The end of email?

As I get a little more fluent with (ok, addicted to) Web 2.0, I’m having an Aha! moment.  I believe email is, very soon, going to be all but obsolete. 

Remember the early days, when it was very exciting to get a message — any message — at all?  “You’ve Got Mail!” said the cute little AOL alert.  It actually spoke out loud every time you got an email! Someone loved you!  People actually paid to use email, though I didn’t; I canceled my AOL account at the end of my free 30-day trial period. Other than the person I lived with, no one was emailing me anyway.
[A long aside: It was sometime during this period — probably 1996 — when I was at a Silicon Valley cocktail party (such things were just beginning to happen). I worked for the soon-to-be-rebranded “newspaper of Silicon Valley” and I started chatting with a guy who had just started a company to give people free email accounts. He gave me his business card so I could check it out for myself. 
Once home, I emptied out my purse and looked at the card: Sabeer Bhatia.  Hmm, well, I already had a free email account at work. I threw the card out. 
Years later, at some point when I had not one but three Hotmail accounts, I regretted that I hadn’t immediately offered to invest half of my paltry income in his startup. I tell this story so that you, dear reader, know to take any technology predictions posted here with a few googol grains of salt.]
Anyway, that sweet phase of email-as-fun-and-love lasted about a minute, and was quickly followed by the horror years.  All of us, but especially those of us in the news and information business, were virtually buried under piles of email, unsorted and unmanaged — the wanted and the unwanted, the trivial and the serious, the personal and the impersonal, friend and foe all arriving together by the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands. A daily, Sisyphean chore.
Many of us still live there. For me, it was so terribly distracting and unmanageable that for a couple of years as I was writing my book, I actually got rid of my home internet service.  This backward step was incredibly liberating and allowed me to seize control of my inbox again. Here’s how I did it, in case anyone out there wants to stage a personal Luddite rebellion and try it:
  • I literally unplugged (and stopped paying for) Internet service in my apartment, and instead bought a $55 wireless card for my laptop (of course, now they come installed).  I didn’t have a wireless network at my house, so presto, no internet at home. 
  • I automated my accounts to alert anyone who sent me a message that I was checking email once a week or less, and to call me if the matter was urgent. (No, I didn’t put my phone number in the outgoing message; I figured if they didn’t already know me well enough to have it, how urgent could it be?)  My lovely friends and family quickly learned to call instead of email if they wanted to reach me.
  • I got off most of my group lists, and kept the ones I wanted on a digest-only or read-online-only basis, so that they didn’t exceed my inbox capacity.  
  • Using an online guide like this one, I scoped out places with a pleasant environment and free internet. San Francisco’s public libraries and the Cole Valley Cafe became favorites.
  • Throughout the week, I would jot down (on paper!) a list of tasks I needed to conduct online.
  • Once a week or so, I would go to one of my spots, have a mocha, and spend a very efficient hour or two online. I quickly learned to skim and delete, and I enjoyed the satisfaction of checking items off my (paper!) list. 
It was lovely.
Ultimately, of course, that modus operandi worked wonderfully for a writer needing to produce a big work in solitude and concentration — but it’s not so great for a writer/performer with a book coming out into the world.  Now that I’m living large online again, I find that things have changed, dramatically, for the better.  
Now, for all but a few tasks, I’m finding that the new tools are so much better than email. And the techie geniuses out there seem ever-more devoted to making these tools really easy for a fuzzy like me.  (My college classmates will recognize the techie v. fuzzy distinction.)
So here’s what I’m using right now: 

  • Google docs, for sharing documents for client work and review by multiple editors. No more “I couldn’t open the attachment!”
  • Groups (Yahoo, Google, etc) and forum/bulletin board posting functions for creative drafts, documents within a virtual community.
  • Facebook and LinkedIn for staying in touch with extended personal and professional network, as well as introducing people to each other. No more “So what have you been up to lately?” emails.
  • This blog (powered by WordPress) for incremental progress reports and random creative spurts. I also like that blogging is totally consensual; I don’t have to worry about irritating people by sending them too many emails about trivial updates, or decide which friends would really be interested in which of my various book updates and pithy observations. 
  • Gmail chat and Facebook chat for quick hits, arranging meeting times, logistics, flirting, quick one-on-one catching up with friends. I particularly love how Chat eliminates the long strings of emails saying “I don’t know if I can meet at 6. Does 6:30 work for you? / OK, but can we meet near my work then? There’s a Thai place. / No, I don’t really feel like Thai. / Cuban, then? / etc.”  One quick chat, and it’s all settled!  It’s so easy that, during my recent bout with bronchitis/laryngitis when I couldn’t talk on the phone for days and days, I even persuaded the recalcitrant and tech-averse Daddi G to g-chat with me.  Hoorah!
  • Gmail video chat and Skype for virtual conversation.  On Google video, I did an interview with a magazine reporter based in New York who wanted to look at my family photographs as part of her interview.  In theory I could use Skype to chat with my family all over the world, though I haven’t yet used it much.
  • Designated private chat rooms for topic discussion, such as for an online writing class I’m currently taking.
  • Evite to invite people to events and respond to invitations. Facebook also has useful event and group tools, so I’m doing more of my inviting and social/writerly event coordination there instead.
  • And of course, my trusty little Helio Fin cell phone, where I can access all of this at anytime, even though it’s not a superduper smartypants crackberry or iphone.
Sometimes it feels like the only reason I still use email anymore is that not everyone in my life is using these tools. Or people are using different tools than I am; if you’re on MySpace and I’m on LinkedIn, we probab
ly still need email to connect online.   But it seems like our techie friends are working fiercely on integration. Already I can, for example, feed this blog into my Facebook page with ease. I also like the integration across my various gadgets such as the phone, laptop, and iPod (I believe these are called “platforms,” but that makes me think of Vegas shoes).  
And I realize I’m just scratching the surface — I don’t use Twitter, MySpace, SecondLife, etc. Still, at my decidedly fuzzy level, I’m finding two clear benefits of all this interactivity:
  1. My email inbox is more under control than ever.  This is also because of the genius of gmail, and my friend Patty’s advice on how to use it.  Now, at any given time, my actual inbox has fewer than a dozen items. Everything else is neatly sorted (filtered) away into folders, searchable and available to me at any time, but not screaming for attention.
  2. The time I spend online is not reduced, but it is more fun, less tedious.  I hang out on Facebook way too much, not because I have thousands of pesky chores piled up waiting for me to decide or act or delete or just read — but because I like to.   I could stop anytime (really, I could!) without that horrible feeling of being behind and overwhelmed.  
So, how about you?  Are you ready to attend the end-of-email celebration/wake? 
I’ll set up the evite.

