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, December 24, 2013

Foster Kids Need Homes!

Have you heard the Sleep Train commercials urging you to donate to foster kids, under the slogan "Not everyone can be a foster parent, but anyone can help a foster child?"
There are more than 400,000 children in this country in need of foster care, but they are virtually invisible to the rest of us, which is part of the problem. But I do know a bona fide foster care expert: Lily Dorman-Colby, a former foster child herself.
Lily not only overcame the odds – only a small percentage of foster kids graduate from college – to get a full scholarship to Yale, she's now a third year student at UC Berkeley's Boalt Law School, where she's devoting her career to advocating for better foster care policies.
"I appreciate what Sleep Train is trying to do, but I have mixed feelings about that slogan because I want people who are qualified to seriously consider being foster or adoptive parents as a way of expanding their families," she says.
"For instance, both at Yale and after Yale at law school, I've had professors come and talk to me about being foster parents, and they thought they weren't qualified! Some of my favorite teachers, the ones who go all out for their students, were afraid to become foster parents. It was preposterous to me because these are precisely the people we need – people who are or could be dedicated to helping their children physically, emotionally and educationally."
And she's practicing what she preaches. She and her fiancé Scott have already fostered two children, for which they were honored as "Unsung Heroes" on Dec. 9 by the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.
And she remembers all too well what life as a foster child was like.
"They say that moving is very traumatic on children, and that's when you're moving with your family. Think how much worse it is to be moving without your family! So foster kids not only have to endure abuse and neglect before they enter the foster system, they have to experience the trauma of being torn from the only family they've ever known.
"And with a huge gap between the number of kids needing foster homes and the number of homes available, the social workers can't afford to be choosy. Basically, all they're looking for is a bed."
What these kids need more than anything else is someone like you. If you'd like to explore the possibility of becoming a foster parent – or, even better, adopting a foster child – Lily recommends going through an agency rather than contacting the county directly.
"They're better at certifying somebody and supporting them than going through the county," she says. "They'll train you and license you and help you get higher reimbursement rates."
She says there are "a ton" of good agencies out there - including senecacenter.org, aspiranetadoption.org and agapevillages.org - but I'd recommend doing your own Internet search and choosing the agency that feels right for you.
And if you'd like to donate to the Youth Law Center, visit ylc.org or send a tax-deductible check to 200 Pine Street, Suite 300, San Francisco 94104.
"Parenting is described by many as the joy of their life and the most difficult thing they've ever done, says Lily. "And that's true of foster parenting and adoption, too."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What Color is Santa?

Is Santa Claus white?
That's what Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly said last week, touching off a firestorm of criticism.
So I thought I'd put the question to Santa himself – in the person of Ron Zeno, who has been playing Santa at Children's Fairyland in Oakland since 1995.
He burst out laughing, but it was one of those cases when you have to laugh to keep from crying.
"I don't see Santa as black or white," said Zeno (who is, in case you're curious, African American). "And neither do the kids. To them, I'm just plain old Santa. Every once in a while a parent will say, 'Oh, a black Santa!' But the kids never do."
But Kelly went even further, adding, "Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure. That's a verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want the kids watching to know that."
There are almost too many factual errors in that statement to count. For one thing, Santa is not a historical figure.
Yes, he was modeled on St. Nicholas, a theological heavyweight - he was one of the signers of the Nicene Creed - who lived in Asia Minor (now known as Turkey) in the third century. But he has historically been portrayed with dark skin, like the other people who lived in the area.
The modern-day white Santa was invented by the Dutch and Germans and given his present look by poet Clement Clark Moore, cartoonist Thomas Nast, and the Coca-Cola company.
But – and I know this is going to come as a shock to Megyn Kelly – he's not real.
As for Jesus, does anyone seriously believe that an Aramaic-speaking, first century Middle Eastern Jew had blue eyes, white skin and flowing blond hair? He does in American movies from the 1950s, which is probably where Kelly got the idea. But no serious Biblical scholar believes it.
In 2001 the BBC hired a forensic archaeologist from the University of Manchester to examine a skeleton of a first century Middle Eastern Jew and use computer technology to create a reasonable facsimile of what he must have looked like. Not surprisingly, the reconstruction revealed that he had a broad face and a large nose.
Meanwhile, an Old Testament scholar at Duke analyzed portraits of third century Jews and found they had dark skins and short, curly hair.
And Saint Paul would agree. In First Corinthians he says it is "disgraceful" for a man to have long hair. Although he never met Jesus, he did meet people who knew Jesus intimately, including St. Peter. Do you think he would have condemned a hairstyle that Jesus wore?
The bottom line is that by saying Jesus is white, you're saying God is white. Just who is creating whom in whose image?
Kelly has replied to the criticism with the standard can't-you-take-a-joke response. But it's not a joke to little kids of color, who have just been told they're second-class humans. It's not only cruel, it's gratuitously cruel.
As an old hymn from my youth says, "Jesus loves the little children/All the children of the world/Red, brown, yellow, black or white/They're all precious in His sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world."
Little kids understand this instinctively. Why is it so hard for grownups?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Business Is Mushrooming

