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, February 7, 2016

Farewell To Football?

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

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

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Stupor Bowl

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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Love Of My Life

                                           Eliza as a kitten
                                         Eliza as an old lady

Believe it or not, I didn't always love cats. In fact, I used to be a cat hater. After all, cats are aloof and unfriendly, right?
Wrong. That's the sign of someone who has never met a cat. But it all changed when I fell in love with a woman who had a cat named K.C., short for Kitty Kat.
For the first six months we lived together I wouldn't let poor K.C. into our bedroom. Then one day she decided enough was enough, and she proceeded to seduce me.
It didn't take long. By the end of the day she had me wrapped around her little paw, proving once again that there's no zealot like a converted sinner.
We became so tight that when my girlfriend and I broke up, she offered to give me the cat. But I knew K.C. would be happier with her mom, so I reluctantly turned her down.
Two weeks after I moved into a new place there was a knock on my door, and when I opened it there were four little kids from the elementary school across the street with a gray tabby kitten so tiny, you could easily hold her in the palm of your hand.
"Mister, did you lose this kitty?" they asked.
"No," I said, "but I'll take her."
And so I met the love of my life (four-footed version). I named her Eliza Doolittle, and from the moment we met it was the greatest love I've ever known. We'd look into each other's eyes, and I knew she knew what I was thinking, and she knew I knew, and so on. I will never have that kind of intimacy again.
She was loving and sweet and absolutely fearless. When I left for work every morning, she'd climb out the bathroom window and into the bedroom of my next-door neighbor Cindy, and curl up in bed with Cindy and her dog Emma.
Then, when Cindy left for her job, Eliza would spend the rest of the day in the back yard, surveying her domain from a tree and slaughtering the seemingly endless supply of mice, which she'd stack like cordwood as a welcome-home present for me when I came home every evening.
Cindy could always tell when I was about to arrive, long before my car hove into view, because she could hear Eliza jump down out of the tree, run across the back yard, jump in the bathroom window, and race the length of the apartment so she would be waiting for me when I opened the front door.
She was my faithful companion, in good times and bad. She taught me the simple joy of loving and being loved. I might have had it over her intellectually, but morally she was my superior in every way.
We were together for almost 17 years until I came home one night and found her lying dead on the floor. That was 20 years ago today.
I've had four more cats since then – Nelly, Phoebe, Sally and Pepe – and I've loved them all dearly. But not a day has gone by
when I haven't thought about Eliza and missed her.
I really hope there is a heaven because when I die, the first thing I want to see is her.

Friday, January 15, 2016

My Pal Al

A great man died last week. But he was also a very good man.
His name was Al Hart, and for more than 20 years he was the morning drive anchor at KCBS in San Francisco. He won every broadcasting award there was, plus the love and admiration of everyone in the news business.
"He was the guy we all wanted to be," said Tom Newton, the assignment editor at KRON.
"The finest individual I ever met in radio. Invariably kind and gentle, and funny and talented to boot," said Andy Ellis, Al's engineer during the 1980s.
"Here was this broadcasting legend treating me not as some lowly little girl tech who was supposed to make him look good, but as an equal," said Kitty Rea, one of KCBS's first female engineers back in the 1970s.
"He demonstrated through his life that it is possible to succeed without destroying those around you," said Lois Melkonian, Al's co-anchor at KCBS for ten years.
It would take dozens of columns to quote even a fraction of the nice things that are being said about him today, and thousands more to list all his good deeds. Let's just put it this way: Lots of people, knowing that Al and I were longtime friends, have asked me if he could possibly have been as nice as he came across on the radio. And I have to answer honestly: No. In real life, he was even nicer.
When I first met him, he was married to a wonderful woman named Sally. But in the mid-1990s Sally was stricken by ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease – an insidious killer that left her mind intact but slowly destroyed her muscles, first robbing her of her ability to talk and then her ability to write, cutting her off from the world. It was a living hell, and she hated it.
Al was a saint through all this. He was there for her 24/7, waiting on her hand and foot, talking to her, encouraging her, sharing the ordeal with her. But what else would you expect from Al?
Sally finally died in 2002, and it was a blessing (her word, not mine). Al was devastated.
But a few years later he met another wonderful woman named Pat, and they married in 2010. Unfortunately, a few months after that Al was diagnosed with corticobasal degeneration, a rare, progressive brain disease that robbed him first of that amazing, mellifluous voice that the listeners loved so much and then, step by step, of his mind. It was the mirror image of the disease that took Sally's life.
Now, here's where the karma kicks in. All the kindness, all the energy, all the effort that he put into taking care of Sally, that's what Pat did for him. She knocked herself out, and when she wasn't enough all by herself, she hired round-the-clock nursing care in their home so he wouldn't have to go into a nursing home.
I once marveled to her face at her dedication, and she replied,  "I just love him, that's all."
So on behalf of all of us who loved him, too, I say thank you, Pat. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Now his pain is over. Ours has only begun.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Mind Your Manners

