All posts by Mary Anne Mohanraj

46

I’m forty-six today, which feels — well, just fine. I woke up thinking about SLF programming, but am going to try to put it aside now to try to draft more of the novel. I’ll take my laptop down to the treadmill, get in some mild exercise while I write. I don’t think I can make it to the gym today, but I swam yesterday (I actually went at 9:30 p.m., after the library board meeting, which is so unusual for me that I’m not sure who I’m turning into. Someone who loves swimming, I think), so that’s good.

Kev and I were talking about budget priorities recently, and at the top of my list (after paying the mortgage) is health — the gym membership, the organic food for the kids. As my dad says, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. I’m feeling grateful to have such an abundance of health right now, and to have a healthy family. It’s the sort of thing you take for granted until you don’t have it anymore, and then, it becomes everything. (Americans, call your senators.)

I should be able to get in an hour of writing before it’s time to wake up the kids and take them to camp, at least if I turn off Facebook so I’m not tempted / distracted. (I love you guys, you’re the best, but also the worst when it comes to getting things done.)

The kettle’s on, making the three cups of my typical morning. After I drop off the kids, I’ll come back and try to write some more; there’s two story revisions that are almost done, and I’d like to knock them out this morning, figure out where to send them. One of them will go to Great Jones Street, I think.

At 10, Tim is coming by so I can help him set up a website for local non-profit, Neighbors United, which is helping local youth who have been in a bit of trouble find more productive landscaping work, get on a better path. Peace through gardening. At 11, Chris arrives to assist for a few hours, and I’ve started making a list of things for him to do — mostly cleaning / organizational this week, getting everything in order so I can think clearly. By next week, I hope to have him working more on the computer, building out projects for the SLF for at least a third of his time with me.

At 2, I have an interview with Politico, about how liberal SF writers are responding under the Trump administration. That’ll be…interesting. Thoughts welcome, below. How *are* we responding? At 3, I pick up the kids, probably spend a few hours reading more of Sam J. Miller‘s _The Art of Starving_ (which, it turns out, has a fantastic element, which I didn’t even realize was coming!)

At 5:30, I have a phone call with the XPrize SF Advisory Council — I can only stay on for half an hour, but they said it would still be worthwhile to have me join, so will do. And then at 6, hosting a rapid-fire reading at L!ve Cafe, also selling some books at major discount; I’d like to clear some of the stock in the basement, so $5 copies of Torn Shapes of Desire and the first edition of the cookbook! Tell your friends! I think I’m going to ask Kavi to work the book table; she’s old enough to get a taste for bookselling, right?

And then dinner with family and friends at Maya del Sol, mango margaritas with chili, salt, and lime. Writing, work, reading, performing, socializing. Hm. I might have to squeeze a board game in there somewhere, to make it a perfect day. I’ve been wanting to play Jaipur with Kevin.

Tea’s ready. Time to work.

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Sothi

Sothi (Coconut Milk Gravy)

(45 min. + soaking time — serves 8)

This is a delicious traditional accompaniment for stringhoppers, served with a little coconut sambol.  When I last visited Sri Lanka, that was one of my favorite meals to have for breakfast, in the very early morning at the hotel, when I was still jet-lagged.  It’s quite soothing.  This makes a fairly large quantity, suitable for feeding several people; just cut ingredients in half for a smaller portion.

1-4 T fenugreek seeds, soaked for two hours beforehand

1 T toasted rice powder (optional)

1 large onion, diced

12 curry leaves

1 small stick cinnamon

2 fresh green chilies, seeded and chopped

1/2 t. turmeric

1 t. salt

2 c. water

1 russet potato, peeled and cubed (optional)

3 c. coconut milk

4 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half lengthwise (optional)

1-2 T lime juice, to taste

NOTE:  Traditionally, this dish was made with quite a lot of fenugreek; modern recipes tend to reduce to about 1 T, instead of 4.  But fenugreek is a potent galactagogue, so if you’re making this dish for a nursing mother, you may want to go old-school.

NOTE 2:  Toasted rice powder is used through Asia (esp. in Thai cooking) to thicken and add flavor and fragrance to dishes.  It’s best made fresh, in the quantities needed.  To make, take one T rice and sauté over medium heat in a dry pan for 10-15 minutes, stirring constantly.  It’ll release a beautifully nutty, toasted scent.  Then grind to a powder — I use a coffee grinder that I keep dedicated for spices, but you could also use a food processor, or the traditional mortar and pestle.

