A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, September 1, 2014

Words Of Love

In 1999 a group of neighbors in north Berkeley held a block meeting and decided to create a traffic island at the intersection of several busy streets – Sonoma, Hopkins and Josephine, just behind the North Berkeley branch library - to create a safe passage for pedestrians and a well-marked route for cars.
But a year later, on Sept. 11, 2001, the traffic island, which was still under construction, took on new meaning after the terrorist attacks. That day, somebody posted a sign in the triangular space: "MEET HERE AT 8:00 TONIGHT."
And they did. Few words were spoken; few were necessary. And they kept gathering there evening after evening.
Then somebody planted three saplings - one at each corner of the triangle - connected them with clotheslines, and set out blank squares of paper to be used for notes and clothespins to attach them to the lines.
And so the writing began. Young people and old, families, kids on their way home from school, and even whole classrooms read the messages and wrote their own. Eventually, the triangle took on an almost festive appearance, with the colored squares fluttering on the clotheslines. But the atmosphere was always somber and reflective.
As autumn turned to winter, the neighbors took down the notes, now numbering more than 1,200. One neighbor, former City Councilwoman Mim Hawley, volunteered to store them in her closet.
Ten years later she pulled them out and read them, and she was bowled over, both by the emotions they expressed and the emotions they evoked in her. So she compiled a representative sample - about 280 - into an album.
Some express a hope for peace:
"Please…help me understand and learn to forgive."
"Pray for an outcome worthy of all the lives that were lost."
"Someday, when they tell the stories of how the world came to live in harmony on this beautiful earth, may they count 9/11/2001 as the beginning. May it be so."
Others are angry:
"Bomb the hell out of the bastards who did this."
"Let's not let our spirit of love and tolerance interfere with our basic need to eliminate our enemies."
"Remember the people whose last choice in life was to die by fire or jump 90 stories. UNITE to destroy their murderers."
But the most heartbreaking messages, as you might expect, come from children:
"I hope the people that died in the airplane crashes will come back to life. I wish a fairy will come and do her magic."
"I hope this never happened and never again will. By Emma age 9."
"In our hearts we know right from wrong, but sometimes our mind doesn't listen. Molly Rose, age 9."
"Dear people who died, I miss you."
And one person left this heartfelt message: "I have never believed in you, God, but now we need you. Please come."
The album will be unveiled at a neighborhood meeting at the North Branch library at 10 a.m. on Sept. 13, and it will stay there, next to the checkout desk, for a month.
Then it will move to the main library downtown and placed in its permanent home in the library's History Room.
And someday, some PhD student at Cal who is writing a dissertation about grassroots reactions to 9/11 will be very, very grateful.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Thw Burning of Washington

(Above: the original Star Spangled Banner, the flag that Francis Scott Key saw by the dawn's early light flying above Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, now on display at the Smithsonian)

Two hundred years ago today, 5,000 battle-hardened British troops captured Washington D.C. and burned all the public buildings down.
They started with the Capitol, which housed the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, as well as the House and Senate. For kindling, they used the books in the Library of Congress, all 3,000 of them, as well as irreplaceable works of art.
Then they marched to the White House and burned that down, too. The next day, they torched the State Department, Treasury Department and War Department.
It was a sorry incident in a war that never should have been fought. The cause of the war was the British navy's practice of replenishing its ranks by stopping American ships and kidnapping some of the sailors.
Naturally, Americans resented this, and on June 18, 1812, Congress declared war.
What they didn't know was that the British cabinet, which already had its hands full fighting Napoleon, had banned the offending practice three weeks before. But it took six weeks for ships to cross the Atlantic, and by the time the news arrived here the killing had already started.
And it went on for almost three years. The final clash was the Battle of New Orleans on January 18, 1815, a resounding American victory.
But once again, what nobody knew was that the war had already been over for three weeks. The previous Christmas Eve, British and American diplomats met in Ghent, Belgium, and signed a peace treaty that returned everything to the way it was before. But the news didn't reach our shores until after the fighting at New Orleans was history.
And for this thousands of people died?
The War of 1812 wasn't our only dumb war. Most of them were – the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, Vietnam, Iraq, and, of course, the Indian Wars – all of which created greater problems than they solved.
Then, of course, there was World War I, a four-year meat grinder that killed 16 million people and accomplished absolutely nothing – except causing World War II, which chewed up another 100 million lives.
World War I actually ended on November 9, 1918, but the cease-fire didn't go into effect for another two days. The generals delayed it until 11 a.m on November 11 so the war would end at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. How cool is that?
So they kept feeding men into the meat grinder, ordering attacks until the very last moment. And thousands more died. All for a public relations stunt.
Look, I'm no pacifist. There are times when we really do have to fight – World War II, for example. But one of the best reasons for remembering history is to learn from it. Some of the lessons are positive ones of courage and devotion to duty. But others are cautionary tales about war's unintended consequences, most of them bad.
We are currently observing anniversaries of three important wars in our history – the 200th of the War of 1812, the 150th of the Civil War, and the 100th of World War I.
Or rather, we aren't observing them. There has been barely a word, from either our politicians or the media. And Santayana was right: Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

