Monthly Archives: December 2013

Pondering Gratitude

I have an employer that offers a stellar comprehensive insurance plan at a reasonable cost to me.  Far too many people are not as lucky.  I’m very grateful. Were it not for my employer’s generosity, I probably couldn’t have stayed with kung fu long enough to become maniacally crazy about it.  The cost of patching up my legs three times would have been too high.

This is what I was thinking at eight o’clock in the morning, as I sat in the waiting room of the doctor my internist sent me to in the hopes he could do something about the lower back pain and sporadic sciatica that my orthopedist doesn’t treat.  I had a considerable amount of time to ponder my gratitude – an hour to be exact – because the woman who signed in five seconds before me, with an appointment time thirty minutes after mine, was erroneously seen first.  I couldn’t help but ask the receptionist: “Then what’s the point of having appointments if you just have to walk in first?”  I received neither a response nor an apology. That seriously muted my gratitude.  But I digress.

The flip side of appreciating the quality medical care I receive (and believe all should have) is anxiety.  What happens to my kung fu life if I lose this level of care?  It most likely goes away.

I realize that’s an upper Northwest kind of problem, as a D.C. native would say (i.e. high class), particularly when the question for many others is: what happens to life itself without healthcare?  But it would most definitely be a problem, on so many levels, were it to happen.  So chronic pain and long waits aside, I remain indisputably grateful that I continue to be patched up… and that the price of the patching is one I can still afford.

Sharing with Sanshou

The sanshou class Monday night did at least thirty rotations of kick lines before they started fighting.  Just watching them made my knees hurt, and it also made me envious.  Not since I was at my best in tae kwon do have I had a kick that looked as powerful as those invading the edge of what I call my corner of the room, and I will never have one again.

But my little pity party lasted only about twenty seconds, though.  By the time the second row of kicks forced me to halt my long staff form in mid spin, frustration had evicted envy from my head.  See, when kick rows are going, there’s only about a four foot by eight foot rectangle of space free for one who’s not in the kick line to practice anything else.  On Monday nights, from about seven to eight o’clock, I will fight rather fiercely, when necessary, for rights of possession to that rectangle.

There are any number of short sections in freehand forms that can be practiced in a small square of space.  But imagine trying to spin, strike, swing and slam against the floor a solid shaft of wood that’s taller than your head – all within a space that’s about four by eight feet.  It can’t be done.  Not without coloring outside the lines.  This is why practicing the long staff form in such a small space requires stopping, moving back and turning around at least half a dozen times before the one-minute form is finished.  And that’s when there are no kick lines creeping into the rectangle.

Every time a sanshou student gets close to the edge of my practice space, I have to stop again, even if I otherwise would have had space to finish the section.  I say all this to say that trying to practice with a weapon in a small rectangle of space, when the kicks of 180-pound men are barreling toward you like a freight train can be just short of crazy making.

So why not just wait until the kick lines are over, one might ask?  Because the time it takes for half a dozen people of various ages and skill levels to do thirty rotations of kick lines is considerable.  It amounts to half the time I have to train on a Monday, after assisting with the beginner class.  If I sit for half an hour or more waiting for space, I might as well go home.  And there can be no just going home on a Monday.  On Mondays, I’ve already waited more than fifty-two hours since Saturday’s class to get back on the floor!

So when sanshou class starts with kick lines, there’s a cloud in my kung fu world.  It’s not that dark, doesn’t hang that low and only stays for about, oh, thirty-three-point-six minutes.  But, man, it can be crazy making….

Already Over

“I’m going to watch you,” are not welcome words from someone who outranks me when I’m teaching an introductory class to fresh-off-the-street kung fu students.  It’s even more uncomfortable when Sifu’s the one watching, as he was Monday night.

I’ve only assisted in teaching the beginner class for the last six months, but I’ve spent years making basic techniques muscle memory for my own body.  When I have to instruct someone who’s completely unfamiliar with martial arts language, I’m often surprised at how hard it is to verbalize to others what is automatic for me.

A veteran black sash put it best just a few days ago: “First we learn how to do it, then we have to learn how to teach it.”

