“I don’t really want to be here anymore,” he said quietly with a perplexed look on his face. “I feel like I did back when I took those two months off.”
I was surprised to hear this from him, since just a month ago, he’d made clear to me that if I decided to leave the school, he was staying. He was prepared to pay for his own contract, and he clearly wasn’t clouded by any codependent need to go down with his mother in my fall from grace with Sifu. At the time, I couldn’t help but feel a bit hurt. I likewise couldn’t help but feel a bit pleased at his unexpected declaration of dissatisfaction.
“I’d rather be at the gym myself,” I whispered, conscious of the fact that the walled-off office we were standing next to has no ceiling. I’d aggravated my worn out right shoulder the previous day while changing a flat tire, and the bad mood I’d already noticed on Sifu made me fearful of further injury. Additionally, my changed feelings about the man and his school easily explained my preference for self-training at the gym. My son’s feelings were another story.
He didn’t know on Saturday morning why he didn’t want to be there, and the feeling may not last long enough to matter. But it turned out to be a small moment of needed camaraderie in a physically painful day of a ridiculously long month. And as long as I have to be there (to learn the rest of my new form), I’ll take all the good feelings I can get.
I was having a good but bittersweet time watching the large class of green sashes who used to be my white and yellow sash students, when I paused in front of Sifu’s office to greet him. He was unsmiling as he returned my bow, and for a moment, I thought he might be angry with me for not greeting him sooner. But I quickly realized that I’d seen that scowl on him before when it had nothing to do with me. He was in a bad mood for some reason, and it was going to be a long class.
Those two facts are inseparable. Whenever Sifu is in a bad mood, it comes through in his teaching. Sometimes he’ll choose the most difficult of drills; sometimes the drills are manageable but the repetitions never-ending. Always he becomes more formal and easily irked by what he considers to be breaches of respect.
In a good mood, he won’t insist that everyone say “yes, sir” every time he speaks, even if they’re busy holding their breath trying to get through whatever maneuver he’s assigned. And when he does call for a “yes, sir” that everyone’s too busy hurting to remember to give automatically, there’s no anger in the call. In a bad mood, everything seems to be said angrily. He’ll bark at students for not moving fast enough, much less a failure to say “yes, sir” at the appropriate moment.
In short, what kind of class one will have with Sifu always depends on his mood. He is either unaware of the connection between the two, or he doesn’t believe that connection is problematic. In any case, he’s the other Jekyll and Hyde in my life – and he has the same birthdate as the first (see “The Old Man”).
What a cosmic coincidence that is! Is the universe trying to tell me something?
I could hear them before I saw them – the Friday evening members of the gym’s Kid’s Club. They were burning off whatever energy was left from school and daycare and doing it loud enough to be heard over the yoga room’s sound system.
I caught the eye of the club’s supervisor and talked with her about the best way to track down her boss to see about teaching rudimentary kung fu moves to the children. While we spoke, I noticed the children growing more and more quiet, fixating one at a time on the long stick of white wood that I held. They began to line up to return to the kids’ room, and their program director for the evening asked me to use the six-foot-long staff to retrieve a stuck ball.
“What are you going to do with that?” The boy screaming the question at me couldn’t have been more than three.
“I’m going to do kung fu with it after I use it to get that ball down from the top of the light.” Two seconds later, with the ball safely bouncing toward the room’s open door, I was met with the same question.
“Now what are you going to do with it?” A girl ran up next to him and looked the staff up and down as I answered.
“I’m going to spin it real fast as soon as you guys are all safely back across the hall,” I answered with a smile.
“Are you going to smash a banana with it?” The little girl asked out of nowhere. It took all I had not to burst into laughter at my inquisitors. After a surreptitious sigh, I answered with as straight a face as possible.
“No. It wouldn’t work very well for me in kung fu if I used it on a banana first.” She just stared at me, with a challenge clear on her face.
“But you could just –
“Everybody walk,” the supervisor said, saving me from a serious discussion on the use of a long staff to get a banana smoothie started… at least for now. 🙂
I was caught off guard the moment I walked in the door. In six months of being a mother, Sijeh had only been to testing three times, and two had been final black sash tests. She was rarely able to watch the proceedings, because her time was spent trying to keep her daughter from crying. So lately, she’d been opting to just stay home, particularly when testing had few being promoted.
I’ve only had brief interactions with her, since the fall from grace with her husband. They amounted to little more than me grabbing the baby’s finger as she sat in her mother’s lap. But with Sijeh seated at the end of the head table, our interaction was going to be more than passing. Tradition dictated that my seat at the table be next to hers, and I feared having to fake conversation that I wasn’t expecting and didn’t want to have.
I quickly shaped my face muscles into a smile that only I knew was forced. Nevertheless, it did the trick. I was able to make my way to the head table with the proper attitude and body language, and my actual mood followed the lead I’d set with my face.
