Tag Archives: middle age

A Most Welcomed Surprise

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

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

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

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

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Short…and Sweet!

Starting a business, while slowly extricating myself from a full-time job that requires a three-hour round-trip commute and continuing to train in and teach a discipline that requires abundant energy, may prove to be the unreasonable endeavor of my middle age.  It certainly leaves me with a fraction of my former blogging time.  In short, I have to keep this short; so I’ll get straight to the point.

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Just when I thought that the highlight of Sunday was teaching my most reluctant student to do a pretty decent long arm swing, I got the call…

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The store is mine!!

May the battle of licensing bureaucracy begin….  Stay tuned. 🙂


Staggering for Balance

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

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

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

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

Aaron at MMLA Expo


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.


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.


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….


Living on the Floor

It’s been a strange day – in a good way.  I thought I’d just be relieved when my first demo in months – and first test of sorts in a year – was over.  But there was more to it than that.

I felt good enough about my staff form that I sent a video clip of it to someone I work with who’s been trolling YouTube for a while looking for video of me doing kung fu, to no avail.  He had a birthday today, so I emailed the clip to him as a gift and even labeled it “ammunition” (he’s merciless in his teasing).  Much to my surprise, he emailed back in oversized, bold, colored letters: “Best Gift Ever!”  And if that weren’t enough to feed my ego, he spent quite a bit of effort convincing me to let him send it out to the rest of the department.  It was a big deal to him.  He thought the form was “impressive.”

I’ve been needing that.  For a year now, a year in which I suffered additional knee and back problems, and struggled to put in a decent performance with the freehand black sash form of Lian Huan Tui, I needed validation that I’ve grown, that promotion to black really was the beginning of something, not just the end of a horribly-intensive physical hazing.

Relatedly, the sound of “good job!” is much sweeter when it’s for one performance of one form.  When it comes at the end of six forms, followed by a sparring match or two, the kudos really are more for survival than anything else.  Surviving on the martial arts floor is first priority, of course, but living happily on it is so much better!

A new week begins later today, and with it comes instruction in a new form, I expect.  So the saga of the middle aged woman and the long staff is a dead horse – at least until the tournament.  I won’t beat it again until then. 🙂


Bottom Line

On the first day of 2013, I was twenty-five days away from being awarded my black sash. Barring a mistake of colossal proportions or a horribly-timed injury, it was a sure thing.

On the first day of 2014, I mulled over being eleven days away from the first tournament of the year that I can drive to, if I choose to spend the money to enter. Not only is an award far from a sure thing, a bona fide competition isn’t a guarantee either.

In my last tournament appearance, I was the sole competitor in my event. All women over thirty-five in the room were either the mothers of child competitors or judges. I wound up competing against a Siheng from my own school to justify my being there at all. But until I was told there were no others in my events, I was practicing all out in a roped-off square arena half the size of the floor space normally used, enjoying trying to make it all fit and look good at the same time.

I think I’m better outside my school building than in. I’ve said before that my skill never seems to show when it counts – but that’s mostly in front of my kung fu family. Strangers get a higher quality. I don’t know what that’s about; I just know I like to compete.

Bottom line is: it’s going to be a challenging year in my martial arts life. I’ll either be gambling on wasting money on tournaments that provide limited or no competition, or I’ll potentially be without measurable kung fu goals of any kind. Either way, I’ll still be training. And every year that starts with that reality is a good one.


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….