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 “July, 2011”

A Great Book for Writers

Whenever I speak to groups of writers, I have a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing on hand to wave in people’s faces. I personally own a paperback and the audio tape and dutifully listen to the latter once a year.

But I have just finished reading another great, thin and to-the-point book about the craft. Since beginning to write fantasy with my eldest son, I have been reading in the genre and Terry Brooks is considered one of the best. I have consumed four of his tomes thus far and was delighted to see that he has a book called Sometimes The Magic Works – Lessons from a Writing Life.

Sometimes The Magic Works

Brooks divides his book between an autobiography (he only relates to his writing career but it includes his writing the Star Wars novel The Phantom Menace) and a toolbox for authors. Like Stephen King, his advice for writers is no nonsense and straight-to-the-point. You can read it in a few hours and refer back in the future.

I want to share something from the beginning and something from the end. I read his opening chapter – I Am Not All Here – to my family. Brooks talks about living in two worlds and how he often zones out of this one and into the fantasy story that he is writing. I thought it was cute, and my family certainly found it familiar. Since then I have realized how often this happens. It can be difficult to leave the characters on the hard drive and not drive around with them.

Terry Brooks

The second part I want to share with you is at the end. There is a list of about thirty short sentences, decelerations of Brook’s writing philosophy. Here are a couple.

“If you do not hear music in your words, you have put too much thought into your writing and not enough heart.”

“If you are ever completely satisfied with something you have written, you are setting your sights too low. But if you can’t let go of your material even after you have done the best that you can with it, then you are setting your sights too high.”

“If you don’t think there is magic in writing, you probably won’t write anything magical.”

And his final words:

” If anything in your life is more important than writing – anything at all – you should walk away now while you still can. Forewarned is forearmed. For those who cannot or will not walk away, you need only remember this. Writing is life. Breathe deeply of it.”


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 http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).


Only in Berkeley – Three Stone Hearth

It’s quite a stretch to compare Berkeley to Silicon Valley. At first glance they seem the opposite of each other, but these two areas share one important attribute: they are hubs of innovation. While Silicon Valley is defined (or defining) the hi-tech world, Berkeley is seeking new sustainable, environmental, community models.

There is no need to decide which is better or even which to join. You can run your CSA (Community Assisted Agriculture) business virtually from your iPad (1 or 2). And many companies in Silicon Valley are anxiously seeking ways to keep their staff fit and healthy by offering gym facilities and nourishing menus in their canteens.

Three Stone Hearth is a community kitchen on University Avenue in Berkeley. While it has been around since 2006, the move to this central artery of Berkeley (it is the main street to the university and town center, and in the other direction to the freeway).

It embodies the Community Supported Agriculture model – you pre-order whatever is on the menus – but it also offers a chance to work as part of a cooperative and is a teaching facility so that you can learn how to cook healthy food yourself.

Three Stone Hearth mainly uses natural ingredients such as:

– organically (and local) farmed produce, grains, and nuts

– pasture raised meats, eggs, and dairy products

– unrefined sweeteners

– traditional fats

Worker/Owners (l-r) Jessica Prentice, Porsche Combash, Misa Koketsu, and Catherine Spanger

Three Stone Hearth are sensitive to reducing their carbon footprint. Their food is packed in re-usable glass containers, and they compost their waste. They also make a conscious effort to buy their ingredients from local farms.

I was surprised when I looked at their menu by the variety and richness of their recipes. This is no bland ‘rice and beans or else’ menu. Neither is it a vegetarian haven – there are many meat dishes available. On the particular day that I saw the menu it included soups, desserts, and a variety of drinks and cheeses.

What I feel is great about this enterprise is the community kitchen model, whereby everyone can learn and participate. But it also serves an important role for those who cannot cook or don’t have the time. Being a member of this co-op allows you to easily serve nutritious meals a few times a week or more. And if it is expensive, you have the option of working some of the cost off.

Now excuse me, I must rush and throw some mac ‘n cheese into the micro for the kids.


