Tag Archives: friendship

The Inventory on the Shelf

Over the weekend I was subjected to folks offering an enthusiastic assessment of what they consider to be my flaws.  It was not a pleasant experience, but truth be told, it’s an exercise I used to be painfully good at.  In one of the circles I run in, we call it taking somebody’s inventory – a fancy way of saying being openly judgmental for little reason other than that we can.  For years I was told that’s something we humans are not supposed to do.  But my experience this weekend reminded me of the importance of inventory taking and the ground rules it should carry.

When I look back twenty-five years on the know-it-all, loud mouth I was, I cringe deeply and for a good minute or so.  I was the worst kind of inventory taker: I gave opinions without being asked, and I wasn’t the least bit mindful of whether I was hurting someone.  It took a few years in the real world to figure out that people didn’t care what I thought about anything and expressing my opinion made me very easy to dislike.  Once I got that lesson, though, I made the mistake that many converts make: I went too far the other direction.  I started feeling like I needed to find a confessional every time I had a less-than-flattering thought about the words or actions of others.

Then I made the very fortunate move of mentioning my guilt over continuing to be judgmental to an older and wiser friend.  She set me straight once and for all.

“People have to take each other’s inventory,” she began.  “How else are we going to know whether a person is a healthy, positive addition to our lives or someone that we should keep our distance from?  To be completely accepting of what people do and say is just not very smart.  Taking somebody’s inventory isn’t wrong, but sharing that inventory with them is!”

I’m grateful to have that fifteen-year-old mini-lecture to remember and hold onto.  It empowered me this weekend to politely point out to the person judging me that I hadn’t asked for her opinion.  It also empowers me daily to hold my emotional distance from folks with behavior on their storeroom shelves that can be damaging to me.

Rescue & Reunion

I’m uncomfortable asking people if I can take a picture of them for my blog.  This is why I usually just take candid shots of folks in action. Most at the guan are accustomed to having their pictures plastered across the web, either on the school’s website or on its Facebook page.  So they simply raise an eyebrow at me and go about their business.  That’s how I got this one of “Pooh”…



…and this one of Siheng Steve.



But what to do about the ones who deserve to be commemorated that I would have to ask?

“Larry!” I said Thursday morning, mustering the right balance between middle-aged composure and the teenaged enthusiasm I felt.  He raised his hand high in the air and swooped it down to dramatically grab mine and shake it.  “Congratulations on baby number three,” I added.  “How old now?”

He answered eight months, confirming that it had been more than a year since I’d last seen him.  The shots I was given over the winter for my lower back problems eliminated any need to see my orthopedist and the physician assistant of hers who practically took my hand off saying hello.  So Larry and I had a lot to of catching up to do.

As he checked out the shoulder pain from my staff practice that’s impeding my sleep, we chatted about his kids, my new kung fu forms, his new house, my old job, the abandonment of his training as a runner, where I am in my kung fu teaching life, and so on.  By the time my x-rays returned to tell us that nothing’s broken or floating around in my socket, I felt like I’d been out to lunch with a college roommate instead of freezing my buns off in a doctor’s office.

I had once been near tears in his examination room, less than a month after my fifth knee scope, listening to him tell me that his boss, my surgeon, was not likely to authorize any additional cortisone shots to the knee (I’d already had my two for the year).  I knew that I probably couldn’t tough it through the end of black sash testing without mitigating the pain for my battered, arthritic, reconstructed joints. He knew it, too.  And he rescued me.

He chose the replacement synthetic cartilage shot that would get me to and through the final test, when the regular one suddenly stopped working.   To complete test number three with a little less angst and a little more skill, he squeezed me into his schedule on a day that the waiting room was overrun and extracted excess fluid from a swollen knee that was almost incapacitating.  Each of the three times I saw him from the last surgery to the award of my sash, he asked for the date of my final black sash test.  And after doing the math for the countdown, he told himself aloud how many more weeks he needed to keep my legs working, then reaffirmed to me that he’d do his best to get me to the finish line.

I love Larry.  I couldn’t thank him fast enough after it was all over.  One of these days, I’m going to have to get a picture of him.

Thursdays with Pooh

I entered the school with a big smile on my face, happy to see him after a two-week absence from his class. But I could barely get his attention long enough for him to bow. He was distracted and looked befuddle in a way that made him seem like an oversized, living teddy bear – a 21st century Pooh, who’s deadly even when confused.

Siheng C was working on a mystery when we came in, trying to determine who’d been in the school before he came to open up and why. As I listened to the most talkative instructor in the guan rattle off break-in theories to the parent with three children waiting to warm up for the sparring class, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how nice it was to be entertained by him again. My children have good taste in role models, I had to admit, though it took some time for him to grow on me.

Siheng C is a very big guy, who’s currently getting smaller. He has loud, adorable children who are incredibly fun to play with, though sometimes hard to teach. When I first saw him in the school almost three years ago, he looked much too out of shape to be a marital artist. I assumed he attended the school long ago and returned to get back into old form. He talked a lot, struck me as much too familiar with total strangers, and made the unthinkable affront of publicly disregarding Sifu’s directives. In short, he rubbed me the wrong way. His children made him someone I would get to know regardless, his and my own.

