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, December 29, 2011

New Year's Eve? Bah, humbug!

Remember when I was talking last week about how much I love Christmas?
That's how much I hate New Year's Eve. When the clock strikes midnight, I plan to be fast asleep.
Spare me the sight of those drunken revelers at Times Square screaming their heads off for what is basically a non-event.
VE Day I can understand. VJ Day I can understand. Ditto for election night 2008 and the death of Osama Bin Laden. All of them were real events, and well worth celebrating.
But New Year's Eve is just turning a page in the calendar. What's the big deal?
Besides, until 400 years ago there was no consensus that January 1 should be the beginning of the year. During the Middle Ages, New Year's Day was all over the place: March 25 in England, Easter Sunday in France, and Christmas Day - celebrated on December 15 - in Italy.
When you think about it, January 1 doesn't make much sense. The logical time is spring, when the flowers are blooming, the animals are bearing their young and the farmers are planting their crops. New year, get it?
And that's the way it was for centuries, since the dawn of recorded history. It never occurred to anybody that January 1 might be a good day to begin the year.
So what changed it? Politics.
Back in ancient Rome, the politicians kept fiddling with the calendar, adding several days to each month to extend their terms in office. By Julius Caesar's time, calendar dates were so out of whack with their astronomical benchmarks, he had to let the year 46 B.C. drag on for 445 days to reset the calendar. He began the next year with January 1. (And while he was at it, he named a month - July - after himself.)
Unfortunately, coming so soon after Christmas, New Year's is a huge anticlimax.
Christmas is warm and fuzzy. New Year's Eve is cold and glitzy. Christmas is giving gifts and making children happy. New Year's Eve is drinking and forced bonhomie.
Christmas is about being with the people you love. New Year's Eve is about the haunting fear of being alone. So we distract ourselves by making noise and embracing total strangers.
And who says the next year will necessarily be any better than the last one? It rarely is, and next year doesn't show any signs of being an exception.
We're going into a presidential election year, and I truly fear where the bitterness of the last three years is going to take us.
But there are a few hopeful omens. The retailers had a better Christmas than expected, and charitable giving was also up.
And I'm encouraged by the emergence of the Millennial generation as a political force, although I hope they'll learn from the mistake my generation made in the 1960s and not allow their movement to be hijacked by violent thugs like the Weathermen and the Simbionese Liberation Army in my day or the black-masked anarchists of today.
So, against my better judgment, I'm going to keep my fingers crossed and trust that we can still rise above our recent history and come together for the sake of our country.
Then it really will be a happy new year.
I hope your 2012 is a healthy, happy and prosperous one. And as Mark Twain observed, "Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Merry Christmas

(Above: A scene from El Cerrito's annual Christmas display, created by the late Sundar Shadi - another non Christian who loved Christmas)

What do "White Christmas," "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, "Silver Bells," "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "Sleigh Ride," "Winter Wonderland," "A Holly Jolly Christmas," "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year," "Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" and "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" have in common, aside from the fact that they're Christmas songs?
Answer: They all were written by Jews.
Now, that might seem anomalous to some, but not to me. Christmas has been my favorite holiday since I was a little kid, and I'm a Jew through and through.
And it's not because of the presents. We get them at Hanukkah, which usually occurs around the same time, as it does this year, so that's a wash.
No, the real attraction is the Christmas story itself. Think about it: How many other holidays feature a child as the hero? That's something any kid can identify with.
And even when I was little, I could still appreciate the delicious irony: If only those smug innkeepers knew whom they were turning away!
Now, that story can cut both ways. Cynics might take the moral to be: Before you slam the door in someone's face, make sure they aren't well-connected.
But I prefer to look at it the other way: God is in everyone, so showing kindness to anyone is showing kindness to God him/herself.
I saw a little girl being interviewed on television the other night as she was delivering Christmas cookies to some homebound old people. The reporter asked her what Christmas is all about, and she said, "Being nice to somebody."
Exactly. And that's why Christmas is my favorite holiday.
Mind you, it hasn't always been easy. When I was young, I looked forward to the annual Christmas pageants at school, especially singing those gorgeous Christmas carols like "The Holly And The Ivy," "O Holy Night," and my favorite, "Once In Royal David's City."
But I dreaded the ethical dilemma I would confront whenever we got to the words "Christ the Lord."
What to do? I was sure lightning would strike me dead on the spot if those words passed my lips. On the other hand, no little kid wants to stick out from the crowd.
So I finessed the problem the only way I could think of: I lip-synched.
But otherwise, I embraced all the symbols and trappings of the holiday.
I loved those merry gentlemen, who come to us from England; good King Wenceslas, who comes from the Czech Republic; the Christmas tree, which comes from Germany; and, of course, Santa Claus, who comes from Turkey by way of the Netherlands, then was re-invented in the 19th Century by two Americans - poet Clement Clark Moore, who wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (which begins, "T'was the night before Christmas…"), and cartoonist Thomas Nast, who also came up with the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey.
And the more recent additions to Christmas lore, like Rudolph and Frosty? Meh. They couldn't carry Santa's sack.
But whatever your religion - or even no religion at all - let me wish you joy this holiday season.
"And so I'm offering this simple phrase/To kids from one to ninety-two/Although it's been said many times, many ways/A very Merry Christmas to you."
Those words from "The Christmas Song" (aka "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire") were written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells.
Two Jewish guys, of course.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sportsman of the Year

(Above: Bob with his daughter-in-law, Sarah)

Former Oakland Tribune sports editor Bob Valli, a grizzled vet who mentored generations of scribes, died on Nov. 2 at the age of 80. He started his career on the pigskin beat, later inking stories about hoopsters, keglers, horsehiders and thinclads.
But he would have hated those last two sentences. He despised clichés, especially sports clichés. Woe betide the sportswriter who called a football a "pigskin," a football field a "gridiron," an umpire an "arbiter" or a basketball player a "cager."
"If it's a basketball, call it a basketball!" he would roar. "Not a casaba!"
He was in love with the English language, and he liked it straight, without adornments or affectations. He was a great editor to work for, with an uncanny eye for young talent.
Award-winning sportswriters like Monte Poole and Henry Schulman got their first big break when Bob plucked them out of obscurity and handed them plum assignments. And they have never ceased acknowledging their debt to him.
With his gravely voice and authoritative manner, Bob was the picture of an old school, Oscar Madison-type sportswriter. But he departed from that cliché, too, in one important respect: Unlike many newspapermen of his generation, he was color-blind and gender-blind.
For instance, it wasn't easy being a woman in the newspaper business back in the 1980s, when I first met him. A lot of female reporters and editors felt the sting of resentment daily from the old boy network.
But never from Bob. He treated women with respect because he treated everyone with respect. He didn't know any other way. One female editor who worked with him said, "He was the sweetest man I ever met."
Bob's first assignment as a young reporter was covering a brand-new team called the Oakland Raiders, and he quickly earned every player's affection.
During practices, he would always sit on one particular spot on the sidelines. Once, when he was on vacation, his substitute sat down on that same spot.
The poor guy was immediately surrounded by angry Raiders, led by defensive back Dave Grayson, indignantly demanding to know what he was doing on "Bob's spot."
And could he write! Take his classic description of "The Play," the multi-lateral kickoff return that broke Stanford's heart in the 1982 Big Game: "Kevin Moen has silenced all arguments over which was the greatest Big Game ever played. The California senior started and finished one of the most bizarre last plays in college football history to make the 85th Big Game the undisputed thriller of all time." (And remember, he wrote this on tight deadline.)
Or this: "Steve Martin was acting when he played his role in 'The Jerk.' Billy Martin lived the part."
For many years, Bob was on the committee that selected members to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was he, more than anyone else, who was responsible for Al Davis' induction.
Bob was a loving husband, a devoted father and a loyal friend. And he knew more about football than anyone I ever met.
A few years ago, he and I were at Memorial Stadium watching a Cal game.
The Cal quarterback threw four interceptions that day, and each time - before he even let go of the ball! - Bob would say, "Uh oh, that’s gonna be an interception."
Same with penalties. Before the flag was out of the official's pocket, Bob would say, "Number 44 is holding."
Aside from the fact that it was fun to watch a game with one of the world’s nicest guys, it was a rare privilege to get an education from The Maestro.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

No Room At The Inn?

