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, April 20, 2014

How Tweet It Was

Tonight, the Piedmont High School bird callers will appear on "The Late Show With David Letterman" for the 18th and final time.
That's because Letterman announced his retirement earlier this month. And nobody was more stunned to hear it than history teacher Ken Brown, the faculty sponsor of the Piedmont Bird Calling Contest.
"I was caught by surprise," he says. "I know Letterman hinted at it a few years back, but now there seems to be a more definitive timeline."
So where will the bird callers appear next? Brown vows the contest will go on forever, TV or no TV. But it's hard to believe that one of the many talk shows currently proliferating on the air won't pick the bird callersw up.
Things looked much bleaker in 1994, when Johnny Carson, who hosted the bird callers on "The Tonight Show" for 17 years, retired.
Leonard J. Waxdeck, the biology teacher who had founded the contest as a class project in 1963, approached Carson's successor, Jay Leno. But Leno wanted to carve out his own persona and wanted nothing to do with anything that reminded people of Carson.
So the students appeared on "The Arsenio Hall Show" for a year while Waxdeck tried to figure out what to do next.
But Waxdeck suddenly died a year later. And without him, everyone wondered whether the contest would survive at all.
But the people of Piedmont refused to let it die. A coalition of students, former students and parents resurrected the contest, and the winner's trophy was renamed after Waxdeck. It was the Bird Calling Contest's second most shining moment. (I'll tell you what was number one later.)
The next step was getting back on television. They approached David Letterman, whose admiration for Carson verges on hero-worship, and he was only too glad to have the kids on his show. Their first appearance was in 1996, and they've been an annual "Late Night" staple ever since.
But for all his generosity, Letterman had one unfortunate quirk: Unlike Carson, who let Waxdeck choose who would appear on the show (he always chose the first, second and third place finishers in the contest, plus the graduating seniors), Letterman insisted on choosing the acts himself after viewing a tape of the contest.
That meant the winning acts sometimes didn't get picked. Worse yet, Letterman would bring four acts back to New York, but only three would appear on the show. He – or his producer – would give one of them the axe just before curtain time.
The kids who got cut were always good sports. But it's still a mean thing to do to young people, no matter how brave a face they put on it.
But then, in 2005, Piedmont High got a new principal named Randall Booker (he's now an assistant superintendant of schools). And one of his first acts was to politely but firmly tell Letterman it's all or nothing.
It was a big risk because Letterman easily could have replied, "Fine, take a hike." But Letterman didn't.
And ever since, three acts have flown back to New York, and all three have appeared on the show. And they've been the three winners the judges chose at the contest, too.
And THAT was the Piedmont High School Bird Calling Contest's finest moment.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Going To Bat For Robbie