One would think the latter follows naturally from the former, but not necessarily.  People earn degrees in education.  So, clearly, someone caught on a long time ago to the idea that folks need to learn how to teach whatever their expertise is, particularly to young children or those with minimal foundation.

So what’s the big deal about having to learn how to teach kung fu, one might ask?  It was indisputably harder to learn how to do it, and that part – at least for the first degree – is over.

What’s bothering me is this: there are almost as many different ways to teach as there are personalities.  Teachers, like parents (and people in general, for that matter) have their own style.  And style is valuable.  It’s what makes one teacher a favorite and another a snoozer.

But teaching is also about uniformity.  Everyone should be getting the same information, be told to do the same technique in the same way.  It’s what I always wanted most as a kung fu student.  In fact, it could often frazzle my type-A personality to be given variations on the same technique, because a variation meant that whether I was doing it right depended entirely upon which teacher I was talking to.  That just didn’t sit well.

Still, there’s a difference between being taught to make sure that the technique is uniform and being taught to make sure that the manner one uses to teach the technique is the same.  Which takes me back to where I started.

When a more experienced instructor (especially if it’s Sifu!) is watching me teach, it’s my style that’s under the microscope, the thing that’s personal.  I’ve been told before to tweak how I deliver the lesson, not what’s in it.

In short, it’s hard not to take personally a threat to something that’s personal.  But that’s one of the things we so-called grown-ups are expected to do.  And I’ll get there, I know.  After all, the hardest part of my kung fu education is already over.

Cupcakes Won’t Do It

Proof that God has an interesting sense of humor: the part-time job that’s unpaid means about fifty times more to me than the one that gives me a paycheck.  And that’s a conservative estimate.

Another weekend over, and rather than making a mental checklist of all I have to do tomorrow at the office (and it’s a lot, with Christmas right around the corner, two interviews taping in studio beforehand and one that I have to do in the field), I’m thinking about items attached to the assistant teaching gig.  I’m wondering if the two white sashes who are testing this month will be in class Monday evening and if they cleaned up their palm strikes.  I’m hoping the yellow sashes have corrected their front kicks or at least gotten the incorrect ones waist high.  I’m hoping the damned commuter train comes in on time and traffic is reasonable, so I only arrive five minutes after the students instead of fifteen. And I’m thinking about a key.

Apparently there was a time in our school’s history when the founder handed out keys left and right to any black sash who asked for one.  That era is over.  A few weeks ago, I asked Sijeh Melanie if there was any way I could bribe Sifu to give me a key.  Her response:  “Well, I had to be married to him before I got one.”  I guess homemade cupcakes won’t do it, then.

We headed home from three hours of Saturday classes at about 1:15.  By the time five o’clock rolled around, I’d showered, worked the kinks out of my leg muscles with my massage roller, eaten, chatted it up with my family, and baked two different kinds of cookies.  At that point, I turned to my son and said, “Okay, I’m rested.  Let’s go back to kung fu now.”

“If I didn’t have to study for exams, Mom, I’d be right there with you,” my fellow die-hard answered, playing along with my fantasy.  Only it probably wouldn’t be a fantasy if I had a key to get back in.  Perhaps that’s why I haven’t been offered one.

Yep, it’s an interesting sense of humor.

The Kid in the Room

At my age, the only thing that can make me sound and act like a five-year-old is to get a correction right in kung fu.

“I did it!” I squealed, fists raised to the ceiling in triumph, with the right one still clenching my trusty staff.  (The “it” was relatively simple, as it often appears to be – but only after I’ve gotten something right that spent far too long being wrong.)

Sifu Kevin looked at me and nodded with a momentary smile, before practicing a section of a wushu sword form that was so fast, loud and frenetic his own niece had once been frightened by the performance.  His expression to me was one that could be found on any parent at a playground whose child had requested that they watch some fantastic display of athletic ability.  In other words, it was a psychic pat on the head.

I couldn’t help but laugh quietly as I walked to the back of the rotation line, staying close to the wall to prevent being nicked by the blade as Sifu ran past me.

I’m old enough to be his much older sister or his frighteningly-young mother, but I’m the kid in this relationship…and I’m now okay with that.

