Category Archives: aging

Just One

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

When I was young, the expectation was that there’d be a singular answer: doctor, lawyer, teacher, nurse, policeman or fireman.  Pick one.  No Career Day speaker ever told us little tykes that we might have a first career that would pay off the student loans and build the down payment for the starter home, before transitioning to work that we find ourselves more suited for as we age and change – to say nothing of a possible third gig that supplements the social security in retirement years.  That would have been too much information for little kiddies at Career Day.  That scenario also may not have been as common in the 1970s and 80s as it is in this new millennium.  So it’s no surprise we were conditioned to believe that one is supposed to do one something with his or her life not many.  But I knew before I hit middle school that such would not be the case for me.

At five, I had a role in my school’s performance of The Little Prince.  So in first grade, I wanted to be an actor when I grew up.  Several years later, I sat down at the plastic typewriter my mother gave me and banged out what I thought was a tortured but eloquent memoir.  It was five sentences long.  Suddenly I wanted to be a writer.  Somewhere along the line, struggling working class parents made clear in not-so-subtle ways that the two things I wanted to be might make paying the bills harder than it had to be.  So I added a licensed profession to the list of future jobs.

Flash forward several decades, and here I sit, having enjoyed a successful and fulfilling first career in journalism, a short stint in the law that made me miserable, and several soul-smiling years (and counting) teaching Kung Fu, awaiting news of whether a potential investor in my food company will become an actual one.   While weighing the possibility the investment will fall by the wayside, I’ve been forced to envision a return to career number one or two.  The first thing that came to mind was: “I can’t switch again; that’ll make me look crazy, like a person who never knew what she wanted to be when she grew up!”  Gratefully, it took only a moment to toss that thought into the mental trash can.

My problem, for those who would call it one, has never been career confusion.  It’s been sincerely wanting to do them all – and not caring that I was expected to pick just one.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”  Little did I know at age five, eight, 12 or 17 that the singular answer wasn’t a career at all.  The answer was and is that I want to be master of a destiny as full as my interests, skills and time will allow, with a minimal fear of being broke and a maximum disregard for the scoffing of others.

On most days, for more than a decade now, I’ve been exactly what I wanted to be.  That makes gratitude easy, even in tough times.  It also makes me glad I never thought to stick with just one!

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A Most Welcomed Surprise

Friday, a child who isn’t mine hugged me as if she were.  When I let my arms fall away from the bear hug around her lanky 10-year-old frame, hers remained so tightly wound across my rib cage and back that I couldn’t move if I wanted to without taking her with me.  A blue sash level student of mine who’s leaving for six weeks of summer camp out of state isn’t just going to miss Kung Fu; she’s specifically going to miss me.  I didn’t expect it and don’t know if I deserve it, but it was a most welcomed surprise.

“I miss,” are two words I find myself saying more often than I’d like.  The most recent family funeral three weeks ago was a goodbye to the last of the four women – two aunts, a grandmother and my mother – most responsible for my character and my better childhood memories.  But it isn’t just the dead I miss.  It’s also the remarkable young man I raised who no longer lives in my house, and the eccentric, now-teenaged girl who stopped dancing in the car years ago.  I miss the former colleagues who only kept in touch when my departure from the office was new.  And I miss remembering with ease where I left my glasses – or simply what day it is.

There is nothing new, of course, about middle aged people bemoaning the passage of time and the unwanted changes it brings.  There’s nothing new about melancholy accompanying loss.  And perhaps the most familiar remedy of life for ridding me of any hint of self-pity is the embrace of a family member.  So there’s nothing new in the comfort of a hug either.

But there was something new in having a child who isn’t mine hug me as if she were.  It gave “I miss” a happy meaning for the first time in recent memory.


Karma Calling

I rarely use the word fair.  It’s a concept that bothers me.  I’ve never personally experienced or witnessed something that was equitable or just to one person or group that wasn’t undesirable to another.  So I tend to think that there’s usually somebody catching the short end of the stick whenever something is allegedly “fair.”

