Martial artists know techniques for injuring quickly and with minimal effort. That fact floats into my head whenever members of an increasingly inconsiderate public seem to enjoy acting uncivilized – but not for the reason one would think.
An instance of uncivilized behavior has stayed with me for a few days now. A man was flying through the parking garage at the gym, ignoring stop signs. I had to hit the brakes to keep him from plowing into the passenger side of my car – which, at the time, was occupied by my son. I looked at the driver with a what-is-the-matter-with-you expression and motioned for him to continue on. He stared at me a second, then laughed before peeling away.
“I wanna rip his face…” my son said angrily. “Never mind,” he quickly added with a heavy sigh. “But did you see that?? He was laughing!”
I told him I saw it but thought it best not to think about it. Thinking about it would make me want to go chase the guy out of the garage.
A chase would be stupid and juvenile, of course. A chase would automatically escalate the confrontation. And once words were exchanged – particularly with a son who already wanted to “rip his face” – the probability of blows would be disturbingly high.
I’ve met many who, upon learning that I practice and teach kung fu, raise their eyebrows with what looks like disapproval, though usually cloaked in politeness. One acquaintance actually made comments about promoting violence. But the truth is precisely the opposite. Most people don’t know that an evaluation of kung fu skills includes assessing one’s level of control.
Some of the most anti-confrontational people I’ve ever known wear a black belt or sash during their off hours. The power to injure quickly and with minimal effort is sobering. It frequently creates people who would rather just say “never mind.”
At about 10:30 on Thursday night, I dialed my father’s phone number for the first time in a couple of months. Why I don’t talk to him more often is a long, complicated, sad story – some of which I mentioned here. Tonight, our negative history was irrelevant.
Sounding simultaneously happy and sad, the first thing he said to me was: “I knew it was you.” Of course he did. Only I could be calling him when Derek Jeter had just knocked in the winning run in the last game he’d ever play in Yankee Stadium.
It was 1977, and I was in the third grade. It wasn’t my first trip over the western state line, but it was the first I could remember alone with my dad. My parents were thankfully separated. Life was much quieter. But I saw almost nothing of the former man of the house – until suddenly he was taking me to Yankee Stadium.
We sat with his friends from work in seats right above the Yankee dugout. I yelled out to Reggie Jackson and got a smile and a wave. My father smiled a lot, too, in between answering my questions about the rules of the game. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d talked to me so much. I’ve been a Yankee fan ever since.
The safe subject for most people is the weather. For my father and me, it’s the Yankees. Bad trades and costly contracts, win or lose, I’ll always love them for that.
“You were right!” If I had a dollar for every moment since moving into my freshman dorm that I had that thought about my mother, I could have a first-class vacation abroad every year. It’s one of the more painful aspects of her not being around anymore: the inability to give her the satisfaction of hearing that from me. And of course, what she was most correct about – countless times in any given week – was the simple assertion that I didn’t know everything.
I was very young when it became apparent that I was a pretty good student. I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten the first time I heard Mom say, “You don’t know everything,” in the low voice that use to indicate her annoyance. Several years later, in the middle of my frequently-exasperating teens, she flat out yelled it at me. I remember thinking, I’m ashamed to say, I know more than you do.
Segregation left my mother and countless other African Americans under-educated. And she didn’t go to college until after I’d gone to graduate school. So in a purely academic sense, the stellar education she made available to me undoubtedly gave me more book learning, as my grandmother would say, than Mom had back when I graduated from high school. But then, there was what she learned just by living — which I hadn’t really begun to do. It didn’t occur to me at the time that her learning was at least as valuable as mine.
Twenty years ago, no one could have convinced me that the older, more experienced, more educated, more attentive and better read I became, the more I’d a) realize how little I actually know and b) find that fact thrilling. But that is the current state of affairs.
My work with and around a lot of the country’s movers and shakers and my passion for a martial art steeped in a tradition of instructor infallibility often leave me feeling suffocated by the very attitude I’m so happy to have shed. So today, as an often-exhausted parent and an excited teacher with a new class, I take a moment to celebrate the willingness to be taught, even by those who allegedly know less… and to acknowledge how unbelievably often my mother was right!
My heart is happy when I’m in New York. Neither I nor my employer can afford a decent hotel room in the city that’s big enough to accommodate kung fu practice – and I don’t care. This is notable because I care very much about space to train with any other place I visit for work or pleasure. That should say it all when it comes to my feelings about NYC, but I’m going to go on.
