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Sokoloff Rocks 

 While her fellow students at Los Cerros Middle School were studying math, Marla Sokoloff was memorizing her lines. The Danville-raised actor has spent the last 13 years working in teen movies (Whatever It Takes; Dude, Where’s My Car?) and grown-up TV shows (The Practice, Desperate Housewives). And somehow, Sokoloff found time to record a genuinely good CD, available through her website, www.marlasmusic.com. We caught up with Sokoloff filming her new sitcom, Big Day, for ABC’s fall lineup.

At 25 years old, you’re already quite a veteran actor of film and TV. Do you have a favorite role so far?
I really loved playing Lucy on The Practice. She used to make people so mad! I loved being able to affect strangers that intensely.

What can you tell us about your new series, Big Day?
I’m super-psyched about this show. It’s a single-camera comedy that takes place in one day. Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me!) plays my mom, and I play a crazy, neurotic bride. It’s going to be on ABC in the fall, Thursdays at 8 p.m.

Since you played a receptionist on The Practice, do people on the street recognize you from TV, or do they think that they used to work in the same office as you?
Most of the time, people think I went to their high school or that I’m a family friend. I’ve had some hilarious run-ins with people asking me how so-and-so is doing—and I have no clue who they are talking about!

You also played Claire, the nanny, on Desperate Housewives. Did you ever have
a nanny growing up, or [do you] draw from any babysitting or nanny experiences as a teen in Danville?

No and no. My mom was always around, and I never babysat. I would be terrified being left alone with someone else’s children.

What percentage of women in Danville are desperate housewives?
No comment!

Congratulations on your new album. How long did it take to put together?
Thank you. The record took almost four years! This was a labor of love for me that I wanted to take a lot of time with. Plus, I was working on acting projects in between, so I had to keep putting it on hold.

The guitar sound on your record is really catchy. Do you have a favorite riff? Are there any stories from your days in the East Bay hidden in your lyrics?
No, most of the stuff on the record is written about recent events. My favorite riff is in the song “I’m Done.”

Where did you get that blue Rickenbacker? Do you have a collection of vintage guitars?
A friend of mine used to work at the Guitar Center and tracked that Rickenbacker down for me. I love it! I have about 12 guitars.

A friend told me that you sang in a National Anthem contest on the field for the Oakland A’s when you were 11 or 12. Any memories of that?
I remember not being scared at all. If I had to do that now, I would vomit.

How often do you visit the East Bay these days? Do you keep in touch with your friends from high school?
My best friend, Jaime, still lives there—I have known her since sixth grade. My dad also lives up there. I don’t get up there too often, but I visited over Thanksgiving.

Any advice for East Bay kids who would like to work in television, movies, or music?
Make sure you really love it and want to do it ’cause you want to work—not [because you want to] be famous. That is the kiss of death! —Peter Crooks

Newsy Neighbors

At 10 minutes to 11 in KGO’s San Francisco newsroom, Dan Ashley and Jessica Aguirre are in front of neighboring computers, putting the finishing touches on copy they’ll read on the Channel 7 news.

Ten minutes, Jess,” says Ashley, taking his eyes off the transcript of an interview with Oakland mayoral candidates and taking a final pull from a can of Diet Coke. The two dash into neighboring offices. Ashley slips into a jacket; Aguirre quickly dusts on her makeup.

“Come on, come on, on in five!” says Aguirre. They hustle through the newsroom, down a flight of stairs, and onto the news set, where they sit just a few feet from each other every weeknight at 11 p.m. The old-pro newscasters, who have co-anchored since 1998, cruise through a 35-minute broadcast, then carpool back to their homes, just around the corner from each other in Walnut Creek.

For a lot of people, working so closely with someone would mean you’d want to have some space in your personal lives,” says Ashley. “But it’s actually been nice for us to be neighbors, because we’re such great friends.”

Aguirre and Ashley have enjoyed the luxury of being neighbors since Aguirre’s family moved to Walnut Creek last spring. The two families check on each other’s pets and eat in each other’s kitchens. Aguirre’s two young daughters, Isabella and Olivia, adore Ashley’s teenage sons, Parker and Bennett, and vice versa.

Our daughter was having a disagreement with one of her friends in preschool,” says Aguirre, “and Parker came over and gave her a little talk about how to deal with the situation. He was really helpful.”

Aguirre and Ashley have been close since they started working together. When Aguirre was pregnant with her first daughter in 2001, she came to work one day complaining about the cost of wallpapering the nursery in her former San Francisco home. Ashley volunteered to do the job, and Aguirre thought he was joking—until Ashley came over, between newscasts, and got to work.

I walked into the nursery, and there was Handy Dan, wearing a kitchen apron over his work clothes, putting the paper up!” she says, laughing at the recollection.

Ashley and his wife, Spalding, moved to the East Bay from Charleston, South Carolina, in 1993, when Ashley was hired by KGO as a news anchor. The former college sweethearts lived in Clayton for several years, then, in 2003, happened upon a house for sale in a quiet Walnut Creek neighborhood nestled against rolling hills. It was love at first sight. The two-story brick house feels more Southern than Californian.

We came to see it, and I was still on the driveway when I said, ‘Oh, we’re buying this house,’ ” says Ashley, who named the estate Sweetgrass to add to its Southern flair. He hopes to add a vineyard sometime and make a Sweetgrass wine for charity.

When the Ashleys invited Aguirre and her husband over for dinner last year, Aguirre was similarly taken with the neighborhood.

