Monthly Archives: February 2014

Game of Inches

I once believed that wet weather was a bad omen.  I can’t remember the exact source of that belief, though it was probably an older and allegedly wiser member of my superstitious family from a small country town.  I’m glad that’s one of the things that fell by the wayside as I aged.  Had it not, I’d be climbing the walls right now listening to the unmistakable sound of cars flying down wet roads and water falling from a darkened sky.  Instead, I’m just anxious to get out the door, as I normally am on a Saturday morning.  But this is not a normal Saturday.

The Chinese New Year demonstration is this evening.  Though I chose not to be in it, to keep from adding extra stress on my joints for something that’s literally just for show, I want everything to go off without a hitch for my kung fu family.  There are a lot of moving parts in this one – far more than in years past, and it seems to mean a great deal to Sifu to impress the local Chinese community.  The school this morning is bound to be filled with nervous energy.

As physically large, complicated and important to our leader as it may be, it’s all secondary to the main event of the day.  Our contender, the Boy Wonder, competes for the national team today.  Last he told me, there was a bruise on his heel causing him trouble.

One of the most impressive moves in the form he performs today requires that he come out of a jump and land into a split.  I haven’t seen the split happen correctly since the bruise appeared two weeks ago.  I can’t imagine he’ll make the team if he can’t execute that move.

It’s truly a game of inches – a fact that’s true in all sports, of course.  The difference between success and mediocrity can be just a centimeter or two one direction or the other.

May any and all gods he needs be with him today.  May the adrenaline of performing make that semi-healed bruise unnoticeable as he flies and lands.  If there can only be one flawless performance of the two that matter today, let it be the Boy Wonder’s.  His is for so much more than show.


In almost five years of knowing her I’d never dialed her number before.  We’d exchanged a few texts about physical therapists, injuries, shots, but we’d never had a conversation outside of the school or a competition auditorium.  I called because I wasn’t sure if she’d see an email today; I didn’t know whether the snow that hit the coast had closed her office, and I needed an answer fast.

Almost every airport on the east coast was a ghost town with a few scattered people, informed too late about cancellations, sleeping in the boarding area seats.  So I suspected that my evening flight would also be going nowhere.  Though grateful not to have to take off on one icy runway and land on another, the grounding of my flight meant delaying my business trip almost a full week.  Both the taping schedule for my show and personal plans would make it impossible to leave for Boston before Wednesday – a night that I teach.

Do I need to make do with a sandwich in the airport before the last flight out, so I don’t leave my fellow instructors and the students in the lurch?  Or can I head for the airport right after the office and have a decent meal before everything closes?  To answer this question, I needed to know if the other assistant teacher could commit to being present in my absence.

Under no circumstances, could we leave the place understaffed, when there’s another round of new students in the school now.  They take more of the instructor’s time, especially when they’re children.  Short-staffed would therefore mean short-changed for someone.  That wouldn’t do.

With my colleague in our travel department waiting on me to tell her what flight I wanted to replace the cancelled one, it dawned on me that I wasn’t the least bit concerned about the weather’s effect on the interview I would have six fewer days to edit.  I was just annoyed to be taken out of my teaching and training routine.

How dare this job get in the way of my hobby!  If I had a dime for every time that thought ran through my head, I’d have the bills prepaid for quite some time to come!


When the president of the network stood in for the regular host of the monthly program I produce, she asked me how I prepare for it.  I told her that I read all the books written by the guest author, jot down the highlights, themes and most significant quotes and give that information to the host.

“What?” she said, giving me a look of incredulity and annoyance. “I don’t need you to do that for me,” she added before telling me I could go.  The regular host of the program is my direct superior in the company.  In truthfully answering the president’s question, I had essentially told my boss’s boss that I spoon feed him the information needed to conduct a comprehensive interview.  I felt guilty.

Some piece of this memory runs through my brain whenever I write about my kung fu life in a critical way.  I feel a twinge of guilt when I tell a story that places an instructor in a bad light, especially if it’s Sifu.  Before the guilt-inducing day in the office was out, I felt compelled to rehabilitate my boss’s image to the company president.  As the person who pushed me to and beyond every physical limit I thought I had, Sifu deserves no less.

