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, December 28, 2008

Sweeter Sounds

Is the piano mightier than the sword? That's what pianist Sarah Cahill aims to find out when she premieres her new musical project, "A Sweeter Music," Jan. 25 at Cal Performances' Hertz Hall.
Cahill asked 18 eminent new music composers - including Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Frederic Rzewski, Larry Polansky, Jerome Kitzke, Pauline Oliveros and The Residents - to compose works about peace, and they all rushed to accept.
"Any time Sarah asks me to write a piece, I say yes," said Polansky. "I don't care what it's about, I'm just flattered and honored that she asked me."
"She's just fearless and will try anything," added Kitzke, whose score calls for Cahill to speak, sing and rap the keyboard lid with her knuckles. "She's a great musician."
"This is the third or fourth piece I've written for Sarah, and she's always able to handle anything I throw at her, which is quite a variety, " said Oliveros. "This time, I've written a 12-bar blues with the audience joining in, singing, 'We want peace on Earth.' I think it's going to really rock."
"A Sweeter Music" will get its world premiere Jan. 25 at Cal Performances' Hertz Hall, augmented by a three-screen video projection by Cahill's husband, award-winning video artist/director John Sanborn.
The concert will be preceded by a panel discussion featuring Cahill and some of the composers on Jan. 23 at Wheeler Auditorium. Then Cahill will take "A Sweeter Music" on tour - first across the country and then to Europe and Asia.
The title is a quote from Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize lecture: "We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war."
"It was Frederic Rzewski's arrangement of 'Down by the Riverside' that first gave me the idea," she said. "After reading news about the latest deaths in Iraq, I would sit down and play his music as a kind of catharsis.
"I kept thinking that there needed to be more pieces like this, that can provide solace and inspiration. I know a number of composers who, like me, feel so frustrated and helpless in the face of a senseless war and need to express their response in some form."
Some of the pieces are overtly anti-war, such as "Dar al-Harb," composed by 17-year-old wunderkind Preben Antonsen as a tribute to his cousin, who served in Iraq.
"He was an interrogator, which means he did all the things the government says we don't do, and he was damaged by that. The piece starts out very simple and very calm and gradually gets more and more violent, and by the end it's just an enormous flaming mass of fury with no order at all. Like the war."
Others are more pro-peace, such as Riley's gentle "Be Kind To One Another Rag," which he plays to his grandchildren at bedtime.
"When Sarah called and asked me to write an anti-war piece, I said, 'No, but I'll write some music for peace,'" said Riley, who was arrested on the first day of the Iraq war for sitting down in the middle of the street. He was sentenced to community service, which he performed by writing an anti-war song.
The premiere of "A Sweeter Music" is the latest installment in Cahill's long association with Cal Performances, which goes back more than two decades.
"She was the first person I met when I came to Berkeley," said Cal Performances Director Robert Cole. "I had just flown here to accept this job. After I signed the contract I stopped into a restaurant on Shattuck Avenue for a bite to eat, and there was this young woman playing Chopin - and beautifully, too. I thought, 'What a high class town this is!' And she's been one of my favorite collaborators ever since."
Described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a reigning diva of avant-garde pianism," Cahill is popular with her peers because her behavior is anything but diva-like.
"You're going to have a hard time finding anyone who doesn't adore her," said Bonnie Hughes, executive director of the Berkeley Arts Festival. "She's incredibly generous, always thinking of things for other musicians to do. I mean, look at this project."
In addition to her concert career, Cahill promotes new music on her weekly two-hour radio show, "Then and Now," on KALW-FM in San Francisco, writes music criticism for local newspapers and music publications, and produces concerts such as the annual "Garden of Memory," which showcases up to 40 different musical performances at the Chapel of the Chimes Mausoleum in Oakland.
She and her brother, archaeologist/art historian Nicholas Cahill, an Indiana Jones look-alike who is directing the excavation of the palace of King Croesus at Sardis in western Turkey, grew up in an academic and artistic family in Berkeley.
Their father, James Cahill, Professor Emeritus of Art at Cal, is a leading expert on Chinese art. Their mother, Dorothy Dunlap Cahill, is a well-respected art connoisseur, according to UC Berkeley art department chair Pat Berger.
Cahill grew up listening to her father's collection of rare historical recordings of Bartok, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and at 7 started studying with Sharon Mann, a nationally recognized expert in Bach's keyboard music
"She was the youngest student I've ever had, by far, but she was an adult in disguise," said Mann. "Her Schubert was the first thing I noticed. Children usually want something more direct, less subtle, but she was able to access music that was suggestive and nuanced. It was breathtaking to be around her."
One of her favorite pastimes was playing four-handed duets with her father, a talented amateur pianist in his own right.
"I took the hard parts and she took the easy parts until she got better than me," he said. "Then we reversed roles."
He realized just how good she was when she was 12.
"I heard her play a Brahms intermezzo, and I thought, 'My God! My daughter is telling me things about Brahms I never knew before!'"
In addition to a love of music, her father bequeathed her another legacy - one of the world's greatest collections of early, pre-Alfred E. Neuman Mad magazines, which she keeps in a safe deposit box.
Skipping her senior year at Berkeley High, she went directly to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where John Adams composed "China Gates" for her.
He was the first of many composers who have dedicated works to her, including Riley, Rzewski, Oliveros, Kyle Gann, Andrea Morricone and Evan Ziporyn.
Among her biggest fans are other pianists.
"She's an amazing technician," said Jerry Kuderna, a leading interpreter of Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter. "She has the technique to play anything she wants, but she is so devoted to building this repertoire of pieces that only she can play. And that's her special gift."
Cahill says the decision to specialize in new music was a no-brainer.
"When you play classical music, the audience's attention is on how you're playing the piece. But with new music, the emphasis is on the composition itself. I like it that way. There are so many pianists playing the same Beethoven sonata, but I get to introduce a new piece by Terry Riley."
So can music really stop the war?
"I like to remember what Frederic Rzewski said: 'Music probably cannot change the world. But it's a good idea to act as though it could.'"

(A slightly different version of this story appears in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of California Magazine. A video of Cahill playing 'Down by the Riverside' can be viewed online at http://calperfs.berkeley.edu/presents/media/2006/edge_fest/Rzewski_Cahill_High.mov)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Auld Lang Syne - and good riddance!

This is the best of times. This is the worst of times. It is the spring of hope. It is the winter of despair. We have everything before us. We have nothing before us.
With apologies to Charles Dickens for stealing his words, they pretty well describe the state of America at the dawn of the Age of Obama. I can't remember an upcoming new year that was filled with so much hope and so much fear, both at the same time.
Yes, disaster looms almost everywhere we look. The economy, environment, terrorism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - you name it, and we've got a crisis.
But at least we finally have a guy in charge who looks like he knows what he's doing. And more importantly, he has us. As Ronald Reagan said, "Once the American people set their minds to something, there's nothing we can't accomplish."
What kind of year was 2008? To paraphrase Walter Cronkite, "It was a year filled with the events that alter and illuminate our time. And you were there."
Indeed we were. It's rare to be conscious that you're living in a transforming historical moment, but it was hard to ignore in a year when we elected our first African American president and sank into the most painful economic crisis since the Great Depression.
So before 2008 is out, let's look at the winners and losers:
A Star Is Born: Rachel Maddow, Mike Huckabee, Waren Sapp and the hamster on a piano eating popcorn.
Falling Star: John Edwards. Somebody should have told him that the reason people were voting for him was because they liked his wife. Oops! There goes the attorney general position!
Best Quote: "I can see Russia from my house!" - Tina Fey. It defined Sarah Palin so devastatingly, the Yale Book Of Quotations named it "quote of the year."
Worst Quote: "The fundamentals of our economy are sound." - John McCain.
Animal Of The Year: The turkey that was slaughtered in the background while Palin's television interview took place in the foreground sold on eBay for $225.
Music Video Of The Year: will.i.am's "Yes We Can." It both captured the rising enthusiasm for Obama and contributed to it.
Losers Of The Year: Rod Blagojevich, Elliot Spitzer, George W. Bush and, through no fault of his own, David Letterman. What's he going to do now that he can't use his nightly "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" shtick anymore?
Journalists Of The Year: The ladies of "The View." Who'd have thought they'd make more real news than "Meet The Press" and "Face The Nation" combined?
Book of the Year: "Team Of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Now that Obama has chosen it as the template for his administration, it's a must-read for anyone who wants to know what he has in mind.
Athlete Of The Year: Usain Bolt. What Michael Phelps did was phenomenal, but he didn't destroy the field as completely as Bolt did in his sport. The last time I saw such total dominance was Secretariat in the Belmont.
Gone But Not Forgotten: Dona Spring, Studs Terkel, Bo Diddley, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, George Carlin, Don Haskins, Arthur C. Clarke, Sir Edmund Hillary, Jerry Wexler, Sammy Baugh, Mark Felt, Gene Upshaw, Edie Adams, Van Johnson and, last but not least, Tim Russert. As exciting as the election campaign was, it would have been so much more fun with him.
So what will 2009 be like? I don't know, but I'm certain of one thing: It's bound to be different from 2008. History never moves in a straight line, and the future is never a direct extension of the present.
If you don't believe me, think back to how the world looked 12 months ago. If those trends had held, we'd be getting ready to inaugurate President Hillary Clinton right now, and we'd all still have jobs and IRAs.
Happy New Year to us.