L-R: Alex, Martha (clutching a Mushroom Kit) and Nik
The last time I wrote about Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Aurora, they had just returned from the Netherlands, where their new business, BTTR Ventures (short for "Back To The Roots") beat more than 1,500 contestants worldwide to win $10,000 in the 2009 World Challenge Competition for Social Ventures.
It all started a year earlier, when Alex and Nik met in a business class during their senior year at Cal. Hearing that Peet's Coffee was throwing out tons of used coffee grounds every week, they approached Peet's with a better idea: Give us the grounds, and we'll haul them away for free and use them to grow organic oyster mushrooms.
After perfecting the product through trial-and-error experiments in the kitchen of Alex's fraternity house, Beta Theta Pi, they approached Whole Foods, which agreed to sell the mushrooms in its stores.
But as soon as they got back from The Hague, they decided to scrap their successful business model. Instead of growing mushrooms on acres and acres of used coffee grounds, they figured, why not make inexpensive do-it-yourself home gardening kits and empower the customers to grow their own?
So was born the Mushroom Kit. All you have to do is open the box and spray it once a day (sprayer provided), and voila! Your very own countertop mushroom garden.
That's when business really took off. The Mushroom kits are being sold practically everywhere, including Whole Foods, Nordstrom, Safeway, Petco, Home Depot and Toys 'R' Us, where you can usually find them near the Water Blasters at the front of the store.
After starting out with just the two of them, Alex and Nick now employ 12 people at their headquarters in the Oakland produce district and another six at their satellite office in Union City.
"And last April we were able to start providing health care for them, which is really exciting," says Alex.
Along with fortune came fame. Last year, Alex was a contestant on ABC's "The Bachelorette," where he vied with 24 other guys for the hand of the lovely Emily Maynard. (He got eliminated on Week Six, but he still had a lot of fun.)
Meanwhile, Nik was invited to the White House last year not once but twice to be honored by President Obama.
And this year they have a new product: the AquaFarm, a combination herb garden and fishbowl in a closed system: The plant roots clean the water, and the fish poop feeds the plants. All you have to do is add fish food.
The Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm have been honored by Fitness, Family Circle, Forbes and Maxim magazines, ABC News, Rachael Ray, Bloomberg News, Entrepreneur Magazine and Martha Stewart, who had Nik and Alex on her show and named the AquaFarm one of her Top 10 American Made products for this holiday season.
The AquaFarm comes with a gift certificate for one Beta fish at Petco and seeds for wheat grass, basil and purple lettuce. But you can use any kind of fish and plants you want.
"People have added shrimp, snails and crabs and made their own ecosystems, which is really nice," says Nik. "And as for plants, we just got a rave review from one of the largest medical marijuana sites on the Internet, Medijane.com."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dear Santa

