Thursday, December 28, 2006

ugly tai chi stepbrother

We had a visitor in class last night. I didn't ever get an explanation, but Sit apparently invited this guy for a two-day visit/mini-workshop/study session. I inferred that he's the student of another teacher, a friend of Sit's. All the introduction I got was, "Holly, this is J- He's gonna be here for a couple days."

J is about thirty, maybe. His face was older, his body language younger. He has a red, rough complexion, like a guy who had bad acne in his youth. He's platinum blonde, possibly bleached, hair short and slicked back. He has a disturbing dead-fish gaze through wire-rimmed glasses. His clothes were baggy and hung in such a way that suggests he's quite wiry. His forearms and neck are corded with sinew and he has three palm-sized tattoos on his wrists.

He was one of the more spastic people I've seen in a while. Like, coke-head spastic. We started our evening as usual, watching videos of martial arts--in this case, masters' demos from a competition five years ago--and J kept busting out with, "Awesome. Wow. Awesome. Cool. Yeah. Wow," every twenty seconds or so. The thing was, he kept doing it even when there was nothing happening on-screen, i.e. the master was just standing there waiting for the music to start. I thought, he's just overwhelmed and overexcited about being here. He's nervous and expostulating.

As the night wore on, however, I began to wonder if he had Tourettes. This is not to mock people who have Tourettes. The young man could NOT stand still. The Wednesday night class tends to be fairly reverent, standing quietly and listening until Sit tells us to pair up. This guy kept bouncing on his toes and pacing like a tiger in a cage, to the point of bumping into the rest of us. He kept sidling back and forth in front of me, blocking my view like a drunken football fan, until I finally put my hand on his shoulder and told him to stand still.

He was quite strong. I only touched hands with him for a few minutes, and he was exceptionally aggressive. He was supposed to push, I had to deflect. But he wouldn't stop there, he kept gripping and twisting and dipping and shoving. He has a weird, multi-directional loose-jointedness that is probably very useful in push-hands competition, but not appropriate to a training session. And being the arrogant macho bitch I am, I pushed back. Just lightly, looking for weakness, trying to slow his frenetic movements. We were deadlocked in about ninety seconds. Sit said, "Okay, that's enough," then switched me around to partner Ben and let John take J's abuse. John didn't fare much better. J simply could not follow instructions. One would think, if one were visiting another teacher's class, one would rein back one's actions, to listen and learn. I'd be willing to say that J is reasonably advanced as a student, but part of having control of one's art is knowing when to turn it off.

J wasn't even trying to learn, he was too busy showing us what he knew. Sit would get out about three words, and J would go, "Yeah, ok," and you could tell that he'd already jumped to his own conclusion and stopped listening. I'm fairly sure the guy had some form of advanced ADHD or something similar, but he was exhausting. Sit kept saying, "Less... less... slow down," but there was no getting through.

J's primary tai chi style is Chen style, which to the casual observer seems more complex and multi-directional than our Wu style. Sit calls it "expressive." To me, it looks flowery and inefficient. Sit demo'd a couple of simple punch-punch-kick sequences, and J made a game attempt at blocking, but with such contorting and flailing of limbs it made me tired to watch. J seemed to have no fear of getting hit, and his reflexes were good, but to my eye it was a lot of extra movement, like slinging ropes around to stop a sword thrust. J would catch the first punch, but he'd swing it away so far that he'd leave himself wide open for the next one. His blocks were more collisions than controlled deflections. Sit preaches less movement, less effort, less commitment, so you can recover faster from the block and move instantly to the offensive. And I'm not blaming J's teacher for that--as I said, the kid was a spaz. He could benefit from some of Sit's calmness. Maybe he took up martial arts to try to tame whatever his neurological problem was. Maybe J's teacher sent him to Sit to learn some restraint, I don't know. I asked my Sparring Partner whether he'd met J at the workshop last March, but he didn't recall.

J's visit was probably more educational for me than for him. I'm fairly sure he's done some other styles of martial arts aside from Chen tai chi. He has the body-type, the empty gaze and the aggression that tends to come from military-style strip-mall dojos. I'm making an assumption, but he seemed to me to be the type that leaps from school to school. There's something to be said for that approach, but the people I've known who do that tend to get too fixated on "this is this style, and that's that style," instead of integrating the similarities in different styles.

I also have to smile a bit ruefully at myself, because every time we get a visitor like that I find myself mentally sneering at these losers, first because of their over-enthusiastic attitude that's generally unbacked by any real knowledge, and secondly by how inferior their style is to Sit's. I consider myself so egalitarian and open-minded, but apparently I am still prone to jingoism where my martial art is concerned. Granted, it's not fair to judge the master by the student, and since I've never fought anybody in my life, it's foolish of me to assume the efficacy of one style over another. Hell, if I had the money I'd be tickled pink to go do some workshops with other teachers. My SP did a kickboxing stint before he met Sit, and he's suggested we might go visit his old coach and do some sparring. This is not a bad idea, since I've done so little hands-on work. Which is, of course, only my own fault. Sit's offered me as many opportunities as the boys, and would undoubtedly push me further if I'd get serious about training. So which is worse--going to study with another teacher when you don't have your own craft mastered, or staying with a gifted teacher for five years and not taking full advantage of his training?

I stay with Sit because I believe he's the real thing. His personality is more palatable than most, and I admire his pragmatism and minimalist approach. What he says makes sense to me, especially since I am a woman and he advocates using less force and fighting dirty. And it was quite amusing to watch him lock up that kid's flailing limbs. "See? you do this, and I use the elbow to block. Now what you do, huh? You can do nothing!"

Monday, December 18, 2006

double-chocolate sour cream cookies

An enabler--er, friend came over Wednesday and we baked. I made the almond cream sticks and tried something new that was an instant hit: Chocolate sour cream cookies. Kind of like a soft sugar cookie, but with chocolate. I got the recipe off Full instructions are there.

1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup baking cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used about 1 1/4 c organic dark choc chips)

The original recipe called for vanilla chips, as well, but I left those out. These were very good; dense, rich and not overly sweet. That and the use of brown sugar makes me suspect this is an older recipe (like: pre-seventies). The sour cream in this recipe makes up half the shortening (ordinarily there would be a full cup of butter to 2 cups sugar). This uses about 40% less sugar and adds the complexity of sour cream.

They make up a fairly thick, sticky batter and don't spread much as they bake. They were decent right out of the oven, but like most things with sour cream they were better the next day, and even better after that.

My Sparring Partner loved them. So did I; I ate six for breakfast the morning after I made them. That was good for an extra pound or four. I'd make another batch if I had a modicum of self-control.

I was intending to make a pound cake, too. I bought some dried Bing cherries and rehydrated them in a little orange & lemon juice, with a splash of almond extract. I figured I'd layer the minced cherry & almond comfit in the middle of a pound cake, but I got to feeling poorly on Thursday and let the project go. The cherries, however, have been marinating in the fridge and they are awesome. I've been eating them straight from the bowl. They're about gone.

Honeymooning is hard on the waistline. We've not been good little tai chi students. We haven't been training much. We've both put on a few pounds this month. Sigh.

Monday, December 11, 2006

nothing and everything

Have you ever been frightened by your own desire for something, because you knew it left you vulnerable? Have you ever gotten what you wanted and found that it exceeded your expectations? Have you ever been in a situation so perfect that in the back of your mind, you're terrified you'll wake up? That you figure it must've been a mistake, because you haven't been all that good in this life, much less the previous, and pretty soon the universe is going to up and sweep it all away?

Seriously--these Peppermint Bark candies are that good.

And the boy's not bad, either.

Monday, December 04, 2006

sugar jones

I am having this obscene urge to bake. Cookies, pound cake, pies, apple turnovers.... 'Tis the season, I guess. It's not really the eating I crave, it's the making. The smells and textures of butter, sugar, flour and eggs. The implements of baking--the pans, wooden spoons, spatulas; the cold fine-edges of cookie cutters in adorable little intricate shapes; the blunt smooth-grained weight of a cherrywood rolling pin, given to me by a mom who shared my passion for baking and is herself a champion bread-baker.

So I was scanning back through my recipe box and pulling out favorites, plus a few new things I'd like to try. Here's the litany of calories:

  • The family favorite is coconut-sour cream cookies, a cakelike little pillow of heaven with a very fine texture, dense but very soft and moist. You can really only make them at Christmas. Once when I was a pre-teen I made a batch in summer, and they sagged into a mound of sugary mortar at the bottom of the cookie jar. We had to keep them in the fridge and dig out a serving with a spoon. But in winter, they keep very well. In fact they are better after two or three days.
  • Almond cream sticks. These are fine-grained and slightly flaky, somewhere between shortbread and a pie crust. They are full of butter and cream cheese and are very rich, but oddly light. You can eat a whole lot of them before you realize the danger.
  • Brownies made with Baker's bittersweet chocolate and swirled with cream cheese. (Are ya seeing a pattern, here?) My favorite brownie recipe. Moist and rich. Make a thin layer in a broad flat pan, cut into small bites and freeze the bulk.
  • Chocolate- and butterscotch-chip cookies with oatmeal and pecans. I grind the rolled oats into flour and finely chop the nuts. That way they are more about flavor and texture than chunks. Most people will eat these, even those who claim to dislike pecans. Both additions are useful for upping the fiber contect and reducing the sweet, so you can tell yourself they semi-healthy.
  • Grandma Rella's oatmeal with raisins and pecans. Now these ARE healthy. They have about 30-40% less sugar in them than most modern cookie recipies, and you make them with old-fashioned rolled oats. They're cakey and chewy, filling and satisfying. In my mom's house there is no shame in eating these for breakfast or dinner, preferably with milk. Hell, if you broke them in a bowl and poured milk over, you couldn't tell the difference.

