Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “November, 2010”

Veteran’s Day 3 Unwanted Heroes

Here is another offering from my latest manuscript, Unwanted Heroes. The novel highlights the way we treat war veterans in the US. It focuses on the struggles of an Asian-American Vietnam war vet who tries to put the voices at bay before his whole life falls apart.  The scene below takes place outside a coffee shop by the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

Meet the two characters:

Narrator – Will – a young Englishman who has come to San Francisco to write. Works as a barista.

Mr. Tzu – His boss and a Vietnam War Vet.

****

I think for a moment. “If you wanted to tell the world something, what would it be?”

He takes his time gathering his thoughts. “I would want them to know of my brother and his struggles. I would want them to know of our relationship and how I lived a lie and denied even my own precious brother because I was afraid he would take me down with him. I want America to know that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, not just Hollywood Chuck Norris or Schwarzenegger.”

His face is serious now, focused. A single bead of sweat drips down the left side of his forehead.

“We are Asian, but we are also American like they are and we have paid dearly for our membership. Just like the blacks, poor, and Latinos that sign up today. We’re crazy and homeless, but we’re still goddamn heroes and they need to respect us.”

His eyes seem unfocused, far away, as he picks his words.

“They need to know that they can’t sweep under the carpet, or more likely, under the bridges and into the shelters. They should be ashamed that a man risks his life for his country but can’t get medical help, or psychological help. He has to prove to insensitive bureaucrats that he deserves benefits that are his by right. Rights that he earned in the jungle and the prison camps.”

His face is stoic and he shakes his head, perhaps to himself, perhaps to me.

“They should know to treat us as heroes, to treat us with respect. We are the…unwanted heroes.”

He stops to catch his breath and reaches for his iced tea. He looks over and sees me madly scribbling. He waits as I catch up and when I look up, he is smiling.

“Well, Hemingway?”

I show him a page with phrases scrawled all over, with arrows and frantic scribbling out. I snatch the pad back and write at the top of the page in capital letters: “UNWANTED HEROES.” My pulse is racing. “Let’s get to work,” I whisper.

——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

Help for Homeless War Vets Day 2

Swords to Plowshares is a not-for-profit organization that was founded in 1974. It provides “counseling and case management, employment and training, housing and legal assistance to veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area.” In addition, they work to promote and protect the rights of war vets through advocacy, public education and partnerships with local, state and national entities.

From their mission statement: War causes wounds and suffering that last beyond the battlefield. Swords to Plowshares’ mission is to heal the wounds, to restore dignity, hope, and self-sufficiency to all veterans in need, and to significantly reduce homelessness and poverty among veterans.

This exciting announcement came from their website.

Homeless Veterans May Get A Place Of Their Own

In what looks to be a win-win proposition for San Francisco, the Planning Commission has cleared the way for conversion of a surplus city building into a permanent living space for homeless veterans.

If all goes as planned, the historic-but-underused property will be used to get 76 older veterans off the streets and into a home where, as one project backer said, “they can age in place.”

The nine-story building at 150 Otis St. was the city’s first Juvenile Hall and Detention Center when it was built in 1916. From the 1950s through the 1980s it was used as office space for the Department of Human Services. Since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it’s been little more than a storage space and temporary seasonal homeless shelter.

Plans by the Chinatown Community Development Center and Swords to Plowshares, a veterans’ support group, will convert the building into permanently affordable studio apartments, with space for a resident manager and a variety of on-site veterans’ services.

Swords to Plowshares runs a similar property at the Presidio.

The commission unanimously agreed to allow the affordable housing in an area previously zoned for public use and recommended that the Board of Supervisors approve the plan.

Plans call for renovation of the building to begin this November, with the first tenants arriving in summer 2012.

****

The concept of men and women who fought for their country  struggling for their own basic needs is hard for me to understand. I lived in Israel for two decades, a country in which every man and woman serves in the country’s defense forces. Citizens wounded in service to their country receive the best medical and psychological help available, as well as an array of social services. Perhaps this is one of the few advantages of national service. When everyone serves, it is inconceivable that your country’s heroes are left by the roadside begging for a dollar.

Hopefully, thanks to organizations like Swords to Plowshares, this shame will become a thing of the past.

