Monthly Archives: January 2014


When he walked in today I was hopeful but guarded.  He was brought in by an older man I’d never seen before.  It was noteworthy that his mother didn’t drop him off.

The last time I saw the nine-year-old was two months ago when I retaught him the beginning of the white sash form.  The time before that was in the summer, right after I first started teaching.  He came to a handful of classes in June and July, back when the school was offering a Groupon, and I remember being impressed with his aptitude.

Today, I was not impressed.  Today, there was little aptitude.  His inability to remember what he’d previously been taught multiple times slowed the progress of the rest of the newcomers – until I wouldn’t let it hold them back anymore.

I remembered that when his mother dropped him off back in November, she explained that he’d stopped coming to kung fu because she’d signed him up for other activities that conflicted with our class times.

“So, now the conflict is resolved?” I asked pleasantly, happy to feel like our school had ranked high on a list of things to return to.

“No, the other class was cancelled tonight.”

As she wrote down her phone number for me on one of the fliers on the front table, I had the uneasy feeling that our kung fu classes were being used for babysitting.  My suspicions were confirmed when she was almost an hour late retrieving him that evening, prompting me to actually use the number she’d written down for me.  She arrived with a crying baby in her arms, looking over-anxious and about to cry.

My first instinct is to be annoyed by the audacity it takes to drop off one’s child at a kung fu school to be babysat.  Almost everyone in the building takes their training seriously or they’ve been signed up by a parent who does.

But then I flashback almost a dozen years to a time when so much needed to be juggled as I worked, went to school and raised two children by myself.  I know nothing about why this woman is using our school as a place for her son to be occupied every few months.  I could choose to assume that she’s inconsiderate.  But for all I know, she has no choice.

Just This Moment

Last night I had the best night’s sleep in ages.  I came home from a late dinner of good sushi, changed clothes, and curled up on my bed with the television on.  The plan was to eventually get up and hit the kitchen for some ice cream, but I never made it.  The next thing I remember, I was being told to get under the covers, and I obliged.

At the moment, nothing on my body is aching.  I’m about to stretch, so that’s likely to change.  But for right now, for just this moment, I feel rested and pain free.  I’m calling this state of affairs the birthday present from God.

Gotta get some protein in me now and head off to kung fu.  I’m excited to see the kids, since I had to miss teaching on Wednesday.  Have I mentioned how much I love teaching?  More later.

Slices of Happy

“What’s wrong with going on a cruise?” I asked.  It was my mother’s favorite way to vacation, and she was inviting her daughter and son-in-law to go along.

“It’s conspicuous consumption,” answered the left-wing, anti-establishment, neo-hippie, who was still my husband at the time.  “You’re just spending a lot of money because you can, when there are people starving in the world.”

“It’s not a lot of money.  First off, we’re being invited, and second, my mother’s getting a pretty serious discount from her travel agent friend.”

“No,” he insisted.  We continued to go back and forth until he ended the argument by telling me it wasn’t the end of the world; I’d have many more opportunities to go on a cruise with my mother.  He was wrong.

Tomorrow marks the end of my forty-fifth year on this planet, and to this day, I feel guilty if I spend money on myself for something I don’t need. The only exception to that is buying a good meal on date night with my honey.  Today, I decided it’s time to get over that.  Sometimes there aren’t many more opportunities to do something that you really want to do, something that you know would make you happy.  Missing my mother, particularly around a holiday or a birthday, inevitably leads me to two thoughts: tomorrow isn’t promised to me; and there’s never enough time.

I was thinking the latter on the way home from kung fu tonight.  Though my right arm – the one that has to spin the staff and the sword – is now requiring a certain amount of finesse to raise it to shoulder level or higher, and my left knee cramped up tonight in a completely unfamiliar way, I still wanted more practice time.  I always have to get home before school closes, and even if there were no family members waiting, the morning alarm clock would still be calling me home for food, shower and at least five hours of sleep before the wake-up call sounds.  My dream day, without getting on an overseas flight, would include being able to do kung fu until I’m done, until I actually want to stop.  I suspect that to bring that to fruition would require owning my own school; so it will have to remain a dream.  Meanwhile, I can stop wasting time and denying myself slices of happy for fear of being considered irresponsible, or, perhaps, a conspicuous consumer.

Today, I reserved a room and bought tickets to Fort Lauderdale.  Barring something unforeseen and out of my control, I’m going to the “Winter Classic” kung fu tournament.  This is the last year that my age puts me in what should be a fair-sized group of competitors.  Next year, at the ripe old age of forty-six, I will be in the senior citizens group, one with so few competitors that they put the men and women together to assure an opponent.

