Monthly Archives: December 2013

Imagine That!

“I think we started a revolution!” said the person who persuaded Sijeh Stephanie to teach me the beginning of the Pa Chi form.  It was the last day of self-training before classes resume with the new year on Thursday, and the place was packed.

There was sanshou in the far end of the room, tai chi in the center, and me with my staff squeezed between the two groups.  My children were on the other end of the floor practicing kicking combinations and the 12 Kicks form, while Siheng B. loosened up his joints doing Xing Yi near the front door.  Downstairs, newly-promoted green sashes were learning sparring techniques on the bags next to my better half, who was doing side kick drills; and wushu folks were doing their thing, contorting their bodies in ways nature couldn’t possibly have intended.

This was the festive, relaxed, but hard-working atmosphere in the building when Sifu walked in the door.  It continued after he went into the office and Siheng B. gave those of us who were there for his Xing Yi lesson on Saturday a few more moves.  It continued when the tai chi folks asked Siheng B. to help them with the 16Step form, as I rested after doing some of my best freehand work in months (thanks to the shot in the back).  It was the perfect atmosphere to ask Sijeh how she’d gotten Siheng Allen to teach her a form that was no longer part of the kung fu curriculum at our school – and to ask that she pass on the knowledge.

“I can’t teach it,” she said quietly.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I’m not allowed to, am I?” she asked looking over her shoulder.

“Sure, you are.  You’re a black sash.”  It wasn’t me who’d answered; someone else was making the case.  “You can teach,” Siheng B. offered.  Now, relying on the opinion of the one who got the Xing Yi flash mob started might not have been the wisest decision with Sifu standing in the office doorway, but that’s exactly what we did.  “Teach it to me, too,” Siheng B. added.  “I’ll teach you Xing Yi and you teach me Pa Chi.”

A free exchange of knowledge among black sashes, imagine that!

Several minutes later, Sijeh left me to practice the first dozen or so moves that she’d taught me, and someone announced that the revolution had been born.  It was as simple as that.

It may die with the holiday season or need to be kept on the down low to survive beyond 2013.  But tonight there was an ever-so-small revolution – and it was the perfect way to end my kung fu year.

An Unsettling Fact

Do all educators need control over their students’ information intake, or is it just certain martial artists that feel that way?  That question has bounced around my head before, but it returned with a vengeance after Saturday’s intoxicating, impromptu lesson in Xing Yi.

This is as it should be, I found myself thinking as I loosened up my legs muscles on my roller before leaving school Saturday.  Learning something new should be as simple as asking.  After all, acquiring knowledge or a new skill is a good thing.  Right? 

Not always.  There’s the potential to have a new skill or form cut short the time and dedication given to the old. At least that’s the theory I once heard suggested.  Part of me wants to be a good little soldier and just accept that theory as truth, but the part of me that has no patience for equivocation just can’t see her way clear, and here’s why.

I’m super conscious – self-conscious even – of looking bad on the floor.  By bad I mean, old, injured, slow, awkward – you get the idea.  I tend to practice everything I know at least once a month, just so I don’t look like a dweeb to a ten-year-old when he asks me to show him the take down move in the Dragon Fist form, for example.

Then, there are the forms I do best, the ones I do in competition.  No black sash in any style or discipline would allow herself to become mediocre at the forms with which she hopes to win a medal in a tournament.  So there’s no chance of ignoring the old in favor of the new under those circumstances.

Here’s the kicker: I am not unique – at least not among the kung fu folks that I call family.  Even the young and healthy ones don’t want to be wrong or look weird when they help an under sash student.  Even those who don’t have the time to compete anymore still perform demonstrations during monthly testing, in front of the family and friends of the testing candidates.  Practicing the old will always be necessary.  It will always be embraced.  There’s no need to withhold the new.  So why do it?  I wish someone would clearly tell me.

I’ve always been the kind of type-A, overachieving multi-tasker who likes to get as much work done in a sitting as possible, and I can’t recall a single teacher I had in secondary school or college who was bothered by my having reading ahead.  I’ve never known an educator displeased with a student wanting to know more. 