O Captain, My Captain

A few years ago I went to my college reunion, and the university offered some special faculty lectures for the occasion. My favorite one was titled "What Made Mozart A Genius?"
The lecturer, a professor in both the med school and the music department, deconstructed Mozart's thought processes to show how they are different from the way you and I think.
For instance, Mozart is famous for his skill in playing with musical phrases. He loved to take a melody and run it through all the variations:  forward, backward, inside out, in a minor key, in a major key, and on and on.
The professor told us Mozart loved to do the same thing with language, too, effortlessly slipping from a Viennese accent to a Bavarian accent to a Berlin accent to a Hamburg accent, and so on.
Then he said, "Who in our own time does that remind you of?"
Nothing but blank stares. He looked incredulously at us and said, "Robin Williams, of course!
So if you want to know how Williams' mind worked, it worked like Mozart's. And, in his own way, he was a great artist, too.
Everyone has his/her favorite Robin Williams moment, but I have two.
The first was his moving portrayal of a melancholy Russian immigrant in "Moscow On The Hudson," an extraordinary display of restraint, especially for an actor who was famous for being over the top.
The second came at the 1985 Academy Awards, when emcees Jane Fonda and Alan Alda announced, "There are so many people around the world watching that we're calling on the linguistic services of our co-host, Mr. Robin Williams."
They sent greetings to China, India and France – which were receiving a live Oscar telecast for the first time – while Williams "translated" the words into their respective languages.
Then Fonda gave a "special hello" to the Philippines, which had just kicked out dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-hoarding wife, Imelda.
Williams' translation: "Come on down! Some of these shoes have never been worn! Check it out!"
Only he would have the wit to think of that joke. Or the chutzpah to pull it off.
There will never be another even remotely like him, alas.
It's so sad that in the end, he couldn't see himself the way so many people who loved him saw him – or be open to the possibility that they might be right.
But that's depression for you. It's a nasty, insidious disease that causes you to isolate yourself just when you need other people's support the most.
I know. I've been depressed all my life. That's a hard thing to admit, especially when depression still has such a stigma. (On the day Williams died, a Fox News host said he was "such a coward" for killing himself.)
But I think it would be a good start for all of us who struggle with depression to come out of the closet. So I am.
If you are having suicidal thoughts yourself, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It's open 24/7, and the person on the other end will be someone who's been there, too.
And if you know someone who is wrestling with suicidal thoughts, don't assume they won't act on it. Get involved. Show them that you care.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Right Way And The Wrong Way To Help Animals

In 1922, two brothers who had immigrated from Greece, Nick and Jim Pappas, founded the Star Grocery on Claremont Avenue.
It quickly became one of Berkeley's most beloved businesses. During the Great Depression the Pappas brothers extended credit to hundreds of families who otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford food and wrote off thousands of dollars of unpaid bills.
In 1974 the business passed to Jim's son Nick. It's a terrific store and a pillar of the community, a place were the local high school kids have traditionally gotten their first jobs.
But in the early morning of Sunday, August 27, somebody smashed the plate glass windows in front.
Within hours, an organization in Florida called "Bite Back," which claims to support animal rights, posted pictures of the broken windows on its website, along with a manifesto from someone zcalling himself "veganarchist lone wolf," who says he did it because Star Grocery sells meat.
Never mind that all of Star Grocery's beef, pork and chicken comes from animals that roam free instead of being cooped up like sardines on feedlots or in cages that are too small for them to turn around. Or that they eat their natural diets - real grass and grains - instead of chemicals and leftover animal parts.
"Cage free, organic, murder is murder and death is death," he says piously.
Well, maybe. But I have one question: Dude, do you really think smashing the windows of a mom & pop store made converts for the cause?
To the contrary, the neighbors are hopping mad. Not at Star Grocery, at you.
"Who the hell does he think he is to come into our city and hurt our store?" said one woman. Several people said they plan to patronize Star Grocery even more, just to show you they can't be pushed around.
Nice going, dude. I just hope people won't assume all animal rights activists are like you.
                                     * * *
In happier news, congratulations to Tony La Russa for his well-deserved induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 27. But I think future generations will remember him even more as the man who made it cool to be kind to animals.
Instead of using his celebrity to make money, he used it to raise consciousness. And as founder and co-director (with his wife, Elaine) of the Animal Rescue Foundation - ARF, for short – he has saved 8,824 cats and dogs to date, and still counting.
I don't remember the first time I met Tony, but I sure remember the second time. His first words to me were "How's your baby?" I didn't understand what he was talking about for a moment, but then I realized it was my cat, Eliza. I thought, "This guy really gets it!"
The next time I saw Tony, he and Elaine, along with their daughters Devon and Bianca, were in Walnut Creek picketing a store that was selling animal furs.
Out came the store owner, who unleashed a stream of profanities - right in front of the girls, who were both less than 10!
"You blankety-blanks!" he said. "You can blankety-blank my blankety-blank, and you can also – wow, you're Tony La Russa! Hey, Tony, sign this baseball for me, willya?"
Tony dutifully signed.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Ar-r-r-r-r!

