Saturday, December 31, 2011

goals for 2012

I don't do Resolutions, but last year I set myself three goals: to finish The Curse of Jacob Tracy, to find a literary agent, and to leave my day job. I'm a bit gobsmacked to realize that all three of those came to pass.

So, as prompted by my friend Mary Ann, I'm writing down my goals for 2012, to make them more concrete and keep them in focus.
  1. Publish Trace and get a nice fat advance on it.
  2. Finish writing the sequel to Trace, Curious Weather.
  3. Start teaching kung fu.
  4. Pay off the home equity line.
Bring it on, 2012!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

new ebook publisher: Eggplant Literary Productions

Long-time readers will remember that waaaay back when I was still writing as if I enjoyed it, a nice lady named Raechel Henderson offered to publish End of the Line as an ebook. Despite our best intensions, that was not to be; Eggplant Literary Productions went on hiatus for a few years.

Now it's starting up again. Eggplant's startup page is here (God love Wordpress!) and their guidelines page is here. They are looking for novella-length ebooks, and short-shorts for a literary magazine. The focus for both lines is fantasy/science fiction.

I always respected Raechel's professionalism and taste as an editor. (Easy to do when somebody wants to publish your stuff, eh?) So if you got a story that's a wee bit too long for any of the other markets, and aren't up to self-publishing your e-book, pass it by Eggplant.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

motley Christmas

Five years married and we just bought our first Christmas tree together. In past years I used a little miniature three-tree grove which I believe came from my parents' old business office. Last year we didn't even decorate. I think we were too tired and cranky, probably too reluctant to spend money. Somewhere along the way I'd bought some lights and plain glass ornaments that were never opened, but other than that and a half-decorated wreath, we had nothing. It's a measure of how hard and fast I fled from my old life, that I didn't even take any ornaments of my own, either from my parents' house or from my ex-husband.

We bought a Black Hills Spruce from the Optimists in the grocery store parking lot. It's been too warm this week for the trees to be properly chilled, so they're looking a bit desiccated. We borrowed a few boxes of crap from his mom's basement (she had 60-odd years' worth collected, including some scary looking string lights), put a bunch of tacky tinsel garland on the boughs, and the Sparring partner hung old satin-thread ornaments and faded wooden toys all over, while I worked on finishing the wreath. I put on gold cord and red braid, and black-gold net. Then I added a gold bow, blue oversized jingle bells, and a few miniature toy ornaments in red and white.

"That looks like Christmas exploded," the SP remarked when we were done. And it does. No Nieman-Marcus designer-themed tree for us. But then again, we aren't people who live in a decorator-showplace house, with three-color schemes and accent pillows. All our stuff is patchwork--furniture, curtains, artwork--things we've found, liked, collected. And really I suspect most people's Christmas decorations collections are the same way--things that were given to them by, or chosen for, someone they loved. The mangled pipe-cleaner ornament made by a child. The falling-apart foil angel that belonged to someone's great-grandmother.

As we were sorting through boxes of musty tissue paper and limp tinsel, we remarked on what we'd keep and what we'd return to the basement, what we'd quietly get rid of and what we might acquire in future to accent the good stuff.

It's fashionable these days to disparage Christianity. It's fashionable to talk about the pagan influences of Christmas trappings, as if those factoids are supposed to make hypocrites of those who still celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. Since my divorce I've been conflicted about Christmas. I lost the will or the desire to worship or pursue God; I am firmly in the agnostic camp--not so much "I don't know" as "wait and see." But since I was raised by Christian parents, and schooled in a liberal arts college, and hang out with a decidedly Zen crowd, and am an Existentialist by nature, I got to a point where I couldn't hardly act or believe in anything without feeling I was reacting to something else. It's hard on a writer to feel as if every available option is a cliche.

But I think we need festivity in our lives--me, especially. Holidays--holy days--were days of worship, but in the pagan and Christian faiths (pretty much any religious group that doesn't indulge in human sacrifice, really) they were also days of rest and community.

Routine and even-keel are good things. But so are renewal and celebration. There's a difference between cliche and convention; in fiction, the conventional tropes let you know whether you're reading a romance or hard sci-fi. So you might say I've decided to embrace the formulaic this year.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

where everybody knows your name

I love my writer's group.

Met with them Saturday for our monthly enclave. We critted. We chatted. We laughed. I whined. They sympathized. It's good to go hang with like-minded people, sharing an activity you all enjoy, where they listen to what you say and act like you know what you're talking about. Even if they don't agree with you. Everybody should have a place like that.

It's also very cool when they say matter-of-factly that I need to get used to editing screenplays because my book will get made into one in the not-too-distant future... and then someone else counters with, no, they'll take my book and process it into blockbuster pulp--but at least I'll get the rights check.

And then there was the part when I mentioned I had an idea for "Steampunk Quinn" and their faces all lit up and they went "ah!" That was extremely gratifying. They never were particularly fans of Quinn Taylor, in the old manuscripts, but they have more faith in me now. In some ways, I think what crippled the Quinn Taylor stories was my tendency toward Victorian restraint and archaic morality--things I no longer suffer from, so the anachronistic transfer is going to be interesting.

I took my own advice this weekend and printed out a fresh new hardcopy of Trace. Everybody took a section and skimmed as fast as they could, reading the bits where I had flagged the updated Boz sequences. The consensus was that I had done good things updating the emotional arcs. And now that I have a hard copy I'm better able to sit down and SEE the damn thing, as a whole. I just can't read on the screen the way I used to.

I have bits of Horseflesh yet to finish. I am resolved. I shall continue to work every day, away from my sewing room whenever possible, away from the house if I can manage it. I will jot down notes, outlines, and scenes longhand before I go to bed at night, so I have something to work on the next morning. I will stop second-guessing myself. I will accept that even when the words don't flow like wine, even when the muse isn't singing in my ear, what comes out on the page is generally pretty readable. I will put down words even when I don't feel like it. I will finish this thing.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

custom Batwoman costume

I love this. Black and red, how can you go wrong? This is Kristin in the Batwoman costume I made for her. She was really open to using the matte black PVC, which I love.


The cape is two layers of lightweight synthetic fabric. The bodysuit is black matte stretch PVC, with red PVC accents. The gloves are matte red spandex and the accessories are sculpted leather. You can order custom items like this one through my Etsy shop.

Kristin is a repeat customer of mine. She's a careful and dedicated cosplayer, she really puts thought and time into the characters she wants to portray. She's also an artist and cartoonist. You can see her work on her DeviantArt page.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

things I hate about fabric stores

1. Polyester. With the exception of some very high-tech, high-priced and fairly rare microfibers, it's nasty fabric. It's rough, slick, ravels, sticks to your skin, fights you when you try to sew it. And it occupies about 75% of the fashion fabric shelf space.

2. Polyester fleece. Occupies 75% of the floor space that could be utilized for--I don't know--real fabric? Silks, cotton twill, wool? For people who actually sew? Comes in an assortment of tacky colors and prints.

3. People who buy polyester fleece. They always buy 15 different cuts at the same time. For Christmas gifts. Disregarding the likelihood that the people who received a polyester fleece blanket LAST year have not worn it out, indeed probably have not used it, and do not need another. There is no excuse for blanketing your entire social circle with poly fleece. Pare down your Christmas list and make something meaningful for the people you actually like.

4. People who buy poly fleece who put their screaming children on the cutting counter, where the kid kicks, grabs, and drools on everything in sight, including other people's fabric. I was very mean about this when I worked at the fabric store. People were not permitted on my cutting counter.

