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, June 23, 2016


                                   (Photo credit: Sticky Art Lab)
For years there's been a vacant lot in my neighborhood in Berkeley, at the corner of McGee and University. Delancey Street uses it every holiday season to sell Christmas trees, but the rest of the year it's just an eyesore surrounded by a chain link fence.
But when I walked by on May 16 I noticed something different: six enormous sunflower plants blooming along the University side of the fence. On closer inspection, they turned out not to be plants at all. They were images of sunflowers knitted with wool yarn. There was even a knitted ladybug on one of the leaves.
The artist's name, I found out, is Dawn Kathryn. Seven years ago she took a knitting class at the Oakland Library and got the bug (pun intended). This is her second knitted public art project. The first was a sweater she knitted for a tree in West Oakland in front of Kilobolt Coffee shop.
Alas, it's not there anymore. A vandal tore it down, which is frustrating because she works as much as six months on each project. And two weeks ago the same fate also befell the sunflowers. Somebody cut their heads off.
"After putting in that much time on a project, it can be a little nerve wracking hoping nobody takes it down," she says. "It doesn't matter how many people like it, one mean person can screw it up for everybody who enjoys it."
But that's not the end of the story. The lot is only a couple of doors down the street from Sticky Art Lab, a great, only-in-Berkeley art studio for kids where they can experiment with scrap materials and create unique, handmade works of art.
The next day, the kids from Sticky Art Lab were out there restoring the sunflowers (including the ladybug) to their former glory. I spoke with two of them: Sasha, 8, and Emma, 10.
"With no sunflowers, the fence looked really sad," says Sasha. "All Dawn was trying to do was make the world a prettier place, although there's beauty in everything, I think."
"And if it isn't as beautiful as it could be, you can always try to make it better," Emma adds.
They worked in teams: One kid holding each flower or leaf in place while the other tied it to the fence with matching-color yarn.
"We started with the flowers, and after that we worked on each separate petal," Emma explains.
Now the sunflowers look better than ever, bringing a smile to everyone who sees them.
"It was really fun," says Sasha. "I felt really good after we did it."
"It makes me proud to admire my work every time every time I pass by," says Emma.
As for Dawn, she's already at work on another public knitting project: a sweater for a signpost around the corner from Discount Fabrics on Ashby and San Pablo.
"I don't have a timeline; I do it when I can and when I feel like it," she says. "But the post isn't very large, so I don't think it will take long."
And she's grateful to the folks at Sticky Art Lab.
"It's a wonderful place, with great afterschool programs and summer camps. And they are wonderful people, as attested to by the fact that they repaired my flowers."

Garden of Memory

(Above: Luciano Chessa playing the musical saw at  the 2012 Garden of Memory)

