The Book That Started It All…..

The book that started me on my reading journey of mysteries was The Hidden Staircase. It also started down the path that led to my desire to write.

The book sat in a storage shed for years. One day when I was exploring in my godparents’ yard in Fresno, California where they lived, I wandered into the only shed that they didn’t lock. This shed was the size of a two car garage. Inside were old tools and gadgets, a lot of dust and spiders, probably some other creatures who luckily didn’t interrupt my wanderings. In one spot lay an old book. I picked it up, dusted it off, and took it outside to read in the shade of my godmother’s garden. As another hot summer day came to a close, I finished that book. After that day, I hunted the bookstore and library for more like it. Mysteries!! An entire new shelf to explore…

I devoured books. I mostly read Sci-Fi, Science Fiction as it was called then, mostly due to my love of Star Trek. I read both science and fantasy, like The Hobbit, The Lord of the Ring trilogy, authors like Asimov, Bradbury, Cherryh, Clark, Heinlein, and so many more.

But The Hidden Staircase was the first mystery and like all first loves, remembered fondly. Next I read Sherlock Holmes, private eye novels, amateur detectives, police procedurals. I read all the time and so many of the authors are friends, colleagues and mentors that to leave out any one would be horrible and to list them, this blog will go on forever.

From reading to writing is a thin line for certain types of minds. Like my type; I can’t look at a situation without inventing countless scenarios and always with a crime involved. That is the mind of a mystery writer; the rabbit holes are dark and the actions of people suspicious, based on vices, that most of us never succumb to, thank goodness. But the people in my stories always do.

I’ve attended conferences, taken classes, read how to books, but the best advice is from Michael Connelly to write 15 minutes a day. I started with that and there are days when those fifteen minutes become hours spent in a world with the guilty, the innocent, the suspicious and the victims.

While, I may write about the blacker parts of the humans that populate my stories, at the heart of mysteries is the truth that this is not how the world should be, but if has to be then, may there always be a hero to stand up, right the wrongs and restore the world.

My first hero was Nancy Drew.

Being a Pantser

Some people need maps, and some just have a great sense of direction. The writing spectrum contains writers from outliners to pantsers. A pantser is someone who ‘writes by the seat of their pants’. Basically, they write. Period. In contrast, an outliner composes a complete outline of their story from beginning to end prior to writing.
Once I traveled to southern China by train from Hong Kong. When my travel companions and I stepped off the train and exited the station, we all consulted a map to find the route to our hotel. The rest of the group started one way and I went in the opposite direction. After a few feet, they called to me, I told them they were headed in the wrong direction. They marched over to me and pointed at the map to convince me they were correct. They were holding the map up in the orientation specified by the mapmaker. I turned the map upside down, showed them all the major landmarks in front of the station, then pointed to hose landmarks on the now realistically oriented map. They folder up the map and followed me to the hotel. One of them asked when I had been to China before, I told him, this was my first time.
I have an excellent sense of direction. I also notice the details around me as guide posts when I travel.
When I first started writing seriously, I had an idea for a series of books. I took classes and read many craft books on writing. I found the three-act structure and set about to outline my first book. I created character profiles — I knew everything there was to know about each of my characters; favourite foods, best friend, and sworn enemies. The setting was equally catalogued; I took hundreds of photographs, even recordings of background noise. Read every book on the area — studied flora and faun, read newspapers, blogs, travel guides of the town my books would be set in.
It felt like work. Still this was the right way to do it, so I soldiered on.
I set down to write. I crammed the story I envisioned in my mind into the setting I researched, inserted the characters I developed and orchestrated scenes into that three-act structure exactly when each should happen. The setting was a grammar school play painted cardboard backdrop. The characters, shadow puppets. All the work of outlining choked the life — and fun — out of writing the story. I abandoned the that book, and the next two in the series.
Maybe I just wasn’t a good writer. Maybe, I wasn’t a writer at all.
But another idea crept out of my imagination. This time, scenes played out in my mind. I just wrote them down. In whichever order they came. I wrote like a pantser. And the story worked, characters came alive, did things I would never have put into their character profiles and setting became not just a backdrop, but the only place in the universe where this story could take place.
I enjoyed writing. The creativity, the discovery. I felt like I did when I read a good book, excited about what would be on the next page. I was a pantser!! But more importantly, I was a writer. I’ve been pantsing ever since.
I believe that the difference between pantsers and outliners is that for pantsers, their first draft is their outline.