First sign of the apocalypse?

It’s almost midnight and I’m awake listening to the umpteenth hailstorm of the day.  Some last just a few seconds; the longest have been maybe 15 or 20 minutes. They produce small lentil-sized balls of ice that quickly melt away. This particular hailstorm seems harder and longer than the others; it sounds like a flock from The Birds pecking at every window of the house at the same time.  

The hail itself isn’t really a problem, but the cold is inconvenient.  It’s COLD!  We are not used to below-freezing temperatures here in San Francisco;  houses, clothes, etc, just aren’t made for it.  Brrrrrr.

My cat was totally freaking out earlier, especially after he got hailed on (he goes outside sometimes).  Now he’s curled on my lap, and when it hails he just perks up his ears and looks at the windows. I guess he’s adapted, as I suppose we all will when global climate change starts to really hit home.
In between hailstorms I went to a community yoga class with the wonderful Skeeter Barker.  I’ve never been to a yoga class where people laugh so often.  It’s nice to have fun while sweating and stretching.  
Other than that outing, it’s been perfect weather for nesting, getting little things done at home and on the computer, napping, and doing lots of not-much.
If today’s hailstorms are a harbinger the end of the world, I wonder how long we have left. Maybe it’s silly, but I’d at least like a chance to enjoy my book launch first.  I’d hate to have all those years of fantasizing about talking to Terry Gross be wasted; can’t I at least have *chance* at being on “Fresh Air” before armageddon hits?

Negligee, fur coat, and mind map: My ‘puter accessories

I got a new MacBook Pro in September, and I adore it.  It was a few weeks before the latest versions announced in October, so it was on sale (deal!),  awfully cute, and a huge leap forward from my 2002 Sony Vaio (which I also loved, but in a less cuddly-wuddly way).  
Accessories are a necessity (say that ten times fast), so my MacBook now has a very hot red see-through outfit that it wears all the time, and which I’ve further gussied up with stickers. For going out on the town, it glams up with a fabulous fur coat (aka laptop sleeve) that looks like Cookie Monster from Sesame Street.  Unfortunately the MacBook’s built-in camera cannot take a picture of itself, unless I were to rig something up with a mirror, which I’m too lazy to do on the coldest Saturday ever in San Francisco, so you’ll just have to look at the two pictures and imagine them together with Dora the Explorer and other assorted adorable stickers.
Now that the outside is taken care of, I’m starting to accessorize on the inside.  I understand that some people call this “installing software,” but that phraseology makes me feel like a plumber with erectile dysfunction, so I’m reclaiming girly shopping language for this process.  Since I am a marginally employed writer (not that I’m complaining), as well as descended from frugal immigrant stock, I have developed a strong affection for discount shopping.  When it comes to computer accessories, that means keeping an eye out for freeware, shareware, tips from friends, free trials, and good deals.
My favorite ‘”find” so far is MindNode Pro, a very simple and elegant tool for Mac users. It allows you to create mind maps.  
(Some British guy claims he invented mind-mapping, but then, they also took credit for ‘discovering’ half the world, so I’ll ignore that Google hit and instead point you to the Wikipedia article on mind mapping, which takes a more ecumenical view.)
I’ve been doodling out my to-do lists, writing ideas, etc. as mind maps for a long time, although I didn’t know what they were called. They end up looking amoebic and crazy, but they work for me.  
MindNode lets me take those doodles out of my notebooks and brainstorm on the computer, where I can save, print, revise, manipulate, and color-code them. I can also save them as PDFs for sharing with others who don’t have the software.
So far I’ve used a MindNode map to plan an upgrade to my website, with each little limb of the amoeba (octopus?) telling me what I need to do for a particular area of the site.  I printed it out and am checking things off as I go.  
Next, I’m going to try it out for a writing project, where I’m not sure yet of the order of events/scenes/ideas.  It’s hard for me to write traditional outlines because themes, scenes, and characters intersect in multiple ways, and if I knew what order they should go in, I might as well just write the story.  So I’m looking forward to enjoying the mind map as a way to both capture my developing ideas, AND have the flexibility to move them around.
The best part of the MindNode software is that you can download it for ABSOLUTELY FREE, and keep it forever (it’s not a trial period).  If your mind maps grow more complex, to where you need more than 20 ‘nodes’ in a single map, then you can easily upgrade to the paid version, which costs all of …. $15.
I recommend it for anyone who wants to try a non-linear, creative way of thinking through a process, story plot, or just day-to-day tasks.
(PS I realize that some bloggers are paid to recommend products. I (alas?) am not. I just like to share. In case you were wondering.)

