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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Going For Broke

(Above: Lawson Sakai in 1944, just before he shipped out, and in 2011, when he and the other surviving veterans of the 442nd RCT were invited to Washington, D.C. to receive a Congressional Gold Medal.)
On the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, 18-year-old Lawson Sakai was listening to a pro football game on the radio in the family kitchen.
Suddenly, a breathless announcer interrupted the broadcast and said, "The Japanese have attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii!"
The next morning, Lawson and four of his friends marched down to the Army recruiting office to sign up.
They were accepted, but he was turned away. Why? Because they were white and he was Japanese-American.
He asked for an explanation and discovered that his draft classification had been changed from 1-A to 4-C, "enemy alien," even though he was born and raised in the USA.
There was worse to come. A few weeks later, all the Japanese-Americans on the west coast were arrested and sent to detention camps that were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, where it was broiling hot in summer, freezing cold in winter, and dirty, dusty and depressing all year round.
The camps were surrounded by barbed wire, and there were guards with machine guns on the watchtowers, ready to shoot anyone who tried to escape.
And for what? There was not even one incident of Japanese-American espionage or sabotage throughout the war. The whole thing was racist, mean-spirited and cruel.
So what was Lawson's response? He volunteered again to fight for the country that was doing this to him and his family. Talk about returning good for evil!
And he was turned down again. So he tried the Navy. They said no, too.
Finally, in 1943, the Army was so desperate for manpower, it was willing to take anyone, even Japanese-Americans. (But in a segregated unit, of course.)
Thousands of Japanese-American boys volunteered, including future U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed.
Were they good soldiers? No. They were the best soldiers America has ever had, and the numbers bear that out. They were awarded more medals, man for man, than any other military unit in American history.
"They were superb!” said General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Army. "They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit. Everybody wanted them."
They were called the "Purple Heart Battalion" because they suffered so many casualties - 9,486 in all.
Lawson was awarded four of those Purple Hearts – technically, a Purple Heart with three Oak Leaf Clusters - and he would have been awarded a fifth if he hadn't refused because he didn't think his wound was serious enough. (He also received a Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman's Badge.)
On October 27, 1944 – 70 years ago next Monday - he was on patrol in the Vosges Mountains when he suddenly found himself face-to-face with a German soldier.
They both fired their rifles simultaneously. The German missed. Lawson did not.
Hours later, after the battle, he looked at the calendar and realized that it was his 21st birthday. More importantly, it was also the day he didn't die.
Remember the end of "Saving Private Ryan," when the dying Captain Miller says to Private Ryan, "Earn this?"
Lawson Sakai has spent the last 70 years earning the sacrifice of his brothers-in-arms who never come back. He has been an exemplary husband, father, businessman, veteran and, speaking personally, friend.
Happy 91st birthday, Lawson. And happy anniversary, too.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Cat Town is coming to Oaktown! On Oct. 25, the country's first cat café will open at 2869 Broadway, right in the heart of Oakland's Auto Row.
The idea is to get the kitties out of their cages at Oakland's over-burdened and under-funded animal shelter, and into a less intimidating environment.
"The shelter is full of very young adoptable cats that might have to wait two or three months at the back of the shelter before they move up to the front," explains Cat Town's co-founder, Ann Dunn, a former volunteer at the shelter.
"By that time they might be sick from the stress, or they might bite somebody," adds her co-founder, Adam Myatt. "We're getting them out of the shelter and into a place where they can relax, and that makes them much more adoptable."
Cat Town is simultaneously a café and an adoption center, both in the same building. You'll drink catnip tea and eat cat-themed munchies from local sources, including Cat Macaroons from Shades of Sugar, sandwiches from S & M Vegan, and other treats from Oakland's Kitchener Collective.
Then you can mosey over to the adoption center, aka the Cat Zone, and chill out with the kitties. You can also buy dehydrated kitty treats by RAWR, an Oakland-based raw cat food purveyor, for their new feline friends.
The Oakland theme runs throughout the Cat Zone, including cat beds inspired by the Port of Oakland's cargo cranes and cat play structures based on buildings from the downtown Oakland skyline. The café features a gallery of cat-centric art, and cat-focused merchandise will be on sale.
Cat Town is a great deal for the kitties who are still in the city shelter, too. As soon as a cat gets adopted from Cat Town, Ann and Adam go back to the shelter and get another one. Besides, decreasing the shelter population gives the volunteers more time to pay attention to the cats who remain.
While we're on the subject, I think it's time I came out of the closet and confessed: I wasn't always a cat lover. In fact, I used to be a cat hater.
Then I fell in love with a woman named Nancy, who had a black-and-white female feline named K.C. (short for Kitty Cat).
For the first six months, I wouldn't let K.C. into our bedroom. Then one day she decided enough was enough, and she proceeded to seduce me.
It took her less than 24 hours to turn me into a total cat nut. Moral: There's no zealot like a converted sinner.
K.C. and I got so tight, when Nancy and I eventually broke up she offered to give me the cat. But I knew K.C. would be happier where she was, so I declined.
Two weeks after I moved into a new apartment, there was a knock on my door; and there stood four little kids from the elementary school across the street, holding a tiny gray tabby kitten.
"Mister, did you lose this kitty?" They asked.
"No," I said, "but I'll take her."
So came into my life the late, great Eliza Doolittle. We were together for almost 17 years. And though I've had four more cats since her, I still miss her every day.
I miss all the others, too.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Remembering Chad