We had been thinking about moving out of the city as our daughters were growing up,” Aguirre says. “As we drove over to Dan’s and looked around, Jay and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is where we want to be.’

”Within a few weeks, Aguirre and her husband, Jay Huyler, an event manager for Microsoft, were able to find a large two-story house for sale just around the corner from the Ashleys. “Living so close has been particularly nice because we work so late,” Ashley says. “We can ride in together [and] ride back. Sometimes, when Spalding packs me a dinner to take to work, there’s a second dinner for Jess.”

Over lunch in Ashley’s kitchen, they fire off news stories from their past. Aguirre walked through the rubble in Oklahoma City three days after the bombing in 1995; Ashley flew to Columbine the day of the shooting in 1999.

Obviously, news can be grim, but it’s always exciting—and Ashley and Aguirre clearly love their jobs. Even more, they love coming home to their families in Walnut Creek. The conversation shifts from the news biz to life at home. Aguirre gushes about watching her daughters’ horseback riding and ballet lessons; Ashley beams about his family’s tradition of making a giant salad for dinner every Sunday night.

That’s the one night that I don’t come over,” Aguirre says with a laugh. “I’m not as big a fan of the giant salads.” —Peter Crooks

The Zen of Zuniga

She’s had websites created in her honor, counts actor Meg Ryan as a close friend, and has a starring role in an ABC Family channel television show. Yet after 23 years in the acting biz, East Bay native Daphne Zuniga says she still harbors a dream of buying a house in the Berkeley Hills and coming home.

It’s not that Zuniga isn’t in a pretty sweet spot—it’s not all of us who’ve been honored with what amount to website shrines—it’s that the actor is at least two parts Northern California to one part Hollywood.

Most fans think of the dark-haired beauty for her role on the hit television show Melrose Place, in which she played the vulnerable Jo Reynolds. She currently stars in the television show Beautiful People and has appeared in movies including Spaceballs, The Sure Thing, and Gross Anatomy.

But beneath Zuniga’s glamorous exterior beats the heart of an emotionally, spiritually, and politically engaged woman.

One of Zuniga’s causes is raising awareness of how environmental contamination affects children. She speaks out on behalf of Latino families living in low-income East Los Angeles whose children suffer elevated rates of asthma thought to be caused by poor air quality.

Sixty-five percent of Latinos in America,” says Zuniga, who is half Guatemalan, “live in air not meeting federal standards, and one out of six of these babies and children suffer asthma and other serious illnesses. There are asthma mobiles that go regularly to neighborhoods to refill inhalers.

”Zuniga also joined with city officials and community organizations in East Los Angeles to help advocate for a park for local children.

Late last year, a 300-acre park was opened,” she says. “Prior to this, the only local open space for children to play in was the cemetery. How can we teach children to preserve and respect the environment if they’ve never seen a park?”

On Beautiful People, Zuniga plays Lynn Kerr, the mother of two girls whose husband left her for another woman. Her teenage daughter (Sarah Foret) receives a scholarship to attend a prestigious private New York City high school, and her older daughter (Torrey DeVitto) wants to follow a modeling career, so the family packs up and moves from New Mexico to Manhattan.

As they say, life imitates art, and the role of a mother is one Zuniga, now 43, would like to play in her real life.

After breaking up with her last boyfriend several months ago, Zuniga says her only significant other these days is her yellow Labrador retriever, Idaho. She admits she would love to get married, and if that isn’t in the cards, she would still like to have a child. Close friends like Ryan, a single mom who recently adopted a baby girl from China, are her inspiration.

"There are definitely options,” Zuniga says. “Maybe I’ll have my eggs frozen or just wait and see what happens in my life.

”In the meantime, she admits to being “an infatuated aunt” to her niece and nephew, and she acts as a surrogate mom to the two actors who play her daughters on Beautiful People.

Sarah and Torrey are both lovely girls, and it seems like guys are always hitting on them in Toronto [where the show is shot],” Zuniga says. “I’ve become very protective of them since they are so far away from home. I apologized the other day for acting like a mother hen, and they reassured me that they like having someone watch over them.

”Born and raised in Berkeley, Zuniga still considers the East Bay home. She frequently returns to the area to visit her father, a retired philosophy professor.

I grew up in a home right by the UC Berkeley campus,” Zuniga says. “The mom of one of my friends was the pastry chef at Chez Panisse, so I used to hang out there a lot.”

Zuniga’s acting career began in junior high and continued at Berkeley High, where she frequently appeared in the school’s theatrical productions.

Acting has always been my passion,” she says. “I remember spending summers taking classes at A.C.T. in San Francisco. I never doubted I would one day move to Hollywood and seriously pursue acting.”

After graduating from high school, Zuniga did make the move to Hollywood and rented an apartment with Ryan, who was also an aspiring actor. In 1984, Zuniga got her first movie role in The Initiation.

It was after landing her role on Melrose Place in 1992 that Zuniga considered using her sizable paycheck to buy a home in the East Bay.“I remember coming home one weekend and actually looking at homes in the Berkeley Hills,” she says. “It’s always been my dream to live there, and someday I hopefully will, but my family reminded me it would be quite a commute from Berkeley to the Melrose set every day!”

These days, a commute from the Berkeley Hills would be transcontinental, given that Beautiful People is shot in Toronto. Still, Zuniga makes the trek back home to the Bay Area on a regular basis. “When I visit my dad now, he likes to take me to the newest Vietnamese or tapas restaurants he’s discovered.”