    I keep thinking I can do a variation on this theme, with dried apples, maybe some almonds, and cut into bars.
  • The perfect sugar cookie. Alas, I have not yet found it. I keep trying. I think there must be more dairy fat involved, somehow. (I have no interest in the dry cardboard-like cutout-type recipes. Blech.) A couple years ago I was experimenting with Madeleines: they kept coming out dry, so I added some sour cream. The Madeleines fell all apart but the batter was fantastic. It puffed and then sank into a wonderful chewy moist cookie-like substance. Must attempt this again.
  • Something involving cherries and almond flavor. I don't know what form it will take, yet... maybe the base recipe for the coconut sour cream cookies, which strongly resembles a poundcake. I just bought a bottle of Almond extract from Penzey's--the real stuff, made with bourbon. But what form should the cherries take? Dried? Fresh? Canned? Pureed? Preserved? Comfited? I don't know, but I am undaunted.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Holly Oakley

I went shooting this weekend. First time ever. Got to handle a cowboy gun--a big Colt .45 six-shooter replica, the long-barrel model with a side-gate breach, just like I gave Trace. It's got some kick, but less than I expected, and different than I expected. The gun is balanced around the trigger, and it's long and flat--your hand is diagonally below and behind the chamber. When it discharges it kind of rocks back, and if you don't try to fight it, your whole forearm floats up with it.

My sparring partner said he was impressed at how I wasn't afraid of the kick. I'll admit I was a little apprehensive about looking like a girl, but I've been in kung fu class long enough to know that getting hit isn't the end of the world. You just absorb the blow and keep on with the task at hand. Plus, in tai chi we learn to "separate the substantial from the insubstantial," which basically means you pay attention to what parts of the body must be tightened to do work, and which parts have to be soft to act as shock absorption. I figured out real fast that you have to tense the wrist and hand, to hold the gun, while the index finger is soft to pull the trigger and the elbow is loose to allow for the kick. If you try to take the kick at the hand, you'll get hurt.

Besides, you only have to aim long enough to pull the trigger. Once the explosion is gone, so is the bullet, and the kick doesn't matter to your aim.

I spent an hour or so working up to the Colt. First I shot a little .22 rifle with a scope, which was so smooth and effortless it was like throwing darts--only more accurate, since I can't throw darts to save my life. Then I progressed to a .22 revolver, which was harder to aim but got me familiar with the grip and action. Then they gave me something with a larger caliber: a James Bond gun, the Walther PPK 9-millimeter. It was very cool and sleek-looking, and I was pretty keen on it until I fired it. It's a small gun, and it felt good in my hand, but the slide-action made it jerk a lot. There's no mass to hold it down, and that explosion packs quite a punch. It shoves itself back into your hand. All the recoil seemed to bear right on the web of my thumb and forefinger. I shot through several magazines but never really settled to it. Sure looks sexy, though.

Then the Colt. My arm was softened up by this time, but after the Walther my nerves were a bit rattled. The range-master arranged me in a slightly forward stance, and I remembered my tai chi and rounded my shoulders across the back. Two hand grip: right around the grip and left palm cupping underneath. The gun was designed for larger hands than mine and I had to stretch to pull the hammer back, but it was no difficulty to cock it with my thumb.

I had figured out how to sight with one eye by this time. The left wasn't quite closed, it was just unneccessary; I wasn't focusing with it. The barrel was long and shiny, and I could look right down it to the red dot in the center of the target. The angle of the grip makes it as if you really are just pointing your finger, much more so than with the modern Walther. I set my teeth, felt for the ground with my toes, and pulled the trigger.

Boom! Crack! Ping! Nothing else sounds like a gunshot, especially out-of-doors. I had taken my earplugs out to really get the experience. The noise is so loud and percussive that it rings--you can feel the prick of your eardrums. My forearm seemed to rock back and I let it float down again. You can't really see where the bullet goes, in that moment when you pull the trigger; the assault to your senses is too disruptive. But there was a hole in the paper: had it been there before?

Sight down the barrel again, nice and slow. There's a tension on the trigger, an easy pull and then a point where you feel the spring. It takes only the tiniest curl of muscle to pull it past that point. Boom! Another hole in the paper. My back teeth are vibrating. I put my earplugs back in. The SP tells me that the range-master's mouth fell open at that point. Cock the hammer back, try to think forward at the paper. Boom! The kickback isn't a recoil, like the Walther, it's a torque around the chamber. I can't stop it, so I let my wrist go with it. Boom! Boom! A spray of wood pulp goes up behind the target. I am definitely hitting something. Boom!

Click. I'm out of ammo. I'd forgotten to count. I thumb the chamber and the barrel, gingerly at first, but they are only warm, not hot. The clean silver of the gun has darkened, smokily, around the chamber.

Everybody in the world, I think, has certain delusions about their own prowess. Some commedian said we all believe we're above-average drivers. Everyone I know seems to think they are above-average marksmen, as well. Maybe it's just the men I know.

"Did I hit anything?" I asked, semi-jokingly.

"Hell, yeah, you hit it!" the range master said. "That was outstanding!"

I won't claim I dead-eyed it. But all six shots hit the paper--one of those tabloid-sized targets--at fifty feet. Four were in the black. One was an inch from the bullseye.

"Did the SP tell you I'd never fired a handgun before?" I said to the range master as he signed and dated my paper target.

"Yeah... I'd say you have a gift." He grinned at me.

I sighed theatrically. "I suppose now I'll have to do something responsible with it."

"You may be obligated," he agreed.

Monday, November 13, 2006

whoa, grandma

I took my Sparring Partner to meet my grandparents this weekend. They took to him immediately, as I guessed they would. Of course my grandparents are so sweet and gregarious, and the SP is endearingly good-natured and gracious, especially with older people. He's going to fit in the family just fine.

My grandfather immediately hauled him off I knew not where, talking about house construction and tools, and I followed my grandma into the kitchen to help with brunch.

"Wow, Holly," she said in an undertone. "He is handsome. He is so good-looking. And that voice."

He does have a lovely low voice, and a smooth articulate way of speaking. I was surprised, though, to hear the compliment. I mean, I think he's a hottie, but I know I'm not a reliable judge of his looks. And my family doesn't hand out empty compliments.

"I know I shouldn't carry on like this, an old grandma like me, but wow," Grandma said, while I grinned bigger and bigger. "You got a good one, there."

"Aw, stop it, you're gonna make me blush," I said.

"Well, you should be!" she said, giving me a squeeze. "You're the blushing bride."

We're getting married on Saturday--me and the SP. At last, at last. We'd always expected it would happen someday, although we never talked about it until recently. We both had a private conviction that I'd be widowed young and we'd hook up in ten or fifteen years. Hey, karma works in mysterious ways.

Grandma loaned me an antique Art Nouveau-era necklace that belonged to her grandmother, part of my namesake legacy. My dress is white silk, sleek and simple.

I feel serenely blissful.

Friday, November 10, 2006

spicy sausage 'shrooms

Saute some mild Italian sausage in a little water and olive oil. Use the bulk kind, or take the casings off of links. While it cooks, chop it up with a spatula or wooden spoon. Don't let it brown. You'll only need about 3/4 to 1 cup of cooked sausage, so if you cook a lot, save the rest for pizza or bolognese sauce.

While the sausage cooks, wash several large button mushrooms. With a paring knife, cut the stems out, and pare out some of the gills and edges to make little bowls of the caps. Save the stems for another project. Mushrooms freeze well enough for use in sauces and things.

Lightly oil a baking sheet, and the mushroom caps. Might want to line the sheet with foil, or use one with sides, because these will leak.

Drain the cooked sausage (as much as you need) and mince it very fine with a knife. Add generous sprinklings of Italian herbs (any pre-mixed blend that you like--I prefer Penzey's), fresh ground black pepper, and a tad too much red pepper flakes.

Add a couple spoonfuls of plain goat cheese (chevre). You want about 1 part goat cheese to 4 or 5 parts sausage, or to taste. Add just enough to make it stick together. Mix coarsely.

Use a spoon and your fingers to fill the mushroom caps and mound the sausage mixture on top. Garnish with some julienned red bell pepper, if you like. Sliced olives or onion might be nice, too.

Bake shrooms at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, depending on size. They will shrink and turn black. When they are allover dark, they're done. I did mine in the convection oven, at 375 for about 10 minutes.

Yum! Spicy! Salty! Rich! Way tasty little canape, or dinner. And it went pretty quickly, since I only made 10 or so.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

my semi-annual political post

Last night I was at a small social gathering that included a friend of a friend whom we'll call M. I spend an hour or so conversing with him, more or less amiably. He seemed quite intelligent. Of course like many intelligent people, he seems to feel that everyone can benefit from the virtue of his intelligence, whether he knows anything about your field of expertise or not. The minute he finds out I'm a writer he started telling me how/where I should research, what kind of books I should write and how doing so would "broaden my audience." Few things are more likely to set my back up, so it's possible that my opinion of him was somewhat dimmed by the time we got around to the topic that is still on my mind today.

We had come around, somehow, to legend and archeology and Ireland, so I mentioned the Atlantis thing, and that segued into the Celtic/Druidic revival that came around in the 1890's (which is when the definitive popular versions of Robin Hood and King Arthur and the Atlantis legends were conceived--by fiction writers), which figured heavily into Hitler's Master Race concept a generation later.

So M confides to me his pet theory. He had noticed the similarity between the KKK ceremonial robes and the old Druidic ceremonial robes (Well, yes--the founders of the KKK were, in fact, Scotsmen, and I have heard that theory before, but since no one really knows anything about the Druids it's risky to make conclusive comparisons). And, he says, the southeastern part of the country is populated with whites of primarily Scots-Irish decent. (Yes, my family is from south Missouri and Arkansas, I'm aware of that). "Appalachia," I said.

"Right, right. So the Irish always thought they were the chosen people, right?" (Ok... well, according to the stuff I've been reading lately, that view was somewhat recent and romanticized..) That's where the Aryan people came from." He gave me a brief lineage of the migration of Man from the cradle of civilization through India, Greece, Europe, and into Ireland. I can neither verify nor refute it right now, so we'll move on.

