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 tag “America”

The Stars and Stripes Freeway

Yesterday was a landmark moment in my life. I stood before Old Glory and took the Oath of Allegiance. I am now an American citizenship.  This is a culmination of an arduous process full of bureaucracy more than anything spectacular. But what began as essentially a pragmatic step transformed into a meaningful process.

There is a lot wrong with the United States of America. The team here at Left Coast Voices has highlighted so much that needs to change if we are to truly reflect the vision and values of this country. But there is something incredibly inspiring about this country. Maybe you need to be an outsider to see it.  

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Leaving the citizenship ceremony, I was overwhelmed with the desire to do something…American. We settled for hamburger and fries – the burger, of course, wild salmon or Zen-practicing fowl (I am still from Berkeley), and the fries would be chips and eaten with a fork (the rumors that the Queen defriended me on Facebook are false). 

What I wanted to do was jump on my Harley, blast Bob Seeger or Bruce Springsteen and hit the open road. Now, notwithstanding that I do not own a motorbike, wouldn’t know how to listen to music while on one, and that my family and gecko would be distinctly uncomfortable hanging on as I negotiate the curves of the beautiful Highway 1, I was totally ready.

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I guess a Mustang would do the job too provided it had a sun roof to throw back.

But there is something about the Open Road. I was born on an island where in a few hours in any direction and you would reach the ocean. I spent half my life in an even smaller country whose borders were never open for me to safely cross.

I have read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, each several times. I feel a surge of adrenaline whenever we leave the Bay Area heading north for a vacation or south to my good lady’s family. I used to spend hours planning the right music and where to stop. I once went three hours out of my way, detouring as an adventure (this was before gas reached $4 a gallon), hoping to see…what?

I fantasize that when retired, Mrs. Blogs and I will RV across this beautiful country. I have a friend doing just that and I love reading his stories.

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I have included many scenes from these road trips in Unwanted Heroes and its unpublished sequel. As I made the transition into fantasy, the landscape, trees and even stone hamlets found their way into my world building. I wrote earlier that you can find fantasy everywhere and the open road is such rich fodder for authors.

But for now I want to avoid Odessiya and other mythical realms. I am in America and the magic of the open road is a connection to share with my fellow Americans. If you don’t believe me, check out Lana Del Rey’s amazing video: Ride. 

And for those of you who are worried, I have not abandoned my roots in a purge of patriotism. Come June 12, my half century celebration, I will still don my England soccer shirt and cheer the Three Lions. Some habits run too deep.

 But after they crash out of the World Cup, I can console myself and hit the open road with my friends and fellow countrymen and women:  Bob, Bruce and Lana.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, The 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). Hang out withAlon on Google+

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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).

Rape is a Crime. So is Silence.

Disclaimer: I am writing about a topic I know nothing about. I am a man. I have never forced myself upon a woman, never been forced, and it is a topic that I feel no one is talking about. I live in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area and I am experiencing a wave of shock at the three incidents I have heard about recently.

This is America…California…San Francisco…and it feels like I am living in a primitive or totalitarian society.

All three incidents (as much as I was told) involved women who reached a point where during the attack they went still, played dead, from fear that they could not stand more physical abuse and pain, or maybe for fear of their lives. They tried to mentally detach, to distance themselves from what was being done to them.

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As far as I understand, this desperate survival act, compromised their ability to have the criminals who did this to them brought to justice. The fact that the physical evidence could have been from just having ‘rough (consensual) sex’ means that they are not believed that they were raped, and are often treated as sluts, liars, or unstable.

The fact that the women I spoke with were apprehensive about reporting the crime to the police is a terrible reflection of our police force. Why are they having to report this to a man, in a uniform, who symbolizes ‘power-over’? Do we not have enough women in the police force that it is standard procedure for a woman police officer to interview the (female) victim?

So this is a man’s world. Maybe, but here is California we are blessed with some amazing women in leadership. Where the fuck is Nancy Pelosi, Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, and the other strong women leaders I look up to and admire? In my work, and the activism part of my life, I meet such incredibly strong, empowered women. Why the silence? Where are the men in power who have the responsibility to protect all citizens?