CAL

Go Bears!!

Golden Bear

CAL. The University of California, Berkeley. The crown jewel of the UC system. My alma mater.

When I was little, we would take the train to Southern California. In those days, Southern Pacific still ran a passenger train from Oakland. We would stop at the Berkeley station, and my mom would take me by the hand to a window on the train that faced the Berkeley hills. She would point at The Campanile (Sather Tower) in the distance standing watch over the Berkeley campus and say, “that’s a good college. You should go there.” Greeks value education above all else. My mom emphasized that a college degree was something that you have forever.

The Campanile

Neither my mother or I knew that Berkeley was a top-ten university, that it was a crowning achievement to be granted admission to such a prestigious university. She just thought it was a good college and I thought okay mom, whatever you say.

The Campanile

The Campanile stands 307 feet (93.6 m) tall, making it the third tallest bell and clock-tower in the world. It was designed by John Galen Howard, founder of the College of Environmental Design. It can be seen against the backdrop of the Berkeley hills from around the Bay Area.

John Galen Howard

I did get in. I did get a great education. Many days I sat looking up at The Campanile knowing that it was my homing beacon. I’ve been to the top, taken my mom up too. I remember hearing the notes of carillon across the campus. Sather Tower houses a full concert carillon, enlarged from the original 12-bell chime installed in October 1917 to 48 bells in 1979 and the current 61 bells in 1983.

IMG_3001

The largest bell is the 10,500 pound “Great Bear Bell,” which tolls on the hour and features bas-relief carvings of bears as well as the constellation Ursa Major.

 

The Bells

I’ve been on the interior floors housing the Department of Integrative Biology’s fossils. I was told the cool, dry interior is suited for their preservation.

View to the Bay

On graduation at the Greek Theatre (The William Randolph Hearts Greek Theatre), my mom heard my name being called out. While the Greek is an 8-500 seat amphitheater, I could see my 4’10” mom standing ten feet tall as I walked across the stage to receive my diploma.

CAL Graduate

I tell everyone I got in when monkeys could get admission, not because UC Berkeley isn’t a top-notch school but because, still to this day, I can’t believe that I, a poor kid with undiagnosed dyslexia, born and raised in Oakland, with uneducated immigrant parents, could gain admission to one of the world’s top universities. I still pinch myself.

I bleed Blue and Gold!!

Explosive Breaching

Writer’s Police Academy 2014

It happened. Again… at the Writer’s Police Academy.

The Writer’s Police Academy offers “hands-on” opportunities for participants. Apparently, I’ve signed up for the ‘cuff on sight’ track.

Lee Lofland worked hard protecting citizens from the bad guys as a police detective. He is an award of valor recipient. And he keeps on working for citizens and for his fellow law enforcement officers. He created THE BEST WRITERS’ CONFERENCE IN THE WORLD, the Writers’ Police Academy because he wants writers to ‘get it right’. In fact if the Writer’s Police Academy had a motto, Getting it Right, would be it.

The Writer’s Police Academy offers participants the opportunity to learn from the best of the best. The instructors are experts, special agents, sheriff deputies, police chiefs, highway patrol, EMTs, SWAT, snipers, firefighters, undercover agents, Secret Service, ATF, and TSA agents, lawyers, judges and detectives – top people in their respective fields. They taught classes in forensic psychology, forensic DNA testing, ballistics, firearms, cold case investigations, crime scene investigation, processing and evidence collection, fingerprint analysis, blood analysis, crime scene evidence collection, serial killers, profiling, arson investigations, fingerprinting, shoe impressions, killing by microorganisms, undercover assignments and so-much-more. We heard from best selling authors on their writing journey, how to research, how to weave in facts, experiences and case studies into stories. Police officers told us they love what they do; they feel the responsibility and the duty of doing a job well.  All of them asked one thing of the writers, take what we teach you to get it right.