"And now they're all settled in the lower part of this country. Ok, there's some Spanish and French influence, but it's mostly contained. And now you've got all these people who come from the South U.S. and think they're part of this Master race--who were the Druids? High priests of the chosen people! And who's in charge of the country right now? You see? They think it's their destiny to rule! They think they're the chosen race. And I can't wait to see them get driven out of office tomorrow."*

I nodded. "Y'know, I was with you up there til the conclusion."

He chuckled. "Well, you know I've described this theory to sociologists who think there may be something to it."

I nodded again, thinking it was the kind of logic that Harry Turtledove novels are built upon.

I could've shredded him, but what was the point? Can I even count all the random fantastical assumptions in his "theory"? We won't even delve into the mix of races that made up the population of the British Isles, in the two millennia between the disappearance of the Druids, and the immigration of the potato-famine Irish to Western shores in the 1860's. Because the bulk of them were NOT descended from Druids. Take a peak at the Wikipedia entry if you want to go into this, because I'm certainly not going to. Shaky enough to pressume that the descendents of those Scots-Irish immigrants, who settled in the hilly southeast of the U.S. 150-200 years ago, have retained enough cultural or genetic "memory," shall we say, to a) remember/care that they came from Ireland, b) retain the foggiest idea of what a Druid is, and c) maintain enough national identity to believe/care that "they"--supposing that d) there are enough of them to perpetuate a conspiracy--are destined to rule? And e) they're all--every last mother-loving one of them--Republicans?

"Now, I'm not suggesting they think they ARE Druids," M was hasty to clarify.

Well, good. Because you wouldn't want me to think you were COMPLETELY without a leg to stand on.

Honestly, this is what bugs me about politics. I started to type "radical politics" but I don't think there's any other kind anymore. Everybody who's ever given me an earful of political jingoism bases it on the same ridiculous warrants, i.e. "George Bush doesn't care about Black people." or "I think George Bush just really hates gays." Or, in the case of my ex-husband, "Liberals want us all to be atheists."

It's stupid. It's absolutist, it's projecting your own fears onto others, and it's presuming to know the mind of someone you've never even met. The COLLECTIVE mind of a PEOPLE you've never met. "If you're not one of us, then you're against us." It's offensively negative, and it accomplishes nothing.

I heard the worst, most manipulative ad ever on the radio the other day. The narrator spoke with a pronounced "black" accent. "Don't you think working families should have enough to eat? Don't you think the elderly should be able to get the medicines they need? Candidate X voted against raising minimum wage, and the drug companies give her money to protect their interests. (My paraphrasing actually makes it sound more dignified than it was.) Don't vote for Candidate X. She's a mean horrible woman who will starve your children and grind up your grandma for Soylent Green."

I'm just weary of it. These last six years have been the worst in my memory. I can't remember the last time I heard anybody pleading to "focus on the issues."

With the exception of a very few things, like abortion, nothing is an either-or issue, and certainly no side of any issue is the sole ideological property of any party. Why do I even have to say this? We ALL would like to see health care better-run and more efficient. We're ALL worried about how our children are going to make a living and who's going to care for us when we're old and decrepit. It's just plain idiot prejudice to insist that one party would take care of everything if those elitist assholes from the other party would quit lying and stealing.

And IF we assume that M is right, and the South has risen again, with their Gaelic-influenced country-western music and their Aryan noblesse oblige, all I can say is, why the hell shouldn't they? I challenge you to find me an ancient culture on this Earth that DIDN'T wholeheartedly believe they were the Master Race. The Navajo people's name for themselves is "Diné," which means, "the people." The Greeks divided the world into two categories, Greeks and "xenos." The Jews' tendency toward self-isolation has been their preservation and their destruction. Why should the Republicans and Democrats be any different?

And so what if that other group think they're better than everybody else or they're destined to rule or go to Heaven or whatever? In a two-party system, your faction wins about half the time, so what are you bitching about? You really think that your party has all the right answers and your best interests at heart and should be given free reign to "fix" everything? If you do, I'm coming over to your house to garotte you, tonight. You are a dangerous radically naive individual who is just as reckless as a suicide bomber.

You know what I think? I think that the primary virtue of a democracy is that nothing can be accomplished quickly. I hear people talking about Washington being "broken" and this country "lacking in direction," but I think standing still, politically, is the healthiest thing we can do.

The Tao Te Ching says:
The more laws and restrictions there are,
the poorer people become.
The sharper men's weapons,
the more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
the more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
the more thieves and robbers.

You want a radical idea? Stop voting. Stop letting them force you into making a choice you don't want, just because it's an illusion of choice. Millions of Americans have already done it. It's the only ethical thing to do, because it's the only way to avoid forcing your will on someone else.

Or if you're the type who likes to be proactive, go work for some group that advocates less legislature and smaller government. Find a cash-only doctor. Save an emergency medical fund, instead of paying premiums you'll never see again. Get out of debt and work for cash. Raise your own produce and fertilize it with your own compost. Live in a house made of straw bales, for all I care.

Just don't talk to me about it. Your indignation, frankly, is beneath me.

*in the elections today, Nov 7.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Halloween wit

Last night the SP and I went out on the town, to promenade in our gunslingin' finery and take in the sights. You'd think I'd learn by now to take a camera.

It was cold. And dark. We didn't see quite as much costuming action as I'd expected, but then we got downtown kind of late. We did see a Droog, though, strolling uptown along the sidewalk, complete with bowler hat and cane. Genuinely creepy and very cool (I should note that, in the course of searching for pictures, I ran across a blog entry that claims they're overdone. Could be--I'd never seen one before, but that may explain why vintage bowler hats are so hard to find).

We also saw "V," as in "Vendetta," sweeping his way across the intersection with the light change. Black hood, cape, sword-stick and all. Impressive, at least at a distance. Much more effort than the ready-made commercial version. Got to admire that.

But my personal pick of the evening was the waiter in the rather classy Italian restaurant where we stopped for an appetizer. The SP first pointed him out: "That guy's wearing a Superman tee-shirt." And he was--but over it he wore an Oxford striped shirt, with the sleeves rolled up and the front unbuttoned. His trousers were gray, and he had a conservative striped tie looped around his neck. He was a nicely built young man, maybe thirty, with dark hair neatly combed and parted. He wore black-framed glasses.

"He's Clark Kent," I realized aloud, with delight.

Classy. Subtle, but needing no explanation or guesswork. Two thumbs up, mister waiter.

Oh yeah, and we got some attention, too. I wore my blue 1880 dinner dress, with my new hat and wool cape. The SP wore his new gunslinger ensemble, looking remarkably like Val Kilmer in "Tombstone" (though less pasty). Mostly people admired at a distance, but a few came up and offered compliments. There was a large party of mostly women at the table behind us. Several were dressed as nuns. They were a bit drunk and huggy and just loved us. "Oooh, look at her dress," they said. "Ooooh, look at her hat. Ooooh, look at him!" "Mmm, I like that one. Look at that coat! Is he supposed to be a gunfighter?" "Maybe he's her husband!" (As opposed to some stranger who just happened to meet me at the bar dressed in the same period garb?)

"That nun slapped me on the butt," the SP reported as we made our way back to the car.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

where's Miss Fairweather when you need her?

I was over at the SP's house last night. He was installing a counter in the kitchen, I was eating a sandwich in the living room, away from the noise and sawdust.

My cat is currently residing at the SP's. You Rudy-fans out there will be glad to know he's settled in very well; he's got the run of the house and the SP's really good with cats. Rudy's earning his keep by diminishing the cricket population in the house: the basement is populated with these scary prehistoric-looking monstrosities that look startlingly like the bugs from Starship Troopers. My fierce fat neutered killer lapcat likes to pull the legs off them and bat their writhing carapaces around on the hardwood floors until they expire. Eat your heart out, Casper Van Dien.

But last night Rudy ran up against something he wasn't prepared for. He was nosing around the edge of the couch when suddenly he jumped back and something flew up in the air. I thought at first it was that pair of socks he'd been tossing around, but the thing went up and up and kept circling. It made no sound whatsoever, and neither did Rudy: he hopped up on the couch beside me and tracked its laps around the ceiling.

I confess I yelped a couple of times--part startlement and part nervous laughter. My SP had warned me that bats got into the house sometimes. This was a good-sized bat, too, about six or seven inches in wingspan. It's a freaky thing, the way they swoop and dive at you but veer off at the last second--this little dark shadow making no noise in the corner of your vision.

My SP's house is old; it has doors between every room. I grabbed Rudy and shuffled him into the dining room and closed the pocket doors so the bat would stay in the front room. I even opened the front door, hoping the bat would find its own way out--but alas, it was too disoriented and could only circle. I went and fetched my Sparring Partner, who has experience with this sort of thing. He said the only way to deal with it was to chase it around until it was exhausted and then try to scoop it out the door.

We proceeded to do this, with a broom and a fluttering newspaper. The bat tried to land a couple of times--on the doorjam, on top of the curtains, but we routed it out and made it fly until it finally collapsed on the mantle. I actually knocked it out of the air a couple times, which made me feel bad because I didn't want to hurt it, but it only collided with the newspaper and landed on the futon, so I don't think it was too badly hurt. When it landed on the mantle the SP grabbed his welding gloves from beside the woodstove, and nudged the bat into a five-gallon paint bucket (the kindling from said paint bucket was unceremoniously dumped on the floor). The bat was too tired to fly by this time but kept eluding him behind the knickknacks on the fireplace, then climbed down the wall beside the mantle. It was fascinating watching the little bugger climb, with his little clawed toes and webby legs.

The SP nudged it into the paint bucket and then leapt for the front door, bounded down the porch stairs and deposited der fledermaus somewhere in the wild suburban night while I doubled over laughing in mingled humor and relief.

