Chilly

It is really hard to get myself to the gym when it’s this cold out (currently 24 degrees F). It just feels like adding insult to injury, that I have to subject myself to the cold AND the effort of a workout. I managed it this morning by telling the kids they could have an extra twenty minutes to take it easy this morning, that I’d drop them at school instead of having them take the bus. Adding on that errand before my trainer session, plus a stop for a bagel in between, made it all feel more worth doing. And they certainly appreciated it.
 
But I probably can’t do that every week, all winter long. I think we’re entering the season where I really start using the Wii Fit and the treadmill in the basement again. I see other Chicagoans out in the dead of winter, running. Even if I get fit enough to run, I don’t think that’s ever going to be me.
 
Plan for the rest of today — train, get groceries, and then go home and alternate grading and cleaning for the rest of the day. The laundry situation is getting mildly dire — it took a while to hunt up a clean pair of pants for Anand this morning. If I’m very good, I might have time to make another holiday sweet. I think some kind of Sri Lankan-inflected truffles are next on the agenda.

Tired!

Whoa, I’m kind of shakingly exhausted. I fell into a bath at 8:30, climbed out at 9, and promptly fell into bed again, with no plans to leave it. It’s been a really intense couple of days, between the podcast recording all afternoon yesterday and today (surprisingly tiring, I think because we’re ‘on’ and thinking hard for several hours), and the mad rush of deciding to run for office a few days before the filing deadline, going to political meetings and gathering signatures a bit frenetically. (And of course, I still have this stupid cold. It’s mostly just a lingering occasional cough at this point, but I’m sure it’s making me more tired than normal.)
 
With Kevin out of town, this wouldn’t have been possible without my two babysitters (thanks to Franki and Adam!), and even with them, it’s a little intense of a pace for the kids, who have barely seen me yesterday and today. It’s okay for two days, I think, but not something I’d be willing to do long-term, not with them still so young. Definitely part of my exhaustion is just being drained from worrying about the kids yesterday and today, worrying whether they were upset by the changes to their routine, worrying about whether the traffic driving back from the city would make me late enough to stress the babysitters, etc. (It’s also lucky for us that we can afford the extra babysitting costs — a potential barrier to parents running for office.) But Kev will be back Sunday, and he doesn’t have any travel for months, so we should soon reset into normal family patterns.
 
The house is definitely falling apart, a noticeably higher level of mess than usual. It’s driving me a little nuts. I’ll be home most of tomorrow, though, so I should have time to set it in order again, in between grading final papers. I am weeks behind on Christmas decorating, which is a bit unnerving (I usually do it the weekend after Thanksgiving), but not actually important. I haven’t written anything in days, of course, but I’ve actually learned a bunch from the podcasting, so that’s not bothering me as it might otherwise.
 
Just pondering what exactly winning this election would be likely to do to my life and schedule. I think it’d be fine, though. I’ve decided to delete Scandal from my Hulu queue — that’ll get me back some hours / month this spring. 🙂 Of all the activities in my life that could be cut, giving up some tv is likely the least painful. (I watch a lot of tv.)
 
Plus, this frantic pace is mostly an accident of my deciding to run just before the filing deadline. It should slow down to something more reasonable. And one side benefit already is that I’ve met quite a few interesting and civic-minded people in the last few weeks. More friends for my parties, more people to feed. Yay!

Petition

One of the women from Oak Park Progressive Women for Action kindly invited me to her work holiday party and ushered me from person to person, introducing me and asking them to sign my petition to run for library board. I walked in with five signatures and walked out less than an hour later with twenty-six! (I needed twenty-five to get on the ballot.)

I’ll collect a few more over the weekend for insurance in case any get disqualified for address or other issues, but I think you can now safely expect me to be on the ballot in April.

I am running for office. That still seems a little unreal.

