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Bollywood Adventures

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

It had been a challenging week. The shooting of two Indian professionals in a Kansas bar was followed by the knifing of an Indian-American outside his home and the news that a number of  South Asian business owners have had their shops torched. Whether or not the attackers misjudged these South Asians as “Arabic” or “Muslim” doesn’t matter. It only means that the danger to immigrants has become very personal for me.

I felt the need for a temporary retreat from bad news, so I went looking for a Bollywood movie.

Fortunately, it’s easy to find Indian movies in my state. These days, if you want to catch a film in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada or Bengali, it’s likely that a megaplex in the AMC or Regal chain  is screening it—often late at night, or just a few times a week. A great way to hunt for Indian movies is through Pragathi.com.

You may have heard that Indian movies take some time to watch. They are typically three hours long with a 20-minute intermission (observed in India, but skipped in the US and Canada). On a Tuesday afternoon in Arundel Mills, Maryland, I paid a whopping $5.64 to be the sole viewer for the afternoon matinee of Rangoon.

Rangoon hit India’s screens in late February and made it here within the same week. The title is rather misleading, because nothing happens in the former capital city of Burma, now Myanmar. Yes, there are plenty of nature scenes in the jungle along the Irrawaddy River between Burma and India. I suspect the vague name was give to draw male viewership, because the film’s central focus is a fictional 1940s film star called “Miss Julia” played by Kangana Ranaut.

A promotional poster for Rangoon that references late colonial Indian cinema

Julia is a beautiful Anglo-Indian actress best known for the line “Bloody Hell!” though her songs and dialogue are all in Hindi. As the top stuntwoman actress in Bollywood, she’s in love with Rusi Billimoria, a former film star who lost his right hand performing a film stunt. Rusi and his father are wealthy Parsis (Indian Zoroastrians) who own the cinema company; Rusi directs while his father sits in Bombay and tells him what to do. Their studio is pro-British, so when an army general tells Rusi he’d like Miss Julia to come to the Burma front to perform for the soldiers, Rusi’s father says she must go. Julia is horrified by the idea of going into the jungle, but she’s packed on a train with a handsome bodyguard from the army who attempts to prevent her escape.

True to the romantic-adventure genre, there are plenty of song and dance scenes, made even better because of the historical references in some numbers to Hitler and Churchill. The visions of late colonial homes and film studios are gorgeous, not to mention the river and jungle. Kangana Ranaut in the star role is beautiful and haughty, and a kick-ass pilot, motorcyclist, horseback rider, dart thrower, and dancer. A dance scene on top of a train is film convention—however, Miss Julia’s fights atop a vintage Northwest Frontier Train reprised and beat actor Shah Rukh Khan’s famous “Chaiyya Chaiyya” dance scene from the late 1990s. Her songs, sung by Bollywood legend Farah Khan, are great.

Kangana gets on top of the train and really rocks it!

And now for a brief intermission into some facts:

Miss Julia, the actress character, has historic origins. Soon after silent pictures began, a subgenre developed wherein actresses played physically daring roles, often fighting men with their fists, knives, swords, and guns. In Bollywood, these actresses were typically Anglo-Indian, Jewish or American rather than 100% Indian. Film producers feared offending India’s religious communities by subjecting Hindu, Muslim or Parsi women to the male gaze. These outsider actresses typically had Hindu names and played Indians. And at a time when the British were in control—and Indian men couldn’t act out—sword-wielding women were a very subtle way of expressing nationalism. You can read more about the history of Indian women actresses in Wanted: Cultured Ladies Only! by Neepa Majumdar.

From Majumdar’s excellent book, I learned that one of the first action stars of Indian cinema was Sulochana, originally named Ruby Myers, who began in silent films and transitioned to talkies. Sulochana who was considered both a beauty and a flapper, acted in five to six films a year during her heyday. Many of her roles involved the idea of giving up a debauched Western existence for a more simple and honorable Indian identity.

Sulochana’s best-known film was Cinema Queen (1925) which is about the travails of a movie actress—just like Rangoon.

Some articles in the Indian press compare “Miss Julia” character in Rangoon with the famous 1930s stunt actress known as Fearless Nadia. The woman who was born in Australia and had Scottish-Australian-Greek ethnicity came to India when her father was a soldier in the Indian Army. After his death, she was first a circus performer and later an actress in over 50 movies produced by Wadia Tone pictures run by two Parsi brothers. Her most famous film, Hunterwali, tells the story of a princess who dons a mask and cracks a whip when she goes forward to avenge injustice.

Descendants of the Wadia brothers are concerned the film may have breeched the trademarks they hold on the character of Fearless Nadia. But in addition to Sulochana, there were other Indian women stars in the genre with names like Miss Zebunissa and Miss Padma. And Fearless Nadia was a blonde who never disguised her European origins. In Rangoon, Miss Julia bluntly explains to a snobbish maharani that she was born to an unmarried Indian mother.

Okay, the intermission on Indian film history is over and we are back to Rangoon—the modern remake of a 1940’s woman-centric action picture.

Every good Indian film must have a villain, and the British general takes on that role with such awful lines as “Because I’m white I’m right.” There’s also a love triangle; Julia goes missing and is rescued by handsome Sergeant Nawab Malik, her mysterious bodyguard. Nobody will be surprised by the love triangle that develops between these two and Rusi; but the grand finale, where the battle for loyalty and India’s future plays out on a rope bridge, is simply breathtaking. For a look at some videos of dance scenes, check out this Times of India review.