"Dear Santa, I want to meet Justin Timberlake. Pretty please! Love, Jen."
"Dear Santa, You got to go on a diet. Plus, give me 100 more wishes. Thanks, Kashyap."
"Dear Santa, I am so thankful that you visit me every year. I am very alone. My father died, and I am an only child. So to me, you are my father. I want to thank you for being in my heart and being present in my favorite holiday. Love, Alexis."
Once upon a time, letters like these ended up in the Dead Letter Office. But for the past 27 years, they have gone to the Main Post Office in Oakland, which invites the public to read and answer them.
"You don't necessarily have to send a gift," says MaryGrace Cruz, the USPS's Consumer & Industry Contact Manager. "The children appreciate just knowing that somebody out there cares."
But, of course, if you're moved to send a present, too, nobody's going to stop you. To participate, call the Santa Hotline at 510-874-8737, and one of Santa's Helpers will be more than happy to assist you.
In the meantime, here's more of what our kids are thinking this holiday season. Once again, they never fail to surprise.
"Dear Santa, I have been good all year. I didn't get in trouble and I got very good grades. This year all I want is a phone. It can be any type you want but PLEASE don't get me a used phone! Love, Prab. P.S. I will leave cookies and milk for you."
"Dear Santa, I would like to say hello. I know you couldn't get me anything last year, but that's OK. I don't insist on you bringing me anything this year, but it would really make me very happy. The elves might be too busy working on other toys, and I don’t want them to have too much work. But if they want to make me something, they can. Merry Christmas. Sincerely, Daniel."
"Dear Santa, How is it going in the North Pole? Is this Santa reading this or an elf? Thank you for reading my Christmas list. I hope you have an awesome Christmas! From Niki."
"Dear Santa, I just wanted to ask if you're OK. I also want to tell you how well I have been doing in school by working really hard on my homework, class work and tests. My parents don't have enough money because my dad works only two or three days a week in construction. I just want to thank you for reading my letter and tell you that God blesses you for everything you do. Sincerely, Sergio."
"Dear Santa, How are you? Are you and the elves making progress this year? I am really excited for Christmas! This year I would like new socks, and a phone case for a 3GS would be nice, too. Those electric cars are pretty cool also. I also need a hair pick for my American Girl when I curl her hair. I hope this isn't too much for you to handle. You don't have to get me every single thing on the list, but most of it would be nice. Love, Faith."
"Dear Santa, I would like a dog that looks just like my old dog Chloe. She was a Boston terrier. I almost forgot: and a lot of bracelets. I hope you get a lot of cookies for Christmas. Thank you, Natalie."
"Dear Santa, How are you? I want to thank you for bringing me everything I asked for. I wish I could meet you one day to give you hugs and tell you how much I love you. I want to ask you if you can bring me a tablet. If you can't it's OK. I'm still going to love you. (Unsigned) P.S. Fly safely."
"Dear Santa, How are you doing up there in the North Pole? How is Mrs. Clause? The things that would make me happy this Christmas are an NBA jersey and the LeBron James movie. Have a jolly and happy Christmas! Thank you, Andrew."
"Dear Santa, How have you been? Hope to see you some time soon! I have missed you! Is it OK to ride in your sleigh? I would love to! And please tell my parents to take me to see 'Frozen!' Love, June."
"Dear Santa, HI. My name is Elizabeth. We just moved to San Jose because our room in Los Angeles caught on fire. This year, all I want to ask you for is some clothing and shoes for my brothers and me. My mother has been a single mom for a long time, and I admire her because she's always been there for us and always finds ways to support us even through we've been through a lot. Santa, I'll understand if you can't help us this year. Last year we received your letter saying you couldn't make it to our home. I hope you can this year."
"Dear Santa, I would like a doll and cash for my college fund. $2 million would be good. (Unsigned)"
"Dear Santa, I am 11 years old and I have always wanted a computer to do my homework. Please try to bring me one. Santa, I trust you. Also, I believe in you. My name is Kimberly."
"Dear Santa, I wish you a Merry Christmas. The only thing I want for the next year is that my parents and grandparents will be healthy!!! Love, Dennis."
"Dear Santa, Merry Christmas! Can I have a motorcycle, dirt bike, a big huge white bear, and please give water to the poor people. Love, Leila."
"Dear Santa, For this Christmas I want a baby brother. Love, Hailey."
"Dear Santa, I want all my brothers and sisters to get what they want. Love, Brian."
"Dear Santa, I have been a real good boy. Please bless me with love, joy and health, but most of all - gifts! Thanks, (Unsigned)."
"Dear Santa, I'm writing this letter not for me, but for someone else that I believe deserves to get something for Christmas. I work for a pediatric palliative care center, and we have a patient's sister who has been living her for over three months with her sister, who is very ill, and their parents. She is a very sweet, kind and loving girl. Her name is Anais. She is about nine years old. She loves anything with princesses, especially Disney Princess. She also likes to make bracelets and she likes Hello Kitty. Basically, she likes anything girly. I know whatever you bring her she would be very grateful for, and so would her parents since they are out of work at this point. So if you could help her in any way I would appreciate it. I believe she deserves to be happy. From someone who will always believe in you, no matter what age I am."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Christmas For Children

(Above: Dori the pony, one of the happy animals in Children's Fairyland's Animal Corral, wishes you a merry Christmas.)

