Plague Years

Anastasia Amrhein and Elizabeth Knott

We happily return to NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World with a written brief from two of its guest curators, art historian Anastasia Amrhein (r) and historian of textiles Elizabeth Knott (l). Clarification: the Babylon they refer to is a completely different place from the Babylon Bob Marley sang about.


Person: Robert Koldewey

He was the archaeologist who first excavated Babylon in earnest (1899–1917). Although lions featured heavily in the iconography of the ancient city—including the Processional Way that extended from the Ishtar Gate and King Nebuchadnezzar II’s Southern Palace—they survived only in fragments that had to be arduously pieced together. Thus, Koldewey and his team were greeted not by the magnificent monumental lions, but by the cats that populated the archaeological site. Numerous photographs capture the archaeologist feeding these smaller felines, which instantly endear him to us and highlight aspects of his personality that do not come through when reading the excavation reports. We imagine that Koldewey must have been particularly excited to discover the molded and glazed clay fragments of paws, muzzles, sharp teeth, triangular ears, and tail tufts that were eventually reconstructed to form striding lions.

Place: Babylon

In this drawing that comes from the back of a visitors’ logbook from Babylon, an artist imagines Nebuchadnezzar II taking a pause in his busy day as king to look out over his city and admire everything that he has built. This illustration speaks to us because it captures an off-moment, something not recorded in the ancient material record. It’s easy to forget that then, as now, there were moments of calm, with neither war nor celebration, neither destruction nor construction. And of course, there were cats, both feral and domestic, bringing unexpected moments of comfort, humor, and chaos. People of ancient Babylon, however, had some different associations with cats than we do today: according to one omen series, “if a black cat is seen in a man’s house, that land will experience good fortune.” 

Thing: Cats and Lions

We both have cats, who are to greater or lesser degrees happy to be sharing their domestic spaces with us for such unprecedented lengths of time. As we were planning our exhibition, we looked to our cats for inspiration and for practical answers as we were trying to figure out which aspects of lions the ancient Babylonians sought to capture in their glazed and molded clay reliefs. How do their eyes appear when they are looking in a certain direction? What might the position of their tails indicate? Are the lions who stood guard on Babylon’s walls relaxed, cautious, or about to attack? To commemorate our love of cats and the work that went into the exhibition, we both got these “lion butt” magnets. 


Amy Gansell

Sadly, we can’t bring PPT to NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. (Spoiler: the Pyramids have no connection to space aliens. They say.) Happily, Institute folks introduced us to this archaeologist, scholar of ancient Mesopotamia, professor at St. Johns, who is writing a book about Assyrian queens. She provides this week’s written brief.

Person ­­– Queen Hama 

She was laid to rest in Iraq almost three thousand years ago. (Pictured: her crown.) When archaeologists discovered her tomb, in 1989, her identity, her story, her place in history, returned to the world of the living. We believe Hama came to Assyria as a teenage bride from the Levant. She perished just a few years later. She lived and died away from her homeland, away from her family. Then, like most individuals, especially women, she disappeared from memory, from history. When I think about this pandemic, I believe we will remember it for a very long time, but one hundred, one thousand, even three thousand years hence, will we remember the names and stories of any of us who lived or died in it?

Place – her garden

I’m not alone as a novice gardener this spring. Seed delivery is so delayed that we are missing the sowing season, while tomato stakes are strangely sold out. But feeling solidarity with my grandmothers, who created victory gardens during their own stressful and uncertain times, and finding comfort in childhood memories of planting peas with my mom (whom I cannot see as we shelter in different states), I, too, am making a garden. I’ve turned and tilled the soil and built a wonky fence. I want to show my daughter how the dirt will grow green, how seeds become plants. I want to give her the joy on a hot summer day of picking that fat red tomato and biting into it, barefoot in the soil. 

Thing – these artifacts

Can you believe I found all this stuff while digging the garden? Rusty springs, corroded nails, broken bottles, a nylon stocking. They’re filthy and fragmented and beautiful. And they were gone, almost forever, crushed just inches beneath the surface. These pieces of things, a thing someone used, a thing someone touched, are treasures, salvaged artifacts of humanity. I don’t know if I’ll be able to fit any of these pieces together or find some archaeological meaning in them, but, at this moment, they remind me of all the someones who were here before, and that we are each a small part of a much bigger world. 


