Going remote, and meeting online

For the record, I suspect a TON of faculty are probably feeling a lot of shock, inadequacy, tech fear, and performance anxiety right now, along with all the rest of the coronavirus stress of the general populace.

I know basically what I need to do to teach a couple remote classes, and I’ve been bizarrely avoidant about it all day. What if I say something dumb on a video and some student puts it on the internet and everyone laughs at me and realizes I’ve just been faking it in the classroom for the last twenty years? Etc. and so on. Imposter syndrome at full force.

I’ll get over it, and so will the other faculty, but students, parents, if you can be a little patient with us through this transition, it’d be appreciated. Most of us aren’t going to be GOOD at remote instruction right away, but we’ll do our best for the kids.


The students in my postcolonial lit. class typically do an presentation where they talk about a historical national or international event and how it impacted themselves or their families; it’s a significant part of their grade for the course. I think we’re turning it into a presentation (which they can just hand into me, or put up for public consumption if they like, as PowerPoint, podcast, or video), where they do the same thing with Covid-19.


UIC is going remote; we just got the word. It’s a little odd, because at least right now, they’re also telling students on campus that they can stay there and participate from there. Maybe because too many of our students don’t have good tech access at home?

But faculty will be teaching remotely for the rest of the semester [edit to note — the letter didn’t actually say rest of the semester, but I think that’s what it will be], and it’s a commuter campus, so many students live and work off-campus already.

Good to have clear word, finally. Glad they did the right thing.


My writing workshop was supposed to have its monthly meet-up at my house tonight; we just decided (30 minutes before the meeting) to cancel, and reschedule to do it via Zoom.

SLF email to staffers

This is the e-mail I just sent my non-profit & small press teams, sharing in case it’s helpful as a model (and as always, if you’d like to come volunteer with the SLF, we’d love to have you — we’re trying to get organized to better put people on projects now):


Hey, everyone. Sorry I didn’t write more coherently sooner — I really was very exhausted coming back from travel this weekend, short on sleep, and I think the ambient stress is getting to me a bit too. I’m going to try to be in better communication going forward, and I’m going to ask you to do the same. I know e-mail isn’t necessarily the best mode for everyone; we’re going to try a few different remote tools (see below), and see what works.

Thank you for being flexible — hopefully at the end of this process, we’re all going to be a lot more comfortable on remote tools! (Some of you may already be very adept at them, which is great — we’ll rely on you for help and advice!)


Serendib Press: Stephanie, you’ll be in charge of getting Heather, Darius, Emmanuel, Julia, and Mizan up to speed on the tech. I’ll help. 

SLF Management Team: Karen and Carly, I’ll need you to get up to speed, and get the interns (Julia, Emmanuel, and Darius) and ideally Mizan too, if he has time, up to speed this week. (Stephanie will be working with some of the same people, but a little duplication and practice won’t hurt.)

SLF Chicago Chapter: Chris, if you can work on this with Dain and Jeremy, that’d be great. Even if you’re comfortable with the three of you working elsewhere, I’d like to make sure you can join the rest of us on these tools.

SLF Maram: Carollina, Pamela, Pam, Kurt, Amanda, if Maram starts actually doing stuff, which it may soon, with UPG at least, then this will be relevant to y’all soon. So if you can join us and try out the tech this week, that’d be great, though not as urgent. I plan to write to you all in more detail shortly.

SLF Portolan: Niall, Gary, Farah, Dale — we’re just starting this, of course, but if you can take some time to try out the tech, it’ll only help. I plan to write to you all in more detail shortly. (Matthew, this is mostly FYI; we’re not planning to keep bugging you on this going forward.)

SLF Bookkeeeping, Tech and Publicity: Kirsten, Gregory, Kaolin, Jed, Ellen, and Irene — I’m not expecting much of the rest to be relevant to you, but wanted you to be informed, and if you do want to join us on the remote systems, you’d be very welcome.


