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

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Eyes Have It

(Above: Dr. Lee, Dr. Jung, and Dr. Litwin)
Stupid me. No sooner did I settle into my new digs when I hit myself in the eye with a garbage can lid. It takes a perverse sort of talent to accomplish this, but I managed to pull it off.
I immediately knew something was seriously wrong. I had blurry double vision, and my fear was that it was another detached retina. I had two detachments 20 years ago, one in each eye, and my sight was saved only because I had a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Scott Lee of East Bay Retina Consultants.
A retinal detachment is a very scary proposition, and the sooner the doctor can re-attach it, the better. But it was 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and I was worried that everyone in Dr. Lee's office had already gone home.
Fortunately, not everybody had. I talked with the newest doctor on the staff, Dr. Jesse Jung; and, believe it or not, he diagnosed my condition right over the phone.
"It doesn't sound like a retinal detachment," he said. "With the symptoms you describe, you probably dislodged the lens. Unlike the retina, we don't need to jump on it today. Come in to the office on Monday and see Dr. Lee, and he'll take it from there."
Sure enough, Dr. Lee confirmed his diagnosis, and then he surprised me by saying something you never expect to hear a surgeon say: "I think Dr. Jung should do the surgery instead of me."
Surgeons (like trial lawyers) have a reputation for being rather, shall we say, self-confident, and this was an incredibly humble thing for Dr. Lee to do. But, as he explained it, over the years he has tended to specialize more and more on the back of the eye, like retinas, and Dr. Jung specializes in the front of the eye, like dislodged lenses. So he did what he felt was in the best interest of the patient and passed me on to the younger man.
And he was right. Dr. Jung did a great job. It's only been a few days since the operation, but I can already tell my sight is coming back.
It'll never be as good as before, of course. Doctors are just human beings, and while they do the best they can, only Mother Nature has a monopoly on perfection. But it'll be good enough to serve me well for the rest of my life, as long as I stay away from garbage can lids.
I've been going to East Bay Retina for 20 years. Their patients are people with serious problems like detached retinas, macular degeneration and dislodged lenses. Thank goodness the doctors and staff really know their stuff and are really nice people, too. Their patients need it.
My only complaint is that when they moved from their previous location on Pill Hill to their present site on Telegraph Avenue (kitty-corner across the street from the old Neldam's Bakery, which was resurrected by some former employees in 2010 and renamed Taste of Denmark), they didn't bring the eye chart in their waiting room with them. It read:
It's the second-best waiting room sign I've ever seen, second only to the one at Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital before it was remodeled, which read, "Sit. Stay. The doctor will be with you in a minute."

Update: A few weeks ago I was singing the praises of my retina doctors, Scott Lee and Jesse Jung, for saving the sight in my right eye after I dislodged the lens in a freak accident.
Well, time to add another name to the list. Last week I had a bad setback when all of a sudden I couldn't see anything out of that eye. I called Dr. Lee and Dr. Jung's office and made an appointment for the next day; but I was still feeling nervous, so I called my ophthalmologist, Dr. Josh Litwin, and asked him to talk me down.
He listened for a few minutes and then said, "I can't continue this conversation right now because I was just walking out the door when you called. I have a medical problem of my own and I'm late for my own doctor's appointment. But give me your contact information anyway."
I didn't know why he wanted it, but I figured he just wanted to update his records since I recently moved.
But an hour later I heard a knock on my door, and there was Dr. Litwin! I mean, who makes house calls any more?
The answer is Dr. Litwin. He walked in, sat me down in my living room, pulled some instruments from out of his medical bag, and gave me a thorough eye exam.
"Just as I thought," he said. "The pressure in your eye is way, way up, sort of like glaucoma on steroids."
As it turns out, steroids had a lot to do with it. There are some steroids in the antibiotic eye drops I have been using to prevent infection, and they can trigger increased eye pressure, which is what caused my blindness. (Dr. Jung had warned me about this and told me not to overdo the drops. But did I listen? No.)
"Oh my God!" I said. "What can I do?"
"Don't worry," he said. "I brought some pills with me. Take one now, another before you go to bed, and see Dr. Jung tomorrow."
Sure enough, Dr. Jung confirmed his diagnosis the next day and said the pills were having the desired effect. A few days later my vision was back to normal.
Now, in hindsight I probably could have waited until the next day, but I can't tell you what it was a relief to have Dr. Litwin show up when he did. And he knew it.
"I didn't do it for this," he said, pointing at my eye. "I did it for this," he said, tapping my forehead. "You sounded really scared on the phone, and I didn't want you to have to agonize overnight."
I'm so grateful to Dr. Litwin, but I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. His father is the iconic Berkeley eye doctor Richard Litwin, a man who bears an astounding physical resemblance to Santa Claus and has been the go-to guy for generations of Berkeleyans, who love him for acting like a small-town doctor. And it looks like his son hasn't fallen very far from the tree.
I'm an old man, and at my age there are no guarantees. My sight might or not come back permanently to what it was, but I sure can't say I haven't had the very best medical treatment possible.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Gold Medal in Bigotry

