Tapping Out

Last night my taekwondo instructor announced that his school would be closing in two weeks for financial reasons. After training for three and a half years and being within months of testing for my black belt, I felt crushed. The school wasn’t the best. The instructor wasn’t coming off the Olympic circuit. But it was small and friendly enough that I had the courage to try learning a martial art at the tender age of 43.

I have worked hard over the last few years. I’ve taken some pretty good hits, pushed myself to be stronger, faster and more flexible. Since I was the only adult color belt, I would train with black belts who were bigger, younger and lighter on their feet. When I would do a color belt test, I would be towering over 7- and 8-year old kids. I treated it as a lesson in humility.

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Waist level attacks on my gi-normous opponents.

When I sparred with teenage gorillas, I prided myself every time I got up, shook my head and re-engaged after getting the wind knocked out of me. I would willingly humiliate myself with poorly executed front and back rolls. And I practiced. A lot. At tournaments, I could easily wait 10 hours to compete, since the 40+ division would sometimes be the last contest of the event. I really put my heart and focus into training.

There are few things more startling than a middle-aged lady bawling over her steering wheel in a strip mall parking lot. Since I’m not prone to tears, my husband and daughter stood paralyzed and baffled when I arrived home, as I blubbered loudly, wailing Now I’m just a housewife! And before housewives jump into flaming mode, I am simply an ambivalent housewife and I don’t enjoy it. Who wants their identity to rest solely on something they’re not very good at doing?

Attachment. I had attached myself to the idea that I would eventually be a black belt, that I was almost across that line. Changing martial arts schools is challenging at best. You tend to lose out to whatever ranking system they use, since there are no consistent practices among schools. Some schools can be painfully competitive and discouraging, while others are just black belt factories – the skill set involves ninja check writing and not much else. I don’t have the patience or wherewithal to begin again. I’m done. I’ve tapped out.

But wait, folks, she’s rallying! It seems like she wants to get up. She’s waving off the referee. She just does not want to stay down…

I took the opportunity to leave my job a few months ago when tasks had become mind-numbingly rote and frustrating. I knew I wanted to focus on writing. I’ve tried to adapt to a writing life, but I’m not there yet. My energy is diverted along so many paths. I’ve been doing a lot of volunteer work, working on house projects, helping an elderly relative, learning long division all over again with my 4th grader, training hard for my black belt, being a sometime writer and preparing to try my hand at stand up comedy.

This morning I awoke with a big sigh. Who am I and what the hell have I been doing? Often people will frame random events and miscellaneous occurrences as “signs” of some greater import. Or you’ve got the making lemonade out of lemons crowd. I’m more of the screw it, I’ll make a new plan ilk.

I’ve chosen to see the passage of this part of my identity – this kicking, punching, struggling martial artist as a bigger push towards fewer intentions. I did some research this morning and applied for membership to a local writers’ group. Hopefully a few of them will be in my size and age ranking.

She rises slowly, slightly disoriented, but she’s up. Unbelievable! And the crowd goes wild!

A Blogger for Self-Defense

This is the introduction to a series of essays on the importance of self-defense and physical power. I am not an expert on self-defense, nor a physical fitness guru. I do not condone violence, but advocate taking whatever action or inaction is needed to survive potentially dangerous situations. Not every situation is defensible through physical force. canstockphoto6758958Last month, I stopped participating in Bloggers for Peace. It is a great concept, but I felt like a hypocrite. I’ve not been feeling peaceful for a long time. The unfortunate side affect of reading blog posts and the news, is that the world starts to become a very ugly place, especially in regards to issues related to being a woman. Disproportionate attention gets paid to the negative and the horrifying, so we read about the Steubenville rape, the murder of a paid escort in Texas, the abuse that many women have received at the hands of a “loved one”, a constant stream of politically and religiously motivated moralizing gone awry, based on the premise that our bodies are the collective property of the state.

I cannot, at this moment in time, advocate peace in the face of all of this. Being a conscientious person, I recognize that I live and feel a strange sort of dichotomy. At what point do I take action and NOT use my words? So, I’m writing about violence this week, in the form of self-defense.

Much of this is going to apply to women, simply because that is my perspective, but I hope male readers find something of value or can contribute their own perspective.

My hesitation on writing about this subject evaporated yesterday. I watched a YouTube video of a Taekwondo spin hook kick. A commenter had written “this would be a good kick to use on a woman who is yapping”. The star of the video, a skilled martial artist, responded “Yeah, that’s true.” Now I know, in my rational mind, that douchebags populate these sites, but most martial arts training advocates respect and discipline. It was disheartening to see, once again, something positive tainted by wankers with no sense of honor.