Kangana Rangaut, Shahid Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan are the film’s leads

The story’s underlying theme is the battle between the Indian Army (British-government controlled) and the Indian National Army (INA) sponsored by the Japanese. These forces really did fight along the Burma-India border during the late years of the war. In this film, there’s a secret mission to deliver a jewel-encrusted Indian prince’s sword to ensure this army of rebels would have funds they needed to support an invasion without needing the Japanese.  I wrote about the INA in my books The Sleeping Dictionary and India Gray, so it was exciting to see a partially accurate depiction of the forgotten army.

I walked into Rangoon feeling like a person at risk, but left singing Jana Gana Mana, the Tagore poem  that later became the anthem of independent India. Miss Julia and her comrades had stood up to those who wanted to keep them in their place. Onward I’ll go.

The East Coast’s Steamy Springtime

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

T-shirt weather in February!

“Want to go for a walk?”

My daughter surprised me with this request last week. During the Baltimore winter, nobody in the family walks together—even the dog doesn’t want to be out more than five minutes.

While Maryland winters are not fierce like the seasons I spent in Minnesota, they are still cold. There are always a few snowfalls and a cold wind blowing off the Atlantic. The difference between winter in Maryland and other places is that the damp wind can chill you to the bones. February is a good month for making soup.

It certainly hasn’t been the usual kind of February. Last December, meteorologists predicted this would be another warm winter, just like 2016. The forces at work were an especially strong El Nino wind and an Arctic Oscillation, a stream of winds above Canada and Alaska that has chosen to trap the cold weather far to the north of us. The US Geological Survey says spring arrived to the Washington DC area 22 days early.

I’m not ready to say that we are in spring (official date of Spring Equinox is March 20). In Baltimore—an hour’s drive from DC—this winter brought only a slight, powdered-sugar style dusting of snow: less than an inch. The mountainous areas in Western Maryland where people ski had a tremendous melt of the small amount of snow that fell.  The ski resorts are all but closed up for the season, when they ordinarily would have had business for at least another month. It’s weird. Just like the active calls of birds to each other, seeking mates, just a little bit too early.

When I say this is a hot winter, I mean that it’s been like California on many days. My husband, perhaps out of loyalty to his birthplace, says it’s a “New Orleans winter.” Instead of the typical temperatures in the 30s, it’s been in the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit for many days in the past weeks. It reached 77 last Friday when I went walking with the dog and my daughter. At Johns Hopkins, the school set up signs encouraging students to practice mindfulness while outdoors. The staff arranged beach chairs to encourage meditating in nature, but the Hopkins students seemed more intent on getting to class.

No time to sit and sun oneself at Hopkins!

Daffodils springing up at Johns Hopkins Homewood campus

For me, the national news has been so chilling, that the warm weather gives me a sort of fragile happiness—the feeling that life still is good. Walking in nature is good for mental health, as well as physical.

I invited my husband to walk with me last Sunday afternoon and we took a 45 minute stroll through the neighborhood. Crocus in February are par for the course. However, we saw sights we would normally not see for a month: magnolia trees in bud, and pink hellebores in bloom. I planted a few hundred bulbs in my own garden around Thanksgiving week, and they are starting to show their faces. That seems hardly enough time underground to get their roots established.

Magnolia buds

Hellebores

Apparently Japanese apricot trees and some early-blooming cherry trees are already in flower. I’m worried that a cold snap will kill the display; just as I feel nervous for any birds laying eggs. I also wonder what might happen if birds and rabbits decide to procreate early. Could their eggs survive a freeze?

Well-naturalized crocuses

My fingers are crossed that the steamy early spring will not lead to a silent spring later on.

Gochujang Glory

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I’ve had a little too much Thai, Indian and Vietnamese restaurant food lately. Even good food can become boring. Looking for another Asian taste, I decided to go after the obvious: Korean food.

Fortunately, there are a lot of Korean immigrants around Baltimore. I’ve dined at places ranging from multi-starred restaurants in the suburbs to the casual Korean take-out counter at R House, the great new food hall in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood. This has been a fun project.

I’ve noticed that in almost every dish, a special flavor tickled my tastebuds. That is the taste of gochujang.

BeBim at R House does fast casual Korean

I first tasted gochujang in the delicious marinated grilled meat dish called bulgogi. It gives the robust red color and flavor to Korean stew dishes known as jigae and is also stirred up and served as a condiment.

The elevator pitch for gochujang is “a cross between miso paste and Asian chili sauce.” But this paste is not nosebud-clearing spiky-hot like Sriracha sauce, another favorite condiment of mine. Gochujang has a good, deep kind of hot and a complex, almost-meaty dimension foodies call umami.

Watch a short video of how to make gorgeous gochujang at http://www.maangchi.com/recipe/gochujang

Gochujang has become buzzy in the West for the last five years, although it dates back to at least the sixteenth century in Korea. Someone clever took the mellow Korean chili known as gochu, dried it, and crushed it. This was mixed with powdered rice, powdered fermented dried soybeans, sprouted barley and salt. Fresh gochujang paste is stored in a ceramic crock outdoors for six months before eating. The fermentation creates the healthy lactobacillus to support healthy digestion; and the chili element within the food inhibits spoilage. Chilies contain capsicum, which some say helps fight obesity.  In any case, gochujang has some other great nutrients: Vitamin B2, Vitamin C, protein and carotene. It tastes like heaven, but it isn’t junk food.

Korean purists still make gochujang by hand, just as people in Japan still make tofu and miso. Fortunately, there are a few potters interested in making the proper jars, which must be screened at the top to allow ventilation. It’s almost like the composting I’m trying to do in an old trashcan in my yard.

