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 “March, 2013”

Unwanted Heroes – Chinatown – Part 2 of 2

Unwanted Heroes was much longer before my editor got his hands on it. A number of chapters were cut because they do not directly move the plot along. They seem to have something in common – my desire to show the many facets of San Francisco. I would like to share then with you over the next few weeks.

There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision. 

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

 Chapter 5 continued: 

We enter a small shop in a side alley.

His receptionist, a young Asian-American woman, hands me a form and I write about my allergies and pay thirty dollars. With perfect timing, a door opens behind me and I turn.

“This is Doctor Li”

Dr. Li smiles. His face is deeply lined with age and the small man moves slowly over to shake my hand. But his firm grip leaves no doubts of his vitality in my numbed extremity.

Dr. Li shoots a short question in Chinese to my friend. His assistant translates and Julie replies that she is doing really well. Thank you. This is translated back and there are smiles all round.

“He doesn’t speak English?”  I ask apprehensively, and for some strange reason, whispering.

“He doesn’t need to,” replies his assistant warmly. “Dr. Li embraces Traditional Chinese diagnosis.”

“But how can I give him information?”

She turns and shoots a few sentences to him in Chinese. Dr. Li nods and smiles at me.

“I just did,” she informs me. “Do you want to explain whether you feel the damp heat rising in the morning or evening?”

“I err, I don’t know,”

“Precisely,” she says, smiling victoriously. “Good luck.”

Julie pushes me in and also wishes me luck.

“Aren’t you staying?” I ask in near panic.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate, though I’d like to watch him sticking the needles in. Maybe he’ll let me do a few?”

I close the door on her sharply and turn to face Dr. Li.

He smiles serenely and indicates for me to sit on a massage table covered with a white sheet. He rolls my sleeve up and slowly checks my pulse. His eyes seem to glaze over, but the occasional tut and uh-huh reassures me that he is discovering profound truths about my condition.

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I look around the room. There are a variety of brass instruments that hang from red string, a chart of the human body indicating what I assume are acupuncture points, some Jade Buddha statues and, I am relieved to see, a bonsai tree by the window.

After a few minutes Dr. Li takes his hand from my arm and examines my face closely. He sticks his tongue out, indicating that I am to do the same. I stick mine out apprehensively; years of social etiquette training chastising me. As a kid, I was punished for such behavior and now I am being encouraged. I glance around, expecting Ms. Thornbridge from preschool to intercede angrily and send me to stand in the corner.

“Good, good,” Dr. Li beams. “No tongue now, all good.”

He picks up a clipboard and squiggles on it. Doctors, the world over, have different methods and medicines, but share the same inability to write legibly.

“Sex good huh?” Dr. Li asks enthusiastically. “You sex good?”

I swallow hard. Doctor or not, I am British. “Yeah, no complaints except for frequency.”

“Aaah,” he nods.

“You understand me?”

He nods sagely. “No understand, bit. Sex good, not much, like most men.  Morning, is good?” He makes a sign with his hand as though encompassing a firm penis, a rather flattering one at that.

“Yeah, I often have an erection in the morning. This is normal, no? Frustrating, but normal.”

“Oh yes, yes.” He nods again.

I haven’t a clue what that means. He points to a vase of flowers near the bonsai.

“This make up-chi?”

“Sometimes. Also dust,” I make a motion as though I am wiping dust off of the massage table. And cats, but only sometimes.” I repress the urge to meow.

 “Then,” he wiggles his nose, “go up-chi, up-chi, up-chi…”

“Yes, that’s right.” I nod, earnestly wanting to be a part of the charades.

“Good, good. You know Chinese medicine?”

“I know you stick needles in people,” I make a piercing movement and it makes him laugh. He then demonstrates, reassuringly in a far more delicate fashion. “That’s much better,” I say feeling reassured, “and herbs.” I point to a picture of some root that looks a bit like a man.

He looks as well. “Herbs, yes. Ginseng, good for man and sex.”  He again makes the sign of holding a penis, the size of which would have facilitated ginseng’s extinction centuries ago.

“You know chi? Tai Chi?” He makes a slow martial art move and I recall my extensive Karate Kid movie experience. I nod. I actually did study some Tai Chi in London. He smiles and points at the picture of the human body. “Chi flow through body … like blood … no chi, dead. Slow chi, not good, too much chi, no good. Understand?”

“Sure.”

“Now, you do up-chi, up-chi. Chi come up, understand?”

He bursts out laughing and his whole body shakes. “I make joke. Up-chi, up chi. Only joke I make in English. Make to every patient. Up-chi!”

He laughs. So do I. This guy is about to stick needles in my body, I will laugh at his jokes.

He makes me take off my shirt and trousers and lie on the massage table. I brace myself for the piercing. After seeing Marathon Man at a tender age I have harbored a deep fear of dentists and the dentists, for their part, always seemed willing to play the part. Why do they feel obligated to say: “this isn’t going to hurt now,” about five seconds before you scream?

