Monday, March 26, 2007

post-tournament report

We went. We sat. We didn't embarass ourselves.

It was a very small tournament. Maybe 1/3 the size of the one in KC two years ago. We all cringed to think of the money the poor bastard was losing. Still, it was nice to go and hang with the people we know, shake the hands and make the rounds.

This tournament was small enough that they didn't separate the forms divisions by gender, so the advanced tai chi division consisted of four guys, one of which was the SP, and me.

"How's it feel to be competing against your husband?" our friend Belle asked.

It didn't feel like much. I knew he was better than me, he trains more seriously and has been doing it longer. Besides, by now I've learned not to compete for the medals, which are cheap and take up space in the drawer. You compete for the score, because it's the only time you get a hard honest grade from your sifu. Sit gave me an 8.6, on a scale of 8.0-9.0. I can live with that. The SP did somewhat better, and deserved it. My sparring partner is looking really steady and relaxed with his form these days, especially on his kicks. He got the gold, I got the bronze, and a Chen-style guy from another local school got the silver.

I did about the same on my fan form, although I was the only advanced internal weapons competitor. Sit grabbed me almost immediately afterwards, when he sent everyone on break, and said, "Is too much hip movement. Too disconnected. You adjust your feet too much." It made sense when he said it. Tournament is a great time for little private mini-lessons with Sit--he can't stop teaching, and we all get inspired by the atmosphere.

Another of our classmates took a video of my fan form which I watch and did not like what I saw. It's a very pretty form. A lot of people say I make it look very pretty. I think it looks like ballet or something, not like a martial art. You could say I'm "throwing my power away." There's too much extension, not enough movement from the body, and my feet are not rooted. That last I knew about, and I'm making plans to fix it.

Ah well. It wasn't completely embarassing. I had to cringe for my poor husband, though, who had to do push-hands competition with three guys who were six inches taller than he, the lightest of whom outweighed him by forty pounds. They just didn't have anyone else in his weight division. Still, he was game, and I feel safe in saying that he had the best "softness" and flexibility of them all. The guy who took silver was pretty good, too. The guy who won gold was the afore-mentioned Wookie who recently started coming on Wednesday nights. He's a beast--6'4" or more, 260 lbs., and in Sit's words, has "unbelievable rooting." He cannot be pushed. Occasionally he can be tipped sideways, but this makes him bellow like a bull and charge.

He was not doing good push-hands. And the other big guy kept getting more aggressive to try and match him. At one point Sit stopped them both and said, "You must be SOFTER. Use LESS force. Otherwise I disqualify you both and the SP win!"

He was joking. But we were all hoping to see the big bull put down. It's completely counter to the philosophy of martial arts to see the biggest strongest guy win with bad technique, but I guess it just gives us reason to train better.

One other thing about this tournament that was kind of weird. I haven't been out in public for a while, much less by myself, unless I was running to the grocery store or the hardware store in a pair of sloppy work pants and a nasty cap. I was looking kind of cute on Saturday, hair up, makeup on--we all dress up a bit for these competitions. Gotta represent, ya know.

But I had forgotten about the ratio of men to women at these events. And I had forgotten how appealing a female is to the males in the same interest group. I was getting a lot of attention. Outright stares, actually. Of course I was bouncing around smiling a lot, cos' gosh darn it, I'm happy these days, but since I'm happy at home and not looking for attention I kept getting startled by these strange gnomes who would wave at me, and hail me across the room, and come up to me as if they knew me. "Hi there!" (Pause to look me up and down.) "Aren't you doing anything this year?" And I'm like, "Um, yeah.... Do I know you?"

I know I'm not so shallow or airheaded to have forgotten these guys if I had actually been introduced to them. Some of the faces looked vaguely familiar, but then faces do after you've been to a few specialized gatherings like this. One tattooed, froglike dude actually followed me out of the auditorium, outside to the parking lot, and wandered over to where the SP and I were practicing push-hands, and goes, "So how's it going?"

"Good...," we said.

"Cool." Drag on cigarette. "So is that, like, push-hands?"


"You're into that, huh?"

"Pretty much," I said.

He dragged on his cigarette. Wandered away crestfallen.

"You are a freak magnet," the SP said in awe.

