Tuesday, December 16, 2008

standing your ground

Breda had a post that generated a lot of discussion. I started to comment, but my remarks got so long, and so self-centered, that I decided it was better posted here.

I don't spend a lot of time in bars, but recently me and the Sparring Partner were having dinner at one, and it was starting to get crowded. About halfway through our meal, two women moved into the stools beside me, and their male companion wedged himself in between me and the woman nearest me. He was facing her, so we're talking full-body contact between his back and my right side, albeit through a couple of sweaters and jackets. It blew my mind--do people routinely snuggle up against strangers in crowded bars, or did he just choose me because I was smallish and female?

But I tolerated it for a minute, because I figured he was just picking up a drink or a napkin and would move on. When he stayed, and got louder, I stopped giving him space. I braced my feet against the bar and relaxed against him. It was pretty comfortable, actually. I felt his weight shift. I picked up a knife and sawed at my steak, letting my right elbow flail where it would.

After a minute or two he moved away. Neither of us exchanged a word, I never even saw his face, but the point was made. He may not have consciously realized what I was doing, because I was subtle, but I made him uncomfortable. He wasn't out to attack me or start anything, he was just playing a game of Red Rover and mistakenly took me for a weak spot. He found he was wrong and he moved on.

I work--and often, shop--in Johnson County, Kansas, one of the most affluent counties in the United States, and I swear people are ruder there than anywhere else I've been. There's an interesting public dance that takes place in stores, an elaborate avoiding of eye contact, presumably so folks can cut in front of someone else and then claim, "Oh, I didn't see you."

I've had fellow shoppers move directly between me and the shelf I was looking at and stand there--not just picking up one thing and moving on: standing. Rich blonde women out shopping with a friend are particularly good at this, without missing a beat of chatter.

"Don't mind me," I said once in a low, dry voice. "I was just looking at that shelf."

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you," the blonde said, in a line straight out of Heathers or maybe Mean Girls. Do people really talk/think/behave like that?

You bet they do. Once a guy wedged himself into the 16 inches between me and the coffee bin at Whole Foods (which I was facing, and obviously looking at), leisurely shook out a bag and started shovelling beans into it. My instinct was to move away, but of course that was what he'd been counting on. So I stood where I was, nearly touching his left elbow. When I didn't move away he got nervous, glanced over his shoulder at me and said, "Oh, am I in your way?"

I smiled at him sweetly, standing dead still and making full eye contact with the cold edge Breda described. "Yes," I said. "But you go ahead." I put a saccharine sneer in the last sentence, a mockery of what he expected a polite woman to say in that situation.

"Sorry," he said, and hustled out of there. Sorry! Maybe that one will say "Excuse me," next time.

I've hung up on customers who got verbally abusive with me--after, of course, calmly pointing out that their nastiness doesn't accomplish anything and I can help them if they work with me. Two out of three times, they will modify their behavior. Often they even apologize. The other 33% aren't worth my time--if they call back I pass them off to a superior, which is usually what they wanted in the first place.

I once ran a man out of the apartment rental office where I worked, because he was sexually harrassing my co-worker. The guy was an ex-Marine, physically capable of beating the crap out of me, but my actions were not hot-headed or lacking in calculation: he was a weak-minded bully, a part-time employee of the office, the kind who wanted everybody to like him and couldn't understand why they didn't. He was not intoxicated, he was just a loud obnoxious boor who was used to getting his way.

I was certainly not trusting in my kung-fu during that incident; I was a baby martial artist and I knew it. I was not armed with anything other than some office supplies and a willingness to fight dirty. What I was counting upon (albeit unconsciously) was the social constraints on the guy--that he couldn't afford legal trouble, couldn't afford to look bad in the eyes of the women who were his landlords and employers (he knew it would get back to the manager), and I daresay that, looking at me, he wasn't all too sure of what I was capable of. One of the old tai chi masters used to say, "Never accept a challenge from a monk or a woman." This is because, one, if a smaller person or a pacifist challenges you they must have some serious confidence in their gong. Two, even if you win, you don't win, you're a brute. And if you lose, you'll never live it down.

Men know this: it's one of the fundamental assumptions of American society and our court system. Even a man who is an abuser in private is hestitant to unleash on a woman he doesn't have total control over. If he'd been the kind of man with utter disregard for the rules, he wouldn't have been in there trying to schmooze my co-worker: he'd have been manhandling her, and my attack on him would've been a lot more blunt and heavy-handed. Probably with the brass desk lamp.

I knew, also, that people act like that because they think you are in customer service and you have to take it. They are counting on you not making a scene. And they are oh-so-surprised, when you call them on their behavior, to find that the world does not, in fact, move over for their pleasure. It bears mentioning, I think, that I have never been fired from a job. In fact, in every customer service job I have had, I quickly get a reputation for being the Doberman on a chain; the one that difficult customers get handed off to.

I don't insult them. I don't fight back. I am utterly unaffected by everything they do, and this makes them back down, somewhat bewildered, because I am not following the pattern they set up that allows them to get what they want.

Prideful? Yes, sometimes. But for each incident I mention here, there were 10 or 20 lessor offenses that I let slide. Some violations of common courtesy are simply too flagrant to go unchallenged. Usually I only engage when my sense of fair play has been offended, and I only respond proportionately. Sit would call it "acting in harmony with an opponent."

So I support Breda in her assertiveness. She's got a troll over there trying to tear her down, and other people saying she went too far. But, bottom line, nothing came of the incident except she gained a little more confidence in herself. She'll assimilate the incident, learn from it, and have better judgment next time. In my opinion, that is worth a few million words of rhetoric about preparedness, and probably a few thousand rounds at the shooting range.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

speaking of Trace....

I got to give a shout-out to Rich Horton, short-fiction reviewer for Locus, who not only did a nice write-up on "End of the Line" for that magazine, but has also described it as a favorite novella of the year in at least two online venues, one of those being his Livejournal, The Elephant Forgets.

"My favorite novella this year [from Baen's] was by a new writer, Holly Messinger. "End of the Line" (February) is a fantasy Western, about a man who can see ghosts who encounters spooky creatures on a trip west. Messinger is apparently planning more stories in this series."


Planning, yes. Executing... not so much. *sigh* It's either write for love or sew for money, these days.

Thank you, Rich. That means a lot to me, considering the quantity of fiction you slog through every year. I'll buy you a drink next time we're at the same Con.

oooh, you know I can't resist this

I am a Steampunk Adventurer! (Actually, they say "Explorer," but "Adventurer" is more appropriate to the vernacular.)

The Explorer

39% Elegant, 31% Technological, 57% Historical, 64% Adventurous and 17% Playful!


"You are the Explorer, the embodiment of steampunk’s adventuring spirit. For you, clothing should be rugged and reliable, and just as functional as it is attractive. You probably prefer khaki or leather, and your accessories are as likely to include weapons as technological gizmos. You probably wear boots and gloves, and maybe a pith helmet. Most of what you wear is functional, and if you happen to wear goggles people had better believe that you use them. In addition to Victorian exploration gear, your outfit probably includes little knickknacks from your various travels. Above all, you are a charming blend of rugged Victorian daring and exotic curiosity."



Is anyone surprised by this? Hmm. Suddenly I have a strange urge to book a tour of Egypt.

Steampunk Style Test via Breda

In related news, I actually wrote a bit on Curious Weather yesterday. Maybe it's a trend.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

what did he just call her?

We've been watching True Blood in our house. It's the kind of show that's just good enough to make you wish it were better.

My husband's read all the Sookie Stackhouse books. I've browsed most of them, since they pretty much live in our bathroom and/or on the head of our bed. They're nicely written, sweet and light, which for me makes them slightly cloying. I tend to write with a light touch, myself, not sure why--I'm certainly not squeamish, but neither do I believe in wallowing in nastiness.

True Blood is truly wallowing. It's full of nudity, vulgarity, obscenity--and I'm sure there would be profanity, except the absense of anything approaching faith on this show precludes anything to profane against. Whoever was in charge of researching "Southerners" should have picked up on the fact that a lot of those ignorant backcountry folk still believe in God--whether they live by the Word or not. The only hint of religion in this story, for better or for worse, are the bigoted TV evangelists who talk about vampires being soulless creatures of the devil.

Other critics have said that the show's tone is uneven; rather I would say that it has no tone. It seems to be trying so hard not to be didactic that it comes off as extremely superficial, even detached. The books satisfy their core audience by being breezy and blithe; bad things happen but the sunny, slightly innocent nature of the heroine colors everything. Sookie as narrator is there for the reader to see and feel through; she gives events weight and purpose, but she's an insulated personality, she protects herself and the reader from the worst of the filth.

On the show, we don't have that filter. So there's no unifying tone; in one scene we get Sookie's breezy cheer and in the next we get her brother Jason's skeevy head-scratching stupidity. There are moments of sudden violence that would be shocking if they weren't so disconnected from everything else that goes on. Sookie damn near gets kicked to death one night, but gets up the next morning completely unaffected.

There's a lot of stuff going on in each episode. Bill and Sookie (I swear it sounds like he's calling her "Sucky" in his badly affected southern drawl) are falling in love, Jason is having butt-naked kinky sex with every hot slut in town (some of these scenes are so ludicrous, the SP turned to me and said, "We must be doing something wrong,"), Sookie's best friend Tara is coping with her alcoholic mother and her unrequited love for Jason, both factors which lead her to spend a night in the arms of her boss, Sam, who is carrying a torch for Sookie.