5. People buying 15 yards of 15 different bolts of poly fleece who insist on finding something inadequate with each bolt of fleece, thereby requiring the cutting clerk to unroll the entire bolt to cut from the end without the glitter on it. (Seriously, lady? You're not going to wash the thing before you use it? Do you live in a world without germs, too?)

6. People trying to buy upholstery fabric for their interior designer/upholsterer, although they have never before bought fabric and are unprepared for questions about whether the design will be railroaded, or whether those 12 yards can be in two pieces, and hold up the line talking loudly on their cell phone for 10 minutes. THIS IS WHY YOU LET THE PROFESSIONAL DO THE BUYING. YOU ARE NOT SAVING MONEY BY DOING IT YOURSELF.

7. There is apparently only one home decorating fabric distributor left in middle America. Joann's and Hancock's have virtually the same stock these days. Competition? What competition?

8. Similarly, Joann's and Hancock's are on automatic stock reordering systems--when I was at Wal-Mart they called it "continual inventory system," which is a lie because they still took a physical inventory every year--so they only get in 3 or 4 cards of each button type at a time. So they generally only have in 1 or 2 cards of a given button type at any given time. Which means, if I need 14 buttons for a project I have to drive to at least 3 different stores, and/or wait 3 weeks until they get their stock replenished, because God forbid the store manager should be allowed to order anything for a customer who needs it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

planet comicon 2011 video!

Obviously I haven't Googled myself enough this year. I just found this two-minute video interview the nice people at Costume Hub did when they stopped by my table at Planet Comicon back in March. I remember them being there, but at the end of the weekend I never thought to look online for the video.

Check it out! I manage not to sound stupid, but I need to learn to smile more before I have to go and do book interviews!


And then there's this nice little blurb by a sexy Dr. Quinzel cosplayer I found on Tumbler:


"Awkward moment.
image

This is my “Holy-shit-did-Holly-Messinger-just-ask-for-my-picture” face. I was lookin’ at comics and all of a sudden I hear “DOCTOR QUINZEL!” I whip around, eager to find the beautiful soul who recognized me. (TWO Jokers passed by that day and didn’t even say ‘Hi!’ back to me… they acted like they didn’t know who I was! ..No, as in really didn’t know who I was. Hmph. Damn Dark Knight.)
All of a sudden, I see an angel in a steampunk Poison Ivy dress. HOLLY MESSINGER! AHH! I recognized her work from Elise Archer’s cosplay!

I was paralyzed ‘cause I was so starstruck and failed to strike a pose.. so sad.. haha.
My friend found this somewhere on the internet and sent it to me. Pic by Holly Messinger!"


Just for the record, I LOVE cosplays that can pass for street-clothes. It's like a secret identity of your very own. I like to go out in public in almost-costume and watch the looks on peoples' faces as they try to figure me out.

Now I'm eager for another convention. You guys are the best!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

never be ashamed of your success

From the SFWA blog: Having a saleable novel doesn’t make you a sell out.

"Turn your nose up at Dan Brown all you want. Besides selling a zillion copies, the man’s storytelling was so believable, other authors wrote NON-FICTION to DISPROVE his MADE UP STORY."


I needed this right about now. 

review: the twelfth enchantment

I know it mostly seems I only review books to grouse about 'em, but this is one I really really enjoyed: The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss. It's a seamless fusion of historical regency and gothic fantasy--I'd say Georgette Heyer and someone gothic, except I can't think of anyone appropriate in the fantasy genre of the time--Charles Dickens, maybe?

Anyway, it's about a poor relation named Lucy, who lost her father, sister and comfortable home, who now lives on the charity of her uncle who wants to marry her off as quickly as possible to the local industrialist. Pretty standard regency fodder--but then Lord Byron wanders into the picture, under the influence of a curse and mumbling mysterious messages for Lucy. While trying to lift his curse, Lucy meets a Woman of Independent Means who becomes a good friend and benefactor--and shows Lucy she has a talent for magic.

Stolen inheritances, sinister suitors, malicious faeries and Luddites all are braided together in an intriguing romp, with a dash of romance that is never cloying and a steadily-accelerating plot that comes to a satisfying conclusion. There's even a touch of women's lib, although it is never anachronistic.

I highly recommend this. It is a fine and masterful balance of plot, character, history, magic, and theme. Fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell will probably enjoy this, although to my mind it is far superior to that constipated opus.

Monday, November 14, 2011

review--the house of lost souls

Picked up The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam at the library. It's a gothic ghost story that could, if you were ashamed to be caught reading a gothic ghost story, be loosely interpreted as a broad allegory for a man fighting his way back from suicidal depression. The ending is so lame from a fantasy/horror point of view, it tends to validate the psychological stance, but the middle parts of the book are a decent ghost story, if you don't mind the flashback-within-a-flashback narrative structure, the abrupt changes in viewpoint, the convenient insertion of epistolary clues at crucial moments, and the endless wanking over 80's London new wave/art culture. We get it, dude--you were there, you don't have to prove it to us.

The gist of it is this: in 1927, a group of Satanists including Aleister Crowley raised a demon to gain themselves fame and fortune; they imprisoned it in the manor house on a northern isle belonging to one of the members. Periodically, over the next 60-odd years, people go into the house--art students, construction workers, researchers--come out crazy, and commit suicide. Apparently the demon enjoys suicides. One guy, Paul Seaton, who is Irish, and you know he's Irish because everyone he meets makes note of the fact he's Irish*, visited the manor house in 1985, while trying to research a photographer who was a reluctant member of the coven. Paul escapes with his life but has a mental breakdown and his life and health promptly go down the crapper.

Now it's 1997 and another group of students has foolishly breached the manor's gates; one of them is dead and the rest are heavily drugged to keep them from offing themselves. The brother of one of the girls, Nick Mason, wants Paul to come and help save his sister. The two men are brought together by a mysterious benefactor who appears to be, variously, a psychiatrist, a paranormal researcher, and possibly the son and/or reincarnation of the original coven leader. All of that would be fine and intriguing except Cottam's idea of concealing clues is to cut away from a scene during important conversations, leaving blank spots in the narrative and thereby drawing attention to the question any normal person would ask. To a savvy reader, that can only mean the answer is exactly what you suppose it to be, and the characters are idiots for not noticing.

It's a complex story, as you may have noticed. To me the most enjoyable parts were the diaries of the photographer from the 1920's; the action is more succinct, the atmosphere of opulence and dread is quite effective. I suspect also that Cottam did some good research on Crowley and his cronies; the description of the banquets and parties had a ring of authenticity.

The writing in the modern scenes is much more weird to my palate; there are several odd sentence constructions that tripped me up while reading and I don't know if they are British/Irishisms, or just pretentious writing. The description in the 80's flashbacks is also heavy-handed and pretentious, in my opinion, since all the visual dissection of Paul's college chums and their local watering holes is largely irrelevant to the story and doesn't contribute much to Paul's character, either.

The action scenes are not badly handled, on the whole. The account of Paul's first visit to the demon's lair is so tense it will stand your hair on end. Unfortunately most of the climactic moments--human sacrifice, demon attacks, the death of a major character--are all handled off-stage, and so much of the air is let out. And as I mentioned, the ending is brief, pat, and completely unearned, in large part to that habit of breaking away from the scene at crucial moments. "And so Paul realized he'd had the power in him all along."

I'm really not paraphrasing, there.