But his needles are gentle and I hardly feel them. He must stick a dozen needles in from below my knee on the inside of my leg, on my arms and my face. I can see one sticking out below my check bone and it is a bit freaky. But he is smiling all the time and asking: “Is good? All good?” And, I admit, I do feel all-good.

I feel especially all-good when he burns something that looks like a smudge stick and smells of pot. He holds it over various parts of my body and I feel a deep heat envelope me from within. I wonder if I run the risk of arrest if I leave here and walk pass a policeman with a keen sense of smell.

After a half hour or so, the needles are out and I am dressing. He writes something and then escorts me out. He talks with his receptionist and she conveys that he is giving me an herbal formula. I need to take it to one of the herbalists, who will make up the formula and tell me how to prepare it and when to take it. I am to come back to see him in two weeks.

I turn to the doctor and find myself slightly bowing. I speak slowly and deliberately as I thank him.

“No problem,” he replies in fluent American. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”

He returns to his office leaving the receptionist and Julie both laughing. I feel like an idiot.

I take my friend’s arm, desperate to leave. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

The receptionist answers: “The doctor thinks the treatment is more effective that way. Also it makes for a far more enjoyable for him.” She laughs again.

Julie opens the door for me and then bows most reverently.

“Welcome to America.”

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.

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Unwanted Heroes – Chinatown – Part 1 of 2

Unwanted Heroes was much longer before my editor got his hands on it. A number of chapters were cut because they do not directly move the plot along. They seem to have something in common – my desire to show the many facets of San Francisco. I would like to share then with you over the next few weeks.

There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision.

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

Chapter Five:  China Town

San Francisco boasts a Chinatown unrivaled outside of Asia. It feels like a different world with its own products, language, culture and traditional medicine. Unlike other Chinatowns in the US, it also has a feel of authenticity, as though this neighborhood is for the residents and the tourists are, at best, tolerated.

Chinese Medicine is well respected in California and a Chinese medical practitioner is held in high esteem, especially if their clinic is in Chinatown. If you live in San Francisco and have a health challenge, a visit to the Chinese doctor is a rite of passage.

I have suffered from allergies all my life, which developed into occasional asthma a few years ago. But my introduction to Oriental medicine happened because…because I had no choice…she was pretty and I wanted to hit on her.

“You must see my herbalist!” I am not sure if this is an order. “I used to be just like you, now look at me.” She giggles as she twirls.

I am at a party in the Mission District, not long after alighting from the metaphoric boat. A new friend has taken me under his wing and this party should have been my much-anticipated coming out event, my chance to make an impression on the Bay Area social scene. I have meticulously dressed to impress and carefully sharpened my English accent in preparation. My face is smooth and keenly saturated with aftershave. I am ready.

And then I have an allergy attack: just as I step into the house where the party is taking place. My tongue begins to assault the roof of my mouth. My nose begins twitching, transitioning swiftly into exploding mode. My already-fragile ego implodes as people rapidly evacuate this part of the room, putting a safe distance between themselves and me. I am a pariah. It is truly an unforgettable coming out!

Someone takes my arm and guides me through the crowd; it is not challenging. Moses couldn’t have parted the Red Sea with the ease of an erupting allergist in a crowded room. I assume my guide is a bouncer and I brace myself to be thrown onto the street, if not straight to Alcatraz. This is a country that insists you put a bottle of beer in a brown paper bag in order to quench your thirst outdoors, but allows you to carry a semi-automatic rifle with impunity; I have surely broken some law. Still there are other cities in the US, I think miserably. What was the name of the Northern Exposure town in the Artic Circle?

Through tearful eyes, allergy and self-esteem in equal parts; I see that the arm supporting me is female, slim and tanned. She somehow manages to grab a box of tissues as she leads me down some stairs and into a small garden. Other partygoers abandon their need for fresh air and I realize this would be a good ploy if ever a more romantic situation materialized.

I am seated on a metal bench and when my nose is finally exhausted, I look up, trying to appraise my Florence Nightingale. She is blonde, thin and wears an expression that doesn’t try too hard to hide the smirk. I am vaguely aware that she has been saying something.

“You must see my herbalist!” She repeats enthusiastically. “I used to be just like you, now look at me.” She holds out her arms in expectation that I appreciate her humor. Well she deserves it.

“Will your herbalist transform me into a beautiful blonde angel?”

She blushes. I have gambled that this brash approach would either compensate for my memorable entry or to scare her off and leave me alone in my misery. I’m not sure which I prefer. She remains standing in front of me and folds her arms across her chest, coincidently emphasizing her cleavage while slightly arcing her hips to one side. It is pleasantly effective. My mind stops dwelling on my social debacle, though this is not easily achieved.

“I’m Will,” I say, attempting to be social. “And you?”

“Julie. Joe says you’re the new boy, the freshman. Welcome to America. Do you always make such an entrance?”

“Looks that way,” I reply, misery returning.

“Have you been to Chinatown?” Julie asks.

