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 “April, 2013”

Mommy, Can I Grow Up To Be a Sellout? Pleeeeease? – Tom Rossi

Because I’ve been alive during this particular period in music history, I’ve witnessed a transformation – one that tells us a lot about the direction our society, as a whole, has gone in the last couple of decades.

It used to be that a musician, being “sponsored” by some name brand, or letting a song appear in an advertisement, was completely taboo. Not too long ago (maybe 30 years or so?), your peers (other musicians) would have looked down on you with disgust if your song appeared in a commercial for Nike or Coca Cola.

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But gradually, that’s exactly what became “normal”. We now are bombarded with fake art – music that was created to make money, and so “selling out” no longer has any meaning. I’m sure that some of this music was created with selling out as its true purpose.

There is very little “art for art’s sake.” Yes, succesful musicians have always made money – sort of. But nothing like today, which leads me to believe that most future musicians didn’t start taking lessons, in the good old days, with the goal of millions of dollars in mind. Now it really seems that it’s mostly about money.

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And… these days it’s about MORE money. We now see musicians’ and other “artists'” work appearing in commercials even though these “artists” are already millionaires. I keep wondering, how much does a company has to pay a big star like __________* to have his song in their commercial? Or to have him appear on a commercial personally? I sure hope it’s a lot. I’d hate to think we’ve “progressed” to the point where a millionaire will commercialize his or her work for practically nothing.

(*note: I’ve decided not to give any sellouts any extra advertising space here. If anybody wants it, they can pay me. Wait… no, they can’t. They can go to hell.)

But maybe it doesn’t bother me so much that some people choose to commercialize their own creations. What really bothers me is when a musician has passed away, or just doesn’t own the rights to his or her own creation, thanks to a crappy deal with some giant, ever-greedy record company, and that creation is turned into an advertizing campaign.

I’ve heard songs by The Beatles, The Doors, and all sorts of other bands and solo artists used in commercials in the last few years. This makes me sick. No matter what you say to me, no matter what arguments you make, I will NEVER, NEVER, EVER believe that John Lennon would be OK with the use of any of his songs to sell something – and certainly not shoes.

Neil Young feels the same way I do. Here’s his great video for his song “This Note’s for You,” that was, for a while, banned from MTV:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJiUEr4045o

-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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Bearing Witness: A Window Closes

I thought it was risky expecting college students to give up a Friday night and come to Hillel, the Jewish Student Center, to hear a Holocaust survivor. We usually invite speakers during the week and had already held two ceremonies, one on the SFSU campus. But sometimes you hold events just because they are popular, and sometimes: something needs to be said.

A student requested that we invite her grandfather, who has a tragic but amazing story. I was stunned to see our small family house fill with over 80 students. People stood along the walls, sat on the stairs and all listened in silence as Herbert Heller told how he was ordered as a boy to take some laundry for a guard’s son, and instead put them on and walked out the camp and escaped.

Herbert Heller talks with a student

Herbert Heller talks with a student

He told us of coming to America and trying to live a fulfilling life without hate and guilt guiding his every step. His voice was quiet and clear. He was not a polished speaker, which only served to make the experience so much more genuine. He was one of our friend’s grandfather. He could have been anyone’s grandfather.

I walked around afterwards asking students if this was their first time hearing a Holocaust survivor and why they had come. I was particularly interested in a small group of students I had never seen; a group that I decided was probably not Jewish. They had been invited by two Jewish students when they had heard these students talking about how important this was to them, they had felt a clear sense of purpose that this was something they wanted to experience.

The common response I received was that a sense of urgency, that a window is closing on the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. There is a genuine concern among millennials, who are fueled by a sense of justice and order, that the Holocaust will become just another massacre of a people in a long historical list of shame on humanity, but a page in a history book, nonetheless.

Gloria Lyon, San Francisco resident.

Gloria Lyon, San Francisco resident.

I fear for our ability to keep telling the story. I believe we must each find the opportunity to meet and hear a Holocaust survivor, especially if this someone is a family member.

