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

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Greatest Power Couple In Berkeley HIstory

(Above: Tom & Loni with Zona Roberts at the Grand Opening of the Ed Roberts Campus)

Congratulations to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and state Senator Loni Hancock, who celebrated their 30th anniversary on November 13. Actually, they got married on November 9, and therein lies a tale.
"I think we should celebrate on Nov. 9, but she thinks we should celebrate on the first Sunday after the first Tuesday in November, in honor of her election as Berkeley's first woman mayor," says Tom. So they resorted to the politician's best friend:  the compromise. In even years they celebrate on her date, and in odd years they celebrate on his.
Yes, he said mayor. They used to hold each other's job. Loni was Mayor of Berkeley from 1986 to 1994, and Tom served in the state legislature from 1976 to 1996.
In 1994 she joined the Clinton administration, and he was termed out of the legislature two years later, and that was the end of their political careers – or so they thought.
But in September 2001, while they were vacationing in Italy, they got an urgent message from Berkeley saying Loni was desperately needed to come back ASAP and run for Tom's old seat in Sacramento, and Tom was needed to run for Loni's old office in City Hall.
"We headed to Milan and booked our tickets, then we went to dinner," he said. "When we got back from the restaurant we were told, 'Something awful has happened. Somebody flew some airplanes into a building.' So it was weeks before they were able to get a flight back to the states.
They finally made it back and won their elections, and were re-elected by increasing margins every four years since then. Tom, who was the youngest person ever to serve as Alameda County Supervisor when he won his first election in 1972, is now the oldest person ever to serve as Mayor of Berkeley.
He's also the longest-serving mayor, 14 years in all. But he's never taken a penny in salary.
"I had a choice: I could take my pension from my 20 years in the legislature, or I could take my mayor's salary, but not both," he explains. "I chose the pension."
So whenever he made a tough decision or cast a tie-breaking vote at a City Council meeting, he always quipped, "Well, that's what they're not paying me the big bucks for!"
It would take a hundred columns to list all their achievements, but Tom's include the David Brower Center, the Ed Roberts campus for the disabled, and the project closest to his heart, the sports fields (which his colleagues named after him) at the East Bay Shoreline Regional Park.
Meanwhile, Loni has been an effective champion for education, public safety, governmental reform and the environment, becoming in the process, as her Senate colleague Carol Liu, D-Los Angeles, called her, "the moral conscience of the Senate."
But now it's over. On Dec. 1 Tom, the city's oldest mayor, will hand his gavel to Jesse Arreguin, the youngest, and Loni will hand her Senate desk to Nancy Skinner. And then they can finally embark on their long-delayed retirement.
And they're still in love. She still can make him blush just by saying something nice about him. And he has no more passionate defender than her.
Berkeley will be in their debt for generations to come.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Barack, We Hardly Knew Ye

After Jack Kennedy was killed, I promised myself I would never fall in love with a politician again. And I was able to keep that promise for 50 years until a skinny guy with a funny name called Barack Obama came along.
He was everything JFK was, minus the philandering. Whatever else you think of him, you have to admit: The man has style.
I can't decide which is my favorite Obama picture, but it has to be one that shows his special connection with children. I can't help smiling every time I see the one in the Oval Office when he pretended to be caught in a web cast by a 2-year-old in a Spiderman costume.
But the picture that moves me to tears every time is the one of him bending over to let a little African American boy touch his hair. Yes, little boy, the President's hair is just like yours.
But as proud as he made me, nothing compares to his conduct last week, when he so graciously welcomed the man behind the birther movement as his successor. He must have been dying inside, but he never let it show. He has more class in his little finger than that man has in his whole body.
He wanted to change the culture of Washington, but on the day he took office he was handed a crisis not of his own making that he couldn't have anticipated: the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. And the Republicans blocked him at every move. As Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for Obama to be a one-term president."
When Tea Party rallies featured signs depicting him as a gorilla or a witch doctor, they just smiled and looked the other way. When birthers said he wasn't a legitimate president because he was really born in Kenya, they never uttered a peep of disapproval.
When right-wing talk show hosts slandered him, they rubbed their hands in glee. But did they ever stop to think how his daughters must have felt when saw signs depicting him with a bone through his nose?
But as bad as it got, he never complained. He just kept doing his duty - saving the economy, reforming health care, signing an agreement with Iran to diffuse its nuclear weapons, ending the Cuba embargo, taking the first steps toward curbing climate change, killing Osama Bin Laden, and welcoming LGBTs into the American family.
And now it's all going to go away. The new president has promised to dismantle everything Obama accomplished; and with both Congress and the Supreme Court on his side, he's likely to succeed. We are entering a dark age from which we might not emerge for a long time, if ever.
But there's one thing they can't take away: The memory of a time when there was a president who appealed to the better angels of our nature, rather than our worst hatreds and fears. If you think you miss him now, just wait a couple of months.
Ask ev'ry person if he's heard the story/And tell it strong and clear if he has not/Don't let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known/As Camelot.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Greatest Story Never Told

