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 “California”

Breakfast Briefing on the Ebola Crises in SF

American Jewish World Service has just passed the $1 million mark, raising funds to help our grassroots grantees, primarily in Liberia, and they are doing amazing work. The fact that these individuals and organizations have such credibility among their own communities and are themselves facing the same dangers, enables them to effectively communicate with a suspicious and petrified population.

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Please join AJWS San Francisco for a special briefing with our President, Ruth Messinger to receive updates from our grantees and discuss how we can continue to make a difference. If you have donated to the Ebola campaign or are still considering how best to help, please join us on Monday, December 08, at our office (see below) for a light breakfast.

The unprecedented Ebola outbreak has already claimed nearly 5,000 lives in West Africa and while the spread of the virus has slowed, the devastating crisis is far from over. Thanks to the generous supporters of AJWS, we are already helping save lives.

Courageous Liberian grassroots organizations are going door-to-door and on the radio waves to educate their communities about how to protect themselves and their families from Ebola and get help for the sick. With compassion and dedication to justice, they are transmitting life-saving messages of prevention and hope.

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Details: Breakfast Briefing on the Ebola Crisis: Featuring Ruth Messinger, President of AJWS

Monday, December 8, 9:00am Breakfast / 9:15am Briefing

AJWS San Francisco Office Conference Room, 131 Steuart Street, San Francisco, California

Space is limited. Please RSVP to Matt Balaban at mbalaban@ajws.org or call (415) 593-3298

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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. His latest novel is Sacrificial Flame, the fourth in the series.

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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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).

California Climate Change Cheat Sheet – Roger Ingalls

Government reports about climate change can be boring and laborious to read. I believe changes in our environment are important, especially at the local level so I’m making an attempt to boil the information down to important and, hopefully, interesting bullet points. I relied heavily on a recent report from California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

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Climate Change Bullet Points:

1)      In 2007, there was a 90% statistical certainty that man was responsible for the current global warming trend.

2)      Today, there is a 95% statistical certainty that man is responsible for global warming.

3)      By 2021, as more data is collected, statistical certainty will climb to 99% pointing to man as the cause for global warming.

4)      The greenhouse gases (GHG) that warm the Earth’s surface are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, halocarbons and ozone.

5)      In California, emissions from transportation, electrical power generation and the industrial sector account for over 80% of GHG emissions with transportation accounting for the largest portion at 38%.

6)      Atmospheric CO2 levels were first documented in 1958 at Mauna Loa, Hawaii at a concentration of 315 parts per million and in May 2013 a mean concentration of 400 was detected.

7)      Since monitoring CO2 concentrations in La Jolla, CA, levels have risen from 325 in 1969 to 395 in 2012.

8)      CO2 levels in the ocean rise as atmospheric CO2 levels increase, changing the chemistry of the water; this is called ocean acidification.

9)      California’s coastal waters are acidifying as evidenced by seawater CO2 and pH levels measured at Monterey Bay; this negatively impacts the local ocean food chain.

10)   Since 1895, annual average temperatures have increased by approximately 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit across California.

11)   Over the past century, minimum, average and maximum temperatures have all been increasing in California with the nighttime minimum increasing by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit and the daytime high increasing by 1.5 degrees.

12)   Over the past 20 years, the altitude in the atmosphere where temperature drops below freezing has risen by 500 feet indicating warmer conditions at higher elevations.

13)   Over the past century, spring runoff to the Sacramento River from the Sierra Nevada Mountains has decreased by 9%

14)   Over the past century, surface area of glaciers in the Sierra Nevada has been decreasing with losses ranging from 20% to 70%.

15)   The rise in global sea level is attributed to thermal expansion of ocean water and the melting of mountain glaciers and polar ice sheets.

16)   Over the past 100 years, sea levels have risen by an average of 7 inches along the California coast with levels at the Golden Gate in San Francisco increasing by 8 inches and 6 inches at La Jolla near San Diego.

17)   In Southern California, plant species in certain areas have moved upward by an average of about 213 feet over the past 30 years.

18)   The lower edge of the conifer-dominated forest in the Sierra Nevada has been retreating upslope over the past 60 years.

19)   Butterflies have been appearing earlier in the spring over the past four decades.

20)   Many small mammal species studied in Yosemite National Park showed a movement to higher elevations when compared to earlier century observations.

Don’t get caught up in a finger pointing “who’s responsible for climate change” world, just prepare for a warmer and biologically different future.

Jail for the Privileged and Profiteers – Roger Ingalls

Another city jail opens its doors to corruption. Fremont, California over build their incarceration capacity by a factor of six so now they’ve decided to lower their vacancy rate by renting out the open cells in an attempt to turn a quarter of a million dollar profit. On the surface it sounds like a good idea because the city fixes a planning mistake and they also make money to spend elsewhere. But these profit motivated jailing programs have proven corrupt and beneficial to mainly the privileged.