                                           (Above; Emily Post)

Are you dreading the political food fights that seem to be in our future this year? There's not much we can do about them, but how can we make sure they don't spill over into our personal lives and poison our relationships?
I asked one of the Bay Area's premier event producers, Sarah Kidder, who is also an etiquette consultant. Her clients include everyone from corporate CEOs and aging socialites to young children and female ex-cons transitioning back into society.
"First of all, there are some places where you don't want any political conversations at all, like work," she says. "Your job at work is to do your job, not be on a soap box."
But what about family get-togethers?
"That's more complicated. The larger the group, the more difficult it is to have a real discussion about any topic, much less politics, especially in any situation involving alcohol. But if you want to make it through the year with your relationships with family, friends and co-workers in fairly decent shape, here are some tips:
1. Become a master at changing the subject. "The world is full of interesting little distractions that can quickly steer the conversation back to safe territory, like new movies, new TV shows or coffee table books."
2. Remember that people love to talk about their favorite subject: themselves. "If you can't distract Uncle Bob by getting him to talk about the new 'Star Wars' movie, ask him to talk about the first time he saw the original 'Star Wars.' That way, he'll still be the center of attention, which is what he really wants, but he can talk about something less confrontational -- himself."
3. But what if Uncle Bob is insulting other people at the table? "Don't confront him about it. It's rude to call someone out for being rude. It doesn't help matters because it's shaming him, and making him angry makes moving on from the moment even more difficult."
4. Does that mean there's nothing you can do if he keeps ranting about Donald Trump or Barack Obama? "Not at all. In my family, I have found that all the power is not with the rude person; it's with the polite people because they can raise an eyebrow, change the subject or ignore him in a quiet way that shames him into changing his behavior. Never underestimate the power of a grandmother's raised eyebrow."
 5. But what if you really like Uncle Bob and want to set him straight on the facts? "Wait until you're one-on-one. Then you trot out my secret weapon -- the compliment sandwich. First, you compliment him: 'Wow, it sounds like you've really put a lot of thought into that.' Then you say, 'I've recently come across an article on the subject that you might find interesting. I know how much you like to keep informed.' Then you close the compliment sandwich by adding, 'But you've probably already seen that.'"

6. And what about your own behavior? "What we think we're saying, what we're actually saying and what is being heard are often three separate things. Even polite people can get stressed out or sick or distracted. So if you say something rude yourself, own up to it and say you're sorry, even if it's a week later."

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Best Reporter That Ever Was

(Photo by Richard Koci Hernandez)

