Tag Archives: kung fu

The Real Drive

For a few brief moments today, I actually tried to calculate how long it would take me to drive to Miami.  The answer is about nineteen and a half hours.  That’s if I’m driving the speed limit and only stop for gas and bathroom breaks and eat in the car while I’m driving.  Not going to happen – any of it.  The only reason such insanity was even batted around was because I did additional research on this weekend’s martial arts tournament and discovered it’s almost exclusively for karate.  It would be a complete waste of time and money to make an appearance.

So I decided to reconsider going to the tournament that I know is a kung fu competition – the one I also know I would need to buy a plane ticket to get to.  That one’s in Houston three weeks from now.  At the moment, it costs about five hundred roundtrip to get there and back.  That price is only going to go up the closer I get to the event, and that’s just the plane ticket.  It doesn’t include registering for the competition, two days of meals and sleeping somewhere.  I guess I could save some money by just renting a car and driving out to the Houston suburbs to crash and eat at my former in laws’ house.  But since I’ve never set foot in their house without being accompanied by their son or their grandchildren, I’m thinking it’s probably not a good idea to rely on their southern hospitality.  Scratch Houston, look to the next city on the circuit.  Which brings me to my imaginary marathon drive to Miami.

Now, the real drive to Miami, particularly if I’m driving alone, would require two overnight stops going and coming home, plus the night spent in the city itself.  So I’d need a week’s vacation for a one-day tournament that, for me personally, would last all of about three minutes.  Scratch Miami.

I’m starting to see why the bachelor with the disposable income is the only member of our school who regularly competes in tournaments that are more than a couple of hours drive away.  Like it or not, I’m going to have to wait until March for a tournament I can afford to get to.

I’m not good at waiting.  That’s probably why I’m always forced to do it.  The universe insists on giving me lots of practice.

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Shot in the Back

I’m sitting in the waiting room of a surgical suite, awaiting a cortisone shot to relieve the bulging discs in my lower back.  I’m preemptively antsy that the doctor is going to keep me waiting again.

I got this from my mother, this impatient sense of entitlement that I be treated according to the rules.  Whatever those are.  She survived life in a one-horse town of the Deep South during the 1940s and 50s, and when she came north to a New York City suburb, fresh out of high school, she came with an attitude: Don’t tread on me.  Through osmosis, she passed that ‘tude on to me.

Relax, I tell myself.  Doctors keep everybody waiting; it’s not personal.

But I’m anxious anyway.  I’m getting a shot in the back.  My last shot to the back was the epidural when I had my daughter twelve years ago, and that was a disaster!  It gave me a headache so piercing, I had trouble nursing her the first day of her life.  And the day I came home, I couldn’t move my legs without severe pain for several hours.  That’s not a good history with shots in the back.

Mom likely would’ve told me to pass on this option.  She would’ve looked up every herbal concoction known to man that would relieve lower back pain and sciatica and shipped it to me in cases, like the care packages she sent me in college.  She would have lectured me on quitting kung fu back when the tornado kicks began screwing up my back as a green sash.

She already thought martial arts was more trouble than it was worth, after I tore my meniscus in tae kwon do.  That first knee operation almost kept me from being at her side when she took her last breath, her decline came so quickly after it.

I wonder what she would have thought about me starting up again, pushing through three more serious injuries to make it to teacher status.  I think she would have been just like me when watching her grandchildren spar, hit the floor, sometimes even bleed.  She would have winced – albeit through the phone, eight hundred miles away – then found a smile to put into her voice to encourage me to get back up and do what I needed to do.  She would have told me to be careful, to take care of myself…to succeed.  And she would have been in a front row seat the day I earned my black sash and again, nine months later, when her grandson earned his.

She would have hated me getting this shot today and told me to call her the moment I was home.  Then, she would have asked me when I was entering my next tournament.


What’s Changed

My favorite training session of the week is Monday night. It comes after two days of resting the body, so my knees allow me to give it all I’ve got.  But that’s not what’s on my mind, as I plow through the Monday workday schedule.  I keep mulling over the fact that classes are on hiatus this week for the holidays every day except Monday, so today’s class is the last I’ll help teach in 2013, before I hit the floor with my staff for self training.