From the moment they met each other in 1984 during the first week of freshmen year at Bishop O'Dowd High School, Patrick Scalise knew he and Chad Newhouse were going to be best friends for life.
"He was, as we say in Oakland, 'hella cool,'" says Patrick. "He was one of a kind: stubborn, handsome, eccentric, a perfectionist, loving, sensitive, funny – he was the wittiest person I ever met in my life - and stoic. Maybe too stoic, as it turned out."
They shared a deep love of sports and heavy metal music, and you never met two bigger Raiders and A's fans in your life.
Their friendship continued through college and life in the adult world. When they weren't playing together in an AC/DC cover band, they were keeping in touch every day through phone calls and emails.
But a few years ago Chad started to withdraw into himself, and months would go by before Patrick heard from him.
"He was so dark and isolated. That's one of the signs of depression, but I didn't know it. I'll never live that down."
Then, in the early morning hours of Dec. 2, 2012, Patrick got a phone call from Chad's father. Chad had taken his own life.
Patrick was devastated, and he (wrongly) blamed himself.
"I keep asking 'What if?' You look at this situation and say, 'This guy needs serious help.' But you don't realize that you might have to intervene physically. You don't think it will come to that."
In despair, he traveled to L.A., where he and Chad had many mutual friends, and they drowned their sorrows in hours and hours of playing the music Chad loved.
"Then one our friends said, 'How rad would it be if we created a Raider Nation rock band and played a concert in Chad's honor?'"
They formed an all-star band called The Plunketts, and Patrick created a non-profit called the Chad Newhouse Foundation to promote suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
 "It went from friends trying to heal through music to this silly name to something extremely serious that gives us a purpose."
The first annual Plunkett Fest, a benefit for the Chad Newhouse Foundation, will be held Oct. 18 at the Uptown Nightclub in Oakland, featuring The Plunkets, The Butlers, and Feather Witch.
Former Raiders Cliff Branch and George Beuhler will be there, along with some of the Raiderettes. Tickets are available on Ticket Web or at the door. All proceeds will be donated to San Francisco Suicide Prevention.
And if you can't make the show, you can still send a check to the Chad Newhouse Foundation, 1308 63rd Street, Suite P, Emeryville 94608.
"Suicide is such a taboo subject," says Patrick, who still misses his friend every day. "Look how far we've come with AIDS. We got over that B.S. We have to do the same thing with mental health."
If you are having suicidal thoughts yourself, call the National Suicide Hotline ASAP at 1-800-273-8255. It's open 24/7, and the person on the other end will be someone who's been there, too.
And if you know someone who is wrestling with suicidal thoughts, please don't assume they won't act on it. They will, if nobody intervenes.
"My best friend committed suicide," says Patrick. "It could happen to you, too."

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Run Rabbi, Run Rabbi, Run, Run, Run

And now, in honor of the High Holy Days, an update on the Runnin' Rabbi himself, Yehuda Ferris, who, along with his wife Miriam, is co-director of Chabad of the East Bay in Berkeley.

Chabad is the center of local Hassidic life, which means there's always a lot of singing, dancing, joking and, above all, smiling.

Hassidim are followers of a rabbi who lived almost 300 years ago known as the Ba'al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name).

