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!

Claiming Public Space: The Power of Posture

This is the 2nd in 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.

Introductory Post:   A Blogger for Self-Defense

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The most common piece of introductory advice given for self-defense is to “be aware of your surroundings”. I’d step back from that and say first and foremost be aware of yourself.  By the time I came upon this advice, I’d finished my Army tour, taken several self-defense courses (the R.A.D. system) at college and as a single woman who lived alone, was painfully aware of my surroundings – on the bus, in deserted college hallways, on the dark walk home from the bus stop, in the parking lots of restaurants and malls, in my apartment stairwell. I was as paranoid and jumpy as I could possibly be – and likely not prepared for any of the scenarios I’d imagined.

How you carry yourself in public spaces is the very first line of defense. It’s about preventing an attack before it occurs. It’s about making yourself a risky target for a would-be attacker. In an ideal world, the responsibility for the commission of a crime lies with the criminal. I want to be absolutely clear that victims are not responsible for the crimes committed against them. When we judge a victim – “well, if he or she hadn’t been there or worn that or drank too much” – we are finding a way to tell ourselves that it could never happen to us. We want to know we can prevent it, but the reality is that anyone, anywhere at anytime can be targeted for a crime.

The Walking Bullseye

For years, I was acutely self-conscious in public. My shoulders would slump forward, I wouldn’t make eye contact, I avoided crowded areas, I would not look around me. I was often carrying bags – a backpack of textbooks, groceries, possibly a purse. I rode the bus a lot. I would sit in the back as far away from other people and if I had to sit next to someone, I’d pull myself in as tightly as I could. I wanted to be invisible. I looked passive. I looked like an easy target.

Strangers would strike up creepy and inappropriate conversations with me. Panhandlers never failed to see their mark. On occasion, I’d have to get off the bus a few stops early so that an invasive passenger wouldn’t see where I lived or worked or went to school. These were defensive maneuvers, because I was already on the potential criminal’s radar. The key is not to even register as a possible target.

Climbing Out of the Shell

For women, some of us survived puberty by sinking into ourselves, hiding our busts, curving our shoulders forward. As adults, we carry tension in the neck and shoulder area until we become turtles. Pull your shoulders back and then let your shoulder blades lower down into a relaxed position. Inhale and exhale deeply. Straighten your neck, lift your head and actively use your eyes to see your surroundings. Use your peripheral vision. Practice walking with that posture.

If your muscles have elongated or shortened from poor posture, seek out strengthening and mobility exercises. There are a lot of good resources focused on improving posture. I was lucky to catch a great community course by Janice Novak, but there are other excellent resources as well. Look at yourself in the mirror (my least favorite thing to do!).  Where are your shoulders? Try different positions. What makes you taller? Imagined you are defending someone you love. How do you stand then? What is your posture of power?

I am still a self-conscious person, so if I’m not having a confident day, I hear “Stayin’ Alive” playing in my head. Nothing weirder than a middle-aged woman doing a John Travolta strut down the street. Better yet, I paraphrase Robert DeNiro in my head. “You lookin’ at me?” I look like I’m cruising for a brawl. Still, what I don’t look like is someone who is giving anything up very easily, including the ability to defend myself.

I recently watched an interesting TED video: Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are. The takeaway for me was twofold: 1) The marked difference between weak and powerful body language is about space. 2) Faking power and confidence can physiologically change you and how you carry yourself.

Claim Your Space

While public space should be governed by civility and courtesy for others, it is also about personal boundaries. When I worked downtown years ago, I boarded a full bus with one seat left. I understood immediately why the seat was open. A man in his twenties was sprawled out, legs spread wide in front of him, taking up his seat and half of the one next to him, while staring insolently ahead.

I could feel eyes on me and looked up, noticing that several people were standing, having chosen to avoid a potential confrontation. I immediately thought, because I am nothing, if not completely vulgar, Unless his nuts are the size of basketballs, I’m sitting there. I sat down, scooted over until he moved, and said loudly and clearly “EXCUSE ME”. He muttered under his breath, but the numbnuts moved his body over. I just made myself a risky target for any potential attacker on that bus – publicly demonstrating lack of intimidation and assertiveness. And when a situation presents itself for me to both use my ass and be one too, I’m all in.

Criminals are actively seeking out the vulnerable, the isolated, the passive – the easy mark. Start with the simplest steps to look unappealing to them.

Stand up tall.

Be confident (or fake it until you are).

Claim your space. 

Observational Practice: Look at people when you’re out and about – how much space do they claim? Imagine that you are a criminal. Which people would you pick for targets? Why would you pick them?

Tune in Friday

“OMG I’m getting mugged NLMAO”: Moving Mindfully

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

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 Art of Defensiveness

For weeks, I’ve been excited and anxious to start a writers’ workshop. I need critiquing and to learn how to revise and edit better. The workshop has started and I’ve gotten my first critique. My gut response, my very first thoughts out of the gate were: “Screw you! Your comments don’t even make sense. What are your credentials again?” Even as I’m thinking that, I start laughing at myself. I’m skilled at defensiveness. My husband said, “You’ll process the comments in about a year or so.” Having been the recipient and instigator of my retorts, he knows that I’ll be a reasonable person. Eventually.

I think on some days, I walk out into the world wearing a “Whadda you lookin’ at?” expression on my face. I have a curiosity about this reaction. My armor is well-worn and heavy, exhausting to always have on. How do you re-train yourself to stay open, to let things flow through and over you, to take in what you need and discard the rest?

I was trained at an early age to see that nothing in this world was “good enough”, including myself. No matter what self-revelation or epiphany I’ve discovered or had, this is a core point that I struggle with daily – the essential feeling that I could always be better. Always needing to improve is partly cultural. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post “Being Just Right“, we are groomed as consumers to be perpetually dissatisfied with ourselves. The main message is: “You are not good enough as you are.” Fighting external and internal messages in order to maintain some semblance of personal satisfaction requires protection, an ability to fend off those messages and move on.

Becoming skilled in the art of defensiveness means that ofttimes, even the positive messages fail to penetrate. The old “she can’t take a compliment” deal. It’s not modesty. It’s my habit of not letting you or anybody else say jack shit about me. So there. Now let me take this pistol and shoot myself in the other foot. When I compliment someone and they brush it off, I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them and yell “Don’t you get it? You’re awesome!”

I now force myself to say “thank you” in the face of compliments. Gratitude is much more appealing than coming up with five million reasons for why that person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Although I will always suspect that they don’t. This re-training may take awhile, but if I hope to gain skills, I need to be open to the teaching.

In taekwondo sparring, you bow to your partner/opponent to show respect, before and after the match. After delivering and receiving repeated kicks and strikes, you bow and then you shake their hand and say : 감사합니다 (kamsahamnida), which is Korean for “thank you”. Initially, I thought sardonically “thank you for beating the crap out of me, now I’ll be limping for a week”. Now I’ve learned to think “thank you for teaching me”.  So, I bow to my writing instructor: I will humbly revise according to your suggestions. Thank you for teaching me.

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.