Ok, yes, they're small and easily damaged, and afraid of humans. But they're just plain freaky, the way they swoop and make no sound. It's bad enough having something flying at your head and know it's armed with teeth and claws and habitually carry rabies....

Now I'm thinking I shall have to get the cat vaccinated, dammit. More money down the drain.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

brainstorming in spam

I daresay others have mentioned this before me, but I noticed anew today the strangely intriguing taglines on the spam in my junk folder. Here's a random sampling from today's spam, with inserts where needed to make grammatical phrases:
  • is separable an[d] cache

  • impish commandment

  • aperatif

  • midnight craftsmanship

  • the disorder at fell (or is that Fell? as in a place named Fell?)

  • a little battle between wondering whether it were [something?] both times

  • imbue

  • everyplace troubadour

Note a couple of them are just words, but some of my very favorite words. Makes you wonder what kind of email filters are going through my mail.

I keep thinking there's got to be some use for these very fine scraps of verbiage. Just in twisting them around to make sense, I can feel bits of story coalescing in the primordial soup of my writer's brain. I don't generally do poems, but...

The disorder at Fell is and was a little battle,
between wondering whether it were something inseparable from us,
or the cache of an everyplace troubadour,
whose impish commandment imbued us all with
midnight craftsmanship...
did we not choose an aparatif and another go at Milton.

Take that, English majors!

Friday, October 06, 2006


It is a beautiful blue day outside. I got paid today, and the check was a bit more than usual since I'm no longer paying insurance on my ex. I woke up today with that feeling I was in the right place, doing the right thing. It helps that I'm settled into a place where I can be myself again.

Halloween is coming up. I went to the craft store and bought a couple of artificial crows, black chicken feathers over styrofoam and wire. I had a pair of them some years ago, but threw them out when I moved, and now I'm sorry I did. This new pair are smaller and not quite as imposing, but they'll do.

I was standing in line at the checkout with my crows, and the woman in front of me starts doing a little customer-return dance. She wants to return some scrapbooking crap, but the package has been opened.

"We don't take back opened packages," the clerk tells her.

"Well, the man who helped me said I could return it," the woman coos. She's too old to be using that kittenish voice. She's chunky and overdressed, with dyed dark hair and sunglasses. "I'm sure you remember. You sent him to help me. He was one of the managers."

"I'm sure he didn't say that," the clerk says. "That's against our policy. Do you know who it was?"

"Oh, I don't know his name," the customer simpers. "But he said I could return it, it was just yesterday..."

"Well, what did he look like?"

"Oh, I don't want to say," she says. "That wouldn't be nice of me."

At this point I snorted and dropped my purse and the crows on the counter. "Oh, come on, lady," I said out loud. She froze and gaped at me. "Does that work a lot?" I asked her.

"Well--I--! Give me that!" Her whole demeanor turned snarling in an instant and she grabbed her opened package of stickers. "Never mind, you little--" she reared her head, backing away, and I grinned at her, eyebrows cocked-- "bitch!"

I laughed. "Yeah, I'm the bitch."

"He had dark skin!" she said triumphantly, and flounced out the door.

I gave the clerk a bland look; she had on her best neutral-service expression. "I worked retail too long to listen to that crap," I said.

She handed me the receipt for my crows. "You have a good day, sweetheart."

I perched the crows above the entrance to my cubical at work, above the plate that says "Messinger of Doom."

Yes, I am downright dangerous when I'm in a good mood. I'm contemplating ways to built artificial skeletal arms out of wire and flour dough.

Friday, September 15, 2006


... was yesterday.

I am now a free woman.

It was a near thing, though. My thrice-accursed lawyer forgot my file. He claimed there were two files on his desk, with similar names, and he grabbed the wrong one. I gritted my teeth and restrained myself from ripping his liver out, and he asked the judge for a recess while he went back and fetched my documents.

The judge signed. I have a certified copy of the decree. We all breathed a sigh of relief, although I confess that I felt a bit sick and wrung-out afterwards, from the release of tension and the adrenaline-drain. I bought a deep-dish pizza, a piece of key-lime pie, and a bottle of sparkling grape juice, went home to my parents' house, and binged. Then I took a hot bath, read a book on 19th-century American life, went to bed early and slept like the dead for nine hours.

Today I feel a bit lighter (well, the pizza is kind of weighing me down, but it was worth it). Still a bit disoriented and frustrated, as I am yet without permanent lodgings, but we shall take care of that very shortly. I am wearing my new silk skirt and intend to go shoe-shopping over lunch. Things are looking to improve rapidly.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

putting one's problems in perspective

The struggles of a Turkish-immigrant lawyer in Germany.

A more optimistic follow-up on the same subject.

So how does individuality suddenly awaken out of a collective? God only knows. They say it takes three years for those poor outcast polygamist Mormon kids to get a grip on the outside world, to realize that they're not in hell and the "sinners" they encounter are not going to eat them alive.

I'd say that's about right. I'm still trying to shake off the programming, and the environment I came from was not nearly as repressive as some. For instance, they haven't attempted any interventions or exorcisms, and they are still speaking to me, albeit through some strain.

Y'all may be relieved to know that I am relocated to a friend's house for a short time. Will be moving again soon. On top of everything else, work is crazy-stressful right now. Not much time for creative things, but it'll pay off in the long run.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

good, bad, and ugy news

I got a car. It's a 2003 Honda Civic. Runs fine. Interest rates are decent. Gets good gas mileage but has a tiny little tank so I'll probably be filling up just as often. It's kind of comfortable and fun to drive, looks decent but it's embarrassingly ubiquitous. I feel so mainstream. But hey, at least I don't have to worry about it melting down on 435 some morning.

The bad news is that I've got to live pretty close to the bone for the next month or so, to save up the money to pay the tags and taxes. Annoying, but not unexpected.

The really ugly news is that it may take ANOTHER whole month for my divorce to be final. Because of the vagarities of the court system, both parties are allowed a 30-day "cooling off" period after signing, and since Scott signed his response to the petition on August 10th, that means my lawyer can't even schedule a court date until after September 11th. "I'll try to get you a date in September," said his secretary when I spoke to her.

Just run over me.

Monday, August 21, 2006

good eats

I've been car-hunting for the last fortnight or so, and last weekend was a real hair-puller in terms of running around, making deals, seeing mechanics, arm-wrestling dealers, changing flats on a dark highway at night, running out of gas, etc.

But I won't go into the gory details here. What I really wanted to talk about was food. I happened to be in a small college town over the weekend and we stopped by a local brewry/pub with a number of good things to recommend it. I'm not into beer, myself, but the menu was impressive: sophisticated without being outré, good variety and everything very fresh. I had a simple BLT that was probably the best I've ever eaten; it was served on soft fresh crusty whole-wheat bread from the local bakery, with fresh tomatoes from the farmer's market, spicy brown mustard and real mayo.

This being a crunchy college town, they had a number of vegetarian menu items--again, not my mainstay, but if one is in the mood for a light lunch, veggie dishes can be a welcome break from burgers and their ilk. My companion had an avocado wrap in a crispy tortilla, with some spicy southwestern sauce, which came with a side salad coated in roasted red pepper vinagrette--really yummy. I confess I ate as much of the wrap as he did; it was that good.

But the most unusual item we tried was the potato salad that came with my BLT. It wasn't your typical Helmann's/French's/Vidalia starchfest. This was baby red potatoes, cooked tender and diced with the skins still on, a light dressing of brown mustard and mayo, diced eggs, a bit of onion, a generous sprinkling of fresh chopped basil, and some kalamata olives. Now, I love olives, but I woulda never thought to put them in my potato salad. They add salt the same as pickles would, but with a richer, earthier, more sophisticated flavor. Since I'm always looking for the ultimate potato salad recipe, this was a revelation.

Later we stopped by a coffee shop for dessert, and I had a wonderful slice of old-fashioned coconut cake, very light and tender and sweet without being cloying. Made me want to start baking cakes again. Not good for the waistline!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

sweet without the saccharine

I never thought I'd see the day when I'd endorse a Christian recording artist, but I really like Chris Rice's new song "When Did You Fall (In Love with Me)." It's just nice, without being trite or facile. Well-composed and free of cynicism. Refreshing.
You’re all smiles and silly conversation
As if this sunny day came just for you
You twist your hair, you smile, and you turn your eyes away
C’mon, tell me what’s right with you
Now it dawns on me probably everybody’s talkin’
And there’s something here I’m supposed to realize
‘Cause your secret’s out, and the universe laughs at its joke on me
I just caught it in your eyes, it’s a beautiful surprise

There's a clip of it on his site.

Monday, August 14, 2006

things I have to do next weekend

  1. Attend the Ethnic Festival in K.C., which happens to be in a scary part of town, and swing a sword around onstage;
  2. Drive to a slightly less scary burg in another state at the far opposite end of the greater City area to attend my writer's meeting;
  3. Buy a car.

Mind you, I'm not actually sure that any of these things will happen. No. 3, should it actually come to pass, will have to take precedence over the other two, but right now I'll still waiting on the bank's approval.

This weekend I've had to deal with a remarkable assortment of pushy and demanding males--lawyers, tailors, used car salesmen, relatives, editors. The lawyer was by far the most competent and easiest to get along with. At least he got everything done he said he was going to do. My divorce should be final in a couple more weeks. And I found a used car for sale by a friend of a friend that should be a pretty good deal if I can get a loan. More details on that as they happen.

Monday, August 07, 2006


Scientists have gathered convincing evidence that we all make decisions based on emotion, rather than intellect. So much for Myers-Briggs. I can't decide if this makes me feel better about my first marriage, or worse. But if this were more commonly known, perhaps it would help reduce the accusations of liberals being bleeding-hearts and conservatives being heartless bastards. Not to mention the regular admonitions to "Think!" by the opposite party. Thinking has little or nothing to do with it, folks.

