Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

Thanksgiving is always hit and miss in Hong Kong. It's not a Chinese holiday, obviously, and it's not even celebrated by most of the foreigners here. Most people get into Christmas. Even the locals celebrate, more or less. Christmas is more about shopping than anything else, but at least we get some decorations and Christmas songs.

My roommates are Canadian, so their Thanksgiving is on a different day than mine, but they understand the holiday. We try to celebrate, but that's not always easy.

My first Thanksgiving in Hong Kong was very Chinese. I didn't have a problem with the Chinese food, but I missed dessert. Finding pumpkin pie in China is like trying to find Bigfoot while sober.

A few years ago, my roommates and I went to Otto e Mezzo, a fancy, celebrity chef Michelin star Italian restaurant. It was too crowded and too famous, but the food was genuinely Italian, which is hard to find in China. Good food, but no pumpkin pie.

Last year was my most American Thanksgiving since moving to Hong Kong. It was in Tokyo. Tokyo has more than enough great places to eat, but we found a restaurant run by some American expats who were doing a special Thanksgiving meal. I don't ordinarily seek out American food when I go to Japan, but this was a special occasion. The food was good, but the pumpkin pie was disappointing.

This year, we did Thanksgiving in our apartment. For several years, I lived in a tiny apartment without a kitchen. Hosting Thanksgiving dinner wasn't an option. Now, we live in a large apartment, by Hong Kong standards, with something that's even harder to find – a real kitchen.

Most of my friends are not American, but there are enough Canadians, and everyone likes a home cooked meal. There were no football games on TV or any parades with giant Snoopy balloons, but since most of our guests were not American, they never noticed. The food was good. That's the important part. I didn't make any pumpkin pie because I've never seen a real pumpkin around here. We have Chinese pumpkins, which are not bad, but it's not the same.

During the planning stages, Lily wondered if I wanted to invite Mthandeni. Before our first date, I thought that would be strange. After our first date, it made more sense. I don't know if this was our second date, but if it was then our first date was on my birthday and our second date was on Thanksgiving. If we don't wait until Christmas for our third date, it's going to start getting ordinary a lot faster than usual.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Birthday Surprise part 2

After my birthday date dinner, I wanted to take a walk on the beach. The restaurant is very close to one of the cleaner beaches in Hong Kong, depending on water quality on any given week. Mthandeni had other plans. He was in a hurry to get somewhere after dinner.

A walk along the beach could have been a romantic first date. It's a great place to talk, which I consider an essential first date activity. He took me ice skating instead. That was a surprise. Ice skating isn't the most popular activity in Hong Kong, but there are a few rinks spread out around the city. When he brought up the subject during dinner, I mentioned that as a Minnesotan, I had plenty of experience. In Hong Kong, you have to skate inside a heavily air conditioned building. In Minnesota, practically any winter lake or river will do. Mthandeni grew up in a place where it snows about once every hundred years. Ice skating wasn't his thing, but he wanted to go anyway. I thought that was a nice change of pace. Not every guy is willing to do something new where he will most likely fall flat on his butt a few times on a first date.

When we got laced up and went out to the ice, I understood why he was in such a hurry to get me there. About 25 close friends, acquaintances and people I vaguely recognized yelled out, “Surprise.” And it was. I thought I was on a first date with a new guy. I was, but he and Lily worked out a way to get me to a surprise birthday party. I never suspected anything. Partly because it wasn't my birthday yet and partly because I had no idea that Lily and Mthandeni knew each other existed. They met at the same party where he met me and worked out their plan soon afterward.

Not surprisingly, Mthandeni fell flat on his butt a few times while skating. Thankfully, he took it in stride and didn't let embarrassment get in the way. People were falling like sacks of potatoes on the ice, so he wasn't alone. Hong Kong is to winter sports what Los Angeles is to public transportation. Those of us from colder climates spent more time vertically.

The good news was that Mthandeni was definitely not expecting to get some action on the first date. That wasn't going to happen anyway, but when your date ends at an ice skating rink with about 25 close friends, acquaintances and people you vaguely recognize, it's not especially romantic. No matter what happens in the future, this is one first date I'll definitely remember.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Harmony on Spring Hill - Chapter 7 Excerpts

Early in the movie, Arus and his mother get in an argument over where he and Maria should stay while they are in Jerusalem. His mother wants them to stay at her house, but Arus wants more privacy with his fiancée. Instead of coming out and saying that he is on vacation and wants as much boning time as possible, he lets his family believe that Maria is the one who wants to be away from them. That only amplifies their belief that Maria is taking him away.