This control thing is a martial arts phenomenon – one that may exist only in the school where I train, for all I know.  That’s an unsettling fact that I either have to accept as best I can or come up with a counter strategy, because I don’t want instances like Saturday to be so rare.  I want to be regularly thrilled with learning something new.  And even the part of me that wants to be a good little soldier doesn’t care who knows it.

The Unexpected

At about 1:10 on Saturday afternoon, I engaged in embarrassingly age-inappropriate behavior.  In a room full of people, all but three of whom were younger than I, I jumped up and down and clapped my hands like a six-year-old who’d just been handed tickets to Disney World.  I was giddy, and I didn’t care who knew it.  I trust the world is still turning.

“I learned something new!  I learned something new!”  I half whispered, half squealed to my better half, sounding as young to myself as the green sash who was backing out the door into the sunlight.

One might think that learning something new at a school is a normal state of affairs, but it’s not.  The higher ranked someone is in our school, the greater the likelihood they’ve been working on just one or two forms for a year or more, as I have for eleven months.  There is now something new to practice.  But that alone wasn’t the source of the happiness that stayed with me all day.

Something akin to a flash mob sprung up at self-training, and it included every black sash in the room.  A Siheng that we only see at holiday time mentioned that he was practicing a Xing Yi form a few days earlier.  That’s a style that several of the more senior black sashes have wanted to learn for a while.  Today was their chance, and it turned out to be infectious.

The Siheng training for national trials may have wanted a break from his exhausting routine.  The most recently-promoted black sash may have been happy to conclude his sparring instruction for the green sashes.  I may simply have wanted to give my knees a more manageable looking challenge. Whatever the reason, we all fell in line, one by one, before the mirror, behind Siheng B.

We looked, unchoreographed, as if we were practicing for a performance.  In fact, we wound up with the sanshou class as our audience, as they awaited the floor space we occupied.  The six of us were only able to learn a third of the form before being displaced, but that was enough to leave each of us with a smile, for we all now have a new itch to scratch.

It’s really the little things that make something memorable, being in the right place at the right time, being open to the unexpected and the unplanned.  It’s taking advantage of the new when it’s offered, even if it doesn’t seem to have a practical application to the current lesson or game plan.  It’s being okay with not acting your age when a moment truly thrills you.  That’s what I gleaned from a twenty-minute block of time on Saturday afternoon.  And it simply left me giddy.

Doing Battle

I walked into my house this evening weighted down with grocery bags and was pleasantly surprised to have my daughter take them into the kitchen and unpack everything – without complaint. That’s what a lingering dose of Christmas happiness gets me.  As she tossed into the fridge the Gatorade we’ll be carting off with us to kung fu in the morning, I thought about how well she’d done in self-training Thursday night, following the directives of a black sash big brother she often simply refers to as “Jerk.”

I kept expecting one of her old classic blow-ups, either when he tried to get her to do one more set of front kicks, or when I told her to practice speeding up her wheel hands before we went home.  None came.

Is she finally getting the hang of control?  I wondered.  Is she simply growing up?  Could they be one in the same, despite all diagnoses?

I want to relax about her.  I want to allow myself not to worry about what adulthood is going to be like for her if I’m not there running interference.

My daughter has PDD-NOS.  That’s pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, which means she has issues with social interaction, and appropriate communication and behavior – but without meeting all the criteria for a diagnosis of autistic.  Got all that?  It took me forever to wrap my brain around it, particularly since in her pre-school years, her behavior could be so off the charts, she was thought to have Asperger’s.  Her diagnosis was corrected not long after we got to Baltimore, but changing the words on the page to a milder disability had nothing to do with taking the actual behavior down a notch.

She had such a hard time at her new school when we first moved that she was flipping out on a grand scale at least once a day.  She was teased constantly for her sensitivity, or being taken out of her routine, or having someone take the seat she thought was hers, or invade her personal space without permission.  Anything could set her off without warning, and when she went off, you could hear that girl yell from two blocks away.

Then, everyone would look at me.  I was not accustomed to everyone looking at me as if something was wrong with my parenting; so I spent an inordinate amount of mental time in defense mode.  Think that played a part in me sticking with kung fu?