My discomfort with the concept has served me well as a middle-aged, arthritic martial artist who loves teaching the activity as much as doing it.  It especially comes in handy when, at the start of a Saturday class, just half a day after hitting pay dirt with my newest students and seeing beautiful horse stances for the first time in half a dozen classes, there’s a pop beneath my knee during a routine roundhouse drill.  Moments later, it happens again on the front kick.  And by half time, my left leg is buckling each time I put weight on it.

Damnit! I scream in my head.  When class is over, and it’s just Merle and me collecting our gear to leave, I curse aloud.  I’m so tired of injuries!  I have weak knees, surrounded by muscles that become more pronounced with every good set of low cat stances.   I also have all of last session’s students and three new ones, with interest already being expressed for next session.  It’s not a good time to be out for surgery.  Management would cancel my class.  AND it would be twenty times more challenging to bake desserts and manage a store!

And so I’ve spent the last three days stretching, rubbing, slathering with ointment, freezing in ice, and heating in microwavable heat pads a leg that I must will into continued production. In fact, several hours after the injury, I hobbled over to a carpenter’s wood shop to pick up the furniture for my store.  It was painful and perfect at the same time.

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Two or three times since the weekend, I’ve stopped in mid limp to ask why I have to go through another major leg injury.  I immediately follow the question with the answer: Because that’s just how it goes for someone my age with my physical history who does kung fu for no less than ninety minutes a day, six days a week.

There’s such excitement going on for me right now, the monkey wrench had to come in some form.  I certainly can’t say it’s not fair.


Surreal but Serene

It all started with flying headgear.  My right hook flung the old, ill-fitting, vinyl-covered foam across the room, where it struck the mirror before laying limp over the air conditioning grate.  I stepped back with hands up, giving the 15-year-old powerhouse the room to retrieve it, but she declined.  I insisted she return the protective covering to her head; she insisted I continue the fight.

I looked at her face, hidden behind long, disheveled hair, and for just a moment I could see it.  She wasn’t simply exhausted after the ninth fighting rotation of the class; she was irritated – more than was warranted by losing her headgear to the second or third punch of our match.

I looked to my left and quickly caught a glimpse of a grin on her older brother’s face.  Less than a minute earlier, she’d been fighting her greatest and longest-standing rival, an 18-year-old bulky brawler with good footwork (long-haired blonde in the picture below), who was good at keeping his hands in motion before punching.  My opponent was annoyed at her brother, and she wanted to take it out on me.  She wanted to be the one doing the beating for a while.

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Against my better judgment, I got back in fighting stance and threw a jab to the top of her stomach.  Immediately after it hit, she was wrapped around my midsection and driving hard, trying to use her uncovered head to push me to the floor.  It was reminiscent of a fight earlier in the summer discussed here; only, my most logical and effective weapon of throwing upper cuts to a face in perfect position to receive them couldn’t be used.  I had to remember that she wasn’t wearing headgear.  Just as I was swinging my hips to fling her off of me, I caught sight of the wall she was rapidly approaching and knew her head would hit first.

“Wait a minute!”  I said as I pulled my hips back the other direction to slow her collide with the wall.  “I’m at a disadvantage because I can’t hit you in the head.”

“Hit her in the head!” her brother said while punching someone else.  She agreed.

I looked around for our instructor, thinking he’d put a stop to the MMA-style thinking these kids were famous for.  He was too wrapped up in his own match to say a word.  He was also used to granting their family permission to bloody each other.  So, with no one telling me I couldn’t hit her in the head unless she was wearing headgear, we proceeded.

It was among the more surreal experiences of my martial arts life.  For the remaining ninety seconds or so it felt like I was fending off a mugger – an upper class, suburban mugger with a few pounds on me, despite the three decades I have on her.  Fending her off required that I pummel the unprotected head (and body) of a doctor’s daughter – with the doctor in the room, saying nothing!  Go figure!

