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, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman R.I.P.

I don't know about you, but I was taken aback by the depth of my sorrow this morning when I heard that Paul Newman had died.
He was the coolest guy of our time - an unpretentious man who lived as far away as he could from Hollywood, stayed married to the same woman for 50 years, and was most comfortable hanging out with people who didn't have the slightest idea he was somebody famous, such as the cancer-stricken little kids at his Hole In The Wall Camp.
When I was growing up in L.A. during the late '50s and early '60s, he was a common sight zipping around town in his Porsche 550 Spyder - except it didn't look like one.
He removed the body and substituted one from a beat-up old Volkswagen Beetle. On the outside, it looked just like a VW. But inside, it was still a racetrack-ready Porsche.
It gave him a huge kick to watch the stunned look on the faces of other drivers when he passed them on steep hills.
Newman wasn't the best actor of his generation. That distinction goes to Marlon Brando.
But he was something better: the actor who embodied his generation's fondest ideal of what American men are really like deep down - world-weary anti-heroes who end up doing the right thing in the last reel.
He was a part of a line that runs directly from Clark Gable through Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Newman, Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks.
Without exception, they tended to under-act. And their work still feels natural, even today.
Compare them to the parallel line of "best actors," which runs from Paul Muni through Spencer Tracy, Brando, Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn.
Except for Tracy, they tended to over-act. They wanted you to see what great actors they were. As a result, much of their work looks over-the-top to our 21st Century tastes.
Sure, you admire the virtuosity when you watch Brando or Nicholson melting down. But you're still thinking, "What terrific acting," not "Aw, the poor guy." You're watching the actor, not the character.
But in Newman's movies, whether he was Fast Eddie Felson in "The Hustler," Rocky Graziano in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," Ari Ben Canaan in "Exodus" or Butch Cassidy to Robert Redford's Sundance Kid, you always rooted for the character, not the actor who was playing him.
And his salad dressing wasn't bad, either.
Newman was a steadfast Democrat, long before liberalism became the flavor du jour in Hollywood. An avid supporter of the civil rights and anti-war movements, he claimed his proudest achievement was making Richard Nixon's "enemies list."
And he had a rare quality in Hollywood, then and now: humility.
After his first movie, "The Silver Chalice," was released, he took out a full-page ad in Variety apologizing for the movie and his performance in it.
Back in 1968, when he was campaigning for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, one of the officers in his police escort pointed to his partner and told Newman that the man had received word the night before that his son had been killed in Vietnam.
Saddened by the news, Newman offered the grieving father his condolences and added thoughtfully, "What do you think about some creep, some Hollywood peacenik, coming in here and telling you about the war?"
"I don't resent you," the father replied. "Even if a war takes your boy, that doesn't make it right."
Last month, Newman's doctors told him he had only a few days to live. So he checked himself out of the hospital and died at home, surrounded by his family.
But what do you want to bet that he filled out an absentee ballot for Obama and mailed it in before he died?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Making a joyful noise unto The Lord

Happy Rosh Hashanah to the happiest man I know. His name is Yehuda Ferris, and he's the rabbi at Chabad House in Berkeley.
Like other Jews all over the world, he's busy cleaning his house and stocking up on sweets in anticipation of the holiday, which begins next Monday at sundown.
"No vinegar, green apples, pickles or herring," he says. "We'll only eat sweet things, to express our wish for a sweet year."
Rosh Hashanah is the start of the High Holy Days, which culminate 10 days later on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Jews believe that during this period God decides the fate of the world.
"He's taking inventory," says Ferris. "Running the world is a business, like any other. If there's a profit, he'll keep the world going for another year. If not, goodbye world."
But God doesn't measure profit by dollars and cents. He measures it by good deeds, called mitzvahs. There are 613 mitzvahs in all. (Remember that number. It'll pop up again.)
Some mitzvahs are about our relationship with each other, such as caring for widows and orphans. Others are about our relationship with God, such as observing the dietary laws.
"Our job is to do as many mitzvahs as we can in this 10-day period. But they must be performed with a joyous heart, not out of duty," says Ferris.
So what makes him so happy?
He belongs to a branch of Judaism called Hassidism, which was founded about 280 years ago by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Ba'al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name).
The Ba'al Shem Tov came along at a time when Judaism was in the doldrums, after suffering a series of brutal pogroms in Eastern Europe. Many Jews responded to the outside pressure by turning inward and devoting their lives to studying the Talmud. But the Ba'al Shem Tov went the other way.
Though an eminent Talmudic scholar himself, he said a personal relationship with God is more important than book learning, and even a simple, illiterate person can have one.
He called that relationship "cleaving to God;" and for his followers, it's an ecstatic experience.
"Even something as simple as tying your shoelaces or changing your baby's diaper can bring you closer to God, if it's done in the right spirit," says Ferris. "If you stop and think about all the blessings The Lord has given us, it's just overwhelming. All you can do is laugh and sing and dance with gratitude and joy."
To Ferris, all the wonders of the universe can be seen in a single flower petal. It's the same epiphany that the hippies were trying to achieve by taking LSD back in the '60s. But Ferris doesn't need any drugs, and the high doesn't wear off after a few hours.
Rosh Hashanah will kick off at exactly 6:13 p.m. Monday with a joyful - even raucous - celebration at the Bancroft Hotel. The festivities will include prayers, jokes, singing, dancing and symbolic foods such as pomegranates, which are sweet to the taste and contain exactly 613 seeds. The partying will go on until the wee small hours of the morning.
Not everyone thinks such enthusiasm is seemly. Even in his own lifetime, the Ba'al Shem Tov was criticized by the rabbinical establishment, who said carrying on like this is undignified, even crazy. This is what he replied:
"Once, in a house, there was a wedding festival. The musicians sat in a corner and played their instruments, the guests danced to the music and were merry, and the house was filled with joy.
"But a deaf man passed outside the house. He looked in the window and saw people whirling around the room, leaping and throwing their arms.
"'See how they fling themselves about!' he cried. 'It is a house filled with madmen!' For he could not hear the music to which they danced."