——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Veteran’s Day 1

In honor of Veteran’s Day, I would like to offer a week focusing on the issue. Here is an excerpt from my latest manuscript, Unwanted Heroes. The novel highlights the way we treat war veterans in the US. It focuses on the struggles of an Asian-American Vietnam war vet who tries to put the voices at bay before his whole life falls apart.  The scene below takes place at the War Cemetery in the Presidio, San Francisco.

Here is a quick intro to the characters.

Narrator – Will – a young Englishman who has come to San Francisco to write. Works as a barista.

James – his girlfriend’s father. Also a war vet and a mentor to Will

Mr. Tzu – Vietnam War Vet. The funeral is for his brother, also a war vet. He never told his wife that he had a brother.

Salvador – a homeless ex-philosophy professor.

****

It is a gray, cloudy Bay Area day in the Presidio: as it should be. James meets me for an early lunch and then drives me to the cemetery. We eat in near silence and I can only imagine how tough this must be for him. But he never hesitated in agreeing to come. James was a soldier, still is.

The nearest I’ve ever come to witnessing military funerals have been Hollywood movies. I’m immediately consumed with the intensity as the honor guard solemnly marches to the graveside. These young men are so polished, so precise. I wondered whether this is a chore for them or whether they truly see it as an honor, a tribute to a fallen comrade they never knew.

The casket is lowered and I glance over at Tzu, his hands deep in the pockets of a thick coat. He stands still, every facial muscle, I think, straining to do its duty. Their children aren’t here. I doubt Tzu even asked them to make the trip. His wife stands by his side, gazing down at the casket of the brother-in-law she never knew existed.

What thoughts are going through her head? Could she have helped? Could she have made the difference, tipped the scales? Could this so easily have been her husband if they had never met? Or at some point in the future?

But all I can see are the heavy lines of Chinese history, lines of suffering etched across her face. As I look, I prefer to picture the laughing Mrs. Tzu, siding with Jane and Tabitha to bully me, and chiding me for not writing to my mother.

The 3 Volley gun salute abruptly jolts me from my thoughts. Birds soar from nearby trees. I cringe with each volley and feel James take my arm. I resist looking at him, he might not want me to, but I make room for his hand on my upper arm and his fingers grip tightly.

The flag is folded with incredible precision and offered to Mr. Tzu. He takes it solemnly, stares at it and then caresses it to his heart. I think I see tears in his eyes, it is hard to be sure: my own are blurry.

And then the bugler plays Taps. His notes ring out, rising to the top of the pines, up into the swollen clouds, and out towards the partly shrouded Golden Gate Bridge. Then, abruptly, it is over. The few people in attendance are all Asian, save for the honor guard, James and myself. We hold back as they pay their respects to Tzu, shaking hands and occasionally a stiff hug.

When only Tzu and his wife are left, I introduce James.

“It was a beautiful ceremony,” I say to Mr. Tzu, “I’m sure your brother was very proud.”

He nods and Mrs. Tzu smiles and thanks me for coming.

Tzu and James exchange words. It’s code to me: battalion numbers, battlefields. Then James glances to the grave.

“You buried him away from the last line. You wish to reserve the adjacent plots?”

“You cannot reserve spots, other than for a spouse,” Tzu replies softly. “But maybe when my time comes, it would be nice to be near him.”

James nods and looks back at the newly dug grave. “I have a friend. I’d be happy to put in a call. Would you mind?”

Mrs. Tzu quickly answers for her proud husband. “Husband appreciate very much, Mr. van Ness. Thank you. You have wonderful daughter. You must be very proud.”

“Oh I am,” James replies and his pride shines through the gloomy weather.

Mrs. Tzu nods theatrically at me. “Just not sure of her taste in men,” she adds raising an eyebrow.

“She gets that from her mother,” his reply is smooth.

As I turn with Tzu away from the grave, the conversation vanishes from my mind.

They stand in two rows, a different guard of honor, wearing uniforms of faded, tattered layers. They leave a corridor for Tzu to walk through. Salvador is first and there are about twelve of them; come to pay their last respects to a colleague, a brother of the street, another homeless hero who fought the good fight for as long as he could.

——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Support A Struggling Author…

Got five minutes?

You could lend a hand to help boost exposure of The Accidental Activist by helping to place it in libraries. Please go into your local public library website (for Berkeley, click here) and after you log in, you will see in the menu on the bottom right-hand side a tab saying Suggest A Purchase.

Fill out the short form, sit back and bathe in the warm feeling that you just helped a struggling author.

Thank you. Have a great week.