Book news, job listings

I’m performing, planning, hiring… enjoying the last bit of 2008, and laying the groundwork for 2009.  And I’d love your company!
SF Reading Friday 12/26

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area for the holidays, please join me and several other authors on Friday, Dec. 26, at Hamara Mushaira – the hottest, smartest desi lit event of the season.

Hamara Mushaira is the evening program of the South Asian Lit Association conference, which happens in conjunction with the Modern Language Association conference every winter.   This year’s theme is “Gender and Sexuality” so you know that’s gonna be fun.   I’m excited to be sharing the stage with Toronto-based novelist Farzana Doctor, author of Stealing Nasreen; Chicago-based writer Mary Anne Mohanraj; and other talented writers/performers.

Details: Friday Dec. 26, 8:00-10:30pm, Galleria Park Hotel, 191 Sutter St, SF.

For full conference program or if you’d like to become a member of SALA, please see:

The evening program is open to everyone.  I’d love to see you there.

Help birth the book!
LEAVING INDIA officially launches in March and we’re rolling with loads of good news: readings lined up in several cities, a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and a lovely blurb from Alice Walker.  It’s quite a change for me, from hibernating for seven years as I wrote the book, to getting ready to take it public. I’d love help in brainstorming and creating a fun, community-based book launch and tour!  In particular:

PARTY TIME: Got ideas, venues, connections for holding launch parties in San Francisco and New York? I’m looking for locations, co-sponsoring organizations, food/drink providers, DJs, and fellow performers.  I have a small budget and can also do trade and/or publicity and/or a friends-and-family rate because yes, I pay for the party! If you love to plan a party and want to share the fun of planning either of these celebrations with me, it would be totally fun to do it as a team project. 🙂

AT THE MIC: Invitations to speak, read, perform in your area are very welcome.  In March/April 2009, I’ll be touring in NY, DC, LA, SF Bay Area, and Toronto.  In addition to the bookstore readings my publisher is setting up, I would love to collaborate with other artists/performers on joint events while I’m in town.  It’s not just about the bookstores anymore, so I definitely welcome your ideas and contacts at community spaces, museums, universities, non-profits, etc.  (For those of you with academic connections, I’m also available to teach creative writing and performance workshops in late spring, or fall 2009.)

MEDIA BUZZ: Know a journalist who would be interested in covering the book and/or me?  Let me know!  Or, are you a freelancer who wants to do a review or interview?  Occasionally editors ask me to suggest a reporter, so do get in touch.  And of course, if you happen to be connected with the “big media” – Oprah, the New York Times Book Review, major national magazines and broadcast venues – you’re my new best friend.  Seriously, any contacts you feel comfortable sharing would be very welcome, and will be treated with the utmost professionalism.

Now Hiring… You?

I’m looking for a few smartypantses to work with me for the next few months, and possibly beyond. An upbeat, professional attitude is really important to me, and I’d love to keep resources within the (progressive, queer/trans, poc) community. These are paid positions. I am also open to barter if you’re in need of professional editing, writing, writing coaching, or manuscript consultation. Anyone interested should email me with a brief description of herself/himself and a daytime phone number.

The jobs are:

– An assistant who can work with me in my San Francisco home office, a few hours per week, on various administrative, marketing, and creative support tasks. The most pressing of these are: to help me sort out my contacts from several databases into one place; to help plan SF and NY launch parties; to provide home-base support for me during the book tour; and to assist with other tasks that help support my consulting/freelance work. This person should be super-duper-organized, Mac-literate, able to take a task and run with it, and more tech-savvy than me.  This is a paid, hourly position from now through April 2009 (and possibly beyond, if available).  Since this person will be in my home regularly, I’d really like to hire based on a friend’s referral.

– A web designer/graphic designer who knows the latest bells and whistles, and can help me take my website to the next level. I have a wee bit of Dreamweaver training, but the more I learn, the more I realize that at this point my ideas far outpace my skills.  I prefer someone with a strong visual sense, who can stay calm while troubleshooting technical problems, who can be patient with dumb questions, who is willing to teach me to keep the site maintained, and who is based in or near SF because I find at least occasional face-to-face meetings helpful. This is a paid contract position based on the designer’s estimate. Work will need to be completed by Feb. 10, with possibly a small number of ongoing maintenance and design update hours thereafter.

– A person to set up QuickBooks for my little consulting/freelance editing biz.  I can maintain it on my own but I’d like to be sure the categories, etc., are set up correctly. This is a paid position based on a work estimate. I’d like to have this set up by mid-January, if possible, so that I can start the new year fiscally organized.

Thanks in advance for your help!

And if you made it this far, thank you for reading.  You definitely deserve a holiday cookie and a sparkly beverage now.  Enjoy the rest of 2008 … and may 2009 be full of wonder, excitement, art, and community for you.



Grinching and Gifting

Every year I feel grumpy about Christmas.  Sometimes it’s severely raging grumpy bitchy grinchy.  Other years, like this one, it’s more sort of sigh-grumbly.  

For me, winter (especially this one, after I’ve been sick) feels like a time to stay indoors and enjoy the long dark nights and reflect, hibernate, restore.  I am attracted to the parties and social time with friends, but part of me senses that the holiday buzz and tinsel and lights are a cultural attempt at avoiding our bodies’ and planet’s natural, instinctive turn toward darkness.

