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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The King Is Gone, But Not The Thrill

I'll never forget the first time I heard B.B. King. The date was Dec. 7, 1967, and the place was the old Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.
I had no idea who he was, and neither did anyone else in that audience of white hippies. We were there to see the Electric Flag - the band Mike Bloomfield formed after he left the Paul Butterfield Blues Band - and the Byrds, making their first appearance after Jim McGuinn changed his name to Roger.
Then Bill Graham announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the chairman of the board, B.B. King!" And out came this middle-aged man wearing a suit and tie, of all things.
In a world-weary voice he sang the first few words of his classic, "Sweet Sixteen" - "My brother's in Korea, baby; my sister is in New Orleans" - and ripped off a wicked lick on his guitar that made all our heads snap to attention.
His left hand fluttered up and down the guitar's neck like a butterfly, fingers vibrating to wring the last ounce of soulful feeling out of each note. It was a perfect visual metaphor for the blues – making something exquisitely beautiful out of something so profoundly sad.
We had never heard anything like that, and we leaped to our feet in excitement.
B.B. remembered that concert, too. I didn't know it at the time, but I was privileged to present at a historic moment - when he finally broke through to a mainstream audience.
Two years before, an emcee at a nightclub in Chicago had introduced him with the humiliating words "OK, folks. Time to pull out your chitlins and your collard greens, your pig's feet and your watermelons, because here is B.B. King." He was furious.
But it was a different story when he played the Fillmore two years later. As he recalled, "When I saw those long-haired white people lining up outside, I told my road manager, 'I think they booked us in the wrong place.' Then everybody stood up, and I cried."
And his new fans stayed loyal as he – and we - grew old together. For decades, whenever B.B. and I were in the same city, I always made it a point to catch his act. And he never disappointed.
He played with everyone from Eric Clapton to Barack Obama, who sang a charming duet on "Sweet Home Chicago" with him at the White House last year. But his favorite singer was Frank Sinatra, whom he credited for opening up the lucrative gigs in Las Vegas for him.
His virtuosity was legendary among other guitarists; but, like Fred Astaire, he never let you see him sweat. Those gorgeous, sensuous guitar lines seemed to flow effortlessly from his fingertips.
And though he took his music very seriously, he wasn't afraid to make fun of it, as in his hilarious song, "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother, And She Could Be Jivin' Too."
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll, R&B, and Blues Halls of Fame and received both the Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Now he's gone, but the thrill is not. Thanks to technology, we will always have his music with us.
But I'm still going to miss that butterfly.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Another Milestone For Lily

If you asked me who is the most inspirational person I've met in all the time I've been writing this column, it would be easy: Lily Dorman-Colby.
I met her 10 years ago, when her fellow students at Berkeley High elected her to be their representative on the Berkeley School Board.
The student representative is usually a nominal position, a sort of glorified civics lesson; but Lily turned it into something substantive.
"State law forbids us from counting her vote," board member Nancy Riddle told me, "but we have such respect for Lily's judgment, we always pay very careful attention to everything she says."
She was also getting straight A's, despite having dyslexia, and starring on the wrestling team. But she was so down-to-earth and unpretentious, the other kids weren't jealous of her. They rooted for her, instead.
Even more impressively, she accomplished all these things despite a truly Dickensian childhood.
Lily grew up in a series of foster homes. The county would give the foster family $500 a month, out of which they deducted $400 a month for rent, leaving Lily with only $100 to pay for everything else: food, clothes, school supplies - the works. She lived on spaghetti and rice, and I don't think she ever wore anything that was new.
Instead of feeling sorry for herself, as she had every right to do, she willed herself to become an incredibly focused, disciplined, passionate and compassionate advocate for the underdog, as well as a genuinely nice person. Her suffering not only made her stronger, it made her more sensitive to the suffering of others.
Not surprisingly, the colleges came begging. She received full scholarship offers from Harvard, Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth and Georgetown. But she turned them all down to go to Yale.