All Creatures Great And Small

(Above: My first cat, Eliza Doolittle, when she was a kitten)

The cats and dogs of Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Kensington, Emeryville and North Oakland are losing a good friend today.
Mim Carlson, who has guided the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society (which serves all these communities) for the last five years, is handing in her resignation this afternoon.
"Do you want the real reason or the politically correct reason?" she asked me.
"The real reason," I said.
"I'm tired, she said. "I'm just worn out. You have to be a little bit of everything in this position - program person, fundraiser and liaison between the board of directors and the staff. And you're also the public face of the organization. It's the toughest job you'll ever love."
Her immediate plans are to finish the second edition of "The Executive Director's Survival Guide," which she wrote in 2003, just before she assumed the reins at the humane society.
"It'll be a very different book. I've learned a lot in this position."
It's impossible to overstate the good Carlson has accomplished. Before her, the humane society was strictly an adoption center and animal hospital.
She expanded it into the community with a pet loss support group, humane education programs in the schools and a partnership with PAWS-East Bay, which sends volunteers to the homes of low-income seniors and people with disabling illnesses to help them take care of their pets.
And on her watch, thousands of homeless animals have been placed in loving new homes. One of my favorite innovations is the Golden Paws program, which has found new homes for hundreds of older dogs and cats.
But I think her greatest accomplishment is the strong working relationship she forged with other animal groups and agencies.
This hasn't always been the case. Some animal groups have an unfortunate tendency to see each other as rivals, not allies. But that's never been Mim's style.
"I shall miss her terribly, both professionally and personally," said Kate O'Connor, her counterpart at the Berkeley Animal Shelter. "They rescue some dogs and lots of cats from our shelter, which gives us a little breathing space. I can call them and say, 'I haven't got any room at the inn. Can you help us?' And they'll send someone right over."
Unfortunately, Carlson is leaving at a time when donations to animal welfare organizations are way, way down because of the slumping economy.
She and her staff have been stretching their resources to get the maximum bang for their bucks. But scrimping and saving can only go so far. I visited the humane society last Tuesday, and it broke my heart to see all the empty cages and kennels.
They represent all the additional dogs and cats who could have been helped if only the humane society had the money to pay for their food and care.
If you'd like to help, you can send a tax-deductible check to the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society, 2700 9th Street, Berkeley, CA 94710. Or you can visit their web site at www.berkeleyhumane.org, where you can donate online and find out more about their programs and services.
One is a holiday toy drive for the dogs and cats in their shelter. You can drop toys off from Noon to 6 Thursdays through Saturdays, Noon to 5 on Sundays.
The site also has a long wish list, everything from volunteers to walk the dogs and cuddle the cats to a micro-centrifuge for the animal hospital.
In this time of terrible economic stress, nobody is suffering more than those at the bottom of the ladder, including helpless cats and dogs.
If you can help, it would be the best going-away present you could give Carlson. And she'd be the first to point out that if you don't live in one of the cities served by the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society, there's no shortage of equally deserving animal groups in your own community.
Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Best Christmas Present Of All

(Click on image to see larger version)

I'm fond of a lot of cities in the Bay Area, but there's a special place in my heart for El Cerrito.
It's always been a Cinderella-like stepsister to its neighbors, especially Berkeley. Even the name is a hand-me-down: It used to belong to the town next door until that town decided to change its name to Albany.
And El Cerrito is stuck with San Pablo Avenue, which is basically a freeway with streetlights, as its main drag. Not exactly like strolling down Main Street at Disneyland.
Nevertheless, the people of El Cerrito have somehow managed to fashion it into a local version of a Midwestern small town. Everybody knows each other, and they are immensely proud of their city and its traditions.
And one of the happiest traditions is the annual Shadi sculptures display.
It started in December 1949, when an immigrant from India named Sundar Shadi decided to surprise his neighbors with a Christmas present.
They woke up one morning to find an elaborate Christmas display on his sprawling hillside yard - shepherds, wise men, angels, camels, goats, sheep, doves, spires, stars, minarets and domes - all lovingly handmade from papier-mache and chicken wire.
The display grew year after year until it depicted the whole town of Bethlehem, with hundreds of hand-painted figures in a range of sizes, creating the illusion of shepherds and their sheep in the foreground and the town in the distance.
It quickly became a beloved community institution, and not just in El Cerrito, either. Tourists by the charter busloads came from as far away as Sacramento and San Jose – more than 70,000 each year, by conservative estimate.
"To many people around here, Mr. Shadi WAS Christmas," says former Mayor Jane Bartke.
He was a real life Santa Claus who gave his neighbors something more precious than toys – namely, the true spirit of the season. The incredible work he went through every year was his gift of love to them.
In 1997 failing eyesight forced him to quit. He died in 2001 at the age of 101.
But then a wonderful thing happened. The people of El Cerrito refused to let his legacy die.
Under Bartke's leadership, the El Cerrito Soroptomist club took over the sculptures and restored them to their original glory. In 2002 the Shadi sculptures made a triumphant return, this time on a lot owned by PG&E at the corner of Moeser and Seaview. And they have appeared there every holiday season since then.
This weekend, volunteers from Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230 will haul the sculptures up the hill and set them up. And there they will remain until Dec. 27.
If you've never seen them, trust me: My description doesn't even begin to do them justice. The best time to view them is after dark, when all the lights are on.
All the labor is voluntary, but money is still needed for electricity, insurance, repairing the sculptures, storing them during the rest of the year and renting the lot from PG&E. (They can't use city property because of possible church/state conflicts.)
To help out financially, send a tax-deductible check to the El Cerrito Community Foundation, P.O. Box 324, El Cerrito, CA 94530.
And if you'd like to participate personally, Bartke and her crew of volunteers are looking for younger people to carry this tradition into the future.
"It's time for the next generation to start taking over," she says.
If this sounds like fun to you, give her a call at 510-235-1315.
In keeping with Mr. Shadi's wishes, the display is non-sectarian. Mr. Shadi was a Sikh, and he left India to escape religious persecution from both Hindus and Muslims.
So in his spirit, let me wish you a merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, joyous Eid ul-Fitr, happy Kwanzaa, swingin' Solstice, far-out Festivus and a cool Yule.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Year Of The Two Presidents

Barack Obama doubtless will make a lot of history before he's through, but he's already invented a new position: President-elect.
I don't remember Bush or Clinton being referred to that way. They were "Governor Bush" and "Governor Clinton" right up to Inauguration Day.
But now all of us, including the TV news anchors, are saying "President-elect Obama," except when we forget and call him "President Obama" and have to correct ourselves.
What we have is a situation unprecedented in American history: two presidents at the same time. One has all the power but no authority. The other has all the authority but no power.
So without any control of the purse strings or power over the institutions of government, Obama is doing the best he can with the only tool he has: the bully pulpit.
He's announcing his cabinet appointments weeks ahead of the usual schedule and giving us daily pep talks. Basically, he's saying, "Hang on, the cavalry is coming."
It's not much, but it's all he can do until Jan. 20.
Meanwhile, his former opponent, John McCain, is getting trashed by his own party before the body is even cold.
Last week I got an email from an online store called GOP Shoppe, which is affiliated with the Republican National Committee. It's selling two campaign buttons. One says, "Sarah '12 - We got part of it right." The other says, "Don't blame me. I voted for Romney."
Cold, huh? Whatever you think of McCain, he was clearly the best candidate the Republicans had, despite all that Bill Ayers and Joe the Plumber nonsense.
He's a better man than the campaign he ran, and I hope he turns his defeat into a springboard for the next, and best, stage of his career, just as Teddy Kennedy did after he lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Forced to finally abandon his presidential ambitions, Kennedy went back to Capitol Hill and reinvented himself as one of the most effective senators in history, often making common cause with conservative Republicans like Orrin Hatch to pass bipartisan legislation.
McCain would do well to ponder the parallel careers of Al Gore and George W. Bush since 2000. Which one do you think is the happier man today?
By the way, I got a lot of phone calls and e-mails after I called Obama "the first post-Boomer president."
Most agreed with Sheree Styrlund of Concord, who wrote, "Technically speaking, President-elect Obama IS a baby boomer (1946-1964) - although, I have to admit, being born in 1963 I think of it more as my parents' generation (1940 & '42) than my own."
Exactly. The conventional way to measure a generation is to count birth rates. Hence, the "Baby Boom" generation, which, according to this point of view, started in 1946 after all those G.I.s came back from World War II and started making babies.
But, as Neil Howe and the late Bill Strauss wrote in their groundbreaking book, "Generations," there's a better measure: Generational consciousness.
Like Ms. Styrlund's parents, I was born before 1946. (In my case, 1945.) And there's no way I feel like a member of the buttoned-down Silent Generation. I'm a Boomer through and through.
Similarly, if you ask someone who was born in 1961 (like Obama) or 1963 (like Ms. Styrlund) if they feel like a Boomer, they'll say, as any good Gen-Xer would, "Get real, man!"
So here's my definition of a Boomer: You have to be old enough to remember President Kennedy's death, but not old enough to remember President Roosevelt's.
As for today's younger generation, the Millennials, my admiration for them knows no bounds. Some people compare them to us Boomers, in that we were both concerned with public affairs. But I think that comparison is superficial.
Both generations confronted an intransigent power structure. Our response was to freak out. Theirs was to seize control of the government.
Way to go, kids!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Dear Santa

