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, November 24, 2014

Just Say No To Ho-Ho-Ho

(Above: Santa Ron and some of the Children's Fairyland Storybook Personalities)

I was chatting with Santa Claus the other day while we watched a little girl, about four years old, gleefully chasing hither and thither after the soap bubbles emanating from Oswald the Bubble Elf's pipe at Children's Fairyland.
"You'd never see that at Disneyland," I said. "Her parents would be scared to let her run free like that."
"Yeah," he laughed, "and even if they did, they'd probably be charged $15 per bubble."
Of course, he isn't the real Santa. (The real one is rather busy at the North Pole right now.) His name is Ron Zeno, and for the past 10 years he has stood in for The Big Guy at Fairyland's annual Fairy Winterland, which will take place from noon to 7 p.m. on December 5-7, 12-14, and 19-23 if weather permits. And you couldn't ask for a better stand-in.
"He's the best Santa we could possibly wish for," says C.J. Hirschfield, Fairyland's executive director. "He's so sweet and gentle with the kids. That rich, chocolaty voice of his instantly puts them at ease."
The secrets of his success: Never say "Ho-ho-ho" ("It scares the bejezus out of little kids," he explains), never promise anything specific, and never make direct eye contact, which can also frighten them.
"I start off by making myself small," he says, no easy task at 6'1 and 260 lbs. "I take my time, stay out of their face, and let them come to me. It doesn't always work; but when it does, it feels great."
Santa will welcome his little visitors every afternoon from 5 to 6 p.m., and every child will get a special treat.
Then, at 6:15, Santa will lead the little ones through the park in the nightly Festival of Lights Parade. It's a rare chance for them to see what Fairyland looks like after dark. Every structure and tree will by festooned with sparking lights, with a snow machine completing the wintery impression. The effect is magical, even for grownups.
On the Emerald City Stage, the Fairyland Children's Theater will present its annual holiday program, spotlighting winter celebrations from around the world including Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, Dwali, Kwanzaa, Las Posadas, Chinese New Year and the Winter Solstice.
Meanwhile, actors in animal costumes from Critters Across the Bay will be roaming around the park acting silly, and some of the real-life animals who live at Fairyland will be featured each day as Animal of the Day.
Last but not least, the Puppet Theater will present not one but two productions: "The Midas Touch," written and designed by Fairyland's late, great Master Puppeteer, Lewis Mahlmann, and a puppet production of "The Nutcracker," written and designed by Mahlmann's handpicked successor, Randal Metz, featuring dancing candies, prancing clowns, mechanical toys, Chinese dragons, and a climactic battle between the Mouse King's armies and the toy soldiers.
If your kids are still too young to take to the Oakland Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker," this is a great, no-pressure way to get them started. Nobody will mind if they get up and start wandering around in the middle of the show.
Plus: jugglers, magicians, storytellers – including the Blue Fairy, Jacqueline Lynaugh, as the Snow Queen - and free hot cocoa and cider.
Sounds like fun, huh? Wish it had been around when I was their age.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Remembering That Day

Last year I asked my classmates, all of whom were freshmen at Yale, to remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the terrible news from Dallas. Here's what they said:

Tom Jones was in the library of the Art & Architecture building when he heard the news coming through the window from a transistor radio on the street outside. Richard Nelson was in Lawrence Hall, listening to a song by an unknown band called The Beatles.
George McGaughey was sitting in chemistry class, waiting for the professor, who was unaccountably late.
"As we were getting up to leave, the door to the classroom burst open. A very excited student stepped into the room and shouted, 'The President's been shot!'
"I turned to the fellow next to me and said, 'Now, who in God's name would shoot Kingman Brewster?' We looked at each other and said, 'Holy Christ! He means President Kennedy!'"
It was 50 years ago this month: November 22, 1963, the Friday of what was supposed to be our first Harvard weekend.
As George walked down the hill back to the Old Campus, he saw cars stopped randomly up and down the street. "Not just in traffic lanes but helter-skelter all over the roadway, with doors and windows open and their radios turned way up. I could follow the news reports coming over their radios as I walked back to the Old Campus, all trying to determine whether the President was dead or alive. We soon learned the horrible truth."
Tom Judson was on the freshman football team, playing against their Harvard counterparts. "The people in the stands had known but didn't tell us until the game was over," he says. "I remember walking back to the locker room next to Tim Weigel, who was weeping."
Chuck Lidz was in his Poly Sci 30 class, taught by the great Karl Deutch. "He walked in a couple of minutes late and announced that the President had died. Then he lectured passionately about how we needed to stand behind President Johnson against what he firmly believed was the first step in a fascist coup. I heard that it took him almost a week to stop worrying about it. Apparently, having lived in Germany in the '30s had a significant impact."
Tom Maynard loved President Kennedy. "I grew up in a close Irish Catholic family, and John Kennedy was for all of us more than the President. He was the fourth member of the Holy Trinity. The shock when his death was announced was like losing a family member. Worse."
Bob Leahy loved him, too. "When he died, it felt like something inside me died. Jim Manor and I got together in my room in Bingham Hall and proceeded to get drunk on gin. It was the first time I had ever gotten drunk. Manor and I listened to the 'Camelot' album and tried to sing along. To this day I can't stand the smell of gin, but I still like Manor."
The grief crossed partisan lines. "Some of us were great admirers of the President; others, including myself at the time, were less so," says John Lungstrum. "But that was not the point. This kind of thing just didn't happen in America!"
It was evening when Sten Lofgren heard the news in his native Sweden. "I stood on the balcony looking up at the stars and clutching a portable radio. Slowly, I moved the pointer from one end of the dial to the other, tuning in every major radio station in Europe. Everywhere there was somber music interrupted by solemn announcers speaking many different languages, most of which I could not identify, let alone comprehend. What was instantly clear, though, was that they all used the words 'John F. Kennedy' and 'Dallas, Texas.' All of Europe, and probably most of the world, was in mourning in spite of whatever political differences they might otherwise have had."
Sefik Buyukyuksel was living in his native Turkey when he heard the news. But his future wife, concert pianist Idil Biret, was in Boston that day, about to make her American debut with the Boston Symphony. After announcing the news of the President's death to the audience, Henry B. Cabot, president of the orchestra's board of trustees, declared that the show would go on. It was the only concert in the country that wasn't cancelled that day.
"And so we played Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto for a Boston audience that was in shock," she recalls. "Some of the cellos came in too early before I started the cadenza between the second and third movement. It was probably due to emotion. You can feel the heavy atmosphere in the recording that was made during the concert." (You can hear that recording, including Cabot's speech, on Sefik and Idil's website, idilbiret.eu/en?p+318/)
Some classmates, like Carl Williams, spent the day praying and weeping in Dwight Hall Chapel. Others, including Ray Rahn and Ken Kusterer, hitchhiked to Washington for the funeral. "Chuck Schumer (no relation to the Senator) and I put on our suits and went out to stand on I-95," says Ken. "Before even putting out our thumbs, a large Puerto Rican family picked us up, knowing from our suits that we were going where they were. In D.C. we spent the night sitting on our curb spot, and from there we saw the funeral procession the next day. We got a ride hone from a fellow curb-sitter and joined the throng of cars headed back north."
Randy Alfred, a native Bostonian, was only 12 when he met JFK in person. Randy's junior high class was on a field trip to Washington, D.C. in 1958, and one of their stops was a visit with their state's junior senator. Kennedy spoke briefly to the group and then asked for questions, no doubt expecting the how-does-a-bill-become-a-law variety. Instead, Randy, being Randy, asked a sophisticated question about reciprocal trade agreements.
Kennedy threw his head back and laughed, in the manner we all knew so well, and said, "That's a mighty big question from a little boy!" Then he proceeded to give Randy a serious answer to his question.
"Ever since that trip I'd tried to get a copy of the group photo we took with him, but the teacher had misplaced the only copy, and inquiries to the Senate and the White House had proved fruitless," says Randy. "But a few days after the assassination my mom telephoned me with news that the teacher was rummaging through his attic and finally located the original. As I was the only one who'd ever inquired about it, he mailed it to me. When it arrived, I discovered that Kennedy had autographed it. I hung it on my wall. It's still on my wall."
And for Barry Golson, the Kennedy connection went back to before he was born. "In 1940 my Boston-born mother was at Regis, a small Catholic women's college. There was a mixer, and Mom, who was a babe back in the day, was asked to dance by a skinny guy from Harvard. Jack Kennedy and my mother danced together the rest of the evening and hit it off. They had a couple of dates more and wrote each other letters. It was a very brief romance, and I never inquired about the details. (This is my mother we're talking about.)
"So Jack Kennedy was someone familiar to me as I grew up. In 1956, Mom called me over to the TV set during the Democratic convention, when an absurdly young JFK made a run for VP. 'Watch that man,' Mom said. 'He'll be president someday.' At Exeter, I stayed up all night listening to the election returns of 1960, which was more than JFK himself did. In November 1963, as a freshman like the rest of you, I heard the terrible news in Bingham. It was the first death of anyone I 'knew,' as well as the death of a President. I never really got over it.
"P.S. When Mom got back from her honeymoon in 1943 with my dad, whom she also met at a dance, she returned home while my Navy dad went back to sea. She looked in her bedside table, where she kept things that mattered to her. The handwritten letters from JFK were gone. Crestfallen, Mom asked her mother where the letters were. 'A proper wife never keeps letters from her former beaus,' said my Boston battleaxe of a grandmother. 'I threw them out.'"