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 http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Generic Drug Makers Off the Hook – by RhondaJo Boomington

from fda.gov

A recent United States Supreme Court ruling takes away the rights of generic drug users to sue drug manufacturers for failing to list adequate warning labels on their drugs. The name brand drug users retain the rights to sue in identical circumstances.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Sonia Sotomayer wrote “”As a result of today’s decision, whether a consumer harmed by inadequate warnings can obtain relief turns solely on the happenstance of whether her pharmacist filled her prescription with a brand-name or generic drug. The court gets one thing right: This outcome ‘makes little sense.’ ”

from pharmhealth.wordpress.com

I am pleased that Sotomayer points out the fact that this opinion is flawed. Yet, it is not “happenstance” in many cases, as to why a person receives a generic drug versus a brand name drug. For many people, a generic drug is the only financial option. Additionally, several drug plans require that a generic, if available, must be used instead of the brand name drug.

The state of our nation’s healthcare is definitely in crisis. And in taking away the legal incentive for generic drug makers to provide adequate warnings to it’s consumers, the United States Supreme Court has assured that our healthcare will continue in a scary and distressing direction.

In these economic times, the benefits of being rich are continually escalating. Still, I am surprised that now it is only those who can afford to spend the money on brand name drugs who will be covered from harm due to pharmacy company mislabeling.

Broken Piggy Bank

Broken Piggy Bank

Circumcision Debate – an anti-Semetic attack?

When the whole circumcision debate and ballot issue surfaced, I was one of the first to dismiss those who claimed it as an anti-Semitic attack. There is something, a survival gene some might say, in the Jewish mind that has us immediately wondering if there is a threat to the Jewish people whenever something like this come up.

A number of Jewish community leaders came out and said that a fair debate leading to a ballot proposal was part of democracy. The American Defamation League (ADL) President did, however suggest that it could “provide fodder for anti-Semites,” Abraham H. Foxman said. “Not all opponents to circumcision are anti-Semitic, but most anti-Semites oppose circumcision,” which is a cornerstone of the Jewish (and Muslim belief).

But this has all changed when ‘Monster Mohel,’ a comic book which is one of two titles in the ‘Foreskin Man’ comic book series created by the Male Genital Mutilation Bill group pushing to make male circumcision illegal in San Francisco, was released.A Mohel is a the title for the person who conducts the ritual.

The comic books feature clearly “identifiably Orthodox Jewish characters as evil villains, [who are] ‘disrespectful and deeply offensive … This is an advocacy campaign taken to a new low,” according to the ADL statement. “No matter what one’s personal opinions of male circumcision, it is irresponsible to use stereotypical caricatures of religious Jews to promote the anti-circumcision agenda.”

Nancy J. Appel, ADL Associate Regional Director for the Bay Area said the book, which features identifiably Orthodox Jewish characters as evil villains, was “disrespectful and deeply offensive.” In an interview with Ha’aretz, the left-wing Israeli newspaper, she said:

“This is a sensitive, serious issue where good people can disagree and which the Jewish community feels is an assault on its values and traditions going back thousands of years and centered in the Hebrew Bible,”

“It is one thing to debate it, is another thing to degrade it. ‘Foreskin Man,’ with its grotesque anti-Semitic imagery and themes, reaches a new low and is disrespectful and deeply offensive,” she said, adding that ” Some of the imagery calls to mind age-old anti-Semitic canards such as the blood libel, the accusation that Jews ritually murder Christian children.”

Where have we seen such images before?

What is ironic is that by going to such low extremes, the Male Genital Mutilation Bill group has just moved the focus of the debate from the act itself to racism and bigotry. You blew it, guys. Seriously.


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 http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

The Debt Limit: A Republican Shell Game (Roger Ingalls)

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has warned that the U.S. government will default, if the debt ceiling isn’t increased by August 2, 2011. He goes on to says, “this would have severe consequences for the economy”.

Lately, the debt limit or ceiling has received a fair amount of press because the Republicans are refusing to vote affirmatively to raise it. Keep in mind that the debt ceiling has been increased approximately 75 times in the past fifty years. Increasing this limit is nothing new and has occurred more frequently under Republican administrations.