I wanted to get a gochujang fix the easy way. That meant shopping. I found many tubs of it on the shelf of the Asian supermarket a few miles from my house. After the gochujang tub opened, it needs to go into the refrigerator. I put it there while I pondered what to do next.

There were many choices. I can’t count the ways I’ve seen gochujang as an ingredient in non-Korean recipes, particularly as a drizzling sauce or mixed in with mayonnaise. One of the first things I did was make gochujang mayonnaise that was used for many purposes.

I also decided to put a spoonful of gochujang in the soy-stock mixture I use for vegetable stir-fry. A dish with Chinese origins was changed—and not for the worse!

While I was taking baby spoonfuls out of my pepper paste tub, the food people have crafted grand new recipes.

British cooking author and TV host Nigella Lawson blended Italy and Korea in her original recipe for Korean Calamari and then she blended India and Korea in Korean Keema.

Nigella’s Korean Calamari

Turkey and gochujang are a popular combination. I like the ingredients in Blogger Lemon Lime Lisa’s gochujang turkey meatballs which would be a great party hors d’oeuvre.

Here’s a great slideshow roundup of gochujang-flavored dishes from Bon Appetit.

Without realizing it, I used up my whole gochujang tub on silly little ideas. I wanted to do something big. One Saturday, I went shopping for a new container of gochujang and decided to lavish it on a small pork loin.

First, I browned the 3-lb. hunk of pork in a little oil. Then I added in 1/3 cup gochujang paste, 1/8 cup soy sauce, 1/8 cup of honey and ½ cup of chicken stock. I let the loin braise in the spicy potion for 8 hours, until cooked through and very soft. I took out the loin to rest and boiled down the remaining red-brown cooking liquid to make a velvety brown sauce. Okay, I apologize for the lack of photograph; when the pork was ready, I had no impulse control.

The pork loin was a bit too much for just my husband and me to eat. Still, it was excellent, from the first night, when it was presented like a roast with polenta on the side; to the next day’s lunch, when it went inside a tortilla wrap along with lettuce and radishes; to the grand finale two days later, soft tacos with fresh chopped vegetables.

By the end of my gochujang experiment, I wasn’t bored. I was filled by another of capsicum’s supposed benefits: euphoria.

The Faces of Protest

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I regret to interrupt my regularly scheduled post—which was going to be food-related, alas!—because my life keeps getting interrupted.

Just like my nation’s standard operating procedure.

These days, my writing schedule seems divided between fiction and emails to senators, congressmen, and activist friends. And I’ve been on Facebook more in the last week than in the last six months.

My new, highly distracted life began with the election of Donald Trump and the day after, my participation in the Women’s March on Washington. It was a large march with more than 500,000 participants. I imagine this might have been the largest group gathering I’ll ever attend.

Statisticians specializing in crowd counts put the talley of marchers participating in 500 simultaneous marches throughout the US on Jan. 21 at between 3.3-4.6 million.  Marches around the globe added thousands. As if to answer us, the day after the Women’s March, President Trump defunded Planned Parenthood and made other sweeping actions against women, including closing down the federal office that assists domestic violence prevention organizations. He also halted US aid for women’s health clinics overseas, if the clinics had anything to do with abortion.

I knew we were getting close to the march when I saw from the bus window a lot of women wearing pink hats. One week before, word spread via Internet to wear “pink pussy hats.” Some women confided they had learned to knit just to make a hat for the occasion, following a simple pattern for a cap with pussy-cat ears, a reference to the president’s vulgar reference to female genitals. The problem with throwing around a nasty word is that it can come back in a way that makes your eyes hurt.

Washington DC March photo: Helen Dellheim

The red-haired woman and the other one with a camera were reporting for Time magazine.

With me are fellow Quaker friends Kathy (right) and Nancy and Emilia (behind).

For me, the best thing about the Women’s March on Washington was the patience and kindness people showed to each other. It was a textbook example of peaceful protesting. I saw no pushing, lots of smiles and encouragement, and plenty of admiration for the witty signs and costumes. Women of all ages—from young children to grandmothers—came together for a shared purpose. The rally was multiracial and diverse, and included perhaps ten percent male participation. These men, who almost surely believed that “women’s issues are everyone’s issues” (thank you, California Senator Kamala Harris), were treated like equals.

A porta-potty line at the DC March is far longer than my camera could show.

The march’s map showed plans to proceed together on on one street toward the White House, but the crowd was so vast that it spilled onto the mall itself. There were plenty of police around, but they were non-threatening and in some cases, even jovial. They realized the impossibility of keeping marchers off the mall grounds. Can you believe a march of more than a half-million people without a single arrest?


Riding the bus home from the protest, we sang songs including “We Shall Overcome.” I felt so much stronger and happier.

But—wouldn’t you know?—disturbing executive orders kept coming from the White House. The most shocking, at week’s end, was that that refugees and green card-holders born in seven predominantly Muslim countries were being denied entry into the U.S.  Because we have laws barring immigration discrimination on religion and national origin, I was stunned. Freedom of religious expression is precisely what drove pilgrims from England and Europe to set up a colony that later became a nation.

On Saturday, I participated in a forum entitled “Emotional Survival During Difficult Times” at the Stony Run Friends Meeting in Baltimore. I sat with many of the same people who’d traveled to Washington together on the bus. The strategies for survival were helpful. One of the points a Friend made was that people who engaged in activism were happier and less stressed than those who stayed home. Therefore, when another person at Meeting mentioned there would be an airport protest that evening, I decided to change my plans and participate.

The airport protests of Jan. 28-29 were spontaneous and had no central planning committee. It was very different from the two months of planning that preceded the Women’s March. That Sunday, a Facebook event page appeared with links to information about protests being held at dozens of airports around the U.S.  The biggest protests were in New York, Los Angeles and Dulles International outside of Washington D.C.