Our first night, we had a demonstration on disarming the bad guys. The instructors, Lee Lofland and Eli Jackson demonstrated techniques for disarming attackers wielding knives and guns.

Lee Lofland & Eli Jackson

Eli was so fast that my camera was unable to focus or capture the image. Lightening fast. We then were able to practice with fake guns and knives. While not as fast, we were thrilled to practice the disarming maneuvers seen in the movies.

Eli Disarming a Gun Toting Bad Guy

Lee demonstrated on one of the participants.

Lee Taking Down the Bad Guy

Then Lee discussed and demonstrated the 21 foot rule. Eli charged holding a knife at a volunteer. Me. The 21 foot rule is the minimum distance for a police officer to react to an advancing attacker and remove his service pistol from his holster to fire. Anything less than 21 feet, it is humanly impossible to assess the threat and react quickly enough to draw a weapon from a holster. I know, I tried.

Back to the demonstration, as I stood waiting, Lee shouted go. Eli charged at me and I valiantly attempted to remove my ‘gun’ from the holster in my duty belt. I failed to draw my weapon. Three times. When I did the weapons training simulation (another offering at the Writer’s Police Academy), I was presented with various scenarios but my gun was drawn and at the ready. Many of the scenarios left me with a split second decision whether the person or persons on the screen presented a threat to me. But in the 21 Foot Rule scenario, my weapon was not drawn.  Even knowing that Eli would run at me with a knife; something that an officer DOES not know in a real world situation, I still could not draw my weapon in time. Three times, I failed to draw my weapon. Three times, I could have died. That is a sobering thought.

Hotel Lobby Before the Morning Crush

 

Up at the crack of dawn the next day, we got dressed, ate breakfast,     scanned our programs then hurried out front. We caught buses at    7:30 sharp, and headed out to the Guilford Technical Community College.

 

Our first morning we assembled under the hot North Carolina sun to view a mock-up of a crash. Several people had been ‘injured’ when a car drove into a yard sale. Once we were assembled the ‘call’ went out to 911. Police arrived, calling in a request for paramedics. The officer then preformed a quick survey and assisted those wounded as he could. Paramedics arrived and took over the scene, one taking point dividing the area into various treatment areas for triage. The firefighters arrived, reviewed the situation and pulled out the jaws of life to release a victim trapped under the car. While paramedics and fire fighters worked, the first officer, along with a second one who had arrived checked the driver was was unhurt. They performed a field sobriety test, determined the driver was intoxicated, and arrested. In mere minutes the area was cleared of the wounded who were transported by ambulance to hospitals. We were impressed with the efficient and quick work of fire fighters, paramedics and police.

Victims after car crashes into yard sale.

Firefighters removing a victim onto a back board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then on to our classes. Firearms with ATF Special Agent, Rick McMahan interested me for the first session, then I was slated for the driving simulator (I did not crash the fire truck!!),

Driving Simulator

next Deep Undercover with ATF Special Agent Bill Queen discussing being undercover with outlaw biker gangs. For the afternoon, Retired NYPD Marco Conelli fascinated us with stories and details about his undercover work, then New York Times bestselling author John Gilstrap’s class about the Technical Stuff that Writers Get Wrong.

John Gilstrap demonstrating how not to shoot.

At the end of the day, Lisa Gardner regaled us with personal anecdotes about her research, especially how she got to the Body Farm. Onto the buses, we headed back to the hotel, everyone discussing the lectures. Participants traded notes, information and key points with their seat mates.

Lisa Gardner Presenting at WPA

Later that evening we were treated to a reception sponsored by Sisters in Crime National where we mingled with other participants and instructors. Then we were off to a lighting demonstration in a secluded grassy area behind the hotel. We found a crime scene complete with a ‘dead’ body. Three different lighting techniques were demonstrated each successive one revealing more items surrounding the body. The last lighting source looked like a UFO at the top of the pole, but when turned on, illuminated the crime scene almost as well as daylight.

Crime Scene Outdoor Lighting

Crime Scene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next day, crack of dawn, up, showered, dressed, breakfasted and waiting for the buses at 7:30 am. Lee trained us well.