The set was a small two story house in the French Hill neighborhood. It was made of the same white stone as every other building in Jerusalem, but it was unmistakably newer than most. It had two floors, but it was barely big enough for two people. With all of the equipment and crew packed in, it felt even smaller. It was almost like a cottage on a street surrounded by similar cottages. It was on a quiet residential street with only a few cars parked outside and little noise. Until the crew showed up.

The cars for the cast and crew and vans for the equipment made it look like a Monday night block party appeared out of nowhere. They were shooting entirely indoors, but they made their presence known in the neighborhood.

The scene that night was Arus and Maria getting into a big argument and breaking up. Arus is torn between wanting to continue with the new life he made for himself in the United States and reuniting with his family in their homeland. Maria wants to stick with the plan they had all along and not completely uproot her entire life and move to an alien part of the world. The movie, for its part, makes no judgment. The family undeniably wants Arus to return to them, but that is not shown as the correct or only option.

This was one of Harmony's favorite scenes to shoot in the entire movie. Daniyel, as the movie's screenwriter, fully admitted to her that he was undecided what Maria should say. As an Israeli man, writing dialogue for an American woman was foreign to him. That was never an issue most of the time since Maria is only a supporting character and most of her dialogue is reactive. In this scene, she helps drive the action.

They filmed the scene as written for the first take of the first shot, but then Daniyel told Harmony to improvise. He was generally good at letting his actors go off script, but there were always limits. When the director is also the writer, he is usually married to his words. For this scene, he let her loose.

Everyone knew what the scene was about, and Harmony had a better idea of how an American woman might react in this situation than anyone else on set. She broke up with her real world boyfriend over roughly similar circumstances. They moved to a foreign country together. Among other problems, he wanted to go back home and she wanted to stay. Harmony could easily relate to Maria's need to stick with their original plan and the fact that her career was better served by staying where she was.

Free to do pretty much whatever she wanted, Harmony used the second take to say to Arus a few things she never got the opportunity to tell her boyfriend. As an actor, that was fun. As an emotional human being, it was cathartic. The best performances always come when the actor fully exposes herself to the character. With all of the crew and so much equipment surrounding her in such a tight space, she used the claustrophobic setting to her emotional advantage. Unfortunately, they could not use that take. Daniyel's opinion was that Harmony spoke too quickly at some points and was drowning the audience with too much information. The script supervisor spoke English, but was lost after a few sentences.

This movie was mostly in Hebrew and most of the people in the theaters would only have a passing acquaintance with English. The English scenes would have Hebrew subtitles and, according to Daniyel, the subtitles would never be able to follow everything Harmony said in the time and space constraints on screen. Knowing how Chinese subtitles in Hong Kong cut out large patches of English dialogue, often to the point of altering the tenor of the scene, she could see what he meant. Reading the Chinese subtitles of Aaron Sorkin dialogue is like reading the
Reader's Digest version of The Brothers Karamazov.

Daniyel did not want Harmony to dumb anything down, but rather keep in mind that she was speaking in a foreign language to the audience.

For the next take, she changed the pace, but tore into Arus. Since she did not know Arus personally, he was essentially an analogue of her boyfriend. They had to stop while Harmony felt she was only getting started because the microphones picked up too much laughter from the crew. The scene was not intended to be funny, but when Maria implies that Arus is not particularly well endowed, some of the crew were highly amused.

Harmony was told some time later that the actor was infamous for having a small penis. There was some kind of celebrity scandal a year or two earlier with a bachelor party stripper describing him in intimate detail. Harmony knew absolutely nothing about it at the time, but it was a sensitive enough subject that Daniyel asked her to steer clear of anything about genitalia. Maria could question how much of a man he is for how easily he is willing to acquiesce to his family's demands, but she should not mention his tiny manhood. Harmony's movement around the small room was already restricted by the lights and camera. The more they shot, the more restrictions there were on the dialogue.

