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 27, 2012

Have A Nice Day

In a New Year's tradition that goes back to 1976, the Unicorn Hunters, a group of language conservationists at Lake Superior State University in Michigan, have released their annual List of Words Banished From the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.
And the number one banished word of 2012 is - slight drum roll, please - "Amazing!"
"LSSU was surprised at the number of nominations this year for 'amazing' and surprised to find that it hadn't been included on the list in the past," say the Unicorn Hunters. "It seemed to bother people everywhere, as nominations were sent from around the US and Canada and some from overseas, including Israel, England and Scotland. A Facebook page – 'Overuse of the Word Amazing' – threatened to change its title to 'Occupy LSSU' if 'amazing' escaped banishment this year."
Coming in a close second was "baby bump," followed by "shared sacrifice," "occupy," "man cave," "the new normal," "pet parent," "win the future," "trickeration," "ginormous" and "thank you in advance." "
The Unicorn Hunters were founded by W.T. "Bill" Rabe, the school's public relations director, as a publicity gimmick to put LSSU on the map. And he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Over the years, the list has been expanded to include such groaners as "more bang for the buck" (1996), "bring the evil-doers to justice" (2002), "don't even go there" (1997), "teachable moment" (2010), "back in the day " (2008), "BFF" (2011), "chill out" (1980), "if ____, then the terrorists win" (2002), "no problem" (1980), "in my humble opinion" (1992), "baddaabing!" (1994), "politically correct" (1994), combined celebrity names such as "Brangelina" (2007), and "your call is very important to us" (1996).
After Rabe retired in 1987 the university, which knew it had a good thing on its hands, copyrighted the name and continued the tradition.
The very first phrase on the very first hit list in 1976 was "Have a nice day."
"It's not that we wish anyone ill," Rabe explained. "But this has become so overused, telephone operators use it even when people call funeral homes."
                                   * * *
Meanwhile, looking for a fun read to gratify your inner techno-geek? Have I got a book for you!
It's "Mad Science: Einstein's Fridge, Dewar's Flask, Mach's Speed, and 362 Other Inventions and Discoveries That Made Our World," featuring 365 of the most amusing anecdotes from Wired Magazine's popular "This Day In Tech" column.
The editor and author of many of the entries: San Francisco journalist Randy Alfred.
"Mad Science" ranges chronologically from January 1 (1538: First New Year of the Gregorian Calendar) to December 31 (1938: First breathalyzer test – just in time for New Year's Eve!).
In between are such gems as February 14 (1929: Al Capone uses cutting-edge technology – the Tommy gun – to wipe out the Bugs Moran mob), May 4 (1538: First use of the "@" symbol), August 24 (2006: Pluto demoted from planet status), and September 21 (1982: First use of the smiley-face emoticon).
The earliest entry is April 24, 1184 BCE: Greeks Use Wooden Horse to Defeat Trojans' State-of-The-Art Security.
"'This isn't a book meant to be read all at once from cover to cover," says Alfred. "Ideally, it should be read in short amounts while sitting down in the smallest room in the house."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Bashing Teachers

(Above: Madame)
Two weeks after the massacre in Newtown, I still can't stop thinking about the 20 little children who were murdered – or the ones who survived, either.
But today I want to talk about the teachers. Not just those who sacrificed their lives to protect the children in their care, but also the others, who saved hundreds of other kids by following the safety plan drawn up by principal Dawn Hochsprung, who lost her life trying to tackle the shooter.
They locked doors, hid children in closets and cabinets, and desperately did anything they could think of – leading the kids in drawing, coloring or singing softly – to keep them distracted, even as they knew that other children and their own colleagues were dying nearby.
Teachers deserve all the praise that's being heaped on them today. But how soon will it be before we go back to insulting them, paying them peanuts, slashing their pensions and benefits, crushing their unions, cutting their school budgets so they're forced to dig into their own pockets to buy such basic school supplies for their students as pencils and paper, making them teach to standardized tests instead of imbuing the kids with the love of learning, and blaming them for everything that's wrong with the education system?
We claim to love our children; but we pay teachers, who spend more time with our kids each day than we do, less than we pay plumbers. The obvious conclusion: We care more about our toilets than we do about our children.
We entrust our children, who are our very future, to teachers to be educated, nurtured, comforted and socialized. And, as was demonstrated in Newtown, sometimes teachers are even called upon to throw themselves into harm's way to protect them.
They do all this because teaching is a labor of love. (It sure ain't a way to get rich.) And the kids appreciate it, even if we don't.
Let me tell you about a teacher much closer to home named Sarah Wadsworth. She taught French at Petaluma High School, and she was the strictest teacher in the school. She was tough as nails and held the kids to impossibly high standards, and they adored her for it.
As my young friend Lesley, now a junior at Cal, put it, "You always made sure you did your French homework before you did anything else."
"Madame," as the kids called her, was constantly on their case for dressing like grunges. She herself was always turned out perfectly, like a typical Frenchwoman. A familiar sound in the hallways was the click-clack of her high heels.
Last Feb. 1 Madame died suddenly and unexpectedly from a brain aneurism. She was only 51.
The next day, all her students showed up at school dressed to the nines, including high heels. And they all took new names.
Lesley's younger sister, Sierra, a senior, is now calling herself Eponine, after a character in "Les Miserables." All her friends have taken similar monikers.
And they plan to dress the way Madame would have wanted them to next Feb. 1, the anniversary of her death, and turn it into an annual tradition.
I can't think of a lovelier tribute – or a better demonstration of the difference a great teacher can make in so many young lives.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tragedy In Connecticut