Other scientists with different proclivities have rendered legible more of Archimedes' Palimpsest manuscript, by using X-rays. I knew almost nothing about this manuscript, but apparently the text was once scrubbed off by a monk (they call it the Dark Ages for a reason) who wrote prayers over the goatskin parchment. Stuff like that makes me sympathize with Sabine Fairweather.

AJ wrote a blog entry about big box stores last week, which helped wind up my resentment of Wal-Mart again. I pretty much only go in there if I'm on a road trip and have to use the bathroom; I figure they still owe me some benefits in the form of water and toilet paper, at least. Today, I went and visited, which I hadn't looked at in a while. They have lots of links to articles about why Wal-Mart is evil. Read them. Shop local if you can. Saving money is no excuse. How many DVD's and bottles of pop do you need, anyway? Try buying less and paying more for better-quality items, or things you really need instead of things that are merely cheap. You can "choose" to shop at Wal-mart, and you'll pay lower prices for a while, but their business practices are designed to make them the only choice, and after that they can charge whatever they want, can't they?

Last week I saw an article about Wal-mart and somebody else, Home Depot, I think, taking further steps to create their own banking entities. I seem to remember that Wal-Mart has encountered some resistance to this plan in past years, from whomever regulates such things--the FDIC? Must research this further. Feel free to do the surfing for me.

On a more personal note, I sat down this weekend and plotted out about 75% of "Curious Weather," which encompasses all of Sabine's journal entries and Trace's education at her hand. I still need to sequence the subplot arc of Trace's story, and one major scene I thought would go in that story may in fact be pushed back to story No. 6, which will either be titled, "Sideshow" or "Wild Man of Borneo," depending on my mood. The machinery's a little dusty, but it's turning again.

And I'm listening to Disturbed today. Really diggin' that Land of Confusion remake. Generally I think remakes are inappropriate and gratuitous, but this one seems appropriate to the day and age.

Friday, August 04, 2006

for Charlotte

He picked out the smallest bedroom on the second floor for his new quarters; it was shabby and dark, with no curtains and the ugliest yellow wallpaper he’d ever seen, but he’d lived in worse. At least it was well away from the attic workroom, and the double windows let in a cool breeze from the woodlot behind the house. That breeze was an important consideration, in St. Louis in August, when the night air clung like wet cotton, and a feather bed felt like a sweaty hand cupped around him.

Tired as he was after the restless night before, he got engrossed in the old London Physicians Monthly she’d given him and kept reading until long after dark, feeling vaguely decadent at the waste of lamp-oil. She’d marked the article on microorganisms for him to read, but he was more interested in the piece on treating nervous disorders. Having spent a year in an asylum, himself, he was grimly fascinated by the author’s theory that a sick mind was only a tired mind: like a machine, the brain could be overworked, and the best cure was complete rest. Trace had never seen a machine mend itself by sitting idle, and he’d only been cured by isolation and rest because he’d gotten smarter about not telling people when he could see things they couldn’t.

The small clock on the mantle chimed midnight, rousing him out of his light doze. He was so drowsy his head felt swimmy, but there was no need to be up at dawn to run down stray horses or get sleepy oxen moving, and he reckoned he’d best get used to her hours. Besides—the thought surfaced before he could dodge it—it had been five years since he’d tried to sleep in a room without Boz’s snoring.

He gave his head a shake and rolled onto his other side, vaguely upset in the stomach from all the rich food she was feeding him. Or maybe it was the wallpaper, he thought, glancing up from the pale cream page to the hideous yellow walls. He wasn’t in the habit of noticing decoration—didn't often stay in a room that had any, point of fact—but this wallpaper was singularly offensive. The color was bad enough, a dirty yellow shade that reminded him of a dust-storm on the horizon, but the pattern was worse. It seemed to seethe in the lamp-light at the corners of his eyes, making him feel vaguely fever-sick, or maybe morphine-sick.

He turned up the wick again, flipped back to the article he was supposed to be reading. It was interesting, but too full of unfamiliar terms for him to just skim it. He had to mentally parse every sentence in order to squeeze out the meaning. It seemed a Swiss named Lister had proven the existence of tiny creatures called “microorganisms,”—too small to see, but alive and aggressive—which attacked healthy body tissues, causing disease and putrescence. This was some different from the idea of spontaneous generation, which Trace had learned about in seminary. Spontaneous generation taught that maggots and putrescence sprang from the decaying matter itself. He’d always thought that made sense enough, seeing as how God had created the world out of nothing. But the idea of tiny, invisible creatures invading healthy flesh reminded him of ants swarming over a scorpion, or those bloodsuckers swarming the train. Nature tended to repeat the same patterns in different sizes, so maybe God had made microorganisms, too.

A whispering sound drew his gaze up from the page toward the dark eye of the window. The curtains were missing; even the hardware had been wrenched from the plaster. The wallpaper was stripped off in patches, too. Maybe someone had intended to redecorate this room and never got around to it. Trace wondered briefly how long Miss Fairweather had lived in this house and whether she had made any efforts to remodel it. It seemed unlike her to spend time decorating, especially since she did no entertaining. And yet she had the manners of a trained hostess. She was always unfailingly proper, even while insulting him. She didn’t wrap herself in frills and fripperies like the fashionable ladies he saw around St. Louis, but he’d seen her in very fine clothes on a couple of occasions, and even her plain work dresses were better-fitted and finer cloth than those of a shopgirl or farmwife.

She had money, obviously, had probably been born to it. Might even be minor English nobility. No doubt had been raised a proper lady… but that didn’t explain her education, her training in science. Trace had read of some medical schools back east starting to admit ladies, but Miss Fairweather was not much younger than he. Maybe the schools in England were more permissive. Maybe she’d had tutors.

Another scientist who supported the microorganism theory (he read) was a Frenchman named Pasteur. Some years ago he had boiled some meat broth in a glass jar, then bent the neck of the jar. This was supposed to prevent microorganisms in the air from getting into the broth, and it worked fine until Pasteur tilted the jar to let the broth into the neck of it. After that, the broth got rancid, which was supposed to prove that these tiny creatures were carried by air currents.

Appalling thought, really. Trace’s mouth curled in distaste, thinking of what he might be breathing in. As if to underscore the point, a cool gust of air touched the sweat on his arms and chest. He shivered lightly, thinking there must be a storm on the way.

The whispering came again, a faint and yet fleshy sound, like a like a hand dragged along the papered walls. Trace surfaced from his reading-doze and looked up.

Nothing stirred, inside or out. It was a very still night. In fact, he realized, there was no breeze coming in the window.

The room was stifling-hot, but his arms were tingling with gooseflesh, as if a cold breath had blown across his skin. It had been a while, he thought suddenly, since he’d taken the time to meditate. Maybe too long.

He sat up in bed, peering into the dark corners of the room, but there was nothing to see except shadows and the contorted pattern of the wallpaper. It seemed to writhe, like heat-visions on the Great Salt Flats, and most of the movement rippled close near the floor, as if something were crawling down low behind the paper. Something vaguely human-shaped, with long hair hanging over its face. Its shoulder dragged along the wall with a faint rasp and the occasional thump as it knocked past a bit of wainscoting.

“Uh, pardon me?” Trace said.

The crawling figure stopped, hunching in on itself, like a mouse caught on the pantry floor.

“I don’t mean t’interrupt, but could you maybe go do that somewhere else? It’s a mite disturbin.”

The figure resumed creeping as if it hadn’t heard. Trace lay back down with a snort, turned toward the window to find a cooler spot on the mattress, and went back to his article. But now he was aware of the noise he couldn’t shut it out. His ears tracked the slithering all the way down the wall, over the doorway and its trim work—ba-dump, ba-dump—behind the bureau, under the dressing-table, under the window—ba-dump, ba-dump—to the fireplace, where there was a pause just long enough to make him think it had stopped, before it resumed on the other side.

Trace sighed. Round and around all night would drive him crazy. By morning he’d be creeping along with it.

“Alright, you win,” he muttered, rolling off the edge of the bed. He collected his clothes from the chair, put his hat on his head, and took the lamp in his free hand. There was a whole row of bedrooms up and down the hall; surely one of them was unoccupied. “I reckon you were here first.”

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

everybody was kung-fu fighting

Last weekend was the big taiji tournament in Dallas. We drove down in a rented minivan--myself, my partner Tony, my sifu Sit, his wife Mary Ann, and our classmate Heather. Mike and Matt took a separate car and met us down there. I could go into a long exhaustive description of what it's like to be trapped in a van with four other people for ten hours, but frankly I don't want to relive it.

Just kidding. It went pretty smoothly. There were the predictable ego struggles and back-seat driving, and Mary and I were both a bit ill--she had food poisoning, I had cramps (isn't that inevitable?), but there were no accidents or flat tires and we didn't get lost. We got to Dallas in good time, checked into the nicest Best Western I'd ever seen, and then met up with Matt and Mike for a marvelous fish dinner. It was good to see Matt again; he's off at grad school in California. He's tall, whipcord-lean, intense, and talks really fast. He's twenty-five but will probably look eighteen until he's forty. He kept getting carded, everywhere we went.

Pappadeaux seafood restaurant was really marvelous, even if I was too low to fully enjoy it. The guys ordered raw oysters, which I didn't quite have the stomach for that night, and boudin sausage, which I did try and was very good. They also have a marvelous fish called "pontchartrain," which (purportedly--I haven't researched this independently, so don't quote me) comes from some lake in Louisiana with the same name, and is served with crabmeat and shrimp in a white-wine/butter sauce. WOW, is it good. They've got some similar dishes at Copeland's, the best Cajun-Creole restaurant in my neck of the woods, so I guess I'll have to patronize it more frequently.

Tony had a gift for me, in honor of my first tournament: a puzzle box he built with his own two hands, the kind where you have to slide the side panels and bottom in just the right combination before you can open the top, and then there's hidden compartments inside. It was very cool, beautifully made. Even cooler, inside the box was this lovely wicked little double-sided fighting dagger, the kind I've wanted for about fifteen years. Utterly useless unless you're a collector or an assassin, but Quinn and I loved it. Tony said it looked like me. All my close friends give me weaponry sooner or later. It's like a pact.

