Tuesday, January 30, 2007

blameworthy

I've been thinking some about the nature of competency, lately. This is mostly due to events in my tai chi universe.
  • We had another visitor to the Wednesday night advanced class. This one we'll call the Wookie--Big dude. Bad posture. Nervous twitches. (What is it about martial arts that attracts these spazzes? The rumor is, this guy has some kind of genuine brain disorder, and is on medication for it.) The Wookie was very strong, but slow. He was like a big dumb bull, pushing through every exercise. He kept saying "uh-huh. uh-huh. uh-huh." like a parrot, to everything Sit said until I was ready to hamstring him. He clearly thought he was getting it; he very much was not.

    "Your technique is very good," Sit said. "But it's not tai chi. You do only the yang. You don't have the softness." The Wookie seemed irritated by this. Sit went on to say it was possible to study for "fifteen years," but if you don't have a good teacher and/or you don't practice, you'll never be good.

    I got to give credit to the Wookie; he seems to have practiced, but either his teacher wasn't setting a good example or the Wookie was disregarding it. He can't catch an attack, he can't do chin na or anything involving finesse: he can only bulldoze. With this guy, it's easy to assume that he's messed up in the head and will never learn correctly, but I wonder why Sit puts up with him. Does he hate to let a student go? Does he think that as a teacher he can still get through to him?

    The Wookie says he intends to come back and "keep learning"; we'll see.
  • On YouTube, I stumbled across some videos by a trio of guys who claim to be doing the Tai Hui form. Tai hui is Sit's style of kung fu. It's fairly rare. As far as I know, Sit's the only one in the U.S. who teaches it. But there's a former student of Sit's in Kansas City, who claims to teach tai hui as well. Those are three of his students on YouTube. Technically, they are my kung fu nephews.

    To my eye, they look pretty rough. Their shoulders are up around their ears when they should be dropped and relaxed. Their elbows are flapping around like chicken wings. Their stances are all wrong--a proper tai hui stance is weight on the back leg, front leg cocked so the knee is out, ready for kicking or trapping. These guys are extending their front leg out straight, and distributing their weight in the middle.

    Meanwhile their friends are posting comments going "Good form!" which just makes me groan. Now, we could get into evolution of form and the "right" way of doing things, but that's not really the point. Chinese internal styles all have the same basic principles: movement from the core of the body, rooting of the feet, dropping the hip, elbow, and shoulder. I see none of that in their videos. I see varying degrees of it in other videos that people put up on YouTube. Of course, what is visible in the form is not necessarily indicative of one's fighting ability, but that's not the point.

    I used to think form, and competition in form, was a waste of time. Sit admits that what looks good in form is not necessarily good fighting technique. But to me, it's like being able to speak both Cantonese and Mandarin. If you're really that good, you should be able to do either, as appropriate to the context. It's about having control over your body.

    Of course there are 10-year students in Sit's class who can't do a proper forward stance, either. And sometimes it irks me that they still come to class, treat it like social hour, and pass on the same bad habits to a new crop of students. Because Sit has given up correcting them, they think they're pretty good.

    But it's a fact of psychology that in order to judge your own competency of a skill, you have to have a fair amount of competency. In other words, you can't know how good you are until you're already fairly good. People who are low-level tend to judge themselves more skilled than they are, because they have nothing to compare to.

    All of which makes me worry about what my form tells people about my teacher.

  • As I'm mulling all of this, a friend directs me to a blog about weaving, where the author addresses the very problem I've been contemplating:
    I learned [weaving] in a context where praise is rarely given, and understated when it is; where praising newbie efforts the way we do in the US would be seen as insulting. When I first learned to spin, I was five years old and we’d just moved to Chinchero, Peru.[...]

    One day I braided my hair for myself, and I was super proud. I ran up to the first old lady I saw, and said, “Look! Look! I braided my own hair! Didn’t I do a good job?”

    “No,” she replied. “You did a
    waylaka [a lazy, incompetent woman] job. Here, this is how it should be. Do it like this from now on,” and she undid my braids, rebraiding them so tight they’d hold for a week, in about 2 minutes flat.