But she never forgot where she came from. Only three percent of foster kids ever make it past high school, and she was determined to change that.
During college she wrote a how-to guidebook, based on her own experiences, to teach foster kids how to get into college. She also conducted workshops on essay writing, choosing colleges, preparing for the SAT, editing applications, finding scholarships and applying for financial aid.
Then she went to law school at UC Berkeley, specializing in – surprise! – laws affecting foster kids.
During one summer she interned with state Senator Loni Hancock, who was so inspired by her, she authored Assembly Bill 340 – with lots of input from Lily - to streamline the process for licensing and approving foster families and adoptive parents who care for abused or neglected children.
"While the official title was 'Child Welfare Services Resource Family Pilot Program,' says Hancock, "I always called it 'Lily's Bill.'"
Lily's Bill was signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in October 2007.
Lily will graduate from law school this Friday, May 15, and she already has a great job lined up – a two-year fellowship with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, where she'll help foster families become effective advocates for their kids in the educational system.
And on Sunday, two days after graduation, she'll marry her longtime boyfriend. I'm dubbing the entire weekend "Lilypalooza."
God bless you, Lily, and godspeed. My fondest wish is to live long enough to vote for you for Governor some day.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

                                         (Above: Eliza and me, circa 1995)

How do I sum up 30 years in 550 words? I can't, of course. But 30 years ago today I wrote my first column, and they've been the happiest years of my life.
In 1985 I was hired by the Oakland Tribune to be its gossip columnist. Only one problem: I hate gossip. So I decided to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, instead.
My editors weren't happy, but the readers seemed to like it, so what could they do? It was the smartest move I ever made.
I've spent the last three decades years hanging out with some of the nicest people in the world, like Joseph Charles, the Berkeley Waving Man, who got up every morning, donned his trademark yellow construction worker's gloves, and waved to the cars passing by his home on the corner of Oregon and Martin Luther King, calling, "Keep smiling!" and "Have a GOOD day!"
And Marion Martin, who celebrated her 100th birthday by writing, illustrating and publishing her first book, a collection of stories she told her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (She published her second book a year later.) They all adored her, and one of them confided her secret to me: "She'd pull each one of us aside and say, 'You're my favorite; don't tell the others.'"
I had the privilege of being present when Melvin Ayers of Albany was reunited after 40 years with a little French girl named Francoise - whom he and his twin brother, Alvin, had befriended during World War II when their Army unit liberated her town of Somme Py - and introduced her to all his buddies at All Star Donuts at El Cerrito Plaza, where he had coffee every morning.
I interviewed Buffalo Bob and his sidekick, Howdy Doody. And Morris the Cat. And Miss Manners. And Molly Ivins. And MacNeil and Lehrer.
I wrote about magical places like Children's Fairyland, an oasis of calm in the middle of downtown Oakland. And the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness, which helps hard-of-hearing toddlers lead normal lives. And Senior Center Without Walls, which, with a simple phone call, breaks down the isolation that many homebound old people find themselves trapped in. And, of course, Island Cat Resources and Adoption, a selfless group of volunteers who have rescued hundreds of homeless cats and kittens, including my two girls, Pepe and Sally.
I've had the pleasure of working with wonderful colleagues, whom E.B. White must have been thinking of when he wrote in Charlotte's Web, "It's not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer."
So what was my favorite story? Easy: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American World War II regiment that fought so bravely, it was awarded more medals, man-for-man, than any other military unit in American history – all this while many of their families were imprisoned behind barbed wire in American concentration camps.
And my favorite quote? Josie Little, the grandmother of Jill Pervere, winner of the 2001 Piedmont High School Bird Calling Contest. "It was a perfect call, and she's a perfect child," said Little. "But what else would you expect a grandmother to say?"
Don't get me wrong: This is no farewell. They'll have to carry me out first.