Two 18-21 year old students said to me separately (paraphrasing): You have the opportunity to bring this amazing man to speak to me, but what will I do in order to pass on the story to my children, to my grandchildren?

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We need to hear the story. As Elie Wiesel said: we need to bear witness. When these students sit down with their children and grandchildren, they will begin their story with:

“One Friday night I met this amazing man and he told me his story…”

Yarzheit Candles Hillel

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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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Emma McCune

Last week, I posted about Emmanuel Jal, who was forced to become a child soldier in South Sudan and has gone on to become a famous hip-hop singer and tireless social activist.

Jal was rescued by Emma McCune, who I discovered was a remarkable woman. Emma was born in India in 1964, but brought up in the UK where she graduated from the University of London. In 1985, at the age of 21, Emma flew to Australia and back in a single-engine, light aircraft with a friend.

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Two years later, she went to Sudan, then in a civil war to volunteer for the British organization Volunteer Services Overseas. She was forced to return to England the following year but by 1989 she managed to return, this time working for Street Kids International, which founded or re-opened more than 100 village schools in South Sudan.

She met and married Riek Machar, one of two leading South Sudan guerrilla commanders, and worked to promote his organization after Street Kids International fired her. She died in a car crash, pregnant, in 1992. Emma’s mother, Maggie C, published her story in Till the Sun Grows Cold, and journalist Deborah Scroggins wrote an unauthorized biography of her called Emma’s War.

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Emma is seen as a controversial figure because of her marriage, but she unequivocably worked to save more than 150 war children in Sudan including hip hop artist Emmanuel Jal. At the APF conference that I attended, he performed his tribute to an incredibly brave woman: “Emma McCune” was recorded for his 2008 album Warchild.

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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 Invisibility of My Disability – Tom Rossi

I don’t usually like to use these blog posts to whine about my own situation. I much prefer to use this opportunity to try to campaign for better lives for us all. But lots of people are in a situation similar to mine, including many of the soldiers coming back from the Oil Wars.

The spectrum of the conditions that can be called “disabilities” is broad and includes completely different classes. Some disabilities are readily visible, like a missing arm or being confined to a wheelchair. But some are what are called “invisible disabilities.”

In the case of an invisible disability, the disabled person might appear to be perfectly OK. Their disabilities are somehow hidden from view – possibly mental, or a physical problem with their brains, or a problem with the function of another organ like the heart or liver. It could also be some combination of these types of conditions (brain and mental problems often go hand in hand), or something I haven’t listed.

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My problem is a screwed up brain. And while some of you might think that it’s obvious, from reading my blog posts, that I have a bad brain, most people who see or even are acquainted with me don’t realize it. I look and, for the most part, seem “normal.”

I was 29 years old when my brain just decided (without consulting me) to start bleeding, deep inside my skull. In fact, it was almost at the center, so far from my skull that the doctors told me, again and again, that it just couldn’t have been the result of a big hit while I was playing hockey, which seemed like the logical explanation. Anyway, I had not been hit in a game for at least a couple of weeks when this happened, and at the time I was only playing in an amateur league where you’re actually pretty likely to finish the game with your armpits still on opposite sides of your body.

I recovered from that first hemorrhage surprisingly easily (thanks to a highly skilled surgeon) but it happened again, 2 1/2 years later. It was this second operation that left me in pretty bad shape, for a while, with the main, ongoing problem being mental fatigue.

So much in life depends on making the right choices and setting priorities reasonably well. And these are exactly the kinds of things that became difficult for me along with concentrating on anything difficult for a length of time. And while every person who has has what is termed an “Acquired Brain Injury” experiences different symptoms, this is very common. The pressure of the consequences of our choices just overwhelms us, sometimes.

And of course, there’s the head pain. I use the more general term “pain,” rather than “headache,” because it can take many forms. After the second of my two major brain surgeries, my head hurt for two years. It wasn’t drastic, sharp pain, but a dull, fuzzy feeling that just became my “new normal” for that time. I’ve met several people, since then, that say they are in pain every day from their brain injury. Most of these people told me this with a smile. I think this was, in part, due to the fact that they had adapted, as I have, and in part due to their happiness to talk to someone like me… someone who had been there.

