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, February 21, 2009

The Mean Season

(Above: Bill Brand. Photo taken from his blog.)

Another sign that the economy is going south: Chinese fortune cookies. I had lunch at Hunan Villa in Pinole last week, and my fortune read, "You shouldn't overspend at the moment. Frugality is important."
A few days later I was at Renee's Place in Albany, and the fortune read, "It is time to help a friend in need."
Wise advice on both counts. You know the ancient Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Well, these times sure are interesting.
Growing up in the affluent but boring '50s, I romanticized the era of the 1930s, with its NRA parades and CIO organizing drives featuring Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie leading striking workers in singing, "We Shall Not Be Moved." It seemed so thrilling compared to my time.
I told my parents I was jealous of them for having lived through such a heroic epoch, and their response was "Don't be. It was horrible."
I didn't understand what they meant then, but I'm beginning to understand now. We are entering a mean season.
Take the recent attempt in Congress to blame the woes of the auto industry on its workers. Or last week's rant on CNBC by business reporter Rick Santelli, who called foreclosure victims "losers" as traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange cheered his every word.
Look, we're all scared. Nobody likes going to bed every night worrying about tomorrow. And when people are under stress, it's tempting to turn on each other. Then things get even worse.
Families disintegrate. Spousal and child abuse increases, just when the social service agencies that could help the victims have their funding slashed.
Crime goes up, and the political pressure builds to spend less money on helping the poor and more on locking them up.
During the 1930s some even gave up on American democracy entirely. On the left, they joined the Communist Party or supported demagogues like Huey Long.
On the right, pro-fascist industrialists plotted to overthrow FDR and replace him with Gen. Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in American history. The plot collapsed when Butler, a true patriot, blew the whistle on them.
It's not a pretty picture, and I'm not looking forward to a repeat. So let's buy local, avoid scapegoating and try looking out for each other, OK?
That even includes the guy who gives you the one-finger salute in traffic. As a friend e-mailed me last week, "Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle."
Finally, a personal note: My longtime colleague, Oakland Tribune reporter Bill Brand, died last Friday from injuries he sustained earlier this month when he was hit by a streetcar in San Francisco.
Bill was a sweet, gentle man and a great reporter. Whatever he covered, whether it was business, politics or his last beat, writing a beer blog called "What's On Tap," he did it superbly.
I will always think of him as the best Berkeley reporter that ever was, and I speak as someone who covered Berkeley for many years myself. There was nothing going on in this town that he didn't know about. There have been - and still are -some excellent reporters in Berkeley, but Bill was the gold standard.
Several Berkeley Police officers attended his funeral Wednesday, including Chief Doug Hambleton, who said, "Bill quoted me more accurately than any reporter I ever met."
I will miss him. And I'm not alone.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Having a heart

(Above: Dr. Young)
How would you feel if your child had a hole in her heart?
That was the catastrophe facing Elena Senotova of St. Petersburg, Russia, 20 years ago, during the waning days of the Soviet Union. Her little daughter, Maria - better known by her nickname, Masha - was dying painfully from this condition, one of the most common birth defects in the world. She was struggling for every breath, and her skin was turning blue from lack of oxygen.
If they had been living in America, it would have been no problem. Open-heart surgery on children had become routine by then.
But not in the USSR, where medicine was lagging decades behind the West. Every year, Elena begged the doctors to help Masha, and every year they turned her down because such surgery was beyond their ability.
In 1988 she was working as an interpreter at the first Soviet-American film festival, where she met one of the festival's organizers, Jo Ann McGowan of San Francisco, and told her Masha's story.
When McGowan got back home she contacted Dr. Nilas Young, who was chief of cardiac surgery at Children's Hospital in Oakland. Together, they arranged to have Elena and Masha flown here, and Young and his surgical team repaired the hole in Masha's heart.
"It was like night and day," says Masha. "After the surgery, I could run around like any other little girl. Before, all I could do is sit in the corner and read."
And that was that - or so they thought. But a reporter for TASS, the Soviet news agency, wrote a story about the operation, and within weeks Young was inundated with hundreds of letters from desperate parents all over the USSR, begging him to save their children, too.
"It would have been too expensive to bring all these kids over here, so it seemed to us that it would be more efficient for us to go there and teach our Russian colleagues how to do it on their own," says Young, who is now Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at UC Davis.
In 1990 Young and pediatric cardiologist Dr. Stanley Higashino led a team of 20 people on their first trip to Russia. The group included surgeons, cardiologists, nurses, technnicians and, of course, McGowan, who was proving to be a genius at cutting through bureaucratic red tape and scrounging state-of-the-art medical equipment.
And they've been back more than 50 times since then, performing surgeries and training their Russian counterparts, using the traditional American side-by-side teaching method.
Each operating room has an American surgeon and a Russian surgeon, an American anesthesiologist and a Russian anesthesiologist, American nurses and Russian nurses, and so on. And expert interpreters are always present to make sure nothing gets lost in the translation.
The program is now a non-profit organization called Heart to Heart. To date, more than 7,000 Russian children have been saved from certain death and, like Masha, are leading healthy and happy lives.
On Saturday night, Heart to Heart celebrated its 20th anniversary at a banquet at the Claremont Hotel. The guests of honor: Elena and Masha, who flew here from St. Petersburg for the occasion.
Sadly, two people were missing: Higashino and McGowan. He died from stomach cancer in 1991, and she died from a stroke in 1996, while she was on the job at a children's hospital in St. Petersburg.
But their legacy lives on in the thousands of children they helped save, starting with the very first.
"Tony Bennett may have lost his heart in San Francisco," says Masha. "But that's where I found mine."
To learn more about Heart to Heart or donate to its lifesaving mission, visit www.heart-2-heart.org.