He had another gift for me at dinner, but I can't talk about that yet so we'll fast forward to the next morning, Friday, when we all trooped over to the adjacent hotel for the workshops.

I already had some inkling of how famous and respected Sit really was, but as in many specialized fields, he's only well-known in his venue. He sometimes complains that he's famous everywhere but Kansas City. Still, I felt a bit like tai chi royalty on Friday, because Sit's workshops were packed. We later learned he had been the top draw at that tournament, with nearly 1/3 of the workshop attendees signing up for his classes.

I attended his first workshop, "Tai Chi Secrets," and listened to him say the same old things he says every freakin' Wednesday, but for some reason it sounded fresh and more poignant, and the crowd was enthralled. He loves to teach and loves to have an audience, and he can be so charming and funny when he's in that environment. It also doesn't hurt that he's a genuine master of his art. He always makes a point of using the biggest guys for demos and putting them on the floor before they can blink.

It was tremendous fun. The expressions of astonishment on his volunteers when they get bent into pretzels are priceless. He never hurts anybody, that's the impressive thing. His art is all about softness and subtlety--he has this whole theory about how aggressive, hard movements transmit "information" to the nerves and brain of your opponent, so by responding softly and gently, you give them no information to fight against. This is a marked contrast to some of the hard-style guys who are all about mowing you over. Late Friday night, Tony and Mike took a workshop with a guy named John Wang who, though "very nice and funny," left vicious bruises on their arms. Wang claims he "feels uncomfortable" if he goes for more than a few days without feeling pain. "If you ever have to fight a gang," he said, "take the biggest guy right away and throw him down on the ground and bust his skull open. Then put a piece of his brain in your teeth and smile. Then you won't have to fight anymore."

I can just see myself using that in a story some day.

Needless to say, Sit's method is a bit different. I've had him put me on the floor plenty of times, and you never feel it coming. He doesn't grip tight. He doesn't even move all that fast. He's just so damned efficient. In workshops he invites the biggest guy to grip his shoulders and then pushes the volunteer's hands off with one finger. "Here it comes," Sit says. "One--two--three--" and the hands are off and the big guy is left standing there gaping. One muscle-head (there's one in every group) was making noises about how all that soft stuff doesn't work "if you do this," so Sit calls him out and went to work on him. The guy broke the pattern, tried to get cute by twisting out of the grip, and Sit goes, "Oh, you asking for trouble, now," and puts the moron in a headlock. In about ten seconds he had the muscle-head's nose pressed to the floor.

I vowed to myself then and there that I would train every freakin' day for the next year and make myself a worthy representative of such a cool master. I had several people come up to me later, and ask me about him and try to persuade me to persuade him to come do a seminar at their schools. Which would be way cool, if he could make a profit at it. It makes me sad to think how his weekly class has shrunk in the last year, what with people moving away and leaving for college. We now have more women than men in our kung-fu class, which is not good for business, alas--sends the wrong image. I'm going to have to get really good and start recruiting.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Saturday was the forms competition. I didn't totally embarrass myself, but it wasn't my finest day. I was slightly crampy and more than a little high on Motrin Sinus, so I was simultaneously wired, limp, and light-headed from low blood pressure. The upside was that I was too physically drained to feel much anxiety. My empty-hand form sucked and my shoes were highly incompatible with the carpet so I almost fell on my face coming out of a leap, but I was feeling no pain.

Final score: I won two silver medals and a bronze in forms competition. That sounds pretty good unless you know that I was second out of two and third of three competitors in my division.

Oh well. I hadn't expected miracles. I had never done a major competition like this, and I knew I was unprepared, what with the divorce and the other upheavals this year. It means enough that I went and saw some other styles and got an idea of what the judges look for. Remember a couple weeks ago when I was complaining about how I had no idea of what was good? Now I do. It gives me something to work toward.

And I didn't completely embarrass myself. My weapons scores were better than the empty-hand. Matt said my broadsword form looked good, "like you were born with a broadsword in your hand," which is a high compliment from a guy who doesn't hand them out lightly. My fan form was rather respectable--the final score was 9.2, I believe. I didn't win, but I got a number of compliments, and the girl who beat me ended up winning Grand Champion of the entire tournament, so I can't feel too badly about it. I'd rather have approval from my peers than a gold medal, any day.

Ironically, my sewing-fu was what got all the attention. My new white suit was a big hit with the women, who liked the shape, and men, who also liked the shape. Many people stopped to compliment it and ask what pattern I used. I'd made my own, of course, but I took down email addresses so I could pass along the base patterns I worked from. The photographer from Kung Fu Magazine took several shots of me performing the fan form so maybe I'll end up in the next issue.

Sit told me I should write an article for them, "How to Survive your First Tournament," ("always take two pairs of shoes--you don't know what the carpet will be like!"), and he's been hinting for some time that I might help him write some of his own articles; he's had a number published but he's never comfortable writing in English. I had thought to attend the "Writing About Martial Arts" workshop on Friday night, but it was too late and I was too tired, and forgive me if I tend to think I've got the writing thing mastered. I did attend a push-hands workshop by a big bear of a Chinese named Sam SF Chin; Tony and Mike had taken his classes before and thought highly of him. The workshop was a bit pedestrian, to my mind, but that might've been because it was the introductory class and I'm a tad more advanced. Still, I got the master's hands on me a couple of times, and he does have an impressive, light touch. His general attitude toward me seemed to be approving, as well--he could tell I got his drift.

His senior student (another Mike) took quite a shine to Tony and our classmate, Big Mike, and spent a lot of time in-between events, giving them pointers on push-hands technique. Sunday was the push-hands competition, as since I was done competing, I got to watch quite a lot of it. Two years ago I did not see the point of push-hands AT ALL, but now it's the most fascinating thing ever.

Push-hands is a bit like Sumo, only without the diapers and the opponents don't charge each other. They start out toeing a line, the backs of their right hands touching and their left hands on each other's elbows. You circle a few times to feel for your opponent's balance or lack thereof, and then try to shove him off his position. In restricted-step push hands, you just have to make him move his feet; in moving push-hands you try to push him out of a ring, hence the Sumo comparison. This may sound simple, but there's a lot of technique involved. You can't just tighten up and brace your legs; your opponent will push you sideways or pull you forward flat on your face. If he's stronger than you and he pushes suddenly, you turn aside and let him fall. If he tries to grab your arm and turn you, you either brace his turn against him or you slip his grip and reverse it. It's complicated and fast, and the irony is, the ultimate technique is to stay totally relaxed and not think too much: you just have to go limp and react.

Tony won silver in his weight class; Matt got bronze. Mike surprised us all and won gold in the heavyweights--and quite gracefully, I might add; we all agreed it was the best technique we'd seen from him. Sit said to me, "You going do push-hands next year?" and I go, "Hell, yeah!"

What can I say? It was a fascinating, exhausting, intense, exhilarating weekend. I had been prepped with all these dire warnings about tedium and pompous judges and interminable demos, but apparently (as Sit said) my added chi tipped the feng shui in the right direction, because everything moved along briskly and was quite entertaining. The Masters' demos at the opening ceremonies were very good, quick and to the point. The lion dances were energetic and fun. Our own presentation onstage went off without a hitch and met with enthusiastic applause. The judges were pompous and biased, this is true, but hell, where isn't that true? I've been dealing with the publishing and editing world too long to let that upset me. The cream will always rise to the top, is my experience. My performance was not exactly cream this time around, but give me time. Now I know where the bar is, I've got something to work toward.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

sociopaths: a field guide

I'm no psychiatrist, but I generally consider myself a good judge of human character (who doesn't?) so it's particularly rough on my self-image when I err. I am not a devious person by nature, so it doesn't always dawn on me when other people are being deceitful. And there are plenty of people out there whose entire raison d'etre is to deceive. I think for some, the need to lie is so ingrained into their method of survival that they actually lose their ability to discern truth from fiction. And this is what makes them so dangerous--to themselves and others--as well as difficult to detect: they honestly believe what they're telling you, at least at the moment they're telling it.

So if you're in a relationship, business or personal, with a person who exhibits more than a couple of the following behaviors, do not pass Go, get the hell outta Dodge--but you might want to grab that $200 on your way out because it's likely the only compensation you'll ever see.
  1. Chronic liars are mostly easily spotted because they tell small lies, what you might call "white lies," for no obvious reason. They concoct elaborate fictions when telling the truth--or saying nothing--would be simpler. They may do this to a third party even if you're standing there and you know the truth. If you don't contradict them, they know you'll be complicit. If you become more intimate with this person, they will expect you to back up their lies. And they will lie to you. Don't kid yourself about that point.
  2. When you do catch them in a lie, depending on the severity, they will either deny it or use charm to get out of trouble. They may justify it, but they will more likely construct an even more complicated story to validate the perceived discrepancy. If they are absolutely forced to the wall, they may cave under and flagellate themselves: "You're right, I'm a horrible person, I don't know why you put up with me.... *sob*..." until you relent.
  3. They are cagey about numbers, particularly when it comes to money and time. You can't pin them down to a schedule. You never know quite where they are. You end up spending more of your money on joint projects/purchases and they're always going to "pay you back."
  4. They always seem to have money for fun things, but not for essentials. They always have enough money to buy presents, buy back your goodwill in a crisis.
  5. They can always sweet-talk others into doing things for them but they never seem to reciprocate; they have a bad back, or a damaged knee, or are committed elsewhere, or are just too busy.
  6. They give the impression of working harder than anybody but never have anything to show for it. Regular displays of martyrdom are essential.
  7. They are often gregarious, but never seem to have any close friends. They have a wide range of acquaintances that they keep at arm's length, because their behavior can't withstand extended close scrutiny. They may be two-faced, accusing others of being phony or dishonest.
  8. Paranoia is a bonus. A recount of their day will largely involve how somebody tried to screw them or they put the screws to someone else. Somebody is always out to get them. If there's one thing I learned in retail, it's that the guilty customer is quickest to go on the offensive.
  9. When anything goes wrong, it's someone else's fault. Probably yours.
  10. Nothing is ever wrong, ever. If there's a crisis, they'll take care of it. They can't tell you how or when, they just tell you not to worry about it, it's no big deal, they'll take care of it.
  11. They borrow things and never return them.
  12. They steal. And if caught, they tell you they only meant to borrow.
  13. They tell you little bits of the truth, like, "Oh, I placed a little $10 bet this week in the office pool, didn't I tell you?" and you say, "Oh, that's okay," when the fact is they lost a thousand on the big game last Sunday.
  14. They usually have addictions. Some more destructive than others. Some more obvious than others. The question here is, which came first? Did the lying develop to cover for the addiction or did the addiction develop to placate the guilt over lying? Or do they both have the same not-yet-understood root cause? Does it matter?
Bottom line, sociopaths USE people. Depending on their needs and the severity of their disconnection from reality, they may feed off your time, your money, your affection, or all of the above. For a while, you may get what you need out of the relationship, as well, and you may think you can maintain a balance, but sociopaths are vampiric in nature: they're selfish and single-minded. Once a sociopath finds a giver he takes and takes until the source is tapped out, or wises up and severs ties.