I no longer have any clue how to think or feel when it comes to Sijeh and Sifu, but that’s so much better than thinking something incorrect and feeling something inappropriate. I’m in their house, effectively, whenever I set foot in the guan, and they can make that world their own in whatever way they choose.
Whatever bad karma might be floating around the place, isn’t going to come from me, I thought, as I broadened my smile and grabbed the baby’s finger as she sat in her mother’s lap.
Thursday is testing night at the guan, and it doesn’t matter to me at all. That’s a first since becoming a black sash.
I don’t have a family member, friend or student being promoted. I’m not running the floor or training the person who is. I haven’t been told to do a demonstration. And I’m fairly certain I won’t be asked to grade anyone who’s being evaluated. In short, my presence isn’t needed. And to my astonishment, I’m just fine with that.
The more I train in a warm comfortable gym that holds no drama, the more at peace I am with the change in my status at the guan. The more I compete and do well in tournaments, the more I prefer to pay entry fees not contract ones.
I don’t need to be in the inner circle anymore. I’ll happily climb back in if invited, because most of the school’s black sashes are still family in my heart, but I’m fine if the invitation never comes.
For I no longer feel like I’m being punished. I feel like the loss is theirs.
I started my work day smiling wistfully over a father with whom I have a painful relationship. I don’t communicate with him as often as I’d like, in part because he doesn’t own a computer and has never had an email account, but largely because he wasn’t a very good father. He actually never wanted to be one at all – a fact he made expressly clear more than once as I was growing up. That’s still a small bone of contention for me.
In any case, every once and a while, I’ll put a packet of pictures in the mail to him of his grandchildren and me, with a note about what’s been going on in our lives. Today was one of those days. (Phone calls can be a bit of a crap shoot over whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde will answer.) This mailing included prints of my Facebook postings about the family’s medal-winning martial arts success of late.
Perhaps that will give the curmudgeon something to smile about. It made me smile this morning just to think it might….
“If you do the Pittsburgh tournament, you can only do one event, because the entry fee is so high. But if you wait until June and do the D.C. tournament, you can compete in as many events as you want. D.C. has one price for everything.” I explained tournament economics as carefully as I could to a preteen who’s never bought anything more expensive than a birthday present for her brother, then waited for her to make the more cost-effective choice. She didn’t.
“I’ll do Pittsburgh.”
“You will? You understand that I can’t pay for both? If you do Pittsburgh, you can’t do D.C. – unless you pay for it.”
“Then I’ll wash more cars to pay for it,” she answered in a tone that implied I had somehow managed to miss her obvious solution and should be ashamed of myself. I watched my smiling daughter grab her towel and head for the shower, wondering who or what had taken over the body of my youngest child.
Only two weeks have passed since I told her she’s now the official family car wash, and I’ll pay her a couple of times a month for this specific job, while the remainder of her clean-up detail would still be just chores. She agreed without complaint but looked worried. After all, it’s work; and she doesn’t like work. She tried to console herself with talk of expanding her comic book collection with her pay.
Now, with her first paid foray with the sponge and hose just days away, the worried look has been replaced by a smile, a fist pump and a desire to wash the car more often than it needs – all because her father’s difficulty getting a day off from work forced her to come to a tournament she wasn’t supposed to attend. Once there, she wound up competing, placing and wanting a shot at a higher medal.
I’ve always said that God has an interesting sense of humor, and this was definitely a punch line that I didn’t see coming. But I’ll take it, happily – along with a very clean car!
Tournaments are scheduled to be an all-day affair, but I had never personally experienced one that was. Until Saturday.
At the Fort Lauderdale tournament last month, I spent four hours warming up and cooling down over and over and over again, before my event was finally called. It was a factor of having dozens of competition categories all slated for the same ring and not knowing exactly how many were ahead of mine.
In Charlotte on Saturday, rings were assigned on an ongoing basis, with none pre-assigned before the competition began. None. We waited more than four hours for the first of the three of us to be called for an event; it took an additional two and a half hours after the first call for all of us to be done on the floor. So from first stretch to last bow, we spent almost eight hours warming up and cooling down, over and over and over again.
I did a lot of quacking in Charlotte, North Carolina. The extreme test of patience made Saturday my best day yet at being a duck. Most surprisingly, I was not alone.
I like to say that my daughter is me without the filter. That missing filter is usually a very big deal. But with a little late-in-the-day help from a smart phone, her complaints numbered exactly three and lasted a matter of seconds. That’s in a day that was eight hours long – and followed immediately by a seven hour car ride home!
What keeps an experience that looks crazy on paper from being as insane as it sounds is being in a room with a couple of hundred other like-minded enthusiasts who’ve driven just as long or flown just as far as you have. A Florida man I made friends with in Lauderdale greeted me like we’d known each other for years, and my son left the building with plans to meet up early in the summer with a fellow competitor he spent most of the day talking with. It’s not just a competition circuit; it’s a community all its own – much like any professional sport. And that community is a fringe benefit to an experience that can otherwise try the most passionate of martial arts souls.