Friday, March 23, 2007

stage fight-or-flight

I've made disparaging noises in the past about the usefulness of doing forms competition. Even the masters will acknowledge that there's a difference between form and application. We do forms to learn the moves, to learn relaxation, to coordinate body and mind, yadda yadda, but what gets you points in forms competition (high kicks, low postures, etc.) are not the most useful techniques for fighting. Some people argue that if you can do the more extreme postures, then you will be stronger and more balanced for useful stuff, and so on. I'm not here to debate that.

It occurred to me, during practice this week, that forms competition is useful for developing fighting skill in a psychological way. Most of us get stage fright--it's human nature. When you get scared, you tense, and that's not good for your balance; it's also detrimental to the more esoteric aspects of tai chi, like relaxing the shoulders. If you can cultivate enough control over your body and mind to stay focused and relaxed during competition, then you may stand a better chance during a fight. Anything helps, I think.

And I want to know where it's written that I have to be on the rag during each and every competition? Really, God, is it necessary? I guess if I can maintain mental and physical control through weakness and cramping and light-headedness, I can keep cool during combat, too. Although frankly I'm more of a mood to tear off the heads of the other competitors and feast on their hearts. Snarl.

Friday, March 09, 2007

progress/regress free association

From Abby's blog on weaving and spinning:

If I were going to pick a single least-favourite fiber, I’d have to go with corn-derived plastic fiber, ingeo. Unpleasant to spin, impossible to dye, with a melting point that suggests structural failure is possible with as little heat as could be generated by being left on the patio on a hot summer day, ingeo is totally inexplicable to me. I just don’t get it.

Seriously, what is the point of this fiber? “Oh look,” the hype about it says, “A fiber from renewable sources!” Well, huzzah — now with extensive industrial technology we’re able to create a fiber from renewable sources, finally! Thank heaven! What would we ever have done without a fiber that grows back? What, do you think cotton or linen grows in fields every year? Or fleece-bearing animals regrow their wooly coverings? If you want a sustainable product, what’s wrong with a natural one? What are we trying to accomplish here with ingeo? A more expensive, less functional, and nastier-feeling variant of acrylic yarns which is somehow superior simply because it’s corn-based? Where’s the value in that? Give me a nice regenerated cellulosic if we’re talking industrially-produced man-made fibers, and leave the oddball plastics to non-textile applications.

Not to mention that it's possible to synthesize silk in a lab, too; IIRC from my Leviatech research, silk protein is a fairly simple bi-chemical compound, and you can make threads of it as long as you like. But doing so would cost even more than the hand labor traditionally employed for growing silk, and it would deprive all those widows and orphans of the meager but crucial supplemental income they get from doing said handwork.

On a larger scale, Abby's point is applicable to things like the push for new fuels, too. Fuel cells to replace oil and so on. Gasoline made from corn. Gimme a break. Horses worked very well for a fair chunk of human history, and they made their own replacements. They only reason they don't work now is because we all have this idea that we must *go* somewhere. Into the city to work. To the coasts for vacation. To Asia for business. You know what would solve the energy crisis? Forbidding people to travel. We've got the communications technology in place now; for most workers it isn't necessary to travel outside of one's hometown. My God I'm starting to sound like a dictator.

Do you ever stop to wonder what our lives would be like if we still lived in a semi-agrarian culture, only with the medical and communications advances we now have? That's what a lot of space opera is about, directly or indirectly. I wonder if those advances would've even been possible without the push toward industrialization and the concentration of wealth and ideas in the cities. The increase of leisure time, the lack of needing to grub up the next meal is what gives scientific minds the time to think up this stuff. Furthermore, scientific theory and application (in the form of industrialization) are tied up together: more precise machines allow for more in-depth, accurate exploration and testing.

I was reading a little about 1870's and 1880's political issues, for possible story fodder, and was bemused to find that the decades after reconstruction were largely taken up by economic issues that look startlingly current: industrialization, protective tariffs, exploitation of farmers and laborers by big bad robber barons, an influx of immigrant labor that drove down wages. It took four or five presidential elections, and the efforts of organizations like the Grangers and their successors, to get any real movement on government regulation of big business, particularly the railroads and the textile industries.

Not drawing any conclusions from this. Just turning the compost in my head, letting the air in.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

now I have an excuse to order those tee shirts that say "They're eatin' my Baptists."