The basketball teams that played for Coach Pete Newell at Cal in the late '50s were known for having each other's back. And, apparently, that hasn't changed.
Last fall, point guard Earl Robinson, who starred on both the basketball and baseball teams—and later went on to play baseball for the Dodgers and Orioles—was diagnosed with end-stage heart failure, and his Medicare hospice coverage has run out. This left Robinson and his wife Wilma no way to pay his medical bills and living expenses.
That's when his old teammates swung into action. Pete Domoto, Robinson's best friend since they played together at Berkeley High—and, incidentally, a guard on the last UC Berkeley football team to go to the Rose Bowl—called Joe Kapp, the quarterback of that Rose Bowl team (who also played with Robinson on the basketball team), and said, "We've got to do something to help Robbie." (It's worth noting the racial mix, a rarity in college sports in that era: Domoto is Japanese American, Kapp Mexican American, Robinson African American.)
They started by contacting former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, who responded with a sizable private contribution, enough to cover Robinson's expenses for a month. Major League Baseball's Baseball Assistance Team—BAT, for short—kicked in with enough to pay for three more months. And Robinson's teammates are coming through big time. As of today (April 14) they have raised enough to cover another three months, and they vow to keep at it for as long as necessary.
This comes as no surprise to their former assistant coach, Rene Herrerias, Newell's right-hand man and successor as head coach.
"I've never seen a team as close as that team," he says. "They all helped each other. They even had a secret language. For example, 'Tabroot' meant 'Look out for the backdoor.' It makes me proud that they're still looking out for each other."
His teammates say it's just the right sort of payback.
"Robbie was like our older brother," says Kapp. "He was very, very helpful to us younger guys. That's probably why, in his time of need now, the players are rising up and supporting him."
Forward Ned Averbuck says, "It all goes back to Pete. He delegated a lot to the seniors. They did all the recruiting, and he also gave them responsibilities during the season. If he felt a certain guy needed help, he had the seniors do it. And Robbie was his archetypal senior."
Guard Earl Schulz adds, "All the seniors adopted us, and that was Pete's way. The seniors were to set the example, on and off the court."
Guard Denny Fitzpatrick remembers a tough time when Robinson really came through for him. "I got off to a slow start one year. Robbie took me aside and said, 'Look, Denny. You can play in this league; you just have to look for your shots.' That really turned it around for me, and I ended up having a pretty good year. He was clearly our leader. Everybody looked up to him."
Earl John Robinson was born November 3, 1936, in New Orleans but grew up in Berkeley, where he was known for protecting smaller children from bullies at San Pablo Park.
After a stellar athletic career at Berkeley High, which led a local sportswriter to dub him "The Earl of Berkeley," he enrolled at Cal and led the basketball team to conference titles in 1956, '57 and '58, earning a spot on the all-coast team twice and all-conference team three times. In 1958 he served as team captain and was voted Most Inspirational Player by his teammates.
"But as good as he was as a basketball player, he was even better as a baseball player," says Schulz.
On the diamond, he led Cal to the 1957 NCAA championship with a .352 batting average. He didn't go out for football, but he was a familiar figure on the sidelines in his role as Head Yell Leader, a job he took at the request of his roommate, Joe Kapp.
"Some of the Bears in the stands were sitting on their butts," Kapp says. "So I said, 'Earl, why don't you fire these people up a bit?' It was a wonderful example of his spirit. I know our team appreciated that this guy, who everyone knew was a great athlete, was enthusiastically supporting us."
Averbuck remembers the story a bit differently: "The men's rooting section was a misogynistic, wild bunch of crazy drunkards by the end of the game, especially if Cal wasn't winning. Robbie helped control that stuff. He had the respect to calm 5,000 crazy guys down."
Kapp has one other vivid memory of his old roommate: "He was a very, very sharp dresser. He had two bedrooms—one for him, and one for this clothes."
But Robinson's time at Cal wasn't idyllic. As one of the first African Americans to play for the university, he was subjected to taunts and slurs from opposing players, and sometimes worse. But his teammates had his back.
"I remember one game against USC when they were deliberately trying to injure him," says guard Bob Dalton. "In the locker room at halftime, Pete looked around and said, 'Where's Joe?'
"We finally found Joe in the USC locker room. He told them, 'If you do one more thing to him, I'm going to be looking for you outside after the game.' And when Joe Kapp sticks his finger in your face in those days, boy, you'd better listen!"
It worked. "Nobody got within a foot and a half of me the whole second half," laughs Robinson, who also could take care of himself when the occasion warranted it.
"There was a baseball game against USC when they were yelling some really ugly things at him while we were doing fielding drills before the game," says Dalton. "So he started firing balls into their dugout. The first time, everyone popped out, wondering what was going on. Another grounder, same thing. Robbie didn't hear another word the rest of the game. We were all laughing."
Earl Robinson's baseball card
He graduated in 1958 and signed with the Dodgers. This was before anyone had heard of sports agents, but he asked Cal law professor Adrian Kragen to negotiate for him, resulting in a $75,000 signing bonus at a time other African American ballplayers like Hank Aaron and Willie Davis routinely were forced to settle for less than $10,000. (Davis signed for $2,000 and a used Buick sedan for his mother.)
Robinson later played for the Baltimore Orioles and retired in 1965 with a .268 batting average. But even before retirement he had already embarked on his second career as an educator.
He returned to Cal in 1963 as assistant basketball coach, then became head basketball coach at Merritt College in 1966, the first African American basketball coach in the California junior college system. A year later he moved to Laney College, compiling a 19-8 record before returning to Cal a year later as head freshman basketball coach.
He later taught speech and communications classes at Laney and is credited with helping to craft Rickey Henderson's acceptance speech for the baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2010.
In the 1980s he worked with the Oakland A's as director of special projects and taught English at Castlemont High School. He is a former vice president for the Oakland Zoo's board of trustees and served three years on the Cal Alumni Association's board of directors. And he served on the Alameda County Grand Jury and on the board of directors of the South Berkeley YMCA, Oakland Police Athletic Association YMCA, and the Oakland Boys and Girls Club.
He was inducted into the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Pac-10 Hall of Honor in 2010. And in 2011 he received the Pete Newell Career Achievement Award.
Now, as he faces the toughest opponent of all, he draws strength from the love and support of his teammates. "They keep my spirits up," he says, "and they're just generous people."
Everyone except Pete Domoto agrees on one thing: The indispensable man in this effort has been Pete Domoto. "Pete is the driving force, the only reason this is happening," says Schulz. "Nobody could have a better friend than Robbie has in Pete Domoto."
Dalton agrees. "Every member of our team is so overwhelmed by what Pete has done here. I'm 77, and I have never seen a man more dedicated to an individual and his family."
And Robbie knows it. "He's like my brother. I grew up in his house more than I did in my own house. I think about him and I cry sometimes because he's been so loyal, so loving, so wise in the decisions he's made. I don't know how to thank him enough. I try, and we both start crying."
Everyone knows this story won't have a happy ending. But they're determined to make their old friend's final days as happy as possible. 'I have such great respect for Earl,' says Fitzpatrick. "He is a great man, and he's taking his travails like a real man."
For his part, Robinson is philosophical. "I'm not sad. I know I'm impacted by the grace of God. So if I have a day, a week or a month, I should be thankful about that. My doctors have been straight up with me. I'm probably dying. I'm not ready to give it up yet; but when I do, I'm cool with that."

