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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

                                         (Photo by Uriah Duffy)

Some of the best news to come out of Oakland lately has been the city's emergence – especially in the Uptown and Koreatown/Northgate (KONO) districts - as the hub of the East Bay art scene. And the hallmark of that emergence has been the monthly Oakland First Fridays street festival that drew over 150,000 people last year.
But First Fridays has hit hard times after recent rainouts. So to save money, KONO Community Benefit District, which owns the festival, told the Oakland Tribune that it has ended its contract with the woman who ran the show for the past year, professional event producer Sarah Kidder, and will go back to using volunteers.
This is causing consternation among First Fridays' participants, who say Kidder was the key factor who made the whole thing work.
"We got our start at First Fridays, and I've been a big fan of the event for years," says James Whitehead, owner of Fist Of Flour Pizza Co, a mobile pizza kitchen. "But there were too many people who didn't know how to manage trying to manage it, and it was getting crazy. So we bailed out on it.
"Then, in March of 2014, I got a call from another former vendor who said, 'Hey man, you should come back. There's somebody organizing it who really knows what she's doing.' So we did. Sarah spent a lot of effort organizing something that really didn't have much structure, and we're all wondering what's going to happen now."
Painter Erin Crawford adds, "Before Sarah, you had to get there as early as possible and claim your spot, and then fight to keep it. But she set up a system where I can go online, pay for my spot, know exactly where it's going to be, and I won't have to fight for it when I get there.
"But the biggest difference is that I didn't feel safe before. As a vendor, you feel very vulnerable, especially at night when the festival is over. After Sarah took over there was much more security present, and security actually came by throughout the evening. Sarah herself would walk up and down the street checking in with us, asking how we were doing and what could be improved upon. I felt like I had a voice with her."
"Before every event we would meet and discuss any issues that were anticipated," says Lieutenant Christopher Bolton, Oakland Police Department commander at First Fridays. "Even more importantly, after every event we had a discussion about how things could be better. It's a good example of what community policing should be."
"We didn't go to her; she came to us," adds Captain Howard Holt of the Oakland Fire Department. "And she came with a detailed plan and made it work for all of us. She showed a lot of leadership out there."
I'm not worried about Kidder. With many events to her credit, including working on Mayor Libby Schaaf's inauguration festival, I'm sure she'll land on her feet.
I wish the same thing for First Fridays, too, but artist Tony B. Conscious – aka The Ghetto Van Gogh – is skeptical.
"It was chaos before Sarah," he says. "She organized the structure and created the environment for us to really succeed. I don't know anyone else who can do that."

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Reading For Fun

(Above: Two Glenview students reading at last year's Read-A-Thon inside a "fort" they made out of blankets and chairs.)

While you're reading this, students at Glenview Elementary School in Oakland are fanning out through the Glenview neighborhood and knocking on doors.
The kids are vowing to read 30 minutes a day, over and above their regular homework, for the next two weeks and asking the neighbors to sponsor them by donating to the Glenview PTA.
And the money is badly needed. There once was a time, back in the 1950s, when California's schools were the envy of the nation.
Then came Prop. 13, and people started thinking, "Who cares? They're not my kids." State and municipal governments slashed funding for public schools, and the voters routinely turned down tax hikes for education.
Today, California students score 47th in the nation in both math and reading. And it's even scarier in other subjects.
So each school is left to scramble for itself to make up the gap.  At Glenview, the money raised by this annual fund-raiser – dubbed the Read-A-Thon – will be used to fund science, technology, music, drama and arts programs.
When I was these kids' age, such programs were deemed essential. But they wouldn't exist at Glenview nowadays without the Read-A-Thon.
I really admire the parents in the Glenview PTA who put so much effort into this fund-raiser every year, but I can't help asking: Why should they have to? Why are these enrichment programs not a matter of right for every kid, without their having to go out and beg for them?
And what about schools that are poorer than Glenview, where the parents are already working two jobs and don't have the time to raise money for their PTA?
But for now it is what it is, and the parents at Glenview should be commended for making the best of a bad situation.
They spare no pains to make the fund-raising fun and safe for the kids, who are only allowed to knock on doors of people they know personally. And they must be accompanied by an adult they know personally.
At the end of the two weeks, on March 6, they'll be rewarded by a all-day party at school, when they will be allowed to do nothing but read, read, read for pleasure to their little hearts' content.
As added incentive, principal Chelsea Toller has promised to let them watch while she kisses a snake – Eeee-uwww! – if they raise $65,000.
And teacher John Miller has promised his third-graders that if 100 percent of them log a half-hour of reading every night, he'll let them watch while he gets his head shaved.
If you'd like to support the Read-A-Thon, you can do it online at glenviewelementary.org or by sending a check made out to "Glenview PTA" to Glenview Elementary School, 4215 La Cresta Ave., Oakland CA 94602.
Some Oakland firefighters, student athletes from Cal, and local writers (including me) will be on hand to read to the kids; and we get to choose what we read.
I'm going to reprise my triumph from 2014, when I read a book by children's author/illustrator David Macauley, whose specialty is explaining the way things work. Some of his best-known works are "Castle," "Cathedral," "Pyramid" and "Ship."
So last year I announced that I was going to read them his latest book: "Toilet."
The kids went wild.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