Hail to the chiefs

C-SPAN just did a poll of 65 historians, asking them to rank the presidents. Here's the top 10:
1. Abraham Lincoln
2. George Washington
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
4. Theodore Roosevelt
5. Harry Truman
6. John F. Kennedy
7. Thomas Jefferson
8. Dwight D. Eisenhower
9. Woodrow Wilson
10. Ronald Reagan
(LBJ was #11.)

Personally, I think first five are right on, but the I have some quibbles with the second five. Kennedy gets points for the moon shot and the Cuban missile crisis, but does that really compare with what LBJ did on civil rights? Jefferson wrote a helluva declaration, and I give him his props for the Louisiana purchase, but his embargo during the Napoleonic wars ruined the economy. Ike was OK but he didn't really do much. Wilson was a racist who segregated the military and the civil service, and his pig-headed self-righteousness did more to sink the League of Nations than anything his enemies ever did. And Reagan? Well, we're reaping the results of his deregulation of the economy and ignoring of the environmental crisis.
On the whole, we've fared better with our first ladies. Who wouldn't prefer Pat to Dick, Grace to Calvin or, for that matter, Laura to W?
Here's my top 10:
1. Eleanor Roosevelt, of course
2. Dolley Madison (She was the gold standard before Eleanor came along.)
3. Jackie Kennedy
4. Betty Ford
5. Abigail Adams
6. Lady Bird Johnson
7. Grace Coolidge
8. Lucy Hayes
9. Pat Nixon
10. Frances Cleveland
And here's my list of best ex-presidents:
1. George Washington (for becoming an ex-president instead of running for a third term, which he could have won easily. He wanted to hand his office to a live successor, creating the precedent of peaceful succession. Also freed his slaves in his will - the only slaveholding founding father to do so)
2. John Quincy Adams (anti-slavery crusader)
3. Jimmy Carter (peace negotiator and general do-gooder)
4. U.S. Grant (wrote a fantastic memoir that's still a great read, even today, and the gallantry with which he faced his final illness was incredibly moving.
5. Jefferson & Adams (tie for patching up their feud and dying in tandem on such a symbolic date - the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence)
6. William Howard Taft (finally achieving the only office he really wanted, Chief Justice, he did a credible, if conventionally conservative, job)
7. Ronald Reagan (most graceful exit ever)
8. Herbert Hoover (I'm not crazy about his support of the America First movement, but he gets points for the Hoover Commission)
9. Richard Nixon. (OK, so his entire post-presidential career was a shameless attempt to spin his Watergate crimes, and, as Harry Truman said of him, "Every word out of his mouth was a lie, and that includes 'and' and 'the.'" But you have to admit it was entertaining.)
10. George W. Bush (out of sheer relief that he's finally gone. It's like beating your head against the wall: It feels so good when you stop.)
And the three worst:
1. John Tyler (sided with the Confederacy, even getting elected to the first Confederate congress. Where I come from, that's called treason.)
2. Franklin Pierce (also sided with the Confederacy and conducted secret correspondence with Jefferson Davis throughout the war)
3. Millard Fillmore (later ran for president on the ticket of the anti-Catholic American Party, better known as the Know Nothings.)