Wednesday, August 23, 2006

39 Years Gone

Well, this is the last night of my 39th year. Tomorrow is my 39th birthday, which means that as of about 8:30-something tomorrow morning I will have spent 39 years on the planet. We tend to forget to include that first year, that zero zed naught year before we started counting, before we were 1, and consider ourselves a year younger than we actually are. But, much as the last century actually ended on New Year's Eve 1998 and the new one began on the first day of 1999, tonight ends the last day of my 39th year, and the beginning of my 40th.

Seen in this light, birthdays are funerals. The death and remembrance of the number that we assign to our age. 365 or so days of saying "I'm 39" when what we actually mean is "I've lived 39 years, plus some-odd days, and will soon have lived 40."


Lately I've realized I'm in the midst of ... well ... midlife stuff. Not a "crisis." That would be the wrong word. A hoary cliche, evoking red sports cars and toupees and scandalous affairs and trophy wives. My biggest cliche indulgence has been buying ... a black Jeep. A car I've wanted for a long time, which I finally gifted myself, but which I bought used to save a bit of cash. Hardly the selfish vain indulgence one associates with the classic midlife crisis. No, it's not a crisis. It's just a ... shift in perspective, I'd say.

But I have to at least acknowledge the vanity of the choice, and what it means. And to reconcile it with other things going on in my life. But still, a Jeep is minor nod to silly typicality in the scheme of things. But I have to acknowledge other things, healthier things, more respectable and less selfish things that at least indicate that there's a significant part of my mind that is looking backward with some longing, forward with some apprehension, and that is trying to make choices that deal with or fight against those things.

Take Tang Soo Do, for instance.

If there's anything I've learned, without question, over the past 9-10 months, it's that this is not an older man's game. Not that I'm old. Nope -- far from it. I can do this. I train, and train hard, 4-5-6 days a week. I work out and practice in the mornings as well, 3 or 4 times, to keep sharp and get an edge where I can. I look to my instructor, Master Nunan, a couple of years younger than me but with some significant mileage on his body, for reassurance and to set attainable goals. Or I look to some of the dan members who are close to my age or older (Mr. Hill in particular, as his training history parallels my own path quite well) and I know I can do these things. 39 is not 60.

But it ain't 18 either, man. And I thank God I found this art now, at the relatively young age of 38, instead of when I was... 48... 58.... I know I work myself harder than I should, harder than I need to. I am too tense, too forceful, all the time. I strain muscles constantly, throwing punches and kicks while my body is tight, and injuring myself frequently as a result. When I was a kid I could workt hrough this stuff, but I've started to realize that I need to pace myself, I need to take a break every now and then to avoid small aches becoming large problems.

But still, it's not as though there's some compulsory element that forces me to train. This is a choice, or at least it was a choice. These days, my training is feeling less like an option and moer like a need. Something I have to do to feel that my days aer complete. Clearly, I'm trying to prove something. To myself, at least.

Recently I've realized that the martial arts attract adults that tend to fit into two general groups: Those that are trying to prove something to themselves, and those that are trying to prove something to everyone else. Typically I find that those who are proving something to themselves tend toward a more jovial, less intense, friendlier attitude toward training, while the ones who are trying to prove stuff to everyone else tend toward the insufferable and obnoxious -- training for lots of these guys (and they're almost always guys) is the physical equivalent of buying a Hummer. After all, I've yet to meet someone who actually bought a Hummer because it's some sort of tough off-road utility vehicle, certainly not the ones that are being sold now. I've never seen one of these H2's or H3's everyone is driving with a speck of mud on their bumpers from going off road or 4-wheeling. Nope -- people buy them because they are trying to tell people something about themselves, and mostly I'd say that that message is an aggressive, almost cartoonish need to scream "SEE? I'M A BADASS! THIS PROVES IT!" at anyone standing nearby. Compensating, I'd say.

I'm glad to say that I am certain I'm not one of those guys, and that I've encountered only a couple of folks that fit that description in the Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan. Of course it only takes a couple of them to really give an organization a bad name -- some of the stories I've heard about some TSDMGK member's behaviors at some of the International Tournaments the past few years really makes me question whether I'd ever attend, or allow my kids to attend, one of these events. And we're talking high-level, senior members. People who should know better, and who should set the example for others. People my age.