Charlotte Bacon, 6.

Daniel Barden, 7.

Olivia Engel, 6.

Josephine Gay, 7.

Ana Marquez-Greene, 6.

Dylan Hockley, 6.

Madeleine Hsu, 6.

Catherine Hubbard, 6.

Chase Kowalski, 7.

Jesse Lewis, 6.

James Mattioli, 6. 

Grace McDonnell, 7. 

Emilie Parker, 6. 

Jack Pinto, 6. 

Noah Pozner, 6. 

Caroline Previdi, 6. 

Jessica Rekos, 6. 

Avielle Richman, 6.

Benjamin Wheeler, 6. 

Allison Wyatt, 6.

Rachel Davino, 29
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27

 I want you to read their names one last time before we forget them forever, as we surely will. Within a few weeks we'll have moved on to more important things, like Lindsay Lohan, the Kardashian sisters and the NFL playoffs. And all the brave talk about finally doing something to curb the proliferation of guns and the glorification of violence in our culture will be swept away like New Year's Eve confetti on New Year's Day.

Until the next time. Then we'll repeat the charade all over again.

Do I sound angry? It's because I am. Angry at the shooter, of course. And his mother, too. She knew she had a troubled kid on her hands, so what did she do? Instead of taking him to a psychiatrist, she took him to the shooting range. Great parenting, mom.

But I'm also angry at you. And me. We keep allowing these things to happen. We elect politicians who are scared to death of the gun lobby, and then we wonder why they do nothing except mouth pious words about this not being the right time to talk politics. (Translation: Let's put off the discussion until memories fade and people don't care anymore.)

I've been watching this dance going on since President Kennedy's assassination almost 50 years ago. You'd think that would have been enough to convince people that we were on a slippery slope, but it wasn't.

Neither were all the tragedies that followed, including the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the attempted assassination of President Reagan, the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the shootings at Gabby Giffords' town hall in Tucson, or the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. or the shopping mall in Oregon or Virginia Tech. The pattern was always the same: a lot of breast-beating in the immediate aftermath, followed by business as usual.

If anything, the trend is going the other way. The night before the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Republican governor of Michigan signed a new law making it OK to bring concealed weapons to schools, churches and day care centers, and other Republican-dominated states are poised to do the same thing.

As for President Obama, he talked a good game during the 2008 election, but the only gun legislation he's signed in the last four years is one making it OK to bring concealed weapons into the national parks, although his speech at the prayer vigil Sunday night gives hope for improvement.

So spare me the teddy bears and the balloons and the  flowers. Spare me the prayers and the solemn vows. I'll believe we're serious when we actually do something, not before.

Think I'm being too cynical? OK, prove me wrong.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Remembering Santa