                                             (Above: Ben Brady as the Pirate King)

I suppose I shouldn't be have been surprised by how much fun The Lamplighters' sparkling new production of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" was when I saw it last weekend at the Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek.
After all "The Pirates" is probably G&S's funniest operetta, boasting some of their most hummable tunes, including "Poor Wandering One," "With Cat-like Tread" (whose tune was stolen for "Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here") and that perennial show-stopper, "A Policeman's Lot Is Not A Happy One."
Besides, The Lamplighters are the world's best G&S troupe. That distinction used to belong to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which was founded by Gilbert and Sullivan themselves. But, alas, D'Oyly Carte went belly-up in 1982, and since then The Lamplighters have been the class of the field.
But I was still taken aback by how much sheer pleasure they managed to cram into three hours. Kudos to the leads, particularly Chris Uzelac as Samuel, Sonia Gariaeff as Ruth and, especially, Ben Bradey as the Pirate King.
With his strong voice, commanding presence and impeccable comic timing, this young man – he's only 23 – bestrides the stage like no Pirate King I've seen since Kevin Kline. He's going to be a big star.
And all praises to the great Lawrence Ewing, who has played the Major General so many times he practically owns the part, but he has never played it the same way twice.
But the best thing in the show was the chorus, who are usually overlooked in theater reviews. The chorus has always been one of the Lamplighters' strong suits, but this time they took it to a whole new level.
Which means the real stars are the stage director, Jane Erwin Hammett, and the music director/conductor, Baker "Little Bo" Peeples, one of the finest conductors in the Bay Area.
Under his baton, the orchestra was tighter than the Rolling Stones, and the chorus's harmonies were tighter than the Beach Boys. It was exquisitely beautiful, especially when they sang "Hail, Poetry." Ahhh! It doesn't get any better than that.
As for Hammett, I won't spoil it for you by revealing the many hilarious bits of stage business she gave the actors to do, but trust me: You're in for a rollicking good time.
The Lamplighters have evolved over the years as they keep improving the product. Today, most of them are professional opera singers.
But a few are throwbacks to the old days - extremely talented amateurs such as Steve Goodman, who played the Sergeant of Police (and very nicely, too). His day job is professor of medicine and associate dean at Stanford.
Finally, I was especially heartened by the large number of kids in the audience, and they seemed to be having a great time, too. After the final encore, Ewing stepped to the edge of the stage and addressed them directly.
"You are the audience of the future, " he told them, "and the performers of the future, too."
"The Pirates of Penzance" has finished its run in Walnut Creek, but you can see it August 14-17 at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts in San Francisco, just a short walk from the Montgomery Street BART station. Catch it if you can.