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Cat Who Came In From The Cold

                             (Above: Pirate, before and after)

Once upon a time, a light-brown-and-gray tabby kitten lived with an elderly woman in Alameda. He was loved, but, like so many cats, he was never taken to the vet, even though there was something wrong with his left eye that caused him to squint.
When his owner passed away, the kitten was left to fend for himself. So he did what any smart cat would do.
Nearby was an elementary school with a crossing guard. So he took it upon himself to accompany the guard, Cecilia Theis, every time she stepped into the crosswalk to halt traffic for the kids.
They quickly struck a deal: In return for his help, he got two meals a day. He quickly learned that if he showed up a few minutes early, she'd open a can of cat food and let him eat before his shift began.
The children loved him and named him Pirate because one eye was shut, and he realized that if he timed his arrival right, they'd give him neck and belly rubs on their way to and from school. He started to trust people again.
That was two years ago. Two months ago, a wonderful rescue organization called Island Cat Resources and Adoption heard about Pirate, and a couple of volunteers went over to check out his eye problem.
It turned out to be an extremely painful condition that caused his eyelashes to grow inward. But it was curable. All he needed was an expensive operation.
Now, this is usually something ICRA can't handle. They're a strictly volunteer group whose budget is already stretched to the max paying for routine medical care, vaccinations and spay/neuter surgery for the cats and kittens they rescue.
But this was a special case. After all he'd been through already, how could they let him continue to suffer?
So they dug deep into their own pockets and somehow came up with enough money to pay for the surgery.
It was a success. Pirate is not only cured, he's been adopted. He's now living with Theis (surprise!) in his forever home.
But he still makes an occasional visit to his lucky crosswalk for old times' sake. And the children still adore him and pet him.
ICRA has found new homes for 4,500 cats In the last 10 years, as well spaying or neutering more than 16,000. Considering that a single pair of fertile cats and their offspring will produce 65,000 cats in just five years, that's a lot of unwanted kittens that were never born to short, miserable lives.
If you'd like to support ICRA's lifesaving mission, there's an easy way: Buy your Christmas decorations, gifts, cards, wrapping paper, baked items, jewelry and more at ICRA's annual Holiday Boutique, which will take place Friday, Dec. 5, from noon to 6 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 6, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at the Alameda Elks Lodge, 2255 Santa Clara Avenue. And if you can't make it to the Holiday Boutique, you can still donate on ICRA's website, www.icraeastbay.org. That's also where you can see pictures of some very adorable kitties up for adoption.
ICRA doesn't have a shelter; and that, paradoxically, is an advantage because all the cats are fostered in private homes, which makes them much friendlier and less timid.
Sorry, Pirate is already taken.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Her Honor, the Mayor!

(Above: Oakland's new mayor. Photo by Cisco DeVries)

A couple of days after her stunning victory in last week's Oakland mayoral race, Libby Schaaf was asked by an interviewer, "How do you plan to change the perception that Oakland is riddled with crime?"
Her answer was revealing. "Change the reality," she said.
Typical Libby: Attack the problem, don't spin it.
I first met her at a fundraising party 30 years ago, while she was still in school, although we have slightly different memories of the encounter.
Her memory is that I was the only grownup who didn't talk down to her like a kid.
My memory was that I spent so much time talking with her because she was the only interesting person in the room.
Right away I knew I had met an extraordinary young person -  smart, wise beyond her years, whose love for her home town was obvious. I thought, "Wow. Wouldn't it be nice if she became mayor some day?"
And now she has. I'm happy for her, but I'm even happier for Oakland, a wonderful town that deserves the leadership I know she will give it.
Richard Nixon – probably not one of her favorite politicians – once said, "Some people want to BE President; others want to DO president."
Libby has never wanted to BE mayor. She wants to DO mayor. And that's going to happen, largely because she follows the maxim of another Republican politician: Ronald Reagan, who said, "There's nothing you can't accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."
That's Libby through-and-through, too. Even though she was on the City Council for only four years before winning the mayor's job, she already compiled an impressive record of forging alliances,
She has a few other things going for her, too, including a real mandate – unlike her predecessor, she led the ballot count wire to wire – and a reputation for fair dealing.
Most of all, she has the people of Oakland themselves, who have always been the city's greatest asset. Especially her own generation of thirty/fortysomethings, who are trying to be part of the solution, each in his/her own way.
People like Sophia Chang, founder of Kitchener Oakland, a support and resource for new food businesses of every kind.
And Kev Choice, the multitalented jazz keyboardist/composer/producer who is just as likely to be found registering voters at political events as performing up on stage.
And graffiti artist, hip-hop dancer, toymaker and photographer Jessica Sabogal, one of the leading lights of the Oakland Arts Renaissance.
And event producer Sarah Kidder, who runs Oaktown's pride and joy, the monthly Oakland First Fridays festival. When the bands, artists, attendees and cops all agree the event is cool, fun and safe, you know you're doing something right.
I've been waiting a long time for this generation to take charge. Now's their time, and Libby's election is just the leading edge.
So best wishes to Mayor-elect Schaaf and the city she loves so much. I have a feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
P.S. Libby's election is a historic milestone in another way. It's the first time a former Children's Fairyland Storybook Personality has been elected Mayor of Oakland. In 1975 she was Raggedy Ann. And her best friend, Leslie Zimmerman, who later was the maid of honor at her wedding, was Raggedy Andy.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hear! Hear!