(Above: Dennis with Herb Caen)
With Christmas fast approaching, my thoughts turn, as they do every Holiday season, to Dennis Cavagnaro.
He was the only person I knew who worked as a free-lance Santa Claus. (His business card read, "Have sleigh, will travel.")
Each December, he'd take his red Santa suit out of the closet and go forth to spread the Christmas spirit. He traveled to his gigs in full costume on public transportation.
"It's hard to drive with that big stomach (actually, a pillow) in the way," he explained.
And he always stayed in character, waving and shouting "Merry Christmas" to everyone he met.
"Once you put on that red suit, you're on," he said. "It doesn't matter whether you're getting paid or not."
In return, he'd get big grins from the adults and adoring smiles from the children. When he rode the cable cars in San Francisco, the gripmen would salute him by playing Christmas carols on their bells.
"Santa gets back a lot more than he gives, believe me," he said.
His love for little kids was boundless. He made a point to learn each one's name beforehand, and he listened patiently until he was sure they were really finished.
But he never said, "Ho, ho, ho!"
 "It scares little kids, he explained.
Dennis grew up in Oakland, where one of his childhood playmates was future 49er quarterback John Brodie.
"I probably caught more passes from him than Gene Washington," he'd say.
He was also a batboy for the Oakland Oaks, starring Billy Martin and managed by Casey Stengel.
He was a humble man, but he was very proud of being an Oaklander – just as he was proud of being Italian, a member of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club (Badge #9014), and a Cal grad, Class of 1958. (The class motto: "None so great as '58").
Most of all, he was proud of being a Marine. He spent 20 years in the Corps, retiring in 1979 with the rank of Major. He was a Marine aviator who flew A-4 Skyhawk fighters on more than 100 combat missions.
He was also my best source, hands down. I can't count the number of great stories he turned me on to, including my favorite story of all, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American World War II unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other unit in American history.
He always had a big smile on his face, which belied a tragedy that haunted him all his adult life. He once had a daughter of his own, an adorable little girl named Lea, but she died when she was only 13 months old.
And that's why I think he was so great with children. He saw a little bit of Lea in every kid he met. By being kind to them, he was being kind to the daughter he never had a chance to watch growing up.
Six years ago Dennis suddenly fell ill and was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors discovered an advanced stage of cancer. He sank rapidly, and within a week he was gone. I never had a chance to say goodbye. Or thanks.
So let me do it now. Semper Fi, Dennis. Go Bears! Oakland rules! And, of course, Buon Natale.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dear Santa

"Dear Santa, I know that you're probably very busy right now, but I would just like to tell you what I want for Christmas. I would like an iPhone 4 because it's not the most advanced thing out there but it has all the functions I would like. Please do not get me one with a lot of gigabytes because I know that costs more. I don't want to make you spend a lot of money. Maybe you could add it to my family's phone plan to save $. Best wishes, Cole. P.S. Ho, ho, ho."

"Dear Santa, I know you are bisy and I know I didn't behave good. But I love you so much. Sansirly, Angel."

"Dear Santa Clause, My name is Azeneth and I am 9 years old. My sister is 7 years old and my brother is 4 years old, and they are really sad because my dad and my mom are not working. I wish you could give them some presents. Merry Christmas, Azeneth."

Once upon a time, letters like this wound up in the dead letter office, where they eventually were thrown away.

But for the last 25 years postmasters from all over northern California have been sending them to the Oakland Post Office, which has invited the public to answer them.

Some are hilarious; others are heartbreaking. But they all demonstrate a touching faith in Santa and his ability to make everything all right, if only for one night, that they are an inspiration for us grownups, too.

You, too, can be a Santa's helper and answer some of these letters. JUST Call the Post Office at 510-874-8737 between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., and they'll set you up.

"You don't necessarily have to send a present," says Consumer & Industry Manager Marygrace Cruz, who directs the Santa's Mailroom program. "They're so grateful just knowing that somebody out there cares."

But, of course, if you're moved to enclose a gift, nobody's going to stop you.

And now, without further ado, here's what our kids want for Christmas:

"Dear Santa, I definitely will never forget the true meaning of Christmas. This year, I've been asking all my relatives for money so I can buy myself an iPad. I want to know if I could have $150 in iTunes from you so once I buy my iPad I can buy music, apps, and other cool items. If you could do that for me it would make me super happy. Thank you. Sincerely, Matt."

"Dear Santa, My name is Bryan. I am 9 years old. I am learning my multiplication and division. I live with my mommy and my brother Santiago. I love playing ball with him. But I'm kind of sad because my mommy said we are not getting any Christmas presents this year because we don't have enough money. I wish you can make Christmas special for me and my family. Thank you very much for taking the time to read this letter. Hope your Christmas is magical. Love, Bryan."

"Dear Santa, Some of my friends don't believe in you, but I do. Santa, how old are you? I think you do about 70 Christmases, and then your son takes over for you. Love, Aiden."

