Monthly Archives: March 2014

On the Way Out

I hope today is the last day that I will see this place and sit in this room!  It will at least be the last time this year.

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This morning I received the third of three shots into my back, intended to eliminate my need for sciatica medication and maybe even reduce the need for arthritis meds as well.  I’ve taken half the doses of the former that I probably would have taken before seeing the back specialist three months ago.  So there’s good reason to be hopeful.

The prescription for sciatica is a muscle relaxant, which, let’s face it, doesn’t go well with high-impact martial arts training, to say nothing of consciousness (I’m a lightweight these days; I can get sleepy off an Aleve!)  So, I’ve spent years putting up with the sciatica and treating it rarely.  The back pain has to interfere with walking, as the knee pain does, before I bother with the muscle relaxant.  But if the last six weeks are any indication, the old way of caring for my body is already on the way out – replaced not just by the shots regimen, but by more ice, greater use of the muscle roller and, of course, more mindfulness.

Pain reduction can be as simple as ending the day’s training when the body begins to whine, instead of at the end of a scream.

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To Be a Duck

I was awakened on this snow day out of the office by a call from The Home Depot.  It seems the estimate for new countertops was off by a whopping thirty-three percent – a difference so dramatic and unexpected that I became instantly alert and annoyed.

“Am I locked into this?”  I asked with irritation clear in my voice.  She said I wasn’t, and I could call the suppliers if I wanted to make changes.

As I wrote down her name and telephone extension, I realized that I was upset about something relatively minor.  Either I could get the cost reduced by changing my choices, or I could pay the balance quoted straight out of my tax refund, without going into debt.  It was more than I wanted to spend, more than I thought I would have to spend, but at least I have it in the bank.

There was no need for me to subject anyone to my irritation.  She was just making the phone call her job requires her to make.  I wasn’t rude or surly, but I didn’t have to be so unquestionably out of bounds for me to be aware – almost immediately – that I was overreacting, however slightly.

This is the mental and emotional effect of my fall from grace with Sifu, the part two to yesterday’s elation with the positive physical effects:

I was not mindful that my obsessive training in the guan was bothering the head of the school.  I was not aware that how I communicated being hurt by his lack of praise at my tournament success made him unwilling to care that I was hurt.  I’ve decided to pay more attention to the subtle reactions of others and to my own, how they’re communicated and how they are not.  And it’s working much too well.

I’ve been uncomfortable often in the last couple of weeks, seeing many traits that I’ve always intellectually known are a part of me, but didn’t clearly see in action: impatience, selfishness, sense of entitlement…. Did I mention impatience?

Talking about all this alone at dinner with the adult who loves me most, I confessed that I may not be all that nice a person.  She quickly dismissed that notion, as a biased person would, and told me that what she’s seen for the last dozen years is that I’m a nice person who needs to let more things roll off my back.

“You don’t need to learn how to be a nice,” she said.  “You need to learn how to be a duck.”

It’s the significantly more challenging effect of the fallout with Sifu, but I’m doing my best to embrace it.  In fact, it feels more like it’s embracing me!


Cause and Effect

Omigod, Omigod, Omigod, Omigod, Omigod!  Loving life so much, I can’t get it out of my head in all its forms: Oh. My. God.  Sometimes it’s necessary to search for the up side in a so-called bad experience; at other times, the positive effect from the negative cause is glaringly obvious.  And that’s where I am today.

I could never have imagined that having Sifu eliminate my self-training time and space, erase my teaching schedule and impose what amounts to probationary status would feel, in less than a month’s time, like one of the best occurrences of recent years – but it does.  As a result of all of the above, the following is the new state of affairs.

I’ve found a convenient, affordable place where I can practice staff forms whenever my schedule allows.  All practice rooms that are available to me have well-maintained wood floors that are significantly easier on my battered, cartilage-lacking knees than the rug-covered concrete floors of the guan’s basement.  Additionally, all rooms are kept at a temperature of at least 70 degrees.  The basement of the school is probably 55 on a warm day; and the first class of any day of the week is no warmer than 65 degrees at best on the main floor.  I spend significantly less time warming up the beleaguered joints and muscles when at the gym and can practice longer on the gentler floors.  The result: I’ve gotten better – in a week!

The breadth of space I have enables me to practice a complete form without having to shorten steps and movements for lack of space. The greater continuity has made my long staff form faster without sacrificing the precision of the moves.  It just doesn’t get any better than that for me in martial arts land.  But wait; there’s more!

