Monday, November 26, 2007

reading the manual

I've been practicing tai chi.

I think my brain finally realized we were out of sewing obligations and it could focus on what we wanted to do. And as I said to the SP the other day, I think I'm at a place of better understanding than I ever have been before--I can remind myself to drop the elbows, to round the back, to relax the hip and commit the weight-shift, and actually manage to do those things for a second or two at a time. It's just that the muscles are not trained and they are still fighting the brain.

Sit sat me down a few weeks ago and gave me a mild lecture about this. "You got the knowledge now," was the gist of what he said. "Key now is to repeat, repeat, so sometimes you get it right by accident. Then you remember what it feels like to do it right, and you do that again and again until it's easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing."

"I think the difference is you're starting to believe it now," the SP told me. And he may be right.

It's an axiom of martial arts that the older the student, the more time he spends unlearning bad habits. This is especially true if the student is self-taught or had a bad teacher before. You don't want to admit that you were doing something wrong before, so you fight the new knowledge that may be incompatible.

I taught myself to sew, mostly, so I spent a lot of time reinventing the wheel, and being an impatient child I had no interest in pressing or finishing my seams or any of the neatening and shaping skills that make a garment look professional instead of homemade. But the first time I made a corset, I knew it was not the time to cut corners. The parts were expensive and the fit was crucial to the entire outfit, not to mention my own comfort. It intimidated me so much I actually followed the instructions, which not only turned out a fabulous corset but taught me the value of planning ahead and doing things the right way, instead of the "quick" way. You might say I owe the bulk of my sewing competency to that corset pattern (Laughing Moon Mercantile 'Dore' corset pattern, best on the market).

I went through an even more profound struggle with my writing, because the writing was more connected to my ego, and I'd had too many bad teachers trying to convince me of the "right" way to do things. By the time I was twenty-eight I knew I was a good writer, but I knew also I wasn't good enough and it was terribly frustrating. I couldn't find that extra "something" that would make the story satifying; I didn't even know what it was, and there was no one I could ask. With no better options, I joined and spent a year reading a lot of really bad fiction. Gradually and unconsciously, I realized that a story arc has to bend back on itself to be satisfying, and there was nothing "trite" or "slick" about that, regardless of what my college prof insisted: there was a structure to it, as deliberate as that in a corset.

I found myself writing Quinn Taylor stories in a feverish fugue--story ideas I'd had in mind for years, but never knew what to do with them, how to make them relevant. At some point during that year of critting mediocre fiction, I'd begun to assimilate what Algis Budrys meant by "point," and why Mark Walters kept going on about "transcending the literal," but the only way my unconscious could get the knowledge past my ego was via a new story, since writing for me has always felt a lot like lucid dreaming. Writing "Galatea" was beyond lucid, it was like an out-of-body experience: looking down on my car, and the road, and the countryside I was travelling, able to trace the route at the same time I could feel the gearshift in my hand, my fingers wrapped around the wheel, my foot on the gas. So this is how it works, I thought with awe, whenever I paused to crack my knuckles and stare at the words. And this is how the next scene will work. And I'd go on.

I think the tai chi ability, when it comes together, is going to feel a lot like that. On occasional nights when I'm in the zone, I feel my fingers and body moving, I feel the carpet in the arches of my feet and the air molecules brushing my arms, but it's like I'm watching myself from outside my body. Only for a second or two at a time; but I've read accounts from the masters, and Sit too has said that a fighter must detatch himself in that way. Last Saturday I was working with the new Soccer Mom in class, and she's spastic and bouncy and laughing nervously, but I just strode up and took a stance and waved her to begin the pattern. "You're so serious!" she said after a while. "It's like you're so focused." I was in the zone, so the compliment had no effect on me emotionally, I just nodded and went on the sequence. But now I remember how detached and intimidating Zack always seemed to me. I never saw him outside of class, but inside, he was all business.

It has helped to have some padawans around, so I can watch their mistakes. It has helped also to attend tournament and watch the videos so I can see more advanced people and see what works. It has helped, God help me, to actually practice and pay attention to what my body is telling me and what Sit is showing me. One small concept at a time, applied.

