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 26, 2009

Two Cheers for New Year's

(Above: Ernie Davis)

Happy New Year. It's bound to be better than last year,
and I have the proof: Chinese fortune cookies.
Last year at this time, I reported that the cookies from two of my favorite Chinese restaurants - Hunan Villa in Pinole and Renee's Place in Albany - were striking a cautionary tone, with fortunes like "Don't make any large purchases right now" and "A penny saved is a penny earned."
Well, last week I loaded up on Chinese food again, and this time the fortunes read, "A promising business opportunity awaits you" and "You will have gold pieces by the bushel."
Meanwhile, I don't how you celebrate New Year's Eve, but I plan to observe the occasion the same way I do every year: by being in bed fast asleep long before the stroke of midnight.
I loathe New Year's Eve. It's my least favorite holiday. The fact that it comes only a week after my favorite holiday, Christmas, makes it even worse.
Christmas is warm and fuzzy. New Year's Eve is cold and glitzy. Christmas is about giving gifts and making little children happy. New Year's Eve is about drinking and false bonhomie.
New Year's Day is getting more generic, too. When I was growing up in the 1950s I eagerly looked forward to the bowl games, and there were only four: Rose, Cotton, Sugar and Orange. They were all played on Jan. 1, and they featured the best teams in the nation.
Now there are more than 40 bowls, stretching over more than two weeks, and they're just generic infomercials for their sponsors. Where is the tradition behind the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, Papajohns.com Bowl or the Chick-fil-A Bowl?
Even the traditional bowls have sold their souls. Now it's AT&T Cotton Bowl, Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Allstate Sugar Bowl, FedEx Orange Bowl and "The Rose Bowl Presented by CTI."
And instead of featuring the very best teams, any school with a winning record gets to go to a bowl, and sometimes you don't even need that. Marshall, which was only 6-6, played in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl last Saturday. Some may call that parity; I call it mediocrity.
The best part of the old bowl games is that they were miniature morality plays. This was at the height of the Civil Rights movement, and three of the four bowls - Cotton, Sugar and Orange - were played in the South. The games regularly pitted an all-white southern team against an integrated team from the North, and both sides saw the contest as a referendum on segregation.
More often than not, the Southern players would embarrass themselves by shouting racial taunts and deliberately trying to injure the African American players. And more often than not, the Northern kids responded by whupping their butts.
That's what happened in the 1961 Cotton Bowl, when Syracuse's Ernie Davis ran wild against Texas, stomping the Longhorns 23-12. But Syracuse never picked up its trophy at the awards banquet because Davis and the other African American players weren't allowed in the segregated country club where it was being held, and their teammates refused to go without them.
And in all the years since, I'll bet not one of them has even for a moment regretted missing that banquet.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What we have lost

There's something melancholy about the end of the year. There's always the haunting sense of what might have been.
A year ago, I was sure the election of Barack Obama would usher in a new era of good feelings, marked by mutual respect and cooperation. Didn't quite work out that way, did it?
Most of all, I'm saddened by the realization of how many wonderful people we lost this year. Not only celebrities like Paul Newman and Walter Cronkite, but also less famous people like Hilda Bell Roberts of Berkeley, who passed away on Sept. 23 at age 93.
Hilda was trained as a nurse, and when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 she sailed to Europe on the S.S. Normandie to volunteer her services to the Loyalist (anti-fascist) side.
She worked as an operating room nurse before transferring to the front, where she traveled with a mobile surgical unit that operated in a variety of temporary locations - including an unused railway tunnel, a nut factory and a mansion - always staying one step ahead of Franco's bombers.
During World War II she joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and was stationed in New Guinea, where she was awarded two bronze battle stars for saving patients during enemy attacks.
But those medals didn't do her much good during the McCarthy era, when the State Department revoked her passport because of her nursing activities in Spain in the 1930s. She was accused of being "prematurely anti-fascist." (Never mind that America went to war against fascism only a few years later.)
Undaunted, she went back to school and earned an advanced degree in psychiatric nursing, which she practiced at Napa State Hospital and taught to others at Napa Community College.
And she never stopped fighting the good fight. In 1988 she went to Nicaragua with Elders for Survival to pick coffee. She also traveled with Pastors for Peace, riding yellow school busses bringing computers and medical supplies to Cuba.
She was on the famous trip when the buses were stopped at the Texas border, and she and the other participants protested by fasting and remaining on the buses despite the broiling heat.
She was also a regular presence in front of the St. Helena post office, where she would stand vigil, often alone, against U.S. policies in Central America.
Hers was a life well lived, full of service to others.
Another good person we lost this year was Jim Churchill of Alameda, who died on Nov. 3. Jim was a big, rough, tough Marine, but you never met a gentler man.
Along with his wife, Gail, he was a dedicated supporter of Island Cat Resources and Adoption, which rescues hundreds of homeless and abused cats and kittens in Alameda and Oakland every year.
Their home was constantly filled with foster kitties, which they would raise and teach to trust humans before placing them in permanent homes.
Rescuing abused animals can be a painful experience. But Jim could always be counted on to make things better with his kindness, quick wit, common sense and infinite patience.
The Marines' motto is "Semper Fi" - Latin for "Always Faithful." That was Jim in a nutshell. He, too, will be missed.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Local Boys Make Good By Doing Good

Remember Alex Velez and Nikhil Arora, the 22-year-old Cal grads whose fledgling business, BTTR (pronounced "better") Ventures, beat 1,500 competitors around the world to become one the top 12 finalists in the 2009 World Challenge Competition For Social Ventures, co-sponsored by Newsweek, Royal Dutch Shell and the BBC?
Alex and Nikhil recycle used coffee grounds from Peet's Coffee, which otherwise would be thrown away, and use them to grow organic oyster mushrooms. They were the only American team to make it to the finals, and among the youngest competitors in the whole contest.
I asked you to vote for them online, and you sure did! Three weeks ago they were notified that they had made the top three! But the final order of finish wouldn't be announced until the awards ceremony on Dec. 1 in The Hague, the capital of the Netherlands.
"We couldn't have done it without your readers," said Alex. "It meant a lot to us to have the support of our community."
So a few days after Thanksgiving they were flown to the Netherlands.
They were met at the Amsterdam airport by a sleek black Mercedes sedan and whisked to The Hague, where they met the other two winners - Dr. Wijaya Godakumbura, a surgeon from Sri Lanka who invented a kerosene lamp that won't accidentally ignite an accidental fire when broken or overturned; and Risa Bhinekawati from Indonesia, who invented a process to turn organic waste from village markets into compost.
They were put up at a posh hotel next to the Parliament Building, a 13th Century brick palace that doubles as the headquarters of the International Court of Justice.
The ceremony itself was held at the City Hall, which Nikhil describes as "an insanely futuristic building right out of 'The Matrix.'"
Alex and Nikhil wore suits for the occasion.
"I can't remember the last time I wore a coat and tie," says Alex. "I think it was a wedding or something."
The ceremony was just like the Heisman Trophy presentation. The three finalists sat in the front row, trying not to look nervous, while a series of speakers, including Achim Steiner, Director General of The World Conservation Union, did their best to milk the suspense.
Finally, the winner was announced. It turned out to be Dr. Godakumbura, the inventor of the super-safe kerosene lamp. Alex and Nikhil were the runner-ups.
"He totally deserved it," says Nikhil. "He's devoted his whole life to this lamp. He invented it because a lot of his poor patients were suffering death or severe disfigurement from accidental fires."
Dr. Godakumbura received a $20,000 check. Alex and Nikhil received $10,000, all of which will be ploughed back into the business.
"We want to automate some of the processes," Nikhil said. "Right now, we're doing everything by hand. For one thing, it would be nice to get a hydraulic lift instead of lugging around those big sacks of coffee grounds."
Alex added, "We'd also like to expand our operation, maybe move to a bigger warehouse. We're currently processing 3,000 pounds of coffee grounds each week, but we'd like to process a lot more."
BTTR Ventures (the name stands for "back to the roots") mushrooms are sold at seven Whole Foods stores and four Farmers' Markets in the East Bay. You can also buy do-it-yourself "Gourmet Garden" packs from their website, www.bttrventures.com.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Gift of the Magus

Next Friday, volunteers from Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230 will haul more than 150 folk art sculptures up Moeser Avenue to the corner of Moeser and Seaview.
So will begin one of El Cerrito's most beloved traditions - the annual Shadi Sculpture Holiday Display. It will remain there until Dec. 27.
The tradition started in December 1949, when an immigrant from India named Sundar Shadi surprised his neighbors with a Christmas present.
They awoke one morning to find his front yard filled with papier-mâché shepherds, wise men, angels, camels goats, sheep, doves, spires stars, minarets and domes - all lovingly handmade from papier-mâché and chicken wire and painted by hand.
Each year, the display kept growing until it depicted the whole town of Bethlehem.
But there were no statues of Jesus, Mary or Joseph. Mr. Shadi, as everyone called him, was a Sikh, and he came to this country to escape religious persecution from both Hindus and Muslims. So he purposely kept the display non-sectarian.
The citizens of El Cerrito quickly took Mr. Shadi and his creation to their hearts.
"To many people around here, Mr. Shadi was Christmas," says former Mayor Jane Bartke.
And his fame spread far beyond the city limits. The tour busses used to line up, bringing visitors from as far away as Sacramento and San Jose - more than 70,000 each holiday season.
Mr. Shadi kept it up until 1997, when failing eyesight forced him to quit. He died in 2002 at the age of 101.
Then something happened that showed why El Cerrito is such a special place. The people themselves simply refused to let his legacy die.
Under Bartke's leadership, the El Cerrito Soroptomist club took over the sculptures - with the blessing of Mr. Shadi's family - and restored them to their former glory. In 2003 the Shadi sculptures made a triumphant return, and they've returned every holiday season since.
It's a true community effort, including individuals like Gordon White, who prepares the ground for the display; Dick Ritz and Rich Bartke, who do the setup; John Wilson, who operates the music; and Jackson Lusk, who runs the security cameras; as well as El Cerrito firefighters (working on their own time), local businesses, the city government and PG&E, which provides the land.
There are many different ways in which you can participate, too.
Money always helps. All the labor is voluntary, but there's still electricity, insurance, repairing the sculptures and storage during the rest of the year to pay for.
You can "adopt" one of the sculptures - a wise man (including his camel) for $500, a large shepherd for $350, a hookah pipe for $50, or assorted sheep for $25.
Send a tax-deductible check to the El Cerrito Community Foundation, P.O. Box 324, El Cerrito CA 94530.
Even more importantly, you can volunteer your effort. Bartke and her cadre of volunteers, who are from the generation that knew Mr. Shadi personally, aren't getting any younger, and they can't do this forever.
It's time for the next generation, who didn't know him but thrilled to the holiday display when they were little kids, to step up and eventually take over. Call Bartke at 510-235-1315.
The display will be lighted with music every day from 5 to 10 p.m. from Dec. 18 through Dec. 27.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dear Santa