"Dear Santa, All I really want for Christmas is an American Girl named Kit. And for peace in the world. I really like your hat. Love, Olivia. P.S. We should have lunch." (Berkeley)

"Dear Santa Claus, How are you? Christmas is back and I'm ready to get some more presents. What I want more than anything is my very own robot. I want the robot to do my homework and eat my vegetables. I've been very, very good. Sincerely, Ivan." (San Jose)

"Dear Santa, I am scared because what if you get me a iPod and so does my mom? Just try to get me whatever my mom does not get me for Christmas. Love, Lauren (age 10)." (Brentwood)

These are some of the thousands of letters from little children to Old Saint Nick that have arrived at the Oakland Post Office this year from all over Northern California, and more are coming in every day.
Once upon a time, missives like these ended up in the dumpster. But for the past 22 years, Elma Ramirez, the Post Office's director of consumer affairs, has enlisted the public to help answer as many of them as possible. (See the sidebar to find out how to participate.)
Some are hilarious. Some are heartbreaking. But their childlike faith shines through loud and clear. Here's what our kids are thinking:

"Dear Santa, I am 9 years old and all my friends say there is no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy. I don't know because last year I asked for a PSP and I didn't get it. I didn't get any tooth fairy money either for my last five teeth. I have teeth but no money! I don't know! Love, D'Aris." (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, I write you this second letter because I want to ask you if with your magic you could make me smarter. I will be expecting your letter in a while. Sincerely, Jocelyn." (San Leandro)

"Dear Santa, I would like you to send me a letter this year. I am fine if you ask me, but sometimes I just wish I could scream because my parents fight a little too much for me. But don't tell anyone. Love, (name withheld for privacy reasons)"

"Dear Santa, I like Diego. I wish he would kiss me. Please, Santa, make Diego kiss me. Just talk to him and I will be happy because if you talk to him he will merry me. Love, Isabel." (city unknown)

"Dear Santa, I am a boy who always behaves himself. I obey my parents, I always eat fruit and vegetables and put my toys away. But I am sad. My parents have told me that you are not going to come because gas is so expensive and everything is so expensive. But I know you are going to come because I'm always good. Thanks, Santa. Hugs and kisses, Isaac." (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, Are you real? Plees tell me. Love, Valeria." (Concord)

"Dear Santa, I'll admit I haven not been very good this year, but I have helped. Here's a list of all the good things I've done: 1. I have helped my sister learn to read. 2. I help out at the restaurant. 3. I do good in school. I know it does not seem like a lot, but I think I covered everything. Love, Audrey." (San Jose)

"Merry Christmas, Santa. Let's talk about presents. I was wondering if I could have a Wii or a gameboy. Or both. I don't want to push it. And how is dear Mrs. Claus? Have you ever taken her on a date? Alone? With no elves? Love, Abigail. P.S Please write back!" (city unknown)

"Dear Santa, I'm nine years old. I'm in the fourth grade. My parents tell me I'm a bad girl. I do my best at school. I have second place in my science project last year. I hope you are not mad at me. Love, (name withheld for privacy reasons)"

"Dear Santa, I've been a very good girl this year and I know how to make my bed. I love you, Santa. From Lauren." (Pleasant Hill)

"Dear Santa, This year I am not asking for much, like every other Christmas. I am only asking for a green Terrainiac RCar, Mongoose Rebel Boys, a fairly decent guitar and some Tech Deck finger boards. Love, the best kid in the world, Karl." (Ben Loman)

"Dear Santa, I tremendously appreciate the hard work you do every year. I thank you for getting me a fishing trip! I have become a Weblos in Cub Scouts and will soon be a Boy Scout! When you were a kid, were you a Boy Scout? Did you play a sport? How old are you? Love, Brett." (Pleasanton)

"Dear Santa, I've been naughty and such, but I do hope I'm on the Nice List. I hope you hear me when I pray. I'm trying to be modest and hope to be on the Nice List. It's entirely up to you. I love you, Jordan. P.S. write back!" (Monte Sereno)

"Dear Santa, Can you give me the power of whenever I touch water I turn into a blue fin mermaid? Please? Love, Danielle." (Livermore)

"Dear Santa, I have been trying to find a job but can't find one. My husband had surgery and can't work and is trying to get disability and trying to go through the appeal process. We are staying with a friend because we can't afford our own place. We are in desperate need of your help to make the kids' Christmas. If can help us out with dinner and a present or two for the kids, I would be so, so, so in your debt. We don't have anyone else to turn to. Thank you, (name withheld for privacy reasons)."

"Dear Santa, Will you be my pen pal? I promise I will wright every month, maybe more. Pleas! Sorry if my spelling isent the best. Do you celebrate all the holidays? How many lengizes do you speak? Love, Ruby. P.S. I really try to be good all year, but it's hard!" (Berkeley)

"Dear Santa, My Dad has been awful mean to me, so can you please use your magic to cure his evil alien power because he's gone crazy! Love, (name withheld for privacy reasons)"

"Dear Santa, I don't know if I want anything this year. If you want, you can give my presents to children in the hospital, like books or something that makes them happy. Sincerely, Jordan. P.S. I will leave you some choklet cookies and milk. Oh, and some carrots for your reindeer." ((city unknown)

"Dear Santa, I have been diagnosed with cancer and have been unable to work for the past nine months. Also, I've been informed that my employer can no longer hold my position and that my employment with them has been terminated, and my only source of income is disability. I'm asking Santa to help provide a Christmas for my six grandchildren ranging in ages from 3 to 15. Thank you very much, (named withheld for privacy reasons)."

"Dear Santa, I only want three things for Christmas. Number one for my aunt to find a job so she won't have to struggle so much. Two for a new phone. Three for my mom to start taking more care of her self so she does not get sick and go to the hospital." Sincerely, Atasha (city unknown)

"Dear Santa, I am writing you this letter asking can yo help me and my mom for Christmas. My mom is disabled and does not have a lot of money to make my Christmas be a merry one. All I am asking for is some clothes and a warm coat. I will be real grateful and thankful for everything. Love, Daja." (Richmond)

"Dear Santa, I am a girl and I am already 7 years old! I live in the great city of Brentwood. Of course, that's in California, but I'll bet you knew that! This sear I've been so good that I should really be on the 'Nice' List! Love, Alexis." (Brentwood)

"Dear Santa, For Christmas I want a bike and to be taller and nicer. Love, Bella." (Concord)

"Dear Santa and Mrs. Claus, All I want for Christmas is Webkinz. No candy, no suprizes, no toys, and especially NO COAL! I try to be nice but sometimes I lose my anger and yell and scream at my brother. (I hope you forgive me.) Love, Carolyn. P.S. Sorry I wrote so early, but the sooner the better. P.P.S. Write back please!"(Oakley)

"Dear Santa, I want a real puppy. It can be a girl or boy, but it has to be cute. Sincerely, Jessica." (Concord)

"Dear Santa, Since you watch over all the children in the world, can you help me find my pocket knife and iPod? I will do anything to get them back. Also, could I get some super powers, please? If nlot, that's OK. Love, Isabel." (Pinole)


Want to be Santa's helper? Thousands of children's letters to the big guy to are waiting for you at the downtown Oakland Post Office.
All you have to do is call the Santa Hotline at 510-251-3371 and leave your name, address and phone number. They'll send you a short form that takes about 15 seconds to fill out.
Take the form to any post office, along with a photo I.D. After verifying your identity, they'll mail you as many letters as you want. (You can save a day or two by taking the form directly to the Post Office's Consumer Affairs Division at 201 13th Street, Room 228, in downtown Oakland.)
"We have to do this to protect the children," says Consumer Affairs Manager Elma Ramirez. "It's sad, but it's a sign of the times."
Ramirez says presents are optional; sending a letter is the main point.
"The children appreciate it so much just knowing that someone cares. But if you also want to send a present, that's OK, too."
And if you’d like your child to receive a letter from Santa, that can be arranged, too. Just write a letter to your child, put it in an envelope addressed to your child, and put a stamp on it.
Then stick the envelope inside another one addressed to North Pole Christmas Cancellation, Postmaster, 5400 Mail Trail, Fairbanks, AK 99709-9999. (Yes, Santa has his own zip code.)
A special unit at the Fairbanks Post Office will stamp your child's letter with a cancellation reading "North Pole" and mail it back.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, November 24, 2008

The last Republican mayor of Berkeley

(Above: Downtown Berkeley BART station)