Now, I can sometimes go several days without my head hurting, but then there might be a week when the pain is hard to shake. I just never know what the coming day will be like.

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When people meet me, they usually see nothing “wrong” with me. But sometimes, if someone talks to me for a while, I may still look OK, but inside I might be struggling to stay with them in the conversation. Or I might think of a question, or a response to something the other person has brought up, but then have to fight through the mud of my own mind to think of it when the moment arrives when I could vocalize these thoughts.

I have to consider commuting very carefully when calculating whether or not I could take a particular job or participate in an activity. If I have to drive for an hour, I probably won’t be able to get through four hours of work. In fact, there aren’t too many jobs I could take in which I would be able to work an eight-hour day.

This is how an invisible disability is different from a visible disability: It’s even more difficult to know how to make up for it. Don’t get me wrong… I don’t think I’d trade situations with someone who has had his or her leg blown off by a car-bomb in Iraq. But that kind of injury has been relatively well-understood for a long time. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) more and more buildings have wheelchair ramps and accessible bathrooms, for example.

But what accommodations do you make for someone who has a dark, painful fog on his or her brain? How do you help a college student that, even though in possession of the intelligence and ability, can’t write a paper in the time allotted, before the semester ends because that student can only work for a limited time before his or her brain says, “Time to rest! And if you don’t listen to me, I’m going to shut down!”?

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Debi Palmer, founder of the non-profit Brain Injury Connection in the Bay Area of California, says that people think of us as either, “lazy, crazy, or stupid.” In my experience, people don’t usually say anything like that, but you can often see those thoughts turning behind their faces. Some think of us as the now infamous “47%,” the “takers” of society. And why wouldn’t they think those things? As I’ve said, we often appear to be just fine.

In fact, those of us with some sort of conscience, ambition, or inner critic question ourselves every day. We wonder how much of our “disability” is real and how much is based on the fear of feeling the helplessness that we felt when our condition was at its worst. That fear can, in itself, be debilitating. It’s really a form of PTSD.

Let me promise you something. NOBODY in their right mind would EVER want to fake PTSD or any kind of mental disability. The life of a disabled person is no picnic. It’s not at all easy to get help in any form, much less money. I have never received one dime of support from the government – not in the 16 years since my first brain hemorrhage. I’m extremely lucky though, because my parents have been able to help keep me from becoming homeless. Many aren’t so lucky.

I would give anything to get my brain back. I’d give anything to be able to work hard for 50 or 60 hours per week on the things I’m passionate about, even if I only earned minimum wage. I’m sure many people in my situation feel the same way.

Those of us with an invisible disability are not lazy, crazy, or stupid. Our world has been changed in a way not that different from someone who has lost an arm or a leg. The fact that most people don’t have the same deficits means that we often can’t keep up… not with the pace of life that’s demanded by our peers, or by our own expectations.

But like the people with visible disabilities, we constantly strive to figure out ways to deal with our new lives.

-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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Emmanuel Jal – Child Soldier, Hip-Hop Artist, Hero

I had the honor to meet world recognized Hip-Hop artist, Emmanuel Jal, at the Association for Professional Fundraisers conference last week. Jal is from South Sudan and was taken and trained as a child soldier. His father joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and, when he was about seven years old, soldiers loyal to the government killed his mother. 

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A number of boys decided to try and escape and in their three month trek he saw many of his friends die. A British aid worker, Emma McCune rescued him. Jal was 11 years old then and McCune adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya, where Emmanuel attended school in Nairobi. McCune died in a road accident a few months later, but her friends (Madeliene Bunting and Anna Ledgard) helped Emmanuel to continue his studies. However, after McCune died, her husband Machar did not allow Emmanuel to stay with him, and the boy was forced to live in the slums. 

images-8Jal explained how he discovered music, how it became a refuge, a way to process and express what he had gone through and as a powerful tool for both the spiritual and political.

