Thursday, May 29, 2008

like mixing concrete in your large intestine

Remember when I was saying that eating a lot of fiber didn't sound like a good idea?

Now I find this doctor with a book out that says pretty much the same thing, only in more detail.

The Fiber-related Malnutrition page on his website says it all, as far as I'm concerned: "If fiber blocks water and fats from absorbing, then it blocks all nutrients dissolved in water and fats too!"

So there. Eat more fat!

On a side note, it's amazing how many people misunderstand the principles of the Atkins diet and feel no compunctions about deriding it. Please read the damn book, people. Read it or keep your mouth shut.

does this mean I have to admit my mother was right?

I had a strange evening last night.

I'm house-sitting for my teacher. They have a piano. MaryAnn plays a good bit, at least judging by the constantly-rotating and fairly complex music on the stand.

Last night I had this weird urge to sit down and play.

Friends, I haven't touched a piano in 18 years. I quit when I was sixteen. Mom insisted I take lessons from the time I was seven--she made all of us study an instrument for a few years, insisting that we would wish we could play when we were older. (Looking back on this now, I wish I'd had the insight and moxie to suggest that *she* take piano lessons, since she was obviously the one with the yearning.) Fortunately she let us quit when it became obvious that our skills and passions lay elsewhere. I never missed it. I also sang for several years, and I missed that when I left college, but not enough to make time in the rest of my life.

Recently I've had a periodic desire to play. It's an "I wonder if I can do this" kind of urge, because I have noticed that many things are easier now that I'm old, because I have figured out how my brain likes to learn and I know now how to teach myself.

So last night I dug through the music looking for something relatively easy, or at least familiar. I came up with Fur Elise and the Moonlight Sonata, both of which I had memorized as a teenager.

No, don't get all excited. The muscle memory was long gone. For the most part, I could barely remember which line on the staves was A, B, C, etc. I remember now I always had trouble with F and G, the same way I have a mental stutter about my 7-times tables.

But.... but. I sat down and pounded out Fur Elise. It's an easier piece than I remembered it being. Of course my timing was very erratic and there were some definite pauses and clunkers, but the really fascinating thing was how my fingers could find the keys without my eyes looking. That makes it a whole lot easier to keep your place on the page. And somewhere along the way, my spacial-relations brain had come to realize how those lines and spaces corresponded to the keys, as opposed to what the silly letter-name was.

I have to think now that my poor old-lady teacher was not a good teacher for me. She insisted that I learn and transcribe the letters for each note, which meant I had to look at the note, discern its letter, and then translate that letter value to a key on the board. Whereas now, I just look at the notes and they automatically correspond to my fingers.

I played for more than two hours after dinner. I fought my way through the Moonlight Sonata, oh, at least six times. And the whole time I was struck by the irony of my diligence. I played slowly, I tried to keep some tempo going, I paid attention to the pedalling. When a passage gave me trouble, I went back and played, sometimes one hand at a time, to hear and see and feel the chord progression.

How did this understanding come upon me? I have felt this synthesis of knowledge before--when I dropped out of college and had writer's block for a year. When I started writing again, I found that, lo and behold, much of what Prof. Walters had told me was accurate--he wasn't just blowing hot air. But the way he'd taught it to me hadn't been useful--I'd had to find my own way of using it.

And now, of course, I think of Sit, and the masters he quotes: "No one can teach you kung fu. I can show you the moves, I can show you what I know, but you have to learn it for yourself."

I finally quit when it was past bedtime and my wrists were aching--I'm not used to that octave spread anymore. I still love the Moonlight Sonata--I know it's an overplayed piece of music and probably trite to many critics, but I love it. Funny thing, too, how over the course of those two hours I noticed the patterns of notes--how the C#'s and G#'s and E's went together, and how the F#'s and D's went together, again and again. My little-old-lady teacher never taught me scales or key signatures, either. I wonder now if she knew them. She was quite a good sight reader but I don't think she had much theory.

Now I wonder how easy it would be for me to teach myself the key signatures and scales. I doubt it would take very long at all. My memory is quite good these days, and thanks to the tai chi I'm very good at seeing patterns and remembering sequences.

Is it a good thing I don't have access to a piano? I'm pretty sure I don't need another hobby.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

kung-fu road-trip, part 6 (the end?)

I think of 2006 as the year of the upgrades: my car, my house, my husband, my status as a writer, my status as a kung fu student.

As I have been writing this account, and as I get closer to the present day, it becomes more difficult to talk about tai chi/kung fu without discussing my personal life. About two years ago, tai chi stopped being something I do and become something that I am a part of.

I knew early on that it would happen if I kept with it. I resisted for a long time. I think Sit knew, too, that I was holding back because of other obligations. When I called up and told Mary I wouldn’t be in class because I had car problems, Sit exclaimed, "She has a husband problem!"

Some time in December of 2005, after a Wednesday night class, Sit asked to talk to me. With Mary Ann standing by beaming proudly, he asked if I wanted to learn the super-secret standing meditation.

"The what?" I said gracefully.

The standing. The nei-gong (internal strength) training. The core of the internal fighting arts, at least our version of it. Many different martial arts practice some version of meditation, and most of them have different styles and postures that have specific training applications. It's pretty high-level stuff. In the old days it was passed down under extreme secrecy, usually at a high cost.

Elation and self-doubt made me dizzy. I didn’t know if I was ready for that kind of responsibility. "I don’t know...," I hedged.

"I trade you," Sit said. He knew I was broke. "You can write me a’ article. Or you can make me a uniform. Maybe two."

I told him I’d think about it. I knew he was doing me a singular honor: aside from Mary Ann I’m the only woman who’s learned it, or even been shown it.

My reluctance came from my old fear of failure. I’d gotten fond of Sit, and as I’d gotten to know him better I realized how much I respected him, and how much I still had to learn from him, and I didn’t want to let either of us down by flaking out. And I sensed that there were big changes on my horizon. I was restless, and fed up, but I hate change and I was digging in my heels. I told Sit it wasn't a good time and I'd prefer to wait until summer. On the surface I was thinking about the novel I was trying to finish. In the back of my mind I was planning an escape.

I still wonder, looking back on this, if Sit guessed more than I did. I was probably transparent as glass. "Maybe something about to change," he said. "You never know. Maybe it turn out to be a good thing."

Around that same time I had another wad of cash go missing from one of my hiding places. My spouse swore up and down that there had been a rash of burglaries in our apartment complex, and perhaps there had been, but that didn’t explain why nothing else was missing, or how the thief had known where to look without disturbing anything else.

By mid-March I had moved in with my parents, my name was off the apartment lease, and I had filed for divorce. My ex didn’t fight me on it; he had enough sense to realize it would only draw attention to his bad behavior, and I think he was concealing his money problems from his family. I’m pretty sure they think I left their son for Tony, which is simply not the case.