When I first came to California, a gay friend was explaining the fight to crush DOMA here. He said something like: It has to start here. California is a start-up nation, not only in hi-tech, but in social policy. If it can be done anywhere, California must lead the way to change.

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That a person must walk around for the rest of his/her life with this crime eating away inside, constantly in a  state of hyper-vigilance, being a painful reminder every time someone close tries to be intimate with them, is a life sentence.

Bringing the rapist to justice will never erase what they did to the victim, but it might go some way to closure. At least there is not that haunting feeling that the assailant is still walking free.

If we are to suggest that America has any claim to moral and social leadership, if we are to preach freedom to the world, then we must eradicate this criminal act and the damaging silence that surrounds it.  

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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, Ashbar – 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).

The Veterans Must Be Cared For

In my series of individual actions that will have a profound impact on our society, I have covered energy, universal health care, and gun control. Whether you agree or not, these are all legitimate topics. The next might not be, but I want to advocate that it is.

We are a society that believes in the need to defend itself, that we must be the biggest, best armed, and one of the better trained. We define this concept of defense in our own way.

One aspect is that we keep the field of conflict far away from mainland America. Whether you agree or not, it defines the 1st and 2nd World Wars, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. We fought our enemies far away from here. As a Brit whose father fought the Germans, and whose mother carried the scars of the Blitz, I can understand that.

imgresI can live with this principle and am willing to pay my share of the bill for financing our defense. But this social contract, which is held with those who serves, demands that we take care of them when they return from risking their lives for our freedom.

I have written a number of times about this embarrassing and inexplicable injustice, both in this blog and in my novel, Unwanted Heroes. In Israel, a country that lives under a far greater (proportionally) financial commitment to pay for its military, everyone serves in the army. This fact is probably why it is a given that a soldier, wounded inside or out, will receive whatever help s/he needs. It is, quite frankly, not an issue, and this is probably why I was so shocked when I came to live in the US.

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18A society that cannot take care of those citizens, who have most earned that care, cannot be expected to build a moral and principled society. If we give our young people the message that it becomes everyone for themselves, then tat is how they will take it. The consequences are fewer taxes gathered, more crime, and a general decay in respect and self-respect.

Our soldiers must be held up as the first line of defense for a society that is under attack…from itself. I don’t believe, in this technological age, that there is any rational explanation why a veteran must wait up to two years and more for their claims to be dealt with.

It is the result of a selfish society that doesn’t care, and has become numb to the needs of anyone outside of their social circle. We are failing our soldiers and failing the younger generation who are watching, learning and judging.

We reap what we sow and we need to become responsible farmers before it is too late.

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Alon Shalev is the author of At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both 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 on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Reflections of Heroes – Joshua P. Smith

Alon’s Introduction: I met Joshua P. Smith through the epic fantasy network. Joshua is the author of the upcoming Aelathia Chronicles.  He is currently completing the first novel, Weaving and Musings of Essencers.  You can follow him at www.aelathianovels.com and at https://twitter.com/AelathiaNovels or contact him at aelathiajpsmith@gmail.com.

He wrote the following article last week. I had planed for it to follow my own 9/11 tribute. Reading Joshua’s post, I can’t help feeling the greatest way we can honor the heroes of 9/11 is to emulate their bravery and sense of honor, and apply it to our own lives. Thank you, Joshua.

 Reflections of Heroes – Joshua P. Smith

Heroes aren’t just found in books. We learned that lesson twelve years ago after terrorists struck the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, hijacking airplanes to cause mass casualties and creating a day that none of us will ever forget.

It was the heroes as well as the victims who stood out to us, like the emergency responders who rushed into crumbling towers to guide survivors out. Or the men and women on Flight 93 that realized the terrorist’s intent for their airplane, and fought back — a horrific sacrifice that saved untold lives and helped change the fate of America and other countries.

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Heroes. Every day we can see them, police officers, firemen, doctors and nurses, EMTS, our military men and women. It seems in a time of tragedy that we really focus on the people who stand out, who sacrifice to make a difference. Why?