"Dear Santa, Starting today I am going to behave." - Rhea

"Dear Santa, I'm going to stop peeing in my bed." - Rohan

"Dear Santa, I have been a good girl, or so says my mom and dad. I will be 5 next week. But you're Santa, so you already know that." - Logan

Every year, thousands of letters like these from all over Northern California wind up at the downtown Oakland Post Office.
And every year, Consumer Affairs Director Elma Ramirez and her trusty elves - Toni Harmon, Tim Wong, Rita Christobal, Brenda Presley, Janet Ezell, David Thompson and Carmen Boeche - separate them into two piles, one labeled "Needy" and the other labeled "Greedy," and ask the public to help answer them. (See below to find out how you can participate.)
Some are heartwarming. Some are heartbreaking. And some are just plain hilarious. Here's what our kids are thinking:

"Dear Santa, I really don't want nothing for Christmas. I would just like my younger siblings to have something to open. My mother tries hard, but she needs help. She doesn't have a job. I would like her to receive something for Christmas because she really tries to take care of all her kids. I hope this reaches Santa. If not, at least I tried." - Brianna

"Dear Santa, Do you have an e-mail address? If you do, please give it to me so we can send messages quicker. And do you have a phone number? If you do, give it to me so I can call you when you are not busy. Love, Bella."

"Dear Santa, I am a good girl in school. I'm going to get 100 persent on my spelling test. Love, Rosalinda."

"Dear Santa, I'm sorry I was bad this year. It's because I'm getting older, but I'll always believe in you. All I want for Christmas is to spend some time with my dad. It makes me sad when I see everyone with their dads and makes me want to cry. I like to write to you because you understand me. Sincerely, Alexis. P.S. Please write back."

"Dear Santa, Could I please get a Big Fat Piggie Bank? Make her pink with white polka dots and as fat as you can. I saw one at Marshall's, but Grandma said they may have a fatter one at Walgreen's. Thank you, Santa. Love, Kayla."

"Dear Santa, I know that at the moment you are stressed because Christmas is coming, but I hope you can read my letter. I have been a good boy all year. At the bottom is a signature that says that my parent/guardian agrees that I have been a good boy. Now that I have gone over the necessaries, her is my wish list. I list them in order of importance." (No signature)

"Hi Santa. I'm writing for my little brother because he is too small to write. He loves soccer. He plays with me every day and he is very good at it. He loves soccer balls and he likes soccer shoes, size 13. He also likes shorts. His size is 7 and his shirt size is large in little boys'. If U can't it's OK. I no you tried. Sincerely, Jesus."

"Dear Santa, I know I was kind of mean to Willow, but I tried my best this year. But I just can't ignore her, even though I know I should. What I want is expensive and very, very cool. I bet it's going to be a big fat NO! I want a mini motorcycle. You know, the kind that Jacqueline has. Merry Chrismas, Summer."

"Dear Santa Claus, My name is Iise. I have a little sister, Lizbeth. I'm 13 years old and she is 11 years old. We are writing this letter because we wish you can bring us something this Christmas. We need clothes and shoes. Thank you for reading our letter. We will be waiting for you. Sincerely, Iise and Lizbeth."

"Dear Santa, I hope you have a safe drive around the world. I've been good this year. I'm still working on being really nice to Eliza. I'm almost there." (No signature)

"Dear Santa, What I want to ask for is if you can give a little donation for our people in El Salvador. Please. These people are sleeping on streets. Kids are alone with no parents. Families are totally alone. Please, if you can send a little donation. Thank you, Rosibel."

"Dear Santa, My little sister is 2 years old. She wants a playhouse that has a kitchen and a fake phone. Can you bring it before 3 p.m. because my parents go to work then? Love, Monserat."

"Dear Santa, I just wanted to tell you we won't be in Monterey for Christmas. We will be at Nanni's house in Genesee, New York. Please leave our presents in Monterey. We only want our stockings filled in Genesee. From Ava."

"Dear Santa, I wish for my two little brothers to have the toys they want and for my mom and us to have food. I hope it's not too much to ask. My mom only works half time. Thank you, Selena."

"Dear Santa, I'm 9 now, and I have a really strict teacher and I try really hard so I won't have to stay on the bench for a week. And when we all go in the classroom at math time, he yells because someone was behaving bad, and I get scared. Santa, if you have time, can you send me a letter back about what to do? Your best friend, Jasmin."

"Dear Santa, I am sorry, but my Christmas list has not been made. I'm not exactly sure how I've been. Overall, I think my record is pretty clean, even though I might have been bad sometimes. Don't worry, I really do believe in you. Lots of love and Christmas spirit, Noah."

"Dear Santa, How are you doing today? I have been a good little boy throughout the year. I would like it if you would send me a gift because my parents don't have a job so they can't afford to buy me one. Santa, I would love it if you can send me some clothes. My size is 2. Thank you Santa! Love, Pedro."

"Dear Santa, It's that time of year again. You know, I've been wanting to ask you some questions. First, do you know God? Second, how do you make your reindeer fly? Third, why do you live in the North Pole? Fourthly, who are your favorite elf and reindeer? Please write back. Love, Tiana."

"Dear Santa Claus, Boy, it's rainy here right now! How are you? Are Mrs. Claus and the reindeer doing well? My family and I are very well, and my puppy's first birthday is coming up soon. If I could have one wish this year, I would like you, Santa, to have a joyous holiday. Love, Sophia."

"Dear Santa, I forgot to tell you I love you. Love, Conner."

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 510-622-7420 or stop by the Post Office's Consumer Affairs Division at 201 13th Street, Room 228, in downtown Oakland, and they'll give you as many letters to answer as you want.
You don't necessarily have to enclose a present. "The children appreciate it so much just knowing that someone cares," says Consumer Affairs Director Elma Ramirez. "But if you also want to send a present, that's OK, too."
The need is greater than ever this year because of the recession.
"I've never seen anything like it," says Ramirez. "Lots of children are asking Santa to find a job for their mother or father."
Your reward will be the knowledge that you've made a child's Christmas a little happier. And every once in a while, there's an added plus. Last year, Tracey Haught of Walnut Creek sent a present to a little girl named Angelica, and a few days later she got a call from the shipper saying that Angelica had written Santa a thank-you letter.
That letter is now framed and hanging on Haught's wall. As it happens, Haught's birthday is Christmas Eve. "vest birthday present I ever got," she says.
Finally, if you’d like your own child to receive a letter from Santa, that can also be arranged. 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 Holiday Postmark, Postmaster, 4141 Postmark Dr., Anchorage, AK 99530-9998. (Yes, Santa has his own zip code.)
A special unit at the Anchorage Post Office will stamp your child's letter with a cancellation reading "North Pole" and mail it back.
Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Two Righteous Men

(Above: Seymour Fromer Below: Chanan Feld)

Berkeley and the entire Bay Area Jewish community lost two of its strongest pillars a few weeks ago.
The first was Seymour Fromer, who died Oct. 25 at age 87. He and his wife Rebecca founded the Judah L. Magnes Museum, which houses the third largest collection of Judaica in the country.
Let me explain how important this is for Jews like me. My friend Paul Ferrari can go back to his grandfather's hometown, Bogotaro, Italy, and meet dozens of distant cousins who look like him. And his whole culture has been preserved in hundreds of churches, cathedrals and family records.
But I can't. There are no long-lost relatives; they were killed in the Holocaust. And the synagogues were burned to the ground and all records of Jewish life and culture systematically destroyed. The Nazis wanted to wipe out any evidence that we had ever existed.
That's why the Magnes Museum is such a Godsend. Each one of its more than 30,000 centuries-old Torahs, arks, manuscripts, Sabbath lamps, artworks, letters, books, photos and other treasures, lovingly collected over the past 50 years, is like spitting in Hitler's eye.
The museum, named after the first native Californian rabbi, began in 1962 in a $75-a-month loft over the Parkway Cinema in Oakland. One month they fell behind in rent. But when the landlord stopped by to collect it, he fell in love with the place and let them stay there for free.
By 1967 their fortunes had improved and the collection had mushroomed. So the museum moved to its present site in a mansion on Russell Street in Berkeley.
Even after he retired in 1998, Fromer could take practically any artifact in the collection and tell you its entire provenance - its history, the year it was donated, and who donated it. He was one of a kind, alas.
Only a few days later, Rabbi Chanan Feld, the coolest mohel in Berkeley, died Oct. 28 from oral cancer. He was only 53.
A mohel is a guy who performs ritual circumcisions, and Rabbi Feld performed thousands in his time. All the parents I've talked to rave about how good he was at it, and how patiently he explained everything beforehand.
Most of all, they emphasize his kindness. It's a quality that struck everybody who ever met him - an ineffable sweetness that made you feel safe and loved, no matter who you were.
The funeral service was held at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, where his wife, Jodie, read a poem he wrote a few days before he died saying how undeserving he felt of any honors and how lucky he was to have so many great things in his life.
Then the whole congregation, more than 300 strong, spilled out in the street and walked behind the hearse as it drove slowly down the block. When it got to the corner they stopped and waved goodbye.
Rabbi Feld's body was flown to Israel, where he was buried on the Mount of Olives. It's a huge honor reserved for only the most righteous - a perfect description of Rabbi Feld.
Seymour Fromer chose the way of the head, Chanan Feld chose the way of the heart, and they both pretty much ended up in the same place - proof that there are many different paths to God.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Remembering Mario

(Above: Mario Savio addressing the crowd while atop the police car holding Jack Weinberg at Sproul Plaza. If you look carefully, you'll see he removed his shoes first before climbing up so he wouldn't harm the roof of the car.)

