Category Archives: aging

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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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.


Coming in Flat

It was the summer before my last year of college, and I was at work waiting tables on a slow weekday night.   I took the microphone at the piano in the jazz lounge, as the boss often let me do when customers weren’t in the mood to take advantage of open mic time.  I was halfway through an old Fats Waller tune when I started to struggle with my chest voice and unexpectedly drifted flat on the high note.  Though I was still almost two years away from abandoning life as a starving artist, that was the moment I knew that although I’d spent a decade as a kid and young adult singing on amateur stages, I would likely never do so on a professional one.  That night at the mic with the Fats Waller tune was the last time I sang in public.

Tuesday at school, I began preparing in earnest for the next kung fu tournament, one in which I can afford to compete in more than one event.  When I reached the spin section of the sword form, my bicep screamed out in protest.  It wasn’t the first time the spins had damaged me.  My forearm was first stressed by the move as long as three years ago, and I relieved that discomfort with a brace that’s often given to folks with tennis elbow.  It worked well enough to get me through the sword form I had to master to pass from brown sash to red.  But a year of enthusiastic staff training (enough to cause shoulder issues shortly before the last tournament) has altered and expanded the problem.  It’s now moved up the arm to the muscles most used with staff.

Sword is my best under sash form.  I loved it for so long that you could never have convinced me it would be replaced in my kung fu affections by the staff.  There’s a beauty to it that doesn’t exist with staff.  The flow of the sword and the choreograph y of the jumps and lunges that accompany the “cuts” can be like watching an urgent ballet.  The common reaction to a good sword form is “oooh,” while the common reaction to a good staff form is “whoa!”  It’s beauty versus brawn.

The very first time I competed it was with the sword form, and I did pretty well.  The last time I competed with sword it was okay but greatly overshadowed by the new skills with staff.  I was looking forward to bringing sword up to staff level, but that’s simply not going to happen if I want to keep using my right arm.

Last night, alone in the basement at the guan as wushu class began, felt like being back at that mic in a DC piano bar some twenty-five years ago.  I can forever do the sword form for fun, for the pure love of it, but not in competition.  Skipping the spins would be like skipping a song’s crescendo.  Doing them slowly and unevenly would be like coming in flat on the high note.   It would just never knowingly be done – not in public.

It took a total of three executions of the form, two more attempts to get through the arm pain on the spins after the initial bicep scream, to admit and accept it.  My sword days are over.

I will mourn those days but only for a little while, for it could easily have been worse.  I could have lost my sword skills without anything to replace them.  I could have all together lost the ability to do kung fu.


The High End of Good

I’m not a natural at kung fu.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never been a natural at any sport or athletic activity.

I made the basketball team in junior high school on the strength of my height and blocking ability alone, then proceeded to fracture seven of my ten fingers, in one block after another, during the one season that I played.  I made the varsity volleyball team in high school, also on the strength of height and blocking ability, but couldn’t serve to save my life and therefore rarely played through an entire rotation.

I was overweight until my teens made me care about appearance, so it was actually a miracle that I thinned down enough to play any sport in school.  But being better coordinated didn’t come with the better figure.  So even if I wasn’t middle aged and arthritic, with easy-to-tear tendons and ligaments, martial arts still would have been a challenge for me from day one.

I separate my kung fu life into the pre and post black sash testing phases, because the nature of the testing process required that I significantly improve on everything that came before it in order to be awarded the prize.  So I did.  The difference in my testing grades for undersash forms versus those for the six months of black sash testing say it all.  And yet, even on a pain-free, properly-fed day, the quality of my kung fu execution at the time of my final promotion was never better than the high end of good – especially compared to the naturals.  Then, along came the long staff form.

It was instantly fun and obviously useful, with nothing subtle about its power.  There were plenty of stances that needed to be low and plenty of footwork timing to keep it interesting, but none of its moves were completely prohibited by my injuries and chronic pain.  Long staff was the first form in which my age, arthritis and operations didn’t work against me.  It was the first form at which I was better than the high end of good.

I was elated by this new reality and wanted to find space to practice at every opportunity, to maintain the higher level of performance.  I suspect that motivation was obvious to all sharing the floor with me.  That would certainly explain why they never asked me to move….


Not Today!

‎I’m spoiled. This is not a revelation, actually. I’m an only child, and my mother was loving, though critical. Today, however, I learned that I’m even spoiled in the context of kung fu tournaments. Though I know they are all-day events that are often chaotic in their administration, I’m used to doing my thing and being out the door in no more than two hours. But not today.

For reasons that only God and the tournament organizers understand, youth, teens and adults over thirty-six were all competing out of the same ring for both traditional and wushu styles. Each style and age group had open hand, short weapon, long weapon and “other” weapon categories, and each was divided by gender. And because they put the old folks, traditional style and weapons all last, I spent just shy of four hours watching the competition before I was finally in it.

At one point I was irritated. At another, my muscles were completely cold. But when the moment of truth arrived, I felt my nerves in my throat for the first ten to fifteen seconds of the form – much too long not to make a mistake because of them, and still banged it out like I love it, because I do. Either the judges didn’t notice the flubs, or they liked the rest of my minute so much‎ that they didn’t care about a spin being too wide and a stance being too high.