Anyway. It wasn't all bad. I have the feeling the author was making deliberate choices about pacing and scene breaks, and just barely missing the mark.

*One thing that always amuses me about reading British-authored novels is how very class-conscious they still are. William Gibson comments on that quirk of British culture in his excellent novel Pattern Recognition.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

this is why freakshows went out of style

I've been soldiering through HBO's "Carnivale" on DVD this week. I got it from the public library, so at least I can say I didn't spend any money on it.

Wit fails me. Really. It's just that dull. Dust and dark and mystery and long poignant silences and cryptic utterances. There's some kind of good vs. evil thing, and some kind of inheritance thing, and a lot of sex and blood--this is HBO, after all. You'd think it would be more entertaining.

But no. It's tedious. And feels deliberately obfusticating. I'm up to episode 11 now. I should at least be able to tell where they're headed by now. What the themes are. Who the good/bad guys are. But no. There's a vague meandering fate vs. free will thing, and some vague commentary on the nature of faith, and some vaguely sinister characters who are supposed to create suspense by not knowing who to trust, but mostly it's just making me tired, because in 10 episodes nothing has really changed or been revealed.

So the plot's going nowhere, and the characters are uninteresting because there's no one to sympathize with, and the actors clearly have no better clue than the audience what's going on because they are all delivering repetitive one-note performances, episode after episode.

I read somewhere that the creator had enough material for one season and the producers made him stretch it to two. It sure feels that way. On top of that, the art direction and music are obviously the B-game of the same crew that did Deadwood, so there's no inspiration there.

I'm watching it because it was recommended to me and because it's the nearest thing I've seen in popular culture to what I've done with Trace. Superficially there are a lot of similar tropes; the old world vs. new world conflict, the holy man with powers he can't control, the young man running from his destiny, the mysterious patron manipulating from behind the curtain. Of course I've got about 10% as many characters and 10x as much plot.

At this point I'm just holding out to see if Brother Justin and his sister Iris actually consummate their creepy relationship. Though I must admit, it's amusing to watch The Kurgan in a priest's collar.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

the plot-subtext continuum

Recently I was talking with a reader-friend of mine (reader=one who reads for entertainment, as opposed to one who reads for information or criticism) and I related once again the story of my college Creative Writing professor and how we butted heads over the importance of plot in a story.

The professor, whom I'll call Mark because that was his name, would quite cheerfully admit that he considered "plot" a dirty word. He thought plot was an artificial structure for a story--that authors who had to rely on plot were lacking in depth. He was all about "subtext" and "transcending the literal" and he force-fed us all this contemporary navel-gazing crap from the New Yorker and the Atlantic monthly--the kind of fiction that writers write to impress other writers with their mastery of creative writing skills. These kinds of stories tend to follow slice-of-life or day-to-day or even stream-of-consciousness storylines. Sometimes they're not even linear: flashbacks and flash-forwards and flash-sidewayses are popular in that genre. But every one of those stories filled me with frustration because nothing ever happened. Nothing seemed interconnected, there was little cause and effect, and it always seemed that the author was one of those circular thinkers whom you thought was getting to a point, somewhere, but he was too embarrassed or refined to come right out and say it.

As I've gotten older I've come to think that the points these authors are making are not really that grand or shocking or even particularly poignant; after all they're dealing with sex and death, just like the hacks. There's only so many grand human experiences to work with, after all. I think instead the contemporary authors realize that it's all been done before, and to simply state "love sucks and then you die" would reveal them for the banal egomaniacs they are. So instead they write these grinding depressing explorations of stupid people with grand plans that fail, and no one will help them so they die wretched deaths under the gaze of an uncaring world. (This is the plot synopsis of "Midnight Cowboy," by the way, as related to me by the afore-mentioned reader, to which I replied, "No wonder it won Best Picture.")

However, as I've gotten older I've also come to understand why Mark the College Professor scorned plot: how many Michael Bay movies have been foisted on us in the last ten years--chock-full of plot and events and chain reactions and countdowns but sadly lacking in any transcendence or lingering meaning? I'm not saying every novel and movie has to be a life-changing experience, but as a consumer of entertainment I want to be engaged on multiple levels--viscerally and intellectually.

big announcement

Y'know, it's weird.... I always thought when I got an agent or made some other big motion forward in selling my fiction I'd be shouting it from the rooftops.

Instead I have this niggling inclination to reticence whose source I don't understand.... perhaps a fear that by talking about the deal I will be committing a publishing faux pas, thereby causing said agent to change her mind? Or the echoes of my dad's voice, telling me I shouldn't flaunt my success? The old self-defeatist impulse that now I might actually have to work? The fear that even if I try my best it still won't be good enough (and then I'll kick myself because I know it wasn't really my best)?

Enough, already. Enough.

Last week I signed a contract for representation with Amy Boggs, the "baby agent," as she calls herself, at Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. I spoke to her on the phone; she was warm, amiable, and very excited about Trace. She had some very helpful suggestions about how to tighten the last third of the book. She complimented my historical research. We agreed there was nothing else like it out there (at least not in the mainstream), and she said when she pitched it to her boss, his eyes lit up with interest. That's a good compliment.

So I'm doing a fairly light edit and tightening up of The Curse of Jacob Tracy, so that Amy can start shopping it around to editors. She asked a bit about my future plans for the series, so I will probably slap together an outline of what will happen in the next book. Someone will want to know about that, eventually.

I also have been cleaning up my website and blog to be more professional and more writerly-oriented. I've been out of the publishing loop for so long--I'm gathering new links, reading the blogs again. I even joined Twitter, for pete's sake, since that's where all the writer kids seem to hang out. And Amy Twitted about me already, including a link to my website, so I've noticed all this unusual traffic to my poor old boring website.

So, hey, Amy? It was great talking to you. This is gonna be awesome.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

the week in brief

Friday: Taichi/kung fu performance. Your average stereotypical Chinese fire-drill. Nevertheless it went ok and we stayed to watch the Beijing Acrobats afterwards. Pretty cool. Seeing the stuff on YouTube just doesn't have the same impact as watching it live.

Saturday: Class. Exhausted. Knees hurt.

Sunday: Tuck-pointing the brick on the house, trying to prep for winter. Also, slapping down a few pages of freelance writing.

Monday (tomorrow): Finish the last Halloween costume and get it in the mail, express. Get haircut. Call the butcher so they can process our yearly hunk of cow.

Tuesday: Turn in freelance writing. Cut out & baste together nephew's Halloween costume.  Cram for Chinese class. Go to Chinese class.

Wednesday:  Slap together Silk Spectre costume for client. Wait for agent to call from New York. Obsess over changes to manuscript.

Thursday: Sister & nephew coming over for fitting/finishing costume.

Friday: Buy insulation. Winterize house.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NaNoWriMo reality check

I find the concept of NaNoWriMo slightly delusional, and more than a little masochistic.

I know, I have writing friends who have done it, and when I first heard about it I thought, Cool– it's like boot camp; set aside a time, throw everything else to the wind and go for it. But upon reflection it kind of encapsulates everything I hate about amateur writers (and I don't mean unpublished writers. I mean writers with an amateur mindset. Hobbyists. Dilettantes.).

Firstly, NaNoWriMo promotes the idea that everyone has a novel in them. This is false. People may have words in them, just like they have earwax, saliva, snot and other unpleasant substances in them. But generally people have the sense not to preserve their sebaceous secretions with the expectation of praise and reward. I've seen too many people who think that just because they slapped down 100 thousand words they have a novel, and they think that running spellcheck, maybe moving a few commas around, will render it publishable. No. I'm sorry, but no. Quit clogging up the slushpiles for the rest of us. I am firmly convinced that NaNoWriMo is the reason many agents and editors close to submissions during December. There really ought to be a cooling-off period for manuscripts.