"Dear Santa, I had trouble last year in school. I was bullyed after school started. I am 13 years old and 5'9". All the shorter boys and some girls always call me Giant Gertie and Bigfoot every day. I hate this. After my mother found out why I was holding my head down and pursued this, but the principal did nothing. I was labeled a snitch, and the children trashed my backpack and stoled my eyeglasses. All summer I stayed in my room, but my mother has done so much to make me know how lucky I am to be tall. Santa, my phone was broken by the kids when they threw my backpack in the dumpster. All I want is another smart phone. I would be so very happy. Thank you, Brittney."

"Dear Santa, I know you're up there! So here's my Christmas list! Can I please have a 2012 Holiday Barbie Doll, a golden retriever puppy, a Justin Bieber signed poster, cash, gift cards, and one more thing: Please donate $50 to a family in need that survived Hurricane Sandy. Love, Paige."

"Dear Santa, Hello! My name is Esbin, and I'm 10 years old. I think this Christmas I'm going to be sad because my mother is not gonna be able to make my wishes come true. She is not working because she takes care of my little brother. If you could make my wish come true I would be really thankful, and it's also gonna be the most unforgettable Christmas! Thank you. I really appreciate it. Love, Esbin."

"Dear Santa, This year for Christmas I would like to make others happy. I want you to give Bella some cute earrings that won't make her react. I want to get my dad a photo that isn't in stores. I want my mom to get something she really wants. I want to make you a gift, and I want to show others that you really exist and you're not a fake. I would also like a cute camera to take pictures with and show my artistic talents! I hope you liekd your present last year, and you will LOVE your present this year. Love, Gina. P.S. The highlighted letters mean nothing. I just felt like making this letter colorful!"

"Dear Santa, I would like peanut butter flavored treats. Well, that's all because I am a dog. Have a woofing day! From Lefty."

"Dear Santa, My name is Rose and I am eleven years old. Even though kids that are my age stop believing in you, but I still do. I moved school two times and I don't have that many friends. This year was a hard year because my auntie died and I got surgery on my knee. All I am asking for is for you to try to give me a present this year. Love, Rose."

"Dear Santa, For Christmas I would really like my dog Tina back because she means everything to me and I love her very much. Love, Jack. P.S. Please write back."

"Dear Santa, I want something special for my mom. She is the best mom, but she's been sick all year and never had dinner with the whole family because she's been busy being sick. All I want is dinner for my mom and sister. Please help me if you can. Thank you very much, Jacqueline."

"Dear Santa, If I am on the 'nice' list, then I would like the following: vanity, iPhone5, makeup, bracele, clothes, puppy, Aeropostale perfume, and Seventeen magazine and Ugg slippers. Love, Madeline."

 "Dear Santa, I am 8 years old, and I have been a good girl. Love, Sunnie. P.S. I left you some cookies and milk!"

"Dear Santa, I want my cousin Ashleigh back. She died last year. Mom says I can't. Thank you, Santa. Andrew."

"Dear Santa, For Christmas I would like Legos and Pokemon cards. I would also like a Playstation 3, but I know that is expensive so I understand if you can't. Thank you, Raymond."

 "Dear Santa, For Christmas I would like a nerf gun and remote control airplane. My mom and dad would love the PG&E and water back on. They can't afford stuff like that because my mom goes to school and my dad is disabled. My mom tries to get jobs. They can't every buy a car to take us to school or clothes to wear. If you could help them I would love you Santa forever. Thank you, Noah."

"Dear Santa Claus, I'm a senior in high school applying to colleges at the moment. I don't know if I'm too old to ask for a gift, but I really want this. My family has always been low income, and my dad lost his job last year. He is a painter, and the rainy season has just started, so the situation is getting worse. I really want a Mac laptop so I can do all my classwork, especially now that I'm moving on to college. I'm the first child in my family on track and motivated to go to college. Thank you for doing this and taking time to read my letter. Sincerely and with much love, Makia."