One day 20 years ago, Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill, one of the best known exponents of New Music, took a break from performing to write a newspaper story about the most exotic restrooms in the East Bay. One of the places she checked out was the Chapel of the Chimes in North Oakland. It's a columbarium, a repository for the ashes of the dead, including bluesman John Lee Hooker, baseball star Dick "Rowdy Richard" Bartell, and Raiders boss Al Davis.
The restroom turned out to be nothing special, but the rest of the building – oh my! It was designed by Julia Morgan, and if you've ever seen Hearst Castle, you know that Morgan was in love with Gothic architecture. The Chapel of the Chimes features pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, fountains, gardens and – above all – stained glass everywhere. The result is a magical ballet of ever-shifting patterns of light and color.
"To hear the rippling of the water in the fountains, smell the blooming gardenias, see the glow of warm light coming through the stained glass windows and skylights - it's a place where you enter and you can't help but start exploring because it's a real wonderland that beckons you inwards," says Cahill.
Then she got a brilliant idea: What a great place this would make for a concert! Or, rather, 45 different concerts going on simultaneously. She put a different musician in each room and invited people to take in as much (or as little) of each performance as they like, then move on to the next room and a completely different experience.
And here's the most brilliant part: She decided to hold the concert on the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, to take advantage of all the sunlight.
It was an immediate hit, and 20 years later the event, called Garden of Memory, is going stronger than ever. This year's concert will be on June 21 and will feature 45 different performances ranging from quirky to bizarre. It's musicians at play, having fun doing what they do best – making music.
Among this year's lineup:
·                     In the Garden of St. Mark: Mills College music professor Maggi Payne playing theremins (think of the end of "Good Vibrations") and inviting kids in the audience to join in.
·                     In The Chapel of Patience: Henry Kaiser (grandson of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, who is buried next door at Mountain View Cemetery) and Norwegian guitarist Knut Reiersrud playing electric guitars while Kaiser's wife Brandi Gale, a synesthete (meaning she sees vivid colors in her mind when she hears music), makes spontaneous paintings as she listens to them play.
·                     And in The Sanctuary: 25-year-old composer Dylan Mattingly, who began attending these concerts with his parents when he was a little kid, playing improvisations influenced by bluegrass and the microtonal choral music of Polynesia with his old friends from Berkeley High, violinists Eli Wirtschafter and Alex Fager.
The Chapel of the Chimes is at 4499 Piedmont Avenue. The music starts at 5 p.m. and will go on until the last of the light filters through the windows at 9. Tickets are $15 general, $10 for students and seniors, and $5 for kids. It's the coolest concert of the year, a Black & White Ball for Bohemians. Be there or be square.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Greatest

(Above: the Champ with four guys from England, probably the only people in the world who were almost as famous as he was)

He was, as he never stopped reminding us, The Greatest.
Of course, we'll never know how great he could have been because he was still approaching the height of his physical powers when he was exiled from boxing in 1967. By the time he returned to the ring three and a half years later, he had clearly passed his prime. But that was still good enough to beat two of the greatest heavyweights of all time, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
But for all his prowess inside the ring, his true greatness lay in what he did outside it. By refusing fight in Vietnam – "No Viet Cong ever called me (the N-word)," he explained – he incurred the wrath of what we used to call "the establishment."
White male sportswriters – and there were no other kind in those days - exploded in vituperation. Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, "Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war." (Note the refusal to call him Muhammad Ali.)
Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times accused him of ingratitude for the Civil War: "Muffle the guns at Vicksburg. Spike the guns of Sumter. Burn the banners of the noblest cause man ever fought for. Cassius Marcellus Clay has decided to secede from the Union. After 103 years of freedom, he sulks."
The only prominent national leader who sent him a telegram of support was Martin Luther King. And the only white sportswriter to defend his right to be himself – to his everlasting credit - was Howard Cosell, who said of his colleagues, "They wanted another Joe Louis, a white man's idea of a black man. Instead, they got Ali, who was unafraid to speak his mind no matter what the consequences."
It's probably hard for younger people to understand what Ali meant to people my age. Vietnam was the defining issue of our generation, dividing American families every night over the dinner table. By refusing to go to war, Ali became our hero, our champion, our beau ideal.
I only saw him in person twice. The first time was in 1967, shortly after he was stripped of his title, at an anti-war March in Los Angeles. He was the most handsome man I ever saw, and one of the most articulate. He gave us a short, thoughtful talk urging us to think carefully about what we were about to do because we were likely be beaten and arrested - prophetic words, because that's exactly what happened when the L.A. cops, who were a law unto themselves, staged a police riot.
The second time was in 1990, when he appeared at Cody's Books in Berkeley on a book tour. I stood in line to meet him with everyone else; and when it was my turn, I was so star struck I could only babble incoherently about how much I loved him.
Parkinson's had already robbed him of his speech by then, so he held up his hand to stop me and, with infinite dignity and grace, lifted himself up out of his chair and shook my hand.
He was a great man. He was a good man. God bless his memory.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Drink Beer, Save Animals

