I feel like I’ve been arguing with my brain for a week

Plan for today: Still super-tired, still don’t know why. Sigh. Most of what I have to do is computer work, so that’s reasonably restful, but I am feeling super-avoidant about all of it, and would much rather sort out the too-small clothes in my child’s closet while half-watching a very dumb Jennifer Aniston movie, or climb up on a ladder and hammer in little nails to hang fairy lights around his room.

But am going to power through, dammit. Urgent responses on academic things first and also SLF things. Then less urgent but still important SLF things. Will take break at some point to finish croissant lamination, with plan of actually baking apple-cheddar croissants and plain croissants and chocolate croissants to greet the children with when they come home at 3.

Need to count up the marshmallows and milk toffee I’ve made already and package them, ready for shipping out with Kickstarter (Heather, I know you sent me that list, but could you send it to me again? No idea where it is. And I think a few more came in after you counted, before we closed it, so probably you need to do a final recount anyway). Then figure out how much more I have to make — I think a few more batches of marshmallows and one more of milk toffee. Need to write recipe cards.

I have 25 papers to grade, and it would be very nice of me to get that done and get them back to the students tomorrow.

Also, Wild Cards drafting. I’m making progress on the story, but it’s not done yet. Writing is peaceful. I should do some more of that. I don’t need to plant all the remaining bulbs today. (But I want to.)

I feel like I’ve been arguing with my brain for a week now, and it’s exhausting. Need to work. Need to rest. Want to do everything, except the things that are actually due. GAH.

I love this shrub

My grad school classmate, Nicole Walker, has a book, _Sustainability: A Love Story_, tiny lovely essays that are mostly centered on how we want to do good things for the planet, but it’s hard and we are lazy and so often we don’t live up to our ideals. My burning bush is one of the places where I fall down.

I love this shrub. It’s really more of a small tree. When we bought our old Victorian house, we had an arborist come by to assess the trees on the property — they said they’d never seen a burning bush get so big, and estimated it was at least a hundred years old. The lifespan of burning bush is 250 years, so that seems plausible. Since it’s planted right by the front door, and the house was built in 1885, it’s entirely possible that the first homeowners planted this when they built the house.

For over a hundred years, the burning bush has graced our front door, turning a brilliant crimson to herald the autumn. When almost everything else in our yard was destroyed during the construction and renovation process, we were careful to protect it, and it survived. A little triumph of nature, or so it seemed.

Then this year, I learned that burning bush can be invasive in our region. The bush itself is well-behaved in our garden — it doesn’t send off suckers or anything like that. (We’re *still* trying to eradicate the tree of heaven, ten years later.) It doesn’t bother the neighbors.

But it turns out that burning bush seeds are dispersed by frugivorous birds that eat the fleshy arils and spread their seeds to new locations. Once established, burning bush can form dense thickets, displacing native vegetation. It’s native to northeastern Asia and was first introduced into North America in the 1860s for ornamental purposes. (Ah, I can imagine that young mother in 1885, thrilled by the exotic shrub that she can add to her new home and garden.)

I know I should remove it and replace it with a native. Probably a serviceberry; their clusters of little white flowers would be beautiful in early spring. In summer, they’d produce lovely berries (different varieties offer red, almost black, purple, purplish-black, or blue-black). And some varieties have glorious orange-red leaves in autumn. Overall, a serviceberry would be a net gain over a burning bush, on both the ornamental and the ecological front.

And yet. On the one hand, removing and replacing a tree is costly, esp. if we want to put in a larger tree so we can enjoy it while we’re still living in this house. My garden budget is spent (and overspent) for the year already.

More of an issue is that I’ve grown attached to this burning bush. It has a story and a history, and I hate the thought of cutting its life short, perhaps only halfway through. I know it’s ridiculous, but if I could pick it up and move it to somewhere it wasn’t invasive, I’d seriously think about doing that. But that’s really not practical.

For this year, at least, the burning bush will stay. I’ve just trimmed off a partly broken branch that was hanging down and blocking the path, using it to make four different fall arrangements for the house. These berries, at least, won’t be eaten by birds and then deposited in fragile native woodlands. Maybe next year, the pangs of mother-Earth guilt I feel when I glance at the tree will outweigh the vestiges of attachment.