I headed out to Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) with a friend and her college student son. As we entered the airport, it was very quiet. We decided the protest was likely near the customs exit, so we headed in that direction. We walked along and soon enough were flanked by dozens of people carrying signs with statements like “We Welcome Everyone.” These protesters seemed to be mostly age 40 and younger. Because the presidential order targeted prospective immigrants, the draw to this protest included many people who were either immigrants themselves, or the children or grandchildren of people who came to this country.

Young crowd at BWI/Abhinav Khushalani

Compared with Women’s March, this protest felt very different.

It started with the sound. The airport’s high ceiling filled up with many call-and-response chants led by men with powerful voices. I chanted and took photos and shared a hug with a woman wearing a stars-and-stripes hijab, similar to the image on the Shepard Fairey “We are the People” poster we both carried.

Another difference was the presence of spectators—dozens of US military service members on an upper floor, pushing carts with luggage. The sight of us protesting would be their last image of the United States, as they headed off to the Middle East.

The airport protest was confined to two floors in the international arrivals and departures area. It was easier to move around than at the Women’s March. I wandered and came to chat with a large group of lawyers sitting at a table. They’d come as volunteers to assist families who might have someone arriving from the seven banned countries was being held. No such travelers were coming in during my time at BWI. Still, resounding cheers broke out anytime non-American travelers emerged from customs. I can imagine how surprised and pleased they were by this rousing welcome.

Jewish protesters shared their family experience with discrimination

Although there was no formal program of speakers, several lawmakers who came to BWI included former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who ran for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, and Maryland Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings, who thanked me for being part of the protest.

High school photographer Abhinav Khushalani, far right of his mother and younger brother

Another highlight was running into friends from book club, the children’s schools, the Quaker Meeting, and neighborhood. I sensed that I could have sat down and enjoyed a cup of coffee and good talk with almost anyone in the estimated crowd of 2,000.

Many Muslims represented /Abhinav Khushalani

He looks like a Scot but said he was a mutt!

Our new president might see himself as a populist leader. However, his actions have surprised all of us with the creation of a new people’s movement that is filling airports, city streets, and points still unknown.

Nonviolence is Everywhere

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Last weekend I stood with forty women and a few good men in a training maneuver called a “Hassle Line.” We’d just enough time to share our names before we began playing our roles. My partner in the opposing line, a social work student named Faye, played a Donald Trump supporter. I  was an activist the Women’s March on Washington, just trying to get along the Mall, with Faye harassing me.

We The People poster by Shepard Fairey

We The People poster by Shepard Fairey

We were practicing how to defuse confrontation, because it’s likely that some of the estimated 100,000 peaceful demonstrators will be heckled by sideliners or people wishing to cause destruction.

Faye and I tried to mix it up, but the fact was, we were too polite by nature. Although one of the best comebacks to hurled abuse proved to be: “Hi. And how are you today?”

With so many passionate conversations going across the Hassle Line, our Peacekeeper Training made quite a racket. That much much noise was unusual for our location, the Stony Run Friends Meeting House in North Baltimore. Members of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, worship in silence. I’m a longtime member of Stony Run, which grew out of Baltimore’s original Friends Meeting established in 1785.

Gary Gillespie, our training leader, was introducing us to Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, which is different than nonviolence, which has a reputation for passivity. SNC is a philosophy that regards nonviolence as a strategy because its thought to be more likely to work than violence could.

Gary is a Quaker member of Homewood Friends Meeting who serves as the executive director of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council, a group of Baltimore Christian organizations working for social, economic and environmental justice. He’s been protesting since the Viet Nam war and has a very calm approach. He reminded us that when engaging in activism, it’s important to still have fun with each other.

By then, we had started to smile. The group that came had a wide variety of backgrounds, but it seemed to me that we were all concerned about the future of the environment and people in our country. Many women said the January 21 March would be the start of more political activity.

I signed up for the Women’s March because I want to make a public statement about my commitment to fighting for human rights. I didn’t think the march could do more than grab headlines for a day. But at the Peacekeeper Training, I began thinking our March has longer legs.

A regular Friday vigil held outside Homewood Friends Meeting in Baltimore

A regular Friday vigil held outside Homewood Friends Meeting in Baltimore

Chenoweth graph showing efficacy of nonviolent community action

Chenoweth graph showing efficacy of nonviolent community action

Erika Chenoweth, a Denver University professor of international studies, entered her field skeptical that nonviolent movements could succeed against big guns. When she collected data on hundreds of uprisings from 1900 through the present, she was stunned to see that that nonviolent protests and diversionary civil disobedience succeeded twice as often as violent uprisings. Nonviolent civil disobedience often includes women and children and thus was more representative of the whole society and was accepted by more people. Her research proved the tipping point for success in a people-led movement involves just 3.5% active involvement. In the U.S., that translates to 11 million people.

At the training, we watched Erika’s Ted X Talk in which she spoke about the value of large demonstrations. Apparently, large events provide an entry point for risk-averse people to become engaged in a movement. People naturally feel safer in numbers. When many citizens are drawn to a march, it almost guarantees key players will join the movement: educators, security forces, civilian bureaucrats, and the business elites. And as far as the other side goes, the officers serving in a bad government regime all have family members. Some of these may become protestors—and that makes the ruling party less likely to shoot.

A couple of the best-known recent successes in nonviolent protest are the Filipinos who deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and the Serbians who ended the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. And not every nonviolent protest succeeds. Consider the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, and the current bloodshed in Syria. However, Erika Chenoweth thinks the Syrian opposition movement didn’t have enough time to plan their campaign; it didn’t turn into Strategic Nonviolent Conflict.