Next up Pittsburgh. I’m sure the gang – or much of it – will all be there.
A proud mama I am! About five long hours after this picture was taken, my children left the tournament floor with their first medals in kung fu… and training plans for the next competition!
Even my better half, sitting through the day on camera and cheering duty while nursing a torn meniscus, is anxious to get an event under her belt, now.
Looks like I’ve started something. And so far, so good!
More later, when I’m finally out of the car. 🙂
It was a beautiful evening in Charlotte, North Carolina – especially from the top of the university campus at dusk, at the start of a track meet.
Tomorrow morning, the family and I will be pacing and warming up in the winding corridors of this building, awaiting the call of our numbers to show what we know in each of our events.
As luck would have it, I strained, sprained, pinched or otherwise aggravated the arm and shoulder that the staff demands the most of while sparring in Thursday night’s class. So the jury is out on what I’ll be able to do tomorrow. Meanwhile, my daughter has decided to get out of the audience and onto the competition floor, which made the trip extra special before we’d even put the weapons in the car!
It’s feeling a little like waiting for Santa…. A pretty nice feeling on the second day of spring. 🙂
I did twenty-one forms last night, and aside from needing more sleep, I feel good. I wasn’t intending to supersize it on the training; I just threw in a few sword forms (to see, one last time, if I could pull off a performance worthy of public consumption on a form that wreaks havoc on my right shoulder.) I also did more repetitions than initially intended on the brand new staff form in my repertoire, White Eyebrow. Toss in practice for the competition forms of long staff and Lian Huan Tui, and all of a sudden I was doing more than twenty forms in a day for the first time in about a year. There’s nothing like the freedom of space, time, happy joints and dormant sciatica!
Another first last night was the discovery that I’ve regained great enough vertical distance on my kicking combination that I can once again do the mid-air kicks in the sword form. The calendar year was 2010 the last time I could leap high enough to complete those kicks with a sword held behind my back and not come down too hard, too soon and sideways on a really bad knee, injuring it further. In fact, it was the third knee operation (the first that occurred as a student of kung fu) that grounded those sword form kicks for me. It’s great to know that once I find out what needs to be done to get the shoulder back in shape, I may one day get the complete sword form in as good a shape as long staff. But that’s not something I’ll be putting a lot of energy into any time in the near future. White Eyebrow is the next training priority, and frankly, it’s hard in the most irritating of ways – subtly.
I’ve been charged with perfecting the first half of the form before Sifu will teach me anymore of it. And the impediment to improvement is spinning the staff with my feet together. Turns out that after seven years of knee injuries and operations, I can’t put my feet together! When my thighs and knees are touching, this is what my feet look like:
They’re supposed to look like this while I’m spinning:
The only way I’m able to pull off the feet-together position is to turn my legs and knees inward toward each other, to become pigeon…kneed. That’s fine at the very beginning of class or a form, when bowing to the teacher, but sustained for several seconds, while twisting the waist and hips from right to left and spinning a seventy-seven inch staff??? Good grief!
The next physical challenge has officially been set! And I haven’t even gotten to the running-while-spinning part…. Oy!
Getting up from my commuter train seat this morning to disembark only took a split second, as it should. No one stared at me. No one even noticed. I was just like everyone else.
I slept fine last night, pill free. I was awakened by the need to use the bathroom, not by jolts of pain. I love the initial days after a pain shot – no matter how painful the shot itself often is.
Already daydreaming about tonight’s trip to the gym and my last long staff practice before I’m at the venue. The road trip south begins in less than 48 hours, and the whole family’s going. It’s an exciting first!
I have my better half available to cheer me on, and my son will be competing for the first time. Since this is the most affordable tournament of the circuit this year, I think I might try to talk my pre-teen into getting out of the audience and competing instead. Her long staff form is pretty good in its own right. She learned it well before I did (while I was learning sword) and had a great time telling me what I was doing wrong when I first learned it. I’m sure that any correction I give her, when she learns sword as a future black sash, will be seen as payback. But I’ll deal with that misconception when I get to it.
I’ve been noticing a lot more – just random things: the bright blue on the scarf of a total stranger dressed all in brown; hearing the moving zipper on the purse or backpack of a passenger a row behind me on the left while nodding off; seeing the vendor from a block and a half away set up her cart in front of the courtyard of the office building (I’m normally crossing the street just a few yards from her before I notice if she’s selling that day.) In short, physical mindfulness is a trip. So is trying to be a duck.
The program director of the gym is definitely testing that impatience trait of mine. I sent a follow-up email today, proposing to just rent space at the gym and make an arrangement for students of mine to be able to enter for free just to take my class, if she doesn’t want a kung fu class to be an official offering of the gym. Her communications have suggested a resistance to an official affiliation, without closing the door. I’ll see what she finally says – and how long it takes.
I know, I know. The water’s rolling slowly… but I’m trying. Quack. 🙂