    This wasn’t criticism per se — this was caring, and ownership and community.[...] If she’d told me “You did good,” it would have carried with it the message that such work was all that could be expected of me; that I had no further potential; that I wasn’t worth wasting any time on teaching.

    If she would have spent a long, long time rebraiding my hair, going slow, making me do it, that would have been condescending, and again, sent the message that I was of little value, due to my clearly sub-par learning skills. Doing it right, at close to normal speed, telling me what to feel for and think about, would give me more time to go off and practice without making someone else drill it into me. Suggesting that I needed a grown woman to teach me, painstakingly and at length, would have been to single me out from my peers to treat me like a problem.

    This segment really appealed to me, because it's the way that Sit teaches. He hardly ever says "good job." I think I'd been there three years before he said it to me, and that first time I was so shocked I thought I'd misheard. He just says, "Yes," when you do it right, and "No," when it's wrong. He rarely singles out anyone for individual attention unless you're fairly advanced and ready for fine-tuning, or have a genuine learning disability, as does one of the younger students in our weekend class. But I like Sit's method. It means you either sink or swim, and it weeds out people who insist on doing things their own way--who then go off and start their own school.

I'm at a level now where not much more can be drilled into me. I'm learning the internal form, which is pretty much the Holy Grail of forms in our style--from here on out it's a matter of refinement and practice. Sit helps as much as he can, offering clues and tricks he's figured out, but tai chi is like writing; you have to find your own method. I have my good days and bad days in class; sometimes I think I'm getting it and sometimes I'm crushed by how far I have to go. And because I am competent enough to see my shortcomings (and I have a teacher who won't let me get above myself), I sometimes get depressed because I know I don't really have the single-minded passion that it takes to excel at something like martial arts. I started tai chi seven years ago; I've been in Sit's class for four. I should be much further along than I am, but my interests are divided, and my time has always been sacrificed. I tell myself that if I just keep at it, I can't help but improve, if slowly.

In a way, all this tai chi indignation is motivating. The SP and I are both getting a little surfeited with honeymooning--not with each other, just with the indolent living--and eager to step up training again. I feel obligated to pass on what Sit has taught me, and to do it in a way that respects the tradition. Furthermore, we've got a couple tournaments coming up, a local one in March and the big one in July. I don't want my peers wondering if I have a lousy teacher or if I'm just a lazy brat.

Sit may be thinking along the same lines, because a few weeks ago he watched me do MY internal form and said, "Look, either you want to learn this or you don't. If you do, you got to practice."

Thank you Sifu-- May I have another?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

chicken & sausage soup

This is a knockoff of my chicken jambalaya.

Poach a couple of chicken breasts in a big pot or deep skillet, with a little water and chicken bouillion. Add seasoned salt & seasoned pepper.

In another skillet, melt some butter and saute about half of a yellow onion, a red bell pepper and a green bell pepper, all diced coarsely. Throw in a couple cloves of garlic and a couple of celery stalks, also chopped.

When the vegetables are wilted and the chicken breasts are mostly cooked, remove the chicken to cool and dump the peppers & onion in the chicken broth. Add two 10 oz cans of diced tomatoes with their juice. Add about a tablespoon of basil or thyme, one or two bay leaves, and a few generous dashes of Frank's Red Hot.

Dice up cooked chicken and return to pot. Cut a package of smoked dinner sausage into rounds and add to pot.

Let simmer, uncovered, until some of the liquid is reduced and the sausage looks shriveled. Taste; correct seasonings.

Serve with crusty buttered bread.

(You can also eat this over rice. Originally I would add long grain and wild rice to the soupy mixture, and let it steam until it turned to hash. But the jambalaya didn't keep well when it had the rice cooked in; it became starchy and bland in the refrigerator. This soup is just as good the day after.)

Monday, January 22, 2007

nightmares and dreamscapes

I had a horrible dream last night. I dreamt it was morning, and I heard my spouse get up and start moving around, getting dressed, and I rolled over to see it was my ex-husband, the 450-pound leech. "What are you doing here?" I squeaked. "What do you mean?" he said. "I'm your husband."