I took first place for advanced women over thirty-six and got the highest score of all adults, men included! I’ve said before that I never seem to be able to show my kung fu abilities when it counts, only when it’s me and a mirror. But not today.

Not today!


“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.


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!


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.


…Good Show?

When I was five years old, I was assigned the part of the businessman in “The Little Prince.” I sat in a chair in the middle of the makeshift stage, practically swallowed whole by my father’s blazer and a hat that had to be pushed as far back as possible to keep it from completely covering my eyes.  I don’t recall there being anything inherently humorous about the constant counting the businessman character did; so it must have been my appearance in my daddy’s clothes that brought me laughs so rich and warm that I never wanted to leave that chair.  I fell in love with the dramatic arts that evening four decades ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Sweating it out at the guan tonight, practicing the long staff form as best I could with a hampered wing, the lack of power on my right side was obvious.  To make matters worse, I repeatedly made silly mistakes, based on misjudging distances that I should know like the back of my hand by now.  At one point, I slid my hand so far down the staff, I was no longer holding it.  On another repetition, I scraped the floor with it, which is never supposed to happen.

As the training wore on, I felt shadowed by younger versions of my theater-loving self: the junior high school student in tap shoes, the sixteen-year-old lead in the spring musical, the seventeen-year-old salaried wardrobe supervisor in a union dinner theater.  What they all had in common was the repeated experience of dress rehearsals littered with faulty props, forgotten song verses, follow lights that were too slow and entrances that were too soon.  The majority of productions I worked in or on had bad dress rehearsals. But as any stage rat will tell you, a bad dress rehearsal, in theater superstition, meant the cast would likely have a good show.

With Saturday morning just two and half days away, tonight was a pretty bad dress rehearsal in my martial arts life.  I could use Thursday to iron out every nuance that I think still needs it, but my younger selves are telling me not to.  They’re telling me to trust that tonight foreshadows a good show.  They’re telling me to trust myself.


Farther Away

My boy celebrated his seventeenth birthday a couple of nights ago, and it felt unlike other birthdays.  Seventeen seems much greater than sixteen.  It feels much farther away from home.

He surprised me by foregoing the recent tradition of eating out at a reasonable restaurant of his choice.  For seventeen, he wanted simply to follow a good evening of kung fu training with a pineapple upside down cake.  I asked as we were leaving school if his training had been satisfying, and he told me with a smile how many forms he’d done and how achy he was feeling.  He was happy.

“You know we’re crazy to think that serious achiness is a good thing,” I told him.

“Yep, I know.”  His smile was even broader.

On the way home from training a few days earlier, probably under the influence of too much Gatorade, I told my high school junior, “Why don’t you forget about college and start a kung fu school with me?”  He looked at me as if an alien had taken over my body.

“Forget college?  You are suggesting that I forget college?”

“Yeah, I can’t believe I said that, too.  Never mind. Crank call,” I answered with both of us laughing.

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Looking past the cake to the face of the baby boy turned young man, I remembered my so-called crank call.  And I was no longer sure any part of me had been kidding.


A Complete Sentence

“Not at this time, no,” Sifu said and bolted off across the room to nothing in particular. The hasty departure struck me as a way to shut down any follow-up on my part, to avoid conversation, and therefore, confrontation.  I learned a lifetime ago that “no” is a complete sentence.  So though his unequivocal rejection of my request to borrow his key on my weekdays off momentarily made my eyes sting, I wasn’t planning on countering with an argument.  If I had been, I simply would have gone into the office to talk to him again before leaving.  But the thought didn’t cross my mind.  I was too busy being angry and hurt.

Black sash teachers at the school don’t have to pay monthly fees anymore, and they have a key to the building.  As an assistant teacher, I don’t qualify for either of these perks.  This isn’t written in any martial arts manifesto or even in the school rules and regulations.  In fact, the older teachers tell me that the founder of the school handed out keys to black sashes pretty freely.

While hitting up Siheng Steve for additional moves of the Pa Chi form, I was completely distracted by thoughts of how unfairly it felt like I was being treated, particularly since I “assist” for at least ten classes a month (all but one full-fledged teacher does eight classes at most).

What’s a dedicated kung fu lover and teacher – who’d like to win a tournament event or two this year – have to do to get a little extra practice time and space on the floor?  I thought.

After wasting a bit more of Siheng Steve’s time, I put the petulant child in my head down for a nap and attempted to survey the landscape with an objective eye.  The answer I arrived at pretty quickly was: nothing.  There was nothing I could do to get what I need.  The space is Sifu’s to manage, and he has his reasons for withholding.  Perhaps all spare time must be reserved for our contender for the national team.  Perhaps the man just doesn’t want to risk having someone else in the space when he might want to use it.  If I were in charge, I’d likely feel the same way.

I’ve gotten so much better over the years at accepting what I can’t change or control, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. For now, I suspect this denial of a small favor may fuel the execution of my forms in an entirely new way.  I certainly won’t have any problem with that.