Those who would like to make a contribution to this effort should send a check made out to Dennis Fitzpatrick, 1689 Comstock Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90024. Please include a declaration that your contribution is for Earl Robinson.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

So Long, Dave

                                             (Above: Dave and his mom, Dorothy)

And now, in honor of David Letterman's retirement, my Top 10 Favorite David Letterman Shows Of All Time:
10. The Warren Zevon show, when the singer/songwriter, who was dying from cancer, appeared on the show one last time – Letterman was a big fan of his – as the only guest, so Dave and Paul could celebrate his music and say goodbye.
9. The first show after 9/11, when Dan Rather burst into sobs while talking about the firefighters.
8. The first show after Dave's quadruple bypass surgery, when he had the whole surgical team on to thank them for saving his life.
7. The first show after his son Harry's birth, when he talked about his own dad, after whom Harry is named.
6. The John McCain show in 2008, when McCain cancelled his appearance at the last second, claiming he had to fly back to Washington to deal with the financial crisis – only to have Dave discover that McCain actually was stiffing him in order to be interviewed by Katie Couric. Letterman put the live feed from the interview on his own show, along with his snarky commentary, a la "Mystery Science Theater."
5. The Velcroman show, when he donned a suit made of Velcro and bounced off a trampoline onto a wall covered by fabric. The idea was to see if he would stick to the wall. He did.
4.  His famous running feud with Oprah Winfrey, which kept getting funnier the longer he dragged the joke out.
3. The annual Christmas show, featuring Dave and comedian Jay Thomas taking turns trying to knock the meatball from atop the Christmas tree with a football, Thomas telling the Lone Ranger story (Google it if you haven't seen it), and Darlene Love singing "Santa Baby Please Come Home," with the sax player stepping out from someplace surprising to play his solo.
2. The first show after his idol Johnny Carson's death, when his monolog consisting solely of jokes that Carson had sent him.
1. His annual Thanksgiving show, featuring his mom Dorothy on a remote feed from her kitchen in Indianapolis. Dave would try to guess which flavor pies she baked for Thanksgiving dinner, with mixed success but always with lots of love.
Notice anything odd about that list? Most of those shows were about serious subjects. For a guy who always protests that he's a funnyman and nothing more, Letterman doesn't shy away from the somber, or even the sentimental.
But that doesn't mean he isn't funny. He's the premier comedian of his generation, as Carson was for his and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are for theirs. His contribution to comedy was irony, and the younger generation of comics picked that up from him.
Yeah, I know Leno got higher ratings. But he pandered to the crowd too much to be truly funny. Letterman never would have begun each show by exchanging high fives with the audience.
The only question now is what's going to happen to the Piedmont High School bird callers, who will be appearing on his show for the 18th and last time on April 25? I'll have some thoughts on that in the next column.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