How come the BART stations in Richmond, El Cerrito and North Oakland are above ground, but the ones in Berkeley aren't?
It's due to one man: Wallace Johnson, the last Republican mayor of Berkeley.
Yes, Republican. The G.O.P. dominated the city council well into the 1960s.
That all changed, of course. But Johnson had one last hurrah when he ran for re-election in 1967. He won with 71 percent of the vote, defeating Yippee leader Jerry Rubin, Trotskyite Peter Camejo and Fred Huntley of the John Birch Society. (I told you Berkeley was a different town in those days, didn't I?)
BART planned to build an underground station in downtown Berkeley; but the north Berkeley and south Berkeley stations would be above ground, and so would the tracks between stations.
Johnson, who knew a little something about civil engineering himself - he graduated with honors from Cal Tech - thought that would be a disaster for Berkeley. The elevated tracks would be a scar running straight through the middle of town, exacerbating the city's class and racial divisions by creating a right side and a wrong side of the tracks.
BART stonewalled him for 3 1/2 years, but Johnson was undaunted. At his own expense, he constructed scaffolding at the sites of the proposed north and south Berkeley stations. The scaffolding was the same height as the proposed stations, to show people how much the stations would encroach on the neighborhood.
In 1966, again using his own money, he launched the Bury The Tracks campaign, a drive to hold a special election for a ballot measure that would tax Berkeley residents to pay for undergrounding all three stations plus 3 1/4 miles of track.
Drawing support from across the political spectrum, the Bury The Tracks campaign was backed by both the Community for New Politics on the left and the Berkeley Taxpayers Association on the right.
The ballot measure won with an astounding 83 percent of the vote.
"It's amazing, even now, to think about it," marvels Johnson's friend, Jim Hartman, chairman emeritus of the Alameda County Republican Central Committee. "Eighty-three percent of the taxpayers voted to take money out of their own pockets!"
And it's all due to one man. Wally Johnson saved Berkeley from sharing the same fate that West Oakland suffered when it was cut in half by the Cypress structure.
And yet there's no statue of him in this city. Not even a plaque. It's a disgrace.
When he died in 1979 at age 66, the now-defunct Berkeley Gazette editorialized that the best tribute would be to name the downtown Berkeley BART station after him.
That was almost 30 years ago, but nothing has happened.
If you think this is a miscarriage of justice as much as I do, please contact the BART board and let them have a piece of your mind. Write them at P.O. Box 12688, Oakland, CA 94604-2688; e-mail boardofdirectors@bart.gov ; or call 510-464-6095.
By the way, Johnson was no Johnny one-note. He was also the mayor who established curbside recycling in Berkeley, and, as a member of the BART board, he was decades ahead of his time in pushing for disability access at BART stations.
He was a successful businessman/inventor whose patented portable aluminum scaffolding and wine grape harvesting machines were sold worldwide by Up-Right Inc., a company he founded in Berkeley in 1947.
He held more than 70 patents, including a baseball pitching machine, a swimming pool cover and a flush toilet for dogs.
He also donated land in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Boy Scouts for Camp Lindblad, which thousands of Cub Scouts throughout the Bay Area enjoy each summer. And together with his wife, Marion, he founded Chaparral House, a pioneering non-profit intermediate care facility serving 49 low and moderate income seniors in Berkeley.
Wally Johnson was a true original. And he deserves to be remembered

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"The Play" Revisited

Kevin Moen to Richard Rodgers to Dwight Garner to Rogers to Mariet Ford to Moen, who ran over Stanford trombone player Gary Tyrell.
If you're a Cal fan, these are the sweetest words in the English language. If you're a Stanford fan, they're the bitterest.
I'm talking, of course, about The Play, which Joe Starkey, who was calling the game on radio that day, described as "the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football."
And that was an understatement.
It was the climax of the 1982 Big Game, which was a terrific game even before The Play. John Elway had just made one of his patented last-minute drives, putting his team in position to kick the field goal that put Stanford ahead, 20-19, with only four seconds left on the clock.
But we all know what happened on the ensuing kickoff. The Cal players kept lateraling the ball back and forth until Moen was in the Stanford end zone, along with most of the Stanford band. Final score: Cal 25, Stanford 19.
That is, if you're a Cal fan. Whenever Stanford wins the Axe, they change the 1982 score on the trophy from "California 25, Stanford 20" to "California 19, Stanford 20." (The Cal rally committee changes it back again when Cal wins the trophy.)
After the game, the Cal players explained that they had used a drill their coach, Joe Kapp, had taught them called grabasse (pronounced "gruh-BOSS," in the French manner), which is essentially a game of keep-away.
Twenty-six years later, Stanford fans are still bitter. I saw Elway being interviewed on ESPN last week, and he said, "I don't think a touchdown can be scored when you have the whole band on the field."
Speaking for Cal fans everywhere, I can only reply: Whose band was it, anyway?
It's nice to know it still hurts. The Germans have a word, "schadenfreude," which means delight in the suffering of others.
Every time I think of The Play, I wallow in schadenfreude.
And it's the gift that keeps on giving. Only a few weeks ago I found out who actually invented "grabasse," and my source is none other than Coach Joe Kapp himself.
It turns out that The Play had its origins in a drill created 30 years earlier, but not by a football coach.
The inventor was Cal's legendary basketball coach, Pete Newell, the man who took the Bears to their only NCAA championship in 1959.
"He ran very tight practices," said Kapp, who played both football and basketball when he was an undergrad. (He was the quarterback of the 1958 football team, the last Bears squad to go to the Rose Bowl.)
"So every once in a while, to give us a break, he'd blow his whistle and say, 'Grab ass!' And we'd start passing the ball back and forth as quickly as we could without letting it touch the ground.
"One day, a couple of faculty members were sitting in the stands at Harmon Gym during a practice, and they called the coach over and said, 'Coach Newell, can't you find a more dignified term than 'grab ass?'
"Coach Newell thought for a moment and then said, 'OK, from now on it's 'grabasse!'"
And the rest is history.
Footnote: I need to make a correction to the column I wrote a few weeks ago about the 50th reunion of the 1958 football team, when I speculated that they secretly might be happy to be Cal's last Rose Bowl team.
"Not true, and I can prove it," said Kapp, "In 1981 I swore never to drink tequila again until Cal goes back to the Rose Bowl, and not a drop has touched my lips since then."
Memo to Jeff Tedford: Let's pull out all the stops to get to the Rose Bowl next year, OK? This man has suffered long enough.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hail to the pup!

(Above: Fido)

With two wars and a deepening recession, what is everyone talking about?
A dog. Specifically, the Obama girls' new puppy.
But fascination with presidential pooches is nothing new. The White House has been going to the dogs even before there was a White House.
George Washington, who built the Executive Mansion, took his two favorite canines, Truelove and Sweetlips, with him on his inspection trips to see how construction was progressing.
Abraham Lincoln loved his little yellow mutt, Fido, so much that when he left Springfield to assume the reins of power in Washington, he wrote explicit instructions for the two neighbor boys who were to take care of Fido until he returned (which he never did).
They had to promise never to leave Fido tied up in the back yard alone and never to scold him for wet or muddy or dusty paws. Fido was also to be allowed inside whenever he scratched on the door, and he was to be allowed in the dining room at dinnertime because he was used to getting tastes from everyone around the table.
One of Ulysses S. Grant's first acts after moving into the White House was to give his youngest son, Jesse, a dog. But it quickly died under suspicious circumstances. He gave Jesse another dog, and it died, too.
Finally, Grant solved the problem by announcing that if another dog died, the entire White House staff would be fired. Needless to say, the next Grant dog lived to a ripe old age.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's Scottie, Fala, became the big issue in the 1944 campaign when the Republicans accused FDR of sending a destroyer to pick up the pooch, whom, they claimed, had been left behind in Alaska.
Roosevelt struck back in a now-famous speech: "These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on myself, or on my wife, or on my sons. Now they include my little dog, Fala. Well, I don't mind, and my wife doesn't mind, and my sons don't mind. But Fala - he does mind!" And the Republicans were swamped in a sea of laughter.
Today, a statue of Fala sits beside the statue of his master at the FDR Memorial in Washington. Fala's head has been rubbed to a mirror-like shine by all the tourists who pat it for good luck. And Fala mementos outsell both FDR's and Eleanor's at the Memorial gift shop.
Everyone remembers Richard Nixon's cocker spaniel, Checkers, who bailed his boss out of a bribery scandal when he ran for Vice President in 1952. Nixon was in danger of being dumped from the ticket until he went on TV and claimed the only gift he'd ever received was Checkers.
"The kids love the dog," he added, "and regardless of what they say, we're going to keep it!"
Who wants to argue with 50 million dog lovers? Nixon was kept on the ticket.
Lyndon Johnson raised howls of outrage when he was photographed lifting his beagles, Him and Her, by their ears. But his true love was a bedraggled little yellow terrier mix named Yuki, whom his daughter Luci found abandoned at a gas station outside El Paso.
LBJ and Yuki became inseparable. During the darkest days of the Vietnam War, he would unwind by closeting himself in the Oval Office with Yuki on his lap. The two of them would throw back their heads and howl in unison, while the Secret Service agents standing outside scratched their heads and wondered what in the world was going on in there.
JFK - actually, Caroline - had a Yorkie named Charlie. Gerald Ford had a golden retriever named Liberty. Ronald Reagan had a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Rex. And Bush 41's springer spaniel, Millie, made the best-seller lists with her autobiography (ghost written by First Lady Barbara Bush).
They all agreed with Harry Truman, who said, "If you want a friend in this town, get a dog."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hail to the chief!