Maybe I’ll put my sentimentality aside then, and go serviceberry shopping. I can see those white spring blossoms already. And if that young mother in 1885 could consult with me over the decision, I think she’d approve. She worried about her children’s future too.


Nice little Maram workshops yesterday

Nice little Maram workshops + writing coaching yesterday, and Oak Park Works was a great spot for them. Warm, clean, brightly-lit and welcoming — locals, if you’re looking for co-working space, or event-hosting space, definitely check them out! I ran a little publishing workshop, helping writers understand the current indie/trad publishing scene, what their options were, and what would be involved with various approaches. We talked for two solid hours, and I think it went pretty well and was helpful to them.

Then I did some writing coaching, meeting with someone who is thinking about an MFA, looking over her submission story for some developmental edits, but mostly just talking through where she is in her writing right now, and what good next steps would be for her. It went really well, I think.

I don’t want to set up a full-time writing coach business or anything like that, but at least in the future, when doing writing workshops, I’ll try to append this kind of thing when possible. It’s satisfying — feels like my 25+ years in this field are actually offering useful perspectives. 

I’ll be back at Oak Park Works this evening at 6 p.m. with a free How to Write a Cookbook Workshop. Register at the link below if you’d like to join us! (And if you need to come in a bit late, that’s fine — I know 6 can be tricky with people’s commutes.) I’ll have copies of Feast with me, if anyone wants to pick up an early Kickstarter edition of the cookbook. If you can’t make tonight, there’s another one there, Sat. the 26th @ noon.


Here’s a dream: flexible drop-off time for elementary schools

There’s a local summer camp here (the most expensive one) that has a flexible drop-off time; anytime after 7 a.m. Here’s a dream for you — I’d love it if our public elementary schools were set up the same way. Drop off your kid anytime between 7-9 a.m. They’ll feed the ones who are hungry, do low-key supervised play and/or one-on-one tutoring / gifted enrichment with the rest, and regular schooling will start at 9.

It’d be a bit of a juggle with busing, so likely wouldn‘t solve things for everyone, but it’d be better for so many families, I think.

This message brought to you by me feeling like a hero as I drowsily moved the #spacekitten sleeping on me, in order to grumpily climb out of a warm bed at 7 a.m., to make sure Anand got dressed, fed, and out the door by 7:25 a.m.

Layers of flaky, buttery pastry

I came home from teaching thinking I’d knock out the croissant lamination, no problem. Well, first off, it turned out I hadn’t made my dough square quite large or square enough. So I took the butter square off to try again. More rolling.

Second roll got it square enough, so I put the diamond of butter inside the square, folded over the triangles (like making an envelope), and pinched them sealed. Easy-peasy. Next — flipping it over and rolling it until it measured 10″ x 20″. I have to admit, having looked at the rest of the recipe by this point and seeing just how often it asked for measurements, I caved and went down to the basement to get a ruler. [shakes fist at the French] It took a while, and my shoulder muscles had started to ache, but I did it, finally. 10″ x 20″, achieved.

Next step, fold it over in thirds, like a business letter. No problem. Flip and turn and…roll it out to 10″ x 20″ again? Okay, I can do that. It went a little easier this time, as the dough wasn’t quite as chilled, but I feel like a wimp admitting that I was super-tired by the end of this roll. I think I still have some sort of stupid lingering cold, as I have been weirdly exhausted for much of the last week (weeks?).

I did the roll out, folded it in thirds again, wrapped it and put it back in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes, sat down on the couch to look at the recipe again. Two MORE turns and rolls? Seriously? How many layers of flaky, buttery pastry does one person need?

ALL. I need ALL the layers. But I acknowledged that I had hit the point of tiredness where this was starting to be no longer fun, and there is no point in this kind of nonsense unless you are also having fun, so I paused for the night. Croissant-finishing would have to wait another day. Instead, I took myself to bed with a few episodes of dumb interior design TV and called it a night.


