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, August 12, 2014

O Captain, My Captain

A few years ago I went to my college reunion, and the university offered some special faculty lectures for the occasion. My favorite one was titled "What Made Mozart A Genius?"
The lecturer, a professor in both the med school and the music department, deconstructed Mozart's thought processes to show how they are different from the way you and I think.
For instance, Mozart is famous for his skill in playing with musical phrases. He loved to take a melody and run it through all the variations:  forward, backward, inside out, in a minor key, in a major key, and on and on.
The professor told us Mozart loved to do the same thing with language, too, effortlessly slipping from a Viennese accent to a Bavarian accent to a Berlin accent to a Hamburg accent, and so on.
Then he said, "Who in our own time does that remind you of?"
Nothing but blank stares. He looked incredulously at us and said, "Robin Williams, of course!
So if you want to know how Williams' mind worked, it worked like Mozart's. And, in his own way, he was a great artist, too.
Everyone has his/her favorite Robin Williams moment, but I have two.
The first was his moving portrayal of a melancholy Russian immigrant in "Moscow On The Hudson," an extraordinary display of restraint, especially for an actor who was famous for being over the top.
The second came at the 1985 Academy Awards, when emcees Jane Fonda and Alan Alda announced, "There are so many people around the world watching that we're calling on the linguistic services of our co-host, Mr. Robin Williams."
They sent greetings to China, India and France – which were receiving a live Oscar telecast for the first time – while Williams "translated" the words into their respective languages.
Then Fonda gave a "special hello" to the Philippines, which had just kicked out dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-hoarding wife, Imelda.
Williams' translation: "Come on down! Some of these shoes have never been worn! Check it out!"
Only he would have the wit to think of that joke. Or the chutzpah to pull it off.
There will never be another even remotely like him, alas.
It's so sad that in the end, he couldn't see himself the way so many people who loved him saw him – or be open to the possibility that they might be right.
But that's depression for you. It's a nasty, insidious disease that causes you to isolate yourself just when you need other people's support the most.
I know. I've been depressed all my life. That's a hard thing to admit, especially when depression still has such a stigma. (On the day Williams died, a Fox News host said he was "such a coward" for killing himself.)
But I think it would be a good start for all of us who struggle with depression to come out of the closet. So I am.
If you are having suicidal thoughts yourself, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It's open 24/7, and the person on the other end will be someone who's been there, too.
And if you know someone who is wrestling with suicidal thoughts, don't assume they won't act on it. Get involved. Show them that you care.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Right Way And The Wrong Way To Help Animals

In 1922, two brothers who had immigrated from Greece, Nick and Jim Pappas, founded the Star Grocery on Claremont Avenue.
It quickly became one of Berkeley's most beloved businesses. During the Great Depression the Pappas brothers extended credit to hundreds of families who otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford food and wrote off thousands of dollars of unpaid bills.
In 1974 the business passed to Jim's son Nick. It's a terrific store and a pillar of the community, a place were the local high school kids have traditionally gotten their first jobs.
But in the early morning of Sunday, August 27, somebody smashed the plate glass windows in front.
Within hours, an organization in Florida called "Bite Back," which claims to support animal rights, posted pictures of the broken windows on its website, along with a manifesto from someone zcalling himself "veganarchist lone wolf," who says he did it because Star Grocery sells meat.
Never mind that all of Star Grocery's beef, pork and chicken comes from animals that roam free instead of being cooped up like sardines on feedlots or in cages that are too small for them to turn around. Or that they eat their natural diets - real grass and grains - instead of chemicals and leftover animal parts.
"Cage free, organic, murder is murder and death is death," he says piously.
Well, maybe. But I have one question: Dude, do you really think smashing the windows of a mom & pop store made converts for the cause?
To the contrary, the neighbors are hopping mad. Not at Star Grocery, at you.
"Who the hell does he think he is to come into our city and hurt our store?" said one woman. Several people said they plan to patronize Star Grocery even more, just to show you they can't be pushed around.
Nice going, dude. I just hope people won't assume all animal rights activists are like you.
                                     * * *
In happier news, congratulations to Tony La Russa for his well-deserved induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 27. But I think future generations will remember him even more as the man who made it cool to be kind to animals.
Instead of using his celebrity to make money, he used it to raise consciousness. And as founder and co-director (with his wife, Elaine) of the Animal Rescue Foundation - ARF, for short – he has saved 8,824 cats and dogs to date, and still counting.
I don't remember the first time I met Tony, but I sure remember the second time. His first words to me were "How's your baby?" I didn't understand what he was talking about for a moment, but then I realized it was my cat, Eliza. I thought, "This guy really gets it!"
The next time I saw Tony, he and Elaine, along with their daughters Devon and Bianca, were in Walnut Creek picketing a store that was selling animal furs.
Out came the store owner, who unleashed a stream of profanities - right in front of the girls, who were both less than 10!
"You blankety-blanks!" he said. "You can blankety-blank my blankety-blank, and you can also – wow, you're Tony La Russa! Hey, Tony, sign this baseball for me, willya?"
Tony dutifully signed.