The House of Tatterdemalion

Unfashionable, unskilled, inexpensive--but still sewing.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Picky About Poiret

This is a continuation on my mini-series on the book "The Secrets of the Couturiers" by Frances Kennet. (All quotes and page numbers are referencing this book.) I include the same disclaimer as previous, that, in the large picture, this book is quite brief. I leave room for adjusting my opinions as a learn more from other sources, but this piece is written solely on the information gleaned from this book.

I am loathe to even call Paul Poiret a designer. He didn't even want to be a clothes designer. He wanted to be a painter. Either his skill was insufficient, or it simply was not satisfying enough to his ego, temper and personality. In either case, it's quite a shame that he instead inflicted himself upon women and their clothing; and quite as shameful, if not more so, that women put up with such second-rate goods--and what is more, encouraged it.

As near as I can tell, Poiret's main goal, was to shock and domineer over as many people as possible, and since he entered the field of "fashion", "people" generally meant women. If everyone else said "right", he not only said "left" but he dragged as many people as he could along with him. If the standards for models was curves, he wanted curveless models. If everyone else was using lilacs, "swooning mauves", light blues and "all that was soft, washed out, and insipid", he by default wanted strong "reds, greens, violets and royal blue".

Don't get me wrong--I don't care for insipid, washed out colors, and I'd much prefer a strong, deep red any day. But there's a difference between being stubborn and contrary because that's what you truly believe, and being stubborn and contrary because you are simply too much of an antagonistic, ornery person to do anything else--that is, to be rude simply for rudeness sake. Poiret did not care where he flung about his rebellion and scandals, as long as it got the reaction he wanted. If his collection didn't shock and offend somebody, then it was a failure (and trust me, he didn't have many failures). All of this, naturally, was sold under the title of "originality".

Perhaps I would not be so incensed by all of this--after all, I do have a rather contranarian streak myself--if it his entirely objectionable personality didn't show through quite so clearly. On page 29 his quoted as saying:

"Yes, I freed the bust, but I shackled the legs! Women complained of being no longer able to walk, nor get into a carriage. Have their complaints or grumblings ever arrested the movement of fashion, or have they not rather, on the contrary, helped it by advertising it? I made everyone wear a tight skirt."

To which I respond, with as much grace and consideration, "It sounds as though someone needs a solid kick in the backside!" And I am not entirely sure if it is Poiret, or the idiotic women who agreed to it. The book claims that ". . .in 1910, he was able to introduce hobble skirts, practically preventing his ladies from walking. And then all of Paris wore them."

First off, there is the serious problem with associating any aesthetic good with hobble skirts. Second off, there is the problem of claiming that either art or fashion trumps bodily functions, like walking and living a life. Those "designers" who hold to that thought are arrogant, egotistical, and care nothing (not even the safety and well-being) of those they claim to design for---but only of glorying in their own power and making others subject to their twisted will. The final point of disgust and revulsion is that this package is often sold as "free" or "unbound" from "conventional restraints".

Good design is not about making people suffer in the name of art. I have said it before, and I will say it again: Good design is when pleasing form marries inseparably with true function. Those who think that either can go missing without harm to the design have no idea of the challenge set out before them.

The only thing that leads me to any respect of him at all--or, at least, the only thing recorded in this book--is his "Martines". He created "a school for girls from limited backgrounds, where they were paid an income, given regular meals, and, after a short period of formal training, were left to their own devices to create design ideas. . .the girls were sent to factories to see cloth being woven, to the atelier where Dufy worked on dyeing and printing the couturier's fabrics, anywhere where Poiret thought they might find educative inspiration. The girls variously created rugs, ceramics, textiles, furniture ideas, and were paid a bonus on the designs that went into production."

There, at least, was a good idea, even if his fashion was not.

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Is There Anything New Under This Sun?

How did I get on to this thought? Here's the web-trail for those interested. I started out at the rather famous "English Cut" blog, clicked from there to another tailor's website (unfortunately mostly dead--the website not the tailor), and from there to Julian Roberts nearly unnavigable website. I had seen Julian's and Sophie's on-line cutting tutorial, but this was the first time I realized there was more to the site than what I had seen earlier. As with last time, I was impressed with his technical ability (especially his ability to approach things from different angles), but not with his artistic sense. Seeing more of his work and his writing stirred up some thoughts in me. They may seem rather unrelated to you, but if you've poked around his site, you can probably get an idea how they are all intertwined.