We arrive at GTCC. This time we’re sent to an area and told to stay back. Captain Randy Shepherd conducted a breaching demonstration. He walks us through the difference between breaching a front door versus an interior door. He states that there are two different types of building searches – the slow methodical one that his teaches us in the building search class, and the dynamic type done with an explosive breach, that he is about to demonstrate. Then, he and his fellow officer approached the ‘house’, they attached a long black strip down the length of the ‘front’ door, this contained the C-4 with an attached wire to the blasting cap. Captain Shepherd yelled ‘control’, then counted down, three…two…one, blast!! Pop!! Boom!! A burst of flame and the door fell to the ground, the officers entered and cleared the ‘house’. We asked questions, and took pictures, some of us posing with the two officers.

Explosive Breaching

Capt. Shepherd with the blown door

Then off to classes. Several classes caught my attention, Dr. Katherine Ramsland, Varieties of Multiple Murder, and her class with Dave Pauly on Equivocal Death Investigations, plus handcuffing and arrest techniques with Stan Lawhorne where a few tried picking the lock while handcuffed behind their backs, and Master Corporal Dee Jackson’s, personal safety and self protection class, where we got to take down some dummies and learn about being vigilant first and foremost.

Stan Lawhorne & Dee Jackson

Dummies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of the day, Alafair Burke gave a wonderful presentation about the criminal legal process with hints on how to use the information for fiction writing. Then off to the buses and back to the hotel to get ready for the banquet.

The Saturday night banquet this year featured one of my favourite authors, Michael Connelly!! Mr. Connelly, along with being a nice guy, great author, shared his writing process and advice for writers. Afterwards he graciously signed books and posed for photographs with us.

Michael Connelly in Conversation

The other feature of the banquet is the silent auction and the raffle baskets. All proceeds benefit Criminal Justice Foundation at Guilford Technical Community College.

Sadly I did not win the New York-themed basket donated by Marco Conelli. I really wanted to win it. Marco found out how much I wanted his basket and being the nice guy that he is, presented me with his own hat!! I just love that guy!!

Marco's Hat

Sunday is the debriefing panel with many of the instructors.  Particpants get to ask follow-up questions.

Sunday Panel

While, there are many more things to do than is humanly possible (I recommend bringing your clone to be in two places at once), there is only one thing you cannot do at the Writer’s Police Academy. Shoot video. Lee told us that several times.

Lee Lofland Lecturing Participants on the "no video" rule

I swear that’s not why I got arrested…. I was just hanging out with my peeps. Not doing anything wrong. I swear. But then this guy comes around. I size him up; he blends, not rocking the undercover cop look. I figured he’s cool. We weren’t going anything wrong. Then he points to me. Guy wants to talk. I walk over, I’m not scared, I could take him, especially after the skills I’ve learned. So I say what do you want. Next thing I know, I’m up against the wall, guy pats me down, and then I’ve got the sliver bracelets of shame. Again…

Oakland Views

What I love about Oakland are the diversity of people, cultures, architecture and food that typifies Oakland. Good people live here and Oakland is a great place to live.

 

When is a Book like a Chocolate Chip Cookie?

I made my special secret recipe chocolate chip cookies.  The kind that are gooey in the middle even when fully cooked and the chips melt in your mouth.  My family loves them.  My kid’s school loves them.  I made this batch for a fundraiser bake sale.  Did my cookies become the hit of the sale?  Did we sell out in the first minutes?  Sadly no, I took 90% of them home much to the happiness of my family.  Who devoured them.  I felt like a failure.

What happened?  People wanted brownies.  Three sets of brownies sold out in minutes!! I contemplated this on the drive home, that night and the next few days.  Yes, I hold on to things…for a long time.  I finally realized that books are like chocolate chip cookies.

Here’s what I mean.  Go to the bookstore, Amazon, a brick-n-mortar, follow any book news list or newspaper book section or any book club.  Look at the books that are selling/people are buying.  Is one better than another?  What makes one book sell better than the other?  Is one author better than another?  Is this story more enjoyable and that one less?  What is it that differentiates one from the other?

Or is it just that some people prefer plain ole everyday brownies over gooey delicious chocolate chip cookies. (Okay, I’m pushing it to make a point, the brownies were good just not as good as my cookies — get it?).