“Maybe you have a problem with my age…” was something then-Siheng Kevin wrote to me in a long ago email, complaining about my propensity to question and explain, or rather my inability to simply say, “Yes, sir” or “No, sir,” when spoken to – and nothing else.

I reread that thought of his several times and tried to consider it objectively.  Had I ever, before kung fu, been in a position where I was expected to follow the directives of someone younger than I?  I couldn’t find an instance in my personal life, nor in my professional one.

The single exception had been in tae kwon do. But there, all the teachers below Sensei were within a couple of years of my age, not more than a dozen years younger.  With the age difference between Kevin and me (and several other kung fu teachers), I at least qualified as a contemporary, not a subordinate.  That was the thought existing somewhere in my head that I hadn’t bothered to consciously acknowledge until Sifu called me on it, back in my green sash period.

There’s a more martial attitude in my Baltimore kung fu school than there was in D.C. tae kwon do.  Sensei had been accorded a formal response to every sentence she uttered, but all other teachers were addressed by their first names, no titles.  I was, in essence, accustomed to being instructed by a compatriot who knew more than I, rather than directed by someone whose higher ranking I had to acknowledge at all times.  It was culture shock of the highest order.  And with every other thing going on in my life at the time (see post “Let Up Already!”) – and my natural propensity to say what’s on my mind – it served as one more hard thing to handle.

Fast forward several promotions and years later, and I’m looking for approval and a psychic pat on the head from the young-un in the blue pants (from my southern heritage, “young-un” is the appellation I attach to anyone who wasn’t alive in the 1970s!)  I was obviously won over somewhere along the line.  And I’m more than fine with that.

The Joy of Fridays

I used to fear Friday night class.  Truly. Thoroughly. Fear it.

I never knew until I was already there what the night’s regimen was going to consist of; so I had all day long to think about it and worry:

How many rows of wheel hands would we have to do?  How many kicking combinations?  Would we do ten full forms in singles or doubles?  After how many rotations of practicing sections?

How would my knees hold up?  My back?  How much pain would I find at the end of the two-hour, invitation-only session that a black sash candidate was required to attend?  Would I get the dreaded cramp in my calf again, the one from empty stances, the one that awakened me in the middle of the night?  No stretch or massage ever relieved it.  I just had to wait, powerless, for long, long minutes, until it released me.

I hated Friday night.

For six months of black sash testing, I wondered, as I entered class on the last day of the work week, if I could execute all I was told to that night without needing to cry or stopping to pray.  By the end of it all, I could.  In the final weeks, I could even smile – before I left the building, not just in the car on the way home.

The joy of Fridays has returned to me.  It returned with the presentation of the final sash.  And I use that joy to bake cupcakes, watch a movie, and rejuvenate for training of my own making.  I use it to do whatever I want to do.

I’m still invited to Friday class and sometimes I go.  But not this week and not last.  I’m not sure when I’ll go again…and I’m not worried about it.

The Martial End of the Art

My boy picked up a gash across his eyebrow in a sparring match tonight, and I took it in much better stride than I would have predicted, given the animosity I once had for the martial end of the martial arts.

“Is there any way I can just do forms and keep getting promoted without sparring?” I asked then-Siheng Kevin in an email, when promotion to green sash meant I had to learn to spar.  The request came after a surprisingly painful first month of my face meeting many a fist in completely involuntary introductions.  In the heat of a round, I regularly forgot to keep my hands up.  It was a really good way to practice getting hit.  The short answer on whether I could skip sparring all together was no.

One would think the objective of taking kung fu is to become a good fighter, and for most of the men I’ve met in the school, that objective is completely accurate.  But I joined kung fu to learn the forms, to commit to muscle memory the choreographed fight moves that are executed without the contact.  It amounted to wanting to look like I could fight without actually being able to.  Why would Sifu have a problem with that?

Then one day, I discovered it: power.  The kind of power that tore my son’s skin along the eye line without weapon or nails, the kind that can take someone’s breath away or snap his head back like the top of a Pez dispenser.  I thought being strong and punching hard would be my saving grace in the endeavor that I didn’t want to do and keep me from hitting the floor. I was wrong.