One of the paradoxes of the Holiday season is that there are so few activities for the people the occasion was designed for – little kids.
But there are still a few quality offerings for little ones. The Habitot Children's Museum in Berkeley is holding a Gingerbread House Party on Dec. 21, when the tykes can decorate a giant gingerbread house with candles, cookies, sprinkles and other goodies, and the completed house will be donated to a local family shelter. Admission for the day is free.
Meanwhile, Children's Fairyland in Oakland is about to become Fairy Winterland. Every year from Dec. 14 to 23 the park is transformed by thousands of sparkling lights into a magical winter wonderland celebrating the holidays of many cultures: Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Las Posadas, Diwali and Chinese New Year.
This year, Fairy Winterland will feature the Tap Dancing Christmas Trees, puppet versions of "The Nutcracker" and Hans Christian Anderson's "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep," magicians, jugglers, fire eaters, storytellers, daily dreidel sessions, a Festival of Lights parade every evening, and oodles of hot chocolate and hot cider.
Plus, of course, a visit every day from Santa Claus himself. Each one of Santa's little visitors will have a chance to have their picture taken with him, give him their holiday wish lists, and receive a special holiday treat.
Last, but by no means least, is "Sing You A Merry Christmas," an amazingly creative concert/sing-along/play for the 8-and-under set starring 11 adults and two kids – trumpet players Mercy Betraro and Nic Vamos of El Cerrito, both students at the School of the Madeleine in Berkeley. (He's in the 7th grade; she's in the 8th.)
The show starts with Mercy and Nic alone on stage playing a trumpet fanfare that rings through the entire cathedral, casting a spell on the audience that brings the hubbub to a hush almost immediately.
Suddenly, the audience is surrounded by dancing and singing life-sized toys - the adults in the cast – waving ribbon sticks through and over and around the audience.
Then comes a snowstorm (flashing lights), and the audience gets lost underneath a blanket of "snow" – a white fabric that they have to cooperatively pass over the top of their heads to get out of the "snowstorm."
The toys explain that they have to discover the true meaning of Christmas before they can be given out. They search for clues contained in locked boxes that open only when everyone sings the proper Christmas carol.
Finally, after all the clues are discovered, they have to be put in the correct order, and one lucky girl or boy is chosen to come out of the audience to do it.
Then Mercy and Nic play another fanfare (variations on "Here Comes Santa Claus") and out comes Santa himself to end the show.
"The show is written especially for little kids, and that's unusual," says Jennifer Ashworth, who wrote, directed and produced it with Kristen Jones. "Most times, you have to drag them along and tell them to be quiet, but this show is highly interactive. We want them to sing along."
"Sing You A Merry Christmas will be presented twice, on Dec. 14 and 21, at 11 a.m. Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-392-4400 or visiting gracecathedral.org/calendar.
Merry Christmas!

Saturday, November 30, 2013


(Above: Ned and Ted. Or maybe Fred and Jed. Or even Mildred. Hard to tell.)

