Man-on-the-street reviews of Leaving India

My inbox was full o’ fun today.
I was alerted to the the first pre-pub customer review on  (Amazon gives certain advance copies to certain readers, who agree to write reviews.)  Mr. von Moller called Leaving India  “a rousing tour through a century of world events and personalities as seen from the perspective of one family, highly recommended” and gave it four stars, meaning that he liked my book more than Harold Bloom, less than a vibrating wristwatch/alarm clock.
I also received a wonderful email from my friend Thomas Connor, a Chicago Sun-Times music editor, who has a media copy. I asked him if I could post it, because it’s far more entertaining than anything I’ve ever written here.  Here it is:

Subject: You need to have some book signings at the local shelters

Let me see if I can re-create the conversation I had with a shaggy man on the train to work this morning. He shuffled down the aisle toward me — weathered black ball cap with a no-fur button and an Obama button, immensely tangled salt-and-pepper hair just past his shoulders, nubby teeth like a prehistoric fish, a gigantic white peace-sign medallion around his neck. They always speak to me, despite the earbuds. That defense never works.

“Have you been to India?” he was asking, pointing to your book in my hands.


“Are you gonna go?” His smile was genuine, harmless, unmedicated.

“I’d sure like to.”

He then informed me that the “most virtuous woman in the world” lived there, and a few sentences later I realized he was discussing Mother Teresa.

“Is Bombay the biggest city? Maybe Calcutta?”

“Probably Bombay,” I said, wholly ignorant of the facts. “Mumbai,” I said, correcting myself.

“So why are you reading about India?”

“Because my friend wrote this book.”

He was astonished. “You know someone who wrote a book?!”

I pointed to your photo. He leaned in, squinting through his high-fashion-for-1981 prescription frames. He attempted to pronounce your name.

“She’s be-yoooooo-tiful,” he said, semi-entranced. “She looks lovely in pink.” (Yes, he actually said, “lovely.”)

“My mother wrote a book.”

“She did?” Skepticism reared in my head. “What’s it called.”

” ‘Baby Doctor.’ It’s about pediatric medicine. She invented it.” (It’s actually on Amazon: ‘Baby Doctor: A Pediatrician’s Training’ by Perri Klass.)

He then pulled out of his bag a dog-eared copy of “Persuasion” by Jane Austen. (Yes, Jane Austen.) “I’m reading this. See, girls see me reading this on the train, they think, ‘Hey, what a sensitive guy!’ “

I instantly love this city muppet. He’s not concerned that women will look at him and think, “Eek! homeless freak!” Which even I did. He’s convinced his soul — or at least the appearance of it — will triumph, that a woman’s heart will be won over by what a man reads and thinks. Well, he’d won me over.

He then thought for a moment. “Even though she’s your friend and all, what’s your honest opinion of the book?” Meaning yours. “Can you be objective?”

“I can,” said I. “I picked it up because my friend wrote it, but I confess I’m really engrossed in it now. I’ve learned so much already. It’s beautifully written and secretly informative, like the best histories.” Truly.

“And do you hope to marry this woman one day?”

I laughed. “No, no.” I paused. Does one just come out to a strange homeless person? Probably not.

“You already have a significant other?” (Yes, he actually said “significant other.”)

“I do.”

“And she doesn’t mind that you’re reading this book by such a beautiful woman?”

“No, no.”

“Well, then you have a very strong relationship.” Now he tugged at the peace medallion, which was dull white and looked as if it were made out of some kind of elementary school-grade craft clay. Remind me to donate to the city’s shelter art programs.

“This is my divining rod,” he said, brandishing the medallion, which I now could see was shaped like a heart. “It’s a peace sign, but it’s shaped like a heart, so it’s all about peace, love and” — and he knocked it against his forehead — “understanding!”

He then touched the medallion to his temple. “I’m going to predict something for you.” He closed his eyes with this thing on his temple, like he was Carnac, and said, “I think you’re going to have a really wonderful February 14th. And when you do you’ll stop and think about that pinhead you met on the train. … OK, I’m going to go sit over there now. I’ll let you read.”

