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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The King Is Gone, But Not The Thrill

I'll never forget the first time I heard B.B. King. The date was Dec. 7, 1967, and the place was the old Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.
I had no idea who he was, and neither did anyone else in that audience of white hippies. We were there to see the Electric Flag - the band Mike Bloomfield formed after he left the Paul Butterfield Blues Band - and the Byrds, making their first appearance after Jim McGuinn changed his name to Roger.
Then Bill Graham announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the chairman of the board, B.B. King!" And out came this middle-aged man wearing a suit and tie, of all things.
In a world-weary voice he sang the first few words of his classic, "Sweet Sixteen" - "My brother's in Korea, baby; my sister is in New Orleans" - and ripped off a wicked lick on his guitar that made all our heads snap to attention.
His left hand fluttered up and down the guitar's neck like a butterfly, fingers vibrating to wring the last ounce of soulful feeling out of each note. It was a perfect visual metaphor for the blues – making something exquisitely beautiful out of something so profoundly sad.
We had never heard anything like that, and we leaped to our feet in excitement.
B.B. remembered that concert, too. I didn't know it at the time, but I was privileged to present at a historic moment - when he finally broke through to a mainstream audience.
Two years before, an emcee at a nightclub in Chicago had introduced him with the humiliating words "OK, folks. Time to pull out your chitlins and your collard greens, your pig's feet and your watermelons, because here is B.B. King." He was furious.
But it was a different story when he played the Fillmore two years later. As he recalled, "When I saw those long-haired white people lining up outside, I told my road manager, 'I think they booked us in the wrong place.' Then everybody stood up, and I cried."
And his new fans stayed loyal as he – and we - grew old together. For decades, whenever B.B. and I were in the same city, I always made it a point to catch his act. And he never disappointed.
He played with everyone from Eric Clapton to Barack Obama, who sang a charming duet on "Sweet Home Chicago" with him at the White House last year. But his favorite singer was Frank Sinatra, whom he credited for opening up the lucrative gigs in Las Vegas for him.
His virtuosity was legendary among other guitarists; but, like Fred Astaire, he never let you see him sweat. Those gorgeous, sensuous guitar lines seemed to flow effortlessly from his fingertips.
And though he took his music very seriously, he wasn't afraid to make fun of it, as in his hilarious song, "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother, And She Could Be Jivin' Too."
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll, R&B, and Blues Halls of Fame and received both the Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Now he's gone, but the thrill is not. Thanks to technology, we will always have his music with us.
But I'm still going to miss that butterfly.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Another Milestone For Lily

If you asked me who is the most inspirational person I've met in all the time I've been writing this column, it would be easy: Lily Dorman-Colby.
I met her 10 years ago, when her fellow students at Berkeley High elected her to be their representative on the Berkeley School Board.
The student representative is usually a nominal position, a sort of glorified civics lesson; but Lily turned it into something substantive.
"State law forbids us from counting her vote," board member Nancy Riddle told me, "but we have such respect for Lily's judgment, we always pay very careful attention to everything she says."
She was also getting straight A's, despite having dyslexia, and starring on the wrestling team. But she was so down-to-earth and unpretentious, the other kids weren't jealous of her. They rooted for her, instead.
Even more impressively, she accomplished all these things despite a truly Dickensian childhood.
Lily grew up in a series of foster homes. The county would give the foster family $500 a month, out of which they deducted $400 a month for rent, leaving Lily with only $100 to pay for everything else: food, clothes, school supplies - the works. She lived on spaghetti and rice, and I don't think she ever wore anything that was new.
Instead of feeling sorry for herself, as she had every right to do, she willed herself to become an incredibly focused, disciplined, passionate and compassionate advocate for the underdog, as well as a genuinely nice person. Her suffering not only made her stronger, it made her more sensitive to the suffering of others.
Not surprisingly, the colleges came begging. She received full scholarship offers from Harvard, Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth and Georgetown. But she turned them all down to go to Yale.
But she never forgot where she came from. Only three percent of foster kids ever make it past high school, and she was determined to change that.
During college she wrote a how-to guidebook, based on her own experiences, to teach foster kids how to get into college. She also conducted workshops on essay writing, choosing colleges, preparing for the SAT, editing applications, finding scholarships and applying for financial aid.
Then she went to law school at UC Berkeley, specializing in – surprise! – laws affecting foster kids.
During one summer she interned with state Senator Loni Hancock, who was so inspired by her, she authored Assembly Bill 340 – with lots of input from Lily - to streamline the process for licensing and approving foster families and adoptive parents who care for abused or neglected children.
"While the official title was 'Child Welfare Services Resource Family Pilot Program,' says Hancock, "I always called it 'Lily's Bill.'"
Lily's Bill was signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in October 2007.
Lily will graduate from law school this Friday, May 15, and she already has a great job lined up – a two-year fellowship with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, where she'll help foster families become effective advocates for their kids in the educational system.
And on Sunday, two days after graduation, she'll marry her longtime boyfriend. I'm dubbing the entire weekend "Lilypalooza."
God bless you, Lily, and godspeed. My fondest wish is to live long enough to vote for you for Governor some day.