(Above: On May 11, 1994, First Lady Hillary Clinton and five of her predecessors -Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson - in an unprecedented joint fundraising effort to create the National Botanical Garden on the National Mall. The only living First Lady unable to attend was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was then terminally ill, and died a week later. Photo from the Clinton Presidential Library.)

I thought I was being so clever, waiting until this morning to run this story on the California magazine the day after Hillary Clinton's smashing election victory. Needless to say, it didn't quite work out that way, and this story will never see the light of day - except here:

Now that Hillary Clinton has been elected America's first female president, the top item on her to-do list, even before she tackles ISIS and the economy, is: What are we going to do with Bill?
"I wouldn't be surprised if she named him ambassador to Tokyo," says Daniel Sargent, Associate Professor of History at Cal. "Getting him out of Washington would be the most prudent move she could make."
But why Tokyo?
"Because we don't have an embassy in Antarctica."
Seriously, though, Bill Clinton presents a challenge for both the president-elect and the rest of us, starting with what to call him: First Gentleman? First Spouse? Or, as Sarah Palin used to call her husband Todd, First Dude?
"I think 'First Gent' has a nice ring to it," says Carl Anthony, official historian at the National First Ladies Library and author of a dozen books on the subject of presidential spouses, including individual biographies of Jackie Kennedy, Nellie Taft, Betty Ford, and Florence Harding. "It's short, sweet, and a little jaunty."
Whatever we call him, how will our first male presidential spouse change the job?
"The question is complicated by the fact that Bill will not only be the first man in that role, he'll be the first former president, too," says Sargent. "But in the end, it's the dynamics of the marriage and the tenor of the times that have always determined what the role is, and that role has fluctuated over the years. For instance, before the 1950s we had several first ladies who exerted considerable political influence, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith, who became the de facto president for the last year of his term after he suffered a stroke. It's striking that it was she, not the Vice President, Thomas Marshall, who took over.
"But after World War II we had a retrenchment, a redefinition of the role into a symbolic, maternal, feminine figure, like Mamie Eisenhower. It's easy for historians to characterize the '50s as a period of traditional beliefs that have been set in stone since time immemorial, but it's more accurate to say it was a time of self-conscious reaction against the assertiveness of the pre-war period."
Of course, even the most political First Ladies have taken pains to play down that aspect of their role. In her autobiography, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, "The political influence that was attributed to me was nil where my husband was concerned. If I felt strongly about anything, I told Franklin, since he had the power to do things and I did not. But he did not always feel as I felt."
But in his book Eleanor and Franklin, Eleanor's protégé Joseph Lash describes their daughter Anna squirming uncomfortably at the dinner table as Eleanor hectored FDR over some policy issue and finally blurting, "Mother, you're giving Father indigestion!"
Anthony says the position of presidential spouse is actually a combination of two different roles, and each occupant of the position has balanced them differently.
"One the one hand, you're the spouse. On the other, you're First Lady. One role is personal; the other is ceremonial. It's been slightly over 100 years since we haven't had a presidential spouse in the White House - the period from the death of Ellen Wilson in 1914 to the president's second marriage a year later. We had no presidential wife, but we still had a First Lady - actually, two: Wilson's daughter Margaret and Ellen's secretary, Helen Bones. Together, these two women fulfilled the ceremonial role. So that's the first scenario: no spouse, but a female relative standing alongside the president at public ceremonies.
"Go back a little deeper into the 19th Century, and we have a slightly different twist on this duality. For instance, Andrew Johnson's wife Eliza had tuberculosis, and when they moved into the presidential mansion in June 1865, two months after the Lincoln assassination, it was announced in the newspapers that Mrs. Johnson, given her delicate health, would not be performing the public role as hostess in the White House. So her married daughter, Martha Patterson, took over the public role. But Eliza still performed her private role as presidential spouse. She sustained him emotionally during his impeachment trial and gave him advice. So that's scenario number two – private yes, public no.