In print, most of this looks like simple immaturity, but what's acceptable in a five-year-old is not acceptable in an adult. Anyone over the age of five should have a basic grasp of fair play, for example telling the truth, paying back what you owe someone, sharing toys and dividing labor. For a grown-up to not have a grasp of these basic concepts.... well, it's mentally deficient.

Friday, July 14, 2006

graphophobia? logophobia? oatesophobia?

I'm actually feeling a little afraid of writing.

My writer's meeting is scheduled for Saturday, after being rescheduled because a couple of people couldn't make it. I haven't been to a meeting since... March? February? although I saw some of them at the Con in May. I haven't written anything since February, either, although I've done some light editing, a little brainstorming, and been reading a good bit.

Today I have some downtime. Now would be the ideal time to open up a Trace file, or a blank document, and go to town. But the whole thing sounds draining, dangerous. As if it will get hold of me and drag me down, and I don't have time for that right now.

I've had this feeling before. Rather frequently, the last couple years. Probably means I've got too much on my plate. Looking forward to seeing the group tomorrow, though. Be nice to see some different faces, think about something other than tai chi for a bit. (My tai chi is somewhat less sucky today, but we'll talk about that later.)

I finished the Oates book yesterday. Pretty much skimmed the last third of it. My question is, if this is autobiographical, as she admits, why on earth would she want to portray herself in such a negative light? It's a vaguely picaresque structure, as nothing really adds up and there is no plot arc, only a series of incidents that I suppose are meant to shape the heroine's life, but I can't see any cause-and-effect, particularly because she tends to end chapters with shocking scenes, and then pick up in the next chapter, several months or years later, with no follow-up. Her very failure to reexamine or impose meaning upon these incidents nullifies any point or value they might have otherwise implied. The only thing I took away from this book was the heroine's apparent sense of worthlessness, from being abandoned as a child, contributing directly to her spitefulness, coldness, and willingness to prostitute herself in the name of literary advancement as an adult.

What made it particularly horrifying to me was, I could identify with a lot of it. Not the abandonment parts, but the literary bent of mind, the schizoid simultaneous superiority/inferiority complexes (I think all artists suffer from that), the detachment from peers who aren't really. So it made it all the more repugnant when I was reading along, nodding in empathy, and suddenly the woman leaps into an affair with her graduate professor. I mean, ew. And on top of that, Oates has a strong, distinctive style, which has left an aftertaste on my brain and might be useful if I were working on something contemporary and nihilistic (maybe I should dig out "Skinpatch" again?) but would be highly detrimental to my mellerdramatic (and defiantly optimistic) everyday escapist fare.

I think I'll go find a nice Dean Koontz novel to wash my brain out.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

English slurring

I met with my SP last weekend and we did some forms-practice, in preparation for the tournament (I did mention the tournament coming up, didn't I?). We video'd each other doing our forms. Last night I watched the DVD for the first time.

I SUCK BIG TIME. Which is distressing enough on its own, but what's worse is, I had no inkling of the ways in which I suck. Okay, I knew about the lax hands, but I had no idea of how much excess movement I was putting into everything--elbows flapping like chicken wings, ankles flopping like dead chicken necks, hips wiggling around like I'm in a hula competition.

Tai chi is supposed to be about efficiency: a minimum of strength and movement to get the job done. I've known this for a while. I thought that was what I was doing. Of course it's been a really really long time since I saw any footage of myself doing form. Sit's told me a couple of times in the last year that I was using "too much hand movement" and I thought I'd curbed that but apparently that was only the tip of the iceburg.

I called up my SP and said, "Why didn't you tell me I was lurching around like Johnny Depp in that lousy pirate sequal and with just as little purpose?" He said he didn't feel comfortable criticizing my form. And I go, "Look, buddy, who else is supposed to tell me these things?" since Sit rarely hands out individual instruction unless you ask for it and replace his roof first.

But what REALLY has me worried is that both my SP and my Sifu seem to think that my staff form is one of my weaker forms, and when I watched it on DVD I thought it was the most clean and precise of all. My SP says I don't have the body movement coordinated yet, but at least I'm not waving my limbs around like semaphore flags. Furthermore, everyone generally agrees that the fan form is my best form, but to me it looked pretty damn loose. So it's hard to know if what I see as incorrect, others see as simply my "style."

The irony of this is that I probably started getting floppy in my form because I've been doing more application this year. Because I'm generally smaller and lighter than my opponents I've developed the habit of putting a little English on my body movement: turning left slightly before turning right, feinting back before going forward, etc. In some movements that's appropriate but I suspect I apply it too universally, because Sit's always telling me, "Too much movement!"

So I could claim that the sloppiness in application has been spilling over into my form. But that assumes my form was clean to begin with, and I'm not that arrogant. My SP, trying to make me feel better, said that everybody's form degenerates over time, especially if you're not constantly practicing and checking yourself. It's like a kinetic game of "Gossip"--where the movement morphs a little with each repetition, until it's barely recognizable anymore.

I could also claim that the rounder, more advanced forms I've been learning over the last nine months have contributed to the breakdown in precision of the older, squarer forms. In college I had friends who went over to England for a year of study and came back with these clipped little pseudo-accents that took some months to fade. I could assume it's the same type of thing going on with my forms--I've adopted a new accent without realizing it.

So I don't know what's causing it, or what I should do to fix it. It deserves to be said that I'm primarily comparing myself to my sparring partner, who has a very clean, minimalist form, but who could stand to loosen up in application. He's a rock. I'm water. We need to meet somewhere in the middle.

A really big mirror would help. So would another three weeks of 24/7 practice time. After much hemming and hawing I registered as an Advanced competitor. Pretty ballsy, considering this is my first major competition (I've done two small local ones). The rules state that if you've had more than 4 years of training that makes you Advanced, but everyone knows which of the masters encourage their students to downgrade themselves in order to win more medals. I've been doing taiji since 1999, but I've only been with Sit since 2001, and I missed most of 2002 and a good chunk of 2004. That still totals out to at least four years, and I couldn't bring myself to lie.

Sigh. It's times like this when you really feel the size of your pond.

Monday, July 10, 2006

the Princess Leia look

As promised, here are some pics of me in my new white uniform, posing in vaguely taiji-like stances. I really need to get those hands focused.

The uniform is a linen/cotton blend, very soft and lightweight, and the silver trim is silk dupioni. I will never understand why people complain about sewing with silk; in my experience it's a lot easier to negotiate with than say, a polyester of the same weight and weave. Charmeuse and satin are just plain difficult, regardless of fiber composition.

I had my sparring partner come by Saturday for his final fitting. Everything looks hunky-dory, especially the fit of the jacket. It's a revelation to a lot of people, myself included, that a uniform need not be oversized and billowing in order to allow mobility. There are tricks to fitting that are different from contemporary Western wear, especially in the sleeves, but you can get a nice clean tailored look and still be able to raise your arms. Which is why I don't understand why women's off-the-rack jackets are designed to hold one's arms rigidly at one's side. You can't even drive comfortably in them! But that's hardly the most heinous of fashion's crimes against mobility, so we won't dwell on it. I usually have to take in the waists of my jackets anyway, so I take the sleeve off at the same time and rotate the sleeve cap toward the back. Amazing how that works.

My SP's uniform is black. It has a dark gold facing on the inside, but it probably won't show much. I bought the buttons for it yesterday. Plan to do the hemming tonight. More pictures soon....

Thursday, July 06, 2006

from the sweatshop

Took Vera out for her first big run this weekend. (Having Monday and Tuesday off for Independence Day was a major break, and much appreciated.) I got my white taiji suit all finished, buttons on and everything. It fits perfectly, is quite cool, and looks pretty keen. I showed it to the gang last night, just hanging on the hanger, and Sit quipped, "Is that for me?" to which someone replied, "It's a bit low-cut for you." It's white with silver piping and buttons, and I hope to get pictures up this weekend, but don't hold me to that.

I also got my S.P.'s suit all put together, leaving the side seams unfinished so I could do the fitting. The collar fit pretty good, and the sleeve length was good, but the shoulders and body were much too wide. I can't figure that out: how did I manage to measure that far off? It's one of the mysteries of fitting that still don't make sense to me. I'm not even sure that my measurements were at fault, it's just something about the calculation of ease in a garment. Ah well--better too big than too small. It will be a fairly simple thing to rip out the sleeves and take in the excess.