Obviously, these programs cater to the wealthier members of society. As an example, if someone breaks the law and is sentenced to jail time, instead of serving time in a crowded county jail they can appeal to the judge for movement to a city facility if they pay a daily rental fee. In the case of Fremont, the daily fee is $155. If you have extra money, you can buy your way into a nicer jail with fewer prisoners and a less stressful environment. So, two criminals with the same offence with different monetary standings will serve different sentences. The poorer guy gets hell while the richer one gets a more privileged stay. Sentencing for crime should not be based on a criminal’s wealth.

picture by thinkprogress.org

picture by thinkprogress.org

Another problem with for profit jails is financial corruption. Again, it’s already been proven that judges can get bought. A for profit juvenile jail in Pennsylvania kicked back $2.6 million to two judges for keeping their facility at capacity; the infamous Kids for Cash Scandal. Offences that normally resulted in suspension from school for a few days often put teenagers in juvy-jail for months. The judges hid behind a position of zero tolerance but in actuality it was payola time.

For profit incarceration is also driving the criminalization of basic human behavior. Many of the prisons built over the past twenty years are constructed and managed by companies on the stock exchange. Many facilities originally built by local governments are now being handed over to for profit companies. Do you wonder why crime reports state that violent crimes are down but then the next report says the prison population is increasing? To attract stock investors, publicly traded incarceration companies need to grow revenue quarterly and annually…that’s how Wall Street and their financial institutions work. More prisoners equal more dollars and rehabilitation is a dirty word. These huge prison companies and their large work force hire lobbyists and political marketing firms to promote the passing of new laws or rally against movements that try to do away with bad laws that criminalize normal human behavior. Again, these companies need bodies behind bars to make money.

Jailing for the purpose of profit is a corruption of justice.

Poker Tomorrow Night? A Good Cause

Irwin Bear was a very special  man and a mentor for me. I wrote about him when he passed away. Beyond family and business  Irwin had a passion for San Francisco Hillel and the future of the Jewish people. He also loved poker.41646_1269166167_3876_n

If you knew Irwin, you would not be surprised to discover that he  found an interesting  way to fuse the two.He ensured that sitting around his regular poker table, in addition to longtime friends, were a number of younger, emerging Jewish leaders. They would play, talk, argue, discuss and play some more. The winnings went to a Jewish cause and a powerful legacy of social responsibility passed on to the next generation.

Three of these young poker players now sit on the SF Hillel Board of Directors, in part as a tribute to Irwin and his vision. Following in his philanthropic footsteps, they helped create an annual event that would honor his memory and help raise money for a good cause.

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Tomorrow night (Saturday) we will hold our 2nd annual Casino Night and Poker Tournament. The event is will be held at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center at 3200 California Street, San Francisco, 94118. I would love for you to join us. Doors open at 7pm, and the tournament starts at 7.30. There will be other casino tables too.

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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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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.

Drowned by a Fake Flood – Roger Ingalls

Many home owners in California are about to get screwed. Open your pocket books because soon you’ll need to come up with an extra $1000 to $2000 dollars per year.

The California Department of Water Resources and the US Army Corp of Engineers published a report about the state’s potential flood catastrophes. Fear sells, right? So naturally, KGO radio was blasting sound bites from someone in the above mentioned group saying we need to get prepared for the big one. The scary quote was, “it’s not a matter of if a flood will happen but a matter of when.”

One in five Californians lives in a flood zone, according to the report. The spokesperson making the scary comment above also said we need to create a budget so we can educate the people on potential floods, how to be prepared and have emergency services. This is a positively spun and coded message. What they are really saying is, “1 in 5 California home owners will be required to have federally mandated flood insurance.”

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The national flood program already collects 30% of its funding from residence in California. We give much more than we take. We are financing people who live in actual flood plains and zones.

When was the last time you heard of a major flood in California? Remember the Great Mississippi and Missouri Flood of 1993 in the Midwest? Or the Great Flood of 1927 in the same area? Remember Hurricane Katrina and the flooding in New Orleans? OK, one more…do you remember Hurricane Sandy and all the east coast flooding? Only a fraction of the people who live in these REAL flood places have insurance.

It pisses me off that we California desert dwellers must finance the flood dwellers living in other states. If you live in the path of four or five hurricanes every year than you need insurance. If you live in a house or farm that is below the level of the Mississippi River than you need insurance. Don’t expect someone that lives in a desert to pay for your insurance.

I live in a 1000 year flood plain and there is no recorded history of my area ever flooding. The federal government forces me to pay $1600 per year for flood insurance. If I lived on the east coast or in the Midwest where floods occur routinely, I’d pay less. On the Federal level, California is politically weak.

Based on the recent spin language used by the California Department of Water Resources, US Army Corp of Engineers and FEMA, here’s my prediction. “It’s not a matter of if California home owners will get screwed by more federally mandated flood insurance but a matter of when!”

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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Unwanted Heroes – Chinatown – Part 1 of 2

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

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

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

Chapter Five:  China Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you been to Chinatown?” Julie asks.

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

“Any luck?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing tomorrow…

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

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The Power of Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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