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”

A Bookcase In The Digital Age

I have a steady relationship with my kindle – no I haven’t updated my Facebook status, don’t bother checking. I take it with me everywhere I go, with an assortment of books ready to read. I also have an off/on affair with my public library which truly softens the blow of having to pay taxes.

However, when I go into someone’s home, one of the first things I look at is their bookshelf. I hope there is no judgment in my peering. I feel the books tell a story, not only between their covers, but of this person’s life. It tells me what they love, loved, and maybe aspires to love.

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And it is not only other people’s book collections. When we recently moved house, one of the first areas I set up was our bookcases. It somehow made this new house our home. Wherever I live, and with whatever digital advancements yet await, I will always have the bookcase as the foundation of my house, of my identity.

So I was delighted to discover this quote from Laura Miller: 

Of course, you don’t have to buy a book to read it, but the act of giving someone a book of his or her own has an undeniable, totemic power.

As much as we love libraries, there is something in possessing a book that’s significantly different from borrowing it, especially for a child. You can write your name in it and keep it always.

It transforms you into the kind of person who owns books, a member of the club, as well as part of a family that has them around the house. You’re no longer just a visitor to the realm of the written word: You’ve got a passport.

–Laura Miller in her Salon essay, “Book owners have smarter kids.”

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I know it is not the same, but we are now a two-kindle family. Generous friends bought my eldest a kindle for his birthday. I have just loaned him a book from my device and also gifted ebooks. It is not quite the same, but for the sake of the trees, I’ll live with it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the weekend beckons and its time to curl up with a good book.

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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.  

We Catholics Have a New Popo – Roger Ingalls

“popo” –  California slang for police or authority

I feel comfortable using Popo in place of Pope; it’s a term of endearment. “Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it’s been a bazillion years since my last confession.” As a youth, I did my time in the church, going to Mass, Catechism and was even an altar boy for a day so I’m entitled to a little fun. Yes, I carried The Body of Christ, in the form of a host, down the aisle to the Priest. The altar boys nicknamed the hosts Tortilla Seeds because they looked like little baby tortillas…ah, the imaginative mind of a kid.

Strange day, I found my ear glued to the radio for over an hour waiting for the Latin announcement naming the new Pope. The good Catholic boy doesn’t practice anymore so why was I so interested? For historic reasons, I guess.

In a somewhat surprising move, the Cardinals selected Jorge Bergoglio as the new Pope; a humble, soft spoken Priest known simply as Father Jorge in his community. He’s the first Pope born in The New World (Buenos Aires, Argentina), it only took 500 years!

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Considering the stagnation of the three main monotheistic religions, the selection of Bergoglio is a progressive move. I was hoping for a more liberal choice that would potentially move to align the Church with the realities of today’s society but I do praise the selection, it’s a step forward. Father Jorge, now known as Pope Francis, is 76 and may not be around too long so perhaps this was a calculated transitional choice by the Church as it moves to modernize.

By all accounts, Pope Francis is a man of the people so I look forward to seeing what he does as the most powerful religious leader in the world, especially since he’s from outside the Old World power zone.

Telemarketers, Cell Phones and Hobbits

At a recent fundraising seminar, I was told that the best time to call people and solicit donations is between 6-8pm. Allow me to describe my house during this time. The entire family is just getting home. The kids are tired and cranky. Mum and/or Dad is making dinner and very tired. Other parent is helping kids with homework and/or doing other chores (pay bills, clean house, fold laundry). Between all this activity, family tries to find time to sit around a table and ask how each other’s day went, what we learned, or discuss some monumental change in the world.  

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The phone rings. It is surely a friend who needs help, another kid asking our kids a question about homework. It is certainly NOT a stranger trying to sell me something, or a good samaritan trying to engage me in a conversation that will lead to me wanting to support their cause. At least the good samaritan is trying to do some good in the world. But the telemarketer…

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And here are two gripes:

1) How dare you use an automatic voice to call me! If it is not worth your time to pick up the phone, why do you suppose it is worth mine! I’m sure you are busy right now – maybe making dinner for your family or helping your kids with homework.

2) I am paying for these calls. At least when it comes to my cell phone. I didn’t ask you to call and you are not my friend. Why should I pay? 