                                (Above: Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast in history)

Female athletes – especially African-American female athletes – have been dominating the Olympics, but you'd never know it from listening to those old white dudes in the media.
From NBC's Al Trautwig harping that gold medal gymnast Simone Biles's grandparents, who have raised her since she was a baby, are not actually her parents, to his colleague Dan Hicks' contention that 400-meter gold medalist Katinka Hosszu's husband is "the guy responsible" for her win, to the Chicago Tribune's reporting Corey Cogdell-Unrein bronze medal in trap shooting with the headline "Wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein wins bronze in Rio," the sexism was almost comical if it weren't so embarrassing.
African-American gymnast Gaby Douglas, a member of the gold medal-winning all-around team, was thoroughly trashed by the right wing media for not holding her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony, but they never uttered a peep when Donald Trump did the same thing during the presidential debates.
But at least her ceremony was televised. When 100-meter freestyler Simone Manuel made history by becoming the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold in an individual swimming event – with all its social/political implications, given the bitter civil rights battles during the 1960s over blacks being allowed to use "white" swimming pools – NBC didn't even show her medal ceremony.
NBC didn't televise the opening ceremony live, either, because, as chief marketing officer Jeff Miller explained, "The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they're less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It's sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one."
Want more? Uzbecki gymnast Oksana Chusovitina was roundly criticized because her pink and white leotard "failed to complement her skin tone," Austrian Larrissa Miller "turned heads for all the wrong reasons" because her leotard had "an unattractive teal hue with a rhinestone-covered collar," and when NBC's camera showed the U.S. women's gymnastic team gathered together during the all-around competition a male announcer – whom NBC still refuses to identify – said, "They might as well be standing in the middle of a mall."
Before you accuse me of political correctness, ask yourself: When was the last time you heard this kind of language being used about men, especially white men? Michael Phelps is being called "the greatest Olympian in history," but Katie Ledecky, a five-time Olympic gold medalist and nine-time world champion, is only "the female Michael Phelps" and is praised by saying "She swims like a man."
One incident can be brushed off as a fluke. Two could be a coincidence. But three or more – and there are a lot more – is a definite pattern. Shame on the media in general and NBC in particular.
But there's one shining exception: swimming commentator Rowdy Gaines, who said, "A lot of people think she swims like a man. She swims like Katie Ledecky, for crying out loud!"
Of course, Gaines is a three-time gold medalist himself, unlike Trautwig, whose sole connection to organized sports was being stick-boy for the New York Islanders and ball boy for the New York Nets, or Hicks, who, as far as I can determine, never played organized sports at all. So what does he know?

