A columnist of heart and mind

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

Saturday, 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!