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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The KGB And Me

Next week the cloak-and-dagger television series "The Americans," about a typical middle class couple who are actually Soviet spies working undercover in Washington D.C. during the Reagan years, debuts its third season.
The narrative has now moved to 1985. Leonid Brezhnev is dead, and the USSR is being run by a succession of aging apparatchiks who keep dying, one after another.
By coincidence, that's exactly when I had a run-in with a Russian spy myself.
The date was Aug. 25, 1985, and the top news story of the day was that Samantha Smith had been killed in a plane crash.
Samantha was a 9-year-old from Maine who had written a charmingly innocent letter in 1983 to Soviet president Yuri Andropov, asking why the Russians hated us.
Andropov recognized a good public relations opportunity and promptly invited Samantha to the USSR to see for herself.
Which she did, to great fanfare, and she became a symbol of hope for world peace. When she died, everyone was feeling all misty-eyed, and the spirit of d├ętente was in the air.
Dianne Feinstein was Mayor of San Francisco at the time, and she was big on promoting East-West understanding. By coincidence, she threw a party honoring the Soviet Consul General the day after Samantha died.
I was covering the event, and I introduced myself to the Consul General. He promptly grabbed me by the elbow, ushered me across the room, and introduced me to a TASS reporter named Yuri Algunov. "You're a journalist. He's a journalist," he said. "Talk!"
Imbued with the spirit of Samantha Smith, I accepted all this at face value – big mistake, as I was to discover – and invited Yuri over to the East Bay the following week for lunch.
The lunch went well until we paid the bill, and then he said, "Let's go for a walk."
As we walked he said, "You know, I could feed you some stories that would give you great scoops. Are you interested?"
I thought, "Martin, you are getting way out of your league." I told him I'd think it over and promptly ran home and called my friend Dennis, who used to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency, for advice.
"The guy's a KGB agent," Dennis said. "He's trying to 'cultivate' you. The first few stories he feeds you will be true. Then, when he's got you hooked, he'll feed you a lie that will do big damage to our country. I'd call the FBI right away."
Which I did. The agent who answered the phone said, "Hi, Martin. We've been wondering when we were going to hear from you. Been talking to our friend Yuri, have you?"
"Yes," I gulped.
"Well, in case you're curious, he's exactly what you think he is."
"Oh my God," I said. "How did I get into this?"
"Don't worry," he said. "Happens all the time. Hey, how'd you like to help us catch him? It'll make a great column for you."
Now I knew I was in over my head. I hastily declined, and he took it with good grace.
Funny thing, though: Yuri was supposed to call me back to find out if I would accept his offer. But he never did. Could it be that both sides were bugging me at the same time?

Monday, January 19, 2015


 (Photo courtesy of Chronicle Books)
It's official: Berkeley is the grumpiest town in the country.
Says who? Grumpy Cat, the biggest feline star on the Internet, who chose Berkeley as the winner of the #GrumpyTownUSA contest, with the prize being a special appearance by Grumpy Cat herself.
For those who never go online, let me explain: Grumpy Cat (original name: Tardar Sauce) is a 2 1/2-year-old female with a perpetually grumpy look on her face due to an underbite.
To date, her Facebook page has more than 7 million "likes." Her puss has been on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and the cover of New York magazine, and she was named "Most Influential Cat of 2012" by MSNBC.
She is the "author" of two books – "Grumpy Cat: The Grumpy Book," which reached No. 7 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and "The Grumpy Guide to Life," which did even better, debuting on the Times Bestseller list at no. 3.
Last fall Grumpy Cat challenged animal lovers all over the country to enter the #GrumpyTownUSA contest and say why their hometown should be graced by a visit. The Berkeley Humane Society enlisted Mayor Tom Bates, the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and the Berkeley Police in the cause; and lo and behold, Berkeley won!
"I think they chose us because Grumpy Cat was a rescue animal herself," says executive director Jeffrey Zerwekh.
Grumpy Cat will be at the Humane Society, 2700 9th Street, on January 24 to participate in the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Society's new Mobile Adoption Center, a fully-customized, temperature controlled, 26-foot RV with modular kennels inside capable of holding up to 30 animals in comfort and safety.
"It'll enable us to take the cats and dogs to where people actually are instead of waiting for them to come to us," Zerwekh says.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place at Noon, and then Grumpy Cat will be available for selfies with her fans from 1 to 3. Since she's such a popular pussycat, I'd advise reserving a spot by visiting the Society's website, berkeleyhumane.org. That's also where you can donate or sign up to volunteer.
While you're at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, you can also check out the adorable cats and dogs currently available for adoption.
Berkeley Humane has come a long way back since the disastrous fire in 2010 that killed 15 cats – 15 others were saved by heroic staffers and volunteers, thank God - and gutted half its building, including the animal hospital and the shelter. Since then, the Society has been operating out of the other half, the part that's still standing
And it never quit on its mission to find new homes for homeless dogs and cats, not even for a single day. Adoptions have increased every year since the fire, and last year the Society placed 1,030 animals in loving new homes, the most in its 88-year history.
The new Mobile Adoption Center is just the latest step in that comeback.
"We're fiscally strong, and we have the largest volunteer corps ever," says Zerwekh. "We're so thankful that they somehow made it work in a very challenging environment, with half the building burned out. We're hoping Grumpy Cat's visit will create new awareness and bring added resources so we can finally rebuild our building."