People who are in "creative" fields often insist that there are new things left to be created. People who buy "creative" things are apt to say "There is nothing new under the sun." The curious thing is that this saying doesn't upset the consumers--who will gladly go ahead and buy whatever it is, even if they already have 16 just like them at home (in fact, some people seem to be even happier if they can bump their collection up to 17 by buying whatever it is). It's the artists that get all upset by this thought. They tell you the cyclic nature of things can be thrown off. They tell you that you just need to think out side the box, need to work without boundaries and rules and all that constrains---and if you do, there really and truly are new things left to be created! They can be so earnest on this point, so desperate.

They have to be. If you really believe you are capable of creating something new, you must believe you will continue to do so. To say there is nothing new man can create can fill people with fear, because if there is nothing left to be created, then there is nothing left. What we have is what we get. And if what we got just isn't enough to make us happy, then it is a terrifying thought that we can create nothing truly new.

The same can be said of rules. The only time you have to be afraid of rules is if you don't like what the rules are telling you. Someone who would like to be able to fly would very like much to believe that the laws of gravity don't exist--because that law is counter to what they wish to accomplish. When you see the same rules or boundaries being repeated, it points to a lack of new creation. In an effort to overcome this shortfall, they claim to work outside of all boundaries--and in doing so, join the many others that are, and have, and will claim to be working outside of all boundaries.

The curious thing is that they believe they are buying freedom by throwing off rules, and to my eye, they are merely gaining new masters. The work of thought--of consciously guiding your hands, of taking what you have, things that have poured into you through all your senses and ability to perceive, and re-arranging it like a kaleidoscope--they can seem themes repeating themselves. They can see there are limits. And so they throw off the mind, so as to be free. They try to work instead from emotion--to let the adrenaline of the moment carry them through, to work an idea as soon as it is conceived, before it has any time to grow or mature. This, they say, is freedom. This raw emotion, this roughly hewn mass (or mess, if you prefer), this is new.

If it is new, why does it all look so old and tired to me? And why must it be new? Would it really be superior if it truly was a change, was something new? They like to mock people who are afraid of change, and they have a point. But to say that all change is good is as much a lie as saying all change is bad. Even if this was something new, it cannot use that alone as a claim to greatness.

With out rules or boundaries, things are shapeless and without from. It is only by shaping them and containing them that they gain meaning. A 6 month old child can bang on a keyboard and produce all manner of letters and combinations on the monitor--but where is their meaning or worth? The artist can throw away all guiding thought, and be reduced to producing the emotional temper-tantrum of a two year old---with more technical ability, but with no more meaning or purpose. Ah, the sweetness of freedom; now we are free to scream mindlessly and flail our limbs! So much greater it is than movement or voice guided by purpose or thought! This is the very essence of man!

Well, I don't know how much I can argue with that last statement, but I think it is a very sad statement, not a grand statement of accomplishment. They cling to newness, to change, to rebellion--at the cost of all else. They must: what they have is not enough, and if they deny they can ever attain to anything better, they loose all pretense of hope. And without hope, who can live?

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Foreign Sewing

I just finished reading an interesting article in yesterday's WSJ. (Friday, December 15, 2006, The Jetrosexual Look [Don't look at me, I didn't name the article. But that's what you'll have to search for if you want to look up the article yourself.], Loretta Chao and Mei Fong.) It was about how people were taking designer clothes/pictures to Asia, and getting them knocked-off by tailors there. Some highlights:

  • The article did have some interesting information on making knock-offs: Make a jacket that looks just like an Armani? Fine. Put an Armani tag on it? Wicked, wicked. Under proposed Federal regulation--make a knock-off for sale of a design not yet 3 years old? Big trouble. Take the same design and make it yourself or get a tailor to custom make it for you? Green light. Sort of. There are always those that tie themselves in knots. The executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America says, "I don't like the word unethical, so I don't want to use that word. But it's unfair." Please pardon me while I roll my eyes. Armani itself has no problem with it; a spokesman said it had no impact on business, and that "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." In fact, most designers quoted in the article were quite reasonable. According to the article, Steven Alan, one designers who was getting his designs custom knocked-off, says copying his shirts is difficult because he uses expensive, hard-to-find fabrics, but he doesn't mind if an individual tries to copy older items. "If I had a great coat and it wasn't made anymore, I would try to have it made again, too," he says.

