Sunday, October 23, 2011

the week in brief

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

Saturday: Class. Exhausted. Knees hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Buy insulation. Winterize house.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NaNoWriMo reality check

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

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 But upon reflection it kind of encapsulates everything I hate about amateur writers (and I don't mean unpublished writers.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 03, 2011

crockpot beef ragout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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