I’ve also been able to improve the open hand form I came to dread because of the stress on my knees and back.  When I did the open hand (Lian Huan Tui) during Saturday’s class, having practiced it more than a dozen times over the last week with warmer joints on softer floors, it was the best it’s been in ages.  I didn’t do it well enough a month ago to compete with it in the Florida tournament, but I will be subjecting it to judgment in next weekend’s competition.

Those are just the physical improvements resulting from what was a gut-wrenching experience that put my whole family on edge.  I’ll get to the mental and emotional ones next time.  While I ponder and appreciate them a bit longer, everybody enjoy the rest of whatever day you’re in.  I know I will. 🙂


Training, Living, Control & Me

Another ridiculously productive night in the yoga room at the gym.

Another achy and anxious Saturday morning… anticipating the pain of the drills on Friday’s bruised muscles, anticipating the effect of Sifu’s mood on my own.

Another winter storm on the way to interrupt my new routine.  Mother Nature couldn’t care less about my medical appointments, tournament preparation, and the driving obstacles she throws in the way of people needing to get where they have to be.

At this point, all of winter feels personal.  But it will leave when it’s ready and do what it wants to do in the meantime.  That’s a simple truth about anything I can’t control.  And I can’t control anything but me.

I keep remembering a phone call with an old friend, the one whose children were black belts in tae kwon do before they were in high school, the one whose footsteps I followed in and enrolled my family in the same martial arts school.

“I’m not a very nice person,” she said on a day so long ago I can’t remember what made her feel that way.  I do remember disagreeing.  “Really, I’m not.”  She wouldn’t take no for an answer.

At the time, she was a few years younger than I am right now, and I remember wondering if one’s forties brought on a previously unknown level of self-criticism.  I’ve concluded that it does, merely as a result of increased self-reflection.  At least that’s true for me.

Today’s mission: do my best – the best in class with my body, the best with people in my mind.  No one’s mood or actions ever have to affect mine.  Because I have control of me.  Really, I do.


“But That Was All”

“I had a really good day in sparring class,” my 12-year-old girl shouted over the whirl of cold winds as she threw her arms around me in a quick hug.  I’ve decided to alternate Thursdays and Fridays as a day of no kung fu, but when I skip Thursdays I forfeit playing chaperone to a preteen that has great difficulty getting motivated to use and show the fighting skills she’s been taught. So I was thrilled to be greeted on the edge of the train station parking lot by such unexpected news.

“That’s great, babe.  What happened?”

“Oh, Doug gave me a hard front kick and I fell on my butt.”  By this time, she’d completed her move from the front seat to the back, and I was closing the passenger door, nestled in the seat she’d just vacated.  “But that was all,” she added with a broad smile in her voice.  I had one on my face, understanding completely the joy that any stranger would find confusing based on the two sentences I’d been given.

But I knew that the stocky, powerful, dangerous, forty-something year-old man, who fought his own children as if they were in an MMA match, had once picked my daughter up off of her feet in a sparring match but caught himself before throwing her to the floor.  I also knew the force of the kick she took, because I’d taken a side kick from Doug on more than one occasion and doubted his front kick was any weaker.

When my girl said, “But that was all,” I knew it meant she fought well enough that Doug only took one opportunity to show her a hole in her defenses.  She was often so lackadaisical that he schooled her out of either frustration or irritation or both.  Today, she subjected herself to nothing more than a fall on the butt from a front kick.

It warmed my heart (and cold, arthritic bones) to get such good kung fu news, even if I couldn’t see it.  Sounds like she’s got a handle on just getting back up when kicked down.


Mental Notes

It was my first Wednesday in forever without a trip to the guan, and it was noteworthy for its lessons:

– Retail space in my popular neighborhood is expensive; retail space with high ceilings is very very expensive.  A school of my own would have to be in another neighborhood.

– Well-established gyms that don’t offer a martial arts class have program personnel who aren’t interested in martial arts.  I shouldn’t spend too much time trying to make them interested before offering my skills elsewhere.

– Training for five successive days is debilitating to the knees, no matter how much massage and ointment are applied to them.  Just because I have the space to practice every day doesn’t mean that I should.

– The method of delivering a message is as important as the message itself.  Don’t put anybody on the defensive, especially if I want them to hear what I’m saying.

– Anger is empowering but destructive.  Put my energy into forgiveness or detachment… or both.

Valuable food for thought acquired this Wednesday.  More and more to be said for time outside the guan.


Properly Introduced

I’ve always loved babies and children, from the days when I was a child myself and an older cousin to five little playmates.  By the time motherhood blew older cousin status out of the water for the second time, I was regularly developing friendships with co-workers who were soon-to-be members of the club.  But we all got older, as did our children, and soon there were no contemporaries with whom I could share the joy and drama of early parenting.

