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 “Michelle Obama”

Why It Has To Be Fiction

Last month, I was invited to address a very politically aware audience about my novel, The Accidental Activist. I spent considerable time describing the McDonalds’ libel trial that transpired in London throughout the 1990’s This is the the court case upon which The Accidental Activist is based.

I was deeply inspired by the trial at the time and meticulously researchedMcLibelas it became known. My fictional timeline corresponds exactly with the real trial and many of the events in The Accidental Activist parallel what transpired in the real court case. In fact, many of the more infamous quotes from real-life witnesses just happened to find their way into the mouths of my characters.

I allocated a fair part of my talk to the idea of writing for social justice, to help empower people to create a better world. This is a consistent theme throughout my books, and here on Left Coast Voices – so it begged someone to ask the question: Why fiction?

My answer was not very impressive. I mumbled that John Vidal, a journalist for The Guardian in the UK, had done a great job of writing the definitive book on the case and even had a copy on hand to show them.

But there is more. I believe fiction allows the writer to reach more people and on a deeper level than non-fiction. We open ourselves to the emotions of the characters, the smell of the place, the textures of color, food, or wine. We become invested in their challenges.

But most significantly, we read fiction to identify with the characters, particularly the protagonists. Often we align through gender, life experience, fears, or loves. I have heard from women who were deeply affected by my character Suzie’s ideological drive for a better world. Men can understand how Matt felt driven to step outside his comfort zone and find a way to defend his woman.

If we can create a bond between character and reader, we open the opportunity for the reader to create an environment in which to undergo a similar transformation in their own life.

I believe relationships are what drive people to step outside their safe space. I believe people were able to relate to then-Senator Obama’s (and/or Michelle’s) drive for a better America, for change we can believe in. This was what motivated so many to get involved and head to the polls four years ago and, I hope, what ultimately will bring them out to vote again in November.

When we relate to a person we admire, whether in fact or fiction, we consider on a conscious or subconscious level whether we can emulate that person and make a similar, courageous decision. Perhaps this will empower us to believe that our actions can create a better world.

Have you ever been inspired by a book to take action? Has a fictional character ever helped you change your life? If so, please share in the comments below.

Good Writing,

Alon

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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).

 

Robbing the Next Generation – Childhood Obesity

There is a certain sense of irony writing a blog post about obesity on this day – seven-eleven – but here we go. My previous post on this topic ruffled some feathers, not least among those who are struggling with overweight and its repercussions. I know it is a sensitive topic and I have no intention of belittling anyone or their health challenges. I applaud anyone who has the strength to take steps to turn things around and am full of admiration for those I see turning up at my gym and pushing themselves daily on the cardio and other machines. 

But obesity is a growing issue in this country and we must address it. Nothing is as difficult as seeing children already walking such  a path at a young age. Parents have so much to struggle with today: the intense demands of homework, the lure of screens, the danger of letting their children out in the streets. All this in addition to the strains of a full time job and often only one parent in the picture. It is hard to find the strength to say no too often, hard to find the energy to cook a healthy meal that doesn’t resemble what children are bombarded with on TV and elsewhere by clowns.

First Lady, Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity turned 18 months earlier this week. Not quite the terrible twos yet, but the First Lady seems to know what she is up against. The skeptics have made sure she knows, claiming that the money poured into advertising and promotion by the huge multinationals that run the food and agriculture industry might make promises but won’t risk their profit margins.

But Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Association, is one of many who disagrees and claims that Mrs. Obama “has been a spark plug, raising awareness about the potential future of the U.S. as a nation of fat, unhealthy people unless the trend is reversed.” She acknowledges that Mrs. Obama has been doing it in ways that health food advocates can’t.

She has addressed law makers at every level, school groups, food producer and other constituencies, urging more bike paths and playgrounds, to serve healthier school lunches, and to produce and sell healthier food. Mrs. Obama has visited schools across the country to encourage initiatives such as  fruit and vegetable gardens, healthy options for school lunches, and participating in exercise clinics with children.

Most impressive in my opinion (and it is all impressive), is her work advocating at food manufacturers, beverage makers and stores. A little corner store you might have heard of, Walmart, pledged to reformulate thousands of its store-brand products to reduce sodium, sugar and fat, and provide incentives to its suppliers to do the same. Walmart has also pledged to cut its prices for  fresh fruit and vegetables, and develop a platform that clearly identifies healthier choices. This is a big player move. Walmart’s grocery business accounts for about 15%  of the U.S. grocery industry.

“We are seeing a fundamental shift in our national conversation about how we make and sell food,” Mrs. Obama said when she addressed Walmart executives at the beginning of the year. “That’s something that wasn’t happening just a year ago.”

People get worked up about children, whether they are their own or not. We have saddled the next generation with an enormous debt and a crashing environment. Sometimes these topics seem to massive for us to do anything about it and we feel disempowered. 