Shepard Fairey's prints to commemorate the 2017 Inaugural

Shepard Fairey’s prints to commemorate the 2017 Inaugural

At the Women’s March, I’m sure there will wonderful signs and political protest posters, including the beautiful ones above by Shepard Fairey. You may recognize his style because he drew the iconic Barack Obama poster. Shepard Fairey and his fellow artists Jessica Sabogai and Ernesta Yerena have raised over a million dollars on their Kickstarter campaign for a public art project called We The People. They will disrupt the inauguration with a flood of art. I don’t know how it’s all going to come down, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Bullet Journal For a Writer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Every December and January, calendars are on my agenda.

I’m drawn to paper calendars of every type, whether they are freebies from the Baltimore City Department of Public Works or Japanese ones from art museums. However, book-sized planners that fit into my handbag are the Holy Grail.

I’ve a history of buying personal diaries. For most of my adult life, I’ve used (and never thrown out) a motley series of  faux-leather planners containing my appointments, necessary phone numbers, and shopping lists. These little books make sense. When traveling, there’s no easier way to keep track of necessary phone numbers and appointments.

The emotional power of the agenda book is beautifully described in Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther. Mrs. Miniver, a suburban mother living in 1930s England, has traveled into London for shopping. She buys a practical brown calfskin diary costing three shillings nine-pence, although she prefers the look of a green lizard-skin diary marked at seven-and-sixpence.

After leaving the stationer  (most likely Smythson’s) Mrs. Miniver regrets her frugality and jumps off the bus to make a return.

“She walked back to Sloane Square as fast as she could. At this very moment, perhaps, the green lizard-skin diary was being bought by somebody else—some wholly unsuitable person who merely wanted to get one in a hurry: a rich, earnest woman who would fill it with committee meetings, or a business man who would not even glance at the binding when he opened it to jot down the words ‘Dine George.’ While she herself, with all her dearest activities soberly confined in brown calf, would be thinking about it in an agony of regret.”

2017 Smythson calf-skin Cosmic Agenda ($500!)

Ouch, those Smythson agendas are expensive today! Even more than the famed Filofaxes that people loved in 90s before the Palm Pilot and the Blackberry were released. You would have thought with those sexy new toys, then that the handwritten agenda book would die off.

It did not.

Pictured above is a handful of the drugstore and giftshop agenda books I’ve used over the last few years. You might wonder why I don’t throw them away. The answer is that they are chock-full of phone numbers of old friends I might one day wish to call. One never knows when one will be in Yokohama or New Delhi or Minneapolis!

My husband has mentioned we share a free, easy to use calendar that we can synch to better handle our lives. Naturally, he’s speaking of the iPhone’s calendar app. In the interest of marital harmony, I  began scheduling events on the phone. While the iPhone Calendar makes a lot of sense for a person on the go, I’ve noticed some appointments inexplicably disappear—and also, how really stupid events from Facebook get pushed into my calendar.

These tech problems can be sorted out, but it’s a pain. While in Mumbai, I listed a few appointments happening later on in Baltimore. Because of its too-clever reliance on Greenwich Mean Time, the iPhone registered the events—including carpool pickups!—during the middle of the night.

Given the measly space an iPhone calendar allows, one cannot include a shopping list, a book title, a friend’s phone number, and a to-do list. It’s all too easy to hit the wrong numbers when you’re touch-screening and record a useless E-ticket number.

This is why paper and pen still rule.

bulletjournal.com became an international phenomenon

I’m not alone in my feelings. This past December, I began hearing the phrase “Bullet Journal” while listening to podcasts. People were suggesting these so-called bullet journals were a way for people to handcraft their own social diaries and take control of their lives in an easier way than with technology.

Ryder Carroll, a young graphic designer in New York, adopted a plan of converting a simple notebook into a handwritten daily calendar for himself which would feature elements like a future log of upcoming activities, a week at a glance, and to-do lists for each day. A round bullet next to each line is either Xed when the project is completed, or given an arrow to push it onto a future day’s list. It is truly as simple as it sounds. You can use any notebook in the world, any kind of pen, although Ryder sells products through his website (and bullet journal is a trademarked word).

Here is an example of how Ryder Carroll “rapid logs” his day:

for the complete getting started guide, go to bulletjournal.com

Other creatives and organizers have combined the adult hobby of coloring and doodling to push their bullet journals to new highs. Boho Berry and Tiny Ray of Sunshine are two very popular bloggers who have inspired followers to designate pages in their journal related to gratitude, affirmations, quarterly goals, and so on. They help people with handwriting practice, so the bullet journals are beautiful to read, rather than inscrutable (a concern for me).

you can visit bohoberry.com for templates and guidance

Journalers (I cannot call them journalists with a straight face) also share tips on what to use. The best are notebooks with archival, acid-free pages that don’t show bleed-through from pens, and the very best fine-tipped markers to use. Still, the most popular notebooks are many times cheaper than a formatted Filofax or Smythson. For example, a rule-lined Moleskine notebook in the 8×5-inch size runs $US 18-20, and a dotted-paged Leuchtturm rings in at $US 20-33. All of the top books are hardcover and have an elastic string to keep them from falling open and becoming as destroyed as the agendas I’ve treasured.

This fun article from The Guardian is a smack-down comparison between the UK’s beloved Moleskine and Germany’s Leuchtturm (the name means “Beacon” or “Lighthouse”).

I couldn’t decide which was going to suit me better, so I bought both!