So here is my suggestion:

1) If it is automated … hang up!

2) If you have a cell phone, call the following number from your cell phone: 888-382-1222. It is the National DO NOT CALL list It will only take a minute of your time. It blocks your number for five (5) years. Remember, you must call from the cell phone number you want to have blocked. You cannot call from a different phone number.

Remember the old days, when business was done down the pub and cemented with a round and a handshake. No? Me neither, but I would like to. Then again, I think the world would be a better place with hobbits. And I bet they don’t spam your cell phone.

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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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Are You Greedy Enough? – Tom Rossi

By now I have seen Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, on three different television programs, essentially trying to convince women to be more aggressive in their goal-setting. Sandberg and her interviewers seem to agree that there need to be more women in “leadership” positions, such as corporate CEOs.

I agree with parts of Sandberg’s message for women. For one thing, she points out that women are often not anxious to negotiate the best salary for themselves. I agree that the same work should pay the same, regardless of gender.

What concerns me is that she and her interviewers seem to agree, to take for granted in fact, that greed and/or megalomania are good. Not only are they good, but so obvious and desirable as a characteristic, that it’s hardly worth mentioning.

This was evident by the nature of the discussions during Sandberg’s interviews. In fact, the interviewers were quite careful to cover the angle that Sandberg might be saying that something is “wrong” with women, and that’s why there aren’t more of them leading major corporations. But of course, that’s exactly the point – that there’s something wrong.

A jaw-dropping moment came when Sandberg complained that only about half the percentage of women, as compared to men, want to become CEOs. Wow. Women don’t even know what they’re supposed to want! Get with it!

I can relate. I’m supposed to want a big house, with a three-car garage dominating and uglifying the facade. But I don’t. My wife and I would really like to, someday, be able to afford a decent condominium, maybe three or four flights off the ground, with an OK view, and not overlooking a freeway. We’re such losers.

At least my wife wants to be a successful author. But I basically want a part-time job, where I make a quiet contribution to environmental/economic policy, or something like that. I would love to be able to work in this area full time, but my damaged brain (come on… like you couldn’t tell?) makes that difficult. But even before my brain went bad on me, I just wanted to be a biology/ecology professor.

Docta say, I got dain bramage.

Docta say, I got dain bramage.

You see, my parents (I have four, thanks to the miracle of divorce and re-marriage) never instilled in me the desire to be a chipmunk. A chipmunk is greedy two different ways – in the short run, and in the long run. They pack their cheeks as full as they can with nuts and seeds that they find on the ground, then they hide as many loads as possible in various places in the forest. They never stop working. They never feel that they have enough.

The human chipmunks are the hoarders of society. And you are supposed to aspire to being like them. In fact, the chipmunks are completely certain that you ARE like them, you’re just not as good at being a chipmunk as they are.

Some of us, the non-chipmunks of the world, have non-megalomaniacal goals. A lot of these people, as it turns out, are women. I applaud those who see the world not as a field of competition, but as an organic substrate on which to create happiness and cooperation… and contentment. Even if a person is only watching out for his or her own family, these are much more admirable goals than being in charge of a huge, money-making operation.

It’s true that concentrations of wealth have yielded some benefits, things like MRI machines, for example. But, once again, these represent the exception, not the rule. Most of this concentration simply goes to toys (like yachts) and dominance of geopolitics through power.

I hereby give recognition to all those women (and men) who have chosen a path not acceptable to the chipmunks. No, there is nothing “wrong” with you. I wish you much success… in providing a decent life for your families, in trying to save up enough to enjoy a decent retirement, and in vying for the local bowling-league championship. We all have noble challenges in our own lives, and we don’t need to be told that we “should” want something bigger.

There are worthy goals that don’t involve outrageously lofty ambition, and sometimes those goals are right in front of us. Sometimes our noblest accomplishments are simply getting through our everyday challenges. Heck, my parents deserve a freakin’ medal for dealing with me through my teenage years. I wish I could pay them back someday, but I’m not a chipmunk, either.