I believe there’s something inherent in human nature that drives us to look for the remarkable, for people to be our role models. Heroes are people we long to emulate but sometimes are afraid to. Though we identify with the person “standing in the gap” to help those who cannot help themselves, we often throw up barriers to our ability to step up. We give excuses thinking that someone else will do the job, why should we step forward? Passivity can be worse than manacles connected to an iron ball at our feet. So, when we see someone doing something remarkable, out-of-the-ordinary, we cheer for them. We applaud and laud their work—because they broke a cycle of passivity, they remained cool under pressure, they sacrificed something so utterly dear to themselves that they earned the right to be heroes.

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What if more of us were to emulate them? What if we faced our fears, whether in the office or in church, in the factory or classroom as they face them on the field of action every day? What if we consistently decided to make not just the right decisions, but the good and just ones? What if we stood up to corruption, to evil, to injustice?  What if we deterred the bully? What if we helped someone in need? What if we sacrificed an hour or two of our time to help someone with a problem, or cook dinner for a sick neighbor? What if we learned to control our anger and seek peaceful resolutions to our familial strife, marital discord, and disagreements between friends? What if we decided to put others’ needs ahead of our own?

Wouldn’t that make us, in some small way, a hero too? We don’t need the lights, the cameras. We don’t need a parade. Sometimes we’ll never know if what we did had lasting impact on those we helped, but we can only hope. We can hope in some small way that we were a hero, and that someone else may want to emulate something from us, some small piece of good, so they can become a hero too. Consider how the world would change if each one of us decided, that for the good of humanity, we decided to make the right decisions, the good decisions, the self-sacrificing decisions. The type of action or situation where risk is high, where obstacles are threatening, where victory isn’t wholly certain, and fear is great.

If you’re in a situation like that, and it may be nothing like 9/11 or Iraq or Afghanistan, consider your options. Consider your decisions. The whole world may not be watching you, but someone is, even if it’s one single child.

Today, I’m thinking about heroes. Let’s join their ranks. 

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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 athttp://www.alonshalev.com and onTwitter (@elfwriter).

Crossing The Line

I realize that this post is not going to sit well with the audience of Left Coast Voices, and Roger, who already pointed towards the fact that big business is probably salivating at the prospect of making big bucks from another war, presents a scary scenario of those most motivated to crank up the war machine.

I get it and I am pretty sure he is right. But I am not sure that is reason enough to prevent intervention to not step in and stop the Syrian dictatorship from using chemical weapons again on anyone.

In the 1990’s I walked around with a gas mask in Tel Aviv, sealed up a room, participated in the drills, and sat in a shelter wondering if my family and friends were alright – if the missiles landing around us were regular scud missiles or tipped with chemicals.

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As a soldier, I trained with gas mask and in gas released scenarios. I will never forget the labored breathing and the sweat that gathered on the gas mask making it so difficult to see. I remember the sarcastic jokes – no wonder Darth Vader turned to the dark side!

I am not even sure I believe in the – It’s an internal matter, we shouldn’t get involved – excuse. Countries are very artificial entities, especially those carved out by colonialist interests. But people are human beings, whether Syrians, Afghans, Africans or Tibetans. The only thing that seems to differentiate is who sits in a country with oil.

With regard to Syria, I’m not even convinced that the line was not crossed long before the chemical attack.

But I’m also astounded at the United Nations. How we find ourselves in a situation whereby the world movement refuses to do anything but shake its head and wag a finger is beyond me. If the world expects America to police the world, a frightening prospect, why are we pumping money into the United Nations? If the US were to pull out, would the United Nations even exist?

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Brett D. Schaefer, the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom claims that “the U.S. is currently assessed 22 percent of the U.N. regular budget and more than 27 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget” – source. If chemical warfare is a red line that has been crossed why is the US not giving 22% of a UN coalition?

Finally, the fact that President Obama felt he needed more than one man (namely himself) to makes the decision whether the US would strike Syria should not be construed as weakness … rather it is DEMOCRACY. I’m not sure how many 2nd-term presidents would take such a step. I doubt many and I support the President and his decision.

I care less for countries and more for the people who live in them. No one should have to live through a war, whether internal or not. If we truly treasure our freedom, we must understand that we are never free while others are not.

At what point in a war has a country (or faction) crossed the line? Probably when the first bullet is fired. What is clear: once you have fired chemical weapons, you are way past the line and must be stopped.

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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).

When Does A Whistleblower Cross The Line?