  

1. Put all the ingredients except the coconut milk, eggs and lime juice in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer, covered, until onions are reduced to a pulp and the potatoes are cooked, about 30 minutes.

2. Stir well, add thick coconut milk and heat without bringing dish to a boil.  Stir in lime juice, additional salt to taste, and then carefully add the eggs.  Simmer a minute or two longer, stirring, and then serve hot, with stringhoppers or rice.

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Assistance

I hired an assistant today, and promptly put him to work.   Chris is working on the library organization (it’s a big job and it won’t get finished today). I worked with him for the first hour, to answer questions and make sure he was on track, then broke to have lunch and do a little gardening, then checked in with him again (still good, reminded him to eat lunch), then went to go put away some laundry, but first opened FB and saw a time-sensitive call for subs that immediately sparked an idea in my mind.
 
So I sat down and wrote 1500 words in an hour and submitted it, and I don’t know if it’ll get picked up or not, but if it does, that’s $350, and if it doesn’t, it’s another piece for the memoir, and either way I’d say having Chris here has already paid for itself today. Woot.

***

Here’s a teaser, although the essay’s mostly not actually about cancer, oddly enough:

“During cancer treatment, I cleaned my own house instead of calling the charity that cleans houses for chemo patients. I cooked for my children. I drove myself to chemo treatments, unwilling to ask anyone else. Until the day a cop pulled me over because I was driving twice the speed limit and hadn’t even noticed. He asked what was going on, and I said, “I’m going to chemo” and burst into tears. We hold ourselves together on the surface, but there are storms raging underneath, violence slamming against the foundations of our sense of self.

I stopped driving myself to chemo after that. I even let people – strangers, friends — bring me trays of mac-and-cheese and broccoli for the kids. I couldn’t really eat by then, with everything tasting like metal, nothing tasting good. I was living on cans of Campbell’s chicken-and-stars, the only thing that seemed halfway palatable. I tried to go for a walk around the block with my husband, and had to turn back before we’d gotten to the first corner, the exhaustion dragging at my bones. I am one of those hyper-competent people who invests a tremendous amount of pride in her own competence. I had to be almost at the point of total collapse before I was willing to admit that there was anything wrong, that I needed help.”

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To Do Redux

It’s a busy week, so return of the to-do list.

– 11: interview part-time assistant (!)
– straighten library
– write up and post notes on Slack for novel world-building done in the last few days / spin off world-building channel
– do last pass revision of “Safe” and submit
– revise “Skin Deep” and show to Slack group
– keep reading _The Art of Starving_
– write learning language scene for novel
– write family collaborator scene for novel
– re-read ch. 4 of Hajratwala‘s _Leaving India_ (research)
– implement Franki’s copyedits on cookbook
– deal with paperwork on island
– put away laundry

Tuesday:
– see Spiderman
– made kiri hodhi / pol sambol / stringhoppers for cookbook & dinner
– organize chaos in basement
– set up Wii Fit again and do some exercise
– 6:30: library monthly board meeting @ Dole

Wednesday — 46th BIRTHDAY!
– 5:30 – 6:00 (XPrize advisory meeting)
– 6 – 7:30 — birthday rapid-fire reading at L!ve Cafe
– 7:30: birthday dinner with family & friends @ Maya del Sol
– pack

Thurs – Sun:
– go to Cincinnati with Kevin for AAUP Summer Institute (leadership training on resistance / unions)

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Plain Vadai / Prawn Vadai (Lentil Patties)

When you go visiting in Sri Lanka, your hosts will often insist on quickly frying up some vadai for you, accompanied by hot, sweet, milky tea. You can protest once, for politeness’s sake, that they shouldn’t go to the trouble. Then say yes.

Vadai typically don’t refrigerate and reheat well; they’re best served hot, right after frying, but are also tasty at room temperature. Verde are a perfect mid-afternoon snack with tea or coffee or mango-passionfruit juice; they also make a terrific picnic or road-trip food.

1 c. split red lentils / masoor dal
8 oz. prawns (if using)
1 large onion, chopped
3 green chilies, chopped
3 dry red chilies, broken into small pieces
1 T ginger
3 garlic cloves
1 stalk curry leaves
1 t. cumin seeds
1 t. fennel seeds
1 t. salt
oil for deep frying
rice flour if needed

1. Soak lentils for at least two hours. (Can be done overnight.) Drain.

2. Wash and devein the prawns and set aside; you can shell them if you prefer, but usually you just eat the crispy fried shell too.