This was followed by me trying to pretend everything was normal, while wondering--horrified--if the past year had been a dream after all, and trying to slip away to check my laptop for messages from the SP. Meanwhile, the ex is following me around, whining about how I seem so distant lately, and he doesn't want to lose me, and he's really going to change this time, really. I feel suffocated just remembering it. I finally escaped into the bathroom, staring down into the plastic almond-colored sink of my old apartment, trying to visualize the chipped white porcelain of my new sink, in the old house I share with the SP, muttering incantations like, "There's no place like home," under my breath.

Luckily for me, the SP started snoring, as he often does around 4 a.m., and I woke up violently to find his bony elbow nudging me in the temple. I tickled him in the armpit. He snorted and turned on his side and I began to breathe normally again, as the nightmare pressure eased off my chest.

When I told the SP about it this morning, he said it was no surprise I was having nightmares, after that movie we saw last night, Children of Men. It's an impressive piece of dystopic science fiction, but it makes you ask yourself, would it really be such a bad thing if humanity died out?

Oh, and we ripped down another section of wall yesterday. It's kind of fun. We're going to take the ceiling down, too, and encase the whole room in fresh new sheetrock and paint. I'm glad about that. Sheetrock is a lot cleaner than plaster, which tends to shower fine powder down on everything, constantly. That's a big consideration since I want to have my computer and sewing supplies in that room.

It's neat, having that room stripped out. It's like a blank canvas, waiting to be made pretty.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

icy Tuesday

I woke up this morning to a report that massive ice storms had killed 29 people so far in Texas, Oklahoma and southern Missouri. That's a bit south of where I am, but news like that doesn't exactly inspire one to get out of bed.

We had a bit of precipitation this weekend. Less in my town, more in the City. Very cold. I started acquiring cold weather gear last Friday--hats, gloves, long underwear-- mostly stuff for doing manual labor. I used to have quite a lot of that stuff, but I let it go over the years because you just don't do as much while living in an apartment. Now, however, I am a House Wife, working in a drafty cold room with a lot of plaster dust in the air, and I need tough clothes. Tony is vastly entertained by watching me work. He says he can laugh at every other woman he's known. He's proud of me and I feel smug. The downside of this is he's getting more ambitious with his plans to remodel the house. Now he's talking about stripping off one wall in the living room, too, so he can realign the two halves of this doorway that's gotten kind of torqued by the settling. He's talking about curtaining off part of the living room with plastic. He says we can't burn the wood stove while the plastic is up, and in the next breath asks me to turn down the heat because our gas usage was up last month. He keeps calling me "intrepid" and "a trooper." I'm starting to wonder what I've gotten into.

Still, it's heartening to see the progress we've made. The room is down to bare studs except for one corner. Monday, I was off for MLK day, so we hauled out all the rubble from the demolished room and took it to the dump. That's kind of a scary trip, in the dead of winter, in the middle of nowhere with a wind that will numb your double-gloved fingers in a matter of seconds. When you go into a dump you get the feeling you've stepped back in time to something primitive and wild. The men who work in dumps tend to be rather proto-human in appearance. The massive earth-movers they drive are like mammoths, lumbering and inexorable. Gulls and birds rip at the carnage. Even in the dead of winter, the landfill is slightly warm and fragrant. You can feel the heat coming off the ground; your feet are warm but your hands freeze from the wind whipping across that bare wasteland.

I expect I'll get to see the dump in every phase of the year, this year: I gather this was only the first of many such trips. Just the rubble from half of that tiny room filled the pickup truck. "I think we got it scared now," Tony said, surveying the bare dusty floor.

=======

Shirley sent me a mildly intriguing reference to an American-Idol-like writing contest at gather.com. Simply put, Simon & Schuster are letting the public act as their first readers. I expect we'll see more of this in future. I think I even mentioned, back when I posted End of the Line on Jim Baen's Universe, that theirs was a similiar setup, although I later learned that they still had designated first readers and the whole process wasn't as democratic as they would have us believe. Currently, EOTL is still being "considered" by the editor of that publication. He's had it for a year. I'm tempted to write them a nudge note but I really don't care that much.