-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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The Power of Power

If you have ever had a deeply spiritual moment when you just knew that all you believed in was in fact true…If you have ever looked at someone and known with absolute clarity that they are your soul mate…If you have ever stood in the presence of a great person, and known with total confidence that they are the real thing…

Such feelings rarely happen, but I am told that when they do, they are a moment of total clarity and that this is an awesomely powerful moment.

Last week, I was in Washington DC for work. We were able to sneak in a bit of sightseeing, a couple of monuments, and they were beautiful and poignant, even if I primarily discovered I possess a woeful ignorance of American history.

But when my work schedule had finished, a colleague invited me to meet a friend who works on Capitol Hill. We would get a tour and spend a few minutes chatting with him.

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Now I am no great admirer of this or any American government that I have experienced. But there was something incredibly powerful as we approached the Hill. We received a tour by a young tour guide, who was articulate and proud. He peppered his descriptions with caveats, jokes and stories. But he never strayed from the responsibility and the gravitas that he felt he was representing something sacred.

We were introduced to the new statue of Rosa Parks, which stands near a small room that contains a bathroom, library and I am not sure what else, but it is only for the women representatives. Is there a nearer, more convenient bathroom for women? Of course there is. Women have been leaders here for 97 years. A proper woman’s facility was installed in 2008. 

Then we met my friend’s friend, who works for a senator. He was a real-life West Wing person, only incredibly human. But between the jokes and the explanations, it became abundantly clear that he is deeply excited and honored to be a part of something special. He feels the thrill, every morning when he leaves the train station and sees the capitol building anew. He calls his senator ‘my boss,’ but does so with genuine love and reverence.

I would not consider myself someone impressed by beautiful domes, excited by statues and paintings, and especially not intrigued by men and women (but mostly men) in suits and ties with cell phones wrapped to their ears.

But there was something very powerful in the air: a sense of purpose, a sense of duty and responsibility. I know. I know, we are all so critical of these people and for good reason, but when you stand there under the great dome, in the marble halls, where numerous statues of great men and women stare down at you daring you to take courageous steps, you cannot but feel profoundly inspired.

 

You feel the presence of greatness, past and present, and it gives you hope for the future.

I have lived in the US for eight years, helped in two Presidential campaigns with only a twinge of remorse that I cannot vote. I have cheered my city’s team in the Superbowl and the baseball “world” (really?) championships without really understanding the rules or what we are eating.

I have criticized and campaigned against shameful flaws in this society. I have written novels where, under the guise of fiction, I have vented my anger at certain shameful traits of this society.

I have, I know, also seen beautiful mountains, lakes, forests, and oceans, but somehow they seem an act of God or something spiritual – beyond the realm of man.

But here on the Hill I met something built by the American nation. I experienced the heart of democracy and freedom, and for an hour, I truly felt its very pulse.

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And I want to feel more. My friend turned to me and said: ‘how can you not want to run for office, to be a part of this energy?’ He had felt it too and I told him on the spot that if he ran, I would write his speeches. We laughed, but a small part of me was serious (he would be – actually already is – a very good leader by the way). 

I am now back in California, in the city I love. But I have undergone a transformative change. I will campaign in the next Presidential election as a citizen and I will cast my vote. This month, I will begin the long path to citizenship.

After eight critical years, I no longer want to be an outsider looking in. I want to be a part. Even if that means learning American Football rules for when the ’49ers reach the Superbowl again next year.

I want to feel that heartbeat again, the exhilarating synergy of freedom and democracy. It makes what I write about, in my novels and my blog, all the more relevant. It makes me want to belong.

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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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Hugo Chavez – Roger Ingalls

At 58, Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, is dead. How am I supposed to feel about this man? As a citizen of the USA, I’m expected to hate him because of his extreme socialism, reforms that nationalized many industries including foreign-owned businesses and railings against, what he called, US imperialism.

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When Chavez became Venezuela’s president in 1998, close to 60% of his nation’s people lived in poverty and 25% of them lived in extreme poverty. Now, 15 years later, only a little over a quarter of the country’s people are below the poverty line with less than 7% falling into the extreme range. In addition, he established free public education for citizens of all social status, providing grade school through doctorial level studies. To further improve quality of life, Chavez created a national health care system free to everyone. Increasing the standard of living for so many, in such a short period of time, is an amazing achievement.