Thanks, everyone. It's been a blast.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Going For Broke

(Above: Harry Madokoro's grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles)

On July 25, 1944, Private First Class Harry Madokoro wrote this letter to his mother from the battlefield near Luciana, Italy:
"Not knowing how to pray, I have to depend on the family to do a lot of praying that all this strife ends soon so we may all go home and enjoy the simple things of life. Believe me, war is hell! It's not a pretty picture to see young kids who have not seen or begun to live life, all shot up or torn up by shrapnel, laying there, never to speak or laugh again.
"I only wish I could get those bigots, those hate mongers, those super-patriots, here to see them. Here at the front we're respected as fellow Americans fighting for the same cause. We're proud as hell to be in there pitching, doing our share of the work."
Those are the last words he ever wrote. A month later she received a telegram informing her that he had been killed in action. He was her only child.
Harry was killed when he volunteered for an unusually dangerous night patrol. He volunteered because many in his squad were young, inexperienced replacements.
When she got that telegram, Harry's mother was living behind barbed wire at the Poston Detention Camp II, Block 213-13-G, where she and Harry had been imprisoned ever since they had been rounded up, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, after Pearl Harbor.
Despite this outrageous treatment, Harry – and a lot of other boys – volunteered to fight for the country that had done this to them.
They joined the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team; and they fought so well, they were awarded more medals, man for man, than any other military unit in American history.
They were given the most dangerous jobs, including rescuing the Lost Batallion, 211 Texas National Guardsmen who were trapped behind German lines - which they did, but at the cost of more than 800 casualties.
They were fighting two wars: one against Nazi racism in Europe and another against American racism at home.
Every year on the third Saturday in May – Armed Forces Day - veterans of E Company, Second Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team gather in Oakland's Roberts Park for a brief but moving memorial service to honor their friends who, like Harry, made the ultimate sacrifice.
Over the years the ceremony has expanded to embrace the entire 442nd RCT, then all who died in World War II, and finally all casualties of all wars. This year's ceremony will take place on May 16 at noon, and the men of Easy Company invite you to join them.
Roberts Park is at 10579 Skyline Blvd., about a mile from the Joaquin Miller Road/Lincoln Avenue exit off Highway 13. Follow the signs for the Chabot Space & Science Center and take the first turnoff on the right to Roberts Park.
Tell the guard at the gate that you're there for the ceremony, and you'll be directed to the far parking lot. Then follow the sounds of patriotic music about 100 yards into the park to the site of the 442nd RCT Memorial Redwood Tree.
In today's era, when rock guitarists are called heroes and football players are called warriors, here's your chance to meet the real thing.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hail to the Chief

Fifteen years ago, the Coast Guard in Alameda decided to do away with a growing colony of feral cats on the base. They were descendants of the cats who had been imported years earlier to combat a rodent infestation.
But Mary Sper, a volunteer with Island Cat Resources and Adoption (ICRA, for short), who was stationed on the island, heard about it and combated the overpopulation problem a different way. She humanely trapped the kitties, took them to local vets for vaccinations and spay/neuter surgery, and returned them to the base.
Over the years, the cats gradually disappeared. But one little kitten decided that this was her home, and this is where she was going to stay. Try as they might, nobody could re-trap her. She was just too smart for them.
She took up residence in the Chiefs' Hut, which is where all the Chief Petty Officers meet and hang out. And they reached a mutual modus vivendi.
They named her Chief – what else? – and gave her food and water and, in their own way, love.
In return, she kept the mice and rats away and, though she usually kept her distance, loved them back.
"Though she wasn't a lap cat, she was an institution at the Hut," says Chief Dan Doherty. "Her presence could be felt even from 10 feet away. She knew when folks were around, and she'd saunter out and meow for her food and water. Then she'd hang out with us on the back deck while we were having a beer or a soft drink."
Coast Guard personnel get transferred in and out on a regular basis, so over the years many, many Chief Petty Officers came to know Chief and love her.
But late in January, Doherty noticed a strange mark on her nose that was getting larger. So he called ICRA volunteer Jamie Reilly, who helped him trap her and take her to Alameda Pet Hospital.