To clarify, for those who haven’t read this blog before, I’m a 45 year old woman. I spent 4 years of active duty in the US Army, in a military intelligence unit attached to an infantry division, which meant a lot of time out in the field. I am a practicing martial artist, just a short step from my 1st degree black belt in Taekwondo. I run, weight train and do a variety of workouts that support speed, flexibility and strength. I’ve gone through labor and delivery of a child. I’ve had ripped corneas, more bruises than I can count, torn and pulled ligaments and muscles. Last night I dropped a 250lb man in a self-defense move and the night before that, I sparred intensely with a teenager a foot taller than I, taking a kick to the jaw.

This is all to say, I’m not afraid of the pain and I am not afraid to use my power. As a woman in this society, it is considered wholly unnatural to be an advocate of putting the hurt on someone else. We’re encouraged to do flutter kicks to flatten our abs and leg lifts to tighten our butts.  Every time I see the covers of women’s magazines, I cringe. Even the so-called fitness magazines are focused on appearance and not capabilities. I would love to see the title “How to make No mean No: Giving a Beat Down He Won’t Forget” or “Self-Defense for Parking Lots: Keys are for Eyeballs, Knees are for Groins” or “50 Ways to Leave Your Abuser”. Instead we’re told how to organize a shoe closet or how to make ourselves look “hotter” (there’s a word that deserves to be beaten to death).

I’m an average woman who was never particularly coordinated or athletic. My education about violence and physical force started at a young age. Pushes, shoves, punches, slaps, ear twists, hair pulls, belt whippings, threats from behind a gun sight – all from people older and bigger than I, people who I should have been able to trust with my well-being. When I was a four-eyed, awkward, puny and shy 4th grader, a group of girls pushed me off my bike and took it. I did not react, except to cry. My crying matured into a quiet, stony stare when I was attacked, either physically or verbally. I dreamed of being a vigilante, of defending kids like myself, of taking down the bullies. I seethed with rage that had nowhere to go, except inward.

My Army drill sergeant had nothing on me. He could get in my face, scream at me, force me through unceasing pushups, flip my bunk – I did what I was told and stared stonily into the distance (hence being called into the senior drill sergeant’s office for an “attitude problem”). I knew he was a drinker – his eyes had that same red, watery look that my stepfather had the morning after a bender. Been there, done that, dude. I stared him down. 100 pushups later, I still stared him down. He gave up, winded from all the yelling. Probably needing an aspirin.

These days, I’m an advocate of peaceful existence. But becoming a mother to a daughter forced me to re-examine what that means to me and what I want it to mean for her. I began to train, to learn a martial art, to become as strong on the outside as I am on the inside. I’m prepared to defend myself. And not with flutter kicks (unless they’re to the head).  I have begun to believe the world would be a more peaceful place, especially for women, if we each knew our personal power, could walk confidently out into the world, could know what we were capable of and that we have choices.

Tune in Tuesday    

Claiming Public Space: The Power of Posture

Preparing for Your Own Worst Enemy

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I left the YMCA in a huff last night after a mediocre workout. A group of women were having a yak-a-thon in the corner of the weight room. This is a pet peeve of mine – rabid, loud socializing when I’m working out. It’s not just the women, either. I’ve seethed as men stood around saying creepy things to each other like “you’re getting really big” or “which protein powder do you use?”.

I’m on the road back to fitness after a tedious winter of flus and injuries and entropy. It means that any excuse is enough to make me give up and go home. When you go looking for reasons to quit, you are guaranteed to find them. My trainer used to say “you get to use that excuse only once and then it gets crossed off the list.” I’m a creative person, though. I once used the fact that I’d forgotten my headphones, to go home and have a snack instead.

My goal over the next three weeks is to show up at the gym consistently. The idea that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit is pseudoscience from the 1960s. A current study suggested that it can actually take over two months for a habit to become automatic, but it also showed that the time frame can vary widely from one individual to another.

For me, the three week repetition seems to do the trick. I emphasize the words show up, because I have walked into the gym, seen how busy it was, turned around and headed home. I still gave myself kudos for making it through the door. Most of the time, I do stick around and get some exercise done.

For the last decade, I worked as a business manager for a recruiting firm. The training for recruiters/sales people always involved starting out with a script. When the potential client/customer raised an objection or concern, the sales person had to be ready to overcome that objection. Much the same concept can be applied to personal goals. Know your favorite obstacles. Go through the script. Be prepared to counter that obstacle. Here’s the conversation I had yesterday with myself:

I need to work out today.

