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 “gym”

Too Much Homework?

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

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

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

I’ll leave this to the experts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  For more about the author, check out his website.

 

Reacquainting With Old Friends

Last month, Three Clover Press, sent me the galley proofs for Unwanted Heroes. I was instructed to carefully read through the manuscript and pick out any light changes: spelling, grammar, word choice, etc.

Reading a Galley Proof is like preparing your kid for college (admittedly, I haven’t done this, but I do work with university students – bear with me). It is a last chance to make sure everything is as you want it to be before you send them out into the big, wide world. You want to make sure they have everything they need, are prepared for every scenario they might face. It is the same with a book – a last chance to get everything right.

Well over a year has passed since I last read through the manuscript. The novel was written a couple of years before that and since then, I have written four other manuscripts. 

I have moved on, right? Wrong.

Over the next two weeks, I did not expect to feel the emotional rollercoaster that played out. Of course, I remembered the plot. There are sensitive scenes that I have read, edited, reread, and reedited, a dozen times … but that was back then.

So why am I getting teary-eyed as I read them again now? Why do I find myself rooting for the characters that I got so close to back then? Admittedly, my relationship with these characters continued into the sequel that I wrote last year, and into the notes I have made for the third in the series both of which are also emotional roller coasters. 

When I am writing a novel, I become very close to the characters. They accompany me on my commute, in the gym, and I often dream about them at night. I worry for them, get frustrated with them, and just between us, I often argue with them.

I would like to tell you that I have control of these characters. What I type onto the computer decides their actions, attitudes, and destiny. But they, and I, know this is only partially true. They are part of the creation, part of the process, and an integral part in how the plot plays out.

Many writers claim that the plot defines the characters. That has always puzzled me and, I suspect, leads to either shallow characters or obvious stereotypes. The reader invests in characters. Given we all crave a twist or two at the end of the book, it is for the protagonist that we root, and our commitment to him/her is what sends us scurrying to buy the next book in the series.

This is why reading a galley proof is so much more than scanning for errors or word choices. It is reacquaintance with old friends: people with whom we shared so much: people with whom we laughed, loved, and cried. My characters stepped outside their comfort zone to try and create a better world, and for whom we, the reader and author, bear witness.

It is so much more than scanning pages of words.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. His next novel, Unwanted Heroes, is due out in early 2013. 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).

 

Real Men Don’t Cry

This is how we are brought up. Men used to wander around with a club, bringing down mammoths and dragging a female back to the cave. We have progressed a bit since then, what with vegetarianism and on-line dating, but there are certain mores that we don’t expect to cross. 

I’ve done the ‘man’ things – play and watch sports, hit the gym, enjoy beer, fish, served in a combat unit, wooed a beautiful woman, and fathered two wonderful boys. I have a good job and plenty of friends.

Last month, my eldest son had his bar mitzvah and put on a flawless display of teaching, chanting, and schmoozing. He stood before our community and talked about the need to educate and not punish, to pursue social justice, and his desire to make the world a better place.

He was great and I am very proud of him. He worked very hard for two years to reach the level in which he could achieve this. Then it was time for his parents to bless him.

My wife won the toss (soccer reference) and chose to go first, knowing that I am confidant and used to standing before an audience and speaking into a microphone. Her blessing was modest, genuine and heartfelt, a reflection of her as a mother, wife and friend.

Over the hump, right? Wrong. I had written my blessing for him a while ago. I told him meaningful the project we had pursued together (we wrote the first Wycaan Master novel together) and then imparted how I saw him as our coming-of-age protagonist. And then I choked up…and cried. When I stopped and stole a sip of his water bottle, he leaned over and gave me a hug.

The first thing that went through my mind was shock. I hadn’t expected this, even though I have been known to cry at a Simpson’s episode (another story). I actually wasn’t embarrassed for myself: I was embarrassed for him. I struggled through and he still talks to me. Moreover, many people came up to me and gave me loving reinforcement.

But it was the comments from the men that I remember. There were some who admitted to shedding a tear themselves, others who said that I had done something they would like to be able to do. Some admitted they could never allow their mask to come down like that in public, or maybe any time. 

In the struggle for equal rights between the sexes, we have seen a necessary push for women – equal opportunities, equal pay, and legal protections. All this stems from societal mores that favored men and allowed us to exercise a ‘power over’ that is unacceptable in a modern society.

But we, as men pay a price. Most of us still shoulder most of the burden of material provision, or at least feel we should even when our partners are better qualified and can pursue better jobs. We are mostly the warriors from defending our country to our family,

We all respected George Bush for shedding tears at 9/11 but we still expected him to go blow someone up as a consequence for us being attacked. President Obama’s status rose when we took out bin Laden. He did not gather the intelligence or undertake the mission, but in making the decision, he became a warrior chief.

I have worked closely with my son over the past few years, preparing him for this rite-of-passage, and I will continue to work with him, preparing him to enter society as a man.

To ignore our role as the hunter/gatherer would be foolish. To ignore our rights as men to be sensitive and nurturing would be sad.

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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).

The Audacity of Leadership

I once ripped the audio version of The Audacity of Hope by one Barack Obama (the publicity campaigns that some authors will go to ensure book sales!). I have never bothered erasing it. At the gym, armed with my iPod shuffle,  I might be pounding the treadmill to the beat of Alanis Morissette one moment and then the next focusing on President Obama’s rich voice. Beyond inspiring messages, a chapter of his book can take up several minutes of exercise time – a serious consideration to help shed the pounds.

Now I really got into his Presidential election and I suspect I wasn’t the only one since a few people voted for him. Yesterday, while listening to his book I heard something like: we need to create a new political model that goes beyond the bi-partisanship and with focused cooperation will bring more effective legislation (these are my words, I know you said it better, Mr. President).


I want to share that, while I am still a big supporter, I have become frustrated with the Democrats (when they held the house and senate), playing too nice to the Republicans. I think this has been an influence of the President, but has yielded little reciprocation – in fact we saw the birth of the Tea Party and the rise of some very scary characters.

While getting down on POTUS, I then saw this bumper sticker today and it made me rethink.

Maybe it is not so audacious to still hope…

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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).

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