I’m feeling rather confused about whistle blowing. The premise of The Accidental Activist was the abuse by large multinational corporations of individuals and their rights. My politics are generally left-wing – I’m sure you haven’t noticed from this blog – and I feel I should be siding with those who purport for freedom from surveillance, but when it comes to national security, my politics shift…sometimes dramatically.

The question for me with regards to the actions of both Bradley Manning and Edward Snowdon revolves around three questions:

1.  Was US national security breached?

2.  Were men and women risking their lives for our protection compromised?

3.  Will our ability to utilize various systems of intelligence be closed to us because those willing to help us cannot trust our government agencies to control the information and sources?

imgres-1If any of the above leads to the death of one innocent individual, much less the failure to prevent a terrorist attack, then the actions of Manning and Snowdon are inexcusable. It is, I believe, not clear whether Snowdon crossed this line.

The definition of whistleblower is a person who tells the public or someone in authority about alleged dishonest or illegal activities (misconduct) occurring in a government department or private company or organization. 

The image portrays a hero/ine who is willing to stand up when they see an injustice, knowing that they might face repercussions from that oft-powerful business or organization. In fact, the US Government put laws in place to protect whistleblowers, as early as 1863 to expose suppliers who were fraudulent during the Civil War. The Act even goes so far as to offer incentives such as a percentage of any money recovered or damages won in court. The act also protects them from wrongful dismissal. 

whistleblower-cliffIt all sounds great until we get to issues of national security. I suspect we will never know the extent of many of these secrets or the implications. I read that, after Mannings’ leaks, an entire ring of Afghan informers and their families were taken out of Afghanistan for their own safety. Beyond the upheaval of those families, US forces were left more exposed to potential and life-threatening ambushes. How desperate must someone be to step in as an informer under those circumstances?

I have no doubt that our intelligence agencies do a lot of bad stuff to protect our freedom. I am sure they bend the rules and sometimes cross the lines. But the reality is that it is a rough world out there and when you enter the realm of religious or political extremism, and face up against people willing to kill thousands of people in an indiscriminate fashion, then you have to decide what values you prioritize, and I put the lives of freedom-loving people first.

For several months I boarded public buses in Israel knowing that there were daily attempts to blow up these buses. I did it, not because I was a hero, but because I had no choice.

images-4I treasure freedom and democracy and I believe that all who choose to live in such a society have the right to do so, without fear. If the price is that someone occasionally taps my communications because I have a foreign name, I can live with it.

Note to NSA: 80% of the websites I go into refer to Arsenal – they are my soccer team back in the UK and have no connections to munitions. When I comment that we need someone who can shoot straight, I mean with an inflated round piece of leather. I hope I have saved you considerable time with this revelation.

A final question to Edward Snowdon: If you leaked all this information in the name of democracy and freedom, because you feared America was becoming a surveillance state, why did you flee to a Chinese colony, where security cameras abound and people regularly checked for what they read, surf and write?

If you have any free time while in China, perhaps you could speak out to help free Shi Tao – he was, I guess, also a whistleblower 

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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.

The End of the Melting Pot

The concept of a society being a melting pot is something that strongly resonates for me. My family has never put down roots for more than a couple of generations. I myself have made two major moves and lived in three continents.

The idea that an ethnic group moves to a country and tries hard to become part of that society is a rich element in literature, movies and music. It is a symbol of a country’s ability to be accepting and absorb different people into its social fabric. It sees the intrinsic value of adding another rich layer of culture, food, costume and language.

There is also an oft-irrational drive on the side of the immigrant. After living in Israel for two months, I refused to speak English (it’s amazing what you can stutter through with a hundred words or so). I only listened to Israeli music, and sought Israelis to hang out  with, even though I was often a wall flower since 90% of the conversation passed me by.

When I moved to America, I immediately adopted the local basketball team, becoming a passionate Golden State Warriors fan (never easy – ask those fans who have followed them all their lives). I have goggled tailgaters, researched the Super Bowl party protocol (still more excited about the game than the ads and half-time show), and learned to look knowledgeable when wine tasting. I studiously watched The Daily Show and Colbert, okay – and the Simpsons.

I work with students on the San Francisco State University campus, a rich and diverse community from all over the world. The cultural richness is stunning and the programs offered impressive. There is an impressive statistic for how many students are first-generation to graduate high school and go on to university (I’m thinking 40%, but please correct me if I have it wrong).