And yet, I have no idea how to bolster the impression I’ve left of him without sounding as if I’m covering my ass in the event he reads some of the posts that are less than flattering.  Perhaps I should just announce that he has a special talent for tailoring an explanation to the person he’s giving it to, that he determined rather quickly in his teaching career that one way of explaining or demonstrating a move does not, in fact, fit all.  This from the man who often preaches uniformity.  He talks as if there are unwritten rules that must be followed, but he himself erases the imaginary ink to get a student to the next level.

“You need us to get out of the way?” Sijeh asked me.

“No, no, no!”  I said, sneaking a look at Sifu, awaiting admonishment for interrupting his tai chi students.  “You guys are in class.  I just need a smidgen of space.” I said quietly.

“Everybody move down!” Sifu shouted to the class, and everyone shifted several feet toward the front door, leaving a large swath of space for me to practice sweeps.  I hadn’t even known that Sifu could hear me, so I certainly didn’t expect him to interrupt the class he was teaching to make room for my self-training.  It seems like such a small thing, but not when both space and time are a premium.

It’s a good beginning to a complete description of the man.  An appropriate place to start.  I’m not going to sanitize my experience in kung fu for the once-in-a-blue-moon days that fellow students and instructors may read what I have to say about life in our little family.  But I must remember balance. Give credit along with criticism.  It’s the least I can do for what I’ve been given.  Sifu deserves no less.

“Why Am I Here?”

There was a time I had to be told to go home – back when my now 17-year-old was only two.  It was my first job on a live, nightly program.  That’s an altogether different animal than creating two-minute taped video packages for news programs or even a thirty-minute stand-alone special on a subject of my superior’s choice.  Live TV can carry an adrenaline rush purely because technical glitches and/or human error can lead to the unexpected; and when it’s live, the show must go on, no matter what.  Figuring out how to make that happen seamlessly and without panic can be the greatest challenge of my job.  And I’ve been lucky enough to rise to it well.  These days, I only spend three hours a month in the control room for a live production, but at least half of my work hours in any given month are spent properly preparing for those three hours.  The other half are spent on another program to which I am wholly unattached.

In short, times have changed.  I no longer have to be told by colleagues or bosses to go home.  Instead, I find myself asking, almost daily, from the moment I walk in the door, “Why am I here?”  I read a quote this morning attributed to Buddha that I haven’t been able to shake from my brain:  “Your work is to discover your work and then, with all your heart, give yourself to it.”  Dismissing the fact that this probably didn’t come from Buddha, the sentiment rings true for me – loudly.  And I want to follow it.

My day began by reading a response from my Sifu on an email I sent him about the aptitude of the new students.  And that felt right.  It was certainly more welcome than the emails I receive on the weekend about items that can wait until Monday.  It was significantly better received than the phone calls from the assistants of so-called VIPs that have kept me on the clock until midnight, because the option of not answering simply didn’t exist without suffering repercussions on the job.

Talking about my kung fu students is exactly how my workday should begin.  Tending to my students should be my work.

But I love pizza delivery and sushi bars, baseball games and movies.  I love giving the perfect birthday gifts and making road trips through the old home state.  I love standing reliably by, cash in hand, when my children have holes in their sneakers or needs braces.  I love the security of a regular paycheck and benefits, which teaching kung fu full-time would likely never give me.

I am currently choosing security over passion.  That’s the hard cold truth of my daily dilemma.  That’s the answer when I walk into the office to “Why am I here?”  The choice is mine today and will remain mine indefinitely.

Six months until the braces are paid for.  That gets me almost to the end of baseball season – more than enough time to fill up on pizza while I can still afford it.

Friday’s Resolve

Fridays have been my own for almost two months now.  I decided around mid-December that I was no longer going to subject my body to the often brutal regimen of the two-hour Friday night class.  Life being what it is, Sifu decided about a week after my decision that rehearsals for the Chinese New Year demonstration would take place of Friday night, in place of class.  So my resolve has yet to be tested.  But it hit me like a ton of bricks tonight that with the Chinese New Year performance occurring this weekend, that’s all about to change.