There are so many people I hope are reading today. Mostly for vindictive reasons.

"End of the Line" got bought for Jim Baen's Universe. I got the acceptance letter and the contract yesterday. It's tentatively scheduled for release in the December issue. They're paying me a nice chunk of change, too; their pay rates were a big part of why I sent it to them. Their name and the recognition factor can do me no harm, either. Honestly, I could hardly have scored a better venue for my first pro sale.

This was what I wanted. The money, the venue, the timing. Not me self-publishing on my website; not a chapbook put out of somebody's garage; not a podcast sale for a measley $100--although now that the first rights have gone to Baen, I'd be more than happy to re-sell the story in audio format--wider exposure can do me no harm, either. Aside from the money, other editors give a certain amount of deference to the pedigree of your publisher. A sale like this is good for my resume, far better than a half-dozen sales to independent e-zines that will fold in six months. Granted, we are rounding a curve in terms of electronic media and some of those zines are going to grow up to be major Venues in their own right--but for now they're still minor-league. And that was not what I wanted. I'm not saying everything is going to be easy street from here on out, but it's a big step in the right direction.

The editor wants me to make some slight changes to the ending, which is fine. He also wanted to know if I'd considered making a series or novel with Trace and Boz--a comment I'm sure he wrote with tongue pressed firmly into cheek. I assured him it was a possibility.

This kind of jars my priorities back into order. I haven't thought about writing, except as something I used to do and would someday do again, in about a year. But 2006 was mostly lost to personal crap, and so far this year has been about tai chi and remodelling. Also there are some interesting (in the Chinese sense) things going on at work which have us all a little jumpy.

The sale of this story is going to allow me to pay off the smaller of the credit cards which my ex ran up. That freeing up of funds is going to allow me to buy a new laptop, which I critically need. That upgrade is going to alleviate a couple of factors which have made it very difficult for me to write in my new home. As I was relaying all of this to the SP yesterday, I stopped myself and said, "I guess I'm going to have to start writing again." He replied, "I guess I ought to speed up getting your office done."

He's at least as excited as I am. He's been a fan of my writing for a few years now, but he's a creative person, too, he understands how art is like a small flame that needs constant feeding and a certain amount of protection. We're talking about getting tee-shirts, attending Cons, and revamping my website, which I've been meaning to do anyway.

I knew the writing would demand my attention again when it was time. As karmic kicks in the head go, this one was pretty gratifying.

Thanks to all of you who told me I was worth it.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

surrealism and customer service

One of the very kind and thoughtful gifts the SP and I received for our wedding was a gift certificate to a local martial arts supply store. On Saturday, since we were in the neighborhood and happened to think of it, we stopped by there.

I'd never been to the place before, although I'd heard horror stories. It's located in the front of an old house in a semi-residential, semi-commercial area. The windows have iron grids across them and there are two doors in front, one split top/bottom for UPS and Fed-X deliveries. NO PICK-UPS TODAY, said the sign.

There is a hand-lettered sign on the entry door, readable through the glass: "To enter, ring bell and push door open when you hear buzzer." We rang the bell. We heard the buzzer. We pushed the door open.

We entered into a claustrophobic, dark entry-way no wider than the door. To our right was a cedar-paneled wall hung with flyers and business cards; on the left were large pigeonhole shelves, crammed floor-to-ceiling with shoes, uniforms, sashes, and sparring pads.

The whole place was no bigger than my living room. It was divided into a U-shape by a hanging rack of uniforms at the front. The west wall was covered with practice weapons, mostly wooden; the east wall was full of books. The back wall had two doorways, the cash register, and many more pigeonholes full of colored ranking belts, neatly bundled. Occupying the back two-thirds of the showroom floor was a display case full of butterfly knives, pepper spray, boot knives, batons, shock guns, and all the other useless semi-dangerous paraphernalia that teenage boys like to collect. There was, in fact, a teenage boy sitting on a stool slinging around a butterfly knife in a way that suggested too much idle time for practicing such things. Finally he handed it back to the old lady behind the counter. "No thanks," he said politely. "I think I like the one I've got better."