Still, I’m inspired by my friend DH, who lets her inner child really enjoy the lights and the magic of the season.  Perhaps one of these years I’ll rediscover that part…  
I only had a couple of years of the full-on Christmas experience as a kid.  Until age seven, I grew up in New Zealand. It was a homogenous Christian country at the time, and people tended to mark it as a religious holy day in private or with their churches.  It certainly wasn’t the humongous commercial extravaganza that it is now in the United States.
I was in second grade when we moved to the United States.  My parents started getting a tree and (more?) gifts for us each year. They didn’t want us to feel left out (which I appreciate!), and I think they liked it, too, even though it was probably lots of extra work and required careful budgeting.  It was fun to get Stuff, and I liked singing Christmas carols in school. I was already 7, though, and maybe I believed in Santa Claus for a year or two, or maybe not even that. 
Eventually, as an adult, I started being grossed out by the commercialism and the obligatory nature of the holiday.  So many people I know just dread, absolutely dread, having to spend time with certain family members whom they can barely tolerate and don’t see for the rest of the year. And the consumption mania is rather out of control.  So a few years ago I tried to stop exchanging gifts with my family, suggesting we just spend time together but not shop.  
My brother agreed, so now he and I don’t exchange gifts.  He’s got a big family and plenty of people to shop for.  Plus, we’re both grown and neither of us really needs Stuff.  Or maybe he was just like, “Whatever, weird sister.” 🙂
But my parents weren’t having it. My mother said: “You don’t have to get us anything, but I’m gonna get YOU something no matter what!”  Way to lay down the law, Mum. So I feel sort of sheepish writing a letter to Santa at my age, but it’s best if I say what I really want, and find out what they really want, and it can all be rather nice if I keep it in perspective and stay grateful instead of getting stressed.
I still think Christmas is best for kids, though.  My nieces don’t need any Stuff either, of course; their toy room overfloweth.   But now they are old enough (5, 5, and 6.5) to have definitive preferences: One likes fairies and princesses, while another despises them. One likes pink, another likes purple.  So their letters to Santa are actually quite helpful, and I think I might actually do the Xmas thing for them this year.  (Usually I send them stuff in an erratic, year-round way instead.)  My brother and sister-in-law try to ensure that the girls’ lists for Santa are realistic (no ponies) and include a range of prices.  
So here, from the mouths of the babes, is what’s hot in the kindergarten set:
Tea also wants fairy and princess stuff.  Zoe likes books, so I’m going to get her A Poet’s Journey, a lovely fable that the author says is suitable for pre-readers and readers age 4-7 (or just young at heart).  
And Ava wants a model V8 engine.  Go, Ava!  Who says the auto industry is dead?
I also have a god-daughter, but I suspect she and her little sister are a bit too young to know what they really want.  They would probably be happy with a big cardboard box to unwrap and climb inside of.
My parents are getting something I won’t post here, in case they happen to read this.
Me, I want:
  • a camera (was gonna write, digital camera, but I guess they’re ALL digital now) that can take both still pictures and a few minutes of video, is Mac-compatible, and has an underwater housing so I can take it diving.  
  • a bundt pan, because I’ve been wanting to try out some cool cake recipes from this awesome vegan cookbook that require one.
  • world peace.
What can I say, I may be grinchy but I’m still greedy.  Does that make me a true American?
I also would like a pony.  No, make that a unicorn. 
Happy holidays to you, if you celebrate.  May you be granted everything you need this season, and the best of what you want, too.

Hetero-friendly film reviews: “Dostana” and “Milk”

Quick take:

Dostana“: Cheesy but fun fake gay film. 
Milk“: Well-made but slightly flat real gay film. 
Both hetero-friendly.
Slow take:
I recently received in the mail a copy of Passport magazine. Although the website calls it “The Insider’s Guide to Gay Travel,” on my actual magazine the tagline reads: “The Hetero-Friendly Gay Travel Magazine.”
What does that even mean?  Leave aside the utter lack of poetry and the clearly ineffective marketing strategy (please raise your hand if, straight or gay, those words would make you buy this magazine!) … here, in a 30-point white sans-serif nutshell, is the central dilemma of mainstream gay messaging:
It wants to be gay.  Oh yes it does.  But not too gay!  It still wants to be loved.  So even as it asserts its gayness, it must apologize for being gay.  Pride and shame, hand in hand.
Which brings me to our movies o’ the moment.
MOVIE #1:  “Dostana 
This is being billed as the first gay Bollywood movie. There have been some truly queer independent Indian films (“Fire,” “My Brother Nikhil“), but this is the only one to come out of the big-bucks, mega-stars industry that pumps out hundreds of movies a year.  
So the first obvious question is, Is “Dostana” really a gay movie?  The answer: Only if you thought “Three’s Company” was a gay show.  In “Dostana,” two hunky guys pretend to be gay lovers so they can move into an apartment owned by a gorgeous single woman. Of course they both fall in love with her, and drama and silliness ensue.
Like most of the three-hour comedic musical melodramas produced by Bollywood, Dostana is way too long by half.  Pre-intermission is much better than post-intermission, so feel free to leave after your popcorn or samosa break if you want. Over the second half of the movie, the plot gets increasingly ridiculous as the not-gay boys compete and scheme to get their girl.  For a queer viewer, the most interesting point of suspense becomes, Are the two men going to kiss or not?  I won’t give it away, but if you want to leave at halftime (or not go at all), you can watch a grainy bootlegged YouTube video of the climactic will-they-or-won’t-they moment here.
There are two actual gay characters, both very swishy, a magazine editor and (amusingly) a U.S. immigration officer.  Their portrayals, as well as the straight characters trying to act gay, are highly stereotypical and not for the easily offended.
At the same time, though, “Dostana” is obviously a film that had gay authorship and involvement in the creation. There are inside jokes and references to other Bollywood films and queer culture, and several precious, catty, subversive comments that could have only been inserted by gay (closeted? out? who knows) insiders.
“Dostana” has several things going for it.  It’s fun and entertaining, especially the first half.  It shows ordinary straight Indians having positive reactions to and relationships with ordinary “gay” and gay Indians, which is a step forward.  And the music is really good.
I think “Dostana” will leave a legacy. For starters, it will solidify the sexy John Abraham’s position as a gay icon. More substantively, it should open the doors for other Bollywood films to have increasingly normalized and authentic gay characters in secondary roles, and perhaps eventually in main roles.  It shows that a gay theme is not a box-office killer.
And most immediately, it’s given us a theme song. “Maa Da Laadla Begad Gaya,” which I’ll very roughly translate as “Mama’s Boy is Ruined,” rhapsodizes about the son becoming the bride and the mother shedding tears.  Though the lyrics are tongue-in-cheek tragic, the tune is classic catchy Bollywood pop. I expect to hear it at every desi queer party from now till the next millennium.
The song I liked the most was called “My Desi Girl,” and it’s about how Indian women are the most gorgeous ever. It’s so over the top that it’s kind of ridiculous, and it’s obviously a retrograde assertion of heterosexuality so that the movie won’t come off as too gay… but it still made me feel kinda happy.  (By the way, I can’t vouch for the safety of downloading songs from these links, though I’ve risked it and so far suffered no obvious adverse consequences.)
MOVIE #2:  “Milk 
I was really excited to see this film, made by Gus Van Sant (whose “My Own Private Idaho” was one of the most beautiful boy movies ever) and starring Sean Penn, who is G’s man-crush.  
First the good:  Penn does an amazing job inhabiting a completely different body and mannerisms than his own, without swishing.  The acting is really great, and the film makes interesting use of archival footage in an attempt to make history come alive.  It was great to see it at the Castro and then walk outside and be dazzled by being in the middle of such an important story.  I loved learning how thousands of ordinary queers, by organizing and coming out and asserting themselves, defeated the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in one of the first populist electoral victories for gay Americans. And I cried at the candlelight vigil at the end, lovingly re-created with hundreds of extras from our community, some of whom I recognized.
The film also powerfully shows the schism that still exists today between the assimilationist and radical wings of the U.S. gay movement. The argument between the “establishment gays” like the editor of the Advocate and the grassroots street activists that Milk organized is still going on, and was most evident in the recent No on Proposition 8 campaign, much of whose campaign literature studiously avoid the words “gay and lesbian.”
So this movie is the opposite of “Dostana” in a lot of ways: it’s faithful to real gay people, politically progressive, and … not really very entertaining.
The main problem is that there’s very little suspense.  Basically two things happen in the movie: In the first half, Harvey Milk gets elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors. In the second half, he gets killed.  Since it’s history, almost everyone knows both those facts walking in the door.  The job of the filmmaker, then, is to create suspense in character development and subplots.
That doesn’t happen, partly because “Milk” is so hagiographical that none of the characters can get very complicated or, really, develop.  Dan White, the killer, is wack from his very first scene to his last.  Harvey Milk is good, sweet, hard-working, and politically right-on from beginning to end.  The only person who has any kind of conversion experience is Cleve Jones, who goes from street hustler to the campaign’s main man, but even that is more a testament to Milk’s compassion in adopting the strays of the community than an attempt at actually showing a character’s emotional trajectory.  It’s as if the filmmaker couldn’t risk, in a mainstream release about a gay hero, to portray that hero or his allies as anything less than perfect.
Instead, the real transformation in the film is in the gay movement itself, which provides some excitement, though in a more intellectual than emotional way. Still, this portrayal made me glad to have seen “Milk,” as well as eager to watch the 1994 documentary that covers the same territory, “The Times of Harvey Milk.”
Watching both “Milk” and “Dostana,” I was reminded of what I once heard the director Frank Oz say about his 1997 movie “In & Out“:  “It was about being subversive while being safe. … A studio’s not going to give you $40 million for a movie about a gay teacher without being entertaining to a whole lot of people.”
At the time I saw “In & Out,” several years ago, I was really offended by it and by Oz’s “safe but subversive” claim in the post-film talk.  The movie didn’t seem subversive at all to me; it was merely safe, and stereotypical. The main character of “In & Out” is a swishy teacher whom everyone thinks is gay because of how he walks, but he says he isn’t. Tom Selleck has a cameo role and … well, it’s just really bad.
But this weekend, watching “Dostana,” I sort of understood how someone of a certain generation in a mainstream movie studio at a certain political moment might truly believe that that was the only feature he could make.  
And watching “Milk,” I understood how, before the current marriage movement, large numbers of Americans (think Anita Bryant and the Briggs Initiative) found the issue of gay teachers so threatening that perhaps a silly comedy was a reasonably subversive way to approach it.  
Still, even Oz expressed mixed feelings about his final product: “I wanted it safe, but maybe not that safe.”
And that might be why, in general, I like truly subversive and risk-taking indie movies way, way more than the mainstream versions, with their fiscally motivated, built-in, hetero-friendly, safety features.

While I was out

Despite a lingering cough and the need for frequent naps (ok, more frequent than usual), I think I’ve more or less recovered from my recent assorted ailments.  And during the weeks I was coughing / sneezing / sleeping, a lot of cool things have been happening around the book launch.  Here’s a roundup:

  • The most amazing thing is that Alice Walker (yes, THAT Alice Walker!) blurbed my book! Here’s what she has to say:

I love Minal Hajratwala’s book LEAVING INDIA. It is what I imagine India itself to be like: incomparable, sprawling, rich, surprising, very old and wise and forever capable of re-creating itself, no matter where pieces of it land. Minal Hajratwala is a fine daughter of the continent, bringing insight, intelligence and compassion to the lives and sojourns of her far-flung kin. For those of us who have needed to understand the presence of so many Indians in our various lands, this book is a wonderful primer.