I can’t really blame them for thinking so. My ex and I were good at keeping up appearances. We got along well and treated each other with respect in public. Once I’d made up my mind to leave him, however, I had no feeling left other than anger and embarrassment at having put up with it so long.

So there were no longer any impediments to my realizing I was head-over-heels for Tony. I had been telling myself that it was just a crush, it was the fascination of something you can’t have, it was a comrade-in-arms kind of friendship. We never had any relationship outside of class, and the setup of class meant that we exchanged precious few words during classtime. We never spoke on the phone and only rarely exchanged emails, generally about class-related matters. But over four and a half years I had managed to glean that he did lovely woodwork, he was a voracious reader and a huge fan of my writing, he had an art degree, a big vocabulary and a witty sense of humor. In other words, he was perfect for me, even before factoring in that he was Sit’s right-hand man.

Sit was unilaterally approving when we told him we were dating. We were apprehensive about it, because we knew that the proximity to the breakup of my marriage looked bad. Also, people who fall in love tend to fall out of tai chi class. I think Sit believed that would happen to us, too, but he was philosophical about it. He said, "So, you going to Tai Chi Legacy this year? It could be a romantic vacation for you."

We had a rather strange courtship. Despite the intensity of our connection we are both rather old-fashioned people who believe in honor and—dare I say—virtue, so we chose to be somewhat discrete until my divorce was final. We compensated for our guilt and frustration by training extra-hard.

I asked Sit to start me on the super-secret meditation training in April, which he agreed was a good idea, and for the six months I lived with my parents I was quite diligent about it. I practiced damn near every night. Tony and I were sober as judges in class every week, and we avoided partnering each other for application exercises. I don’t know if our tai chi got any better, because I for one was sleep-deprived and going nuts from living with my parents and wondering if the damn lawyer was ever going to complete the filing, but at least we were there. We both got quite thin and more fit than we had ever been, or probably will ever be, in our lives.

Tony and I got married in November, 2006, in Sit and Mary Ann’s house.

And we promptly quit practicing.

...I’m kidding.

Sort of.

It is not quite as convenient as one might suppose, living and training together. Our schedules are just different. He works a very physical job and comes home tired; I work at a desk all day and come home restless and jittery. He prefers to practice in the morning; I prefer the evenings, before dinner. We sometimes work in some push-hands practice together. We try to do our standing together, before bedtime. We make damn sure we are in class two days a week, unless one of us is sick. Usually if one is sick, the other still goes.

Our relationship with Sit has changed substantially. We socialize a fair bit with him and Mary Ann. We are friends as much as students; he’s like an adoptive father. He deals with Tony on a much more equal basis than before, and I can actually have a conversation with the man and feel free to disagree with him about writing or medicine or whatever.

We are a student-teaching team in kung fu. Tony still gets stuck with the newbies; I often get called upon to lead the mid-level students. Sit keeps me away from the really new people, especially the men. Guys are funny about following a woman anyway; they either ignore me or they make subtle jokes about how cute and not-dangerous I am. One guy saw me practicing the shuffle-step and cracked, “What is that, the shuffling kitten?”

Ha-ha, he’s gone, but I am still there. I just finished the sword form, which makes me the only current student who knows all of it—one of a handful who has learned it at all. I’m slowly getting a grasp on this push-hands thing: a couple weeks ago, Sit was watching Tony do an application on me and said, “Huh,” kind of curiously; he waved Tony away and did the application on me, himself. When I didn’t topple over the way he expected me to, he remarked, “She’s got good suspend head-top,” and waved us back to what we were doing.

So I have my happily-ever-after. I’ve still got a ways to go until I can call myself competent at tai chi, but I feel I’m standing in the doorway, and the journey has been incredibly rewarding. There were times, during the worst periods in my personal life, when I would go to class anyway, and midway through a lesson I’d realize that I was exactly where I was meant to be, doing exactly what I was meant to do. Until that feeling goes away, I’m going to keep at it.

Fin.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

kung fu metamorphosis, part 5 of 6

It’s tough to be a married woman and a kung-fu student at the same time.

2002 was a bad year for me in a lot of ways. I had just graduated to Sit’s class, and my attention was being pulled in a lot of other directions. I was heavily into my writer’s group and the local sci-fi convention, because I was still trying too hard to be a professional SF novelist.

Mostly, though, I was busy with weddings. I did three that year: my brother, my future ex-sister-in-law, and my own. I married my long-time consort in October of that year. It was a bad match from the very beginning, although we went to great lengths to convince ourselves and each other that it would work.

Eight days after the wedding I went back to class, after being gone for much of the summer, and one of the first people to welcome me back was Tony. “Hey, I thought we’d lost you!” he said.

I hate to admit it, but I right then I sensed I’d made a terrible mistake. My attraction to Tony was still unconscious at that point, but I felt a connection to him via this art we both loved, and I knew that the experience was something I would never share with my new husband. I had invited him many times to come to class with me, or even find a class of his own, but he had always declined. He had no interest in physical activity, whereas I couldn't imagine doing without it.

In February of 2003, four months after I was married, I started kung-fu class. It wasn’t a difficult decision; I was on friendly terms with the guys and they urged me into it. Mary Ann even told me Sit said I should be in kung fu, because “she has very precise movements.”

There was no arguing with that, so the next Sunday I showed up early. Sit's the only person I've seen do a real-life double-take. “You going to do kung-fu?” he said, pleased and surprised.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said happily.

Kung-fu was a whole different animal from tai chi. The students were younger and more fit, the emphasis was on fighting rather than health, and the pace was a whole lot faster. I wore myself out trying to keep up with those guys. I just didn’t have the muscle endurance at first, although I gained it pretty quickly. My thighs got tighter, my stomach got flatter, and my back got broader. My weight didn’t really change, but my body shape did. More women should realize that if you want toned thighs and a tight ass, kicks are the way to go.

I was the only beginner that year, so Tony had to student-teach me a lot. Outside of class I had to rely on myself to remember form, because I was determined not to be held back as the remedial student. I learned to practice in my head, with my eyes closed as my husband watched TV, or during my horrible morning commute (not with my eyes closed). Sit pushed me along pretty fast, too. I learned the first kung-fu form in five weeks, and I think we moved on to the cannon-fist form immediately afterwards. I know we started on longstaff that first summer. I took to that staff like a duck to water—I remember clapping my hands with glee when Sit brought it to me, which caused him to tell Mary Ann, “She is a kung-fu girl!”

I think Sit was amused by me. He hadn’t had a woman in kung fu for years, at least not one who lasted past the first form. Before long he was actually smacking me during application demonstrations. I relished the compliment; it meant he was taking me seriously. I think I startled both of us when I requested permission to attend the Wednesday-night class. This was rather bold of me, because traditionally, lessons in the master’s house are invitation-only. But when I asked him, he did another double-take, as if the idea had never occured to him, and said, “Yeah, yeah, sure!” (He told me later that women usually aren't interested in learning to fight, so maybe the idea hadn't occured to him.)