Writing Excuses

Authors Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Wesley Chu and me! At the Cards Against Humanity offices yesterday, where we met in their sound studio to record 2017’s Writing Excuses podcast (2nd week of the month, January-December).
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We recorded six 15-minute podcasts yesterday, and will record the other six today — really fun, and I think I learned some things as well as hopefully offering a few useful pieces of writerly advice. It’s a great podcast; I think I’m going to assign it to my advanced fiction writing students in the spring, that they listen to fifteen minutes once a week. More fun than working through a textbook (though we’ll do some of that too). Thanks to Mary Robinette and Brandon for inviting me to join them for 2017!
 
Brandon Sanderson, by the way, is a sweetie. I haven’t actually read any of his books yet, but I’m told that you can skip the tail end of Robert Jordan’s books and pick up Wheel of Time where Sanderson came in to finish the series. I think I may do that as a holiday treat. 🙂
 
The CAH people were also really nice — Max, their founder, gave us all advance packs of their new Sci-Fi cards, which aren’t even out yet. Sweet!

Retail Politics

So, last night I decided to run for library board. This is short notice — I had originally started thinking about running for office about a week ago, maybe for next September, after concentrating on the novel for the summer. Then I mentioned it at a local political meeting, and was told that local elections are in April, so I should basically start running now. A Democratic party volunteer came to my house to inform me about all this; if she hadn’t made the effort, I probably wouldn’t have run this year.
 
Then last night I went to the Democrats’ open brainstorming session, and talked to some more people there about where they could use me best. They took half an hour to talk me through the process, and give me the arguments for running for library board or school board (the other positions in parks and village committees seem mostly stable at the moment, not in need of me). I talked directly to a library board member, as well as someone else running for library board (there are several slots total). So already, just to get me to consider running, several people have put in a few hours of work.
 
I decided on library board, by the way, because my impression is that school board is notably more contentious and time-consuming, and I’m really feeling like I want to dip my toe into the water of local politics, rather than jumping in the deep end. My kids are still relatively small and need a lot of my time, and I have a full-time job and novels to hopefully write. Library board is a four-year term, of about one evening / month (I hope I’m remembering that right).
 
And then there’s campaigning time, so let’s say roughly 50 hours / year to do the job (mostly in the evening), and another 50 hours / year to campaign and attend other local Democratic events, etc. I think I can manage that level of service; my impression is that school board would probably be close to twice that much time, and notably more stressful. Maybe down the road, but for now, this seems a better fit for my life. I’ve been wanting to do more service, and while I could go and volunteer with one of the many great non-profit orgs in the area, given my areas of expertise (English teacher & writer), library board seems a natural fit — something that I’m well qualified to do. I have a LOT of librarian friends to advise me, too. 🙂
 
The next step is collecting signatures; I only need twenty-five, but it’s good to have some extra in case any get disqualified, etc. So I’m aiming for forty. (Village Clerk, by contrast, needs 900 signatures.) I’m scrambling a bit to collect the signatures by Monday morning at 8:30. Apparently, while you in theory have a week to file, it’s important to be there first thing, because everyone who’s there first thing when filing opens gets their name put into a hat for their order on the ballot, and earlier slots are worth hoping for, because so many people just vote for the first name(s) on the ballot (oh, humans!). I’m actually completely confident of my ability to find 25 locals to sign for me by Monday.
 
I was thinking about Village Clerk, if I were running — I don’t think I know 900 people personally in Oak Park who would sign for me, but probably at least 300? And if those people were willing to vouch for me to their friends, and I had a little more lead time… I’ve lived here seven years now, and I’ve been fairly active in the community (more so in the last few years, as my kids got bigger). And it turns out I really like retail politics, oddly enough.
 
I love talking to people, and feeding them tea and cookies, and hearing about their kids and their jobs and their worries and what they do for fun. I like talking through issues, teasing out the different elements at stake, trying to figure out the best way to satisfy the needs of a large group of people. It’s fascinating. And while I don’t particularly enjoy being yelled at (cough, school board, cough), I think I could handle that too, if I were sure that my cause was worthwhile, worth fighting for. I’ve stood up to being yelled at plenty in the past.
 