NOTE: Typically, people often prefer a more coarse texture to their vadai — for that, set aside half the lentils and/or the chopped onions before the next step, and just mix them back in after grinding, to preserve more texture. I’m a bit of an outlier that I like my vadai to be more finely-textured.

3. Add the lentils to food processor with other ingredients; grind coarsely, scraping down the sides with a rubber spatula once or twice so they’re well blended.

4. Set oil to heating. While it heats, mold the mixture into small balls (if the dough is too wet to mold, add rice flour 1-2 T at a time, until it reaches a workable texture). Flatten them into patties.

5. For plain vadai, gently slip into the hot oil and deep fry both sides, until crisp and golden brown. (My husband doesn’t like seafood, poor man, so I make the plain vadai first, so as not to flavor the oil, and then the prawn ones after.) For prawn vadai, press a prawn into each patty and gently slip into the oil. (If you use large prawns, it’ll be difficult to keep the round shape of the patty, but personally, I’m fine with a more irregular patty if it means big, beautiful crispy prawns.)

6. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towel. Serve hot or at room temperature; they can be eaten straight up, but I like to add a little mint-cilantro chutney or mango pickle. They’re also commonly served with other chutneys, pickles, sambar, or yogurt.

   

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Strategic

The strategic planning session at the library was fascinating, and focused in large part on the Harwood method for community knowledge and engagement, which our library has bought into pretty whole-heartedly; it has transformed their planning and practice over the last few years. I like it. I am tempted to seek out a three-day training in it for myself.

This pic of a set of questions seems like terrific guidance for anyone involved in politics, or other kinds of community stewardship positions. I think I’m doing okay at these three things so far. But there’s always room for improvement…

***

“Authority: could I stand on a table and talk to people about their community, their aspirations and concerns, and would they believe me?

Authenticity: do I reflect the reality of people’s lives and do they believe I have their best interests at heart, even when we disagree?

Accountability: am I living up to the pledges and promises I’ve made?”

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Civic

Very civic-minded day. I dropped off Kavya for a day at Camp Congress, and then headed off to the annual library board strategic planning meeting.

“Camp Congress for Girls Chicago 2017 is a leadership program that introduces girls ages 8 to 15 to politics. Camp begins with a lesson on the structure of our political system. Each girl will choose to run for a seat in the US House of Representatives, the US Senate or for the presidency. She will create her own campaign with a platform, campaign slogan, campaign finance plan, campaign marketing materials and a political ad for television. All campers will register to vote and then vote in an election. Once elected to Congress and sworn in, the newly installed members of Congress will learn how to introduce a bill, debate the merits of the bill, lobby fellow legislators, collaborate with the Executive branch and finally vote on the proposed bill. Camp will culminate with a ceremonial signing of the bill by our Ms. President. Girl Scouts participating in Camp Congress for Girls will receive a Citizen Legacy badge upon completion of the program.”

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Mango Pickle

This is a fiery, fruity accompaniment that will keep refrigerated for a long time — you can add a little to your plate of rice and curry whenever you want to kick things up a notch. It would also be tasty with cheese and crackers, or layered in a sandwich with roast meat.
 
2 c. raw mango (about 1 large), cubed small
3 T oil or ghee
1 stalk curry leaves
1 T black mustard seeds
1 T ginger, finely chopped
1 T garlic, finely chopped
3 Thai green chili, chopped
3 T raw red chili powder
1 t. turmeric
1/4 c. vinegar
1 c. water
1 t. salt
 
1. Heat oil in a large frying pan and sauté mustard seeds, curry leaves, ginger, garlic, and chili in oil or ghee on medium-high for a few minutes, stirring, until they start to smell cooked instead of raw.
 
2. Add chili powder, turmeric, vinegar, water, and salt; cook down to a thick pickling paste, about five minutes. Turn off heat and allow to cool for fifteen minutes or so.
 
3. Add mango to pan and mix well to combine. Store in the fridge and eat within a year or so (or fill canning jars and seal properly for seriously long-term storage). Serve with congee or other mild dishes.
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Sri Lankan Red Rice Congee

‘Congee’ comes from the Tamil word ‘kanji,’ and refers to a rice-based porridge, eaten through Asia. This variation is a comforting way to start your morning, a traditional breakfast made either with fresh rice or leftover, and served with a little jaggery to sweeten it. It’s also good for building up the strength of recovering invalids. Red rice can be purchased online, and is similar to brown rice in nutritional content; it has a mildly nutty flavor; a healthy choice for breakfast! You can make this with white or brown rice too, of course.
 