“That was not at all ‘light and fast,’” I said, quoting Siheng Mark’s directive on how to fight.  Moving on to the last opponent, still winded from fighting the kid and the eight opponents before her, I thought: What is with these teenagers?  Do they always fight like they have to take out the world, even with each other?  Or do they just need to prove that a middle-aged woman with really bad knees is not going beat them?

I don’t know the answers to my questions, and I don’t care.  I just know that the two teens who literally tried to knock me down this summer couldn’t.


The Box on My Desk

I own a crystal ball.  My better half gave it to me about ten years ago.  It was a gift that needed no explanation, a joke that I got right away.  Within the first two years of our relationship, she tired of me asking her to go find a magic wand to zap success over my larger life decisions, like returning to school and selling and buying houses, etc.  So she just gave me a crystal ball and effectively told me I was on my own with the magic.  I knew I had to keep her.

I always know that change is coming when my eyes regularly wander over to the box on my desk where my crystal ball lives.  The vast majority of the time, I put a healthy and honest amount of effort into working for what’s needed and wanted.  The brain only breaks for tea and biscuits, subconsciously peeking over at the fairytale item that should tell me if my work and choices will pay off, when I’ve multitasked my way into too much to do and too little sleep.  I only remember there’s a crystal ball when I need to collapse, need to do something different, and need to have a voice outside of my own tell me what that something is.

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I’ve had two good friends in two consecutive days tell me to get more sleep – even if I have to use vacation days to do it.  With my son returning home tomorrow, my kung fu instruction beginning on Friday, college visits with my boy next week and the week after, and substituting on the weekend shift for a colleague in mid-August, now would be a good time for more rest.  It’s also quite clearly a time of change.  No crystal ball really needed to see that.

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Staggering for Balance

I slithered out of the way just in time. A sixteen year old, who was a black sash before I even started kung fu, almost ran me into a mirror tonight by barreling against me with his head. But when the buzzer sounded two minutes later, he was the one staggering for balance to keep from hitting the floor.

My middle toe feels like I broke it on his elbow, and my ribs are grateful he was three inches too far from me when he began his sidekick. I felt the impact but withstood it with a flinch. The extra three inches would have put my stomach in my throat and my knees on the carpet.

This is one of those nights that I can’t believe I’m forty-five years old, severely arthritic and missing cartilage in both of my knees.  If only I could move as fast and feel as good with the half dozen other daily challenges that keep the adrenaline pumping!  But we really can’t have it all…. 🙂

My son, on the other hand, can have it all, it seems.  While enjoying his Spanish immersion program in his month away from home, his martial arts skills got him adopted by the Chinese immersion folks.  Here he is, front and center, at their world expo in the final weekend of the program (the one on the right).  It’ll be good to have him back home and in Sanshou – though his sidekicks cause more than a flinch!

Aaron at MMLA Expo


Remembrance

            I can’t believe it was only a month ago that she was standing tall, dressed in a navy blue pants ensemble with a cream-colored silk blouse, looking as elegant as always as she sent me off to the airport to return home.  “We’ll see each other again,” she told me, with her gold Nephritides necklace hanging from her neck, as it had most days of her life for more than a decade.

            Her matching navy blue sandals had a two-inch heel that restored her height to the stature I remembered her having when I was a child.  I wondered: had she begun shrinking through the normal aging process, or was it the illness that had shortened her?  Perhaps she was no shorter at all; she simply seemed that way to a daughter moving up the ladder of mortality.

            Her make-up was flawless, I remember, and conservative: a light application of base to even out the pecan complexion that was just slightly darker under her eyes, and a wine shaded lipstick that left its imprint on my cheek.  Her signature headwear completed the picture imprinted on my mind. 

