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

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Where Fairy Tales Come True

(Above: Willie the Whale)

It seems like all my favorite haunts are popping up on TV these days. Last week, the Travel Channel ran a series called "101 Tastiest Places to Chow Down," and No. 4 in the whole country was Fenton's Creamery in Oakland.
The next day, The Travel Channel ran a repeat of "Man Versus Food," featuring host Adam Richman tackling the humongous, 2-pound Kitchen Sink sundae at the San Francisco Creamery in Walnut Creek.
But the climax came on Tuesday, when the new NBC dramedy, "Parenthood," opened with a scene filmed at Children's Fairyland in Oakland.
It couldn't have come at a better time because Fairyland is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
Fairyland was founded in 1950 by William Penn Mott, director of the East Bay Regional Parks system, and the legendary nurseryman, Arthur Navlet. They designed it to be, in their own words, "the dream of every child come true."
A frequent visitor to the park was Walt Disney, who opened Disneyland five years later, basing much of it on what he saw at Fairyland.
But I think the original far exceeds the imitation. Fairyland is everything Disneyland is not.
Disneyland is huge; Fairyland is cozy. Disneyland is frenetic; Fairyland is peaceful.
Most of the attractions at Disneyland are passive experiences; you're literally along for the ride.
But at Fairyland, most attractions are interactive, whether it's climbing down Willie the Whale's gullet, using your Magic Key to make one of the Storybook Boxes tell you a story, or exploring Alice in Wonderland's Tunnel.
It's all in keeping with the iron-clad rule that Mott and Navlet laid down when they founded the park: "No straight lines and a surprise around every corner."
Above all, Fairyland was built for little kids, first and foremost.
"There's a reason why you have to go through the big shoe to enter the park," says executive director C.J. Hirschfield. "It's sending a not-so-subtle message to the adults. They have to duck down while the kids proudly walk through straight and tall."
The target audience is toddlers, but many of them stay connected with Fairyland when they get older by becoming one of the Storybook Personalities. They perform musicals, represent Fairyland at public events, and serve as mentors and role models for the little ones.
My favorite Fairyland memory was the time I saw a Storybook Personality, about 10 years old, painting a flower on the cheek of a little girl, about 5.
I'll never forget the look on that little girl's face - a mixture of gratitude, hero worship and sheer amazement that a big kid was being so kind to her.
And I knew immediately that her goal was to grow up and be a Storybook Personality herself, when she, too, could be kind to a little kid.
But that's just my memory. I'll bet you have plenty of your own. And Fairyland is collecting them as part of its year-long 60th anniversary celebration.
Submit your stories (200 words or less) and photos on Fairyland's website, www.fairyland.org, or call 510-452-2259 to be sent a submission form. There will be prizes for both stories and photos, and all entries will be eligible to be featured on Fairyland's Facebook page, on Fairyland's YouTube channel, and in a giant scrapbook at the park.
I'll tell you more about Fairyland's celebration plans in a future column.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mind Your Manners

(Above: Emily Post)

I belong to a discussion group, and it's a lot of fun except for one thing: One of our members has started to make nasty personal digs at another member.
It's become so annoying, the rest of us have been talking about how to tell him that he's being rude.
Then I got a brainstorm: This was clearly a case for Sarah Kidder, etiquette expert extraordinaire.
And, of course, she had the perfect advice: "Don't tell him he's being rude. That will just turn it into a power struggle between the two of you. It isn't about him, and it isn't about you; it's about the group. So just say, 'This isn't being helpful. Let's get back to business.'"
So I did. And it worked. The guy behaved himself for the rest of the meeting.
Kidder, who lives in the Grand Lake neighborhood of Oakland, numbers socialites, corporate executives, students and rock stars among her clients. She also does pro bono work with ex-cons.
"Once they realize that the principle that they used to get them through prison - treating others with respect - is the same thing that will get them that first entry-level job, it liberates them," she says.
For Kidder, treating people with respect is the very essence of etiquette, and she says it can be applied to almost every situation.
"People associate etiquette with being prissy or think it’s just table manners, but they've forgotten that it's about each and every interaction you have with every walk of life. There are ways of doing things that are key to relationships whether you are a gangbanger, Mafioso, cop, executive or student. It’s about relationship management, and etiquette is the key to good management."
I was 15 minutes tardy for our interview appointment, so I apologized for being late. I was tempted to explain that I got tied up in a traffic jam, but decided not to.
"You did the right thing," she told me. "Nobody cares why you were late. A simple apology will do. Anything more is over-talking, and it's a bad idea for two reasons.
"First, when you make excuses, you make it all about you, not the apology. Secondly, it can make you sound like you're lying, even if you're not, because that's what people do when they lie: They over-talk."
Other examples of over-talking: "I did not have sex with that woman" and "I was just hiking on the Appalachian trail."
So what did she think of Tiger Woods' apology?
"It was so self-centered - nothing but me, me, me! And it was a classic example of over-talking. He could have accomplished all he needed to do in a few short sentences - 'I had the honor of being a role model, and I blew it.' That's not the same thing as saying, 'You worshipped me and I messed up.'"
Currently, Kidder is putting the final touches on an etiquette book for the 21st Century, with lessons on manners taken from James Bond movies.
"Spies are great examples because they use good manners to blend in and rude behavior when they're trying to cause a scene. And they rarely over-talk"
Until the book comes out, Kidder says that you can't go wrong if you remember to use these four short magic phrases to avoid over-talking: "please," "thank you," "I'm sorry" and "excuse me."
Enough said.