The news couldn't have been worse: stage 4 cancer. Everyone was devastated, but they couldn't let her suffer any longer, so they had her humanely put down.
But she's not forgotten. On April 15 about a dozen people gathered at the Hut for a memorial service. Doherty gave a little talk about the history of cats and seafaring, and Brigitte Stafford read "The Rainbow Bridge."
Then they scattered her ashes in the Bay – a true burial at sea – and sat on the back deck for the rest of the afternoon sharing stories about her. A plaque reading, "For years of dedicated service, R.I.P. 'Chief' the cat" will be hung in the Chiefs' Hut, along with a laminated copy of this column.
There are so many other cats like Chief who could benefit from a little kindness, and the best way you can help them is by helping ICRA.
ICRA's big fundraiser of the year is its annual Champagne Silent Auction at the Alameda Elks Lodge, 2255 Santa Clara Avenue. This year's auction will be on May 2 from 7-10 p.m.; and it's always a terrific party, with great munchies and entertainment by guitarist Terrence Brewer. Suggested donation is $40 at the door.
And if you can't make it to the auction, you can still donate to this very worthy cause at icraeastbay.org.
Tell them Chief sent you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How Tweet It Was!

(In a 2011 photo, Caitlin Baldridge, Theo Quayle and Austin Kelley rehearse their bird call on the stage of "Late Night With David Letterman" before their appearance on the national CBS show. Photo courtesy of Debbie Kelley)
Update: The birdcallers will make their final appearance on Letterman tonight!

The feathers were flying on April 17 when Piedmont High School presented the 50th annual Leonard J. Waxdeck Birdcalling Contest.
Sitting in the audience, along with the current generation of Piedmont students, were former birdcallers whom the school invited to join the celebration.
"We're trying to call everyone back to the nest," says Social Studies teacher Ken Brown, the faculty advisor for the past five years.
The birdcalling contest began in 1963 as a class project in Waxdeck's biology course. According to legend, a student asked him, "Wax, what can we do to liven things up around here?" But many Piedmont alums maintain that no one ever would have had the temerity to call him "Wax."
For the first few years the competition was an informal affair at lunchtime in Waxdeck's classroom. Instead of judges, the class voted for the first, second and third place winners by a show of hands.
"There were no Latin names, no sound trucks, no follow-up TV appearances, and no preparation," recalls the winner of the initial contest, Jay Knowland (who did two calls – a rooster and a generic "jungle bird.") "We just made up the calls in the classroom. One girl, Maryanne Endicott, didn't do a bird at all. She did a crying baby."
It didn't take long for the event to outgrow Waxdeck's classroom, as word got out and other students and teachers started dropping by at lunchtime to see the fun. In 1966 it moved to the school's Alan Harvey Theater, where it remains to this day.
From the start it bore the imprint of Waxdeck's personality, including the dress code - three-piece suits for the boys, dresses with skirts that reach below the knees for the girls – the scientific nomenclature, and the deadpan mock seriousness that made the calls even funnier.
"The contest definitely had its tongue stuck firmly in its cheek back then," recalls Matthew Callahan, who finished second in 1984 with the call of Pelicanus Occidentalis, the western brown pelican, and returned as a judge in 2007.
"One of the highlights was Waxdeck's ritual reading of telegrams of regrets from celebrities like Pope John Paul II, the Queen of England, the President of the United States, and movie stars," he continues. "Nobody really knew whether the regrets were real or not, but he sure as hell sent the invitations out. And I know that at least one of them was real – the one from the Queen of England. I saw it with my own eyes."
With or without Her Majesty, the birdcalling contest soon became the hottest ticket in town.
"Starting at 7 a.m., four or five trucks of potted plants and floral arrangements would start arriving," says Callahan. "In those days the contest was held in mid-May, and it would be a warm day. So they'd open the doors of the theater, and the smell would waft out into the quad area and over the whole campus. Inside the theater it smelled like a nursery – minus the fertilizer, of course."