I’ve been all kinds of happy with my kung fu life since the holiday break and for very good reasons.  I’ve worked my long staff form into highly-respectable shape, enjoyed teaching a growing group of enthusiastic students, started learning forms that are outside of our curriculum; and improved the range and pain tolerance of my knees and back.  I want to maintain this level of happy for as long as possible.

So, I hereby publicly declare that I will not be guilted into returning to something that often hurts me to an intolerable degree.  I have a couple of weeks to work with, but I’m fortifying my mind early.  My physical ability to continue doing this thing I love for as long as I want may depend on it.

Same Page, Same Time

It’s been a year since my knees have ached this much on a Sunday night.  That’s how rare it is these days for me to feel compelled to practice on the one day of the week that the school isn’t open.  Even when I’ve had the itch on the day of rest not to do so, I’ve kept practice time to a minimum.  But today, the need to conquer the physics and execute to my satisfaction was powerful.  It became even stronger when the answer of how best to execute finally made itself clear.  And so I ran with it.

I still didn’t have what I wanted from my body by the time my brain told me to save my knees for Monday’s beginner class and my long staff work.  But I was thrilled nevertheless, because I’d literally figured out the answer to the bane of my martial arts existence.  I deconstructed a sequence down to minute detail (e.g., which way are my toes pointing when my hand is here?), and I found the answer I’d been looking for since the fourth knee operation.  This epiphany led to the even greater realization of the day.

Kung fu has changed the way I think.  It long ago changed what I think about and when, but it’s now unavoidably clear that it’s messing with the how part of operations, as well.  My martial arts madness had made me, a previous monument to impatience, willing to break something down piece by piece, to determine how to get my mind, body and spirit on the same page at the same time.

Every time I think this love of mine can’t get any better, I get a new box of chocolates.  I don’t see a break-up happening any time soon! 🙂

The Little Things

“David!  You awake for me today?” I jokingly asked the seven-year-old who has a hard time keeping his attention on me, and an even harder time holding a horse stance for longer than a split second.  He assured me he was awake and ready to go.

“What’s your name?  Can you tell me your name?” I asked the kindergartener who couldn’t conceive of straightening his arm all the way when throwing a jab.  The shy little man became more talkative as the morning progressed.  He and his slightly older brother were joining us for the first time.  The younger struggled with right foot versus left, the older with front hand versus back.  It got a little frustrating when doing drills with other beginners who weren’t as new, but they were earnest, eager and adorable, which made me happy to meet them.

“I’m taking weapons today, Sijeh!” another student told me in a louder voice than I’d ever heard him use.  His smile was so wide and radiant, I could feel his excitement from a few yards away.  I looked down at his waist and noted that the new sash color he was wearing made him eligible to attend beginner weapons for the first time.

“Oh yeah,” I answered!  “Today’s the first weapons class for you.  What’s it going to be?  Staff or sword?”


I couldn’t help but wonder if watching me practice for the last few months influenced his choice.  “You’re going to have fun,” I said, matching the smile of the hard worker who likes to get it right.

“Um, I don’t know this yet,” she quietly told Sifu as the rest of us began to do wheel hand drills.  Purple looks good on the little spitfire, I thought.  I remembered her sparring match at testing the week before.  That small, thin, quick little thing gave her overly-aggressive little brother all he could handle and then some.  It was a proud display of girl power, leading to a well-deserved promotion.

“Where’s my girl?” I asked after bowing to Sijeh.  The infant child of the school’s first couple was asleep in her car seat in the office, looking angelic and much bigger than the last time I’d seen her two weeks ago.  I was able to get a couple of finger grabs and wide-eyed grins out of her later in the day, after her nap.  All that was missing was a quick hug, but I knew I could get her mom or Sifu to hand her over for a minute the next time they brought her in.

Noteworthy minutes to remember.  Highlights of another Saturday at kung fu.  The little things that make them my martial arts family.  It’s the little things that make their place in my life so big.