“No. I’ve only been here two weeks. Looking for a flat, err apartment,” I correct myself, “and a job have been the priority.”

“Any luck?”

“Next weekend I am moving into a house in the Sunset. It’s student land, but the rent is in range.”

“I’m a student,” Julie replies sternly.

“And I’m hoping the ground will swallow me up any moment.”

She smiles again. “I’ll forgive you this time. But you’ll come with me to Chinatown.”

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****

I shouldn’t complain. Two weeks into discovering America and my hand is being held by an attractive business major guiding me through the uniqueness of the Far East, out here in the Wild West. Christopher Columbus surely never had it so good. No Starbucks, no public transport system where they actually remind you that you can use the ticket a second time, no cable TV with four hundred channels and nothing to watch. Sure Columbus discovered America before me, but he had to deal with wild ravenous predators, indigenous populations who showed scant appreciation for arrogant colonialism, greedy gold miners and zealous missionaries. My biggest dilemma is whether to watch Saturday afternoon British soccer at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning. Thankfully around this time I discovered Digital Video Recorder: God bless America!

I think the most impressive aspect of Chinatown is that it is full of Chinese people. I mean it. Millions of tourists pour through her marble gates and take excited pictures by her ever-guarding dragons before buying Chinatown, San Francisco T-shirts, three for ten dollars, no returns. But one senses that the real business happens between the Chinese and there are so many of them. Certainly there are no Westerners lining up to buy live fish, fresh turtles and scantly feathered birds of every kind. The negotiation over the price of vegetables displays the gritty determination of a people who have survived five thousand years. The Yellow Emperor and Mao Tse-Tung may have come and gone, great dynasties risen and fallen, but the bok choy must remain fresh and firm if it is to be purchased. One look at the grim-faced, scarf-covered, vegetable buyer and you know that this bok choy is seriously stir-fried.

But my lovely companion leaves me no time to play philosopher-tourist. Julie guides me effortlessly skirting the precariously stacked and pushed vegetable and milk carts being continuously unloaded, elbowing through the throng of bargain hunters, whether their prey is embroidered purses or stuffed pig heads. Between breaths she points out different things, arming me for survival in this surreal world.

But surrealism is only just beginning. There will be no escape.

Having turned on Clay Street, I had tried to duck into a bonsai shop. I have a long held fascination with bonsai and consider myself a bit of an expert having watched The Karate Kid at least a dozen times. I fancied the salesman might have been my Mr. Miyagi, my mystical Taoist teacher, and I could have learnt the secret ways of the Orient and the pruning of bonsai trees from him. But I am dragged on, deeper into the bowels of Chinatown.

Continuing tomorrow…

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.

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Occupy Corvair – Roger Ingalls

If you read the blog last week, you probably understand the meaning of the title for this post. My plan is to rebuild and slightly reengineer a 50 year old Chevy Corvair as a protest against California’s crazy smog laws and the kissy-cozy relationship between Big Oil, auto manufacturers and their lobbyists. To understand why rebuilding an old car is a protest, read the previous post.

I did receive a few emails about last week’s post asking why the Corvair was selected for the rebuild protest project. The following few paragraphs explain the technical reasons. Keep in mind that this project is focused on creating a high performance hypermiling vehicle. In this case, high performance does not mean massive horsepower or super speed. It means long distance traveled per gallon of gas consumed or high performing efficiency.

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The Corvair is a rear wheel drive, rear engine vehicle. Since the engine is in the back and connected to the rear wheels, there is no heavy transmission and driveshaft running the length of the car. Less weight means more miles per gallon. The elimination of a long heavy spinning driveshaft is important. A pound of rotating mass, in automotive engineering terms, is equivalent to seven pounds of static weight. Again, reducing weight improves mpg because the engine doesn’t work as hard per distance traveled. With the engine in the rear, the Corvair is lighter in the front. The reduced forward weight means less down force on the front tires so turning takes less physical force. The Corvair’s easy steering eliminated the need for power assistance. Most cars have parasitic power steering that takes energy from the engine which should be used to propel the car.

The Corvair has an air-cooled aluminum engine that is lightweight, again, less weight more mpg. Air cooling is also important. No radiator, water pump, hoses or heavy coolant is needed making the vehicle lighter. In addition, the water pump is a parasitic device that must be powered by the engine which further robs energy that could be used to propel the car. One of the engineering modifications I will make is to the air intake that feeds the motor. The new intake will take hot air coming off the motor which is expanded and carrying less oxygen. This has the effect of making the engine smaller. To maintain the proper fuel to air mixture required to burn, less gas is used. This will reduce the horsepower but the project is designed to increase mpg and not for racing at a track.

The Corvair has four wheel independent suspension. Most cars sold in America have their suspension adjust with a toe-out (front wheel slightly pointed outward on the leading edge) to make them easier to handle for novice drivers. This creates rolling resistance which robs power. Since the Corvair has independent suspension, I will be able to precisely adjust all four wheels so they are pointed forward decreasing roll resistance all the way around. As an example of this resistance, try pushing a car with the wheels pointed straight and with them turned; you’ll instantly feel the difference.

