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, March 28, 2016

Life's A Merry-Go-Round

 Above: Caroll, Ken and Jaynie)
Once upon a time – 1950 to be exact, the same year that Children's Fairyland in Oakland opened its fairy gates for the first time - a young man named Ken Vetterli, who was operating a carousel in Capitola, saw a beautiful young woman named Carol riding the carousel and asked her for a date. It must have gone pretty well, because they married the next year.
And carousels kept popping up in their lives. Flash forward 24 years to 1974. Ken, who by now was vice president of an Oakland-based firm called the Flecto Paint Company, decided Flecto should purchase a tiny, child-sized carousel that had been built in, yes, 1950, and use it to showcase the company's latest product, a revolutionary new gloss called Varathane.
The little carousel was in pretty dilapidated shape, but after six months of hard work they restored it to its former glory. In November 1975 the bright, shining new carousel, bearing a sign reading "Flecto," made its debut at a trade show in Chicago It was a hit from day one, and was in constant use at trade shows and other promotional events until it was finally retired 10 years later and its parts stored in crates.
Now, flash forward again to 2002, this time to Children's Fairyland, where the Walrus and the Carpenter seal pond had outlived its usefulness after 50 years.
"We loved our rescued sea lions, but the neighbors were complaining about their barking," says Fairyland's executive director, C.J. Hirschfield. "So we found them new homes and looked around for something to take their place."
Out of the blue, a phone call came from a representative of the Flecto Paint Company. Ken Vetterli was long retired by then, but the guy wanted to know if Fairyland would be interested in Flecto's carousel.
Would they? And how! There were no written instructions on how to reassemble the contraption, but members of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, the organization that built Fairyland in the first place, figured how to do it.
Once again, the carousel was a hit from day one. "It was the perfect size for very young children between 28 and 54 inches tall," says Hirschfield. "Adults had to stand on the sidelines and wave."
But by last year the Flecto Carousel was showing its age again. "Just like the Velveteen Rabbit, it had been worn down by years of kids' love and attention," says Hirschfield.
They did a Google search for Flecto, but Flecto was no more. It had been taken over by a company in Illinois that also owns Rust-Oleum, and Varathane is now a Rust-Oleum product.
Undaunted, Fairyland's plucky director of development, Cindy Sandoval, found Rust-Oleum's corporate email address and sent them a blind email asking if they'd be interested in advising Fairyland on another restoration.
Twenty-four hours later, the answer came back from Liz Krauthammer, Rust-Oleum's senior brand manager. Not only would they provide expertise, they'd take charge of the project and pay for the whole thing, to boot.
Shannon Taylor, Fairyland's gifted director of art and restoration, picked out the color scheme for the horses and, with advice from Rust-Oleum's experts, painted the horses in vibrant new colors and restored the deck.
"They paid for that, too," says Hirschfield.
Last November, Hirschfield, who writes a column of her own in the Piedmont Post, wrote one about the restoration's progress. To her surprise, she got a phone call a few days later.
It was Ken Vetterli, the man who started it all in 1974, who now lives down south in Claremont. It turned out that her column had been picked up by an online trade journal, and Ken's son Jim – another Flecto veteran - spotted it and passed it on to him.
"I often wondered what happened to the carousel," he told her. "What makes it even more special is that my great-granddaughter Jaynie, who lives in Walnut Creek, has been to Fairyland many times and must have ridden on it."
The restored Flecto Carousel was formally opened to the public last Saturday. Ken and Carol – who, by the way, will celebrate their 65th anniversary this summer - and many members of the extended family flew here for the occasion, including their daughter Janet, who came all the way from Northampton, Massachusetts.
Also attending were two former Flecto employees – Suzanne Layden, one of the first people to ride the carousel at its 1975 debut at the Chicago trade fair, and Georgette Pratt, who worked in the accounting department.
"Flecto was a lot more than a job," Ken explains.
The guest of honor, of course, was 5-year-old Jaynie, who took the first ride on the new carousel. And the second. And the third. And the fourth. She rode four different horses and named each one – Cupcake, Jewell, Apple, and Orange Blossom. Hirschfield vows they will keep those names forever.
Krauthammer was unable to attend, but she was at Fairyland's annual gala last summer, where she announced that the whole thing has been so much fun, Rust-Oleum has decided to "adopt" and restore one of Fairyland's sets each year.
So how does it all feel?
"I feel swell," says Vetterli. "That's my generation's word for 'awesome."