From all over the country, veterans of the 1960s will return to Berkeley next week to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the event that transformed a generation: the Free Speech Movement of 1964.
Dec. 2 is the anniversary of the great sit-in at Sproul Hall, when Joan Baez led 1,000 young people into the building, singing "We Shall Overcome."
Dec. 7 is the anniversary of the movement's tipping point, when campus cops dragged Mario Savio off the stage of the Greek Theater as he was trying to give a speech, shocking and radicalizing the thousands of previously uncommitted middle-class students who saw it.
And Dec. 8 would have been Savio's 67th birthday.
Even today, opinions of the Free Speech Movement - aka FSM - are split. A few months ago, I wrote a story about the new Center on Civility in Public Discourse at Cal, funded by donations from the Class of '68, who were freshmen during FSM.
Half the donors told me FSM was the greatest thing that ever happened, and they were contributing because they considered the new center to be the logical extension of all the good things about FSM.
The other half said FSM was the worst thing that ever happened, and they were contributing to make up for all the bad things about FSM.
Curiously, there has never been a biography of Mario Savio - that is, until now. "Freedom's Orator," by NYU Professor Robert Cohen, has just been published, and it's well worth the wait.
Cohen, who in 2002 co-edited the first scholarly take on FSM - "The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s" - with the late Cal history professor Reginald Zelnik, probably knows more about FSM than anyone alive, even though he was only nine when it happened.
It's a warts-and-all biography that doesn't gloss over Savio's personal problems, including the depression he struggled with during the post-FSM years.
But in the end, Savio comes off as a deeply sincere person who did what he did not because it was expedient, but because it was right.
One of the book's most fascinating revelations is that Savio's legendary eloquence may have been the result of a severe stutter that left him virtually mute during his childhood. But when the time came for him to step forward during FSM, the stutter miraculously disappeared.
"He grew up waiting all his life to express himself, and while he was waiting he studied elocution and developed a love of poetry so that when he was finally able to speak, he didn't sound like any one else," Cohen told me last week. "It's such a metaphor for the '60s - people finding their voices."
Savio stepped away from a leadership role after FSM, but he never lost his relevance. His last cause, just before he died in 1996, was supporting students at Sonoma State who were protesting fee hikes - the same issue that led Cal students to sit in at Wheeler Hall last week.
So was he a great man? I don't really know what the term means, but I know this: He tried his best to be a good man. And that led him to do great things.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Museum For Little Kids

(Above: Playing at Habitot's Waterworks exhibit)

Child development experts say we learn more in the first five years than we do during the whole rest of our life.
Think about what it must like to be a toddler. You face the daunting task of programming your own brain to create order out of chaos.
You have to learn cause/effect, up/down, in/out, hot/cold, light/dark and thousands of other abstract concepts. And the best way to do this is through unstructured play in an environment rich in these concepts.
These are the make-or-break years. If children don't get this crucial learning experience, they'll be playing catch-up for the rest of their lives.
Curiously, although there's no lack of resources in the Bay Area for older kids, there are pitifully few truly educational places for children five and under.
But there's one shining exception: Habitot, the hands-on children's museum in downtown Berkeley that celebrated its 11th anniversary this year.
Here the little ones can play at their own pace in a variety of stimulating environments. While they're happily finger-painting, making sculptures with clay and creating collages in the Art Studio, they're building their hand and finger motor skills, hand-eye coordination, abstract thinking and symbolic understanding - skills they'll need later when they learn to read and write.
They're also learning concepts like form and shape, which they'll need when they study geometry and science.
At the Waterworks - featuring a river ramp for creating and damming streams, a pumping station and a water table filled with waterwheels, buckets (with holes), pitchers and fishing rods - they learn about gravity, motion and the power of falling water.
In the Back to the Farm exhibit, they learn where their food comes from at a small-scale barn with chicken coop, fishing pond, ride-upon horse, hay bales and child-sized John Deere tractors.
Habitot's one-of-a kind exhibits, including the new Firehouse exhibit, which opened in October, allow children to become heroes in their own imaginary play.
But all this could soon come to an end because Habitot is facing a funding crisis.
The villain, of course, is the recession. Since mid-2008, foundation grants and corporate sponsorships have dried up; and several long-term individual donors have been unable to fulfill their pledges. Executive director Gina Moreland slashed expenditures by 8 percent last year and another 7 percent this year, but Habitot is still facing a $100,000 deficit.
Cutbacks can only carry Habitot so far. What's needed is for the community to step forward to keep it going. If you or someone you know benefited from Habitot's wonderful program, or if you believe we all benefit when family relationships are nurtured as they are at Habitot, now is the time to give back.
You can contribute individually to Habitot's $10-a-Month Club by calling 510-647-1111, ext. 31.
But I'm hoping you readers will get creative. If your company, service club, church group, fraternal organization or just bunch of friends want to invent your own fundraising project - for instance, you could "adopt" one of the exhibits - call Moreland directly. Her number is 510-647-111, ext. 11.
Habitot is a priceless asset for the whole community, whether you have a child or not, because these kids are the only future we have. So it's up to us to step up and save it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bashing Muslims

(Above: The Mosque of the Pearls in Lahore, Pakistan, one of many beautiful examples of Muslim architecture)

My friend Cindy, whom I've known since high school, forwarded an email to me last week. You might have seen it yourself.
The email complains about two Muslim Americans being appointed to posts in the Department of Homeland Security and asks, "Didn't we just have a devout Muslim kill our soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas?"
Now, just because one guy, Nadal Hasan, is a murderer doesn't make all Muslims murderers, any more than Timothy McVeigh's massacre of 168 people in Oklahoma City casts suspicion on all evangelical Christians.
So I wrote Cindy back and said, "This strategy makes sense to me. They speak the language, they understand the culture, and they can win the trust of the target community much faster than an outsider could."
But she wasn't convinced. "I'm sorry, but I don't trust these men," she wrote. "Allah teaches it is permissible to lie, cheat, murder, or do anything they can to destroy their enemy."
But, of course, the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, says no such thing. You can search high and low, and you won't find a single word that permits lying, cheating or murder.
But you can find plenty of passages that forbid such acts, including "Conceal not evidence; for whoever conceals it, his heart is tainted with sin. And Allah knoweth all that ye do.” (Sura 2, verse 283)
Or this: "Woe to those that deal in fraud, those who, when they have to receive by measure from men, exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to me give less than due. Do they not think that they will be called to account?” (Sura 83, verses 1-4)
There are dozens of such passages, all of them condemning lying, cheating, stealing, murder and, yes, suicide in no uncertain terms.
As Casey Stengel used to say, you could look it up. So where did Cindy get such a wrongheaded notion?
Probably from an anti-Muslim web site, of which there are scores on the Internet, each one brimming with deliberate misinformation.
I'm not the only one worried about this stuff. On Sunday, Gen. George Casey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said one of his biggest fears is an anti-Muslim backlash.
"What happened at Fort Hood was a tragedy," he said on ABC's "This Week." "But I think it would be an even greater tragedy if our diversity became a casualty as well."
Now, Cindy isn't a bad person. But she got frightened by 9/11 - as did we all - and she's letting her emotions cloud her judgment.
Look, it might feel good to bash Muslims, but is that helping or hurting our war against Al Qaeda? Muslims, especially Muslim Americans, are our best weapon in this war.
And they're eager to help. After all, hundreds of Muslims were victims on 9/11, too, including Salman Hamdini, a 23-year-old New York City police cadet who gave his life trying to save others from the Twin Towers.
But if we treat every Muslim as an enemy, we throw that weapon away. Where's the sense in that?
Besides, it's a question of basic fairness: Are Muslim Americans citizens are not? If your answer is yes, then let's start treating them as such.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Kids Are All Right

(Above: Alex & Nikhil and their 'shrooms)