GOING REMOTE: While we can all just work on our own in theory, in practice, in-person work tends to be much more effective for getting things actually done — it helps keep everyone on track and accountable. But it seems irresponsible to gather people together without real need right now, so I’m going to ask that we start to avoid larger gatherings for the SLF or Serendib Press until you hear otherwise.

The last actual event the SLF is hosting is this Saturday’s Deep Dish; we’re going to go on hiatus for the reading series for a few months after that (we may try to organize a virtual reading of some kind for those spring dates? Chris, I’ll look to you to take the lead on that, maybe with the rest of the Chicago chapter team — brainstorm and see what you come up with. At the same time everywhere in the world, SF/F writers post little videos of themselves reading? Is that goofy? Might be kind of fun if we set up a place for people to post that they’re doing it, with the links so everyone can check each other out).

For Serendib Press, I’ll still be doing a few book events locally this week, but am mostly thinking that I’m going to postpone scheduling much more until later in the year, when the situation should be clearer.

For our planning meetings, if a few of you want to gather in person to meet, I think that’s up to you. But I’m going to ask Karen, Carly, and Stephanie to try supervising the SLF interns / Serendib Press staff remotely this week and see how it goes. I spent several months working on a video game project with a game studio in Vermont, and although at times we had frustrating technical difficulties on occasion, for the most part, Discord (a system like Slack, more common in the game world) worked pretty well for that.


SYNCHRONOUS VS ASYNCHRONOUS: The first is when we’re all on at the same time, the second, we’re not. Both can be effective. I like to do asynchronous chatter in the background over the course of the day, as I move through domestic chores and work projects. It’s nice company, and helps keep me on track. I like quick synchronous ‘stand-up’ meetings for talking something over between a few people. “Hey, everyone, let’s gather on Slack from 9 – 9:15 tomorrow to run over a few things.”

In terms of specific tools:

PHONE: Sometimes the easiest thing will be to call me — please do. I’m at [————-]. I can be phone avoidant sometimes when I’m really stressed and feeling bombarded with inputs, but I’m going to try to be better with that now, and this slowdown should counter that effect to some extent, I think. Please do leave a message if I miss you and you’d like me to call back.

FB MESSAGING: Since I kind of live on Facebook, this is often the fastest way to catch me if you have a quick question. Stephanie and Heather and I use it pretty constantly right now, and it works well, esp. when we’re synchronous (all on at the same time).

SLACK: This is a very nice system (both desktop and mobile) where we can have different channels for different projects, we can see what we’ve said previously (up to a point — it doesn’t hold onto it forever, I think), etc. It offers voice chat as well, though I think mostly we’ll use it for messaging, either in groups or individually. I’d like us to shift over to using it more intentionally.

We have Slack set up for the SLF already; we should set it up for Serendib Press too, and I’ll be talking to Stephanie about that separately. Karen, can you please get all the SLF folks on this thread onto Slack this week, and set up times to practice with them? (I don’t remember if we have a channel set up yet for the Chicago chapter, but if not, set that up, and Chris, please bring your team on board there.) Stephanie, ditto for Serendib Press, once we set it up? We should talk through how best to organize that.

My challenge with Slack has always been remembering to check it and see what’s going on there — you can set it up to send you notifications, but that can be annoying if there’s a lot of chatter going on. I’m planning to just plan to be online there at certain times daily, so that people can easily come find me and check in with me. 8-10 a.m. CST for now, and then again in the afternoon, 3-4 p.m.

Karen and Carly, I’d love to work with you two at least on Slack at 3-4 today, if that works for you — let me know? Stephanie and Heather, shall we try 9-10 on Thursday?

ZOOM: This free video conferencing system should also be helpful. I’d like us to try a Zoom call in the next few days, make sure everyone can get on smoothly. Given schedules, not everyone may be available at the same time, so we should probably do a few. I’ve used it before, but only as a participant, for an international call with several folks, and it worked pretty well. (I expect Zoom stock is booming right now.)

Karen, can you pick 3 times for Zoom calls in the next few days (today @ 4 p.m. plus one in the evening and one in the morning), and send Zoom invites to ALL the SLF folks? (I think that’s everyone on the e-mail thread above except for Stephanie and Matthew.) Let’s see how it goes — if you can’t make any of the times Karen sends, let her know, and we can set up another time. Aside from my teaching, I’m pretty available. (If you don’t know how to do any of this, Karen, just get in touch, and I’ll talk you through it. If you want to come by and work with just me in the dining room, that’s fine with me.)

FINAL NOTES: There are other possible tech options, but let’s start with Slack and Zoom for now. I expect that there’ll be some tech hiccups and frustrations initially, and that this will slow us down for a bit, but that’s fine — nothing we’re doing is super-urgent and needs to race along.

Any questions? (If I had more energy, I’d have done this with a lot of cute graphics so it wasn’t a big block of text. Sorry! Maybe next time! Thanks for reading!)

– Mary Anne

P.S. It makes me sad that I can’t feed y’all as much as I often do for our in-person meetings. Maybe, local folks, I can leave you boxes of cookies on the porch for pick-up, at least…stay tuned. 


I think it’s important that my position be public

Just for the record, and I hate that I even have to say this, but should our libraries need to close for a few months, or go to minimal staffing, I am committed as a board member to maintaining pay, including for hourly workers, cleaning staff, etc., and have communicated that to staff.

(I speak only for myself here, and not for the rest of the board; we haven’t yet met to discuss this. But I think it’s important that my position be public.)

The money is already budgeted, and I’m sure we can find some helpful work for them to do from home, if this goes on for a while. At the very least, they can spend time watching tutorials on how to be better librarians and library staffers — there’s a ton out there. There’s always more to research at the library.

If any community members have issues with that, they can take it up with me.


Committed to maintaining pay for sick staff

I’m reaching out to our house cleaner today, to let Isa know that if she or her kids are sick, and she needs to take a session or two off for that in the next few months, we’ll pay her regardless.

She’s been with us for quite a while, coming every two weeks, and if the house is a little grubbier for a bit, we’ll manage.

How can volunteers be of any use?

I have a question for nurses and doctors, or maybe for hospital administrators. Let’s postulate that some places (like Milan right now) will essentially be closed for business, and many people working remotely may find themselves with some free time and the desire to help. (Not commuting in to teach will certainly open up a few hours for me, and while initially, I’m scrambling to adapt my syllabus to remote learning, if this goes on for six months, or a year, or longer…)

When ICUs are overcrowded and running out of beds, will volunteers willing to be trained to help be of any use at all? (I have one friend who travels regularly to disaster zones to do relief work.)

Or will the chokepoint be more of a technical one — not an actual bed, I assume, which could be set up in other buildings at great need, but the equipment needed to monitor it? (Will fundraising help in that case, or would the equipment simply take too long to manufacture?)

How can the average person help you? I guess is what I’m asking.

(You may not know yet, but in case you do. I like to be prepared.)


How we made 1 dish into 5 different meals this week

Okay, cooking lesson to distract myself from reading news obsessively.

How we made 1 dish into 5 different meals this week:

1. CHICKEN WITH RICE AND GREEN BEANS. While I was out of town, Kevin made my ginger-garlic chicken for the kids. (I don’t have any details on that, but I assume he followed my basic simple recipe — cut up chicken thighs, add some ground spices (ginger, garlic, turmeric, salt), sauté in hot oil. We make it probably once a week around here; the kids reliably love it, and that makes it a precious commodity. Serve with rice and a steamed or roasted vegetable. (I don’t have a picture of that from this weekend, but it’d be similar to the one at the recipe link below.)

2. CHICKEN, RICE, and GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE. At some point Kev must have ordered takeout, because the next day, he turned the chicken into a casserole to use up leftover cooked rice. He added cut up green beans. I don’t know exactly what his process was, but probably something like put the chicken in a pan, probably with a little oil, start it sautéing, add the vegetables (cut up carrots, peas, bell pepper, pea pods would all also work great, ditto a bag of frozen mixed vegetables) and sauté them too, add the rice, probably add a little water to help the rice rehydrate (maybe adding some extra salt or other seasonings then), then stir until the water is evaporated. (Oh, I just asked him, and he said there was also a fair bit of butter. Smart man.)

NOTE: Don’t cook the veggies too long, or they’ll dull in color and become mushy and less flavorful; a few minutes is plenty.

3. SPICY CURRIED CHICKEN, VEGGIES & RICE. I came home the next day, and there was a fair bit left (he’d had a LOT of rice to use up), and I ate some, but after five days on the road, I was craving curry, and I wanted it hot.

(I keep thinking that I should do a cookbook promo challenge called “Can She Curry THAT?” Where people ask me to curry unusual food items, and I see what I can do. Shall I?)

I followed my basic approach to making a curry sauce — chop onion, sauté in oil with cumin seed and mustard seed. (I set half of it aside to use later. Spoon into a bowl, then transfer into a tupperware-type thing, or to a Ziplock bag for freezing.)

Add cayenne and Sri Lankan curry powder and salt. If I’d had tomatoes, I might have chopped and tossed some in, but without any on hand, I went with the standard shortcut of ketchup (which is just cooked down tomatoes with vinegar, salt, and sugar) + Worcestershire sauce (that bit of dried anchovy adds excellent umami), lime juice, and some water.

At this point, you have a basic Sri Lankan tomato-based curry sauce that you can slip many things into, such as hard-boiled eggs. Instead, I added the rice and chicken casserole, which had gotten a little dry (as rice things often do in the fridge), stirred it all together, and cooked it down a bit on medium high, stirring occasionally. That brought the rice back to a spicy, tomato-y, tangy goodness, soft and flavorful. I ate it for dinner Sunday night, breakfast and dinner on Monday, and breakfast today.

4. SPICY CURRIED CHICKEN, VEGGIES & RICE BOWL w/ FRIED EGG. By dinner today, I was getting just a little bored with it, even though I’m usually pretty tolerant of repeated food. (The lean grad school years would’ve been much more miserable otherwise, I suspect.) Eggs to the rescue! I took about 3 minutes to heat butter and fry an egg with salt and pepper. While it was frying, I microwaved some curried chicken & rice, tasted to make sure it didn’t need a squeeze of fresh lime (seemed good still, but sometimes it needs more lime), and then slipped the fried egg on top. When eating, I tried to get a little crispy, buttery egg white and golden, creamy yolk into every bite of curried chicken & rice — so good. And a pretty nutritious meal overall, since it still had plenty of protein and green veggies.

5. TBD. This one is a little bit of a cheat because I haven’t actually made it yet, but tomorrow, I plan to take the other half of the sautéed onions and do something with them. Probably a quick curried fish (maybe 10-15 minutes to make, with the onions ready in advance), although another good option would be to chop some green chilies and fry them in, then add some eggs for a nice scramble to go over buttered toast (5-10 minutes). Mmm….

Love in a time of pandemic

I’m just here to say that watching a pretty sweet (and complicated) romantic comedy (Valentine’s Day, on Netflix) starring SO MANY famous people, while playing Terraforming Mars with Jed remotely, was just about enough to distract me from coronavirus for a few hours.

Why *is* Julia Roberts so damn charming, anyway? I honestly don’t know, and yet, there it is. I guess that’s what they call star power.

Simple Things You Can Do in a Time of Pandemic

Simple Things You Can Do in a Time of Pandemic
(a list for those feeling ineffectual, a work-in-progress)

1. WASH YOUR HANDS. Wash them frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Teach your children and other household members to do the same. Model it for others in public places, helping to make it a social norm. However this goes, that can only be helpful.

2. GO OUTSIDE. Go out into the fresh air if you can. Staying cooped up in your home can be a recipe for stress and breathing stale air doesn’t help. If you can’t go out, try opening a window or turning on a fan (which can disperse water droplets, lowering their concentration of virus). If you can go outside, and if you can garden, now is an excellent time; it’s good for your health in all sorts of ways, and your mental state too.

3. ISOLATE. Practice social distancing as possible. (I cancelled all my optional meetings, and am switching over as much as I can to Zoom.) Even if you’re not likely to get very sick, you can easily carry the disease to others.

4. RESTRUCTURE SOCIALIZING. Think about how isolation may be affecting you; if it’s making your mental state worse, consider options for socializing. Long phone calls with a friend? Asynchronous video game in between your work tasks? (I love Terraforming Mars for that.) Set up a computer screen with Zoom for you and a few friends or workmates or relatives, and just leave it running in the background as you go about the day, so you can chat on occasion as desired, ask a question, etc? Humans are pack animals, for the most part. Left alone, many of us tend to fret.

5. LAY IN REASONABLE STAPLES. If you can afford it, add a few staples to your groceries, aiming for two weeks’ worth of supplies on hand (if you have the space). Don’t hoard; others may need it far more urgently. Especially don’t hoard masks; medical personnel need them. If you’re not already doing grocery delivery, and it’s available to you, try it — one person doing food shopping for seven families and dropping groceries on porches is much less likely to spread contagion than those seven (or seventy) people going to the grocery store.

6. STAY INFORMED, BUT NOT TOO MUCH. Stay informed, but if social media is starting to stress you out, walk away. Turn off Facebook for a while, close the computer. The flood of information can be compelling, but it can also cause a lot of anxiety, and remember, as in any crisis, that a good percentage of early info will be wrong. Unless you have a responsibility to stay on the cutting edge of the info, you may be better served by waiting a day or two, letting others verify and process it, and then summarize the parts you actually need to know.

7. RECONSIDER TRAVEL. Think about whether you really need to take that upcoming trip, whether it’d be worse to be quarantined in that area, and be prepared to cancel travel at need. (For me, I have to go through a bit of a mental process of frustration, grief, and acceptance before I’m ready to do that, so might as well start early.)

8. CHECK IN. Elderly relatives, neighbors, co-workers, siblings, old friends — there are a lot of people feeling a lot of stress right now, and many may be feeling very isolated and even frightened. If you can check in with them — by phone, in person, online, whatever works — it can help. (It might help you feel better too.)


(I’m going to close my computer soon, and go putter in my garden for a bit. If anyone wants to do an asynchronous game of Terraforming Mars with me in the next few days, holler.  (I probably don’t have the energy to teach, so do the tutorial first on your own, if you haven’t played before.))

Be patient with your people, and yourselves.

This morning, I snipped at Kevin a little about messing up the counter I’d *just* cleaned, and he snapped at me back, and I think we were both quite angry for a moment, angry out of all proportion to the actual offense.

We made up almost immediately, and I ended up picking up some apology flowers for him at the grocery store — I think this might be the first time (28 or so years in?) I’ve actually bought him flowers. We’re all good now, but it was weird. I think we are both very tired, and also, on some level, quite tense.

Be patient with your people, folks. Be patient with yourselves too.


Spices and flowers

I stopped by Sugar Beet Co-op this afternoon to get spices that I can toast in preparation for my Feast event there this Friday. From 4-7, I’ll be at a counter showing people how to grind spices to make a curry powder mix, and just talking about spices and South Asian food in general.

I thought about cancelling it, but since it’ll be 1-2 people at a time, most likely, and we still have very low incidence in my area, it doesn’t seem like a high-risk activity for Covid-19 transmission.

Plus, there’s a certain sense that of all the things I can be doing right now that might be helpful, teaching people how to make delicious, healthy food at home is surely one of the most useful. I picked up some flowers too, to cheer my mood. The woman at checkout commented that she envied my organization of spices, that she wished she knew how to cook. I told her to come to my workshop — it’s free!

Spices and flowers. They help.