Venezuela is blessed with having a valuable natural resource, oil. However, the vast majority of its people never benefited from this treasured commodity. The riches went to foreigners from other countries. To heal his impoverished nation, Chavez seized the oil industry within Venezuela’s borders and used the wealth for the good of the people. His nationalization of industry angered the US because we lost control of oil in this region.

In the US, we are taught to believe people like Hugo Chavez are bad because their political and economic agenda differs from ours. However, I’m finding it difficult to hate or think badly of a man – a politician – that fought so hard for the good of his people. I hope to someday witness a US politician that fights this hard for his constituency.

The Mission Continues

Since the release of Unwanted Heroes, I have been meeting and talking with a number of war veterans. Some of them, I am ashamed to say, I have known for a long time and vaguely was aware that they donned the uniform.

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It might be because of this that the issues are high on my mind. It seems that every news site, blog, radio show seems to have some mention of it. It’s like if I told you not to count how many Ford Mustangs you see today …

So there I was on a rare foray into live TV and an advert came up for The Mission Continues. I have blogged about a number of non-profits who are helping war veterans absorb back into society, but this organization is different.

“A Mission Continues Fellowship involves 20 hours of service per week for 26 weeks at a local nonprofit organization. Fellows are encouraged to choose a nonprofit organization to serve based on their own personal passions. Current and Alumni Fellows have worked at organizations addressing issues ranging from disaster preparedness to education for low-income youth to training service dogs for wounded veterans. These host organizations include Habitat for Humanity, American Red Cross, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”

In a world of entitlement, there is something resonating in men and women who have served in the armed forces, now becoming involved in forces that are building our society. From my experience of internships and fellowships, only the best seem to apply. They may have altruistic goals – building resumes, learning key skills, using the experience to check out a particular profession – but there are more materially rewarding options.

You might think that serving in the army is enough, and maybe it is, but the recognition that this nation’s finest, still have a role to play in defining the quality of this society, is powerful.

Check them out:

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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.  

A Whale of a Whaling Tale – Tom Rossi

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U.S. appeals judge Alex Kozinski, last week, declared that the actions of the group known as the Sea Shepherds amount to piracy. The Sea Shepherds sail the oceans, chasing whaling vessels and trying to interfere with the killing of whales.

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In 1976, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) set the quota for a certain species of whale found largely in the southern hemisphere at zero in an attempt to get around policy difficulties with bureaucracy. Japan promptly issued itself a permit to hunt whales for research purposes, as allowed by IWC rules, and to dispose of the meat and other valuable components on the Japanese market.

Since then, the Japanese have taken hundreds of these whales per year in the name of research… while making huge profits at around $50 per pound wholesale (and climbing) of whale meat. I’m really hoping they don’t start researching Italian Americans.

Several issues come up, here…

If whales are simply a resource to be harvested for our needs (or wants), then that resource should be preserved at optimum production levels. That isn’t happening.

One of the so-called strengths of our economic system (a system which is in force throughout most of the world) is that, as a resource becomes more scarce, its price rises, creating an incentive to develop new resources as replacements. But in the real world, as the price of a resource rises, the incentive that’s immediately created is to exploit every last molecule of that resource until it disappears.

The Japanese claim that whale populations are healthy and that their hunting, er… research does nothing to harm sustainability. But real research, not funded by those profiting from whaling, shows that whale populations are in decline.

But what if whales are not just a resource, like oil, but are living creatures that have some value, other than “use value?” Whales are intelligent and complex beings. They show surprising depth of emotion and their communications are stunning in their richness. Would westerners accept the hunting of chimpanzees for their meat? Or mountain gorillas?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUAUQa8C8zA

The fact is that Americans can’t even stomach horse meat. Why is that? Sure, there are stories that the current horse meat “crisis” has to do with horses from eastern Europe that may have been in poor health before they were slaughtered. But there’s something much bigger than that going on.

Americans would absolutely not accept even good quality horse meat, because America loves horses. Horse lovers cite the animal’s intelligence and sensitivity as reasons that they are so precious to them. And the image of the horse is one of a great friend to us – a partner, not a stock of meat.