Croissant-making hurdle #1 — Kevin insists that the brewer’s yeast he has on hand will work just fine in bread-making, and that that jar of active dry yeast we have is very old and I shouldn’t risk it. I trust my husband, right? Right. Onwards.

Croissants, next step. So far, so good. Mix eggs, warm water, flour, sugar, yeast. This is totally within my power. I am a baking god.

Croissants, step 3. I let the frozen butter sit for about an hour, so it was no longer hard as a rock, but still cool to the touch. Sliced and into the mixing bowl. Is that enough butter for ya?

Croissants, next step. Mix butter with salt and flour in a stand mixer. Um, I used the dough hook (think maybe the paddle attachment would’ve been better), and ended up having to do a lot of shoving butter down towards the center with a spatula, which I don’t remember ever seeing them do on GBBO; am starting to question my baking god qualifications.

Still, looks all right?

8 inch square of butter mixed with flour. When we say 8 inches, we mean that I held up a 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper and eyeballed it from there, because I don’t actually keep a ruler in my kitchen because I am not as obsessive as the French, and I am also too lazy to go down to my craft table in the basement and get one. But that looks vaguely right, I think. Into the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.

Ha ha ha! You thought we surely had ENOUGH butter with the pound of butter that we just sliced up. Don’t be ridiculous. Of course you have to melt MORE butter and pour it over the ‘sponge’ as they call it. MOAR BUTTER.

Um. This seems very dry. And crumbly. I’m supposed to have it come together into a dough, and then knead five minutes, adding a little four if it’s too too sticky at that point. It is not too too sticky at that point. It is super-dry at that point, and has still not come together into a dough. Also, my arms are aching from five minutes of kneading because I made the mistake of doing it up on the island instead of the kitchen table, so I don’t have as good an angle as I could have and also, I almost never make bread and am really out of practice with the whole kneading thing.

I gingerly add some warm water (about 1/4 c.), fearing disaster, as this is NOT in the instructions. And that was too much — the dough finally comes together, but now it’s decidedly sticky, sigh. Should’ve been more conservative, tried a T or two instead. GAH.

(No photo of the sticky portion, as my hands were covered in goop. As it was, my phone was getting a little more flour-y than was perhaps wise, but seems to have survived, whew.)

Okay. I think I salvaged it. A few more T of flour, and it came together into a reasonable dough, and it’s now shaped into a 9″ square (and yes, I eyeballed this one too, what kind of obsessive baker do you think I am? (There is a reason I’m more of a cook than a baker. Precision is NOT my thing.)), wrapped, and delivered safely into the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.

Just one problem; in 15 minutes, I’m supposed to be across town at Oak Park Works, teaching publishing and writing for the next 3 hours. So I’m going to go do that, and hope that an extra 3+ hours of chilling doesn’t hurt either the butter or the dough. It’ll be fine, right? And when I get home, experiments in lamination — hopefully my sore arm muscles will have recovered by then.

(This may be the most elaborate thing I’ve ever baked. Are flaky, buttery layers worth it? Hmm….)

Croissant-making challenge, and passionfruit marshmallows

In theory, I’ve agreed to join Pooja Makhijani‘s croissant-making challenge this weekend. She suggested I plan to laminate my dough on Saturday and shape and bake on Sunday.

That would’ve been wise, I’m sure, but yesterday I actually made two batches of passionfruit marshmallows and one of milk toffee, in preparation for shipping out Feast with Kickstarter goodies (also so I could take some milk toffee to Madhurima‘s Diwali party last night, where it was honestly entirely unnecessary because she made a massive amount of delicious food including homemade chai and mango ice creams, and yes, I’ve told Kevin that he should seriously consider an ice cream maker for my Christmas present this year).

Anyway, I am just now about to even look at the recipe Pooja sent me, so this is likely to be a disaster, esp. as I have never even attempted croissants before. But onwards unto the breach, dear friends! Disastrous croissants await.

(I mean, how bad could they be, really? With all that butter….)


Bonus: my kitchen smells amazing.

I mostly have masses of computer work to do these days, but the volume of it has slowed down just enough that I can start intercutting it with other things, which is a) less stressful, b) better for my back, and c) fun.