Instead of obsessing on getting in enough practice tonight to last me until Thursday’s self-training hours, I’m preoccupied by how strange it will be not to see most of the people I see in regular, predictable intervals until January 2nd at the earliest.  Self-training is something few show up for during the end-of-year break, as many are out of town – or are just plain happy not to have to break a sweat.  So it’s likely that my family and I will have the school almost to ourselves during those hours.  I’m already feeling out of sorts about the impending emptiness in the building.

I can’t believe I’m not simply thrilled to have the extra room to swing my staff to my heart’s content.  What’s with this sadness over eight days off the normal schedule?  I don’t recall feeling this way in the previous five Christmas/New Year’s breaks that passed since joining the school.  So I have to ask myself: what’s changed?

Last year, I was one month away from the last of the six tests for black sash, and I was too single-minded to be sentimental.  The year before that, I was just back from surgery to remove the floating cartilage; so my training pattern had already been broken, and I was already missing everyone long before the end of the year. In each of the three years before that, I wasn’t close enough to anyone at the school to miss the people as much as the training time when the holidays rolled around.

And there it is.  It would appear, then, that I am what’s changed.

In 2013, I became a peer of the black sashes I was once expected to speak to with little more than “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”  I got to feel close to people who used to be just instructors to me.  There’s also the unavoidable affection I feel for the people I help teach.  This is family.

There were a few who felt like family members long before the black sash was wrapped around my waist, ones who were nicknamed “little brother” or affectionately referred to as “kiddo.”   But the bond now is with just about everyone who’s been at the school longer than a couple of months.  Somewhere along the line, I became just as attached to the people as the art they taught me.

Would I love kung fu if I didn’t feel bonded to those with whom I share it?  Undoubtedly.  But the unavoidable truth I’ve found this holiday season is that the people make me love it more.


The Real Contender

I watch him fly through the air doing butterfly kicks and aerials, landing in splits, springing up again into front stances, and he looks so…resigned.  He snaps his head too slowly.  Not crisp enough. Faster.  There’s a cut that’s not sharp enough, a run that’s off tempo, and he has to do it again.  And again.

He looks tired when he walks in the door, before he’s even warmed up.  He sometimes looks like he wishes he were somewhere else.

“How could you leave me alone with him?” he asked me once, when no one from my house came to the Friday class – and neither did anyone else.  He was only half kidding.

Does he want to compete for the national team, or is it just everyone else who wants him to?

“Is there any way I could get a day or two off?”  I heard him ask.  I looked away from the pleading in his expression.

He’s good enough as a teenager to be a real contender for the junior national team and go on to compete in international competition.  But sometimes one must search for the passion in his performance.  It’s hard not to wonder….

Just under two months to go before the trials.  Will he maintain enthusiasm – the kind that showed in every demo he did as a pre-teen, when his love for kung fu and pride in his aptitude was as clear as his talent?  Does it even matter, as long as he qualifies?

May the answer to both questions be yes.


2600 and Done

“Why am I here?” I said aloud in front of Sijeh Stephanie and a group of under sashes we were leading in a Chu Chi Chuan demonstration.  It was the first rehearsal for the Chinese New Year performance we do at a local school, and twenty minutes into it, I was mentally through.

I’d just been told that in addition to leading the under sashes in kicks and Chu Chi Chuan, I was assigned to perform a section of 12 Kicks with three other black sashes – the section that includes jumping into a mid-air horse stance, doing a front sweep out of the landing and following it up with a tornado kick.  I could be annoyed with Sifu for assigning it to me; but it’s his modus operandi to push a student as far as they can go.  It remains my responsibility to remind him of what I shouldn’t do, even if I can pull it off.  And 12 Kicks is something I just shouldn’t do – at least not that section.

I had to do that form about sixteen hundred times during my black sash exam period, and I must have practiced it at least one thousand times before qualifying for testing.  I didn’t expect to ever again have to do any part of a form that singlehandedly took pieces out of each of my knee joints – literally.  I had to have torn and floating cartilage removed from one knee and the torn ends of the meniscus removed from the other, all because of the rigors of 12 Kicks.

I had no way of knowing that I’d be told to do 12 Kicks for this year’s performance.  But once I did know, what possible reason could there be for me to continue to volunteer for something that required I not only do the damned form several times again, but do it publicly, in a group of people who don’t have any injuries (which would make my limitations quite glaring – particularly under stage lights)?