The Corvair will be turned into a pseudo hybrid. Multiple car batteries will be put is the trunk (located in the front of the car). These will be used to operate all parasitic devices such as, air conditioning, heater, and engine cooling fan which are normally powered by the gas engine. In addition, the alternator/generator that normally charges the single car battery will be modified. It will be present in the car but not engaged and, if needed, a lever will engage it (an alternator/generator is a parasitic device). Lastly, I will make aerodynamic and overall weight reduction changes to improve fuel efficiency.

This will be a fun project that proves we’ve had the technology to increase gas mileage for over fifty years.

Survival – No Matter How

Unwanted Heroes was much longer before my editor got his hands on it. A number of chapters were cut because they do not directly move the plot along. They seem to have something in common – my desire to show the many facets of San Francisco. I began sharing these passages with you last Wednesday and would like to share another one here.

There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision to cut them!

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

They sit in the corner of our coffee shop every day. They are old and somewhat withered, but they exude a mature and vibrant vitality that has a unique influence on our young staff.

He invariably wears a dark blue woolen hat, sturdy glasses and sports a full gray beard. All this partially hides a wrinkled, weather-beaten face and I fancy he could be a retired captain having spent a life at sea. He wears thick sweaters; today’s is dark brown and his training shoes are white, complimenting his beard.

She also sports gray but wavy hair. She wears comfortable corduroy trousers and often removes her Birkenstocks and curls her legs up under her or folded in front of her. She seems to possess an array of hoodies, all zip-fronted. The frames of her eyeglasses are thin and compliments waves of majestic wrinkles that line her face.

What makes this couple special? It is not that they are regulars, not that they always drink non-fat lattes, always ordered with a request from him to ensure the coffees come hot to which she lovingly rolls her eyes. It is not the single scone they order and carefully share.

It is the dynamics between them: the intimacy, the comfort. I watch as they share photographs. They never sit opposite each other with a table between them, but always gravitate to a corner where they sit on the bench that hugs the wall, close together with their backs on the red wood rest.

She has an arm around his shoulders and they enjoy close conversation. Nothing is forced. If there is silence, it is also shared and comfortable. But they are often talking and laughing. I am sure they have their aches and pains, their trials and disappointments, but there is always time to laugh, always time to share a loving gaze.

How do they keep it up? When does it cease to be new and fresh? They have been together forever, have children, grandchildren and maybe great grandchildren, but their focus is always on each other; their relationship is the anchor, the calm in the eye of the storm.

They have reached Budddahood, perfection. And they have achieved this by simply being together, by sharing the photos, the memories, by sharing the moment.

We are a young staff at The Daily Grind, all single, constantly vigil as we seek our own soul mates. We all observe this couple from behind the counter or when we clean around the café. We know their names and they remember snippets of our lives that they allow us to share with them. We are all silently asking the question.

We are their children, their grandchildren. We can be because they have enough space to share a bit of their Buddahood with every soul they come into contact with.

            *                                    *                                    *                                    *

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It was a rainy day in January. Still no sign, no indication of Spring around the corner. Twain’s coldest winter was a summer in San Francisco, but he never braved a winter by the bay. The wimp! It is a tough time of the year. Christmas is over, gone long enough for people to return to their resilient regimes, but not long enough to forget the season of goodwill. We seek a glint in each other’s eyes, but they are glazed over now.  Eyes open, but shut.

The morning rush is behind us now and the place is completely empty of customers. I wrestle to clean an intricate and generally forgotten part of the Beast – our nickname for the Italian coffee machine that Mr. Tzu is extremely proud of. When he imported it from the old country, it was the only one of its kind in the New World.

I am so absorbed in my struggle that I am not aware of the door opening. Tabitha elbows me hard and I bang my head as I rise sharply. My pain is soon forgotten and the entire staff are now frozen to their spots and watching her.

She approaches the counter slowly, cautiously. Her head is bowed; she is defeated. Tabitha walks around and opens her arms to hug her. No words; it is clear. Their absence had been remarked upon over the last few days, but the inclement weather was assumed to be the culprit.

Now we know the weather is not to blame. I clear my throat. Even the most experienced barista is never experienced enough, but the responsibility falls to me. 

“A non-fat latte, extra hot?”

She nods. Now cones the hardest part. Will she or won’t she? She just takes the latte and shuffles, yes shuffles, to a table in the middle. It is not the one in the corner and it should not be. It was a brave enough act just to enter the store.

She sits and for a moment gazes over to the corner. The she picks up her coffee and sips. Returning the cup to the table, she reaches into a bag and pulls out a book to read. I see a slight shake in her grip that I had never noticed before.