Then there are some other characters wandering around to facilitate the main characters' raisons d'etre: Sookie's wise and understanding Grandma, Jason's string of hot sluts whose names don't matter, because they keep ending up dead, a trio of evil vampires who menace Sookie and serve conveniently as murder suspects, Tara's flamingly gay/proudly black/casually drug dealing cousin Lafayette, who provides comic relief, eye candy, and anti-anti-stereotype in one effervescent chocolate-coated package.

Sadly, none of these characters, with the possible exceptions of Tara and Lafayette, even come close to transcending their cookie-cutter functions in the plot. This is probably because, as my husband assures me, the latter two were minor characters in the book, and have been substantially revamped (pardon the expression) for the show.

At any rate, Bill and Sookie just bore me. Anna Paquin has two expressions--sweetly wide-eyed and wide-eyed with horror. Stephen Moyer doesn't even have that range; he just glowers. He's rehashing every comatose broody vamp who's come before him (he even looks a little like David Boreanez, but at least Angel served as a useful straight man once in a while--Bill Compton is just a lacramose dud).

And I must say... although I rolled my eyes when people complained about the swearing in Deadwood, and I don't even blink at Jennifer Carpenter's potty-mouth in Dexter, something about the vulgarity in True Blood seems dreadfully affected. It all seems affected, including the actors' accents, which makes the swearing stand out more. Although I have certainly known and worked with my share of rednecks, people just don't generally swear that much around strangers and co-workers. HBO is trying too hard.

That includes the vampiric effects on the show. Switchblade fangs? Puh-leese. And we could do without the hissing, too. I'm sooooo tired of vampires spitting at each other like cats and throwing their heads back when they bare their fangs. Do animals do this? Hell, no. Joss Whedon was the only one who could make his vampires look dangerous and not ridiculous--he made them animal-like, hunching their shoulders and growling like tigers. Alan Ball's vampires pout and purr and occasionally lurch in stop-action across the screen when they're supposed to be moving super-fast. It's not effective, it's confusing.

Anyway. I'll probably watch more of it, but only if it's on in the background. It's not engaging enough to pull me away from my sewing, but not so stupid or annoying that it offends me. Ironically enough, my favorite part is the intro, a pastiche of honky-tonk and Southern Baptist documentary footage overlaid with Jace Everett's song, "Bad Things." It's pitch-perfect: the tone, the images, the schizo visuals. Pity the show didn't adopt some of that flavor.

(Warning: some nudity)

Friday, November 21, 2008

year three

A reader sent belated anniversary wishes, which reminded me I haven't posted in well over a week.

There's been a fair amount o'productive crap going on. We stacked firewood. We brought home a freezer. The SP ran wiring for through the basement ceiling, put in a couple of new outlets. We tidied the basement...somewhat... and emptied out three large tubs full of older clothes, towels, and bed linens. We discussed improvements to the basement that will probably have to wait another five years.

We took about 80 pounds of old clothes & stuff to Goodwill. I did some clean & repair work on some old costumes and put them up for sale on Etsy. We stacked more firewood. I brought some of my plants indoors.

We set up the freezer and brought home our beef from a small-town butchershop in DeSoto--pretty cool place, if reminiscent of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They were out of lard. How can I make pie crust without lard?

We stacked a third load of firewood. In the first really cold weather we had, Monday night. The SP was coughing and feverish by the end of it. I made soup with some of our new hamburger--"pantry soup," I think of it--whatever canned beans I have on hand, the dregs of frozen vegetable bags from the freezer, couple jars of diced tomatoes, and a little dried pasta. Add some Italian seasoning and call it Minestroni.

It was very good. We ate that pot of soup over the next three days.

Tuesday and Wednesday, the SP stayed home sick. I would have insisted, if he hadn't.

I picked up some stuff to make an angel for a friend. I found a new source for feathers, Lamplight Feather, which had exactly what I wanted and was super-quick getting it to me. Nice quality, too.

(SIDE RANT: JoAnn's SUCKS. They have ZIP in the way of raw materials anymore. They've got six aisles of scrapbooking crap, an equal amount of "jewelry"-making crap, but no plaster, no cheesecloth, no wire, no dowels, NO DOLL PARTS OF ANY KIND. But they've got a frakkin' plastic molded skull 'n'crossbones for a kid to skin clay over and call it art. Gah.)

I still have half a list of sewing stuff to do before the end of November. I had a client place an order for a costume that I will probably make Thanksgiving weekend. I have two pairs of pants made for myself that need a little finishing so I can wear them.

So things keep moving along, round here. No writing, alas. I want to write, but I've been too busy and too tired. These last 2 1/2 weeks since going off Daylight Savings Time have wiped me out. At night I just want to huddle near the fire, where it's warm, and watch Venture Brothers reruns.

But yeah--our second anniversary was Tuesday. We had Mexican food at our favorite hole in the wall where the waiter speaks Spanish to me and I pretend to understand him. We went to bed early.

One so-called friend expressed surprise that it had been two years already--"Yeah, you're out of the honeymoon phase now," he prophesied with sadistic cheer. "Year three is when the power struggles start."

Tony and I looked at each other. "Quit drinking out of my water glass, you greedy broad," he said to me.

"You never want to share anything, selfish bastard," I replied.

We might have to practice this power-struggle thing.

Guess we'll have to stay together another year.

Monday, November 10, 2008

velvet tip

Here's a trick I figured out for reviving velvet. It's probably an old trick, but it was new to me.

Obviously you can't press velvet or the nap will compress, and some synthetic velvets I'm even afraid to steam, because the heat of a steam iron will sometimes cause rayon or acetate to shrink, fade or contort.

If you have some flat spots in your velvet, try this.

Get a household mister bottle full of clean water. We have a simple spray bottle I bought at the grocery store for $2; it has an adjustable nozzle so I can either squirt the cat with a fast stream, or spray a light mist over my ironing.

You will also need a fabric brush. Again, not anything new, but the first one I saw was like a revelation. It's a device shaped like a paddle hairbrush or a hand-mirror; skinny handle with a swollen flat head. On both sides of the head are circles of fabric with a stiff directional nap--it feels a little like the velvet itself, but rougher. You can find fabric brushes in the grocery store or big-box store, near the ironing boards and other laundry care items. They are also good for taking pet hair and lint off your clothes.

  1. Hang up your velvet piece.
  2. Mist the flat area with water.
  3. Brush the nap in multiple directions with the fabric brush until the flattened nap stands up in line with its surroundings.
  4. Let hang until dry.


That's it! If it's really stubborn you can try applying careful steam (only to warm the fabric,) then mist and brush.

donut-cake

I've had this long-running mission to recreate a flavor from my childhood: the "buttermilk crullers" Dad used to bring home from the grocery store on Sundays. I don't know who made them; some local bakery now defunct. But they were tender and sugary-moist, dripping with crusty syrup and tangy with buttermilk. Krispy Kreme's cake donutholes are similar, but at the same time nothing like--there's too much artificial stuff in the Krispy Kremes, and they don't have the sour note. Also there was an elusive perfume in the buttermilk cruellers--some subtle spice that I couldn't identify.

This week, I got close.

It was kind of an accident. Couple years ago, I was messing around with a Madeleines recipe that was too dry for my taste. In my kitchen, everything baked can be improved with a dollop of sour cream (except pie crust--don't go there). Sadly, when you add sour cream to Madeleines they are no longer Madeleines--they don't get that nice crumbly edge, or the spongy quality.

What I ended up with was something more interesting. And Saturday night I was jonesing for something sweet, so I pulled out this recipe and decided to try it again. I wanted something that could be baked in little cakes, you see--because frying is a nuisance, and because individual cakes can be wrapped up and frozen and I needn't eat them all at once, or let them go stale and wasted.

Here's the recipe. The batter itself is rich, rather than sweet. You could probably reduce the amount of sugar further, to 1-1/4 or 1-1/3, without damage. The glaze will add sweet as needed.

  • 1 cup (1/2 lb) butter (I used salted; if you use unsalted you will need to add a pinch of salt to the dry ingredients)
  • 1-1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1-1/2 to 2 tsp vanilla extract (preferably the kind made with bourbon)
  • 2-1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 cup full-fat sour cream
  • 1/2 cup whole milk yogurt, plain
  • about 1 tsp ground spices (read on)

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

  2. Cream together butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla.

  3. In a measuring cup, combine yogurt and sour cream.

  4. In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients, including your desired spices. This time, I started with a combination of Penzey's Cake Spice, which is nice, but not quite what I wanted. I think the winning combination here is a touch of cinnamon, nutmeg or mace, and cardamom. I used about 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons total ground spices. This gave the cake a perfumy quality without tasting "spicy." Use a mild cinnamon like Vietnamese.

  5. Alternate adding the dry stuff and the sour cream to the batter in 2-3 stages, blending well after each addition. This batter is fairly thick and fluffy, especially after the baking powder and acids in the dairy go to work on either other.

  6. Let it sit for a couple of minutes, while you generously butter and flour your pans. I have a pan with six mini-bundt wells, which left a bit of batter left over that I put in a mini-springform pan. I'm sure you could also bake this in a loaf or full-sized bundt, but it would take forever.

  7. Spoon batter into prepared pans. Bake for 25-30 minutes (mini pans) or 45-60 minutes (full sized pans) or until a knife comes out clean. They will be pale on top, but the cake should be slightly brown at the edges and pulling away from the pan.

