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, July 26, 2015

Marvelous Maestro

George Cleve is a fake, a phony, a fraud.
For as long as I've known him, Cleve – the founder, conductor and guiding light of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, which just completed its 41st season – has been masquerading as a grumpy old man.
But I have bad news for him: Nobody is fooled. Nobody has ever been fooled. I mean, if he's such a grouch, how come so many people love him so much?
Before he even raised his baton to conduct the first piece at this year's festival, people in the audience were giving him a standing O. Not to be outdone, the musicians in the orchestra stomped their feet so loudly, it sounded like thunder was rolling through the beautiful First Congregational Church of Berkeley, where the concert was held.
Partly, the applause was a tribute to the consistently high quality of his musicianship. As the Mercury News said about his rendition of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, "He struck an excellent balance between drama and tenderness, with the kind of alluring interplay between the orchestra's sections that Mozart lovers look forward to all year."
But people also love him because they see his curmudgeon act for what it is – an act. Under that grumpy fa├žade is a total pussycat who is generous to a fault.
Just ask the folks at the Berkeley Humane Society, for whom he has, without fanfare, organized chamber music concerts as fundraisers.
Or the many young musicians he has quietly nurtured and encouraged over the years, including those who came up through the Mozart Youth Camerata, which he founded in 2009, and are now professionals in their own right.
Or the high school seniors and college students currently in the festival's new internship program, whose musical education is being greatly enhanced by rehearsing and performing side-by-side with the professional musicians in the orchestra, who have been playing Mozart together for years.
For me, his sweetness with young people is best exemplified by his friendship with the amazingly multitalented 19-year-old pianist/violinist/composer Audrey Vardanega, who made her debut with the Midsummer Mozart Festival at age 14, making her the youngest soloist in the festival's history.
 He's become a surrogate grandfather to her. They hang out and watch old movies and play with his cats, Winston and Alfie. And although he has the highest admiration for her musical ability, that's not what he mentions when he talks about her. Instead, he brags about what a great, unspoiled, unaffected kid she is.
And that's music to Audrey's ears because she has fought all her life against being defined by her talent. As she once told me, "I want people to judge me by my personality, not how well I play the piano."
At 79, Cleve's health has been fragile lately. But as soon as the old lion picked up the baton, the years fell away; and he conducted with a power and majesty that would be the envy of a man half his age.
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, "Maestro George Cleve is one of the great Mozart interpreters of our time and place," but Ferlinghetti is wrong. Cleve is one of the great Mozart interpreters of ANY time and ANY place. He's a great man.
And, as I hope I've demonstrated, he's a good man, too.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Stormy In Love

                                         Cloudy looking adorable, as usual
                                         Best friends for life!

I usually don't revisit a story I've written about before, but the response to my recent column about Stormy, the plucky little kitten who was rescued after being trapped for four days in a storm drain in Oakland, was so positive, I thought you'd like an update.
Stormy is in love! He has a girlfriend!
Ten days after he was rescued and settled into his foster home at Gail Churchill's house in Alameda, another kitten, a longhaired gray-and-white female two weeks younger than Stormy, was rescued in Hayward.
She had a bad case of the runs. That's not surprising: Homeless kittens are often so desperate for food, they'll eat anything they find, whether it's good for them or not. But a trip to the vet quickly cleared that up.
She was also painfully shy, and that's not surprising either, considering the scary life she was facing every day on the streets.
When she arrived at Gail's house, Gail set her up in a large dog crate on the kitchen table, to help her acclimate to her new environment.
Within minutes, Stormy was up on the table, trying to get into the crate. His little paws would go between the bars, and he'd extend them as far as he could to touch the new kitten.
Meanwhile, she was carrying her toys over to Stormy as little gifts. Instead of roaming the entire house, as he loved to do before, Stormy refused to budge from right next to her crate.
After a few days of this so-near-yet-so-far mutual admiration society, Gail put them together. And they've been inseparable ever since. They eat together, they sleep together, they play together, they patrol the house together.
The little girl's fur is so soft and fluffy, it looks like cumulus clouds. So, all things considered, it was obvious what to name her: Cloudy.
The biggest change since she was rescued is that her shyness had turned into spunkiness. She kicks Stormy's butt 24/7, and he loves every minute of it. And they both purr nonstop.
Both of them are extremely affectionate with people, so whoever adopts them had better be prepared for lots and lots of face and neck kitty kisses.
"It's a match made in heaven!" says Gail. "They're a bonded pair that must be adopted together."
No kidding. After the horrors that each of them endured for their first few weeks of life, it would be the height of cruelty to split them up from they only friend they've ever had.
Cloudy and Stormy were spayed and neutered, respectively, earlier this week. (Sorry, this will be a strictly Platonic romance. There are too many unwanted kittens out there already.) And they'll be ready for adoption this weekend.
You can check them out on the website of Island Cat Resources & Adoption, the wonderful volunteer group that made all this happen, www.icraeastbay.org. That's also where you can make a donation to help future Stormys and Cloudys, if you're so inclined.
I just love happy endings, don't you?
P.S. As heartwarming as this story is, these two kittens should never have been born. And they wouldn't have if people had been responsible and gotten their own cats fixed. So do the right thing, cat lovers!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Remembering The Snake

