Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Philosophical Side of The Sopranos

My husband Mowgli (not his real name) and I have been on vacation since last Friday, and I had grand ambitions for this time, detailed in a long list that I plan to keep as a reminder of my folly. To be fair, I did roast a chicken and make a veggie pot pie, and we did visit Lincoln's home in Springfield. But -- citizenship quiz studying? Not once. Attempt dosas with new recipe from kind cyberfriend? Didn't happen.

And writing? Wasn't even on the list. I didn't think it needed to be. I thought I'd spring out of bed and start pecking away until Mowgli snatched the laptop from my flying fingers. I did my usual blog posts, but that's all I did -- the minimum. Unless you count the plethora of Facebook updates on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, which, to make myself feel better, I do.

What I've been doing instead of writing is so weird, it makes me squirm to admit it publicly. I've been watching season 5 of the Sopranos. I haven't loved it as much as I've heard some do -- the violence prevents that -- but I've liked it enough to look forward to watching one or two episodes before the day gets rolling. In fact, I watched one this morning, and it spawned today's topic. Lucky thing, too, 'cause honestly, I had nary a post idea when I got up this morning.

It was Episode 58, "Sentimental Education," and about 10 minutes in Tony B., who's been trying to go straight after 18 years in prison, compares being an immigrant to being in prison. The rest of the episode underscores this theme, with pointed remarks about Koreans and dogs, and Carmella's affair failing because of her lover's prejudice against women like her, i.e., mobsters' wives. Toward the end of the hour, Tony B. beats up his Korean business partner, destroying his best chance at achieving his goal of going straight. Tony Soprano responds to this news by saying, "It's tough to do business with outsiders."

Granted, this is a show that delights in making cartoons of ethnic stereotypes, but it did make me think about the three-way battle between heritage and fate and free will. To what extent are we all bound by our heritage, the shapes of our noses and cheekbones, our last names?

What do you think, readers? How have you experienced these strictures? Are they good, bad, or somewhere in between?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Last Year's Thanksgiving

This year, our Thanksgiving will be low-key and at home, and I will be thinking, on and off, of the Mumbai terrorist attacks that happened a year ago this weekend.

During "11/26," as it is known in India, hundreds of people were killed, wounded and terrorized at multiple sites across the vast and tangled metropolis of Mumbai. The attacks went on for days. A landmark hotel was occupied and burned. The head of the police force's terrorism unit was killed. Suspicions that the perpetrators were Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives were bandied about (and later confirmed).

The siege began at 9:15 p.m. local time Wednesday, November 26 -- Wednesday morning, for us -- and so my husband and I were glued to CNN for long stretches of the four-day holiday weekend. I'm pretty sure I detached myself first when I realized I had all the information I needed and wanted. In that respect, it resembled my reaction to 9/11 -- it is a horrifying event, but watching the same thing over and over serves no purpose.

We called my husband's parents, who live in far-south Tamil Nadu, because it seemed possible that the whole country was under threat. The only aberration they reported was heightened security measures. I e-mailed my cousin, who was staying at a school outside Bangalore with her family at the time. She said that they hadn't been aware of the attacks until someone from the outside world (her mother, I think) notified them.

HBO has come out with a documentary about the attacks that uses cell phone audio and suveillance footage to reconstruct the sequence of events. According to this review, "we're not left in awe of the precision and strategic cunning of the terrorists' plan as we were in the wake of 9/11. Instead, ... what's stunning is that such a haphazard attack could've resulted in such a staggering loss of human life."

Ugh. Despite my curiosity, I'm now struggling with the "to watch or not to watch" question for the same reason I quit watching the live coverage last year. Concentrating on making good food may be the better choice.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Bethesda Prayer Center

Following our failed attempt to visit the waterfall outside Coimbatore, Mowgli and I stopped at a Christian prayer center we'd passed on the way out.

The Bethesda Prayer Center is part of the legacy of Dr. D.G.S. Dhinakaran, who had a conversion experience in 1955. He was on his way to the railroad tracks, intending to kill hemself by jumping in front of a train, but was stopped by his uncle, who introduced him to Jesus. According to his bio, the doctor "experienced a sudden wave of divine peace and hope, flood his heart. His mind was transformed and he returned home enlightened."