My son says Siheng C is like another father to him; my daughter is more comfortable with him than any other instructor in the school – which has sometimes been detrimental to her learning sparring, but that’s another story. The long and short of it is: he’s been brightening Thursdays for them a while now, and that eventually became true for me, too.

A Way of Life

Bob walked past the windows of the yoga room on his way to one of the “employees only” areas, holding up five fingers.  Since it was six fifty-five, I concluded that I either had five minutes to vacate the yoga room or five minutes to quit the gym. The man at the front desk ended my confusion, and I rapidly ran through the first half of the White Eyebrow form twice more, before throwing on my fleece and sneakers and heading for the elevator.

In the era of gyms that are open around the clock, I join the only one in the downtown area that closes before sundown on a Sunday, I thought, shaking my head and smiling at the irony.  I had hoped to get in fifteen forms, after spending the day at work producing a live show.  I was leaving with four forms to go and more than enough energy left in the joints to pull them off comfortably.  I was bummed.

I held the elevator for a fellow member who came through the exit turnstile just as the doors were about to close.  He thanked me as he got on and shot a glance at my staffs.

“Doing martial arts, huh?” I nodded. “Which one?”

“Kung fu, Northern Shaolin.”

“Aw, that’s great!” he said with a surprising depth of appreciation. “My father signed me up for judo when I was kid, and I did it intensely for years. Went to the Junior Olympics….

“Wow!” I gave the once over to the tall, thirty-something-year-old with solid muscle definition and genuine love in his face and thought: Yep, he’s one of us.

“I just loved it!” he continued quietly, seeming to go someplace special in his memory. “Martial arts. It’s not a sport. It’s… it’s a way of life.”

“It is!” I agreed, as the elevator arrived on my floor of the garage.  Smiling, we wished each other a good night, and I disembarked.

Though I didn’t get his name, I felt like I’d just met an extended family member.  And just like that, I was no longer bummed.

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.

Leading with the Face

I was caught off guard the moment I walked in the door. In six months of being a mother, Sijeh had only been to testing three times, and two had been final black sash tests.  She was rarely able to watch the proceedings, because her time was spent trying to keep her daughter from crying.  So lately, she’d been opting to just stay home, particularly when testing had few being promoted.

I’ve only had brief interactions with her, since the fall from grace with her husband.  They amounted to little more than me grabbing the baby’s finger as she sat in her mother’s lap. But with Sijeh seated at the end of the head table, our interaction was going to be more than passing.  Tradition dictated that my seat at the table be next to hers, and I feared having to fake conversation that I wasn’t expecting and didn’t want to have.

I quickly shaped my face muscles into a smile that only I knew was forced.  Nevertheless, it did the trick.  I was able to make my way to the head table with the proper attitude and body language, and my actual mood followed the lead I’d set with my face.

I no longer have any clue how to think or feel when it comes to Sijeh and Sifu, but that’s so much better than thinking something incorrect and feeling something inappropriate.  I’m in their house, effectively, whenever I set foot in the guan, and they can make that world their own in whatever way they choose.

Whatever bad karma might be floating around the place, isn’t going to come from me, I thought, as I broadened my smile and grabbed the baby’s finger as she sat in her mother’s lap.


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.

The Sensitivity Gene

“You know nothing.  You go over there,” Siheng said to the new student attending his second class.  He was separating the class into three groups: those who knew their whole form, yellow sashes still learning it and white sashes still learning it.  I knew that what he meant to say was, “You don’t know the form yet, so go over there,” but that’s not how it came out.

The student was visibly surprised by the unintentionally rude sentence.  He opened his eyes wide and stared at Siheng a moment before moving toward his assigned side of the room, while shaking his head.

“He didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” I told the student. “Don’t take it personally.  He’s just missing the sensitivity gene,” I said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, I’m just not… I don’t…”

“- have the sensitivity gene,” I repeated, still smiling.

I can’t remember ever seeing Siheng Chris at the school before I finally reached a sash level that put us in many of the same classes.  But the first unforgettable shared class was one in which he openly, loudly, ridiculed moves I did incorrectly while still learning the Shaolin Fist form.  I thought he was obnoxious and, well, insensitive for doing so.  So no one could have been more surprised than I when he became one of the most helpful people at the school to me while I was training for black sash.  He gave me pointers, corrections and encouragement – and a person to compete with and improve against. As the only red sashes in the school for about seven or eight months, neither of us had anyone else to commiserate with about the stress of the 12 Kicks form.  I remember thinking that we were becoming friends because misery loves company.  There turned out to be a touch more to it than that.

He was impressed at my early aptitude for 12 Kicks, before the piece of floating cartilage in the right knee and the torn meniscus in the left took me off the floor for almost four months (and I actually could have used more).  When I returned, from the first operation, I could no longer “crush it” as he was fond of saying.  When I returned from the second, there were several moves I had to work exceptionally hard to execute properly, much less do with power and speed. By the time I had to fight him and another black sash in the two-on-one part of my black sash test, he remained polite but the friendship had already started to wane.  We were no longer sharing 12 Kicks misery.  He was already a black sash who’d moved on to other forms.

Now, I assist him when he teaches, sometimes rephrasing his sentences for new students, sometimes running interference for his mood, always doing my best to teach the assigned skill for the day to the group he tells me to teach.  It’s been an interesting evolution – one I choose not to take personally.