The Last Of The Old Fashioned Hardware Stores

(Above: The magical K&V Tite Joint Fastener.)
 My sister, who knows me oh so well, calls me "a man of very little faith," and she doesn’t mean it as a compliment. She's not referring to anything religious or spiritual; what she means is that I have a bad habit of always expecting the worst. And she's right. If I had a coat of arms, it would show a half-empty glass.
Then an amazing thing happened.
For the last two months I've been engaged in the arduous experience of moving to a new home (which I'll write about in another column). But at least I'd be able to take my two cats, Sally and Pepe with me, as well as my beloved chest bed, which has a lot of sentimental value for me (two ex-girlfriends and five cats).
But when the movers came to pack me up, they informed me that they wouldn't be able to put the chest bed back together again because it needs four essential metal thingamabobs to connect the pieces, and three of them were missing.
What's more, they were doubtful about my chances of finding any replacements. "They're so rare, you'll never find one in a hardware store," they told me. But they gave me a list of places to start looking and wished me luck.
I prowled every salvage yard and antique store in Berkeley, but nobody even knew what the thingababob was, much less where I could find any.
I was in despair. Finally, I gave up and decided have a professional machinist hand-make me three more. It would mean big bucks, but I really love that bed.
But a little voice told me that I'd never rest easily unless I gave it one last shot and, despite what the movers said, ran it past the folks at my old tried-and-true, Berkeley Hardware.
I showed the thing to Assistant Manager Andy Taylor, and he said, "Oh yeah! A K&V Tite Joint Fastener!" (You mean the thing actually has a name?)
Whereupon, Inventory Manager Sherrin Farley, who had been listening to our conversation from her adjoining office, piped up, "I got 'em right here on my desk!"
It turns out they'd had them for nobody can remembers how long, and rather than let them take up space on the shelves, where nobody would want them anyway, she decided to stash them in her office and worry about what to do with them later.
Now that's a real, old fashioned family hardware store!
Berkeley Hardware has been serving the community for more than 120 years and has been owned by the same family for more than 70. Last month it moved from its longtime home on University Avenue to a new site at 2020 Milvia Street.
Family is the operative word, from owners Bill and Virginia Carpenter (and their kids and grandkids) to General Manager Quentin "Chuck" Moore to the employees, all of whom seem like they've been working there forever.
On August 20 they'll celebrate the move with a "Grand-Reopening" with refreshments, goody bags, drawings and more.
Parking can sometimes be iffy, but don't let that deter you. Berkeley Hardware is a community treasure. I mean, where else are you going to find a K&V Tite Joint Fastener?
And the kitties? I still haven't been able to coax Pepe out of the bedroom. Suggestions will be gratefully accepted.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Tricky Dick And Us

Tuesday will be the 42nd anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon, an event I celebrated by literally dancing in the streets.
Why did people like me despise him so? Partly, it was because he fought dirty. Starting with his first race against Jerry Voorhis, his favorite tactic was intimating that whoever stood in his way was a traitor.
But I think the real reason was because, as much as we hate to admit it, he was the true mirror of our national soul.
We want to think we're like Jack Kennedy - handsome, graceful, a hit with the girls. But the truth is that most of us are more like Nixon - insecure, resentful, and compulsively self-destructive.
I remember the night of the Kent State killings, when he tried to talk with protesters at the Lincoln Memorial by making chitchat about football. How we sneered!
It feels good to make fun of the class nerd. It makes you feel like part of the "in" crowd, even if you aren't.
Especially when you can feel so self-righteous about it. After all, this was Nixon the red-baiter, second only to Joe McCarthy as the arch-villain of the 1950s. He deserved all the bad things that happened to him, didn't he?
Yes and no. Sure, he looked silly talking about touchdowns and field goals to students who wanted to talk about war and peace. But it was the closest he could come to extending a hand. And we slapped it away, laughing at his lamenwss.
To a paranoid like Nixon, it must have been another confirmation of what life had been teaching him since childhood: He really was surrounded by enemies.
"What starts the process, really," he wrote about his passion for winning, "are the laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid. But if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by personal gut performance."
And Nixon had a childhood that would make anyone paranoid. His younger brother Arthur died from meningitis, then his older brother Harold died from tuberculosis.
Those illnesses ate up what little money the family had, and Nixon had to turn down a scholarship offer from Harvard and attend little Whittier College, instead. (No wonder he was so jealous of the Kennedys.)
And yet this loser, through sheer force of will, transformed himself into a winner. A lot of us thought he sold his soul in the process, but who among us is without sin? Our beloved Jack Kennedy's record isn't so hot when it comes to the McCarthy era, either. And remember, it was the Kennedys, not Nixon, who authorized the FBI wiretaps on Martin Luther King.
Ironically, after the fall of the Soviet Union the secret KGB files came to light, and it turned out that some of the people Nixon accused of espionage, like Alger Hiss, really were spies, after all.
I know it doesn't make up for Watergate. All I'm saying is that Nixon was speaking for us all when he pronounced his own epitaph the day he resigned: "Others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."
There, but for the grace of God, go we.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Hamilton Would Have Voted For Hillary