First Order of Business

When some people do it, it looks like a split in mid air.  Mine looked like that for a brief period, back when I was a purple sash, back before I had operations four and five on the knees.  I have the video to prove it.

For others, the split never has the chance to form because the right leg is already on its way back down to the floor as the left is rising.  The latter technique is what I call the easy way to do a kicking combination.  The problem is that after sporadic practice in the family room of my house tonight, even the easy way was still not easy for me.

I pulled the hamstring on my left leg in the last month of black sash testing a year ago.  It slowed down what had otherwise become a much faster kicking combination than I’d thought I was capable of.  Months later, I came down hard on the right knee when coming out of the combo, and I’ve been struggling to make it look respectable – when I’m able to execute it at all – ever since.  It’s the first order of business when I get a pain-relieving shot: can I get my kicking combo back?  And since I suspect I may be given little else to practice later this morning, because of my run-in with Sifu over self-teaching, it’ll be my priority Saturday as well.

As I write, I wonder how many readers have any real idea of what I’m talking about.  I try not to get too bogged down in terminology that means nothing to most who are kind enough to regularly follow this obsession of mine, but there are some days when the a specific technique is all consuming and therefore what I find myself writing about in detail.  Thus, my lunchtime one-liner posting Friday.  If I’d been able to get away with it without someone calling for a straightjacket, I would’ve done kicking combinations in one of the office conference rooms on my lunch break and bypassed the salad.

In any event, I appreciate all of you who put up with the jargon and tunnel vision and keep checking in on what I’m up to.  Friday marked two months that I’ve been documenting this madness in the blogosphere, and I appreciate all who follow and comment, advise and encourage as I trudge on in my middle-aged martial arts love affair.

Until tomorrow…jiayou!

Lunch time at the office….

I just want to practice kicking combinations.  Is that so wrong?

No Extra Credit

“Where’d you get this?” he asked sternly, trotting over to me just as I started the second set of staff spins in the White Eyebrow form.  The “this” he was referring to was the form itself, the moves that he didn’t know I knew, the self-teaching he was not impressed to find out I’d done.

“From watching other people,” I answered slowly, subconsciously expecting a strike of some sort in my direction, based on the anger clear on his face.

He turned sharply away from me and said, “You know not to rush things.  It makes me less likely to want to work with you on it.  You know that about me,” he added, walking around the bodies spread out on the floor stretching for wushu class.  When he came back to extend the leg of the student on the floor closest to my position, I said:  “You don’t give extra credit, huh?”

“There’s extra credit for what I teach you,” he answered without missing a beat.

He made me wait through most of his wushu class to continue my end of the conversation.  I almost thought he would refuse to hear me before we left.  But I suspect he knew I was at least going to try to say what I needed to say, even if he didn’t want to hear it.  That’s something he knows about me.

“I’m sorry.  You have to know that no disrespect was intended,” I began.  I knew he’d seen me practicing the open of the form months earlier; so I was genuinely caught off guard by his surprise and anger.  I’d never been trying to hide from him that my overachieving gene was fast at work in martial arts as everywhere else.

“I know,” he said, sounding almost pleasant.  “I know that you’re just eager.  And I’ve done that too.  The first day I was a red sash, I walked into class and told my instructor, ‘I know 12 Kicks.’  He was not happy.  And so….”

I appreciated his willingness to make me feel better, to make me less anxious about his anger. The more I thought about it, it was probably no small deal for him to admit that he’d made the same breach of protocol, crossed whatever line it is that exists without explanation.

After a bit more chatter on my part about what I’d been trying to do and why, I finally asked: “Would you rather I have pretended I didn’t know any of it?” I asked, waiting to hear “no” or “of course not.”  What I heard instead was:

“You still don’t know any of it.  That’s what I want you to understand.”

His statement was true but inaccurate.   I nevertheless left it alone.  “Yes, sir,” I answered.  Understood.


