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.