You think this year's election is nasty? We're just amateurs compared to the Founding Fathers.
Take the election of 1800 – please! It pitted President John Adams for the Federalists against Vice President Thomas Jefferson for the Republicans (who were actually the forerunners of today's Democratic Party. It's complicated).
Adams accused Jefferson of playing footsie with the radicals in France who were sending people to the guillotine by the thousands (which was true), and Jefferson accused Adams of clapping people into prison for criticizing him (which was also true).
But all that was just a prelude to the main act after the election. The result was a tie. Jefferson got 73 electoral votes, and so did – not Adams, but Jefferson's own vice presidential running mate, Aaron Burr.
This result happened because of a peculiar system in the Electoral College. Each elector had two votes, and the man who got the most votes became president and the guy who came in next became vice president (a system that was changed two years later after they saw what a mess they'd made).
The Republicans blew it. Their Virginia electors thought a few New York electors would vote for somebody beside Burr, and the New York electors assumed the Virginia electors would do it, and the result was that nobody did.
So the decision was left to the lame duck House of Representatives, which was controlled by the Federalists. And a lot of them hated Jefferson so much, there was a lot of talk about voting for Burr out of spite.
But Alexander Hamilton, who had been Jefferson's political arch-enemy for years, put the kibosh on the idea. "If there is a man in this world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson," he wrote his friends in Congress. "But the public good must be paramount to every private consideration."
He still thought Jefferson was a hypocrite and political fanatic, but Burr was worse - "a cold-blooded Cataline, a profligate, a voluptuary, without doubt insolvent." Burr was capable of selling out the country to a foreign power, or starring a war for personal profit.
"For Heaven's sake," wrote Hamilton, "let not the Federalist Party be responsible for the elevation of this man!"
Hamilton's argument carried the day. Jefferson was elected, and Burr went on to shoot Hamilton and organize a conspiracy to create an independent country in what is now the Midwest and the Southwest, for which Jefferson had him arrested for treason. (He got off, thanks to Chief Justice John Marshall, who wanted to stick it to Jefferson.)
And now today's Republican Party – the party of Honest Abe, Teddy, Ike, and The Gipper - will assemble in Cleveland next week to nominate the most reprehensible candidate since Aaron Burr.
It would take ten columns to list all the reasons why he's unfit for this job: his bigotry, his ignorance, his narcissism, his insecurity, his boorishness, his vulgarity, the sadistic pleasure he takes in humiliating people in public - I could go on and on.
But it comes down to this: Our beloved country feels like it's coming apart right now. Do we really need this guy in the Oval Office pouring more fuel on the flames?
For Heaven's sake, let not the Republican Party be responsible for the elevation of this man.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Those Were The Days

(Above: The Snake and an unidentified man on the right. Photo by Sports Illustrated)