Sunday, January 18, 2015


January 9 was a bittersweet day for Andy Mousalimas of Oakland. The sweet part was watching his son James being sworn in as the new Superintendent of Schools of San Joaquin County.
But it was also bitter because Mary, his beloved wife for 66 years, wasn't there to join the celebration. Mary died last September 6, and Andy and his kids – and their kids – miss her terribly.
And they're not alone. The entire local Hellenic community is in mourning for Mary, who – besides being one of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet - pioneered the preservation of Greek-American history in the East Bay. In 2009 she received the Medal Of St. Paul, the highest honor awarded to a member of the laity by the Greek Orthodox Church.
As for Andy, he has the distinction of creating not one but two of America's most popular pastimes: fantasy football and trivia contests.
Fantasy Football was founded in 1962 by Andy, Warriors exec Scotty Sterling and Raiders part owner Bill Winkenbach – all of whom have busts in the Fantasy Football Hall of Fame.
They named it GOPPL – short for Greater Oakland Pigskin Prognostication League – and Andy's bar, the King's X Tavern at Piedmont and 51st,, was fantasy football central. The idea went viral, and the rest is history.
In 1970 Andy started a new game at the King's X called a trivia contest. And, again, the rest is history.
Then, in 1991, Perry Phillips, my fellow columnist at the Oakland Tribune, died. I had heard rumors that Perry was a secret agent for the OSS – the forerunner of the CIA - during World War II, so I called the CIA to check it out.
"He sure was," said the agent on the other end. "He was part of a commando unit called Operation Noah's Ark that operated behind enemy lines in occupied Greece and Yugoslavia. But there's a guy in your neck of the woods named Andy Mousalimas who served with Mr. Phillips, and he can tell you all about it. I hope to meet him some day. He's a very brave man."
So I called Andy and said, "Andy, you've been holding out on me!"
"Well," he said, "I hate to brag."
But he has a lot to brag about if he wanted to: a Bronze Star, European Campaign Ribbon (with four Battle Stars), Asia Campaign Ribbon (with three Battle Stars), British Paratroop Ribbon, Chinese Paratroop Ribbon, and the Presidential Unit Citation.
What he's proudest of is the fact that even though the Nazis were systematically starving the civilian population – more than 300,000 people starved to death during the German occupation – and offering huge rewards in food and money to anyone who turned one of the commandos in, not a single Greek ever did.
Andy and his buddies sabotaged infrastructure, collected intelligence, set up emergency landing fields for damaged Allied planes returning home from bombing missions, killed thousands of German soldiers (and pinned down tens of thousands more), and got into Hitler's head so badly, he issued the infamous Fuhrer Order No. 003830: "From now on, all enemies on so-called commando missions are to be slaughtered to the last man."
Andy celebrated his 90th birthday last week. Happy birthday, Andy. And efharisto. That's Greek for "thank you."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Oakland's New Mayor Hits The Ground Running