Today he is a famous Hip-Hop artist, known around the world. But he has never forgotten his past and is a tireless ambassador and activist for social justice and human rights. He broadcasts his message of peace and equality through his music and through various NGOs he has founded and involved himself with.

I chose to show this tribute that Emmanuel wrote in memory of Emma McCune, and preferred a live version over the studio one, even though the quality is not great. But it shows his energy and presence.

And he had 4,000 people at my conference (the majority, I am guessing not into Hip Hop) on their feet answering his call for peace. Emmanuel Jal has every right to be bitter and cynical. Instead he is a visionary: “I’m a war child / I believe I’ve survived for a reason / To tell my story, to touch lives.”

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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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Blue Dresses and Saxophones – Roger Ingalls

Yesterday, standing with the parents who lost their young children in the Sandy Hook Elementary Schooling shooting, President Obama said: “All in all, today was a pretty shameful day for Washington.” I haven’t agreed with the President of late but his statement about the shameful voting of Senators to strike down background checks on gun buyers was on target.

According to a recent poll, 90 percent of US voters support enhanced screening of people purchasing guns. Yet, fifty-four Senators voted against the overwhelming will of the people.

The NRA stands against S. 649 even though seventy-four percent of their members support background checks. Going back on their word, the National Rifle Association threatened Senators in a letter prior to yesterday’s vote. Here’s one of their many statements, “Given the importance of these issues, votes on all anti-gun amendments or proposals will be considered in NRA’s future candidate evaluations.” The cowardly Senators decided it would be best to brown their noses in the buttocks of gun lobbyist rather than supporting the people they took an oath to represent.

For pleasuring the Saxophones (a.k.a. gun lobbyist), I give these despicable Senators the Blue Dress Award. A list of award recipients is shown below.

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Some may think my blue dress and saxophone analogy is disrespectful to the fifty-four nay-sayers but these political prostitutes were absolutely disgusting on April 17, 2013 for servicing special interest groups instead of representing their constituents.

Gun Control – A Picture Says A Thousand Words

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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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Evil and Stupidity at the Boston Marathon – Tom Rossi

I was all set to publish a different post for this week when I turned on the news, for the first time today, and saw that bombs had been set off at the Boston Marathon. As is known, right now, 3 people are dead and over a hundred are injured. Those numbers might change as more information comes in.

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I just can’t tell you how much I hate this. I hate it when people get hurt for no reason. I hate it when people expect to be safe and they aren’t. I hate it when a fun, cool event is ruined by violence.

But what I hate most, as a general rule, is stupidity, especially on a massive scale. People blow other people up, shoot people, and do all sorts of nasty, violent things… and for what???

What do they accomplish? What did Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and Michael Fortier accomplish when they blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City? Well, we all know that they hated the FBI. Is the FBI gone now? Is it going away anytime soon? Or ever? No.

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Assuming the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on 9/11/2001 was actually perpetrated by foreign terrorists, what did they accomplish? Nothing. Less than nothing. They got their own people, including countless innocents, killed, maimed, and/or rendered homeless.

Blowing people up isn’t just evil – it’s stupid. It’s not even the equivalent of a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. It’s more like wanting to eat a hamburger, so you set your shoe on fire and throw it in a garbage can. It not only accomplishes nothing, a sane person would predict ahead of time that it will accomplish nothing.

But some idiot, every once in a while, makes a plan thinking that he’ll (I’m pretty sure it’s mostly men who do this) show us all – that he’ll make some statement, or hurt his enemies. Never mind that the people actually hurt have nothing to do with whatever he’s upset about.

I implore all who read these words or hear about them – Think. Think about what will be accomplished by your actions. Think about the costs. Think about people’s lives and families. If there is one, unifying message that runs through all of my posts (for the last couple of years), it is that we should form a society in which we care about each other, and in which we carefully plan for our collective future. If we do this, we will individually benefit, and we will be safe from threats of all kinds… or at least safer than we are now.