Manhattan has been special to me since the first time I stepped off the commuter train from Connecticut, holding my mother’s hand, to go visit Santa at Macy’s, then go slip on the ice at Rockefeller Center. Later, I loved it because I was a middle school glee club member and stage rat who fell head over heels for Broadway and everything about the theater district. Then came the crazy teen years and jumping on the train to hang out in Greenwich Village with my best friend and my fake ID. That was followed by a first salaried job as a wardrobe supervisor for a suburban theater, where I was invited out on the island with the ladies and gents of the ensemble and introduced to several of the city’s great restaurants.
Winter traditions, Broadway, Bohemia, food – they all just scratch the surface of what makes me nuts about New York. As I write, I realize that I’ve had goosebump-great moments there with each parent, both spouses, both children and three of the four people who were my closest friends before the age of twenty-five (and are still friends to this day). That’s not true of any other place on the planet, including my hometown.
Anyway, here’s some of what I saw, did and enjoyed in this working, reunion weekend in Gotham.
I finally got a meal at a seafood joint I’ve been wanting to get to since I first heard of it a year ago – and the food was as good as it looked.
Work was crazy-making and exhausting, but there’s no denying it offered a rollicking good time to those around me, both outside the Schomburg Center…
A brush with Mr. Mosley’s literary greatness didn’t hurt either.
All in all, it was exactly what the doctor ordered at the end of a sad anniversary. Funny how the universe provides what we need… though often in unexpected wrappers.
On the first Sunday of every month, I take a break from kung fu. It’s not really by choice, it’s just that the first Sunday is a work day, and the gym is near closing by the time I get home from the studio forty miles down the highway in D.C. Today was the first time since I started training at the gym that I didn’t mind losing time with the long staff on a Sunday. I had, quite simply, my favorite show of 2014.
Last year, I tried to talk my boss into booking today’s guest on one of our shows, after his third book landed on my desk and became an instant intellectual fascination for me. When the poor man had to suffer through an interview so biased and unprofessional it went viral on YouTube (see below), I really wanted to get him in the chair to do it right.
Long story made short: after having to practically beg my boss for permission to invite a religion scholar (because that’s not a comfortable subject for a public affairs network that strives for political neutrality), the choice made everyone happy they came to work today. It even had a few decidedly-secular crew members asking for whatever extra copies of his books might be lying around. When audience, guest, boss and crew are on a high after three hours on the air, it’s an easy day to skip kung fu!
[If wondering why this post is so cryptic, there’s a whole department of people at the network that peruse the web looking for mention of our programming and guests we aired that day. Since I prefer a measure of separation between the day job and the rest of my life, I don’t make it easy for the office folks to find my blog. Unfortunately, that means a few extra thoughts and key strokes are required for readers to figure out what shows I produce for whom. But I trust those interested in doing so won’t find it too taxing!]
His outlook hasn’t changed; his perspective hasn’t broadened – at least not in a way that’s visible to me. Such was my thought two thirds of the way through Saturday’s upper sash class when Sifu responded to a humorous comment of mine with rigidity and scolding.
It all started when Siheng Steve came downstairs to tell Sifu that the beginners’ class was over and the upper sashes could take the top floor. Sifu asked for the time and was surprised to find there were only twenty minutes left in the class. As we all dashed for the stairs and a quick water break, he chuckled and said aloud: “Oh, there’s a clock down here now.”
Two black sashes walking near him laughed a little as well, and I said: “Don’t worry, Sifu; we weren’t going to tell you.”
“Good. You shouldn’t,” he answered sternly, with a tweak of annoyance, in a tone turned humorless.
Pointing out to Sifu something that he doesn’t already know is apparently a no-no, even something as innocuous as a long-overdue addition of a clock to the downstairs training area.
For the love of God, WHY? I found myself screaming inside my own head shortly before our very short water break concluded. Most people would just say, “Thanks for letting me know.”
But Sifu’s not everyone. That’s exactly his point. And I’m still trying to interact with him as if we’re all family.
The only time I ever feel like a slow learner is in finding the proper way to deal with the people in my life. I like to think I eventually get it right. But maybe that’s just hope talking.
It was a beautiful day in the capital today, and I was conscious of needing a greater-than-normal infusion of protein to ready myself for a return to Sanshou class. So I bypassed the salad I normally bring to work in favor of procuring a hefty sandwich. The walk off the beaten path to a deli I only hit a couple of times a year afforded me a view of the street I work on that I don’t encounter often on foot. So I captured it.
I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours for the past seven years in a building at this intersection. It sends a shiver down my spine when I think of it that way.