It was a blue Christmas for many members of the Bay Area journalism community because Paul Grabowicz died from cancer the day before.
I've had the privilege of working with some great reporters, including Kevin Fagan and Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle and Harry Harris, the great crime reporter for the Oakland Tribune. But I think Kevin, Henry and Harry would agree that Grabs, as we called him, was the best of the best. He was our hero as well as our friend.
If you were a politician on the take, or a developer who was covering up the fact that he was building on a dangerous earthquake fault, or someone in power who was abusing his authority, Grabs was your worst nightmare, a guy who would never rest until he unearthed the truth.
But if you were an ordinary Joe getting screwed by the system, or a younger reporter in need of guidance, or one of his students at the UC Berkeley journalism school, or a homeless kitty cat, you never met a sweeter, kinder, more generous person in your life. And you never will.
Grabs was a reporter of the old school: funny, profane, cantankerous, hard drinking, irreverent, necktie askew, typing with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, and a cuss word for everyone and every occasion. But his grouch persona was just a mask, and we all saw through it to see the abiding love - there's no other word for it - that lay barely below the surface.
"The UC Berkeley School of Journalism had no higher honor than Grabs flipping you off as he passed you in the hall, which somehow always felt like being bathed in warm light," said former Express reporter Kara Platoni, who taught with him at the J-school.
Whenever I saw him, the first words out of his mouth were always "(Bleep) you," which felt like a love letter.
Grabs worked at the Tribune for 20 years, then spent the next 20 years teaching journalism at Cal, although he refused to call himself a journalist. True to form, he preferred the old-fashioned, working class term, "reporter."
Paradoxically, for someone who was the embodiment of the old school, he was the first to embrace the new school. At a time when most journalism professors were pooh-poohing the Internet as just a passing fad, he recognized that his duty was to prepare the next generation of reporters for the digital age.
He taught the J-school's first course on blogging and created a training program, the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute, to help reporters learn digital skills.
"Without him, the school would not have entered the 21st Century," said former dean Tom Goldstein.
In 2013 the graduating class asked him to be the keynote speaker at their graduation, and he advised them to keep digging but not to forget to have fun. "Journalism that only seeks to entertain is frivolous," he said. "But journalism that is only high-minded is a bore."
My deepest sympathy to his wife Anne, to his beloved kitties, and to all of us who now have to live in a world without him in it.
(Bleep) you, Grabs. There will never be another one like you. Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn. (Grabs would have used a different word.)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Christmas Jeremiad

"How many observe Christ's birthday! How few, his precepts! O! 'tis easier to keep holidays than commandments." – Ben Franklin
Ever since I was a little kid, Christmas has been my favorite holiday. The presents were nice, but that's not what really attracted me.
It was the Christmas story itself. I loved the irony of those innkeepers turning away Joseph and Mary, not realizing that the baby she was carrying would turn out to be the most important person in history.
How I enjoyed looking down at those innkeepers! What fools they were, I sneered. We would never do that, would we?
Yes, we would. We do it with regularity, especially this year, when thousands of refugees desperately fled the Syrian civil war, only to knock on our door and find there's no room at the inn.
Remember that photo of the dead body of a little boy lying face down in the sand? That little boy was Jesus. And we crucified him all over again.
Ben Carson calls the refugees "rabid dogs." Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush say we should only admit Christians. And Chris Christie says even three-year-olds are too dangerous to take in.
But our bigotry isn't confined to Muslims. Last year, when children from Central America crossed the border to escape drug lords who were killing and raping them, they were met by mobs of American "patriots" screaming and spitting hatred and vituperation. Donald Trump went so far as to say that they are the rapists.
For the first time in my life, I am ashamed of my country. One doctor dies from Ebola, and we panic and blame the victims. After terrorists attack Paris and San Bernardino, we try to bar all Muslims from entering the country.
By contrast, France, the country that was attacked, is set to take in tens of thousands of refugees. Canada, with one-tenth the population of the U.S., is going to take in more than double what even President Obama is calling for. Prime minister Trudeau welcomed the first refugees at the Toronto airport, handing out teddy bears to the children, who have been traumatized beyond what we can possibly imagine, and saying, "Welcome to your new country." But we freak out and chicken out.
Whatever happened to the home of the brave?
And for Muslims who already live here, this year has been a nightmare. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslims have tripled. Mosques have been firebombed. A sixth-grade girl in the Bronx was attacked by three boys who punched her, stripped her of the hijab she was wearing, and called her "ISIS." In Pittsburgh, a passenger in a cab shot the driver, who was Muslim. In Anaheim. a bullet-riddled copy of the Quran was left outside an Islamic clothing store. In San Bernardino, a man pulled a knife on a Muslim woman at a carwash and threatened her. And politicians are calling for a national surveillance system to spy on Muslims or even round them all up and imprison them, as we did to Japanese Americans in World War II.
Whatever happened to the land of the free?
God is watching us, folks. And as Thomas Jefferson said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
Merry Christmas anyway.