He taught that a personal relationship with God is more important than book learning. He called that relationship "cleaving to God;" and for his followers, it's an ecstatic, joyful experience.
"Even something as simple as tying your shoelaces or changing your baby's diaper can bring you closer to God, if it's done in the right spirit," says Ferris. "If you stop and think about all the blessings The Lord has given us, it's just overwhelming. All you can do is laugh and sing and dance with gratitude and joy."
So what's Ferris' latest hobby? Running Marathons. He began with his first half-Marathon (13.1 miles) at the San Francisco Marathon on July 27.
"My son-in-law goaded me into it. He said, 'Old man, you're going to run the Marathon' and made me buy a pair of good running shoes. When I put them on I started to feel like a big shot. Ninety percent of running is looking the part.
"Then he bought me an Assics shirt that wicks away the sweat and some spandex pants that looked obscene. So I got myself some running pants that were loose and breathable."
His plan was to get up early each morning and run progressively longer distances for the next three months.
"I started telling people I was in training, but I really wasn't. So one day my wife kicked me out of bed and said, "Go run!" So I jumped into Lake Temescal for a mikvah (ritual bath) – and began training in earnest."
The Marathon was held on a Sunday; so rather than drive on the Sabbath, Ferris and his congregation checked in en masse at the San Francisco Holiday Inn on Friday night and held Sabbath services there.
He was up bright and early on Sunday for his starting time, 5:30 a.m. He was running to raise money for San Francisco Team Friendship, a cause dear to his heart that matches special needs kids with non-disabled teenagers with only one goal in mind: friendship.
"They have everything – therapists, educational pedagogues – but they don't have as many friends as they would like," he says. "So we provide the teens to give them the friendship and socialization that every person craves."
Ferris wore his running gear, plus his yarmulke and tallit (prayer shawl), of course.
"My favorite moment was when another runner jogged over to me and said, 'Excuse me, are you Jewish?'" he laughs.
But he was far from the most picturesque runner in the race.
"I saw a fireman in full uniform and a guy who juggled all the way, but this wasn't Bay To Breakers. People were wearing clothes."
He didn't win the race, of course, but he did finish.
"I got the Crown of a Good Name," he says. "I got street cred."
To find out more about Team Friendship, visit sf.teamfriendship.org.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Carry That Weight

When Bobby Kennedy was murdered in 1968, a conservative Republican, Charles Goodell, was appointed to his Senate seat. But Goodell was a conservative with a conscience, and that conscience wouldn't let him support the Vietnam War, much to the displeasure of President Richard Nixon.
So the Nixon people went after him with a vengeance. They ran William F. Buckley's brother James against him, and Goodell was defeated for re-election.
He lost his Senate seat, but for the rest of his life he had the consolation of being able to look in the mirror every morning and seeing a man with integrity staring back.
I wish his son, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, could do the same. Given the opportunity to do the right thing in the Ray Rice case, he punted.
First, he interviewed the victim with her accused attacker sitting right next to her, something all those high-priced former FBI agents on the NFL payroll could have told him was a no-no. Then he chose to believe Rice's self-serving story and let him off with a mere two-game suspension, just a week after he banned Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon an entire year for smoking pot!
Goodell made it clear what his priority is: public relations - or, as they put it in NFL-speak, "protecting the shield."
Now that a second video has surfaced showing Rice delivering the actual knockout punch, he's been suspended "indefinitely," which means he can apply for reinstatement after a year.
But why did Goodell need to see that second video when he'd already seen the first one showing Rice dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator? How did he think she lost consciousness?
Domestic violence in the NFL is nothing new. Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy has been playing for three months after his conviction for beating his girlfriend and threatening to kill her. 49er defensive end Ray McDonald is still playing after being arrested last month for beating up his pregnant girlfriend. And last Friday Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was arrested for beating his 4-year-old son about the genitals with a tree branch.
Two years ago, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend. In 1999 Carolina wide receiver Rae Carruth killed a woman who was eight months pregnant with his child. And, of course, don't forget O.J.
But Roger Goodell doesn't think violence against women is a problem.
Well, I have news for him: It is, and not just in the NFL. It's widespread throughout our society - in the military, in police departments and on college campuses, where sexual assaults are routinely covered up by the chain of command.
It's open season on women, and it has to stop. But it won't until men stop it themselves. We all need to be like the students at Columbia.
A few months ago, a Columbia senior named Emma Sulkowitz was raped by another student, and the university did nothing about it. So she's been protesting by dragging the mattress on which she was raped around campus with her.
Last Saturday hundreds of her fellow students showed up at an anti sexual assault rally, and all of them were toting mattresses, along with signs reading, "Carry that weight."
And that's what we have to do, too. Carry that weight.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Words Of Love