(Above: Esme, Nunbun and Durga in a typical pose)
Tippi the kitten was starving to death when she arrived at the Berkeley Humane Society. The little white female with a gray spot on her forehead wouldn't eat and was obviously in a lot of pain. She hadn't been grooming herself, either, so her fur looked awful.
"Her mouth was clearly the source of the pain," says vet tech Sarah Gray. "There was pus coming out of the right side, and it was too painful for the vet to examine her. So we started her on antibiotics and sedated her for the exam."
 Once she was under, they were able to look in her mouth and discover that a chunk of her lower jawbone had broken off and was being held in place only by soft tissue.
"You could tell by the discoloration that the fragment had already started to die, so we had to remove it and two teeth on her lower jaw. Then we put her on antibiotics again and let her rest," says Gray. "After two weeks she was eating out of both sides of her mouth, had almost doubled in weight, and was grooming herself. When I first met her, most of her personality was encompassed in dealing with the pain she was in. Now she was amazing and wonderful and super duper sweet. So we put her up for adoption."
It didn't take Tippi long to find a new home – and a new name. She was adopted by Erin Bennett of Berkeley, who renamed her Esme and put her together with her other two cats, Nunbun and Durga.
"I had planned on being extremely cautious when introducing the cats, but Esme darted out of her room right away and almost immediately began playing with them," she reports. "I was so happy to see them all getting along. Esme is the tiniest of the three, but most definitely the fiercest! She especially loves to chase after and initiate a play-fight with Nunbun, who is three times her size! It is such a joy to see them cuddle, play, and eat together."
 Esme is another happy ending for the Berkeley Humane Society, which bounced back from a disastrous fire that destroyed its adoption center in 2010 to place more than 941 animals in loving new homes last year, and is on track to top that number in 2016. But loving care like this is expensive.
So what can you and I do to support them? Drink beer.
Next Saturday, June 4, the Humane Society will host its third annual Pints For Paws, a craft beer festival featuring more than 80 beers from more than 20 craft breweries. (This is Berkeley, after all.)
And if beer isn't to your taste, there will be plenty of locally produced ciders and wines, too - plus food trucks, live music, and special guest appearances by some of Berkeley Humane's adorable, adoptable animals.
And unlike other beer fests, which donate only a portion of their proceeds to charities, 100 percent will go directly to the animals.
Pints For Paws will run from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Humane Society, 2600 10th Street in West Berkeley. Tickets are $45 in advance at berkeleyhumane.org/pintsforpaws or $50 at the door.
Oh, and bring your dog. Tell them Tippi – oops, I mean Esme – sent you.

Going For Broke

(Above: Lawson Sakai and me at last year's ceremony.)
They say the French hate Americans, but I know one group of Americans they definitely don't hate. Au contraire, mon ami, they love these guys, and with good reason.
The date was Oct 18, 1944. The town of Bruyeres – population about 3,500 – was facing a bloodbath of catastrophic proportions. The German commandant in the area, Klaus Barbie, aka "the Butcher of Lyon," had scheduled a mass execution of hundreds of resistance fighters in the town square that afternoon.
But that morning, the 442nd Regimental Combat team, a segregated Japanese American U.S. Army unit, spoiled his party by liberating the town. And those resistance fighters were saved, including a 16-year-old boy named Francois Mitterrand, who grew up to become President of France.
He never forgot, and neither did the people of Bruyeres, as I discovered in 1994 when I accompanied some 442 veterans on a sentimental journey back to the city.
As our bus pulled into town, I spotted huge banners overhanging the street. I expected them to read, "Bienvenue a nos libérateurs" Рwelcome to our liberators. But instead, they read, "Bienvienue a nos sauvers " - welcome to our saviors!
The next day was Bastille Day, and the parade featured the 442nd vets marching down the main street – which the French named Rue du 442 after the war – behind the local high school band.
Never have I seen such joy. Old grandmothers leaned out their windows and tossed roses at them as they passed by. Young mothers, who were born decades after the war, ran alongside, holding up their babies for them to kiss.
One of the citizens who greeted us was Serge Carlesso, who was an 11-year-oldboy on the day the 442nd liberated his town. Serge's right leg was blow off by a German shell, but the 442nd medics saved his life. With him was his grandson, Laurent, who was the same age Serge had been on that day.
Also there was Pierre Moulin, a man who made it his life's work to honor the 442nd and keep their memory alive, writing books and articles and leading tours of the battlefields.
Serge died several years ago, and Pierre died just last month. And many of the 442nd veterans who took that trip with me are gone, too. But Laurent is still around to keep the story alive. And so am I, and so are the next two generations of Japanese Americans, the sansei and the yonsei.
Next Saturday, May 20 - Armed Forces Day – the men of the 442nd, plus their family and friends, conduct a memorial ceremony for their lost comrades in Oakland's Roberts Park, and they cordially invite you to join them. It won't take long – only about a half hour – and the scouts from Troop 21 in Berkeley will present the colors.
Roberts Park is on Skyline Boulevard. Just follow the signs for the Chabot Space & Science Center and take the Roberts Park turnoff a mile and a half before you get to the Center. Just say the magic words "442" to the guard at the gate, they'll tell you where to park. The service starts at Noon.
And no matter how nice the weather is, bring a sweater. We're going to be in a redwood grove, and it has its own micro-climate.

