A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The New Colossus

(Above: Emma Lazarus' original manuscript.)

On the wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty is a plaque containing a poem by Emma Lazarus called "The New Colossus," comparing Lady Liberty to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

But as we prepare to celebrate Columbus Day on Monday, can anyone deny that we have made a mockery of these noble words?
Nativism is nothing new. It goes back to the very start of our country, when Ben Franklin warned that the first wave of immigrants, the Germans, would change our language from English to German. Instead, they gave us hot dogs, hamburgers and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Throughout our history, people have always had the same complaints about immigrants: They'll eat up our resources, increase the crime rates and change our culture.
Instead, the opposite has happened. Immigrants work harder than everyone else – from the Irish and Chinese who built the Transcontinental Railroad to the Mexicans who currently labor in the fields to bring food to our tables – for one simple reason: Unlike the rest of us, who have grown soft and lazy over the generations, they still believe in the American dream and are willing to work hard to achieve it.
Statistics show they commit fewer crimes and volunteer to fight for our country in greater numbers than the rest of us, from the Irish in the Civil War to the Italians in World War II.
Yes, they do change our culture – but always for the better. If you don't believe that, no more pizza, bagels or mu shu pork for you.
And now, here we go again. Our politicians are falling over each other to prove who can be cruelest to Latin Americans immigrants, especially Mexicans.
Last year, we were treated to the spectacle of mobs of obscenity-screaming "patriots," their lips dripping with spittle and vituperation, surrounding busses of Guatemalan toddlers whose only crime was trying to escape the violence in their home country.
This year, the candidates are taking their cue from Donald Trump. The Donald says he'd still let a few immigrants in; namely, the rich ones and those with Ph.Ds. But that totally misses Emma Lazarus' point: What made America great wasn't aristocratic newcomers; it was ordinary people whose potential for greatness was untapped back in the old country.
And now Trump is upping the ante by promising to deport all the Syrian refugees we're taking in, too. But he ignores the basic truth that today's immigrants are like our own ancestors – just with different faces, that's all. They have always given back to this country far more than they got, and they always will.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Party Time!

Have you ever thought about what it must be like to be a homeless child? I mean REALLY thought about it? It's almost too frightening to contemplate, even for a few minutes.
You never see them begging on the streets. That's too dangerous. Instead, they spend each day hiding from scary people and trying to survive until the next day.
It's a heartbreaking situation and a real blot on our democracy, and we should be pressuring the politicians to do something about it. But until they do, what can you and I do to bring a little joy into their lives, at least for a moment?
That's what Gina Moreland, the director of the Habitot Children's Museum in Berkeley asked herself. And the answer hit her: Homeless children don't have birthday parties. When you're spending all your time and energy just trying to make it through another day, a birthday party is a luxury so out of reach, you don't even dare dream about it.
So she decided to give it to them. Last year, 15 homeless children had free birthday parties at Habitot, and Moreland pulled out all the stops – total run of the Museum for the kids and up to 75 family members and friends, pizzas, drinks, a personalized birthday cake (donated by Cakes For Kids), decorations, music, art supplies, Habitot staff on hand to guide the activities, transportation to the Museum if needed, a special present for the birthday child and party favors for all the guests.
"The party favors may seem silly, but they're more for the parents than anything because when you're homeless you can't provide things for your kids that other people can," says Moreland. "That makes you feel bad as a parent, so by providing party favors it makes the parents feel really good. They can be the kind of parents they want to be, so it's a gift to the whole family."
As I mentioned, Habitot threw 15 parties last year. Moreland would love to increase that total this year, but that will be possible only if she can find the money to pay for them.
So Habitot has launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise the funds. If you'd like to help, please visit tinyurl.com/HabitotIndieGoGo and make a tax-deductible contribution. The campaign ends on November 16th at 12:59 a.m.
I know a birthday party doesn't sound like much. But it can mean all the world to a child who has never had one.
* * *
Finally, a fond farewell to Yogi Berra, the greatest catcher in Major League history (but not baseball history; that distinction goes to Josh Gibson, who played in the Negro Leagues).
Yogi was the best clutch hitter I ever saw, but his true greatness lay in the gracious forbearance with which he confronted the constant insults about his appearance. (Opposing teams used to hop around on all fours, scratch themselves like caged monkeys, toss peeled bananas at him and yell, "Hey, Berra! What tree did they pull you out of?")
Yogi ignored them all, letting his bat do the talking. As the late Jim Murray wrote, "His own dignity at first silenced and then made ashamed his ridiculers."
He was a true gentleman. Baseball could use more like him. So could we all.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Everybody's talking