  • The reviewers obviously had no concept of sewing. Some disappointments were not being able to find the exactly right fabric (duh!), having it take too long (they were there for all of 4 days, and the shop had to mail the shirts--four days in which to find the fabric, re-construct a sewing pattern, fit the pattern, and actually sew the thing together. I'm not surprised they had to mail it), and too many fitting sessions (four, for a burgundy-and-gold evening suit, which I some how can't imagine is the easiest thing in the world to sew). The reviewers might be a little naive, to boot. Important tip? Don't trust the concierge; some take commissions from the tailors. Guess how they found that out? 4 concierges sent them to the same cruddy tailor.

  • Biggest "surprise"? The quality. Of course it varied quite a bit from shop to shop, as did price (some places "knocked-off" for the same--or even slightly more--price as the orginal, and some were quite cheap). But in several cases, the knock-off was deemed of even higher quality than the orginal. This is no doubt a shocker to some who still cling to the notion that anything made in China is worthless. But as the article pointed out, "Even the high-end Italian manufactures are getting their stuff spun or woven in China now," says Phillppa Watkins, a textile specialist at WGSN, a London-based textile and apparel research firm. "As the Chinese production gets better and better, it's putting European mills out of business." I've met a lot of people who think that anything made in the USA is de facto better quality than anything made in China. They think the only reason why anything gets outsourced to China is the cheaper cost. The fact that the Chinese might know what they're doing doesn't even cross their mind. Obviously plenty of "cheap" things are made, but I have far more doubt in American production quality than I do the products coming out of Asia--because the Chinese might know what they're doing, and the Americans obviously have no idea what they're doing--if nothing else, at least as far as textiles are concerned. (As evidence against me, somebody might dredge up some fancy polymer fabric being made in the US--to which I reply, case in point! Natural fibers rule!)

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

If wishes were horses. . .

I have recently been examining the stock of Somehow, I can never find what I went there looking for, but can always find something that I really, really, really would like to have. Currently, I've got this feeling I need this, even though I don't know what I'd do with it. If it wasn't $40, I'd buy it in a heartbeat, anyway. It's about 7 feet by 8 feet, so it's pretty huge. But soooo cool. I'm half tempted to buy it, and machine quilt it with a flannel backing and some warm batting, and give it to a brother as a quilt. It has a nice, uncivilized feel to it, and I love how the hair on their heads and beards gets worked into all the celtic knots.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Are you Worthy?

I have recently been reading--OK, studying, it doesn't take that long for me to only read a book--Secrets of the Couturiers, by Frances Kennet. It's basically a brief history book, though at the end of each chapter it gives ideas of how to incorporate the featured designer's ideas. In reality, those pages are have little to do with the book, I think. Especially since they were adapting these ideas to 80's styles (the book was published in 1984), which, as everyone knows, are not worth repeating.

This book is, as I said, brief, but still more in-depth than anything I have gotten my hands on yet. (I know there are books out there on individual couturiers, and I do hope to get my hands on them at some point, but I am a little bit leery of finding them to be nothing but the telling of the scandalous tales of their lives in juicy detail.) As such, I know this book only shows a window into the world--how can you really sum up the entire work of a man in a few short pages and a picture or two? With further reading, I'm sure I'll revise my opinions, at least somewhat. But this post is based off of what I have here and now.

Why do I have such an obsession with couture? Well, to be perfectly honest, just because I named my blog by playing off of couture tradition, and I don't want to loose my joke. The rest of the 'couture' world worries about fashion and luxery, and here am I, working with cheap fabrics and making layman's clothes, and yet--still striving for extremely high standards and lots of handsewing. I know perfectly well that the very thing that keeps a language from becoming "dead" is it's ability to change. There are few words that haven't changed, at least some what, in meaning. But I cling to my understanding of the word couture--that is, sewing with extremely high standards and lots (or completely) hand sewing--because that is my joke.