Tabitha takes off her apron and makes herself a coffee. Usually, she would ask me if she could take a break, even this close to break time. But she takes her coffee and a plate, on which she puts a scone and two forks. Then she walks over and sits opposite the old woman.                                                                                                                                               

Words are exchanged and the old woman briefly smiles. They begin eating the scone together and Tabitha is talking. At one point they both go to take a piece of the scone and their forks clash. Her head suddenly sinks. This is the difference. She would always be able to find someone to share a scone with, but after all these years the forks had been synchronized. The synchronicity has gone, forever.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, strike him down. We are deep in the grasps of winter and, even in this most beautiful of cities, it is cold and lonely. Even here, the Buddha has not tarried.

imgres-1I walk over to the table and pull up a chair. I take her hand in both of mine and squeeze gently. I swallow, not sure what to say. I stammer:

“My grandparents were together for more than sixty years. They were very different from you. She always seemed to be telling him off and criticizing him. He had an arsenal of cutting responses. My sister once asked my mother why they stayed together all this time if they couldn’t get on.

“My mother replied that it was just their way of communicating, that they had stood by each other through many crises and upheavals. She told us that they were really very much in love. I tried to understand this, but even as a boy I knew that theirs was not the relationship I would seek.

“When my grandfather died, my grandmother put on a brave face for a few months. But then she withered away, before our very eyes. As she lay on her deathbed, she told my mother not to mourn her as she was going to join my grandfather and was looking forward to seeing him. She was going to let him have it for leaving her behind after all these years.                                                                                                                                    “But it seemed wrong to us. We were kids. It seemed like she was leaving us, leaving her daughters and grandchildren and all those she had touched in her charity work at the church.

“I guess she couldn’t survive without him. I’m just trying to tell you that you have a lot of people here who love you and still need you; your family, friends, us.”

She smiles and squeezes my hand. Then she pulls up her sleeve to reveal her forearm. Her voice takes on a steelier edge.

“I will survive. It is tattooed onto my body, engraved into my psyche. I can do nothing else, for it would betray the memories of my people. We are survivors.”

Then she covers her arm back up and pats my hand.

“And you have a shop to take care of, customers and a lovely staff.” She forces a tight smile. “And this coffee wasn’t hot enough!”

Gloria Lyon, San Francisco resident.

Gloria Lyon, San Francisco resident.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

The Drums of War are Beating… Again – Tom Rossi

Are you tired of dancing to the same old beat? You should be. That’s because, after the drums of war are beaten, you’re next.

We once followed the drumbeat to Iraq. First we had the now infamous WMD, Weapons of Mass Destruction. Then we had, “Saddam Hussein is a really mean guy who gassed his own people.” Then… of forget it. You know the story. There’s no point in repeating it here. But the war in Iraq, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” cost the United States somewhere between one and two trillion dollars, depending on whose estimate you believe.

Then the drums told us that Osama Bin Laden was hiding in the mountains in Afghanistan… so we took the war machine there (while still knee deep in blood, theirs and ours, in Iraq), supposedly to bring Bin Laden to justice. This was the country that had whipped the Soviet Union after a ten year, brutal invasion. And remember… the Soviets were right across the border and didn’t have to ship their forces halfway around the world.

Bin Laden wasn’t there.

What did we learn? I mean, We, the people of the United States, not the war mongers. We learned that there is always a justification, and that justification will probably turn out to be false.

We are now being told that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, and North Korea is improving their already-existing nuclear capability. These things might even be true. Hmmm… I remember a justification for the nuclear buildup of the Cold War that said something about, “mutually assured destruction.” Hmmm… It seems to me that the leaders of Iran and North Korea would have to know that the destruction would be about 99 to 1 in our favor.

But the military-industrial-congressional complex want us to be afraid. That way we will keep shoveling money into their pockets. This while the same people want to do away with social security, public education, the Affordable Care and Patient Protection act, etc. These things return value to the majority of the people, instead of enriching the super-minority.

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We have gone light-years past “defense.” Remember when the Department of Defense was called the Department of War? That was a lot more honest. Now, the war-investors who profit from both killing and simply preparing to kill (W.E.B. DuBois said: “The cause of war is preparation for war.”) are drooling like Pavlov’s dogs. “Another war’s about to start! Maybe two! Yay!”

But we won’t hear any of that on TV, or in the papers. What we’ll hear is macho talk about America’s “strength,” and scary talk about how easy it could be for scary people out there to hurt us. Inconsistent you say? So what?

What we’ll hear is about how the leaders of these countries are “craaaaazy.” “Why, they’d lob a nuke our way even knowing they’ll lose! Just to make a point! Or even to martyr themselves! We have to get them before they get us!!!”

To question this line of BS will be “unpatriotic.” You have to be for a “stronger” America, otherwise you’re for a “weaker” America. When will we be strong enough? Silly question. It’s like asking a bodybuilder when he’ll have enough muscle. “Dude, if I can just build up my gastrocs a little bit more, I’ll be golden.”

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So, the bugle call will sound, and the “patriots” among us will answer without question. But what I love about my country is exactly that: the ability and the will to question, and to learn. I have only one hope for our future…

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We won’t get fooled again.

Peace.

-Tom Rossi

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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.