(Above: Father Crespin greeting parishioners after Mass)

What do you do when the most popular family on the block looks like it's headed toward divorce?
It's really none of your business, so the best you can do is say a prayer that they somehow can work it out.
That's the situation my neighbors and I find ourselves in. But in our case, the "family" isn't a nuclear family. It's a church: St. Joseph the Worker in downtown Berkeley. It's the anchor of our neighborhood, even for non-Catholics like me.
The church has been at the center of whatever has been going on ever since its founding in 1877, from housing and feeding refugees fleeing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to providing meeting space for labor organizers, peace advocates and civil rights workers including Cesar Chavez, who used St. Joseph's as a safe house whenever his life was threatened.
And I can't tell you how much I look forward every Sunday to walking by St. Joseph's just as Mass is letting out and watching all those happy people spilling out onto its front steps. It makes my day every time.
In recent years, St. Joseph's was run by Rev. George Crespin and the late Rev. Bill O'Donnell, known to one and all as Father Bill. They were a perfect tag team.
Father Bill did the social justice work, from lobbying for improvements in the public schools to getting arrested more than 200 times at anti-war and pro-civil rights demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Crespin did the pastoral work. He was the guy you could always count on for help when your mother was sick, or your sister was pregnant, or your nephew was in trouble with the cops.
In recent years, the ethnic makeup of the parish has become more and more Latino, as immigrants from Latin America settled in the area. And Crespin, who speaks flawless Spanish, was especially dear to them.
But time moves on. Father Bill died in 2004, and Crespin went into semi-retirement two years later, although still living in the rectory and performing priestly functions.
Two years ago, a new priest named John Direen was appointed to take over St. Joseph's. From the start, tension began simmering between him and some parishioners.
Among their complaints: firing the members of the pastoral council, suspending the council's Latino counterpart, the Consejo Latino, and withdrawing meeting space for the parish's long-standing social justice committee.
The final straw came last July, when he evicted Crespin from the rectory.
Since then, a sizable group of parishioners has been holding a silent vigil outside the church every Sunday morning.
Direen responded by announcing that the protestors would be barred from serving as ushers, lectors or Eucharistic ministers, as well as from serving on any parish committees.
And who knows where it will end? All I know is that St. Joseph's is a sad and lonely place to walk past these days.
There are no villains in this story. Both sides truly love the Church, even if they have different visions of what it can be. It's a clash of cultures made worse by mutual misunderstanding.
As I said, it's not my business to meddle in a family quarrel. But I can wish them peace and reconciliation this Christmas season.
There's an old Mexican tradition called La Posada that takes place at this time of year. People go from door to door, impersonating Joseph and Mary, and ask to be let in from the cold.
The first seven or eight houses always turn them away. But at the final house they are welcomed inside and given hot chocolate and Mexican bread.
And that's what I hope for St. Joseph's this Christmas. I hope everyone finds room at the inn.

Dear Santa

"Dear Santa, It's 7:37 on November 27th, 2011. I know it's early, but I don't think anyone will give me a Radica Password Journal. Please send me one in your jolly ol' ho-ho-ho spirit. Merry Christmas, Tai-Ge. P.S. Be jolly!" (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, I am sorry for the times I was bad, and that was a few times. I am sorry about my bad grades in science and history. Can I please have some presents anyway? Love, Heenapreet." (Fairfield)

"Dear Santa, My wish for Christmas still has not come. I demand an explanation! Please send my gift with four AAA batteries this week or I start taking out elfs! Sincerely, Disappointed." (San Jose)

Once upon a time, letters like these ended up in the post office's equivalent of Siberia instead of the North Pole.
But 25 years ago, Elma Ramiriez, Manager of Consumer Affairs for the Bay Valley Postal District, which stretches from Carmel to Napa, happened upon a pile of letters that were about to be thrown out, and they broke her heart.
"They were so touching, we just couldn't bring ourselves to throw them in the dead letter file," she said. "We thought, 'Somebody ought to answer them!'"
That first year, she and her co-workers answered as many as they could. But as word got around, other postmasters throughout Northern California started sending her their Santa letters, and it was clear she was going to need help.
So she turned to us, the public. And it's been a beloved Bay Area holiday tradition ever since
Ramirez retired last spring. But her successor, MaryGrace Cruz, is keeping up the good work.
Currently, she and and her fellow elves - Janet Ezell, Toni Harmon, David Thompson, Brenda Presley, Timothy Wong, Ferdinand Sutanto, Margarita Cristobal and Carmen Boueche and Nina Bopharat Tan - are sorting through piles of incoming letters and putting them in two huge boxes: one labeled "Needy," the other labeled "Greedy."
Every year, the public is invited to read as many as they like and answer them. (See the sidebar for details on how to participate.) And every year, we print the Neediest and Greediest.
So what are our children thinking? Let's ask them:

"Dear Santa, You are awesome! Hooray for Santa! I'm thankful for you because you make Christmas speshul! Happy Christmas, Santa! From Maya." (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, I want you to know that I am going to leave you a treasure in my room in return for the Christmas gifts. Shhhhhhhhhhh! You can't know what it is, and I promise you're going to love it! Bye! Jaeden." (Antioch)

"Dear Santa, I hope you and your family are OK. I hope you will bring something for my two sisters this Christmas because my mom does not have a job. My dad works part time only. I'm 9 years old and I need warm clothes. Shoes size 2. My 14-year-old sister, she's size L. My 18-months-old baby sister needs warm clothes and baby toys. Sincerely, Cristian." (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, I would like a glass angel because they are pretty and sparkly. I will be respectful and responsible. I promise. P.S. I'll have real good cookies for you. Love, Colm (written by mom)." (Berkeley)

"Dear Santa, My favorite holiday is Christmas! I mostly enjoy having my cousins over, I don't care if I do not get the presents I asked for. Just do your best. Thank you, Xavier." (Moraga)

"Dear Santa, Why do you have help from the elves? I hope I can see you on a sled. Do you like cookies and milk? I hope you bring me something to enjoy. Love, Emma." (San Jose)

"Dear Santa, I'm so happy I am saying a hello to you. I'm also happy that you exist because that's how you can help us. This year our mom can't give us nothing because she lost her job and you're the only hope I have. I would love some boots because the ones I have are ripped and I can't keep them together with glue any more. If you can I will be so grateful. And if not, I'll still be happy for just saying a hello to you. Sincerely, Ingrid." (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, I really like Harry Potter and Twilight. So could you get me lots of Twilight and HP stuff please? I believe in you! From Madison." (Pleasanton)

"Dear Santa, I wish for my mother's and father's healthyness. I also wish for clothes and shoes. If my wishes come true, I would be so happy. Sincerely, Sokhun." (Hayward)

"Dear Santa, Hello. I get good grades, not the best but I get Bs. I have always wanted an iPod Touch, but I couldn't get one because of the immigration status my parents are in. I hope to get this because I have always wanted one. Please and thank you, Sincerely, Diego." (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, I want a dog for Christmas. I will tell you the other things later. Love, Julius." (El Cerrito)

"Dear Santa, I am 5 years old. I haven't learned to write yet so I'm having someone help me write this letter. I am a very good girl. I love all my family. There's not much for me to say because I am only 5. Merry Christmas, Aytza." (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, Me and Esher are SO into vampires! And I have a question for you. Am I a real vampire? What am I missing? Please send a letter back. Your BEST friend, Amelia." (Albany)

"Dear Santa, I have been really good! I've been doing all my homework! Hope you are good, too. Until next time, Mila." (San Jose)

"Dear Santa, Will you bring me an airplane toy please? Because I like planes. I'd like you to sit in a chair and my house and eat cookies. Thank you, Santa. Love, Mickey." (Berkeley)

"Dear Santa, I'm 8 years old. I love you, Santa. Love, Jatijah." (Castro Valley)

"Gavin's and Bryan's Gift List: 1. Pure Fun 14-foot enclosure for trampoline. 2. Power wheels Fischer-Price Cadillac Hybrid Escalade-grey. Please! Please! Please!" (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, I want a jump rope and a Rapunzel doll and I love you, Santa. Love, Maegan." (Union City)

"Dear Santa Claus, Hi! My name is Maija. (Yeah, I know it's a whimsical and unique name, LOL.) I would like a Visa gift card. That way, I can buy things on the Internet without asking my parents. Thank you, Maija." (Richmond)

"Warning: Please do not read if not Santa!" (So, of course, we didn't read it.)

And finally, a letter from a desperate mom:

"Dear Santa, I have a six year old daughter who has had a very hard year. She and I had to leave our house in May due to domestic violence. We only took a bag of clothes and had to leave everything else. My daughter lost everything - her home, her toys, her stuff, her friends. She told me she'd like to have a bike like the one she had to leave behind. She is a really good girl and deserves to have a good Christmas. If you can help her, I would appreciate it more than you know. Thank you, Melanie." (Oakland)

How You Can Help

You, too, can make the holidays a little brighter for a needy child. Just visit Santa's Mail Room at the downtown Oakland Post Office, 201 13th Street (corner of 13th & Alice), Room 222, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. from now until Dec. 21, and the friendly elves will give you as many letters as you want.
"You don't necessarily have to send a present," says chief elf MaryGrace Cruz. "Often a kind word is enough. These kids are just glad to know that someone cares."
But, of course, if you're also moved to enclose a gift, nobody's going to stop you.
And if you'd like your own child to receive a letter from Santa, that can be arranged, too. Just write a letter to your child and put it in a stamped envelope addressed to your child.
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!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas Comes To El Cerrito