          (Above: Nan and one of her friends at CEID)

Happy birthday to a very special dog named Nan, who will celebrate her third birthday on November 17.
Actually, she won't be three until November 30, but she's going to celebrate early so all her little buddies, age 3-5, at the Center for the Early Intervention on Deafness in Berkeley can party with her. (They'll be off for Thanksgiving break.) The toddlers, who are deaf or hearing impaired, will wear dog-ear party hats, sing happy birthday, and share a special treat.
How they love Nan! She helps them complete puzzles. She teaches them different body parts, from her tail to the tip of her nose. ("Touch Nan's nose," "touch Nan's paw," "put the blanket over Nan," "put the blanket under Nan," etc.)
She helps them select words during speech therapy. She pulls them in the play yard cart.
Best of all, she never judges them. She always greets them with a happy face and a wagging tail. (That's a Lab/golden retriever mix for you.)
Of course, what she's really teaching them is how to make it in a hearing world. At the same time her human partner, CEID executive director Cindy Dickerson, is signing to the little tykes, she's also enunciating the words, to get them subliminally used to reading lips.
CEID was founded in 1980 by Dickerson's predecessor, Jill Ellis, who based it on one simple insight: The first five years of life are the formative years, in every sense of the word.
Most kids won't start learning to read until they're five or six, so they have to get those crucial informational building blocks through their ears.
But what if you're deaf? While all the other kids are soaking up all that data and meta-programming their own brains, you're missing out. You'll be playing catch-up for the rest of your life.
Ergo, it's essential to indentify hearing loss in babies at the earliest possible moment and start dealing with it right away, whether through sign language, lip reading, fitting them with hearing aids or cochlear implants (I saw one little girl whose implants were shocking pink) or a combination.
But in the meantime, you have to find another way to get that crucial information about the world into their little brains.
That's where Nan comes in.
And she's only one of many, many educational and therapeutic programs at CEID that I don't have space to tell you about. You can find out about the others at CEID's website, ceid.org. That's also where you can make a donation, or you can mail a check to 1035 Grayson St., Berkeley 94710.
Believe me, there's no way I can describe how much good CEID does, or how moving it is to watch these adorable little kids, who otherwise might be condemned to be always on the outside looking in, getting empowered more and more each day and gleefully soaking up the world, like any little kid should.
All praise to Jill Ellis, who retired as CEID's executive director a couple of months ago; to Cindy Dickerson, her worthy successor; their staff and volunteers; and everyone who donates to this wonderful organization.
And to Nan, of course. Her fame has spread beyond CEID, and she now has her own business card, Facebook page (nanceidfacilitydog) and Twitter account (nan@nanceid).