I haven't been able to stop crying since Tuesday. They're the first tears I've shed since 9/11, but these are tears of joy.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men and women are created equal.
Finally, after 232 years, the American people have redeemed that pledge. Is this the greatest country in the world or what?
I'm old enough to remember drinking fountains labeled "white" and "colored" and American citizens being killed for the crime of attempting to vote.
Now they are not only voting, an African American has been elected to the highest office in the land.
But he's not just anyone. Our new president is the best we've got. He is wise and brave and good and smart. After 16 years of Baby Boomer presidents, it'll be nice to have a grownup in the White House again.
I feel like I've finally wakened from a nightmare that’s been going on for 40 years.
I watched my country being torn apart by meaningless culture wars while the real problems were left to fester year after year, decade after decade.
But now I have my country back. I mean the country as it was taught to me in high school civics class - a nation where all people are treated equally and the whole world looks to America as (to use Lincoln's words) "the last, best hope of man."
What happened on Tuesday wasn't a victory of party. It was the victory of a new generation of Americans who are sick and tired of what my generation, the Baby Boomers, have done to this country.
They've had it with our narcissism, our self-righteousness and our arrogance.
However respectfully they treat us (as they always do), make no mistake: We have firmly been given the heave-ho. There will never be another Boomer president. And the days of our zero-sum, I-win-you-lose politics are over.
That's why Democrats who are lusting for revenge after eight years in the wilderness are going to be sorely disappointed. The last thing Obama wants to do is replace a bunch of right-wing ideologues with a bunch of left-wing ideologues.
Instead, we're about to have a government of national unity, with prominent members of the opposition in key cabinet positions.
That's what JFK did after his paper-thin victory over Nixon in 1960, and what FDR did after Pearl Harbor. And it's what Bush should have done in 2000 after the Bush v. Gore fiasco, and in 2001 after 9/11.
I'm glad Obama's victory was so decisive because now he'll be able to reach out to the Republicans without it being interpreted as weakness. It will be seen for what it is: a magnanimous gesture.
He understands that somebody has to call a halt to the tit-for-tat that has crippled our politics for so long.
He also understands that his true base isn't racial or ideological, it's generational. He has to answer to the millions of young people who flocked to his standard.
They are the true victors. They consider it their patriotic duty to lay aside all the old differences that have divided us for decades and work together for the common good.
They are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of our decisions, so I'm glad they're getting the president they want. They deserve it.
It won't be easy. We have just handed him a set of problems more daunting than any president has faced since FDR.
But I think he's up to it. And so are we.
As Winston Churchill said during the gloomiest days of World War II, "These are not dark days: They are great days - the greatest days our country has ever lived. And we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

When Elections Really Were Fun

I can hardly wait until Election Night. After the most exciting election race in memory, we'll finally have a winner.
But oh, how I miss Nelson Polsby. It would be so much more fun if he were still here.
Nelson died Feb. 6, 2007. As director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies from 1988 to 1999, he probably knew more about American politics than anyone else in the world.
He didn't waste his time speculating about how politics ought to be; he was fascinated by politics as they are. His special delight was skewering conventional wisdom with unconventional ideas.
Take his final book, "How Congress Evolves" (2004), which argued that today's polarized politics were caused by air conditioning.
The theory goes like this: When air conditioning became common after World War II, the South suddenly became habitable. And Northerners - half of them Republicans - started moving there.
As a result, there were now enough Republicans in the South that being one was no longer political suicide. So the Dixiecrats switched parties en masse, making the national Republican Party more conservative (by addition) and the Democrats more liberal (by subtraction).
Anyway, since Nelson isn't here, I'll say it for him: Presidential elections aren't as much fun they used to be.
Where are the great campaign songs of yesteryear, like "Sidewalks of New York" (Al Smith 1928), "Happy Days Are Here Again" (FDR 1932) and "High Hopes" (JFK 1960)?
Where are the great slogans, like "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" (Harrison 1840), "Don't Swap Horses in the Middle of the Stream" (Lincoln 1864) and "Keep Cool With Coolidge" (Coolidge 1924)?
My favorite slogan was "I Like Ike" (Eisenhower 1952) - short, simple and much snapper than opponent Adlai Stevenson's "I'm Madly For Adlai" and "We Need Adlai Badly."
But Stevenson redeemed himself with a great concession speech: "I feel like the boy who stubbed his toe. He said it hurt too much to laugh, but he was too old to cry."
I also miss paper ballots.
The best thing was that they took a long time to count. So the East Coast returns didn't come in until about 8 p.m. Pacific Time, obviating the risk of the election being decided before the polls closed on the West Coast, which actually happened in 1980.
And I loved the delicious suspense of watching the tension mount through the evening as the returns slowly rolled in across the country.
Elections often weren't decided until the wee small hours of the morning. In 1916 Republican Charles Evans Hughes went to bed convinced he had been elected president. But late overnight returns from California gave the nod to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, instead.
The next morning a reporter phoned the Hughes home.
"The president is asleep," said Hughes' son.
"Well," said the reporter, "when he wakes up, tell him he isn't president."
But nowadays the networks announce the winner as soon as the polls close. And the rest of the night is one long anti-climax, like opening all your Christmas presents in the first five minutes and having nothing to do for the rest of the day.
But whatever happens on Tuesday, the East Bay's best-known power couple, Tom Bates and Loni Hancock, will finally be able to settle a long-standing argument.
He's running for re-election as mayor of Berkeley (a job she once held), and she's running for the state senate (a job he once held).
"We got married on the Sunday after I was first elected mayor in 1986, which was Nov. 9," said Hancock. "Tom thinks we should celebrate our anniversary on Nov. 9, and I think we should celebrate on the first Sunday after Election Day."
Bates added, "We've always compromised by celebrating on her date in odd years and on my date in even years. But this year the two dates coincide, for the first time since we got married. So we can finally agree on which day to celebrate."

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Man For All Seasons

An important anniversary is coming up on Tuesday, although I doubt many people will take note of it. Fifty years ago, the College of Cardinals emerged from the Sistine Chapel to announce that they had elected a dark horse as the new pope.
They chose the kindly Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Roncalli, assuming he would be a temporary caretaker because he was already 77.
But they were wrong. Roncalli, who took the name John XXIII, lived only another five years; but that was long enough for him to change the world.
I remember the day he died. The radio announcer said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have terrible news. Our beloved Pope John is dead."
And the announcer wasn't even Catholic. You see, Papa John wasn't just the pope of the Catholics, he was everyone's. He was loved by Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people of all faiths and people of none.
He didn't look very impressive. He was a fat, dumpy little man with a face like a kindly old Italian grandmother.
"His face was like a jigsaw puzzle of borrowed pieces," wrote religious scholar Peter de Rosa. "But his heart was one of God's masterpieces."
As Papal Nuncio to Turkey during World War II, he smuggled thousands of Jews to safety. That's why he's known in Israel as a Righteous Gentile, the highest honor Jews can pay to a non-Jew.
After the war, the Vatican sent him to France on a delicate diplomatic mission: to save the Church from the vengeance of Charles De Gaulle, who wanted to put three French cardinals and 20 bishops on trial for treason because they collaborated with the Vichy regime.
He not only dissuaded De Gaulle, he did it with such tact that Edouard Herriot, leader of the rabidly anti-clerical Radical party, said, "If all priests were like Nuncio Roncalli, there would be no anti-clericals left!" After Papa John's death, De Gaulle himself filed a letter with the Vatican attesting to his sainthood.
As pope, he didn't think it was his job to lecture people or root out heresy or issue dire warnings about the future. He thought his job was to be a good Christian. And that meant carrying out the injunction of the Gospels: to love everyone.
That included the prisoners in Rome's infamous Regina Coeli prison, whom he visited shortly after his election, saying, "You cannot come to see me, so I have come to see you."
And the little boy who wrote to him, saying he couldn't make up his mind whether to be a pope or a policeman. Papa John wrote back, "It would be safer for you to train for the police. Anyone can be pope - as you can see, since I became one."
And it especially included those who disagreed with him: communists, capitalists and church conservatives alike. To all of them, he was simply The Good Shepherd.
He was the pope who took the anti-Semitic language out of the liturgy, and the first to reach out to the Jewish community. Many Jews fondly recall the words from the Bible he used in greeting a delegation of rabbis: "I am Joseph, your brother."
And, of course, he was the genius who dreamed up the Ecumenical Council, one of the most revolutionary events in Church history.
He inherited a Church that was mired in arcane scholastic disputes and obsessed with the torments of Hell. He left it suffused with love, charity and service to others, and with its eye turned firmly toward Heaven.
He may not have been a caretaker, but he took awfully good care of his Church. He was truly Christ's vicar on Earth.
Papa John was beatified by the Vatican in 2000, which is just one step away from sainthood. But the whole world already knew: If ever a saint walked this earth, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, also known as Pope John XXIII, was it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The moment McCain lost the election