Once upon a time there was a man named Sundar Shadi who came to this country from India in 1921 and settled in El Cerrito.
He got a master's degree in horticulture from Cal, but because of prejudice against immigrants the only job he could get was pumping gas.
Instead of complaining he worked hard, saved his money, made some smart investments, and retired a moderately wealthy man at age 50 in 1949.
That's when he began his true calling. That Christmas, his neighbors awoke to find a detailed recreation of the entire town of Bethlehem in his front yard - wise men, angels, doves, sheep, lambs, shepherds, cows, horses, donkeys, camels, the works. Each figure was lovingly created out of papier-mache and plaster of paris by Mr. Shadi himself.
He did it again every year after that, adding more figures each year, until failing eyesight forced him to call it quits in 1997.
The community quickly took the Christmas display to heart. Little kids grew up and brought their own kids, and then their grandkids, to see it.
Charter busses full of tourists came from as far away as San Jose and Sacramento - more than 70,000 every year.
For many people, Mr. Shadi WAS Christmas. He was a real-life Santa Claus who gave us something more precious than toys: the true spirit of the holiday.
The funny thing was that he wasn't a Christian himself. He was a Sikh. He chose a Christmas display because that was the way he could say "I love you" in a language we could understand.
Mr. Shadi died in 2002 at age 101. And then something wonderful happened. The people of El Cerrito refused to let his legacy die.
Under the leadership of former Mayor Jane Bartke, they restored the Shadi sculptures, which had deteriorated badly. That Holiday season the Christmas display made a triumphant return at the corner of Moeser and Seaview. And it's been there every Holiday season since.
But there's no guarantee it will be there next year. Bartke and her helpers - Gordon White, Richard Ritz, Jackson Lusk and Bartke's husband, Rich - are all in their 70s, and it's only a matter of time before they can't do it anymore.
Just as they stepped up 10 years ago, we need a new generation to step up and take over from them.
If you want to become part of this tradition, there's still time to learn the ropes this year because the Christmas display won't go up until Dec. 17. (It will remain there until Dec. 27.) Call Bartke at 510-235-1315, and she'll put you to work.
Financial help is always needed, too, because papier-mâché deteriorates quickly from the moisture, even though the sculptures are outdoors for only 10 days.
You can "adopt" the figure of your choice. A Wise Man (camel included) goes for $500, a shepherd for $350, and sheep are a real steal at only $25. Send a tax-deductible check to the El Cerrito Community Foundation, Inc., P. O. Box 324, El Cerrito CA 94530.
But more than money, what they really want is you.
This beloved Holiday tradition can go on for hundreds of years. Or it can go away tomorrow, and after a generation nobody will remember.
It's up to you, El Cerritans.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Slimebags? Or Patriots?

Last week, a letter to the editor in the Berkeley Voice called the Occupy protesters "slimebags," adding, "Water canons, stun guns, clubbing and arrests must be used on these freedom violators, with full force and with no possible legal actions against our police officers."
I couldn't agree more. Who do these kids think they are?
I watched the police break up the Occupy Cal encampment on the UC campus, and I was shocked by the violence with which the protestors attacked the police truncheons with their stomachs.
The chancellor had it absolutely right when he said, "It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience."
Right on! Violent arm-linking has been an intimidation tactic at least since the days of those infamous terrorists Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And, as Stephen Colbert pointed out, don't forget Occupy Oz, when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion linked arms as they skipped down the Yellow Brick Road on their way to murder a witch.
Then, a week later, an overwhelming mob of 12 students at UC Davis protested the events at Cal by sitting down, linking arms (that violent tactic again) and attacking the police tear gas canisters with their faces.
There's been some criticism of the police actions in that incident, and a handful of people - only 80,000 - have signed a petition calling for the chancellor to resign. But as Fox News' Megyn Kelly pointed out, "Pepper spray is a food product, essentially," just like those other yummy snacks, mustard gas and Agent Orange.
In fact, the restraint shown by the authorities has been admirable. It reminds me of the so-called Civil Rights marches of the 1960s, when the Birmingham police magnanimously provided some cute little dogs for the demonstrators to play with.
And, because Birmingham tends to get hot in the summertime, the police, no doubt worried that some of the demonstrators might get heat stroke, cooled them off by spraying them with fire hoses.
The entire University of California system is beset by tight budgets, and you might be wondering, as I did, where the money came from to buy such expensive riot equipment and give the campus cops their riot control training.
It turns out that the funding was provided by the Department of Homeland Security, which is also good news.
I don't know about you, but I'm sure relieved that Homeland Security is focusing on student protestors - but not all student protestors; the ones who rioted at Penn State are OK - instead of wasting their time chasing Al Qaeda and Timothy McVeigh wannabes.
It might be a long struggle, folks, but don't despair. The day will come when people think twice before speaking their minds; and government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations shall not perish from the earth.
We shall overcome.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Toy Story

Memo to Santa: Interactive toys are in this Christmas, passive toys are out.
So says Devin McDonald, co-owner (with his life and business partner, Jenny Stevenson) of Mr. Mopps' in Berkeley, one of the last of the old-fashioned neighborhood toy stores.
"Kids love to fill in the gaps with their own imagination," he says. "Just give them an open-ended toy, and they'll take it from there."
Which means out with toys where you all you do is push a button and watch them do their thing. And in with toys that you can actually play with. For instance:
* Do-it-yourself kits such as Make Your Own Friendship Bracelet and Make Your Own Monster Doll (with extra eyeballs in case you want to give him four eyes, or even six).
* Spy kits, which include ink pad, dusting powder & brush (for detecting fingerprints), magnifying glass, mirror and fingerprint files.
* Educational jigsaw puzzles such as Great Inventors, which spotlights some inventors you know (Edison, Guttenberg, Wozniak and Jobs) and some you've probably never heard of (Ts'ai Lun, who invented paper, Bartolomeo Cristofori, who invented the piano, and Aryabhata, who invented the concept of zero).
A pretty good sign of an interactive toy is that it doesn't need a battery.
But there are exceptions. Moon In My Room is a 3-D lunar landscape that you hang on your bedroom wall, a remote control that lets you put the Moon through all 12 phases, and a CD audio tour of the Moon. Way cool.
Then there's the Anti-Monster Flashlight, "guaranteed to scare away any unwanted monsters that might be hiding in your room, under your bed or behind the curtains. Also effective against ghosts, witches, warlocks, werewolves, zombies and clowns."
Meanwhile, doll houses have been re-invented as wooden play sets, allowing kids to construct an arctic polar glacier (with Eskimos, seal pups, a whale, a walrus and a penguin), King Arthur's castle, or a pirate ship with pirates, cannons, cloth sales, a rum barrel and, of course, a plank!
But the best toys of all are the same ones you loved when you were a kid: finger puppets, building blocks, swings, trampolines, hula-hoops, magnetic dart boards, and board games, including Anti-Monopoly. (Remember, this is Berkeley.)
Mr. Mopps' has been a Mecca for Berkeley children for almost 50 years, most of that time under the ownership of Eugene Yamashita. Several generations of kids grew up and brought their own kids and grandkids to his store.
One of them was Devin, who has been a loyal customer since he was a toddler, when his grandmother took him there and bought him his favorite teddy bear, Mr. Choo-Choo (who, by the way, is still with us, residing on the mantle in Devin and Jenny's living room).
When Yamashita retired a couple of years ago, he turned down several higher offers and sold the place to Devin and Jenny because he felt they were the best ones to continue his tradition.
Old-fashioned toy stores like Mr. Mopps' are rapidly becoming an endangered species. But there are still a few left, including The Magic Leaf at Children's Fairyland, the ToyHouse in Montclair, Five Little Monkeys in Albany, Rockridge Kids in Rockridge, Sweet Dreams in the Elmwood, and Toy Safari in Alameda.
Check them out instead of the giant Internet and chain stores this holiday season.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Good Guy And Bad Guy

Congratulations to Tony La Russa, who has achieved that rarest of feats in sports: Like Jim Brown and Sandy Koufax, he went out on top.
He's one of only two managers - the other is Sparky Anderson - to win World Series with teams in both leagues. He won more games than anybody but John McGraw and Connie Mack. (And Mack owned his team, so he couldn't be fired.)
And in his final season he skippered the Cardinals to come-from-behind wins in both the regular season and the World Series.
But just as John Madden is already becoming more famous for his video games than for his Hall of Fame careers as both a coach and a TV analyst, I think Tony will be better known someday for his work to ease the suffering of animals.
Before he and his wife Elaine founded the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF, for short), there was no adoption agency for homeless dogs and cats in Contra Costa County except the hopelessly overstretched resources of the county animal shelter. Thousands of cats and dogs who would have been euthanized because of overcrowding are alive today, thanks to them.
But equally important, by going public about his love for animals - something no one else in the sports world had dared to do - Tony made compassion cool. Nowadays it's common to see athletes like Ron Artest and Jason Taylor doing commercials for animal welfare groups. But Tony started it all a quarter-century ago..
I first met Tony 25 years ago, when he was managing the A's. He, Elaine and their daughters, Devon and Bianca, were quietly picketing a business in Walnut Creek because it was selling furs. (It was the girls' idea.)
Then a guy emerged from the store and unleashed a string of obscenities at them, even though Devon and Bianca were both under 10 at the time.
"You blankety-blanks! Take those blankety-blank signs and blankety-blank, blankety blank, blankety blank!"
Suddenly, he stopped. A look of recognition came over his face.
"Hey, you're Tony La Russa! Hey, sign this ball for me, willya?"
Nice guy that he is, Tony signed.
* * *
On the other end of the human spectrum, we have the late Robert Stroud, better known as the Birdman of Alcatraz.
If you've never been to Alcatraz, you really should go. It's absolutely fascinating.
When you arrive, the first people you'll meet will be former prisoners and former guards, all hawking copies of their memoirs.
And they all say the same thing: Contrary to the saintly old man portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the movie, Stroud was the most hated person on The Rock.
He was a brutal murderer and rapist and an avid collector of child pornography. New inmates, especially if they were young and good looking, were quickly pulled aside by an old-timer and warned to give Stroud a wide berth.
Everyone hated him, prisoners and guards alike. But Stroud didn't care. The movie made him famous, and he loved to boast, "When I die, it'll be the front page headline in every newspaper in the world!"
But God has a great sense of humor. Stroud died in his sleep late one night at age 85, and his body was discovered in bed the next day when the guards made their morning rounds.
The date: November 22, 1963.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Go For Broke