So when Sifu’s wife announced that a little white sash was on the way and later asked me for suggestions for fending off morning sickness, I took it as an opportunity to improve a relationship that had been rocky for years.  Impending motherhood would have to soften up the bad-ass perfectionist who seemed to have problems with my personality from the minute I walked in the door – especially if I was right about our similarities being the primary source of our conflict, even if she didn’t see our common traits.

It was early summer when I asked her if she wanted to grab a bite late on a Sunday morning.  By that time I’d been a fellow black sash for several months, and we were already on friendlier ground.  Still, neither of us could possibly have predicted that as the brunch rush came and went, we’d share the details of the trauma and failure of our first marriages (I hadn’t even known she’d been married before), followed naturally by sharing the details of finding the right one and hanging on for dear life.  Of course it was easy to discuss the mutual love of kung fu and the school, but I didn’t expect that to lead to details of its inner workings, its problems, the histories of some of the people that preceded her and even Sifu.  I didn’t expect to hear her concerns about issues in some students’ lives that I hadn’t been privy to; and I also didn’t foresee sharing concerns about my own children, who she was teaching twice a week, while discussing hers and Sifu’s nerves about impending parenthood.

She was open, warm, vulnerable… lovable.  I felt like we’d just been properly introduced after five years of knowing each other, and I was very happy to make her acquaintance.  By the time we vacated the table, we’d talked for more than three hours straight, without either of us looking at a timepiece – without the pregnant lady even taking a bathroom break!

When my partner arrived home from work that evening, I told her about the surprising afternoon, the wonderful time I’d had with a woman that just a few months earlier I’d argued loudly with, to the point of frustration-filled tears.  Mine, not hers.

“So, you two bonded.”  My other half responded when I was through, emphasizing the word that exactly described how I felt about the experience.   It was how I continued to feel in every conversation I had with Sijeh after that June day, both in and out of the guan, over coffee and through emails and texts.  It was how I felt when helping to clean up her house at the end of a massive baby shower, when giving her the nursing advice she solicited, when changing her daughter’s diaper so she didn’t have to leave class to do it herself.

I thought we had bonded.  I thought wrong.

There was no friend present defending me, mitigating her husband’s outrage when he came down on me like a ton of bricks with a punishment that did not fit the crime.  And she could have run interference if she’d wanted to.  She has a husband that cares very much about her opinion.

It’s taken more than two weeks for me to make eye contact with her, but I still have no desire to speak.  I’m not sure if I ever will again.  I know I’m deeply wounded; I must be.  I haven’t even been able to bring myself to smile at their baby.


What’s Possible

A great day!  Beautiful weather; an excellent decision to work from home and read a fantastic first book of the next guest on my live show; quality time with my son at the new gym (he’s as thrilled as I am with the new space); a cyberspace introduction to the person who could bring me back to teaching; and a brand new color for my kitchen walls, thanks to my better half.  This was the kind of day that makes it more difficult to rise at dawn to make the commuter train that’s always overcrowded, frequently late and occasionally outright broken down.  So I’m going to stay wrapped up in its literal and figurative warmth right up until the moment I’m snoring.

I have a few more lingering issues over the punishment inflicted by Sifu, but I’ll leave the mental spring cleaning on that until tomorrow.  For I also have a phone number for an open commercial space with high ceilings that’s just a five minute walk from my house.  I’m fairly certain the rent is going to be hard to manage, but truthfully, I wouldn’t even be looking at it were it not for the recent drama at my school.  Perhaps everything does in fact happen for a reason.  So much more looks possible when having a great day.


Peaceful, Easy Feeling

I haven’t been this kung fu happy since my tournament win!  Earlier today I had a glorious ninety minutes in a wide open, dimly-lit, scented-candle-smelling yoga room with a wall of mirrors on one side.  I would have stayed longer if I didn’t have to deliver my daughter to a birthday party.  It’s probably good that I had the obligation on the calendar to keep me from overdoing it.

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It was the most relaxed but intensive, high-quality practice session I’ve had since the last time I was allowed to practice in the open space during sanshou class.  My first use of a gym membership that’s also free for the first month, and I couldn’t be more satisfied with my choice.  I not only have freedom of movement, but the floors are so much better on my joints that I was able to execute jumps just as well at end of my training session as I had at the beginning – something that is never true at the guan.

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Next move is the introduction to the program director to see about teaching.  I have a good feeling that a return to teaching is imminent.  In the meantime, preparation for the tournament two weekends away is very much back on track!