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Cat For All Seasons

                                         (Above: Kitty and one of her fans)
Sad faces on University Avenue in Berkeley: Kitty the cat, the official greeter and chief morale officer at Darling Flower Shop, was put to sleep on Oct. 23 after a losing battle with cancer. She was 14.
In the days before she died, dozens of people dropped by to say farewell.
"She was the sweetest cat I've ever known," says Paul Erickson, the night manager at nearby Au Coquelet cafĂ©.  "A lot of people who came by were not customers of the flower shop. They only saw her through the glass windows at the front of the store at night, when the store was closed. She'd come right up to the window and interact with them through the glass.
"She knew a couple of hundred people as individuals. She even remembered one grad student who had been gone a couple of years. When he came back, she went wild with joy."
Kitty had plenty of friends in the daytime, too. When the store was open she'd stand outside the front door and meow at anyone who passed by without stopping to pet her.
"And if that didn't do the trick, she'd run onto the sidewalk after them and meow even louder," says Jay Touriel, whose family has owned Darling Flower Shop since it was founded more than 80 years ago.
Jay and his wife Barbara loved Kitty unconditionally, even when she ripped apart the most expensive flowers in the shop, the Lizianthus, part of the catnip family.
"What the heck," he would say. "This is her home. She's a good girl."
When Kitty wasn't at the front of the store, she hung out in the office in back, curled up in her favorite possession, Jay's swivel chair.
"She loved to sit in it and be twirled around and around," says Barbara. "The faster, the better."
Kitty was actually Darling Flower Shop's third cat by that name. Kitty No. 1 was a Main Coon adopted from the Berkeley Humane Society. She lived for 10 years.
The day after she died, the shop was invaded by rats that had been attracted by a movie theater on one side and a restaurant on the other.
"I never realized how much Kitty had kept them at bay all those years," says Jay.
So the next day they adopted Kitty No. 2, a short-haired tabby. She, too, lived for 10 years. And the day after she died, a man came into the shop and said, "I have two little kittens that look a lot like your cat."
"I told him my cat had died the day before, and he gave me the kittens," says Jay. The male kitten found a home with Jay's dad in Kensington. The female became Kitty No. 3.
So will there be a Kitty No. 4? Of course. But she'll have a hard act to follow.
Darling Flower Shop was founded by Jay's grandfather, Raymond Touriel, in 1932. Among its customers: Billy Martin ("We did the flowers for all his weddings," says Barbara), actor Jerry "The Beaver" Mathers, and game show host Ralph Edwards,
And how did the shop get its name?
"A few months after it opened, a little old lady walked by," says Barbara. "She said, 'Oh, what a darling flower shop!' And the rest is history."

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Going For Broke

(Above: Lawson Sakai in 1944, just before he shipped out, and in 2011, when he and the other surviving veterans of the 442nd RCT were invited to Washington, D.C. to receive a Congressional Gold Medal.)
On the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, 18-year-old Lawson Sakai was listening to a pro football game on the radio in the family kitchen.
Suddenly, a breathless announcer interrupted the broadcast and said, "The Japanese have attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii!"
The next morning, Lawson and four of his friends marched down to the Army recruiting office to sign up.
They were accepted, but he was turned away. Why? Because they were white and he was Japanese-American.
He asked for an explanation and discovered that his draft classification had been changed from 1-A to 4-C, "enemy alien," even though he was born and raised in the USA.
There was worse to come. A few weeks later, all the Japanese-Americans on the west coast were arrested and sent to detention camps that were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, where it was broiling hot in summer, freezing cold in winter, and dirty, dusty and depressing all year round.
The camps were surrounded by barbed wire, and there were guards with machine guns on the watchtowers, ready to shoot anyone who tried to escape.
And for what? There was not even one incident of Japanese-American espionage or sabotage throughout the war. The whole thing was racist, mean-spirited and cruel.
So what was Lawson's response? He volunteered again to fight for the country that was doing this to him and his family. Talk about returning good for evil!
And he was turned down again. So he tried the Navy. They said no, too.
Finally, in 1943, the Army was so desperate for manpower, it was willing to take anyone, even Japanese-Americans. (But in a segregated unit, of course.)
Thousands of Japanese-American boys volunteered, including future U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed.
Were they good soldiers? No. They were the best soldiers America has ever had, and the numbers bear that out. They were awarded more medals, man for man, than any other military unit in American history.
"They were superb!” said General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Army. "They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit. Everybody wanted them."
They were called the "Purple Heart Battalion" because they suffered so many casualties - 9,486 in all.
Lawson was awarded four of those Purple Hearts – technically, a Purple Heart with three Oak Leaf Clusters - and he would have been awarded a fifth if he hadn't refused because he didn't think his wound was serious enough. (He also received a Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman's Badge.)
On October 27, 1944 – 70 years ago next Monday - he was on patrol in the Vosges Mountains when he suddenly found himself face-to-face with a German soldier.
They both fired their rifles simultaneously. The German missed. Lawson did not.
Hours later, after the battle, he looked at the calendar and realized that it was his 21st birthday. More importantly, it was also the day he didn't die.
Remember the end of "Saving Private Ryan," when the dying Captain Miller says to Private Ryan, "Earn this?"
Lawson Sakai has spent the last 70 years earning the sacrifice of his brothers-in-arms who never come back. He has been an exemplary husband, father, businessman, veteran and, speaking personally, friend.
Happy 91st birthday, Lawson. And happy anniversary, too.