Tag Archives: middle age

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.

The Martial End of the Art

My boy picked up a gash across his eyebrow in a sparring match tonight, and I took it in much better stride than I would have predicted, given the animosity I once had for the martial end of the martial arts.

“Is there any way I can just do forms and keep getting promoted without sparring?” I asked then-Siheng Kevin in an email, when promotion to green sash meant I had to learn to spar.  The request came after a surprisingly painful first month of my face meeting many a fist in completely involuntary introductions.  In the heat of a round, I regularly forgot to keep my hands up.  It was a really good way to practice getting hit.  The short answer on whether I could skip sparring all together was no.

One would think the objective of taking kung fu is to become a good fighter, and for most of the men I’ve met in the school, that objective is completely accurate.  But I joined kung fu to learn the forms, to commit to muscle memory the choreographed fight moves that are executed without the contact.  It amounted to wanting to look like I could fight without actually being able to.  Why would Sifu have a problem with that?

Then one day, I discovered it: power.  The kind of power that tore my son’s skin along the eye line without weapon or nails, the kind that can take someone’s breath away or snap his head back like the top of a Pez dispenser.  I thought being strong and punching hard would be my saving grace in the endeavor that I didn’t want to do and keep me from hitting the floor. I was wrong.

Power enabled me to win a match or two against those my own size or smaller, but I could still be leveled by one kick from any skilled opponent with at least as much power and significantly more speed.  And let’s face it: most of my opponents were half my age and had no problems with movement.  I may have been heavy on the power, but they all had more speed!  It felt like the odds were rarely in my favor.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my black sash: I stopped trying to win.  In effect, I accepted that the odds were against me, particularly when fighting experienced Sihengs. I wanted only to show in my final tests that my various teachers had taught me how to fight.  That alone, it turned out, was enough to keep me from hitting the floor and give me peace with the martial end of the art.

“Step away from your son”

“How did you do that?” Merle, my decidedly better half, asked me while resting my injured hand in hers and staring at the purple bubble of skin on the back of it.  Sifu opened for training today, despite the closure of city schools – a first, as far as I know.  So I did what I normally do on a Monday.

“It happened on a slam,” I answered, expecting that to be the end of the questioning.

“A slam?  How’d you get an injury there on a slam?”

“I was trying not to crush the knuckle I always hurt on this hand during slams by connecting with the floor on the flat of my fingers.  But that just crushed the knuckles at the other end of the finger, which apparently made the hand swell.”

“No, honey.”


“You can’t do the slams like that.”

“Well, I know that now.”

“So did you ice it?”

“Yeah, a little bit.  But I had to get back.”

“You kept doing slams?

“Yeah.  I can’t not practice the slams; I mean there are too many other things to get right during slams then just the slam itself.  Is the knee pointed forward?  Is the staff straight when I’m spinning it behind me?”

“I know,” she said, completely familiar with what I meant, having learned the staff years before I did.  “I just would have thought a bruise like this would end the night’s practice.”

I looked at her as if she’d just spoken to me in Greek.

“Oh my God,” she mumbled, putting her head in her hands.  She’d obviously remembered who she was talking to and realized how highly improbable it was that a bruise on my hand would cut short a night’s training.  “Okay.  I’m going back upstairs now,” she said making a few steps of the ascent.  She was stopped in the stairwell when Ava practically ran her down coming the other direction.  So she was still standing on the stairs when Aaron walked up to the three of us and I asked him:

“Can you show me how to pick you up for a take down?”

“NO!” Merle shouted in her sternest I’ve-had-enough-of-this tone.

“I don’t know, Mom,” Aaron answered, looking pensive.

I know,” Merle interjected.  NO!”

“I was thinking about auditing a Sancho class, but I should probably be sure I can do a take down before I try.”  I could tell by Merle’s expression that my explanation was so far from satisfactory that it wasn’t even funny.

“I can teach you to do a one-legged take down,” Aaron said, ignoring the marital tension, “but I can’t even do two.  I’m probably the second lightest person in the class.  I can’t really pick anybody up.”

“It’s all in the knees – the knees,” Merle emphasized, “and you want to pick this boy up with your knees and your back.”

“Whoa,” Ava chimed in, contorting her neck to examine my half purple hand more closely.

“Okay.  Never mind.”  I turned my attention to my daughter, whose expression was growing more horrified by the second.  “You’re looking at my hand with ‘eeew’ written all over your face.  Cut it out,” I said with a chuckle.

After a few moments of discussing my second slamming mishap in as many training days, I could feel Merle’s stare raining down from the upper steps.  I looked up at her expectantly.

“I’m not going anywhere until you step away from your son.  You’re going to try to pick him up the minute – ”

“No, I’m done with that idea.  Every once and a while I watch Aaron in Sancho class, and I think I want to try it.  Tonight was one of those.  But don’t worry.  I’m done.”

“Okay,” she said with suspicion in her voice, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing: Done?  That’ll be the day.


I walk up and down a flight of stairs at about the same clip as my 94-year-old grandmother.  It’s kind of pitiful.

One of my knees has no cartilage, and the other is almost at zero.  Both have been operated on – the right one four times, and both are severely arthritic.

I’ve been prescribed a knee brace that I don’t wear nearly as often as I’m supposed to.  And I’m in pain to some degree at virtually all times.  In fact, the first sensation of my day is pain.  That’s on any day.

I could use many more brush strokes painting the picture of what it’s like to hobble around in my forty-something-year-old body.  But I think I’ve hit the highlights pretty well.  Except….

Here’s the kicker (no pun intended): I probably could have slowed the extensive degeneration of my joints; I could also relieve, if not eliminate, my daily pain, without over-the-counter or under-the-table assistance of any kind.  When factoring in this additional information, my physical status could legitimately be considered crazy.  And, I guess, so could I.

So be it.  I’m nuts.  I’ll own it.  No arm twisting necessary.

So why don’t I help myself?  Because, quite simply: I LOVE KUNG FU!  I love it so much that the phrase itself just randomly pops out of my mouth to whatever family member is nearest at the moment the spirit moves me – often to the teenaged son who loves it as much as I do.  It’s such a big part of my life, I frequently have to stop and remind myself that I lived almost forty years without it.

I think about it all day on the days that I train and half the day on the days that I don’t.  By the time I finish my morning coffee at the office, I’m calculating how long it will be before I’m warming up and stretching.

Though knee pain in particular never completely leaves me, it subsides to a more tolerable level by the time seven o’clock rolls around.  By that point in the evening, I’ve usually kicked and jumped my knees into comfort.

I can’t explain how it works.  I’m not sure that I care.  I just know that it does.  It’s one of the greater ironies of my life: the only time I don’t move like I’m crippled is when I’m doing the thing that’s crippling me!

Why do I love something so much that hurts me so badly?  That’s what I hope to answer in this blog for the dozens of family members, co-workers, friends and acquaintances who look at me like I need to be committed – and anyone else who’s interested.

Along the way, there will also be the inevitable look at what it’s like to be in constant pursuit of the perfect minute.  For that’s exactly what all of us martial arts addicts are looking for – the perfect execution of whatever the day’s assigned performance might be.

It’s compulsive.  And for me, it’s crippling.

So… here we go.