When Amber Carroll was running the San Francisco Transitional Care Program, which helps old people make the move from acute hospital care back to their own homes, she regularly referred her clients to Senior Center Without Walls, an Oakland-based telephone community for homebound seniors living throughout the Bay Area.
Think about it. Being old can be a lonely experience. It's not just that your friends are dying; your whole world is dying. The cultural touchstones of your youth are disappearing from the scene, and young people don't know what you're talking about when you mention people or things that, to you, are as common as the air you breathe.
But it's even worse when illness limits your mobility to the point where you're stuck at home all the time.
That's where Senior Center Without Walls comes in. It offers dozens of conference call conversations each week, ranging from the practical – fall prevention, food safety, Medicare, end of life issues – to the profound, including meditation, daily gratitude, and a lively philosophy discussion group called Socrates Café.
Plus: trivia contests, singalongs, Bingo, Boggle, pet tales (or is that pet tails?), armchair travel tours of far-off places conducted by volunteers who have just returned, and "D.J. Jeff's All Request Show," when SCWW staffer Jeff Cheung spins stax'o'wax ranging from Frankie Avalon and Bobby Vinton to Etta James and Devo. Whatever your interest, chances are SCWW has a chat group for it.
And here's the best part: Not only is it low-tech – who doesn't know how to dial a telephone? – it's totally free, thanks to the generosity of SCWW's sponsor, Episcopal Senior Communities, which pays for the calls.
Carroll was so impressed with the good that Senior Center Without Walls was doing for her clients, when she heard a few months ago that the position of director was opening up, she applied for it – and won the job.
"I've been referring people to Senior Center Without Walls for so long," she says, "it's a thrill to join this organization I've admired for years."
Senior Center Without Walls purposely keeps the paid staff as small as possible in order to devote more money to the people it serves. But there are still some expenses that can't be avoided, including the cost of the calls. So if you'd like to help, send a tax-deductible check to Senior Center Without Walls, 114 Montecito Avenue, Oakland CA 94610.
A few years ago one of SCWW's clients, Nanetta Washington of Hayward, died, and all the friends she had made over the phone held a memorial service for her – over the phone, of course. They comforted each other and talked about what a great person she was and how much they valued her friendship.
"Those conference calls made all the difference in her life," her husband told me. "After she got sick, her life shrunk down to our house, then to our bedroom, and finally down to our bed. Then she found out about Senior Center Without Walls, and her world opened up again."
If you know someone over 60 who might enjoy participating in a SCWW group, please show them this column and tell them to call toll-free 877-797-7299 to sign up. As Nanetta Washington's husband said, it can make all the difference in the world.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Remembering Martin, Joaquin and Moses

Sad to say, three cultural touchstones of my youth died over the few days. The first was actor Martin Milner, who died on Sept. 6. Milner made all the boys in my generation want to hit the road when he starred In "Route '66" and then made us all want to be cops when he followed that up by starring in "Adam 12."
But despite his successful TV career, the critics were less kind when he tried the big screen. When he played a reporter in the 1959 film "Compulsion" (based on the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder case), the acerbic critic Pauline Kael said of his acting, "If the killers really had been aesthetes, he would have been the victim."
Two days later, pitcher Joaquin Andujar also died. Andujar is best remembered for pitching the St. Louis Cardinals to victory in the last game of the1982 World Series, but his finest moment came in the locker room after the game.
After answering interviewer Bob Costas’ question about a leg injury he had suffered, Andujar politely asked Costas to excuse him a moment and then addressed the international audience in Spanish, expressing his pride as a Dominican and saluting the Dominican people, his family, and the country’s president.
It was a moment that made every Latino kid in this country swell with pride, just as every Jewish kid kvelled in 1965 when Sandy Koufax refused to pitch the first game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
Don Drysdale got the assignment in Koufax's place and was shelled unmercifully, giving up seven runs in 2 2/3 innings. When manager Walter Alston came out of the dugout to pull him from the game, Drysdale said, "I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too!"
Andujar is also remembered for uttering the best baseball quote not said by Yogi Berra - "Baseball can be summed up in one word: 'You never know.'"
Three days after Andujar, Moses Malone, the Hall of Fame basketball player who teamed with Dr. J to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA championship in 1983, also died. He was one of the first players to go straight from high school to the pros.
Back in the 1980s, when the Cold War was at its height, the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry in San Francisco, whose mission was to support the Jewish "refuseniks" who were defying the Communist regime, regularly contacted local Jews who were planning to visit the USSR and asked them to smuggle messages and/or money to the dissidents.
One of those they contacted was a local rabbi, who agreed to smuggle a note to refusenik leader Anatoly Scharansky. But before he could deliver the message he was busted by the KGB, clapped into the Lubyanka prison, and ruthlessly interrogated for more than a week.
"Tell us the name of your spymaster!" they kept demanding over and over. He realized that they probably knew nothing about American sports, so he finally cried, "OK, OK! I'll tell you! It's Rabbi Moses Malone!"
And it worked. They released him and deported him back to the U.S. And sure enough, six weeks later Pravda ran a front-page story exposing the evil machinations of the CIA and its nefarious spymaster, Rabbi Moses Malone.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Maestro For All Seasons