(Above: Freddy and Kenny. Photo by the great Ron Riesterer.)

It's been several days since Kenny Stabler died, but the sadness hasn't abated. And now I'm feeling another emotion, too: anger.
It's an outrage that he wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame. His numbers compare favorably with the other great quarterbacks of his era – Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, all of whom are in the hall.
So why wasn't he elected? Because he was blackballed by an influential member of the Hall Of Fame selection committee, Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman, who declared, "Ken Stabler won't get my vote as long as I live."
It wasn't The Snake's performance on the field he objected to; it was what he did off the field. To put it mildly, he had an eye for the ladies. (He used to joke that he studied the game plan by the light of the jukebox.)
But so did Namath and Bobby Layne, as well as his favorite receiver, Fred Biletnikoff, who often joined him in his late night adventures. They're all in the hall.
And for all his off-field carousing, when it came time to play the game nobody was more clutch than The Snake.
He was the king of the last-minute comebacks. John Madden said there was no other quarterback he would want to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line and time running out.
Some of the most famous plays in football history are Stabler touchdowns, including the Ghost to the Post, the Sea of Hands, and the Holy Roller against San Diego in 1978. Trailing by a touchdown with 10 seconds to go at the Chargers 24, he was about to be sacked, so he "accidentally" fumbled the ball forward, and it rolled and rolled and rolled until Dave Casper finally fell on it in the end zone for the game winner.
Here's the classic call of the late, great Bill King: "There's nothing real in the world anymore! The Raiders have won the football game! Fifty-two thousand people, minus a few lonely Raider fans, are stunned! The Chargers are standing, looking at each other, looking at the sky. They don't believe it! Nobody believes it! I don't know if the Raiders believe it! It's not real! A man would be a fool to ever try and write a drama and make you believe it. And now, this one will be relived - forever! Bitterly here in San Diego, joyfully in Oakland. Final score: Oakland 21, San Diego 20!"
As Madden said, "The hotter the situation, the cooler he got." Just before the Ghost to the Post, when everyone in the stadium, including Madden, was freaking out, Stabler calmly looked at the frenzied crowd and drawled, "The fans are sure getting their money's worth today, John." Then he went out and won the game.
He hasn't been among the finalists since 2003, and the situation isn't likely to improve because the committee members are now drawn from a new generation who never saw him play.
But when they sit down to make their selections, they are always told that the crucial question is "Can the history of the game be told without him?"
In Stabler's case, my answer is: Are you kidding?
Now, let's talk about Jim Plunkett.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Books 'R' Us - And Vice Versa

(Above: Vanessa Hua, Hector Tobar, Paul Beatty, and Oscar Villalon (moderator) on "The Reshaping of American Literature." Photograph by Nora Lowinsky.)