Lily Henley and Duncan Wickel

With no live shows scheduled for the duration (of our lives? Sorry. I succumbed to despair. And will again.), we’ll run brief written entries, this time from another duo who’ve played many of our shows. Here’s a sample of their work.   

Person – John Gatto
He is the author of Dumbing Us Down, but neither of us has read it. We had to ask our moms to remind us of the author’s name. Regardless, one thing we hold in common is that his work had a massive impact on our childhoods. Gatto, an award-winning schoolteacher, was a major advocate for homeschooling, influencing the development of the modern homeschooling movement in ‘80s and ‘90s America. Both our mothers had his books, which influenced their decision to homeschool. When you tell someone you’re homeschooled, usually the assumption is that you are either a member of a religious sect or an unsocialized, off-the-grid doomsayer, but we were neither. The creative and self-driven learning environment we experienced as children led us to the development of some uncommon skills and perspectives that have guided us to where we are now–for better or worse!

Place – Mt. Shasta Music Summit
This fiddle and general acoustic music camp in Northern California is where we met. A fiddle camp is what it sounds like, a camp dedicated entirely to playing the fiddle, usually organized around a specific folk genre or regional style. We grew up going to different fiddle camps, a positive formative experience. Unlike the better-known camps we attended in our earlier days, Shasta takes a more anarchistic approach; it’s so disorganized that the schedule is constantly bent or even abandoned if an event or jam session is starting to flow. It can be overwhelming to newcomers and frustrating to anyone expecting a planned schedule, but it welcomes great players and singers and writers on any acoustic instrument in nearly every genre. Often this chaotic mindset allows teachers and students alike the freedom to go deep into the material. The whole camp feels like a wild, rustic family gathering with a whimsical authenticity; we return to it every year.  

Thing: Coffee-Themed Socks
Duncan is obsessed with coffee. Lily is not, but she likes buying presents, especially if they last longer than a cup of coffee and make the recipient laugh. Lily buys Duncan socks, but only if they have a coffee theme. Duncan sends photos of his feet in coffee-themed socks from different locations while he’s on the road. Just something funny that has taken on an amusing significance for us both. You’d never imagine how many sock patterns involve coffee cups! Or how much cheerier a lonely hotel-room carpet looks if the feet standing on it are wearing them.


Valerie and Benedict Turner

With no live shows for the duration, we’ll run brief written episodess, this time from Piedmont Bluz, the featured musical guests on many of those shows. Here is a taste of their work.

Person – John Cephas
He was a great country blues musician from Washington D.C., the guitar playing half of Cephas & Wiggins, and he was Valerie’s mentor. A chance Internet meeting brought them together at a workshop at Columbia University. Through his careful teaching, Valerie developed important skills and repertoire, and came to understand the role she would eventually play in preserving country blues. But she wouldn’t do it alone! I became her husband and ride-or-die partner in all things and joined her to form the acoustic blues duo Piedmont Blūz. We have performed all over the United States, in Europe and the Middle East and have self-published a music book, Piedmont Style Country Blues Guitar Basics, acquired by the Library of Congress. We have also produced two CDs, and have been inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame. All these achievements spring from the seeds planted by John Cephas. His influence set us upon a delightful path that altered our lives.

Place – Our Garden
Two thousand eight was a tough year, because each of us lost a parent (Valerie’s mother, Benedict’s father). Shortly thereafter, Valerie’s father died, and that marked the beginning of a dark period in our lives. It seemed as though someone close to us died every few months. As the losses piled up, we found refuge in our garden which we had relandscaped in memory of our loved ones. Its tranquil beauty remains a constant source of pleasure no matter the season: buds and blooms in spring, welcome shade throughout summer, aromatic, chameleon-like leaves in fall, and soft, snowy drifts in winter. Nothing can fill the emptiness left in our hearts by the loved ones who have left us, but our garden provides a space where we can go to quietly reflect.