Last Thursday, Audrey Vardanega, the fabulously talented young concert pianist from Oakland, was in her apartment in New York City, where she's beginning her junior year at Columbia, practicing "Scarbo," the final movement of Ravel's suite "Garspard et la nuit."
Suddenly, the phone rang. It was her mom calling from Oakland with the news she'd been dreading for months: Her beloved mentor and surrogate grandfather, the great conductor George Cleve, whom poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called "one of the great Mozart interpreters of our time and place," had died from liver failure earlier that day in his home in Berkeley.
"I was truly, truly blessed to have him in my life," she says. "George took me in when I was 11 years old. He coached me, arranged some of my first appearances with orchestras, watched old movies with me, and taught me the importance of respecting the integrity of the composer. He never missed a concert I gave.
"He taught me how to give some of myself to others through music. He showed me how to use music to express love. I am so thankful for his grand life, his stubborn love, and his support for all my endeavors. I know that he's listening when I play, and I will never play another bar of Mozart without thinking of him. I will always miss him."
Then, when the phone call was over, she paid tribute to him in the only way she could think of: She went back to practicing "Scarbo."
"I felt it would be OK because wherever there's music, he's there. That's the beauty of George: He WAS the music. He wasn't just a conductor; he let the music consume and define him. I was supposed to play that piece for him next December, but now that's not going to happen."
But she did get a chance to play for him one last time the week before he died, when she went to his house to see him before boarding the plane for New York. She played some of his favorite pieces, including "Ondine," the first movement of "Gaspard et la nuit," and the "Petrarch Sonnet" by Liszt.
"I'm so happy I did that. I would have regretted not seeing him one last time. He didn't look very good, and I had a horrible feeling that I wasn't going to see him again. I knew that this was it."
But, in a curious way, she's still learning from him.
"That night I wasn't able to go to sleep. I kept hearing a motif from Brahms' 'Romance,' and it was as if he was coaching me on it, giving me advice. He loved Brahms, and this motif kept repeating and repeating in my head. It felt like George was planting it there."
And she'll keep learning from him for as long as she lives.
"I'm not a religious person, but whenever I play anything I played for him that he loved to hear, I'll feel him listening. He gave so much to so many, and he asked for so little in return."
And the feeling was mutual. I once asked George how good Audrey was for her age, and he laughed and said, "Martin, she's good for ANY age!" Then he added, "But the best part is that she's such a great person."

Sunday, August 23, 2015

You Say You Want A Revolution?