"The third variation on this scenario is the times when we had presidents who were widowers when they entered the White House, like Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and Chester Arthur, so we had neither a presidential spouse nor a First Lady. Most history books will tell you that Jefferson's daughter Martha, Van Buren's daughter-in-law Angelica, and Arthur's sister Mary Arthur McElroy performed the hostess duties, but that's just a summary, and in a summery the truth gets lost.
"The fact is that Jefferson was president for eight years, but Martha came up to the White House for only two social seasons. All the 'female' decisions – selecting the China patterns, choosing the guest list, planning the menus – Jefferson did all that himself.
"Same thing with Van Buren. Angela didn't marry his son Abram until the last year of his term, and most of that time was spent on honeymoon in Europe with her husband. So for most of his administration the China patterns, guest lists, and menus were selected by the president himself. The same thing was repeated in the Arthur administration. And as recently as Richard Nixon, you have a president who was weighing in on choices for food and wine that were being served to guests at state dinners.
"So there is nothing in history to suggest that Hillary Clinton can't do it. All those chuckles and hoo-ha about Bill choosing the menus are just not the case. The Clinton situation is not going to provide one ultimate 'right' choice in terms of historical precedent. She might have Bill or Chelsea serve as surrogates on particular social occasions – for example, the First Lady's afternoon teas, which have been going on since the McKinley administration. The First Lady doesn't actually serve the tea, she just stands in the receiving line. So all those chuckles and hoo-ha about Bill serving tea are just not the case. None of them served tea.
"Then there are the occasions when the head of state of another country visits the White House. He or she is welcomed on the North Portico by both the President and First Lady, and Bill has already done that. The only difference this time is that she will be making the welcoming speech instead of him."
"So you can see that there's no one 'right' way to be First Lady. It can be whatever the Clintons make of it. There's historical precedent for whatever they choose."
But Dan Mulhern, a lecturer at Cal's Goldman School of Public Policy, says that though the public role of First Lady waxes and wanes from administration to administration, the private role – presidential spouse – is just as important as ever. And he speaks from personal experience; he spent eight years as First Gent of Michigan when his wife, Jennifer Granholm (who graduated from Cal in 1984 and currently heads Hillary Clinton's transition team), served as governor from 2003 to 2011.
"The best advice I ever got was from a former First Lady of Michigan, Paula Blanchard," he says. "She told me, 'Your primary role will be emotional. Your wife is going to get assailed from a thousand different directions. Even your closest friends will have an agenda. She's going to be on stage 24/7, so she'll need a safe harbor.' I knew in my bones she was right. I knew it was true, and it remained true, and it's more true now than it was then."
And he's shared this advice with Bill Clinton.
"I talked to him about this in 2008 during the primary campaign. I told him, 'The most important thing you can do is support Hillary. Help her be her best, be a sounding board, and remind her of her heart, her vision, and why she's in it in the first place when it's getting ugly or when you're going through a difficult stretch.' And he was receptive. We haven't talked about it since."
But make no mistake: This will be a life-changer for Bill.
"When you're in this role, it's not unlike an altar boy to a priest or a caddy to a golfer," Mulhern says. "It's not about you and your strengths, and Bill's strengths are extraordinary. He's going to face the challenge of being on the sidelines, of not having knee-jerk reactions and writing tweets at three in the morning. People come up to you, look right past you, or use you to get to your wife. They think you're just a nice piece of arm candy. Women have a lot more experience dealing with that B.S., but he's going to have to learn."