That first night it was only me and Matt. I was nervous, but by this time I figured I had a right to be there. The instruction was deeply intense and exactly what I’d been looking for all my life. There were no newbies to nurse along, there were no biddies who’d rather chit-chat than work, there were no dogs, frisbee-throwers or church-folk wandering through our practice space. It was just me and Matt getting the spit slapped out of us, pushing each other around, and enjoying every minute of it.

It’s around this same time that accounts of tai chi doings start cropping up regularly in this blog. I think that’s significant. My financial situation was slowly deteriorating all through 2003-2005: my car was a 17-year-old POS that was dying by inches, and I was carrying all the living expenses of my household. My husband tended to "lose" any money I gave him to pay the bills. When I quit giving him money, he got more creative about stealing from me. (He had two jobs, but I still have no idea where his money went--or rather, some ideas, but no evidence). At one point he actually had the gall to suggest I give up tai chi because of the expense. In the summer of 2004 I was so broke that I took a part-time job at the rental office of my apartment complex (various amusing anecdotes of that time can be found on this blog). The Sunday work hours meant I could attend kung-fu but I had to skip out early and miss tai chi, so I never did learn the ba'qua form properly. Despite and still, I always found the cash to attend Wednesdays, and Sunday kung fu.

Tai chi class had become my refuge and my family. Nobody demanded anything of me there, other than that I show up, pay attention, and practice once in a while. Ironically, I was probably more diligent about practicing and attendance during my first marriage than at any other time. My ex worked two jobs, and was gone on Sundays, so I had the day to enjoy myself. In the early days I hoped that my good example would inspire him to exercise; later on I refused to become as grotesque as he was; at any rate I went to the fitness center to practice at least twice each week.

I kept learning forms. Little Buddha. Umbrella. Close-hand (bik-da). Broadsword. Chen style. Sitting around Sit’s kitchen table on Wednesday nights, I got used to his speech and his weird habits. I got to see him as a person, and it made a difference. I got fond of him. I stopped thinking he was going to throw me out of class.

And yet I was still holding back. I could have earned more lesson time with Sit. The guys did yard work and odd jobs in exchange for private lessons. I could have lingered on Wednesday nights and had a drink with them, listened to gossip. I could have taken up Tony's and Mary's urgings to join them for lunch, but I didn't. I feared a deeper involvement. I feared distraction from my writing, which reached a new plateau in ability and productivity. And I was really starting to fear my attraction to Tony.

By the end of 2005 I was approaching critical mass. My soon-to-be-ex and I had degraded to roommates who never saw each other; I was going through one of the more productive periods in my life, writing like gangbusters on Trace; End of the Line had been bought by Jintsu (although it went out of business before EOTL could be published). I was hoarding money, not-yet-consciously knowing that I was ready for a divorce, but on some level I was waiting for the straw to break the camel’s back.

The first Sunday of 2006, Sit came up to me in kung fu class and said, “It’s a new Year, you want to start on a new form?”

“Sure,” I said.

So he started me on the Tai Hui/Six Elbows form. It may have been coincidence or it may have been another example of Sit's prescient tendencies, which had become eerily focused on me.

To be concluded tomorrow....

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

my kung-fu evolution, part 4

“You really ought to try Sit’s Sunday tai chi class,” Mary Ann had been saying to me for months. “They do a lot of application in there. Or even the kung-fu class--it’s all young guys, so you’ll have a lot of people to practice on.”

I chuckled at that, but I had some reservations about being in an all-male class.

“Oh no, they won’t give you any trouble. Sit won’t let them give you any trouble, and besides, they’re such nice guys. Zack, and Tim, and… Oh and Tony’s there now. You’ll like Tony. He wants to teach, so he’s taking it very seriously.”

So I finally girded up my loins and went to Sunday tai chi. I was a coward about it, and talked my friend Shara into going with me, but I went.

Then as now, the kung fu class met before tai chi, and me and Shara got there deliberately early. All the guys in kung-fu looked at us long and hard from the other end of the room, in between a deadly-looking set of cutting elbow/ double-block/ roundhouse kick.

The kung-fu students always look at the tai chi students like this. The long-timers glare at them for the interruption, the new ones look in relief, because the arrival of the tai chi students means their suffering is almost over, and when the newcomers are young and female, there’s a certain amount of conflicted scrutiny from all parties: Are they here for the class? Are they serious about learning or just hunting for men? Are they single?

Sit has a particularly intimidating dead-eye gaze when newcomers arrive. He does not stop class and greet you. He does not register your presence at all. You may as well be a cat that wandered in. He is in his zone and you don’t matter.

For my part, I was shaking in my Keds. The only contact I’d had with Sit up to this point was that workshop a year and a half earlier, and he scared me to death. It wasn’t that I feared for my health or safety. It was a fear-of-failure thing. Sit is so serious about his craft, and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to do something unless I know I can succeed at it.

Also, to my untrained eye, all the guys in kung-fu class looked very serious and accomplished—which just illustrates the point that you can’t judge competence until you, yourself are fairly competent.

Still, there is something about sweaty men doing martial arts that really does it for me. I told myself I was only looking for artistic reasons, because I had a photographic/multimedia project going on at the time, and I needed models. There were two decent prospects in that class: one was a tall lanky dark-haired guy (irrelevant to the story, I never saw him again), and the other was a medium-sized young man who reminded me of a chunk of firewood—thick and corded. He had terrific arms and calves, although he wore his shirts too long so for years I thought he was stunted. This, as I would learn, was the afore-mentioned Tony. I didn’t know yet that he loved chocolate and science fiction, or that he would ask me to marry him five years later.

Right then he was just incredibly intimidating. They all were. I was grateful when Mary’s sister Kathi arrived for class and greeted me warmly, thus proving that I belonged there.

I was determined not to be a timid shy girl in that class. Shara was starting out new, so Sit started at the beginning for her, but I did all the forms I could with the class. I bullied my way to the front, ursurping a position in the front row behind Sit’s right hand, and kept my eyes glued on him. I mirrored every move he made, listened so hard I forgot to breathe sometimes. He was pretty intense compared to our mild Tuesday night class. He was a crackling live wire, talking constantly, full of coiled energy. He demonstrated moves on the guys, things I had seen before but never with such power. Things I hadn’t seen before that made me wince and gasp in exhilaration. He was often very funny. He was also deadly serious.