The old lady, whom I'll call B, is the heroine of our story today. She was petite and slim, though with an uneven gait that suggested a bad hip. She wore a purple sweater, lavender lipstick, and long lavender nails. Her silver hair was a helmet, perfectly coiffed and frosted. She very plainly did not want to be there. I speculate she was the wife of the owner, or some other relative, press-ganged into service.

There was very little in the shop that the SP or I needed, seeing as how I make our uniforms and he makes our weapons, but he had been wanting a new set of hand-bags for us to practice punching on, so we found those, plus a little paperback, The Thirteen Chapters by Cheung Man Ch'ing, that Sit recommended, and a glossy magazine that looked good for a laugh. In the five or ten minutes that we spent making these selections, an old hippie-type guy came in the door and started giving the old lady a hard time. Not like he was trying to be mean or anything--far from it. On the contrary he was one of those guys who thinks he is absolutely charming and can't say anything without trying to make a joke. I find this type either sad or annoying, depending on the circumstances, but I generally ignore them or goad them on, depending on how mean I'm feeling and whether there are witnesses.

This old lady, B, was clearly both annoyed and flustered. She apparently did not recognize irony in conversation, so when the guy said, "I'm here to bother you again," or "I'm just here to cause trouble," or "You mean I got to pay for that?" she'd get all indignant and say, "What do you mean?". Also the guy was asking for things that she did not have in the shop and had apparently never heard of before. Three times she said, "Let me call Bob," and got on the phone: "Do we have such-and-such?" Each time the answer was no. The third time I think Bob hung up on her (I'm fairly sure Bob was sitting somewhere in the back of the house, in his underwear, watching TV). And B kept getting more nervous, shrill and jerky. "Close the door!" she shrieked twice, at new customers coming in. "Push it closed all the way! Please! Otherwise the wind pushes it open!"

This went on for a while, with us hanging around snickering at the old guy and the two punks who came in, and the old lady trying to cope with a return and the old guy's weird questions. I cracked open the magazine and starting reading bits to the SP about how chi influences facial shape and can tell you who your perfect mate is.

Suddenly the old lady screams, "PUSH! PUSH!!!" in the kind of panicked tones that one uses when the vampires are scrambling for the box car door and you're trying to shut it (heh heh--more on that tomorrow). I jumped about a foot in the air and looked across the room at her, wondering what the hell she was talking about. "Can't they READ?!?" she screamed at me, and I realized she was yelling at somebody trying to come in the front door. I hadn't even heard it buzz.

Two teenagers came in, sheepishly. "I was trying to turn the knob," one said.

"It doesn't say turn the knob, it says 'Push!'--Please close the door all the way! Push it closed! It's a windy day out and the wind will blow it open! All the way! Push!"

The SP and I looked at each other and it was all I could do not to fall down laughing in horror. The two kids came in and started messing with the weapons, B finished up with the old guy and got him out of there, and I said sweetly, "We're ready to check out now."

"Ok, honey, I'm sorry about that," she said.

"That's not a problem," I told her. "Actually we got this gift certificate from you as a wedding present, we got married last November...."

"Oh, isn't that wonderful," she said. "Congratulations!"

"Thank you."

"Look at this, I signed this myself."

"I thought you did," I told her. "You've got beautiful handwriting." (It was also signed in her favorite color, purple.)

"Oh, aren't you sweet. I took penmanship you know, way back years ago when they still taught it."

"Oh, you're not that old," I told her.

"Honey, I just had a birthday."

"And you're twenty-five," I guessed.

She laughed, and looked pathetically flattered instead of amused. "I just turned sixty-four."



I pulled back and looked at her hard, the incredulity in my expression not hard to fake because that close, I could see she was wearing false eyelashes and I found it incredible that anyone could be that superficial after menopause. Grooming is one thing; faux finishing is another. "You're making that up."

This went on for a while, with her getting more gooey and pliable, while I steered her toward the cash register. She tallied up our bill, which was the exact amount of our gift certificate. "And I just won't charge you tax," she said.

"Aren't you sweet!" I told her.

I got her to hang up a current flyer advertising Sit's class on their bulletin board, and we split. Once the door closed behind us, we doubled over in paroxysms of laughter and had to stumble to the car. "Don't you know how to charm the crazy old lady!" the SP said admiringly.

"Oh baby, she was easy," I said, wiping my eyes. But hey--why not? I felt sorry for her, and it got us out of there quicker.