More than a few takes of several shots later, they were finished with the argument portion of the evening. The one scene required multiple shots and each shot required multiple takes. That was the downside to improvisation. It can be exhilarating as an actor to let the character decide what to say, but it is not always what the director wants them to say. Mix in two actors with different native languages and a scene can quickly veer off the cliff.

At one point, Arus and Maria are practically screaming at each other. They are both tired and frustrated, fighting to survive but ready to call it a day. Arus blurts out something in Hebrew and Maria responds with an irritated, “What the fuck does that mean?”

Daniyel stopped them right then and there. Harmony could think of one or two people who would have said exactly that in such a situation, but it was apparently not what Maria would say. Daniyel wanted the audience to see her more as a delicate flower getting trampled by the family. She eventually stands up to Savta, but through her actions rather than strong language. Maria is more like a Disney princess throughout most of the movie. A Disney princess does not say “fuck”. That was not Harmony's favorite word either, but it felt right in that moment.

Copyright © 2016
All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 21, 2016

Birthday Surprise part 1

I went out on a rare date Saturday night. It was rare because I usually have less than one date a month. Even more surprising was that it went well. I don't know what he's thinking, but I'm definitely up for a second date.

We went out on Saturday night. My birthday is in the middle of the week, so this was the closest weekend. Once upon a time, in the deep, distant past, my boyfriend and I used to do something special on my birthday. Those days are over. But it was nice to go out and be treated like someone special on a day relatively close to my birthday. I don't exactly live the movie star lifestyle, but I like being pampered on my birthday. Everyone should take 1 day out of 365 and let the people around you treat you like a princess.

I met Mthandeni at our Moon Festival party at the big house back in September. He was attracted to me right away. And why not? I was still working on Harry at the time, so I turned a blind eye to other suitors. After Harry went down the drain, I called Mthandeni. He was pretty surprised. I think if someone hasn't called you in two months, it's a safe assumption that they never will. Then again, you never know. Men have rules about how long you're supposed to wait to call. Women don't. At least, not that I know of. If there was a meeting, I wasn't invited.

Most people call Mthandeni “Danny”. Probably because it sounds similar and it's easier to pronounce. They should call him “Denny” since that's how the end of his name sounds, with a French accent. I've decided to call him Mthandeni because his name isn't Danny or Denny. There's nothing unique about the name Danny. Mthandeni is nothing but unique, at least to me.

He's from South Africa, which isn't all that exotic around here. As a former British colony, we get a lot of Australians, Indians, Canadians and South Africans. The British are the least exotic. I doubt they'd take that as an insult. I've never met a single British person who thought he was exotic. As an American, most of the locals see me as a Brit with a funny accent. We're questionable, but not exotic.

Mthandeni took me to the Stoep, a South African restaurant with a surprisingly laid back atmosphere. Hong Kong is a city in a hurry, so it's always nice to find those places where you can stop and take a break. I don't know anything about South African food, and my date was from there, making this a good choice. I've sampled a pretty good slice of the world in Hong Kong, but South Africa is new to me. Mthandeni said the owner is from Namibia, but I was never going to notice the difference.

They had hummus, so I had to try it. I've been spending a lot of time in Israel lately, where every restaurant has their own hummus recipe, and every single place makes it better than I ever can at home. It's such an easy thing to make, and very easy to make mediocre. The Stoep's hummus wasn't the best in the world, but that's like comparing a pizza from New York to a pizza from China. Their bread, however, was quite good. It used to be hard to find good bread in Hong Kong, but a few bakeries have started opening up.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Excerpts on Spring Hill

When you're selling something, a book for example, you're supposed to use whatever social media you have to promote whatever you're selling. If you're on Facebook, you tell your Facebook friends about what you're selling. If you're on Twitter, you say a few short words and post a link. If you're still living in the Stone Age, you have a blog.

Marketing isn't my thing. I'm not interested in metrics and sales charts and what moves well where. I couldn't care less about promoting “my brand”. I didn't even know I had a brand. I always thought Pepsi and Kellogg's were brands.

But I have a blog where I can say and post pretty much whatever I want. Google owns the site, so it's not exactly anything goes. They have rules, but as far as I know, I'm well below their radar. It won't hurt anyone if I post an excerpt or two from my new book.

Here's a quick, spoiler-free excerpt from Chapter 7.