She also goes to the serenely beautiful spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County for spiritual retreats.

“I leave these retreats feeling completely refreshed and rejuvenated, with a new perspective on life.” —Linda Childers

Blackhawk Hip-Hop

Blackhawk resident Earl Stevens, aka E-40, used to read the dictionary to learn new words. That was before he started making up new ones.

The multiplatinum-selling rap star is widely known as one of the most original, influential artists in the hip-hop genre. Words and phrases including “It’s all good,” “fo sheezy” (for sure), and “hyphy” (the Bay Area music and dance style that has grown into a nationwide phenomenon) are E-40 originals that have pervaded the pop culture lexicon.

Raised in Vallejo, Stevens got his start selling cassettes out of the trunk of his car. His 2006 album, My Ghetto Report Card, debuted at number one on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart in March. The 38-year-old has also done well in entrepreneurial efforts outside of music, like restoring houses in Vallejo and opening 10 Northern California Fatburger restaurants, including the one on Pleasant Hill’s Crescent Drive. It seems that for the man known to rappers as the Ambassador of the Bay, there’s plenty of ways to make “gouda” (40-speak for cash). —Peter Crooks

Activism Through Artistry

Author Elizabeth Rosner is not afraid to deal with serious issues in her books. Blue Nude is the story of a German artist and an Israeli model who meet in the Bay Area in the 2000s; their relationship helps both characters deal with long-buried pain caused by the Holocaust and its aftermath. Rosner, a Berkeley resident whose parents both survived the Holocaust, dealt with similar issues in her acclaimed first novel, The Speed of Light, which is currently being adapted for film by X-Files star Gillian Anderson. Diablo caught up with Rosner just before she left for New York on her book tour.

How long did Blue Nude take to write?

I spent about five years on Blue Nude, including some rather quiet periods of resting and waiting to see what would happen next. The Speed of Light took 10 years. I’m hoping my next one takes two and a half, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Since the book’s release, you’ve been on tour around the Bay Area and across the country. Is that exhausting, exhilarating, or both?

My experience is the thrill and humbling honor of being listened to, of people asking about what I think and feel. It’s a great privilege to walk into a bookstore and stand in front of an audience and read to them and have their attention. I’m not writing for my own pleasure as much as I am to create dialogue with the reader, so it’s not until I have that conversation that I completely know if I have succeeded.

Do you get the same questions over and over?

Yes, but I discover something new each time. You never know what person you are going to touch. For example, I had a reading scheduled at a suburban Borders outside of Detroit on Mothers Day at 2 p.m. I was sure that no one would show up. One person showed up. But it turned out that this woman was my biggest fan on Earth, and she was thrilled to have a conversation with me. She told me that it was her Mother’s Day gift. She had really made an effort to be there. Writing comes down to one reader at a time, one response at a time. When the response is that embracing, it gives me great hope. It’s that human-to-human connection that I count on.

Do you love living in the Bay Area and being in its literary community?

I feel really privileged to live in an area that has so much commitment to reading and books and independent bookstores. At the same time, I’m very concerned about the closing of Cody’s and the sale of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. My fear is that we could really see some significant changes in the kind of books that get published and [that] books like mine might not even see the light of day.

The book business everywhere is getting more and more corporate. Who decides what is going to make a book popular? My first book came out a week before September 11, and my entire book tour was cancelled. But five years later, it’s still selling and showing up on book group reading lists.

Dave Simpson, the owner of the Lafayette Book Store, liked The Speed of Light so much that he offered his customers a money-back guarantee. It must have been nice to have an indie bookstore owner go to bat for you to that degree.

Dave has been, and continues to be, my hero. It was a wildly successful risk that he took. He sold 400 copies, and I think he got one back—and I think he knew that one was coming back regardless, because the woman kept asking, “Now, it’s really guaranteed?” [Laughs.]

Let’s talk about your background a little. Your parents both survived the Holocaust, correct?

Yes. My father had been in Buchenwald concentration camp as a teenager, and my mother was in the Vilma ghetto and went into hiding in the Polish countryside. My parents met, fell in love, married in Israel, and came to America in 1952.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up with optimistic parents. When my father talked about the concentration camp, I remember him saying, “I believed it had to get better.” It’s the definition of optimism in a way.

Still, it must have been disturbing, when you were old enough to learn what happened in the camps, to realize what your parents had been through.

Well, the stories were part of my earliest life, even before language. I remember my mother being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I remember my father having nightmares, so I knew my parents had been through something.
So when I would learn about this in history classes, on one hand there was this excruciating realization that there had been people who had been trying to kill my family, and there was the confusion about how that level of hatred could exist in the world. I had this very premature sense of injustices in the world and wanting to fight against them. Even as a very young kid, I really objected to racial slurs and anti-Semitism and sexism. I felt I knew where that could lead.
Gradually these impulsive reactions that showed up in me all led to my being an artist. I wanted to paint, to act, to dance, to sing.

So you reacted creatively rather than politically?

I’m not an activist in the political sense. I don’t march or write letters or run for office. I do feel, though, that my art, the work I do as a writer, is about raising consciousness. It’s about inspiring people to do the right thing, to overcome their fears and to reach across the great divide. Creating goodness has to be an active experience. A good life cannot be lived passively. It’s about wanting to create the world we live in and not accepting the world we live in.

Are you worried about alienating readers with grim subject matter?