All of which is to say, this is my bag. In some ways, while I’ve never run for office before, I also kind of feel like I’ve been training for this my whole life. Library board sounds like a quiet sort of thing, but with several million dollars to allocate, it’s certainly also significant. Libraries have been my haven since I was a small child, and as an adult, I’m very aware of how often they’re under attack. Librarians are on the first line of defense in protecting our civil liberties, so if I can help our library out, that’s worth quite a bit of my time.
 
Also, I think this will be fun. 🙂

Christmas Vanilla and Rose Marshmallows

The bi-color vanilla-rose marshmallow process I tried last night worked fine! Mix the white marshmallow, spread half in the pan, add food coloring and beat a little more, than spread second half over. All a little messy, but that’s the way of marshmallows.
 
Original recipe (for single-color marshmallows) below.
 
*****
 
Christmas Vanilla and Rose Marshmallows
(45 min. + cooling time — serves dozens)
 
Homemade marshmallows are so much better than store-bought — there’s just no comparison. Store-bought is tasty enough for dunking in hot chocolate or toasting over a fire, but these, I happily devour, straight up. This is based on Alton Brown’s recipe, which is pretty identical to traditional Sri Lankan marshmallow recipes, and probably marshmallow recipes the world over, but his offers slightly more precision. We traditionally make these at Christmas, and often color the marshmallows for extra festivity.
 
It is much easier to make this recipe with a candy thermometer, or with some practice making candies and knowing how to test for soft ball stage.
 
3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 cup water, divided
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or 1/8 t. rose extract, available in Indian / Middle Eastern grocery stores or online)
½ c. superfine / baker’s sugar (or confectioner’s sugar)
Nonstick spray (but not the butter kind, as it will be noticeably yellow)
Pink or green food coloring (optional)
 
1. Butter a large 9 x 12 pan and dust with superfine sugar. (You can use confectioner’s / powdered sugar, but the superfine adds a pleasant subtle texture to the marshmallows. My mother would pulse granulated sugar in the food processor, so it was even less fine, and in some ways, I like that even better, with a little more crisp mouthfeel on the initial bite.) Also prepare an oiled spatula for later.
 
2. Empty gelatin packets into bowl of stand mixer (whisk attachment), with ½ c. water.
bimarsh1
 
3. In a small saucepan (a bigger one will be heavy and hard to hold steadily at a later stage) combine the remaining ½ c. water, granulated sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Cover and cook over medium high heat for 4 minutes. Uncover and cook until the mixture reaches soft ball stage (240 degrees if you have a candy thermometer), approximately 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from heat; if it continues, it will swiftly turn into hard candy.
 
4. Turn mixer on low speed and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. (Be very careful with the sugar syrup, as it is scaldingly hot and will burn you badly if it gets on your skin.) Once you’ve added all of the syrup, increase the speed to high.
 
5. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and is lukewarm, approximately 12 minutes. Add food coloring, if using, during this stage. Add vanilla (or rose) during the last minute of whipping. (If adding rose extract, be careful — it’s very strongly flavored, and too much will ruin the sweets. Err on the side of caution.)
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6. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly (and swiftly) with an oiled spatula.
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7. Dust the top with enough of the remaining superfine sugar to lightly cover. Reserve the rest for later. Allow the marshmallows to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
 
8. Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board and cut into diamond shapes (traditional). As you’re cutting, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with the remaining superfine sugar, using additional if necessary. May be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks, or frozen.
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Milk Toffee

Start of the holiday baking: traditional Sri Lankan milk toffee. Really happy that I took the time to perfect this recipe last year, making several batches with a candy thermometer to get the timing exactly right. Much less stressful now! No more burnt and wasted batches! Kavi was very excited; she loves milk toffee. And this year, Anand has decided he loves it too. 🙂 I have set aside all the broken pieces (cutting into squares can be a little tricky) for them to nosh on over the next few weeks, and saved the neater pieces for our upcoming holiday party. On to the next sweet!
 