-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 Changing Significance of Book Reviews

With three epic fantasy novels coming out over a period of 18 months (they were written over the previous three years before you ask), I have become very interested in the issue of reviews and wrote about it a couple of months ago.

I have come to believe that reviews left on a book’s Amazon page are crucial for sales. While you do see the cover on line, it is less visual than in your hand. There is no salesperson vaunting how great the book is, no positioning next to A-list authors, and no cardboard display in the window. On the other hand, when a potential reader looks at your book page on Amazon, there are virtually no distractions: not hundreds of other books surrounding it, or bumping into someone you might know etc.

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So what so you have to look at to help you buy a book? The reviews. 

In response to last week’s post of the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon.com, a friend suggested that I should be excited that Goodreads members would be putting their reviews up on Amazon, because they are true bookworms and leave considerably more thoughtful reviews.

A person recently gave me a 5-star review for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and I tweeted to see if I could find them to thank them. I was curious because it was short and not well constructed. I discovered (via the father) that it was a young teenager who had read the book and felt moved to write what was, in his mind, a strong recommendation. I was thrilled because so far I am only hearing from adults who have read my novels, despite seeing the Young Adult as my target audience. 

Vancouver-based publishing consultant, Thad McIlroy, summed it up in a Forbes article. When it comes to: “what do I read next, Amazon has become almost the only show in town:

“Despite that Amazon said it would keep Goodreads independent (like IMDB, Zappos and several other Amazon acquisitions), most in the industry will look at it as just Amazon now. Providing that service is a chief concern for booksellers who want to make it as easy as possible for readers to discover their next book purchase. Now, Amazon is the undisputed No. 1 when it comes to book recommendations. Ebook retail sites, like start-up Bookish, have long claimed that readers need a better way than Amazon for finding new books. Those claims now have little teeth; Amazon pretty much has it all right now when it comes to recommendation.”

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What excited me most is that Goodreads will add credibility to a system rocked with controversy of false or paid for reviews. Leslie Kaufman wrote in The New York Times: “Amazon has been wrestling with review fraud in the past year. Because book reviews on Goodreads are identifiable (tied to a social profile), they are harder to manipulate. This may add a new and more credible review source to Amazon’s internal reviews.”

The price for this new credibility (for authors) is a more thorough critique of our books. Goodreads members leave lower average book review scores and deeper in-depth discussion.

While these reviews, undoubtedly more useful to readers, might feel threatening to the author, it reinforces what should be obvious from the start: that the keystone of success is to produce the best possible book in terms of every aspect of our craft. Are you up for the challenge?

Finally, if you have got this far into the post and have read any of my books – fantasy and other – please take a moment to leave a short review on the book you read: an honest critique worthy of Goodreads.  

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Have a great weekend.

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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.  

Two Random Thoughts for the Week – Roger Ingalls

Background Check

Thought One: Gun Control

I’m pleasantly surprised. It appears two Washington politicians from different parties are advancing compromised legislation on a “kind of” gun control. I was stunned on two fronts. First, warring chieftains reaching across the Political Grand Canyon to strike a deal is amazing in today’s Washington environment. Second, the legislation they’re pushing forward is pretty good; in short, it requires background checks for gun buyers. This has an opportunity to pass and possibly keep weapons out of the hands of a few bad people. Anything else has no chance of getting through.

As I’ve said in past posts, it can’t hurt to make it more difficult for crazies and criminals. Also, I’m not in favor of outlawing assault rifles for law abiding citizen because they serve a constitutional purpose. However, handguns should be made illegal because they are constitutionally irrelevant (see past post).

It will be interesting to see how far this new gun control proposal makes it through the legislation process.

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Thought Two: Planting Season

It’s time to plan your garden and get your seeds. Everyone should grow at least one green thing; a tomato bush or some basil. You’ll be amazed at the sense of empowerment, accomplishment and the ease of doing so. You’ll look at it and feel good, taste it and you’ll feel even better.

Just grow it!

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