And he did. He shuffled to the middle of the car and sat across from a real Scandinavian beauty, I must say. The dance was delightful. She noticed him in her peripheral vision, crossed her legs, swept blond hair from her eyes, spine straightening on alert. I can hear her: “Eek!” He harumphed into his seat, tried his best to appear nonchalant, and … slipped out the Jane Austen. I saw her scan the cover as I was getting off at Fullerton …

Thanks, Thomas!

To-do lists … Part 2: Quest for Solutions

(Start with Part 1 here, if you want)

Part 2:  Quest for Solutions

In Which Our Heroine Searches the World (Wide Web) and Shares What She Finds.

Good news: There are tons of options out there, so it should be easy to find something that works for almost any need.

My criteria again: I want something that is

• free or very low cost
• groups to-do items in categories
• assigns due dates/deadlines
• has priority levels, preferably visual
• lets me estimate how much time each task will take
• has easy integration into daily life, email/calendar
• can be worked on online or offline
• is syncable to ipod Touch
• is easy to use
• and did I mention free or nearly free?

Yep, I am one tough cupcake.  So here’s what I tried.

Task List from Google Labs

Because I’m a dedicated gmail and google calendar user, I was excited to try this brand-new feature, just launched in December 2008.

Setup and learning curve: assuming you already have gmail, 5 to 15 minutes.

Pros: Integration integration integration!

• I *love* having my to-dos be right in my gmail window, which is the web page I look at dozens of times a day.  I can choose whether to have the list be subtle, down the left-hand column along with the Chat and Label areas, or more in-my-face, popped up on the bottom right like a live chat.
• It’s very easy to click on an email and turn it into a “task,” which then shows up in the Task List by the subject line of the email, and also has a link back to the email itself, even if I’ve already archived the email.
• Basic task creation is nice, simple, easy and intuitive to use.

Cons: Key features missing.

• I so wish this could be integrated with google calendar and not just gmail.  You can set a due date (though it’s kind of hidden, so at first I thought you couldn’t), but there is no way to link the due date to your google calendar, which just seems silly.
• More suitable for a few items than for dozens; it’s just too unwieldy to put everything into one big long list.  You can make subcategories, sort of, by indenting; and you can set priorities, sort of, by moving items up and down the list.  But not really.
• The interface is kind of tiny and I kept having the task and the due-date calendar overlap so that I couldn’t actually make it work. Plus you can’t see your other tasks while you’re creating a due date for a new task, which I need to do in order to see when I have time for the new task. Very fidgety.

Bottom line: I’m keeping it installed, and I am using it as a kind of extra flagging system for emails that need action, or things I remember while I’m in my email. If you love gmail and you’re not trying to do much project management via your to-do list, it might work for you. But for my overall needs, it’s not sufficient.


So then I surfed around and quickly found Brian Benziger’s 25 To Do Lists To Stay Productive, which is a fabulous starting place.  I agree with most of his notes but his list is from 2006, so a couple of the lists that he lists (say wha? yeah, I said the lists that he lists) are no longer extant, while others have been developed and now do much more. Many of these, like the popular Ta-Da, were great in and of themselves but still too simple for my confused, I mean complex, needs. (You might like ’em though, so do check out Brian’s list.)  Brian led me to…

Rough Underbelly

Setup and learning curve: 10 to 15 minutes; requires registration.

Pros: Very fun!  Makes work into a game.

• You assign 1 to 10 “points” to each task.  You can use either their system (“billable” work or getting new business gets you 10 points, whereas maintaining a professional relationship gets you 1 point) or you can make up your own mental list about how you assign value to your tasks.  When you finish a task, you “get” the points.  Then you get to see a cute little line graph showing you how awesomely productive you were today.  Fun!
• Also has a nice little timer, so if you keep it onscreen as you work through your tasks, you can see how long you are taking on each task.


• Can’t categorize tasks (other than by the number of points assigned). I need categories, cuz I can’t wrap my brain around assigning relative importance to items in diverse areas of my life. Is “buy cat food” worth more or fewer points than “write pitch letter to Terry Gross”?  I’d hate to see my cat and my publicist battle that one out.
• Again, no due dates.