In 1999 a group of neighbors in north Berkeley held a block meeting and decided to create a traffic island at the intersection of several busy streets – Sonoma, Hopkins and Josephine, just behind the North Berkeley branch library - to create a safe passage for pedestrians and a well-marked route for cars.
But a year later, on Sept. 11, 2001, the traffic island, which was still under construction, took on new meaning after the terrorist attacks. That day, somebody posted a sign in the triangular space: "MEET HERE AT 8:00 TONIGHT."
And they did. Few words were spoken; few were necessary. And they kept gathering there evening after evening.
Then somebody planted three saplings - one at each corner of the triangle - connected them with clotheslines, and set out blank squares of paper to be used for notes and clothespins to attach them to the lines.
And so the writing began. Young people and old, families, kids on their way home from school, and even whole classrooms read the messages and wrote their own. Eventually, the triangle took on an almost festive appearance, with the colored squares fluttering on the clotheslines. But the atmosphere was always somber and reflective.
As autumn turned to winter, the neighbors took down the notes, now numbering more than 1,200. One neighbor, former City Councilwoman Mim Hawley, volunteered to store them in her closet.
Ten years later she pulled them out and read them, and she was bowled over, both by the emotions they expressed and the emotions they evoked in her. So she compiled a representative sample - about 280 - into an album.
Some express a hope for peace:
"Please…help me understand and learn to forgive."
"Pray for an outcome worthy of all the lives that were lost."
"Someday, when they tell the stories of how the world came to live in harmony on this beautiful earth, may they count 9/11/2001 as the beginning. May it be so."
Others are angry:
"Bomb the hell out of the bastards who did this."
"Let's not let our spirit of love and tolerance interfere with our basic need to eliminate our enemies."
"Remember the people whose last choice in life was to die by fire or jump 90 stories. UNITE to destroy their murderers."
But the most heartbreaking messages, as you might expect, come from children:
"I hope the people that died in the airplane crashes will come back to life. I wish a fairy will come and do her magic."
"I hope this never happened and never again will. By Emma age 9."
"In our hearts we know right from wrong, but sometimes our mind doesn't listen. Molly Rose, age 9."
"Dear people who died, I miss you."
And one person left this heartfelt message: "I have never believed in you, God, but now we need you. Please come."
The album will be unveiled at a neighborhood meeting at the North Branch library at 10 a.m. on Sept. 13, and it will stay there, next to the checkout desk, for a month.
Then it will move to the main library downtown and placed in its permanent home in the library's History Room.
And someday, some PhD student at Cal who is writing a dissertation about grassroots reactions to 9/11 will be very, very grateful.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Thw Burning of Washington

(Above: the original Star Spangled Banner, the flag that Francis Scott Key saw by the dawn's early light flying above Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, now on display at the Smithsonian)

Two hundred years ago today, 5,000 battle-hardened British troops captured Washington D.C. and burned all the public buildings down.
They started with the Capitol, which housed the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, as well as the House and Senate. For kindling, they used the books in the Library of Congress, all 3,000 of them, as well as irreplaceable works of art.
Then they marched to the White House and burned that down, too. The next day, they torched the State Department, Treasury Department and War Department.
It was a sorry incident in a war that never should have been fought. The cause of the war was the British navy's practice of replenishing its ranks by stopping American ships and kidnapping some of the sailors.
Naturally, Americans resented this, and on June 18, 1812, Congress declared war.
What they didn't know was that the British cabinet, which already had its hands full fighting Napoleon, had banned the offending practice three weeks before. But it took six weeks for ships to cross the Atlantic, and by the time the news arrived here the killing had already started.
And it went on for almost three years. The final clash was the Battle of New Orleans on January 18, 1815, a resounding American victory.
But once again, what nobody knew was that the war had already been over for three weeks. The previous Christmas Eve, British and American diplomats met in Ghent, Belgium, and signed a peace treaty that returned everything to the way it was before. But the news didn't reach our shores until after the fighting at New Orleans was history.
And for this thousands of people died?
The War of 1812 wasn't our only dumb war. Most of them were – the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, Vietnam, Iraq, and, of course, the Indian Wars – all of which created greater problems than they solved.
Then, of course, there was World War I, a four-year meat grinder that killed 16 million people and accomplished absolutely nothing – except causing World War II, which chewed up another 100 million lives.
World War I actually ended on November 9, 1918, but the cease-fire didn't go into effect for another two days. The generals delayed it until 11 a.m on November 11 so the war would end at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. How cool is that?
So they kept feeding men into the meat grinder, ordering attacks until the very last moment. And thousands more died. All for a public relations stunt.
Look, I'm no pacifist. There are times when we really do have to fight – World War II, for example. But one of the best reasons for remembering history is to learn from it. Some of the lessons are positive ones of courage and devotion to duty. But others are cautionary tales about war's unintended consequences, most of them bad.
We are currently observing anniversaries of three important wars in our history – the 200th of the War of 1812, the 150th of the Civil War, and the 100th of World War I.
Or rather, we aren't observing them. There has been barely a word, from either our politicians or the media. And Santayana was right: Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.