A few weeks ago, Gail Churchill, a volunteer with Island Cat Resources & Adoption, which serves Oakland and Alameda, got a phone call saying there were five kittens in an abandoned couch in someone's backyard.
As soon as she got there, she realized the kittens were only four weeks old – too young to trap safely. When they spotted her, they scurried up into the couch's innards.
"There were teeny little legs sticking out in all directions," she says. "And they were all screaming bloody murder."
The screaming attracted a neighbor, who helped her pry the couch open and catch the terrified little ones by hand.
"They were untouchable for a couple of days, but day by day they started to purr. Within a week they were pretty much people-friendly. And absolutely adorable."
The kittens – two longhaired orange-and-whites, two white and tabby mixes, and a breathtakingly gorgeous longhaired Maine coon – are four boys and a girl, temporarily named Fred, Ted, Ned, Jed, and Mildred until somebody adopts them and gives them their real names.
Now they're nine weeks old, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and thoroughly socialized. Ted and Ned, especially, never stop purring, but all of them are extremely affectionate.
"But as adorable as they are, they should never have been born," says Gail. "Now that they have been born, it's up to us humans to take care of them, but we have to stop others from being born."
The Humane Society of the US says three to four million unwanted cats and dogs are euthanized every year. And countless others live out lives on the street filled with cold, terror and a never-ending search for enough food to live another day.
Some people say the solution is to round them all up and kill them. But the numbers tell a different story. A single pair of unaltered cats and their offspring can produce 65,000 cats in just five years. You can't kill them fast enough to keep up.
The smart way is to prevent them from being born in the first place. That's ICRA's mission: Trap them in humane traps, then whisk them to the vet for checkups, vaccinations and – above all – spay/neuter surgery.
If they're young enough to be socialized, they get the TLC the couch kittens got. If not, they're returned to their feral colonies, where their feeders will continue to care for them. But they won't be turning out kittens any more.
The couch kittens are now ready for adoption, and you can see their pictures on ICRA's website, icraeastbay.org. That's also where to make a tax-deductible donation or sign up to be an ICRA volunteer.
You can also send a check to ICRA, P.O. Box 1093, Alameda CA 94501. Or – and I saved the best for last – you can go to ICRA's annual Holiday Boutique on Dec. 7 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Alameda Elks Lodge, 2255 Santa Clara Avenue, featuring thousands of Holiday-related items – decorations, gift wrap, Christmas cards, centerpieces, hostess gifts, etc. - with prices well below retail.
And if you're feeding any backyard cats, God bless you, but that's only half the battle. Get those kitties fixed right away!
(BTW, all the nice things I said about ICRA also goes for a Berkeley-based group called Fix Our Ferals.)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Missing JFK

This is not the column I originally intended to write today. I wanted to follow the lead of Caroline Kennedy and focus on the triumph of her father's life, not the tragedy of his death.
I wanted to write about how charming he was, and how he inspired my generation to ask not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country.
But for those of us who are old enough to remember that terrible day in Dallas, the shock and pain of his assassination still hurts, even after all this time. I think few of us will really ever get over it.
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, a consensus seemed to emerge that two reforms must be accomplished right away. First, we needed to tighten up the gun laws so crackpots like Oswald, who purchased the death rifle via mail order for only $21, couldn't get access to guns.
A simple background check would have revealed that Oswald not only was affiliated with some very dodgy extremist groups and defected to the Soviet Union for three years, he had already tried to assassinate retired Gen. Edwin Walker the previous spring.
The second thing we felt needed reforming was the culture of hate that was dividing the country.
We already had ample warning that there was danger afoot before President Kennedy went to Dallas. Some people had spat on U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson there a few weeks earlier, and local residents sent letters to the White House begging Kennedy not to come because of the risk. On the day he landed, the local John Birch Society distributed ominous-looking leaflets with his picture and the words "Wanted For Treason!"
Needless to say, these much-desired reforms never came to pass. Despite the subsequent murders of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and the assassination attempts on Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Gabby Giffords, the gun manufacturers and their puppet group, the National Rifle Association, have not only blocked attempts at reform, they've been successful in getting laws passed that actually loosen gun restrictions.
And now the list of victims has been expanded to include college students (Virginia Tech), high school students (Columbine), moviegoers (Aurora) and even toddlers (Sandy Hook).
Meanwhile, the culture of hate is even worse now than it was in 1963. Some Americans hate other Americans more than they love their country. If you don't believe me, just go on the Internet and see for yourself. It's a deadly combination, and I fear for the future of our country.
At President Kennedy's funeral, Chief Justice Earl Warren asked a question that rings even truer today:
"If we really love this country, if we truly love justice and mercy, if we fervently want to make this nation better for those who are to follow us, we can at least abjure the hatred that consumes people, the false accusations that divide us, and the bitterness that begets violence. Is it too much to hope that the martyrdom of our beloved president might even soften the hearts of those who would themselves recoil from assassination, but who do not shrink from spreading the venom which kindles thoughts of it in others?"
Half a century later, that question remains unanswered.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thuggery In The NFL

(Above:  Incognito and Martin)

Ever since I was a little kid, football has always been my favorite sport, both to play and – when it was obvious I wasn't going to be 6-foot-4 and 275 lbs. - to watch. But the NFL finally jumped the shark for me last week when the bullying scandal involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins broke.

According to news reports, Incognito was the ringleader of an ongoing harrassment campaign against Martin, the starting left tackle.