Once again, I turn to one of my favorite subjects: young people doing really cool things.
This time, it's a pair of 22-year-olds named Alex Velez and Nikhil Arora, whose fledgling business, BTTR (pronounced "better") Ventures, beat 1,500 competitors around the world to become one the top 12 finalists in the 2009 World Challenge Competition For Social Ventures, co-sponsored by Newsweek magazine and the BBC.
Alex and Nikhil are the only American team to make it to the finals.
They met each other last year in a business ethics class at Cal.
"We heard that people in coffee producing countries were using coffee pulp to grow mushrooms to fight malnutrition," says Nikhil. "We thought, 'If they can do that over there, we must be able to do that here in America, where everybody is addicted to coffee.'"
So they went to work figuring out how to make it happen.
"We pretty much stopped going to classes last semester because we were so focused on this project," Nikhil says.
Their first mushrooms were grown in the kitchen of Alex's fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. After hours and hours of research and trial-and-error, they were finally satisfied.
They called Shirin Moayyad, the coffee buyer at Peet's, and asked her if she'd let them have Peet's used coffee grounds instead of throwing them away. And she said yes.
Then they called Randy Ducummon, Northern California regional produce coordinator for Whole Foods, and asked if he'd be interested in buying their mushrooms. And he said yes, too.
Two months ago, they moved the operation out of the Beta house and into a small warehouse in Emeryville. Their day starts at 6 a.m., when they drive to local Peet's stores to pick up the previous day's used coffee grounds.
The grounds first go to the planting room, where they're mixed with the best oyster mushroom seeds Nikhil and Alex can buy.
Then the mixture goes to the incubation room, where it remains for three weeks under rigid temperature, humidity, light, acidity and air quality controls.
Finally, it goes to the fruiting room, where the mushrooms are "fruited" - ie., shocked into sprouting through the soil and growing caps.
"Mushrooms only start to grow when they think they're going to die," Alex explains. "But they reproduce asexually, so they have to produce caps to release their spores."
But just before they can release their spores, Alex and Nikhil harvest them and rush them to Whole Foods in Berkeley. A half-hour later, they're on the shelf. They can be bought at seven Whole Foods and four Farmers' Markets in the East Bay.
And after that, the coffee grounds are finally thrown away, right?
Wrong. The mushroom roots are still mixed up with the grounds, making some of the richest compost around. So the enriched grounds are donated to the Oakland School District to fertilize the herb gardens at some of its elementary schools.
The winner of the World Challenge Competition will be chosen by online voting. It's a David vs. Goliath contest because the other competitors are backed by large corporations or wealthy venture capitalists.
So Alex and Nikhil need our support. Just go to the contest web site at www.theworldchallenge.co.uk/2009-finalists-project06.php and cast your vote. The deadline is next Friday.
It may be David vs. Goliath; but as I recall, David won, didn't he?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

'Round Midnight

(Above: Terry Riley)

Composer Terry Riley, the father of the minimalist movement in classical music, will hark back to the famous all-night concerts he used to give in the 1960s and 1970s when he performs Nov. 6 at the Berkeley Art Museum.
Back in the day, the concerts would last until sunrise, with the audience bringing their own sleeping bags and hammocks to doze in while Riley played mostly improvised music all night long.
"He's in his 70's now, and he doesn't play all night as much as he used to," says pianist Sarah Cahill, who has performed many of Riley's works and is curating the event. "So he'll play a late night concert from 9 p.m. to at least midnight, and maybe beyond."
The last time Riley played at the Berkeley Art Museum was in 1975, when a local carpet company loaned Oriental carpets for the audience to lie on during the concert.
This time, audience members are asked to bring sleeping bags, camping pads, blankets, pillows or whatever will make them comfortable on the museum floor. A limited number of chairs will be available, and the music can also be enjoyed from the galleries above.
Riley, who has been cited as a major influence by composers and performers ranging from John Adams to The Who, will sing and play a selection of his works on a rare, $129,000 Fazioli piano loaned by the Piedmont Piano Company.
The Berkeley Art Museum is located at 2626 Bancroft Way. Admission is $5, and people are urged to arrive early to get a good spot on the floor.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

All Creatures Great and Small

(Above: Hey, who's that guy with Gideon and Tumbleweed Tommy?)

Everyone at Children's Fairyland in Oakland - both two-footed and four - is in mourning because their beloved friend, Marguerite Clemens of Concord, has passed away.
Her special relationship with Fairyland began in 2003, when Lampwick, one of miniature donkeys in the petting zoo, suddenly died.
Gideon, Fairyland's other miniature donkey, was devastated. He wouldn't eat, and he spent hours calling out for his friend.
Yvonne Backman, Fairyland's chief animal caregiver, and her staff spent hours trying to comfort him, but nothing worked. He was literally pining away.
The only thing that might help was a new friend. After much searching, Backman located a breeder about 200 miles away who had a tiny little spotted donkey named Tumbleweed Tommy for sale.
Trouble was, it would cost $550 - $500 to buy Tommy and $50 to transport him to Oakland. And Fairyland, which always operates on a tight budget, just couldn't afford it.
So I wrote a column about the situation, and you readers responded by donating all the money needed within 24 hours.
Tommy was duly purchased; and when he and Gideon finally met each other, it was love at first sight. And they've been inseparable ever since.
One of the contributors was Marguerite Clemons. A retired schoolteacher on a very limited income, she sent a check for $20. Then she sent another. And another. And another.
The checks kept on coming long after Tommy arrived. Sometimes she'd enclose a card to say hi. Sometimes the check would be for $10; and she'd apologize, explaining that money was tight that week. Other times she'd send a card and no check, and she'd apologize again.
She continued to send what she could for several years. But, believe it or not, she had never been to Fairyland in her life! She was 89 at the time, and her mobility was further hampered by a long-ago bout with Polio.
So she and Yvonne became pen pals. Yvonne would write back with photos and the latest gossip, such as Gideon and Tommy stealing the ducks' food. (But the ducks didn't mind because they were busy sneaking into the funhouse, where they would spend hours gazing at their reflections in the funny mirrors.)
But in 2005 she was finally able to visit Fairyland. I was there, and you should have seen the look on her face when she finally met Gideon and Tommy and all her other animal friends.
The folks at Fairyland gave her the VIP treatment, which seemed to surprise her. I don't think she realized how rare it is to find that much sincerity and goodness in a grownup. In little kids, sure, all the time. But not in big people. Marguerite was one of a kind.
She made a return visit in 2007. But last year she stopped writing, apologizing over and over again because she could no longer hold a pen to write. So she and Yvonne kept in contact over the phone.
But she kept declining over the last six months, and on October 4 she gently passed away. She would have been 93 on Nov. 20.
"Marguerite was a kind, gentle, soft spoken lady with a great love for books and animals and Fairyland and donkeys," says Yvonne. "And I will miss her very, very much."
You aren't the only one, Yvonne.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bouncing Back

(Right: Louie, Leslie and Chocolate Bunny. Below: Oliver 12 days after rescue.)

Oliver the kitten was only three weeks old when he was rescued from LaPreda Thomas' house. Both his front legs were broken, and he was suffering from pneumonia and severe malnutrition.
"He was near death," said Merry Bates, president of Island Cat Resources and Adoption. "His life was touch and go for a number of weeks after we rescued him. X-rays found kitty litter in his stomach, which meant he had been eating the litter to fend off starvation."
Oliver, a tiny orange tabby, was one of seven felines rescued from Thomas' home in Oakland over the last four months. Their injuries ranged from multiple broken limbs to huge puncture wounds, police said. Many of the cats also had their claws crudely cut off, sometimes with portions of their toes removed.
On Oct. 9 Thomas was charged with felony animal abuse, accused of severely injuring more than 15 cats and kittens in incidents dating back to 2006.
Choco, a black kitten about the same age as Oliver, suffered a gouged-out right eye. Dr. Devin Johnsen, a veterinarian at VCA Bay Area Animal Hospital in Oakland, was shocked when she first saw him.
"That kind of injury is very unusual because of the shape of a cat's head," she said. "You usually see it only when there's been a lot of trauma, such as a cat getting hit by a car."
The damage to Choco's spirit was considerable, too.
"His gaze was an empty stare," said Bates. "When held close in your arms, he was still, almost as though he was trying to be 'good' and hoping for the best."
After they got out of the hospital, the kittens were placed in the care of ICRA volunteers - Oliver to Peggy Harding of Oakland and Choco to Leslie and Louie Hernandez of San Leandro.
So how are they doing now?
"Oliver's legs were so weak after they took the casts off. He wanted so desperately to walk. It was hard for him, and hard to watch," said Harding. "But now it's like night and day. He's just a little bundle of energy and playfulness and curiosity and love."
Oliver lives with two other foster kittens - not abuse cases - named Dudley and Duncan, and he's decided they're his foster brothers.
"He loves his little brothers. They chase each other up and down the cat trees and race all around the house. He loves them, and they love him."
Surprisingly, given the abuse he suffered, Oliver also loves people.
"He loves to lie on his back and purr while I hold him in my arms," said Harding. "And he loves to curl up with me when I'm lying in bed reading."
Choco, has bounced back amazingly, too, although his name isn't Choco anymore.
"We call him Chocolate Bunny," said Leslie Hernandez. "It seems to fit his personality better. He has an amazing spirit of playfulness, he's always purring, and he never has a negative reaction to a loving touch.
"But I keep wondering: Did he do that for her, too? Did he purr and act like his wonderful little self? I have no reason to think he didn't. And that breaks your heart even more."
Not all the rescued kitties are recovering as quickly as Oliver and Chocolate Bunny, but all are showing remarkable improvement. They can be viewed on ICRA's website, www.icraeastbay.org. Several are available for adoption now, and the rest will be available soon.
All except Chocolate Bunny, that is.
"He's so sweet, we've decided to keep him," Hernandez said.
This story has many heroes, including Megan Webb, director of Oakland Animal Services; the veterinarians and staff at VCA; Bates and her fellow volunteers at ICRA; and Dr. Gary Richter of Montclair Veterinary Hospital, who X-rayed the cats free of charge.
The money for the X-rays came from the Montclair Veterinary Hospital Pet & Wildlife Fund, which is funded by private donations. To contribute, send a tax-deductible check to 1961 Mountain Blvd., Oakland CA 94611.
The money for all the other medical expenses was furnished by ICRA. Oliver's medical bills came to $2,876, and Coco's medical bills cost $1,287. To contribute, send a tax-deductible check to ICRA, P.O. Box 1093, Alameda CA 94501.
Thomas, who is being held without bail, will appear in court on Thursday to enter a plea.