Some people prefer a more soupy version; just add more water at the end. Traditionally, you would smash the rice down with a spoon as a final step, to give it more of a porridge consistency, but personally, I prefer the distinct grains. Another option is to grind about half the cooked rice in a food processor after the step 1, but that does mean one more thing to wash!
 
Other traditional accompaniments include fruit, nuts, or fiery luna miris sambol. This is a dish that easily adapts to your personal taste.
 
Ingredients:
1 c. red rice
1 3/4 c. water
pinch of walt
2 T ghee or oil
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 T ginger, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 Thai green chilies, chopped
1 stalk curry leaves
1 t. salt
1 c. coconut milk
1 c. water
2-3 T jaggery
 
1. In a pot, combine rice, 1 3/4 c. water, and pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, cover, cook 20 minutes, then turn off the heat and let sit 5 more minutes.
 
2. In a large frying pan, saute onion, ginger, garlic, chilies, curry leaves, and salt in ghee, until onions are golden-brown.
 
3. Add rice to pan and mix well; add coconut milk and water and simmer a few minutes to desired thickness. Serve hot, with jaggery.
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[memoir draft] Tamil

Soon after our daughter is born, we move to Oakland for six months.  I am between academic jobs (finishing at Northwestern, not yet starting at UIC), and Kevin is on sabbatical, doing research at MSRI in Berkeley.  I am not sure what I will want out of motherhood — will I want to stay home, to spend all my time with her?  It turns out no.  Kavya is a poor sleeper, waking every three hours for the first nine months, and even though Kevin and I split six-hour sleep shifts (I sleep from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., while he watches her and gives her bottles if needed; he goes to sleep himself at 3 a.m.), month after month of short and interrupted sleep leaves us both exhausted, often angry, trying not to take it out on each other, trying to remember that we do still love each other.  By the fall, I am desperate to get out of the tiny apartment we have rented, and Berkeley is one of the few places in the country that offers Tamil classes, so we find a friend to babysit, and I go.

I am eager, a sharp contrast to the Tamil classes my parents tried to make me take as a child.  I had protested then — after four years of Polish in elementary school, I was trying to learn Spanish in high school, and it felt like too much — the words jumbled in my head.  In Tamil class, held at a far away community center one Saturday a month, I answered ‘si’ for yes, and the class laughed.  After a year of this, my tearful protests earned me an exemption, and I didn’t have to take the classes anymore. Now, I regret it — it was hard, but it’s much harder to learn as an adult.  And I want this language back — my parents say I was fluent, when I came at age two-and-a-half.  They had wanted me to learn English, of course, to succeed in this new land.  They had never thought that I might lose my Tamil.

The classes are difficult — the teacher is Indian, and Indian Tamil is sufficiently different, after two thousand years of divergence, of linguistic drift, that my own mangled memories of Sri Lankan Tamil are little help.  Even counting to ten sounds different.  But I persevere, do the lessons week after week.  Kevin had talked about learning with me, but he is too busy to take the classes too; instead, we go over my homework together, and he practices on me, on the baby, on the dog.

Nai means dog, and he takes to calling Ellie ‘puppy-nai’.  Dog-dog, which makes no sense, but I am charmed nonetheless.  Chinna puppy-nai — little dog-dog. Periya puppy-nai — BIG dog-dog.  Chinna mahal — little daughter.  Eventually we graduate to longer sentences, that, if I blur my ears a bit, sound almost like the sounds of my childhood.  Conjem thanir condevango?  Can you bring me a little water?  Everything in Tamil is softened — it has to be a ‘little’ water you ask for.  Extra layers of politeness, of respect.  Big sister is always acca, big brother is always anna.  Later, when we have a son, we will try to teach him to call his big sister Kavi Acca, and for a few years, it seems to stick.  Eventually, it fades away.

After the semester of classes, we take the baby and go to my parents’ for Christmas.  We try, so proudly, to speak Tamil to them, but they can only laugh — our accents are too Indian.  They can’t understand anything we’re saying.   We buy Sri Lankan Tamil lessons on tape, and promise ourselves that we will try again, later, when we are not so impossibly tired.  A decade later, Kevin still calls Ellie ‘puppy-nai’ sometimes, absent-mindedly, and each time, my heart squeezes tight.

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