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 “East Bay”

Personal PTSD Story Before Veteran’s Day

This is an old blog post, but the subject is very much on my mind as we near Veteran’s Day. I often wonder the wisdom of a whole weekend just before the day. That’s a whole lot of downtime away from the everyday pressure that crowds out the memories. When I wrote Unwanted Heroes it was with me 24/7.

I left my office late that damp, foggy San Francisco night. I drove my car onto Junipero Serra, a main street, and then pulled over, needing to wipe the windows for safe visibility. As I worked my way round the back of the car, wheels screeched around the corner behind me. I instantly crouched down low behind my car and my whole body tensed. I was ready. I could feel my heart thumping.

When I saw the joy riders speed past me, their music blaring, I leaped back into my car, pulled out and followed them. I think my wheels actually screeched. They would stop at the traffic lights a half-mile away and I could ram my car into theirs. I would teach them a lesson they would never forget. I could clearly imagine the crunching sound from the impact of the two cars and the terror they would feel, similar to the terror that I had just felt.

I pulled up behind them, images of my wife and children instantly grounding me. I breathed heavily and scrambled for some familiar radio station as I followed them to the Daly City exit where I would turn off.

When I had served in the army, I drove plain-clothed deep into enemy territory. My role was to protect someone who received information. There were three guards: one entered with the person, the other two stood outside guarding the car and the entrance.

We were undercover, but wore our army boots and carried our distinct semi-automatic rifles. In short, we were sitting ducks for a sniper, or a drive by. When any car approached, either too slow or too fast, we would take defensive postures. When a car’s wheels screeched to accelerate, we hit the ground, in one well-practiced movement.

My hands remained clenched tightly around my Saab’s steering wheel for the whole 45-minute trip home to the East Bay. When I stepped through the door to our apartment in Berkeley, it was time for dinner, kid’s homework, and to hear stories from the schoolyard.

I had made it home today …  but only just.

But there are friends who were not so fortunate. They never made it home. They never got the opportunity to open the door to a loving, if somewhat crazy, family. It’s the difference between choosing to hit the gas or the brake.

As simple as that.

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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). Hang out with Alon on Google+

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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.

Weekend Warriors

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 began sharing these passages with you on Wednesday and would like to share another one here.

There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision to cut them!

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

Chapter 4: The Weekend Warriors

The male weekend warriors’ single concession is to leave the ties at home and unbutton the tops of their shirts. The fact that it’s Saturday cannot deter them from coming into the City to work. The roads are empty, the parking easy and the coffee far superior to anything they can find on the East Bay, Peninsula or Marin. Okay, so maybe not the last part, but whatever their justifications, every Saturday, defying protocol, they come into the office.

I have to admit that this strange Saturday subspecies of the San Francisco commuter fascinates me. They come in all ages and sizes, married or single, and appear, from this side of the coffee counter, to be relatively successful, or, at least not frantically trying to meet a deadline. Surely they all own laptops with wireless connections and can work from home if they want? Most look healthy and often sport trendy, compact gym bags.

Some will even sit and open a newspaper, clearly sending a message to the world that they are commuters-by-choice. They will, however, sit for only five or ten minutes, before succumbing to the call of the office.

I wonder if they are truly commuters-by-choice? Take Mr. Partridge, for example. He is surely approaching retirement. Throughout the week, he dresses impeccably in a sharp black suit and exudes an undeniable air of control and authority. Transport him a few thousand miles across the pond, and he would undoubtedly sport a bowler hat, black umbrella and bow tie, and work in Westminster or the Civil Service.

“Good morning, Will. I see you drew the Saturday shift again?”

I always work the Saturday shift, but I appreciate him remembering my name. Even though he comes in every Saturday, I play the game.

“They have you coming in again on the weekend, Mr. Partridge? Business must be good.”

“It’s always preferable to be busy, young man. Believe me, the alternative is far less attractive,” and he too-promptly recites the latest unemployment statistics.

“I’ll be on the golf course all day tomorrow if the weather holds,” he says, as if to suggest that he does have a life. “How about you? Any plans for the weekend?”

I smile. “I’m on the prowl. Got a party tonight and I’m feeling lucky.”

We share a male-bonding wink and chuckle. Then he pays for his low-fat cappuccino with a five-dollar bill, dropping all the change nonchalantly into the tip jar.