I found him very difficult to understand, then and for years after. His native language is Cantonese, so his accent is quite thick, but what’s harder is the way he puts together sentences. His vocabulary is impressive even for a native English speaker, but he’s careless with verb construction. He says, “you do this,” and you have no idea if he means, “hey you, go do this now,” or “you must do this” or “you are doing this and you shouldn’t.” Also, there is a fair amount of jargon in tai chi that he explains haphazardly or not at all—peng, jin, fa jin, gong, sung—and for a long time I had no clue what it meant. I decided to simply listen without trying to analyze or remember; I was old enough by then to understand that a complex puzzle needs to be absorbed for a time before I can begin to dissect it.

And meaning did come, with time.

I started attending Sit's class either in late 2001 or early 2002; I can’t pin it down more than that. We were still indoors at that point, at St. Mark’s Lutheran, in their grand old choir hall with beautiful, crumbling wood- and plasterwork. I had to relearn all the stances that first year; turned out I’d been doing them wrong and the wrongness became apparent in the rigors of Sit’s workout. My knees ached for months until I learned how to keep my toes aligned.

The year turned. The weather got warmer. We moved outside to Loose Park, among the pine trees. I still staked out my spot on Sit’s right elbow. He was beginning to put me among the more advanced students who were learning the kicks form and the new fencing-sword form, a bastardized shortened version of the Wu style sword. There was a very nice, friendly guy named Tim who worked at the art institute and was awe-inspiring in his wiry muscularity. There was friendly-in-a-condescending-way Richard, who clearly thought himself above the rest of us but wasn’t above chatting up the new girl. There were the young guys, Tony, and Matt-n-Casey (it took me months to determine which was which, although they looked nothing alike; they were just a package deal), and sometimes Zack, who weighed one-twenty soaking wet, sported an emo-Beetles moptop, and was twelve degrees of badass.

You notice I only mention the guys. There are two reasons for this. One is that the women there were all a good deal older than I, and they had a sort of clique that, while welcoming to me, was not really to my taste. They talked about massage and self-help books and meditation and a hundred bits of quasi-new-age folderol, whereas I wanted to talk about postures and stances and fighting techniques. Furthermore, by the time I went to Sit’s class I was already on a level with the majority of those older women, and I quickly surpassed them. That meant that all of my classmates were the guys.

I found out much later that the young guys tended to be scornful of anybody coming out of Mary Ann’s class. I can’t really blame them; most of Mary’s students were there for a little exercise and some social life. That’s fine, but it wasn’t what I was after. I wanted to learn, and I didn’t want special treatment for being a girl.

Nevertheless, when one is young, female, and keen on a sport that is primarily a male dominion, there are going to be complications.

To be continued....

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

my kung-fu journey, part 3

My first contact with Sit was in someone else’s dojo—another of the belt factories, most likely, although I gotta respect any master who takes his craft seriously enough to want to learn from other masters.

I drove out to an unfamiliar, slightly creepy part of the city on a Saturday morning, alone and very nervous. I had no idea what to expect, but I was highly exhilarated and embolded by the knowledge that Mary Ann would be there, as well as Ralph and Berkley and Nancy, from the Tuesday night class. After three months I had already moved into the upper ranks of the class, but that didn’t mean much to me at the time. I just wanted to learn everything I could.

The dojo filled up fast. It was an adults-only workshop—Sit never was willing to teach kids—and it had been slightly overbooked. There were probably about thirty of us, which is a lot of people to cram into a fifty-foot long room, especially when they are all waving their arms around. Most of the attendees were men, but there were a fair number of women. One in particular made a big impression on me: about thirty-five, medium-height but seeming taller because of the way she carried herself, lean-hipped, broad-shouldered, muscular arms, a tanned freckled face bare of makeup, and a single long plait of dark hair down her back. I have to smile at myself as I write this, because I could be describing myself, now, nine years later. I thought that woman was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, in 1999, as a kung-fu infant, and now I am she.

Ralph came to join me, and Berkley, and we huddled together feeling insecure. Everyone else seemed young and tough and athletic, wearing uniforms and tee-shirts from tournaments with exotic-sounding names. I heard someone say that most of the attendees were instructors in their own right. There was one young girl there, maybe ten, the daughter of one of the dojo owners, I think.

Sit was almost the last to arrive. I don’t know if he meant to be, or if everyone was early out of courtesy, or if Sit’s terrible sense of direction—legendary among his students—made him get lost again. I don’t remember him making an entrance, I don’t remember the first words he said to us, but I’ve attended enough of his workshops since, I can probably convey the gist of it.

“Hello, hello, thank you for coming. I am Chun Man Sit, and this is the Phoenix Fan Form Workshop. It is a form I created, it uses moves from Wu style tai chi and Six Elbows Kung Fu, which is what I teach, it is a southern style kung-fu, from Hong Kong. And we’re going to do the whole thing today, it’s a long form, so we’ll do two hours, and then break for lunch, and then do the rest. Okay. So let’s get started—first we going to do a demo—these are my students, Mary Ann, Richard, and Tim, and we’re going to do the whole form to music. So don’ worry if you can’t remember all of it the first time.”

Nervous chuckles all around. Sit and his crew do a blindingly-fast rendition of the fan form accompanied by some loud Chinese pop music, after which the workshop attendees stand shell-shocked, wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sit assures us. “We do one section at a time. By the end of the day, you’ll know it.”

And astonishingly, he’s right. It’s amazing what the mind and body can accomplish under threat of humiliation. He positions his minions at strategic points around the room so no matter which direction we are facing—and the fan form has a lot of spins in it—we can always see one of them. Sit demonstrates three to five moves at a time, then we all stagger through them five or six times, then we do a longer bit with two or three sections strung together. It’s intense. Especially at first, when you’re still thinking OMG I GOTTA REMEMBER THIS! and trying to pack it in consciously. This leads to headaches, frustration, and the dojo owner’s 10-year-old daughter breaking down into tears.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sit says to her. “You’ll get it. You may think you don’t remember it, but your body will know it.”

Everybody else is too old and stubborn to give up, so we stagger on, spinning, blocking, thrusting, snapping the fan. Quarters are close and the room gets hot fast. There is a no-metal-fans rule in this workshop, everybody is using bamboo, but I still get light bloody scratches across both biceps by the slashing ribs of spinning fans. After a while your brain cannot consciously absorb any more and you simply start to mirror, and after a while of that you start to realize that it’s getting easier, because either you’ve bypassed your short-term memory and are pouring moves directly into your lower animal brain, or you’ve internalized the syntax of the form’s style and are no longer fighting what your feet know how to do. Maybe both.

I learned the whole fan form that day, in four or five hours or however long it was. Sit was right—I couldn’t consciously remember all of it—the transistions are particularly difficult on any new form—but my muscles knew it. And I had Mary Ann, who was beginning to be quite pleased with me, and who made sure I learned the whole thing over again, that first winter, in sections that were more easily digestible.