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Eyes Have It

(Above: Dr. Lee, Dr. Jung, and Dr. Litwin)
Stupid me. No sooner did I settle into my new digs when I hit myself in the eye with a garbage can lid. It takes a perverse sort of talent to accomplish this, but I managed to pull it off.
I immediately knew something was seriously wrong. I had blurry double vision, and my fear was that it was another detached retina. I had two detachments 20 years ago, one in each eye, and my sight was saved only because I had a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Scott Lee of East Bay Retina Consultants.
A retinal detachment is a very scary proposition, and the sooner the doctor can re-attach it, the better. But it was 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and I was worried that everyone in Dr. Lee's office had already gone home.
Fortunately, not everybody had. I talked with the newest doctor on the staff, Dr. Jesse Jung; and, believe it or not, he diagnosed my condition right over the phone.
"It doesn't sound like a retinal detachment," he said. "With the symptoms you describe, you probably dislodged the lens. Unlike the retina, we don't need to jump on it today. Come in to the office on Monday and see Dr. Lee, and he'll take it from there."
Sure enough, Dr. Lee confirmed his diagnosis, and then he surprised me by saying something you never expect to hear a surgeon say: "I think Dr. Jung should do the surgery instead of me."
Surgeons (like trial lawyers) have a reputation for being rather, shall we say, self-confident, and this was an incredibly humble thing for Dr. Lee to do. But, as he explained it, over the years he has tended to specialize more and more on the back of the eye, like retinas, and Dr. Jung specializes in the front of the eye, like dislodged lenses. So he did what he felt was in the best interest of the patient and passed me on to the younger man.
And he was right. Dr. Jung did a great job. It's only been a few days since the operation, but I can already tell my sight is coming back.
It'll never be as good as before, of course. Doctors are just human beings, and while they do the best they can, only Mother Nature has a monopoly on perfection. But it'll be good enough to serve me well for the rest of my life, as long as I stay away from garbage can lids.
I've been going to East Bay Retina for 20 years. Their patients are people with serious problems like detached retinas, macular degeneration and dislodged lenses. Thank goodness the doctors and staff really know their stuff and are really nice people, too. Their patients need it.
My only complaint is that when they moved from their previous location on Pill Hill to their present site on Telegraph Avenue (kitty-corner across the street from the old Neldam's Bakery, which was resurrected by some former employees in 2010 and renamed Taste of Denmark), they didn't bring the eye chart in their waiting room with them. It read:
It's the second-best waiting room sign I've ever seen, second only to the one at Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital before it was remodeled, which read, "Sit. Stay. The doctor will be with you in a minute."

Update: A few weeks ago I was singing the praises of my retina doctors, Scott Lee and Jesse Jung, for saving the sight in my right eye after I dislodged the lens in a freak accident.
Well, time to add another name to the list. Last week I had a bad setback when all of a sudden I couldn't see anything out of that eye. I called Dr. Lee and Dr. Jung's office and made an appointment for the next day; but I was still feeling nervous, so I called my ophthalmologist, Dr. Josh Litwin, and asked him to talk me down.
He listened for a few minutes and then said, "I can't continue this conversation right now because I was just walking out the door when you called. I have a medical problem of my own and I'm late for my own doctor's appointment. But give me your contact information anyway."
I didn't know why he wanted it, but I figured he just wanted to update his records since I recently moved.
But an hour later I heard a knock on my door, and there was Dr. Litwin! I mean, who makes house calls any more?
The answer is Dr. Litwin. He walked in, sat me down in my living room, pulled some instruments from out of his medical bag, and gave me a thorough eye exam.
"Just as I thought," he said. "The pressure in your eye is way, way up, sort of like glaucoma on steroids."
As it turns out, steroids had a lot to do with it. There are some steroids in the antibiotic eye drops I have been using to prevent infection, and they can trigger increased eye pressure, which is what caused my blindness. (Dr. Jung had warned me about this and told me not to overdo the drops. But did I listen? No.)
"Oh my God!" I said. "What can I do?"
"Don't worry," he said. "I brought some pills with me. Take one now, another before you go to bed, and see Dr. Jung tomorrow."
Sure enough, Dr. Jung confirmed his diagnosis the next day and said the pills were having the desired effect. A few days later my vision was back to normal.
Now, in hindsight I probably could have waited until the next day, but I can't tell you what it was a relief to have Dr. Litwin show up when he did. And he knew it.
"I didn't do it for this," he said, pointing at my eye. "I did it for this," he said, tapping my forehead. "You sounded really scared on the phone, and I didn't want you to have to agonize overnight."
I'm so grateful to Dr. Litwin, but I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. His father is the iconic Berkeley eye doctor Richard Litwin, a man who bears an astounding physical resemblance to Santa Claus and has been the go-to guy for generations of Berkeleyans, who love him for acting like a small-town doctor. And it looks like his son hasn't fallen very far from the tree.
I'm an old man, and at my age there are no guarantees. My sight might or not come back permanently to what it was, but I sure can't say I haven't had the very best medical treatment possible.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Gold Medal in Bigotry

                                (Above: Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast in history)