  8. Turn off oven, crack door, and let sit inside for another 5 minutes.

  9. Remove from oven, let sit in pans for 5-10 minutes while you mix up a glaze from 1 cup powdered sugar, a dash vanilla, and enough milk (2-4 Tbs) to make it pourable.

  10. Turn out cakes onto cooling rack with foil or parchment underneath. Set Cakes right-side-up and pour glaze lavishly over them. (If you want them super-sugary, you can set them in a jelly-roll pan, pour the glaze over, and let them soak up the excess. This is the way the buttermilk cruellers were glazed, but I am no longer ten and I don't need all that sweet.)

These are good warm, but I think they are best the day after. Wrap them up tightly after they are cool. They should freeze well.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

evil pawn jewelry

Oh by the way.... remember those Rococco dresses I did for Jewelry Girl back in August? Well, the very skilled (and talented) Melissa at Evil Pawn Jewelry has launched her new website. There are a few objects I feel lust for.

My dresses are nicely featured, too.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

enchanted doll

I maybe ought to qualify my rant about talent, and workmanship, and backhanded compliments.

Not that I modify my stance on people who complain that they can't do things whilst never attempting anything. But there's another reason why I must demure when folks carry on about how talented I am.

Because there's talent and then there's talent. I know where I stand; to paraphrase Emma Thompson's character in Impromptu, I have a tiny amount of talent and a moderate amount of craftsmanship. What I do may look impressive to the layman, but I know better. Marina Bychkova's work is several notches above anything I have done--both in vision and in execution.

I am in awe. And I envy her. She seems to have a clarity of purpose and focus that I've never had in my life. I'm spread too thin, over too many commitments.

I need to quit my day job.

Friday, October 31, 2008

a little experiment

While the American--indeed, the world--economy is crumbling around me, I am actually in better financial shape than I have been in years. This is largely due to having a spouse who pulls his share of the weight, and, like me, is keenly interested in getting out of the debt we racked up during our personal life-crises.

I made a nice bit of mad-money during the last quarter, from my sewing side-job. About a quarter of it went to sewing expenses and reinvesting in the business. Another third I am saving. The remainder went to household expenses, such as buying a side of pasture-raised beef that should feed us for the next year.

With that savings as a cushion, and the optimistic, but not unrealistic, expectation that I will continue to generate sewing income during the upcoming year, I took a look at my budget and I decided to get more aggressive with my debts. I can feasibly have my car paid off in another year--in half the time allotted by the loan.

After that, I can start throwing some serious money at the big one, the consolidated debt that the SP and I collectively rolled up over the four years before we were married. I calculate I can have that paid off in two years. So--three years before we're free of consumer debt. I'll still have student loans after that, but I can make quick work of them and be completely debt-free before I'm 40. That's not to be sneered at.

I'm also looking at ways to save us money on food, since that's our primary expense. The beef is a big help. Our cost breaks down to about $3.99 per pound--that includes roasts, steaks, ribs, and a mess of hamburger--and it's hormone-free, antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef. I'm also considering joining a produce cooperative, but we're getting into the fall of the year and there aren't too many options right now. In spring, we'll see.

It helps to live frugally when your primary sources of entertainment are sewing, writing, and practicing. Don't need much in the way of expenses for that. In fact, that's how most of the current Old Masters got good at kung-fu--they grew up in Communist China, when no one had any money and half of them weren't allowed to work--all they could do to amuse themselves was practice.

By the way, I made an awesome chicken pot pie last night. Eating out has been a big drain on our budget, but I intend to go back to cooking more regularly. I'm going to be more careful about my time so I'm not neglecting my health in the interest of sewing work.

Monday, October 20, 2008

I believe that you want to believe the aliens could be out there

Found this fascinating list of Things That Do Not Make Sense. Scientific things, that is.

I'll admit, some of them are over my head--I'm just not up on theoretical physics the way I should be--but other things, like homeopathy, I am fairly familiar with, and fascinated by the unknown quantity. I enjoy the unknown factor because it leaves room for the existence of yung yi (internal force).

Who was it said, Only a fool would say, "That's impossible?"

Thursday, October 16, 2008

enlightenment, motivation

Sit tried a new teaching method with us t'other night.

He drew a little chart to illustrate the 3 parts of tai chi power: hard power, soft power, and so-called internal power. This concept is taken directly from his most recent article in Tai Chi Magazine, which talks about how to build Nei gong. He's been trying to get the guys to read it. I'm not sure if any of them have.

He tried to explain that having good body mechanics leads to relaxation which leads to internal power, and all three feed back to increase each other. But Internal Power is ultimately the heart of tai chi, and when you have it, it trumps the other two, because it takes so very little to get the job done.

"It's like Scotch," he said. He made a half-inch space with his thumb and forefinger. "You put that much in a glass, right? Because it so concentrated." He paused for a moment. "You guys all drinking Coca-Cola... supersize!"

To give us a spectrum of ability, Sit ranked his favorite grand master at the maximum of "4" in all three power categories. He put himself at about 2.5 (which is pretty daunting, considering how much better he is than all of us) and, picking on me as an example, ranked me at "1" in each category. He said that small people usually catch onto the concept of softness and internal power faster than big people, because smaller people don't have the muscle to fall back on. Because of that, he said, I have a little more internal power than the guys, but not enough to overcome their sheer muscle. (A fact of which I was already aware!)

All of this was very enlightening to me. I had read his article several times before--had actually written the first draft of it for him, but that was almost two years ago and I knew at the time that I wasn't getting all the meaning out of it--I was just transcribing his words. My understanding has increased a lot since then. As the SP put it, I've started to "believe" in the internal power. I feel it sometimes, but I can't hang onto it, figuratively speaking. It's an ephemeral thing, like trying to fall asleep--if you push, it retreats. I was glad to see my assessment of my own abilities confirmed. Sit's not the type to hand out empty praise, so I could see this as both an affirmation and a challenge--this is where you are, this is where you want to be.

During practice, Sit was trying to get me to relax into a leg wrap-and-throw move. I could do it mechanically well enough, but I wasn't making good contact--not enough soft energy. He demonstrated on me: first he wrapped the leg, then made contact with his arm and shoulder. A good, solid, three-point connection. "This what you do."

Then he relaxed his calf and thigh. His leg became like a towel wrapped around mine. His arm molded against mine from shoulder to wrist, seeming to disregard the presence of bones and joints. He sank his waist, hip, and ribs against the side of my body, so it felt like I was pressed into a foam mattress. I was engulfed in purposeful contact. It was weird, a total invasion of personal space, which is the whole point of the exercise and probably why most of us are reluctant to do it. He melded us into a single organism. When he moved, I had no choice but to move with him.

I've had him throw me many times, but never had him break down the move so slowly and methodically. It was a tremendous gift. It was kind of awe-inspiring, too, to realize how much awareness and control he has over his body, that he can not only do the right thing, but deliberately do the wrong thing and then systematically adjust it.

"You learn to do that," he said, "you get a '2' in internal power, on that chart, you know?" He pursed his lips for a moment. "That make you better than ninety percent of the so-called tai chi masters around here."

Now that's the way to motivate somebody. I know better by now than to try to build internal power--it's more of a side effect of good body structure, relaxation, and clear mind. But those three things I can work on, and will. I'm really quite excited.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mid-October

Well, I've been sewing.

....


Well, I've been sewing.

...

Sigh.

I'm tired of talking about it. I've got one more commissioned outfit to make--the cocktail dress, so at least it's something different. I should get some cute pictures from it. I am seriously thinking I may not do any more PVC suits. They just take too damn long and the fitting makes me nervous. I don't like fitting anything that tight on a body I can't personally lay hands upon. But my new Teflon topstitching foot was definitely a good investment.

Let's see, what else is new?

~~~

I bought some fabulous red/gold shot silk for the curtains in my workroom. The SP is doing his on-again/off-again thing with the woodwork--other duties keep pulling him away and now he's got to make a couple of swords for our kung-fu brethren. The silk is so pretty I almost hate to put it on the walls--I keep thinking what a wonderful bustle gown it would make.

~~~

I have a whole backlog of things I want to make for myself--a stripey corset, a brocade jacket, some silk trousers. Patterns for sale. Dolls for the Christmas season. I also have a glimmer of an urge to make another bustle gown--this one white and fawn. I have the fabric; I've had it for years. For some reason the desire is on me. Maybe if one of the others would sell I'd have an excuse.

~~~

Since we are nearing the Halloween countdown I'm getting a lot more idiot queries. I always hated the Halloween season when I worked in the fabric store, because folks who would never dream of sewing anything the rest of the year suddenly get brave (or desperate) at ten days before the holiday. I guess I should applaud their efforts to make something for their kids instead of forking over gobs of money on rubber and vinyl, but it was very wearying on me as a clerk. It's wearying on me now. Just read the damn FAQ, people.

~~~

We are getting a quarter of a cow early next month. The farmer emailed us (which is a ponderable sentence, itself) to say they would be hauling beef on the 22nd and we'd get our meat a couple weeks after that. So we need to go buy a freezer and clear a space in the basement to put it.

~~~

We got our first load of firewood last week. Yay! Soon it will be woodstove weather.