Every once in a while, you can spot the exact moment when an election is won or lost.
In 1976, it was when Jerry Ford denied that Poland was under the thumb of the Soviet Union.
In 1984, it was when Ronald Reagan said he wasn't going to make an issue of Mondale's "youth and inexperience" (which was funny because Mondale was middle aged and had been on the political scene for years).
This year's moment came last night, right after Obama outlined his rather moderate position on the abortion, saying he'd be willing to consider a late-term abortion ban if it included an exception for the life or health of the mother.
McCain replied, "Just again, the example of the eloquence of Sen. Obama. He's health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, 'health.'"
Aside from the fact that every pro-choice person in America is going to resent being labeled "pro-abortion," the sneer when he said 'health' sent a Cindy McCain-like cold shiver down the spine of not only every woman, but every man who has daughters. And, I suspect, many more people.
This election is over.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

That championship season

The 1958 Cal football team, the last Golden Bears squad to go to the Rose Bowl, will hold their 50th reunion Oct. 24-26. And that season is still magical, even 50 years later.
This was a team that had won only one game the year before. And except for the two captains - quarterback Joe Kapp and halfback Jack Hart - they were sophomores and juniors. The running joke was that they were "small but slow."
The season didn't start off auspiciously. The first game was a 24-20 loss to COP (now UOP), whose All-America running back, Dick Bass, ran wild.
"On one of his long touchdown runs, every guy on our team had a shot at him," said tight end Tom Bates, who is now mayor of Berkeley. "I had two shots, and I missed both times."
The next game was even worse - a 32-12 loss to mighty Michigan State.
But at practice the following week, everything turned around.
"As we ran our offensive plays for timing and precision, the coaches made us run really hard for about 10 yards," said halfback Hank Olguin. "But Joe and Jack kept running after the play ended. And we ran after them, shouting and howling all the way down the field.
"The coaches were dumbfounded; we were essentially running wind sprints on every play. Our collective will to win was extraordinary. I'll never forget that week of practice as long as I live."
Thus fired up, they went out and crushed a heavily favored Washington State team, 34-14. And, except for a one-point loss to Oregon State, they ran the table the rest of the season.
"Our secret was that there were no stars," said Kapp. "We won because we played together as a team."
"Joe's just being modest, as usual," demurred guard Pete Domoto. "The truth is that it began and ended with him. He was so talented, he could have started at all 22 positions, offense or defense."
But in a larger sense, Kapp was right. The '58 team was a classic case of what the military calls "unit cohesion" - an extremely close group of friends working together under a charismatic leader. In the end, they did it for each other.
The charismatic leader, of course, was Kapp. By happy coincidence, the best athlete on the team was also its fiercest competitor.
"I'll never forget the moment we hit the field at the Washington State game," said Olguin. "We all clasped hands in the huddle, and Joe looked at us with those grinning teeth of his and said, 'Anyone who doesn't think we're going to win this game get the (bleep) off the field!'"
Back then, players had to play both offense and defense, which put a premium on conditioning. So all those wind sprints came in handy, especially as the season wore on.
"Another factor is that we got almost no penalties," said fullback Bill Patton. "We were a very smart team."
Everyone rallied around the team. Two frequent visitors on the sidelines were U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren (Cal '12) and Cal Chancellor (and Nobel laureate) Glenn Seaborg, who was proud that his name was an anagram for "Go Bears."
But the players weren't pampered the way players are now. Athletic scholarships were only $125 per month. And for this they had to clean the stadium after every game and water the field during the off-season.
I'd love to report that Cal won the Rose Bowl. But, alas, they lost to a powerful Iowa team, 38-12.
"But the important thing is that we won as a team and we lost as a team," said Kapp.
To a man, they insist that they want nothing more than to see the Bears go back to the Rose Bowl again.
"Fifty years is way too long," said left end Bob Duey.
"That's what they say," said his wife, Pat. "But I think they're secretly thrilled to be the last Rose Bowl team."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Brennan's is here to stay

For the last few weeks, I've been getting calls and e-mails from anxious customers of Brennan's Restaurant, who are hearing rumors that their favorite eatery is about to close.
Relax, folks. Brennan's isn't going anywhere.
Actually, that's not quite true. It is going somewhere - next door, into the historic Santa Fe depot.
The last day in the old place was Monday. Brennan's will re-open on the new site this weekend, barring a last-minute glitch.
"In a perfect world, we'd stay right here for another 50 years," said Margaret Wade, granddaughter of founder Jack Brennan. "But it was a choice between moving now or waiting until our lease expires in 2012 and taking our chances that we'd be able to find someplace suitable."
Architecturally, the Mission-style Santa Fe depot is a big step up from the old building, a rectangular box that Brennan, a retired contractor, built with his own hands in 1959.
But the exterior doesn’t' really matter. The essence of Brennan's is the interior - the pictures on the walls, the menu board over the serving counter, the tables and chairs. They're all moving to the new place. And the food will still be served cafeteria-style.
The only major icon that isn't going is the bar.
"It's mostly old, bad fake wood and plastic laminate," said Wade. "But we will be taking the brass foot rail and the bar stools."
But what really makes Brennan's special is the people, and they're all going to the new place, too, including Jim "Float" Agrusa, who has been tending bar at Brennan's since 1975 and knows what every regular wants to drink the moment they walk in the door and has it ready for them by the time they get to the bar.
"There's always hell to pay whenever he goes on vacation," said Wade. "People ask in a somewhat grumpy voice, 'Where's Float?'"
Wade's grandfather founded Brennan's so he could have a place to eat that served the simple meat-and-potatoes fare he loved. The menu hasn't changed much since then, and that's just the way the regulars like it.
"It's nice to know you can go in and get exactly what you expect," said Jerry Figone of El Cerrito, a customer since the day Brennan's opened in 1959, when he was in high school. "The roast beef is always going to be great, and so is the turkey and corned beef."
Brennan located his restaurant at the foot of University Avenue, partly to take advantage of the spillover business from nearby Spenger's Fish Grotto. From the beginning, it has been a hangout for people from all different walks of life, and each group had its own territory.
When I discovered it back in the '70s, the cops sat near the entrance, next to the now long-gone cigarette machine. The politicos, including Jerry Brown, sat in the northwest corner. Next to them sat deputy coroner Michael King, known to his fellow regulars as "The Grateful Dead."
From the start, Brennan's has been a place where everyone knows your name. It's also a piece of living, breathing Berkeley history. I'm glad reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
* * *
Speaking of Berkeley history, did you play football for Cal in 1957 or 1959? The guys on the '58 team invite you to join them at their 50th reunion Oct. 24-26, the weekend of the UCLA game.
The guest of honor will be your old coach, Pete Elliott. Assistant coach John Ralston, who later went on to great coaching success at (gasp!) Stanford, will also be there. On Saturday, you'll sit in a special section at the game.
I'm going to write more about the '58 team next week, but in the meantime they wanted me to get the word out to '57 and '59 players as early as possible.
So if you're one of Pete's Boys (the successors to Pappy's Boys), call Andy Segale at 925-934-8168 or Pete Domoto at 360-387990.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Debate prediction: McCain will channel Carter, Obama will channel Reagan

I think tomorrow is make or break night, and here's how I think it's going to shape up: McCain will go negative to the max.
I think he believes it's his only shot at getting everyone's attention off the economy. Besides, he's a risk-taker by nature, and his default impulse when under stress is to double down on his bet.
His problem, of course, is that while his favorite game is craps, Obama's favorite game is poker. Obama is lying in wait for him.
To switch images, Obama will be the matador and McCain will be the bull. Whenever McCain brings up Ayers or Rev. Wright, Obama will say, "There you go again," as Ronald Reagan did when debating Jimmy Carter, and then turn the conversation back to the economy.
After tomorrow, Obama's lead will be in the double digits.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman R.I.P.