Shig Doi and Lawson Sakai are no heroes. Just ask them, and they'll insist, "I was only doing my job."
The U.S. Army, however, disagrees. It awarded Doi, who lives in Richmond, two Bronze Stars for "heroic and meritorious service" in World War II.
Sakai, who lives in Morgan Hill, was awarded one Bronze Star and four Purple Hearts. He was actually wounded a fifth time, but he refused to let his name put up for another medal because he didn't think his wound was serious enough.
Both men are veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese-American World War II unit whose members were awarded more medals, man for man, than any other unit in American history.
But the most impressive thing of all is that they did this while their own families were imprisoned behind barbed wire back at home in forlorn hellholes euphemistically named "relocation camps." Doi's family was sent to Camp Amache in Colorado; Sakai's sister was sent to Camp Poston in Arizona.
In addition to their individual decorations, the entire 442 was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal on Nov. 2. It's only the second time an entire military unit has been given this honor. (The first was the Tuskegee airmen.)
The Congressional Gold Medal is different from the Medal of Honor. Several 442 veterans have that one, too, including Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who lost his right arm while leading an assault on a heavily-defended ridge near San Terenzo in Tuscany.
Doi and Sakai were among the hundreds of surviving veterans of the regiment who flew to Washington, DC, for the ceremony, which was held in the U.S. Capitol's Emancipation Hall.
President Obama wasn't invited because this was a congressional event, not a presidential one. But all the party leaders from both the House and Senate made speeches.
"I thought Nancy Pelosi gave a good speech, and so did Mitch McConnell," says Sakai. "But the amazing thing is that there were eight to 10 politicians, and they all stayed within their time limit!"
The climax of the ceremony was the awarding of the gold medal, which Sen. Inouye accepted on behalf of the regiment.
"Danny looked great," says Sakai, a good friend since they served together in the war. "He's dyed his hair, so he looks younger. The rest of us have white hair."
The next day, the veterans were wined and dined at a gala banquet in the main ballroom of the Washington Hilton, featuring speeches by Inouye, Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), Veterans Affairs chief Gen. Eric Shinseki, and "Today" show anchor Ann Curry.
"After the banquet we had our own private celebration," says Sakai. "We drank a LOT of Scotch. I think we drained the hotel's supply."
There are two reasons why the 442 earned so many medals. One is that some - but not all - of their Caucasian officers were racists who considered them mere cannon fodder and had no hesitation about sacrificing their lives to get bigger headlines.
But the other reason is that they were simply better soldiers. They could do things that other units couldn't do, such as rescuing the Lost Battalion, a Texas National Guard unit that was trapped behind German lines; or breaking the Gothic Line in northern Italy, which had stymied the entire U.S. Army for six months. They broke through in less than 24 hours.
Both these deeds were accomplished with great loss of life, of course. Doi's company was the spearhead of the assault that rescued the Lost Battalion.
"There were 130 of us when we attacked," he says. "Only eight of us walked out."
The Congressional Gold Medal will go on permanent display at the Smithsonian, and all the veterans received duplicates made from a baser metal.
One of those duplicates will become part of the exhibit honoring the 442 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, the floating maritime museum docked at Alameda Point. It is the only display honoring an Army unit aboard a Navy ship. Sakai will formally present the medal to the Hornet at a ceremony on Friday at 11 a.m.
"My father always said that something good will come out of all this," says Doi. "After 67 years, it's too late for the guys who are no longer here. But they finally acknowledged us, and things are all changed for my children."

Pigskins and Pianos

(Above: Pappy Below: Audrey)

When Larry Blake's restaurant closed its doors last February, after 70 years as THE hangout for Cal students and alumni, many Old Blues wondered where they could go now.
Fear not: A new eatery is about to open on that site, and it's going to be called Pappy's Grill, which shows the new owners know a thing or two about tradition.
It's going to be blue and gold from top to bottom, from the oversized Cal banner flying in the courtyard to the framed football program covers from the Wonder Team and Thunder Team years on the walls.
The men's basketball team will broadcast its post-game radio show from the restaurant, and Pappy's Boys - the guys who played during the Pappy Waldorf era - are donating memorabilia.
But Pappy's is going to be about more than the Waldorf era, or even Cal football. The giant TV screen will feature videos of The Play that broke Stanford's heart in 1982 (but not, thankfully, Roy Riegels' wrong-way run that lost the Rose Bowl in 1929).
But it will also show the Cal Marching Band doing its signature spell-out at the Big Game, Cecilia Bartoli in a Cal Performances concert at Zellerbach Hall, some of Cal's 22 Nobel Prize winners giving lectures, even Mario Savio speaking on Sproul steps.
"We want to honor the whole spectrum of Cal/Berkeley/Telegraph Avenue history," says owner Alex Popov.
He hopes to have the place open by the end of the month; but you know how pokey the permitting process can be, so it might take another week or two.
* * *
Meanwhile, here's an update on 16-year-old piano sensation Audrey Vardanega, the Oakland girl who has been wowing critics, audiences and seasoned musical pros ever since she made her debut with the Midsummer Mozart Festival at age 13.
At the time, I asked Maestro George Cleve, the festival's artistic director, how good Audrey is for someone her age.
"Her age has nothing to do with it," he said. "You're lucky to find that kind of ability at any age. She has an endless capacity to move me musically. It's a privilege to work with her."
Then I heard her play, and I understood what he was talking about. Beyond her flawless technique and profound understanding of the music, she has the rare ability to bring the audience into the experience. When she plays Mozart, it's an intimate three-way conversation between her, Mozart and you.
And the best part is that none of this has gone to her head. She's still a normal teenager who is eagerly looking forward to attending a Katy Perry concert next month.
On Dec. 2 the Piedmont Piano Company's prestigious concert series will showcase her playing works by Chopin, Mozart, Liszt and Debussy.
And for the occasion, owner Jim Callahan - a big fan of Audrey's - is lending her one of his Fazioli pianos, the Rolls Royce of the piano world.
Faziolis are handmade from the finest materials on the planet. The wood for the soundboards comes from the same forest that Antonio Stradivari used to make his violins. Only 50 are made each year.
The Piedmont Piano Company is located at 18th and San Pablo in downtown Oakland. Suggested donation is $15. Visit www.piedmontpiano.com for more information.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pigskin Pioneer

Congratulations to Andy Mousalimas of Oakland, who is back from Los Angeles after being inducted as one of the inaugural members of the Toyota Fantasy Football Hall of Fame, along with Scotty Stirling and the late Bill Winkenbach.
Toyota flew Andy and his daughter, Paula, to L.A. for the ceremony, put them up at a posh hotel, wined them and dined them, and gave them the VIP treatment. (You can watch the induction ceremony at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sn8YbwpWB1c/)
It's no less than he deserves, because Andy, Scotty and Bill were the guys who invented fantasy football.
It all started in a New York City hotel room on a rainy October night in 1962, when the Raiders were on the tail end of a 16-day East Coast road trip. (In those days, they scheduled all their away games in one stretch because they couldn't afford to fly back and forth to the East Coast.)
Bill, a part owner of the Raiders, was joined by Bill Tunnell, the team's P.R. man, and Scotty, who was covering the team for the Oakland Tribune. As the night progressed and the cocktails flowed, the three men hammered out the basic rules.
When they got back to Oakland they let a few more guys in on the idea, including George Ross, sports editor of the Tribune, and Andy, who was managing the Raiders players' favorite watering hole, the Lamp Post.
Thus was born the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League - GOPPPL for short. Bill was named league commissioner.
"You have to understand what it was like back then," says Andy. "Pro football wasn't what it is now; baseball was the big thing. And the lowest of all were AFL fans like us. NFL fans - particularly 49er fans - looked down their noses at us."
The first draft was held on Aug. 22, 1963, in Bill's basement. The first player taken was George Blanda, who was drafted by two different teams: one as a quarterback and the other as a place-kicker.
As word got around, more people signed up the following year - so many, the draft was moved to a local restaurant.
"To give you an idea of how much times have changed," says Andy, "the menu for the 1966 draft dinner offered a choice of New York steak, prime rib or lobster for $6 per person. And that included tax and tip."
Information was harder to come by in those days. There was no ESPN, no sports bars, and the networks gave only the final scores, not who scored the points. "We kept begging them for more details, but they ignored us," Andy says.
The information gap reached its nadir in 1978, when one GOPPPL team drafted St. Louis tight end J.V. Cain - only to discover that Cain had died three weeks before.
In 1969 Andy bought the King's X Tavern at Piedmont & 51st and turned it into fantasy football central. By 1972 the Kings X had 200 participants playing in six different divisions: Kings, X, Taxi, Other (in honor of the old AFL, dubbed "the other league" by NFL snobs), Rookie, and an all-female division called Queens.
Today, fantasy football is a billion dollar industry with more than 30 million players worldwide.
Scotty went on to executive positions with the Raiders, Warriors and Sacramento Kings. Andy sold the King's X and retired in 1991.
Bill died in 1993. His last words to Scotty were "I told you we should have copyrighted the damn thing!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rodney King Was Right