Meanwhile, only a few people shed a tear for the cow. Cows are certainly not as intelligent as whales, or even horses. Is that the difference? So where do we draw the line? The Japanese harvest lots of intelligent creatures, such as the incredible cuttle fish. To them, the cuttle fish is a resource too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1T4ZgkCuiM

Being a carnivore myself, I find that I cannot answer this question. It seems it’s another subtle judgement call. Prey animals, like cattle and chickens, make up an important part of the human diet (although vegetarians and vegans would disagree) as fish and deer and prairie dogs make up important parts of the diets of their natural predators.

But if we upset the balance of nature by ourselves hunting ocean predators, such as whales and tuna, the populations of the species that eat the oceans’ algae will explode. This will mean yet another huge insult to the world’s oxygen production, until the algae-eaters crash from an algae shortage. Their decaying bodies will then produce carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change.

By coincidence (not really), it is the predators that happen to be the most intelligent animals, with few exceptions. So maybe there are sentimental as well as practical reasons to curtail activities such as whaling.

A few years ago, I spent six months living in Japan. I really like Japan and its people. I made lots of good friends there and I hated to leave. And one of the great things about that country is its food – delicious, healthy, and incredibly varied.

The Japanese have eating habits that they are loath to change. Japan continues to fish bluefin tuna toward oblivion, for example, as its appetite for it hasn’t slowed in the least with news of crashing bluefin populations.

Habits die hard. But we need to see the science by squinting through the fog of political and profit-driven spin. The human population on this Earth is huge and growing. We have long since passed the point where our activities have significant effects on the functioning of the ecology that is our life-support mechanism.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Brw6JN0lQXY

I’m not really sure if these are chief among the reasons that the Sea Shepherds risk their lives to protect whales and other sea creatures, or if they just want to preserve what little they can of the beautiful life on this planet. Either way, in the face of the unwillingness of politicians, worldwide, to slow the rate at which we change our world down to a level that can be understood in its impacts, they are bravely taking action. I wish we lived in a world were extreme action was unnecessary. But when the rates of destruction of important elements of our world are extreme, the wheels of politics turn too slowly, usually reacting only when it’s too late.

-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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An Imaginary Author’s Co-op

There are a lot of authors out there, a lot of books, and a lot of noise on the Internet. Each author racks his/her brain for an original idea to blaze a trail in one social media or another that will create the elusive momentum that will propel a series of book sales, of movie options, and publicity.

That’s a lot of work for one person, especially one who would prefer to sit behind a computer screen creating new characters, plots and worlds. Even more so, that comes after possibly a full time job, helping the kids with homework, paying the bills, working out…

DSCN1387I believe I spend an hour a day blogging, tweeting, answering emails (as an author). I often do this with ease; either early in the morning, during a lunch break, or after my boys are in bed. But I am giving seven hours a week to promote myself and if I had more time, I would delve into Facebook, Goodreads, redesign my website, participate on other people’s blogs and forums.

What if I spent that time promoting not only myself but also five other authors, all writing within the same genre? What if we parceled out each social media forum, not exclusively, but the person in charge of Twitter, for example, would delve deeper into how best to leverage this medium. We would all tweet, retweet, dm, and build our own twitter following, but the cross-pollination would make it six times as visible.

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And then, we would offer extra time and focus when someone’s new book is published. We would write reviews on Amazon, on their website, interview them on our own blogs, and recommend them to friends. I recently went to a party and could have given my book-loving friend a book. She has read mine, but why not then give a copy from someone in my co-op. 

It demands honesty and trust. We are all desperate to ensure our own success and need to rein in the tempting opportunity to promote ourselves to the detriment of others. A ‘friend’ stood up at a venue where I spoke, told everyone how great The Accidental Activist is, and how it reminds him of his novel… and he then went on to pitch his own.

One of the best events I participated in was a panel set up by the historical fiction author, JoAnn Smith Ainsworth. There were four authors and we all flowed in effortlessly. We had decided that Christine London, a romance author, would be our informal facilitator, and probably no one in the audience noticed as she occasionally directed a question to an author who had been quiet for a while. The audience was considerably bigger than it would have been if it was only me appearing – there were fans of all genres.

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I spent almost half my life on kibbutz and when we all worked for each other the synergy was amazing. Is it possible to replicate such mutual support in the world of promotion, sales, and money?

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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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