But as I research the word 'couture', I discover no one knows what it means--or rather, everyone knows what it means to them, and to each their own meaning. What people mostly know is that 'couture' is a word with good standing and reputation, and exclusivity--which of course means everyone wants to claim it to themselves. One wants to claim to be the pinnacle of fashion, and so slaps the name 'couture' on velour tracksuits. Others wish to claim the prestige of 'couture', and claim that it implies nothing more than custom work indvidually fitted. They slap the word 'couture' to their work, too. And so, with much pomp and ritual (as all things couture must be), I follow suit.


Couture is high standards and much handsewing. Therefore, I am couture.

Don't give me a hard time about claiming couture. I just defined it, and I can assure you I can meet that standard. I mean, I'm currently in the process of spending many hours thread tracing by hand--a task so time consuming that even Susan Kahlje of Bridal Couture often does by machine instead--all my markings (including grainlines) into $1/yard muslin. It's going to wind up being the interlining to a cheap (perhaps $4/yd) cotton print, and turned into a summer dress I intended to fully live in, including sweat in and get dirty in. Le Maison de Tatterdemalion, c'est moi. Or something like that. Yes, I am crazy. Or at least absurd. But I like it that way.


So one of the things that I found interesting to do while reading this book is to see how the author handled the word "couture", and the things that would get the most emphasis on each of the couturiers. What, exactly, defines couture? Interestingly, even every individual couturier gave a different answer to this unspoken question. Even couturiers do not all agree on what it means to be a couturier. And the author is also herself inconsistent.

In the introduction, 'couture' means something akin to 'art by medium of cloth and able to be put on a person'. On page 9, she says that "The most interesting discovery to come out of any research into couture clothes is how variable the standard of workmanship, or of finish, can be, not just from one designer to another, but from one garment to another." That would seem to blow my definition out of the water, but she roundly contradicts herself on that point throughout the book, speaking of high workmanship of a couturier. As an example, when speaking of St. Laurent on p. 111, on St. Laurent's prediction of haute couture having only five more years left to live, she says "Perhaps his recent successes point the way toward a future where excellent quality and extremely high standards of workmanship will again rule the day." So I yet have grounds to cling to my smirking name.

But what, exactly, does garner the most praise as a successful couturier? Well, for the most part, he-who-has-the-most-money-wins. What did you expect? The traits of being an excellent "business man" or woman, and most especially being able to interpret the mood of the moment to the best sales, were the most defining parts of being a couturier. Claire McCardell got to be included, even though she didn't match Le Chambre Syndical's definition of couture, simply for her astronomical ability to make clothes people wanted to buy.

But, by far, the funniest story is about Charles Fredick Worth, the Father of Couture (as he is nearly always called). You see, as near as I can tell, Mr. Worth was almost as much the Father of Ready-to-Wear as he was the Father of Couture! Worth's major accomplishment, besides decorating dresses with passamentrie much like one might decorate a cookie with icing, was to commercialize the Paris fashion industry. On page 19, it is written "Parisian fashion has always been a subject of admiration and envy all over the world--Worth understood its appeal, objectively, and had the energy and showmanship to turn style into a major business." And again, she says "It is interesting, and at the same time a sad social comment, that Parisian couture had to fall into the hands of a man in order to become an industry, world-renowned."

Although Worth designed for the haut monde, the high world, the upper crust, his shop put out an absurd amount of clothes. The upper crust, besides being good for, and interested in, not much else besides wearing fancy clothing, were apparently in need of a new dress everytime they sneezed. Or more often, if the mood struck them.

"And besides," she writes on p. 21, "the volume of work his ateliers were required to turn out called for some simplification in cutting and sewing; on one occasion in 1866. . .Worth produced no fewer than 1000 ballgowns, each to be made within a week." And simplify he did.

"A description of his work, given in a catalogue from the Brooklyn Museum in 1962, explains:

Each pattern must have done yeoman work at the House of worth. An oblong skirt drapery introduced in the late 1860s continues basically unchanged into the late eighties. It may be trimmed with fringes, bands or fluting, or finished with rosettes, but the pattern remains the same. The gracefully pointed edge of an 1870 skirt is used again and again in the 1880s and 1890s until it disappears under the skirt to trim a turn-of-the-century petticoat. . .His gowns were made of many standard interchangeable parts--one sleeve could fit a variety of bodices.