Female athletes – especially African-American female athletes – have been dominating the Olympics, but you'd never know it from listening to those old white dudes in the media.
From NBC's Al Trautwig harping that gold medal gymnast Simone Biles's grandparents, who have raised her since she was a baby, are not actually her parents, to his colleague Dan Hicks' contention that 400-meter gold medalist Katinka Hosszu's husband is "the guy responsible" for her win, to the Chicago Tribune's reporting Corey Cogdell-Unrein bronze medal in trap shooting with the headline "Wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein wins bronze in Rio," the sexism was almost comical if it weren't so embarrassing.
African-American gymnast Gaby Douglas, a member of the gold medal-winning all-around team, was thoroughly trashed by the right wing media for not holding her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony, but they never uttered a peep when Donald Trump did the same thing during the presidential debates.
But at least her ceremony was televised. When 100-meter freestyler Simone Manuel made history by becoming the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold in an individual swimming event – with all its social/political implications, given the bitter civil rights battles during the 1960s over blacks being allowed to use "white" swimming pools – NBC didn't even show her medal ceremony.
NBC didn't televise the opening ceremony live, either, because, as chief marketing officer Jeff Miller explained, "The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they're less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It's sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one."
Want more? Uzbecki gymnast Oksana Chusovitina was roundly criticized because her pink and white leotard "failed to complement her skin tone," Austrian Larrissa Miller "turned heads for all the wrong reasons" because her leotard had "an unattractive teal hue with a rhinestone-covered collar," and when NBC's camera showed the U.S. women's gymnastic team gathered together during the all-around competition a male announcer – whom NBC still refuses to identify – said, "They might as well be standing in the middle of a mall."
Before you accuse me of political correctness, ask yourself: When was the last time you heard this kind of language being used about men, especially white men? Michael Phelps is being called "the greatest Olympian in history," but Katie Ledecky, a five-time Olympic gold medalist and nine-time world champion, is only "the female Michael Phelps" and is praised by saying "She swims like a man."
One incident can be brushed off as a fluke. Two could be a coincidence. But three or more – and there are a lot more – is a definite pattern. Shame on the media in general and NBC in particular.
But there's one shining exception: swimming commentator Rowdy Gaines, who said, "A lot of people think she swims like a man. She swims like Katie Ledecky, for crying out loud!"
Of course, Gaines is a three-time gold medalist himself, unlike Trautwig, whose sole connection to organized sports was being stick-boy for the New York Islanders and ball boy for the New York Nets, or Hicks, who, as far as I can determine, never played organized sports at all. So what does he know?

The Last Of The Old Fashioned Hardware Stores

(Above: The magical K&V Tite Joint Fastener.)
 My sister, who knows me oh so well, calls me "a man of very little faith," and she doesn’t mean it as a compliment. She's not referring to anything religious or spiritual; what she means is that I have a bad habit of always expecting the worst. And she's right. If I had a coat of arms, it would show a half-empty glass.
Then an amazing thing happened.
For the last two months I've been engaged in the arduous experience of moving to a new home (which I'll write about in another column). But at least I'd be able to take my two cats, Sally and Pepe with me, as well as my beloved chest bed, which has a lot of sentimental value for me (two ex-girlfriends and five cats).
But when the movers came to pack me up, they informed me that they wouldn't be able to put the chest bed back together again because it needs four essential metal thingamabobs to connect the pieces, and three of them were missing.
What's more, they were doubtful about my chances of finding any replacements. "They're so rare, you'll never find one in a hardware store," they told me. But they gave me a list of places to start looking and wished me luck.
I prowled every salvage yard and antique store in Berkeley, but nobody even knew what the thingababob was, much less where I could find any.
I was in despair. Finally, I gave up and decided have a professional machinist hand-make me three more. It would mean big bucks, but I really love that bed.
But a little voice told me that I'd never rest easily unless I gave it one last shot and, despite what the movers said, ran it past the folks at my old tried-and-true, Berkeley Hardware.
I showed the thing to Assistant Manager Andy Taylor, and he said, "Oh yeah! A K&V Tite Joint Fastener!" (You mean the thing actually has a name?)
Whereupon, Inventory Manager Sherrin Farley, who had been listening to our conversation from her adjoining office, piped up, "I got 'em right here on my desk!"
It turns out they'd had them for nobody can remembers how long, and rather than let them take up space on the shelves, where nobody would want them anyway, she decided to stash them in her office and worry about what to do with them later.
Now that's a real, old fashioned family hardware store!
Berkeley Hardware has been serving the community for more than 120 years and has been owned by the same family for more than 70. Last month it moved from its longtime home on University Avenue to a new site at 2020 Milvia Street.
Family is the operative word, from owners Bill and Virginia Carpenter (and their kids and grandkids) to General Manager Quentin "Chuck" Moore to the employees, all of whom seem like they've been working there forever.
On August 20 they'll celebrate the move with a "Grand-Reopening" with refreshments, goody bags, drawings and more.
Parking can sometimes be iffy, but don't let that deter you. Berkeley Hardware is a community treasure. I mean, where else are you going to find a K&V Tite Joint Fastener?
And the kitties? I still haven't been able to coax Pepe out of the bedroom. Suggestions will be gratefully accepted.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Tricky Dick And Us