The pants, now... that's scary. I haven't made as many pants, and I'm never sure how much ease to leave in the rise (crotch). Since these are kung-fu pants I was considering putting a gusset in the crotch, and I guess that can't go amiss even if it's not strictly necessary. What scares me is that I've got the rise too long as it currently is, and I don't know how much to take out. There has to be a compromise between comfort and fit. I've found that in kung-fu pants you want the crotch to fit fairly close, because if it hangs low the pants will catch across your thighs during kicks and that's what causes the rip-outs. But you don't want that center seam to bind, either, especially on your male clients.

It's a learning curve. And this attempt was better than the one I made last year. The collar fit well, at least, and the front placket and seams look good. I'll just nip and tuck a bit and it should be fine.

Oh, and Vera performed beautifully: strong, quiet, precise and smooth. I'm kind of incredulous to realize how I was making excuses for that old machine, telling myself I didn't need a new one because it wasn't that bad, but really I was making excuses out of fear: fear of change, fear of the cost. I kept putting up with the dropped stitches and the bobbin thread that was always coming loose and snarling (making more work for me to rip out and clean up), and the way the thread would pull out of the needle on the first upstroke, and I wouldn't even notice for several inches that it was only making holes, not stitching. It was infuriating and depressing, but I just gritted my teeth and kept on sewing, because it takes so much more inertia to leave what you know. Deep down I knew there were much better models available, better suited to my needs, carefully maintained models with precision gears and strong hard exteriors.

I guess the sewing angels were looking out for me. My new machine is so much more dependable and gratifying. Thank God I had the sense to recognize the bargain.

Monday, June 26, 2006


I'd wanted a new sewing machine for a while. I didn't quite need a new one, as I've been getting by well enough with an awl and some bailing wire, but my old machine was a stripped-down "learn to sew" display model that I bought at a steep markdown, so it was made of plastic and didn't have a lot of features.

I've shopped a bit for sewing machines over the past few years, and haven't been real impressed with what I saw. Machines for home sewers have been extensively computerized in the past decade, and like home computers, home sewing machines tend to come packed full of extras that the average user will never need; they just add up to more expense.

For myself, I knew I wanted a machine that could handle heavy-duty vinyl and duck canvas, but could also handle delicate silks. I wanted an extended table attachment and a knee-lift lever for the pressure foot. And I needed a model that had plenty of accessories available, so I could get additional feet as I needed them.

What I didn't want was a lot of computerized geegaws. All those fancy stitches look pretty impressive in the store, but I'm unimpressed with their quality--the stitch never looks as tidy as the little icon in the instruction manual. And seriously, who really needs to sew her name into her creations? A real designer will have custom clothing tags made.

But as with computers, I was having a hard time finding the mechanical features I wanted without going to a higher-end model that had a lot of electronic stuff I didn't need or want to pay for. Furthermore, I had a sort of secret yen for a machine with metal innards, which is pretty much impossible to find in a home-use machine these days. Up until the seventies, sewing machines were all metal--cases, gears, and all--and they weighed as much as a Buick. I imagine that the high cost of gas and shipping made this uneconomical for the manufacturers; besides, the average home sewer doesn't have a place to keep her machine set up permanently, and it's a real chore to lug a forty-pound machine out of the closet and onto the kitchen table. I remember my mom complaining about it, and I remember being afraid to drop it on my foot when I was a kid. Still, there's no denying that the metal gears are stronger and more durable. I may not be a carpenter or an auto mechanic but I like my tools to be built solid.

So I went looking at sewing machines this weekend. I may have mentioned that I've got a lot of sewing to do right now; my tai chi uniform is mostly done but I still have my sparring partner's to do, plus a weapons case that I should've finished up in January. And my machine, bless its little plastic heart, is protesting the strain. I think I messed up its timing while I was sewing on the vinyl, and its cams have not disengaged cleanly for some time now.

I took my sparring partner along for the ride. He's a craftsman too, albeit a woodworker, so he has a general eye for quality and a shared admiration for tools that are substantial and hard to move. Also, he has this naive idea that once I get a better machine, he can pay me to tailor his shirts and pants. I told him that was fine, provided he didn't want to wear them while they were still in style.

The first place we stopped at sold Brother machines, which were adequate, and in my price range ($400-$700), but were lacking in the weight-and-substance column. The next shop sold Janome machines, which I've always rather admired; they are well-made and moderately high-dollar. Still made of plastic, but it was a better grade of plastic and I liked the feel of their operation. The model I really admired was $1200, but there was another for about $890 that would have suited. It was electronic and had a lot of stitches I didn't need, but it was the lowest-end model that still had the table and knee-lift attachments I wanted. Why is that? Why the assumption that only a serious sewer is going to want the convenience of those features, and why does a "serious" sewer need all that extra crap?

It seems to me--it has always seemed to me--that a really serious artist/craftsman needs fewer tools than anybody. It's like in cooking: forget all that Pampered Chef crap--a chef's knife, a wooden spoon and a heat-resistant spatula are about all you need. But Americans have too much disposable income and too much ego and advertisers prey on that--they convince you that to be really serious about your chosen craft/hobby/vocation you've got to have every conceivable gadget ever made--as if these gadgets will miraculously imbue you with an encyclopedic knowledge of spices and the ability to gauge when the bread dough is perfectly elastic. You wish.

I had pretty much decided I wanted the Janome, and figured I could check out some online sources and find one at a steep discount. Nevertheless, I like to be thorough, and there is a newly-opened Pfaff store in town. Now, I dislike Pfaff as a general rule. Pfaffs are like BMW's or Mercedes: well-made but overpriced, and if they break you've got to take them back to the dealer. Significantly, they are marketed to the wives of men who drive BMW's and Mercedes. If you go into a Pfaff store you quickly realize that the machine is only incidental to the cult you're buying into. When you buy a Pfaff, you automatically get classes. Not on how to sew, but on how to run the machine. They offer retreats. There are a myriad of "exclusive" accessories and publications and patterns to buy. And none of it will make you a better sewer. None of it will teach you how to design a dress, or fit a pair of pants, or draft your own patterns. It's just designed to make you spend more money and coo over the cute-but-useless wall hangings of your peers. It's an expensive variation on the "Quick-Easy-Fun!/Do It Yourself!" cross-stitch starter kits you see in Wal-Mart.

Anyway. The lady in the Pfaff store was breathtakingly patronizing. There was a "retreat" in progress when we came in, and she didn't seem to have time to wait on me. She asked me immediately what kind of sewing I did, and then my price range. I already knew I didn't want to pay her prices, so I said, "Doesn't matter." She immediately took me to the bottom-barrel "starter machine," which was still $1400 on sale. But she didn't want me to touch it--oh no. She wanted to demo everything, and she put special emphasis on the miracle of their dual-track feeding system, which apparently justifies the extra grand in cost. Then she leapt right into the closing--told me about payment plans and how they'll accept old machines in trade.

My S.P. was smirking, and I was rolling my eyes, because frankly I was not impressed with that dual-track feeding, and I didn't like the vibration of the thing, and it was still made of plastic. So I got a brochure from the woman and we beat it for the door, but on the way we were distracted by the bright gleam of sunlight on--could it be? It was!--metal.

Beside the exit was a rack of traded-in, refurbished machines, and smack in the middle was a thirty-five-year-old Bernina, solid die-cast aluminum at a guess, in mint condition. Now, Bernina is another high-end name, and this was a high-end machine in its day. They were asking $500 for it, which is probably what the thing retailed for in 1978 (i.e. about two grand today), but it was the home-sewing equivalent of, say, a 1978 Mercedes. And it looked barely-used.

I made my S.P. drag it out of the shelf and onto a display table, since it weighed about eighty pounds, and I made the snippy lady go back in the storage room and dig out the accessories. I'm guessing this Bernina was bought as a gift for some 70's rich housewife who never used it any more than the 2006 rich housewives will use their new Pfaffs, because the equipment looked barely touched. There was a knee-lift, an extended table attachment (which came off to allow free-arm use), and about seven extra feet, some of which I don't even know how to use, yet. Fortunately, the instruction manual was tucked inside the case, so I can learn. The machine itself was fabulously smooth and quiet, ran as precisely as a watch, and all the dials and switches had a real positive feel to them, gliding cleanly from one setting to the next with no resistance, no sound, just a palpable thunk as the gear slid into place. The stitch-selector on top is a thin metal tongue that shifts in and out of gear teeth just like the stick shift in a car. It's got about thirty different stitches, including overlock and blind hemming. And it all closed up inside its own carrying case.

I bought it. I don't like racking up extra debt when I'm trying to pay everything down, but I look at this as an investment. And considering that I got what I wanted for about a third of what I was considering spending, I'd say it was a good value.

I think I'll call her Vera.

ADDENDUM: Curiously, one of this same model, the Bernina 930 Record, sold on eBay the same day I bought mine. Only it sold for a good deal more than I paid....

Monday, June 12, 2006

I feel like a reserve-choice for Prom

In case you were wondering, "End of the Line" is still sitting on the desk of a prominent editor, who has been dithering since January over whether to include it in a prestigious and well-paying new market. Their interest has been consistent but uncommitted; my story has run the gauntlet of first-readers and other underlings and is now camped out on the editor's desk, hoping they'll have time, space and money to buy it. They're hanging onto it, but they tell me they are hopelessly overbought and won't be ready to make a decision on EOTL until October or so.

Ergo I'm pretty much stuck, unable to submit it anywhere else while they've still got it. And they know they've got me stuck because of the damnable length of the thing (very few markets will take anything that long) and because nobody else pays as much as they do.

Just to demonstrate how conditioned we writers become to abuse, my primary response is gratitude: at least this editor keeps me informed on submission status. If I were actually writing/submitting/marketing right now I might be more annoyed, but for now I only shake my head and keep listening to Goth rock. There's more than enough crap in my personal life right now to keep me distracted, and maybe some of my competitors, with more self-respect or better prospects, will get tired of the wait and drop out. It'd sure be a nice paycheck at the end of the year.