I have to say, though, that my PDD baby was born with traits of the woman that I would want her to become anyway.  She defends herself when she feels she’s being wronged – often, loudly.  She got that from me (even the loud part, when I’m really upset); so I can’t honestly have a problem with it. It’s a tendency that sometimes has us shouting at each other, but God help me, I respect it.  I’m even proud of how much better she’s gotten at making her case with a lower decibel level.

My girl has kept me on my toes for a dozen years now, either by battling me or necessitating that I go to battle for her.  And that’s okay.  Defend her I will for as long as she needs me to.  More and more, that appears to be less and less.

And that simple fact is my lingering dose of Christmas happiness.

Something in the Water

Self-training tonight could best be described as out of rhythm but back in step.  I didn’t regain the complete groove with the long staff form until I’d done it about a dozen times, but it was good to be back in the only place I’m able to practice it.  The key question of the evening was: would the shot alone provide relief? Unfortunately, the answer was no – and it was clear rather quickly.  So out came an over-the-counter pain reliever for the first time in two days.  The good news, though, is that the knees held up fantastically without the arthritis meds.  So, it would appear the shot to the back works better on the knees.

Okay.  I’ll take it!

Now, if only I didn’t have to return to work Friday.  And if only I knew whether to take as a sign this persistent, increasingly-overbearing reluctance to get up at dawn every morning, to commute an hour to a job that countless people would love to have, that it’s time to do something different.  It could quite simply be a clear indication to come up with a better way of commuting.  But I don’t think so.

I don’t know a single adult black sash at our school working a job they don’t want to do.  There are many who are still students working part-time gigs that they’ll be happy to dispense with when the time comes, but no one with an established career who wants to be somewhere else.  It’s possible that some are concealing their professional unhappiness, but it doesn’t seem likely they’d be able to do so for long with a group of people who’ve known them for years and who see them several times a month, at the very least.

No, I think there’s something in the water, something in the air of a kwoon, guăn, dojo (whatever word one chooses for martial arts training place), some kind of change that takes place in the mind of the martial artist – particularly one that makes it all the way to black – that makes settling for less a particularly difficult thing to do.  This, too, is why I love this crazy compulsion.

Onward!  Only…when?

Feeling Good…

I slept for seven hours last night.  It was the longest sleep in recent memory.  It capped off the second straight day without arthritis meds or an over-the-counter pain reliever for knees or back.  I doubt that’s a coincidence.  I was told to expect only thirty to forty percent improvement from the Christmas Eve shot.  But two days of no pills and real sleep was worth the price of admission all on its own.

And what did I do with this rested body first thing in the morning the day after Christmas?  I hauled it down to the martial art shop to buy my Siheng Aaron his first staff.  It was snowing as we drove over; it stopped by the time we left.  My son and I shared a joint sigh of relief that self-training should go on as scheduled tonight.  My fingers are crossed on still feeling good ten hours from now after first training session since the shot.  Cross them with me, please! 🙂

Perfect Gifts

Merry Christmas, all!  Many thanks to the readers who checked in on my status after the Christmas Eve trip to the doctor.

As you can see below, I received a perfect gift, which I shall cart off to the television studio when I return to work on Friday.  Everybody at home and those closest at the day job know this already; so I’ll happily advertise it to the co-workers who don’t.


Merle and Ava were happy and satisfied with their cash-in (that term applies far more to Ava, of course) – none of which had to do with kung fu.  They’re happy to leave the obsession to me and Aaron.

His favorite today was a gift certificate to the martial art shop.  He poured over the details of it, saying:


“So you know where we’re going tomorrow, right Mom?”

“Of course, dear.”

“And you know they’re going to be more weapons in the house.”

“Yes, I figured the first thing you’ll buy is your own staff; then, probably new equipment for Sancho, if you need it.”

“No.  Staff and a ninja star.”

“A ninja star?  What’re you going to do with a ninja star?”

“Just have one.”

“Aren’t they illegal?”

“No, Mom,” he answered, laughing.

“They have to be illegal outside the house.”

“Hmm.  Maybe.”

I don’t know about a ninja star….

But he’ll be happy with whatever I buy him there, as he always is.  I’m a lot happier when I can talk the proprietor down to a decent discount…but I’ll worry about that tomorrow, and only for a moment, because self-training resumes tomorrow night! 🙂

Shot in the Back

I’m sitting in the waiting room of a surgical suite, awaiting a cortisone shot to relieve the bulging discs in my lower back.  I’m preemptively antsy that the doctor is going to keep me waiting again.