The Sum Total

Our contender is exhausted and wishing that his trials to make the national team were over already.  My son has strained or torn his glute and can’t jump or kick without pain.  (This is a teenager with a tornado kick that looks like he’s flying, and now he can’t jump without pain!)  Our guan is in serious disrepair.  Some would say there are spots that are a health hazard if not a safety one, but we don’t yet have somewhere else to go.  My second shot into the base of my spine was more painful than the first, but at least tonight, it was working pretty well.  After more than an hour of teaching and another hour or so of personal practice consisting mostly of sweeps, tornado kicks and kicking combinations, I’m able to walk up and down the stairs in my house like a normal person, instead of taking them one at a time.  That’s the sum total of my martial arts experience and concerns this evening, and I have no desire to go into further detail about any of the items above.  I just want to sit with it all, the good and the bad, and be grateful.

I have a high class of problems, if you can even call them that: commuter trains that are never on time and make me late for kung fu classes that I’m supposed to be teaching; authors who are boring, bland and vanilla that I’m ordered to feature on one of my television  shows because they have a big name or they fit a needed political perspective; not having the food in the house that I had no way of knowing I’d be craving after an evening in a leaky school with fantastic young men giving it their all through fatigue and pain. These are today’s problems.  They’re indicative of a full and satisfying life.

I can always worry tomorrow about how long the latest shot will last, if it will in fact eliminate my need for arthritis medication or anti-inflammatories, as I deeply hope it will.  Tomorrow I will continue my prayers for the means to send my currently-injured, kindred martial arts soul to the college of his choice.  I will get through the morning editorial meeting without showing my annoyance at matters above my pay grade that shouldn’t be. Etcetera.

Lastly, I will do all I can to remember and hang on to how it feels right now to be simultaneously happy, miffed, concerned, a touch sad – but somehow, above all, grateful.

The Pain of Cessation

Addiction is in the news and so very much on my mind in both a past and present sense.  As a young child, I watched my mother and grandmother fall apart at the news that my uncle was dead.  Near as I could understand from what I overheard, he was attacked when drunk and didn’t survive the altercation.

Fifteen years later, right after undergrad, I slung drinks at a bar by night to supplement the day job.  A co-worker from that job drank himself to death in a hotel room after his partner of twenty years left him.

But the addiction-related death that cut the deepest was that of a former boss, a recovering-addict, white-collar entrepreneur who apparently hopped off the wagon undetected by the dozen or so people he employed. He was a vivacious, warm, kind and abundantly generous person.  He hired me three different times: during my years as a freelance journalist; after being laid off by a network in a buyout restructuring; and as a divorced, single mother of a kindergartener and a newborn. The third time, he couldn’t really afford to hire me back in the post-9/11 recession, but he did anyway.

We got word in the office that his robbed body had been found in a hotel, with bottles and baggies decorating the room, just days after learning from his new, pregnant wife that he hadn’t been sober for months. He tossed a decade of drug-free years out the window, and within months of picking up where he left off, he left us all.

I could go on about others.  People I worked and played with in the bar world during my college years and shortly thereafter.  I know more than I need to about addiction, including that even ones that don’t take your life are no joke.

Addiction, by definition, is a negative thing.  Wikipedia defines it as “the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences;” Webster’s dictionary says it’s “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice…to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”  Neither of these sound like a state anyone should want to be in over anything.  And yet I am currently, unapologetically.

Kung fu is a behavior I continue despite adverse physical consequences, about which even entertaining its cessation causes me mental trauma. It’s not going to kill me, of course, but I acknowledge in the tag line of my blog that it can cripple me.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been told I should quit before I end up with limbs not working.  Each time I hear these concerns and warnings, I respond with what I know sounds to some like I’m wading blind in a pool of denial.  I’ve heard drug addicts sound the same way.  At least exercise addictions aren’t known to rob one of the mental faculties needed not to escalate the behavior in the middle of negative consequences.  Drug addicts just keep taking more.

At the end of the day, continuing in my addiction is as simple as knowing that the pain of activity isn’t yet greater than the pain of loss that stopping would bring.  That’s simply how fulfilled it makes me, for lack of a less dramatic word at this late hour, any and every time a training night goes well – hurt knees, hurt back, hurt arm and all.

If only all addicts of all kinds could clearly weigh the pain of continuation against the pain of cessation.  If only they lived long enough to get the chance.