What is really important is that my books have redemptive themes at the core. Both of my books tunnel down into some dark histories, but the ultimate outcome is to have a place of light. It’s too bad that one can’t just leap into a hopeful place, but I believe that hope is earned.

Blue Nude is really about reconciliation; it’s about making peace with the so-called other side. I’m writing very specifically about two characters, a German man and an Israeli woman. We all can look at another person and see a potential enemy. So how can we resist that impulse? I was listening to an interview with the Dixie Chicks talking about their song about a mother who was teaching her two-year-old to hate. There’s just too much of that in our country right now. —Peter Crooks

A Manifesto for Mothers

Moveon.org founder Joan Blades is dreaming of a family-friendly America. The Berkeley resident as a new website (http://www.momsrising.org ) and a new book dedicated to that topic. Blades’s book, The Motherhood Manifesto: What America’s Moms Want—And What To Do About It, examines a variety of challenges that mothers face. Blades and coauthor Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner discuss maternity leave, fair wages for women, flexible work opportunities, after-school programs, and health care for children, then offer ideas for improving the status quo in each of these areas. Blades, a mother of two, talked with Diablo just after her new book hit bookstore shelves.

What inspired you to write this book?
The original inspiration had to do with something that happened to me a couple of years ago. I was given an award by a feminist publication as one of the newsmakers of the year. At first, I thought, “Cool! Feminism was fabulous for me.” But I rapidly learned that feminism is not cool among twentysomethings anymore, and I wondered why.

It came down to a key piece of information: There is a huge bias against mothers in the workplace. The difference in wages between men and women without children is not all that much. However, mothers make 27 percent less than equally educated men, and single mothers make 34 percent to 44 percent less than men. I thought, “No wonder there are so many women and children in poverty in our country.”

Mothers are such an important part of our culture. I want their voices in leadership. This also has an effect on children: The best way to take care of children is to take care of mothers.

Is this a bigger problem in the U.S. than in other parts of the world?
Yes. The largest cause of entering poverty in our country is the birth of a child. That’s horrifying. It’s not like that in other countries. Research showed us that, out of 168 countries, only four don’t have [paid] maternity leave; the U.S. is one of the four.

I was talking with Kim Gandy, the head of the National Organization for Women, and she told me a story. She was speaking with a delegation of Arab women and told them that the U.S. has no [paid] maternity leave, and the delegation thought she was joking at first. They asked, ”How do they feed their children?”

There are way too many mothers who have to choose between caring for their children and feeding their children. California is the one and only state in the union that offers parental leave benefits.

What other problems do you examine?
The necessity for after-school programs is a big issue—so many families are leaving their kids home alone. Nationally, there are 40,000 kindergartners left home alone after school. My son at that age was asking where dinosaurs lived. Kindergartners are great people, but they just aren’t capable of taking care of themselves.

There are something like 12 million school-aged kids being left home alone. Older kids, at-risk kids, are much less likely to get into trouble if they have programs to support them. Ask a police officer in any neighborhood with at-risk kids about that.

What is the most immediate challenge facing working mothers today?
Health care is a huge issue that affects all these parts of the puzzle. The cost of health care is so exorbitant that it’s causing companies to bend over backwards to avoid paying health-care costs. Mothers were 44 percent less likely to be offered a job, and they were offered $11,000 less than a man would be offered.

Is there anything that is working?
Sure. When you book a flight on JetBlue, for example, if you get one of those agents on the phone, they’re probably a mom working at home. Also, the military is the best American example of a huge child-care program that does a really good job.

We write about lots of success stories—about open, flexible work situations for women. If you think about it, working someone 60 hours a week isn’t really smart: They won’t be at their sharpest; they will get burned out. It makes huge sense to work someone 30-hour weeks and pay them proportionately. But the health-care issue keeps coming up.

Do you think this book will connect with women who are living an affluent lifestyle?
Well, a huge number of women have kids, and most of them work at some point. It would be hugely beneficial to all mothers if we did not have this huge bias against us. It is also going to have an effect on our kids. I think mothers are particularly likely to look at the big picture, and when they do, all the parts and pieces get that much clearer. It’s the right thing to do for our kids for a strong country in 20 years.

Whenever I hear right-wing talk show hosts mention moveon.org, they always do it with thick condescension, calling you “far-left extremists.” How does that make you feel?
You know, I am a mediator by training and origin, and my natural preference is to find the areas where we agree. My co-author, Kristin, is married to a Republican senator from Washington state. This fall, we’re going to organize Purple Teas to reach across party lines and create a dialogue. So I find it sad that there is part of the media that does not really look at the issues and instead resorts to name calling.

In the seven years since moveon.org started, what is your proudest achievement?The great achievement is having over 3 million members involved and engaged. It’s about improving the political dialogue in our country.

Even in 2004, when we were so deeply disappointed in the results of the election, I was so moved by the fact that people get out there and do the work, win or lose, because they know it’s the right thing to do. It’s heroism that I have deep admiration for. After the election, people were saddened, but they said, “What can we do now? It is time to get serious about this.” —Peter Crooks

From Berkeley to the Beltway

Who says that UC Berkeley breeds liberals? Orinda-raised Nicolle Wallace has made her way from being a Cal undergrad to holding down a big gig with BushCo. After working for Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 1998 and 1999, Jeb recommended Wallace to help George W. Bush on his 2000 presidential campaign, which led to a job with Dubya’s administration. In 2005, she was promoted to assistant to the president for communications. Wallace spoke to Diablo from her office in the White House.
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Growing up in the East Bay, were you always interested in politics?
You know, I went to Miramonte High School and then to UC Berkeley, but I never knew anyone in politics. My folks did not play in Republican circles.