Power enabled me to win a match or two against those my own size or smaller, but I could still be leveled by one kick from any skilled opponent with at least as much power and significantly more speed.  And let’s face it: most of my opponents were half my age and had no problems with movement.  I may have been heavy on the power, but they all had more speed!  It felt like the odds were rarely in my favor.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my black sash: I stopped trying to win.  In effect, I accepted that the odds were against me, particularly when fighting experienced Sihengs. I wanted only to show in my final tests that my various teachers had taught me how to fight.  That alone, it turned out, was enough to keep me from hitting the floor and give me peace with the martial end of the art.

No Head Hanging in Kung Fu

“Okay… we’re going to do something fun tonight,” Siheng Chris said to the unusually small mid-week class standing in a single-file line in front of the office.

I smiled a little too broadly at the half dozen white and yellow sash students, hoping that the drill Chris had planned for them would in fact be enjoyable.  With about twenty-five years of martial arts training under his belt, Chris considers many exercises fun that a bunch of primary school students would likely classify as hard labor.  On behalf of the children, I inwardly braced for impact.

“We’re going to do flying sidekicks.”

No one made a sound.  But the student at the front of the line, a small, quiet nine-year-old who was one of the newest in the school, started to slowly move backward. He’d taken a couple of steps past the yellow sash behind him when I alerted him that he wasn’t invisible.

“Don’t go stepping back,” I said smiling.  “It’s okay if you’re in the front of the line.  Everyone here is learning this technique.”

“Yeah, don’t go to the back of the line;” Siheng Chris added, “Just stay right there.  That’s good,” he said, positioning him third in line.  Siheng then demonstrated what he wanted them to copy.  “Left, right, left, jump.  Be sure to turn your body sideways and lift your knee the way you would for a standing sidekick.  You don’t have to do the kick right now.  I just want you to practice the jump.”

From the back of the room, as I continued to stretch for the class I was assisting, I watched the first two in line do the assigned task with a small measure of confidence.  They were yellow sashes who’d done the technique before; they both threw in the kick, even though all they’d been told to do was jump.  Then came the brand new white sash.

He took the necessary running steps but instead of just jumping to prepare for the kick, he tried to copy the preceding classmates and execute it. When his legs appeared in the air, they were bent, pointing in near opposite directions, with one extended farther than the other and ninety degrees off course.  The impending landing looked potentially painful.  His feet were reacquainted with the floor much louder than one would expect from a body so small, and he stumbled slightly to regain proper footing.  As he turned and walked back to the line, he bowed his head so low I could see nothing of his face.  He came toward me with only the top of his black hair leading the way.  I immediately tried to reassure him and lighten his mood in one fell swoop.

“Hey!  It’s okay.  That was a good try.  You’ve got nothing to hang your head over.  Besides,” I threw in as he walked past me with his eyes finally visible, “there’s no head hanging in kung fu.”  Sijeh Stephanie got the joke immediately and laughed with me, but of course the child I was talking to wasn’t even alive when Tom Hanks made a similar line famous.  He simply offered a weak smile and took his next turn practicing the jump.

As I watched him tentatively undertake his next repetition, I remember the day I learned the same move.  I was at least as awkward at first go as he was.  The flying sidekick wasn’t the first technique I did incorrectly, but it was the first one that made me feel like I should leave the whole martial arts endeavor to younger generations.  It was a technique that smacked me in the face with my own lack of athletic coordination.  The only one that smacked me harder was the tornado kick.  At that I wasn’t just uncoordinated at first teaching, I was outright inept.  So I knew what it was like to look weird in public with no place to hide, to be comical when I wasn’t going for the laugh.  It was anything but fun.

As the chagrined white sash made his return to the line for his third go at his assignment, I wanted to reach out and grab him into a bear hug and tell him: “You’re going to get better.  Don’t worry.  I promise!”  But that would have been inappropriate and not at all kung fu like.  So I just threw him a smile and returned to my stretching, remembering not to hang my head.

Everything I Paid For

I told Sifu tonight that he looked sick.  He’s not.