On Monday, Libby Schaaf was sworn in as Oakland's 50th mayor at the historic Paramount Theater, where she used to dance in the hallways as a little girl while her mom served on the board of directors. And she left no doubt in anyone's mind: There's a new sheriff in town.
"I have lived here all my life, and all my life I've been one of Oakland's biggest boosters," she said. "But I've also spent my life frustrated by Oakland's lack of safety and the gross inequities in our public schools. I've been miffed when investment has passed us by and I've been furious when people have disrespected our beautiful city with dumping, graffiti, and most recently with smashed windows."
Translation: Look for a crackdown on violence.
This will not come as welcome news to the so-called "anarchists" – I call them nihilists – who just want to fight. (Trashing the Christmas tree at Jack London Square? Really?)
But it's music to the ears of the people who actually live and work in the part of Oakland that's been affected by the violence.
They are young people, minorities, single moms, restaurateurs, tattoo artists, sculptors, painters, hipsters and entrepreneurs, including one guy I talked to who runs a medical marijuana dispensary.
They are appalled by Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and all the other killings that demonstrate a nationwide pattern of blue-on-black violence too obvious to miss. But it's their garbage cans that are being set on fire and their neighborhood stores that are being looted. And they can't understand how that does anything to stop police brutality.
Not everyone thinks the violence has been a bad thing. I heard a student at Berkeley High being interviewed on KCBS last weekend, and she said, "Nobody paid any attention to what was happening in Ferguson until they burned the QuickTrip down."
But she couldn't be more wrong. The only thing burning down the QuickTrip accomplished was to give the other side an excuse to divert the conversation from Officer Wilson's behavior to the protestors' behavior.
What really generated public interest in the case was the sight of hundreds of people peacefully chanting, "Hands up! Don't shoot!"
As Martin Luther King, whose birthday we'll celebrate next week, would have told us, that the only way to win when the other side owns all the guns, printing presses and TV stations is to force the American people to watch what is being done in their names.
Dr. King called it "bearing witness," and it worked for him. It also worked for Gandhi. "People Power" brought down Marcos in the Philippines, Mubarak in Egypt, and the whole Soviet Union. In each case, the only shots fired were fired by the losing side.
There must be some way the police and the protestors could get together and figure out how to isolate these nihilists. It's in their common interest. The protestors could protect their demonstrations from being hijacked, and the police could get a decent night's sleep for once.
Back in my day, during the Vietnam War demonstrations, we'd deal with the problem by surrounding the troublemakers with hundreds of people. That might not work today, so today's protestors will have to figure out their own tactics.
But if they can't do it in Oakland, where can they?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Grinch Strikes Again

The Grinch was up to his old tricks this Christmas. On December 21 somebody decapitated the large angel and damaged two other figures in El Cerrito's annual Sundar Shadi Christmas Display, and the residents are hopping mad.
I'm going to be charitable and assume the vandals don't understand what they have done, so let me clue them in.
Mr. Shadi came to El Cerrito from India in 1921. Because of prejudice against immigrants, the only job he could get was pumping gas.
But he worked hard, saved his money, made some good investments, and retired a moderately wealthy man at age 50 in 1949.
That's when he began his true calling. That Christmas, his neighbors awoke to find a large star made out of papier-mache in his yard.
He added a fe more sculptures the next year, and the next, and the next, and before long the hillside was covered with the entire town of Bethlehem - wise men, angels, doves, sheep, lambs, shepherds, cows, horses, donkeys, and camels - all lovingly created by Mr. Shadi himself. He kept it up until failing eyesight forced him to call it quits in 1997.
The community quickly took the Christmas display to heart. Little kids grew up and brought their own kids, and then their grandkids, to see it.
Charter busses full of tourists came from as far away as San Jose and Sacramento - more than 70,000 every year.
For many people, Mr. Shadi WAS Christmas. He was a real-life Santa Claus who gave us something more precious than toys: the true spirit of the holiday.
Paradoxically, he wasn't a Christian himself. He was a Sikh. He chose a Christmas display because that was the way he could say, "I love you" in a language we all could understand.
Mr. Shadi died in 2002 at age 101. And then something wonderful happened. The people of El Cerrito refused to let his legacy die.
Under the leadership of former Mayor Jane Bartke, they restored the Shadi sculptures, which had deteriorated badly. That December the Christmas Display made a triumphant return at the corner of Moeser and Seaview. It's been there every Holiday season since, and there's never been a bit of trouble – until now.
So here's a message for the vandals: You may have broken our sculptures, but you have not broken our hearts.
John F. Kennedy famously said, "Don't get mad; get even," and the best way we can get even is to make next year's Christmas Display better than ever.
That's going to cost money, of course. The damage sculptures have to be repaired, and security will have to be beefed up.
 But the people of El Cerrito have never failed to come through before, and I see no reason to expect they won't come through this time, either.
 You can "adopt" the figure of your choice. A Wise Man (camel included) goes for $500, a shepherd for $350, and sheep are a real steal at only $25. Send a tax-deductible check to the El Cerrito Community Foundation, Inc., P. O. Box 324, El Cerrito CA 94530.
But even more than money, what they really want is you. Whatever skills you have to offer, call Bartke at (510) 235-1315, and she'll find a way to put them to use.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Appeasing The Supreme Leader