The conservatives are trying to handcuff the Obama administration with their no vote. Newt Gingrich orchestrated the same failed-maneuver during the Clinton administration. Republicans won’t increase the limit until the Obama administration makes more budget cuts. Essentially, they want to remove $2.4 trillion from the budget over the next ten years. The President will not cut the budget until tax breaks given to the rich under the second Bush administration are eliminated and tax loopholes are closed for big business. So here we sit, stuck in political mud.

The solution is simple. Look back in time and see what worked. During the Clinton administration, the U.S. had one of the best economic eras in its history. Just undo the George W. Bush  craziness that’s still in place; bring back the Clinton tax brackets, get rid of the mid-2000 corporate tax loopholes and roll back expenditures on Defense. We don’t even need to cut Defense spending all the way back to the 1990s level.  We can double the Clinton-era Defense spending and still save $3 trillion over the next ten years which is $600 billion more than the conservatives want.

The Obama administration needs to man-up and get rid of the irresponsible financial policies put in place under G.W. Bush, as promised. Republican politicians need to quit the political sound-biting and do something constructive for the middle-class.

The debt limit discussion is just a diversionary storm in a water-glass.


Roger Ingalls is well travelled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

Circumcision brings a family together

By now you have probably read about the attempt to ban circumcision by putting a motion on the ballot during the November SF municipal elections. While many in the Jewish community are up in arms about this, I can’t say it has caught my imagination. For disclosure’s sake, my sons and I all went through this rite-of-passage at eight days of age (not sure my eldest is too happy with me broadcasting this).

Circumcision in Jerusalem

Circumcision was first done when Abraham showed his commitment to God’s calling by keeping his part of a covenant (Genesis Chap. 12) and circumcising himself (at the age of 75-80 if I remember correctly). God, for his/her part, promised that Abraham’s seed would flourish and live on the land of Canaan.

Abraham then had two sons (one with his wife, Sarah, and the other with her maid, Hagar). The descendants of the two sons became the Jewish and Arab nations. Both peoples circumcise their boys, see Abraham as their patriarch, and lay claim to Canaan (now Israel, Palestine and Jordan).

As you may have heard, there has been some contention between the children of Abraham – but then which family doesn’t have its troubles?

However, it seems that this assault on circumcision is bringing our peoples together. With both Muslims and Jews feeling attacked, we are apparently teaming up to take a united stand. Both religions see family as one of their highest values. Whatever it takes to bring the family together, huh?

Attacks on Jewish and Muslim traditions are an opportunity to bring us together


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 http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Leaf blowers blow – Tom Rossi

I’ve been literally choking this one down for years, but what I saw this morning was the final straw.
I was passing through a park on the way to the neighborhood coffee shop when I saw a worker using a leaf blower right next to the little playground where three toddlers were playing under the supervision of their grandparents. The worker, to his credit, was trying to be somewhat considerate by using the leaf blower on it’s lowest setting, but it was still raising a cloud of dust less than 20 feet from the family.

Besides the noise pollution that leaf blowers cause, these dust clouds are terrible for the health of both small children and the elderly. Asthma and allergies have gotten out of control – especially among kids, and one of the biggest reasons is what’s called “particulate matter.”

Particulate matter comes from many sources, but stirring up huge amounts of dust in residential neighborhoods has just got to be among the biggest contributors.

Now before anyone gets all huffy, yes, I see the worker’s perspective. He has a job to do and probably a time limit. But in this and so many instances I have witnessed, including at a number of apartment complexes I’ve lived in, the leaf blowing accomplishes nothing of any real value. At least half the time (from what I’ve seen) these guys are just trying to look busy – blowing a few little leaves off the walkway or, worse yet, out from in between the plants in the dirt (!) to the sides of the walkway.

But it’s worse than looking busy, worse than accomplishing nothing – they are doing harm. As if we didn’t have enough particulate matter floating around in our air, the leaf blowers re-animate what has mercifully fallen to the ground.