——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

Chris Hughes: From Facebook to Politics to Philanthropy

My eldest son and I watched a homeless man panning at a junction that brings you into the Bay Bridge and out of San Francisco. We began to talk about how we would be able to help such people if we suddenly had lots of money. The discussion left me wondering if we would be dazzled by wealth and forget our social justice aspirations.

This post is a tribute to someone who hasn’t and an opportunity to highlight his latest venture.

You have to admire someone who is intelligent, articulate, rich, good-looking, and has values. I first heard of Chris Hughes, not because of his Facebook history, but when he took a significant cut in salary to help Barack Obama mobilize his online Presidential campaign.

Mr. Hughes could be forgiven for resting up at the tender age of 26, enjoying the life of the new rich, and wallowing in his own success. Instead (or hopefully as well as), he has directed his talent towards the launch of a website that will help connect individuals and organizations that are dedicated to create a better world.

He did take some time out after the Presidential campaign to travel around Asia, Africa and Latin America, but this just served to inspire his next project, as illustrated by the name of the website, Jumo, which means “together in concert” in Yoruba, a West African language.

You learn pretty fast that there is no magic solution to poverty. There are not even a single set of solutions or strategies that are going to be the answer to all of these challenges,” he said in a recent interview. “Instead you have to support all the individuals and organizations working on the ground doing good, valuable work.

Jumo will officially be launched in the fall. The idea is to create a website that can match people, their skills and interests, with the organizations who need them. This can best be achieved by utilizing the Internet to connect between individuals and causes that are important to them. When you make it easy for people, they will step up and get involved. I covered this in my novel, The Accidental Activist, which fictionalized the McDonald’s Libel trial in the UK, where the Internet debuted as an interactive advocacy website and took an integral role in the court case. The Obama campaign went on to prove this by reaching hundreds of thousands of voters and enlisting them by making them feel empowered and informed.

You can get a lot of people to give money if you show them a photo of a malnourished African child. That’s pretty similar to what we saw in the world of politics. Before the Obama campaign, the standard was to assume that people had short attention spans and that the message had to be that urgent action is needed,” Hughes said. “What we did with Obama is we took the leap of faith that people have longer attention spans and that if you really build a relationship with them and help them understand what the campaign is about, what the values are and why it is important for them to get involved, they will not only contribute once but over the long term.

Hughes wants to encourage people to donate not only their money in the wake of a natural disaster, but to consider offering their skills, before such an emergency happens.

I fundamentally believe that people have a genuine desire to be positively engaged in the world around them,” he said. “I don’t think the online world has yet caught up with that desire.

No it hasn’t, but thanks to people like Chris Hughes, it will.
——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

Books That Matter – Business Mensch

“What’s important is providing for your family, conducting yourself with integrity, and living a life of meaning.” Noah Alper – Business Mensch.

I am somewhat skeptical when I read memoirs of successful businessmen sprouting ideals and values. Probably I feel a pang of jealousy. It’s easy to take a shot at people who have made it financially – they can afford to take the moral high ground.

I certainly have little time for Sam Walton (Wal-Mart) or Ray Kroc (McDonalds). Exploiting workers, abusing animals, destroying the world or creating unhealthy lifestyles just doesn’t cut it. Perhaps working in the non-profit world balances the lack of acquiring wealth with a healthy dose of narcissistic self-righteousness.

Noah Alper began and built up Noah’s Bagels from a single bagel shop in Berkeley. Having read his book, I think he is different. He instilled a code of values that begins with his own actions. Being an observant Jew, Alper anchors his moral business code in Judaism. This certainly excited me as a Jew. In a time when so many people’s lives were ruined by a greedy and unethical businessman who happened to be Jewish, it is important for a few Tzadikim (righteous men and women) to stand up in the business world.

Since coming to the US I have found my managerial style questioned on a number of occasions. Many times in this thin treatise, Business Mensch, I found myself nodding in agreement with his values and principles and remembering similar scenarios.

I found it strangely validating that Alper, an unapologetic entrepreneur, believes in living by such values in his daily practice. And values are only worth something if they are truly upheld on a daily basis.

——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even Glen Beck Stands Aside

Self published Author Takes #1  Ranking on Amazon

David Malki has taken his self-published anthology Machine of Death to the top of the Amazon Best Seller list. Malki’s sci-fi offering knocked Glenn Beck’s recently released Broke off the pinnacle.