Without Hesitation

I haven’t been this happy without nerves about something kung fu related since I showed up for my first class after my black sash test to learn the opening moves of Lian Huan Tui.  Five days later, I was spinning a staff for the first time, and I rode cloud nine for the next thirteen months.  Today is the first day of the post-crash era, because I signed up at a great gym last night – one where the membership representative looked at me like I was silly for asking if membership allowed me to practice kung fu on the premises, with weapons.

“We have a belly dancing class here, and she uses knives.  As long as there’s no one else in the room, you’re more than welcome to use any one of five different spaces to practice with weapons.  How long have you been doing kung fu?”

Five different spaces where I can practice?  Five!  My mind instantly went to my happy place, and I smiled like a preschooler at Disney World for the first time.  I was so lost in glee and relief, it took a moment of her looking at me in silence for me to remember that she’d asked a question at the end of the sentence.

I told her how long I’d been at it, then asked a question of my own: “Do you offer any kind of martial arts classes here?”  They don’t.  “Would you like to?”

And just like that I was suddenly armed with the contact information for the woman who would audition me to teach at the new gym I hadn’t even practiced in yet.  Even better, the membership rep can’t wait to run interference first and tell her all about me.

I wasn’t just thrilled when I walked out of that gym last night; I was proud.  I’d done what I do best – the very thing that started the trouble with Sifu: I got tired of hanging out with feelings that were unproductive and potentially destructive, and I did the next seemingly logical thing to get rid of them.  Perhaps that’s the spoiled American in me, (compared to the tradition-oriented American-born Chinese), the one who wants the instant gratification of an immediate solution to a problem.  If so, fine.  I’ll own that, without hesitation.  Because here’s what I know: last Saturday morning, I was off to kung fu with my tail between my legs, taking responsibility for my breach of tradition while burying my hurt and ignoring the personal affront.  This morning, Sifu can treat me however he chooses, and I can just go to the gym.


In My Living Room

I’m angry, sad and touched with self-pity.  None of these emotions were invited over, but the only way I know how to kick them out is to acknowledge their presence in my living room and shake hands with each.  It just doesn’t work for me to ignore them.  So here goes.

I keep waiting for the joy to return, now that Sifu has declared a restart to our relationship.  But I’m realizing that the joy I used to feel upon merely walking into the building is conditional.  It was based on love and freedom.  I currently lack both.

I don’t have the warmth and affection from my students anymore, because they’re no longer mine.  Aside from the ones who were promoted at testing last week, I haven’t even seen them.  I miss being around them.  The earnestness and energy of little kids trying not to fall down or look goofy while working hard to perfect a move – to say nothing of their happiness at a job well done – can keep my heart warm for days on end.  For now, that’s gone.

So is freedom.  Not just to practice any form when and where there’s space to do it, but the freedom to just be, without walking on eggshells, without worrying that any gesture or lack thereof will be considered disrespectful.

This too shall pass, I know.  But in the meantime, I’m a bit chafed about what’s been lost, what feels taken.

I’ve been sure to be quiet about this in the guan.  I’ve only let the feelings hang around in the safety of my living room.

So, that’s that.  Handshakes given.  Now, I can send them on their way.


Low Space, No Time

Genuine practice of my long staff form has effectively been eliminated, and I’m having trouble taking that in stride.  Since being prohibited from self-training on open floor space during classes that I’m not attending, I’ve had just two choices: self-train in the basement or take weekday upper sash classes and practice staff during the form rotation.

The problem with basement practice (aside from the additional stress on the joints from pounding against a concrete floor) is that every other move of the long staff form is to vertically spin a stick that’s taller than I am.  Literally half the form can’t be executed at all downstairs, because the ceilings are too low!

The problem with limiting staff practice to the form rotation of upper sash class is insufficient time.  Of the four weekday classes, two are dedicated to sparring.  There’s no form rotation in them.  In the remaining two, twenty-five minutes are allocated for forms.  Even with only one other person in the rotation, I wouldn’t get more than a whopping twelve minutes per class for long staff.  Less than half an hour per week!

I have, therefore, opted for self-training in the basement, during which I skip some vertical staff spins and execute others by dropping both my body and my arms down, to avoid smacking pipes and breaking light bulbs.  The result is that in nine days of this new reality, the timing of steps to spins is off.  It’s not by much, but it doesn’t have to be.

Precision is crucial in this art of ours.  It’s the difference between correct or not.  That’s why I’m having trouble taking this all in stride.  It’s also why the search for my own affordable space continues in earnest.