Bottom line: Excellent for what it is, a productivity booster for your one-person small business or single project. Not for multifunctional me.


Rough Underbelly is based on, and led me to, the Printable CEO, where someone even more obsessive than me has created a bunch of download-and-print productivity forms. They are designed for you to keep next to you as you work.  I can’t really review them because I haven’t used it yet, but it’s intriguing enough to mention.  I will try out the Emergent Task Planner at some point, I think, which is billed as  “realistic” daily planner.  Yes, that IS what I need.  It takes a little time to click around the site and understand what the different tools are and how to use them, but he has a neat approach that basically involves turning your day into 15-minute chunks of time and then accomplishing things bit by bit, which makes total fabulous sense.


Back at Brian’s top-25 list, I tried a few more things and then landed at:

Remember The Milk

Setup and learning curve: 10 to 30 minutes; requires registration; more to explore after that, if you want.

Pros: Lotsa functions, integration … task-list heaven.  I’ve already set it as my home page.

• At the free level, this site lets me input basically everything I was looking for: tasks, categories, due dates, visual priority levels (1,2,3), and how much time each task will take. Hoorah!
• I love that I can create several different lists. I can also create “tags” to group items across categories. For example, I’ve tagged items “phone” so that when I have a window of time to make phone calls, I can pull up “make hair appointment” and “call marketing person” even though those relate to different lists (Personal and Book).
• The “Location” feature lets you map your tasks geographically.  For me, I’ve started using it to identify things I’ll want to do in New York vs things I’ll want to do in DC. Then I can view all my New York items together, whether they involve personal friends or book tour business or something else.
• I love having lots of options for how I want to look at my tasks — just today’s tasks, for example, no matter what list I put them on.
• Calendaring:  A quick installation, and now my to-do items show up my google calendar, where tasks due on a particular day appear as a collapsible list at the top of the day with a little checkmark icon (sort of like the weather, if you’ve added a weather calendar).  I can edit the list, add tasks, and check them off as completed without leaving google calendar.
• Offline access: This is great for when I’ll be on an airplane trying to get work done, but without internet.
• Reminders: Option to get pinged in advance of tasks being due, via email, mobile, or your instant-message system.
• Upgrade to the $29 Pro level promises syncing with my iPod Touch (or iPhone).  Haven’t shelled out for this feature yet but if it works as well as everything else here, I’ll be delighted.


• I have some quibbles with the user interface. For example, a checkmark in the empty box next to a task intuitively, to me, should mean the task is completed. Instead it means the task is “selected,” and I have to click on something else to actually mark it completed. Hmm. There are several things like this that are just slightly annoying.
• Several of the functions seem to only be accessible via keyboard shortcuts, with no menus. This makes the learning curve steeper than it needs to be, since it requires memorizing “m” for multiple-item selection mode, etc. Not quite as intuitive as it could be.

Bottom line: THE WINNER! Even though I’m a vegan, and not so crazy about looking at the little exploited cow icon every time I sign on (kidding… sort of…), Remember the Milk is the site for me. It’s so very functional that I’m willing to invest extra time in learning how to use it and overlook the slight awkwardness of the interface.  And I keep finding new uses for it.

And that is so much more than you ever wanted to know about to-do lists, isn’t it?

Next time, the million-dollar question:  Is all this actually making me  more productive????

To-do lists … Part 1: The Listmaker in Distress

Warning: This story is not for all audiences. Specifically, you should only try to read this if you are an organization geek. Do you fondle office supplies and make endless to-do lists and color-code your files? OK, then you might be interested. Otherwise your eyes may glaze over and you may fall asleep, drool on your keyboard, drown your computer in saliva, and thereby invalidate your computer warranty which usually doesn’t cover water damage. I take no responsibility for these or other ill effects.

Part 1:  The Listmaker in Distress

In Which We Meet Our Heroine, Understand Her Trials, and Watch Her Muddle Through the Muck of Ill-Fated Non-Solutions

(Well… I liked writing the subhead, but I don’t think I can affect the Canterbury Tales momentum for much longer.  I hope you, dear reader, will accept my apologies for the abrupt shift in tone.)

