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 category “General: Me – A Left Coast Author”

The Human Touch

I have just returned from our annual family camping trip: the opportunity to rest, fish, hike with the family, and write 12,000 words of a novel I should never have started… the usual. Being 90 days away from the release of From Ashes They Rose – Wycaan Master Book 5, also meant it was time to honor a now six-year tradition and read the rough first draft of book 6 to my sons in the forest and around the campfire.

Summer 2015 Reading Book 6

Every morning I would drive down the mountain slope where we had pitched our tents and, at the junction, make a choice: turn right to get ice from a machine or left to buy it from a store. Each time, I turned left. On the final day of our trip, my eldest joined me and asked why I chose the longer drive each day.

“I prefer to buy the ice from a human being,” I replied. He made a joke about any consumer options purchasing from an elf – I have him well-trained.

What struck me is that I had not made a conscious choice, but I preferred the brief conversation with the cashier than the dull whirl of the ice machine. There is a certain irony here. I am reading an excellent book about online marketing – Authorpreneur in Pajamas by Geraldine Solon – and marveling at how social we can be on social media.

And yet I choose to turn left appreciating the human touch in the interaction. The Internet is amazing. Truly. But a chilled beer around the grill or campfire with family and good friends is not something that can ever be totally tweeted/snapchatted/instagrammed/etc.

The aforementioned author, Geraldine Solon, while she sung the praises of social media, made it very clear that she loves public signings and meeting her fans in person. I have met Ms. Solon on a number of occasions around the Northern California authors’ circuit. She is so vibrant and eloquent. Each time she has gone out of her way to introduce me to people I don’t know and always a deserved crowd hovers around her author’s table, from where I hear laughter and frivolity. Ms. Solon might be an expert on the topic of social media, but she also loves being with people. I am sure her considerable success is due as much to one as the other.

If Ms. Solon was buying ice while camping, I am sure she would turn left and purchase from a human being. She would probably buy herself an ice cream too ’cause she’s on vacation. And why not?

While I have your attention, From Ashes They Rose, the fifth in the Wycaan Master series, will be released in September 2015. To celebrate, Tourmaline Books have lowered the price of the award-winning, At The Walls of Galbrieth, to a mere 99 cents for the ebook. I’m not sure for how long this will remain so.

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front Cover  Book 5 Cover FINAL

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and three more novels in the Wycaan Master Series: The First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3, and Sacrificial Flame – all released by Tourmaline Books. From Ashes They Rose, the fifth in the series, will be released in September 2015. The story continues.

Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+

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Open Letter to Hillel Students and Alumni

Dear Students & Alumni,

As you have probably heard by now, I have left my position as executive director of San Francisco Hillel. After nine amazing and challenging years, I am moving on to new challenges, heading the Western Region of the American Jewish World Service, an organization that, inspired by Jewish commitment to social justice, works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.

I want to take the opportunity to share a few thoughts. For many of you, I was a familiar face at Hillel, working behind the scenes to raise the funds necessary to run the organization, and often dealing with managerial issues and politics, whether on campus or in the Bay Area Jewish community.

For some, I had the honor to lead you on birthright trips, alternative breaks, and to conferences such as AIPAC Regional and Policy Conference. These were the times when I had an opportunity to cultivate a deep relationship with many of you, one that stretched over several formative years for each of us.

I treasure the conversations we had as we grappled with our Jewish journeys, our relationship to Israel, and our shared desire to strive for a more just world for all. You helped me form and change my opinions, and create a personal values-based platform with which to lead my life. I thank you for this and hope that I was there to help you grow as well.

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For many we bantered about the Warriors .v. Lakers/Clippers, or my beloved Arsenal (English soccer team), and I hope I enriched your language levels with my British English.

For others, I was that crazy bloke who rapped his speech at the Final Shabbat dinner, the guy who joined conversations about politics, campus life, relationships, or whatever you wanted to share around the coffee machine. I truly treasured those moments and will hold them forever in my heart.

 

I wish you the best as you continue along your chosen life path. Last month I turned fifty, and want to share that we never stop exploring our values, beliefs and life dreams. I hope you grow, seeing Hillel as a positive and integral part of your life. I hope you will continue to explore your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people, to the State of Israel, and to strive to create a more just society in the US and the world.