Second, NaNoWriMo pushes the self-punishing idea that you can really accomplish something if you let everything else slide. This is classic defeatist/perfectionist thinking. Trust me, I know. I have three vocations that constantly vie for my attention, plus a husband I like and the occasional need to earn a living. Whenever I focus exclusively on one thing, even for a week, everything else suffers and I get real unhappy. Then the thing I'm focused on starts to suffer as well, because I'm not taking care of myself or my environment. Routine is a good thing. Routine is what feeds our brains and allows us to create. We'd be far better served by eliminating some complications from our lives than adding the stress of trying to create something meaningful in an unrealistic time span.

Third, NaNoWriMo embraces the uniquely American idea that something large and difficult can be accomplished in a short time and without any real experience or practice––just a sudden burst of frenetic optimism. This is just plain bullshit. If you're not already writing daily, what makes you think you'll do it in November? If you don't already have a story to tell, what makes you think you'll come up with one? If you don't already have the plot in mind, what happens when you get stuck and don't know what comes next? I'll tell you what happens––you fall back on stock characters and lame plot devices that have been beaten to death in every TV serial ever aired. Because you don't have time to think of anything else.

The only person who might benefit from NaNoWriMo is that odd unicorn whose writing muscles are already strong and limber from daily exercise; who has a story idea firmly in mind and has done all the research and a fair amount of outlining beforehand; who has sent the kids and pets away, or secluded herself in a nice vacation condo somewhere (I should mention, she's independently wealthy)... that writer might be able to turn out a workable product in 30 days. But if she's that well prepared and that determined to get it done, she doesn't need a designated month to make it happen.

Friends, if you want to participate in NaNoWriMo, then abandon the word-count flog and just use that month to develop the habit of writing every day. It will take at least four weeks to train your family to leave you in peace during your designated writing time. Get a digital timer and set it outside your door. Don't let anyone interrupt you. Then, set a timer for yourself. Spend an hour on research and pre-writing––character development or plotting. There is no sin in outlining, or at least brainstorming the arc of the plot. Then spend two hours actually putting words down.

Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. Writers can find enough reasons to beat themselves up without the sword of NaNoWriMo hanging over their heads.

Monday, October 03, 2011

crockpot beef ragout

Melt 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter in heavy skillet. (not non-stick)

Chop 1/2 of a sweet onion (or more) and saute in the butter over medium heat.

Take about 1 pound skirt steak, or other long-grained beef with minimal fat. Cube small. When onions are wilted and beginning to brown, add steak and increase heat to medium-high. Brown all over, stirring as necessary, until the liquids are gone and the sugars start to caramelize and stick.

Meanwhile, peel and chop small: 1 parsnip, 2 carrots, 2 medium red potatoes, 2 stalks celery and 1 smallish shallot. Put in slow-cooker on high heat with enough water to let vegs swim freely.

When the beef and onions are well-browned, add them to the slow cooker. Return skillet to heat and add about 1 cup water to deglaze, scraping up all the brown bits. Add to crockpot. Add about 1/2 cup red wine, or cooking sherry and a dash of balsamic vinegar.

Season with 2-3 beef bouillon cubes (take care not to make it too salty), salt and pepper (I like Lowry’s seasoned salt and seasoned pepper), 1/2 tsp rosemary, 1/2 tsp thyme, and a pinch cayenne. If you don’t use the Lowry’s, add also a dash of sugar and 1 teaspoon of paprika.

Melt the other 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter in the skillet and add 1/4 cup flour. Cook and stir over med-high heat until it turns a nutty brown color. Add to pot.

Leave in the slow cooker on High for about 3.5-4 hours. 

nihao!

The Sparring Partner and I are taking Mandarin Chinese language classes. We'd talked about doing it for a long time, and I had a little extra cash and a lot of spare time, so talley-ho.

It's a strange experience. Oh, the language is alien, to be sure--the whole pictograph thing has the potential for major bewilderment, and it's an evening class half-full of college-age students who are rapidly being left in the dirt by the grown-ups, who know why they're there and what it takes to teach oneself. And then of course there's the 12-year-old who's making us all look bad.

But I digress. The weird part is what's going on in my brain. I have all this language-learning architecture from my high-school French days, and it is getting dusted off and put to use. This causes a bit of confusion at times, when the pinyun looks like a word I know from French (luckily not many of them do), but on the whole I can see why people say it's easier, once you've learnt a second language, to add a third or fourth.

As far as the pictographs go, there's nothing for it but sheer repetition, baby. Flash cards and technology. Writing the characters repeatedly is best, of course--getting the motor synapses involved doubles the reinforcement. But I also bought a couple of 99¢ apps for my iPod, to learn basic drawing conventions and the radicals involved in making the characters. Those two concepts haven't been part of our lessons, yet, but I'm what's called a "deep learner"--I'm not happy memorizing things by rote, I have to know how and why they work. That's made me appear slow and stubborn in some classrooms, but on the other hand I tend to understand better once I've got it, and remember longer than my peers.

So I've learned to teach myself what I want to know. And I've already seen some similarities between the radicals and in the characters we're learning in class. It's like learning a code, which have always fascinated me (I taught myself Morse Code when I was thirteen, just for the hell of it). And God Bless Apple and the makers of apps for creating little talking programs that reinforce pronunciation. I am actually starting to understand the tonal thing, which confused me for years whenever I tried to learn kung-fu jargon from Sit.

But the best part of it all is how learning something new and challenging makes your brain feel more awake, more alert, just more smart. I always said if I had enough time and money I'd study more languages. Granted, I assumed I'd be richer when that day came, but I guess 'just enough' is the zen lesson, huh?

Friday, September 16, 2011

why yes, I am a writer

I had an agent ask to see my manuscript this week. (The Curse of Jacob Tracy, from which Sikeston and End of the Line are taken.) That was pretty cool.

I had an agent ask to see a space opera novel I wrote back in college, but I put off sending it to him, for some reason I can no longer remember, and by the time I sent it to him months later, the poor man had become sick with leukemia and died. I got a letter back from the woman who had taken over his client list, saying they weren't taking any new clients.

I stopped looking for an agent, for a while.

I actually had an offer to publish that space opera novel, though. It was a fly-by-night small press, and I had my doubts about them from the beginning. They were not paying any advances or royalties, by the way; this was strictly e-publishing in the days when e-publishing was still highly suspicious. When the editor and I had a difference of opinion he called me immature and unprofessional, and I told him I was pulling my manuscript.

I still have that space-opera trilogy. I quit trying to publish it after that; I knew it wasn't ready, and I was sick of looking at it. I still like the characters and most of the story, but being space opera it was crippled by outdated Star-Trek-type conventions about artificial gravity and FTL travel that editors and readers today just won't let an author get away with.

Lately, I've been toying with the idea of taking the basic premises of that space opera and transplanting them to a steampunk setting. Too au courant? Maybe. If this agent takes my new book and sells it, it will be a moot point anyway; I'll have Trace to revise and a couple of sequels to write.

But that will be ok. I was starting to be ashamed of myself for having this resource sitting here in the form of a manuscript, and not even trying to make money from it.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

procrastination at its finest

Man, I am good when it comes to avoiding writing. This is a new personal best for me. Are you ready for this?

