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.