Tuesday will be the 42nd anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon, an event I celebrated by literally dancing in the streets.
Why did people like me despise him so? Partly, it was because he fought dirty. Starting with his first race against Jerry Voorhis, his favorite tactic was intimating that whoever stood in his way was a traitor.
But I think the real reason was because, as much as we hate to admit it, he was the true mirror of our national soul.
We want to think we're like Jack Kennedy - handsome, graceful, a hit with the girls. But the truth is that most of us are more like Nixon - insecure, resentful, and compulsively self-destructive.
I remember the night of the Kent State killings, when he tried to talk with protesters at the Lincoln Memorial by making chitchat about football. How we sneered!
It feels good to make fun of the class nerd. It makes you feel like part of the "in" crowd, even if you aren't.
Especially when you can feel so self-righteous about it. After all, this was Nixon the red-baiter, second only to Joe McCarthy as the arch-villain of the 1950s. He deserved all the bad things that happened to him, didn't he?
Yes and no. Sure, he looked silly talking about touchdowns and field goals to students who wanted to talk about war and peace. But it was the closest he could come to extending a hand. And we slapped it away, laughing at his lamenwss.
To a paranoid like Nixon, it must have been another confirmation of what life had been teaching him since childhood: He really was surrounded by enemies.
"What starts the process, really," he wrote about his passion for winning, "are the laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid. But if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by personal gut performance."
And Nixon had a childhood that would make anyone paranoid. His younger brother Arthur died from meningitis, then his older brother Harold died from tuberculosis.
Those illnesses ate up what little money the family had, and Nixon had to turn down a scholarship offer from Harvard and attend little Whittier College, instead. (No wonder he was so jealous of the Kennedys.)
And yet this loser, through sheer force of will, transformed himself into a winner. A lot of us thought he sold his soul in the process, but who among us is without sin? Our beloved Jack Kennedy's record isn't so hot when it comes to the McCarthy era, either. And remember, it was the Kennedys, not Nixon, who authorized the FBI wiretaps on Martin Luther King.
Ironically, after the fall of the Soviet Union the secret KGB files came to light, and it turned out that some of the people Nixon accused of espionage, like Alger Hiss, really were spies, after all.
I know it doesn't make up for Watergate. All I'm saying is that Nixon was speaking for us all when he pronounced his own epitaph the day he resigned: "Others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."
There, but for the grace of God, go we.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Hamilton Would Have Voted For Hillary

You think this year's election is nasty? We're just amateurs compared to the Founding Fathers.
Take the election of 1800 – please! It pitted President John Adams for the Federalists against Vice President Thomas Jefferson for the Republicans (who were actually the forerunners of today's Democratic Party. It's complicated).
Adams accused Jefferson of playing footsie with the radicals in France who were sending people to the guillotine by the thousands (which was true), and Jefferson accused Adams of clapping people into prison for criticizing him (which was also true).
But all that was just a prelude to the main act after the election. The result was a tie. Jefferson got 73 electoral votes, and so did – not Adams, but Jefferson's own vice presidential running mate, Aaron Burr.
This result happened because of a peculiar system in the Electoral College. Each elector had two votes, and the man who got the most votes became president and the guy who came in next became vice president (a system that was changed two years later after they saw what a mess they'd made).
The Republicans blew it. Their Virginia electors thought a few New York electors would vote for somebody beside Burr, and the New York electors assumed the Virginia electors would do it, and the result was that nobody did.
So the decision was left to the lame duck House of Representatives, which was controlled by the Federalists. And a lot of them hated Jefferson so much, there was a lot of talk about voting for Burr out of spite.
But Alexander Hamilton, who had been Jefferson's political arch-enemy for years, put the kibosh on the idea. "If there is a man in this world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson," he wrote his friends in Congress. "But the public good must be paramount to every private consideration."
He still thought Jefferson was a hypocrite and political fanatic, but Burr was worse - "a cold-blooded Cataline, a profligate, a voluptuary, without doubt insolvent." Burr was capable of selling out the country to a foreign power, or starring a war for personal profit.
"For Heaven's sake," wrote Hamilton, "let not the Federalist Party be responsible for the elevation of this man!"
Hamilton's argument carried the day. Jefferson was elected, and Burr went on to shoot Hamilton and organize a conspiracy to create an independent country in what is now the Midwest and the Southwest, for which Jefferson had him arrested for treason. (He got off, thanks to Chief Justice John Marshall, who wanted to stick it to Jefferson.)
And now today's Republican Party – the party of Honest Abe, Teddy, Ike, and The Gipper - will assemble in Cleveland next week to nominate the most reprehensible candidate since Aaron Burr.
It would take ten columns to list all the reasons why he's unfit for this job: his bigotry, his ignorance, his narcissism, his insecurity, his boorishness, his vulgarity, the sadistic pleasure he takes in humiliating people in public - I could go on and on.
But it comes down to this: Our beloved country feels like it's coming apart right now. Do we really need this guy in the Oval Office pouring more fuel on the flames?
For Heaven's sake, let not the Republican Party be responsible for the elevation of this man.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Those Were The Days