I'm just not in the mood to write. I'm more interested in rebuilding my house and reading everything I can get my hands on, and catching up on the movies I missed over the past three years. I'm even less in the mood to publish, since I realized that selling a novel is uncomfortably like running for public office--it takes a lot of glad-handing and getting your name out there. No thanks. If I ever do finish Trace's adventures I'll either self-publish or find a nice small press to do it for me.

That's the mood this week, at least. Winds may change. I'll admit I had a brief hiccup of excitement at the gather.com contest, and I might've tossed something into the hopper just for fun, but I don't have anything submission-worthy. I'm not sure what "commerical fiction" means, anyway. Does that exclude genre type stuff? Oh, and there's a sinister little rule that if you win, you agree to sign their contract within five days. Lord only knows what's in that contract.

Oh well. Nothing here but hiding out in the bunker, soaking up pop culture and stuffing myself with chocolate.

Friday, January 12, 2007

deadwood season three

Biggest letdown since The Phantom Menace. 150 chinks out of Custer City, 17 1/2 hired guns from Cheyenne, six subplots, two Earps, one dead miner and another dead hooker, and what does it all add up to? Jack Squat.

Boy am I pissed off. I don't care what themes David Milch wanted to "explore," or why the writers abruptly retreated into verisimilitude in the last fifty minutes, but that's damned sloppy storytelling. I can't believe I sat through 13 hours of that self-indulgent arrogance, only to have the producer thumb his nose at the audience in the end. And don't tell me how it was all about the balance of power or personal fulfillment or whatever. I've got an English degree, thank you very much. It's still unacceptable.

And now I have Gerald McRaney's voice coloring all the thoughts in my head.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

saith the gourd unto Herod

Aren't spam subject lines fun?

Anyway, here's some mental housecleaning for the week, mostly about words and writing. Hey, did you know this used to be a writing blog?

=======

DK sent me an email yesterday:
As I recall you are not particularly fond of writing short stories, but I thought this might present as a good opportunity for you to get something published. Check it out.

http://www.escapepod.org/2007/01/06/300-word-flash-contest/#more-185


I have several thoughts on this. First, I wonder if DK has some kind of stock in escapepod.com, since he's mentioned it to me three or four times, apropos of nothing each time. Second, I worry that the state of publishing is even worse that I suspected, because I see several "names" on the lists of escapepod's fiction list, and I know that even the award-winning midlist authors are scrabbling for publication space/money, so I really doubt that my odds would be better in this venue vis-a-vis any other.

Thirdly, I really love it when people (men, generally) who don't know me send me little pearls of wisdom about how I could get published, when the pearls they send me are in no way related to anything else they've seen me do, and frequently reveal the sender's own ignorance about writing and publishing. What's the goal in this? Winning my undying gratitude? Hoping to siphon off some vicarious fame? But then, DK once wrote to Tom Clancy suggesting they write a book together, or barring that, could Mr. Clancy please forward copies of all his research so DK could write the book? Honest to God.

Weary indignation aside, I've been wondering in a more general way if audiobooks are going to continue to grow the way they have. I wonder if publishers have any hard numbers about how consumers are using books; so much media is throwaway or background noise these days. The emphasis is on portable entertainment--of which a book is the original format--but you can listen to a book while driving, or working out, or whatever. Even I'm hard-pressed to sit down and read these days. I wonder if I'd be more inclined to listen to a story, if there were more of the kind of story I want, available? Or would I simply be annoyed by the background noise, the way I so often am with music, these days?

========

My writer's meeting was last Saturday. We had a bit of material to cover, too, after a long dry spell. Three of our members have been going through household changes this year; the other three are just having really bad luck (car accidents, surgery, settling the estates of parents). But this time, Jan brought a nonfic article for her art history class, about the late-19th-century Japonisme fad, and how Japanese art influenced western art (especially the Impressionists, which is hard to fathom), decor, and dress. I knew a bit about this peripherally, because of my cultural research, but it was interesting to see a more in-depth article. I wrote several comments on her paper, and she wrote me a very nice thank-you. I love that. It's so nice to hear when my crits have been appropriate and helpful. Makes me feel like I've got a handle on this writing thing.