On a whim the other night I went back and re-read Sit's bio and history pages. For years, Chinese names have been so much static in my head, because they all sound alike to my untrained English-speaking ear. But I guess I've been listing to the old man long enough that the sheer repetition has permeated. I've found I can read Pinyin phonetics and hear their pronunciation in my head. I can even pronounce them aloud, enough that Sit can understand what I'm getting at and correct me--a dialogue that goes something like this:

Me: How do you say this? "Coy?"
Sit: Cui.
Me: Cuoy?
Sit: Cui.
Me: Cuoyee?
Sit: No.

And so on. But at least I'm recognizing more of it, so I can follow along and get meaning from it. The osmosis is finally penetrating.

Last night I was doing some high-level qi gong, one which involves swinging the arms forward at an arc. You're supposed to do a hundred repetitions of it. At about fifty reps, it starts to hurt. At about seventy, I had to start slacking the muscles in my upper arms to continue, because the biceps were exhausted. At about ninety, I realized I could swing from the hip (uh...yeah, like you've been told 10,000 times or so!) and spare the shoulder and arms altogether--I had only to stretch the fingertips to keep the arc going. The last five or so were transcendent-- I am still, this morning, trying to remember what it felt like--like a dream you know was a wake-up call from your subconscious.

The salient point here, however, is not that I remembered to swing from the hip--it's that I did the move the prescribed 100 times and got so tired that I was forced to do it correctly.

Crazy what happens when you follow the instructions.

Friday, November 23, 2007

three-second rule

"Okay," Mom said, "Now I'm going to pick up this rack and I want you to slide the turkey off onto the platter--try not to turn it over."

"Okay." She tilted, and I guided with a couple of slotted spoons, and the bird slithered and lurched onto the platter mostly intact. A bit of meat skittered free and leapt of the counter onto the freshly-scrubbed floor.

I bent quickly to pick it up, bare-handed.

"It's hot!" Mom warned.

"I got it!" I said, and shifting it back and forth like a baked potato, I shifted it under the tap and rinsed it off. "What is that, anyway?" It wasn't a neck, and it sure wasn't the liver.

"The gizzard," Mom said. "Your grandpa will want that, wash it off and put it back in the pan; it'll go in with the stuffing and the germs'll get cooked off it."

We are not terribly concerned, in our family, about food that hits the floor or the counters in our house, as long as it can be rinsed off; we keep things fairly clean and figure that any minor extra bacteria strengthens our immune systems. Perhaps because of this, we are a healthy lot. But the gizzard was hot, and I tried to impale it on the meat fork to spare my fingers.

Gizzards are tough, however, and hard to impale. The gush of water knocked the giblet off the tines and straight down the garbage disposal.

"Oh man," I said.

"Ugh," Mom said. "Okay, we don't want it out of there. Fish it out and give it to the dog. Just don't tell your grandpa there was one."

There was a fair amount of giggling and burned fingers as I fished it out of the drain, still steaming. The dog was more than happy to choke it down, gnawing around the edges in the frigid air outside.

"Didn't that bird have a gizzard?" Gramps asked at the dinner table.

Me and Mom and Dad looked at each other, smirking. "Uh..."

"Sorta yes," Dad said, and we cracked up.

"What, did it fall on the floor?" Gramps said.

"Sorta yes again," Dad said.

"That was the first thing," I said.

"I guess the dog got it, huh?"

"Pretty much," Dad said, while the three of us roared and the rest of the family looked at us as if we were crazy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

soapbox break

Two articles of note today. And I apologize in advance for the second one.


First: turkey does not, in fact, make you sleepy.
[The myth] is that there's a natural chemical in turkey called tryptophan that makes you sleepy after the Thanksgiving meal.

Turkey does have tryptophan. But all meat has tryptophan at comparable levels. Cheddar cheese, gram for gram, has more. Turkey gets singled out for no other reason than being eaten during the biggest meal of the year.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. Human bodies need tryptophan to build certain kinds of proteins. There is a sleep connection, though. The body uses tryptophan in a multi-step process to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps regulate sleep.

In essence, big meals with any food containing tryptophan can cause sleepiness. The real culprits are all those carbohydrates from potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, bread and pie. The massive intake of carb-heavy calories stimulates the release of insulin, which in turn triggers the uptake of most amino acids from the blood into the muscles except for tryptophan.