So this is the best year left for me to see what kind of kung fu stuff I’m made of.  I should go to as many tournaments as I can reasonably afford.  And that’s exactly what I’m going to do!

Risk and Reward

Euphoric, confused and concerned.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a day of kung fu training where I left feeling all three of these emotions, but I did tonight.  All came from the same occurrence: a correction of a move that I didn’t know I’ve been doing wrong for nine months now.  I’m still trying to sort through the implications of the evening; so let me take these one at a time.

“You’re lifting your leg nice and high, but then you’re lowering it almost to the floor before you drop down to do the slam,” Siheng Allen said.  He was referring to the portion of the form when one slams the staff against the ground (the idea being that there’s an imaginary opponent being smacked pretty hard by a long, hard stick that’s backed by the full weight of a person’s body).

“You mean, I’m supposed to essentially jump to the ground with a leg already bent, and you don’t want me to plant the foot first?”

“Uh-huh.  Exactly,” he answered with a pronounced nod and broad smile.

I immediately had visions of landing for the slam and having what’s left of my knees, buckle or shatter or explode – you name it.  Something that would end in me being loaded into an ambulance.  But there was no ambulance, no injury – no problem!  The slam looked and sounded great, and my legs got into proper position faster and easier than when I was planting the foot first for safety’s sake.

I’d gotten so used to doing it the safe way, I’d totally forgotten it wasn’t the right way.  And as it turned out, the right way was not – is not – the least bit detrimental to my knees.  It was a euphoria-producing discovery.  Then came the confusion.

What do I do now about moves in future forms that look like knee stressors?  I already push myself further than many think I should, avoiding only those things that I know will exacerbate an existing injury or compromised joint.  Clearly, I made the wrong decision in altering my feet positioning in the slams for the sake of my knees.  Should I try all risky moves until pain and swelling confirm that I shouldn’t?

That idea strikes me as inviting injury – which must be what I thought when I was first taught the slams.  I wish I could remember consciously deciding not to make the drop, but I don’t.  Which brings me to concern.

How many moves have I subtly changed without even realizing it, for fear of yet another significant injury – perhaps even one that would permanently end my martial arts life?  Have I done less than my best when I didn’t have to and without realizing it?

“Did you know I wouldn’t hurt my knees when you told me to drop without putting the foot down?” I asked Siheng Allen on the way out the door.  I expected the medical doctor to answer yes, to tell me that he knew something about the impact that I didn’t.  After extended explanation of theory based on leg positioning, I could only deduce that he’d made an educated guess the drop wouldn’t hurt my knees.

Eventually he said, “Well, it doesn’t hurt my knees.”

I didn’t remember until I was driving home that he too has had a knee operation and surgery on his back as well.  It was reasonable for him to think that what didn’t hurt him wouldn’t hurt me.  On the other hand, he can do kicking combinations and tornado kicks without the slightest problem, while I can go months at a time being unable to do either without pain that would reduce me to tears.  So it could be risky for me if he assumes that what doesn’t exceed his threshold won’t exceed mine.  Such assumptions are another cause for concern.

My head is obviously still swimming over it all.  But most importantly, my knees are still working. 🙂

Best Behavior

It was the first time he spoke to me to say anything other than a whispered, “Yes, ma’am,” and it was because he was afraid.  For more than six months, I’d been watching him execute roundhouse kicks with the snap, speed and height that would make an upper sash proud.  But he consistently had the direction wrong, pointing them up instead of sideways, requiring me to tell him every Saturday morning, “Turn your hip over.”

Until tonight, I thought he might have a touch of an attitude.  Not one of being openly disrespectful; he was too quiet for that.  He just seemed to have a hint of cockiness, like he didn’t need to bother with corrections.  But tonight he needed all the instruction and assistance he could get.  Unfortunately, he was pre-testing, trying to show a panel of teachers that he could execute the requirements of his sash well enough to test for promotion.  It was a decidedly wrong time to need assistance.

“Sijeh, do I do the green sash form first or white and yellow?” he asked in his usual whisper as he stood next to me waiting to be called to perform.  He made eye contact for only a moment while asking, preferring to look at the table of black sashes about to evaluate him.

“You do the green sash form first,” I answered smiling, touching him lightly on the top of his head.  “Don’t worry; you’ll do fine,” I added.

I watched him do his form several times during the warm up period.  Though he made a few mistakes, he looked pretty good overall.  But when his name was called and he walked to the center of the floor, his head seemed to empty of everything he knew.