There was no reason.  Not. One.

I’m crazy about kung fu, and the argument can be made that I’m just plain crazy.  But not enough to participate in a show that will cause me unnecessary pain and anxiety for no reason better than good advertising for our school.

I’m not that crazy.  Not yet.  Not today.


Never Seems to Show

Sifu has put me on notice: next month I will be performing the traditional long staff form as part of the black sash demonstration on testing night.  January’s testing night, unlike December’s, will have a very large audience since a new black sash will be joining the ranks.  I’m nervous already.

I love this form, and I’ve practiced it an average of forty-five times a week in the almost eight months that I’ve known it.  I’m told I’m very good at it.  But that never seems to show when I do it for a testing demo.

The problem is I get cold.  I run the floor during testing, so I’m standing on my arthritic, cartilage-lacking, locked-at-attention knees for the entirety of the testers’ performances, tensing up sometimes as I mentally follow along with their movements. Then, with about five minutes of warm up on a floor that I have to share with the other black sashes who are doing demos as well, it’s suddenly show time.

This body can’t perform on demand like that and execute at its best.  Which is why I’ve declined the last two times Sifu has asked me to do a demo.  Now, he’s done taking no for an answer.  Truthfully, I’m surprised he ever accepted no in the first place.

It’ll be fine.  It may even be very good.  The last time I did long staff in public was at a tournament in October, and I scored high even with a couple of errors.  So why don’t I just stay in the moment, keep practicing, and hold off worrying until the last Saturday in January?  Because that would be sensible.  And when it comes to kung fu, I stopped being sensible a long time ago.  During the blizzard of 2010 to be exact.  A story for another day.


Pondering Gratitude

I have an employer that offers a stellar comprehensive insurance plan at a reasonable cost to me.  Far too many people are not as lucky.  I’m very grateful. Were it not for my employer’s generosity, I probably couldn’t have stayed with kung fu long enough to become maniacally crazy about it.  The cost of patching up my legs three times would have been too high.

This is what I was thinking at eight o’clock in the morning, as I sat in the waiting room of the doctor my internist sent me to in the hopes he could do something about the lower back pain and sporadic sciatica that my orthopedist doesn’t treat.  I had a considerable amount of time to ponder my gratitude – an hour to be exact – because the woman who signed in five seconds before me, with an appointment time thirty minutes after mine, was erroneously seen first.  I couldn’t help but ask the receptionist: “Then what’s the point of having appointments if you just have to walk in first?”  I received neither a response nor an apology. That seriously muted my gratitude.  But I digress.

The flip side of appreciating the quality medical care I receive (and believe all should have) is anxiety.  What happens to my kung fu life if I lose this level of care?  It most likely goes away.

I realize that’s an upper Northwest kind of problem, as a D.C. native would say (i.e. high class), particularly when the question for many others is: what happens to life itself without healthcare?  But it would most definitely be a problem, on so many levels, were it to happen.  So chronic pain and long waits aside, I remain indisputably grateful that I continue to be patched up… and that the price of the patching is one I can still afford.


Sharing with Sanshou

The sanshou class Monday night did at least thirty rotations of kick lines before they started fighting.  Just watching them made my knees hurt, and it also made me envious.  Not since I was at my best in tae kwon do have I had a kick that looked as powerful as those invading the edge of what I call my corner of the room, and I will never have one again.

But my little pity party lasted only about twenty seconds, though.  By the time the second row of kicks forced me to halt my long staff form in mid spin, frustration had evicted envy from my head.  See, when kick rows are going, there’s only about a four foot by eight foot rectangle of space free for one who’s not in the kick line to practice anything else.  On Monday nights, from about seven to eight o’clock, I will fight rather fiercely, when necessary, for rights of possession to that rectangle.

There are any number of short sections in freehand forms that can be practiced in a small square of space.  But imagine trying to spin, strike, swing and slam against the floor a solid shaft of wood that’s taller than your head – all within a space that’s about four by eight feet.  It can’t be done.  Not without coloring outside the lines.  This is why practicing the long staff form in such a small space requires stopping, moving back and turning around at least half a dozen times before the one-minute form is finished.  And that’s when there are no kick lines creeping into the rectangle.