I won't repeat the sordid details. You probably already know more about the obscene, racist voice messages and emails, the violent threats, and the constant intimidation than you ever wanted to hear.

But what really shocked me was the reaction by NFL executives and the Dolphin players. According to them, Incognito is the good guy, and Martin is the bad guy.

His sin: violating the "sanctity of the locker room" by going public.

As one NFL front office man who preferred to remain, uh, incognito, said, "If Incognito did offend him racially, that's something you have to handle as a man."

Translation: It would have been perfectly OK if he had beaten Incognito to a pulp.

If you and I were co-workers, and I did things to you that was even a tenth as bad as what Incognito is alleged to have done to Martin, I would be out of a job before the day was out, and rightly so.

But if you had punched me out in retaliation, you would be fired, too, because that's not the way grownups act, especially in the workplace.

In short, the only place where the rules don't apply is the NFL, where the law of the jungle is the only form of discipline.

If someone harasses you at work, the proper recourse is to go to your supervisor or the Human Resources department. But Martin didn't have that option because, according to news reports, it was the Dolphins' general manager who turned Incognito loose on him in the first place in order to "toughen him up."

A lot of Dolphin players are saying Martin was somehow "soft" because he went to an elite school like Stanford. But he wasn't too soft for Jim Harbaugh, the toughest coach in football, who trusted him to protect Andrew Luck's blind side for two years.

The only one who has acted like a grownup in all this is Martin. But the consensus among sports reporters is that Incognito has a bright future in the NFL – the Raiders are already negotiating for his services – but Martin will be lucky if he ever gets to play another down.

When the devastating PBS documentary and book "League of Deception" were released last month, detailing how the NFL systematically covered up the dangers of football-related concussions, even imperiling little kids in the peewee leagues, many pundits wondered if the next generation of parents would ever be willing to allow their sons to take the risk.

But now I have to wonder: What parent would want his or her son to work in a business that rewards bullying and ostracizes people who have the guts to stand up to it?

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Cowboys. Or Dolphins. Or Raiders. Or any other team in the league.

Breaking Bread

Brrrrr! The weather is getting colder, and so are the hearts of the politicians in Washington, who just slashed $5 billion from the food stamp program. That means a cut of $36 per month for a family of four.

$36 may not seem like much, but for thousands of children in Alameda County, it means going to bed the last few days of each month with an empty stomach aching from hunger.

For senior citizens, it means having to choose between buying food or buying the medicine they need.

Politicians are fond of blaming the poor for the own misery, but what do children do to deserve this?

Or seniors, who believed the promises that their pensions would be waiting for them, only to see those pensions mysteriously disappear into some corporate bank account in the Cayman Islands?

Or the working poor, who rarely see their children because they're forced to work two or even three low-paying jobs to keep food in those children's mouths and a roof over their heads?

Or the families of soldiers who are defending our country in some very dangerous places abroad while their loved ones are going hungry back home. A pretty shabby reward for their service, don't you think?

That's why it's more important than ever for you and me to step up and try to fill the gap by donating to the Alameda County Food Bank, which serves a whopping quarter of a million people each year, two-thirds of them children or seniors.

The Food Bank isn't a single place. It's actually the hub of a vast collection and distribution network that provides food through 275 food pantries, soup kitchens, libraries, and childcare and senior centers throughout the county.

Wherever there are people in need, that's where the Food Bank goes, including sending Mobile Pantries to so-called "food deserts" - neighborhoods that don't have any grocery stores or other outlets for fresh, healthy foods, just liquor stores and fast-food chains.

Or the Free Summer Lunch program, created by a Food Bank volunteer named Michael Ross, which distributes free lunches to kids at local library branches. It's a win-win: The kids get both nutritional and educational enrichment while the libraries get an increase in memberships and summer use.

Another volunteer, Elizabeth Gomez, created the CalFresh (that's what food stamps are called in California) Hotline, which helps county residents wend their way through the state bureaucracy to get assistance. Last year, 80 percent of the people who were aided by this program had their applications approved, compared to only a 68 percent approval rate countywide.

If you'd like to help, you can go online at www.accfb.org or send a check to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, 7900 Edgewater Drive, Oakland CA 94621.

"This is a very critical time for us," says spokesman Mike Altfest. "In an ideal world we would get consistent support year-round, but most of our support comes at this time of year, during the holiday season. These next two months will determine how we operate the rest of the year."

Gandhi was right: "The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members."