Daring To Dream

Bay Area basketball fans remember Lou Campanelli as the coach who took over the moribund Cal men's basketball program in 1986 and restored it to the kind of glory it hadn't known since the legendary Pete Newell era of the late 1950s, leading the Bears to their first NCAA tournament in 30 years.
For instance, Cal hadn't beaten UCLA for 26 straight years, but he beat the mighty Bruins his first time out. And the last time he played them, he handed them their worst home defeat ever.
But what I didn't know until now is that there was an even more fascinating chapter in his life before he came to Cal. And it's all detailed in his new memoir, Dare To Dream: How James Madison University Became Coed And Shocked The World, which he wrote with longtime local sportswriter Dave Newhouse.
Of course, it wasn't called James Madison University back then. It was Madison College, a tiny girl's school in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
But its president, Ronald Carrier, whom Campanelli calls "the greatest college president in history," had a better idea. He  changed "College" to "University" and doubled the student body by admitting men.
But to attract the kind of faculty and money he needed to make JMU a first-class teaching and research university, he needed something to put the school on the map. And that something was basketball.
So he took a chance on a smart, young, ambitious, fast-talking, but as yet untested coach from New Jersey named Lou Campanelli. It was a real culture shock. Carrier even had to teach him how to speak "Mountain Talk" to convince local parents to let them coach their children.
The only players who would consider James Madison were the ones nobody else wanted. But within five years Campanelli took them to three straight NCAA tournaments, knocking off powerhouses like Georgetown, Ohio State and West Virginia along the way.
But the game that really put JMU on the map was a last-minute 2-point loss to one of the greatest teams of all time, the 1982 North Carolina squad that starred James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and some guy named Jordan.
And how many of his players graduated on time with their class? All but one, and that guy came back later and got his degree, too.
"I'm prouder of that than of all the victories combined," he told me. "I told their parents, 'I can't promise you he'll play in the NBA some day, but I can promise you he'll get his degree.'"
And it worked. Within a few years, U.S. News & World Report was ranking JMU as one of the Top 10 Regional Colleges, and there it has remained ever since.
Dare To Dream can be enjoyed on many levels. One one hand, it's a thrilling David vs. Goliath story that makes "Hoosiers" look about as exciting as a TV test pattern. On the other, it's a fascinating insight for hardcore hoops buffs into how the game is really played. It's sure to become required reading for all young aspiring coaches.
Campanelli and Newhouse will appear at Barnes & Noble in Dublin at 2 p.m. on May 15 and at the Emeryville store at 7 p.m. on May 19. He may have been a great coach, but he's an even better storyteller.