            That day she chose a beret – cream-colored to match her blouse.  It was her favorite kind of hat, the one she wore most often if she could get away with it.  It was fitting that a beret was the last hat I saw her in. 

            There is no hat now.  There’s barely hair since Tony came in and cut off the soft, shiny, wavy curls of her mixed African- and Native-American heritage.   I miss the curls as I stare at her, remembering her look of dismay two weeks earlier when I said her hair looked good grown out.  It had been long and enviable throughout my life until the Florida heat inspired her to crop it close to her scalp. 

            I run my hand across the fresh-cut, hoping she can feel my touch.  My other hand is wrapped around her own, squeezing, willing her to open her eyes.


Film on My Car

Summer sucks.  I know I’m in the minority in this feeling, and I’m fully prepared for public protestations.  But I have reasons that should make sense to even the most profound lovers of the season.  Summer is too hot for this winter-born, Connecticut Yankee woman – an immovable fact of my entire existence, but certainly not the sole source of my summer doldrums.

This is also the time of year when most academicians are off from work and most politicians are, too.   This leaves all journalists but the White House press corps looking for news to cover and inevitably giving up, in favor of working on a long feature article or book – usually from their cabin or beach house, where the cell phone doesn’t get reception.  In short, from the July 4th holiday to Labor Day, Washington feels almost empty.  And that makes my job of producing a weekly television show with authors, politicians, journalists and professors extremely hard to do!

Most of all, the last time my late mother was lucid enough to talk to me with clear head and voice, it was July 4th weekend.  She died a week later.  Those last eight days of her life were sandwiched in between my first and second knee surgeries, and those surgeries suspended my martial arts life for more than a year.  More than that, the first operation required I be kept overnight at the hospital because I wouldn’t come out of the general anesthesia.  My doctor was afraid I’d die in my sleep if he sent me home.  I can’t begin to describe how terrified I was of having to be put under again a month later.

For the last seven years, sweltering summer days are a revival of full-blown grief, a reminder of the most physically devastating time of my life and a reunion with the inevitability of mortality.  The ghost of the depression that stayed with me for almost two years afterward comes floating back in like clouds of pollen in spring that I don’t even know are there, until I see the yellow film on my car.

I regularly miss my mother – especially when one of my children does something great, and I can’t tell her.  I also miss the knee I had before the injuries that required its virtual reconstruction – especially when I’m doing a form where I need to jump high or far.  Those realities are with me year round, mitigating the impact of the season over the years.  Still, there’s something about anniversaries that’s unavoidable.  And having bad times during beautiful days simply sucks.


Rituals and the Rolling Stones

“Hola, Mommy!  Como – How are you?”

It was like manna from heaven, the sound of my boy’s voice, replete with a Spanish accent and brimming with a level of excitement I hadn’t heard in him in a long time.  There was no need for me to ask if he was enjoying himself at his Spanish immersion program.  It was clear.  If he was bothered by four days of mandatory silence with the outside world, it certainly didn’t show.

I put him on speaker phone and all of the females of the family peppered him with information and questions.  He answered rapidly, with only thirty minutes total to talk to us, his father and the girl he started dating before leaving for a month, but I could see the smile on his face through the phone, nevertheless.

He has the same smile today as the one he was born with.  It’s still there, though it’s been studded with teeth now for quite some time.  Occasionally,  a certain tilt of his head coupled with the mischievous rise of a corner of his mouth brings his infant self flying back into view.

I listened to him tell us with giddy giggles  about his ritual of racing across campus at dawn to get thirty minutes of kung fu training in before his regimented day begins, and I thought, for perhaps the tenth time this month, where have all the years gone?  Wasn’t it just a few years ago we had our own morning ritual of dancing outside his crib to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction?”

Nope.  Not even close.  It was almost a lifetime ago.  His lifetime.