And so was Jesus: "Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me."

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Sweetest Sounds

(Above: Marika Kuzma)

One of the coolest treasures on the Cal campus -- right up there with the dinosaur bones in the basement of the Campanile and the Mark Twain papers at the Bancroft Library -- is the UC Chamber Chorus, a unique town/gown collaboration between students, alumni and townspeople.
The Chamber Chorus isn't as well known as the dinosaur bones and the Twain papers -- at least, not outside the music world. But inside that world it's very highly regarded indeed. Critics keep falling over each other reaching for new ways to praise them.
The San Francisco Classical Voice calls them "flawless." The New York Times calls them "first-rate." The San Jose Mercury News says they are "arguably the area's pre-eminent collegiate ensemble." And the San Francisco Examiner says they "left no syllable unarticulated and no musical marvel unexplored." The Chamber Chorus has regularly collaborated with renowned local and international artists such as the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Mark Morris Dance Company, and Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
And now they have been invited to perform on March 21 at the most prestigious musical venue of all — Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. They haven't finalized the program yet, but it will definitely feature Berkeley composers. You can hear the Chamber Chorus before then at two local concerts they're planning that will raise money for the trip.
The first concert, in collaboration with the Cal University Chorus, will be at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way (at Dana) in Berkeley, featuring some soulful music by Randall Thompson and Eric Whitacre as well as the Duruflé Requiem, the world premiere of Brantley Psalm 89, and the Bay Area premiere of John Tavener's hauntingly beautiful Funeral Canticle (the a cappella piece heard in "The Tree of Life"). The great Jonathan Dimmock will be the guest organist.
Tickets are $16 for general admission, $12 for students and seniors and are available at the door, by phone (510-642-9988) or online at http://tickets.berkeley.edu.
Then, on Dec. 8, the Chamber Chorus will appear at Orinda Community Church, 10 Irwin Way in Orinda, for a Sunday afternoon performance of Handel's Messiah, Part I, after which the audience will be invited to sing along to the "Hallelujah Chorus" and festive holiday carols. (Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it?) That concert starts at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12 (seniors/students) and $20 (general admission) and are available at the door. For more information, email univchorus@gmail.com.
But wait! There's more! The Chamber Chorus, the University Chorus, and a guest Baroque ensemble will also perform Handel's Messiah, Part I (including the "Hallelujah Chorus") at a FREE concert Dec. 4 at Hertz Hall on the Cal campus. This performance, part of the Cal Music Department's long-standing tradition of presenting free noontime concerts, starts at 12:15 p.m. All three venues are cozy and intimate, and they all have wonderful acoustics.
If you can't make any of the local concerts but would still like to help defray the expenses of the Chamber Chorus' trip to New York for the Carnegie Hall gig, you can contribute online at givetocal.berkeley.edu/chamberchorus or send a check made out to "UC Berkeley Foundation," with "Chamber Chorus" on the memo line, to the Cal Music Department at 104 Morrison Hall, #1200/Berkeley, CA 94720-1200.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Best Wishes