If I were an engineer/electrician/sculptor, I’d wire this up in flashing lights and carry it around on my body and look at it every time I started to feel the slightest bit discouraged, or cranky, or anything less than completely grateful and excited to be alive and to be a writer.
I received the email about this blurb (incomparable!  sprawling!  rich!) when I was so very sick that I was spending about 20 of every 24 hours in bed. I printed it out, taped it up next to my pillow, then spent the next two days doing this: — blow nose — read Alice Walker quote — have coughing fit — read Alice Walker quote — try to sleep — get woken up by coughing — spit green phlegm and blood — read Alice Walker quote —
The green phlegm is gone, thank goodness, but the quote remains.  There’s still something very unreal about it for me. Alice Walker is one of my real heroes:  a writer who made me want to write, an activist who made me want to believe.  Her work has been a guiding beacon for me in terms of craft as well as integrity, story-telling, and spiritual depth.  For many years I had a larger-than-life framed photograph of her up in my writing space for inspiration and encouragement.  So I barely believe she’s real, let alone that she really read and commented on my work!  
In practical terms, this is way cool because it gives us something to put on the book jacket. Blurbs can help readers decide to take a chance and buy a book, even if they haven’t heard of the book’s author.  At least, that’s what publishers hope; so a fair amount of behind-the-scenes energy and strategizing goes into deciding which people to ask, how to approach them, etc. My editor asked me for a “wish list” of people I’d like to see endorse the book, and even though most of them were long shots, we sent out copies; and she responded.
We’re still working on getting other blurbs, of course, but for me, this one is more than enough — and I haven’t stopped being thrilled every time I read it.
  • Little things have been happening too, like pre-publication listings in Library News (which helps librarians figure out what books to order) as well online booksellers like Tower and Amazon (where you can even pre-order a copy!  same goes with your local independent bookstore).  By the way, for my fellow narcissists out there, Google Alerts is a great tool because instead of obsessively googling myself every day or hour, I can let Google do it for me, and get email notification whenever a new website has my name in it.  These listings make me appreciate what a vast machinery is in place to get books into the world, and how all kinds of people I’ll never meet have hand in getting my book out to readers. Hoorah for interdependence
  • The first readings have been set up, which is super-exciting!  Tentatively, I think I’ll be in New York and Washington DC in mid-March, and then come home for a reading at my awesome neighborhood bookstore, Booksmith on Haight Street, on March 26.  Then it’s down to Los Angeles for a gig at the L.A. Public Library.  Details to come…
  • We’ve been laying the groundwork for a publicity campaign, putting out the word to my friends and old journalism buddies as well as the media at large.  I’m working with a lovely and very smart publicity manager assigned to me by my publishing house, and despite all the horror stories one hears from authors about their publicists, so far so good for me!
  • I did my first magazine interview for the book last week, with a very patient reporter who put up with me being on codeine brain and talking verrrrry slowwwly. It’s interesting to be on the other side of the interview, trying to sum up many years of work in a few pithy yet authentic comments.  I think I’ll get better at it with practice. 
  • Having been a journalist for years, I don’t get too excited about just seeing my name in print, but seeing my baby’s, I mean my book’s, name in print is still exciting. So if you happen to be a reader of Buddhadharma magazine, you can see a teensy item on me in the Mahasangha News section in the back.  

  • So, that’s quite a bit…  It’s delightful that even as I’ve been at my most UNproductive, things continue to click along.  There is momentum, and my personal sweat-power is not as crucial at this moment to making it all happen … which is really very fabulous.

    “On Being Ill”

    Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth–rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

    –Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”

    So opens V.W.’s lovely little essay, which G gave me a couple of years ago when I was convalescing from a particularly dramatic attack of carpal tunnel syndrome. 
    In the essay, V.W. explores some of the reasons and consequences of the fact that illness has not become a theme of (Western) literature on the par of, say, love, or evil.  Perhaps readers would revolt, she says.  Perhaps we’d rather dwell in the dramas of the mind than admit we have a body.   And then, there isn’t very good language for it:  

    The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.