(Above: Rodney King at the press conference following the riots that broke out after the cops who beat him up were acquitted.)

Last week I was talking with a woman whose job is handling customer complaints for a local business. I asked if she's noticed any change lately in the tone of the phone calls.
"Absolutely!" she said. "People are angrier - a LOT angrier. Sometimes I go home after work shaking from the abuse."
I've been hearing the same thing from other people who deal with the public: sales clerks, bus drivers, telephone operators - you name it.
On the other hand, I hear from my friends that when they call a business, the people on the other end of the line are getting snippier, too.
I've also noticed this growing testiness in interpersonal relationships - stupid fights over stupid issues that at another time might have been chalked up to a simple misunderstanding and quickly forgotten.
And I see it on Facebook, listservs and other social media, where the rhetoric is getting meaner and more confrontational.
People are quicker to flip you off in traffic or to blast their horn if you're even a split-second late hitting the gas pedal after the light turns green.
In short, we're getting grumpier. A few weeks ago I wrote a column lamenting the rising anger in our political discourse; and, predictably, I got a lot of angry emails in reply.
But I think the problem goes way beyond the current political nastiness, although that isn't helping matters.
We have been suffering from this terrible recession for more than four years, with no end in sight.
Those who have lost their jobs, their homes or their retirement savings are clearly under a lot of pressure. But even those who have been able to hang on to their jobs are filled with anxiety, and with good reason: There's no telling where the next pink slip will land.
It's not hard to figure out. In high school biology class they taught us that if you put rats in a Skinner box under a lot of pressure, they'll start biting each other.
And when people are put under pressure, they react the same way: by turning on each other. Divorce and domestic abuse rates rise, and the scapegoating and finger pointing - usually at the most vulnerable among us - starts. The history books tell us that the national mood was pretty sour during the Great Depression, too.
I'm no exception. I'm becoming too quick to take offense and too slow to let it drop.
It's all very understandable, even excusable. But is it wise? Things are tough enough without us making it worse by being at each other's throats.
Yes, we feel powerless to change the world. But we can still change the tiny part of the world immediately around us.
We can start by realizing that every person we encounter is a human being, too. The next time someone is rude to you, be generous and don't respond in kind. You don't know what kind of awful day they might be having.
We all need to slow down, cut each other some slack and not sweat the small stuff. Otherwise, we end up becoming part of the problem.
I'm sorry this column isn't very profound. The best I can offer is the question posed by Rodney King: Can't we all just get along?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Fire Last Time

On Oct. 19, 1991, I was at the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco attending a banquet honoring Sam Richards, a 90-year-old Marine aviator who fought in World War I.
He wanted to fight in World War II, too, but the Marines wouldn't let him re-enlist because he was too old. So he joined the Army and became Eleanor Roosevelt's personal pilot, flying her from island to island in the South Pacific to visit the troops.
On the day World War I ended, he and his buddies formed a Last Man's Club. They bought an expensive bottle of French wine and agreed that the last man alive would open it and drink a toast to the others.
The last man turned out to be Richards. That night at the Marines Memorial Club he opened the bottle and let everyone in the room have a sip.
The next morning, his home was burned to the ground by the Oakland Hills firestorm, destroying all the souvenirs of his remarkable life.
Richards was one of thousand of victims of the fire, which killed 25 people, injured hundreds of others and destroyed more than 4,000 homes
Many survivors never went back. "I can rebuild my house, but I can't rebuild my neighborhood," one explained to me. "That's gone forever."
But there were a few miraculous escapes. The nuns at Holy Names College, which was directly in the path of the flames, prayed to the founder of their order, Mother Marie Rose Durocher, to save the school.
You may or may not believe in the power of prayer, but the fact remains: Holy Names was saved, even though the surrounding area was completely devastated.
Then there was Dudley the dog. He was a 10-year-old German shepherd mix owned by Virginia Smith, one of the 25 people who died that terrible day. When firefighters found Dudley in the ruins of Smith's home on Charing Cross Road, he was huddled next to her body.
All four paws were horribly burned, but he wouldn't leave her side. They literally had to drag him away.
Dudley was rushed to Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital, where Dr. Alan Shriro lovingly treated his burns. But he barely moved. He barely ate. He'd lost the will to live.
Meanwhile, hospital staffers were frantically trying to locate Smith's husband, Stanley, who wasn't home when the fire struck.
Finally, after days of searching, they found him. He was staying with his brother in San Leandro.
"I'll be right there!" he said.
It normally takes at least a half-hour to drive from San Leandro to Berkeley. He made it in 15 minutes.
Dudley was in the back room. But as soon as he got a whiff of his dad's scent, he started crying louder than you've ever heard a dog cry in your life.
"We brought him out, and he went wild with joy," says Shriro. "He started jumping up and down and howling and wagging his tail like crazy. Mr. Smith started crying. Then everyone in the waiting room started crying. And so did I."
But these were rare exceptions. The firestorm was an unqualified disaster, even worse than the Loma Prieta earthquake, which was plenty bad enough.
I told myself, "I will never experience anything as horrible as this again."
Then came 9/11.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mary Had A Little Lamb

(Above: Twinkle. Photo courtesy of Children's Fairyland)

Sad faces at Children's Fairyland: Twinkle the sheep died on Sept. 20, and everyone - from Juan the alpaca to Puddles the duck - misses her terribly.
Twinkle was only three and a half when she died, which makes her an anomaly at Fairyland, where the animals usually live way, way beyond their normal life expectancies because of all the TLC.
But poor Twinkle was afflicted by a congenital defect called megaesophagus, which causes bloat, a painful and deadly condition in sheep. For months, the staffers at Fairyland strove heroically to keep her alive, especially animal caregiver Deborah Ramirez, who logged countless hours - often off the clock - comforting her.
But her suffering finally became so acute that they reluctantly decided to have her humanely euthanized. Ramirez was holding her in her arms when she died.
From the moment she arrived at Fairyland in 2008, Twinkle stole everyone's heart. She loved people, especially Ramirez, whom she would follow around all day like Mary and her little lamb.
And she was absolutely wonderful with the kids. She had been rejected by her own mother, and there was something about her that made you think that she somehow knew what it was like to be lonely. Her greatest joy in the world was giving and receiving love from the park's pint-sized patrons.
Twinkle was a Suffolk sheep, and it turns out that breed is especially susceptible to the condition that killed her. So no more Suffolks for Fairyland.
Instead, Ramirez has found a breeder named Jamie Peyton, owner of Elysian Oaks Farm in Winters, who raises a different breed called Babydoll sheep, which are especially resistant to megaesophagus.
And they have a couple of other advantages. They're called Babydolls for a good reason: They never get taller than 24 inches, which means they'll look like lambs for their whole lives.
They'll act like lambs, too. Five of the ewes - Mary, Melonie, Monique, Butterfly and Leia - are pregnant, and they're due to deliver this winter.
"Lambs that are born in cold weather are more gentle, loving and sweet," says Ramirez. "They like to snuggle more, and they get more hands-on treatment from their keepers than lambs born in the summer, who roam outside from a very young age."
Fairyland's new lamb won't be available for adoption until spring, which is just as well because it'll probably take Fairyland that long to pay off Twinkle's medical bills.
Some might wonder why Fairyland, which runs on the tightest of budgets - made even tighter last year by the City of Oakland slashing its contribution by 25 percent - would shell out so much cash on a hopeless cause.
The answer is simple: It's the moral thing to do.
"For the animals, this park is their home," says executive director C.J. Hirschfield. "They live here 24/7. We’re just visitors."
Besides, it's the way the little children - who are, after all, the people to whom Fairyland is ultimately responsible - would want it.
After Jewel the cat died last March, Fairyland set up a fund for unanticipated emergencies like this.
If you, or a child you love, have ever been charmed by Twinkle or one of the other animals at Fairyland, now's the time to say thanks by sending a tax-deductible contribution to Children's Fairyland, 699 Bellevue Ave., Oakland CA 94610.