Following his conversion, he built schools, held massive prayer meetings focused on healing the sick, started a magazine called "Jesus Calls," and served as a conduit for the word of the Lord. One of the messages he received was to open a prayer center:

"On August 12, 1983, the Holy Spirit guided Dr. D.G.S.Dhinakaran to do something for those who are in need for prayer at any time of the day. Therefore Dr. D.G.S. Dhinakaran erected a 24 Hour Prayer Tower. Today the Prayer Tower is a full-fledged Prayer Centre equipped with modern facilities. Specially chosen and trained Prayer Warriors endowed with the compassion of Christ, attend to such calls round-the-clock."

When I tell people about visiting this place, I am invariably met with astonishment; Christianity in India strikes most people as an impossibility. And yet, it is widely believed that the Apostle Thomas traveled to and died in India; today, India has upwards of 20 million practicing Christians.

I admit, though, that the experience of finding a fervently faithful group of Christians in the middle of an Indian agricultural area was jarring, not least because when I said I was from the U.S., I was greeted with an enthusiastic, "praise the Lord, sister, praise the Lord." Never in a million years did I think I'd be in Tamil Nadu the first time someone said that to me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Of Dogs and Donations

There's a photo from our trip to India a few years ago that's not spectacular, and yet, I can't bring myself to delete it because of the story and the memory behind it. Here it is:

That's our vehicle the dog is next to. We'd just driven out of the city for the first time since we'd arrived because we wanted to visit a waterfall in the jungle. The jungle entrance had closed early due to issues with elephants (some habitat encroachments are more equal than others) and so we were standing around, talking about what to do next. Being inclined to take photos at all times, I started snapping away and shot the one above.

And then my husband Mowgli (not his real name) became mildly agitated and told me to back away from the dog. I recall being unimpressed by it -- as you can see, it's pretty small and a bit on the thin side. Also, we have two dogs that, combined, outweigh me, and since I've fed, bathed and walked them for 10 years, I'm pretty comfortable around canines.

But I took my husband's word for it and backed up instead of trying for a shot of the dog's face, which was reasonably cute. As I moved away, I recalled him telling me more than once that dogs in India are not to be touched or even looked at because most of them are street dogs and therefore dangerously aggressive. It's not just his opinion -- the Mumbai high court ruled 2-1 earlier this year that "nuisance" dogs can be killed. Which might sound less awful once you know that 25,000 Mumbai residents a year are bitten by one of the 70,000 feral dogs who also live there.

By contrast to the photo above, here is one of my dogs, Georgie, recovering from knee surgery:

Even as I think "aw, the poor thing," I think, "she has it better than the vast majority of dogs, and maybe people, in the developing world." And that's when the guilt kicks in and I start to think about donating to an organization that helps the poor. I think I'll use Gori Girl's excellent "how to help the poor" guide to figure out which one to give to.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


A few weeks ago, interesting blog-related things started to happen. Seeds I had planted, sometimes unknowingly, began to sprout. Like any farmer in springtime, I was thrilled to see fresh green shoots of possibility poking up through the ground.

First, an intercultural relationship blogger, Gori Girl, found my blog and left a comment on one of my posts. Once I started digging into her blog, I was even happier she'd found me, because she handles complex topics like giving to beggars with thoughtfulness, clarity and heft. Her dedication to her main topic is evident in pieces like the two-part interview with her in-laws wherein she delves into their thoughts on her relationship with their son.

Next, Maami, a blogger based in Madras, contacted me to talk about a project involving intercultural relationship blogs, and I happily directed her to and Earlier this year, I'd found her blog by clicking on an "arrived from" link in my stat counter report, and liked it so much I left a comment and bookmarked it.

Right around the same time, someone left a comment on my "Classified Ads" post offering to give me the inside scoop on arranged marriage from an Indian perspective, so I set up a "contact me" button. It's not clear what the final outcome of this exchange will be, but at the very least, I'm gaining a firsthand, horse's-mouth understanding of a complex topic.