I actually took a part-time retail job, 40 minutes away, that paid about $20 per shift, after taxes and gas money. In my own defense, the job had been advertised to me as much better pay, but the actual commission rates were terrible, even if I were able to muster the cocaine-fed-puppy enthusiasm it would take to be an effective salesperson in such an environment. It only took me two shifts to figure out I was suffering from temporary insanity, but wow.

I worked 3 days and resigned. Told them I'd had another offer elsewhere, which was not strictly untrue; I have at least three other projects that I should be concentrating on, plus my Halloween sewing season is in full swing.

But wow.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Daddies, let your daughters grow up to be paratroopers

Today, I saw a quote by some actress who shall remain nameless, who said she loved to wear black military boots as a teenager. Her father, she said, would have preferred that she wear heels.

I had the same dilemma as a teen. I was into G.I. Joe when I was 12-14, and I kept up with the boots/jeans/camp shirts well into my junior year of highschool. I remember my dad once saying to me in exasperation, "You're my little girl, not my little paratrooper!"

Now, I can't claim to know why he was so exasperated with me for the way I dressed. I was certainly not slovenly or particularly butch (I don't think they ever worried I was a lesbian, anyway), although many years later I learned they were afraid I was into drugs, because of my solitary and secretive ways.

But I will say this. The jeans and boots were a kind of armor. I knew it even at the time, although I couldn't have articulated it. I still wear them regularly, although these days I am more urban-cowgirl than military surplus. And you know what? I have a nice collection of high heels, too. I even wear skirts regularly these days, because I like my legs. And so does my husband.

If I had been able to talk to my dad back then, instead of retreating into adolescent sullenness, I would have said, "Listen, Dad, this is an uncomfortable time for me. My body is betraying me, and I'm getting attention from boys and men that I don't know how to handle just yet. I don't mind dressing up for special occasions, but right now these clothes are a kind of cocoon. They make me feel I can protect myself. I don't feel I have to compete with other girls my age, for male attention I don't really want anyway. Just be patient with me; you'll have more to worry about when I meet a boy I like and start dressing up to get his attention."

Of course a few years later he was grousing at me for wearing these "mod" styles of clothes.

(Mod?)

Dads. You can't hardly dress any way that will please them.

Love ya, Dad.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

shut up and practice

I hate people who give me unsolicited advice. I hate it. I'm sure I was a terrible know-it-all as a child, but I sure as hell try not to be now, because 90% of the people who try to give me "advice" actually have no idea what they're talking about, and the other 10% are telling me something I already know as if I was too stupid to think of it on my own.

I used to think it was a purely male trait, because pretty much every guy who has ever come through my kung-fu class has tried to "correct" me on something, regardless of the fact that he's been there one year and I've been there ten, regardless of whether he can do it himself or not, regardless of whether he knows what he's talking about, or not. My stock reply to such importunate assholes is fixed eye contact and a pointed, "Noo-oo!" as if I'm talking to a dog who knows he's not supposed to be on the sofa.

But women do it, too. They're just more passive-aggressive about it. They will parrot a more knowledgeable speaker, repeating phrases, nodding along and saying "Right!" at key points so they appear to be contributing. Or there's the doomsayer who will admire your new creative project and tell you all about the exhausting and emotionally crippling time she had when she attempted a similar project.... and she just hopes you're up to the challenge. Or better still, the been-there/done-that type who, when she hears about the parameters of your venture, suggests you are ignorant/bigoted/lazy because you're not doing it the way she thinks you should.

I was bitching to my husband about this stuff––I've got a lot of new projects going on right now, so I've encountered a lot of it lately––and he reminded me that it was yet another case of people talking the talk instead of getting off their asses and doing some work.

Everybody's good at something, but unfortunately 90% of the world has these romantic ideas about what they ought to be or want to be, which are in no way compatible with their capabilities. So they become "appreciators" or "aficionados" or god forbid, critics, which enables them to wank endlessly with other "appreciators" over their chosen fetish without ever having to do any real work.

Which is kind of a pity, because probably some of the "appreciators" could acquire some skill in their chosen passion, if they actually worked at it. But when it comes to any complex art––say, writing or tai chi––it's far far easier to attend workshops and join online newsgroups and organize foundations to promote the thing than to actually work at it.

Don't get the idea that I'm knocking foundations for the arts, because I'm not. Artists need those guys, but the worthwhile foundations are run by people who know that their strengths lie in organization rather than in art. (Here's a hint: if you find yourself creating "venues" for your work and that of your friends because "we're too weird/shocking/daring/liberal for the mainstream"--take this hard truth to heart: the mainstream has seen it all before. The mainstream finds you boring. Go back into the studio until you've got something fresh.)

For the others, the folks who wish they were good at something but don't want it badly enough to work at it, it's far easier to cultivate that nasty little seed of resentment against people who are actually working to improve, to chop them off at the root before they can flourish, to buffer one's ego with the reasons why I didn't succeed and she can't possibly, either.

Gah. And people wonder why I'm not more of a joiner. Talking is for those who don't do.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

adventures in breakfast

We're going on a road trip, leaving very early in the morning, and neither of us is big on fast-food breakfasts. So I tried to come up with some high-fat, high-protein, low-carb, room-temperature stable, hand-held food type items to take on the trip. These are still higher in carbs than I consider acceptable for everyday far, but for a cheap quick takealong they aren't bad. And of course all the fats are wholesome.

Flourless chewy granola bars

This was kind of a pantry clean-out. I will probably experiment with this. I would like to create a baklava-flavored nut bar at some point, but walnuts are expensive.

combine in large bowl:
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup Pamela's gluten-free baking mix
1/4 cup coconut flour
1/2 cup pecans (measure, then chop small)
1/3 cup coconut flakes, unsweetened (measure, then process small)

stir in (at room temperature):
1/2 cup peanut butter, unsweetened
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
2 eggs

melt in saucepan, let cool slightly then add to dry mixture:
1 cup butter
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
(optional) 2 Tbs corn syrup (helps it stick together better)

stir in:

1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

Press firmly into a greased sheetcake pan. I used 2 6x12-inch tin pans and the bars came out about 1/2 inch thick. Bake at 350ºF for about 18 minutes, or until the bars look dry and slightly browned around the edges. Allow to cool completely in the pan or they will crumble all to dust. Cut into bars and refrigerate for longer life.

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Ham and onion pot pies
These looked gorgeous when they came out of the oven. The egg mixture puffed up and browned on top. Can't wait to try them.

Dough:
1 1/3 cup flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
dash salt
1 large/jumbo egg
1/2 cup butter and/or lard, any proportion you like
2-3 Tbs milk

Combine the dry ingredients. Mix in egg with a fork. Crumble in fats by hand. Dribble milk just until dough sticks together. Chill.

Filling:
Bacon--fry & crumble
onion--mince and saute in grease
ham--chop small
cheddar cheese--about 1/3 cup
gruyere cheese--ditto
heavy cream & flour--make gravy base with bacon drippings
chicken bouillon granules
black pepper
parsley
dijon mustard
2 eggs
dash of milk if needed to stretch amount. Don't add too much liquid.

Roll out dough into six 6-inch circles and press into shallow muffin tins. Fill with ham & egg mixture. Fold up edges of dough over the filling (they don't need to meet or look tidy). Bake at 400º for about 25 minutes or until nicely browned.