Monday, September 26, 2011

All That Jazz

The wonderful vocal jazz quartet The Manhattan Transfer will give an all-too-infrequent Bay Area performance this Saturday at a garden party in concert promoter Danny Scher's backyard in Kensington. It's a benefit for the Jazzschool in Berkeley.
"We're doing this concert simply because we believe the Jazzschool is a much-needed musical institution, and we want to make sure it sticks around," says singer Janis Siegel. "The Manhattan Transfer is proud to help in any way we can, and we are looking forward to singing at our old friend Danny's home to aid the cause."
The tickets aren't cheap - $175, most of it tax-deductible - but if you dig the elegant sangfroid with which they swing the classics as much as I do, this is a rare opportunity to hear them up close and personal.
Besides, as she said, it's for a great cause. The Jazzschool is one of most comprehensive schools for jazz, blues, funk, rock, gospel, R&B, Brazilian, world and Afro-Caribbean in the country, offering vocalists and instrumentalists at all ages and skill levels a broad spectrum of performance classes, lectures and workshops ranging from "Exploring the Bebop Scale" to "Personal Financial Planning for Musicians."
It offers two distinct educational programs - the Community Music School, which includes the Adult Music Program and the Young Musicians Program; and the Jazzschool Institute, an academic degree program offering a B.Mus. in jazz studies.
"Although I've never run this analogy by Alice Waters, I like to compare the community music school, where students take classes on an a la carte basis, to the café upstairs at Chez Panisse, and the degree program, where students participate in a program of study, to the fixed-price restaurant downstairs. Either way, they're sure to get a fabulous meal!" says Jazzschool founder and director Susan Muscarella.
Nestled in the basement of the old Kress five-and-dime store on Addison Street, next to the Aurora Theater and Berkeley Rep, the Jazzschool is a little bit of Greenwich Village in the middle of downtown Berkeley.
Among its features: a café, book & CD store, photo gallery, guitar repair shop, and 12 practice rooms with no 90-degree angles.
"That's important because parallel walls aren't good for acoustics," Muscarella explains. "Also, I think being in the basement is cool for jazz."
On one wall of the main hall - Hardymon Hall, named after the late Phil Hardymon, who founded the award-winning jazz program at Berkeley High - hangs a huge, hammered-steel sculpture that replicates, note-for-note, Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite," which he composed as a tribute to Stravinksy's "Firebird Suite."
The Manhattan Transfer concert begins at 7 p.m. For tickets and directions, visit www.jazzschool.org or call 510-845-5373. And remember: It's outdoors, so dress warmly.
* * *
Finally, we're in the middle of the Jewish High Holy Days, which began Wednesday night with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ends next Saturday with Yom Kippur, the day Sandy Koufax refused to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series.
At this time of year it's customary for Jews to seek out whomever they have offended during the prior 12 months and ask forgiveness. So let me apologize to everyone this column has offended in the past year. I'll try to do better next year.
Happy 5772!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Swingin' Sisters

Ellen Seeling is a woman on a mission. Actually, three missions.
First, she wants to keep playing jazz, the music she has loved since she was a little girl listening to her father's Count Basie and Stan Kenton records.
Second, she wants to take jazz out of the musty, rarefied atmosphere of the academy and put it back where it belongs: on the dance floor.
"A lot of bands take dance gigs and then they play all this obscure stuff that nobody can dance to," she says. "Then they wonder why the audience for jazz is shrinking. Well, duh!"
Last but not least, she wants to end the historic gender discrimination in jazz, which has relegated female instrumentalists to second-class status. (Female vocalists are another story; there have always been opportunities for them.)
It was for all these reasons that Seeling - a virtuoso trumpet player who has played with Slide Hampton, Phoebe Snow and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, among others - founded the Montclair Women's Big Band in 1998 and the Girls' Jazz and Blues Camp in 2009.
"Women are being denied the professional experience they need," she says. "They don't get a chance to play with people who are better than them, so they have to do it all on their own. It's daunting. It's crushing, actually."
Currently, she leading a boycott of this year's San Francisco Jazz Festival, which features only two female instrumentalists among its more than 35 headlining acts.
(For the record, festival spokesman Marshall Lamm denies any bias, saying, "For nearly 30 years, SFJAZZ has presented many of the most illustrious women in and will continue to do so moving forward. SFJAZZ Education provides extensive outreach and guidance to young female musicians, and the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars has included young female musicians in the band since its inception.")
Seeling says women start bumping up against barriers when they're still little girls.
"I wanted to play the trumpet, but the music teacher told my mother, 'The trumpet is not a good instrument for girls. She'll have deformed lips, and boy's don't like that.' Thank God, my mother said, 'I don't care. Give her a trumpet anyway.'"
The Montclair Women's Big Band has been a success from the start. Music critics strained for superlatives to describe them, including Larry Kelp, who wrote, "See this band and then scratch your head wondering why it hasn't been featured at the big jazz festivals."
But their greatest endorsement came at their very first gig, when the audience paid them the supreme compliment: They got down on the floor and started dancing.
"It was such a rush!" says Seeling. "The band members were thrilled in spite of themselves. Being jazz musicians, they tried to be cool, but I could tell they were excited."
Being a pioneer isn't easy. Seeling has had more than her share of sneers and hate mail.
But times are changing. The band's solo trombonist, Sarah Cline, has been named the first female director of the award-winning Berkeley High School jazz program.
The band's next gigs are at the Women of Taste event at Kaiser Rooftop Gardens in Oakland on Oct. 1; at the Oakland Suffrage Parade, celebrating the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in California, at Lake Merritt on Oct. 2; and at Yoshi's on Nov. 27.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shoulder To Shoulder

Hard as it is to believe, women have had the right to vote for less than 100 years. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution wasn't ratified until 1920.
But our state was ahead of the nation by almost a decade. On Nov. 10, 1911, California voters passed a ballot measure granting voting rights to women.
Most of the "no" votes came from San Francisco and Alameda counties, due to a lavishly funded campaign by the Liquor Dealers League.
They were afraid that women would vote for prohibition, which was a feminist issue because many men were getting drunk and beating their wives or abandoning their children.
And they pulled out all the stops. There's a new exhibit at Cal's Bancroft Library showcasing the "no" campaign's propaganda leaflets, including one that warned men that if they voted "yes," they would come home one day to find their dinners uncooked and their children dirty because their wives were elsewhere, hanging out with 11 strange men.
In other words, they would be serving jury duty!
It was one of the closest - and crookedest - elections ever. More than 3,000 phony ballots were discovered in San Francisco alone. On election night, the San Francisco papers unanimously declared the ballot measure was defeated.
But over the next few days, as the results from Southern California and the rural areas trickled in, the margin kept narrowing until votes for women finally won by 3,587 votes.
The only city in Alameda County to vote "yes" was Berkeley, thanks to a small army of volunteers - ranging from wealthy matrons to Cal coeds - led by Hester Harland.
Holding strategy sessions called "Pink Teas" (so called because the name sounded like a harmless social event, not a political meeting, thus avoiding conflict with their anti-suffrage husbands), they fanned out over the city, buttonholed the voters one-by-one, and filled every available meeting place in the city with public speakers.
"The newspapers didn’t want to cover them," says Harland's great-granddaughter, Colleen Kelly. "So she and her staff would take huge bells and toll them as they walked along the street, shouting information about the next suffrage meeting."
The campaign climaxed with a huge parade on election night, led, in Harland's words, by "a tally-ho filled with musicians and young women carrying banners and legends," ending in a rally in the Berkeley High School auditorium.
But Harland wasn't there. Exhausted by overwork, she suffered a nervous breakdown a week before the election and missed the celebration.
But her triumph endures. And this Sunday, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in California, the Berkeley Historical Society will unveil a new exhibit titled "Berkeley Women Vote: Celebrating California Suffrage 1911-2011" in the Berkeley Veterans Building.
The guest of honor will be Colleen Kelly. Another of Harland's great-granddaughters, Jane Frederick, contributed some of Harland's personal items to the exhibit.
This year is also the 100th anniversary of the Berkeley League of Women Voters - founded shortly after the 1911 election "to follow up the recent victory of Women's Suffrage in California with effective civic work." The League will observe its centennial on Oct. 30 with a celebration in the Berkeley City Council chamber.
Happy double anniversary to all. It wasn't the first time that our country was made better by letting more people in under the tent, and I hope it won't be the last.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Happy Ending

(Left: Alexia. Right: Rosco. Photo by Miguel Buchwald.)