With other amino acids swept out of the bloodstream, tryptophan—from turkey or ham or any meat or cheese, for that matter—can better make its way to the brain to produce serotonin. Without that insulin surge, tryptophan would have to compete with all the other kinds of amino acids in the big meal as they make their way to the brain via a common chemical transport route.

Ergo: eat the meat and vegetables, go light on the startches, and you won't feel so miserable for the rest of the weekend.

I'm fairly sure that the "sleepy-turkey myth" is another one of those memes composed and promoted by the meat-is-murder crowd. I think I'll make up a bumper sticker that says "Vegans for Rickets!"


Second, and far more nausea-inducing, is this nasty little tidbit from Saudi Arabia:
The Saudi judiciary on Tuesday defended a court verdict that sentenced a 19-year-old victim of a gang rape to six months in jail and 200 lashes because she was with an unrelated male when they were attacked.

The Shiite Muslim woman had initially been sentenced to 90 lashes after being convicted of violating Saudi Arabia's rigid Islamic law requiring segregation of the sexes.

But in considering her appeal of the verdict, the Saudi General Court increased the punishment. It also roughly doubled prison sentences for the seven men convicted of raping the woman, Saudi news media said last week.

And I had been under the impression that Saudi Arabia was one of the more liberal, secular Middle Eastern nations.

There's really nothing I can say about it, that isn't already obvious to those of us living in a post-Magna-Carta world. If I were fabulously wealthy and anonymous, I'd employ a private team of mercs to follow up on incidents like this.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

lacking the spirit of gluttony

I hate to say it, but I'm just not in a Thanksgiving frame of mind. I'm looking forward to the days off, and seeing the family, but the whole idea of a massive meal is, frankly, turning my stomach.

I already arranged with Mom to bring over a ham, and my grandparents are providing the turkey. Mother is the champion baker in the family, so she's doing the rolls, two pumpkin pies and a cherry. Then I'll help her fix mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans and salad. I expect she'll have cranberry relish, too; that's another of her specialities.

It's a generous spread, and less obnoxious than some families. We don't eat sweet potatoes, for one thing, and we don't bother with cocktails or appetizers. We make everything from scratch, more or less. Dessert is purely voluntary.

It's just... I've dropped back to lower-carb intake and have lost a couple pounds. I've been gradually sloughing off the five pounds I put on in the first year of marriage.

And the cost of food has gone up so much. I hate to see all this excess. I just did my Monday-night clearing out of the leftovers in preparation for the garbage man on Tuesday, and although we're pretty good about eating leftovers, I still found a couple of dishes in the back that I'd forgotten about.

And maybe I shouldn't have eaten that Taco Bell for lunch. Yes, that's probably where the nausea comes from.

Oh well. It's two more days yet and I'll have class Wednesday night. Perhaps I can work up an appetite. I just wish there were more vegetables involved. Maybe I could roast some and take them. And maybe I'll just have salad for dinner tonight.

Monday, November 19, 2007

marking the end of year one

Sunday was our first wedding anniversary. It was lovely. We slept late, lounged around and read for a bit, went out for brunch around noon, came home and cleaned out the garage, got into some nice clothes and went out for a seafood dinner. And if that's not your idea of a terrific day, well, it's a good thing you're not married to us.

Seriously, the cleaning out the garage part made both of us chipper. The SP's been wanting to do it since I moved in there, we threw out a tremendous amount of stuff that needed throwing out (including, literally, a kitchen sink. And a lavatory sink. And a commode.), stacked up all the lovely bits of wood he's been hoarding for someday projects, and made a nice open bare space of floor where he can put the table saw and start cutting boards for trim and the workbench in my office. He's excited about it. He's so motivated now he's talking about starting on the living room demolition. That probably won't happen for months yet, but the sight of those clean painted walls makes you feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

This weekend is Thanksgiving. Tony's taking Friday off, and we're going to move in the table saw and maybe buy lumber for my workbench. "We're going to get a lot done this weekend," he said. I'm excited!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

wow, I'm that student now

We had a very fun taiji class last night. We started off with the "kicks" form, which is the more difficult tai chi form Sit likes us to use in competition, then did some hand-to-hand, then did some Chen style form and a little more hand-to-hand. Sit taught us a new way to practice 'receiving' an attack, then he slapped us around the room a bit. Of course we were giddy and giggling and enjoying ourselves, which just got him wound up and we got out of there way late... again.

