Archive for Washington DC and Baltimore

A Tale of Two City Festivals

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Thousands of cherry trees blossom every spring in Washington DC, a tradition spanning 105 years. At the same time, brilliant light sculptures and art installations glow along the port promenade in Baltimore. Two festivals I’d never experienced drew me away from my work. Which festival first?

I started out on a gray Thursday morning toward Washington DC, hoping rain wouldn’t come. It was my wedding anniversary, and my husband Tony and I had taken the day off. The traffic gods were kind and the car reached the cherry blossom zone just an hour after leaving Baltimore. We strolled from the parking garage to eat ceviche and amazing tacos at a fine Mexican restaurant, Oyamel, owned by chef Jose Andres. We visited the Building Museum and National Portrait Gallery, spending not enough time because we wanted to reach the nearby cherry blossom trail.

The DC cherry blossom festival has quite a history. The trees would never be there, if it weren’t for a woman’s persistence. Bringing Japanese trees to Washington DC was the idea of a globe-trotting journalist, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who fell in love with Japan’s signature tree when she was touring the East. Starting in the 1880s, Mrs. Scidmore lobbied the US government for 24 years with her idea of a mass transplantation of Japanese trees to beautify the new parkland in the city that had been reclaimed from the Potomac.

She had no luck until 1909, when she found a fellow cherry blossom enthusiast in David Fairchild, an Agriculture Department official who’d transplanted Japanese cherries to his own home. However, the government only agreed after Eliza reconnected with an American lady she’d once met in Japan. As the nation’s new First Lady, Helen Herren Taft got the cherry tree plan in motion.

However, the first 3000 trees sent from Japan in 1911 were never planted During their shipment, they fell  victim to insect infestation. The only thing that could be done to keep the environment safe was to burn them all. Still, the Tokyo government, and a Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine, were willing to send 3020 more trees the next year. This group of healthy trees took root and flourished, even through World War II, when Japan was an enemy and the trees were referred to as “Oriental cherry trees” in the hopes of avoiding their destruction.

Cherry trees typically live 40 to 45 years, so the trees one sees today are not Eliza’s trees. But they are splendid indeed and provide a fairyland feeling when you stand underneath. It was delightful to be walking in the cherry fairyland, rather than being trapped inside one of the many giant tour buses circling around. I was also pleased that the parkland hadn’t been overtaken with more sales vendors than usual. The photo-snapping crowds made me recall Japan’s “Hanami,” a special cherry-blossom viewing time that inspired The Flower Master, my mystery novel set in Tokyo’s flower arranging world.

The day after our DC excursion, the rains came. And this slowed the beginning of Baltimore’s Light City Festival, which was set to run for 9 days for the second year in a row at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Brooke Hall and Justin Allen, a married arts-and-marketing couple, came up with the idea of a new festival that would bring the arts to the heart of the city. They did their research and crafted a proposal for a spectacular walk filled with lighted sculptures and entertainment. Fortunately, it did not take 24 years to get the Baltimore Office of Promotion to agree to fund Light City Baltimore.

Then the fun began. Artists from many states and countries vied for placement in a very challenging venue—as several of the electric installations are in the harbor’s waters, and all the pieces were subject to high winds and rain at various times during the nine-day festival period. It’s one thing to have your art in an international show—it’s another to realize doing this outdoors could cause its destruction.

The Saturday night we went to Light City Baltimore was the rain date for the delayed opening celebration, with a full line-up of musicians, dancers and magicians. The harbor promenade was edged with vendors selling food and drink, and harbor restaurants and bars were packed. There was a great sense of energy and happiness. Some artists were on hand to explain their work, and other art works were open for exploration, including a field of bright dots, an illuminated see-saw, and a lighted rickshaw with a glamorous Chinese lantern. Among my favorites were a floating installation of 400 umbrellas and an illuminated honeycomb. I’ve been to a lot of festivals over 25 years in Baltimore, and this was the most spectacular.

As I came away from the festivals, I had two thoughts. The Japanese cherry trees were brought to beautify a fledgling city that has subsequently prospered. And the lighted art walk illuminates an old city trying to recast itself in its fourth century.

Malia’s Gap Year

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Malia and her father/photo Yuri Gripas Reuters

Malia and her father/photo Yuri Gripas Reuters

Congratulations to Malia Obama.

She’s made it through the constant observation that began with her entrance to the White House in 5th grade. Both Malia and her 8th grade sister, Sasha, have gracefully stayed the course without acting out and remaining close to their parents. Malia, an excellent student and tennis player, applied to a number of top schools during her senior year at Sidwell Friends School. The end result is that the 17-year-old has accepted Harvard’s offer, but will delay entrance for a year.

Could this start a gap year trend in the U.S.?