The coda to all this was that we stopped by Sonic on our way home, for a quickie lunch, and the girl taking our order had the damnedest time pushing those little buttons.

"I want two bacon cheeseburgers, one with mustard, and one with mustard and mayonnaise," the SP said. "A small order of onion rings, and a small chocolate shake."

"Okay, that's two burgers, one with mustard and what else?"

"One with mayonnaise and mustard, and one with no mayonnaise."

"Two burgers with mayonnaise." (This was when I started giggling and put my head between my knees. After the previous encounter it was too much to bear.)

"No, one with mayonnaise and mustard, and one with JUST mustard."

Long pause. "Okay, that's two bacon burgers with mustard and mayonnaise."

The SP looked at me helplessly. "Yeah!" he said, and I fell over. "I know when I'm licked," he muttered.

Both burgers arrived with mustard, no mayo. We ate them anyway.

Friday, March 02, 2007

cooking Chinese: beef with broad noodles

I don't think I've mentioned it, but in addition to being a fine martial artist and teacher, Sit is also a chef. He used to give classes in Chinese cooking but gave it up as too messy and expensive. But he and I are still trying to find some common ground over which to bond, because I think he's still a little bewildered by me. He loans me Jeffrey Deaver mysteries and just recently offered to teach me how to cook Chinese. Actually I asked, while we were at Lucky Wok, "Can you teach me how to make this?" and he responded enthusiastically. I was quite flattered.

So on Wednesday, I left work early, went to the Chinese grocery nearby and bought some rice noodles. That was an adventure. The place had the feel of a street market, even if it wasn't. Everything jumbled on top of itself and looming from shelves and racks above. Barely enough room in the aisles for one person to sidle through. Tanks of flowing water and semi-live aquatic creatures, everything smelling of bait, ginger, and bitter spices. For all the complaining I do about American diets, and how over-processed everything is, the Asians are far worse. Everything seemed to be dried, or powdered, or both. The produce wasn't bad, though. It looked as fresh and firm as the stock in the organic market we like.

Mostly it was just intimidating, because I barely knew what I was looking for and didn't know where to find it. So I spent some time wandering, and the clerks were looking at me a little suspiciously. I don't think they get many white girls in there.

Anyway. Here's the basic recipe/procedure, preserved here so I can remember it later.

Take a tri-tip beef roast, flank steak, or skirt steak. You'll probably have to ask for the tri-tip special from the butcher. Cut it into thick strips and then chop into thin stir-fry slivers. Put this in a big bowl; season with salt and pepper. In a small bowl, mix together about 1-1/2 tsp baking soda, 2-3 Tbs cornstarch, and enough water to make a thin gruel. Pour over beef. Add a couple generous dashes of sesame oil, and about 1/3 cup vegetable oil. Combine to coat all the beef and let sit. (This is a lot of meat--tri-tip cuts average about 2 lbs. You can easily prepare this and freeze part of it for later, which is what we did.)

We used a package of broad rice noodles, very fine, translucent-white, and essentially flavorless. They are about six inches wide by a couple of feet long and come partially dehydrated and oiled, folded together into a square shrink-wrapped package that is also refrigerated. Sit cut the block of noodles into strips, about 3/4 inch wide, and put them in the steamer for a few minutes, to soften them. When they are hot and loosened up, unfold the noodle strips and pull them apart. Put into a bowl.

Now, in a very hot large skillet or wok, stir-fry the beef with some chopped yellow onion, an inch or two of fresh minced ginger, and three cloves of fresh minced garlic. Use vegetable oil to keep it from sticking. Add a couple dashes of oyster sauce, and lots of soy sauce. Stir-fry until the beef is barely done. Turn out onto plate.

Put the steamed noodles and a couple cups of fresh bean sprouts into the skillet. Add more soy sauce and another dash of sesame oil, if desired. Stir until everything is coated. Add the beef back in; taste and add more soy sauce. "This is the only dish that's based on flavor of soy sauce," Sit said, adding, "Paul Prudhomme says to flavor at every stage."

That's basically it. Ours came out a little bland. Sit says it takes three tries to get a new dish right; the first time you over-season, the second time you under-season. This, he said, was his second time making beef with noodles.

"Next time I teach you make curry chicken," he said.