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Greatest Judge Of All

Predictably, President Obama tried to meet Senate Republicans halfway by nominating a man for the Supreme Court that they would approve unanimously if he had been appointed by a Republican: Merrick Garland, chief judge of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (the second-highest court in the land), a man with a strong law-and-order record, a willingness to defer to the other two branches, and a collegial personality that makes all his colleagues feel they've been treated fairly.
And, just as predictably, the Republicans announced that not only will they not support Garland, they won't even meet with him, much less allow him an up-or-down vote. Their excuse is that they want the next president – presumably, President Trump – to make the appointment, instead. They say they want the voters to decide.
Problem is, that's not what the Constitution provides. Nowhere does it say presidents lose the power to appoint judges in the last year of their term. In fact, one third of our presidents have made lame duck appointments to the Supreme Court, and the Senate has approved almost every one of them.
The most recent case was in 1988, when President Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy. And the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed him by a vote of 97-0.
But the most dramatic occasion occurred in 1801, when President John Adams, who had been defeated for re-election two months before – talk about the voters having their say! - kept appointing judges up to the day he left office, and the Senate kept approving them.
His opponents were furious and called the lame duck appointees "Midnight Judges," but there was nothing they could do because that's what the Constitution mandates. The president is president until the moment his successor is sworn in, and until then he has all the power he always had, including the power to nominate judges. The Senate doesn't have to confirm them if they don't want to, but they still have to do their Constitutional duty and give the president's nominee a vote, one way or the other.
The most famous of those Midnight Judges was Adams' nominee to succeed Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, who was in poor health. He first offered the job to former Chief Justice John Jay, who declined on the grounds that the Court lacked "energy, weight, and dignity."
Jay's letter declining the appointment arrived on January 20, and time was running short. So Adams picked his own Secretary of State, instead. The new guy was confirmed on February 4, only a month before the incoming president, Thomas Jefferson, was due to be sworn in. He served for 34 years, the longest tenure of any Chief Justice in history
His name? John Marshall, the greatest judge of all, whose life-sized statue is the first thing you see when you enter the Supreme Court Building. He was the man whose ruling in Marbury v. Madison established the right of the Supreme Court to decide a law's Constitutionality, elevating the Court to co-equal status with the other two branches of government. Years later, Adams wrote, "My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life."
Maybe the Republicans shouldn't be so quick to dismiss Judge Garland without a hearing, after all.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