The following spring, March 2000, I competed in my first tournament, The Golden Dragon, in Kansas City. It’s a fairly small local tournament, but Sit and his crew always go to support the local network. He was judging that year, and he did a Master’s demo of the fan form during the opening cermonies, for which he borrowed my fan (I was so honored!!!!!). I competed with the fan form and the “Love is Blue” form, so-named because it is choreographed to the song. I had learnt it over the winter, too. I won both golds in the women’s beginner’s devision. Aside from that, it was a horrible experience. Tournaments generally are. They’re boring and tiring and punctuated by ego-fits and drama queens. And that’s just the judges (rimshot!). So that was the last tournament I did for six years.

I completed my BA in English that spring, too. I spent the summer job hunting, doing tai chi, and writing a lot. I got a job with a publishing company in September, and started paying off debts, making plans to get my own apartment. I kept going to Mary Ann’s class. I got the fan form down cold (or so I thought at the time) and started learning the “kicks form”. That was hard going, because nobody else seemed inclined to want to finish it. It’s a more difficult form, with a lot of leg-lifts, and many of the older folks in Mary’s class had a hard time with it. I was nearly the only one who finished it that year.

Meanwhile I was getting really curious about the practical aspect of things. Mary started hinting maybe I should go to Sit’s class, but I wasn’t ready for that. Sunday was my day to stay home and write, I was still short of money, and I was living with my parents, who (being fundy Christians) frowned severely on the idea of extracurricular activities on Sundays. There was some family trouble going on around that time anyway, and I had gotten pretty heavily involved with my new writer’s group, so I was spending more time writing and revising and tearing my hair out trying to impress my writer-friends, rather than practicing. Tai chi kind of fell back to a once-a-week exercise thing.

But eventually it became evident that Mary Ann couldn’t teach me anymore, at least not within the confines of that class. In October of 2001, I moved to a one-bedroom apartment of my very own, half a mile from work, and barely twenty minutes from Sit’s Sunday-morning class. I had a new friend at work, who was very keen on attending, and I was very bored with the blue-hairs in the Tuesday night class.

There was no longer any excuse for me not to go to Sit.

TBC....

Monday, May 19, 2008

my kung fu journey, part 2

I sensed immediately that Mary Ann’s tai chi class was what I was looking for.

The fellowship hall of the church had the high sound-damping ceiling and tile floor of many an elementary school. It was large, cool, and hushed with the white noise of air conditioners. It didn’t feel like a gladiator ring and it didn’t smell like a locker room. Of all the places I’ve done tai chi, I think I still like that one best.

I had persuaded my co-worker Bev to come with me, and she was timid so that made me feel brave. There were two women standing by the auditorium stage, unloading bags, jackets, and a CD player. They were chatting comfortably when I marched in. The shorter, younger one, who looked like an art teacher, looked up and smiled at us. "Are you here for tai chi class?" she said.

"Are you Mary Ann?" I asked her.

"You must be Holly," she said cheerfully. She has this wonderful warmth about her. Seldom have I met anyone who is better at making newcomers feel welcome.

The other students started trickling in. They were all considerably older than me (I was 25 at the time, but looked younger and felt about 16); middle-aged men and women with open expressions and good posture. I could see in their faces that they were the kind of people I wanted to be around. They were casually, comfortably dressed. No pretention. No arrogance. They were welcoming and quiet.

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but martial arts classes are one place where the saying "water seeks its own level" is glaringly apparent. An aggressive, tough-guy instructor is going to attract thugs. A whiny feel-good instructor is going to attract dishrag new-age types.

Mary Ann was neither of those things. She loved what she was doing and she did it without embellishment. I know now this was the attitude of her teacher, Sit, although Mary’s classes are always geared more toward the health and relaxation aspects of the art, as opposed to the martial part. She started every class with everyone in a circle, while she taught us her favorite moves from the Drifting Clouds qigong set. Often she had meditative music playing. There was light conversation between her and the students as we went through the motions, and with each new move she would stop and explain it to me and my co-worker Bev, whom I had persuaded to come with me.

I don’t want to be too melodramatic, but for me it was a transcendent experience. The moves were round and flowing, in stark contrast to the kick-block-punch nonsense I’d seen elsewhere. The slow, controlled, extended movements activated muscles I didn’t know I had, much like swimming or lifting light weights slowly. The three major stances—horse stance, cat stance, and front/bow stance, were familiar to me from that karate class, but the emphasis on relaxation was something new. It takes very little time in a horse stance to make you understand why Jet Li and can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

It was fun. It was new and different enough that my mind was turning cartwheels trying to grab everything and retain it. I got a tremendous charge out of the controlled movement. I immediately figured out that I could change the intensity of the workout by reaching further and crouching deeper than everyone else (since I was/am still relatively young and flexible, this has always made me look more skilled than I actually am, to the untrained eye). Mary talked about the health benefits of tai chi, including better balance and flexibility, improved immune system, and some of the more esoteric theories like staving off diabetes and Alzheimer's.

After qigong and a little break, Mary and the longtime students demonstrated the "first form" or as we affectionately call it, the "chicken form," because it begins with Golden Rooster Stands On One Leg. Sit arranged the form, using some of the simpler moves from the traditional set. It's a beginners' form, but that shouldn't imply that it isn't serious. All of the moves are legitimate for self-defense, although due to the demographic of the class Mary didn't spend a lot of time discussing application.

She demonstrated a few things, however, using a big teddy-bear of a man named Berkley. That made a big impression on me, watching 5'5" Mary Ann, who looks like your favorite classroom mom, dropping 6'4" Berkley to one knee. Yes, he was a cooperative partner—at the beginning. Yes, each had a prescribed role to play—at the beginning. That’s not the point. It was quite clear they were doing a friendly, controlled demo for the benefit of the class. It was quite clear that Mary was relaxed and in-control throughout the exercise. It was quite clear that although Berkley began the operation in a cooperative manner, at the end he had no control over his body. And I wanted like hell to be able to do that.

Mary Ann’s tai chi class was exhilarating. It was intriguing. It was relaxing, in the way that good exercise unwinds and relaxes you. It was a workout, but not the kind that leaves you gasping for breath, shaky and puking. I worked up a sweat, but it was like skipping all the painful stuff and going right to the endorphine glow. I slept like a rock that night, and when I went into work the next morning, I went into Bev’s office and said, "Do you feel as good as I do?!"

"Oh my God, that was amazing," she said.

"Better than sex," I declared. (Which, for the record, indicates the mediocre quality of the sex I’d had up to that point).

Needless to say, I was hooked.

I started Mary Ann’s class in May of 1999. I had already begun plans to return to college full-time that fall, so I knew I had three months to finish the first form. I was determined to learn it, so even if college and working part-time prevented me from attending tai chi regularly, I could at least practice the form on my own. I am proud to say I didn’t miss a day of class for three months, and I’m further proud to say that I didn’t quit when school started. I managed to finagle my Tuesday nights free from my mall job, and when August rolled around I learned that Mary Ann’s teacher, Chun Man Sit, was holding a fan form workshop on a Saturday, the week before I was scheduled to start my new job.