If you are still a student, please continue to take advantage of the opportunities that Hillel provides, to help create a vibrant Jewish campus community, to stand up for Israel, and enjoy the alternative breaks, conferences, and birthright, with the wonderful staff that continue to work at Hillel.

If you are an alum/na, I hope you find your place in the Jewish community and continue to be an activist in whatever cause/s resonate with you. I hope you can take the values you honed at Hillel and integrate them into your own life. Please join and support the alumni network so that those who come after you will be able to enjoy the same benefits that you had. No one appreciates the value of a Hillel more than alumni. Become a mentor for a current student, help them to negotiate college life and prepare for graduation. Stay involved, even if it is only a $5 monthly gift, it is important.

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I want to thank the wonderful staff that made my time at Hillel so special. In particular, Rachel, Shushannah, Sima, Charlotte, Heather, and Yochai, all of whom helped make Hillel a family, not a place of work. Please welcome Ollie, my replacement (also a Brit, sorry!), and Omer, the amazing new Israel Fellow, and help them grasp the complexities and the vision we share for Jewish campus life.

Finally, thank you for being such an exciting part of my life. Please feel free to stay in touch via email (alshalev@yahoo.com) or look for me on Facebook and Twitter. I am sure our paths will cross again.

Good luck in all you pursue for a happy and meaningful life.

L’shalom (to peace),

Alon

Masada 2014

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and three more Wycaan Master books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com.

 

Pagan America – Hellaween!

A couple of times a year, I feel compelled to ooze love about my newly adopted motherland (parentland?). I realize that many of the blog posts that I, and my esteemed colleagues at Left Coast Voices, are critical of one thing or another. But there are certain times that everything fits, and you feel the real America. I love the freedom, the liberty and Halloween. 

I know this ancient, spiritual festival is now commercial, sugar and additive prone. I know these are the hazy remnants and perhaps denigration of the customs and culture of a religion systematically destroyed by monotheism. But I love how, for a few hours, everyone throws on a costume, get all excited and friendly, and for a few hours share the sandpit together without squabbling over toys or Obamacare. Oh, and I enjoy the kids celebrating Halloween too!

Perhaps it’s something unique to The People’s Republic of Berkeley, (I have never lived anyway else in the US), but when whole neighborhoods get into the swing together, something very special happens, if only for an evening.

My first novel, A Gardener’s Tale, illustrated the struggle between the Pagan religions and Christianity in rural England. It follows two years in the lives of the villagers and a mysterious stranger who comes into their community. One of the elements felt by the villagers is the breakdown of their community, how they are becoming increasingly estranged from their neighbors.

Through reigniting the Pagan religion that once united them, the protagonist offers an opportunity to reclaim their community. We need this today more than ever. How many of us really know our neighbors and those living across the road? My neighborhood began a community initiative to get to know each other after a woman was attacked by a man who tried to steal her purse. As she screamed for help, there was a spontaneous outpouring of people from their houses. Out of nowhere, that street became a community. But it lasted only a year or so and we returned to our own little connected/unconnected worlds.

We need Halloweens to bind us together rather than crimes. With so much violence and conflict in the world that sees to revolve around religion, perhaps we also need the gentler, older religions. The earth certainly does.

So here’s to candy and spontaneous celebration. Happy Samhain, everyone.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of GalbriethThe First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

When Blogging Becomes A Way Of Life

Three years ago, when I signed with Three Clover Press to release The Accidental Activist, I made a commitment to reach 1,000 blog posts in three years. This was based upon the belief that the blog creates a live and interactive platform with ever-changing content and feeds the more static website. Left Coast Voices was born.

 “The richest people in the world build networks. Everyone else looks for work.” Robert Kiyosaki

I will get there by the end of the year, but I never expected to be as enthused today as I was when I wrote those first posts. At the time, I wanted to build a platform, to get my name out and direct people to my books. I wrote extensively about multinationals when The Accidental Activist was released – this being my favorite, and about war veterans after the release of Unwanted Heroes.

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

At the time, I felt like one of a few who were consistently blogging and it wasn’t long before Lloyd Lofthouse, author and mentor to me, and I were being invited to speak about blogging.