For Rosco the puppy, last Friday was the second-best day of his life, second only to the day five months ago when he was adopted by Kate McFarland of Oakland and her parents, Rick and Carolyn.
Rosco, a 7-month-old, brown-and-white fluffball with a black button nose and two coal black eyes, was playing with his favorite squeaky toy when the doorbell rang.
In walked his sister Alexia, whom he hadn't seen since they both survived a medical ordeal that shouldn't happen to, well, a dog.
Both dogs jumped for joy. He chased her around the room. Then she chased him around the room. Then they rolled around together and wrestled. Then, totally bushed, they flopped down and curled up together for about five minutes. Then they jumped up and started the whole routine all over again.
This continued non-stop for more than three hours. The puppies were in ecstasy. And so were their owners, watching them.
"When I think of how close both of them came to dying, it's a joy to see them so happy and healthy," said Sandy Buchwald of Vallejo who, with her husband Miguel, adopted Alexia.
Rosco and Alexia were part of a litter that were rescued last March by Paw Prints Rescue in Yuba City after they were abandoned by their mother. The two puppies were so devoted to each other, the staffers at Paw Prints dubbed them "The Twins."
Roscoe was adopted by the McFarlands after they saw his picture online and were instantly smitten. Ditto for Alexia and the Buchwalds. They were headed for happy homes, but it was doubtful that they would ever see each other again.
But a few days later, Rosco developed severe vomiting and diarrhea. His worried owners rushed him to PETS Referral Center in Berkeley, where Dr. Shea Cox, the veterinarian on duty, diagnosed parvovirus, a highly contagious and potentially lethal disease, especially in puppies.
The next day he was feeling better, so he was sent home to continue his recovery. Two hours after he left, another puppy was brought in with the same symptoms.
It was Alexia, and she was even sicker than Rosco. Pneumonia and anemia set in on top of the parvovirus, and she was soon struggling for her life.
The next day, Rosco's condition started deteriorating again, and he returned to the hospital. It was only then that the McFarlands and Buchwalds finally met. They put two and two together and realized that their puppies were littermates.
Dr. Cox put Rosco and Alexia in side-by-side cages in intensive care, hooked them up to IVs, and worked day and night to keep them alive. By now, they were down to less than three pounds.
"I had to stop the vomiting and diarrhea because they were dying of starvation and thirst," she said. "I gave them anti-emetics, antibiotics, sugar and potassium supplements, and plasma transfusions as a protein source. Plasma contains small proteins - not enough to do a big dog any good, but enough for small dogs like them."
But the best medicine of all was each other.
"It was so comforting knowing that Alexia was no longer alone in the isolation ward," said Sandy Buchwald. "I knew that if either of these puppies ever had a chance of fighting this illness off, it would be now, when they could comfort and support each other."
And she was right. After a week of medical treatment and loads of TLC, the puppies were well enough to return to their respective homes.
But they haven't seen each other since then. Alexia had to be spayed, Rosco had to be neutered, and their owners wanted to take time to let the incisions heal for fear that in their unrestrained joy at seeing each other they might tear their stitches.
That waiting period ended last Friday. By now, Rosco has grown to 15 pounds, and Alexia isn't far behind at 13 pounds. They are the picture of health and high spirits.
While the puppies cavorted, their owners compared notes and were amazed to discover how similar their personalities are.
Both love tummy rubs. Both love to chew flip-flops. Both love to ride in cars. Both like to lick the water from their owners' legs when they emerge from the shower.
Both are voracious chowhounds. Both are addicted to their squeaky toys. And both are utterly devoted to their owners - and each other.
About three hours into this play date the doorbell rang again. It was Dr. Cox, who stopped by to say hi to her former patients.
The puppies exploded with joy at seeing her again, and she wiped more than a few tears from her eyes.
""They made it!" she said. "They really did it! They were so weak when I first met them, they couldn't even lift their heads. And now look at them!"
And will there be more play dates in the future?
"Are you kidding?" says Carolyn McFarland. "After all they've been through together? These dogs will never be apart again!"

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Squandering The Spirit of 9/11

I know this sounds crazy, but I miss 9/11.
It even sounds crazy to me because that was the worst day of my life, and I suspect it was for you, too.
Each of us is haunted by memories of that day and the ones that followed. I will never forget the sad sight of the victims' families placing missing posters at Ground Zero, putting on a brave face and hoping against hope that their loved ones were still alive. I don't miss that.
What I miss is the wave of national unity that swept the county. My first column after the attacks began with the words, "Well, the 2000 election is finally over," and I had high hopes that the bitterness of the Bush/Gore election would be swept away by the realization that, to paraphrase Jefferson, we are all Republicans, we are all Democrats, united by a common dream of a land with liberty and justice for all.
Pretty naïve, huh? It didn't take long for us to get back to normal. And by normal, I mean dysfunctional.
Ronald Reagan used to ask, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" And by any measure you use, we are worse off than we were in 2001.
Our Bill of Rights, economy, military, schools, infrastructure and international reputation are in tatters. Crucial problems such as immigration, climate change, the decline of the cities, the growing gap between the rich and poor and the pernicious influence of big money on our politics, have been kicked down the road - some, I fear, past the point of no return.
But the worst problem, the one that underlies all the others, is that many Americans hate other Americans more than they love their country.
And they're being egged on by cynical politicians and partisan media figures who tell them over and over to fear their fellow citizens.
The 9/11 tragedy isn't the only anniversary we're observing this year. It's also the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War and the 70th anniversary of our entry into World War II.
In the first case Americans split apart, and the result was more than 650,000 deaths. In the second case Americans came together, and they saved the world.
Now it's our turn. It's time to decide what kind of country we want to be. We are at a crossroads, and it can go either way.
There are some dangerous tendencies at work in the land. A lot of loose words are being thrown around about secession and "Second Amendment remedies." People are showing up at political rallies with loaded weapons. And some crazies are going even further - witness the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
This kind of reckless talk was common in the years leading up to the Civil War, too. Sure, we don't think it will come to war this time, but that's what people thought in 1860, too.
Lincoln, of course, described it best:
"All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."
United we stand, divided we fall.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

No Straight Lines And A Surprise Around Every Corner

(Above: The Blue Fairy telling stories and singing songs at Fairyland.)

In 1948 Arthur Navlet, owner of one of Oakland's largest floral nurseries, had an idea for a children's park on the shores of Lake Merritt that would be unlike any other - not a frenetic mini-carnival, but a safe, quiet, comforting environment where children could play at their own pace and on their own terms.
He took his idea to Oakland Parks Superintendent William Penn Mott, who immediately signed on, and the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, which pledged its support.
To design the new park, which would be called Children's Fairyland, Mott chose architect William Russell Everett.
Everett built a tiny model of the first attraction, the Merry Miller Cottage. It was a perfect replica of a medieval English cottage, and he was delighted with the result.
But Mott was not. He didn't want realism; he wanted whimsy, a little nonsensical and out of kilter - the way a small child might view the grownup world.
Enraged by the criticism, Everett grabbed a baseball bat, smashed the model to smithereens, and stalked out of the room.
Mott and Navlet were sure that was the last they'd ever hear from him. But a week later, he returned with a new model. It was oddly twisted and had no square sides, and it was painted in outlandish colors.
"That's it!" Mott exclaimed.
Thus was born the principle that has ruled Children's Fairyland ever since - "no straight lines and a surprise around every corner."
Everett went on to achieve fame and fortune as the nation's foremost designer of miniature golf courses, using the ideas he first developed at Fairyland.
And Fairyland became the model for Walt Disney when he built Disneyland. He even hired away Fairyland's first director, Dorothy Manes, and its first puppeteer, Bob Mills, for his new park.
But I much prefer the original. For six decades, Children's Fairyland has been what Mott and Navlet intended it to be: an oasis of serenity in the midst of the big city, where little kids can run free and just be little kids.
And it's all beautifully documented in a new book, "Creating a Fairyland: 60 Years of Magic at Children's Fairyland USA" by Randal Metz and Tony Jonick.
Each page is packed with memories, including:
* 10-year-old Beth Werschkul, the very first Storybook Personality, who was Alice in Wonderland in 1960.
* Popo the Clown and his six-legged cow, who enchanted generations of children from 1958 until his death in 1981.
* Master puppeteer Lewis Mahlmann, who directed the Storybook Puppet Theater from 1967 until 2003.
* The Blue Fairy (real name: Jacqueline Lynaugh), whose songs and stories have brought fairytales to life for the park's pint-sized visitors for more than 20 years.
* And, of course, all the adorable animals who have lived at Fairyland over the years, from Emo the Saint Bernard, who used to haul kids around the park in his dog cart - a tradition that was carried on by his son, Jamie, and his grandson, Hondo - to the charming but naughty miniature donkeys Gideon and Tumbleweed Tommy - aka "the bad boys" - who get into mischief every chance they get.
(In the old days Fairyland used to hold an annual Aesop's Derby, featuring races between turtles and rabbits. This being real life and not myth, the rabbits always won.)
Metz and Jonick are the perfect people to write this book. A former Storybook Personality himself, Metz is the current director of the puppet theater.
And Jonick, who met his wife at Fairyland, has been a fan ever since he was a little kid growing up in the Fiji Islands, when he read about Fairyland in a "Dennis the Menace" comic book.
Chock full of priceless pictures, "Creating a Fairyland" is the next best thing to visiting the park itself. It's available at Fairyland's Magic Leaf gift shop, A Great Good Place for Books in Montclair, Laurel Book Store on MacArthur Boulevard or Spectator Books on Piedmont Avenue.
At 60, Fairyland looks better than ever. But the important things will never change.
Children are still warned not to cross the Magic Pink Line in front of the puppet theater because if they get any closer, the puppets will become frightened and run off the stage. (Although the cynical grownup in me suspects that the real reason is that the kids will see the puppets' strings.)
And I hope you've hung on to your Magic Key because it still works.