Isn’t that what happens with books too?  Some readers prefer that book over this one, and others hate both.  Personal preference and maybe what’s around, like having those brownies next to my cookies, you know, the gooey delicious secret recipe chocolate chip ones. (Next year I’m making brownies, just saying.)

But, I can’t write brownies, I write chocolate chip cookies.  So maybe I won’t sell a lot of books, just like I had to take those cookies back home because they weren’t the hit of the bake sale.  I was happy making the chocolate chip cookies, you know, the secret recipe gooey delicious ones, and I’m happy writing what I write.

Wills, Probate and Trusts For Writers

An article I wrote for a writers newsletter…

Remember all the black and white movies with the gathering of the grieving family as the stodgy old lawyer read the will of the deceased.  Not necessary.  Darn, it made for an easy assemblage of suspects.  Oh well so what’s a writer to do?  Get the facts straight and use it to your advantage.

What is a will?  It is a legal document that determines who gets what when a person dies.  What are the requirements for a legal will?  There are variations from state to state, but generally, it must be written, signed by the person whose will it is and witnessed (the number depends on the state).  The person must be a legal adult and mentally competent, (sound mind).

Who can draft a will?  An attorney can and should (sorry but really there are so many things that can go wrong).  A person, though, can write their own will using forms and copying the language but remember an invalid will is useless.

A person can handwrite a will and sign it.  MUST SIGN IT!!  This is a holographic will.  Just make sure to date it.  Unless of course that adds to the plot, for example when two wills are found.  Which one is the newest and thereby the last will and testament, or is the hand written document a forgery?  Or is it a codicil?

Codicil, you say, what’s that?  A codicil is an amendment to a will.  It changes a portion of a will without altering the rest.

If someone dies having a valid will what happens next?  Probate.  Probate is the legal process by which title in property is transferred from the deceased to the heirs.  As a legal process, it requires filing in Probate Court, formal rules must be followed and fees must be paid.

Who are heirs?  Raise your hand if you have heirs.  Put it down and hang your head — you’re not dead yet, you can’t have any heirs.  Only dead people have them.

Heirs are the children, grandchildren and spouse if still legally married at the time of death.  Most states require probate when the value of an estate meets a set minimum.  An estate is the legal term for the assets of a deceased.

If the will determines who gets what, why is probate necessary?  A probate proceeding changes legal title to the assets from the deceased to the person inheriting them.  Probate allows creditors to present claims, the payment of debts, the marshalling (gathering) and distribution of the assets.  Probate is a public process.  Notice is given to all the heirs even the ones excluded by the will.  A death notice is placed in the local newspaper.  There are court fees to file documents and probate referee fees to value the assets.  All documents filed in court are accessible to anyone. YES, TO ANY ONE. The hearings are open to the public.  Talk about airing dirty laundry, how’d you like if your neighbors or your worst enemy could obtain a copy of your will after you die.  Hey that sounds like a good plot twist.

What happens if there isn’t a will?  Each state has a mandated way of dividing the estate.  It’s called intestate succession.  Basically meaning a mandated line of succession based on familial relationships.  For example, if there are children or a spouse, they receive the assets.  Parents are next in line, if living, if not then siblings.  If there isn’t anyone left, then the assets escheat to the state.  Whoa, what the heck does that mean?  The state gets everything.  Check your local listing – jurisdiction (varies state by state) – to determine how intestate succession is determined where you or your characters live.

The fertile ground for storylines is the will contest, right?  Not really.  Most wills have what are called ‘no contest’ provisions that prohibit a person from disputing a will on pain of being disinherited (receiving nothing) or sometimes only receiving a dollar.  However allegations of fraud, duress or undue influence are different, but they can entail costly litigation and entangle the assets for the duration of the lawsuit and may even use them up.  But, that may make for a good story.  So are wills still used today?  Yes, but most people also have trusts.

What’s a trust, revocable or irrevocable?  How is it different from a will?

A trust is a legal document that like a will determines to whom the deceased’s assets go.  Instead of heirs, people receiving assets under a trust are called beneficiaries.  A trust however is a private document and probate is not required.  Remember the old saying that you can’t take it with you.  Well it’s true, but you can control it after you die.