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A Place At The Table – David Waksberg

Tonight is one of the most powerful nights in the Jewish year. The Passover Seder is traditionally seen as a family event. David Waksberg, CEO of  Jewish LearningWorks, offers a beautiful, universal perspective.

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God created humans, Elie Wiesel suggests, because God loves stories.

At no time do we tell more stories than at the Passover Seder, and above all, the story of the Exodus, the master narrative of the Jewish people.

All of us are commanded to participate in the telling. Everyone who tells the story is praised. And each of us is commanded to make the story our own – as if we ourselves came out of Egypt. In making the story our own, each of us is invited to make OUR story part of the master story, to fit our unique puzzle piece into the great jigsaw puzzle of the Jewish people.

There is a place at the Seder table for all of us. No wonder more Jews gather for a Passover Seder than for any other Jewish activity. 

 “Let all who hunger come and eat,” we say. Everyone is welcome.

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Never before have so many Jewish leaders voiced the desire to “reduce barriers to participation” in Jewish life. And yet, so many feel left out, as if their puzzle piece can’t fit. Jews with learning differences that are not accommodated in schools; LGBT Jews who don’t feel welcomed in some institutions; multi-racial families, told they don’t “look Jewish;” interfaith families, seeking inclusion.

And the list goes on – Sephardi and Ashkenazi, observant and secular, Russian, Israeli…so many ways we can divide ourselves and so many ways we’ve found to feel alienated, uncomfortable, “other” in Jewish settings.

Most everyone means well, one parent told me, “but good intentions are not enough.” If we wish to reduce barriers to engagement, we need to let go of the notion that Jews must look or sound or act in accordance with a set of images we grew up with.

Jewish peoplehood does not mean we are all the same. It means that across a wide spectrum of diverse culture, language, ethnicity, politics, sexual orientation, physical abilities, and yes, even beliefs, we share a common bond. How wonderful, and how much richer is that bond for the diversity that informs it?  Jewish comes in many flavors and until we truly understand, celebrate and institutionalize it, those barriers to participation won’t come down. 

Next week, the multi-hued mélange that makes up the Jewish people will gather around Seder tables around the world to celebrate our story of liberation and redemption. The Seder exemplifies our diversity, both in the story we tell and in the multiple ways we tell it. At our Seder table, an array of customs and practices – melodies from Poland, Lithuania and Turkey, customs from Iraq, Afghanistan, and North America, recipes from Syria, Spain, and the Bronx – coalesce around a common theme, story, and set of rituals and symbols.

Twelve tribes left Egypt. Twelve tribes remained, and, paradoxically, one people emerged. 

Not every Israelite left Egypt. But all were invited to make the trip.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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Weekend Warriors

Unwanted Heroes was much longer before my editor got his hands on it. A number of chapters were cut because they do not directly move the plot along. They seem to have something in common – my desire to show the many facets of San Francisco. I began sharing these passages with you on Wednesday and would like to share another one here.

There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision to cut them!

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Chapter 4: The Weekend Warriors

The male weekend warriors’ single concession is to leave the ties at home and unbutton the tops of their shirts. The fact that it’s Saturday cannot deter them from coming into the City to work. The roads are empty, the parking easy and the coffee far superior to anything they can find on the East Bay, Peninsula or Marin. Okay, so maybe not the last part, but whatever their justifications, every Saturday, defying protocol, they come into the office.

I have to admit that this strange Saturday subspecies of the San Francisco commuter fascinates me. They come in all ages and sizes, married or single, and appear, from this side of the coffee counter, to be relatively successful, or, at least not frantically trying to meet a deadline. Surely they all own laptops with wireless connections and can work from home if they want? Most look healthy and often sport trendy, compact gym bags.

Some will even sit and open a newspaper, clearly sending a message to the world that they are commuters-by-choice. They will, however, sit for only five or ten minutes, before succumbing to the call of the office.

I wonder if they are truly commuters-by-choice? Take Mr. Partridge, for example. He is surely approaching retirement. Throughout the week, he dresses impeccably in a sharp black suit and exudes an undeniable air of control and authority. Transport him a few thousand miles across the pond, and he would undoubtedly sport a bowler hat, black umbrella and bow tie, and work in Westminster or the Civil Service.

“Good morning, Will. I see you drew the Saturday shift again?”

I always work the Saturday shift, but I appreciate him remembering my name. Even though he comes in every Saturday, I play the game.

“They have you coming in again on the weekend, Mr. Partridge? Business must be good.”

“It’s always preferable to be busy, young man. Believe me, the alternative is far less attractive,” and he too-promptly recites the latest unemployment statistics.

“I’ll be on the golf course all day tomorrow if the weather holds,” he says, as if to suggest that he does have a life. “How about you? Any plans for the weekend?”

I smile. “I’m on the prowl. Got a party tonight and I’m feeling lucky.”

We share a male-bonding wink and chuckle. Then he pays for his low-fat cappuccino with a five-dollar bill, dropping all the change nonchalantly into the tip jar.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.