Send twenty zillion organizational e-mails? Interesting and productive, but not especially fun. Roasting twenty zillion bags of spices to make all the Kickstarter curry powder for Feast? I suppose it’s less interesting, in some sense, and I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. But it’s a lovely break from the computer work.


Bonus: now my kitchen smells amazing.

Reminder that I’m teaching writing classes locally

Quick reminder that I’m teaching writing classes locally this coming week through Maram at Oak Park Works — it’s rare for me to teach outside of the university, so this is a great opportunity to dip your toe in, if you’ve been thinking of trying some writing. I’m teaching with Alec Nevala-Lee, and we’re offering some intro to fiction / nonfiction classes, along with some writing coaching sessions (2 left).

Class prices are significantly discounted from normal (due to my birthday fund drive on Facebook — thanks, folks!), and we also have scholarships available; just ask if you could use one, please! It’s also a great opportunity to check out this new co-working space!

Instructor Bios:

Mary Anne Mohanraj has published over a dozen books with big presses (HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin) and small presses, and has even indie-published a few books too. She’s run multiple successful Kickstarter and Indiegogo arts campaigns. Learn more at www.maryannemohanraj.com.

Alec Nevala-Lee is a novelist and freelance writer who has sold over a dozen stories to the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. His group biography Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (HarperCollins) was recently named one of the best books of 2018 by the Economist. Three of his suspense novels have been published by Penguin, and he contributes occasionally to the New York Times Book Review.


Sunday 10/20:

9 – 10:30 — INTRO TO FICTION: LANGUAGE & STYLE: Writers of all levels welcome for a workshop focusing on language & style, with a focus on inventiveness, creativity stimulation, and fun (poets also welcome for this one). Instructor: Mary Anne Mohanraj, $30 (limit 12)

11 – 12:30 — INTRO TO FICTION: CHARACTERS, with a focus on exploring various aspects of identity. Instructor: Mary Anne Mohanraj, $30 (limit 12)

1 – 2:30 — INTRO TO FICTION: PLOT & STRUCTURE. Instructor, Alec Nevala-Lee, $30 (limit 12)

3 – 4:30 — PUBLISHING OVERVIEW: INDIE AND TRADITIONAL — a review of the current state of affairs of both traditional and independent publishing, from big presses to small presses to hybrid & self-publishing, including crowdfunded. We’ll look at what your options are for short fiction, essays, and novels, with a discussion of why you might want to choose one approach or another for a given project, and what are some effective steps towards your publishing goals. Instructor: Mary Anne Mohanraj, $30 (limit 25)

25 minute COACHING SESSIONS (4 available)
We can discuss any aspect of writing / publishing that you’d like. I’d love to help talk through areas where you might be stuck, advise on further study (classes, retreats and residencies, MFAs, etc.), discuss publishing options, answer questions about agents, etc. and so on.
Instructor: Mary Anne Mohanraj, $30 each, limit 1

6 – 6:30 — Coaching Session #3

6:30 – 7 — Coaching Session #4

REGISTER HERE: https://www.eventcombo.com/e/creative-writing-workshops–co…


Monday 10/21:


An overview of the process, from collecting family recipes (and navigating family politics), researching and developing your own recipes, deciding how you plan to share / publish the recipes, reviewing various publication options; snacks will be provided, and Mary Anne will have some of her cookbooks available for purchase.

Instructor: Mary Anne Mohanraj, FREE, but registration required (limit 25)


We’ll use prompts to explore different types of nonfiction writing, from food to travel to memoir to reported articles, and will celebrate and critique each others’ efforts.

Instructor: Mary Anne Mohanraj, $30 (limit 15)


HOW TO WRITE A COOKBOOK: Saturday 10/26, 12 – 1:30 p.m.

An overview of the process, from collecting family recipes (and navigating family politics), researching and developing your own recipes, deciding how you plan to share / publish the recipes, reviewing various publication options; snacks will be provided, and Mary Anne will have some of her cookbooks available for purchase.

Instructor: Mary Anne Mohanraj, FREE, but registration required (limit 25)