A Store For All Seasons

I've been getting anxious phone calls from people all over Berkeley because of rumors that Berkeley Hardware, one of the most beloved stores in the city, is going out of business just a year short of its 120th birthday.
Relax, folks. Berkeley Hardware isn't going anywhere.
Actually, I take that back. It is going somewhere. The landlord has decided to develop the space as a five-story apartment building, so the store will have to move.
"We're looking for another spot in downtown Berkeley, preferably with parking," says Virginia Carpenter, whose family has owned the store since 1945. "We want to continue to serve Berkeley for another 120 years."
I'd better explain why people are taking this so personally. First, it's just a terrific store – one of those old time hardware stores that always have whatever you're looking for, no matter how obscure.
Then there's the longtime manager, Quentin Moore, a man whose sunny disposition makes Santa Claus look like The Grinch. And the other employees take their cue from him. They're all friendly and helpful, and the customers think of themselves as part of an extended family.
But it's also a symbol of a larger issue. For years, Berkeleyans have watched in dismay as the mom & pop stores that made Berkeley so Berkeley disappeared one by one: Edy's, where we ate Sundaes after movies on Saturday nights; Wilkinson's, where we munched waffles on Sunday mornings; the Blue & Gold Market; Bolfing's Elmwood Hardware; Radston's Office Supply; Cody's Books – the casualty list goes on and on.
Berkeley Hardware is one of the last survivors, along with the Darling Flower Shop and Moe's Books. It's now the oldest store in the city.
When it was founded in 1895, Grover Cleveland was president. Cars, planes, radio, TV, movies, computers, smart phones – none of them had been invented yet.
"But our inventory really hasn't changed much," says Virginia. "You still need a hammer, still need a nail, still need a knife to cut your meat with."
The heart and soul of the store, from 1945 to his death in 1997, was Virginia's father, Charles Judy, the most respected man in town.
"There was nothing phony about Charlie," an old-timer told me. "He was the most honest man I ever met. A shake of his hand was better than any contract."
Every day, he brought his dog, Rhoda, a tiny mutt with enormous ears, to work with him. Rhoda would take up her station at the top of the stairs leading up to the electrical department and, with great dignity, survey her realm like the monarch she was.
"When she was here, we knew he was here," says Moore. "Man, he loved that little dog!"
One Christmas Eve, Judy got a frantic phone call from a man who had bought a model train for his child. A part was missing. It was well past midnight, but Judy got out of his bed, met the man at the store, and gave him the part so his child wouldn't be disappointed on Christmas morning.
"That's the kind of guy he was," says Virginia. "We still try to do that today, if we can."
If you hear of a good spot available in downtown Berkeley, send Virginia and her husband Bill an email at berkeleyace@berkeleyace.com/

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Think Global, Donate Local


Have you seen those heartbreaking commercials for the ASPCA (short for American Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals) featuring pictures of abandoned cats and dogs as Sarah McLachlan sings "In The Arms of An Angel?" Makes you want to whip out that checkbook and send them a donation, doesn't it?
Well, go ahead. It's a very worthy organization. But if you think any of that money is going to filter down to local animals, think again.
That's because the ASPCA, despite the "American" in its title, is simply the New York society. It gets to put "American" before the name because it was the first SPCA in the country. It is not – repeat, not – an umbrella organization for SPCAs all over the country, including the East Bay SPCA.
If you send the ASPCA a donation you'll be helping some very deserving cats and dogs in New York. But if you want your dough to go to animals closer to home, you'll have to contribute to a local organization.
Same for the HSUS, the Humane Society Of The United States. It's a lobbying organization in Washington. DC, that operates no shelters of its own. And it has no – repeat, no – connection to humane societies across the country that do operate shelters, such as the Berkeley Humane Society. Again, if you want your money to do some good here, you'll have to contribute directly to a local organization.
So what's the difference between an SPCA and a humane society? Answer: nothing. They're both private adoption agencies for homeless cats and dogs that cooperate closely with their respective city shelters.
They are supplemented by local rescue groups, such as Island Cat Resources & Adoption, Fix Our Ferals, Hopalong, Muttville, Home At Last, Furry Friends Rescue, Community Concerned For Cats, Rocket Dog Rescue, San Francisco Bay Area Dog Rescue, and Adopt A Dog, as well as breed-specific dog and cat rescue groups. These organizations deserve our support, too.
                                          * * *
 Finally, a fond farewell to James Garner, television's first anti-hero. In an era when westerns dominated the airwaves and every other actor was trying to be John Wayne lite, his character, Brett Maverick, was a charming rogue who did everything he could to avoid getting into a fistfight, let alone a shootout. In the stolid, button-down 1950s, that was a breath of fresh air.
 I still remember the dilemma I faced every Sunday night: Should I watch "Maverick" on ABC or Ed Sullivan on CBS?
Solution: I tuned in to the first 30 seconds of" Maverick" to see if that week's episode was going to be about Brett (Garner) or his brother Bart (Jack Kelly). If it was Brett, I watched "Maverick." If it was Bart, I would groan and immediately switch over to Sullivan.
Garner played variations on that character for the rest of his career, most notably on "The Rockford Files" and in two World War II movies – "The Great Escape," in which he played the scrounger, of course, and "The Americanization of Emily, which paired him hilariously with Julie Andrews at her earnest do-gooder best.
He was also one of the greatest Raiders fans of all time. I can't remember a game during the team's heyday in the 1970s when he wasn't on the sidelines cheering them on.