X's and O's


The oldest maxim of the theater is: The show must go on.
But not at the February 1 performance of "X's and O's (An American Love Story)," a smart, sad, funny and ultimately very moving play about pro football now playing at Berkeley Rep, when the opening curtain was delayed for several minutes.
Reason: The audience was still in the bar, eyes glued to the final minutes of the Super Bowl on TV. The cast was watching, too, huddled around a tiny television set backstage.
"Three minutes after the game was over, we were onstage," says actress/playwright Jenny Mercein, who created "X's and O's" with her fellow actress/playwright, KJ Sanchez. "The show had wonderful energy that night."
On one level, "X's and O's" is an epic history of football, from the very first game, Princeton vs. Rutgers in 1869, to today's mounting concerns about brain damage.
On another level, it's the very personal story of what it's like to find something (or someone) you really love and then lose it  - or him.
"X's and O's" uses almost verbatim dialog from interviews Sanchez and Mercein conducted with more than 50 former NFL players, including Mercein's own father, running back Chuck Mercein, who played from 1965 to 1971 for the Giants, Packers and Jets. When he heard she was planning this project, he said, "Sounds like a great idea. I want nothing to do with it."
"He was saddened by a Packers reunion he'd attended," she explains. "He was expecting it to be reminiscing about old times, but it turned out to be about people who were sick or suffering or had died."
But he eventually came around, and so did many others.
"Being his daughter definitely opened doors for me," she says. "All I had to say was 'My father played for Vince Lombardi.'"
Lending first-hand expertise to the production is one of the actors – Dwight Hicks, the four-time Pro Bowl safety who played a key role in the 49ers' first two Super Bowl victories.
Unlike many players, who feel lost after their playing days are over, Hicks hit the ground running and built a second career as a character actor on more TV shows than I can count, including "ER," "Castle," "How I Met Your Mother" and "The X-Files."
"A lot of guys I played with defined themselves by what they did," he says. "I never defined myself as a football player. My mother taught me that. I just found another passion."
They both say football and the theater have a lot in common, especially a dedication to your craft - but with one big difference.
"I was taking an acting class where they were teaching us the Alexander Technique, a spinal tension release," says Mercein. "I burst into tears and said, 'My father played for Vince Lombardi! Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it!' But that's not the way it works in the theater."
"There's no winner or loser in the theater, either," Hicks added.
So what does Mercein's dad think of the play?
"He hasn't seen it yet! He just had double knee replacement surgery, so he won't see it until the final week. But my mom saw it, and she loved it."
I saw it last Sunday, and I loved it, too.

JazzGirls!

                                (Photo by Sibila Savage)

Hey, jazz girls!
Tired of being one of the only girls in your band?
Tired of the boys hogging all the solos?
Thinking about joining a jazz group, but feeling shy?
Have I got an event for you! And it's free!
It's the fourth annual JazzGirls Day at Berkeley High, featuring a Who's Who of local female jazz musicians, including trumpeter Ellen Seeling, director of the Montclair Women's Big Band; saxophonist/drummer Jean Fineberg, the band's co-director; and trombonist Sara Cline, director of Berkeley High's award-winning student jazz program.
"We'll play some tunes, have a jam session, break up into groups by instrument and talk about our experiences as women and girls in the jazz world," says Cline. "Bring all your friends, even if they don’t play jazz yet!"
JazzGirls Day will be held on Saturday, March 7. (They usually hold it on March 8, International Women's Day, but that falls on a Sunday this year.) Space is limited, so I advise registering as soon as possible at bhsjazz.org/jazzgirls-day/
This event has become a bigger hit every year since it was founded, inspiring similar events - also free - in Seattle, New York and San Francisco.
The San Francisco event will be held on Saturday, March 28, at SFJAZZ Center's Joe Henderson Lab, 201 Franklin Street (at Fell). Once again, space is limited, so register ASAP at sfjazz.org/jazzgirlsday/
But wait! There's more! If one day sounds like fun, how about a whole week?
The same people behind JazzGirls Day are also offering a weeklong jazz and blues camp for women from March 23-27 at the JazzSchool in Berkeley, a short walk from both Berkeley High and the downtown Berkeley BART station.
The sessions include a blues & soul band, Latin ensemble, roots music choir, percussion, theory and improvisation, and two new additions this year: a Beatles choir and a New Orleans ensemble, as well as individual one-on-one consultations.
But for my money, the highlight of each day is the lunchtime jam session in the JazzSchool courtyard, where students and teachers play together.
Finally, on Friday, the campers will perform a free public concert in which they invariably amaze themselves by how far they've come so quickly.
"I learned more in one week than I did in two years!" an attendee at last year's camp told me.
This one will cost money - $475, although some financial aid is available – and a week out of your life, so I'm letting you know early so you can plan your vacation time accordingly.
For more information visit cjc.edu/womenscamp or call 510-758-2200. To register, visit cjc.edu/womens reg or call 510-845-5573.
There will also be a jazz & blues camp for girls this summer, but there isn't enough space to tell you about it now. I'll let you know more as the time approaches.
And it would take a dozen columns to express my admiration for Seeling, Fineberg, Cline and all their friends. Like too much of our society, jazz has been a man's world that's awfully hard for women to crack.
But these women – great musicians all - are empowering other women and girls to play the music that I consider America's greatest cultural contribution to the world.

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

Grump


 (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

Efharisto

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."