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My Dream Protest – Roger Ingalls

My wife’s family is big into vintage American cars; they collect and restore the classics. My brother in-law builds hotrods, ratrods and some of his work has shown up in automotive magazines. I’m a car nut too so I fit right in.

Rat Rod

Prior to meeting my wife and her family, I would frequently hit some of California’s famous road course tracks with my 200mph Viper GTS ACR to release the pressures of corporate life. Later, thanks to my wife, I was introduced to dirt oval track racing and got hooked. I raced in the local series for about five years until a turn three incident at Antioch Speedway put me headfirst into the wall at speed, I survived but the car didn’t. The mangled mess still sits in the trailer exactly where it was dumped two years ago. She’s a sad sight; the only working piece was the battery which now starts my brother in-laws racer.

Finances don’t allow the rebuilding of my racecar and, realistically, I’m too old to compete with the young bucks that don’t give a hoot about destroying theirs or another’s equipment. But I still get the automotive urge to get my hands dirty.

Like my in-laws, I want to rebuild a classic. When talking about the make and model of vintage car I desire, everyone scratches their head and laughs as if I were crazy. But, what they don’t understand, there’s a reason for my apparent lack of coolness. I have a dream. A dream project that incorporates many of the things that I enjoy: cars, engineering and social activism.

At this point, you may be asking, “what the hell does social activism have to do with rebuilding an old jalopy?” The project will show how big business conspires to keep the demand for oil high by not engineering cars that can easily get 50 plus mph. It will also protest California’s draconian smog laws by avoiding the issue altogether due to the old age of the car. I’m all for clear air but anti-smog regulations should be based on actual engine emissions and not on tactics truly meant to raise revenue for the state (don’t mask a revenue generating tax under the veil of smog reducing propaganda).

Corvair

The desired car for my project that brings laughter to friends and family is…wait for it…a Corvair, the car that put Ralph Nader on the radar. The Chevy Corvair only had a ten year production run due to bad press, some deserved but most of it was hyped misinformation. The car was a technological marvel that was years ahead of its time. A list of design elements for a 1960 Corvair family car and the world famous Porsche 911 sports car, first introduced in 1965, are almost identical.

It’s my belief that with some engineering, this 50 year old car will get more than 40 mpg proving that technology has existed for many years to make automobiles more efficient. The only roadblock to improved mpg has been oil and automotive lobbyist. Since the Corvair was manufactured before 1975, it is exempt from CA smog requirements allowing me to give a big FU to the crazy smog regulation that have nothing to do with exhaust emissions.

This is my dream project, my dream protest. It combines cars, engineering and a little activism…fun stuff.

Special note: For those interested in knowing why the Corvair was selected for this project, leave a comment and I will explain the technical benefits of the car.

In the Shadow of Giants

Unwanted Heroes was much longer before my editor got his hands on it. A number of chapters were cut because they do not directly move the plot along. They seem to have something in common – my desire to show the many facets of San Francisco. I would like to share then with you over the next few weeks.

There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision.

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

In the Shadows of Giants

            The Daily Grind survives in the shadow of giants. Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks rule the roost. I believe there are eight of them within the half-mile radius that defines the boundaries of San Francisco’s Financial District. As an independent coffee shop employee, I should have nurtured a healthy hatred for these monoliths of corporate America, who have turned the little guy into an endangered species.

The truth is, I have read Howard Shultz’s Building Starbucks One Cup at a Time, and I have to admit I harbor a grudging admiration. He and his colleagues are true connoisseurs who stood up for something they truly believed in: Coffea Arabica.

Every investor, market analyst and beverage manager doomed them to failure. The American nation was incarcerated by the instant coffee powder, addicted to the milk, the sweetness, the insanely cheap coffee and, of course, the instant powder. Why wait? Why grind? Why the extra roast?

But these men embraced a common vision, believed in the people’s finer taste buds and held a zero tolerance for compromise. They raised the bar and the people voted, with their travel mugs. There are those who blame these corporate monoliths for the scarcity of the local corner coffee shop. But the little guy can survive, only he must commit to two holy tenets: top quality coffee and kick-ass service.

And this is why, even the corner coffee shop has its barista and he, or she, must make it work. I put considerable effort into trying to make every customer welcome – an honored guest. I have a good memory for names or odd details; I throw out liberally, letting them know that I remember them and that they are individuals.

We all want to be remembered. We go into a restaurant, a shop we frequent, the gym and hope that there is acknowledgement on behalf of the maitre d’, the shop owner or the gym receptionist.

It allows us to stand out from among the masses. It reinforces that we are each unique, individuals with our own life, our own destiny. The swamp of urban anonymity has not swallowed us. We live another day as individuals. And it keeps us returning to the same shop, restaurant or gym. It creates brand loyalty that is different from a great product, an image or a good price. It fills a need in each and every one of us; we are members of the tribe. In this case the Coffea Arabica tribe. Here, every morning, for a few minutes, we belong. We feel validated.