    I’ve been noticing this lack of language, myself.  What language there is sounds rather mundane, and doesn’t in any case communicate the actual experience to someone who hasn’t had it.  “I’m still pretty sick,” for example, is a rather dull way to describe how I’m feeling today, but I’m quite sure it’s preferable to a detailed version of my day, which would be mostly a very tedious account of various states of congestion and phlegmaticness and the various remedies and efforts and decisions I made to attempt to alter these states.  Really, who cares?  I certainly wouldn’t, if it weren’t my very own body.
    Another reason there’s probably not so much writing about illness is that it makes you too tired to write.  I’m starting to feel better (relatively), which I can tell by the fact that this morning I was able to sit up for half an hour and write in my journal with tea this morning, which I haven’t been able to concentrate enough to do.  (Somehow blogging, in bits, is easier.)  
    I’m very relieved by this, since on Friday I was coughing up blood, which was rather scary.  
    (We interrupt this story with a brief bitch session about the health-care bureacracy.  So, since I was coughing up blood, I called my regular doctor’s office to speak to the Advice Nurse to see what I should do.  The Advice Nurse herself is a money-saving device to prevent people who don’t need to see a doctor from taking up valuable time, so I felt rather like a virtuous Model Patient as I did this.  However, the person who answered the phone took my health-card number and then told me I couldn’t speak to the Advice Nurse because I’d been dropped as a patient.  Why?  Because I hadn’t been to see my doctor in more than three years, and now they aren’t taking “new” patients.  What?  Yes, basically I had been TOO HEALTHY to be a patient.  So, with no notification, I was dumped.
    Now,  if you’ve ever been in managed care, you know that without a designated Primary Care Provider, you are … SCREWED.  You may have insurance, but you have no access to the system.  So after some prolonged bitching, during which I actually had to say something like, “Look, I really don’t care, my issue is that I’m coughing up blood and I’m calling my doctor’s office about it, and you need to either connect me with the nurse or find me a number where I can talk to someone,” this gatekeeper actually *did* connect me to the Advice Nurse.  Which sort of made me even more mad, because then I realized, “Oh, you CAN do it, you just have to HASSLE me first!”  Anyway, the advice of the Advice Nurse was to go in to the urgent care clinic.  And now, back to our regular scheduled drama.)  
    So the medium-nice doctor in the urgent care clinic (not quite as nice as the previous one, but still fine) listened to my lungs and said they sounded fine but ordered a chest X-ray just to be sure.  He put a little face mask on me to wear through the hallways “because sometimes we send people up there who are coughing who have something infectious.”  He didn’t say, but I took this to mean tuberculosis.
    Walking through the various wings of the hospital with my “just in case” mask did give me a healthy (ha) sense of perspective.  I was fairly confident I didn’t have pneumonia or tuberculosis, let alone something more tragic like emphysema or lung cancer; or even a relatively benign but still pain-in-the-ass condition like asthma.  And here I was walking past doors marked with things like Fetal Intensive Care and Advanced Radiology and Spinal Surgery Center.  So although this is probably the sickest I’ve ever been, in the larger scope of things I’ve spent my 37+ years thus far in remarkably good health.  
    And even though I was feeling sicker rather than better, I also had full faith that I would recover.   Suffering through something that I fully trust will eventually go away, although not as quickly as I’d like, is a completely different experience than it must be to have either a chronic or fatal illness.  This alone puts me in a totally fortunate and privileged position, and I feel more grateful than ever for the resilience and good grace of my body.  As I’ve been sick, I’ve also been meditating from time to time, and just feeling grateful for each breath as it comes and goes has been an excellent practice.
    Anyway, the x-ray showed my lungs to be perfectly clear, so the blood was probably just from my trachea being inflamed from several days of violent coughing.  I spent the weekend re-calibrating my various medications, taking them on a schedule that felt right according to what was going on in my body, rather than what I’d been originally told to do, and that has started to work better.
    And so, that is probably way more detail than anyone wants to know about my health right now.  I do understand why (some) old people get tedious with their health complaints; when you’re not well, it’s hard to focus on anything or anyone else.  And yet, there is a kind of relaxation in it, stepping out of the huzzah and busy-ness of (at least my) everyday life.  To quote V.W. one more time:

    Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we r
    aise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested … 

    Meanwhile, with the heroism of the ant of the bee, however indifferent the sky or disdainful the flowers, the army of the upright marches to battle. Mrs. Jones catches her train. Mr. Smith mends his motor. The cows are driven home to be milked. Men thatch the roof. The dog barks. The rooks, rising in a net, fall in a net upon the elm trees. The wave of life flings itself out indefatigably…

    Saga from the sickbed

    I have been absent from the blogosphere for some days, which may be leading some of you to wonder: What has that Minal been doing during this historic week, a week of change, when hope as well as hate were victorious, when people celebrated and rallied and held vigil and slaughtered goats with large testicles in the streets?  Has she been out canvassing and campaigning and agitating?  Has she collapsed from exhaustion and exhilaration?  Has she been busy preparing for her new duties as President Barack Obama’s Poet Laureate?  Has she burrowed into her cave again to write her next masterpiece, perhaps for National Novel Writing Month?
    My friends, I am here to report that I have been extremely productive.  Specifically, I have had what is known as a “productive” cough.  Even more specifically, what I have been producing is great, chunky gobs of guck.  They are approximately this shade of bright green and they come from my lungs; in particular, the bronchi, for which this delightful ailment is named. 
    And since I am an overachieving model minority type, bronchitis is not the only thing I am doing.  I am also serving as host to a complete set of upper respiratory bugs:  sinus infection, ear infection, and what the nice resident at UCSF called a “classic case” of conjunctivitis.  Yes, even my maladies are perfectionist.  It’s a party over here, for sure.  
    I’m not quite sure how this happened, as I am the type of person who usually goes straight to bed at the first sign of a sniffle and doesn’t wake up till I feel totally better.  I am a total baby about being even the wee-est bit sick.  
    I guess this time, I just didn’t do that.  See what I get for trying to buck up and be a good sport!  Never again.
    I first started feeling a bit sick last week in Michigan, while visiting my brother’s family for Divali.  One evening we were having dinner at Red Robin, which, for those of you without balloon-age children, is quite the family diner chain restaurant experience.  It was very cold out, especially for a wimpy Californian such as I’ve become, and I felt a little soreness in my throat.  So when the waiter came around to get our drink orders, I asked for hot water.  
    Apparently this was a fascinating and novel concept, because the Babyfaced Twin looked slyly at me and then started chirping, “Hot water! Hot water!”  And that is what she ordered to drink.  And so did the Bespectacled Twin.  The bemused and amused waiter came back with the adult drinks in real glassware and the kiddie drinks in plastic cups with straws, and quietly told us he’d put a few cubes of ice in their hot water so it wouldn’t burn their 5-year-old mouths, and everyone was happy.  I distributed pink plastic tiaras and mermaid money for all, which provided enough minutes of entertainment to hold us until the burgers and fries and whatnot arrived.
    After dinner I should have gone home to bed, but instead I went to see an old friend who lives in Ann Arbor. We stayed up till about 11 p.m., catching up with three years’ worth of news and loves and dramas over tea.  By the time I got back to my brother’s house, I had not only a sore throat but also sniffles and aches.  The next day I felt like I had either a bad cold or a not-so-bad flu.  
    And then I got on an airplane.
    I should have gotten a clue from the fact that my ears did not pop from the descent until the *next morning*.  And yes, I did cancel some things; I did not go to yoga, nor did I carve pumpkins with the Lesbo Minister. And I was really good about doing my home remedies like steam therapy, sinus rinse, lemon ginger tea, and Nyquil (which does TOO count as a home remedy).  
    But then it was Halloween, and I never do anything for Halloween, but this year I was so excited about my Kinky Ladybug Queen costume, and about my writer friend’s Halloween housewarming party, and I had pumpkins all the way from Half Moon Bay to be carved, so I just had to go out.  How could I not, with something so fabulous to wear?
    And so, what I’d thought was a nasty Michigan cold morphed into the miserable thing you see before you.  Well, actually, you don’t see, which is really for the best.  I know some people reveal all in their blogs, but I will not be posting any webcam photos of my crusty bleary snotty self this week.  No sirree.
    On the up side, during my prolonged convalescence I have discovered:
    – that my crappy bare-bones what-a-self-employed-writer-can-afford health insurance is actually better than I thought; 
    – that the UCSF Parnassus urgent care clinic is an efficient, adequately staffed, and friendly place with good intelligent caregivers; 
    – that I have wonderful friends and family who are willing to do the glamorous stuff like bring me food and meds, come over and wash dishes, and pick up prescriptions;
    – that I really, really like codeine;
    – that even if you don’t have energy for anything else, you can still somehow spend a lot, I mean A LOT, of time on Facebook;
    – that those supposedly clever political blogs are not nearly as entertaining as catching up on my friends’ blogs and what people think of Michelle Obama’s wardrobe;
    – that we have a tree in our lungs
    – that my cat really likes it when I stay home in bed 23 hours per day, just like him.
    Well, time to take my evening meds and go be “productive” again before bedtime.  
    And that’s the news from Lake GooBeGone, where all the dreams are codeine sweet, all the rooms have their own boxes of kleenex, and all the snot is green.
    P.S.: For a more entertaining take on boogers, please see “The Case for Nose Picking” on my genius friend Martha’s blog.  She’s a real humorist.