Hisham took her to Racha, a Georgian restaurant just off Jaffa Street. It was yet another place next to the hotel that she had never noticed. Whenever Harmony walked onto Jaffa Street from the hotel, she would either turn left or right. Had she merely kept going straight after crossing the street, this restaurant would have been directly in front of her.

When Hisham first mentioned going to a Georgian restaurant, Harmony was expecting grits, collards and corn bread.

“That would be great,” she said. “I haven't had soul food in a long time.”

Naturally, Hisham was talking about Georgia, the country. When they walked into the small restaurant that looked like a converted house somewhere in Eastern Europe, Harmony knew she would not be getting any mac and cheese.

“The best Georgian food in Israel,” Hisham announced.

Since this was the only Georgian restaurant Harmony ever tried in Israel, or anywhere else in the world, she would have to take his word for it.

This was not the type of restaurant Harmony anticipated from Hisham. He was a movie producer who clearly had money. He knew everyone everywhere he went and knew how to schmooze a crowd. He almost never wore a suit, but neither did anyone else. It was usually too hot for a sport coat, but that seemed to be the standard business suit. Harmony could not remember seeing a single man walking the streets in a tie. When Hisham invited her to lunch, she pictured a bright space with lots of windows and white tables and people nibbling from large plates with tiny portions. She pictured Mélisse in Santa Monica.

Racha was a cozy restaurant that looked a little like a run down building from the outside. There was nothing trendy about the street, although it was very close to the main shopping boulevard. Instead of whatever restaurant was fashionable among the trendsetters that week, it was the kind of place that stayed in business for generations. Racha was one of those family owned restaurants where guests actually met the owners. The chef and hostess were brother and sister. Their father made the drinks, including a strong brandy/vodka called chacha that everyone wanted Harmony to try. It was lunch and she had to go to work later, so getting shickered was not on her schedule.

“Israel makes the best badrijani,” Hisham told her while suggesting what she should order.

Harmony thought it was odd that a Georgian dish would be better in Israel than in Georgia, but Israel turned out to be the name of the chef.

“That's just asking for confusion,” Livia submitted. “That's like a stripper in China named China. People say you need a visa to enter China, but I know a guy who got in China for twenty bucks.”

Badrijani is stuffed eggplant with walnut paste and pomegranate seeds. Harmony could not say if it was better in Georgia or Israel, but what Israel made for them in Israel was pretty good. Fortunately, no one at the restaurant was named Georgia.

Copyright © 2016
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Harmony On Spring Hill

As soon as I came back from my first trip to Jerusalem, I started writing about it. The purpose of the trip was to film a small part in a small movie. It was difficult to write about the trip without describing the movie and I wasn't comfortable describing a story written by someone else. I'm sure I could have gotten permission from the copyright holders. A book about the making of the movie would be free publicity. But the more I wrote about it, the more I felt like I was taking credit for someone else's story.

Then I decided to change the movie. Instead of describing the actual movie, I made up my own story. I didn't sit down and write a screenplay, but I created enough of a story to write about the making of that movie. That made it much easier to describe the plot and characters since I wasn't describing anyone else's material.

I've changed the names of pretty much everybody in previous books, and I might have exaggerated some character traits for the purpose of telling the story. This time, I had too many people. It takes a large crew to make even a small, independent movie. When you're in the middle of it, these are all important people. Tom Cruise might be the most famous person in all of his movies, but without hundreds of people doing their jobs around him, he would be nothing. We had a much smaller crew than any Tom Cruise movie, but I couldn't describe the key players without turning it into a 1,200 page book. From personal experience, I knew that would be a bad idea.

As soon as I decided to combine several real people into one fictional character, I knew I had to make the entire book a work of fiction. I had a fictional movie plot and fictional people. It just made sense to go full fiction. That tore the whole thing wide open.

When you're writing about real people and describing something that actually happened, there's a certain responsibility to cover the story accurately and portray the people faithfully. When you're writing a work of fiction, you can do absolutely anything you want. Not only could I change the movie plot, but I could create composite characters and purely fictional characters out of thin air. I could change locations and time frames. I could have the sky open up to an alien invasion while zombies and dinosaurs defend the Earth. I didn't, of course, but in a non-fiction book, someone would have questioned such a thing. In fiction, you can have all the dolphins fly away and thank us for the fish.