By then I had the first form down strong enough that Mary Ann started me on the fan form with Berkley and a couple of her other advanced students. I bought a $12 bamboo fan from her, but I had just coughed up my life savings for tuition and I seriously doubted I’d be able to attend the workshop. Unbeknownst to me, my friend Bev at work was organizing a going-away party for me. She and Sheri passed a hat and collected about $40, which they presented to me along with a hand-made certificate that said, "Good for one Phoenix Fan Form Workshop with Chun Man Sit."

And that was my first exposure to Sit.

TBC....

Friday, May 16, 2008

my kung fu journey, part one

A friend asked me for advice on choosing a martial arts class, and in writing a response I found this flood of narrative that was apparently waiting to be told. I'm posting it here, in sections. I hope--if I can say this without sounding too pompous--that those who seek enlightenment will find some here.

======

I have wanted to do martial arts for as long as I can remember--probably from the time I was eight and I learned that a girl in my third-grade class was in karate. Before then, I hadn't realized that karate classes were an option for a third-grade girl in my white-bread town. I don't know why, I don't remember ever seeing any kung-fu movie and going "hey, that's cool, I want to do that!" It just seemed to make sense to me. I'm very physical but team sports don't do it for me. I'd rather compete with myself than with someone else; at the same time I think I'm too independent and/or self-centered to share the responsibility/attention with others. However my parents had little money to spare and my father didn't think that I should take karate; he thought I was too aggressive as I was.

My first martial arts class was a semester of karate in college. I was probably twenty. I did all right but.... I dunno, the instructor and I didn't gel, I guess. He had that military-style bark, but as I look back now I don't think he had much bite. He spent a lot of time talking about how deadly his art was, but he had kind of a shady, trying-to-get-by character and he ended up stiffing my parents for rather large debts at their copy/printing shop (at one point he offered me free lessons to pay off his debt, but by then it was no longer an option). At any rate, I was a starving college student and didn't have time or money to pursue further study.

Fast forward a couple of years. I dropped out of college, went to work for a title insurance company, put on ten pounds. I hated work, I was running every day after work for stress-relief and exercise, but I hated running, too (I still hate running and avoid it whenever possible—also I don’t believe it’s all that healthy). I was drinking too much Pepsi and coffee and my guts were very unhappy.

It was a very long time ago, but it seems to me I had two or three reasons for seeking out a martial arts class. One was for exercise. Two was that the itch had never gone away; I think I was instinctively seeking that mind-body connection you just don't get from treadmills. Three definitely had to do with my character, Quinn Taylor. I started writing again, heavily, about a year after I dropped out of college, I was writing Quinn's trilogy, and I knew I needed some practical knowledge about martial arts. Four, if I'm being honest with myself, I was very angry at that point in my life--my bosses at that job were horrible, bullying people--and I wanted the opportunity to kick some ass.

I visited a couple of strip-mall tae kwan do dojos in the Kansas City area. They were both decent for what they did, I think. They both operated their classes in the military-inspired, order-barking, line-up and salute style. Their top students were young men in their late teens or early twenties, who spent their time doing flashy kicks. Each had several classes that met during the week; some just for kids, some for adult beginners, and at least one all-levels cattle-class. The Korean guy, in particular, had a large following, with several women students. A couple of them were very encouraging and welcoming to me when I visited.

But it just didn't feel right to me. I know now that many martial artists call those kinds of schools "belt factories." You pay to enroll, you pay for the uniform, you pay when it's time to get tested, you pay for the belt. The Korean guy had a "guaranteed black belt in two years" program. Even as inexperienced as I was, I didn't see how that could be realistic. He was very cagey when I asked him for prices.

I didn't want to be in a "beginner's class." I didn't want to do push-ups before every class—I could do push-ups at home, for free. I didn't like the military structure of the classes--that was why I didn't go into the Air Force when they were courting me as a linguist. I didn't want to be a peg in a hole and a wallet to draw from. I'd had enough mass-market education from 12 years of public school, and I knew from experience (although it wasn't a conscious thought at the time) that being put in a cattle-class would only hold me back. I knew quite conciously that I didn't want to be in a class with children--or anywhere near children. Children make me edgy, and I had a sense that, if I kept with the school long enough, sooner or later I'd be put in charge of teaching (read: babysitting) the children, merely because of my gender.

I saw a guy who billed himself as Brazillian jujitsu. His neck was as thick as my thigh and he spent twenty minutes trying to sell me on how grappling was the best rape deterent. The disparity between his bulging muscles and his talk about not using force was ludricrous. I didn't even attend a class; I shook his hand and got the hell out of there. There was no way I was going to let that guy demo anything on me (and I had my 300-lb. boyfriend with me for that visit, thank God).

I don't even know how I heard about tai chi. I must've heard somewhere that it was a soft martial art, and supposed to be better for smaller people. I think I was attracted to it because it was less well-known in the midwest ten years ago than it is now; I knew very little about it and I have always preferred to take the road less travelled. By this time I knew I didn't want a factory class, so I got in the phone book and looked for the smallest one-line listing that mentioned tai chi. There were three. Two were adjunct programs to bigger sinophile organizations--The Enlightenment Center and the Center for Asian studies, things like that. The third was a guy named Li.

Li taught down in a suburb two counties southwest of me, about as far from where I lived as it was possible to be and still be in the greater city area. When I spoke to him on the phone, he suggested that I might want to try a lady north of the river, a friend of his. Her name was Mary Ann Burt.

That sounded auspicious to me, so I called Mary Ann and found out she taught in a church. I probably asked her some other questions about what the class was like and what I needed to bring, but I don't remember what she said. I pursuaded a friend from work to go with me and we went to the Methodist church on a Tuesday night.

To be continued....

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

dark fairy fiction

A few years back (it feels like a lifetime, but it was only 2005) I had the priviledge of reading/critting an early version of Joy Marchand's story "Black Annis," which is a coming-of-age story wrapped in the trappings of an urban dark fantasy as told by a shy gay teen.

Fairy story, get it?

Anyway, Joy just announced that "Black Annis," which is titled after the creepy child-eating Bad Thing in the story, got bought by Unspeakable Horror for their upcoming anthology.

Seriously, this story deserves all the attention it gets and then some. It's sweet, scary, and moving. Make a point of finding it.

missing the point

There's a yoga studio in the shopping center behind where I live. They seem to be well-established; they've been there a while and the center seems nicely up-kept. I don't do yoga myself, but if I did I'd probably go there.

The other day me and my Sparring Partner went by the hardware store and as we left, noticed the yoga place had a big banner out front.

"YOGA BOOT CAMP!!" it said.

We looked at each other and shook our heads. "Only in America," he said.


