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.