But blogging has come a long way in these past few years and it is difficult to imagine how to get heard above the noise. There are a few who build a loyal following. I wake up every morning, make coffee and faithfully read the daily Arseblog post – which provides me with more than just the latest news of my favorite soccer team. A bloke in Ireland is pounding the keyboards every day. He has a podcast once a week and is now offering a Google Hangout where he brings other Arsenal bloggers on board. And I lap it up…every day without fail.

imagesAs I approach the 1,000th post, I am wondering where I want to take the blog. I love the contributions of Tom Rossi on Tuesdays and Roger Ingalls on Thursdays. Norm Weekes chips in every month or so with a powerful message, and it sometimes has a feeling of community.

So, if you have a minute, please answer the following three questions in the comments below:

1. What do you like about Left Coast Voices?

2. What would you like to see more of?

3. Are a variety of topics a good or frustrating thing?

If you are interested in joining the team and having a weekly post on the blog, please shoot me an email at alshalev at yahoo dot com.

Have a great weekend, everyone. Thank you for being part of this exciting journey.

This post was inspired by the great bloggers at Savvy Writers. Their post includes an excellent visual analysis of who is blogging and why. They also deserve the credit for the Robert Kiyosaki quote (as does Robert, of course for saying it!). Any author would be well-advised to follow their blog for really good social media articles.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

The Magic Never Grows Old

This is actually the eighth time that I am on the cusp of a book being published. This count includes a couple of self-published books that were picked up by Three Clover Press and repackaged with new covers, titles, and an extensive round of edits. A face-lift and open heart surgery never felt so good! But today I am as excited as I was the first time, and the second, and the third… You get the point. Sometime in the next two weeks, Ashbar, sequel to The First Decree, and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award YA category, At The Walls Of Galbrieth, will be officially released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar front cover I wonder how it is for the big fish? When those A-list authors have their 20th, 30th, or 40th novel released, are they just as excited? Yes, I’m thinking of you, Terry BrooksGeorge R.R. Martin, J.K Rowling, Terry Goodkind. Are these authors and others coolly not checking their email every hour for the official notice from their publishers? Do they accidentally type their name into the Amazon.com search engine and browse down the list of books on their author’s name? I am, of course, way to cool to be checking every hour, myself. In order to be productive at work and give my sons the attention they deserve, I have set reminders for four times a day – I’m awake for eighteen, I figure that’s too compulsive! I have not yet held my review copy – it is on the way, I am promised, though this might have been a desperate ploy to shut me up (can’t blame them) – I remember each time it happened with almost the clarity of holding my newborn sons. The books, I have to admit, were not as slimy or noisy. I am currently 50,000 words into writing a fantasy novel for adults that I hope will be a series alongside the Wycaan Masters. I believe authors who keep two series running (Terry Brooks is my role model), then both series’ remain fresh. But I have promised to start the editing process for Book 4 (actually started with my writer’s group over the summer) before sending it off to Tourmaline’s wizards) so that they receive it by the end of 2013.

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Where it all began: Writing Book 1 with sons in an ancient Redwood forest.

The process is ongoing. Each magical, landmark moment: finishing writing the last page, sending the book to the editor, seeing the cover for the first time, receiving the review copy… these are all just stages in a journey to build not only a world, but a dynasty – a multi-generational world with a history of its own.

But that never stops these special moments of holding a real copy of your book for the first time being magical – and it never should.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Remembering Charlie Russell R.I.P

I was deeply saddened by the passing of Charlie Louis Russell, Jr. last month. I knew Charlie from the California Writer’s Club that we have both attended for many years. Charlie was a quiet, steady presence who was always interested and engaged in what was happening around him. He was generous in his encouragement and compliments, while always very humble about his own writing successes, as he was about his accomplishments and his brother.

What most impressed me was that he would never be drawn into compromising his work or cutting corners. He once said that it will take as long as it will take and if he didn’t finish it, then that was how it was meant to be. I guess his words were prophetic.

I hope he is up there in the great writer’s group in the sky, sitting with the greatest and working on his book. Those heavenly writers will enjoy his company as much as we did in the basement of the Oakland Public Library.

Below is his obituary.

 Charlie Louis Russell, Jr.