Harmony On Spring Hill is a work of fiction loosely based on factual events. Eagle-eyed readers might notice that the main character is pretty similar to me. The story is about what I did in Jerusalem, more or less, so I made myself a fictional character. Why not?

Harmony On Spring Hill is available for e-book pre-order on Amazon. It will be released in all formats on December 21st. After that, it will be available at Tower, iTunes and all the usual retailers.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

2 For 1 Sale

Election 2016

Our long national nightmare is finally over. The “experts” on TV will analyze what happened for a while, but the 2 year campaign is dead and buried.

I'm not a big fan of changing the Constitution. I think it should be left well enough alone, unless it's something like abolishing slavery or letting women vote. But I would wholeheartedly support a constitutional amendment limiting presidential campaigns to less than 6 months. People could announce their candidacy after 4th of July, the primaries could be in August, conventions in September and election day in November.

This would make it much harder for the 2 corporate parties to spend a billion dollars getting their boys elected. They would still spend entirely too much money, but it might give other parties a chance to compete. Americans are supposed to like competition, but our political system guarantees that only 2 teams get to play. Imagine the NFL with only 2 teams. How exciting would that be?

The most obvious benefit, of course, would be far fewer campaign commercials in far less time. I don't know anyone who loves watching campaign bullspin for 2 straight years. Making it shorter would probably burn out fewer people and increase voter turnout.

This is one reason it would never happen. The Republican and Democratic parties count on low voter turnout. If 100% of eligible voters actually showed up, other parties would win a few elections. The people in charge won't let that happen. The question is, why do we?

Friday, November 4, 2016

Declare the Pennies On Your Eyes

Americans love to complain about taxes, especially during an election. Obviously, even 1% is too high if you don't want to pay anything, but there are people throughout Europe paying 40%, 50% or 60% of their income in taxes. I don't know any American who pays anywhere close to that. The average is somewhere around 15% (according to a 1 second Google search).

It's just like gas prices. Americans blame whoever the president is when gas prices go up, as if he sets the rates. When the national average went up to US$3/gallon, there was almost a revolution. At the time, gas cost US$10 in Hong Kong, and that wasn't even close to the highest in the world.

When I lived in the United States, I paid around 20% in income tax, but I was single and didn't have any deductions. The more deductions you have, the less you can pay. And if you're married with children, you're automatically at a lower rate. Then there are state taxes. Unlike smaller countries, the United States also has income tax based on your state. A few states don't have any income tax, while most are much lower than the federal rate. In Minnesota, I always paid around 7%.

Giving the government 27% of your income seems very high to people in oil rich Arab countries, but it's pretty low for people in Sweden or Holland.

I don't live in Minnesota anymore, so I don't pay state taxes. But I still get to pay federal taxes. That always surprises my non-American friends. All American citizens, regardless of where they live, are supposed to file taxes. Let's say I never go back to the United States, I'm still legally required to file for the rest of my life. Now, if I really never went back, and don't mind them taking away my passport, I could simply not pay anything. They're not going to come and get me.

Like all Americans living in Hong Kong, I get to pay American and Hong Kong taxes. Fortunately, the highest Hong Kong rate is somewhere around 15%. Since I'm far from the richest person in Hong Kong, I pay a lot less. I'm usually closer to 8%.

That doesn't mean I'm currently giving 28% of my income to two different governments. The American tax rate is based on all income from anywhere in the world, but the Hong Kong rate is only based on whatever I earn in Hong Kong. That affects the math, especially since I'm now earning an income in 3 different countries.

Since I've started working in Tel Aviv, I'll get to list all of that income on next year's US tax return. And I get to pay taxes in Israel.

The Israeli tax code might just be as complicated as the American system, but I have a few things on my side. I'm not an Israeli citizen, so I automatically pay a lower rate, and I don't live in Israel, so I'm in some kind of “specialist” category. I don't know all the details yet, but it looks like I can save myself a lot of hassle if I limit all future visits to under 30 days. If I ever stay for over 120 days, I'll still be a foreigner who needs a visa, but I'll be taxed like a resident.

I don't know if there's a moral to this story. I put myself in this situation. But it's funny that I will never be a billionaire, yet I pay more in income taxes than Donald Trump. I pay taxes in 3 different countries, yet I complain about taxes less than any American I know. I'd much rather deal with all the bureaucracy every year than make so little money that I don't have to pay anything.