(Picture of Oliver courtesy of ICRA. Photo of Chocolate Bunny courtesy of Bay Area News Group)

Monday, October 19, 2009

To Life!

(Above: a Coach purse)

When 2-year-old Paula Baker drowned in a freak swimming pool accident in 2001, it devastated her whole family - her two brothers, her father and, especially, her mother, Marian Baker.
"Marian was non-functional, in a fog," says her husband, Michael, a trauma surgeon at John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek. "A lot of days, she didn't come out of her bedroom. She couldn't deal with the overwhelming pain."
But somehow, Marian found the strength to call the Contra Costa Crisis Center. They hooked her up with other parents who had lost children. And that made all the difference.
"It saved our marriage, for one thing," says Michael. "I never understood before that men and women have different ways of grieving."
Grateful for the help, Marian threw herself into raising funds for the Crisis Center. She wanted to make sure it could help other people the way it helped her family.
Things got so much better, four years ago Marian and Michael adopted a little girl and named her Joy.
But a few weeks later, Marian was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. But even while she was undergoing chemotherapy, she always more worried about others - especially the little kids who were also getting chemo at the oncology center - than about herself.
She would bake cookies to bring to the kids, and that was just the beginning.
"One child wanted a Sony Xbox, but they weren't available on the market yet," Michael recalls. "So she personally tracked down a Sony vice-president in New York and arranged to pay for one and have it delivered to the kid. She used to say, 'If chemo sucks for me, it's ten times worse for a 14-year-old.'"
Her passion was expensive purses, especially Coach purses, which she would buy on the Internet and donate to the Crisis Center for its fundraising auctions.
But her own battle with cancer came to an end on June 14. Heartbroken, Michael buried her with a Coach purse by her side.
But her good works live on. On Nov. 7 the Crisis Center will hold its annual fundraising gala at the Diablo Country Club, and it's being held to honor Marian's memory. Among the raffle prizes: a 2010 VW Beetle, a laptop computer and - what else? - a Coach purse.
You don't have to be present to participate in the raffle. For raffle tickets or to RSVP for the gala, e-mail rociop@crisis-center.org or phone 925-939-1916 x100.
And if you can't attend but would like to contribute anyway, send a tax-deductible check to P.O. Box 3364, Walnut Creek, CA 94588.
But I'm not really writing this column to plug the gala. My real reason is to let you know that this lifesaving service is available to you, too, if you need it. And in these hard times, a lot of people do. Just make the call:
Suicide: 1-800-SUICIDE
Grief: 1-800-837-1818
Crisis: 1-800-833-2900
Homeless: 1-800-808-6444
Youth: 1-800-863-7600
If you live in Alameda County, the comparable organization is Crisis Support Services of Alameda County. Its phone numbers:
Suicide/Crisis: 1-800-309-2131
Grief/Job Loss: 1-800-260-0094
And if you'd like to contribute, send a check to P.O. Box 3120, Oakland, CA 94609.
But the most important thing is to make that call. I promise: The person on the other end of the line will understand what you're going through because they've been there themselves.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

(Above: The Paine family dog of early Spruce Street gets his training in steering an early model of a horseless carriage. Note how this vehicle is a one-seater. Courtesy of Penny Hern Adams.)

Some of the best histories have been written by amateurs, including Thucydides, Edward Gibbon and, in our own time, Barbara Tuchman, Shelby Foote and David McCullough.
Richard Schwartz is another one. He isn't a history professor; he's a building contractor. But one day in 1996 he happened to be visiting the Berkeley Historical Society when he spotted a two-foot stack of old Berkeley Daily Gazette newspapers from 1900 to 1909 that somebody had donated.
The Historical Society was about to throw them out because they were moldy, and nobody wanted to run the risk of the mold spreading to other collections.
"Hey, I'll take them," he said. And the rest - if you'll pardon the expression - is history.
These newspapers became the genesis of his first book, "Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century," published in 2000. Befitting his daytime job as a contractor, he sold it not only in local bookstores, but also in hardware stores.
It was an immediate hit, and no wonder. Who could resist crime stories like this one?
"Too much indulgence in whiskey last night proved to be the undoing of one of the must successful juvenile robber bands that has infested Berkeley for some time. As a result, the gang is broken up and five small boys - Willie Small, aged 8, James Small, aged 9; Fred McNamara, aged 10; John McNamara; aged 13; and Gustav Palache, aged 13; have been made to feel the stern rebuke of the law."
Or this one?
"Perhaps because she feared to undergo the dreaded tuberculin test, or perhaps because her bovine lover no longer smiled at her, a cow of this city committed suicide a few days ago by eating a can of green paint."
Within three weeks, the entire first printing of 2,000 copies sold out. So he printed 8,000 more. And they quickly sold out, too.
People kept bugging him to print more, but he couldn't because there was no room for them in his garage, where he was also storing copies of his second and third books, "Earthquake Exodus 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees" (2005) and "Eccentrics, Heroes and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley" (2007).
But in the 10 years since "Berkeley 1900" was published, people have been coming out of the woodwork with their old family photos, diaries, letters and other artifacts. Schwartz has incorporated them into an expanded 10th anniversary edition, with hundreds of new pictures and stories.
Not all the stories are warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia. In many ways it was a terrible time, with rampant racism ("The fact that two Chinese restaurants are to be opened here is arousing much public indignation") and the constant presence of death. Consider the sad story of the Mushet family:
"Mr. and Mrs. W.T. Mushet of 1831 Derby Street left Berkeley two weeks ago with their four children for a trip to Santa Cruz. On the way down on the train there was a child suffering from diphtheria and, by the time the family arrived in Santa Cruz, the four children had taken ill. Two of them have recovered, but two have passed away. Muriel was six years old and Douglas five."
This isn't stuff you'll find in history textbooks, but it's history just the same - and a lot more fun. "Berkeley 1900" is available in a bookstore - or hardware store - near you.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The woman who tore down walls

(Above: Sue Olive with her granddaughter, Shama)

When Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, died, he was buried in the cathedral under a headstone reading, "If you seek his monument, look around you."
The same could be said of environmental leader Sue Olive of Berkeley, who died at age 66 on Aug. 30 after a 4 ½-year battle with uterine cancer.
Her monument is the San Francisco Municipal Railway's Third Street Light Rail Project, which, as Project Manager, she spearheaded from start to finish. It brought the previously isolated minority neighborhoods of the Bay View, Hunter's Point and Visitacion Valley in contact with the rest of San Francisco.
But another important legacy is something that wasn't built. It seems incredible now; but after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, CalTrans actually wanted to rebuild the collapsed Cypress Structure, which cut West Oakland off from the rest of the city.
But Olive and her husband, Michael Fried, teamed with the late grassroots organizer Chappell Hayes to mobilize the community to put the kibosh on that dumb idea.
Olive was the first female president of Urban Ecology, a band of merry pranksters with a serious purpose, which was founded in 1975.
Operating out of the Urban Ecology House at 1939 Cedar Street, they would sally forth on roller skates to distribute "Gasaholics Anonymous" parking tickets, inviting car owners to think about their dependence on automobiles.
The Urban Ecology House was instantly recognizable by the warm glow emanating from within - it seemed as if there was always a dinner party going on - and the "Veggie Car," a 1968 Pontiac GTO with a vegetable patch growing inside, parked in front.
Urban Ecology also was known for its very attractive women members, known as the Eco-Babes, of whom Olive definitely was one.
"Needless to say, they attracted a lot of men to their meetings, and I was one," says San Francisco architect Paul Okamoto, Urban Ecology's current president, who met his wife, Ariel, at the Urban Ecology House.
One of Urban Ecology's first projects was the successful campaign to redesign Milvia Street to slow cars and create safer spaces for pedestrians and bicyclists. It was considered radical then, but today every neighborhood in Berkeley is clamoring for its own bike lanes, speed bumps and roundabouts.
But just as important as what she did was the way she did it. Drawing on her Midwestern roots, she always treated people - even those with whom she disagreed - with respect and consideration. Her generosity could defuse almost any conflict.
"When you have a $600 million project like the Third Street Light Rail Project, which goes through three different communities, you have to bring all these people together, and Sue did that better than anyone," says San Francisco Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who remembers one meeting when everyone was in a panic because of rumors of a proposed change to the project.
"Sue just kept saying very quietly, 'Just a moment, let me explain it to you.' And everyone calmed down! They were fuming just a moment before, but because they believed in her, they listened. And it turned out not to be as bad as they thought."
By the way, this "Eco-Babe" was also a proud feminist.
"When I proposed to her, she accepted," says Fried. "Then she proposed to me."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Eat at Bill's, part 2

(Above: Bill Fujimoto and his wife, Judy)