“How’re you doing?  You look sick,” is right up there with “Why are you wearing that?  It’s ugly.”  It’s a classic example of the lifelong challenge I’ve had filtering my thoughts before I speak them… or merely keeping my mouth shut all together.  This challenge of mine has been known to bother more than a few members of my kung fu family who outrank me – and probably a couple who don’t.  And it was Sifu Kevin who got hit with it first.

“What’s the story with the little guy in the blue pants?”  That was my first thought more than five years ago after having him come up to us, give us a quick instruction, and then walk away.  I can’t remember what the first directive was that Sifu gave me, Merle and the kids.  I don’t even remember him introducing himself, though I suppose he must have.  I just remember that I had to strain to hear him, and it wasn’t particularly loud in the room.

He was still a Siheng at the time, but I assumed the blue pants meant he was the leader of the school.  No one else in the building was wearing them.  I later met – or more accurately, saw – Sifu Aaron in blue pants too, which made things a bit confusing until someone explained that Aaron was the Sifu, i.e. the official head of the school, but Kevin was chief instructor.

Sifu is slightly shorter than I am, and in the fall of 2008, he weighed less than me too.  A lot less, I would say, since I was at the highest non-pregnant weight of my life when I started kung fu.  My first debates with him were over exercise, if I remember correctly.  The teachers had us doing conditioning exercises that were just awful on the back.  At least they were on mine.

I was still very much a student of my tae kwon do Sensei – a no-nonsense lady who’d been doing martial arts since the year before I was born.  The woman was phenomenal.  She still is, I’m sure, though I haven’t seen her in action in about seven years.  Sensei was very strict about not working the body hard in consecutive days.  Tae kwon do classes were every other day.  In kung fu, however, there seemed to be an expectation to show up at every available opportunity.  “You need to come to more classes,” Siheng Perry used to tell me back when we were only going three days a week.  I thought that was crazy.  But that was then; this is now.

Nowadays, I feel like I’m doing something wrong if I miss a day of kung fu.  And God forbid I miss two days in a row.  But back then, I’d already torn my right meniscus and ACL to shreds; the former had been sown back up, the latter replaced, and I was all too glad to listen to whatever activity limitations were given to me by someone older and wiser than I.

That too was part of the difficulties I had following then-Siheng Kevin.  He wasn’t older, and it didn’t seem at all likely to me that he was wiser than Sensei.  So having him and the other teachers under his direction tell me things that were contrary to what I’d learned from the great lady… it just wasn’t working for me.

I kept going because I’d signed a contract, and I wasn’t about to throw away money.  I had to at least get everything I paid for.

I certainly did – and then some.

“Step away from your son”

“How did you do that?” Merle, my decidedly better half, asked me while resting my injured hand in hers and staring at the purple bubble of skin on the back of it.  Sifu opened for training today, despite the closure of city schools – a first, as far as I know.  So I did what I normally do on a Monday.

“It happened on a slam,” I answered, expecting that to be the end of the questioning.

“A slam?  How’d you get an injury there on a slam?”

“I was trying not to crush the knuckle I always hurt on this hand during slams by connecting with the floor on the flat of my fingers.  But that just crushed the knuckles at the other end of the finger, which apparently made the hand swell.”

“No, honey.”


“You can’t do the slams like that.”

“Well, I know that now.”

“So did you ice it?”

“Yeah, a little bit.  But I had to get back.”

“You kept doing slams?

“Yeah.  I can’t not practice the slams; I mean there are too many other things to get right during slams then just the slam itself.  Is the knee pointed forward?  Is the staff straight when I’m spinning it behind me?”

“I know,” she said, completely familiar with what I meant, having learned the staff years before I did.  “I just would have thought a bruise like this would end the night’s practice.”

I looked at her as if she’d just spoken to me in Greek.

“Oh my God,” she mumbled, putting her head in her hands.  She’d obviously remembered who she was talking to and realized how highly improbable it was that a bruise on my hand would cut short a night’s training.  “Okay.  I’m going back upstairs now,” she said making a few steps of the ascent.  She was stopped in the stairwell when Ava practically ran her down coming the other direction.  So she was still standing on the stairs when Aaron walked up to the three of us and I asked him:

“Can you show me how to pick you up for a take down?”