In my constant quest to organize myself, and especially now in my busy busy pre-book-launch phase (8 weeks to go! omg!), I have been desperate for a way to keep track of all the things I need to do. So I went web surfing and guess what, many brilliant listmakers with actual technical skills have come up with ways to help ME!  How sweet of them.  I thought I would share my dilemma (this part) and some of the cool tools I found (tomorrow).

I am basically a listmaker at heart. I tend to make my to-do lists in various journals and on scraps of paper.  I then lose track of them, so I am often writing a new version of what is more or less the same list because I can’t find the earlier list(s).  This is not so bad, since I actually love making lists, but it is kind of a waste of time.  It would be better if I used my love of listmaking to make new lists, I think, like the list of impossible dreams made possible, or a list of the ways cat love is superior to human love, or a list of vegan ingredients to try putting into cookies.  Maybe I need a list of cool lists to make…   ok, so you see the problem.

I also like to group my to-do items into categories, like: Book tour tasks. Phone calls to make. House stuff.  Things to buy.
Even when I have it together enough to have such a list and start doing the items on it, often I get super stressed because the list of things that I need to do is way more than I can realistically do in a day or even week. I usually don’t realize this ahead of time, so I scale the peaks of valiant productivity and then crash in valleys of despair at how much is left to do.  

So what I need is a realistic sense not only of the tasks to be done and deadlines, but also of priorities and how much time each one is going to take. In my heart of hearts, I believe that things like writing an email or doing laundry take … zero minutes.  You just do em in between other things, right?  It is amazing to me that actually, when I track it, writing a work-related email — original content, not just a reply to something quick — takes an average of 15 minutes.  It just does. Likewise, most things that I need to do take a lot longer than I want to admit.

I’ve tried various paper systems. Lost the papers or the lists got too complicated to keep on paper; scratched-out items and long doodly lines going every which way made me feel less not more organized.  From time to time I realize it would be good to harness the power of computers

So I made a pretty Excel spreadsheet with colors and categories and columns. The main problem was that it wasn’t really integrated into my daily life, so I would forget to look at it for days on end.  Even if I put it on my computer desktop, or printed it out and posted it somewhere I could see it, I just didn’t find it satisfying or enjoyable; in fact, looking at 65 items at a time made me feel very overwhelmed, even if most of them were off in the future.  Also, it couldn’t be very easily synced to my ipod Touch, which is a feature I’ll want when I’m traveling.

Bottomline I want and need a centralized place to sort out all my ideas into lists, then prioritize and see them daily in a way that will actually help me get the things done. And of course it has to be easy to use — because making the list can’t be more time-consuming than actually doing the things on the list! — and free or very low cost, because even though I am empress of my own universe, my income is definitely that of a, um, writer.

FAQ for writers

I’m writing this because, ten weeks before the launch of my first book, I am realizing that I have several outstanding requests from other writers that I just don’t have the capacity to fill as generously as I’d like to, and that the demand is likely to accelerate.  I hope this is somewhat helpful, if not quite the panacea one might desire.
In my own experience, the #1 way to get good advice and support for your writing is to be part of a community of writers and creative peers. By this I don’t mean a Facebook community (though I do love me some FB), but a real writing group, class, community group, open mic, creative organization, coach, and/or some combination of these, that meets regularly and keeps you in touch with people who are able to assist each other. 
If you are a writer of South Asian descent, I highly recommend getting involved in DesiLit, joining or organizing your local chapter, and attending one of the national DesiLit conferences that brings together writers, readers, and publishing professionals.
Q. I finished / am finishing / am working on a book.  Can you put me in touch with an agent / editor / someone in publishing?  
A. First of all, congratulations on your work, that’s fabulous!
Unless I already know you AND your work intimately, I’m afraid I do not feel comfortable recommending you to my agent. My friend Mary Anne Mohanraj has a more detailed response to this question on her website, including excellent advice to which I can’t really add anything.
There are many good resources on agents and publishing out there; Poets & Writers magazine is a good one to subscribe to if you’d like to stay on top of the latest trends for publishing your literary writing. P&W regularly features interviews with agents, calls for submissions, features on new writers, and other practical resources.
Q. Can you read my work / my manuscript?