Two years ago, Kira Brunner Don and her husband, Timothy Don, packed up their two kids and moved back to Oakland, where Kira grew up, after 20 years in New York. They work for Lapham's Quarterly – she's the editor at large; he's the art director - which uses primary source material from history to examine a specific theme in each issue, such as "Foreigners," "Time" or "Youth."
They wanted to put down some roots in their once-and-future hometown, so they decided to found a book festival.
"We had done some festivals in New York, so we said, 'Let's do what we already know how to do,'" says Kira. "We wanted to make this a festival that we would want to go to."
And they did. The first annual Oakland Book Festival was held May 30 at City Hall, and it was cool beyond belief.
It wasn't just a collection of readings, and it wasn't just a trade show of people selling books, either. Instead, it was a curated festival of ideas. Kira and Tim chose a concept and created panels and readings around it.
For the inaugural festival, the concept was "Cities," both the upside and the downside.
"The upside is that we find in cities the highest expression of utopian dreams and projects – including diversity, tolerance, and a cosmopolitan outlook – and Oakland is an expression of that," says Tim. "The downside of course, is the dystopian outcome that sometimes happens with utopian projects."
They turned all of City Hall's hearing rooms into panel rooms and filled them with 35 different panels, including:
An examination of the life and works of the late journalist Alexander Cockburn, featuring Bruce Anderson, the founder/editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a quirky community-based newspaper in Boonville; activist/historian Frank Bardacke, one of the leaders of the anti-war movement in Berkeley in the late '60s; and writer/historian Leo Hollis, who flew in all the way from London for the occasion.
"What Does It Mean To Lead A Radical Life?" a comparison of the Black Panthers in Oakland, the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and the Anti-Apartheid movement in Johannesburg, featuring former Panther leader Elaine Brown, documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor and UC Irvine professor Frank Wilderson, one of the few Americans who worked with the African National Congress in the 1960s, when most of the world still thought of Nelson Mandela as a thug.
And "What Is Gentrification?" a panel featuring urban planners Lance Freeman, a professor at Columbia, Malo Andre Hutson, a professor a Cal, and author Gordson Young, moderated by local writer/poet/journalist Dashka Slater.
Outside on Frank Ogawa Plaza, 40 different independent booksellers were selling their books while the Oakland Youth Chorus, the Oakland School for the Arts Classical Guitarist Ensemble, and rappers Dizzy, J-Mal and Khafre Jay from HipHop4Change provided entertainment.
The youngest generation wasn't left out, either. Throughout the day, staffers from the Oakland Public Library read children's stories to the little tykes, while interactive storytellers from Children's Fairyland told the tales of Tweedle-dee and Little Miss Muffet.
And it was all free. No tickets, no need to sign up online. "We wanted to make sure that people who don't have credit cards or computers would show up," says Tim.
Next Year's concept: "Labor."
For more information, visit oaklandbookfestival.org.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Happy ending!

The firefighters open the grate

Stormy right after he was rescued

Stormy 10 days later

On Sunday, June 14, Charlie Dewett of Oakland was driving to Laney College to watch his tennis team play when he stopped at a stoplight at the corner of Oak and 7th streets.
" I hard this unbelievably loud cry," he says. "It was like some creature was yelling, 'Help me! Help me!' I pulled over, and I could hear it was coming from a storm drain. I looked down, and there was this baby orange tabby kitten crying."
He managed to squeeze a little food and water through the grate – no easy task, believe me – to keep the kitten alive while he sought help. He called Animal Control, but they're closed on Sundays. He called the police, but no luck there, either.
This went on all day long. Charlie kept going home and coming back to check on the kitten. He was worried because it was turning into a cold night. But when he came back the next morning, the little guy was still alive.
Then he remembered meeting a woman named Gail Churchill, who volunteers for Island Cat Resources and Adoption in Alameda. A quick phone call later, and she was on her way to Oakland with a humane trap.
"We had two problems," Gail says. "One, could the kitten be enticed to go into the trap? And two, who would raise the 300-lb. metal grate on top of the drain? Oakland Fire Station No. 12 to the rescue! Charlie called them, and within 15 minutes they were there with the tools to raise the grate."
They baited the trap with cat food and waited.
"Monday came and went," says Gail. "Tuesday came and went. All this time, Charlie made many trips a day to check on the kitten's well being. Then we noticed the food in the trap was always gone, but the trap stayed open. It became apparent that the kitten was too light to set off the trap door.
"So on Wednesday morning we brought in a different and smaller trap. This time Charlie, along with two very nice BART policemen, lifted the grate, and the trap was lowered into the hole. Success! Within two hours we had the little guy, by now named Stormy, safe in the trap. Firemen from Station 12 again came to lift the trap out of the hole, and Stormy was on his way to my house for a good, warm bath and all the food he wanted!
"Stormy is settling in nicely and will stay with me until he is old enough to be neutered, about 2-3 weeks. At that time he will be put up for adoption, and we will make sure he gets the kind of 'furever' home where he never again has to think about his terrible start in life. Stormy wishes to thank, most of all, Charlie, for hearing his cries, and for never giving up on him. And those of us involved in this three-day ordeal wish to thank BART Police and the dedication of Fire Station No. 12 for their, many trips to move the grate for us."
If you'd like to adopt Stormy, you can check him out at ICRA's website, www.icraeastbay.org, in a couple of weeks. That's also where you can make a donation to this very worthy organization.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Music Hath Charms

                                         (Above: Maestro Cleve)