“NO!” Merle shouted in her sternest I’ve-had-enough-of-this tone.

“I don’t know, Mom,” Aaron answered, looking pensive.

I know,” Merle interjected.  NO!”

“I was thinking about auditing a Sancho class, but I should probably be sure I can do a take down before I try.”  I could tell by Merle’s expression that my explanation was so far from satisfactory that it wasn’t even funny.

“I can teach you to do a one-legged take down,” Aaron said, ignoring the marital tension, “but I can’t even do two.  I’m probably the second lightest person in the class.  I can’t really pick anybody up.”

“It’s all in the knees – the knees,” Merle emphasized, “and you want to pick this boy up with your knees and your back.”

“Whoa,” Ava chimed in, contorting her neck to examine my half purple hand more closely.

“Okay.  Never mind.”  I turned my attention to my daughter, whose expression was growing more horrified by the second.  “You’re looking at my hand with ‘eeew’ written all over your face.  Cut it out,” I said with a chuckle.

After a few moments of discussing my second slamming mishap in as many training days, I could feel Merle’s stare raining down from the upper steps.  I looked up at her expectantly.

“I’m not going anywhere until you step away from your son.  You’re going to try to pick him up the minute – ”

“No, I’m done with that idea.  Every once and a while I watch Aaron in Sancho class, and I think I want to try it.  Tonight was one of those.  But don’t worry.  I’m done.”

“Okay,” she said with suspicion in her voice, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing: Done?  That’ll be the day.

Let Up Already!

It’s been snowing all day, and I’m annoyed.  I haven’t had to drive anywhere; I haven’t even had to walk anywhere.  But in this day and age of technology, gaming and not doing anything that might cause one to break a fingernail, many are slow to pick up a shovel and a bag of salt to clear sidewalks in anything remotely akin to a reasonable amount of time.  I’ve also noticed, in more than twenty-five years of living below the Mason Dixon Line (after growing up in often-snowy New England), that city officials don’t ever seem to prepare well for winter.  They usually have far more important things than snow plows and the personnel to run them on which to spend tax dollars.   Bottom line: I’d be shocked if my children have school tomorrow.  And I want them to have school Monday.  I want it rather badly.  That’s why I’m annoyed.

Is it really a big deal if my 12-year-old daughter, Ava, and my 16-year-old son, Aaron, bum around the house a couple of weeks before winter break, get in one another’s way and thoroughly erase the weekend’s housework in a matter of hours?  Of course not.  But our kung fu school is closed anytime that weather closes the city schools.  And that is a very, very big deal!

I need my Monday training.  I need it more than any other day’s, because with the school closed on Sundays, the longest gap in training time is between the end of class in the one o’clock hour on Saturday and warming up in the five o’clock hour on Monday evening.  Think pack-a-day smoker going fifty-two forced hours without a cigarette.  Not pretty, believe me.  I used to smoke.

I gave myself a bizarre bruise of busted capillaries on the side of my index finger Saturday with an awkward – and obviously incorrect – slam of the staff against the floor.  Gotta fix that.  The slam, that is; not the finger.  The finger will have to take care of itself.

Getting a long staff back in my hands is the reason I look forward to Monday – that and helping teach the beginner class.  Getting up pre-dawn for an hour-long commute to work, after getting a couple of extra hours of sleep for two days over the weekend, makes me otherwise loathe Mondays.  Kung fu saves the day – literally.  Only a late train home and an exceptionally clogged drive from the station to the school can make me walk through the door unhappy on a Monday.  Such a far cry from how I walked in the door the very first time back in 2008.  Then, I walked in angry and uncomfortable, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I’d moved up the highway with my family just before the housing market implosion.  My adolescent son, who was significantly less than thrilled to be leaving his hometown of D.C., had already entered the phase of life in which everything parental was bad, stupid, irritating or meaningless.  So between being unhappy about moving to Baltimore and just being a tween, he could generate hostility merely by walking into the room.  Going to kung fu required sharing a seven mile car ride with my bundle of joy.  So it was easy to be tense by the time I got there.