I got this from my mother, this impatient sense of entitlement that I be treated according to the rules.  Whatever those are.  She survived life in a one-horse town of the Deep South during the 1940s and 50s, and when she came north to a New York City suburb, fresh out of high school, she came with an attitude: Don’t tread on me.  Through osmosis, she passed that ‘tude on to me.

Relax, I tell myself.  Doctors keep everybody waiting; it’s not personal.

But I’m anxious anyway.  I’m getting a shot in the back.  My last shot to the back was the epidural when I had my daughter twelve years ago, and that was a disaster!  It gave me a headache so piercing, I had trouble nursing her the first day of her life.  And the day I came home, I couldn’t move my legs without severe pain for several hours.  That’s not a good history with shots in the back.

Mom likely would’ve told me to pass on this option.  She would’ve looked up every herbal concoction known to man that would relieve lower back pain and sciatica and shipped it to me in cases, like the care packages she sent me in college.  She would have lectured me on quitting kung fu back when the tornado kicks began screwing up my back as a green sash.

She already thought martial arts was more trouble than it was worth, after I tore my meniscus in tae kwon do.  That first knee operation almost kept me from being at her side when she took her last breath, her decline came so quickly after it.

I wonder what she would have thought about me starting up again, pushing through three more serious injuries to make it to teacher status.  I think she would have been just like me when watching her grandchildren spar, hit the floor, sometimes even bleed.  She would have winced – albeit through the phone, eight hundred miles away – then found a smile to put into her voice to encourage me to get back up and do what I needed to do.  She would have told me to be careful, to take care of myself…to succeed.  And she would have been in a front row seat the day I earned my black sash and again, nine months later, when her grandson earned his.

She would have hated me getting this shot today and told me to call her the moment I was home.  Then, she would have asked me when I was entering my next tournament.

What’s Changed

My favorite training session of the week is Monday night. It comes after two days of resting the body, so my knees allow me to give it all I’ve got.  But that’s not what’s on my mind, as I plow through the Monday workday schedule.  I keep mulling over the fact that classes are on hiatus this week for the holidays every day except Monday, so today’s class is the last I’ll help teach in 2013, before I hit the floor with my staff for self training.

Instead of obsessing on getting in enough practice tonight to last me until Thursday’s self-training hours, I’m preoccupied by how strange it will be not to see most of the people I see in regular, predictable intervals until January 2nd at the earliest.  Self-training is something few show up for during the end-of-year break, as many are out of town – or are just plain happy not to have to break a sweat.  So it’s likely that my family and I will have the school almost to ourselves during those hours.  I’m already feeling out of sorts about the impending emptiness in the building.

I can’t believe I’m not simply thrilled to have the extra room to swing my staff to my heart’s content.  What’s with this sadness over eight days off the normal schedule?  I don’t recall feeling this way in the previous five Christmas/New Year’s breaks that passed since joining the school.  So I have to ask myself: what’s changed?

Last year, I was one month away from the last of the six tests for black sash, and I was too single-minded to be sentimental.  The year before that, I was just back from surgery to remove the floating cartilage; so my training pattern had already been broken, and I was already missing everyone long before the end of the year. In each of the three years before that, I wasn’t close enough to anyone at the school to miss the people as much as the training time when the holidays rolled around.

And there it is.  It would appear, then, that I am what’s changed.

In 2013, I became a peer of the black sashes I was once expected to speak to with little more than “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”  I got to feel close to people who used to be just instructors to me.  There’s also the unavoidable affection I feel for the people I help teach.  This is family.

There were a few who felt like family members long before the black sash was wrapped around my waist, ones who were nicknamed “little brother” or affectionately referred to as “kiddo.”   But the bond now is with just about everyone who’s been at the school longer than a couple of months.  Somewhere along the line, I became just as attached to the people as the art they taught me.

Would I love kung fu if I didn’t feel bonded to those with whom I share it?  Undoubtedly.  But the unavoidable truth I’ve found this holiday season is that the people make me love it more.