A. Like you, I’m a working writer who needs to carve out time for writing amid many other activities, including wage-earning ones. I love to coach other writers through various stages of the writing process, and I love to read and critique manuscripts. I am lucky to be able to do this work for a fee.  (Sometimes I’m also open to barter/trade for your skills in exchange for mine.)  Right now I am taking a break from that work until after my book tour, so if you’re interested in working with me, please do get in touch after May 2009. 
Meanwhile, I highly recommend the services of Kristy Lin Billuni. She is warm, incisive, sharp, talented, affordable, and super-fun to work with: everything you’d want in a manuscript midwife.
Please note that neither Kristy’s nor my services include connecting you to an agent/editor/etc. You should be suspicious of any manuscript consultant who charges money for such connections.
Q. Do you have any writing advice?

A. Well, it’s hard to give generic advice. Again, finding or forming your own writing community, and/or hiring someone to help you, are really the two best ways (imho) to get advice at the level you need it.  I did both in order to write my book, and I found it was well worth every minute and penny that I invested in these activities.
I’ve also found books on writing and creativity to be helpful. The books I turn to again and again are:
  • The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron – on finding and holding to your creative path.
  • Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg – on writing as a practice, with easy, repeatable exercises for generating new work.
  • Unstuck, by Jane Anne Staw – on working through creative blocks.
And there are plenty of others out there.
I wish you the best, and know you’re already on the right track by reaching out to the universe for help, support, and creative validation.

More daily new things

Continuing my 2009 pattern of doing one new thing each day…

January 5: Made up my own recipe for acorn squash stuffed with with apple-pear melange 

Climate change has hit San Francisco and this is the chilliest winter any of us can remember. Our cars are frosting up, there’s snow on them thar hills, and our shabby-chic Victorians have drafty windows and un-insulated ceilings, so we are COLD!  This makes me long for earthy baked warm sweet things.  

Recipe-ish: Although I called this “melange” because it’s such a fun word (say it out loud … melangemelange… there, don’t you feel all European-slow-food-trendy?), this is super-easy and not fancy at all. It’s just cutting and then putting in the oven and then taking out of oven (don’t forget that last step while you’re Facebooking).  
First I cut my acorn squash in half across the middle; what I mean is, if it were a jack o’lantern, the mouth would be on one half and the eyes would be on another. I scooped/scraped out the seeds and stringy mess with a small knife, and threw that mess away in the compost bin. Then I rubbed the cut surface with olive oil and black pepper, and placed it cut-side-down on a baking sheet at 400 degrees, and set the timer for an hour.  
Meanwhile I sliced some apples and pears (past their prime) thinly, as well as a couple of Meyer lemons. Oranges would work just fine too. I arranged the pear and apple slices in a pan like you’d do for scalloped potatoes, added non-butter, and sprinkled with cinnamon. Then I laid the lemon slices in a pretty pattern across the top and sprinkled them with sugar.  I put that in the oven too for the rest of the cooking time of the squash. I think it was about half an hour.  
Then I took everything out of the oven, scooped some of my “melange” into one half of the squash, and ate it.  I could have served someone else the other half, but why would I, when instead I can have something yummy to eat tomorrow?
By the way, while I have the oven on, I also like to wrap a potato or sweet potato in foil and bake it, if I have one around.  Instant snack for later.  Non-carb-eaters, sorry … but please feel free to help yourself to the delightful organic lettuce that’s wilting in the middle drawer of the fridge!

One new thing a day?

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but given the way my year is going already, maybe I should resolve to do one new thing every day.  So far here are my “firsts”:

January 1:  Danced in the DJ booth at a club.
I had a great time ringing in 2009 to the sounds of Basement Bhangra even though we were at this massive crazy party, with more dreadlocked white people than I knew existed on this planet. Picture Burning Man inside a convention center, and you’ve got the vibe.  (Note to ravers: do *not* go up into the DJ booth unless you know the DJ or a member of her/his entourage personally, otherwise it’s annoying, especially if the DJ booth is actually a camping tent set up on a rickety platform and you dance so hard that you make the whole thing quake. Um, no.)  I wore my tiara and hot pink go-go boots and felt like one of the cool kids.
January 2:  Hired an assistant.
I’m so grateful and relieved to be able to have help during what is going to be an intensely busy time. Jessica is a smart, competent, high school student artist who happens to live right around the corner from me.  It still feels weird to say “my assistant,” and she’ll only be here a few hours a week, but I have a feeling she will greatly increase my capacity to stay on top of things and get ready for the book launch which is a mere 10-11 weeks away.
January 3:  Participated in a sweatlodge ceremony.
A deeply contemplative way to start the year.  I did this at Spirit Rock, where I’ve been on several meditation retreats before, as part of a daylong event for women of color. I’m still not sure how I feel about participating in a Native tradition to which I have very little connection and am a total outsider.  Still, I appreciated the opportunity to be in the dark, moist heat of spiritual community and commune with earth, fire, water, air, Spirit, and ancestors.
January 4:  Bought an original painting from a friend.
My super-talented artist friend Anita De Lucio had me over sometime last year, and I couldn’t keep my eyes away from a luminescent turquoise fish on her wall. When I mustered up the courage to ask her if the painting was for sale, and she said yes, I was totally delighted!  I was thinking about scuba diving, about water as my element (I’m a Cancer), and about my name which means fish. After I picked up the painting today, Anita sent me an email that read, in part: “Fishy was yours the moment you set eyes on her!  Ever since you said you wanted the painting it stopped feeling like it was mine, and it was just waiting until the time came to go to its new home!  … Fishy helped me find hope when the war in Iraq started.  Painting her was very soothing,  my brush strokes are a little ‘messier’ than in my other paintings, simply cuz I just painted as it came to me.  She’s kind of a fantasy fish and a reminder to me that anything is possible.  I hope she will keep you company and encourage you in this time of transition.”

I don’t know if I’ll keep up *quite* this pace for the rest of the year, but I do like the idea and intention of being open to trying new things … maybe even one new thing, however small, each day.  

What are you doing new in 2009?

#43 and climbing

I think year-end and top 10, top 20, top 50 lists are kind of ridiculous.  But it was fun to open up an email on the first day of the year and see myself among the Top 50 Coolest Desis of 2008, along with Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi, several Bollywood and Hollywood luminaries, and (???) Snoop Dogg. Of course most of the fun of these lists is to debate them. You can comment on who should have been higher, lower, on, or off the list at the South Asian Journalists Association Forum blog. (Or right on this blog, of course.)
Happy New Year!  Hope 2009 takes you to the top of your own list!

What to do about Richmond hate crime

Last week a woman was attacked and raped in Richmond by four men who apparently targeted her for being a lesbian. (Read the Associated Press story and the KCBS story.)  

Even though I know most sexual assaults are committed by people known by their victims, for me personally, I felt scared and powerless reading about this random attack. I was also angry. 
While I was just having these feelings (ok, ignoring them) and going about my life, amazing activists and organizers were working behind the scenes. Thanks to them, the rest of us don’t have to feel powerless. Here are a few things we can do right now:
GIVE directly to the survivor of the attack by donating to a fund for her set up by her community’s rape crisis center, in response to the Richmond community’s spontaneous outpouring of support. Write “Richmond Jane Doe” on the check and mail it to Community Violence Solutions (CVS), 2101 Van Ness St., San Pablo, Calif., 94806.  
BEAR WITNESS at a peaceful vigil in Richmond scheduled for Saturday night, Dec. 27.  More information is below.
STAY SAFE by reading the community alert issued by Community United Against Violence (CUAV) of San Francisco. Here it is as a Word document, for easy forwarding, or read on below.  
GIVE AGAIN: A check written now to CVSCUAV, or your own local rape crisis / anti-hate-crime organization will support the amazing work these groups do in preventing assaults and supporting assault survivors year-round. 
TELL WHAT YOU KNOW: The Richmond police are offering a $10,000 reward. Read descriptions of the suspects in this article and call Detective Yesenia Rogers at 510-672-1718 if you have any information.
SPREAD THE WORD. Share this and other information with your loved ones so that we can all be as safe and powerful as possible in this path we walk.
Be well, everyone.