When Sony Pictures caved in last week to North Korea's extortionate demands to yank "The Interview" from distribution, my thoughts turned to Salman Rushdie.
Twenty-five years ago Rushdie, a British author of Indian Muslim extraction, was condemned to death by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini for writing things that the Ayatollah deemed insulting to Islam in his new, critically acclaimed novel, "The Satanic Verses."
Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering any Muslim who encountered Rushdie to kill him on sight, forcing Rushdie to go into hiding for his life.
How did the publishing industry react? As you might expect, the major book chains, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble, chickened out like Sony and immediately stopped selling "The Satanic Verses."
But Cody's Books, an independent bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, in the heart of the student quarter, decided to stand up for freedom of speech and stocked the book.
In the early morning hours of May 4, 1989, Cody's owner, Andy Ross, was wakened by a phone call from the Berkeley Police. Somebody had thrown a firebomb through the store's front window.
After the firefighters put out the fire, Ross and his staff started cleaning up. He looked down and spotted a second device – an unexploded pipe bomb rolling on the floor next to the poetry section.
It was too dangerous to move, so he and his staff watched from across the street while the bomb squad blew it up. Though they packed it with sandbags first, it still made the whole building shake.
After it was all over they filed back inside, and Ross told his staff that it was up to them whether to continue stocking the book.
They took a vote. It was unanimous. The book stayed.
"That was Cody's finest moment," Ross said proudly.
A few months later, Rushdie briefly came out of hiding to make a surprise visit to Cody's. Ross showed him the hole in the ceiling from the second bomb. Next to it someone had written, "Salmon Rushdie Memorial Hole."
"Some authors get statues," Rushdie quipped. "Others get holes."
Other independents followed Cody's example, and the writers' community – led by Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer  - rallied around Rushdie with petitions, press conferences and full-page ads in the papers.
Compare that to the shameful behavior of the Hollywood community last week when George Clooney circulated a petition urging Sony to call the North Koreans' bluff. He couldn't get a single signature.
Some people are questioning whether it's worth taking even a remote risk for the sake of a dumb comedy like "The Interview."
But, as Clooney pointed out, "With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson. It’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid." We need to defend Seth Rogen's freedom of speech not for his sake, but for ours.
Epilogue: That one firebombing aside, the Ayatollah's threat turned out to be more bark than bite. He died in 1989, but Rushdie is still alive and well. So are Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
I wish I could say the same about Cody's Books. After years of struggling against the huge Internet giants, Ross reluctantly closed Cody's doors in 2006.
The space it used to occupy on Telegraph Avenue is still vacant.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dick Cheney's Tortured Logic

(Above: Lt. Commander John McCain recuperating from his torture-induced injuries)

On September 14, 2001, four days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, a memorial service was held in Wheeler Auditorium on the Cal campus for Mark Bingham, one of the heroes of United Flight 93 who led the passengers' attack on the hijackers and caused the plane to crash in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, instead of the White House or the Capitol,
I arrived at Wheeler Hall about a little early, so I decided to use the men's room in the basement.
I was the only one in the room until the door opened and a short man in a dark suite, red shirt and white shirt walked in and stood at the urinal next to me.
I looked at him and then I looked again, hardly believing my eyes. It was John McCain!
After a few awkward moments he stuck out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm John Mc Cain."
He told me he had flown out from Washington for the service in the back of a military cargo plane – remember, all civilian flights were grounded - because he was moved when he heard that Mark had a McCain poster in his office, and he figured the least he could do was say thanks to the man who probably saved his life. (He had been inside the Capitol that day.)
Then we went upstairs. He sat on the stage with the other speakers, and I sat in the audience.
After the speeches the lights were dimmed, and there was a slide show. Everyone was watching the screen except me. I was watching McCain.
While the others on stage turned around and watched, he waited until he thought nobody was looking, then he quietly stepped down the stairs and watched from the audience.
I was puzzled for a while, and then it finally hit me: He couldn't turn his head because of the torture he suffered for five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton.
Now, I don't agree with McCain about a lot of things, but you can't deny that when he talks about torture, he knows what he's talking about.
So here's what he said last week on the Senate floor about the Intelligence Committee's report on torture during the Bush years:
"I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering."
Then, almost shouting, he added, "The use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights."
In response, Dick Cheney, one of the main architects of the torture program, said, "What are we supposed to do? Kiss them on both cheeks and say, 'Tell us everything you know?'" – as if those were the only two choices.
I don't know about you, but on this matter I'd rather trust a war hero than a draft-dodging chicken hawk.
Muse on that next Thursday, when the world celebrates the 2014th birthday of a man who was tortured to death.