I don't know about you, but I was taken aback by the depth of my sorrow this morning when I heard that Paul Newman had died.
He was the coolest guy of our time - an unpretentious man who lived as far away as he could from Hollywood, stayed married to the same woman for 50 years, and was most comfortable hanging out with people who didn't have the slightest idea he was somebody famous, such as the cancer-stricken little kids at his Hole In The Wall Camp.
When I was growing up in L.A. during the late '50s and early '60s, he was a common sight zipping around town in his Porsche 550 Spyder - except it didn't look like one.
He removed the body and substituted one from a beat-up old Volkswagen Beetle. On the outside, it looked just like a VW. But inside, it was still a racetrack-ready Porsche.
It gave him a huge kick to watch the stunned look on the faces of other drivers when he passed them on steep hills.
Newman wasn't the best actor of his generation. That distinction goes to Marlon Brando.
But he was something better: the actor who embodied his generation's fondest ideal of what American men are really like deep down - world-weary anti-heroes who end up doing the right thing in the last reel.
He was a part of a line that runs directly from Clark Gable through Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Newman, Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks.
Without exception, they tended to under-act. And their work still feels natural, even today.
Compare them to the parallel line of "best actors," which runs from Paul Muni through Spencer Tracy, Brando, Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn.
Except for Tracy, they tended to over-act. They wanted you to see what great actors they were. As a result, much of their work looks over-the-top to our 21st Century tastes.
Sure, you admire the virtuosity when you watch Brando or Nicholson melting down. But you're still thinking, "What terrific acting," not "Aw, the poor guy." You're watching the actor, not the character.
But in Newman's movies, whether he was Fast Eddie Felson in "The Hustler," Rocky Graziano in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," Ari Ben Canaan in "Exodus" or Butch Cassidy to Robert Redford's Sundance Kid, you always rooted for the character, not the actor who was playing him.
And his salad dressing wasn't bad, either.
Newman was a steadfast Democrat, long before liberalism became the flavor du jour in Hollywood. An avid supporter of the civil rights and anti-war movements, he claimed his proudest achievement was making Richard Nixon's "enemies list."
And he had a rare quality in Hollywood, then and now: humility.
After his first movie, "The Silver Chalice," was released, he took out a full-page ad in Variety apologizing for the movie and his performance in it.
Back in 1968, when he was campaigning for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, one of the officers in his police escort pointed to his partner and told Newman that the man had received word the night before that his son had been killed in Vietnam.
Saddened by the news, Newman offered the grieving father his condolences and added thoughtfully, "What do you think about some creep, some Hollywood peacenik, coming in here and telling you about the war?"
"I don't resent you," the father replied. "Even if a war takes your boy, that doesn't make it right."
Last month, Newman's doctors told him he had only a few days to live. So he checked himself out of the hospital and died at home, surrounded by his family.
But what do you want to bet that he filled out an absentee ballot for Obama and mailed it in before he died?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Making a joyful noise unto The Lord

Happy Rosh Hashanah to the happiest man I know. His name is Yehuda Ferris, and he's the rabbi at Chabad House in Berkeley.
Like other Jews all over the world, he's busy cleaning his house and stocking up on sweets in anticipation of the holiday, which begins next Monday at sundown.
"No vinegar, green apples, pickles or herring," he says. "We'll only eat sweet things, to express our wish for a sweet year."
Rosh Hashanah is the start of the High Holy Days, which culminate 10 days later on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Jews believe that during this period God decides the fate of the world.
"He's taking inventory," says Ferris. "Running the world is a business, like any other. If there's a profit, he'll keep the world going for another year. If not, goodbye world."
But God doesn't measure profit by dollars and cents. He measures it by good deeds, called mitzvahs. There are 613 mitzvahs in all. (Remember that number. It'll pop up again.)
Some mitzvahs are about our relationship with each other, such as caring for widows and orphans. Others are about our relationship with God, such as observing the dietary laws.
"Our job is to do as many mitzvahs as we can in this 10-day period. But they must be performed with a joyous heart, not out of duty," says Ferris.
So what makes him so happy?
He belongs to a branch of Judaism called Hassidism, which was founded about 280 years ago by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Ba'al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name).
The Ba'al Shem Tov came along at a time when Judaism was in the doldrums, after suffering a series of brutal pogroms in Eastern Europe. Many Jews responded to the outside pressure by turning inward and devoting their lives to studying the Talmud. But the Ba'al Shem Tov went the other way.
Though an eminent Talmudic scholar himself, he said a personal relationship with God is more important than book learning, and even a simple, illiterate person can have one.
He called that relationship "cleaving to God;" and for his followers, it's an ecstatic experience.
"Even something as simple as tying your shoelaces or changing your baby's diaper can bring you closer to God, if it's done in the right spirit," says Ferris. "If you stop and think about all the blessings The Lord has given us, it's just overwhelming. All you can do is laugh and sing and dance with gratitude and joy."
To Ferris, all the wonders of the universe can be seen in a single flower petal. It's the same epiphany that the hippies were trying to achieve by taking LSD back in the '60s. But Ferris doesn't need any drugs, and the high doesn't wear off after a few hours.
Rosh Hashanah will kick off at exactly 6:13 p.m. Monday with a joyful - even raucous - celebration at the Bancroft Hotel. The festivities will include prayers, jokes, singing, dancing and symbolic foods such as pomegranates, which are sweet to the taste and contain exactly 613 seeds. The partying will go on until the wee small hours of the morning.
Not everyone thinks such enthusiasm is seemly. Even in his own lifetime, the Ba'al Shem Tov was criticized by the rabbinical establishment, who said carrying on like this is undignified, even crazy. This is what he replied:
"Once, in a house, there was a wedding festival. The musicians sat in a corner and played their instruments, the guests danced to the music and were merry, and the house was filled with joy.
"But a deaf man passed outside the house. He looked in the window and saw people whirling around the room, leaping and throwing their arms.
"'See how they fling themselves about!' he cried. 'It is a house filled with madmen!' For he could not hear the music to which they danced."

Monday, September 15, 2008

End of an era

Sunday was a bittersweet day on Solano Avenue.
It was sweet because the annual Solano Stroll was as great as ever.
But it was also sad because Walker's Pie Shop closed its doors on Sunday, after 44 years of providing Albany, Berkeley and El Cerrito residents with a welcome throwback to a kinder, gentler time.
Eating at Walker's was like going to Grandma's for dinner, with homemade popovers instead of bread, old-fashioned rib-sticking entrees, and those incredible pies made from the Walker family's secret flaky piecrust recipe.
Fresh-faced Albany High grads waited tables, Walker family pictures adorned the walls, and the waitresses threw surprise birthday parties for elderly customers who otherwise wouldn't have anyone to celebrate with.
The restaurant was founded by Doug Walker and his sister Dolly, who learned the food business from their dad, Scotty, proprietor of the old Heather & Thistle in Berkeley. The son of immigrants, Scotty taught his children the traditional immigrant values: work hard, give good value and treasure your family.
When Doug and Dolly were little, they would go to the restaurant after school and sit in the back, doing their homework. As they got older they began helping out, starting as dishwashers and working their way up.
After their father's death they founded Walker's Pie Shop in 1964. When they decided to retire in 1999, they had to decide whom to sell the restaurant to.
Many lucrative offers rolled in, but they turned them all down and sold to their chef, Jorge Sandoval, instead.
Jorge came to this country from his native Guatemala in 1982 and got an entry-level job at Walker's as a dishwasher. By 1989 he was running the kitchen. Ten years after that, he and his wife, Emma, owned the place.
Their daughter, Emmeli, now 11, came there every day after school and sat in back, doing her homework - just as Doug and Dolly used to do when they were her age.
When they sold the restaurant to Jorge, I asked Doug, "Why him?"
"Because," Doug replied, "he reminds me of my father."
For the last nine years, Jorge and Emma did their best to keep Walker's afloat. Jorge worked second and third jobs, and Emmeli even offered to contribute the money she's saving up for her college education. (Her parents turned her down.) But it was not to be.
On Sunday, many customers stopped by for the final goodbye. Everyone hugged, and everyone was crying.
We reminisced about the old days, when the staff would close the shutters after work, so nobody could see them from the street, and have huge pie fights with the day's leftover pies. (Tip: Use cream pies. The stains are easier to get out of your clothes than berry pies.)
And the 1995 wedding of Walker's waitress Melinda Potts and Fatapple's waiter Matt McCormick. Longtime customers of both eateries attended the ceremony, feasting on ham by Walker's and wedding cake by Fatapples.
We drank a toast to my favorite waitress, Gina Niemeier, who died in 2002 of mesothelioma. I will always remember the big smile she had for everyone who walked in the door and her infallible memory for which customers liked extra popovers and which ones liked extra ice cream on their pies.
And we remembered waiter Remo Reggi, the nicest young man you'd ever want to meet, who was murdered at age 20 on Sept. 11, 2005, by a gang of carjackers who have never been caught.
Walker's closing has affected Emmeli most of all. She was only three when her parents bought the place, and it's been her second home ever since.
But she's holding her head high. Last week she wrote this letter to her hero:
"Dear Barack Obama,
"Next time we will send you money. Right now we lost our jobs and we can't afford to give you any, we are all sorry. But to let you know we are going to vote for you always. By the way, this is an 11 year old talking to you I am in 6 grade.
"Thank you for understanding us.
"Emmeli Sandoval

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain's gamble

The pundits are fond of saying that the vice presidential candidates don't make much difference in presidential elections, but this time could be different.
To put it crassly, the odds of a president dying in office are getting shorter and shorter.
For almost 150 years, we had presidents dying every 20 years: Harrison in 1841, Taylor in 1850, Lincoln in 1865, Garfield in 1886, McKinley in 1901, Harding in 1923, Roosevelt in 1945 and Kennedy in 1963.
But it's been 45 years since the last time. And this year both presidential candidates are at risk: Obama because of the ever-present threat of assassination, and McCain because of his age. At 72, he would be the oldest president ever elected; and because of the torture he suffered during the Vietnam war he's probably older, medically speaking, than his chronological age.
So it behooves the electorate to take a closer look than usual at the vice presidential candidates this time because one of them very well could end up in the White House.
On one hand, you have Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which gives him great expertise in two of our most urgent problems: America's isolation in the world community and the politicization of the justice system. Whatever you think of him, he clearly has the gravitas to step into the top spot if, God forbid, it becomes necessary.
And Sarah Palin? Someone who has been in office for only two years? With zero experience in national or foreign affairs? Does anyone really think she'd be ready for that 3 a.m. phone call?
It's clearly a cynical attempt to appeal to disgruntled Hillary voters. But I think even Republican women will be offended by McCain's implicit assumption that any female candidate, no matter how lightweight, will do.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Two new arrivals at Fairyland