Unlike a will, a trust controls what happens after death to the assets.  A trust can create other trusts after death.  A parent’s trust could state that upon their death, another trust is created for their children.  This children’s trust operates to dole out the assets incrementally.  The kids receive a certain amount at age twenty-five, some more at thirty-five and the rest at fifty or even the rest to the grandchildren.  As long as certain time limits are followed, called the Rule against Perpetuities.  I’d explain that except as a court once stated, even trained professionals have a hard time understanding how it works.  I kid you not a court actually said that.  Suffice it to say, a trust can’t last forever any more (yes they used to and some still do because they are grandfathered in – legally allowed to go on).

A trust is administered by the Trustee, who is designated in the document.  The Trustee is usually the person who owns the trust during life, then after death, the person designated. The Trustee can be a friend, relative, bank or lawyer, just about any one.  See the possibilities?

Why use a trust?

Trusts are used to insure privacy and exact control.  They are one of the most widely used estate planning tools.  Don’t leave home or die without it.  Just think of the story plotting possibilities.

Oh yes, about revocable and irrevocable trusts.  A trust can be revocable, which means the person making it (Trustor) can change it at any time.  An irrevocable trust cannot be changed, and usually has another person named as the Trustee.  Sometimes a trust is revocable during a person’s life then irrevocable once they die.  Why?  Complete control while alive and after death, without anyone else changing what you want done.  How’s that for megalomania.  And much fodder for writers.

All is not lost for wills though.  A pour-over will should always be used in conjunction with a trust.

It is a basic will that says if any property is not included in the trust, it will be made a part of the trust and subject to its provisions.  It’s a stop-gap instrument to prevent the inadvertent leaving out of property that should have been in the trust.  Why would this be needed?  In order for the trust provisions to have effect, the assets must be owned by the trust.  Title to homes, cars, bank accounts or stock shares must be in the name of the trust, as in the ownership designation of The Jane and John Doe Trust.  People forget to do so after creating a trust or when acquiring new assets or refinancing their homes – you get the idea.

Pour-over wills also include provisions that in case a trust fails (for legal reasons) then the trust provisions will be deemed part of the will and the assets will be administered under the provisions of the trust.  The estate would still have to be probated, but at least the wishes of the deceased would prevail.  A pour-over will has no other purpose.

Hey wake up I’m almost done.  Nothing in this article will be construed as giving legal advice or create a binding attorney-client relationship between any and all parties or anything else that may make me liable to the reader for any information herein or not herein, resplendent legalese, fine print, etcetera etcetera, etcetera.

 

Xronia Polla!! Happy New Year!!

In Greek households, New Year’s Day is Saint Basil’s day and the name day for any one with the name Basil, (Vassilis).  Name days are celebrated in stead of birthdays in Greece. Traditionally, Greeks eat a bread called the Vasilopita on January 1.  Inside the bread, the baker places a coin wrapped in aluminum foil prior to baking.  When the bread is sliced each piece is designated for a family member, whoever finds the coin in their slice is considered to have luck for the new year.

My godmother made the bread when I was growing up.  It was sweet, perfectly round and beautifully decorated.  In her memory, I made the vasilopita on New Year’s Day for my family.

Vasilopita

Not as perfect as hers or as pretty, still it reminds me of the happy times I shared with my godmother throughout my childhood.  She was an incredible cook and bon vivant.  And throughout my childhood, I received the coin until I was old enough to be told that my godmother made sure that I received the slice with the coin every year.

Traditions after all are about memories. Old and new, passing the torch from one generation to another.  Each taking the tradition and adding new memories before passing it on to the next generation.  Personally, I believe that the best traditions accompany food — good Greek food — with family and good friends around a table.

Growing up I spent New Year’s Eve at my godmother’s house.  Every one waited until midnight and then a chorus of Xponia Polla (Many Years) rang throughout the house.  The next day we ate together – a meal around two in the afternoon in keeping with Greek ways.   After the end of the meal, we cut the vasilopita.  And I got the coin.