                                         (Above: Lil Bub)

Attention, fellow feline fanciers: I have news that will be mew-sic to your ears. The premiere of the Oakland Internet Cat Video Festival was such a big hit last year, they're going to do it all over again this year. The date: May 10, from 3 to 10 p.m.
Last year's festival drew more than 5,000 people – mostly "internet addicts, families who have cats of their own, and hipsters who think cat videos are ironic," according to spokeswoman Issabella Shields, who says this year's videos are even funnier than last year's.
Among the stars: Grumpy Cat (real name: Tardar Sauce), known for a facial expression that rivals Doc Martin's, and Lil Bub, who is famous for her "perma-kitten" appearance.
Some Internet cats have become such big stars, they have their own agents. One is Dusty the Klepto Kitty, who lives in Alameda. Dusty's larcenous ways earned him a spot on "The Late Show With David Letterman," which flew him and his owner, Jean Chu, back to New York for the program.
"Dusty flew business class," she says. "I flew coach."
The "cativities" start at 3 p.m., featuring live bands singing cat-themed songs; local artists selling hand-crafted cat toys, homemade cat food, pitchers and vases shaped like cats, cat t-shirts and cat ears for you to wear, top hats and bow ties for your cat to wear (good luck with that!) and some of the best gourmet food trucks in Oakland.
Local animal rescue groups and shelters will also be on hand with dozens of adorable cats and kittens that, in many cases, you can adopt on the spot and take home with you.
Then, at sundown, the main show will start, featuring 100 cat videos – culled from more than 10,000 submissions – projected in high definition by a 15,000-lumen projector onto The Great Wall of Oakland, a giant 100-foot-by-100-foot wall on West Grand Avenue between Broadway and Valley Street.
Tickets are $10 per person; $5 for children under 12 and seniors over 65, every penny to be donated to the Oakland-East Bay SPCA.
But there's a way you can avoid paying anything. Just sign up to be a foster parent for one of the participating rescue groups or shelters, and you'll get two free tickets to the festival.
"The entire point of the festival is to sign up 100 foster parents to partner with these shelters," says Shields. "They all get pre-weaned kittens every kitten season, and they have to euthanize them unless people volunteer to foster them until they're ready for spay/neuter surgery and adoption."
To sign up, log on to the festival's website, oaklandcatvidfest.com, go to the "adoptions and fostering" page, and choose the shelter that's either closest to your home or the one you like best.
"Each shelter has its own rules and procedures for becoming a foster parent," says Shields. "Usually, you'll have to go through some training. Some shelters, like the Oakland-East Bay SPCA, will give you all the food and equipment necessary. Others won't."
To get the festival, take BART to the 19th Street station and walk two short blocks to the main entrance at the corner of Broadway and West Grand. Or, if you prefer to drive, there are plenty of parking lots in the area.
See you there!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sweet Story