There is one woman who frequents our coffee shop every weekday morning at 8.20am, orders the drip of the day and sits in the same seat where she can easily look out the window or survey the coffee shop with equal ease. At 8.55am, she tosses her coffee cup into the garbage can by the door, and leaves.

She is, I guess, in her mid-thirties, always impeccably dressed. She is attractive, not centerfold beautiful, but in a genuine, deeper sense. Her clothes, though business attire, reveal a full, well-maintained body and her hair is always tied back in a tight bun. She would pass for one of a thousand who frequent our coffee shop, if it wasn’t for her eyes…and her silence.

She never speaks; she doesn’t have to order as I have her coffee poured as soon as I see her. The change from the two dollar bills is dropped automatically into the tips glass and she retreats to her seat.

Her eyes haunt me. They seem…empty. I realize she is somewhere else as she stares out of the window. Her elbow is on the table, her chin cupped in a hand that boasts elegant fingers, notably devoid of a wedding ring.

I always look for an excuse to get closer to her. I pick garbage off the floor, wipe tables; whatever is necessary to sneak a view of her. I wonder if she suspects and, if so, whether she even cares?

Yesterday, we heard of yet another Starbucks opening in our area. That makes six within walking radius and there are two Peets’ and two Tully’s. The boss constantly frets, though The Daily Grind has held its own for several years.

The talk among the staff focuses on the new Starbucks. People worry about their jobs; many are students, or high school dropouts. Others like me are artists; none of us have employment skills that will make finding another job easy. Our boss is tough but fair and he cares about us, though he would never want to admit it.

A customer, who is sitting at the next table to the woman I have just mentioned, asks me if I am concerned about the new competition in our crowded neighborhood. I crack a joke, something about Starbucks just wanting to ensure that they have at least one store standing after the next big earthquake thereby ensuring they maintain a monopoly on the survivors.

He laughs and, as the businesswoman glances over at me, I see a crack in the frown. I jump at the opportunity.

“Why do you come here every day instead of Starbucks or Peets?”

She hesitates. Is she deciding why or whether she wants to even tell me?

“Because of you,” she replies, quiet but confidant. “The coffee is good, but I come because of you.”

I swallow, uncharacteristically lost for words. Thankfully she continues. “For a few brief minutes of the day I belong. You know me; know what I want to drink. You respect my boundaries, though you hover around cleaning and such. I feel comfortable,” she hesitates again. I see her swallow. When she continues, I can hear the emotion in her voice. “Over the past few years you have been my most consistent friend. Sad isn’t it.”           

“At the chain coffee shops, that is what I am: just another link in the chain. Still I’ve been wanting to tell you something for the last month.” She rises and throws her cup in the garbage can. Then she turns around and smiles. “I love that you have my drink drawn by the time I am at the counter, but I’d like to try the mocha one morning.”

With an uncharacteristic bounce in her walk, she leaves the coffee shop. I don’t need to check the time.  It is 8.55am.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

 

No More Nukes for North Korea… or for Anyone – Tom Rossi

The U.S. government and media, as well as the U.N. and many of its member nations, are up in arms over North Korea’s latest nuclear weapons test.

It seems that, despite his expensive Swiss education, Kim Jong Un is following closely in his father’s (Kim Jong Il) footsteps. The U.N. has approved major economic and trade sanctions against North Korea, as a result.

And why wouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t Kim Jong Un want to give himself and his nation nuclear capability? That’s the only way to guarantee the longevity of your dictatorship, these days. Well, either that or cooperate fully with America’s corporate-operated government, and that’s just not going to happen in this case.

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Let me make a dire, pessimistic prediction… There will be an explosion of a nuclear device, either here in America, or in Europe, in the next couple of decades. There is simply too much nuclear material out there, and the distribution of technology is getting harder and harder to control. And, lest we forget, there are many different groups out there, some with official flags (like Iran) and some without, that are, at this very moment, working as hard as they can to gain nuclear weapons capability. 

With the current state of affairs, this nuclear progress can only be slowed by our best espionage and military efforts. We try to keep our “enemies” out of the nuclear country club, while allowing our “friends.” But one day, there will either be a “leak” of materials and technology that will allow the wrong group to get what they want, or one of our “friends” will do something stupid.

There only one real solution to the threat of nuclear weapons eventually being used by either governments or terrorists – a complete, worldwide ban on any and all nuclear activity (mining, power, or weapons), except the tiny amount (with different isotopes) that’s needed for medical purposes and biological research.

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This would be the only plan that could actually be enforced, and even then, only with agreement from the world’s major powers, including China and Russia (I don’t remember saying it would be easy). It would be relatively simple, with remote sensing from satellites and spy planes, to find any and all mining of nuclear material.

This would mean that we would have to finally reject the dreamy tales of efficient, low-pollution energy (that weren’t true anyway) that have been the gifts of the nuclear industry’s PR machines. We would be far safer, in so many ways.

Nukes just might be one Pandora’s box that we can close again – at least most of the way.

-Tom Rossi

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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.

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