After Miramonte, I was a journalism geek. I went to UC Berkeley and then to Northwestern for my master’s degree. I was a local TV reporter in Chico—and not a very good one at that. I covered some flooding and car accidents and drug busts. But I was much more drawn to politics, and unless you are at the top of the heap, you don’t get to cover politics.

So how did you get into politics?
In Sacramento, I worked for Assemblyman Bill Leonard, who is a lovely and open person who was interested in doing things a little differently in public than other politicians. I was actually fired from that position by assembly Republicans. One story was that I was too accommodating for the press. [Laughs.] I was devastated, but I got over it as soon as Jeb Bush hired me as his press secretary.

It’s surprising that someone who grew up so close to Berkeley wound up working for this administration.
There’s something that strikes me when I’m at home in Northern California. People are so open-minded in so many ways; every social issue has a platform, and that’s something really special. But, I think that [Bay Area residents] are in denial that there are men and women fighting a war to protect our freedoms. The Bay Area, Orinda, the East Bay, seem insulated from this reality, especially in a place so defined by freedom and free speech.

What’s your typical day like?
I spend most of my time in my office on the second floor in the West Wing. It’s 14 hours a day—more during a campaign. These days, it’s usually from 6:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. This job, this world, requires more of a commitment than anything I’ve ever done. But there are always people working harder and sacrificing moren than you are.

Do you ever feel like you don’t know what’s going on in the world outside of Washington politics—like what’s happening in pop culture?
I will totally admit to being dependent on my twentysomething siblings to find out what’s happening on American Idol.

Has the president visited this area?
I was just in Napa with the president. We took a helicopter from the Silicon Valley to Napa, and we flew over the East Bay. I showed him the Berkeley campus.

What other personal interactions have you had with the president?
He had a lot of advice for me when I was getting married overseas. I ran into a few meetings a few minutes late because I was on the phone with a wedding planner. He’d say, “Couldn’t you get married here? Wouldn’t that be easier?”

Did you invite him to your wedding?
[Laughs.] I sent an invitation, and he sent a very nice gift, but I don’t think for a minute that he thought about going.

How did you meet your husband?
I met my husband [Mark Wallace] in Florida during the recount. We both ended up working in the White House, and now he is an ambassador at the United Nations.

We were married in Greece, and Hurricane Katrina hit during that time. I called [the White House] and asked if I needed to come back, and [counselor to the president] Dan Bartlett said, “No, everything is fine; stay there.” I said, “Anderson Cooper is crying on CNN International; everything isn’t fine.” He said, “We have people on it.”So I had my honeymoon in Greece and Turkey, and it was great. But I picked up Time magazine in the Athens airport and read a story about Katrina. In the fourth paragraph it said that one of the problems was that [Bush’s] communications director was off in Greece getting married. I ran back to my husband and said, “Oh, no, look at this!” My husband had been secretly monitoring the news, so he knew all about it.

After September 11, the president had some of the highest approval ratings in history. Now he has some of the lowest. Is your job more difficult these days?
The job was never more difficult than on the heels of an attack on the country. We were working on September 11, and we were working on September 12. The president said to stay put and keep working. Being in charge of communications was crucial, and we all worked together.

But his approval ratings are lower than any president’s since just before Nixon resigned. Does that put extra pressure on you?
It’s my job to communicate not just the good news but the setbacks as well. A great thing about working for this president is that he does not go wobbly when he sees a bad poll. He really believes that these actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are laying the foundations for peace in the future. If you’re not pleasing all the people all the time, you must be doing something right. You’re going for that commonsense middle ground.

So what are some positive stories you’re trying to communicate?
The economy is tremendous. California is a great example of this strength, of the president’s Competitiveness Initiative.

After this is over, what do you want to do?
Have a good long rest and count my blessings for having had this opportunity.

How about your personal goals until the end of the Bush presidency in 2008?
I’m not sure I’ll be here until 2008, but no individual staffer has a personal to-do list. We work as a team to follow the leadership of the president. —Peter Crooks

Swish Hitter

In his second big-league season, Nick Swisher’s star has started to shine. The 25-year-old Oakland A’s switch-hitter has been swinging a big stick and leading the team in runs, home runs, and runs batted in throughout the first quarter of the 2006 campaign. Swisher talked to Diablo while stuck in traffic on his way to McAfee Coliseum.

Nick, how do you like life in the East Bay?
The weather is beautiful. The traffic is terrible. I’m from Parkersburg, West Virginia, and we don’t have traffic anything like this; it’s a big-time change. But this is a beautiful place.

Had you ever been out here before coming to play for the A’s?
My first trip out here was the day I was drafted. They flew me out, and the A’s were playing the Giants in San Francisco. So I got to go out to SBC or AT&T or whatever it’s called and I took batting practice with the team.

You seem to be having so much fun on the field, like a kid playing Little League.
Well, my philosophy is that you’ve got one shot at this, and if you’re not out there having fun, what are you thinking? Wearing a Major League uniform is like a lifetime pass to being a kid as long as you want. Kids dream of this all the time; I certainly dreamed of it when I was a kid. So now that I’m here, I tell myself, “Sit back and have the time of your life and say, ‘This is awesome!’ ” I don’t want to be an old man in my rocking chair wishing I had done things different.