Monday, December 3, 2012

More Blessed To Give

Politicians are fond of saying that you can't solve a problem by throwing money at it, but in the real world there's a lot of human suffering that could be easily fixed by the timely infusion of a little cash.
Such as a single mom whose budget is already stretched to the limit putting food on the table for her kids, leaving nothing left for their Christmas presents.
Or a Berkeley High senior who would have been the first in her family to go to college, except for one hitch: She couldn't afford the college application fees.
They were just two of the almost 1,000 people who got a very welcome surprise last December when an envelope containing a check mysteriously appeared in their mailbox.
The checks weren't large, ranging from $30 to $100. But for the recipients, they made all the difference.
And there were no strings attached. No guidelines, no conditions, no sermons to hear first.
What's more, this has been going on for 100 years.
It all started in 1912 when Jo Mills, a prominent figure in early Berkeley, founded the Berkeley Christmas Committee. The committee produced a large-scale pageant every December to raise money to provide gifts of food, clothing, blankets and toys for needy families. The pageant eventually grew into a colorful spectacle with 800 children and 200 adults.
The pageant was cancelled during World War II. But the work of the Christmas Committee never stopped.
It became a non-profit organization, changed its name to the Berkeley Christmas Fund, and switched from giving gifts in kind to mailing checks directly to the recipients.
In 1992 the name was changed again to Berkeley Holiday Fund. But nothing else has changed.
Virtually 100 percent of the money goes directly to the recipients. There's no overhead – no office, no paid staffers, just a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers.
And most of the logistical support is donated. The postage is paid by the Berkeley Mayor's office, and the Mechanics' Bank cashes the checks free of charge.
The Fund doesn't choose the recipients. It gets the names from local social service agencies, including Children's Hospital, Berkeley Food and Housing Project, Bananas, Berkeley Head Start, and the Salvation Army.
"We take the social workers' word for it," says Andrew Williams, who co-chairs the Fund with his wife, Linda (who, by the way, writes detective novels under the pen name Linda Grant). "That's their job. Our job is to write checks."
The social workers appreciate the lack of red tape, a rare luxury in the bureaucratic world they work in. One wrote, "I especially appreciate that you are not condescending in your generosity."
Next weekend, about ten volunteers will sit around the kitchen table in the Williams's home and stuff envelopes with this year's checks. It's that down-home.
If you'd like to support this effort, please mail a tax-deductible check to The Berkeley Holiday Fund, P.O. Box 9779, Berkeley, CA 94707 or visit www.berkeleyholidayfund.org.
A few donations have been as large as $1,000, but most are in the $5 to $100 range.
"I think it's the $5 and $10 donations we treasure the most," says Linda. "We know many of these people are on fixed incomes, so even $5 is a tremendous sacrifice."
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ed Kennedy's War

You've heard about famous World War II correspondents like Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer and a young United Press reporter named Walter Cronkite. But have you ever heard of Ed Kennedy?
He was the Paris bureau chief for the Associated Press, and he was as brave as they come. There was no battle zone too dangerous for him.
He also partied hard. When his future wife – war correspondent Lyn Crost, who wrote what is still the best book about the 442nd Regimental Team, "Honor By Fire" - first met him, he was standing at a hotel bar in Paris with Ernest Hemingway, both men so drunk they could barely stand.
On May 6, 1945, Kennedy was an eyewitness to the biggest story of the war: the German surrender to the Americans and British. He and a handful of other reporters were secretly flown to Reims, France, to witness the signing of the surrender documents.
Then they were ordered to sit on the story for 36 hours. Reason: Stalin wanted to hold a signing ceremony of his own two days later in Berlin, and Truman and Churchill wanted to let Uncle Joe have his moment of glory.
The other reporters agreed to the embargo, and so did Kennedy, at first. But the next day he discovered that the news was being broadcast to the German people. The embargo had been broken.
Moreover, it had been established for political reasons, not military one. What sense did it make to give the news to the Germans but not to Americans?
So Kennedy made his choice. He wired news of the surrender to AP headquarters, which spread it around the world.
It was the scoop of the century. So what was his reward? His career was destroyed.
Instead of giving him a raise, the AP fired him; and the president of the AP apologized to the military. Even his fellow reporters turned on him, voting 54-2 to condemn him.
Nobody else would hire him. After a few years he finally got a job at a tiny paper in Monterey, the Peninsula Herald, covering city council meetings, writing editorials and editing copy with the same dedication and energy that he had devoted to the great events of World War II.
Ed Kennedy died in 1963, unrecognized and unhonored by his profession. But a new generation of journalists is trying to correct this miscarriage of justice. Columnists, reporters and editorial writers all over the country are joining forces to get Kennedy a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
Stories in support of this project have already appeared in the Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Monterey County Weekly, Modoc Independent News, Jim Romanesko.com, Editor & Publisher, and other publications. And now it's my honor to add my small voice to the chorus.
Kennedy wrote a memoir of his wartime years in 1951, but he was never able to find a publisher during his lifetime. That changed last year, when it was published by the Louisiana State University Press.
And here's the sweetest touch of all: The introduction was written by the AP's outgoing president and CEO, Tom Curley, who apologized for his predecessor's actions and said, "In every way, Ed Kennedy was right."
The Pulitzer Committee will announce its decision next month.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pick Me!