(Above: The Snake and an unidentified man on the right. Photo by Sports Illustrated)

I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to Ken Stabler's induction into the NFL Hall of Fame on August 6 with mixed emotions.
Yes, I'm happy that he's finally getting recognized. But what took them so long? Why did they wait until after he died, when they knew how much it meant to him?
This isn't the first time the HOF has been a day late and a dollar short. They did the same thing to Les Richter, the great Cal and L.A. Rams linebacker, electing him six months after he died. And there are plenty of other deserving old timers waiting in line, including Jerry Kramer, Jim Marshall and the Mad Duck himself, Alex Karras.
But they're likely to wait a lot longer, as great younger players like Kurt Warner, Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning become eligible and elbow them aside. Kramer, the key player in the Green Bay power sweep, the most famous football play of all time, wasn't even nominated this year.
As more and more younger players retire and more and more Hall of Fame voters are too young to remember the old guys, many old timers will be lucky to get in at all, let alone in their own lifetime.
But don't let my grumpiness spoil the celebration. All hail The Snake, who was Joe Montana before Joe Montana. No amount of bureaucratic disrespect can diminish his glory or the pleasure he gave us.
It really was a golden age back in the 70s, with the Raiders, Warriors and A's all winning championships - the A's three years in a row. But the team that had the strongest hold on our hearts was the Raiders.
How much fun it was to attend a game at the Coliseum! Each section was a tiny community of its own, with many fans turning down the team's offer to move them to better seats as a reward for being longtime season ticket holders because they didn't want to move away from their friends in the section, who they had come to think of as family.
Each section seemed to have its own matriarch, usually called Mom, who adored the Raiders – especially Stabler and Marv Hubbard, who, sadly, also passed away last year – and despised the Broncos and Chiefs.
And Heaven help anyone who cussed in front of kids; the whole section would come down on him. The atmosphere was downright wholesome, in its own rowdy way.
And they were loyal, even when the team betrayed them by moving to Los Angeles. The most loyal of all was a group called the Bay Area Dirtballs, who flew down to L.A. for all the home games.
But within a year after the team returned to Oakland in 1995 most of the Dirtballs had given up their season tickets, preferring to watch games at sports bars like Ricky's, instead.
Why? Two words: Black Hole. They didn't like the new breed of fans the team brought back with it from L.A. They felt their team had been hijacked by a bunch of wild-eyed crazies they had nothing in common with, and it didn't feel like their team anymore.
So as a longtime Raiders fan, I know how a lot of Republicans are feeling these days.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Play's The Thing

(Above: Harriet Schlader, founder and Managing Director of the Woodminster Summer Musicals, poses with Daniel Barrington Rubio, who is playing the title role in Shrek The Musical, which will open the organization’s 50th season of musicals in Woodminster Amphitheater.  Photo by Kathy Kahn.)

Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland is one of the Eastbay's crowning glories, featuring cascades, a reflecting pool and the jewel in the crown, the Woodminster Amphitheater, a beautiful open-air facility with spectacular views and a woodsy environment that was built as a WPA project during the Great Depression.
For the last 50 years Harriet Schlader and her late husband Jim, who passed away in 2010, have been delighting local theater fans by presenting some of Broadway's best musicals under the stars at Woodminster. Their first production was South Pacific, followed by Paint Your Wagon, Kiss Me Kate and The Music Man. This year it starts with Shrek: The Musical, which opens July 8, followed by Chicago in August and La Cage Aux Folles in September.
For many East Bay families, it's a longstanding tradition to enjoy a picnic in the park and then see a musical at Woodminster. Some season ticket holders have been sitting in the same seats for three generations.
And they can always count on two things: a highly professional production and a fast-moving show that ends no later than 10:30.
For years, I heard different stories about the reason why. Some said it's the law in Oakland; others said it's in Woodminster's contract with the musicians' union. But Harriet says it's a lot simpler: concern for the audience's rear ends.
"It's stadium seating," she says. "That can be hard on your butt, so we keep the shows down to 2½ hours. As my Jim used to say, 'Get out before they catch on.'"
Jim and Harriet were already Broadway veterans when they began producing musicals at Woodminster. He was a singer whose opera-trained tenor voice made him a favorite with producers - he was never out of work longer than two months for more than 20 years - and she was a dancer who performed with the Radio City Music Hall corps de ballet and on The Jackie Gleason Show as a member of the June Taylor Dancers.
And while they always tried to choose shows for Woodminster that would entertain an audience, they chose shows that elevated the audience, too.
For instance, back in the 1970s segregation was still a way of life in Oakland, but the Schladers fought that attitude with art, presenting No Strings (about an interracial romance) and an Oklahoma with African American actors in the leading roles.
"When the curtain raised, you could see people in the audience elbowing each other, like the wave," says Harriet. "When Curly came out, they sat there with their arms folded. But within 15 minutes they forgot about it and were totally into the show.
"But we still got calls afterward. 'Are you going to do the next show the way you did with Oklahoma?' 'What do you mean?' 'You know, with black people in the cast?' It made me so mad! I mean, it's entertainment! And now here we are years later with Hamilton. It goes to show that anybody can play any role if you engage the audience. That's what theater is all about."
Happy anniversary, Woodminster. May it prosper for another 50 years. And it probably will, because waiting in the wings as Harriet's eventual successor is the Schladers' son Joel, who will direct all three shows this year. And they have lots of grandkids, too.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


                                   (Photo credit: Sticky Art Lab)
For years there's been a vacant lot in my neighborhood in Berkeley, at the corner of McGee and University. Delancey Street uses it every holiday season to sell Christmas trees, but the rest of the year it's just an eyesore surrounded by a chain link fence.
But when I walked by on May 16 I noticed something different: six enormous sunflower plants blooming along the University side of the fence. On closer inspection, they turned out not to be plants at all. They were images of sunflowers knitted with wool yarn. There was even a knitted ladybug on one of the leaves.
The artist's name, I found out, is Dawn Kathryn. Seven years ago she took a knitting class at the Oakland Library and got the bug (pun intended). This is her second knitted public art project. The first was a sweater she knitted for a tree in West Oakland in front of Kilobolt Coffee shop.
Alas, it's not there anymore. A vandal tore it down, which is frustrating because she works as much as six months on each project. And two weeks ago the same fate also befell the sunflowers. Somebody cut their heads off.
"After putting in that much time on a project, it can be a little nerve wracking hoping nobody takes it down," she says. "It doesn't matter how many people like it, one mean person can screw it up for everybody who enjoys it."
But that's not the end of the story. The lot is only a couple of doors down the street from Sticky Art Lab, a great, only-in-Berkeley art studio for kids where they can experiment with scrap materials and create unique, handmade works of art.
The next day, the kids from Sticky Art Lab were out there restoring the sunflowers (including the ladybug) to their former glory. I spoke with two of them: Sasha, 8, and Emma, 10.
"With no sunflowers, the fence looked really sad," says Sasha. "All Dawn was trying to do was make the world a prettier place, although there's beauty in everything, I think."
"And if it isn't as beautiful as it could be, you can always try to make it better," Emma adds.
They worked in teams: One kid holding each flower or leaf in place while the other tied it to the fence with matching-color yarn.
"We started with the flowers, and after that we worked on each separate petal," Emma explains.
Now the sunflowers look better than ever, bringing a smile to everyone who sees them.
"It was really fun," says Sasha. "I felt really good after we did it."
"It makes me proud to admire my work every time every time I pass by," says Emma.
As for Dawn, she's already at work on another public knitting project: a sweater for a signpost around the corner from Discount Fabrics on Ashby and San Pablo.
"I don't have a timeline; I do it when I can and when I feel like it," she says. "But the post isn't very large, so I don't think it will take long."
And she's grateful to the folks at Sticky Art Lab.
"It's a wonderful place, with great afterschool programs and summer camps. And they are wonderful people, as attested to by the fact that they repaired my flowers."