You got off to a great start this season. Have you been doing anything differently this year?
I put in a lot of time training at Ohio State [in the offseason], and I came out to spring training a month early. Oh, and I got into Bikram yoga. I didn’t know much about it, but I figured it has to help with my flexibility, because my flexibility has always been terrible.

In late May, you were among the league leaders in home runs, but your name was not on the All-Star ballot. Are you disappointed?
If that’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen. The fans have been great and supportive. But, yeah, it is disappointing. It would be great to have an experience like going to an All-Star game.

I will say that the greatest thing about being a ballplayer is the fans; they make you who you are. They’ve been great to me. I’ve moved around from right field to left field to first base. But those fans in the left-field bleachers, man, with the drums—it’s a privilege to play in front of them.

What’s the major difference between being a returning player and being a rookie?
I think the biggest thing is the lack of surprise. I know that the season is a serious grind on the body. Now I’m used to all the traveling. You know what’s going to happen, how much you’re going to miss your family, miss your girlfriend.

Wait, I met your girlfriend with you at a Special Olympics fundraiser last season, but then I heard you two split up and she took the dog with her.
Yeah, I lost my girl and my dog in the same week. I’m thinking about writing a country song about it. But it's cool. I'm single now, and I'm having fun.

You live out in Blackhawk with several other players, don’t you?
I live with Joe Blanton, Huston Street, and Rich Harden. We have a pool and a hot tub out back. We’re having a lot of cookouts.

Are there female A’s fans camping out on the front lawn?
No way! We keep the address private.

What’s a typical night like with you guys?
Well, last night, around 5 p.m., the weather was nice so we all got in the pool. Then I fired up the grill and cooked some steaks. Then we all went out for a nice meal later.

Tell us something about the A’s clubhouse that we don’t know.
There’s nothing really behind the scenes that isn’t already out there. We have the best clubhouse in the Major Leagues—it’s a frat house clubhouse. We have each other’s backs no matter what the situation.

What’s been your biggest thrill since becoming a big leaguer?
Just being a big leaguer has been big. When Bobby Crosby and I hit back-to-back home runs, and after the game I got a pie in the face, that was fun. Last year, the team went on a run where we were something like 39 and 9, and that was special.

One more question: There was a story about drug testing in The New York Times, where a writer followed a Minor League team you played for. The story talked about some players trying to beat the tests by smuggling clean urine in a device called the Urinator. What’s up with that?
I think it’s called the Whizzinator. It’s basically a fake, ya know, member. But with the testing we use, there’s a guy staring right at you, so I don’t see how you could get away with that. Or why you would want to. Who wants to go around wearing a fake penis? —Peter Crooks

Muscle Matters

After 15 years of training bodybuilders and competing in muscleman competitions, Skip La Cour is branching out to help regular Joes. The Walnut Creek resident works locally as a life coach and tours internationally as a motivational speaker, emphasizing health and fitness as a route to overall success.

I’m helping people get their body in shape so their physical appearance is congruent with who they are on the inside,” says La Cour, 44. “Your body is your billboard, and you put yourself in a hole by being out of shape.”

Seventeen years ago, La Cour reinvented himself: He went from a Raley’s supermarket manager to six-time national drug-free bodybuilding champ. Since retiring from the tour two years ago, La Cour has been traveling the country and speaking at events with motivational guru and hypnotist Marshall Sylver.

“I learned a long time ago that you can accomplish a lot of things when you envision the bigger picture for what you want out of life,” says La Cour. —Stephanie Simons

Mini Model

At first glance, Rachel Felix looks like your average blond-haired sixth grader. Then you notice the unusual light-blue color of her eyes, the big dimples framing her wide smile, and her long, graceful arms, and you might wonder, "Have I seen her before?" Chances are, you have.

In the last few years, the Pleasanton resident’s modeling career has taken off: She’s been in frequent ads for Macy’s and Mervyns, and in many catalogs. One of her favorite recent shoots was a two-day affair for an L. L. Bean catalog at a large estate in Sonoma. This fall, she’ll be seen in the Oakland Raiders sportswear catalog wearing a pink Raiders jersey, backpack, and watch.

Rachel became interested in modeling while leafing through magazines when she was in second grade. She learned what models did and became hooked on the concept. “The manager of my first agency taught me how to audition: Always smile, look clean and neat, and be pleasant when meeting everyone,” says Rachel, now 12.

A straight-A student, Rachel takes ballet classes three days a week at the Oakland Ballet Academy. “It’s good to have a dance background at photo shoots, because they ask you to move around a lot,” says Rachel, who also has acting aspirations. She recently auditioned for an upcoming Disney TV show, The Amazing Hannigans, and at press time was waiting with fingers crossed to hear if she landed the part. —Deborah Grossman

So You Wanna Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star

Although singer Adam Duritz’s voice may be the most recognizable aspect of the rock band Counting Crows, the riffs of lead guitarist Dan Vickery are an equally important component of the band’s sound. The 39-year-old Vickery, who grew up in Danville and went to San Ramon High, lays his signature jams all over the Counting Crows’ new CD, New Amsterdam: Live at Heineken Music Hall. And if you caught the Crows’ June 25 concert in Concord, Vickery [pictured second from right] was the one wearing a hat.