Children's Fairyland in Oakland is celebrating the arrival of two new four-footed residents: Twinkle the lamb and Dori the Shetland pony.
Twinkle, who is only five months old, was slated for the slaughterhouse until Fairyland offered her a home. And she's already fitting in like an old-timer.
"She's as sweet as can be," said Yvonne Backman, Fairyland's animal caregiver. "Her mother rejected her at birth, so she was bottle fed, which means she really connects with humans."
Twinkle is so people-friendly, Fairyland is featuring her as the "Animal of the Day" on weekends, taking her out of the corral to the grassy area in front of the duck pond, where children can come up and pet her, up close and personal.
"She's so good with them," said Backman. "For her, it's a chance to do two of her favorite things at the same time - munch grass and get petted."
Dori, who is 13, is also wonderful with the little tykes.
"That's no surprise because she was the children's pony at the Chabot Equestrian Center for the last three years," Backman said. "And before that, her job was giving rides to disabled kids."
Despite her gentleness with children, Dori has a mind of her own when it comes to other animals.
"We call her 'the diva' because she likes to have things her way," said Backman. "For instance, Juan the alpaca always used to have his special 'pacing zone,' where he could have a clear view of the goats, whom he loves.
"But Dori likes that spot, too, because that's the main thoroughfare where people walk by the corral, and she loves to get petted. Needless to say, Dori has won that disagreement."
The only downside for Dori is that she's been put on a diet.
"She has a huge appetite, which is typical of Shetland ponies. But the vet says she needs to lose 50 pounds," Backman said.
Meanwhile, Dori and Twinkle's predecessors, Coco the pony and her totally devoted friend, Bobo the sheep, who delighted Fairyland's pint-sized visitors for 20 and 11 years, respectively, are enjoying their retirement at Goats 'R' Us in Briones.
"They've been sleeping outdoors from the day they got there, and loving every minute of it," said Backman. "They're not on a schedule; they come and go as they please. I think they're as happy in their new home as Twinkle and Dori are in theirs."
The best news for Coco is that she's made friends with three young stallions in the neighboring pasture.
"They only have eyes for her, and vice versa," Backman. "She spends a lot of time at the fence flirting with them - swishing her tail, strutting back and forth and calling to them. It's a real May-December romance."
This is Coco's first chance to bond with other equines since 2006, when the Oakland Police Department eliminated its mounted patrol unit, whose stables were located next to Fairyland in Lakeside Park. For years, Coco's best friend was a huge - 17 hands - thoroughbred named Sanchez.
"Every morning before the park opened, I'd let her out of her paddock, and she'd run over to the chain link fence separating us from the OPD stable," said Backman. "She and Sanchez would just stand there for hours, nuzzling noses through the fence. I'm glad to know she's going to have that kind of friendship again."
And how's Bobo doing?
"He doesn't care where he is, as long as he's with Coco. "

Monday, August 11, 2008

I come in peace

These pictures were taken by National Geographic photographer Norbert Rosing, who encountered a wild polar bear coming upon tethered sled dogs in the wilds of Canada 's Hudson Bay . He was sure that he was going to see the end of his dogs when the bear wandered in. The polar bear returned every night that week to play with the dogs.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The political ad we'd all like to see

My friend, Tom Devine, proposes this TV commercial. Granted, it's sheer fantasy, and completely unrealistic, but wouldn't it be nice?

Obama: I’m Barack Obama

McCain: And I’m John McCain

Obama: We’re speaking to you together because we want to set the record straight about some lies that you may have heard.

McCain: For instance, some people have alleged that Senator Obama is a Muslim, or attended a Muslim school as a child, or is unpatriotic, or sympathetic to terrorists. None of that is true.

Obama: And some people have alleged that Senator McCain wants to dismantle Social Security, or that he fathered a black baby out of wedlock, or that his war service was something other than honorable and heroic. None of those charges is true.

Obama: These lies are stitched together by unscrupulous political operatives who want this campaign to be about race and fear, about old hatreds and prejudices. And whether they seem to reinforce the left or the right, they undermine our democracy. Neither John nor I wants to benefit from lies.

McCain: Both of us are honorable and patriotic Americans who want the best for our country and for our children’s future. We disagree on the best ways to achieve those goals, but we both love America, and we both are equally committed to the United States, its Constitution, and its people.

Obama: So we are asking you, the American people, to ignore these lies, and to focus instead on our policy proposals and differences - the REAL differences.


Obama: I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

McCain: I’m John McCain, and I approve this message.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A little love for The Snake - and Ray Guy, too

As I'm watching several great players, including Fred Dean, Darrell Green and Art Monk, being inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame this afternoon on ESPN, I can't help wondering: How come Ray Guy and Kenny Stabler aren't up there, too?
Granted, I'm prejudiced because I live in Oakland Raider territory, but these two are no-brainers.
Ray Guy was the best punter ever, period. He kicked 'em long, and he kicked 'em high - so high, in fact, that one time the other team took the ball to the sideline and had it tested for helium. (It was clean.)
At the 1976 Pro Bowl he became the first punter to hit the Louisiana Superdome video screen, forcing officials to raise the screen from 90 to 200 feet.
He not only had power, he had finesse. He was especially adept at landing the ball inside the 20, without it going into the end zone for a touchback. He did that 210 times, and that's not counting his first three seasons, before the NFL kept track of this statistic.
Perhaps his greatest punt went for only 27 yards. It was late in the first half of Super Bowl XVIII, when the Raiders stalled just outside of field goal range. Guy landed his punt on the Redskins' 12, pinning them deep in their territory for the rest of the half.
The bottom line: He punted 1,049 times, and not one was ever run back for a touchdown.
So why isn't he in the hall? Simple: No punter has ever been chosen. The selection committee has a prejudice against such "specialty" players.
But if field position is as important as coaches like Bill Parcells say it is, why shouldn't punters be in the hall? Field goal kickers are.
As Joe Horrigan, the historian of the Pro Football Hall of Fame said of Guy, "He's is the first punter you could look at and say, 'He won games.'"
That should earn him a ticket to Canton, in my book.
And the snub is just as outrageous for The Snake. He was Joe Montana before Joe Montana. Maybe his skills were at a slightly lower level, but only slightly.
He was the king of the last-minute comebacks. There was no other quarterback you wanted to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line and time running out.
He didn't have the strongest arm in the world, but he was deadly accurate. And, like Montana, he thrived under pressure. The bigger the game, the better he played.
I can see him now, standing almost motionless in the pocket, waiting, waiting, waiting for his receivers to get open and then, suddenly, Zap! Like a snake striking, he'd zip the ball to Cliff Branch, Dave Casper or Fred Biletnikoff for another last-second, game-winning TD.
And, like Montana, he had a knack for finding ways to win. Some of the most famous plays in football history are Stabler touchdowns.
Like the "Holy Roller" game at San Diego in 1978. Trailing by a touchdown with 10 seconds to go at the Chargers 24, he was about to be sacked. So he "fumbled" the ball forward, and it rolled and rolled until Casper finally fell on it in the end zone for the game winner.
Here's the call of the late, great Bill King: "There's nothing real in the world anymore! The Raiders have won the football game! Fifty-two thousand people, minus a few lonely Raider fans, are stunned! The Chargers are standing, looking at each other, looking at the sky. They don't believe it! Nobody believes it! I don't know if the Raiders believe it! It's not real! A man would be a fool to ever try and write a drama and make you believe it. And now, this one will be relived - forever! Bitterly here in San Diego, joyfully in Oakland. Final score: Oakland 21, San Diego 20!"
Then there was the "Ghost to the Post," a 42-yard beauty to Casper with less than a minute to go, setting up the game-tying field goal in the final seconds of a playoff game against the Colts in 1977, which the Raiders ultimately won in double overtime on another Stabler-to-Casper pass.
Before the play, everyone in the stadium was freaking out - including his own coach, John Madden, as the two of them were discussing which play to run. Stabler calmly looked at the frenzied crowd and drawled, "The fans are sure getting their money's worth today."
Or the "Sea of Hands" playoff game against Miami in 1974. With the seconds running out and Dolphin linebacker Vern Den Herder dragging him down by his legs, Stabler flipped the ball toward the left side of the front of the end zone, where running back Clarence Davis outfought a "sea of hands" of three Dolphin defenders to grab it for a 28-26 victory that knocked Miami out of the playoffs after they had won the last two Super Bowls.
Only The Snake would have dared such a pass. And only The Snake would have made it. He should have been in the hall long ago.