March 10, 1932-June 28, 2013

Charlie Louis Russell, Jr. was born March 10, 1932 in West Monroe, LA.  His parents, Charlie Russell, Sr. and Katie Russell, were hardworking, industrious, and ran a tight ship.  They had a wood-burning stove and no indoor plumbing.  He and his younger brother, William “Bill” Russell, spent days shooting BB guns, hunting birds, and going to the movies.  The “Spy Masher” serial was a favorite.  Charlie loved his mom’s cooking, especially her stuffed bell peppers and banana pudding. 

Katie emphasized education.  After discovering that Charlie had not learned to read in grade school, she insisted that he be held back.  Katie spent the summer reviewing lessons with him, making sure he could read before the new school year. 

In the 1940s, in search of a better life, the family moved to Oakland.  Charlie attended Cole Elementary and Hoover Jr. High.  Before she died, Katie used someone else’s address so he could go to Oakland Tech High, which she believed would better prepare him for college.    

Charlie attended Santa Rosa JC.  He was briefly married to Donna Diston.  Their son Michael was born in 1950 (d. 2000).  In the Army (1953-1955) Charlie was stationed in Korea.  He returned and went to U.S.F., majored in English and was on the 1957 basketball team that reached the NCAA final four. 

The Russell family’s westward migration was highlighted in Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns.

After college, Charlie moved to New York, married Tanya Johnson and they had a daughter, Katheryn (1961).  He joined the Harlem Writers’ Guild and published several well-received pieces.  His play, “Five on the Black Hand Side,” appeared off-Broadway and was made into a movie (1973).  Charlie won an N.A.A.C.P. Image Award for writing the screenplay.

He earned an MSW degree from N.Y.U. in 1966 and was a counselor at City College.

Charlie loved jazz.  Charlie Parker and Dinah Washington were his favorites. 

He returned to the Bay Area in 1978 and taught drama at Contra Costa College.  In the mid-1980s he moved to San Diego where he was a social worker.  He moved back to the East Bay to manage the care of his father and worked for Ala. County Child Protective Services.

His final writing project was a novel based on Toussaint L’Ouverture’s life.

He leaves to cherish his memory daughter, Katheryn Russell-Brown (Kevin Brown), son, Joshua Russell, grandchildren, Louis Brown and Sasha Brown, special friend Sandra Johnson, ex-wife Tanya Russell, and many, many other family members and friends.

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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 the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.

Love Your Mum, Love Your Editor

I’ve become one of those people and I’m feeling ashamed of it. You know the type I’m talking about – the people who read your book and proactively looking for errors – grammatical, spelling, and especially plot. They get more excited discovering a mistake than at a plot twist. Okay, I have not fallen that far, but I am noticing mistakes and if there are too many, it becomes very off-putting.

Now let me make it perfectly clear: I have made all these mistakes…frequently. Thankfully my writer’s group or my awesome editor usually catches them. Here are a couple of examples:

In At The Walls Of Galbrieth – Seanchai and Ilana rode their horses into a closed desert enclave, met and fought some bad guys and walked out. Luckily, one of my writer’s group suggested they take their horses with them because they are in the wilderness!

I have had characters walk into a one-story building and climb stairs, and in Unwanted Heroes spent over a page talking about the pastry crumbs in Salvador’s beard – it was later cut to one line.

I have written and self-edited nine manuscripts, with six eventually published. It would not occur to me to publish a book without a professional eye scrutinizing every line. I am grateful for the people who email me when they find a mistake in one of my novels and I diligently write it down for a future revision. But I confess, it hurts when they find it. We want our novels to be perfect – if we didn’t, it would be a serious flaw in our motivation for publishing. 

imgresI am close to finishing reviewing my editor’s work on Ashbar. As with the previous two epic fantasy novels, she has cut over 10% of the manuscript. Given that my own rounds of revisions did something similar, I am still always surprised. But the manuscript reads, without a doubt, tighter and more fluent for her work.

I came across an article by Dick Margulis entitled The Editor–Author Relationship: Five Reasons Why Self-Publishing Authors Need An Editor. I was more interested in the relationship side, but Margulis focused on the latter part – fair game considering he is an editor.