Last June, after I wrote about Bill Fujimoto (the man who made the Monterey Market in Berkeley the mother church of the seasonal food movement) getting the heave-ho after 31 years, I got a ton of phone calls and emails from his loyal customers, all saying the same thing: "Please let me know where he ends up so I can shop there."
Well, Berkeley's loss is Lamorinda's gain. He's signed on as a consultant with Diablo Foods in Lafayette, where he's happily turning the produce section into a mini-version of the Monterey Market.
"The management is treating me wonderfully," he says. "They're allowing me the freedom to do what I do. And the customers are great. I thought appreciation of seasonal foods was just a Berkeley thing, but these people are real food people. I had no idea it was so pervasive."
He's also impressed with the staff, many of them veterans with as much as 20 years' experience.
"They only thing they didn't have was a buyer," he says. "That's my role."
Which means that instead of buying produce from a catalog to fill a designated space on the shelf, whether or not the item is in season, he inspects everything personally and buys only whatever is top condition that day.
"Strawberries are always better when you see them before you buy them," he says. "Some days, the tomatoes might not be at their best, but the greens are. So I'll pass on tomatoes that day and load up on greens, instead."
Just like old times, his day starts around midnight, when he wakes up without an alarm clock and starts phoning growers to find out what's hot and what's not that day.
Then he goes back to sleep for a couple of hours. But he's up again in time to be at the Oakland produce district at 4 a.m.
He selects only the best of the best, loading the produce in the back of his pickup truck and driving to Diablo Foods, where he's setting up the produce by 6 a.m.
All the while, he's indirectly instructing the staff in the fine points of seasonal produce buying.
"I teach the only way I know how," he says. "By example."
He's also introducing them to his favorite growers - contacts that will stand them in good stead long after he's moved on to his next project.
"I'm only a consultant," he says. "My goal is to eventually make myself unnecessary."
Then, just like the old days, he's back home in Berkeley by noon for his daily midday nap.
But unlike the old days, that's the end of his workday.
"I used to wake up again at 2 and go back to the Monterey Market for the afternoon shift," he says. "Now I actually have a life. I can actually have dinner with my wife. I'm working hard and enjoying myself, and I've lost 18 pounds!"
After he was so unceremoniously dumped by the Monterey Market last spring, there were dark mutterings of a boycott by both customers and growers. But Bill is having none of it.
"I'm a Buddhist," he says. "Everything always works itself out. Besides, the employees are like my family. How can I wish them anything but the best?"

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bird is the word

(Above, the cover of "The Ugly Pugling" by Wilson the Pug, which is set at the Albatross)

Happy birthday to the Albatross pub in Berkeley, which will celebrate its 45th anniversary Oct. 7.
The Albatross - or, as the regulars call it, "The Bird" - was founded in 1964, the same year as the Free Speech Movement. It's located on San Pablo Avenue, exactly one mile from the Cal campus.
(Back in the day, alcohol sales were banned within a one-mile radius of campus, so if you travel a mile in any direction from Cal, you'll find a cluster of bars.)
But The Albatross isn't a conventional bar. It isn't a place to get drunk or pick up someone for a one-night stand.
Instead, it's the closest thing you'll find in this country to a real, old-fashioned British pub, short for public house.
Which isn't to say it doesn't have an extensive collection of local and international beers, wines and whiskies; it does. But the alcohol is incidental to its real purpose, which is a place for the whole community to hang out.
"Have you ever had the feeling when you walk into a public place that everyone is checking you out?" says marketing consultant Marshall Platt, who uses "The Bird" as a place to meet with clients.
"The Albatross is the exact opposite of that. You feel appreciated as soon as you walk in. Everything there says, 'Relax.' People are throwing darts, people are munching on crackers, and there are dozens of board games to play."
Local jazz or bluegrass musicians play live four times a month. Sunday night is Trivia Pub Quiz Night, when competitors vie for free t-shirts or drink coupons. Tuesday is Dart Tournament Night in the dart room, which features six professional lanes.
"We sell used dartboards because the players are so good here, they wear out the bull's-eye before the rest of the board," says co-owner Wendy Halambeck. "So they're good for learning on."
Halambeck and her partner, Linda Zsilavetz, bought The Albatross in 1997 from its original owners, brothers Bob and Val Johnson. They replaced the Formica tables with wood, cleaned 33 years of tobacco residue from every surface and crevice, and added a pool table.
But they kept all the old traditions. Small brass plaques honor deceased longtime patrons at their usual spot at the bar, including Howard Albert (Jan. 24, 1911 - Feb. 28, 2004), Horst Duhnke (May 22, 1922 - Feb. 3, 2005) and Jules Spillman (March 31, 1941 - June 11, 2007).
"Jules' wake was held here," says Halambeck. "And so was the reception after the funeral."
The Albatross also has its share of famous patrons, including George Cleve, musical director of the Midsummer Mozart Festival; two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn; and Wilson the Pug, who (with a little help from his owner, Nancy Levine) has authored four published books, including "The Tao of Pug" and "The Ugly Pugling," which features the Albatross as its setting.
Wilson is a frequent patron because the Albatross is dog-friendly until 8 p.m.
"For him, it's a big treat," says Levine. "You can buy unlimited popcorn for a quarter, and Wilson is a big fan of popcorn. He gets lots of attention, music and popcorn - all things that he loves."
The celebration runs from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.albatrosspub.com or call 510-THE-BIRD.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Kindness to Kittens

(Above: Tamerack and Roxana, one of her kittens)

When Sarah Kidder adopted a 12-year-old female Siberian husky named Tamerack last year, she knew she was getting a loving, friendly, playful dog. But she never suspected that Tamerack had a hidden talent: as a foster kitten raiser.
It all started three weeks ago, when Kidder, who lives in the Grand Lake area, was taking Tamerack for a walk.
"About a block away, I saw this beautiful, blue-eyed, chocolate point Siamese adult and two little black kittens playing in a driveway," she says. "I was like, 'Why would those little kittens be there?'"
After talking with the neighbors, Kidder found out that that the family who lived there had moved away and abandoned the Siamese - who she assumed was the mom - and the two kittens. So she decided to take them home with her.
"It wasn't safe for them to be out there. And we don't need any more feral cats in the neighborhood because they would keep on breeding. Plus, they were just ridiculously cute."
That's when Tamerack unveiled her hidden talent.
"She was like, 'Oooh! Kittens!' I was a little concerned at first because she was so excited, but then I realized she was excited because she wanted to mother them. She would follow them around and lick their heads and make sure they were OK. After 24 hours, they started following her around. Whenever she sat down, they sat down, too."
By the next day, Tamerack was sharing her food with her little feline friends.
"Even when she was gnawing on a bone, she'd let them munch on it, too! I just sat there, slack-jawed, for a week."
Now Tamerack and her kittens are inseparable. They sleep together, eat together and play together.
"She understands that she's a lot bigger than they are, so she's very gentle with them. If they're gone too long, she searches for them and hangs out wherever they are. If I'm looking for them, I just look for her because I know she'll be where they are."
She named the mommy cat Choco Kitty and the kittens Roxana and Stetaria, after Alexander the Great's wives. (Kidder is the product of a classical education.)
The next order of business was to get Choco Kitty and the kittens fixed, so Kidder called Island Cat Resources and Adoption, who arranged and paid for the surgeries.
That's when Kidder got another surprise: Choco Kitty isn't the kittens' mother. He's their father!
"It's not unusual for adult male cats to be a great guardian for kittens," says ICRA's Gail Churchill. "When his owners moved away, he must have realized the kittens were helpless and took it upon himself to be their guardian."
It's also not unusual for large dogs like Tamerack to be kind to kittens, as Churchill can attest. Her golden retriever, Rosie, was in the news last June for fostering homeless kittens, too.
"Gentle, sweet dogs will take to anyone," says Churchill, "especially young ones."
Now that they've been spayed or neutered, all three cats are available for adoption.
"They're all incredibly sweet and friendly, says Kidder. "I'd love to adopt them myself, but I can't. It wouldn't be fair to my cat, Enkidu."
But what will Tamerack do when her kittens are finally adopted?
"I'm going to take her up to the snow as a reward," says Kidder. "If she's still missing them after that, I'll guess I'll have to start fostering more kittens."
To adopt these cats, either singly or in combination, call ICRA at 510-869-2584 or visit www.icraeastbay.org.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Glamour girl

(Above: Lily on the Capitol steps. Photo by Tina Raheem/Orphan Foundation of America)

Good news for Lily Dorman-Colby fans, and that includes Berkeley school board President Nancy Riddle, state Senator Loni Hancock, everyone who went to Berkeley High from 2000 to 2004, and me.
Lily, who is now a senior at Yale, has just been named one of the top 10 college women of 2009 by Glamour magazine.
It's a very big honor. Martha Stewart was one of the winners back in 1961.
I first met Lily during her senior year at Berkeley High, when her fellow students elected her to be their representative on the Berkeley school board.
It's usually a nominal position, sort of a glorified civics lesson. But Lily turned it into something substantive, successfully lobbying the board on a wide range of issues affecting students.
"State law forbids us from counting her vote," Riddle told me. "But we have such respect for Lily's judgment, we always pay very careful attention to everything she says."
Lily was also getting great grades, despite suffering from dyslexia, and starring on the wrestling team. But she was so down-to-earth and unpretentious, her fellow students weren't jealous. They rooted for her, instead.
Even more impressively, she accomplished all these things despite a truly horrific childhood. She was in the foster car system since she was 12 because her parents were unable to care for her due to drug use and mental illness.
She bounced from one foster home after another. Some were good, but others were right out of Dickens. But she never felt sorry for herself. Instead, she latched onto education as her ticket out.
But she never forgot where she came from. As one of the lucky survivors of the foster care system - only 2 percent of foster children graduate from college - Lily has made it her life's mission to reform foster care so other kids won't have to go through what she did.
Between high school and college she interned in Hancock's office, where her suggestions helped Hancock draft a law that made it easier for kids to find foster homes.
"While the official title was 'Child Welfare Services: Resource Family Pilot Program,' I always referred to this bill as 'Lily's Bill,'" Hancock says.
Every time I run into Hancock, her first words to me are always "Have you heard from Lily? How's she doing?"
Answer: Very nicely, thanks. She spent last summer interning in Washington D.C. with the American Bar Association, doing legal research on laws affecting foster children.
She was back in Washington again this summer, interning with both the Child Welfare League of America and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut. Her next step: law school.
She has also written a how-to guidebook, based on her own experiences, to teach foster kids how to get into college.
For Lily, the best part of the Glamour award was hanging out with the other winners, including a chanteuse from USC, Stanford basketball star Jayne Appel, the inventor of a folding wheelchair from MIT, and a future doctor who is first in her class at West Point.
"They’re awesome!" she says. "We're hoping to stay in touch with each other and work with each other on projects."
The issue is on the stands now; Gwen Stefani is on the cover. The article about Lily is on page 240.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Black cats make the best pets

Above: Midnight the Cat and Andy Devine, two of the stars (along with Froggy the Gremlin) of "Andy's Gang." Do you remember what Midnight said when she meowed? Answer at the bottom of the column.