I’ll wager a lot of writers are already keeping notebooks related to their work. But this is the first time I’ve merged my writing plans with daily life. And it’s GREAT.

The bullet journal is perfect for feeding the muse. You can set up pages titled “brain dump” and collect all sorts of random ideas for your book in progress. You might make another collection page all about the steps needed to publish and promote a book. You can create a habit tracker page that charts how many hours you worked, how many words you wrote, whether you checked in on social media, did your research reading, and remembered to take a walk.

For someone who processes information better on paper than any other way—as a lot of us writers do—such journals are a godsend. And  for the rest of the world, research is showing that if you write something down on paper, it may be retained longer in your brain.

I am thrilled with my brilliant purple Leuchtturm diary. Its dotted paper pages make drawing boxes easier. I like the three-page index in the front and the numbers at the bottom of every page.  I’m regularly listing my appointments—and putting some things on the iPhone, still, if they involve the rest of the family.

There’s so much in the Leuchtturm, though, that would only be of interest to me. I’ve created a monthly tracker where I mark off the good habits I’m trying to maintain. I have a page of quarterly writing goals, and another section where I am sticking in Post-It notes with blog ideas (I use Post-It notes so I can move the ideas around for different weeks as the fancy strikes). I’m not a graphic designer or artist, but I’m now the owner of a set of the popular British felt tip pens (Staedler), some gorgeous metallic Uniball gel pens, and ten rolls of colorful washi tape that can border pages and cover mistakes.

Some of the more reflective parts of the journal are a summary of writing-related milestones of 2016 and how I can use this information to be a better writer in 2017. I also have a growing list of writing commandments to view every morning before I start on my book.

Here are the writing commandments so far:

Bodies speak as loudly as words.

What’s missing in the scene? Animals, people on the street, cracks in the walls, smells of fire, flowers, etc.

Don’t explain too much in literal terms.

The sentence can be hard. Walk away and come back to it, if you can’t think of the right words immediately.

Remember to chart time writing.

High on “The Man in the High Castle”

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

One of my holiday traditions is to indulge in a television binge watch—ideally, a series that gives me that delightful, reckless feeling of wasting time. To enhance the celebration, I watch on my laptop in bed. With tea.

In 2014, the holiday binge was Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a light-weight crime series set in 1920s Australia. In 2015, I escaped with Underwear, a series about life at a lingerie design house in contemporary Tokyo.

This year, I found a speculative/suspense series on Amazon Video set in 1962 America: The Man in The High Castle. And my indulgence in comfort TV has turned discomforting.

Vintage paperback edition of the book

An early edition of the novel

The Man in The High Castle was inspired by a Hugo-Award winning novel of the same name published in 1963 by the late Philip Dick. This talented author’s science fiction has formed the inspiration for other films including Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Minority Report. Dick was a tortured genius, with mental health issues and a deep interest in philosophy. He believed that different worlds can exist because of people’s mind-states. The possibility of multiple realities flows through his works, including this series.

The Man in The High Castle hurtles us into a world where the Axis prevailed in World War II. In 1962, the former United States are dived into Pacific States (the west), the Greater Nazi Reich (the East Coast, South and Midwest). The Rocky Mountain states lie in the Neutral Zone, but it is far from a safe haven. In Japanese-occupied San Francisco, a degenerate artist named Frank and an aikido teacher named Juliana (they were married in Dick’s novel) live together in a dank San Francisco basement. They are thrown into danger when Juliana’s half-sister Trudy flings a film reel at her just before she is executed by the Japanese police.

Juliana Crane, played by Alexa Davalos, lives in Japanese-governed San Francisco

Juliana’s efforts to deliver the film to the person Trudy intended brings her into contact with the resistance, and throws Frank and his relatives, who have a fraction of Jewish blood, into danger. The situation is complicated when Juliana is aided by an attractive young man, Joe Blake, working for the Nazis. Not going to say any more on the plot, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

While the TV series is action-packed and suspenseful, the creepiest moments show the subtle ways  the foreign powers reshaped the lives of the Americans following the atomic bombing of Washington DC. In the Pacific States, many bus and street signs are in Japanese, and people routinely eat with chopsticks and fall into deep bows when faced by their rulers. In New York suburbs, families look “Father Knows Best” perfect, but the kids wear Hitler Youth uniforms to school, the textbooks are all about allegiance to the Führer, muesli is on the breakfast table and people use fork and knife in the German fashion. Costumes and sets and the cinematography are top-notch.

Backyard baseball on Long Island, played by Nazi-American characters

Before viewing the first episode, I wondered if Germans and Japanese would feel disheartened by seeing their worst moments in history glorified.  I was relieved to discover humane characters among all the communities portrayed.  A pair of German and Japanese government men, Rudolf Wegener and Nobosuke Tagomi, scheme together to keep power balanced between the two sides to avoid a war. And the Americans subject to rule—the “pawns” who work for the occupying forces, and those in the resistance—have to weigh whether their fight for freedom will bring death to innocents around them.

Japanese Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi, played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

This series was shot in 2014 and premiered in 2015 with season 1 (you must watch Season 1 in order to understand Season 2). The US presidential race hadn’t yet begun, which meant that white supremacists were lurkers, rather than a much-publicized, blatant force. The Man in The High Castle feels like the canary in the coal mine: the harbinger of disaster.

Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith of the American Reich

In the first month after the  presidential election, we have witnessed almost more than 1000 hate incidents. The president-elect said nothing against these acts until he was coaxed to make a statement by a journalist, at which time he looked into a TV camera and said, “Stop it.”