~~~

I took a big chunk of the Harley money and bought us a new mattress. I am still getting used to that. For the most part, it's a big improvement, much more supportive, but now my pillow feels too flat. At least my back and knees don't ache anymore.

~~~

I am seriously considering installing a grow-light somewhere in the house so I can keep herbs all winter 'round. The problem is, where? There is no space, and even less warmth. The best place I can think of is the pantry, but we keep that room curtained off during the winter to keep the drafts out of the kitchen.

~~~

I think I may also buy some insulation this fall, to put in the basement ceiling. Something must be done to heat the bathroom. Brrrr.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

how high?

Last Saturday as class was starting, Sit walked over to where I was stretching and says, "Holly. You going to compete at Legends of Kung Fu?" (That's the new name of the same tournament we've been to every year of the last many.)

I blinked. "Well, sure. I had figured I would."

"Ok. You need to send a email to [the organizers of the tournament] and ask them what are the qualifications for Grand Champion in Internal styles."

"Ok," I said, around the terror and exhilaration in my throat.

"That way it give you something to work for. It don't matter if you win. You have something to train for and you learn more."

"Sure," I agreed.

"So next spring I need you to house-sit for me again. I give you some free lesson."

"Ok," I said. Arguing, even if I had been inclined to do so, is futile. It's like telling Yoda the ship's too big.

"And you need to work on your sword form, too," Sit said to the SP.

The tournament, I may remind you, is next July. And I'm stoked. Partly I'm eager to be looking at something beyond October, and sewing. Also I've learned a lot in the last year and a half--a lot of awareness of what I am doing and what I could/should be doing differently--and I'd like to put it to use. Also, I watched some YouTube videos this week of the winner from two years ago and frankly I'm no longer that impressed.

Also, it makes me feel good to have the master encouraging me like that. I know he wants his students to do well because it reflects well on him, but he's not the kind to push. In his way, he's asking for a favor, but doing it in a way that makes me feel capable and challenged.

Maybe it's time to really put some effort into this baby.

In order to qualify to compete for Grand Champion you must win first place in three events:

• 1 of the 5 major Taiji Barehand events (Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu, Sun)
• 1 Internal Barehand (different Taiji or other internal form--for me this would mean Chen style or, more likely, Tai Hui form as an "other" style)
• 1 Internal Weapon (sword or other weapon; I plan to do sword and fan both, anyway)

I understand now why so many of the advanced-level students do the same form in different categories; they're stacking the deck. Also they're hoping to win more medals. I personally feel it's a bit dishonest to do the same form in three different rings, but the rules permit it--and anyway, who has time to police that?

The really difficult one to win is sword form, because all the 5 styles get lumped into a single event. Last time I think there were close to forty competitors. It was awful; it went on for hours. The SP and I didn't even stay to watch all of it, but if we compete next year I guess we'll have to. I can't imagine being a judge and trying to weigh all the infinitismal scores to come up with a clear winner.

Actually I don't feel too nervous about competing this time. I have a better idea of what to expect and I have an attitude of I'm just going to go in there and do what I do every Saturday. Also I like the sword form and I think doing it has made a big difference in my understanding of body movement.

It's expensive, though. Registration is $65, which includes one form, and I will probably do at least four more, at $20 apiece. That's quite an increase from last time. I'm not complaining, mind you, because Jimmy Wong runs a great tournament and they deserve all the support they can get. I'll just have to sew more, I guess.

Speaking of sewing, I wonder if I'll have time to make a new uniform...?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

getting soft

My husband made a remark the other night about us "living soft" of late, which is certainly true. I've been sewing constantly, and so we've been eating a lot of carryout food. Even though we choose the best of what is available, it's still too starchy and lacking in nutrients, and we eat too much of it because it's plentiful and easy.

I've been a little better this week about getting in some tai chi practice every day, partly because I'm stiff and partly because I'm weary of the constant drive to sew and want to resume my better habits. My body feels soft and heavy.

Also I think the tunnel-vision is affecting my mind's alertness. Last night I had a couple of alarming mini-dreams.

In the first one, I dreamed that the new mattress I bought arrived on Friday, as scheduled, but it was alarmingly thing and cheap. "This isn't the one I ordered," I protested, but the delivery guys insisted it was.

The second dream was more alarming. I was being menaced by some thug, and although I had a gun with me, it jammed and wouldn't fire--repeatedly. I pulled the trigger four times but it didn't fire. I went to rack back the slide and the guy was on me, so I hit him with it. I think I jerked myself awake with the dramatic movement, but the sense of frustration and fear stays with me.

Clearly I need to start training again.

Friday, September 19, 2008

bernina geekery

When I bought Vera Bernina I unknowingly bought membership into a bizarre underground subculture--the world of sewing machine groupies. All the major brands have their little enclaves--the Berninuts, the Pfaffsters, the Janomites. There are a few really hard-core users who will only use Industrial models, but they even scare ME.

All kidding aside, I am so in love with this machine that the cat has gone into a decline and even my husband has been dropping hints that maybe I should turn off the machine and come to bed.

I used to shake my head in bemusement at all the crazy specialized sewing accessories available, particularly the assortment of presser feet for higher-end sewing machines. Who could possibly need all those? I thought. There's not anything here that I can't do with a few pins, a pair of scissors, and a couple of feet.

Ah, but this was ignorance speaking. And perhaps a little envy, too, because for the last eight years, spending even $30 on a presser foot (most of the Berninas are $50 or more) was more than my budget would allow. Plus there weren't that many options for my crappy $100 White. But now I am selling to support my habit, I am the proud owner of "the best sewing machine Bernina ever made," and I find, to my delight and amazement, that those feet really do what they claim; they make everything faster, neater and easier than I could ever do the old way.

Bernina's website shows 66 different presser feet available for their high-end machines (some of them are too modern to work with mine) and they sell big expensive pornogr--ahem, manuals (for $60 and up, IIRC) that describe all the feet and how to use them.

My old 930 came with 11 original feet, I think, and for the first year I got by as I always had--with the 000 standard zigzag and the zipper/edgestitch foot doing all the work. In the last 3 months, however, increasing knowledge, decreasing time, and better expendable cashflow have prompted me to acquire:

  • A ruffling foot--I figured I'd use this on the roccoco dresses, and I did a little bit (on the green one), but the result was a bit more mechanical than I wanted. I didn't want them all to look alike. The foot I got is actually an aftermarket knockoff, and not as precise as it should be; the Bernina-made model is about $90 and I will get it some day. Still, it's cool to watch it work. I didn't touch the thing for weeks after I got it, because I was intimidated by it. But now I just zip the fabric in there and go. Shoddy piece though it is, it opened my eyes to the possibilities.


  • As I mentioned some weeks ago, the next major tool I got was a serger. This is the ultimate in sewing accessories. I call it an accessory because it cannot replace the sewing machine, but the few things it does, it does way better. It's ideal for handling the long stretchy seams in the Harley Quinn costumes; no longer do I have to worry about a seam popping because the client pulled the legs on too fast. The serger was an unplanned purchase. We happened to find an old Bernette at a good bargain at our local Bernina store and the SP got it for my birthday. The thing is a little tank. It will probably outlive me.


  • Although I was delighted to find the serger, it scared me even more than the ruffler had--I was completely ignorant and needed some instruction. So I did something I haven't done in years--I went to the library. I got a library card. I checked out two books--"Getting to Know your Bernina" and "Creative Serging." I felt like a real person again. And yes, I consider those books tools.


  • Once I had the serger running, and I was rolling my chair back and forth between it and Vera, I had no room or patience left for my old White. I had been using it only for installing zippers. Invisible zippers need a special kind of foot, and I didn't have one for Vera. I had a cheap plastic one-size-fits-all for the White, but it felt very sloppy and imprecise (though I must admit it was better than the one that preceeded it). So I called up my local Bernina dealers (miraculously there are two that I have access to--one is two blocks from my work and the other is maybe two miles from my house) and found out there WAS an invisible zipper foot for my older machine. A little pricey, but oh lord, what a dream it is. No adjusting the centerline. No wiggling presser foot. No creeping seam allowance. No fighting the zipper coil to keep it upright. Just stitch/stitch, zip/zip and I'm done.


  • Since I had agreed to make more PVC costumes I decided to invest in a non-stick foot to handle the topstitching on the hood and appliques. An ordinary metal foot sticks to the PVC and distorts it while you're stitching. So I bought a special foot with Teflon coating , which is supposed to glide like an eagle. I haven't tried it yet, but given the results to date I am optimistic. UPDATE: This thing ROCKS. It makes sewing over the vinyl as easy as sewing over muslin. The thing just GLIDES. One caution, tho, and they do say this in the instructions--you must not let the feed dogs contact the underside of the foot or they will scrape off the nonstick coating. I thought I was being careful about this, but then I realized, while turning tight corners, the center rear feed dog was scraping off the back end. The damage is slight, but I pass on my mistake for your benefit! Put a scrap piece of fabric behind your work and under the foot to protect it.


  • Prior to the Teflon foot I bought a leather roller foot, assuming I would use it on both the PVC and the heavier vinyls. It didn't hold tight enough for the PVC and I haven't had time to do any more vinyl or leather work lately, but it's still a very cool foot and I'm sure I'll have use for it in the future.


  • As I got more comfortable with the serger, I figured I'd better look around for the attachments that would let it do a rolled-covered hem (a/k/a a French rolled hem). My Bernette 234 is old enough it didn't come with a built-in attachment, and the research I have done about what the attachment looks like and how to use one has been inconclusive. I can do this type of hem on Vera, and I had been faking it for a while until I got the library book and learnt how to do it properly (using one of those original 11 feet I had been ignoring for a year). The serger, however, should be able to do it faster and with better-looking coverage because of the additional looping thread. Besides, by this point it has become a personal crusade to find the damn rolled-hem attachment. They are no longer being made, but I bought one on Ebay this week, complete with instruction sheet. Stay tuned.


  • Another thing I got on Ebay this week--a blind-stitch hemming foot for the serger. Again, Vera can do this, but the serger can do it faster--it can bind the raw edge of the seam and tack up the hem all in one pass. I have been extremely lucky to find these attachments for my very old, but still very reliable machine. The Bernette 234 is the one everyone describes as a "workhorse." Even after people buy a new one with more features, they tend to hang onto or hand down the Bernette. They stay in the family until someone dies and the person who cleans out the house has no interest in sewing.


  • My latest acquisition, as of yesterday, is a zigzag hemmer foot, for putting a fine, double-turned hem into a garment. I have been trying to fit a little black dress into my sewing schedule, using some fine black silk I got at a steep discount, and putting a hem into a bias-cut silk is a nightmare. To do it the old way, I used to baste a straight seam about a quarter inch from the bottom edge, turn twice, pin, use the basting seam to ease out the fullness, and press. With this truly amazing foot, you just run the hem edge into the metal curl of the foot, and stitch. Done. Clean. Professional-looking. Awe-inspiring. (The SP, by the way, is totally keen on these heavy little metal feet. He loves tools, and when he saw this new foot sitting on my sewing table he started pushing it around, making humming noises. "What's this one do?" he asked. He's thoroughly enjoying my geekery.)


  • The last new tool I ought to mention, though not machine-related, is still a minor miracle: a Dritz rotary cutter, and the largest cutting mat I could find. It hurt me to do it--those mats are expensive, but I'm already glad I did it. Cutting through spandex with shears is awful--the stuff is slippery, tough and dulls your scissors. You have to pin it like crazy to keep it from creeping while you cut, and every time you move the fabric it distorts the pattern. I used to cut a single layer at a time to save the wear on my hand and avoid nasty surprises--like a bizarre crescent cut out of the lower layer of fabric where it decided to bunch. A rotary cutter, however, will cut easily through both layers at once, and since I don't have to move the pieces around or slide anything under them, there's no layer shift. The rotary cutter actually works better if you keep pinning to a minimum, which saves all kinds of time. Plus, all the straight pieces can be cut against a ruler. Imagine cutting an 18-inch line in the time it takes to do one squeeze of your shears! Things got even better after a bought a plastic French curve, which is not only useful for marking pattern adjustments, but I can turn it against the cutting line as I go and never have to lift the rotary blade from the fabric. Worth every penny; I estimate this tool package reduced my cutting time by 40%.


So, that's my brag book. There are at least 6 other feet I'd like to have, but for now I need to catch up on the work I've already got, and maybe learn more about the tools I already have. A little learning is a dangerous thing--once you get a taste of how fine machining can make your life easier, you want one of everything. You find reasons to need one of everything. I now completely understand why my husband has so many planes and chisels.

And which leaves us with my final and best new tool--my sewing room is very nearly done. There's just a bit of trim work left to be done around the door, then another coat of shellac, and I'm in. I can't wait to organize. I may never come out!

ETA: Just when you thought it was safe to go in the Bernina store! Bernina Geekery II: The Addiction

Thursday, September 18, 2008

she never bothers with people she hates

Breda had a post today that put me in mind of certain recent events.

There are a couple of females I see every day. Both younger than me. Both seem to dislike me heartily. They're not overtly rude, but they tend not to look at me when I speak to them, and give rather arch replies, with the attitude of "you're a crazy freak, but I'll condescend to speak to you this once." In short, they treat me like I treat fanboys who invade my personal space. I don't know what this stems from, but I recognize it; I don't force myself into their space, but I find it bemusing. Unlike the fanboys who approach me, these young women can't possibly expect me to hit on them, so the only other thing I can deduce is that I make them uncomfortable for some reason.

Like Breda says in her essay, I've never found it easy to get along with women. I often find out, after I've become friends with a woman, that she was initially intimidated by me. So I've made attempts over the years, to be more positive and pleasant, to sweeten my tone of voice, and smile. I'm not sure it helps--I probably come across as a poorly adjusted schizo. I'm still too abrupt, too inclined to sarcasm, and too interested in strange subjects.

Women connect with each other through conversation and sharing--if you're not willing to listen to a woman go on at length about personal minutiae, she'll think you don't like her. And I'm hard-pressed to hold an indepth conversation with anyone these days, since I have no pop-culture references to fall back on and the other things I like are fairly esoteric: weapons and kung-fu and motorcycles; cooking and sewing and writing.

Of course I could be reading too much into this. There are plenty of women who are hostile toward other good-looking women just on principle. And these two chicks I'm thinking of have strong flirtatious tendencies toward their male supervisors that make me think they are of the type to be threatened. It doesn't hurt my feelings--I'm too self-absorbed to be offended by anything but a deliberate attack--but it's rather fatiguing to deal with day after day.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of my-kind-of-women out there. The Sparring Partner and I took a motorcycle rider-training class last weekend--remarkably, there were four women, two guys in the class. Two of the women were older, one of them was a bit younger than me. She was a cop, and quite out-going. During our breaks we stood around and talked about the best methods of concealed carry for women. Cop chick also got the only perfect score in the class on her riding test. High-fives all around.

I did all right, myself. The balance part was easy for me (I probably was the best at slow-riding through a narrow path) but I'd never driven a manual transmission and it took me a while to get the braking/throttle/clutch combination down. I killed the engine a lot. I tipped the bike a couple of times, although it was always while stopping so I had it under control--I just didn't have the muscle to hold the damn thing up. Plus it was a fast-paced, physically demanding class; almost seven hours riding the first day, using muscles I'd never used before. My whole body ached afterward. Also, it rained for the first 4 hours we were out there, and my rain gear was not as waterproof as the salesman had assured me it was.

Still, I did okay. Better than okay--I got 99 out of 100 on my test. And the SP's praise was worth all the discomfort. "You're so cool," he kept saying. "Even when I could tell you were tired or frustrated, you didn't quit and you didn't throw a fit or pout or anything. I don't know any other woman who would keep at it the way you did."

I'd like to tell him he's been associating with the wrong type of woman, but I'm fairly sure he's right. There aren't many of us.

On the flip side, there's a guy I work with, one of the motorcycle editors, who I've become friendly with. He's heavily tattooed, gentle, intelligent, well-spoken, into heavy metal and bodybuilding, creative and capable with his hands. He's a published writer and well-versed in obscure cinema, especially horror and martial arts flicks. He used to re-upholster cars and does his own cooking and ironing. I talk to him about weapons, kung fu, motorcycles, cooking, sewing, and writing--and he generally has worthwhile things to contribute.

He listened patiently the other day while I gushed about my new motorcycle jacket, even though he's probably seen them all before. He hefted the weight of it, examined the pockets where the body armour goes, complimented me on getting a good deal, congratulated me on completing the class.

"He's like your grandma, or favorite aunt or something," I told my husband, who has met the guy, and trades emails with him about motorcycles. "Even when I know I'm going on about things he's already heard a million times, he just smiles and says all the right things to make you feel validated. He's like a really supportive girlfriend."

"Like a big cuddly tattooed chick," the SP agreed.

We're not too gender-concerned around our house.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

circle of creative life

I find this neat: the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, which makes perfumes and candles with Gothy-leaning scents and themes, has concocted a new scent line inspired by the works of Neil Gaiman. All proceeds go to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

I've thought Black Phoenix Alchemy was a class act since I first learned about them--they put together a stunning website with high-quality visuals and dreamy descriptive text; they do performance art with ephemeral scent as the main attraction. Gaiman is a class act all his own. It's nice to see those two kids get tgether.

It's been a cool, overcast week here in Mid-America. I'm thinking ahead to Halloween, and this discovery beautifully suited my mood.

Every year about this time I start thinking I'll go a groovy old-tyme Victorian Halloween party, but every year I'm too busy. Ah, well. Here are some more Old-Fashion Halloween links, courtesy of another nifty store in the same vein.

In the plus column, though, last night I cut out the vinyl for my Black Cat costume. I don't know why; I know I won't want to wear it. But I'll get some damn fine pictures out of it.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

rococco!

So I finally finished that big sewing job for Jewelry Girl. It about killed me, seeing as how I did in five weeks what I thought I would do in eight, but the results are good.







The red and green ones are acetate taffeta, which was surprisingly pleasant to work with. It was crisp and did as it was told.

I sure couldn't have done it without the serger.

And now I am very tired, and I'm going to take a vacation.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

a good manager is a thing of beauty

A friend turned me on to notalwaysright.com, a site that collects anecdotes of the INSANE customers one encounters all too often in the service sector. A choice example:

Customer, upon receiving her Moolatte: “This has a round lid, can I have a flat lid?”

Me: “I’m sorry, the only lid that fits that cup is a dome lid.”

Customer: “But I want a flat lid, Starbucks always gets me a flat lid! Why can’t you?!”

Me: “I’m sorry, ma’am, but the flat lids we have won’t fit that cup.”

Customer: “I want to speak with your manager.” *mutters* “Stupid kids…”

(I go and get my manager)

Manager: “What’s the problem, ma’am?”

Customer: “This stupid employee of yours won’t give me a flat lid!” *brandishes the drink in his face*

(My manager takes one of every single lid in the store and puts them in front of her)

Manager: “Go ahead then.”

Customer: *proceeds to try and put the lids on the cup, none of which fit* “This is ridiculous! Why don’t you have a flat lid?! Starbucks always has a flat lid!!”

Manager: “Then go buy your drinks there and leave my employees alone.”


And even better:

Customer: “I’d like pineapple on my sub.”

Me: “I’m sorry, we don’t have pineapple. Only Mr. Sub has pineapple.”

Customer: “Yes you do! I always get pineapple here!”

Me: “I’ve worked here for quite a while, and we’ve never had it. Sorry!”

Customer: “Excuse me, the customer is always right! You can’t argue with me!”

Me: “Um…”

Customer speaks to my manager: “Excuse me, your employee is arguing with me! What are you going to do about it?”

Manager: “Don’t be so stupid! Get out of my store!”


I swear I have met every one of these morons. When I was young and vulnerable I tended to cry after they left. In my later years I just got mean.

The last day I worked at Casual Corner, which was about seven years ago, it was near the end of my shift, the mall was due to close in twenty minutes, and I was folding sweaters on the big display table at the front of the store. I was in a mellow mood because I knew I wasn't coming back there any more.

It was a big store, divided into three sections by partitions, and a door at either end of the store front. I saw a couple come in, with a pair of children, and slink around the partition onto the Petites side of the store. People are really good about avoiding the eye of salespeople when they don't want to be disturbed. They had that harried look of people who are just in for a quick scan and don't expect to find anything. I went on folding sweaters.

About five minutes later, the husband appears around the corner of the partition, which is about 25 feet from where I'm standing, and hollars, "Hey! You over there, picking your nose or whatever--you wanna come help us?"

I turned slowly toward him, raised an eyebrow, put a hand on my hip and said, "You wanna come over here and ask me that nicely?"

His wife's head pops around the corner. "What did you just say?"

I said, "You heard me."

"Well!" she said. "I am not shopping in here anymore!"

I pointed, advancing on them with a hostile look in my eye. "There's the door."

They backed toward it, hearding their rugrats behind them. "You need to be in a different line of work!" the wife snapped at me.

I grinned. "This is my last day."

They hustled for the door, muttering in outrage. There was a group of young men loitering outside the door and I thought about yelling after the departing couple, "You're not allowed to shop here anymore!" like Randall in Clerks, but I didn't.

As we were closing up the store, I told the manager on duty about the incident. "So if anybody calls up complaining about that girl who was so mean to them, it was me."

She laughed. "Honey, I'd say you got a gift for your last day!"

Monday, August 25, 2008

so why'd you ask, then?

I have this pet peeve.

Say I do something cool: make a dress, write a story, execute a good-looking down posture, whatever. And somebody says to me, "ooooh, that's so wonderful, I could never do something like that."

And I say, "Oh, sure you could, it just takes practice."

"Oh, but you're so talented."

"Well..." (yes I am, but) "this is mostly skill, and skill can be acquired."

"Oh no, oh no I could never... I just am no good at things like that."

Now, if I had any brains at all, I'd just say "thank you!" at the first and not get drawn into this. It just makes everybody uncomfortable, and me mad. I hate it when people say I'm talented; that's like saying I'm pretty--even if it's true, it's a genetic accident, and accounts for nothing. I've known a great many people with natural gifts--at singing, for instance--and they're a dime a dozen. Talent is useful, it can give you an edge in the right circumstances, but usually it has to be bolstered with a great deal of acquired skill and persistence, a.k.a. "work."

So I enjoy it much more when people say, "oh, what a lot of work, great job!" which is what my very wise, and likewise skilled, husband tends to say.

The other reason I hate the, "Oh, you're so talented!" line is because I think people use it as an excuse to be mediocre. The idea of talent is the idea of fate, and I don't believe in fate. "I could never do that" is an excuse not to try.

God knows I've sabotaged myself in some ventures--tai chi competition, for one thing--but I have never blamed the Fates for my bad luck. It was ME--me not practicing, me giving up, me prioritizing in a different direction.

But the part I really love is when this I-can't attitude becomes resentment against those who have done the work and made the sacrifices to get what they want. I was reading a post on Culinate by Sarah Gilbert, whom I much admire for her decision-and-sacrifice-making ability. In brief, she was contrasting the old-fashioned way of cooking (and ergo, homemaking) with the kind of short-cut, "quick and easy" mentality promoted by Rachel Ray and her ilk (yes, Ray is an easy target, but go with the allegory). And someone in the blog comments started scolding Gilbert for advocating less TV and less quick-fix thinking in our lives.

The crux of the attacker's argument: "Some of us can't live that way. Shame on you for being an elitist."

Pardon me while I gag. You can't manage your children without a TV? You can't entertain yourself without American Idol? What this boils down to is, "I don't want to do without my drug/babysitter. The echoing in my brain frightens me unless I have something to drown it out."

Furthermore, the issue of TV/no TV is entirely not the point. The point Gilbert was making was about understanding the methods of preparing food; if you know the process, you don't need all the pre-packaged crap and perky on-air instruction: a little time invested in real education, rather than TV watching, will save you a lot more stress in the long run. These quick-fix TV shows are not designed to teach you skills, they are designed to keep you coming back for more time-wasting. But nobody wants to see it this way. They don't want to admit they are the puppets of careful marketing researchers. They want to defend "My way!" because stretching and growing one's perceptions--not to mention one's skill set--is way too threatening: I may fail, ergo, I better not try, ergo, you're a snotty elitist for making me feel like a failure, shame on you!

I think the reason this really gets my goat is that it puts a tacit but pervasive pressure on people to conform. Women are notoriously self-deprecating, and this is how and why we get that way. For example, because I don't have a TV and can't join in the discussion of the KU game, or this week's episode of The Office, no one can think of anything else to say to me, and I have become more and more isolated in my work group. I get along with them okay, but I'm generally ignored, passed over for promotions, even.

Or in another example, I frequently have people ask me how I stay thin. The answer? A little exercise, a little cooking at home, and a lot of good choices throughout the day--mostly having to do with not putting sugar in my mouth. "Oh, but I couldn't go without coffee/bread/soda," they say, slightly horrified, as if I'd suggested they run around topless. Or else, "It's nice that you can afford good food," in a faintly accusing tone.

What am I supposed to do, stop eating nutritious food just because other's can't afford it? I feel bad for the starving folks in India but I don't have a lot of sympathy for you if you're feeding your kids Pop-Tarts instead of eggs for breakfast. Shall I fill my head with mindless sitcoms so I can participate in water-cooler bullshit? Will that make you feel better about yourself? Start getting fat so you can feel better about the inevitability of your own decline? Harrison Bergeron comes to mind, but if Kurt Vonnegut is too "elitist" for you, go watch The Incredibles again, and pay careful attention to Bob's rant about how not everybody can be special.

When Sit gets on a tear he starts talking about choices--you CHOOSE to be good or bad at tai chi, based on the smaller decision you make about whether to practice every day. He kind of got on my case last week, with some justification, about getting my priorities in order. Of course I know that his top priority is tai chi, and I think he knows I'm crazy-busy sewing right now, but that really doesn't mean I can't carve out twenty minutes to practice every day, and I say that because I am stressing out, feeling cramped, and I need that twenty minutes for my own health, if nothing else.

At any rate, I won't make excuses as to why I can't practice, or resent other people for making the time. There are two guys in my class who both do construction work all day and have 2-3 small children; both of them practice from 11 to midnight every night. One of them is getting noticeably good. And do I resent him for it? No, I shook his hand a couple weeks ago and offered my congratulations. I actually feel rather inspired by him. If I can choose to go home and cook a little fish or chicken instead of stuffing carryout quesadillas in my face, then I can choose to do a little qi gong instead of vegging out in front of the computer. I can choose to pick up my needle or my practice sword instead of turning on the TV. I can choose to get up and pack my lunch in the morning instead of hitting the snooze button twice more.

I guess that's my talent, then--the ability to admit I put obstacles in my own path instead of blaming other people for my failure. That doesn't make me elitist, it just makes me better than you.

Friday, August 22, 2008

how dull can I be?

More of the same around here. Three dresses done except for the trim. Pics this weekend, I hope. I have nothing to take to my writer's meeting this weekend but I'm going anyway because I need to see some different faces.

The SP is refinishing the floor in my workroom-to-be and it looks smashing. I've got three advance orders for Harley costumes and will probably have a fourth by the end of the month.

I also ordered excess red taffeta for one of the dresses, so I got some black to go with it and I'm going to make that babydoll/Lolita Harley Quinn dress I keep talking about. I was just reading some message boards how-to's about Lolita fashion, and like everything else, it's a tiny, complex little microcosm of subculture with a lot of "rules" and infighting. I'm reminded of the court at Versailles. I'm also a little wary of marketing the costume as a "lolita" dress--somebody might come after me with a pointy parasol or croquet mallet for not being true to the style.

Our performance at the Ethnic Festival was pretty good, I think. Nobody had the forethought to bring a camera, so I have no video. Sit was the only one who messed up--he started looping in the middle of the sword form, and gave a bit cheesy grin to us in the wings of the stage--but he's experienced enough he made up a few things and managed to make it look good. I really need to get some video of myself doing form so I can fine-tune.

I am increasingly frustrated with the whole concept of punching. Sit keeps telling me I'm doing it wrong. Ok, great, but I don't understand how to do it right, and repeating "From the hip! From the hip!" really is not that helpful. Also I'm mad because I have no time to practice. I made those dresses in five weeks, when it was supposed to be eight weeks, and I've been sewing in my sleep. I'm TIRED. And I have a slight earache and sore throat that makes me think it's not all mental stress.

Still, there's fun stuff to look forward to. Getting paid. Bringing my couch home in a couple weeks. Making new fluffy dressy things and getting paid. Making up those dolls and selling them and getting paid. Although the angel dolls on my Etsy site aren't winning any prizes. Lousy pictures. Another thing I don't have time to take care of.

At least I have a camera now. And a kick-ass serger! I love that thing! I could never have done this big job in this amount of time without it. I need to hit the library and find a book about serging so I know what-all it can do. I also need to look for a rolled-hem attachment so I can use it for finishing.

Bah. Working two jobs sucks. I'll be glad when it's November. I want to sew something for myself. And I still haven't made the SP's coat from last Christmas. Groan!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

tai chi dedications

As mentioned, we have a performance coming up at the Ethnic Festival. Sit's been rehearsing us like we've never seen before. We even did a dress rehearsal today--uniforms and everything. People are more serious when they're in uniform.

A couple of my classmates surprised me. There's a very quiet guy, been coming to Wednesday class for a couple of years, bravely soldiering on in the face of having no clue what he was supposed to do, and all of us giving him conflicting orders. He's obviously been practicing, though. Today I watched him do the first kung fu form quite cleanly and precisely--predictable flaws, of course, but better than some who've been doing it longer. Then he stepped up with me, the SP, the master and the master's wife, and did the second tai chi/"kicks" form, which he'd had to learn by himself, in Sit's basement. I hadn't even realized he knew all of it, and we hadn't reviewed it in some time, but he went through the whole thing confidently. I'd had some idea that he was quick to remember sequences, but I had to shake the guy's hand after class. He makes me a little nervous, to tell the truth. I may have to start practicing, myself.

One very funny thing that happened, after we did our demos: Sit fired up some new music, took up his performance sword and sashayed out onto the practice floor as if he had only just happened to have a sword and thought he may as well do the sword form for our demo. Remember I said he tends to decide what he will perform at the last moment? But clearly he had been planning this for a while, because this was a song we had never heard before, and he had all the timing cues down. And as he passed by us on his way to the "stage," he gave me a big, toothy grin to make sure I was paying attention.

The SP saw it. "This one's for you, babe," he said to me under his breath, with a wink and a leer.

I was choking back laughter so hard I barely saw the performance. I know, you had to be there--you have to know Sit, and the whole weird familial dynamics of the class--but trust me, it was funny.

pizza.... mmmm, pizza

I am done buying carryout pizza.

Done.

Hear me?

Not because of a bad experience, but because, as with so many other things, I can do a better job, and cheaper.

Last night I used the Perfect Pizza Dough recipe from Culinate. This is the third or fourth time I've made it, and it is extremely satisfactory, although I usually add a bit more salt and sugar than is called for. It's not the ingredients that make the difference, really, it's the method: the long cold rising in the fridge, and the preheating of the pizza stone. My oven will heat to 550 degrees, so that is the temperature I use. It yields a terrific, tasty, crunchy crust that will support a surprising overload of toppings.

While the dough was rising, I went out to my garden, plucked a handful of basil and oregano leaves off my plants, brought them in and mashed them up with some farmer's market garlic, olive oil, sea salt and a few raw cashews. The resulting pesto-ish pulp I mixed with half a can of Muir Glen diced tomatoes, half a can of tomato paste, and a generous dash of black pepper and red pepper flakes.

After the crust was pre-baked, I smeared it with the doctored tomato sauce, then topped with Italian sausage, chopped mushrooms, red and yellow bell peppers, sliced olives, and plenty of fresh-grated mozzerella and romano cheese.

My husband said, "You could make a lot of money selling this stuff."

Only I couldn't, because I'd eat all the profits.

Such wealth is not good for the waistline.

But I am never buying a carryout pizza again. We've even got some pretty decent shops here in town, but they can't touch the flavor you get when all the ingredients are fresh and high-level to begin with. What's great is, I can mix up the dough before leaving for work in the morning, and it's ready to use when I get home. High level, indeed.

on plot and structure

Somebody asked me once, "How do you plot?" and I wrote a long and clumsy Impressionist essay about my method. Now I have this book before me, How to Write by Richard Rhodes, which Sit seemed to feel I need to read. He does that periodically, walks up and hands one of us a book with the tacit command to read it and report back.

Generally I am disinterested in other peoples' methods of writing; I've pretty much got it figured out by now and it's merely a matter of how much effort I want to put into it. But because I am lazy, it's often useful to me to borrow the words of others, and Rhodes uses an interesting metaphor, in Chapter Five, for the process of outlining or structuring a piece of writing.

I doubt if many professional writers prepare a formal outline, except perhaps as part of a book proposal in pursuit of an advance... Organizing information isn't the same as structuring a work of writing. Structuring a work of writing is more like generalship. A general needs to know what troops and weapons he commands and how they're deployed, but he also needs to develop a strategy for fighting battles and winning the war. The battles probably won't go as he plans, of course. If his strategy is sufficiently flexible, he'll be able to adapt it to circumstances and still come out victorious.


That's a very good way of putting it, I think. When I am working, and I did write a hefty chunk of Trace last week, it feels much as if I am moving chess pieces around. All my characters have set personalities and traits (I think of them as having certain "vibes") and I know how they're going to behave. Like chess pieces, they have specific duties and ways of moving. I know also, usually, that I am taking them from one side of the board to the other. (I don't like starting a story if I don't know where the characters are going; the story tends to fizzle out if I don't have at least a vague goal for the ending.) But how the pieces move along the way is a vast gray murk of possibilities. When I know my characters well, I am free to move them around, bounce them off each other, let them behave as they are designed to do. It is quite literally a virtual reality of which I am the not so much the Goddess, but the Chronicler.

Monday, July 28, 2008

plans, progress, amusing cat stories

Lessee, what did Holly cross off her list this weekend?

Take 28 pages of "Curious Weather" to writer's meeting
Hit the sales at Joann's to get cheap foundation materials for upcoming projects
Order fabric for Jewelry Girl's dresses
Make linen uniform pants for the SP to wear during demo next month
Make weapons case for lil' kung fu brother YogaBoy
Get haircut



Yeah. It's that extreme. But if it works for Wonder Woman, it works for me. And both long overdue.

But enough about me, here's a very funny cat story:

"Folks, when your housepet starts quoting ancient religious texts, rest assured that someones day is about to get Very Interesting, Indeed."

p.s. Today's art is by Alex Hughes for D.C. Comics, Wonder Woman Issue #190.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

muscle memory

You wanna know something weird?

I find myself missing the Tai Chi Legacy Tournament. It should've been coming up next week, but as I mentioned earlier in the year, it got cancelled due to venue-reservation problems.

I've only been twice, for crying out loud. But I keep thinking of the hotel, the feel of the Plano traffic, the noise and space of the tournament floor, the vast Texas landscape.

In many ways I'm glad we're not going this year, because I have other things to spend the money on, not to mention a whole heap of sewing to do, and I like having the year off to practice and improve.

I am improving, I think. Maybe not visibly, but my mind is changing. I am not accepting that things are correct just because I've been doing them that way for nine years. Sit made the point last night that you can be doing the form correctly and still not be doing it "right"--i.e. you may have learnt how to mimic the cosmetic appearance of good form but that doesn't mean you're using tai chi principles of relaxation and moving from the body.

We are doing the Kansas City Ethnic Festival again this year. Tony and I are doing the fan form, to music; the boys are doing first kung fu form. Sit will probably do tai hui form but he always decides at the last minute. I am looking forward to that, that will only take an afternoon and take of some of the competition edge, but I'm still thinking longingly of Plano, the cool air-conditioned hotel, the smell of chlorine, the anticipation of competition. Even the long drive down with the SP.

Maybe I just need a vacation.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

life in motion, with occasional piece

I have been doing so many things lately, and so many things have happened, that it makes me tired to try to list all of them. However, if I don't list them, I feel tired and can't remember why. Better to remind myself of what I've done:
  1. Made the gloves, and cut out all the pieces for the PVC Harley Quinn costume I'm making for this client. I will probably write up a whole article/rant about sewing with PVC, assuming I survive this. It has been a learning experience. I'm having to completely reconstruct the hood, too, so I will have some neat new pictures and possibly a new pattern for sale.


  2. The three porcelain doll kits I bought on Ebay arrived yesterday. They're all in good shape, complete with pattern pieces for making the bodies, which will save me a whole heap of time. One of the dolls is for my sister, the other two I will probably dress and sell. I was debating whether to do them both in pretty Victorian, or in Gothy- Victorian, but it turns out one of them is badly painted and has a freaky wall-eyed look, so I guess I'll do one of each.


  3. The SP is having an electrical line and breaker box run out to our detached garage, which is the first major step toward its becoming a functional workshop. So he spent much of last night taking up the brick I laid down around the tomato bed and digging a trench for the line.


  4. I have learnt of still more tax liability left to me by my former marriage, about three years worth which may or may not be mine, so I'm gathering documents to pass to my accountant in the hopes of laying that mess to rest once and for all. My hope is that he'll salvage enough money in returns owed to me, to pay his fee.


  5. As if to add insult to injury, the driver's side sun visor broke off in my car on Monday morning. I drive into the sun during both commutes. Needless to say this shaped my mood for most of Monday. Thanks, Honda, I was wondering what to do with that extra $100!


Somewhat in spite of all this money drama, I bought a sofa. It was love at first sight, I admit, and love makes you do crazy things. But the fact is, I am going to have a lovely workroom/office before much longer, the SP has been working like crazy getting the trim done, and I hate the hand-me-down loveseat that has been my reading couch for the last eight years. I hate it. It's yellow and ragged where the cat clawed it, and broken down in the middle where my ex-roommate sat on it, and quite frankly it would cost me nearly as much to repair and recover it as this new sofa costs. So I put the new one on layaway and made the SP promise to finish my room in time for it to come home.

It looks like this, but in red. A rich, brown-red. It's a perfect balance between clean lines and opulent fabric. I'm keeping it, and the IRS can kiss my ex's fat white ass.

Monday, July 07, 2008

innovation, growth, projects

Neat article in the NY Times about creativity and success:
Those who believe they were born with all the smarts and gifts they’re ever going to have approach life [with] a "fixed mind-set." Those who believe that their own abilities can expand over time, however, live with a "growth mind-set."

Guess which ones prove to be most innovative over time.

Guess which one I want to be?

I want to learn everything, everything! and I'm continually frustrated with my lack of time. Why do I have to work for a living??

Someday (not too long, I hope) I'll be out of debt and I'll go to work as a full-time creative person. I hope I keep learning. I want to do more leatherwork, and learn to make shoes. I still write from time to time, but the drive to write fiction isn't really there anymore.

For a long time I thought I had to make it as a writer in order to justify myself *being* a writer, but then End of the Line sold, and bought me a nice new laptop, and now I don't care anymore. I still have things to write about, at times, but I know now that the tools will always be there when I need them.

I actually had the thought, the other day, that I should sell my Trace stories in single-bound volumes on Etsy, rather than expecting the ezine publishers to make room for me in their publications.

Current projects for other people:
  • Writing an article, "On Being a Good Student," for Tai Chi magazine. .

  • Black and red PVC on order for a Harley Quinn costume client.

  • Awaiting deposit and measurements from Jewelry girl, for the three Marie Antoinette dresses she wants.

On the one hand, I hate waiting on clients. People order stuff, so I block out my time, but then they make me wait on their measurements or whatever so by the time I get to start on it I'm rushed and resentful.

On the plus side, I had most of a four-day weekend to myself, so I got to:
  • Finished the SP's linen shirt. He is very pleased, and I got it done in under a month.

  • Assembled the red satin bustier for the Wonder Woman costume; it's done except for the grommets in the back and the top/bottom binding. The metal sheeting for the eagle emblem and girdle are in the mail. I will in theory be ordering a lot of stuff from my corset supplier this month, so the grommets and internal steels may be on hold for a while.

  • Finally started assembling a silver silk blouse I cut out during the winter--for MYSELF, thank you very much.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

dramatic irony

(Setting: kitchen table, 7:30 pm)

TAI CHI MASTER:
Part of the problem in this class is you guys have too much knowledge. So when I say something you don't just hear what I say, you think 'oh, this remind me of this,' and 'I read something back ten years ago' and 'maybe I disagree with that'.... it's like you got a blank piece of paper and I give you one sentence to write down but then you think of another thing and another and now you've got a whole paragraph.

(Beat)

STUDENT X:
You know, when I was in judo we used to say something similar....

STUDENT Y:
I remember reading that in the Classics....


TAI CHI MASTER:
(clasps hands over head for a moment. purses lips. gets up to make some more tea)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

what our ancestors ate

I found a remarkable website called BeyondVeg.com, which is absolutely chock-full of information about nutrition, mostly from a human-history standpoint. The author is a former vegetarian and raw-food enthusiast who found his health deteriorating after many years of eshewing animal products. He's very frank about his change of paradigm, and refreshingly free of finger-pointing.

There are pages and pages and pages of discussion here, far too much for me to read--much less (ahem) digest--at a sitting, but I'm deeply intrigued by "Setting the scientific record straight on humanity's evolutionary prehistoric diet and ape diets" and even more so by the updates to that essay. Some samples:

  • "...recent findings pointing to a correlation between increasing levels of animal flesh in the diet over the eons at the same time the human brain was in the process of near-tripling in size..."


  • "Lack of sufficient intake of long-chain fatty acids in the diet would be a limiting factor on brain growth, and these are much richer in animal foods than plant. (Relative brain size development in herbivorous mammals was apparently limited by the amount of these fatty acids in plant food that was available to them.) Given the foods available in humanity's habitat during evolution, the necessary level of long-chain fatty acids to support the increasing size of the human brain would therefore presumably only have been available through increased intake of flesh."


  • "human cranial capacity has decreased by 11% in the last 35,000 years, the bulk of it (8%) in the last 10,000. ...this correlates well with decreasing amounts of animal food in the human diet during this timeframe.(...[also] correlates with the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago.)"


  • "the brain (20-25% of the human metabolic budget) and the intestinal system are both so metabolically energy-expensive that in mammals generally (and this holds particularly in primates), an increase in the size of one comes at the expense of the size of the other in order not to exceed the organism's limited "energy budget" that is dictated by its basal metabolic rate. The suggestion here is not that the shrinkage in gut size caused the increase in brain size, but rather that it was a necessary accompaniment. In other words, gut size is a constraining factor on potential brain size, and vice versa."


All of this is fascinating to me--it addresses some questions I had, in a non-hysterical and well-researched voice that is informative and easy to read. Even better, he talks about the spread of agriculture and cooking worldwide, and discusses the correlation between genetic origins--what part of the world your ancestors came from--and ability to thrive on certain foods, particularly milk and grains.

"Another interesting example of the spread of genetic adaptations since the Neolithic has been two specific genes whose prevalence has been found to correlate with the amount of time populations in different geographical regions have been eating the grain-based high-carbohydrate diets common since the transition from hunting and gathering to Neolithic agriculture began 10,000 years ago. (These two genes are the gene for angiotensin-converting enzyme--or ACE--and the one for apolipoprotein B, which, if the proper forms are not present, may increase one's chances of getting cardiovascular disease.)[123]

In the Middle East and Europe, rates of these two genes are highest in populations (such as Greece, Italy, and France) closer to the Middle Eastern "fertile crescent" where agriculture in this part of the globe started, and lowest in areas furthest away, where the migrations of early Neolithic farmers with their grain-based diets took longest to reach (i.e., Northern Ireland, Scotland, Finland, Siberia). Closely correlating with both the occurrence of these genes and the historical rate of grain consumption are corresponding rates of deaths due to coronary heart disease. Those in Mediterranean countries who have been eating high-carbohydrate grain-based diets the longest (for example since approximately 6,000 B.C. in France and Italy) have the lowest rates of heart disease, while those in areas where dietary changes due to agriculture were last to take hold, such as Finland (perhaps only since 2,000 B.C.), have the highest rates of death due to heart attack. Statistics on breast cancer rates in Europe also are higher for countries who have been practicing agriculture the least amount of time"


I'd never seen this correllation spelled out so simply. I'd suspected it, myself, when someone asked me why the Chinese ate so much rice but didn't get fat*; the only thing I could suggest was that the Asian genetic pool had adapted to heavy rice consumption. Nobody was willing to buy that, though, since we've all been conditioned to think that evolutionary changes take millions of years to enact.

Well, maybe on the bone-structure level. But how can a paleontologist know what the gut flora of Australopithecus looked like? And how many generations of bacteria can live and grow and die in the span of one human's gut's life?

"The difference in time since the advent of Neolithic agriculture between countries with the highest and lowest incidences of these two genes is something on the order of 3,000-5,000 years,[126] showing again that genetic changes due to cultural selection pressures for diet can force more rapid changes than might occur otherwise.

[however]"...Nobody yet ... really knows whether the observed genetic changes relating to the spread of milk-drinking and grain-consumption are enough to confer a reasonable level of adaptation to these foods among populations who have the genetic changes, and the picture seems mixed."


Nevertheless, it's a fascinating concept, and those of you who are interested in this kind of thing will probably enjoy further reading.

*By the way, it's not entirely true that the Chinese don't get fat. The women tend to get quite plump when they move to America, and there's a famous kung fu fighter who was very slim and trim until he went to work for the Emperor and had access to the banquet table--he died a young man, and very obese.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

no excuses

Some wonderful anecdotes from Mike Resnick about the SF writers he's known and loved, published over at Baen's Universe and generously made free to the public. Go check out the rest of them.

"...There was a point in the mid-1940s where [Theodore] Sturgeon was played out. He couldn't come up with any saleable stories, his creditors were after him, and he was terminally depressed . . . and he mentioned it to Heinlein in a letter. A week later he got a letter from Heinlein with 26 story ideas and a $100 bill to tide him over until he started selling again. And, according to Sturgeon, before the decade was over he had written and sold all 26 stories."

And here I was feeling proud of myself for everything *I've* been getting accomplished.

Of course it would be nice if I had a Papa Heinlein on my email list.