The sweet sounds of Pachelbel's Canon filled the City Council Chamber at Berkeley's historic Old City Hall as Karl Reeh and Mugur Anghel, Leland Traiman and Stewart Blandon, and Melinda Paras and Barbara Englis became the first same-sex couples to be married in Berkeley after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Prop. 8 and made marriage equality the law of the land in California.
The date was Oct. 11 - not coincidentally, the 22nd anniversary of the day Berkeley became the first city in the country to pass a domestic partners law – a stopgap measure that, happily, is no longer necessary.
Karl and Mugur were married by Councilman Kriss Worthington, Leland and Stewart were married by Councilman Darryl Moore, and Melinda and Barbara were married by School Board Director Judy Appel.
All three weddings were different, reflecting the wishes of the participants. Karl and Mugur wrote their own ceremony, as did Leland and Stewart. But Melinda and Barbara chose to repeat the same traditional wedding vows they took 18 years ago, almost two decades before marriages like theirs were recognized by the state.
All three couples were beaming with happiness, and there were more than a few sentimental sniffles, too. But to tell the truth, I wasn't watching the brides and grooms.
I was watching their kids – who, after all, are the people Vladimir Putin says he's trying to protect by passing laws that would forcibly take children away from their gay or Lesbian parents.
Karl and Mugur are childless, but Leland and Stewart made their son Julian, 14, and daughter Rosalinda, 8, part of their wedding party – Julian as Best Man and Rosalinda as Flower Girl.
Melinda and Barbara's daughter Lorena, 14, was Maid of Honor for their ceremony, accompanied by her best friend, Maire O'Sullivan.
You should have seen the look on Lorena's face as she watched her mothers get married. She was SO proud of them. This day was her triumph, too.
As for Rosalinda, an adorable little moppet with a smile a mile wide, she was clearly having the time of her life. She giggled and bounced and danced as she watched her fathers tie the knot. Her big brother occasionally had to reel her in and calm her down, but nothing was going to stop her from celebrating.
After the ceremony, as I watched her race across City Hall's front lawn, gleefully shouting "DadEEEEEE!" and leaping into Stewart's arms, it was obvious that there's no way she needs protection from the two men she calls Daddy.
What she needs is protection from people like Vladimir Putin.
If, as most religions teach us, every human being is a child of God, it seems to me that discriminating against people for simply being the way God made them is blasphemy.
It's also bad public policy. We should be encouraging stable long-term relationships, not making it harder for them.
But mostly, I have a human reaction. It's so hard to find love in this sad world. If someone is lucky enough to find it, I say more power to them.
Or, as Pope Francis says, who am I to judge?
So whatever your sexual orientation - straight, gay, or somewhere in between - I hope you're with someone you love. And if not, I hope you find that special someone soon.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mr. Mopps and Mr. Gravy

O frabjous day, as Lewis Carroll would say. Devin McDonald and his longtime sweetie, Jenny Stevenson, are celebrating the third anniversary of their buying Mr. Mopps toy store in Berkeley from its founder and longtime owner, Eugene Yamashita, by opening a children's book store tomorrow, right next door on the former site of Grove Antiques.
"It's something we've wanted to do ever since we bought the store," says Jenny. "The biggest complaint we've been getting from customers who were big fans of the old store is that they missed the old book collection."
The bookstore will feature all the classics – Babar, the Ramona series, Curious George, The Learning Tree, Barrington Bears, Thomas the Tank Engine, etc. – and also a lot of cool new titles, as well as Devin's favorite book from his own childhood, "Harold and the Purple Crayon."
"It's an amazing story about a kid who draws his own adventure with a purple crayon and steps right into it, drawing it as he goes along," he says.
Only one question: What to name the store? One little boy suggested "Mrs. Broom's."
"We probably won't be doing that," says Jenny. "But we do love it."
                                   * * *
Meanwhile, at Children's Fairyland in Oakland, the Magic Lamp toy store is stocking some new goodies just in time for the park's Jack O'Lantern Jamboree on October 26 and 27, including a brand new Fairyland activity/coloring book and handmade pewter Magic Keys to activate the talking Storybook Boxes that dot the park.
But the big news is that Fairyland honored cartoonist Morrie Turner, creator of "Wee Pals," America's first racially integrated comic strip, on September 21 with a gold Magic Key, a panel discussion, and a Q & A session with an adoring audience of children and their parents who braved the rain to show their love.
 One little girl asked him how to find success as an artist.
"Keep your pen wet," he advised. "And draw, draw, draw!"
                                   * * *
Finally, congrats to Wavy Gravy, the self-described "activist clown and former frozen dessert" (a reference to Ben & Jerry's naming a flavor after him), who was awarded the Berkeley Community Fund's prestigious Benjamin Ide Wheeler Medal on October 10.
Wavy, who founded Camp Winnarainbow in 1975 and co-founded the Seva Foundation in three years later to fight preventable and curable blindness in Asia and Africa ("Three million eye surgeries and we're still truckin'!"), was awarded the medal for distinguished community service.
Most of us first became aware of him as the MC at Woodstock, but his career goes back much farther, all the way to the early '60s, when he roomed with an unknown folksinger named Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village and co-starred with Tiny Tim in a musical review at a dubious venue called The Fat Black Pussycat. (His manager at the time was Lenny Bruce.)
"We got a front page in the Village Voice and a rave review in the New York Times," he recalls. "The next day, the sheriff came and padlocked the joint for back taxes."
Originally named Hugh Romney, he was dubbed Wavy Gravy by none other than B.B. King. And Wavy Gravy he has remained ever since, except in the pages of the New York Times, which persists in calling him "Mr. Gravy."