There will be many "mostly Mozart" music festivals throughout the country this summer; but there's only one dedicated exclusively to Mozart. And it's right here in the Bay Area.
It was founded in 1974 by Maestro George Cleve, one of the world's foremost Mozart intepreters, and his friends one night when they were kicking back with a few beers after rehearsing Mozart's opera, "The Abduction From The Seraglio."
"Wouldn't it be great if we could play nothing but Mozart all the time?" someone idly mused. They all looked at each other in amazement, and voila! The Midsummer Mozart Festival was born.
For more than four decades it has been serving up the greatest music ever composed – sorry, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms fans, but it is what it is - played by world-class musicians.
Two different programs will be presented over a two-week period. The first program will be at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford on July 16, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on July 17, and First Congregational Church in Berkeley on July 19. The second program will be at Stanford on July 20, San Francisco on July 24, and Berkeley on July 25. Visit midsummermozart.org to buy tickets and find out program details.
One of the most delectable offerings will be legendary pianist Seymour Lipkin playing Piano Concerto No. 27, K. 595, which happens to be Cleve's favorite. (Not for nothing does his email address start with gcleve595@........)
But for me, the highlight of the festival has to be Mozart's final symphony, No. 41, better known as the Jupiter Symphony. Mozart never actually called it that; it was nicknamed by an impresario named Johan Peter Salomon a few years after Mozart's death. But never was a moniker more appropriate.
The Jupiter is not only the greatest symphony ever written, the final movement is one of the most sublime moments in western art.
It's a marvel of musical virtuosity, in which Mozart attempted – and succeeded! - something nobody else ever dared: combining a fugue with a sonata in the same movement, with five different themes going all at once. Nobody could pull it off but him, but you hardly notice the skill because you're too busy being bowled over by the emotional impact.
Sir George Grove, who founded Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, wrote, "It is in the finale that Mozart has reserved all the resources of his science, and all the power, which no one seems to have possessed to the same degree with himself, of concealing that science, and making it the vehicle for music as pleasing as it is learned. Nowhere has he achieved more."
Let me put it another way. I've been hesitating to write this because you might think I've gone off the deep end, but I confess to feeling a stab of fear whenever I listen to that final movement because I'm always afraid I'll be turned into a pillar of salt for having listened to the voice of God.
There, I've said it. I know it sounds completely over the top, but listen for yourself and tell me if you don't feel that same apocalyptic rush.
But if you get turned into a pillar of salt, don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

O Happy Day!

(Above: General Granger (R) with Admiral David Farragut)

On June 19, 1865 –150 years ago this Friday – Union soldiers commanded by Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas and gave the residents some stunning news: The Civil War was over, the North had won, and the slaves were free.
The whites listened in sullen silence. The blacks broke out in joyous demonstrations.
Gen. Granger's proclamation said, "The connection heretofore existing between (former masters and slaves) becomes that between employer and free laborer," but many freedmen didn't wait for their old masters to offer them a job. Even with nowhere to go, they felt that leaving the plantation would be their first step towards freedom.
But they and their descendants returned to Galveston every June 19, which they nicknamed "Juneteenth," to celebrate the moment they first heard the glorious news. And many African Americans still observe Juneteenth to this day to celebrate family and freedom – two things that go hand in hand, considering that slave families were in constant danger of being split up whenever the master felt like selling some of them off.
We have all kinds of national holidays, but we have never established one that deals directly with the most important thing in our history: slavery, whose toxic residue still poisons the body politic.
We sort of hint at it with Martin Luther King Day, but that focuses on events that happened 100 years after slavery was abolished.
It's high time we corrected that oversight. I say next June 19 should be a national holiday. And it should be on June 19, too, not the closest Monday. Moving our holidays to the closest Monday, just so we can have more three-day weekends, totally misses the purpose.
Holidays are not created to make it more convenient for us to enjoy ourselves. They're supposed to be inconvenient. That's the whole point: We disrupt our already busy lives because the person or event we're observing is that important.
At the rate we're going, in 20 years Independence Day will be celebrated the first Monday in July, and Christmas will be celebrated the last Monday in December.
While I'm at it, there are a few other dates I think should be national holidays, too:
June 6 (D-Day, to honor the G.I.'s who fought in Europe),
December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day, to honor those who fought in the Pacific),
 November 22 (JFK's assassination, and I'm stunned that I have to explain this to younger readers),
And, of course, September 11.
But if you'll let me have these holidays, there's one I'll gladly give back: President's Day. What kind of holiday is that? Does it mean we should honor bozos like Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson?
It's an amalgamation of two very worthy former holidays: Washington's Birthday, February 22, and Lincoln's Birthday, February 12. (Did you know Lincoln and Charles Darwin, arguably the two most important people of the 19th Century, were born on the same day in 1809?)
Washington won our independence and then shocked everyone by retiring instead of making himself a military dictator. Lincoln preserved the Union and freed the slaves. Both guys deserve their own days. So let's give it to them and return Millard, James and Andy to the obscurity they so richly deserve.
Happy Juneteenth, everybody!