Community Vigil for Peace and Healing

Where:  1500 Visalia Avenue, Richmond, CA (near Richmond Bart Station)

When:          Saturday, December 27, 2008, 9:30pm-10pm

What:          Peaceful vigil in response to hate-motivated gang-rape

>Alert:            Members of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, and Intersexed communities will hold a peaceful vigil with support from Hand to Hand Martial Arts Center, at the location where a lesbian woman was raped by four men on Saturday December 13th 2008. LGBTQQI community members and all allies are welcome to come join in peace, healing, and support for the survivor and her courage in speaking out about the violence that was perpetrated against her.

People can bring a candle and are encouraged to carpool or take BART or walk-together.  For more information regarding the incident in question please go to:

Safety Tips:

  • Reporting Violence / Seeking Emotional Support – If you or someone else experiences Anti-LGBTQQI hate violence and/or sexual assault please contact CUAV’s 24 hour crisis line at (415) 333-4357 (HELP). Sexual assault survivors can also call San Francisco Women Against Rape at (415) 647-7273. If you have been sexually assaulted, it is recommended that medical attention be sought within 72 hours of the assault.  If you need immediate assistance call 911 for help. Remember, you are not alone!
  • Safety Buddies – Make a plan with a friend, neighbor, or co-worker who knows where you will be and what to do if you need help. Keep an eye on each other if you are going out together.
  • Call for Help – Bring a whistle, a fully-charged cell phone, or just shout to get the attention of people around you.
  • Buy Your Own! – Get your own drinks and take ’em with you! Never leave drinks unattended.

Abundant Mushroom Soup

I went shopping at CostCo (with my mother) last week. Alas, I happened to be slightly hungry at the time. A person who lives alone should never shop for food at a warehouse where everything comes in “Eight Is Enough” quantities. Most of the things we bought, we split: a tub of grapes, a big container of dates. I was attracted to a thousand fairies‘ worth of mushrooms. Mum doesn’t like mushrooms so they were all mine.

With this cold cold weather, I crave hearty, earthy soups.  Below is the recipe for what I made, using the mushrooms and whatever else I had handy. It was very good with a side of simple roasted butternut squash and fennel, each of which I cut up into big quarters, slathered with olive oil and black pepper on the cut sides, and put in the oven cut side down at 400 degrees just before I started the soup.  (Total roasting time was about 1 hour, which was a bit longer than I intended just because I got so excited to eat the soup that I forgot about the oven… but everything turned out soft and delicious nonetheless.)
As for the soup, I am not a fussy cook (though I am a fussy eater) so it is simple and easy to make. Chopping the mushrooms took a while only because there were so many. Other than that, I put everything in the pot and Facebooked for a while until the soup was cooked (and the squash was roasted). I don’t like cooking with stocks and bullion; it makes no sense to me, so this soup is good and tasty with no stock necessary. If you are a stock-lover, though, you could substitute some of your stock for some of the water.
Finally, these quantities are approximate. If you cook a lot, you’ll know how to improvise and your soup will turn out delicious. If you’re wary, you can either experiment and say a little trusting prayer to the kitchen goddesses to help you, or you might prefer a real recipe.
Abundant No-Stock Mushroom Soup (Vegan)
Chop up your mushrooms. The more the merrier, really. What kind of mushrooms? Mine looked like large crimini but the package said ‘baby portabella.’  The package was about 2-3 times the size of the regular grocery store quantity.  I think any kind of mushroom or combo would be good in this simple soup.  If you’re using a dried type of mushroom, I’m assuming you know how to handle them; do the soak-in-boiled-water thing before you chop.
Dice one shallot, half a red onion, and a leek (white part only), or some combination thereof. I knew I was going to blend the soup at the end so I didn’t worry too much about the size of my chopping. If you don’t have a blender, you should chop to the size you like to eat things floating in your soup.
In a big pot or wok, heat olive oil (I used about a quarter cup) and sautee the shallot/onion/leek family until they are mellow, like your family after a round of hot toddies. (About 3-5 minutes.)  Add the mushrooms and cover with more than enough water.  If you like a creamier soup, use part water and part unsweetened soy or almond milk. If you’re the measuring type, I’d say about 1.5 times as much liquid as mushrooms. Cover and bring to a boil.
Add 3 bay leaves and generous quantities (approx 1 Tbsp each) of dried basil, sage, oregano, and black pepper. Salt to taste but go lightly on the salt because some of your liquid will boil down; you can always add more salt later.  Stir.  Simmer, uncovered. 
Go do something else for 20-30 minutes. You could, for example, do the dishes. Or instead you could blog about what you cooked yesterday.  This sets up a nice life rhythm: cook, blog about what you cooked, eat; cook, blog about what you cooked, eat. Unfortunately, eventually the dishes will assert themselves as you will have nothing left with which to cook or eat. Unless, of course, someone does it for you.
Now the soup should smell delicious and the mushrooms and spices should be nicely integrated. Turn off your heat and set up your blender.  If you have an immersion blender, go ahead and blend the soup right in the pot.  If you have a stand-up style blender, pour the soup in batches into it, blend, and return to the pot.  Either way it ends up a thick, yummy, mushroomy texture.  If you have no blender, your soup is still yummy, it’s a clear  mushroomy broth with chunks o’ mushroom.  Taste for salt and add more if you need too.
Serve by itself or with bread, or crackers, or the roasted veggies that you are NOT forgetting to take out of the oven.