Every time a sanshou student gets close to the edge of my practice space, I have to stop again, even if I otherwise would have had space to finish the section.  I say all this to say that trying to practice with a weapon in a small rectangle of space, when the kicks of 180-pound men are barreling toward you like a freight train can be just short of crazy making.

So why not just wait until the kick lines are over, one might ask?  Because the time it takes for half a dozen people of various ages and skill levels to do thirty rotations of kick lines is considerable.  It amounts to half the time I have to train on a Monday, after assisting with the beginner class.  If I sit for half an hour or more waiting for space, I might as well go home.  And there can be no just going home on a Monday.  On Mondays, I’ve already waited more than fifty-two hours since Saturday’s class to get back on the floor!

So when sanshou class starts with kick lines, there’s a cloud in my kung fu world.  It’s not that dark, doesn’t hang that low and only stays for about, oh, thirty-three-point-six minutes.  But, man, it can be crazy making….


Already Over

“I’m going to watch you,” are not welcome words from someone who outranks me when I’m teaching an introductory class to fresh-off-the-street kung fu students.  It’s even more uncomfortable when Sifu’s the one watching, as he was Monday night.

I’ve only assisted in teaching the beginner class for the last six months, but I’ve spent years making basic techniques muscle memory for my own body.  When I have to instruct someone who’s completely unfamiliar with martial arts language, I’m often surprised at how hard it is to verbalize to others what is automatic for me.

A veteran black sash put it best just a few days ago: “First we learn how to do it, then we have to learn how to teach it.”

One would think the latter follows naturally from the former, but not necessarily.  People earn degrees in education.  So, clearly, someone caught on a long time ago to the idea that folks need to learn how to teach whatever their expertise is, particularly to young children or those with minimal foundation.

So what’s the big deal about having to learn how to teach kung fu, one might ask?  It was indisputably harder to learn how to do it, and that part – at least for the first degree – is over.

What’s bothering me is this: there are almost as many different ways to teach as there are personalities.  Teachers, like parents (and people in general, for that matter) have their own style.  And style is valuable.  It’s what makes one teacher a favorite and another a snoozer.

But teaching is also about uniformity.  Everyone should be getting the same information, be told to do the same technique in the same way.  It’s what I always wanted most as a kung fu student.  In fact, it could often frazzle my type-A personality to be given variations on the same technique, because a variation meant that whether I was doing it right depended entirely upon which teacher I was talking to.  That just didn’t sit well.

Still, there’s a difference between being taught to make sure that the technique is uniform and being taught to make sure that the manner one uses to teach the technique is the same.  Which takes me back to where I started.

When a more experienced instructor (especially if it’s Sifu!) is watching me teach, it’s my style that’s under the microscope, the thing that’s personal.  I’ve been told before to tweak how I deliver the lesson, not what’s in it.

In short, it’s hard not to take personally a threat to something that’s personal.  But that’s one of the things we so-called grown-ups are expected to do.  And I’ll get there, I know.  After all, the hardest part of my kung fu education is already over.


Cupcakes Won’t Do It

Proof that God has an interesting sense of humor: the part-time job that’s unpaid means about fifty times more to me than the one that gives me a paycheck.  And that’s a conservative estimate.

Another weekend over, and rather than making a mental checklist of all I have to do tomorrow at the office (and it’s a lot, with Christmas right around the corner, two interviews taping in studio beforehand and one that I have to do in the field), I’m thinking about items attached to the assistant teaching gig.  I’m wondering if the two white sashes who are testing this month will be in class Monday evening and if they cleaned up their palm strikes.  I’m hoping the yellow sashes have corrected their front kicks or at least gotten the incorrect ones waist high.  I’m hoping the damned commuter train comes in on time and traffic is reasonable, so I only arrive five minutes after the students instead of fifteen. And I’m thinking about a key.

Apparently there was a time in our school’s history when the founder handed out keys left and right to any black sash who asked for one.  That era is over.  A few weeks ago, I asked Sijeh Melanie if there was any way I could bribe Sifu to give me a key.  Her response:  “Well, I had to be married to him before I got one.”  I guess homemade cupcakes won’t do it, then.

We headed home from three hours of Saturday classes at about 1:15.  By the time five o’clock rolled around, I’d showered, worked the kinks out of my leg muscles with my massage roller, eaten, chatted it up with my family, and baked two different kinds of cookies.  At that point, I turned to my son and said, “Okay, I’m rested.  Let’s go back to kung fu now.”