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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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PTSD – Never Leaves You

This is an old blog post, but the subject is very much on my mind with the release of Unwanted Heroes.

I left my office late that damp, foggy San Francisco night. I drove my car onto Junipero Serra, a main street, and then pulled over, needing to wipe the windows for safe visibility. As I worked my way round the back of the car, wheels screeched around the corner behind me. I instantly crouched down low behind my car and my whole body tensed. I was ready. I could feel my heart thumping.

When I saw the joy riders speed past me, their music blaring, I leaped back into my car,  pulled out and followed them. I think my wheels actually screeched. They would stop at the traffic lights a half-mile away and I could ram my car into theirs. I would teach them a lesson they would never forget. I could clearly imagine the crunching sound from the impact of the two cars and the terror they would feel, similar to the terror that I had just felt.

I pulled up behind them, images of my wife and children instantly grounding me. I breathed heavily and scrambled for some familiar radio station as I followed them to the Daly City exit where I would turn off.

When I had served in the army, I drove plain-clothed deep into enemy territory. My role was to protect someone who received information. There were three guards: one entered with the person, the other two stood outside guarding the car and the entrance.

We were undercover, but wore our army boots and carried our distinct semi-automatic rifles. In short, we were sitting ducks for a sniper, or a drive by. When any car approached, either too slow or too fast, we would take defensive postures. When a car’s wheels screeched to accelerate, we hit the ground, in one well-practiced movement.

My hands remained clenched tightly around my Saab’s steering wheel for the whole 45-minute trip home to the East Bay. When I stepped through the door to our apartment in Berkeley, it was time for dinner, kid’s homework, and to hear stories from the schoolyard.

I had made it home today …  but only just.

But there are friends who were not so fortunate. They never made it home. They never got the opportunity to open the door to a loving, if somewhat crazy, family. It’s the difference between choosing to hit the gas or the brake.

As simple as that.

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Alon Shalev is the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

PTSD Forever

I left my office late that damp, foggy San Francisco night. I drove my car onto Junipero Serra, a main street, and then pulled over. I needed to wipe the windows for safe visibility. As I worked my way round the back of the car, wheels screeched around the corner behind me. I crouched down low behind my car and my body tensed. Ready.

When I saw the joy riders speed past me, their music blaring, I leaped back into my car,  pulled out and followed them. They would stop at the traffic lights a half-mile away and I could ram my car into theirs. I would teach them a lesson they would never forget. I imagined the crunching sound from the impact of the two cars and the terror they would feel, similar to the terror that I had just felt.

I pulled up behind them, images of my wife and children instantly grounding me. I breathed heavily and scrambled for some familiar radio station as I followed them to the Daly City exit where I would turn off.

When I had served in the army, I drove plain-clothed deep into enemy territory. My role was to protect someone who received information. There were four guards: one entered with the person, the other three stood outside guarding the car and the entrance.

We were undercover, but wore our army boots and carried our distinct semi-automatic rifles. In short, we were sitting ducks for a sniper, or a drive by. When any car approached, either too slow or too fast, we would take defensive postures. When a car’s wheels screeched to accelerate as it approached, we hit the ground, in one well-practiced movement.

My hands remained clenched tightly around my Saab’s steering wheel for the whole 45-minute trip home to the East Bay. When I stepped through the door to our apartment in Berkeley, it was time for dinner, homework, stories from the schoolyard.

I had made it home today … only just.

But there are friends who were not so fortunate. They never made it home. They never got the opportunity to open the door to a loving, if somewhat crazy, family. It’s the difference between choosing to hit the gas or the brake.

As simple as that.

Alon Shalev’s next novel, Unwanted Heroes will be published later this year.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Medcaid 2

Following on from yesterday’s post, I am struggling to understand how individuals have been denied the right to sue the state that they pay taxes to. It seems a gross obstruction to personal freedom.However, the Justice Department has backed the State of California agreeing that the individual cannot sue, while also admitting that Federal law clearly states that Medicaid rates be “sufficient to enlist enough providers.” In other words, there should be no discrimination of resources or access to treatment between the beneficiaries of Medicaid and everyone else in their state. Only what happens when that is precisely what is happening?


“California has been accepting more than $20 billion in federal Medicaid funds per year in exchange for its promise, among other things, to ensure that needy patients had access to health care,” Democratic chiefs wrote in their brief, “California has failed to adhere to its obligations.”