My contribution to the group was about 7 pages of a new story I'm working on, a little urban fantasy/slipstream/horror thing. Kinda Ray Bradbury, without the sugar coating. More Shirley Jackson, I think, which makes sense cuz I've been reading her.

=========

I finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle. That is some disturbing stuff. It's not supernatural in the slightest. It concerns a pair of sisters, the only survivors of a poisoning that killed the rest of the family (the elder sister was tried and acquitted of the murders). The girls have a symbiotic relationship that's all the more twisted and awful for all its surface normalcy. Jackson's style is tremendously clean, straightforward, and readable. It's like being stuck in a nightmare, where everything makes perfect sense even while you know it's wrong. I admire it greatly.

=========

I also finished The Knife Man (see sidebar). Good reading. Fascinating insight to the state of medicine on the cusp of science. Made me grit my teeth many times at the pigheadedness and shortsightedness of the establishment, who always want to do things the way they've always done them, a system that rewards mediocrity and resists any kind of change for the better.

=========

My writer buddy Rob loaned me Other Powers, by Barbara Goldsmith. It's a social biography, if you will, of Victorian Woodhull. I knew of Woodhull as an early proponent of birth control and the first woman to run for the American Presidency, but the last time I read about her I was in the seventh grade, I think, and the library books at that level were somewhat more sanitized than this account. To my delight, I find that the meat of Woodhull's life and biography center around the American Reconstruction era, and among other things she was a spiritualist. Looking forward to these pages.

Friday, January 05, 2007

awesome, awesome egg rolls

Take:
  • 3 boneless pork sirloin cutlets (about 1 lb), cut into stir-fry strips
  • 3 or 4 green onion strands, minced

marinate the above for 15 minutes in:
  • 1/2 c sherry
  • 2 tsp chicken bullion granules
  • 4 Tbs soy sauce
  • 3 Tbs oyster sauce
  • 1 Tbs red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 2 Tbs brown sugar
  • fresh black pepper and/or white pepper

you will also need:

  • olive oil for stir-frying
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 1 cu in. fresh ginger, finely minced
  • 1 bag shredded prepared coleslaw mix (cabbage and carrots)
  • 1 pkg egg roll wrappers (usu. contains 18-20)
  • peanut or vegetable oil for frying

Stir-fry the minced ginger and garlic in a little olive oil until a bit brown. Add the marinated pork and green onion and fry until pork is done. SAVE THE USED MARINADE. Remove cooked pork to a cutting board to cool. With a big sharp knife, mince the pork into tiny bits and put in a big bowl.

Stir-fry the cabbage mixture with the leftover marinade juice until the cabbage is a bit limp and the marinade is mostly absorbed. Remove cabbage with a slotted spoon and cook down the leftover sauce until thick and reduced. Drizzle this over the cabbage and pork mixture; toss together well.

Wrap about 3 Tbs of the cabbage/pork filling per egg roll wrapper, according to package directions. Fry in peanut or vegetable oil until golden all over. Drain well. Good hot or cold.

For passable sweet & sour sauce, combine about 1/4 c plum jelly with about 1 Tbs EACH soy sauce and rice vinegar; more or less to taste.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

reasons I'm in a good mood today

  1. We emptied my office and are going to tear out plaster this weekend. The SP said I need to be "thinking about" lighting for that room.
  2. Sit smacked me in the face last night. This is a gesture of respect, though painful.
  3. The loan servicing company has agreed to put my student loans in forebearance for another year, though they told me at first they wouldn't. This essentially means I can pay off the credit cards this year. Completely.
  4. I wrote four pages yesterday. Totally new story, unrelated to anything.
  5. My writer's meeting is Saturday.
  6. My new fish cookbook arrived. We're having fish tacos for dinner tonight.