Just ten moves into Dragon Fist, he froze, and I had to remind him of the next move.  Two steps later, he froze again.  And again.  By the time he forgot for the fourth time, he wasn’t even waiting for me to show him the next move, he was looking over his shoulder asking me with his eyes to come to his rescue.  I finally had to tell him: “You have to do it yourself; it’s a test.”

I knew when the testing group was called up to the head table that Sifu was going to tell the small, quiet, nerve-racked little boy he would not be eligible for promotion this month.  As I watched the green sash nod at Sifu then silently go stand against the wall, he looked much more mature than his ten years.  No tears traveled down his face, though his eyes were wet; he didn’t frown or even pout.  He looked like an adult who’d just had his feelings hurt by his best friend, and he was trying to find the right words to confront the offender.

This child’s behavior is how we should all act when we have a meltdown on something important to us. This little man is anything but cocky, I thought.

As I talked to him about his nerves, letting him know that I knew he could do the forms just fine, I was moved by his continued stoicism, impressed by his composure and anxious for him to get his second chance.

The Sensitivity Gene

“You know nothing.  You go over there,” Siheng said to the new student attending his second class.  He was separating the class into three groups: those who knew their whole form, yellow sashes still learning it and white sashes still learning it.  I knew that what he meant to say was, “You don’t know the form yet, so go over there,” but that’s not how it came out.

The student was visibly surprised by the unintentionally rude sentence.  He opened his eyes wide and stared at Siheng a moment before moving toward his assigned side of the room, while shaking his head.

“He didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” I told the student. “Don’t take it personally.  He’s just missing the sensitivity gene,” I said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, I’m just not… I don’t…”

“- have the sensitivity gene,” I repeated, still smiling.

I can’t remember ever seeing Siheng Chris at the school before I finally reached a sash level that put us in many of the same classes.  But the first unforgettable shared class was one in which he openly, loudly, ridiculed moves I did incorrectly while still learning the Shaolin Fist form.  I thought he was obnoxious and, well, insensitive for doing so.  So no one could have been more surprised than I when he became one of the most helpful people at the school to me while I was training for black sash.  He gave me pointers, corrections and encouragement – and a person to compete with and improve against. As the only red sashes in the school for about seven or eight months, neither of us had anyone else to commiserate with about the stress of the 12 Kicks form.  I remember thinking that we were becoming friends because misery loves company.  There turned out to be a touch more to it than that.

He was impressed at my early aptitude for 12 Kicks, before the piece of floating cartilage in the right knee and the torn meniscus in the left took me off the floor for almost four months (and I actually could have used more).  When I returned, from the first operation, I could no longer “crush it” as he was fond of saying.  When I returned from the second, there were several moves I had to work exceptionally hard to execute properly, much less do with power and speed. By the time I had to fight him and another black sash in the two-on-one part of my black sash test, he remained polite but the friendship had already started to wane.  We were no longer sharing 12 Kicks misery.  He was already a black sash who’d moved on to other forms.

Now, I assist him when he teaches, sometimes rephrasing his sentences for new students, sometimes running interference for his mood, always doing my best to teach the assigned skill for the day to the group he tells me to teach.  It’s been an interesting evolution – one I choose not to take personally.

Coming Back

She used to live at the school just like me.  More than me, really.  Now she doesn’t.  She hasn’t been able to for four months now, but she’s been trying hard to get back consistently for more than two.

She used to be the resident female bad-ass in the building, the perfectionist kung fu practitioner, intensive wushu performer, and the hard-driving upper sash class teacher, who occasionally got heavy-handed with conditioning exercises that even Sifu never inflicted on anyone.  She’s the only current member of the school who knows the chain whip form, and was the sole female member of the team that went to China to compete. Now, she’s a mother.

That fact fills her with joy and pride, but it also comes with a diminished capacity for martial arts – not by much, I’m sure, but diminished nevertheless. She very much wants to be back to the skill and ability she had before pregnancy, but she’s conscious of disturbing the training of others by bringing a crying baby with her to the school.  Even with others there to watch the baby, she can’t train uninterrupted.

I feel for her.  I worry about her.  I wonder about the level of frustration she must be combatting, given a love and compulsion for kung fu that rivals my own.  She’s the only other person in the building that admits to sitting at her desk at work and running through in her head the form she’s working on, as I do with regularity.  She’s the only person there I’ve ever seen drive herself practically to tears when a move she’s practiced incessantly just isn’t gelling in mind or body.  She taught well into her ninth month, often having to be reminded not to attempt to demonstrate moves.  Quite simply, she loves kung fu and wushu, and she’s exceptionally good at both.  She once told me that she wants to do a form perfectly before she does it in public.