Today my family cut the vasilopita I made.  I can happily report that it tasted as sweet as ever.  I didn’t get the coin, the youngest member of my family did, in keeping with my godmother’s tradition.

Happy New Year!! Xronia Polla!!

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela died this week and I have been very sad, but contemplative about what he meant to me.

I remember the divestment protests at my Alma Mater, UC Berkeley in 1985. Divestment was a means to financially hurt South Africa due to their system of racial segregation called apartheid. Under this system, non-whites were not citizens, had no representation, lived in separate areas, had separate schools, medical care and social services, all of which were inferior to those provided to whites.

My awareness of apartheid, as well as that of many Americans, grew out of those protests. I remember the talks amongst friends. Our discussions about the horrors of apartheid and what was happening in South Africa. The stories of the various anti-apartheid activists murdered by the South African regime; people like Steven Biko.

But I learned about racism long before these protests. While apartheid was a system in a foreign country, America does not have ‘clean hands’ when it comes to racial prejudice. We also have a history of systemic injustice typified by Jim Crow, the anti-voting laws, racial based covenants against land ownership, the KKK and segregation.

I had school mates who were the first Asian family to buy a home in their neighborhood; they never played in their front yard for fear of retaliation. The uncle of my best friend in middle school was the first Chinese-American to buy a home in one of the exclusive neighborhoods in San Francisco. The parents of my best friend in high school were interned in camps during the war because they were of Japanese descent.  As a child of Greek immigrants, I heard my parents’ stories of prejudice against them; how my father had to change his long Greek last name to something shorter and more pronounceable in order to fit in.  I still get flack when my name doesn’t fit on official documents or fill-in forms. I remember the man with his eyes bulging from rage, screaming at my mother and I in the middle of a supermarket, while every one watched and did nothing.  He screamed at us for speaking Greek instead of English, how foreigners like us should go back to our countries.  I screamed right back and told him I was born in Oakland.

During my high school years, prejudices became a divisive force and tensions grew. Something as simple as the choice of a band for a school event fueled racial tensions. Many of my former Asian friends were pressured to not speak to me. Most still did. But there were ones that didn’t. Fights amongst different ethnic groups occurred. Several students were beaten, one so badly that he ended up in the hospital. But acts of working together also occurred. Members of the high school football team broke into groups of black and white players and roamed the halls keeping the peace.

As an adult, I’ve seen my old neighborhood in my beloved Oakland left with garbage on the sidewalks, potholes and rampant crime because the majority of residents are poor African Americans.

I’ve seen the difference between white justice and black justice. Northern lynchings. Racial profiling.  Prejudice.  Inequality.  Injustice.

The first home I bought had a covenant running with the land, an enforceable prohibition preventing any owner from selling to Blacks, Jews, Hispanics or other non-whites. I’ve lived in an affluent city on the Peninsula where an African American family moved out due to the racism their children were subjected to in school (in 1997!!). Where I live today, police recently detained two African American boys and their Hispanic friend for doing nothing more than waiting outside their own home while the older brother backed out the family car to drive them somewhere. This is 2013!! Sometimes it feels that little has changed.

We were denied a home loan because my spouse is Hispanic, the year was 1996. Recently, for our second home loan we suspected a similar problem, but this time I threatened to sue and the loan was granted.

Yet, I am reminded that Northern California was more tolerant than other parts of the country. That fact gives me great pause.

After the apartheid protests at CAL, I followed the news of South Africa and then the news of the release of Nelson Mandela. He travelled to the United States and spoke at the Oakland Coliseum as a thank you to the efforts of the students at CAL, and others in the East Bay who had protested against apartheid. Four years later in 1994, he was elected President of South Africa in the first free election. He lead his country, then at the end of his term, he stepped down and allowed for a Democratic and peaceful transition of power.

Then this week we received the sad news of Nelson Mandela’s death and I am reminded of the lessons he taught with his quest for freedom and justice.

Nelson Mandela taught me that racial prejudices and injustice happen whenever we view a person as different and therefore less worthy of dignity, equality and respect then ourselves. But he also taught that prejudice can also end with us. Rather than espousing hatred for his former oppressors, Nelson Mandela embraced reconciliation. It takes a great man to do that. Nelson Mandela was such a man.