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, June 26, 2010

Happy birthday, Nancy

Happy birthday to Nancy Reagan, who will turn 89 on July 13.
Now, you know me: I've been a liberal Democrat since I was a kid, when my mother warned me that a boogeyman named Joe McCarthy would get me if I didn't eat all my lima beans.
But, at the risk of shocking my friends in Berkeley, I think Nancy was a good First Lady.
Yes, I know she got off to a rocky start. Her critics painted her as a latter-day Marie Antoinette who wore designer gowns and munched lobster salad at Le Cirque with her pals Babe Paley, Betsy Bloomingdale and Jerry "The Social Moth" Zipkin.
Even her anti-drug "Just say no" campaign was an embarrassment, especially when she said, "Drugs are such a downer" - apparently not realizing that "downer" was a word from the drug culture, meaning sedative.
In short, she wasn't Eleanor Roosevelt. And she never should have tried to be. Dandling third world babies on her knee just wasn't her style.
What she did well - and she did it really well - was being her husband's loyal partner. And during the second Reagan term, that partnership helped change the world.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan were what Kurt Vonnegut termed a "duprass" - a union between two people that is so strong, it can't be penetrated even by children born of that union (as their children, Patti and Ron Jr., were to discover to their sorrow).
Her devotion to him trumped everything, even ideology. She had been a lifelong conservative; in fact, it was she and her stepfather, Dr. Loyal Davis, who converted Ronnie from a New Deal Democrat to a Goldwater Republican.
But her devotion to conservatism paled in comparison to the only thing she ever really cared about: What was good for Ronnie?
And in the mid-1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in the Soviet Union seemed to present an opportunity to make a serious deal, she decided that what would be good for Ronnie would be to go down in history as a peacemaker.
So, operating hand-in-hand with her ally, Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Deaver, she engineered the ouster of Deaver's nominal boss, belligerent Chief of Staff Donald Regan, and his replacement by the more pragmatic Howard Baker.
Then she urged Ronnie to hold summit conferences with Gorbachev and establish a personal friendship beforehand.
To do this, she had to overcome not only her own anti-Communist instincts, but also her intense dislike of Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, whom she found absolutely insufferable.
And Ronnie listened to her because he knew she was the only person in the world who had no agenda but his best interests.
The Reagan-Gorbachev friendship resulted in the 1987 INF Treaty, the first step in the process that led to the peaceful end of the Cold War - and on our terms, too.
She has also been a good ex-First Lady, taking loving care of her husband during his long battle with Alzheimer's and defying Republican orthodoxy by championing stem cell research.
That was because of Ronnie, too. If stem cells could help him or others suffering from that terrible disease, then ideology be damned.
I don't think she set out to change the world. What she did, she did for love. But she changed the world all the same.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Smell test

(Above: TamTam and one of her kittens)

The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden is eagerly anticipating the flowering of its Titan Arum, better known (for good reason) as the Corpse Plant.
The plant is expected to bloom on July 1, when it will emit a revolting rotting-flesh-like stench for 24 hours. Director Paul Licht says Titan Arum seeds will be sold to the public to grow their own at home.
"The Titans make nice house plants," he says, adding in a masterpiece of understatement, "except perhaps during the one night when they bloom."
Meanwhile, did you read about the 62-foot-tall statue of Jesus in Monroe, Ohio, that burned to the ground after being struck by lightning last week, while the porn shop next door was untouched?
Talk about déjà vu! The same thing happened after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The bluenoses called it divine punishment for the wickedness of the Barbary Coast. But popular sentiment disagreed, as expressed by this doggerel:
"If, as they say, God spanked this town/For being over-frisky/Why did He burn the churches down/And save Hotaling's Whiskey?"
Next, a sad goodbye to former Warrior Manute Bol, who died much too early last weekend at age 47.
The press dubbed him the "Dinka Dunker," a tribute to his 7'7" height, which made him the tallest player in the NBA. But Warriors fans remember him most fondly for his 3-pointers, which he connected more often than any big man has any right to expect.
He will be most remembered for his humanitarian efforts in his native Sudan, of course. But he'll also go down in history as the player who coined the phrase "my bad."
In baseball news, next Tuesday will be the third anniversary of the one-sided trade when the A's essentially gave away talented but troubled outfielder Milton Bradley to the San Diego Padres in exchange for a minor-league pitcher who never amounted to much. The A's even had to throw in some cash to sweeten the deal.
The reason they unloaded him was his volatile temper. He fought with everybody - teammates, managers, umpires, fans, even the guy in the announcer's booth.
But Bradley has always maintained that his bad guy rep is a bum rap.
"I want people to say Milton Bradley was a pretty good ballplayer and a pretty good person," he said. "Anybody who is going to stand between me getting there, then they need to be eliminated."
Finally, farewell to Tamerack the Siberian husky, the kindest dog I ever met.
TamTam, as she was known to her many friends, belonged to Sarah Kidder of Oakland. She exuded sweetness and gentleness, and her kindness extended to anything smaller and weaker than she was - especially homeless kittens.
One day last year, she and Sarah were walking around Lake Merritt when they spotted a pair of kittens who had been dumped on the street.
Sarah scooped them up and took them home, but then TamTam unexpectedly took over.
"She would follow them around and lick their heads and make sure they were OK," says Sarah. "After 24 hours, they started following her around. Whenever she sat down, they sat down, too. Even when she was gnawing on a bone, she'd let them munch on it, too!"
But a few months ago, TamTam developed a malignant tumor on her muzzle that was inoperable. Knowing that she had only had a short time left, Sarah crammed as many doggy pleasures as she could into TamTam's remaining days.
Shortly before she died, Sarah threw her a 13½ birthday party (that's 95 in dog years). All of her friends came to say goodbye, each bearing her favorite doggy treats.
She was the center of attention, and she loved every minute of it.
But a few days later it was clear that she was suffering too much, and Sarah reluctantly had her put down. She was with TamTam when she died.
Go to sleep now, TamTam. Good dog.