The English are different from us. They drive on the left, and their steering wheels are on the right. And in England, a black cat is a sign of good luck, not bad - which is why black cats have no problem getting adopted over there.
But it's a different story over here. Black cats usually have to wait two or three times as long for a new home as other felines.
It's a stupid superstition. As Groucho Marx observed, "A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere." But people still believe it.
That's why Island Cat Resources and Adoption is holding a special Black Cat Adoption Day on Saturday, Sept. 26, at Petco, 2310 South Shore Center in Alameda, from Noon until 4 p.m.
Many of the cats will be kittens - specifically, former ferals that ICRA rescued when they were so young, they were able to be socialized.
Older ferals usually can't be socialized because they are too set in their ways. So they are humanely trapped, spayed and neutered, and returned to their cat colonies, where they don't produce any more kittens.
But feral kittens, on the other hand, make terrific pets. And I ought to know because my own cat, Phoebe, was a feral kitten.
She was scared of me for the first few days; but once she figured out that I wasn't going to eat her, she did a complete flip-flop. Now I couldn't ask for a sweeter, more attentive, more affectionate kitty.
ICRA will have 30 black cats and kittens ready for adoption on the 26th, including Daryle and Kenda, a pair of little cuties who were born across from the Raiders' practice facility, and Choco, who is remarkably loving and trusting despite the fact that one of his eyes was gouged out by an abusive so-called human being.
And if you can't make it to Petco, you can view the kittens at ICRA's web site, www.icraeastbay.org. You can also use the site to donate money or volunteer your services.
ICRA cares for homeless cats in Alameda and Oakland. Its counterpart in Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, Piedmont, El Cerrito and Richmond is another group called Fix Our Ferals.
FOF is kicking off its fifth annual Winter Campaign for Cats this weekend, and it's seeking volunteers to help trap and spay or neuter homeless neighborhood cats in all these cities, as well as provide foster homes to socialize them.
There will be a volunteer orientation this weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society, 2700 9th Street in Berkeley, from 10 a.m. to noon. If you can't make the meeting, you can still volunteer. Just call 510-908-8515 or e-mail rebeccamarshallfof@yahoo.com. For more information about volunteering or donating, visit www.fixourferals.org.
I've been writing about ICRA and FOF for years, and I'm constantly amazed by how much they accomplish with so little. There is no paid staff; everyone is a volunteer.
There's also no shelter - which, paradoxically is an advantage. Instead of living in cages, the cats are fostered in private homes, many with dogs or kids, so they're well accustomed to life in the real world.
If you're thinking of adopting a new cat or kitten - or, better yet, a pair of cats or kittens - this is the first place I'd look.

(Answer: Midnight said, "Nice!")

Sunday, August 30, 2009

How to really honor the victims of 9/11

(Left: Cat Right: Mark and his mom)

As the eighth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks approaches, my thoughts keep turning back to those who died.
I didn't know any of them, but I have two close friends who did.
The first is George Lazarus, a pediatrician in Manhattan. On that day he lost his favorite patient, Catherine "Cat" MacRae. She was only 23.
Her father called her "bright and beautiful, gentle and kind, the epitome of all that is good in the world," and that's a pretty fair description.
She would surprise her friends with unexpected gifts and notes to remind them that she loved them. And whenever she was invited to a party, she made sure all her friends got invitations, too.
Cat was sitting at her desk on the 93rd floor of the North Tower, in the direct path of the first hijacked plane. She never had a chance.
My other friend is Alice Hoglan of Los Gatos. She lost her only child that day - her son, Mark Bingham. He was only 31.
Mark was one of the passengers on United Flight 93 who attacked the hijackers and prevented them from crashing the plane into the Capitol – at the cost of their own lives.
That came as no surprise to anyone who knew him. A strapping 220-lb., 6'5" rugby star who led Cal to national titles in 1991 and 1993, he was always quick to jump in and protect the weak from bullies.
Once, when he and some friends were accosted by an armed robber in San Francisco, Mark tackled the guy, took his gun away and held him until the police arrived.
Alice had a chance to say goodbye before he died. He called her from the plane and said, "I want you to know that I love you."
They talked for a while. Then she heard Todd Beamer, who was sitting next to Mark, say, "OK, let's roll." Then the line went dead.
Cat and Mark were our best and brightest. Who knows what wonderful things they would have gone on to accomplish if they hadn't been cheated so brutally out of their future?
In the days following 9/11 it seemed that we might be able to salvage some good out of this evil by transforming our country into one that was worthy of their sacrifice.
And yet, if I could talk to them today, I would have to confess that we have failed.
The "Spirit of 9/11" lasted about five minutes. Then it was back to business as usual - tearing the country apart for partisan advantage.
We are turning into two Americas. One watches Fox News and thinks Obama is an enemy alien who wants to kill our grandparents. The other watches MSNBC and thinks the Republicans are cynically exploiting the darker aspects of human nature.
Neither side remembers the advice Ted Kennedy gave his son: "Teddy, Republicans love this country just as much as I do."
This is a very dangerous road we're going down. Sometimes, in my gloomier moments, I fear we've already passed the point of no return.
But, as with global warming, we have no choice but to act as if there's still time to step back from the abyss. But we'd better get going before it really is too late.
Otherwise, Cat and Mark will have died in vain.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Vick - as in sick

(Above: one of the dogs rescued from Michael Vick's Bad Newz Kennels)

Ever since Michael Vick signed a $6.875 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on August 13, the reaction from the sports media has been overwhelmingly positive. The only debate has been whether he'll be rusty from the year-and-a-half layoff.
Some he hanged, some he shot, some he electrocuted, some he drowned, and some he simply beat to death.
And what was their crime? They wouldn't fight because they were too gentle.
During his trial, one of his co-defendants said he suggested that dogs who wouldn't fight should be given away, but Vick replied, "They got to go." Translation: Kill them.
At the time, Vick denied everything.
"It's a property where I'm never there. I'm never at the house," he said. "I take these charges very seriously and look forward to clearing my good name."
Now, flash forward to his interview on "60 Minutes" last week.
He said he cried many nights thinking about how he had let down his fiancée, his kids, his teammates, his fans, even Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Most of all, "I let myself down, you know, not being out on the football field, being in a prison bed, in a prison bunk, writing letters home."
The only ones he didn't apologize to were the victims of his crimes. Interviewer James Brown tried his best to prompt him, repeating, "But what about the dogs, Michael?" But the most he would say was, "It was wrong."
In short, he doesn't get it, and he never will. He's a classic sociopath: someone who is completely unconcerned about the effects of his actions on others.
And make no mistake: He did it for the sheer sadistic pleasure.
"I thought it was cool," he told Brown. "And I thought it was, you know, it was fun, and it was exciting at the time."
His defenders say everyone deserves a second chance, but is that necessary true? What if he had been convicted of child molesting instead of killing dogs? Does anyone think the NFL would - or should - give him a second chance then?
Of course not, because child molesting is just too icky. So all we're really debating is whether a given offense passes the ickiness threshold. And I think killing and torturing dogs does.
Like children, dogs are innocent, trusting, completely dependent and utterly vulnerable. They feel love, fear and pain, just like us. And they don't want to die.
Besides, the dogs aren't the only victims. Do you know how they are trained to fight? By giving them smaller animals, like puppies and kittens, to "practice" on. A large number of family pets that go missing from the backyard turn out to be kidnapped by organized dogfighting rings.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has conditionally suspended Vick through October 18, although Vick could play as early as Week 1, pending a final decision by Goodell.
By coincidence, the Eagles' game on October 18 is against the Raiders, here at the Coliseum. Kickoff time is 1:05 p.m.
If Vick is reinstated by then, I hope the Coliseum will be ringed by peaceful picket lines of dog lovers and their pooches. Wear your Raiders jerseys if you have them.
And if you attend the game, let the boos echo to the top of Mount Davis. Let Vick know that football fans love their dogs, too.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Happy Day

(Photo from the George C. Marshall Foundation)