Mayor Fujioka Goes To Washington

Piedmont Mayor Margaret Fujioka is off to Washington D.C. next week to accept a special honor from the Smithsonian Institution on behalf of a beloved relative she never met.
On May 12 the Smithsonian's Museum of American History will officially launch its Nisei Soldier Congressional Gold Medal Digital Exhibition, honoring the soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the segregated Japanese American World War II unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other military unit in American history.
The exhibition focuses on 12 individual soldiers, and one of them is Fujioka's uncle, Private First Class Teruo "Ted" Fujioka, a member of the 442nd's 1st Antitank Company, who was killed by a German 88 mm. artillery shell on November 6, 1944, in the woods outside the French town of Bruyeres. It was two months after his 19th birthday.
"I never met him, but I've always felt like I knew him," she says. "He was one of twelve children, so there were a lot of aunts and uncles to tell me stories about him as I was growing up. My father was the youngest, and he and Ted were very, very close. He idolized his big brother."
What they told her was that Ted was an intelligent, patriotic, handsome, athletic and kind young man who was a terrific writer and a born leader, and that his dream was to become a lawyer and run for office some day.
"He has been an inspiration to me all my life," she says. "It's no coincidence that I became a lawyer and ran for office myself."
Ted Fujioka was born in 1925. His mother was a gifted artist and haiku poet. His father was a journalist and community leader who was active in promoting friendship and understanding between the United States and Japan in the decade leading up to World War II.
Despite this – or perhaps because of it – Ted's father was one of the first of the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans who were arrested and imprisoned after Pearl Harbor. The rest of the family was sent to the Heart Mountain detention camp in Montana, where they languished until the end of the war. But Ted's dad was arrested by the FBI and interrogated for months before finally being allowed to join his family at Heart Mountain because of ill health.
The internees created their own school system in the camp, and Ted was elected the first Student Body President of Heart Mountain High School, as well as editor of the student newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel, and president of the Hi-Y Club.
When he turned 18 he volunteered to enlist in the U.S. Army and joined the newly created 442nd Regimental Combat Team, despite the treatment his family and so many others had suffered at the hands of the government.
"The future welfare of all of us who hope to remain in this land rests almost entirely on how the 442nd does in battle," he wrote to his parents explaining his decision. "We've got everything to gain by doing our utmost in battle, nothing to lose. We have a chance to prove to all who doubt our loyalty and sincerity to this nation that we too are Americans and therefore entitled to live as Americans in the truest sense of the word."
He fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, including the celebrated Rescue of the Lost Battalion in the Vosges Mountains just a few days before his death.
"The Lost Battalion was a Texas National Guard Unit of about 200 men what was trapped behind German lines," his niece explains. "Other units tried to break through to save them, but they couldn't. But the 442nd did, although they suffered 800 casualties to save those 200 men. For this and many other heroic acts of bravery and loyalty to our country, the 442nd was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011."
Mayor Fujioka attended that ceremony, too, accompanied by her father.
"The emotion he felt to be there to accept an award on behalf of his brother meant a lot to him in the last years of his life," she says. "He died two years later. I wish he could be with me on this one, too. That's one of the reasons for me to go – to honor him, to honor Ted, to make sure this story gets told, and to thank the Smithsonian for doing this."
A year after her father died, she and her family visited France and saw the places where Ted fought and died, including the American Cemetery in Epinal, where so many of the 442's fallen are buried.
"It was a sobering experience gazing upon the hundreds of rows of white crosses; walking down the main street of Bruyeres, which the French have named 'Rue 442;' and breathing the thick, molst air of the Vosges forest where the grateful French built a memorial to the 442nd for liberating Bruyeres," she says. "I will never forget the inscription: "To those whose lives proved that patriotism is not determined by their ethnicity."
Ted's parents received the dreaded telegram from the War Department a week after his death. They were still imprisoned at Heart Mountain. Shortly afterward they received a Purple Heart for the wound that killed him. Many years later a thief stole it from their home. But Mayor Fujioka still has the stubbed end of the pencil he used to write his letters home, as well as many of the letters.
In his last letter, Ted wrote, "Dear Moma, Papa, & all, Don't worry about me. I'm OKAY. Just take care of yourselves. When this war is over, I'll be home again – Heart Mountain, Detroit, Cincinnati, Hollywood, wherever it may be… As ever, Ted. Will write again."
But he never did.
Teruo "Ted" Fujioka, 1925-1944. Rest in peace.