*****
 
This is a classic Sri Lankan dessert, but this particular recipe was originally my aunt’s; it’s one of my favorites, very sweet, with a great crystalline texture than melts in your mouth (a little reminiscent of maple candy in that regard). I’ve re-made it several times now, with a candy thermometer, trying to pin down exact measurements. The dessert is remarkably similar to New Orleans pralines (cashews instead of roasted pecans, and cut into pieces, rather than dropped on wax paper), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Portuguese brought the dessert to both regions.
 
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 lb. sugar
1/2 can water
1/2 lb. to 3/4 lb. chopped cashews (it’s fine if they’re roasted / salted)
2 T vanilla
1 stick butter
 
1. Grease a 9 x 12 glass baking dish or cake pan with butter; it’s important to do this in advance, as you won’t have time later; also prepare an oiled spatula for later. Put sugar, water and condensed milk together on medium-high in big nonstick pot, stirring briefly to combine. (It doesn’t have to be nonstick, but it will be easier to clean afterwards.) Watch carefully, without stirring.
toffee1
 
2. When the mixture starts boiling over (around 225 on a candy thermometer), lower heat to medium. Cook for about 10 minutes (no need to stir at this point). When it starts to thicken (watery thickness), add cashews and stir. When it thickens a bit more, add vanilla and stir (it will fizz up a bit at this). Stir slowly and constantly from this point forward.
toffee2
 
3. When it starts sticking to the pan / pulling away from the sides (soft-ball stage, 235 degrees), add 1 stick of butter and mix it in. As soon as the butter melts, take pot off stove and pour immediately into buttered pan, using an oiled spatula to get it all out. It should smooth out on its own.  (Be careful pouring, as candy syrup will burn you badly!)
toffee3
 
4. It will still be too soft to cut. Let cool for at least 30 minutes, then try cutting it with an oiled knife. If it doesn’t stick to your knife, you can cut it into pieces; small squares are traditional. Enjoy!

toffee4 toffee5

Long Day

I have: hosted a clothing swap charity benefit, segued into having a few friends over for board games and snacks this afternoon, gotten my student worker started on copyediting the second edition of the cookbook (yes, that means we’re getting close to done, finally!), packed away half the swap clothes to take to Brown Elephant, fed the children dinner, did half the dishes, managed to find someone to come shovel snow for an hour and lay down pet-safe melt / gravel so the sidewalk is clear (civic duty done, check), only shouted at Anand once (he was being VERY trying), read the children half a graphic novel (Ben Hatke’s _Mighty Jack_), and put them both to bed.
 
There are still clothes to pack away and put in the car, there are still tables to fold and get to the garage, there’s still a dishwasher to empty and another load to load in, and there’s a massive pile of recycling waiting to be broken down in the basement. But given that this cold still has me falling down tired (intermittently — sometimes I go a couple of hours feeling fine), I’m declaring this day a) a success, and b) over.  Yes, it’s not even 9 yet, but I to my bed.

Gaming

I had to cut game night short — I still have enough of a cold that I really couldn’t concentrate on games at all. Kavya ended up playing for me in both Carcassone and Apples to Apples this afternoon while I kind of zoned out. But that’s okay — she had a lot of fun.
 
Pictured here with Franki, whom you’ll likely hear me mentioning again — she was one of my independent study students, working on a novel, but is graduating in a few days and will be helping me out with some copyediting and other projects. Editorial assistant for a couple hours a week, plus a bit of babysitting. 🙂
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It’s nice having all these bright young people moving through my life…most of them don’t stick around for long, going on to bigger things, but while they’re around, it’s awesome.