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

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thuggery In The NFL

(Above:  Incognito and Martin)

Ever since I was a little kid, football has always been my favorite sport, both to play and – when it was obvious I wasn't going to be 6-foot-4 and 275 lbs. - to watch. But the NFL finally jumped the shark for me last week when the bullying scandal involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins broke.

According to news reports, Incognito was the ringleader of an ongoing harrassment campaign against Martin, the starting left tackle.

I won't repeat the sordid details. You probably already know more about the obscene, racist voice messages and emails, the violent threats, and the constant intimidation than you ever wanted to hear.

But what really shocked me was the reaction by NFL executives and the Dolphin players. According to them, Incognito is the good guy, and Martin is the bad guy.

His sin: violating the "sanctity of the locker room" by going public.

As one NFL front office man who preferred to remain, uh, incognito, said, "If Incognito did offend him racially, that's something you have to handle as a man."

Translation: It would have been perfectly OK if he had beaten Incognito to a pulp.

If you and I were co-workers, and I did things to you that was even a tenth as bad as what Incognito is alleged to have done to Martin, I would be out of a job before the day was out, and rightly so.

But if you had punched me out in retaliation, you would be fired, too, because that's not the way grownups act, especially in the workplace.

In short, the only place where the rules don't apply is the NFL, where the law of the jungle is the only form of discipline.

If someone harasses you at work, the proper recourse is to go to your supervisor or the Human Resources department. But Martin didn't have that option because, according to news reports, it was the Dolphins' general manager who turned Incognito loose on him in the first place in order to "toughen him up."

A lot of Dolphin players are saying Martin was somehow "soft" because he went to an elite school like Stanford. But he wasn't too soft for Jim Harbaugh, the toughest coach in football, who trusted him to protect Andrew Luck's blind side for two years.

The only one who has acted like a grownup in all this is Martin. But the consensus among sports reporters is that Incognito has a bright future in the NFL – the Raiders are already negotiating for his services – but Martin will be lucky if he ever gets to play another down.

When the devastating PBS documentary and book "League of Deception" were released last month, detailing how the NFL systematically covered up the dangers of football-related concussions, even imperiling little kids in the peewee leagues, many pundits wondered if the next generation of parents would ever be willing to allow their sons to take the risk.

But now I have to wonder: What parent would want his or her son to work in a business that rewards bullying and ostracizes people who have the guts to stand up to it?

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Cowboys. Or Dolphins. Or Raiders. Or any other team in the league.

Breaking Bread

Brrrrr! The weather is getting colder, and so are the hearts of the politicians in Washington, who just slashed $5 billion from the food stamp program. That means a cut of $36 per month for a family of four.

$36 may not seem like much, but for thousands of children in Alameda County, it means going to bed the last few days of each month with an empty stomach aching from hunger.

For senior citizens, it means having to choose between buying food or buying the medicine they need.

Politicians are fond of blaming the poor for the own misery, but what do children do to deserve this?

Or seniors, who believed the promises that their pensions would be waiting for them, only to see those pensions mysteriously disappear into some corporate bank account in the Cayman Islands?

Or the working poor, who rarely see their children because they're forced to work two or even three low-paying jobs to keep food in those children's mouths and a roof over their heads?

Or the families of soldiers who are defending our country in some very dangerous places abroad while their loved ones are going hungry back home. A pretty shabby reward for their service, don't you think?

That's why it's more important than ever for you and me to step up and try to fill the gap by donating to the Alameda County Food Bank, which serves a whopping quarter of a million people each year, two-thirds of them children or seniors.

The Food Bank isn't a single place. It's actually the hub of a vast collection and distribution network that provides food through 275 food pantries, soup kitchens, libraries, and childcare and senior centers throughout the county.

Wherever there are people in need, that's where the Food Bank goes, including sending Mobile Pantries to so-called "food deserts" - neighborhoods that don't have any grocery stores or other outlets for fresh, healthy foods, just liquor stores and fast-food chains.