About six hours later, I thought the street on which I’ve spent the second greatest number of waking hours in the last several years deserved to be commemorated as well. This one – the one where my kung fu school has existed for more than thirty years – means a lot more to me than the first. In fact, as the years have ticked on, my feelings for the two have completely reversed.
I was once so grateful to be back near Capitol Hill, bringing the news of what happens there (or doesn’t, as the case may be) to the interested masses, after a long hiatus for childbirth and another college degree. Now, I go there almost exclusively for the paycheck. There’s gratitude for that still, of course, but no longer the kind that’s wrapped around joy.
“Kung Fu Road,” in contrast, was once a place I went to get a little exercise and lose a little weight. But most of all, it was where I dragged myself to make a resentful child a little happier, after I moved him up the highway against his will. Now, it’s the street where I changed for the better when I wasn’t looking, and I wouldn’t trade the time I’ve spent there for anything.
Neither has been an easy street to occupy. But both have made my journey a fascinating one.
Here’s to the streets each of us trudge in our lives and the days we have to enjoy them….
A good day on the day job! We had a smooth production of an excellent interview on a book that’s making a wave or two inside the beltway. And it’s not every day I meet a former Supreme Court Justice.
After yet another high-strung day in the never-ending week, taking a night off from kung fu, before Saturday training back in the guan, feels like a wise decision. I won’t be permitted back in Friday night class until June, anyway; I might as well use the continued restriction to my body’s advantage and get some rest. After I grocery shop. And pick up dry cleaning. And drive my boy around…. 🙂
Have a safe Friday night, U.S. friends and readers, and an enjoyable Saturday to those on the other side of the pond!
I’m struggling today, and it’s uncomfortable. I don’t like being uncomfortable and tend to immediately try to alleviate or eliminate the feeling. But I’m stuck on how to accomplish that – without quitting my job.
The trip took a lot out of me. It wasn’t just the length of the days or the fight to stay on East coast time. The behavior of my colleague on Friday morning is weighing heavily on mind and spirit, and I’m finding it difficult to smile my way through it. I’m beyond the incident itself, feeling acutely stifled instead by the culture of a company that will look the other way on that kind of behavior for a myriad of reasons – but only for certain members of the staff.
I’m so tired of the internal politics of the corporate world! More than that, I’m tired of frequently feeling like human interaction in general requires some sort of politics, as in “the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing” behavior, policy, or opinion. Clearly, I’ve been hanging around the movers, shakers and manipulators for far too many years. Each day I spend away from the office not working makes it harder to come back to the bullshit. (I just can’t parse words on that one.)
Speaking of days away, it felt so good to be home yesterday. And by home, I mean in an exercise space big enough to accommodate me swinging a staff around like a whip just as much as I mean my house. Ironically, even at the gym I had to deal with internal politics.
A trainer who often uses the yoga room to warm up her clients was annoyed because I was already in the space. She came into the room accompanied, exited and came back in alone to tell me that I needed to understand that I had to share the space with others. I hadn’t said anything to her or her client but, “Hi.” I have no problem with sharing… but management does.
“I was actually told I can only train in a room or space when I’m alone,” I answered pleasantly, completely empathizing with her frustration, having felt it myself when wanting to practice on a crowded gym day. She was brought up short and stared at me for a second. “Because what I’m doing involves a weapon,” I added.
The ah-ha light bulb went off in her head, and I went on to explain that if she has no other place to be with a client, I will leave the yoga room, just as I leave the squash courts when folks actually come to play squash. That did it. It was the first time in half a dozen times of making eye contact with the woman that she smiled at me.
Political battle averted. If only they all could be that easy.
Back in 1999, Winnie Mandela backed out of a Saturday interview by satellite an hour after we were supposed to start. The executive producer called in a crew on the weekend on my assurance that we had the interview locked down. The overtime costs for him were considerable at a time that the show was struggling for sponsorship, and I thought I was going to lose my job. The stress of that workday made it the worst of my career. But yesterday now runs a very close second.
Friday began with a crew member I’ve never worked with before ignoring explicit, repeated instructions from three different people (myself included) to wait at a specific place and time to be escorted to the interview site by our contact. It was important to the contact, the person facilitating our interviews with ten different authors; that’s all I needed to know to do as I was asked. She, rather understandably, wanted to know why a person working for me hadn’t complied. Nothing prepared me for the answer I received when I politely asked him.
He unloaded on me with anger and profanity that all amounted to: I knew where I was going; how dare you three tell me what to do. It may be worth noting that the three of us telling him to wait were all women, but I digress. It was an assault that left me in a state of shock, shaking with tears of anger. Since I was alone on an elevator with him as he screamed at me and leaned across a dolly of equipment to get in my face, I thought it best to simply get away from him as soon as possible.