Solstice Vegan Chocolate Mousse

I mentioned that I had this as part of my very lovely solstice evening, and someone asked for the recipe. I’m writing down how my genius friend Miriam showed me to make it.  She adapted it from somewhere else.   Despite the picky tone of my instructions below, it’s really easy and took about 15 minutes at most.  You can substitute non-organic stuff and a different brand of chips if you want; it might not be quite as virtuous, but it will still be incredibly tasty.  Fool your non-vegan friends — it’s that good.

Vegan Chocolate Mousse
1 package organic silken tofu — the very softest kind.  Press some of the water gently out of it by putting it in either cheesecloth or a thick paper towel (or a couple layers), placing the bundle in a colander, and putting a bowl or something on top of it. It’s not like pressing hard tofu; you don’t need much weight.  Leave it for a few minutes.  If you forget to do this ahead, you can squeeze it over the sink like Miriam did.  Be gentle.
1  10-oz  package Guittard or other non-dairy dark (= “semi-sweet”) chocolate chips.  Melt these on low or medium heat in the microwave. I use the defrost setting. Put it in for a couple of minutes at a time and stir frequently.  If you don’t like radiation you can also melt chocolate in a double-boiler but I have no idea what that even is.
Meanwhile, move the tofu into your mousse bowl and mash it up a bit.  Add a few shakes of organic vanilla and mix.  We’re not talking a few drops here, two to four liberal shakes of the bottle should do it.  Taste the tofu to make sure you’ve added enough vanilla to get rid of the (normal) slightly bitter aftertaste that all tofu has.
Are you remembering to stir your chocolate as you keep melting it?
Now get your electric eggbeater or immersion blender or mixer or whatever ready to go.  AS SOON AS the chocolate is all melted, pour it in a steady stream into the bowl while mixing with the mixer. If you have a sous-chef, have him or her pour the chocolate while you mix and hold the bowl. 
(If you dilly-dally, or if you try hand-mixing, you will cause your mousse to be lumpy since the chocolate will quickly harden into little bits as it cools.  It will still be yummy, but more like creamy pudding goodness with little chocolate flakes in it, rather than a mousse.  If you don’t have any of these devices and are considering investing in one, and/or have a last-minute Santa sugar daddy waiting in the wings, an immersion blender would be my choice. It’s a vegan’s best friend and you can also use it for smoothies, soups, etc. It has a sleek and sexy form. And it’s easy to clean up which is important so you can spend more time eating your mousse and less time cleaning up after it.)
When the tofu and chocolate are nicely combined and very smooth, put the bowl in the refrigerator for 10 minutes or so.  Occupy yourself by licking the bowl if you like.
Voila!  Mousse.  You can top it with real or fake whipped cream, or not.
I think it is important to have chocolate on the longest night of the year.