I can’t put it all on Aaron, though.  I still had the job in D.C., and the first year in Baltimore, I drove to work every day.  I was probably more wound up from my commute than I realized back then.  I mean, by the time seven or eight months had passed, it was clear as day that I was going to kill somebody if I didn’t conquer the commute.

I also wasn’t all that happy at the job I was commuting to.  I’d changed departments around the same time we started going to kung fu – a change I’d requested, but I wasn’t doing very well at the new gig.  It was a job that had more to do with putting correct information into a database in the right way at the right time than anything else.  I had too much ADD and too little enthusiasm for data entry to do it well.

I was a television news producer.  I researched political, legislative, executive topics of the day, found the right guest to discuss it, found the right graphics and pictures and video to enhance the story, formulated the right questions and put it all on the air in the hands of the host.  Going from that to primarily data entry made me want a new employer all together.

And, there was losing mom.  I probably should have mentioned that first.  That’s called burying the lead.

We moved to Baltimore one year and three weeks after she died.  We started taking kung fu classes two weeks after what would have been her sixty-sixth birthday.  In fact, we’d started tae kwon do in D.C. right around the time she told me that the cancer was back.  Two years – and for me, two knee operations due to tae kwon do injuries – later, she was gone.  And I certainly wasn’t over it a lousy year later, if one ever is.

So that was the general picture of my life when I returned to martial arts after being sidelined for a year by injuries, the death of my mother, relocation to a new city, and a requested reassignment at work that wasn’t going so well.  Yeah.  I was definitely angry and uncomfortable in the early days of kung fu.  Now, I howl at Mother Nature to let up already on the snow and ice so I can go train!

Quite the transformation it’s been.  Let me count the ways….


I walk up and down a flight of stairs at about the same clip as my 94-year-old grandmother.  It’s kind of pitiful.

One of my knees has no cartilage, and the other is almost at zero.  Both have been operated on – the right one four times, and both are severely arthritic.

I’ve been prescribed a knee brace that I don’t wear nearly as often as I’m supposed to.  And I’m in pain to some degree at virtually all times.  In fact, the first sensation of my day is pain.  That’s on any day.

I could use many more brush strokes painting the picture of what it’s like to hobble around in my forty-something-year-old body.  But I think I’ve hit the highlights pretty well.  Except….

Here’s the kicker (no pun intended): I probably could have slowed the extensive degeneration of my joints; I could also relieve, if not eliminate, my daily pain, without over-the-counter or under-the-table assistance of any kind.  When factoring in this additional information, my physical status could legitimately be considered crazy.  And, I guess, so could I.

So be it.  I’m nuts.  I’ll own it.  No arm twisting necessary.

So why don’t I help myself?  Because, quite simply: I LOVE KUNG FU!  I love it so much that the phrase itself just randomly pops out of my mouth to whatever family member is nearest at the moment the spirit moves me – often to the teenaged son who loves it as much as I do.  It’s such a big part of my life, I frequently have to stop and remind myself that I lived almost forty years without it.

I think about it all day on the days that I train and half the day on the days that I don’t.  By the time I finish my morning coffee at the office, I’m calculating how long it will be before I’m warming up and stretching.

Though knee pain in particular never completely leaves me, it subsides to a more tolerable level by the time seven o’clock rolls around.  By that point in the evening, I’ve usually kicked and jumped my knees into comfort.

I can’t explain how it works.  I’m not sure that I care.  I just know that it does.  It’s one of the greater ironies of my life: the only time I don’t move like I’m crippled is when I’m doing the thing that’s crippling me!

Why do I love something so much that hurts me so badly?  That’s what I hope to answer in this blog for the dozens of family members, co-workers, friends and acquaintances who look at me like I need to be committed – and anyone else who’s interested.

Along the way, there will also be the inevitable look at what it’s like to be in constant pursuit of the perfect minute.  For that’s exactly what all of us martial arts addicts are looking for – the perfect execution of whatever the day’s assigned performance might be.

It’s compulsive.  And for me, it’s crippling.

So… here we go.