But they won’t stop.  The KKK marched through North Carolina to celebrate Donald Trump’s victory. Trump appointed Steve Bannon, his election strategist and a founder of the racist Breitbart News website, as White House chief of staff. Richard Spencer, a young man who heads a white nationalist group called The National Policy Institute, held a conference of followers in Washington DC where Sieg Heil saluting was widespread in the audience.

Spencer is married to a pro-Putin Russian propagandist Nina Kouprianova. Trump does business with Russia and praises Putin. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is an ExxonMobil CEO who has been awarded a medal from Putin’s administration. New York looks to be the center of Trump’s government, just as it is for the Nazis in the series.

Well worth watching!

Sounds like a paranoid conspiracy—but people are dead serious about it, and many Republicans now view Putin’s actions favorably. Having grown up in the Cold War, this seems to me like a revised version of The Manchurian Candidate—or at the very least a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

What could happen nextafter the ten episodes of Season 2 of The Man in The High Castle are finished? There may be a Season 3, although it’s not official yet.

In the meantime, another program is in the works. The A&E Network plans a documentary series called “Generation KKK” that will follow young Americans choosing racism. This kind of programmingwhich is bound to attract fans who will connect to the real-life charactersseems like it could be another goose-step in normalizing racist behaviors. But I’ll wait to see.

Sparks of Hope

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Speaking to supporters for his presidential in Iowa in 2008, Barack Obama said: “Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead, or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shoring from the fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.”

30 days after our election, I can see a number of things that give me hope.

First is ‘Old Friends,’ an Amazon Prime commercial that began running in the UK, Germany and the US last week to mark the holiday season. The advertisement features an Episcopal priest and a Muslim cleric in Britain who are faith leaders, rather than actors. This fact probably explains how beautiful the men’s connection is. I could watch this ad time and again and still tear up. Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, made a powerful, quiet statement of hope to all. This commercial may be the first ever to feature a Muslim cleric. The risks taken by running ‘Old Friends’ closes the deal for me regarding Amazon. I am happy to shop from Amazon—just as I’m really pleased Bezos has owned and expanded the subscriber base of the Washington Post. 

Teamwork and forgiveness have also turned around the dire situation at the Standing Rock Reservation. To summarize a very complicated situation, the US government was planning to run part of the Dakota Access Pipeline for natural gas through a burial ground on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Hundreds of Indians and their friends stayed present at Standing Rock in bitter cold to keep the digging from beginning. They were abused by the police. Some military veterans pledged to come to the reservation to protect the protestors from the police, and but a serious confrontation was averted. Last Sunday night, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it will not approve an easement allowing the DAP to run through the reservation. The leader of the Sioux community was asking protestors to return home with the hope that the situation will continue toward peaceful resolution. A moving forgiveness ceremony in which military veterans acknowledged their past role in oppressing Indians and taking land took place this past Monday, with Chief Leonard Crow Dog telling Wesley Clark Jr., “We do not own the land. The land owns us.”

tru2u design on Etsy is giving 25% of profits to Amnesty International

Without a word, but a sign, people can show solidarity. The Safety Pin Solidarity Movement began a few months ago, following the U.K’s vote to leave the European Union. Since then, violent acts against immigrants and people of color have risen. British people spread the tradition of wearing safety pins on their coats or sweaters to publicly signify that they are “safe” people who will support anyone being marginalized. I loved the idea, and to make my symbol stand out, I bought my own colorful safety pins on Amazon Prime (of course, given the ‘Old Friends’ commercial.) However, artistic safety pin jewelry is popping up everywhere, including in wonderful jewelry form from Etsy artists such as tru2u jewelry, sometimes with some portion of proceeds going to a human rights organization.

The last thing bringing me hope is the sun. Autumn really has not ended in Maryland. The weather is warm,  the crimson maples are holding their leaves, and the earth is still soft enough for planting. So I finally got down to business. I never get around to planting bulbs in the fall, but since Thanksgiving, I’ve planted 100 daffodils, 100 Narcissus Thalia, and 100 muscari latifolium. No matter what happens this winter, I’m sure I’ll see some flowers in the spring. The cycle of nature is the strongest proof that hope has a reward.

No Matter What Happens, I Tried

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

campaign-site-exterior

As I work on this post, election returns are coming in from all over the United States. It might not surprise readers of this blog that I’m a supporter of Hillary Clinton. My home state, Maryland, has voted Democratic for many years, so I traveled to a state which is less secure (Pennsylvania) to see how I could help.

On Monday evening this past week I drove 3 hours from Maryland to Pennsylvania, a state where rural areas are bullish on Trump. However, the city of Philadelphia and its suburbs tend to support Democratic voters, and also has a racially diverse population. I intended to do all I could to encourage Philadelphia’s voters to get to the polls.

driving-to-phil-photo

It was a morning rush hour when I drove into North Philadelphia. A big transportation strike that mercifully ended, but its occurrence made a lot of people fearful voters couldn’t get to polls. Lyft and Uber and the popular band Roots built networks of drivers who’d take people needing rides to polling stations. However, most polling stations are located every five blocks. This very old city has a great infrastructure of schools, the primary polling places.

Philadelphia schools and community centers are called into service on election day, and Spanish is widely used.

Philadelphia schools and community centers are called into service on election day, and Spanish is widely used.