What She Did For Love

I hope my friends in Berkeley won't be shocked, but I think Nancy Reagan, who died on Sunday, was a very good First Lady.
Yes, she got off to a rocky start in the first term, what with those designer gowns; the expensive new White House China; and the fancy lunches at Le Cirque with her pals Babe Paley, Betsy Bloomingdale and Jerry "The Social Moth" Zipkin.
Her handlers tried to turn her into an Eleanor Roosevelt-style First Lady by finding a cause for her to promote, and they chose the anti-drug "Just Say No" campaign, which only embarrassed her further when she proclaimed, "Drugs are such a downer," not knowing that "downer" was a word from the drug culture, meaning sedative.
She wasn't Eleanor Roosevelt, and they never should have tried to make her one. Dandling Third World babies on her knee just wasn't her style.
What she did well - and she did it extremely well - was being Ronald Reagan's loyal partner. And during the second term, that partnership helped change the world for the better.
Her devotion to him trumped everything, even ideology. She had been a lifelong conservative; in fact, it was she and her stepfather, Dr. Loyal Davis, who converted Ronnie from a New Deal Democrat to a Goldwater Republican.
But her devotion to conservatism was nothing compared the only thing she ever really cared about: What was good for Ronnie?
And in the mid-1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in the Soviet Union seemed to present an opportunity to make a serious deal, she decided that what would be good for Ronnie would be to go down in history as a peacemaker.
So, operating hand-in-hand with her mole in the West Wing, Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Deaver, she engineered the ouster of Deaver's nominal boss, the belligerent Donald Regan (who retaliated by writing some really nasty things about her in his memoirs), and his replacement by the more pragmatic Howard Baker. She also made sure Secretary of State Alexander Haig got the heave-ho and was succeeded by the less doctrinaire George Schultz.
She urged Ronnie to hold summit conferences with Gorbachev and establish a personal friendship. This meant overcoming not only her own anti-Communist background, but also her intense dislike of Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, whom she found absolutely insufferable.
And Ronnie listened to her because he knew she was the only person in the world whose sole agenda was his best interests.
 The new Reagan-Gorbachev relationship resulted in the 1987 INF Treaty, the first step in the process that led to the peaceful end of the Cold War - and on our terms, too.
After they left the White House she took loving care of him during his long battle with Alzheimer's, and she defied Republican orthodoxy by championing stem cell research.
That was because of Ronnie, too. If stem cells could help him or others suffering from that terrible disease, then orthodoxy be damned. Ditto for AIDS, which she convinced him to speak out about after her friend Rock Hudson died.
I don't think she set out to change the world. What she did, she did for love. But she changed the world all the same.
Thank you, Nancy.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Man For All Seasons

(Above: George and Sonja and their son George Jr. and Daughter Kristina Brouhard, who now run the business Photo by Tomas Ovalle/Valley Times)
When the 19th Century businessman Peter Cooper, who was universally beloved for his honesty, fair dealing and philanthropy, died in 1883, the minister stood before the open casket and intoned, "Here lies a man who never owned a dollar he could not take up to The Great White Throne."
Such a man was George Vukasin, the longtime president of Oakland's Peerless Coffee Co., who died on February 15 in Alamo, just a few months short of his 83rd birthday.
 The son of a Yugoslavian immigrant, Mr. Vukasin was a businessman of the old school: one who played fair with everybody - his employees, his customers, his suppliers, even his competitors. He never wanted to be the richest man in town. His real ambition was to be a pillar of his community, and in that he succeeded.
As president of the Oakland Port Commission, he supervised the construction of Oakland International Airport and brought the Japanese container program to the Port of Oakland.
As President of the Oakland-Alameda Memorial Coliseum Board, he was instrumental in bringing the Raiders back to Oakland and made the Coliseum the best example of one sports complex being home to three professional sports teams. He was also a longtime member of the Oakland City Council and Vice Mayor from 1975 to 1977.
But his contributions went far beyond the Bay Area. As president of the National Coffee Association, he made it his life's mission to raise the quality of coffee around the world by convincing growers, especially those in Colombia, to switch from low-quality Robusta beans to high-quality Arabica beans.
His motives weren't only aesthetic. He knew that if the quality of the coffee was higher, the farmers could charge more. And that meant they could afford to switch from growing coca beans – the main ingredient in cocaine – to coffee beans.
For this, he was awarded Colombia’s highest honor, the Manuel Meija Award, named after the father of the Colombian coffee industry. He also earned a more dubious distinction: a hefty price on his head set by the Colombian drug cartels. Whenever he flew to Bogota to confer with the government, his plane would be met on the tarmac by an armored car and a platoon of soldiers who would whisk him to a different safe house every night.
But the thing he was proudest of was his family. He and his wife Sonja had a 50-year love affair that featured travels all over the world. And nothing made him happier than spending time with his children and grandchildren. No school activity, no sports game, no social event went unattended if he could possibly help it.
My favorite memory is the day, more than 20 years ago, when he and I were walking along Webster Street across from the Oakland Tribune. Mr. Vukasin gestured toward the string of inexpensive Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian restaurants along the street and said, "See those restaurants? They were all Yugoslavian restaurants when was a kid."
He got a thoughtful look on his face and added, "Same people, different faces. That's all."
George Vukasin never forgot where he came from. He was buried on Monday at Mountain View Cemetery.
There lies a man who never owned a dollar he could not take up to The Great White Throne.