=======

We're down to five or six students in kung fu again. The SP said to Sit, "See what happens when you start teaching the tai hui stance?" He was kidding.... sort of. People do tend to poop out when they get put in that stance. It hurts. It's intimidating. It's kind of unnatural. And suddenly you realize what a big expectation is being put on you--Oh shit! This isn't easy anymore! I may actually have to practice!

Last Saturday there were only four student, but two of the regulars were missing and I figure they'll be back. Yoga-boy is still hanging around. He's been coming for about 18 months now, is now attending both classes (kung fu and tai chi), and while he's having some trouble with body control (relaxation, like everybody), he's making an effort and tends to be prepared for class. He certainly tries hard and keeps his mouth shut, so I think he'll be around a while.

The soccer mom who was coming for a while has vanished. She was around long enough for me to get used to her, but for some reason most women don't last past the first form. I think a lot of it has to do with other demands on one's time, but I know she was feeling insecure. She asked if the SP and I would watch her form and critique it, but we gently demurred, explaining that it was better to just practice the basics and get feedback from Sit at this point. I hope she wasn't insulted, because she dropped out not long after that.

However, she was a self-admitted Type A results-based personality, and I think that was her downfall. I think that's the downfall of most of our dropouts. I think they get focused on a goal--whether it's fabulous flexibility or instant health or the ability to kill a mugger with a single well-placed pinky finger--and they give up when they see how much work is involved. They forget that the work is its own reward.

Sure, I get down on myself sometimes because I should be more skilled than I am, and because I don't practice enough, but I can't deny that there have been benefits from my slow, persistent progress. I'm more fit than average. I'm strong and flexible. My mind is generally at peace with itself. I do have some self-defense skills, even if the best part of those is merely knowing my limitations. And I don't see myself stopping any time soon. I am fairly sure that I'll continue to progress, even if I don't know yet what form that progress will take.

But yoga boot camp? C'mon. That's just setting yourself up for failure.

Monday, May 12, 2008

review from The Fix

Review of "End of the Line" from The Fix. Aliette de Bodard says, "A very effective story with a strong sense of period and a setting well rendered, Messinger handles the slow buildup of tension masterfully, making for a creepy and suspenseful tale..."

Very nice.

There's also a mention of EOTL at The SF Bookswap, as part of a list of recently-published stories by women.

Friday, May 09, 2008

self-defense links

I added three new links to the sidebar today. These are sites I was already familiar with and thought some of my readers might be interested to see. They are all written by women, and they all focus on self-defense of one form or another.

Cornered Cat is by Kathy Jackson, a wife and mother who made the choice to carry a concealed handgun at all times. Her explanation of her decision, as well as her essays on ethics, social issues and pragmatic concerns are fascinating and educational. She is frank, levelheaded, and often funny.

Taking Care of Ourselves is a new one for me. Nancy Moore studies and teaches Aikido and has a lot to say about mental and physical preparedness. An in-depth woman's perspective of the martial arts is always welcome 'round here.

Suzette Haden Elgin is a linguist, artist, feminist, and science fiction writer whom I have had the pleasure of meeting at ConQuest in past years. She wrote one of my favorite series, the Native Tongue trilogy, and I once attended a shortened version of her "Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" seminar, which was vastly insightful.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

percentage according to whom?

Okay, following up on the percentage of fat question.

I was reading "Spontaneous Healing" by Andrew Weil a couple weeks ago. The SP had acquired a copy of it from somewhere and, well, I've always been a little suspicious of Weil because he seemed so mainstream crunchy. Too slick, too well-marketed. But I'm a lot more crunchy myself these days, and I thought I'd see what he had to say.

For the most part I think his advice is sound. But I was startled when I was reading his chapters on diet and he recommended no more than 30% of calories from fat. That actually sounded high to me--I figured a low-fat diet such as Weil advocated would be more like 15 or 20% fat calories.

And then I realized, with all the reading I've done about diet and low-fat/low-carb, I didn't have any hard numbers in my head. Atkins' book isn't real precise about numbers; in fact a selling point of his diet is that you didn't have to count, except for the magical 20-grams-a-day during induction, and then figuring out your carb threshold later. (Mine's around 65. Below that and I start dropping.)

So, I went researching. Turns out that the 30% of fat calories is the American Dietary Association's recommendation, which is based on the AMA and the America Heart Association's assumption that fat and cholesterol in the diet cause heart disease. Which is, as I and others have mentioned, a pretty shaky assumption.

Here are some quotes and reference links. Most of the articles I found were written in the mid-nineties. The science and diet climate has changed somewhat since then.

The New York Times:
"In 1990, a recommended low-fat diet for adults should be no more than 30% fat calories."

The San Diego Earth Times:
"In the average American diet, 34.3 percent of the calories came from total fat and 15 percent from saturated fat."

The Weston A. Price Foundation:
"By analyzing menus from turn-of-the-century cookbooks, we can estimate that the fat content of the diets at that time was about 35-40 percent of energy as fat."

"...the American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends that "diets should provide moderate amounts of energy from fat (20 percent to 25 percent of energy)" and noted that the more restrictive level of 15 percent offered no advantage. However, since typical diets have been found to be closer to 35 percent of energy as fat, even their recommendation of 20-25 percent represents a lowfat approach."

Chiroweb:
"The USDA food consumption survey revealed the percent of fat in American's diet continues to go down: 33% in 1994, 34% in 1990, and 40% in the 1970s."

The American Academy of Family Physicians (detailed report on clinical studies):
"Under current recommended guidelines set by the National Academies of Sciences, Americans are advised to take in 45 percent to 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 20 percent to 35 percent from fat, and 10 percent to 35 percent from protein."

So, here are the answers to the questions I asked you:

The average American diet in the mid-nineties appears to have consisted of approximately 33% fat calories.

The Powers That Be recommend consuming no more than 30% of your calories from fat, although more and more often nutrition gurus are making the distinction between poly/mono and saturates and unsaturates. I think these distinctions are just the gurus scrabbling to take back the lines in the sand which they drew before the latest data was in.

An Atkins-type low-carb diet, at its most extreme, may consist of up to 60% of calories from fat. At this point, however, you'd be consuming at most 1200 calories a day, because you'd be living off your body's fat reserves.

As for how what percentage of calories "should" be coming from fat? I say go back to the 40% that was common in cookbooks in the early part of the 20th century. But they have to be the natural fats that people were eating back then--butter, olive oil, lard and schmaltz (chicken fat).

Bottom line is, your body needs a certain amount of dietary fat, not only to run smoothly but also to process certain vitamins. I think if you're not eating enough good-quality fat, your body thinks it is being malnourished, possibly because it can't make good use of the nutrients that are coming in (and probably because the cheap starches that we eat instead of those good fats are not, in fact, very nutritious). So we feel hungrier--but it's not hunger per se, it's malnourishment. So we eat more cheap starchy crap, because it's low in fat and supposedly harmless. And we get fat.