The Real Contender

I watch him fly through the air doing butterfly kicks and aerials, landing in splits, springing up again into front stances, and he looks so…resigned.  He snaps his head too slowly.  Not crisp enough. Faster.  There’s a cut that’s not sharp enough, a run that’s off tempo, and he has to do it again.  And again.

He looks tired when he walks in the door, before he’s even warmed up.  He sometimes looks like he wishes he were somewhere else.

“How could you leave me alone with him?” he asked me once, when no one from my house came to the Friday class – and neither did anyone else.  He was only half kidding.

Does he want to compete for the national team, or is it just everyone else who wants him to?

“Is there any way I could get a day or two off?”  I heard him ask.  I looked away from the pleading in his expression.

He’s good enough as a teenager to be a real contender for the junior national team and go on to compete in international competition.  But sometimes one must search for the passion in his performance.  It’s hard not to wonder….

Just under two months to go before the trials.  Will he maintain enthusiasm – the kind that showed in every demo he did as a pre-teen, when his love for kung fu and pride in his aptitude was as clear as his talent?  Does it even matter, as long as he qualifies?

May the answer to both questions be yes.

2600 and Done

“Why am I here?” I said aloud in front of Sijeh Stephanie and a group of under sashes we were leading in a Chu Chi Chuan demonstration.  It was the first rehearsal for the Chinese New Year performance we do at a local school, and twenty minutes into it, I was mentally through.

I’d just been told that in addition to leading the under sashes in kicks and Chu Chi Chuan, I was assigned to perform a section of 12 Kicks with three other black sashes – the section that includes jumping into a mid-air horse stance, doing a front sweep out of the landing and following it up with a tornado kick.  I could be annoyed with Sifu for assigning it to me; but it’s his modus operandi to push a student as far as they can go.  It remains my responsibility to remind him of what I shouldn’t do, even if I can pull it off.  And 12 Kicks is something I just shouldn’t do – at least not that section.

I had to do that form about sixteen hundred times during my black sash exam period, and I must have practiced it at least one thousand times before qualifying for testing.  I didn’t expect to ever again have to do any part of a form that singlehandedly took pieces out of each of my knee joints – literally.  I had to have torn and floating cartilage removed from one knee and the torn ends of the meniscus removed from the other, all because of the rigors of 12 Kicks.

I had no way of knowing that I’d be told to do 12 Kicks for this year’s performance.  But once I did know, what possible reason could there be for me to continue to volunteer for something that required I not only do the damned form several times again, but do it publicly, in a group of people who don’t have any injuries (which would make my limitations quite glaring – particularly under stage lights)?

There was no reason.  Not. One.

I’m crazy about kung fu, and the argument can be made that I’m just plain crazy.  But not enough to participate in a show that will cause me unnecessary pain and anxiety for no reason better than good advertising for our school.

I’m not that crazy.  Not yet.  Not today.

Never Seems to Show

Sifu has put me on notice: next month I will be performing the traditional long staff form as part of the black sash demonstration on testing night.  January’s testing night, unlike December’s, will have a very large audience since a new black sash will be joining the ranks.  I’m nervous already.

I love this form, and I’ve practiced it an average of forty-five times a week in the almost eight months that I’ve known it.  I’m told I’m very good at it.  But that never seems to show when I do it for a testing demo.

The problem is I get cold.  I run the floor during testing, so I’m standing on my arthritic, cartilage-lacking, locked-at-attention knees for the entirety of the testers’ performances, tensing up sometimes as I mentally follow along with their movements. Then, with about five minutes of warm up on a floor that I have to share with the other black sashes who are doing demos as well, it’s suddenly show time.

This body can’t perform on demand like that and execute at its best.  Which is why I’ve declined the last two times Sifu has asked me to do a demo.  Now, he’s done taking no for an answer.  Truthfully, I’m surprised he ever accepted no in the first place.

It’ll be fine.  It may even be very good.  The last time I did long staff in public was at a tournament in October, and I scored high even with a couple of errors.  So why don’t I just stay in the moment, keep practicing, and hold off worrying until the last Saturday in January?  Because that would be sensible.  And when it comes to kung fu, I stopped being sensible a long time ago.  During the blizzard of 2010 to be exact.  A story for another day.