“If I didn’t have to study for exams, Mom, I’d be right there with you,” my fellow die-hard answered, playing along with my fantasy.  Only it probably wouldn’t be a fantasy if I had a key to get back in.  Perhaps that’s why I haven’t been offered one.

Yep, it’s an interesting sense of humor.


The Kid in the Room

At my age, the only thing that can make me sound and act like a five-year-old is to get a correction right in kung fu.

“I did it!” I squealed, fists raised to the ceiling in triumph, with the right one still clenching my trusty staff.  (The “it” was relatively simple, as it often appears to be – but only after I’ve gotten something right that spent far too long being wrong.)

Sifu Kevin looked at me and nodded with a momentary smile, before practicing a section of a wushu sword form that was so fast, loud and frenetic his own niece had once been frightened by the performance.  His expression to me was one that could be found on any parent at a playground whose child had requested that they watch some fantastic display of athletic ability.  In other words, it was a psychic pat on the head.

I couldn’t help but laugh quietly as I walked to the back of the rotation line, staying close to the wall to prevent being nicked by the blade as Sifu ran past me.

I’m old enough to be his much older sister or his frighteningly-young mother, but I’m the kid in this relationship…and I’m now okay with that.

“Maybe you have a problem with my age…” was something then-Siheng Kevin wrote to me in a long ago email, complaining about my propensity to question and explain, or rather my inability to simply say, “Yes, sir” or “No, sir,” when spoken to – and nothing else.

I reread that thought of his several times and tried to consider it objectively.  Had I ever, before kung fu, been in a position where I was expected to follow the directives of someone younger than I?  I couldn’t find an instance in my personal life, nor in my professional one.

The single exception had been in tae kwon do. But there, all the teachers below Sensei were within a couple of years of my age, not more than a dozen years younger.  With the age difference between Kevin and me (and several other kung fu teachers), I at least qualified as a contemporary, not a subordinate.  That was the thought existing somewhere in my head that I hadn’t bothered to consciously acknowledge until Sifu called me on it, back in my green sash period.

There’s a more martial attitude in my Baltimore kung fu school than there was in D.C. tae kwon do.  Sensei had been accorded a formal response to every sentence she uttered, but all other teachers were addressed by their first names, no titles.  I was, in essence, accustomed to being instructed by a compatriot who knew more than I, rather than directed by someone whose higher ranking I had to acknowledge at all times.  It was culture shock of the highest order.  And with every other thing going on in my life at the time (see post “Let Up Already!”) – and my natural propensity to say what’s on my mind – it served as one more hard thing to handle.

Fast forward several promotions and years later, and I’m looking for approval and a psychic pat on the head from the young-un in the blue pants (from my southern heritage, “young-un” is the appellation I attach to anyone who wasn’t alive in the 1970s!)  I was obviously won over somewhere along the line.  And I’m more than fine with that.


The Joy of Fridays

I used to fear Friday night class.  Truly. Thoroughly. Fear it.

I never knew until I was already there what the night’s regimen was going to consist of; so I had all day long to think about it and worry:

How many rows of wheel hands would we have to do?  How many kicking combinations?  Would we do ten full forms in singles or doubles?  After how many rotations of practicing sections?

How would my knees hold up?  My back?  How much pain would I find at the end of the two-hour, invitation-only session that a black sash candidate was required to attend?  Would I get the dreaded cramp in my calf again, the one from empty stances, the one that awakened me in the middle of the night?  No stretch or massage ever relieved it.  I just had to wait, powerless, for long, long minutes, until it released me.

I hated Friday night.

For six months of black sash testing, I wondered, as I entered class on the last day of the work week, if I could execute all I was told to that night without needing to cry or stopping to pray.  By the end of it all, I could.  In the final weeks, I could even smile – before I left the building, not just in the car on the way home.

The joy of Fridays has returned to me.  It returned with the presentation of the final sash.  And I use that joy to bake cupcakes, watch a movie, and rejuvenate for training of my own making.  I use it to do whatever I want to do.

I’m still invited to Friday class and sometimes I go.  But not this week and not last.  I’m not sure when I’ll go again…and I’m not worried about it.