My shoulder hurts from the Pilates class yesterday.

Quit whining. Ice it and do leg work instead.

Fine. But I’m not going to enjoy it.

Injuries are a common excuse of mine. The injuries are real. At 45, doing high impact activities like taekwondo and running means injuries every other month or so. It’s a known obstacle and one that I’ve had to become adept at overcoming. This is where having a trainer has been especially useful. The minute I say that I need a break because of a quad injury, she has 20 exercises at the tip of her brain that I can do instead. I’ve learned enough from her to know that, unless I am in a coma, there is always something that I can do.

The practice of overcoming objections is a habit in and of itself. It’s hard for me to make excuses about anything without that other voice in my head saying “but you can do something“. Unexpected change in my schedule is high on the list of obstacles. If I planned to write all afternoon and have to take my mother-in-law to the dentist instead, it’s very easy for me to do a Scarlett O’Hara and put off writing until tomorrow. I have to force myself to think of that something that I can still do today. I have learned to jot notes and outlines in waiting rooms, during piano lessons, at an oil change or in the five minutes before I have to go somewhere else.

Taekwondo training lately has been focused on self-defense techniques in real life scenarios. The key is always awareness and thinking through the “what ifs”. Just like objections and obstacles, I have to talk myself through the B I will do if A happens. It’s important not to confuse concepts, though. If a mugger jumps out at me in a parking garage, I might whip out a notebook and jot down tomorrow’s post. Worse yet, when my neighbor needs a ride to the grocery store on a day when I’d planned on painting the kitchen, I might take out her kneecap.

When your biggest obstacle to meeting a personal intention is yourself, you know all the tricks and excuses. I give myself a mental, condescending pat on the head. That’s nice, dear. Now, go do something.

Kicking Your Mom

I woke up a walking bruise this morning after a taekwondo sparring session last night. Since I started taekwondo at age 42, I’m the only adult color (lower) belt at my dojang/school, so I train with the black belts. I’ve always regarded this as a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that I am forced to get better faster or suffer, as I did last night, the very real consequences of having the shit kicked out of me. The curse being, of course, the actual shit kicking.

I’m not necessarily afraid of pain, since I know it’s part of getting physically better at anything. But these badges of honor, these bruises, muscle pulls and tiny fractures, take a lot longer to heal in my 40s than they would have done a decade or two ago. Our freezer holds more ice packs than actual food these days.

Sometimes I feel badly for my sparring opponents, most of whom are teenage boys. They’re younger, faster, and more experienced than I am. They occasionally have to be encouraged to kick, punch or sweep me harder. They look nervous. Once I’ve kicked them a couple times, they start to get over that, but I always laugh when I tell my husband afterwards “they must feel like they’re kicking their moms”. This might be my edge against their speed and agility. I’m thinking about asking them if they’ve done their homework right before we bow in.

The Softening Technique

Tae Kwon Do means the way of the hand and the foot, but on some days not MY hands or feet.  I am preparing to test for my red belt in June and my expectations about what I should be able to do at this level are a mite different than the reality. Like many people, I assumed that the closer I got to black belt status, the higher I could kick, the faster I could spar, the more boards I could break with crazy flying kicks. My kicks are a smidge higher and I’m a little faster at sparring and I’ve done some good board breaks, but I still have a long way to go.

Depending on the dojang (school), a black belt can have a lot of different meanings. My favorite meaning is that you are starting to train in advanced techniques and can teach beginners. It is not an end unto itself, but another beginning – an ongoing learning process. Whatever belt level you’re at, you will always be learning, always challenging yourself to be better.

When preparing for an effective move in sparring, you sometimes start with a softening technique, just to throw your partner a little off balance and move in with that great kick or strike that would score points in a tournament. It’s a mental technique as well. Forcing myself to wear white, surrounded by fluorescent lighting and mirrors and teenage classmates, while people watch, has changed me. It’s softened my attitude about who I am and what I am capable of. It’s challenged the hard coding in my head that said “I cannot do that”. I am more willing to be uncomfortable, to look foolish, to try new activities. What’s the worst that can happen? And could it be any worse than trying nothing at all?

I have friends who do yoga even though their legs won’t bend “that way” or who have left old jobs for new ones where their expertise is appreciated or started businesses in their homes, surrounded by boisterous children. There are so many ways to throw yourself just enough off balance that you discover something new and exciting. It’s rewarding to challenge those beliefs about who you are and knock them on their ass. I’m still working on “you don’t look good in white, even before Labor Day”, but it’s not an obstacle to landing an awesome kick.