I should mention that I've been having an upswing of interest in tai chi the last month or so. Although I groused and groaned about having the Wookie in class, in part because Sit started over teaching the first form to him, there is definitely merit in re-learning the basics when you're at a more advanced level. It's like picking up a book you've read many times, and getting something new out of it.

As a result of this reviewing, I've been conscientiously "tightening up my form" as my Sparring Parter puts it. For the last two years I've been unhappy with the way I "walk" through my form: appearing to fall into stances instead of shifting with control from one foot to the other. Under Sit's correction, and with the luxury of knowing the sequence already, which allows me to pay attention to details, I have made some serious adjustments to my footwork. Part of it is just planning ahead, knowing what the next move will be, but in order to be prepared, I had to widen my stances slightly, and fully commit the weight-shift from one foot to the other. These two changes together provide more stability and control, but to do them safely and comfortably I found I had to drop my hip and flex the knee, which--coincidentally enough--is one of things Sit has been repeating ad nauseum for the last six years.

Tony noticed the change. "Your horse stance is looking a lot better," he said to me a couple weeks ago. "I noticed while we were in kung fu class, you were the only one without your butt sticking out."

This is high praise indeed.

Furthermore, a few days ago I was working on fan form (the second form I ever learned, and full of deeply-embedded bad habits) in the living room, and he remarked that my back stance was also improved, for the same reason. In all these stances, the joints are supposed to act as shock absorbers, and they cannot perform that function if they are locked and stiff. It takes a very long time for most students to lose that hip tension. Especially if they don't practice much.

Sit's been keen on "discipline" the last couple weeks. He read Chuck Norris' autobiography, and I guess ol' Chuck had some impressive dedication to his training during his salad days. "The secret is to go with your B-plan," Sit said last night. "You make up a list, say, 'I'm going to do an hour everyday.' But that's too extreme, so you fail. So you say you going to do half an hour everyday. That much you can do. So you stick with it."

My plans are even more modest than that, but I think I can do them. For a while I was quite good at practicing, if not daily, then at least 45 minutes, three days a week when not in class. I think now I want to strive for two forms a day--any of the six forms I'm likely to do for competition, done twice a day, at a slow, focused pace, with good structure--plus 30 minutes of meditation in the evening. Meditation is good stuff. You feel great after you do it, but for me it's like writing: I can find every excuse not to start on it until it's too late to do it.

Last Saturday, one of the new students, a guy who's been coming to us about nine months, who teaches Yoga on the side, asked me and Tony what our practice schedule was like. "Uh... one of us says to the other, 'you wanna practice?' And the other one goes, 'nuuhhhh, I'm reading this,' and the first one picks on them until they get up and fight back," I told him. Meanwhile Tony had caught my arms above my head and was dragging me around in circles, dusting the floor with the butt of my sweatpants.

Yoga-boy laughed. "So how many forms are there? How many do you guys know?"

That took some counting on fingers. We tallied up about fifteen forms that Sit teaches, that we know; there are others we've seen but he hasn't taught them during our tenure. Some he has compiled himself, from traditional sources. Some were handed down to him. Tony knows a couple more than I do. A couple that I know, like the Six Elbows Internal form and the traditional tai chi sword form, I only know the first half of, because they are very long forms and Sit wants me to polish up the beginning segments to fit in the 3.5 minute time-limit of competition.

Yoga-boy looked impressed. And I was impressed, too, because I remembered asking those same questions of Zack and Tim back when I was fairly new, and I realized that my Sparring Partner and I have become Those Students--the ones that the newbies look up to. I've complained before about how they slow the class down, and I don't get to learn more form because Sit's time is taken up with them, but the simple truth of it is, I've probably improved more this year than I would've otherwise, because I've been forced to retread familiar ground, cleaning and polishing, and because Sit keeps telling me to stand in front during lessons so the new kids can follow my movements. It makes me a lot more aware of what I'm doing, and I pay more attention to the way he teaches, so if I have to lead exercises I know what he just showed them and can duplicate it. Also, watching their awkwardness in the stances makes me understand my own posture more; kind of like critting other people's stories helped me consolidate my understanding of how to put a plot together.