Did you have a band when you were at San Ramon High?
Yes, I had my own rock band, and we were called Slim Chance and the Questionnaires. [Laughs.] We played mainly covers, stuff by the Who, the Beatles, and the Stones. We had one original. I don’t remember what it was called though.

When you were a teenager, did you think you were going to make it big with a rock band?
You know, I was foolish enough to believe that it would happen. I can say now that I was probably naive.

And you joined the Counting Crows just after they released their first album (August and Everything After), which went on to sell, like, eight million copies?
Yeah, I joined the band just after they were done recording August and before the tour—we toured on that album for two straight years—so it turned out to be a pretty good time to join the band.

Why did the band decide to release another live album?
We have a new drummer, and the overall sound is a little different. And some of the songs have changed quite a bit in the live shows over the years.

What’s your favorite song on this album?
There are a few of them. “Four White Stallions” is one that I wrote with some friends. It hasn’t been on one of the albums, although it might have been a B-side at some point.

When will we hear an album of new material?
No idea. It will be a little while.

The band has been kind of quiet for two years now. Why the extended vacation?
We spent the first 10 years touring and making records. And 10 years later, our friends’ and families’ lives had changed so much and our lives were sort of the same. We wanted to be able to catch up. My best friends have had kids, they are growing up, and I’m out playing the Concord [now Sleep Train] Pavilion or something. It’s always a venue, a show, a hotel; it’s quite a blur.

Yeah, but you’re a rock star, man. Isn’t it cool to get to travel all over the world playing music and seeing all those great cities?
[Laughs.] Well, touring isn’t really a vacation; it’s not about sightseeing. My friends always say, “That’s so cool you get to go to Europe.” You’re not really enjoying the travel experience as much as you are racing from one place to the next and playing shows.

That being said, we’ve been around the world so much that I guess I know where the good restaurant or coffee shop or music store is anyplace I go.

You always wear a bowler hat onstage. How did that get started?
We started the This Desert Life tour in London, and we went to this street that has clothes shops. Adam and I stopped into a hat shop, and this old guy who owned the shop was very curmudgeonly; he didn’t want to sell anything to us. He kept saying, “I need to close!” and I said, “But I want to buy this hat.” He finally sold it to me.

How many hats do you have now?
I just buy one whenever I see one that I like. It’s an accessory, you know? I used to go clothes shopping in the really fancy-pants places, but I haven’t been doing that for a while.

How did you get into music?
I used to hang out at the Danville music store called Mr. Wise Music. I would go there after school and hang out. And I started playing the guitar in the sixth grade.

What advice do you have for teens out there today who may want to get into the music business?
Well, I think people do it because they have to do it. Playing guitar is my passion. I just have to do it. If you love it and if you’re really dedicated, you should give it a shot.

What about getting on American Idol?
I find that to be just entertainment. It's not reality.

What was your first concert?

I went to see David Grisman at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. So my first rock concert was a bluegrass show, when I was in junior high.

What’s the best show you saw at the Concord [now Sleep Train] Pavilion?
Elvis Costello’s Spike tour was really great.

What’s the least rock star thing about you?
[Laughs.] Well, that’s going to be hard; everything I do is so frickin’ rock star. Let me think. I watch a lot of political TV.

You mean like O’Reilly and Hannity?
No, not those guys. I listen to NPR, [Jim] Lehrer, more like that.

How often do you come back to Danville [from San Francisco]?
When I’m not on tour, I usually go back once a week to see my mom.

What are your favorite venues to play in the East Bay?
Growing up, I remember seeing so many shows at the Greek Theatre, and we’ve been able to play it a couple of times. It’s an amazing place to play. One of the most memorable shows in the Bay Area was the Bridge School Benefit [in 2003] that Neil Young puts together; that was very special.

Which of your rock heroes have you had a chance to meet?
It was a thrill to meet Bruce Springsteen. I was shopping with our band’s manager’s wife on the streets of New York, and we ran into Bruce’s manager, who said, “Bruce is waiting out in the car; you want to meet him?” I had been hoping forever to meet Bruce Springsteen, so I was like, Yeah! And it was just like all the stories about what a great guy Springsteen is. He had just been to the dentist, and even though he was in a lot of pain, he got out of the car to talk. He was interested in who I was, and he couldn’t have been nicer about it. —Peter Crooks

Catch of the Year

When Tyler Snyder bought a $10 bleacher ticket for the Giants/A’s game on May 20 in Oakland, he got more than his money’s worth. The 19-year-old A’s fan snagged Barry Bonds’s Babe Ruth–tying 714th home run ball on the fly. Snyder, who frequents the bleachers, was whisked away by security and into his 15 minutes of fame. We caught up with the Pleasanton resident between appearances on Good Morning America and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

What was it like? Did the ball come directly to you?No, I had to move for it. When he hit it, I realized it was going out, and I thought I had a pretty good chance at it. It was exciting.

And no one tried to grab it from you?
No, I caught it cleanly, and the camera angle was good, so there was no question about who caught it. Everyone was actually really nice. I go to so many games that you end up seeing the same people there.

What did you do with the ball after security took you out of the park?
I went and bought a safe deposit box and put it in it.

You always sit in the bleachers to try and get balls during batting practice, right?
Yes. Over the years, I’ve gotten something like 500 balls. I’ve caught maybe 40 on the fly. I keep them in a fish tank in my room.