While traveling, I’ve always been intrigued by the New Zealand and Australian teens with heavy backpacks on their “walkabouts.” The idea is to have some fun, work jobs around the world and widen horizons before settling down to studies and continued life in the home country. A lot of Europeans do this as well, some using the time to work as au pairs in different countries.

Malia and Sasha have seen more of the world than most of us during their years as daughters of the President. Exposure to other people and places was a value their parents insisted on sharing. The first family’s travels have included India and Argentina, Russia, China, Britain, Italy, South Africa and Botswana. Malia already had her walkabout.

Obamas arrive in Cuba/Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP

Obamas arrive in Cuba/Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP

We don’t really know the reason for Malia’s gap decision, but I think it’s great. And since she’s already gone so far, my fervent wish for Malia is that she takes time in her gap year to dig in close with her family.

After all, Dad’s leaving his job, and Mom will not be pressed with leading campaigns for health and veteran families. President Obama has always valued family first and committed most of his evenings to his children, rather than adult socializing in D.C. But hanging out with your kids in a fishbowl won’t be nearly as relaxed as this forthcoming year.

Firstly, the Obamas must either rent or buy a new house in the DC area. Malia can be part of this search—and since she’ll be around, she can decorate her room the way she wants!

The former First Daughter will also has the chance to apply for a part-time job or an internship, perhaps in the world of film and television that she’s already explored through internships on “Girls” and “Extant.” But I treasure the idea of a teenager occasionally sleeping late, reading for pleasure rather than for tests, helping with groceries and gardening, and playing games.

The Secret Service taught Malia to drive—but now she can learn to trust her own instincts driving everywhere she needs to go. Malia and her family will likely have a lot of time to talk or listen to music when stuck in Beltway traffic on the way to Sasha’s school events. Best of all—Malia will be able to drive Sasha to school!

Malia and Sasha/CNN

Malia and Sasha/CNN

The President said in interviews that Sasha Obama would be the one to decide where the family stayed following his departure from the White House. He—a child who was uprooted and moved many times in life–understood how important feeling comfortable in school was. He didn’t want her to have start over again, as the girls had when they left their lifelong home on Chicago in 2009.

No upbringing is perfect, whether in the White House, or an ordinary suburban cottage. We can’t predict whether our kids will become happily paired or live solo, be financially successful, community-minded, or emotionally stable.But we can do a lot to make our own family systems work—and that’s exactly what the Obamas have managed.

Family including grandmother Marian Robinson in 2009/Getty Images

Family including grandmother Marian Robinson in 2009/Getty Images

Teenagers May Hold the Key

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

If you read books set in other countries, you care about things that happen beyond your front door.

Funeral procession of Ados Termos, who died after tackling a suicide bomber in Beirut (CNN)

Funeral procession of Ados Termos, who died after tackling a suicide bomber in Beirut (CNN)

The recent blog posts by  Annamaria Alfieri and Cara Black as well as a poem by Karuna Ezara Parikh are powerful testimonies to read after Nov 12-13.

What’s on my mind are the young men and women themselves. What is it that enables a person to step away from social norms and slaughter people unknown to them?

A killer’s psyche is a question that crime writers have to face with every book they write. And in books, you can’t get away with a killing that doesn’t have motivation, such as greed, anger, heartbreak, envy.

But there are killings without cause. Young people affiliated with ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda and other organizations murder not out of animosity for victims, but at someone’s command. In most cases, they’ve left their families and friends for training camps that are advertised to teens as the equivalent as summer camp. If they want to leave, they can’t.

Experts say these departures happen for many reasons. Poor education, unemployment, cultural oppression, political alienation. And then there’s loneliness.

Measuring blood spilled at Baltimore's 300th homicide (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

Measuring blood spilled at Baltimore’s 300th homicide (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

As I write I realize this list sounds awfully similar to the forces leading to young North Americans who’ve been immortalized as mass murderers of the public and gang killers.

In Baltimore, we’ve had 300 people killed from Jan 1 to November 14 of this year. Most of these homicides aren’t solved. The killers remain on our streets, working away. Witnesses to these murders are too frightened to give evidence to the police.

I feel that the unending chain of deaths in my city—and the almost-weekly mass shootings in schools and businesses in the U.S.—is also terrorism.

This brings me back to the similarities between disaffected young people on all of our continents.  For a huge number of children, life is wretched and unstable due to the lack of a secure home. If you are a minor, you usually can’t do anything to change your situation. You must endure put hunger, extreme temperatures,  the school with bullies where nothing is taught, harassment on the street from others, the physical or verbal abuse.

What changes things for children growing up without a loving parent? Another person who notices them and cares.

What I think really counts is kinship. People you spend time with repeatedly who will give you a chance to part of their lives and help you move on to another place.