Did you have a happy Thanksgiving? I sure did, spending a quiet day counting my blessings and playing with my two little kittens, whom I got from Island Cat Resources and Adoption (ICRA, for short).
Except they're not so little anymore. We celebrated their six-month birthday last weekend.
And, as often happens with cats, they've acquired some more nicknames. Sally is called Squeaky because she squeaks (it's very cute) and Pepe is called Fuzzy because she's, well, fuzzy. Collectively, they're the Peegees, short for Pizza Girls.
Their brother Sterling – Oops! Make that Ralph – is doing well in his new home, too.
That's the good news. The bad news is that they are pretty much the last ICRA cats to find new homes. Nobody has adopted any more at ICRA's Saturday mobile adoption clinics at PetCo in Alameda, and they haven't had any hits on their website in six weeks.
Black cats and kittens are having an especially hard time, as are black-and-white cats. I don't know why, but people have this weird prejudice, as if the old myth about black cats being bad luck is true.
(Ironically, they have an easy time getting adopted in England because the English, on the other hand, believe black cats bring good luck!)
As a result, ICRA now has more than 60 cats and kittens piling up in foster homes. As they get bigger, they're going to become less attractive to potential adopters because everyone wants little babies. And there are more kittens being born all the time, waiting to take their place
It's the same story with other animal rescue groups. I talked with Megan Webb, director of the Oakland Animal Shelter, and she's up to her limit in cats, too.
"But we're even more overloaded with little dogs," she says. "Not just Chihuahuas, but poodles and terriers, too. I had to send 40 dogs to the Idaho Humane Society last week because they'll have a better chance finding new homes up there, and I'll be sending another 20 this week.
"People have weird notions about little dogs being hyper and yappy, but the truth is that many of the little dogs in our shelter are as laid-back and mellow as golden retrievers."
The obvious solution in the long run is to decrease the population, which is why many groups like ICRA emphasize spay/neuter surgeries. (You can support this effort with a tax-deductible donation.)
But in the short run, these little cats and dogs desperately need new homes. I know times are hard, but now that we're in the Holiday season, can you find room in your home – and your heart – for a furry, four-footed bundle of love?
Please check out the adorable kitties at ICRA's website, www.icraeastbay.org, as well as the cats and dogs on the websites of the Oakland Animal Shelter, Berkeley Animal Shelter, Alameda Shelter, Oakland SPCA, Berkeley Humane Society, Home At Last, Hopalong, Fix Our Ferals, Tony LaRussa's Animal Rescue Foundation and other animal groups.
Gandhi was right: "You can judge the morality of a nation by the way the society treats its animals."
P.S. congratulations to the Montclair Women's Big Band, one of the swinging-est aggregations around, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary with an all-star concert this Sunday, Nov. 25, at Yoshi's. Be there or be square.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Fire Next Time

                                                  (Above: Rachel Carson)
Dear Mr. President,
Congratulations on your re-election. Now, let me introduce you to the constituents you – and the Republican opposition – will have to answer to before you answer to anyone else.
Their names are Celia Rizzo, Laura Aptheker-Cassels and Rose Driscoll. I met them four years ago, when they were 7th graders at Holmes Junior High in Davis. They were on a field trip to the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland and having the time of their lives.
Celia loved the star show at the Ask Jeeves Planetarium. Laura loved the simulated space shuttle mission in the Challenger Learning Center. And Rose was fascinated by the space toilet from the Mir Space Station.
But their favorite exhibit by far was a teeny little display tucked away in the corner. It was about solar energy.
"All our friends are freaked out about global warming, but our parents' generation aren't," Rose explained. "By the time it becomes a real problem, they'll all be gone. We're the ones who are going to have to deal with it."
Well, her timetable was a bit optimistic. Global warning is already a real problem only four years later, as Hurricane Sandy demonstrated. But her basic complaint – that we grownups are still making like ostriches – is as valid as ever.
Mr. President, neither you nor Gov. Romney uttered a peep about it during the campaign. Not exactly profiles in courage.
But now that you've got the job for another four years, it's your duty to put the issue front and center in the national dialog.
Yes, I know your plate is already full. There's the so-called "fiscal cliff" coming up at the end of the year, plus immigration reform and finding replacements for Hillary Clinton at State, Tim Geithner at Treasury and David Petraeus at CIA.
But this is one can that can't be kicked down the road any longer. Every year, more and more fossil fuels – which increase the amount of carbon dioxide – are being pumped into the atmosphere. And every year, more and more trees - which reduce carbon dioxide – are being cut down. The arithmetic is inevitable.
And make no mistake: Only we can take the lead on this for the simple reason that we - along with the Europeans – have been the ones who have contributed most to the problem.
Now that formerly underdeveloped countries – like China, India and Brazil – are becoming industrial giants, it's only natural that they want to claim a piece of the pie, too.
It's going to be hard to convince them not to behave as badly as we did for the last 150 years. And the only way we can is to lead by example, which means being the first one to make the necessary sacrifices.
That's going to be a tough proposition to sell to the country, and it won't come about overnight. So you'd better get this conversation started ASAP.
I won't be here when the crunch comes, Mr. President, and probably neither will you. But Celia, Laura and Rose will.
They weren't eligible to vote this time because they're only 16. But they will be eligible in 2016. And if we grownups haven't cleaned up our act and embarked on serious action by then, they won't be in a very forgiving mood.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