Malki couldn’t find a publisher to pick up Machine of Death, so he did it himself and vigorously promoted through the web. As a special incentive, he offered a free e-book to go along with the paper version.

There are only about 200 authors who are apparently living off their book sales – the A-listers we call them. But David Malki has shown there are other ways. If you’re not an A-lister then you have to promote yourself. You need a strategy and you need to stick to it.

If you are following this blog, you are part of my strategy. Hope you are enjoying the ride and thank you!

Have a great weekend.
——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

Accusing From Afar Pt. 2

Yesterday I blogged about my first days on campus as a student.

Billy Bragg, a British songwriter and political activist, has a knack for summing it up succinctly.

What is fascinating are the racist comments below his song on You Tube. When I grew up in London in the 1970’s, the Jews, Blacks, Asians and Irish were all victims at our schools and in the streets of the National Front, now the British Nationalist Party.

Sometimes, unfortunately, we just never learn. Still, it helps inspire people like Billy Bragg to write the caliber of songs that he does. Every cloud…

——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accusing From Afar

Living in England, you learn that the British Empire was something positive. It brought roads, education, medicine, and culture to the masses. You see movies of the aristocratic class in India, Africa, and just about everywhere else. “The sun never set of the British Empire,” was said as an expression of pride, if not wistfulness, as I grew up.

One of the biggest shocks to my social conscience occurred when I began studying sociology at London University. I had been political as a teenager, advocating for human rights in the Soviet Union, Tibet and South Africa. I was about to receive a rude awakening.

I arrived late to university as the semester opened on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The class was discussing a book, A Savage Culture, by Remi Kapo. A black, English sociologist was describing how many of the violent, classist, and racist facets of British society, were entrenched as part of the psyche of the British Empire, even though the British Empire was now a largely inactive Commonwealth.

I thought I was just missing something. I raised my hand and asked whether his premise was that the British Empire was wrong and evil. You could have cut the tension with a chainsaw.

The professor looked at me for a moment trying to decide, I imagine, whether I was being a smartass. Seeing that I was trying to disappear from embarrassment, he took pity and explained everything, feeding off my willingness to be honest about what I had learned growing up.

I remember wanting to tell him and the other students how I considered myself a political activist and brag about the campaigns I had participated in. This was a group of very politically aware students and it was a while before they accepted me as a friend.

It is easy and convenient to see evils from afar and confer rapid judgment on what others are doing. Here on the Left Coast we are especially good at doing this. However, are we doing this to feel good with ourselves because we are unable to solve the injustices in our own backyard? Does it not feel more righteous to accuse others (usually well-deserving), rather than admit when we fail to achieve the values and ideologies that we preach?

The age of the Internet has made it possible to help others in any part of the world. My novel,  The Accidental Activist, tells this very story, highlighting how the Internet was utilized by a small group of activists to fight a multinational corporation in court (It is based on the McDonald’s libel trial in England in the 1990’s).

But while today there is no excuse for being uninformed about world events, it also makes it easier to avoid injustice on our own doorstep. It is simply more convenient to go online than onto the streets.

When I look at the inequalities here in California and the potential that we have to correct them, I wonder whether we can perhaps teach the greatest lesson by being the greatest example. ——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

Movies That Matter: Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting is a guy movie, without the guns and superhero capes. It is an honest look at men striving to fulfill their own potential.

Matt Damon stars as a young janitor at an elite Boston university. At night he hangs out with his friends boozing and picking fights. But the young man is a genius and proves it by solving an impossible calculus problem scribbled on a hallway blackboard as a challenge from faculty to students. He reluctantly becomes the prodigy of an arrogant MIT professor and promptly gets into trouble with the law for fighting.

His only way to avoid charges and jail time is to see a psychologist (Robin Williams). What begins as cynical mocking by both doctor and patient evolves into a deep mutual respect as each discovers how they are trapped by their respective tragic pasts.

The story works because both men have their shortcomings, their inabilities to communicate and be totally honest, and their willingness to pick themselves up.

Our society is littered with men who are broken shells. They crumpled under the weight of expectation of their family or society, or they set themselves up against insurmountable odds laid down by fictional Hollywood mentors. When alienated from those who could help them rise, their only friends become drugs, alcohol, violence, or screens.

We need to find other solutions, redefine manhood and status. As the economy downsizes there will be even more men who find themselves sitting on the sidelines.  We all need to see this movie.

——————————————————————————————————-

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: