Monday, February 26, 2007

the Week of the Snippy Old Lady

I hope this isn't indicative of the rest of the year.

Exhibit A: Practicing the umbrella form at the start of tai chi class on Saturday. Two new students come in, one who came with Communiversity last week, and a friend. We handed them umbrellas and ushered them to the floor. Sit started at the beginning, as always, out of deference to them. Taught the opening moves. After three or four repetitions, the friend starts whining, "How come everyone else already knows this? I thought this was a beginners' class!" which necessitated a halt of everything so we could explain to her that there is only ONE class, and if she'll shut up and pay attention, she'll be held by the hand as much as necessary.

Exhibit B: In the grocery store, a hefty and bulldog-jawed woman in one of those powered drive-carts stops the assistant manager and says, "Are you Rob? Do you remember me? I used to come in all the time, a couple years ago. I'm back, now. Back in the neighborhood." She made it sound like a threat. Fifteen minutes later I was stuck behind her in the checkout line while she retallied all her order, divided up payment between cash and debit, and counted out change. I can excuse this, people are on a budget, but she took her time complaining about the service in the store and how everything had been moved around and made more difficult, instead of counting. While this was going on, another white-haired old lady pushing a cart stopped in the main aisle and hollered at the cashier, "Where's the baking powder!?" No "excuse me," no waiting until the cashier was free, nothing like that. Just yelling right over my head. I directed her to aisle six.

Exhibit C: Me, at the bank, tapping my foot while two cashiers empty the change machine, one disappears into the back, and the assistant manager stands chatting with the guy at the head of the line, while four of us stand there figiting and there are NO cashiers behind the counter. Eventually the girls emptying the machine skip back behind the counter, and the first teller apologized to me for the wait, but the look on my face must've been threatening because she was very nervous and obsequious. "I would like a change of address form," I said very carefully.

Exhibit D: Me, venting my frustration on a "Customer Service Supervisor" at CapitalOne, trying to convey to her that I would like to pay off my credit card as quickly as possible, and toward that end it would be extremely helpful if she could either lower the interest rate, which is obscene, or remove the "restricted" status placed on the card 18 months ago, thanks to my &#!$^(*$!) ex-husband. "Oh, but you had a late payment," she said. I informed her that was incorrect. "Oh, but the computer says so. You had an interest rate of 9.0 back in December but your payment was late so we raised it again." My dear lady: my interest rate was never down that low, and my payment was not late. And I want that $35 late fee taken off of there, too. She did agree to that last, but I'm still paying 19.9% APR. They're lucky I don't declare bankruptcy and/or charge off the whole thing. I did investigate filing fraud charges, since most of that balance was charged by my ex without my knowledge, but they only give you 90 days after the fraudulent use to do that. In my current mood, I'm fantasizing about taking my ex and/or his parents to small claims court for half the charges.

I have a hair appointment this afternoon. I'm almost afraid to go. In my current mood I'll come out of there looking like Britney Spears.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

foods I had never tasted/refused to eat seven years ago, which now make up staples of my diet

  • most fish
  • guacamole/avacados in general
  • tea of any kind
  • asparagus
  • broccoli
  • celery
  • refried beans
  • black beans, pinto beans, most legumes
  • wild rice
  • real butter
  • red bell peppers
  • real onions/garlic (as opposed to the powdered kind)
  • fresh cilantro; most fresh herbs
  • pea pods
  • soy sauce, oyster sauce, horseradish--there are too many seasonings to list
  • Chinese food in general
  • blueberries
  • pears
  • cheese that didn't come in cellophane
  • salmon & tuna that didn't come in a can
  • peanut butter (I never realized how sweetened most peanut butter is until I was 25 years old--I still can't eat the sugary commercial stuff, but I like it au naturale)
  • yogurt (ditto on the sweetened stuff)
  • whole milk
  • alcohol--not a beverage so much as a seasoning; I don't think I'll ever cultivate a taste for booze

I started thinking about this while living with my parents over the summer. Yesterday I looked around my kitchen and realized my mother would be utterly lost if she were called upon to fix a meal in there. And the odd thing is, I still ate a more healthy and balanced diet than most of the other kids I knew--it was just a bit monotonous. It's astonishing how much my horizons expanded after I got free of my mother's kitchen. Hanging out with the tai chi crowd didn't hurt, either.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

New Year, motivation

Last Sunday was the Chinese New Year. May you have an Auspicious Year of the Pig!

To celebrate, those of us in Sit's inner circle went out for a really bang-up lunch at Lucky Wok. We had steamed fish with ginger slaw, beef with broad noodles (a favorite which Sit has offered to teach me how to cook), tofu hot pot, and assorted other delicacies.

Kung-fu brother Matt was in town, and introduced us to his new girlfriend, Serena. She's petite, Chinese, and very pretty. Interestingly, she looks as much like him as a person of another race and gender could look.

As a result of knowing that a visit from Matt was imminent, I FINALLY finished the vinyl weapons-carrying case I started making for him almost a year ago. It's the third such case I've made, and it turned out quite handsome, black with white trim. He seemed pleased. I was just glad to have it out of my workspace and out of my life.

I've been feeling remarkably cheerful and motivated lately. After finishing the weapons case, I reclaimed several items in my wardrobe by doing some simple alterations. I've written a bit, although production is hampered by internet connection problems. My computer is seven years old, and browser compatibility is becoming increasingly difficult.

Meanwhile, the SP and I are gradually developing a lingo and a pattern for practicing together, in our home, as a married couple. This is more tricky than it may sound. For me, practicing in front of my husband is rather like performing certain grooming procedures in front of him--like waxing, or cleaning out your navel. There are just certain things one prefers to do in privacy, partly because it's so undignified and partly because you don't want your beloved to know you are less than perfect. But it's becoming rapidly obvious that if we want to do these things (practice tai chi, not clean out our navels), time and space constraints dictate that we do them in front of each other--or better yet, together. So we are making progress.


We had an unusually large class on Saturday, one of the biggest I've seen. We had twelve guests from the local "Communiversity" program, all adults. Some had previous experience with other teachers in the area. Personally, I hate that kind, because they come with these preconceived notions. Many of them are Sinophiles, and they tend to be gauche and fawning. Sit is pretty patient with them, but he does not suffer fools.

One guy was tall and gawky, like a scarecrow. Terrible posture (actually I was looking around at all the visitors that day, and they ALL had terrible posture. Whatever snotty remarks I make about our regulars, at least they've learned to stand up straight). Scarecrow-guy claimed he was a student of a particular grandmaster, when in fact he'd been to one of said master's workshops a few years back. He collared Sit after class and started asking him questions. I wasn't close enough to hear the conversation, but the tone was one I've heard many times. "Don't you think," the Sinophile will begin, and then spout off some simplistic statement about a half-understood fragment of Zen/martial arts/Buddhist philosophy that the Sinophile picked up from a Discovery Channel special, and call upon Sit to confirm it. And Sit will look at the poor slob in his politely incredulous way and say, "No!" with an undercurrent of Where the hell did you get that?

I saw Sit do a little demonstrating on the scarecrow, in the process of this conversation, with a great many exclamations of, "No--no!" thrown in. Later Sit told me and the SP he remembered the guy. "I remember his structure," Sit said. It was not a compliment.

Another visitor was a young woman around my age, a bit shorter than me, cornsilk blonde, rabbity-pink complexion. She seemed reasonably fit, but shapeless, and again with the poor posture. When Sit directed us to pair up, I did a few exercises with Rabbit-girl. Turned out she'd done a few years of kickboxing with one of the SP's old teachers, a guy we'll call DL.

DL took some lessons from Sit way back when. It was through DL that my SP found Sit. Both Sit and the SP speak highly of DL as a kickboxer and fighting instructor, but he is definitely not a tai chi guy.

Rabbitgirl was strong, and very tense. Every move she made was stiff and jumpy, and she had no grounding. I could have pushed her over rather easily, I think. She thought she knew the tai chi form, because she'd learned it from DL, but her postures were all wrong and there was no flexibility in her. Sit worked with her a bit after class, too, and adjusted her stances, tried to get her to relax. She told him she'd been with DL for four years and Sit said, "It doesn't matter how long you train, you got to have a good teacher or you never be good!"

Afterwards he came up to me and the SP and said, "What a waste of time!" which gave us a good snicker.

It's a double-edged superiority, however, because however much we may believe that Sit is the real deal and competency will come with time, both of us know we aren't there yet.

Since the class was so big, with so many guests, Sit switched over to workshop mode. He demonstrated a few of his standby maneuvers, the ones that usually impress people, then had us pair off and try them. Now, there's a curious aspect to these moves: beginners tend to have good luck with them, in part, I think, because they absolutely believe that they have just learned some fabulous Oriental secret and they have no reason to suppose it won't work. It's not until later, when Sit's breathing down your neck about peng and the mind and the body-turning that suddenly everything gets a lot more difficult, even when you know you've done it before.

The other reason these trick-moves tend to work for beginners is because they use leverage and momentum. So the novice whips her arm around hard and fast, and Wow! that really works!

Those of us who have been doing it longer know that you have, in fact, entirely missed the point by doing it hard and fast, but none of us (except occasionally the SP) can do it properly while moving slowly and softly, which is what Sit wants us to do. It's a very strange phenomenon, done properly: Sit can move you without you hardly being aware that you're being touched, much less moved. None of us are that skilled. And leverage and momentum will only take you so far: against a larger, stronger opponent, they won't work, particularly if that person has had martial arts training.

So I'm working with Rabbitgirl, who was pretty well matched to me in strength, and she could do these escapes using leverage and speed, but I can't yet do them correctly and I wouldn't do them incorrectly, so it probably appeared that I was very low-level. That was okay, I just did a couple other tricks I know, to save face. Even Sit will say, "If he very strong, and it won't work, do this." So I did. And Rabbit-face was duly impressed.

Still, I want to be able to do it correctly. I keep thinking that for as long as I've been doing this, I should be better at it, if only to represent my teacher well. Beyond that, I want to do it right. It's cool stuff, and it's fun, and potentially useful. That's why I took up tai chi in the first place; that's why I've kept with it.

So partly because of that, partly because of upcoming competition in March, and partly just 'cause it's the time of year when the days get longer and we all wake up from the winter slump, I am feeling motivated to practice. I have been practicing, doing basic Six Elbow drills down in the lunchroom at 2 o'clock and drawing strange looks of envy and contempt from the slobs at the vending machines. I have also been practicing in my head, going over the sequences of the Internal Form. I think I've finally got the first two-thirds of it memorized. I suck at it, but oh well.

This weekend, the SP dug out some old videos of Sit and former students doing demonstrations in various venues. At a guess, those videos were at least ten years old. I got to see demos of the old prodigal students, the legendary and apocryphal ones, including a couple I've mocked in this blog before. And you know what? They sucked, too. I'd estimate those guys were probably at the same level I'm at now, but they've stopped. They were bad in some of the same ways I am now, and in some totally different ways. And judging by what I've seen from their now-students, they've found whole new ways to be bad which I hope I never develop.

What was even more amazing was watching Sit do his form ten or twelve years ago. There are light-years of difference in his structure and movements between then and now. Of course he'll freely admit that he's changed things over the years; I can name some things he teaches differently now than he did when I first went to him. But overall he looks to me more efficient, more the embodiment of what he claims we should be striving for.

So if I start practicing now, how far can I expect to progress in ten years? It's kind of fatiguing to think I'll be forty-three, but hey, if I don't practice, I'll still be forty-three! And not nearly as slim or healthy. Now there's motivation for you.

Friday, February 16, 2007

still trying to figure the Bell curve

I have a long history of losing in competition. Occasionally, it is true, I have sabotaged myself by not practicing or being otherwise unprepared. Most of the time, though, I miss the prize because gosh darn it, I just don't know how to be mediocre.

Case in point: we had a Sweet Treats Bake-Off at work this week. Categories were Cakes, Cookies/brownies, Pies, and Other. I entered my S'mores Pie as a Chocolate Ganache Torte, in the pies category. My competition consisted of a chocolate meringue pie made with pudding mix; a "key lime-pineapple" pie made with Jell-O, Cool Whip, and canned pineapple (I'm not kidding--I tasted it, and it was unbelievably bad); and a peach pie with a homemade-looking crust that was actually pretty decent although I don't care for cinnamon with my peaches.

The chocolate meringue pie won. The "key lime" got second.