So when I saw her the other night making her way across the floor in wushu class moving slower than normal, with kicks lower than she’d normally allow them to be, it wasn’t her speed that bothered me or her execution of the kicks in the drill.  It was her expression.  Her face spoke volumes.  It made me want to take her aside and give her a pep talk, tell her that all she needed was time and she’d be back putting us all to shame.  But I couldn’t – not simply because she was occupied in class, but because I was afraid it would do more harm than good.

Sometimes the last thing a kung fu woman wants is to have someone think she needs…anything.

The Balance

One day was not enough recovery time, after pushing myself as hard as I did Thursday night.  My performance of Lian Huan Tui on Saturday was pitiful.  Everything from the waist down hurt by the time we got to the part of class where we practice forms.  The drills done in the first forty minutes took most of the mojo out of my knees, and I couldn’t do a decent sweep or tornado kick to save my life.  So, lesson learned.  These days, if I’m going to push the lower half of my body to the max, it has to be when I won’t be using it for anything but the long staff form for at least forty-eight hours…maybe even seventy-two.

But the day was still a happy one.  Some readers may remember me writing about Sifu criticizing me for my manner of teaching (12/17/13 post).   I argued then that style of teaching should be left alone, because it’s a personal choice that can play a large part in whether a student enjoys the class.  I still believe that, but the issue turned out not to be all that complicated.  Sifu simply wanted more boot camp, less me.

I can do boot camp; it’s practically in the genes on my father’s side of the family.  But I can also manage to slide in some warmth and humor when not barking directives.  Apparently, I’ve found the balance that makes Sifu happy without taking all the fun out of teaching for me, because on Saturday, Sifu pulled me aside after watching me with the beginners and told me that the way I taught this morning is the way it should be done.

Mission accomplished.  It almost made me forget that I hurt too much to do my own form properly.  Almost. 🙂

Rolling to a Stop

On the commuter train Thursday morning, I fell asleep as I usually do when I’ve only had five or so hours of sleep.  I woke with a start fifteen minutes before the train reached my stop, worried that I’d forgotten to ask Merle to bring my sword to training in addition to my staff.  I hadn’t practiced sword in almost two weeks; so I was immediately annoyed with myself, because I still wouldn’t be able to.  Merle was likely already in the car on the way to pick me up from the train to go straight to kung fu, I thought.  And we wouldn’t have enough time for her to turn around and go back for my sword then come get me.  We’d be late for class.  I concluded that I’d have to practice sword on Saturday, the same day as advanced weapons class for staff.  That was going to be intense for my arm.

When my stream of consciousness finally came rolling to a stop, it hit me.  I was sitting on the morning train not the evening one.  I had almost eight hours to call Merle and ask her to bring my sword.

Sleep deprived, anxious for kung fu and no idea what time of day it was.  Good thing Friday was right around the corner.  I clearly could use a break, even if I didn’t want one.

For Good Measure

Thursday has turned into the day of pain.  It’s the day that I just flirt with my staff and actually date the forms and techniques that can break my body.  It has to happen sometime; it has to happen regularly, actually.  If it doesn’t I won’t be able to do some of the things a black sash is expected to do, and that’s unacceptable.

I’ve been there before, as a matter of fact.  I spent most of 2013 unable, at first, to do a decent kicking combination, then, unable to do one at all.  The kicking combination is the red sash testing kicking; i.e., it’s the series of kicks that has to be done very well in order to be promoted to black sash. The humiliation of being unable to do it anymore was more painful than landing on a foot supported by a knee that’s been under the knife four times.

No.  That’s a hyperbolic inaccuracy; otherwise, I would have simply kept doing the kicking combinations to avoid the embarrassment.  But I truly couldn’t.  That’s how much it hurt to land from a jump that’s supposed to be at least a yard off the ground.  And let’s face it: a yard’s not that high in the kung fu world.

The cortisone shot in my lower back almost three weeks ago has returned my ability to do a kicking combination.  The ones I did tonight were not very high, and they still hurt my back and knees to land, but I could execute the move, and so I did.  I did it and the subsequent difficult moves of the Lian Huan Tui form – spinning inside and outside crescent kicks, followed by a tornado kick, a side kick, forward and backward sweeps, a back kick and a final tornado kick, all in quick succession with just one pause – until taking a simple step made my back hurt.  And right after I gave my twelve-year-old a nod of agreement on her observation that I should probably stop for the night, I remembered something crucial to my martial arts training, a fact that I couldn’t have earned my black sash without embracing: fear of pain is more restrictive than the pain itself.