Eight years ago, Cynthia Noonan was happily living an active life filled with biking, backpacking and yoga. Then, totally out of the blue, she was struck down by transverse myelitis, a rare inflammatory disease that made her immune system attack her own spine.
"In four hours, I went from being fine to being a quadraplegic," she says. "When you're a very active, fit person and suddenly lose that, it's like losing yourself. I was in a very dark place."
Then she discovered the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program – BORP, for short – a wonderful organization in Berkeley that offers an extensive choice of adaptive recreation programs for physically disabled or visually impaired adults and kids.
Among them: team sports like wheelchair basketball, power soccer, goalball and team hockey; more than 80 different adaptive cycles that fit the needs of almost everyone with a disability or vision impairment; adaptive kayaking; fitness classes featuring body strengthening, yoga and relaxation; and excursions throughout the Bay Area including hikes, archery trips and archery.
"It saved my life," she says. "Everything opened up for me. It really did; I'm not being sentimental. Before I came here I felt completely boxed in and limited. But thanks to BORP I was out of my chair and on a bike, outside. What I thought were my limitations didn't have to be. There were opportunities to regain the things I thought I had lost."
She's also found mutual support with the friends she's made at BORP.
"I met people who had been living with disabilities and had accomplished more than I thought I could. It also gives me a chance to mentor others as well as be mentored, and to be a part of something bigger than myself. I never thought it would be possible for me to ride a bike in the hills of Sonoma, but that's what I'll be doing next month."
The event she's referring to is the annual Revolution Ride, BORP's biggest fundraiser of the year, on Sept. 26 at the breathtakingly beautiful Trentadue Winery in Geyserville, featuring five fully supported S.A.G. (supplies and gear) cycling routes with distances from five kilometers to 65 miles, followed by a sumptuous party at the winery.
If you want to register or volunteer, go to borp.org. The registration fee is $50. In addition, adults are asked to raise at least $400, and those under 18 are asked to raise $150. Teams, corporate teams, and individual riders of all abilities are encouraged to join the ride. If you don't want to ride but would still like to join the celebration, that can be done, too, for $100.
As an added inducement, everyone who raises over $750 will receive their choice of a gift card at Amazon or dinner at either the Café at Chez Panisse or Comal.
And if you can't make the party but would like to help anyway, you can donate online at borp.org or send a check (tax-deductible, of course), to BORP, 3075 Adeline St. Suite 200, Berkeley CA 94703.
BORP serves more than 900 children and adults in the Bay Area with a variety of disabilities, including spinal cord injury, cerebral palsey, multiple sclerosis, spina bifeda, stroke, traumatic brain injury, amputations, post polio, limited mobility and visual impairments. I can't think of a worthier cause.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Jocko's Finest Hour

On June 19, 1944, at the climax of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, planes from the aircraft carriers Hornet, Belleau Wood, Cowpens and Bataan, commanded by Admiral J.J. Clark aboard the Hornet, sank the Japanese carrier Hiyo and put two other flattops, Zuikaku and Junyo, out of action, effectively destroying the enemy's air power for the rest of the war.
But darkness was approaching, and the returning planes were running low on fuel. There was no way they could find their ships in the dark, much less land on them. And the ships didn't dare turn on any lights to help them because even a single bulb could be seen by enemy subs miles away and turn entire task force into sitting ducks.
That was the conventional wisdom, but Admiral Clark wasn't a conventional man. He decided to risk it and ordered the Hornet to shine a vertical searchlight beam. Then he notified his superior, Admiral Mark Mitscher, what he had done.
Mitscher responded by ordering every ship in the task force to turn on their lights. All but 50 planes were able to land safely, and those that didn't were able to put down in the water next to the ships, and the pilots were safely rescued. It was one of the greatest moments in the history of the U.S. Navy.
So when you go to visit the Hornet, which is now moored at Alameda Point as a naval museum, remember: You are standing on sacred ground. Because of the moral courage of one man, hundreds of boys lived instead of crashing to watery deaths.
He was also a real character. He liked to sleep on a cot on the bridge so he could spring into action at a moment's notice; and it was a common sight to see him directing a nighttime battle in his polka-dot pajamas and fuzzy slippers – but with his Admiral's hat firmly on his head, of course.
There's a small memorial to Admiral Clark - whom everyone, from Mitscher down to the lowliest seaman, called "Jocko" - in his old cabin aboard the Hornet, featuring some of his personal possessions, including his pocket watch, ashtray, paperweight, and teacups. But his real memorial is in the hearts of the men who served on the Hornet, who adored – there's no other word for it – him, down to the very last man.
"There's nothing we wouldn't do for him," one of them told me, "because there's nothing he wouldn't do for us."
The Hornet is actually an archaeological dig. Every time I go back to visit her, they've restored another area of the ship. The latest is the officers' mess, which was unveiled to the public for the first time a few weeks ago.
Alas, time and the elements have taken their toll on the wooden flight deck, and an aircraft carrier without a flight deck isn't an aircraft carrier. The Hornet has already raised $550,000 toward the $800,000 they'll need to complete the first stage of the restoration, but they need our help to raise the rest.
You can donate (tax-deductible, of course) online at tinyurl.com/hornetheritage or send a check to the USS Hornet Museum, P.O. Box 460, Alameda CA 94501.
Tell them an old man in polka-dot pajamas and fuzzy slippers sent you.