August 25 will be the 65th anniversary of one of the happiest days in history: the liberation of Paris after four years of Nazi occupation.
We've all seen the newsreels showing millions of deliriously ecstatic Parisians swarming around the Allied tanks, with pretty girls showering bouquets and kisses on the G.I.s.
In the crowd that day was an American intelligence agent from Berkeley named Tito Moruza, who had already been in Paris for three weeks, waiting in hiding for the troops to arrive.
He landed in France with the 82nd Airborne the night before D-Day, riding in a flimsy glider made of canvas and plywood. When the glider landed, its belly was ripped open by one of "Rommel's Asparagus" - wooden logs driven into open fields along the Normandy coast.
The three soldiers sitting next to Moruza were mortally wounded.
"The youngest, who was only 18, cried for his mama," he says. "The second called for the medics, and the third cussed. That was when I lost my religion. I still haven't gotten it back."
The paratroopers immediately went to work fighting Germans. But Moruza had a different assignment.
His job was to change into civilian clothes - which would have gotten him shot as a spy if had been caught - and make contact with the French Resistance, who would smuggle him into Paris.
Then, as soon as the city was liberated, he was to go to Gestapo headquarters and seize all the files before the retreating Germans could burn them, so they could be used as evidence after the war at the Nuremburg war crime trials.
And that's exactly what he did.
"I found only three Germans there, and they were just clerks, not SS," he says. "They'd made a half-hearted attempt to burn some documents, but the most they did was singe them around the edges."
He has nothing but admiration for his comrades-in-arms in the French Resistance - especially an extremely brave couple named Paul and Marcelle Dufour, whose farm outside Beauvais was a safe house not only for Resistance fighters sneaking into Paris, but also for escaped Allied prisoners going the other way, making their way via a network of safe houses to neutral Spain and safety.
He admires the Dufours so much, he named two of his children after them.
But he has nothing but contempt for the Johnny-come-lately "patriots" who were nowhere to be seen when the fighting was going on but came out of the woodwork after the liberation to "prove" their patriotism by shaving the heads of women who had slept with German soldiers.
"We hated them, and they hated us," he says. "It doesn't take much courage for a mob to torture and humiliate a defenseless woman."
His greatest honor was being chosen to deliver certificates of gratitude, each personally signed by General Eisenhower, to the French and Spanish families who smuggled escaped American prisoners to safety.
And what was his greatest blessing?
"The fact that I never had to kill a single person. I'm not belittling those who did have to kill; that was their assignment. I'm the lucky guy."
He narrowly escaped capture and death many times, but he bristles when anyone calls him a hero.
"The real heroes," he says, "are lying in the 9,000 graves at the American cemetery above Omaha Beach."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Nixon pro and con

Today is the 35th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation. It's typical of my obsession with him that on the day he died, I wrote not one but two columns about him, each disagreeing with the other. I ran them side by side. Here they are:

Tricky Dick And Me: OK, I know you’re wondering: After trashing Nixon all these years, am I finally going to say something nice about him now that he’s dead?
Forget it. I just hope they remembered to pound in the wooden stake.
This is the man who disgraced the presidency, remember? For true Nixon-haters like me, Watergate came as no surprise: It just confirmed what we had known all along. As Harry Truman put it, “Nixon can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and even if he caught himself saying the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.”
Or Adlai Stevenson: “Nixon is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree and then mount the stump to make a speech about conservation.”
Or Wilfred Sheed: “Nixon without his sanctimony is a man half-dressed.”
Why did I despise him so? Not because of ideology: I never felt that way about Reagan, who was much more of a true believer.
It was because Nixon fought dirty. Starting with his first election, against Jerry Voorhis in 1946, he got what he wanted by accusing whoever stood in his way of treason.
He did it in every campaign he ever fought, from the notorious “Pink Lady” leaflets he used against Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950 to his running mate Spiro Agnew’s charge that Hubert Humphrey was “squishy soft on communism” in 1968.
Ironically, Watergate revealed that the real traitor was Nixon himself. (And if you think “traitor” is a bit strong, what else would you call someone who conspires to subvert the Constitution?)
You could always tell when Nixon was getting ready to stick a knife in someone’s back: His eyes would shift and his face would take on that look of unctuous sanctimony that made him the Uriah Heep of American politics.
I know, I know, I’m irrational about him. It started in childhood. My parents were staunch New Dealers, and Nixon was the bogeyman my mother threatened me with if I didn’t eat my lima beans.
And it wasn’t just propaganda. One of the janitors in my father’s warehouse was a man named Hal Smith. He had been a successful Hollywood screenwriter -- he won an Oscar for writing “The Defiant Ones” -- before he got hauled before Nixon and his pals on the House Un-American Activities Committee. After that, he was lucky to get a janitor’s job.
Since then, it’s turned into a full-blown obsession. I find myself compulsively collecting Nixon trivia, including:
• When he was at Whittier College, he got turned down by the “in” club, the Franklins. So he formed his own club, which he named the Orthogonians (squares). Their motto, invented by Nixon himself: “Beans, Brawn, Brains and Bowels.” (Freudians make of that what you will.)
• His nickname during those college years was “iron butt.” (Starting to see a pattern here?)
• While he was courting Pat, he’d drive her on her dates with other men.(Such delicious masochism!)
• When he was in the Navy, he was known as “Nick Nixon,” the best poker player in the South Pacific. Legend has it that he came out of the war with a $5,000 roll, which he used as seed money for his first congressional campaign.
Incidentally, did you know you can listen to the Watergate tapes? They’re in a nondescript building in Alexandria, VA, where the National Archives stores all its Nixon material. They’ll let you listen to whatever you want, and let me tell you, it’s a revelation.
It’s still a shock to hear the President of the United States plotting crimes in the Oval Office. (And contrary to popular myth, he never said “but it would be wrong.”)
And if you’re really nice, they’ll let you see the warehouse next door, where they store the official gifts that Nixon got as president.
Remember the warehouse in the last scene of “Raiders of the Lost Arc”? That’s what it looks like. On one shelf, I saw a pair of nickel-plated revolvers (given to him by Elvis Presley) right next to one of those plastic praying hands that light up when you plug it in.
And next to that is a priceless, 5,000 year-old gold statue that was given to Nixon by Anwar Sadat.
“They were taking a tour of the Cairo Museum,” explained curator Sue Ellen Stanley, “and as they were passing a case, Sadat said, ‘See anything you like?’ Nixon said, ‘Yeah, third from the right.’ So Sadat reached in, pulled it out, and said, ‘Here.’”
So why don’t I feel happier? Why aren’t I dancing in the streets, singing “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead”? Why am I feeling -- oh no! -- nostalgic?
I hate to admit it, but I think I’m going to miss the old crook.
After all, I won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.

Requiem For A Lonely Man:
I just read the column on the left, and a meaner, pettier piece I’ve never read. It has a bitterness worthy of Nixon himself.
The fact that I also wrote it makes it even worse. Mind you, I meant every word I said. But it’s typical of this gifted, troubled man that, having trashed him in one column, I feel compelled to write another one taking it all back.
What was it about him that made people like me go off the deep end? I think it was because, as much as we hate to admit it, he was the true mirror of our national soul.
We want to think we’re like Jack Kennedy -- handsome, graceful, a hit with the girls. But the truth is, most of us are like Nixon -- insecure, resentful, and compulsively self-destructive.
I think of that picture of him, circa 1970, walking alone along the beach at San Clemente, the waves washing over his perfectly-polished black wing-tips. How we laughed when we saw that.
Or the night of the Kent State shootings, when he tried to talk with protesters at the Lincoln Memorial by making chitchat about football. How we laughed when we heard that.
Or of his college days, when the only way he could make the football team was to let them use him as a human tackling dummy. How we laughed when we read that.
It feels good to make fun of the class nerd. It makes you feel like part of the “in” crowd, even if you aren’t.
Especially when you can feel so self-righteous doing it. After all, this was Nixon the red-baiter, second only to Joe McCarthy as the arch-villain of the 1950s. He deserved all the bad things that happened to him, didn’t he?
Yes and no. Sure, he looked silly talking about touchdowns and field goals to students who wanted to talk about war and peace. But it was the closest he could come to extending a hand. And we slapped it away, laughing at his lame style.
To a paranoid like Nixon, it must have been another confirmation of what life had been teaching him since childhood: He really was surrounded by enemies.
“What starts the process, really,” he wrote about his passion for winning, “are the laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid. But if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by personal gut performance.”
And make no mistake about it, Nixon had a childhood that would make anyone paranoid. When he was 12, his younger brother Arthur died of meningitis.
Then his older brother Harold was stricken with tuberculosis. The only way their mother could pay the doctor bills was to run a clinic for other children with TB. She nursed them all, watching them die one by one, until Harold died five years later.
Harold's illness ate up what little money the family had. As a result, Nixon had to turn down a scholarship offer from Harvard and save money by attending little Whittier College instead. (No wonder he was so jealous of the Kennedys.)
At law school, he shared a one-room shack that had no plumbing or electricity. He shaved in the men's room of the library. He never once went out on a date; he couldn’t afford it. Later, when he married Pat, she had to use her own savings to buy the wedding ring.
And yet this loser, through sheer effort of will, transformed himself into a winner. A lot of us thought he sold his soul in the process. But who among us are without sin? Our beloved Jack Kennedy’s record isn’t so hot when it comes to the McCarthy era, either. (Jack gave money to McCarthy’s Senate campaign, and Bobby was chief counsel for McCarthy’s committee.) And remember, it was the Kennedys, not Nixon, who authorized the FBI wiretaps on Martin Luther King.
Ironically, in the last few weeks some secret KGB files have come to light, and it turns out that some of the people Nixon accused of espionage really were spies, after all. The list may even include that hallowed liberal icon, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Nixon never admitted he went overboard, but I don’t hear any liberals admitting that maybe where there was smoke there was fire.
And whatever Nixon’s public sins, in private he stacks up pretty well against other recent presidents.
There was no womanizing, like JFK. No sadistic humiliation of underlings, like LBJ.
And look at the sincere, unfeigned grief Nixon’s daughters are showing. Can you imagine Patty Davis feeling that way about Ronnie or Nancy?
I know, it doesn’t make up for Watergate. All I’m saying is that Nixon was speaking for us all when he pronounced his own epitaph the day he resigned: “Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”
Honor him for his accomplishments. And as for his dark side, there but for the grace of God go we.