"By 3 p.m., a half hour before show time, the theater was filled to capacity. People were sitting in the aisles, and all the kids were backstage, nervous as hell."
Tickets were so hard to get, it was rare for a student to get one.
"All the VIPs in town were calling in their IOUs," Callahan recalls. "The year I entered I got a ticket for my mother, but as a general rule the only way to see the contest was to be in it."
In 1975 a 7th grader entered the contest for the first and only time: 13-year-old Marc Schweitzer, who won second place with his call of Gavia Immer, the common loon.
The novelty of someone so young beating the big kids was picked up by the local newspapers; and one of the articles caught the eye of a scout for Johnny Carson, who flew Waxdeck, Schweitzer  and the contest winners down to Burbank to appear on The Tonight Show.
"Marc was only 13, and his voice cracked in the middle of his call," says his sister Laurie. "But Carson was quick on the uptake. He said, 'That's OK, Marc. Many people have trouble while mating!'"
It got a big laugh, and a new tradition was born. Carson had Waxdeck and the birdcallers on his show every year until his retirement in 1992. And the ripple effects lasted even longer.
"I met my husband because of Johnny Carson," says Liz Wagman '87. "On the first day of my freshman year at UC Davis I was wearing my Piedmont High sweatshirt, and he said, 'I saw you on The Tonight Show!'"
On the other hand, she adds, "I teach high school in Clayton, and when I tell my students I was on the Johnny Carson show, they say, 'Who?'"
Another tradition was born in 1977, when Peter Chovanes performed the first introductory skit.
"My bird was Spheniscus demersu, commonly known as the jackass penguin because of its braying sound," he says. "So I wore a top hat, white tie and tails, and carried a cane. As I waddled onto the stage I tossed my cane to the emcee, Jim Hoglan, then I handed him my hat and he folded it. After I did my call Jimmy tossed the hat and cane back to me, and I waddled off again. The audience loved it."
Over the years the skits have become more and more elaborate – much to the dismay of some old-timers, who miss the understated deadpan deliveries of yore, and to the delight of today's students.
Two years after Carson retired in 1992, Waxdeck suddenly died from a stroke. And the birdcalling contest went dark for two years.
But the people of Piedmont refused to let it die. A coalition of parents and former birdcallers – with behind-the-scenes help from Piedmont Middle School P.E. teacher Linda Jarvis that continues to this day – resurrected the competition in 1996, with the winner's trophy renamed the Leonard J. Waxdeck Trophy.
Feelers were put out to Carson's successor, Jay Leno, to have the kids on his show. But Leno, who was anxious to escape Carson's shadow, wouldn't touch anything that reminded people of Johnny. So for one year they appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show.
Then, in 1976, David Letterman, who idolized Carson – and couldn't pass up a chance to stick it to Leno – was only too glad to have the birdcallers on his program. And there they have appeared every year since then. Their final appearance before his retirement in May will be next Tuesday, April 21.
The only downside was that Letterman routinely brought four birdcalling acts back to New York, but one of them would be cut at the last minute.
"We got cut the first year, and it was really disappointing" says Jill Pervere Saper, who won first place 2001 with her best friend, Rachel Winograd. "Both of my grandmothers had flown to New York to be in the audience. They didn't know we'd been cut, and I was stuck in the green room with no way to warn them. So when we went to back New York the next year I told them, 'No one can come.' Naturally, we got on the show."
Enter the man who, apart from Waxdeck himself, is the most important person in the history of the birdcalling contest: Randall Booker, who took over as faculty advisor in 2005 when he became assistant principal. Tactfully but firmly, he informed Letterman's producers that from now on it would be all or nothing.
"I saw kids sitting in the green room crying, and I said, 'We can't do that; this is cruel.' I was a little nervous about bringing it up, but it didn't take much convincing. I don't think they saw them before as kids with feelings."
Though the essentials of the contest remain the same, some details have changed.
"The dresses and three-piece suits have been replaced by jeans and T-shirts, and the VIPs in the audience have given way to actual students," says Callahan. "But the biggest change is that the bird calls are much more authentic than they were in my day. And instead of sports stars and local TV celebrities, the judges are now people who actually know something about bird calls."