Reminiscent of factory interchangeable parts, yes? So much for one-of-a-kind cuts. Not only that, but his workmanship wasn't always the hottest, either. On p. 22 she mentions "It is interesting that many of the original Worth gowns, particularly the evening wear, display a strange mixture of perfection and lack of finish. Quite often the edges of dresses made in satin or brocade are not hemmed at all, but have elaborate, heavily jeweled edging hand basted over the raw edge, or ribbons casually gathered and festooned down the side of an unfinished overskirt opening."

So much for quality work!

But, for all of my mocking, I don't deny that he was good at what he did. From the work of his that I have seen (and I would like to see more), it was carefully balanced. He managed to make things look opulent without making things look cluttered. He certainly had an eye for detail and proportion. And, of course, he very popular among the rich and famous, and most of all, he made lots and lots of money.

His son, Gaston, went on to organize the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Francaise, the great grand ol' bureaucratic organization that is currently dictating who, exactly, is legally able to use the words haute couture on their work. According to the Wikipedia, the rules are simple: to be designated as haute couture a minimum of fifteen people must be employed at the workshops and must present to the press in Paris each season (spring/summer and autumn/winter) a collection of at least thirty-five runs comprising outfits for daytime wear and evening wear. I cannot seem to locate the rules in the Chambre's own words, but Claire Shaeffer (in Couture Sewing Techniques) goes so far as to say they insist that the workrooms themselves be in Paris.

And do you want to know what the crowning joke for all of this is? Charles Fredrick Worth, the Father of Couture, the leader of French fashion. . .was an English man!!

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Contemplating my Blogger-button. . .

One of the cool things about a blog is that it's not rigid. Or, at least, it doesn't have to be. I suppose no website needs to be rigid, it's just some forms are better at embracing change than others. I'm not talking about my up-grading to Blogger Beta, though I did just do that. I'm not geeky enough to get all sentimental about that. The gears that grind behind the scenes just don't make my palms get all sweaty. But I have been thinking about the content of my blog. Ironically, I'm contemplating making it a little more rigid. Maybe.

When I first started this blog, I mostly wanted a dumping ground for my sewing related thoughts. When they all hang around inside my head, it actually starts to get a bit annoying. How many times can you think the same thoughts without getting sick of them? Putting them in writing was a good way to get them out of my head, leaving my mind clear to think other things.

Then people started commenting, and, just as I knew I would, I got self-conscious.

Everyone who knew I had a blog kept telling me how I ought to market myself, leave links all over the web, not let a single email leave my finger-tips without have a tagline with my blog link in it. It's not that I didn't know how to do these things, how to attract people, it's just that I was unsure that I really wanted to do that.

That statement, of course, lead to the suggestion that I just write it all out and put in on the refrigerator, because less people would see it that way. I hate it when people go all black-and-white on me, because I'm often seeing things in grayscale, a kind of pastel black, if you will. It's not that I want to keep it a secret, it just that things get so complicated when you start involving other people.

Well, then, why don't you just shut off comments? Well, I didn't say that I didn't like comments, it's just that it makes me self-conscious--I can't write "to myself" anymore, and I start writing to my audience. Is that a bad thing? Maybe. It depends.

It's something like singing in the shower--presuming you are good at singing. You're having a good time, anyone who hears you is having a good time. And when you come out the shower, and they say "Wow, you're great at singing!", and everything's fine. It's when they catch you mid-shower, and start putting in requests for songs that things start to get a little uncomfortable; and then you just can't sing the way that. . .well, the way that you sing in the shower. You become conscious that someone is listening to your every keystroke. . .er, note.

Perhaps that thought doesn't bother confident singers. And perhaps I might not get quite so edgy if I didn't realize that I have the personality that is perhaps most appreciated by older brothers--people who don't take me all that seriously and find my excited emotional state hilarious. But I am conscious of the other type of people, the people who get upset by heavy-handed hyperbole, or scorching criticisms, and impossibly demanding standard that even I don't expect anyone (myself included) to be able to live up to. (Hey, just because I know it won't happen doesn't mean I can't want it!).

In theory, I say I write the way I want to write, and if you don't like it, don't read it. In real life, I struggle with trying to please people. Usually I don't realize I'm doing this, but when I do, I try to sit back and examine the situation a little better.