Monday, February 15, 2016

First In War, First In Peace, First In The Hearts Of His Countrymen

(Above: George Washington as he really looked, from a life mask by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Image courtesy of George Washington's Mount Vernon.)

When I was growing up, George Washington was a remote figure to me. He was the stern-looking fellow on the dollar bill with the powdered wig and pursed lips. I could never figure out why his contemporaries like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Hamilton - men who had a sizable regard for their own abilities – regarded him as the greatest of them all.
I also never bought into his modesty act whenever opportunity came calling. Every time he was asked to lead the army, or preside over the Constitutional convention, or become our first president, he'd say, "Gee, guys. I really hate to leave Mount Vernon, but if you insist, well, OK." And I'd always think, "Who does this guy think he's kidding?"
Then, one day, I visited Mount Vernon. And I realized in a flash: He wasn't kidding at all. If I lived at Mount Vernon, I'd never want to leave there, either. It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen.
The Washington Monument is across the river in the middle of the National Mall. But his real monument is Mount Vernon.
Unlike Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, it's not an aristocrat's house. It's a farmer's house. But it's a very elegant farmer's house.
In the parlor is the harpsichord his granddaughter Nelly Custis (after whom I named one of my cats), used to play for him. And hanging in a glass case in the main hallway, as it has ever day since 1789 – except once, when it was sent to Paris in 1989 to be part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution - is the key to the Bastille, a gift from Lafayette.
But to get to my second question, which is why all those other heavyweights looked up to him so much, the answer isn't that he beat the most powerful empire in the world with a ragtag army. Or that he basically invented the office of the presidency.
It's because having won the war, he did something that no conquering general in history – not Ceasar, not Cromwell, not Napoleon – had ever done: He went home. All the others seized power and made themselves dictators.
The date was March 15, 1783. The place: Newburgh, New York. The soldiers hadn't been paid all throughout the war, and now Congress was reneging on its promise to pay them when the fighting was over.
Two hundred of the most senior officers gathered at Newburgh to plot a coup d'etat. They'd march on Philadelphia, arrest the members of Congress, and set up a military dictatorship.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. They opened it, and there stood Washington himself, who asked for permission to address them.
He began to read them a letter from a Congressman, then he did something they had never seen him do before. He reached into his pocket and put on a pair of eyeglasses.
"Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country," he explained.
He started to walk toward the door, but by the time he got there every man in the room was sobbing like a baby. The coup d'etat was over. And our democracy was born.
Thanks, George. Happy birthday.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Farewell To Football?

(Above: the great Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, whose CTE diagnosis was announced last week - one week before he was finally voted into the Hall of Fame and six months after his death)