A young voice is heard at Marnita's Table

A young voice is heard at Marnita’s Table

In Minneapolis, there’s a family who’s hosted more than 15,000 dinner guests in the last ten years.  Before you write in saying I’ve made a typographical error, let me explain that Marnita Schroedel and her husband Carl Goldstein have an “open-table” policy that brings together people at an event known as Marnita’s Table. The dinner parties are delicious and free and mingle people of every religion, race, gender identity and economic and educational levels. The goal is to really listen to each other and get to the root of serious issues plaguing the city and its people. Teenagers are always honored guests at the table; and at the end of the evening, when a circle is formed and each person speaks, they’re listened to with respect.

There are many positive outcomes to these evenings, starting with the fact that at-risk teenagers who attend the table just once improve their grades dramatically. Most teenagers come many times. They finish high school and go to college. They’ve built a youth advisory council that gives them a chance to meet regularly and take on the task of improving our world.

I dream that all across the world, young people in tough times could have the experience of knocking on a door and be welcomed inside.

Marjorie and Me

The other weekend, I was cranky and knew I needed a temporary getaway from my family. So I got in the car on a hot July morning and drove south to DC, savoring Saturday’s lack of traffic.

Ever since I moved back to the Mid-Atlantic, I’ve longed to tour Hillwood, the 1920s Georgian mansion of Marjorie Merriweather Post, an heiress and businesswoman who parlayed her father’s Postum Cereal Company into the prepared food empire known today as General Mills. Right now, there’s a special exhibition at Hillwood called “Living Artfully: At Home with Marjorie Merriiweather Post,” and what caught my interest is that

Mrs Marjorie Merriweather Post

this four-times divorced grande dame decided to fix up a mansion when she was 68.

This is where I feel a kinship, having bought an 1897 Victorian summer cottage in my late 40s, with my two children likely leaving the nest within a few years. Sometimes, the decision to invest in this 5000-square foot house with four porches battling carpenter bees does not seem practical. Mrs. Post’s decision wasn’t either–after all, she already owned a massive Park Avenue apartment, Mar-A-Lago in Florida and a luxurious camp in the Adirondacks. As I pulled in through the handsome gates, I imagined the pull of 25 acres of land, which, with the steamy DC/Baltimore climate, could support a lot of lovely flowers, trees and shrubs. I have a bit less than 1 acre–and the condition is currently very rough. However, I’m thrilled to have a struggling patch you could call cutting garden with some of the same plants (coneflowers, roses, rudbeckia) that are in the Hillwood cutting garden. Mrs. Post also stocked greenhouses with orchids and all manner of exotics so she would always be able to show off lovely arrangements at her glittering dinner parties.

Dinner is another enthusiasm that we share. Mrs. Post entertained regularly, and just last night I had a neighborhood gathering of around 40–a supposed “happy hour” that lasted until almost ten p.m.–and tonight Tony and I are cooking dinner for the family of one of our children’s friends, lively people we’ve been wanting to know better.

It sometimes seems impossible to get a chance to eat and drink with all the interesting people in this city, and our DC and suburban Maryland and Virginia friends, too. But there are ways to organize, Merriweather Post Style. Mrs. Post kept a book filled with names and contact information for hundreds of prominent people of her era, including designated bachelors (for me, it’s “all the single ladies”). For her, diversity of guests might mean that in addition to DC political and embassy friends, she might invite an Abell millionaire to drive in from Baltimore! At our house, we also seek a wide range of people, not just from the same neighborhood, and with many ages and cultural backgrounds. And I don’t keep a lovely book of typed names to hunt for guests, either. I click into my email and see who comes up.

Mrs. Post loved decorating and collecting, and her house is filled with Louis XVI furniture, Russian Faberge porcelain, and gorgeous parquet floors.

Grand entry at Hillwood House

For this reason, her butlers enforced a rule for any guests with high heels to wear plastic heel caps. Here I am in utter sympathy, having had to refinish our soft pine floors TWICE since moving in. I say, Leave Your Muddy Sneakers and Dusty Sports Cleats at the Door.

When it came to food, Hillwood’s talented cooks worked for days in a gigantic kitchen making elegant meals, but its owner made sure to always include some General Foods favorites, like Jell-O. Not even the kids will eat Jell-O at my house, but I am loyal to Bird’s Custard Powder, which is a component of whatever fruit trifle I’m making (my go-to dessert). I fear the biggest difference between our entertaining styles is most apparent after dinner. Mrs. Post’s staff (she was too polite to say ‘servants’) cleaned up. I believe the docent said more than 100 people worked at Hillwood. If I’m lucky, my clean-up crew will include a kid, a husband, and a very kind guest or two.

I drove home from Hillwood, my appetite for antiques, gardens and dreaming sated. I opened the ragged screened door leading to our half-renovated estate. My husband was slicing up my favorite vegetable, the eggplant, and shaping hamburgers for our son.

Our house will never be a Hillwood, but I am crazy about the weekend chef.