I remember in the early months of my black sash testing (which weren’t long after my last knee operation) having to repeatedly tell myself not to be afraid each and every time I jumped into a mid-air horse stance in the 12 Kicks form and had to land.  The landing continued to hurt for a while; but I’ve had two children and been tattooed several times.  Everything is relative. The more I just went through the pain instead of trying to avoid it, the more relaxed my body became – and the less it hurt.  It didn’t take that long for me not to need the internal, pre-jump pep talk.

I don’t know why I remembered that tonight, a memory that’s fifteen or sixteen months old, but I’m glad I did.  It made me decide to keep going until I was satisfied that progress had been made with at least one thing that needed to be fixed. I only did another half dozen repetitions of the kicking combination, but I did another dozen or so reps of all that follows the combo and even tacked on the ending of the form for good measure.  I don’t know where in that process my back pain turned into little more than a dull ache, but it did.  And more importantly, half of that killer list of kicks looked better when I walked out of the building than when I began.

Walking up and down my stairs after sitting through the twenty-five minute car ride home is as unpleasant as it always is. But tonight, the fact that Thursday is a guaranteed day of pain comes with one helluva smile.

Just Ninety

I wasn’t going to ask her again, but my desire to know the next moves in the form outweighed all the conflicting emotions evoked when interacting with her.  It’s not one hundred percent wine and roses in my kung fu world, just ninety.  As is the case with family, there are members that challenge me in ways I don’t appreciate.

On the surface, she’s easy to like: smiley, bubbly, outgoing, talkative.  But my issues with her aren’t on the surface.  They’re rooted in the instigative, sometimes condescending comments that I’ve been hearing from her for years.  I can’t say with certainty what she’s been intending to say.  I just know that what I hear has consistently raised my cackles.

The problem couldn’t possibly be that we’re both competitive only children, theater-rats-turned-martial-artists.   It couldn’t be that we each have our moments of being hypersensitive, especially on a bad kung fu day (which is any day that an instruction is tougher to master than we want it to be.)  It’s almost like an Abbott and Costello routine that isn’t funny, the way we’re prone to misunderstanding each other, as if we’re speaking two completely different languages that aren’t even based on the same alphabet.

“Own your diamond,” she once said sternly, when I was out of position without realizing it during a synchronized form section.  From head to toe she was clearly annoyed, as if her child had just willfully disobeyed her.

Who the hell do you think you’re talking to? I thought.  “Excuse me?” is what I said.  When given the invitation to repeat it, her tone softened, but not by much – and her frown didn’t move an inch.  These types of resentment-creating moments are infrequent, but they can suck all the oxygen out of the room.

I don’t want discord in this family.  I’ve had enough of it to last a lifetime in my family of origin and families of choice.  It’s why I want to give her the benefit of the doubt when her words and actions strike a nerve.  It’s why I very much want to hear what she means to say or, perhaps, hear nothing at all.

The Real Drive

For a few brief moments today, I actually tried to calculate how long it would take me to drive to Miami.  The answer is about nineteen and a half hours.  That’s if I’m driving the speed limit and only stop for gas and bathroom breaks and eat in the car while I’m driving.  Not going to happen – any of it.  The only reason such insanity was even batted around was because I did additional research on this weekend’s martial arts tournament and discovered it’s almost exclusively for karate.  It would be a complete waste of time and money to make an appearance.

So I decided to reconsider going to the tournament that I know is a kung fu competition – the one I also know I would need to buy a plane ticket to get to.  That one’s in Houston three weeks from now.  At the moment, it costs about five hundred roundtrip to get there and back.  That price is only going to go up the closer I get to the event, and that’s just the plane ticket.  It doesn’t include registering for the competition, two days of meals and sleeping somewhere.  I guess I could save some money by just renting a car and driving out to the Houston suburbs to crash and eat at my former in laws’ house.  But since I’ve never set foot in their house without being accompanied by their son or their grandchildren, I’m thinking it’s probably not a good idea to rely on their southern hospitality.  Scratch Houston, look to the next city on the circuit.  Which brings me to my imaginary marathon drive to Miami.

Now, the real drive to Miami, particularly if I’m driving alone, would require two overnight stops going and coming home, plus the night spent in the city itself.  So I’d need a week’s vacation for a one-day tournament that, for me personally, would last all of about three minutes.  Scratch Miami.

I’m starting to see why the bachelor with the disposable income is the only member of our school who regularly competes in tournaments that are more than a couple of hours drive away.  Like it or not, I’m going to have to wait until March for a tournament I can afford to get to.

I’m not good at waiting.  That’s probably why I’m always forced to do it.  The universe insists on giving me lots of practice.