Monday, August 22, 2011


(Above: Mrs. Lacey's first grade class, El Rodeo School, 1951. I'm in the back row, second kid from the left. Standing between me and Mrs. Lacey is David Ansen, who grew up to become Newsweek's movie critic. Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

Last week, Phil Catalfo of Berkeley posted a message on his Facebook wall that struck a nerve with me:
"Special request to all kids returning to school in the next few days. If you see someone who is struggling to make friends, being excluded or bullied because they don't have many friends or because they are shy or not as pretty or not dressed in the most 'in' clothes, PLEASE step up. Say 'hi' or at least smile at them in the hallway. You never know what that person might be facing. Your kindness might just make a big difference in someone's life."
His words struck me because I, too, was bullied when I was young. Every morning, I woke up dreading having to face another day at school. I tried faking illness until my mother caught on and made me go anyway.
The worst part was the humiliation. I was so embarrassed, I stayed in the closet about it for years.
I was angry; but there was nothing I could do. My sole comfort was sitting in the back of the classroom and fantasizing about killing my tormentors.
Thank God I was living in a place and time where there was no access to guns. Otherwise, I might have ended up like those killers at Columbine. Trust me: Kids under pressure are incapable of making mature choices.
The scars lasted a long time. The experience turned me into a lonely, mistrustful person.
You'd think it also made me a more compassionate person, right?
Wrong. I was so pathetically desperate to fit in with the crowd that when the opportunity finally came to pick on someone even more vulnerable, I jumped at it.
He was a developmentally disabled boy named Barry. I don't know if he's still haunted by the memory of my cruelty. I sure am.
But there's a way out of this vicious circle: Turn over enforcement to the kids themselves.
At Park Day School in Oakland, for instance, on the first day of school every kindergartener is assigned a 6th grade buddy who escorts them to lunch, sits with them, and generally takes them under his/her wing. If a little kid is being bullied, he can go to his/her older buddy for help.
The little ones learn that big kids are their friends. And they excitedly look forward to the day when they'll be in the 6th grade and can mentor a kindergarten buddy of their own.
Even that dreaded childhood jungle, the playground, is kinder and gentler. If you spot someone sad, you're responsible for finding out if that kid is OK and how you can help, even if he or she isn't necessarily a friend of yours.
The result is a complete change in the campus culture. If you're in the first grade you might not pay attention to what a grownup says, but a fifth or sixth grader is the coolest thing on earth. And if that older kid tells you that bullying is totally uncool, you believe it.
That's the way the system operates at Park, but you can find variations at other local schools, public and private.
If your child's school doesn't have a similar program, tell your principal about it. It really works.
And teach your kids to be kind to each other.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Seeing Differently

Zoey Stoll and Micah McKechnie have never met each other, but they have a lot in common.
Both are scary smart, both hail from Oakland (Zoey is a junior at Oakland Tech; Micah is a junior at UC Santa Barbara) and both have a neurologically-based condition called synesthesia.
I know that sounds like a horrible disease, but it's actually something wonderful.
Synesthesia is a term scientists use to describe what happens when stimulating one sense causes an involuntary response in another sense.
In Zoey's case, it's her visual sense. When she reads, each letter and number has a specific color, gender and personality.
"It can be a real advantage," she says. "If I see a math problem, I see it in a range of colors, which is pretty cool. And it's hard for me to misspell a word because if I do, the colors don't line up right."
She feels sorry for the rest of us, who read only in black and white.
"I'm really glad I have synesthesia. Reading would be so boring without it."
Often, the letters in each word will take their cue from the first letter. If the first letter is feminine, the other letters in the word probably will be, too.
"For instance, 'M' and 'S' are feminine letters," she said. "'So I hate to tell you, but 'Martin Snapp' is a very feminine name."
When she was a little girl, she used to write science fiction stories influenced by her synesthesia.
"One of my stories was about a green planet, and all the names of places on the planet were words that started with a green letter," she says.
Micah share's Zoey's sensitivity to letters and numbers, but she's even more sensitive to vibrations, especially sounds.
"It allows me to escape in my head," she says. "Whenever I'm on a long car ride or stuck in school doing absolutely nothing for lunch, I can just close my eyes and see amazing shapes and colors from every sound I hear. I wish I were more of an artist so I could draw them."
Needless to say, music is an utter joy for her. When she closes her eyes she sees light shows that are infinitely better than anything I used to see at the Avalon or the Fillmore back in the 196Os. And she doesn't need drugs to do it, either.
That's another thing she and Zoey have in common: They adamantly refuse to touch drugs or alcohol, and for a simple reason.
"I don't like anything that messes with my head," says Micah. "I'm already there. I don't need that."
And there's one more advantage. Micah has loved horses since she was a little girl, and her riding instructors have always marveled at her perfect riding form.
"If you flex a muscle, that's just another type of vibration," she explains. "So I can see all my muscles when I'm riding. If my form is off even a little bit, I can see that in my mind."
Not much is known about this syndrome, although it seems to affect a lot of creative people.
Famous synesthetes include composers Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, painters David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky, novelist Vladimir Nabokov and physicist Richard Feynman.
I'm curious: Just how widespread is this syndrome? If you have synesthesia, too, please write me and describe your experiences. I'm absolutely fascinated - and, frankly, a little jealous.

Run While You Can

In 10 days, 24-year-old Sam Fox of Berkeley will attempt an arduous outdoor trek that has been accomplished by far fewer people than have climbed Mount Everest.
He's going to run, hike and climb 2,650 miles along the Pacific Coast Trail from Canada to Mexico, an odyssey that will take him past three national monuments, seven national parks and 24 national forests.
He will ascend 60 major mountain passes, descend 19 major canyons and pass more than 1,000 lakes through freezing cold, sweltering heat and driving rains, dodging mountain lions, black bears and rattlesnakes along the way.
The trip will start on Aug. 25 at Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia and, if all goes according to schedule, finish at the Mexican border on Oct. 24.
To meet that schedule, he'll need to average 44.6 miles per day. But he has no choice.
"The weather window is so tight," he explained. "That's the reason why so few people have completed the trail north to south: Not many people have tried."
That much exertion requires more than 8,000 calories per day, some in the form of high-protein drinks he will carry with him.
The rest of the menu will be what he calls "real food" - steaks, fresh veggies (especially avocados), even the occasional Big Mac, all provided by his two-man support team, who will be traveling on a parallel course in a recreational vehicle, meeting up with him at 38 strategically located contact points along the route.
"I'll call them on the walkie-talkie when I'm about 15 miles away from each contact point, and they'll have my foot bath waiting for me when I get there."
The month-long journey is a fundraiser for Team Fox, the grassroots support organization for the Michael J. Fox (no relation) Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
He hopes to raise $250,000, which he intends to leverage into four times that amount by asking people to donate through his own website, runwhileyoucan.org.
"An anonymous donor has agreed to match everything we get from now until August 25," he said. "And the Michael J. Fox Foundation has found someone else to match all their donations. So if you donate to them through us before that date, you can quadruple your contribution."
People can also send checks to Run While You Can, P.O. Box 786, Narragansett, RI 02882. The same leveraging applies.
Fox is dedicating this run to his mother, Lucy Fox, who has been a Parkinson's patient for more than 10 years.
"My mom is not a victim. She's not sitting at home feeling sorry for herself. Her attitude is that everybody has stuff they have to deal with, and hers just happens to be Parkinson's disease. She's probably embarrassed by the spotlight I'm putting on her.
"She doesn't think of herself as an inspiration, either, although she is to me. She's just so tough. I'm sure she feels awful, but if you ask her how she's doing, she always said, 'I feel great!'"
Fox's Canada-to-Mexico trek is one of many grassroots efforts taking place throughout the country to raise funds for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
"Michael's daughter, Esme, had a lemonade stand at this year's New York City Marathon," said Sheila Kelly, the foundation's deputy director of development. "Another person swam the English channel. We've also had mud wrestling, golf tournaments and pancake flipping events."
Sam Fox has other projects in mind, too.
"It might be somebody putting on a guitar-a-thon, or somebody writing 20 songs in 20 days," he said. "I can also see us branching out to other causes, like injured veterans.
"I didn't found Run While You Can only to fund Parkinson's research; that's just the first project. My larger goal is to remind people that you have to live in the moment because nothing is guaranteed for tomorrow. My mom's Parkinson's disease is a good example of that. A lot can happen in this life, and I don't want to regret not having given things a shot.
"So when my friends ask me, 'Why are you doing this?' I say, 'Because I want to do something for my mom, or for society.' But the real reason is because I can."