I actually forgot to add the dijon on this maiden voyage, but I think it would be a nice addition. Some vegetables, i.e. red bell pepper, asparagus, broccoli, peas would also probably be nice with this, although the bacon should probably be left out in such a case.

Monday, July 18, 2011

resolving issues

Last night I had an interesting dream.

Since I was laid off in February, I've had several dreams about being back in my cubicle, not knowing how I got there, but thinking, knowing, somehow I was not *supposed* to be there. It was a similar thing when I got remarried; I dreamt of being in the old apartment with my ex, and knowing somehow that that was NOT my life, I was supposed to be with a better man in a better place.

But in this latest dream, I was visiting the place of my own free will. I had my toys around me--white leather tote, laptop, sewing tools--and I was NOT in my old cubicle, I was in a vacant one further up the row. I was there to visit. I shook the hand of my old supervisor, told him he was a good guy. I told my coworkers I was glad to see them. I met the new girl. She had blue-green hair.

Then there was an interruption. At the other end of the room, some unpleasant coworkers from another department were having a loud party, complete with boom box and mirrorball lightshow.

"How can you stand that?" I said to Adriane.

"I know," she replied with a grimace. "They do that constantly."

"I'll take care of it," I said, and I marched over there and yanked the plug on the stereo.

The rude coworkers started yelling in protest, and when I told them they were being inconsiderate, some slunk away looking guilty, but a tall, red-haired guy, a bit younger than me (who did not, in fact, resemble anyone I know in real life) got up and started taunting me.

He told me it was none of my business. He told me to get lost or I'd be sorry. I told him he was an immature boor. He threatened my job. I said I didn't work there. He said his father was very powerful and could take away my parents' house. I laughed and said, "There's nothing you can threaten me with."

So he threw a couple of punches at my head. I evaded them easily. He threw a roundhouse kick at my head. I caught his leg, ducked under it, and was debating whether to punch him in the groin or kick out his knee when I woke up.

Maybe all this stepped-up kung fu training is starting to sink in, because this is the first dream in which I remember actually being confident of my abilities.

But it was five a.m., and the cat wanted breakfast. I got up, fed him, went into the bathroom, and the thought surfaced as I was washing my face: I think I just defeated all my lingering fears.

I went out this morning and got a haircut and a light auburn gloss put on. I look pretty darn cute.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

shoe therapy

Three weeks ago I damaged my knee in kung fu class.

This is problematic because I'm supposed to go compete in tai chi at the end of July. I've already booked the (non-refundable) hotel room and registered for 7 (non-refundable) events at the tournament.

I didn't think I'd done any major damage; it didn't really hurt. I could walk just fine, and there was no bruising or popping, but I had some swelling behind the knee, a feeling of weakness/stiffness. I iced it a bit, sat around with it elevated some. I figured a bit of gentle stretching and movement--no extreme up/down movements--would make it better in a few days.

It didn't. After a week or so the stiffness went away but I still had a lump behind my knee and I couldn't do deep knee bends without feeling like there was a knife in my kneecap.

I should mention, I've had no health insurance since I lost my job, and since this injury wasn't impeding my day-to-day activities I didn't think it prudent to see a doctor and spend the money only to be told I needed to ice it and stay off it.

After two weeks of little/no improvement, I decided to not do any training for a week. I hate this--I sit down too much as it is, since I sew or work on the computer all day. I start sleeping badly if I don't get some exercise. And the "week off" for the knee didn't seem to be doing much good anyway. It would be fine during the day, then stiffen up overnight. Or get achy while I was sitting in a chair during the day, then fine when I got up the next morning. And that damn swelling behind the knee would not go down. I knew that was what caused the pain because I could feel it pushing the joint out of alignment when I squatted.

Friday morning it hurt when I got out of bed. Maybe I slept with it twisted, I don't know. I had to squat during my morning housekeeping, and it hurt a lot. I was starting to get really annoyed and worried.

Given that, it may seem strange that I decided to wear my wedge mules to run out and do some errands. They have about a 2-inch heel. But I had noticed that the ache in my knee was most pronounced during walking, when I pushed off on that foot and the knee was fully extended. Walking in the mules seemed to thwart that mechanic. My knee didn't hurt the whole time I was out walking or in the evening after I got home.

This morning, Saturday, I got up and the swelling had all gone down. No more pain. I did three cautious hours of class this morning, no pain, although I was careful not to do any deep-knee bends. The muscles did get tired and I do feel some minor pressure behind the joint, but I'd say it's about 90% recovered.

All I can figure is that wearing the heels somehow realigned things to where the joint could drain. Who'd have thought?

I just hope it holds. I'm going to be really annoyed if I can't do my down posture in the fan form because of this knee.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

queen of spades corset


My latest creation, black and white checkered corset with ribbon rose trim. Very Tim-Burtonesque. Would look smashing with a tulle skirt and tattered stockings.

Now available in my Etsy shop.

Friday, May 27, 2011

southwestern tuna steaks with avocado salad

I made this up, based on a fish tacos recipe for the marinade. This is one of our favorite quickie dinners lately; we've been having it once a week. Takes about 10 minutes and serves 2. All amounts are estimated--I never measure. :-)

Fish
2 servings tuna steak (or swordfish, or mahi mahi--any firm-textured fish you like, really)
3 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs honey
1 Tbs chopped fresh cilantro
juice of 1/2 lime
2 tsp taco seasoning
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp oregano
dash of cayenne
salt & pepper

Fish should be thawed and at room temperature. Mix together honey, oil, lime juice & seasonings. Salt & pepper fish, place in a shallow dish and pour oil mixture over. Let sit while you chop up the salad.

Avocado salad
1 ripe avocado, peeled and chopped
1/2 medium tomato, chopped small
2-3 Tbs minced sweet onion
juice of 1/2 lime or to taste
1 Tbs minced fresh cilantro
salt & pepper to taste

Mix and let stand while the fish cooks.

Heat nonstick skillet over medium heat; add a generous drizzle of olive oil and put the fish in. Add any leftover marinade. Cook the fish about 3-4 minutes on each side or to desired doneness. Remove to 2 plates, divide the avocado salad between them, and add a dab of Greek yogurt or sour cream to each.

Monday, May 09, 2011

don't call it luck

I know this is disingenuous, but what is it about people that they can't live and let live? Why does everyone have to tear someone else down to protect their own ego?

There's a lot of noise out there now about discrimination against overweight Americans. Well what about those of us who are actually NORMAL weight? I am rapidly becoming the minority among American women--a slim, athletic female. Does that mean I discriminate against the obese? Hell, no. My best friends in both high school and college were overweight. My ex-husband was obese. So is my sister, who is one of my favorite people in the world. Most of my friends nowadays are far bigger than me. But do I give them a hard time? Do I sabotage their diets, or tell them they need to diet, or give diet books for Christmas gifts? Of course not. That would be fabulously tacky.

So why then, do I find myself increasingly on the defensive against people--casual acquaintances, generally--who seem to feel it's fine to pick on ME for being thin?

"You just have the right genes." "When I was your age I was that skinny, too." "Wait until you have kids." "You must STARVE yourself." "Just wait til you blow out a knee and can't do kung fu anymore."

All of which are jealous, snarky ways of saying, "Just you wait--you'll get yours."

It's rude. It's insecure. And it's fallacious.

The way I look is not an accident. It's also not merely age, or genes, or kung fu--perhaps 5% of each, if I'm being generous. My physique is the result of a planned, deliberate lifestyle I embrace daily because it's a helluva lot easier to maintain than to lose. I want to be able to hike, climb stairs, do a 360-degree jump kick, fit into my clothes, enjoy good sex, stay out of the hospital, and avoid insulin dependence.