I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to Ken Stabler's induction into the NFL Hall of Fame on August 6 with mixed emotions.
Yes, I'm happy that he's finally getting recognized. But what took them so long? Why did they wait until after he died, when they knew how much it meant to him?
This isn't the first time the HOF has been a day late and a dollar short. They did the same thing to Les Richter, the great Cal and L.A. Rams linebacker, electing him six months after he died. And there are plenty of other deserving old timers waiting in line, including Jerry Kramer, Jim Marshall and the Mad Duck himself, Alex Karras.
But they're likely to wait a lot longer, as great younger players like Kurt Warner, Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning become eligible and elbow them aside. Kramer, the key player in the Green Bay power sweep, the most famous football play of all time, wasn't even nominated this year.
As more and more younger players retire and more and more Hall of Fame voters are too young to remember the old guys, many old timers will be lucky to get in at all, let alone in their own lifetime.
But don't let my grumpiness spoil the celebration. All hail The Snake, who was Joe Montana before Joe Montana. No amount of bureaucratic disrespect can diminish his glory or the pleasure he gave us.
It really was a golden age back in the 70s, with the Raiders, Warriors and A's all winning championships - the A's three years in a row. But the team that had the strongest hold on our hearts was the Raiders.
How much fun it was to attend a game at the Coliseum! Each section was a tiny community of its own, with many fans turning down the team's offer to move them to better seats as a reward for being longtime season ticket holders because they didn't want to move away from their friends in the section, who they had come to think of as family.
Each section seemed to have its own matriarch, usually called Mom, who adored the Raiders – especially Stabler and Marv Hubbard, who, sadly, also passed away last year – and despised the Broncos and Chiefs.
And Heaven help anyone who cussed in front of kids; the whole section would come down on him. The atmosphere was downright wholesome, in its own rowdy way.
And they were loyal, even when the team betrayed them by moving to Los Angeles. The most loyal of all was a group called the Bay Area Dirtballs, who flew down to L.A. for all the home games.
But within a year after the team returned to Oakland in 1995 most of the Dirtballs had given up their season tickets, preferring to watch games at sports bars like Ricky's, instead.
Why? Two words: Black Hole. They didn't like the new breed of fans the team brought back with it from L.A. They felt their team had been hijacked by a bunch of wild-eyed crazies they had nothing in common with, and it didn't feel like their team anymore.
So as a longtime Raiders fan, I know how a lot of Republicans are feeling these days.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Play's The Thing

(Above: Harriet Schlader, founder and Managing Director of the Woodminster Summer Musicals, poses with Daniel Barrington Rubio, who is playing the title role in Shrek The Musical, which will open the organization’s 50th season of musicals in Woodminster Amphitheater.  Photo by Kathy Kahn.)

Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland is one of the Eastbay's crowning glories, featuring cascades, a reflecting pool and the jewel in the crown, the Woodminster Amphitheater, a beautiful open-air facility with spectacular views and a woodsy environment that was built as a WPA project during the Great Depression.
For the last 50 years Harriet Schlader and her late husband Jim, who passed away in 2010, have been delighting local theater fans by presenting some of Broadway's best musicals under the stars at Woodminster. Their first production was South Pacific, followed by Paint Your Wagon, Kiss Me Kate and The Music Man. This year it starts with Shrek: The Musical, which opens July 8, followed by Chicago in August and La Cage Aux Folles in September.
For many East Bay families, it's a longstanding tradition to enjoy a picnic in the park and then see a musical at Woodminster. Some season ticket holders have been sitting in the same seats for three generations.
And they can always count on two things: a highly professional production and a fast-moving show that ends no later than 10:30.
For years, I heard different stories about the reason why. Some said it's the law in Oakland; others said it's in Woodminster's contract with the musicians' union. But Harriet says it's a lot simpler: concern for the audience's rear ends.
"It's stadium seating," she says. "That can be hard on your butt, so we keep the shows down to 2½ hours. As my Jim used to say, 'Get out before they catch on.'"
Jim and Harriet were already Broadway veterans when they began producing musicals at Woodminster. He was a singer whose opera-trained tenor voice made him a favorite with producers - he was never out of work longer than two months for more than 20 years - and she was a dancer who performed with the Radio City Music Hall corps de ballet and on The Jackie Gleason Show as a member of the June Taylor Dancers.
And while they always tried to choose shows for Woodminster that would entertain an audience, they chose shows that elevated the audience, too.
For instance, back in the 1970s segregation was still a way of life in Oakland, but the Schladers fought that attitude with art, presenting No Strings (about an interracial romance) and an Oklahoma with African American actors in the leading roles.
"When the curtain raised, you could see people in the audience elbowing each other, like the wave," says Harriet. "When Curly came out, they sat there with their arms folded. But within 15 minutes they forgot about it and were totally into the show.
"But we still got calls afterward. 'Are you going to do the next show the way you did with Oklahoma?' 'What do you mean?' 'You know, with black people in the cast?' It made me so mad! I mean, it's entertainment! And now here we are years later with Hamilton. It goes to show that anybody can play any role if you engage the audience. That's what theater is all about."
Happy anniversary, Woodminster. May it prosper for another 50 years. And it probably will, because waiting in the wings as Harriet's eventual successor is the Schladers' son Joel, who will direct all three shows this year. And they have lots of grandkids, too.