In this case, I realized I was no longer writing my blog for myself. I noticed that I had become conscious of the people on the other side of the bathroom door, and wasn't really singing what I wanted to be singing. Sometimes that showed up in posting when I really didn't feel like posting; sometimes by carefully guarding my words so they would be less likely to be misinterpreted. What it all came down to, though, was that I wasn't really enjoying all that much any more, and it felt more like a chore. No way! I have enough "ought to do"'s without adding a blog to the list!

I still don't want to lay down rigid rules about what I am and am not going to. But here are some things that I have been thinking about, which will be influencing the direction this blog will be going for the time being.

  • I don't really want to talk about my projects, at least not in a detailed how-to-do it sense. Or a look-what-I-did sense. There are a lot of other blogs out there like that, but to tell you the honest truth, usually by the time I actually finish something, I'm so darn sick of it I don't really want to waste another brain cell on it--even for showing it off. When I finished it, I'm done. I don't really want to talk about it, or look at it, or explain it. When I'm done with it, I'm done with it, and it's boring. At the very least, I don't want to do that here, and I don't want it to consume much of my time. However, the emotional angst of actually working on the project? Oh, yeah. I hope somebody out there has a degree in grief counseling. . .if not for me, then for my traumatized listeners behind the door.

  • I do still intend to post some pictures, but I refuse to feel obligated to. A picture paints a thousand words, yes, but a thousand words can be a whole lot more satisfying. At least for me. But maybe that's because I don't take good enough pictures. Or maybe because I can fit a thousand (spoken) words in about 75 seconds. (The trick is to leave out the spaces. Technically, all people need is the words, not the spaces, so it saves time. Sometimes. Most people's ears aren't calibrated to 1000 words/75 seconds, and I spend more time repeating myself than I have saved time. Which is sad. Some people just stand in the way of progress and efficiency.)

  • I'm thinking I am going to promote my blog, at least a bit more, and actually get the much-nagged-for hit counter. But I'm thinking I'm going to have to change my motto-line under the title for my blog. While it is still true, it doesn't really capture what my blog is about at the time. Something more like "Hysterics: proceed at your own risk." I would like to think that at some point I could dredge up some serious thoughts, but generally, I tend to present even serious points in rather. . .blunt? powerful? um. . .emphasized?. . .emotionally elevated?. . .ways, and if you aren't willing to put up with that (or find humor in that), you probably won't enjoy my blog. I still want to write the way I want to write, but I just feel like that people ought to have some sort of warning about what they're getting into. You know, like a surgeon general's warning "WARNING: Drinking alcohol can make you drunk and impair your reasoning". Or, "WARNING: if you spin around with your eyes closed for 5 minutes, you may become dizzy." Or "WARNING: The opinions expressed on this blog are opinions!"

  • Ironically, I'd like to post about more serious things. Not necessarily in a serious way, mind you, and not, in the grand scheme of things, all that serious. But your typical watch-me-sew blog doesn't usually try to study past couturier's (in this case, I use the word simply to mean people who designed clothes in an influential way), which I do. And then I intend to post about it. (And I don't expect to be in complete jaw-dropping awe of them. I just don't do very good with that whole groupie thing.) I am interested in pursuing the subject of sewing to a much deeper level than sewing-the-latest-fashion and making-cute-clothes. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but it's just not me. I want to look into pattern drafting, design, wide varieties of fabric, sewing from the past--both near and distant history, as well as around the world--, sewing for practical purposes, sewing that is so time consuming it's considered impractical--those sorts of things. For me, my interest in sewing is not about being current, but about turning the whole subject inside out and examining it all. Quick and easy just doesn't enter into the discussion here, because that's not my goal.

  • I would like to post more regularly. Oh, I know this one is a bit pie-in-the-sky, especially since I just got done complaining that one of my problems was posting when I didn't feel like it. But writing is good for my thought process, and I find it helpful to me to write. The trick is to plan for it, instead of leaving it for the last minute and then guiltily banging something out.

So when are these changes effective? Oh, some of them immediately, and some of them gradually. I'm not going to rush out and put my hit-counter on right this second, for instance. But hopefully I will have another post this weekend, baring unpleasant interruptions from the rest of my life.

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