Young people today are better than we were.
Case in point: Mikaela Bernhardt, Emma Gadberry and Jane Collins, all students at Albany High.
Mikaela and Emma are juniors; Jane is a freshman. Every weekend they and their friends set up a card table on Fourth Street in Berkeley and sell cookies, cupcakes and other baked goods they made themselves.
But they aren't raising money for a pizza party or to go to an away football game, which is what I would have been doing when I was their age.
They're members of the Albany High School chapter of BuildOn, an international organization that enlists teenagers like them to build elementary schools in developing countries. BuildOn volunteers have constructed more than 100 schools worldwide, and this summer the Albany High students are going to build an elementary school in an impoverished village in Nicaragua.
"Our main goal is to raise $30,000, which will pay for the construction materials," says Emma. "Our secondary goal is to cover our travel expenses."
All the goodies are made from scratch, of course.
"We pride ourselves on providing homemade baked goods," says Mikaela. "There are 30 people in our club, and every week we say, 'Hey, try to bake something if you can,' and it always works out that enough people bake and enough people come. So we never know what's going to be on the table until we all get there."
"But we try to always have chocolate cupcakes," Jane adds. "And we usually have a gluten-free option and sometimes vegan, too."
"Emma is really famous for her vegan ginger cookies," says Mikaela.
"And Mikaela is famous for her chocolate chip cookies," says Emma.
"I make chocolate crinkle cookies," says Jane. "It was my grandma's recipe."
So far, they've raised $31,000 - $14,000 from bake sales alone. The rest of the money came from an e-waste drive and emails to more than 5,000 of their family and friends.
In addition, each student created his/her individual fundraising page, all of which are linked to the Albany High fundraising page.
If you'd like to contribute, you can access that page at act.buildon.org/fundraise/team?ftid=25134 or send a check to BuildOn, 777 Long Ridge Road, Building A, 3rd Floor, Stamford, CT 06902. Please write "Attention Sarah Lippman" on the envelope and "Albany High School" on the memo line so your donation will be routed directly to them.
"An anonymous donor told us he would match us if we raised $4,000, and that got done in two hours, which is cool," says Mikaela.
If all goes according to schedule, they'll fly to Nicaragua in early July and stay for a week, laying the foundations and beginning the construction that the villagers themselves will finish up after they've left.
Last year, Mikaela and Emma helped build a school in Nepal. "The village is so small, it's not even on Google Maps," Emma says.
If all this talk of yummy desserts is making your mouth water, you can buy some every Saturday and Sunday in front of Builders Booksource. Unlike some businesses, who shoo young people like them away, the store's owners couldn't be more encouraging.
"They're awesome!" says Emma. "They're always really supportive and excited to see us. They always ask about our progress, and they really like our chocolate chip cookies!"

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Children's Best Friend

Poet Randall Jarrell wrote, "One of the most obvious facts about grownups, to a child, is that they have forgotten what it is like to be a child."
That was never a problem for Lewis Mahlmann, the Master Puppeteer at Children's Fairyland from 1967 until his retirement in 2006.
"When I'm around children I find them very dear, and I feel so responsible for what's happening to them." he once told me. "They're like my own children."
Lewis passed away in his sleep last week at age 86. It was a gentle death for a gentle man.
Fairyland's executive director, C.J. Hirschfield, said, "Lewis reminds me of MisterRogers - wanting a world for our kids that's sweet and civil. And, in Lewis' case, filled with art."
The comparison is apt. Like MisterRogers, Lewis was a moralist.
"I do puppet shows to entertain, but not just to entertain," he said. "I want to show the children that there are wonderful stories out there that they can read, and I also want to teach them the right way to live."
           For instance, in his version of "Pinocchio," Pinocchio doesn't get to be a real boy until he learns to be kind to others.
           The Blue Fairy says to him, "If I give you a wish, would you rather be a real boy?"
           He replies, "I'd rather my father get well."
           And at the end of the play, when Pinocchio doesn't recognize his friend the cricket anymore after turning into a boy, the cricket turns to the audience and says, "Maybe there's somebody else out there who needs me."
           That's pretty sophisticated stuff, but Lewis believed children are capable of understanding a lot more than we give them credit for.
           "One thing I never do is talk down to a child," he said. "That may sound phony, but it's true. I'll tailor the language to their learning level, but that's not the same thing."
           Lewis loved puppets since childhood, but he decided to make puppetry a career after meeting his mentor, Burr Tillstrom, of "Kukla, Fran & Ollie" fame. A charter member of the Bay Area Puppet Guild and twice president of the Puppeteers of America, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award just a few weeks ago from the Oakland Heritage Alliance.
My deepest sympathy to his partner, David Jones; his protégé and successor as Fairyland's puppet director, Randal Metz; the entire Fairyland staff (especially the Blue Fairy, Jacqueline Lynaugh); and the millions of children whom he enchanted over the years, many of whom later brought their own children and grandchildren to Fairyland so Lewis could work his magic on them, too.
If you were one of those children and would like to help honor his memory, the best way is to donate to his beloved puppet theater. Send a tax-deductible check to Children's Fairyland, 699 Bellevue Avenue, Oakland 94610, and write Lewis's name on the memo line.
The last word belongs to his fellow puppeteer, Jean Mattson:

The hand puppet bodies lie empty.
The marionettes droop on their strings.
The silhouettes cast no bright shadows
And set pieces stay in the wings.

For the spirits that move them have left,
As they do at the end of the show,
But the joy that they shared we'll remember
As we whisper our final "Bravo."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

UC Berkeley lost one of its greatest teachers and the art world lost one of its greatest scholars when James Cahill, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and former Chair of the Art History Department, died on Feb. 14 at age 87.
Cahill, who won both the prestigious Distinguished Teacher Award from Cal and the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing form the College Art Association, was highly regarded for his expertise in Asian art, especially Chinese art – not only in the west, but in China, too, where all of his books have been translated into Chinese.
"He treated us as if we were his colleagues, not his students," said Patricia Berger, who succeeded him as Chair of the Art History Department when he retired in 1995. "And as a lecturer, he was phenomenal. He'd come in with a handful of notes, which he never consulted, and deliver lectures that were coherent from beginning to end. He must have kissed the Blarney Stone."
He had a lack of pretentiousness that was utterly charming. Despite his worldwide fame, he insisted that everyone call him "Jim," not "Professor Cahill," and everyone dutifully complied – at least, to his face. Behind his back, they reverently called him "Professor Cahill" or "our sensei."
It's the old Zen paradox: The more he rejected the trappings of fame, the more they adored him for it.
Many universities tried unsuccessfully to lure him away. Harvard offered him its most prestigious chair, a University Fellowship, which is widely regarded as the pinnacle of the academic profession. But he turned it down, the first person to do so since Galileo.
"I didn't want to leave Berkeley," he explained to me a few years ago. "I like the way the university and the community interconnect. For some people, that's what's wrong about Berkeley. But for me, it's what's right."
Cahill was not only a great scholar, he was a great collector. Most of his collection of Chinese paintings – one of the finest private collections in the world – has been donated to the University Art Museum. He also collected rare phonograph records, which he played on his weekly radio show on KPFA.
But the collection I'd give my right arm for is something I'd seen in reproductions but never before in original form – his complete collection of early, pre-Alfred E. Neuman Mad Magazines, the ones in comic book format. (My favorites are "Superduperman" and "Batboy and Reuben.")
As modest as he was about his accomplishments, he was extremely proud of his children. His eldest son, Nick, is Professor of Art History at Wisconsin and senior archaeologist at the dig at Sardis in western Turkey, where he and his team are unearthing the palace of King Croesus of Lydia.
His daughter, Sarah, a concert pianist specializing in new American music and the American experimental tradition, has had works composed for her by such luminaries as John Adams and Terry Riley.
He also leaves two college age sons: Ben, a chemistry major at Cal, and Julian, a film student at NYU. And all four kids have inherited his independent spirit.
"My father was an advocate for lesser known, out-of-the-mainstream artists, and that's what I do with my music, too," says Sarah. "So I'm carrying on his tradition in my own way."