I spent the rest of the day speaking to him only when I needed to and with an unmistakable smile in my voice, but the need to walk on eggshells upset me – particularly in a 10-hour day elongated by the delayed flight of one of the authors and an impending 45-minute drive to a new hotel for our next show. My first impulse was to let the Sijeh in me have her moment with the man, put him in his place, take back my power. After all, I had the staff in the equipment van. I could’ve just brought it out and done a few dozen spins and stabs with it to make a point. But there’s no real way to intimidate the unbalanced, and even if there were, a pissing contest is unseemly for my age and gender. So I simply did the professional job I always do, willed the clock to move faster and said a prayer for an unhappy man.
Up next on this trip that can’t end soon enough is the beauty and eloquence of an award-wining author in the small bookstore he founded. Hopefully that will dull the memory of Friday’s craziness.
I struggle with communication problems. Perpetually. Not my own, mind you, but other people’s – and the effect their choices when speaking (or to stay silent) have on my life.
I would like to say it started with my fallout with Sifu over his response to my first tournament win or with the endless weeks it took to get a straight answer from the gym on whether I could run a kung fu class. But it didn’t. I would like to say I’m immune to such problems myself, but I’m not. I’ve noticed, for decades it seems, going back to arguments with an ex-husband who excelled at passive aggression, that most people do not simply state what they want or need at the appropriate time in the appropriate way. The burning question of my morning is: can anything be done about this?
If there’s a solution, the first order of business would be to determine why people don’t just speak when they should. The obvious answer, of course, is fear – fear of not getting what’s wanted; fear of disappointing, hurting or angering the other person(s) in the conversation. But the painful irony is that the language dance that must be done to avoid the disappointment, hurt or anger leaves the core of the message undelivered. Sometimes what is said is so ambiguous interpretation is required to decipher the point – and misunderstanding is virtually guaranteed.
The flip side of the beating-around-the-bush-approach is the one I was raised with – an often-disturbing absence of nuance that unquestionably causes the hurt, anger, etc. that I would like to avoid as much as the beat-around-the-bush folks. I just want to be clear and understood more.
I never had any problem understanding my parents or other family members. I thought everyone was as direct as they were. Then, I left home.
I’m not recommending my familial approach. Regular readers know that I’ve made greater mindfulness an important part of my life in recent months. That includes trying to be aware of how my words will be received before I speak them and adjusting accordingly. Some days, though, I’d give an awful lot to just get through an entire twenty-four hour period without having to ask: “Why didn’t you tell me that before?” or “What does that mean?”
Surely there’s a middle ground or two, a way around both communication approaches without the entire human race having to take classes in behavioral psychology or clinical social work. But maybe not… you know what I mean? 🙂
I got my body mass index measured at the gym on Monday, which I’d never done before. It came in at a more than respectable rate for an overactive, middle-aged, female martial artist. Unfortunately, the BMI was displayed on a print out full of additional information about my body, and one line of that little piece of paper keeps coming back to me in flashes – the line telling me my weight.
I’m disappointed in myself that though martial arts has returned me to wearing the same size I wore when I graduated high school, I still care about what the damned number on the scale says. Never mind that the number reflects muscle mass more than anything else!
The brainwashing of American women has been thorough. These Barbie Doll, size zero images that have ruled since the days of Twiggy in the late 1960s, have been ingrained as the body image to shoot for. Weighing more than a buck and a quarter is incompatible with acquiring the ideal – even when the body looks great. It’s ridiculous, but for so many women like me, it’s true – women who’ve been overweight and have gone to war with ourselves to keep from becoming so again.
I’m very happy to have dropped almost thirty pounds from the days of my depressive overeating after my mother’s death through the beginning of black sash testing. I’ve only regained five pounds or so in the fifteen months since testing ended, and I appeared to have dropped them again while training for tournaments. But I will never forget feeling too tall and too fat from about five-years-old until thirteen. And after shedding the pounds and the laughter of schoolmates and family members alike, I spent the latter part of the teen years as a bulimic, fearful of ever going back. It isn’t just societal ideals that warp the mind; one’s own experiences can do further damage.
It’s up to me to remember that those days are over. I will never be shamed again for my weight. Even if another life tragedy produces a depression that’s soothed with food, I’m capable of returning to a body that makes me happy. I’ve proven that more than once.
The scale is irrelevant. It’s up to me to remember that.