Thing – Rollerskates
Metal skate keys, organ music, and rosin were a regular part of our childhoods, so we were well prepared when we met at the Roxy skating rink during the height of the roller disco era. The practice and coordination required for skating together translated into the teamwork necessary for a good marriage (25 years so far!). As the popularity of rollerskating faded and skating rinks began to close, we channeled our energy into other sports that we enjoy playing together, including skiing, snowboarding, cycling, and speed skating. Although we have moved on, we will always credit our humble rollerskates for bringing us together and giving us a strong foundation.


Corin Lee

In lieu of live shows, our series of brief written episodes continues with a violinist from the string quartet ETHEL. Here is a hauntingly beautiful example of their work.

Person: his grandmother

At 91 years old, my grandma continues to be an absolute boss during the COVID-19 pandemic. She cracks open a beer in her tiny senior-housing apartment, enjoys her favorite albums, and —  holy shit! — did I mention she’s getting paid time off from T.J. Maxx?! Yeah, she was a store greeter in the pre-pandemic days and no, she does not work Black Friday, thanks for asking. 

Place: his apartment roof

When I need fresh air, I crawl outside my window and climb the fire escape to my roof (I’m lucky to be on the top floor so I don’t disturb anyone). Usually, I see airplanes flying non-stop, but now it’s only a few here and there. There’s nothing more therapeutic than listening to the blue jays talk and watching leaves grow on trees over time. Nature thrives despite COVID-19 and that gives me peace of mind. 

THING: “Beach Trash aka his violin

The beach trash sticker was a gift from ETHEL’s violist, Ralph Farris, for my birthday, when we were performing at UCLA. It’s the sort of gift you give someone when you see each other too much, but it’s been with me for over five years. If you imagine the sticker slowly fusing with the violin case’s protective plastic from sunlight and age, you have a pretty accurate representation of the interpersonal relationships in our quartet. In quarantine, I’ve gained a bigger appreciation of my violin. A few days before the “stay at home” order, ETHEL was canceled during a sound check in Denver, when gatherings of 250 or more were banned by the governor. Since then, like everyone else, our concerts have been canceled for what looks to be many months. Despite not having them, the significance of the violin still exists. In its purest form, it remains a way to express, communicate, connect, and create, which seems to be more vital now during this time isolated from others. 


Bill Raskin

With no live shows for the duration, we’ll run new short written episodes, starting with this vet, who served for 20 years as an Army Special Forces officer. In 2019 he published his first novel, Cardiac Gap.

PERSON: a fellow American

Early 2002 was a tough time for me. Deployed for the Afghan invasion after 9/11, our ad hoc team of special operators had taken casualties. One morning, shortly after dawn, as I worked on a malfunctioning radio, trying to send out a situation update, a teammate, whom I’d met only a few days before, came over with a steaming mug of MRE coffee for me, half his ration. He knew I was busy with the radio, and our day would only get busier. It picked me up exactly when I needed it. 
            I think of this now. In the wake of the Coronavirus, all across our country, Americans who don’t know each other are offering what support they can. Moments like this bring out the best in our citizenry. As I write this, on March 25th, we are all New York, New Jersey, Washington State, and the other areas catching the worst of the pandemic.

PLACE: our little Cape Cod in Bethesda, MD

I consult part time for some mission-essential offices in the city. But they too have thinned out as we try to break the chains of transmission. Even before the pandemic, Linda and I both worked from home most of the time. She’s a lawyer, and I began writing two years ago. Fortunately, we had already made our space pretty livable. Two tips I’ve learned: 
(1) Make a daily schedule and stick to it reasonably well. 
(2) As much as possible, try to have a “work” area and a “chill” area. It helps the brain toggle back and forth, to achieve each of those states more effectively.


Invented by a former Navy SEAL. It is an ingenious workout device that uses adjustable straps and your body weight. The restrictions of combat zones closely resemble our current state of isolation. We have no gym access and now have to create exercise opportunities in our living space. The TRX gives an unlimited range of workout options. It’s kept me sane during times of limited movement out in the world.