Of course it's true that you learn the most while teaching others. I just hadn't had anybody new to teach in a while.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

chai custard breakfast smoothie

Take 1 cup freshly brewed chai tea, add: 1/2 cup milk, 1/4 cup cream, and 1 egg thoroughly beaten together. Pour into saucepan; add 2-3 spoonfulls honey or to taste. Whisk gently over medium heat until just slightly thickened (about 3-5 min). Pour into go-mug and drink while driving.


(I had my doubts about all those smoothies with raw egg in them, but then I experimented with making custards last winter when I was sick. When all the liquids are blended together and warmed, the egg is no longer raw. Much more nutritious than a sugary cup of coffee. And nicely warm on a cold morning!)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering

So I'm in the middle of reading Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories. I am likely to be reading it for some time, as it is astonishingly detailed. All that medical-history research I did for Miss Fairweather now feels like practice for this book. But no matter; it's riveting reading. Explains a lot of things I had only suspected or heard alluded to.

I confess, also, that I am reacting to the book rather as a hyperactive Christian would react to, say, The Bible Code or the latest LaHaye dissertation, which is to think here, at last, is the incontrovertable evidence that we were right all along!

Even though I know it doesn't work that way. Forget science: health is a religion and always has been. A quick look at the reviews on Amazon is confirmation: the believers will believe more strongly; the anti-fat, anti-meat crowd will just be further alienated.

It's kind of alarming how people talk about diets in terms of ethics. "Raising meat uses up too much land and energy! We shouldn't be living so well when the rest of the world is starving! Meat is murder!" I've actually seen people claim that the book of Genesis forbids eating meat, which is... um, no. God is pro-barbeque, trust me on this.

And dieters flagellate themselves just like the faithful in the face of disaster. I can't tell you how many women I know who are fat and tired from starchy diets and inadequate protein (or worn down with fatigue and stress from letting life batter them while they wait for Jesus to make it better), with brittle hair and nails and smiles, who just insist they feel so much better since they went vegetarian (since I put my trust in the Lord!). They sincerely believe that 1100 calories a day will make them slim, healthy and happy, if they fill up on water and fiber (if I just keep praying about it), and they just know that thirty pounds (massive debt/brutal husband/parasitic daughter) is going to drop off as soon as I get back to being really good about cutting out the fat (getting active in the church) again.

Funny side note--the folks I know who are most hard-core vegetarians tend to be kind of indifferent about religion--or embrace a feel-good amorphous "spirituality" instead of a particular faith. I wonder why. Maybe it's just the crowd I hang out with.

Ok--y'all know I hate evangelism. I shall strive not to wave the Taubes book in the face of all the rice-eaters I know. But here on my own blog, I will testify! And I will not be ashamed! The truth will set you free!

The 11 Commandments.... um, Critical Conclusions of Good Calories, Bad Calories: (taken from the publisher's site--and even I have trouble grasping some of these, despite my own observations about exercise)
  1. Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, does not cause heart disease.
  2. Carbohydrates do, because of their effect on the hormone insulin. The more easily-digestible and refined the carbohydrates and the more fructose they contain, the greater the effect on our health, weight, and well-being.
  3. Sugars—sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup specifically—are particularly harmful. The glucose in these sugars raises insulin levels; the fructose they contain overloads the liver.
  4. Refined carbohydrates, starches, and sugars are also the most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, and the other common chronic diseases of modern times.
  5. Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating and not sedentary behavior.
  6. Consuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter any more than it causes a child to grow taller.
  7. Exercise does not make us lose excess fat; it makes us hungry.
  8. We get fat because of an imbalance—a disequilibrium—in the hormonal regulation of fat tissue and fat metabolism. More fat is stored in the fat tissue than is mobilized and used for fuel. We become leaner when the hormonal regulation of the fat tissue reverses this imbalance.
  9. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated, we stockpile calories as fat. When insulin levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue and burn it for fuel.
  10. By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat and ultimately cause obesity. By driving fat accumulation, carbohydrates also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.
  11. The fewer carbohydrates we eat, the leaner we will be.