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I recently used the term melting pot in front of a colleague who is also an alumna (yes I checked it to make sure!) of SFSU. I meant it in a complimentary way to express how comfortable students feel to openly express their cultural and ethnic roots.

This colleague, a millennial, baulked at the use of the word. She responded that it is derogatory and suggests we all need to strive to be the same, that there is an intense pressure to conform to whatever the dominant culture demands.

It got me thinking. I desired to fit into the culture around me because I wanted to be accepted. But I never lost sight of my roots. I was always the Englishman in Israel and my friends never lost an opportunity to poke fun at my accent, the Queen, or to accept my undisputed authority on the noble topics of soccer and beer.

I understand why the term melting pot is problematic. Often the liquid in the pot is fermented by racist connotations. But melting pot does not have to mean only one soup with only one taste. Perhaps a tapestry is a better term. Many different colored strands weave together to create a beautiful work of art.

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The millennial baulks every time that the ‘adult’ society tries to define it, put it into statistical graphs and research projects. The millennial doesn’t spend time pondering whether s/he is a Jewish American or an American Jew.

S/he is comfortable with multiple identities. Have you ever watched a millennial working on their desktop (it doesn’t work so well on phones)? They have a dozen windows open at any one time and flit from one to another like a humming bird on speed. It is the same with their identity. They are comfortable being Jewish here, gay there, a jock in one place, an intellect in another. It is natural and easy.

But there is a generation even more exciting than millennials following them. A while ago, my youngest son met three classmates at the park. The fathers stood together and looked on. One was Israeli, another Palestinian, a third from India, and the fourth from Pakistan. While the kids had fun on the wooden playground, the fathers fidgeted, discussing the weather, house prices and the 49ers. The fathers are all good men, wanting a peaceful world and a just society to live in for their families. We were all happy to stand there in that park playing fathers.

But what was amazing was that our sons were perfectly comfortable. They played together because it was simply fun to hang out. I am sure they each have an understanding of their roots and often hang out with people of their own ethnic background but do not feel a need to be defined as such.

The biggest problem I feel with the melting pot is that it is/was deemed necessary. The millennials will treat it with vague intellectual curiosity and the next generation won’t even know what it was – like a pay phone or record player.

And that is what gives me hope for a better world.

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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.   For more about the author, check out his website.

Grass – Roger Ingalls

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Grass must grow in my blood; it inexplicably and constantly waves through my mind. To be clear, I’m talking grasses and not lawns. The appalling manicured green carpets in front of our houses are a waste of valuable water and the chemical runoff is deadly to a balanced ecosystem. But grass, real grass, is the essence of life.

Rice, corn, wheat, rye and sugar cane are just a few grasses that feed humanity. Oats, prairie, tundra and hay are varieties for the rest of us animals. We should never underestimate the importance of grass; it’s the unsung hero of nature.

In Praise of Grass, published in the Kansas Journal just after the Civil War was written by John James Ingalls, a Senator and founder father of Kansas. Below is one of my favorite paragraphs from that essay. You can plow the grass under but it still geminates in the blood.

Grass is the forgiveness of nature — her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. Beleaguered by the sullen hosts of winter, it withdraws into the impregnable fortress of its subterranean vitality, and emerges upon the first solicitation of spring. Sown by the winds, by wandering birds, propagated by the subtle horticulture of the elements which are its ministers and servants, it softens the rude outline of the world. Its tenacious fibres hold the earth in its place, and prevent its soluble components from washing into the wasting sea. It invades the solitude of deserts, climbs the inaccessible slopes and forbidding pinnacles of mountains, modifies climates, and determines the history, character, and destiny of nations. Unobtrusive and patient, it has immortal vigor and aggression. Banished from the thoroughfare and the field, it bides its time to return, and when vigilance is relaxed, or the dynasty has perished, it silently resumes the throne from which it has been expelled, but which it never abdicates. It bears no blazonry or bloom to charm the senses with fragrance or splendor, but its homely hue is more enchanting than the lily or the rose. It yields no fruit in earth or air, and yet should its harvest fail for a single year, famine would depopulate the world.

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. 

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 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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