Another thing that bugs me about leaf blowers is that they represent one of the things I hate most – shamelessly giving your problems to someone else. When you blow leaves and dirt up into the air so that your little princess of a driveway can look spotless, you are only giving those leaves and that dirt to your neighbors. This is essentially equivalent to dumping your used oil into the nearby creek. They dump for free, and it’s someone else’s problem now.

So what crazy, science fiction, futuristic solution do I have in mind? What terribly socialistic alteration to our perfect capitalist culture? Here it is:

The broom.

Beautiful, isn’t it? So sleek and aerodynamic. Brooms raise a little dust, sure. But mainly, they push the dirt into a little pile that you can pick up with a dustpan and put into the garbage. And this fantastic invention has a cousin, the push broom.

Then there’s another great piece of modern technology – the rake:

As you can see, the rake is much more efficient that the leaf blower. And you get some free exercise, too!

I ask one favor from each of you: The next time you, your yard-maintenance workers, or anyone in your family uses a leaf blower, pay attention to what you are really accomplishing that couldn’t be done just as well or better with a broom or a rake. Pay attention to the dust cloud that is raised and think about where that dust ends up.  Think about the wasted fossil-fuel energy and the pollution just from the exhaust. Then ask yourself: Is this really necessary? Are the benefits higher than the costs?

-Tom Rossi


Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

Tom also posts on thrustblog.blogspot.com


Black and White – Happy 4th

I am sitting in my coffee shop and two men have just walked in together. They are deep in conversation and I see that one insists on paying for both coffees while the other protests and then gratefully accepts. I sense they exchange this ritual regularly.  One man is black and the other is white. This shouldn’t stand out to me living in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, but it does.

These two men, though they walk straight and fluidly, are both old. They must be in their late 70’s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in their 80’s. They grew up in a different time, another age, when this scene would have drawn everyone’s attention in the coffee shop. Now, I suspect, it is just me.


These two men lived through segregation, the civil rights movement, and the general drive by mainstream American to create a non-racist, civil society. I know there are extremists out there, and I am aware that black people still face institutional racism. But when spotlighted, there is a consensus that such behavior is unacceptable.

I am writing this post a couple of days before the 4th of July. I am still not a citizen of the US, but I feel a part of this society because I believe in what it stands for: freedom and democracy for all. I know it is not perfect, but we are moving forward. I know that not everyone is on board, or swimming in the same direction, but I believe there is a dogged majority who embrace these principles. Jewish proverbs teach us that “It is not for us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.”

The Present and the Future

My blog often criticizes members of our society, organizations and politicians. But today, July 4th, while we fire up the barbeque and chill the bud, lets focus on what we share in common.

I’ll leave you with a song by Janis Ian.  Happy 4th everyone.


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 http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Nuclear Energy – A Green Goal?

“In the early 1970s when I helped found Greenpeace, I believed that nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust, as did most of my compatriots. That’s the conviction that inspired Greenpeace’s first voyage up the spectacular rocky northwest coast to protest the testing of U.S. hydrogen bombs in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Thirty years on, my views have changed, and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.”

Very credible scientists are wearing this T-shirt.

So begins Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, currently chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd., in an article published in the Washington Post. Mr. Moore goes on to address the dangers of nuclear proliferation (he wrote this article days after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that his country had enriched uranium), and Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant reactor core meltdown “that sent shivers of very real anguish throughout the country.”

Interestingly, he considers the damage done at Three Mile Island to be a success in terms of its containment and eventual net damage done. This is interesting as I have quoted over the past week or so, other experts who offer the same response in regard to what transpired in Japan.

He also quotes a study (I can’t find the source) that finds that 80% of the people living within 10 miles of the US nuclear plants are in favor of their use. This statistic does not include those employed at the nuclear power plants). I want to assume that these people did their due diligence and didn’t just jump at low house prices (it’s all about location!).