    Divali and election greetings

    This morning I sent this message to my family members who live in California and Florida, as well as to my friends.
    Dear family and friends,

    Happy Divali!  I’m happy to be spending the holiday with my Michigan family this year.  I hope you are all well.
    I am writing this especially to those of you who are or might be registered voters in California (or Florida).  I wanted to let you know the personal importance for me of one of the ballot measures, Proposition 8, which eliminates the right to marry for me and thousands of other Californians. (In Florida, it is Amendment 2.)
     In researching my book, Leaving India, I learned about the status of our people in South Africa in the early 1900s, and Mahatma Gandhi‘s movement on behalf of Indian rights.  One of the crystallizing moments of his time in South Africa was when the South African court decided that the marriages of Hindus, Muslims, and other peoples were not “valid” because they were not conducted in the Christian manner.  Overnight, many thousands of Hindu and Muslim marriages were deemed invalid, and thousands of wives were at risk of being deported.  
    That court’s decision was based on pure prejudice.  White South Africans thought Indians were barbaric, barely people at all, and certainly not deserving of human rights.  They believed that, because we were different from them and they did not understand us very well, our traditions and feelings and choices did not “count.”  Mahatma Gandhi was a young man, but he others organized the Indians of South Africa to protest in the streets against this injustice.  And eventually, these protests were successful.  The right to be married was restored.  
    This was among the beginnings of the satyagraha movement, which eventually helped lead to India’s independence.
    If Gandhi and our other ancestors recognized that the right to be married was so fundamental, and that the attempt to take it away is rooted in prejudice, I hope we can also see that today.  
    There are many different ways to approach the question of marriage, and everyone has his or her own beliefs about it.  It may be that we don’t understand others’ lives very well.  But I believe that you and I come from a tradition of tolerance, of accepting that each person has his or her own karma, and that even if we don’t understand, we can accept that every one of us is a spark of divine light.  So before we make a decision, perhaps we can put ourselves in another’s shoes:
    – Imagine if your spouse was in the hospital and you were not allowed to visit him or her.
    – Imagine if your marriage license was suddenly taken away, and your children were suddenly assigned at random to one parent, with the other parent not having any rights to visit them or even pick them up from school.
    – Imagine if your family tried to buy a house together, and wasn’t allowed to because you were not considered legally a family.
    – Imagine if your spouse passed away and you were denied all pension benefits, life insurance, inheritance, custody, and even the right to decide what kind of funeral and final rites would be conducted to put him or her to rest.
    This is what could happen to thousands of Californians who are *already* married, if Proposition 8 passes.  In California, we are blessed to have the right to marry for all. This is guaranteed by the state Constitution.  This ballot initiative is an attempt to manipulate you, the voters, into overturning this fundamental right. From what I can tell, it is not motivated by anything but hatred and fear.  Our desi community strongly values marriage and families.  It takes a lot of hate and fear and misunderstanding to work so hard to take away family rights like the ones I mentioned above from caring, loving, committed couples and families. 
    I hope you will join me in voting NO on Proposition 8 in California on November 4.  (Or Amendment 2 in Florida.)  Please feel free to forward this email to others, and to ask me more questions or talk to me about it if you wish.
    Sending you love and light, and saal mubarak (happy new year) wishes,