There weren’t enough volunteers who could speak Spanish, but we had to connect with these voters if Hillary would carry Philadelphia. I was sent out not speaking a word of Spanish along with my partner, Barbara, who was fortunately studying the language. But we were certainly anxious about how communication would, or wouldn’t, work.

hq-interior

The Democrats set up volunteer stations all over Pennsylvania. I worked out of one on W. Girard Ave. in North Philadelphia. Volunteers got assignments to canvass several blocks, house by house, at a time, to make sure people remembered to vote. Other people stayed back and made texts and phone calls to people who planned to vote Democratic.

run-down-street-view

vacant-street-scene

We canvassed streets in Fairhall, a neighborhood with a high Latino voter base. The houses were old, but the people living within were full of energy and enthusiasm. People who’d voted told us the polls were busier than they’d ever seen. We began to feel optimistic.

barbara-at-door

Barbara was such a great person to volunteer with. She was friendly to everyone but really hammered in the importance of having a plan to get to the polling station.

We met this pair, who work for a PAC, on the streets doing similar work to ours.

We met this pair, who work for a PAC, on the streets doing similar work to ours.

fish-pond-photo

People living in these narrow streets found ways to bring beauty and pride of place to share with others. Residents built in a delightful fishpond right in front of an ordinary row house. We saw flower-filled gardens behind chain-link fences, and cute Halloween decorations on doors.

ice-cream-photo-sujata

We also were delighted by some of the him owners who sold foods from their windows. A coconut water ice was the best thing I ate (drank?) all day.

I’d never believed I could successfully canvass in a neighborhood where I didn’t share the language with the people I met. However, my nerves were eased by my confident partner and all the Philadelphians were so gracious toward us. I appreciated the way they cared for their homes and kids, and how many socialized with each other on the streets. It made me feel more certain than ever that this country benefits from immigration.

This is a very tough election. At this point in the night, things don’t look good for my candidate. However I feel optimistic about the situation in Philadelphia. No matter what happens, we tried.

Feasting for Malice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Cooking up an auction dinner for Malice Domestic. The island is neat at this point!

Cooking up an auction dinner for Malice Domestic. The island is neat at this point!

I’m a regular participant at the friendly Malice Domestic convention held annually in Bethesda to celebrate traditional mysteries. Last year, at the convention auction, I decided to give more than a signed book. Having found that readers of diverse books are usually enthusiastic foodies, I offered to cook up a gourmet, multi-course Indian dinner for ten. It would be work, but going to a good cause: KEEN, Kids Enjoying Exercise Everywhere, a program offering movement opportunities for children with disabilities in the DC-MD-VA area.

Longtime convention friends Alan and Cheryl Leathers paid in the “high three figures” for the meal, even though they lived outside my delivery zone. The couple lives in Colorado. I’d said I could serve a dinner in a home in the Baltimore-Washington DC-Northern Virginia area. I was shocked they’d bought a gift they could not eat.

Malice Domestic Board, a couple of spouses, and me

Malice Domestic Board, a couple of spouses, and me

But the Leathers had a secret plan. They gifted the dinner to the Malice Board, a group of volunteers who do everything for the convention from literary programming to participant registration and meal planning.

Joni and Don Langevoort kindly hosted the meal in their spacious Vienna, Va. home that included a large dream kitchen with high quality cookware. I could prepare the meal at my home 60 miles away, and drive it in, doing the final touches there.

Beautiful table

Beautiful table

I had five months to plan the dinner, so it should have been a snap, right? I love making Indian food. The problem was, which of my 25 Indian cookbooks to use for the meal. Should I use home recipes? The Internet? Should there be a regional theme, and how much spice did I dare use for ten people with varying tastes, including one who’d never eaten Indian food before?

I went on a book research trip to India four weeks before the dinner, and eating there helped me put together a plan. I’d start with sev puri, a vegetarian chaat dish ( snack) that looks really pretty on a plate. The rest of the menu would be South Indian, which is not widely available at Indian restaurants and therefore could be interesting for my diners.

I decided to choose most dishes from Kerala, the fantastic state at India’s tip that is known for its religious diversity and a cuisine that includes meat, fish, and vegetables for most. My favorite Kerala dishes are seafood ones, so I chose to make a shrimp curry with coconut milk from Maya Kaimal’s 1997 cookbook, Curried Favors. I found one internet recipe for Tomato Pappu, a South Indian-style dal, and used my own non-recipe for the rice.

For a Saturday night dinner, I grocery shopped on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday morning. While I maintain that Indian cooking is easy, making one’s own coconut cilantro chutney and scratch masalas (spice mixtures) for multiple dishes takes time. I clocked my cooking hours at about fifteen, and I wouldn’t have made it the last day without the reassuring sound of an audiobook playing in the kitchen.

Here’s what I cooked:

Sev Puri. an appetizer with a crisp puri topped with spicy veggies, chutneys and chickpea crisps

Sev Puri, an appetizer with a crisp puri topped with spicy veggies, chutneys and chickpea crisps

Chicken Varlutharacha, a toasted coconut-onion-spice masala

Chicken Varlutharacha, a toasted coconut-onion-spice masala

Green bean thorn

Green bean thorn

Kerala-style chicken with coconut milk

Kerala-style chicken with coconut milk

Tomato Pappu, masoor dal cooked with tomatoes and curry leaves

Tomato Pappu, masoor dal cooked with tomatoes and curry leaves

My own simple rice pilau with green peas

My own simple rice pilau with green peas

We also ate fried paratha breads with the meal and dipped into lime and mango pickles and cucumber raita. Rasmalai was the only dish that broke the South Indian theme. It’s a sweet, milk-based dessert that is eaten all over India. I should have included a picture, but we ate it all up before I thought.

For beverages, I brought sparkling white wines and also a sparkling Shiraz that unfortunately exploded all the way up to the hosts’ ceiling! Nix on sparkling reds from this point forward.

We had a great time at the dinner, with the special excitement of a board member’s adorable 12-week-old daughter, and the Langevoorts’ dog and four cats. All in all, it was a feast to remember.