May The Force Be With You

Did you hear that George Lucas sold Lucasfilm last week to Disney, which plans to make three new Star Wars films?
My only question is: Why?
Oh yeah, the money, of course. But I was looking for an artistic reason for more Star Wars movies, and I can't come up with any.
To tell the truth, Lucas should have quit after making the first three. But he got obsessed with his own creation and became the ultimate Star Wars nerd himself, producing three "prequels," as ponderous as the first three were fast-moving, to explain how Darth Vader became Darth Vader.
So here's a tip to future generations, who will be seeing the Star Wars saga for the first time: Do NOT watch them in the order Lucas has numbered them. Instead, watch them in the order he made them.
That way, you'll experience the thrill that comes when Han Solo pushes the button and sends the Millennium Falcon into hyperspace for the first time .
More importantly, if you already know how Darth Vader became Darth Vader, you spoil the whole story.
The original  "Star Wars" trilogy is so much more than just an oldtime Saturday matinee cliffhanger on steroids, although it's that, too.
It's an age-old myth that the late mythologist Joseph Campbell called "the hero's journey," in which a hero ventures forth from the everyday world into a region of supernatural wonder, learns his or her true destiny, wins a great victory and saves the world.
This journey is repeated over and over in the stories we most like to tell ourselves, from Odysseus and Beowulf to Frodo and Harry Potter.
In this story, the hero is Luke Skywalker, and at the heart of his journey is his discovery of the shocking truth about his father and how he comes to terms with it. Everything else follows from that.
And the truth is shocking, but the emotional wallop is much greater if it comes as much of a surprise to the audience as it does to Luke.
But if you already know, where's the surprise? The whole thing becomes anti-climactic. Lucas the obsessive Star Wars nerd should have trusted Lucas the storyteller.
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Finally, I'm happy to report that Sterling the kitten has finally found his forever home. But all the columns I wrote about him had nothing to do with it. (So much for the power of the press.)
Sterling, who is the brother of my two kittens, was adopted by Eric and Emily Blossom of Berkeley, whose previous cat, Scottie, died last May, about the time Sterling was born.
Eric happened to stop by Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital, where Sterling was on display in the waiting room window, to buy some special veterinary food for his dog, Laya.
Boing! Laya took one look at Sterling. Sterling took one look at Laya. And it was love at first sight.
Being no fool, Eric said to himself, "Well, I guess this is the cat."  And he adopted Sterling on the spot.
I talked to Emily a few days later, and she tells me Laya and Sterling have been as thick as thieves ever since.
Only one thing: His name isn't Sterling anymore. It's Ralph.
No problem. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Turn Those Rascals In