Finally, my apprent doppelganger (Midwestern girl married to a South Indian) left a comment on my "Two Lists" post, saying she'd stumbled on my blog by clicking "next blog." Now we're Facebook friends.

I didn't have a huge stack of expectations for this blog when I started: My main goals were writing practice, learning something new, and fun. I probably should have expected to learn a lot about my husband, his culture and myself. But thanks to the curious alchemy of the Internet, I've been given what feels like a bonus: connections that are full of untold possibilities. Imagining what might happen next is starting to occupy large, happy chunks of my imagination, and for that, I am grateful.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gene the Pumpkin Man!

Gene the Pumpkin Man is an institution unto himself up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He's been in the pumpkin growing and selling business for 52 years, and his family's been farming since the late 1880s. I've made many trips to Kalamazoo to see family, and whenever I passed the bright orange signs of Gene's, I'd think, wow, I really need to check that out. Finally, this year, the stars aligned and I made the pilgrimage with one of my girl-cousins.

Gene is a man who is fully dedicated to his chosen path in life. My aunt once saw him and his wife out at breakfast in the off-season; he was dressed in orange. His Christmas lights? Orange. His car? I don't want to ruin it, so just scroll down now if you can't wait.

And now, I will tell you a little secret: I am jealous of Gene the Pumpkin Man. He does what he loves, and clearly, he can live on what he makes. I'm starting to strive for that kind of life, and I'll tell you, as I do it, this orange-clad man is one of my sources of inspiration.

By now, you're probably wondering how any of this is at all related to other cultures, so here you go, straight from the informational booklet given to me by the Pumpkin Man himself: "The pumpkin is fruit of the gourd family and is native to Central America. It was grown by the Indians in North America when the first colonists landed."

Enjoy the photos, dear readers. (By the way, they were all taken with my iPhone.)

Pumpkins as far as the eye can see.

Big ones, little ones, different varieties.

Pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins.

There are more pumpkins in that barn, I promise you.

Doubtless by now, word-of-mouth is the only advertising this man needs, if in fact he needs any. But I loved this bit of merchandising: behold the Gene the Pumpkin Man pumpkin carving knife.

This sign is visible from Route 43, which passes in front of the farm.

He also raises a variety of wacky squashes.

Some of them look like they have tumors.

Others reminded me of sea creatures.

Gene the Pumpkin Man is happy to pose for photos. On nice days like this, a line full of kids and adults forms.

Naturally, he drives an orange Cadillac.

With personalized plates.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Special Kind of Selfishness

Last week's horrific attack at Fort Hood left me very sad, baffled, and concerned on several levels. After the initial shock of "what?" and taking in the "who, what, why, how" bit by bit, I started to worry about my husband.

It's a special kind of selfishness, this concern for a man who has nothing to do with the tragedy that's stirring up strong emotions across the country, and yet I can't help myself. In the back of my mind, I'm always concerned for his safety, and it's not because he drives a bit fast (he is, overall, a very good and safe driver).

There is a look he gets, not every day but some days, an accusing look that has nothing to do with anything but his skin color and what people think it means. He is good-natured about these glances, and it's hard to imagine that there would ever be any physical contact associated with them, but still, I worry. My concern is that the mentality behind statements like, "Maybe Muslims shouldn't serve in the U.S. military" will someday create a dangerous situation for people who are perceived to be Middle Eastern.

I know, it's fantastical thinking, and the likelihood of something like that happening in our city seems slim. Yet last week, the thought of soldiers being killed by a soldier on the largest U.S. military base in the world was unthinkable, and this week, we're still trying to understand why and how that happened. And after a while, all I can think is, "Well, crap. Clearly, the world's gone mad. Anything can happen now."

The other thing I think at times like this, and that makes me utterly crazy, is that I should be careful about what I say and write. Such is the polarized nature of our country right now: There are people who think that there is only one correct response, and that any other response indicates anti-Americanism. There is no room for nuance, no space for debate.