I’m going to need a bit more of mine to get over that.  Sigh…

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The Now

Next week I take my soon-to-be-teenage daughter for a week-long program at a Florida university that will hopefully feed her love of science and technology.  At the very least, it should make use of her aptitude for the two.  It could be the beginning of an ongoing relationship with a college that has multiple summer programs for middle and high school students who may be a good fit to eventually attend the university.  But the closer we get to departure, the more my mind wanders away from the matter at hand.

This will be my second trip to Florida this year; the first was for the kung fu tournament in Fort Lauderdale back in February that I celebrated at length in this past post.  It will also be the second since the trip to clean out my mother’s closet back in November of 2007, four months after she died.

We will be about twenty-five minutes from her old house, in a city where I spent a fair amount of time with mother before my daughter was born.  The last time the whole family was there together, my girl was barely four years old.  For her, this trip is mostly about the now.  For me, it may be as much about memories as anything else.

I’ve entertained doing my best to stay in the now by having a good time with my girl when camp lets out for the day and auditing a local kung fu class while she’s occupied in the lab.  But a good time with her would have to include trips to the beaches and piers she remembers almost as well as I do.  It will require a little frolic in the past.  And frankly, I’m a bit scared.

I’d rather not be reduced to a puddle by nostalgia.  That would be incompatible with the well-honed image and attitude of rock-solid Mama Bear that my daughter sees in me – as I saw in my mother.  Mom lost hers only days before the coma.  I’ll be grateful to have mine hold up through the week.


Girls’ Day in PA

At the Steele City Tournament today, I received a higher score winning silver than I did winning gold in Florida.  That says it all about the quality of my competition.  I was edged out by a tenth of a point to a well-executed spear form that I’d never seen before.  I thought as I watched the nimble thirty-something-year-old (no bitterness here, really…) that I was going to have to knock it out of the park to score higher than her.  I was quite proud of my performance, but a homerun it obviously wasn’t.

Oh, well.  Can’t win ’em all.  And if I could, first place wouldn’t be worth much.

Now, the really cool news of the day: my girl and I received the same score for the same form – only she came home with her first gold!

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For the next tournament, we’ll finally get my better half on the floor!  After operating the camera for two tournaments and waiting out a healing meniscus, she’s more than ready to add her own medal to the family stash!

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Facing the Door

“You have to turn more. You should – ”

“Just go.” Sifu told him, interrupting Siheng Steve’s instruction to me and keeping the rotation rolling. Siheng did the section of the spear form Sifu assigned to him, then immediately came back to me to finish his sentence.

“You have to swing your hips, then your arm, then the staff,” Steve said with an earnestness that made him seem vested in my ability to get it right. “Make sure your body is facing the door before you swing – on both swings.”

Oh! I thought. Why didn’t anybody tell me that earlier?

“Yes, sir,” I answered happily, with the imaginary light bulb in the balloon over my head shining brightly. Sometimes it just takes one turn of phrase, one short and sweet sentence to make it click. The elusive move doesn’t just become doable, it becomes easy to master with just a little bit of practice.

Siheng Steve was the one who came up with the directive I needed. Only three words to remember: body, facing, door. I was starting the swing ninety degrees early. In an art of inches, that’s a big error to correct without the perspective with which to fix it. One of the three instructors I most look forward to seeing in the school had just saved the day.

“That’s much better!” he said smiling, when I got it right for the first time in three classes of drilling on it. It felt like he was happy I got it right – not just satisfied or content, but happy. He reminded me of myself back in my teaching days, when a newbie would finally perfect the stomp kick in the white sash form.

Siheng Steve is a kindred spirit as both an instructor and a fellow student. He’s the only other middle-aged, martial arts diehard I know who shares most of the injuries, ailments and limitations that I do.

“Aging stinks,” he said laughing with me, as I limped away from a rotation last Saturday with an aching back. He’s right, of course, especially for athletes of any kind. But as I thanked him today for his correction, I couldn’t help but note that aging isn’t so bad when falling apart in good company.