I do not starve myself. I do not work out like a demon. I hate working out. I do not weigh portions or count calories.

My age has little to do with it. I'm 37, and I'm leaner now than I was 15 years ago. When I was 23 I was drinking 3-4 Pepsis every day and going out to dinner at Chili's three times a week. One day I hopped on the scale, saw the number 143, and said, "Nope. Not gonna do that."

I did not join a gym. I did not starve myself. I thought about empty calories I was consuming. I cut out soda, and French fries, and I lost eight pounds in two months.

My genes have little to do with it. My sister unfortunately got the bad thyroid from my dad's side, but she is probably correct in suspecting that a couple of years of very poor diet triggered it. The rest of my family is not obese, although they've thickened a lot in the last decade. We were all pretty slim when we were living in the same house, eating food we cooked ourselves every night. It was only after they got married and had kids that my siblings and their spouses started to swell. My parents, too, since they were eating out more.

I'd say 90% of the meals I eat are prepared at home. We eat lunch out on Saturdays, usually, because we're away from home. The people at Blanc Burgers probably think I'm crazy because I take the bun off my Inside-Out burger.

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I am a carnivore. I eat meat, eggs, dairy and cheese. I eat plenty of animal fat, butter, and olive oil, which I believe are essential to the health of my body. I eat lots of salads, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, green beans and peas, not to mention onions and root vegetables. I try to have a vegetable with every meal.

I buy these foods as natural/organic/grass fed/local as my budget and resources will allow. I sincerely believe in sustainable farming and the part that animals play in a healthy ecosystem. Sadly, I am not a farmer and my yard is too shaded to allow me to grow produce at this time. However I buy all our meat from local farmers, our beef, chicken and eggs from free-range animals, and I'm constantly looking into new sources for dairy and vegetables.

I don't eat food that comes out of boxes or bags, even if they do say "organic" on the label. There are no crackers, chips, or prepared meals in my pantry or freezer.

The only food I buy in cans are tomatoes, beans, tuna, and salmon. I keep a couple cans of tomato soup on hand in case one of us is too sick or lazy to cook. They usually sit there for months. We don't get sick often.

I eat very little wheat or corn. I'll usually have one or two servings of either during a week--a sandwich or a taco, for instance, when we're out on the weekends. I will sometimes have a piece of sprouted-grain toast for breakfast.

I don't eat vegetable fats, except for olive oil. I won't touch anything that says "hydrogenated" on the label.

I don't drink alcohol, generally. I never drank ANY until I was in my thirties. My parents were strict teetotalers and so I never developed the taste. Occasionally I'll have an aperitif of sweet wine after dinner, or half a margarita if we go out for Mexican.

I don't eat fast food. About once a year I'll get a craving for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or some Long John Silvers' batter-dipped fish. Then it takes me another year to forget the unpleasant slickness in my mouth and the uneasiness of my liver and gut while they deal with the starch and soy oil.

I don't drink soda. I haven't had a soda in probably 13 years. I drink water, milk, or green tea. Occasionally a little orange juice, but I prefer it in a smoothie cut with full-fat Greek yogurt, banana, and raw egg.

I eat potatoes maybe once or twice a month. I eat pasta maybe three times a year. I eat rice if my kung fu teacher invites us to dinner.

I eat very little sugar--probably more than the hard-core Paleo people would approve, but far less than the average American. I was totally sugar-free for a couple of years, I did the Splenda thing, and I decided, as little sugar as I ate anyway, I might as well use the real stuff and make it taste good. Laura Ingalls Wilder's family ate homemade pies and cakes and it didn't kill them. So if I want dessert, I have to make it myself--not a tough choice when you consider how I hate the taste of grocery-store baked goods. At our house we go through a pound of evaporated cane sugar every three months or so, depending on whether it's a birthday month and I do any baking for others. Otherwise, I make a home-baked treat--pie, single-layer cake, or a batch of cookies--about once a month. Half the time I end up throwing away the stale leftovers.

Most of my breakfasts are protein and fat, lunches are salads with protein and fat, and dinners are meat and vegetables with a side of fat. Do you see a pattern here? Do you see any of that fat on me? Do you think maybe the whole low-fat concept is a lie?

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Don't say I burn it off doing all those martial arts.

I do three kung fu/tai chi classes a week, and only one of them could be considered aerobic. There is no doubt that kung fu/tai chi has made me stronger, lighter on my feet, helped me maintain my flexibility and sculpted my muscles. Kung-fu kicks are especially good for toning a woman's butt and belly.

But I don't believe the kung fu is the sole reason I "stay skinny." There are plenty of fat dojo masters and tai chi masters out there. My sifu, who is a very fit looking 60 (and does all his own cooking), theorizes it's because they don't lift their legs enough or bend at the waist enough. I'm willing to agree that's a part of it. But I really think 75% of one's body shape is determined by what one eats.

Look at any movie or TV series made prior to 1980. Look how slim all those people are--even the ones who are supposed to be "fat." Look at Jackie Gleason in the Honeymooners. He was a well-padded guy but he had none of the sloppy gelatinous look people have today. Look at Mr. Carlson on WKRP in Cincinnati. Thick around the middle, sure, but his arms and legs weren't fat. And the thin people didn't have that bony, strained look that skinny actors have today.

Do you know what happened right around 1980? The FDA and the AMA started telling people to cut out animal fat. And restaurants and food producers started relying on vegetable oils, particularly corn and soy, to replace the animal fats in their products. There are plenty of people out there debating the science and politics behind this switcheroo, so I won't go into it here, but I wholeheartedly believe that those vegetable oils are the cause of American obesity and chronic disease, including cancer. So I avoid them.

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In all fairness, there are some other issues that have helped me stay lean.

I have no children. I have never been pregnant. That was by choice. I didn't want the responsibility and I didn't want the effect on my body. I know some people think it's a selfish choice, and I say... darn right. My body. My time. My choice.

I have never taken hormonal birth control. That was a choice, too. Even though I had terrible cramps as a teenager, and trouble with acne (allergy related) in recent years, I feared the impact of artificial hormones on my body. I've had too many women tell me they quit the pill and dropped 20 pounds. The only time I tried BCP's, I took them for 3 weeks and gained eight pounds. My sister had to have her gall bladder removed due to side effects of the Pill. Thank you, no.

I am not into menopause yet. That may very well change the game for me, but I doubt it. There is a lot of new evidence coming out about hormone interplay, how sugar affects insulin and insulin affects sex hormones. I'm keeping a close eye on that stuff.

I still know a few women who are peri- or post-menopausal who managed to avoid extreme weight gain. We'll see where my life is at when that time comes, and what choices I want to make about my body and lifestyle. I don't intend to quit the tai chi, so I don't expect a lot of drastic obstacles.

For the last ten years I've hovered between 125 and 128. When I start creeping up toward 130, I cut back on sugar and eat more vegetables.

I'm not obsessive about my weight. I'm obsessive about my health--mental and physical. So I have brownies when I really feel like baking them. I enjoy the baking process and the eating--preferably when shared with friends. Then the other 29 days of the month I eat meat and vegetables and do my kung fu.

There is nothing--NOTHING--"lucky" about it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

chicken and dumpling soup with vegetables

For most of my adult life I've been on a quest for chicken soup that tastes like Campbell's Chunky Chicken Noodle, which they made back in the 80's and has, alas, gone the way of the dodo.