After you caught the ball, everyone wanted to talk to you. The Monday after you caught it, you were in New York, going on Good Morning America.
At first they wanted me to be interviewed at some TV station in Oakland or San Francisco, but at, like, 3:30 a.m., because they were filming live in New York. I said I didn’t want to get up that early. So they said, “What if we flew you to New York?” I said OK. I got there at 1 a.m., and slept for a few hours before the show, and then flew back that afternoon.

Were there any big celebrities on the show that day?
Yeah, Oprah was going to be on the show.

Did you meet Oprah?
No, I think they had taped Oprah before. The only person who was there when I was there was some expert on sunscreen.

Oh. You have said you are planning on selling the ball. What are you going to do with the money?
I’m going to use the money to help my dad with his Parkinson’s. He’s had it for three or four years.

Have you been back to a game since you became famous?
Yeah, a few days after I caught the ball, a friend got tickets for the Giants in San Francisco. So I went there, and when we were walking around, a few people recognized me and said, “Good catch.” —Peter Crooks

No Name’s 925 Roots

His listeners don’t know his real name; they know him as No Name. The latter part of Alice 97.3 FM’s popular Sarah & No Name Morning Show team is a San Francisco resident—but when he recently mentioned the, ahem, aroma of his locker at Charlotte Wood Middle School (in Danville), Diablo got in touch to see if No Name grew up in our neck of the woods.

First of all, what’s the deal with your name? Why “No Name”?
That started when I was doing college radio in Santa Clara. I’ve always been known as No Name as long as I’ve been on the air. But if you listen closely to the show, you’ll know my real name. It’s mentioned from time to time.

Your morning show was recently rated number one in the coveted 25–54
demographic for the Bay Area market. Any thoughts?

It’s amazing. It’s a [testament to] miracles happening. Believe in miracles.

What’s the appeal of your show?
I think one of the keys to our success is that we are babbling idiots. There is not that big a difference between the average person listening and me. We’re normal, average people. I’m the guy that you sit and have a beer with at the end of the day.

To someone reading this who has never heard your show, how might you entice them to tune in?
Well, I should say that I don’t think the show is for everyone. If you have a stick up your ass, you won’t enjoy the show. If you’re easily offended, please stay away. But if you’re bored, we offer a pretty entertaining and original perspective.

Have you noticed a difference in the Bay Area radio scene since Howard Stern went to satellite?
One of the great things about Howard Stern leaving is that people are listening to local radio again. I should say that we are huge fans of Howard Stern; there’s really no one better at radio than Howard. But instead of listening to what’s going on in New York, people are tuning in to us. Or to a local show.

Who are some of your favorite stars that have come on the show?
Probably the biggest interview we ever did would be [Misfits lead singer and metal rock icon] Glenn Danzig. Sarah was almost crying when he came in, and I was really starstruck. He has such a presence; you’re basically with a legend. Also, George Michael was a really nice guy, but we just talked to him on the phone.

What time do you have to get up to be on the air at 5:30 a.m.?
I wake up at 3 in the morning. Before this job I used to get home at 7 a.m. from partying, so it kind of overlaps, I guess.

Have you ever overslept and come in late?
I’ve never shown up late. Not once.

You’ve gotten used to getting up at 3 a.m.?
No, you never get used to getting up at 3 a.m., but you deal with it.

You and your wife have a young son and another child on the way. Does your schedule get in the way of your duties as a dad?
Actually, I’m in a unique situation for being a dad. I can be home by noon, whereas most people might get up at 6 a.m. and come home at 8 p.m. I spend a lot of time with my son. So, my situation is definitely unique, and I’m thankful for it.

You recently mentioned your locker at Charlotte Wood Middle School in reference to a bad smell.
Yeah, I went to Charlotte Wood. I’ve got a lot of love for the East Bay. I lived in the East Bay during my formative years, and I had a blast. That’s where I drank my first beers and got into my first fight.

Do you remember the kid you fought?

Totally. This was in the fourth grade, and the guy’s name was Jason, and he was in fifth grade. He was a big kid, and we got in this big fight, and I was actually beating him up. I remember that I couldn’t believe that I was beating up the older kid. But then his older brothers showed up and just wailed on me. I learned some kind of lesson from that about not getting in a fight with someone who has a bunch of older brothers.

The Charlotte Wood Middle School you went to no longer exists; it’s the Danville library now. And that tree in the corner of the baseball field, known in the 1970s as the Stoner Tree, is gone as well.
Oh, man! The Stoner Tree! Bring back the Stoner Tree! You know, everyone thinks the Danville Oak Tree is more popular, but the Stoner Tree was way better!

Every Tuesday morning, you do a segment called Dear No Name, where listeners write in with personal problems and you offer advice. Do you ever get a thank-you note or a follow-up that your advice actually helped someone through a crisis?
We always get follow-up calls about really making a difference in the community. It’s the good thing I do each week—so I can be a jackass the rest of the week.

Any letters from out here in the East Bay?
The suburban whorehouses seem to be big in the East Bay. Like, there will be a house in Danville or in Alamo that looks on the outside like a normal house on a normal street, but it’s really a brothel.

OK, so if you had to ask No Name for advice, what would you ask?

Wow, that’s a really tough question. I would say that I need to find a way to hit on my wife without being so blatant about it. I’ll just take off my pants and chase her around the house. I need to be slower and more suave when it comes to getting laid, I guess. The Sarah & No Name Morning Show airs weekdays 5:30 a.m.–10 a.m. on 97.3 FM. No Name voiced a role in the movie Cars, credited as “Mike Nelson.” —Peter Crooks

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