That's what I think, anyway.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

ah, spring!

It used to be that I'd be winding down this time of year, creatively speaking. I used to not be able to write anything during the summer, because I've always done my best work after dark, and dark doesn't come until bedtime in the warm months of the year. And sewing? Who wants a lapful of silk when it's 90 degrees and humid enough to snorkel?

Anyway, something seems different this spring. Maybe because I'm planting stuff. Maybe because I'm not beating myself up trying to get ready for a Con over Memorial Day weekend.

It's funny how outside influences can spark motivation. For instance, my kung fu teacher is temporarily out of work--they closed the store where he worked, so he's raking in severence pay, making up forms, completing articles he started writing two years ago, and leaning on all of us to start a school in his name. His excitement is contagious. I've been trading time-favors with him: I house-sit for them when they go on vacation, which they will probably do in the early summer, and in return he's giving me private sword lessons.

Learning a new tai chi form uses ALL of your brain--hand-eye coordination, pattern recognition, spacial relations, sequential memory. Nothing else I have ever done makes me feel so smart. And for me, at least, it's very stimulating. It makes me feel confident, because I can do it, and it forces me to stop several times a day and rehearse what I learned, because even I am not so perfect that I can pick up a sequence of moves after one repetition and remember it for a whole week, without rehearsal. I also feel a little smug, because this form is HARD. Sit says it's the most complex of all the major tai chi styles' sword forms. It's long, and it's complicated, and learning it now I can tell how far I've come, both in my abilities as a student and in my personal growth.

See, Sit tried to teach the class this form about five years ago. I was only coming to Sunday class sporadically at that point; I couldn't afford to take all three classes each week, and I think I was working part-time on Sundays that year. And that sword form intimidated the heck out of me. It does everyone. I think only the SP and one other guy learned it all the way through that year.

I'm not afraid of it anymore. I can't really say why, except I'm in a place now where I don't really have to worry about anything. Sit doesn't intimidate me the way he used to, the other guys in class don't intimidate me the way they used to, I don't have the stresses at home to distract me or the money strain to keep me away.

And frankly, I like learning the form by myself. It forces me to rely on myself, and I can go at my pace--I don't have to worry about lagging behind that guy or being held back for my remedial classmates. Sit gives me more details when it's just me, and I can ask questions.

Don't get me wrong--I'd have to work my butt off to be really good at this sword form. Most of it is physically easy for me, because I'm lean and limber, but there are nuances upon nuances, motions and gestures that do not come up in everyday life, and four butterfly jump-kicks that Sit basically told me I'd have to teach myself. They look similar to this, except you do them with a sword in your hand.

I think I can do it. I found some excercises to practice, which are easy in themselves. One of my kung-fu brothers took gymnastics and he says he can help. It gives me something to work on and work for. For years I've wished I could do that kick, and I think this year I'm going to figure it out. But the important thing is that I have learned the form. I can perform it, I can remember it, I can pass it on. It feels good to be entrusted with that kind of legacy.

Ironically, learning this sword form has taken up relatively little of my time this month (maybe 90 minutes a week), but the mind-expanding benefits of it are far-reaching. I've been making a Harley costume on order, and the customer asked me to make some minor changes, which were no big deal, but they turned out so great I sat back and thought, "Huh, my kungfu's pretty good!" I then promptly started brainstorming other patterns/designs I could make up, document, and sell--a Batgirl cowl, for example, and a Wonder Woman bustier.

Why? Because I can. And I want to see how I would. Hey, I've built corsets and top hats. Doing superheroes is merely a matter of changing the curves.

But that's all hypothetical. I could do those in slow steps, over many weekends--in-between watching my tomatoes growing, and practicing sword in the backyard.

Monday, May 05, 2008

nutrition poll

I've got some questions for y'all. Without doing any research--I don't want someone else's opinion, I want your best guess--fill in the blanks below. Answer each question in order--don't go back and revise your previous answers when you see the next question.



1. In a healthy diet, what percentage of daily calories should come from fat?














2. In a low-fat diet, what percentage of calories should come from fat?













3. In a low-carb diet, what percentage of calories would come from fat?














4. In the average American diet, what percentage of total calories do you suppose come from fat?



I'll tell you why in a day or two.

Friday, May 02, 2008

industrial toxins, hormones, and food

I followed a link on Culinate (sidebar) to this article about a theory that environmental toxins contribute to obesity.

It's an interesting theory, and one that I wouldn't summarily dismiss. I don't think it's news to anyone that synthetic chemicals can act on the body like hormones, and having read Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories, I know that researchers are increasingly curious about how hormones regulate metabolism and body size. Knowing that, it's not a leap for me to suppose that environmental chemicals are interfering with our bodies' ability to use the nutrients we injest, which would fool our brains and endocrine systems into thinking we need to eat more.

At any rate, I think we could all do with less plastic in our lives. I've gotten pretty good about taking my cloth shopping bags to the store with me. I'd still like to replace most of our plastic storage wear--use glass for the refrigerator and tin or stainless for lunchboxes. That's a work in progress. In many ways I'm glad we live in an older house, one built out of brick, wood and mortar, instead of plastic composite. Is it healthier? I don't know. But these things have been around a long time and I trust them to be chemically inert, more or less.

I haven't posted in a long time, I know. I've been gardening, and sewing. I got another costume order, which is half made, and I've been selling about a pattern a week since March.

I took most of that money and bought plants. I think I mentioned I have a three-year plan for the yard. Next year that will probably include some raised beds for more produce, but for now I'm trying my hand and my patience with herbs, tomatoes, and peppers.

The herbs are basil, sage, marjoram, oregano, chives, thyme, parsley, and patchouli. The patchouli is the only one that lives inside; it's a handsome little shrub and smells fresh. I made my first batch of chimchurri sauce on Wednesday and it was very nice; it'll be even better when I get some cilantro. I don't know why I forgot the cilantro. I love the stuff, and it always gets wasted when I buy it in bundles.

I planted two pepper plants, one sweet and one hot. They went into five-gallon buckets and so far have been spending their nights inside. They've doubled in size.

The tomatoes were very small and tender when I brought them home. I bought two slicing varieties and two romas. Eventually they are going into 20-gallon tubs in the back yard, but right now they are on my kitchen window ledge. Three of them are doing fine, but one of the little romas has aphids and is kind of sickly. I washed it in soapy water and it's still struggling along, so we'll see.

This week I went all domestic and brought home a fern, a hosta, and some strange purple thing that's supposed to get five feet tall and have pink spiky flowers. They all went into the shady front bed. I don't know what got into me. My parents agree that they never thought I'd be the kid to get bit by the gardening bug, but sometimes we take strange paths to get to our destination. If I feel the need to garden because it's environmentally sound, and because I want to grow my own food, well, I guess that's as good a reason as any.