Finally he offers a number of ‘stars’ from the environmental world who support nuclear energy, including British atmospheric scientist James Lovelock, father of the ‘Gaia’ theory, Stewart Brand, founder of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” and the late British Bishop Hugh Montefiore, founder and director of Friends of the Earth. Incidentally, Bishop Montefiore was forced to resign from Friends of the Earth’s board of directors when he authored a pro-nuclear article in a church newsletter.

More bumper sticker wisdom?

Moore does highlight many serious problems with pursuing nuclear power. While I list them below, his article goes into more detail.

– nuclear power is expensive

– power plants are not safe and there is the potential of a natural disaster

– power plants are vulnerable targets for terrorist attacks

– we do not have proven solutions to get rid of nuclear waste

– the move from a nuclear energy program to a nuclear arms program is a short one

Finally, for those of you less interested in plowing through a article, here is a 17-minute talk from Stewart Brand. He actually deals with more than just nuclear power in his speech, but it is fascinating.

Can we envisage nuclear energy as a green source of energy after what happened in Japan?


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 http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Throw away society – including people. By Rhondajo Boomington

Throw Away Society – People Included

Marie Joseph, a 36 year old Massachusetts woman, accompanied a neighbor’s child to a public pool this past Sunday. She slipped and drowned by 2pm that afternoon – and lay at the bottom of the pool for two days. During those two days, the pool remained open.  As usual, people swam and frolicked. And two city inspectors came by to inspect the pool, noticing the cloudy water, but did nothing. Marie’s body floated to the top of the pool on Tuesday evening, where it was discovered by kids, who had jumped over the pool fence after hours.

The child who accompanied Marie to the pool immediately went to the lifeguard on Sunday afternoon. Told the lifeguard that Marie slipped at the slide, went under the water and never resurfaced. The lifeguard took no action. The child tried to locate her, but was not successful.

Evidently the deep end of the pool was cloudy, and so the lifeguard chose not to follow up on this reported drowning. That night, Marie’s cell phone was found at the pool and the police were notified. But no one had reported Marie missing. So nothing happened – until two days later when she floated to the surface.

This tragic death should never have occurred. And various explanations will surely be unearthed now that every investigator in town finally cares about Marie.

Through the multifaceted lens of tragedy, the one image that screams out above the rest for me is one of class, poverty, privilege and race.

Certainly we liberal, educated, caring people would never have allowed something like this to happen in our neighborhood.

But my point is, something like this would not have happened in our neighborhood.

The water in the pool was so cloudy that no one could see at all through the water at the deep end. But their pool remained open, business as usual. We would never have stood for our children swimming in such water.

And, if we were to report a drowning and get no response from a lifeguard – we would raise a ruckus. Call 9-1-1 and the police ourselves. We have the freedom to do that because of the privilege to which we have become accustomed.

A few years ago, I regularly attended a largely African-American church in Oakland for about a year. During that time, I became acutely aware of the differing messages that my white, Berkeley neighborhood kids were getting versus those of the church kids. The parents taught the neighborhood kids certain lessons, ensuring that they would have tools to be successful in their world. The kids learned that their opinions matter. That  respectfully and forcefully asserting their rights gives them the power to change their corner of the world.

In contrast, the focus for the kids at church (particularly males) was how avoid being unjustly jailed. (And yes, many church members knew of numerous cases where relatives had been unjustly jailed). Adults taught the kids that being quiet, even if it was clear the authorities were wrong, was the way to avoid jail. The kids learned that increasing power in their corner of the world occurs by remaining silent enough to avert  bringing attention to themselves. Only then can they have the opportunity to receive an education, to remain free, marry and raise families.

So – if the child of Marie’s neighbor learned those same lessons, this story makes more sense. The child told the lifeguard that Marie had gone to the bottom of the pool and not resurfaced. The lifeguard ignored him. If it had been you or I – we would have raised a ruckus and made sure the authorities were called. Perhaps this boy feared that raising a ruckus would only land him in juvenile detention.

With this explanation, Marie’s story makes more sense. But makes it even more tragic than meets the eye.

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