But to create a healthy diet and lifestyle for our children is something we can grasp. We can run around with them at the park instead of reaching for Netflix. We can volunteer at our local school vegetable garden, and we can think about what we serve at the dinner table. There is an advert on the radio at the moment urging us to give our children water or fruit juice rather than a can of sugar. We don’t, perhaps shouldn’t, make radical changes all at once, but the next generation’s journey begins with small first steps.

Thank you, Mrs. Obama. Now excuse me if I go and play soccer with my sons.

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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 Economic Burden of Overweight

My plane was delayed. I sat exhausted in the airport in Texas, sipping a coffee. There was a line of customers forming into the McDonalds about 30 feet to my left. I began to doze. In the haze of fatigue everything blurs a bit. It suddenly felt as though I was on a different planet (I had just seen the movie Planet 51 with my boys). People weren’t green, but they were…well huge.

People walked past me in families or groups of four or six, almost all seriously overweight. I do not know where the line crosses between overweight and obese. Paul Zane Pilzner once defined it as people who no longer control their weight or lifestyle. This is not an anti-obesity post. I respect anyone who is taking steps to ensure their body is healthy, but i fear the repercussions that we all face.

I remember my first trips to the US. Admittedly, they were to California and the beach, surf, and multiple gyms beguiled me. Now not everyone in California is healthy by any means, but that seemed to be the perception.

Last Wednesday, I wrote the first part of a post suggesting that a sustainable planet needed changes in what we dish onto our plates and into our bodies. Today, I want to propose that there is a direct correlation between our health and economy.

The U.S. budget is just over $15 trillion (as is our debt apparently). In 2009, health care costs reached $2.5 trillion—nearly 17 percent of the GDP – and Paul Zane Pilzner suggests that there is a further $1 trillion dollars in the Wellness industry (‘health’ food, fitness, vitamins, and other therapies).

Gallup estimates that we lost over $153 million in lost productivity. But enough with the statistics. I don’t really think that anyone questions the fact that an unhealthy society cannot be an economically successful company. In fact, how many countries where disease and ill health are prevalent are doing well economically? On the contrary, if you look at the more successful nations (Scandinavian and Japan), they score highly on both the economic and health categories.

The question that I am stuck with, and I think at the core of Obamacare, is how much can the government intervene in how people choose to live their lives? There a re two points that I feel we need to realize:

1) When more that half the nation are overweight, it directly impacts everyone’s finances.

2) I don’t believe these people are making choices or feel that they can turn their lives around.

The battle against harmful transfats in fast food is an example of how we can make the necessary changes.  I applaud First Lady Michelle Obama, who has taken on the fight against childhood obesity.

We have messed up the economy for our children and their children. Perhaps we can be more of service to them if we can educate them to live a healthy and productive lifestyle. And this just might right some economic wrongs we have inflicted on them as well. 

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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).

Why Fiction?

While addressing a group about my novel, Oilspill dotcom, I apparently spent considerable time describing the McDonalds’ libel trial that transpired in London in the 1990’s, the court case upon which I had based my book.

I had been deeply inspired by the trial and meticulously researched ‘McLibel’ as it became known. My fictional timeline corresponded exactly with that of the real trial, motions in Oilspill paralleled those of the real court case, and even the more infamous quotes from the real-life witnesses found their way into the mouths of my characters.

I also allocated a fair part of my talk to the idea of writing for social justice, for a better world. This is a consistent theme of my books, and features heavily on my website – www.alonshalev.com – so it begged someone to ask the question: Why fiction?

My answer was not very impressive. I think I mumbled that John Vidal, a journalist for The Guardian in the UK, had done a great job of writing the definitive book on the case.

But there is more. I feel it is possible to reach more people and on a deeper level when they, we, read fiction. We open ourselves to the emotions of the characters, the smell of the place, the textures of color, food, or wine.

But most significantly, we seek to identify with the characters, particularly the protagonists, often aligning by gender. I have heard from women who were deeply affected by my character Suzie’s ideological drive for a better world, and men who can understand how Matt needed to find a way to defend his woman.

If we can create a bond between character and reader, we open the opportunity for the reader to create an environment in which to undergo a similar transformation in their own life, outside the realm of fiction.

I believe relationships are what drive people to step outside their safe space. I am skeptical that so many people were propelled to go and vote in an African-American democrat because of the policies he advocated. The debate over the health plan probably illustrates this. I believe people were able to relate to then-Senator Obama’s (and/or Michelle’s) drive for a better America, for change. And this is what motivated so many to head to the polls.

When we relate to a person we admire, whether in fact or fiction, we consider on some conscious or subconscious level whether we could emulate that person and make a similar, courageous decision.

And when that happens, the potential for a better world seems almost obtainable.

Have you ever been inspired by a book to take action? I’d like to hear what the inspirational book was.

Good Writing,

Alon

http://www.alonshalev.com/

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