You can check out his article for yourself if you need convincing your work needs an editor. I am always surprised when people present at our writer’s group and preempt by telling us that their work is finished and sent to their publisher. I just know the group are going to find a dozen errors and will show no mercy pointing it out.

I think the relationship between author and editor is fascinating. I have never met Monica Buntin, my editor for the Wycaan Master series. But I feel we have a close, sensitive, professional relationship, and yet we could be sitting at adjacent tables in a coffee shop and never know (oh no, the woman next to me has caught me staring – she will never believe my reason!).

imagesBut we have created an understanding whereby she feels comfortable to be critical and I am willing to hear what she says (it helps that she is 95% right). I can email short questions and she send back a succinct answer while inviting me to ask if what she wrote is not clear. 

I have no idea if she enjoys my novels, but I have no doubt she is totally invested in my novels being as perfect as possible. I hear from so many friends, writers and editors, how this relationship is riddled with tension, how the writer feels the editor is rushing through, how the editor is too burned out to mention a flaw knowing the writer will just become defensive. 

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I believe I have the perfect relationship with my editor and that can only mean a better, more fluid final manuscript. Perhaps it is better that we never meet and never invest anything personal in the relationship. It might be better if the woman at the next table was not my editor. Still…she has a dictionary on the table next to her latte.

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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 the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.

Too Much Homework?

The United States ranks 17th in the world for education, a legitimate and worrying metric to examine where our country will stand in the next few decades in terms of business, innovation, and the ability to live out our own values and encourage others to follow a similar path.

I realize that, for the sake of our children, I should be calling in more investment into education, a greater status and respect for teachers, and other ways to boost the performance of our children, their grades and general rounded education. I want to live in a smart society.

I should be calling for change because I truly believe that education is the key to advancement, because I believe that every child should be given the opportunity to reach their own potential, find and train for a meaningful career, and use as a stepping stone to rise up in society. I also believe that education helps makes people more satisfied and happy, and that this creates a better world to live in.

I’ll leave this to the experts:

 

But I don’t feel like writing this right now. Like my teenage son, I feel thoroughly burnt out and resentful. In order to pass on a full curriculum, designed by people far more professional and knowledgeable than me, our children are being forced to study, not only most of the day, but during the evenings and most of the weekends.

When he is not studying, he is so exhausted, that all he wants to do is vegetate in front of a screen, and frankly, I understand that.  My work has periods of intense and long hours. During these months, I only want to crash on the couch when I get home and stare at burly young men kicking the pigskin around. Often during these times, when my wife asks who is winning, I need to glance at the scoreboard first before answering.

I’m willing to go through these periods because I love and am inspired by my work, and because I believe that this is the sacrifice the main breadwinner of the family makes. One day, when my children are settled, I will have plenty of time to go fishing, bird watching, do Tai Chi, and sit in a coffee shop and read a newspaper (remember those? I am convinced they will become a status symbol of independence from the clock).

imagesBut there are things I want to do now – and I want to do them with my son. I want to take him biking, to the gym, to practice archery, and read a good book together by the sea or in a forest. I can make that time, get up early, go to bed late, do whatever it takes – train through the pain as one of my favorite t-shirts says (the one I wore playing basketball with a torn meniscus).

But my son can’t. He has math problems to solve, a project to write, an English essay to complete. Sure, he finds times to hang with his friends and some screen time, I don’t resent him this. It is part of growing up.

I remember being in school and looking forward desperately to the summer. I recall my mother being annoyed that I wanted to lie in bed late every morning and enjoy not having pressure or a schedule.

I want my son to succeed in school for all the reasons mentioned earlier and the profound fear that I will not be able to help him, that at some point he must stand on his own, as I did. But I also want to enjoy being together while we still can, while he still wants my company.

He gets a long summer break and deserves it. I will take a week and we will head north into the mountains. We will fish, bike, swim in a lake guarded by a snow-covered mountain. We’ll eat too much ice cream, fight over who gets the hammock, read together by the fire.

DSCN0951None of this will help my son or the USA become more successful in the decades to come, but sometimes life is more than statistics, and more than homework assignments and grades.

Somehow we need to find ways to measure quality of life, to value relationships, to create memories. Perhaps we will find that time is as valuable as making the grade.

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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 the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  For more about the author, check out his website.

 

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.

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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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