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Cowboys. Or Steelers. Or Raiders. Or Panthers.
Why? Three little words: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE for short), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head, even those that stop short of causing a concussion. Researchers at Boston University examined the brains of 91 former football players and found CTE in 87 of them. And there's strong evidence that the damage starts long before a player reaches the pro level – even as early as elementary school. What parent in their right mind would allow their child to be exposed to that kind of risk?
As I watched the Super Bowl on Sunday, I kept marveling at how far the NFL has come since I was a kid, and how quickly it could go away.
Back in the 1950s pro football was a big nothing, far behind the college game in popularity, and really, really far behind the big three: baseball, boxing and horse racing.
Today, boxing and horse racing are fringe sports. And as for the so-called National Pastime, the NFL draft gets higher ratings every year than the World Series.
What happened? Television. Football lends itself to the small screen better than any other sport. You can't understand what's really going on in a baseball or basketball game unless you're there in person because that's the only way you can watch the play unfold as all the players move at once.
But the prime attraction of watching football is not watching the play; it's watching the replay – long, loving, slow-motion closeups of the snot flying out of a guy's nose as his head jerks back when somebody "jacks him up."
The turning point was the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, the first NFL championship ever televised. By coincidence, it turned out to be "The Greatest Game Ever Played." and it turned millions of new fans on to the atavistic pleasure of watching people knock each other's heads off.
Today, the NFL bestrides the world like a Colossus, and all the other sports walk under its legs and peep out. But, ironically, the very thing that has made it so popular – the violence – is the same thing that threatens to destroy it.
The NFL is rearranging the deck chairs on this sinking ship by passing new rules that dictate when and how players can hit each other, but the truth is that there's nothing they can do to stem the inevitable. As Vince Lombardi said, "Football isn't a contact sport. Basketball is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport." And players are getting bigger and stronger and faster every year, making those collisions ever more violent. It's only a matter of time before parents wake up and start directing their kids into less dangerous activities.
So enjoy this gladiatorial circus while you can because it's not going to last much longer. Yes, there will always be poor kids who see sports as the only way out of their poverty. But with so many other sports like basketball, baseball, tennis and track paying just as well, what incentive will they have to go into football?
Don't get me wrong: I still love football. And I'm going to miss it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Stupor Bowl

Super Sunday - the day when more money is wagered, more wives are beaten, and more municipal water systems are put to the test by all those toilets flushing simultaneously during the commercials - is only a few days away, and the suspense is mounting.
Not about who will win the game, of course. After 50 years the hype has gotten so big, the game itself has become almost an afterthought.
No, the real suspense is who will ask the dumbest question on Media Day, when the nation's best sportswriters vie for the honor of making the biggest fools of themselves, such as last year, when they kept asking Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, who wouldn't talk to them, "Why won't you talk to us?"
Dare I hope that this year a reporter will ask Cam Newton, as someone did to Doug Williams of the Washington Racialslurs in 1988, "How long have you been a black quarterback?"
Will someone top the cluelessness of the sportswriter who asked Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett (whose parents are both disabled) in 1981, "Lemme get this straight, Jim. Is it blind mother, deaf father or the other way around?"
Or the fashionista who asked Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith in 1991, "What are you going to wear in the game?"
And who can top that divine moment in 2000 when a reporter asked Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse about the religious symbol dangling from his neck, "What's the significance of the cross?"
But if the game is usually a letdown, the halftime show is often worse, featuring either geriatric rockers like the Rolling Stones or Madonna, or more recent stars like Katy Perry, who are all show and no substance. Memo to Roger Goodell: If you've heard of them, it's a good bet they're not hip anymore.
 Let's be honest: What's the only halftime show you remember? Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at Super Bowl XXVIII, of course. And you can bet the NFL won't let that happen again.
I must have been the only person in the country who missed Janet's big moment. As soon as the first half ended and they said the entertainment was going to be her and Justin Timberlake - two people I have less than zero interest in – I started channel surfing and wound up on Bravo, where I saw a show I'd never seen before: "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy."
I was entranced. It was every straight man's ultimate fanatasy: That five gay guys would come into your life and clean up your act so women would finally give you the time of day.
In this episode, the Fab Five convinced a man who was wearing a toupee to own his baldness and burn the wig on the family hibachi. What football game could match that? I stayed glued to the entire episode and the ones that followed, and I didn't find out who won the game until the next day.
But who cares? As Duane Thomas, the Cowboys running back who rushed for XCV yards in Super Bowl VI, when Dallas beat Miami, XXVI to III, said when someone asked him how it feels to play in the ultimate game, “If it’s the ultimate game, how come they’re going to play another one next year?”