I wasn't shocked. I just smiled and shook my head. I'm used to it. I derive my own satisfaction from little things. For example, after the judging, the rest of the office was invited to sample the treats, and my ganache torte was wiped out long before anything else. Also, two of the judges came by my cube this afternoon and asked for the recipe; they claim it was the best dessert entered. "That was the last thing I tasted," one of them said, "so I was all sugared out, and I was still like, Wow, that's good!"

I find that statement somewhat revealing. It is true, after you've eaten five or six bites of artificially sweetened vegetable shortening, a mouthful of real cream and moderate amounts of sugar is going to seem pretty bland. But I remember, also, Sit complaining about the judges at tai chi competitions: "If you give the first person 9.2, (on a scale of 8.5-9.5) what you going to give the next person? Nine-point-three, nine-point-four? You going all the way to ten? Because I guarantee the winner not going to be perfect. You don't give a grand master nine-point eight. Nobody that perfect!"

Judges at office functions are always volunteers, they don't have a set criteria for evaluating and they don't want to give offense. They give everybody middling grades until they run across something that really stands out, and then they don't know what to do with it. I've read that in test studies, people will rate a song higher if they think everyone else likes it, so I'd guess that dessert-judging works on a similar groupthink. Everybody "knows" that Jell-O desserts are what people want and like, so they choose an "appropriate" winner as opposed to a deserving one.

This is why I snort when people say the cream will always rise to the top. Yes, good work will usually be recognized, but not necessarily rewarded. People have an odd sort of reverse snobbery, particularly in the midwest: they want things that are mostly just like what everyone else has. Nobody wants to stand out too much. They don't want to have things that are too nice, or eat foods that are too rich, or perform too well at their given hobby, lest someone else's feelings be hurt.

The SP turned out a perfectly lovely raised-panel door yesterday, for a client; when I left for work he was taking the center panel downstairs to router it, and when I came home the whole thing was glued up in a frame, clamped together in the middle of the living room floor. I hunkered down and admired it for a long time. It's a real backhanded compliment to say it looked store-bought, and it did, but better. It was tighter, heavier, more solid work than anything you can buy at Home Depot. There were no staples in the wood, no cheap veneer, no splices of short ends. Had I not known better, I would have assumed it had been purchased from a very expensive cabinetmaker. And I realized that I, too, am used to seeing handwork that's rough and amateurish--except from my husband, of whose work I have actually seen very little. I haven't lived with him long enough yet to really appreciate what he can do.

A friend once told me, "When you first said you were a writer I was like, 'oh, right,' because everybody says they write... and then when you showed me some of your work I was like, 'Oh, you were serious.'" I found this funny, and flattering, and sad. There are a lot of amateur writers/ spinners/ woodworkers/ sewers/ martial artists out there, most of them blissfully ignorent of how bad they are, or else embracing their mediocrity as a sort of badge of (misguided) authenticity. (I may be cribbing Abby's Yarns, here, she had a very similar rant awhile back.)

Perhaps because I knew the SP long before I a) married him or b) knew what he did for a living, it's still a little hard for me to accept that someone from my world and my generation can be so skilled. (I've known "professional" costume designers who didn't know a pelisse from a petticoat, and the SP will tell you horror stories of the hacks he meets in his line of work.) But when he shows me a finished piece he's done, I'm struck by the seriousness of it. Or maybe sincerity is a better word. When he does something, it works. It's not merely good, it's right. And regardless of how good I think it looks, he knows there's always room for improvement. When he came home he pointed out all the rough spots in the door, how he didn't like sanding things but there are some places a plane can't go, and I just smiled because I always know where the gaffes are in my work, too. Maybe the real hallmark of a master is that he no longer makes allowances for himself--or at least makes his mistakes look deliberate.

I had enough chocolate ganache left over from the competition pie to make us a small Valentine's day dessert, just big enough for two kung-fu students to scarf down before running off to class on Wednesday night. It was the first time my new husband had had that particular concoction of mine. "Oh my God, this is good," he exclaimed.

"I put too much butter in the chocolate," I demurred.

"Well it tastes fine to me. You can make this any time you want. I can't believe they picked that pie with the Jell-O in it."

What can I say? Better the approval of one's peers than the adulation of the masses.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Victorian stuff

A blog called Victorian Passage. Full of all things Victorian, fascinating and useless. They have paint samples, for crying out loud.

This one's going on my sidebar.