What they are fighting for is the right of the patient or the medical providers to challenge in court any violation of federal law. The response of the Justice Department is that federal health officials have “exclusive responsibility” to enforce the standards set and can punish a state by withholding Medicaid resources from any state found wanting.

The question is whether they would. One former federal health official told the Supreme Court that the DHHS was not able to enforce this stating it was “logistically, practically, legally and politically unfeasible.” The reason being that the DHHS does not have either the staff, money or political clout to do this.

The supporters of the right to sue have all been endorsed and supported by the AARP, the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, civil rights groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Judicial enforcement is the only viable means to remedy states’ noncompliance with the Medicaid Act,” the A.M.A. said.

True protection can only come in the courts

In the true story behind my novel, The Accidental Activist, the British Government was ultimately found guilty of not protecting the citizen from a multinational corporation. In the US, the struggle is similar, except we are seeking protection from our own elected government and its agencies. The President, I feel, should understand this better than most.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Misguided Medicaid Law 1

My daily commute involves picking up people from the Casual Car Pool and driving from the East Bay to San Francisco, enabling them to get a free ride (though many offer me $1 towards the toll) and for me to use the car pool lane and pay a lower toll.

Most times we sit in silence and listen to NPR, but occasionally I strike gold. When the gentleman in the passenger seat tutted at a report about President Obama and Medicaid, I discovered that he is a lawyer and actually preparing a case to go before the Supreme Court. He sent me a New York Times article on the topic.

Medicaid - helping those who need it most

I find it hard to believe that President Obama could possibly be an obstacle to low-income people receiving health care. But when it is the Democratic leaders of Congress told the Supreme Court on Monday that President Obama was pursuing a misguided interpretation of federal Medicaid law, it raises an eyebrow.

The case  focuses around the right of Medicaid beneficiaries to file suit and challenge cuts being made to Medicaid around the country on a state level when such cuts hurt their right to care.The Obama administration does not accept this right to sue claiming it “would undermine the effectiveness of Medicaid.” There is also a myriad of court precedents that allow people to sue to block state actions that are inconsistent with federal law.

The politicians behind the brief include many of our top West Coast Democrats, including Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, an architect of Medicaid; Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader; Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader; and Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Finance Committee.

“The issue, of immense importance to poor people and states, comes to the Supreme Court in a set of cases consolidated under the name Douglas v. Independent Living Center of Southern California, No. 09-958. The court plans to hear oral arguments in October, with a decision expected by the spring. The original plaintiffs in the case, Medicaid beneficiaries and providers, say they were harmed by California’s decision to cut payment rates that were already among the lowest in the country.

Children are one of the largest recipients of Medicaid.

The federal Medicaid law does not explicitly allow such suits. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, said beneficiaries and providers could sue under the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which makes federal law “the supreme law of the land.”

More than 55 million people use Medicaid, which is often the fastest-growing item in many state budgets. It provides health  coverage to the most vulnerable groups in our society including children, people with disabilities and nursing home residents.

The problem is exacerbated because many states, desperate to make cuts, have reduced the payment rates to doctors who take in Medicaid patients. This has led to the doctors, dentists, hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes and other providers often refusing to take these patients and Medicaid patients are finding it increasingly difficult to find the medical services that they need. The government is involved because they reimburse the state for between 50%-75% of the costs.

The question is: what accountability is there for the citizen (other than the ballot box, I suppose) if we are denied legal recourse? In fact, is there a place in a democracy for the government to tell its citizens who they can and cannot sue? And what does this say about our President?

Please Vote Today. Click Here

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity is an ecumenical Christian housing ministry, a non-profit that has helped build over 350,000 houses around the world. They have provided safe affordable and respectful housing for over 1.75 million people.

The organization functions on the help of volunteers. People can donate money, time, skills, and materials.  The recipients need to put a small down payment on the project and invest many hours participating in the building or volunteering in the community. I believe this goes a long way to the concept of help with dignity.


While Habitat for Humanity works in over 90 countries, I wish to bring peoples attention to the chapters here in California. There is most likely a Habitat for Humanity near you, needing help. Check out this link.

One of the most impressive aspects of this very impressive agency for change is that they are committed to building environmental houses. Here are a couple of articles from other sources recognizing Habitat for Humanity for their green, innovative approach:

http://smarticle.co.uk/solar-technologies/habitat-for-humanity-goes-green/

http://solar.calfinder.com/blog/news/habitat-for-humanity-builds-solar-housing-for-oakland/

Habitat for Humanity in the East Bay can be found at: http://www.habitateb.org/index.php/

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Small Business Saturday

I’ve just returned from my Black Friday Shopping foray. Mrs. Blog and I rose at 4am (Friday at the time of writing) and made some new friends outside the Office Max in Oxnard. Having secured our new treasure – a laptop for the lady – I came home and saw an email sent to remind me that Saturday (today) is Small Business Saturday. In a recent post, I wrote about the challenges of the endangered species – the small, independent business.

Today’s initiative is a great response to Black Friday. It is interesting that the day is being sponsored by American Express Credit Card Company – yes you read that correctly I went online to check it when I was told. Here is the Facebook page so it must be true!

Though I am 300 miles away, here are a few of my favorite local businesses in Berkeley.

1. Manhattan Bagels is over on 4th Street. There isn’t a lot to say – they have the best bagels in town, a great variety (check out the Cranberry Orange), and the service and parking is smooth.

2. East Bay Vivarium – when you’ve finished your bagel, why not pop over to the East Bay Vivarium. Okay, this is for reptile lovers, but I want to point them out because they care about their pets, even after you have purchased and taken the little critters home. As nervous new parents, my sons and I have often returned for advice from the staff, and they have always been happy to dispense from their wealth of experience. I am particularly impressed when someone says: “I’m not sure. Let me check with the others.”

Meet the beautiful, latest addition to our family – Nanchuk, a Crested Gecko.

3. The Bread Workshop – I realize I’m pushing the carbs here, but this a great place to eat, to hang out for coffee, and to feel good with a vendor using a fair amount of local products and organic ingredients.  I might be biased since they hosted the book launch of my previous incarnation of The Accidental Activist, but this really is an excellent example of a business that aims to be sustainable. You can find The Bread Workshop at 1398 University Avenue.

4. Out of the Closet – This is a thrift store (there are a few around the Bay Area) on University. The thing about this place is that there always seems to be something to surprise you and this probably explains why it is a favorite venue in the run up to Halloween. It also helps to know that Out of the Closet supports AIDS projects and was set up by one of the all-time basketball greats – Magic Johnson.

5. Rasputin Music – is an icon up on Telegraph Avenue. They have a great stock of discs at affordable prices. I’ve also picked up several movies here.

So while you plan your day, here is the latest offering from my favorite musician, Lloyd Cole. I can’t think of any reason to link the song to the article, I’m just excited that he has a new disc out!

And while you are here, why not list below in the comments your favorite local, small business, and give them a plug.

Happy Small Business Saturday.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Stephen King just told me off!

Stephen King just told me off!

He did! There I was sitting in my car, coffee perched next to me as I negotiated the commute from SF State back to the East Bay, and Stephen said there are only two things a serious writer needs to concern himself with: writing and reading.

He then went on to tell me that if I succumb to watching TV every night, in my case, Star Trek or Seinfeld reruns, or The Daily Show, instead of either refining my own craft by writing or learning from those who have mastered it by reading, I am not being serious about being a writer.

He dismissed my claims that I don’t have time (hey, I get up at 6am to hit the gym and get to the office by 9am … and, and the kids go to bed at 9pm … and, and I need to sleep a good six hours … and, and, and …)

He then embarrassed me by discussing a number of great novels that all fiction writers should read. I hadn’t read any of them, and I couldn’t even write them down as I was driving.

I should have seen it coming. I know Stephen King very well, though I’ve never met him. I listen to On Writing every year. I’ve read the paper version, though nothing beats hearing the master telling it in his own uncompromising dialect.

Worst of all is that I know he is right. I know that I need to read. Whenever I share my work with others, they often ask if I’ve read such and such, and I invariably haven’t.

But I will. In fact, last night I went to bed at 11pm and read for half an hour. At least, I think I did. I fell asleep at some point … and when I woke in the morning and got back in the car, Stephen King was waiting for me. He talked about other things, but somehow, I am sure he knew.

Oh by the way, if you haven’t already read it and wanna be a writer, do check out On Writing by Stephen King, book or audio. And yes, I’ve read it, a couple of times!

Good Writing
Alon
http://www.alonshalev.com/

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