I don't know about you, but I can't wait for this election to be over. Remember how much fun 2008 was? That's how much I've hated every second of this race. I've seen a lot in my time, including wars, riots, assassinations and terrorist attacks. But never before have I seen the face peeled off human nature to reveal the dark, ugly, hatred underneath.
We are now at a point where the nation is divided into two halves – each convinced that a victory for the other side will mean the death of the Republic. Doesn't make the chance of compromise after the election very promising, does it?
We are devolving into a tribal society like Northern Ireland or the Middle East. Both sides are arguing from different assumptions and different sets of "facts." And both sides lovingly nurse their own grievances, forgetting nothing and learning nothing.
Don't get me wrong: There has never been a Golden Age when Americans weren't at each other's throats. Even during World War II, which we look back on as the last time when the country really pulled together, there were race riots and labor strife, as well as the internment of more than 110,000 American citizens of Japanese descent.
But not since the Civil War has there been a time when Americans looked on other Americans as the enemy – until now. There are Americans who hate the other party more than they hate Al Qaeda. And there are politicians who will gleefully stroke those hatreds with the most outrageous lies if they think it will advance their political agenda.
It's even worse than when I was young, during the McCarthy era. And I ought to know, because my home was the neighborhood polling place.
All the moms on the block were the election officials. And when the dads got off work they'd join them. My mother would order a huge platter of cold cuts from the local deli, and they'd have a ballot-counting party – two people, one Democrat and one Republican, counting the votes for each office.
Since my mother was the most liberal Democrat on the block, she'd usually be paired up with Mr. Gerry, the most conservative Republican. They never voted the same in partisan races, but did that make them hate each other? No.
I never heard my parents call the Gerrys the enemy, and they never thought of us that way, either.
And when it came to non-partisan elections, like the local school board race, we and the Gerrys always worked together on the same side.
Is it too much to ask why we can't be that way again?
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 So whom should you vote for? Remember the old adage: Follow the money.
Log on to maplight.org – run by a nonpartisan Berkeley nonprofit - and you can view silhouettes of Romney and Obama with the names of their corporate sponsors plastered on their clothes like NASCAR drivers, as well as who's funding candidates in state, local and national races.
To find out who's bankrolling state and local ballot measures, visit votersedge.org.
And if you log on to politicash.co, you can download an app that will let you do all these things on your iPhone, iPad or Android.
Don't forget: He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mad Ducks and Prairie Populists

(Above: Sterling the Superkitten)
The ironic thing about George McGovern, who died on Sunday, is that the Nixon campaign painted him as cowardly and unpatriotic in 1972 for opposing the Vietnam War, when in fact he was an authentic war hero.
He piloted a B-24 in bombing raids over Germany, one of the scariest and most dangerous jobs in World War II. If you want to know how bad it was, just read "Catch-22."
In one raid, anti-aircraft fire knocked out one of his engines and set fire to another. Somehow, he managed to nurse the crippled plane to a British airfield on a tiny island in the Adriatic, saving his crew's lives and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the war he practiced the arts of peace, serving as the first director of the Food For Peace program and then as one of the most respected members of the Senate, where he fought unceasingly against hunger and the Vietnam War.
He lost to Nixon in a landslide. (Afterwards, he commented, "I wanted to run for president in the worst way, and that's what I did.")
But whom do you think history will remember more kindly? Is there any doubt?
P.S. On election night in 1972 I called my friends in Berkeley, and every single one was shocked that McGovern had lost. After all, everyone they knew was voting for him, right? That should tell you something about how insular Berkeley can get sometimes.

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A sad farewell, too, to former Detroit Lions tackle Alex "The Mad Duck" Karras, one of the greatest defensive players of the 1960s, who died last week.
His anti-establishment attitude went hand-in-hand with an irreverent sense of humor. In 1963 he and the Packers' Paul Hornung were suspended for a year by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for gambling. Both were eventually reinstated, but with one difference: Hornung apologized and was elected to the Hall of Fame. Karris refused and was not.
At his first game after the suspension was lifted, Karras, who was the Lions' team captain, took the field for the coin toss. The referee told him to call heads or tails, but he replied, "I'm sorry, sir. I'm not allowed to gamble."
The NFL never forgave him for being a rebel, but I'll pay him the ultimate compliment: He should have been a Raider.
And so long to Beano Cook, the longtime college football analyst, who also died last week. Beano's love of college football was matched by his disdain for all other sports, especially baseball. When the 52 American hostages in Iran were released in 1981, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced they would be given lifetime passes to MLB games. Beano's comment was "Haven't they suffered enough?"
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Finally, several readers have asked me if my kittens' brother, Sterling, has been adopted yet.
Alas, no. He's still waiting at Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital for his forever home. I wish I could have taken him, too, but I couldn't. In many ways he's the pick of the litter - friendly, playful, loving and oh so sweet.
For the last few weeks he's been happily rooming with another kitten named Stewie. But Stewie got adopted over the weekend, and Sterling hasn't stopped crying since. Clearly, he would do well in a home with another cat.
You couldn't ask for a nicer kitten. He's had all his shots and has already been neutered, so he's plug-and-play right out of the box. Please consider adopting this sweet little guy. If you can't, please pass the word.