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, June 13, 2009

Save Our Secretary!

(Above: Ms. Wendy)

At any successful school, there's usually one key person who really makes the place work. Often, it's the principal, but not always.
At Sequoia Elementary School in Oakland, it's the school secretary, Wendy Larson - or, as the kids call her, Ms. Wendy. She's a combination of Mother Teresa and Radar O'Reilly from M*A*S*H.
If you get a boo-boo on your knee, Ms. Wendy will clean it and put a Band-Aid on it. If you're hungry because you missed a meal, she'll feed you. If your parents are late picking you up after school, she'll let you stay in her office, even if you're there far later than 4 p.m., her official quitting time.
If there's a fight on the playground, she'll break it up and soothe the ruffled feathers. If you need to finish your homework, she'll let you do it in her office at recess or lunchtime.
When Principal Kyla Trammell is off campus to attend district-wide principals meetings, Ms. Wendy runs the show. In fact, when Trammell was out last fall on maternity leave, Ms. Wendy was the de facto principal.
The kids adore her, and the teachers consider her their most valuable asset.
So what is her reward for 24 years of such selfless, dedicated service?
She was just notified by the school district that, because of budget cuts, she's being bumped by someone with more seniority. She's being offered a three hour per day job at another school across town, with a lower pay rate and no benefits.
The kids are devastated, but they're not giving up without a fight.
They have launched a letter writing campaign to the school board to save their beloved Ms. Wendy.
"The soul of our school would be gone without her," wrote a 5th grader named Allison. "It would be like milk without cookies, or even peanut butter without jelly!"
"She isn't only a secretary; she's a friend," wrote a 4th grader named Kelly. "She makes us feel better when we're sad. She makes sure we take our pills if we have to. You can't take her away from us!"
Kristin, a 3rd grader, wrote, "One time when I was sick and I threw up in the hallway she helped me to the office and gave me some water and told me to lie down. She really helps us."
Perhaps most touching are the letters from the youngest kids, who illustrated their messages with their own drawings.
One little girl named Emma drew a picture of herself with tears running down her cheeks, and she's saying, "Please let her stay."
Another girl named Jemaya drew stick figures of herself and Ms. Wendy. Jemaya is saying, "Please don’t leave us," and Ms. Wendy is saying, "Don't worry, Sweety. I promise."
And there are 350 more letters just like them.
So will this story have a happy ending? Don't hold your breath. I talked with Gary Yee, who represents that area on the school board, and he's a fan of Ms. Wendy, too. But he says nothing can be done; it's all in the union contract.
When I was these kids' age, I was taught that for every wrong, there's a solution if you work hard and play by the rules.
It saddens me that they are about to find out it's not true.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Ultimate Dead Concert

(Above: A hallway at the Chapel of the Chimes)

June 21 is not only Father's Day, it's also the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.
And that means it's time again for the coolest, hippest, most unusual musical event of the year - the annual Garden of Memory concert at the Chapel of the Chimes in North Oakland.
Actually, it's 35 different concerts all going on at the same time. The idea is to take in as much as you like of each performance, then move on to the next room, where a completely different performance is going on.
The lineup includes some of the most innovative musicians in the Bay Area, including professional whistler Jason Serinus (aka "The Pavarotti of Pucker"), who will be whistling Mozart arias and Schubert lieder.
Nearby, the Orchestra Nostalgico will be playing music from old Fellini films, "The Godfather," "Psycho" and the James Bond movies.
Meanwhile, composer Larnie Fox will turn people into musical instruments, stretching nylon strings between them and plucking the strings, with rhythmic accompaniment by knitters with microphones attached to their knitting needles.
The women's vocal ensemble Kitka will perform Balkan folk songs and an original piece called "The Origin," with words from the writings of Charles Darwin.
Pianist Sarah Cahill will play a composition by Dane Rudhyar, who is better known as Elvis Presley's astrologer. (He also designed the white sequined cape-and-collar jumpsuit that Elvis wore during his Vegas gigs, but that's another story.)
And while all this is going on, composers/sound artists Thomas Dimuzio and Wobbly will visit other performers in different spaces and record them, then go back to their own space and mix them together to create a sound collage.
Does all this strike you as more than a little whimsical? It is. These are serious musicians at play - which, paradoxically, is when they do some of their most creative work.
They're playing for the sheer fun of it - for their own amusement and others'. That's why they're keeping the price as low as possible - $15 general, $10 for students and seniors.
And just as wild and crazy as the music is the setting - a columbarium, a repository for the ashes of the dead.
But the Chapel of the Chimes is not just any columbarium. It was designed by the great architect Julia Morgan, and she pulled out all the stops: gardens, fountains, cloisters, chapels, nooks and alcoves, all rising into magnificent Gothic ceilings.
But her trademark was stained glass, and it's everywhere - not only in the windows, but in the skylights, too. The whole place shimmers with a constantly changing ballet of light.
That's why the concert is always on the Summer Solstice - to take advantage of the extra light.
It might seem strange to you to have such a whimsical event in a columbarium, but it didn't seem strange to our ancestors, who weren't as freaked out by death as we are.
Keeping in their spirit, composer Gregory Moore will perform right beside the urns containing the ashes of his great-grandparents, Frank and Ollie Kellogg.
The Chapel of the Chimes is at 4499 Piedmont Avenue, next to Mountain View Cemetery. The music starts at 5 p.m. and lasts until the light runs out - usually around 9.
See you there.