasses only about 0.5% of the US adult population. Estimates are that, once the GEDmatch figure rises to 2%, the likelihood of finding a third-cousin-or-closer match for those of European descent will rise to 90%.


From this information, the investigative team constructed a giant family tree. By gradually eliminating suspects, they got down to just two. One was then cleared by a further DNA test, and that left only Joseph James DeAngelo.


DeAngelo was arrested in April 2018. The statute of limitations had passed on the rapes and burglaries, but he was eventually charged with 13 counts of murder and kidnapping. He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty and on August 21 2020 the trial judge handed down multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole.


Currently, legislators are looking at the rules surrounding the use by law enforcement of DNA provided to ancestry-type websites. There are arguments to be made for personal privacy versus justice. Nevertheless, as of December 2019, approximately 70 cold case arrests have been made using this method, as well as identifying 11 John and Jane Doe bodies in the USA. This included one case where both victim and perpetrator were identified via genealogical DNA—the murder by James Richard Curry of hiker Mary Silvani (for many years called simply the Washoe County Jane Doe)—nearly 40 years after the crime was committed.

This week’s Word of the Week is nemophilist, meaning someone who is inordinately fond of woods, forests, or woodland scenery and visits them often. The word comes from the Greek nemos, grove, and philos love or affection.

A Guest Parody by Marc Anthony: Friends, Russians, and Countrymen




I don’t know how many of you realize that William Shakespeare lived his entire life in the shadow of plague.  For further details check out this terrific article in the New Yorker by Stephen Greenblatt.  As for the Bard’s thoughts on the rulers of his time, read his plays.


He remains a force to be reckoned with, so who am I to resist a chance to surmise his take on today’s American politics. I can’t say he wrote this, though something about it is strangely familiar, but whoever did obviously believes now is the time to speak out. So, with apologies to Marc Anthony (the original version), here goes:

Marc Anthony

Friends, Russians, countrymen, hold back your jeers;

I come to fathom Caesar, not to braise him.

The evil that men do enriches them;

The good is scoffed, much as bankrupt loans;

As have we seen with Caesar. His choice of nobles

Hath shown you Caesar is capricious:

Viewing power a glory to exploit,

And gloriously hath Caesar used it.

Along with likes of Bannon and the rest–

The imprisoned and not yet convicted;

All viewed by Caesar as honourable men–

Until he sees them as funereal.

We need leaders, faithful and just to US:

And what of those who call him pernicious;

Many honourable men and women.

Plus, the many children caged on borders

Whose parents sought a better life for them:

Did this in Caesar seem nigh righteous?

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath slept:

Governance should be made of caring stuff:

Yet so many cling to Caesar as solicitous;

Among them many an honourable man.

We watch and hear how on the nightly news

They bow when he suggests a kingly crown,

Which he would not refuse: was this sedition?

Or deflection from a plague so vicious;

Dismissed by him as it is what it is.

I speak now to disapprove what he spoke,

And seek the answer I’ve so longed to know.

Many did vote him once, some without cause:

What cause still drives them then, to yearn for him?

O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,

And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;

My heart is in the coffin with our nation,

And I must pause till it come back to me.




And for you classists, here’s the original version, from Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2.


Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones;

So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus

Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:

If it were so, it was a grievous fault,

And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.

Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–

For Brutus is an honourable man;

So are they all, all honourable men–

Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.

He was my friend, faithful and just to me:

But Brutus says he was ambitious;

And Brutus is an honourable man.

He hath brought many captives home to Rome

Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:

Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;

And Brutus is an honourable man.

You all did see that on the Lupercal

I thrice presented him a kingly crown,

Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;

And, sure, he is an honourable man.

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,

But here I am to speak what I do know.

You all did love him once, not without cause:

What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?

O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,

And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,

And I must pause till it come back to me.



Friday, August 21, 2020

The Sweet Smell of.....???

 Some of you may have noticed that I’m from Glasgow which is on the glorious west coast of Scotland. 

On the other side of the country there’s a coastline with one island and a city with a castle on a hill and that’s about it. The east coast and the west coast don’t always see eye to eye. In fact most Scottish people dislike everything so while we are genuinely one of the friendliest nations on the face of the planet,  we sort of don’t like anybody else. 

I suppose the rivalry between the two main cities stems from Edinburgh being small and pretty to look at where as Glasgow rolls up its sleeves and gets on with it. Edinburgh may be the seat of the parliament but Glasgow is the home of the national ballet and the opera. I'll let you decide who has the more theatrics.

 Glasgow’s quite flat and open, the river Clyde rolls right into the centre of the city and brings a strong breeze with it. The climate in Glasgow is wetter and warmer. Indeed, only last week I found out that the entire west coast of Scotland is classified as a rain forest. Edinburgh is drier with a wind that bites right through you. It might have incredible views but in 2003 it was voted the smelliest city in the world. In 2009 odour control towers were erected to monitor the smells coming from the local breweries and distilleries.


I don’t think that’s what’s causing the smell. 

Edinburgh just smells. 

The other name for Edinburgh is Auld Reekie which means 'old stinky' and the city didn’t get called that because it was scented with the perfume of rose petal and cinnamon. It was a combination of too many chimneys and too few toilets and the general mix of bodily waste that caused a stink in those days. There’s just a claustrophobia about the city that doesn’t blow the smell away. 

And as an interesting addendum (appendage ?) there is a penis plant at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens. It's  real name is amorphophallus titanium, also known as the corpse flower because it has the scent of decay and death. The plant is known locally as new reekie and new reekie has two younger cousins, called wee reekie and wee reekie 2. When it flowered in 2019 people queued up to get a whiff of the pungent aroma - maybe because even that was better that the smell of the city itself.


Thinking back on the smelliest place I’ve ever visited, many coastal fishing towns obviously smell of fish, plus the weird chocolate  smell of Chicago, the doors of that shop that sells perfumed soap but ..... but there’s one place that made me physically sick with the smell; Bourbon Street, New Orleans. We might have caught it on a bad day but the mixture of stale urine and crack cocaine is a cocktail forever in my memory.

Caro Ramsay