Or the Free Summer Lunch program, created by a Food Bank volunteer named Michael Ross, which distributes free lunches to kids at local library branches. It's a win-win: The kids get both nutritional and educational enrichment while the libraries get an increase in memberships and summer use.

Another volunteer, Elizabeth Gomez, created the CalFresh (that's what food stamps are called in California) Hotline, which helps county residents wend their way through the state bureaucracy to get assistance. Last year, 80 percent of the people who were aided by this program had their applications approved, compared to only a 68 percent approval rate countywide.

If you'd like to help, you can go online at www.accfb.org or send a check to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, 7900 Edgewater Drive, Oakland CA 94621.

"This is a very critical time for us," says spokesman Mike Altfest. "In an ideal world we would get consistent support year-round, but most of our support comes at this time of year, during the holiday season. These next two months will determine how we operate the rest of the year."

Gandhi was right: "The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members."

And so was Jesus: "Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me."

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Sweetest Sounds

(Above: Marika Kuzma)

One of the coolest treasures on the Cal campus -- right up there with the dinosaur bones in the basement of the Campanile and the Mark Twain papers at the Bancroft Library -- is the UC Chamber Chorus, a unique town/gown collaboration between students, alumni and townspeople.
The Chamber Chorus isn't as well known as the dinosaur bones and the Twain papers -- at least, not outside the music world. But inside that world it's very highly regarded indeed. Critics keep falling over each other reaching for new ways to praise them.
The San Francisco Classical Voice calls them "flawless." The New York Times calls them "first-rate." The San Jose Mercury News says they are "arguably the area's pre-eminent collegiate ensemble." And the San Francisco Examiner says they "left no syllable unarticulated and no musical marvel unexplored." The Chamber Chorus has regularly collaborated with renowned local and international artists such as the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Mark Morris Dance Company, and Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
And now they have been invited to perform on March 21 at the most prestigious musical venue of all — Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. They haven't finalized the program yet, but it will definitely feature Berkeley composers. You can hear the Chamber Chorus before then at two local concerts they're planning that will raise money for the trip.
The first concert, in collaboration with the Cal University Chorus, will be at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way (at Dana) in Berkeley, featuring some soulful music by Randall Thompson and Eric Whitacre as well as the Duruflé Requiem, the world premiere of Brantley Psalm 89, and the Bay Area premiere of John Tavener's hauntingly beautiful Funeral Canticle (the a cappella piece heard in "The Tree of Life"). The great Jonathan Dimmock will be the guest organist.
Tickets are $16 for general admission, $12 for students and seniors and are available at the door, by phone (510-642-9988) or online at http://tickets.berkeley.edu.
Then, on Dec. 8, the Chamber Chorus will appear at Orinda Community Church, 10 Irwin Way in Orinda, for a Sunday afternoon performance of Handel's Messiah, Part I, after which the audience will be invited to sing along to the "Hallelujah Chorus" and festive holiday carols. (Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it?) That concert starts at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12 (seniors/students) and $20 (general admission) and are available at the door. For more information, email univchorus@gmail.com.
But wait! There's more! The Chamber Chorus, the University Chorus, and a guest Baroque ensemble will also perform Handel's Messiah, Part I (including the "Hallelujah Chorus") at a FREE concert Dec. 4 at Hertz Hall on the Cal campus. This performance, part of the Cal Music Department's long-standing tradition of presenting free noontime concerts, starts at 12:15 p.m. All three venues are cozy and intimate, and they all have wonderful acoustics.
If you can't make any of the local concerts but would still like to help defray the expenses of the Chamber Chorus' trip to New York for the Carnegie Hall gig, you can contribute online at givetocal.berkeley.edu/chamberchorus or send a check made out to "UC Berkeley Foundation," with "Chamber Chorus" on the memo line, to the Cal Music Department at 104 Morrison Hall, #1200/Berkeley, CA 94720-1200.