So let me be very clear: I have no sympathy for that man. He is very sick, and what he did was horrendous. My fervent hope is that by studying how this happened, the authorities can make sure that nothing like this will ever happen again, that no mother will ever have to be told that her child was killed by someone who was trained to heal people.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Last night I was watching the Osaka episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, a show that makes me pea-green with envy because really, all this guy does is wander the world, eating, drinking and getting paid for it. Oh, and smoking, which he was thrilled to be able to do in restaurants all over Osaka.

He does, however, delve into the history of the places he visits, and in this case it was fascinating. Osaka is known for its food, and in particular the practice of eating great quantities of it. This tradition was a side effect of a piece of 16th-century legislation that forbade the rising merchant class from building showy houses or wearing fancy clothes. So they started going out and eating (and drinking) themselves silly, and along the way, invented a spectacular array of food that goes very well with beer.

Mowgli joined me partway into the program, and I can't quite recall, but I think he wasn't actually on the couch with me when the segment on okonomiyaki started. Good thing, too, because first I blurted out "okonomiyaki!" and then, well, I kind of spazzed out because the memories of eating this awesome food in Japan came flooding back.

Mr. Bourdain didn' touch on the roots of the dish, but my understanding is that it was born of necessity just before or after World War II, when there was a lot of flour and cabbage about, but not much wheat. The following description (from this site) backs me up:

"The roots of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki lie in something called "Issen youshoku" (one-penny Western food) that spread across western Japan like cheap candy before the war. Wheat flour was mixed with water and spread in a circle on a griddle. Chopped green onions and such were sprinkled on top, then the concoction was folded in half and served. This proved to be an extremely popular dish. As the name implied, you could buy it for one "sen" (1/100 of a yen), which at the time could purchase two large lollipops."

But that's Hiroshima-style: layered ingredients. In Osaka, everything is mixed together before being plopped on the grill -- in front of you, if you're at one of the countless okonomiyaki restaurants in Japan. You can cook them yourself, but the staff are experts. Here's a video of how that works, complete with helpful subtitles to let you know what's going on, and a bed of peppy Japanese pop:

So you might be wondering: What does that crazy word mean? Okonomi means "what you like" and yaki means "grilled." And now I have a major craving for what I like, grilled.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Very Happy Halloween

Seven years ago today, I was driving to work, thinking about the awesome party I’d been to the night before. This is what I looked like:

I know, it’s hard to tell from that photo, so I’ll lay it all out for you: I was a battered Statue of Liberty. On my back was a sign that said, “Kick me, I’m Ashcroft’s bitch.” I must have been feeling particularly passive-aggressive activisty that day. Later I found out that the hostess had worked for Ashcroft, but she never brought that up as I paraded around her house, insulting her former boss. Her mama raised her better than that.

But I digress.

The costume was a last-minute thing, pulled together in the space of a few hours when I committed to the idea of looking silly and socializing with other silly-looking people. It wasn’t complicated, but I was proud of my bent cardboard crown, my thrift-store-sheet toga that I’d stomped on in the backyard, the black eye a makeup artist friend had given me.

So there I was, smeared in mud and fake blood (I think I burnt parts of the crown, too), my makeup intentionally smeared and runny, and in walks the dreamiest-looking guy I’d ever seen in person. Yes, it’s dramatic, but it’s true: I saw him from across the room, and I just kind of went “ooh” inside. After a while, he came up to me and we chatted about his grad school days at the university half my family had attended, movies old and new, and astrology (he guessed my sign correctly).

The next day at work, a longtime friend of the hostess laughed when I said I wondered when my new boyfriend was going to call.

Two hours later, she got an e-mail from the hostess asking if I would mind passing my phone number along so she could give it to the man I’d talked to all night. He wanted to ask me out, but wanted to be sure I was interested.

We talked later that day, and the conversation was a bit over-long for work. I didn’t care.

Two weeks later, we had our first date.

Four years and 11 months after we first met, we were married. The Halloween party hostess lit the candles for us.

And when I saw my almost-husband on that day, I went "ooh" inside.