This is not that soup. However, it's built on some of the more interesting previous attempts.

The 'dumplings' referred to here are sort of a feather-light steamed biscuit. They are very fluffy, and full of butter and chicken flavor. This is serious comfort food.

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Take a smallish stewing chicken (about 2 lbs.) and put in a stockpot. Add enough water to submerge the bottom third, a generous dollop of olive oil, and the juice of one orange. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, about 90 minutes. You can do this early in the day, then turn it off and leave covered on the stove until dinner-prep time.

Remove chicken from broth. Strain broth if desired and return to pot.

Peel and chop 3 carrots, 3 stalks of celery, 1/2 yellow onion and 1/2 sweet red bell pepper. Add to broth. Throw in about 2 tsps salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, and 1 or 2 teaspoons each: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, adjusting the herb quantities to your own taste. Add about a tablespoon of chicken bouillon granules (or 2 cubes).

Strip the chicken meat, chop and return to pot. Cover and let the vegetables simmer about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the dumplings: Cut 4 tablespoons butter into 1.5 cups Bisquick* mix. It doesn't have to be perfectly blended. It's like making biscuits or pie crust; you want it incorporated but still lumpy. Dribble in milk a tablespoon at a time, stirring after each addition, until you have a shaggy dry dough, like Play-Doh that is nearing the end of its usefulness. (See note at the end.)

Make sure your soup is at a low boil, and there is enough liquid to let the solids swim freely. The dumplings will soak up a lot of liquid and you don't want to run dry. Add water if necessary.

Stir about 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 1/4 cup of cool water to make a thin gruel. Beat in 1 egg yolk. Beat in about 1/3 cup of heavy cream. Whisk into the hot soup and immediately reduce heat to a low simmer.

Drop golfball-sized forkfulls of dough into the hot broth. (They will float, and expand as they cook.) Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes, then cover tightly and cook for 10 more.

Serve hot in soup plates. Getting the liquid quantities right can be tricky, but the end result should be a thick stew or ragout. This is extremely comforting food, but not too filling if you can manage to control your intake.


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*Note: I use Bisquick because it's fast and easy. Any basic biscuit recipe will do, but you'll leave out the acid (lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk, whatever) and add less milk. Boiled dumplings are perverse: the dryer they go into the pot, the lighter they will cook up. Too much liquid in the batter makes them gluey and heavy.

Monday, April 18, 2011

writing lessons from mediocre TV

I've been watching BBC's Merlin on Hulu this week. It's shallow, simplistic, and juvenile. The actors and the characters they play are rather likable, but the storylines are generally transparent, and in a whole season and a half no one has transitioned from A to B, they've just become more emphatic about their one-dimensionality. Arthur is arrogant. Morgana is defiant. Merlin is the good-hearted naif. Uther is vindictive. The result is that, episode after episode, the characters keep repeating the same lines again and again.

It's not all wasted time, however. When shows are this shallow I tend to watch them with the storytelling machinery running in the back of my brain, working over the dialogue, braiding in complexity and plotting how I could do it differently and make it work better.

More than that, I've codified a few simple rules that describe why shows like this are shallow and lame.

1. Paper-tiger plots will only get you so far. People usually have complex reasons for doing things, and giving lip-service to the counterarguments is not really enough when we all know the hero is going to do the right thing and there won't really be any consequences.

2. Don't ignore common sense (or internal logic, or historical accuracy) for the sake of a plot device. I think it was Roger Ebert used the phrase "moron plot" or somesuch --the kind of story that moves forward only because the characters are all idiots.

3. Don't sacrifice characterization for the sake of plot devices. Before I quit watching TV I had seen probably five or six David E. Kelly-produced series, and every single one of them at some point, featured one of the female characters doing something completely out of character in order to facilitate a major story line. Thomas Harris' "Hannibal" is another good example of this, although I'm more inclined to forgive that one because he at least made the effort to earn it.

4. Don't tread over the same patch of character growth more than twice. Your characters have to grow and change and develop or they start to seem really stupid. Genre television series seem to be particularly bad about this. The characters are expected to be iconic so they are never allowed to grow and/or change. I'm not sure if this is genuine audience expectation or the poor opinion of the show's producers about the expectations of their audience. Either way, it's pandering.

5. Don't give your characters stupid dialog just so they have lines. This is where having subplots helps; everyone has something to do so they're not reduced to wacky hijinks just to fill screen time. After a certain point, stupid isn't funny. It's just stupid.

I'm sure I could elaborate on this more, and maybe I will. With some good examples someone might find it useful.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Planet Comicon 2011 wrap-up

It's Monday, and I survived another Comicon.

My buddy Rick Stasi is always telling me I should attend Wizard World in Chicago, but I've been there and I seriously don't think I could do it. A Saturday at Kansas City's Planet Comicon is about all I can take. Sunday I tend to dress down, sit down, and have less patience with people.

Still, I came out of this one in much better physical, emotional, and financial shape than I have the previous two. I made back my table and then some. I gave away all my business cards, talked to some nice people, posed for a lot of pictures, shot a lot of pictures, and generally had a real good time.

I also got my Steampunk Poison Ivy costume done, FINALLY:
From Planet Comicon 2011 Kansas City


I was very happy with it. I don't think it screamed "Poison Ivy" at anyone. Some red hair might've helped, but I don't mind. A couple people got it right off; some others understood once they asked. My husband told me I looked hot, and that's what's important.

My husband, by the way, is the most wonderful, helpful, supportive person I've ever had in my life. I can't say it enough. I am in awe of his unending belief in me. I used to think I only needed someone who wouldn't get in my way, and maybe that could've been enough under other circumstances, but having someone who anticipates your needs and exceeds them at every turn... Well. I'll stop bragging.

There are plenty more photos in my Picasa Album. Enjoy!

Planet Comicon 2011 Kansas City


ETA: Note to self: the newspaper photographers show up on Sunday!

Monday, February 21, 2011

I've always been ahead of my time

From the Jeremy Scott 2011 Fall Collection:



I guess this is supposed to be some kind of commentary on American iconography, but somebody needs to tell this guy that post-modern meta-irony is over.

Monday, February 07, 2011

fighting the tide

My friend Shirley sent me a link about Kindle singles last night. This is the IM conversation that followed.

Me: I've been wondering lately if ebook use was going to shape fiction into smaller pieces. maybe publishers will even go back to publishing serials
Shirley: Did I show you my Kindle?
Me: I've seen them
Shirley: *waxes ecstatic about the features of her Kindle*
Me: but I'm trying to spend LESS time on the computer
Shirley: Does an e-reader count?
Me: I'm afraid so
Shirley: I'm thinking so, too.
Shirley: Just the *idea* that you can carry as many as 3,500 books at one time!
Shirley: Staggering.
Me: let me put it this way.... we cleaned out the basement this weekend
Shirley: Oh, dear.
Me: we threw out a portable CD player apiece, a box of VHS tapes, a box of cassette tapes each, a couple of microcassette recorders, a 5-CD changer, and a whole lot of RCA cables.
Me: Oh, and a 35mm SLR film camera that I paid $350 for in 2002
Me: I, for one, refuse to buy any more tech that will become obsolete in my own lifetime
Shirley: I wish you luck, truly.

ETA: Actually, I didn't throw out the camera. I took it to a camera store at lunch time. They gave me $20 for it. I went across the street to Half Price Books, bought a cup of coffee and a couple of hardbacks. So nyah.