This year's judges will include an ornithologist from Francisco State, prominent Piedmont community member Matt Heafey, and Waxdeck's son, Joel.
And discerning observers might detect a resemblance to a certain biology teacher – goatee, floppy forelock and all - in the Cedar Waxwing on this year's Birdcalling Contest poster.
"If you knew Leonard, you might recognize him," says Brown. "He's still an integral part of this event."
As for the future, no approaches have been made yet to Ellen, Conan, Colbert, Fallon, Kimmel et al. But they have a year to find another show. Brown says whatever happens – or not – is fine with him.
"This is really about the community," he says. "Television is just the frosting on the cake. The frosting is sweet, but the cake is pretty sweet, too."
"One of the things I like best about the birdcalling contest is that it lets kids just be kids," adds Booker. "Once they get into high school, it all gets so serious. They're focused so much on college admissions, tutoring, club sports teams, and community service. The birdcalling contest allows them to be silly. They have the rest of their lives to be serious."
(Footnote: Booker was promoted to principal in 2007, serving in that capacity until 2010, when he became assistant superintendent of schools. On July 1 he will become Piedmont's next superintendent.)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Hearing Is Believing

(Above: Teacher Kim Burke Giusti leads her a kids in Circle Time, during which they sing and sign.)
On April 23, volunteers from XOMA Corporation, a biotech company based in West Berkeley, will get together with Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley at XOMA's headquarters to build and paint a specially designed playhouse for the children at the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness, aka CEID.
It'll replace CEID's old playhouse, which has seen better days. (Part of it has to be held together with duck tape.)
And it'll have a lot of cool features that the old one lacks. It's wood instead of plastic; it's charming instead of cheesy; and, best of all, it'll be accessible to kids in wheelchairs or walkers.
XOMA and Habitot gave CEID's executive director, Cindy Dickeson, the choice about how it should be painted, and she requested a garden design to go with CEID's vegetable garden.
The paint should be dry by 2:30 p.m., then the playhouse will be disassembled into its component parts – sides, doors, windows, roof and trim - and driven to CEID a few blocks away. Then they'll be put together again in the CEID courtyard, right next to the vegetable garden.
"This has been on our wish list for some time," says Dickeson. "And the timing couldn't be better, coming as it does on our 35th anniversary."
CEID was founded in 1980, based on a simple but crucial insight: The first five years of life are the formative years, in every sense of the word.
Most kids don't start reading until they're five, so before that they have to get their information through their ears.
But what if you're deaf? While the other kids are soaking up all that vital data, you're not. If something isn't done, you'll be playing catch-up for the rest of your life.
So it's crucial to identify hearing loss in babies and start dealing with it ASAP, whether it's teaching them sign language or lip reading, or fitting them with hearing aids or cochlear implants, or a combination.
And while you're doing that, you also have to find another way to get that crucial information into their little brains.
That's what CEID does. Every year, its early intervention and education programs serve more than 50 kids and their families. And every year, its audiology screening program helps more than 1,000 families from 23 different counties spot their babies' hearing problems at the earliest possible moment.
How important are these programs? Deaf or hard of hearing kids who don't get them typically never get to read above a third grade level. But kids who do get these programs can read just as well as anyone else.
How can you tell if your own baby has a hearing problem? Trust your instincts.
"If a parent has a gut instinct that something is wrong, they're probably right," says Dickeson. "Some doctors might say, 'Oh, they'll grow out of it.' But they won't."
Call CEID at 510-848-4800 and make an appointment for an audiology test. Don't worry if you're on Medi-Cal; CEID will accept it, one of the few organizations of its kind that will.
CEID operates on an extremely tight budget, but they get a lot of bang for each buck. If you want to contribute to this very worthy organization, visit www.ceid.org or send a tax-deductible check to CEID, 1035 Grayson Street, Berkeley CA 94710.