But again, I don't worry too much about what other people are doing, or why. I'm really doing this for myself.


I remember 11. Getting Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" for my birthday. On VINYL.

I remember 13, pretending to be Boromir, from Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings (the heavily rotoscoped and animated one), throwing handfuls of darts at a dart board in my parent's basement, visualizing a battle against an orc horde and then acting out his death scene.

15, and kissing Christine, my first love who would eventually become my wife, after a movie date in the backseat of Mike L.'s Jeep. John Cougar (before he re-adopted Mellencamp) singing Jack and Diane on the stereo, playing the cassette of American Fool I'd just bought that afternoon.

So many things, so many events. All run together. Sex. Marriage. Children. Lives and deaths. Friends found, lost, and intentionally left behind. So many moments. They can be like a weight when you start bringing them back to mind. So I'll move on. I am not sad or melancholy on this birthday.

Just sort of ... mindful.


The best image I can think of to describe the feeling is the very bottom of the sun just barely touching the very edge of the horizon. The day isn't over: not by a longshot. Lots of daylight left. But less light than night. I also know, through bitter experience, that we never know how much time we actually have, we never know when the sun actually will set. I've lived six years longer than my own father. Life is precious. Time is a gift. The future, something of a luxury that can't be taken for granted, nor expected. Night can fall ... suddenly.


Anyway, this is not meant to be some dark, torrid rumination on aging. I am a happy man, satisfied with much of my life, thrilled beyond words with certain portions of it. Portions named Christine, Miranda and Trevor, in particular. I want so much to get a big, glorious tattoo of their names over my heart, although I think I might never get laid again if I did so. The idea freaks Christine out. But at the same time, sometimes I want to make them all a physical, permanent part of myself, of my body. To make the point. To declare it to the world.

I am happy with myself, moreso than I think I've ever been. I think, at age 39, I'm finally beginning to understand how to be a man. I've never had any particularly solid male role models in my life, so I've had to try to figure a lot of shit out for myself. And I think I've done a pretty OK job, although maybe it's taken a bit longer than some folks may have preferred. But I am a decent man, a kind man, a good friend, a respectful and caring husband, a reliable and steadfast father. And I am, above all other things, a loving person. I make a point of not withholding my love, nor the frequent declaration of my love, from the people in my life.

Is there room for improvement? Well... fuck yeah. I am not perfect, nor will I ever make the mistake of thinking I am.

But goddammit, I will keep trying to get as close to it as I can.


I've just finished re-reading "The Dark Knight Returns." I'd given a copy of it to Jimmy, one of my instructors at the dojang, for his twentieth birthday, and realized afterward that it had been a solid 10 years since I'd read it myself. So, it was time for a re-read. And in closing I'd just like to say that, while it is a great read and a brilliant comic regardless of the reader's years, "The Dark Knight Returns" is a story for men "of a certain age." What once was thrilling and rousing in a fist-pumping "yeah!" sort of way now, instead, brings ...

... well, tears. Recognition. Acknowledgement. Understanding.

Happy birthday to me.

Mood: Good! Really!
Now Playing: Nothing

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Agony of the Feet

And the ankles. And the hamstrings. And the groin muscle I pulled last night while sparring. Agh. I'm starting to feel like I should create a graphic for this blog that shows, on a daily basis, "What hurts today." Because I'm beginning to realize that, unless something significant changes, I'm just going to have to get used to being in some amount of pain or some state of injury on an ongoing and persistent basis if I am going to continue training so aggressively.

Now, since I have absolutely no plans to stop training, or even to lessen the time and energy I put into training, the only option seems to be to just get used to being hurt. All the damn time.

So yeah, here's the litany of injuries I've dealt with over the past 8-9 months of training:
  • Really, really sore hip flexors for the first two weeks of training (never really worked those muscles before)
  • Extremely tight and painful muscle spasm in upper back and neck for the first month I trained (mostly stress-related, I think)
  • Nasty pulled left leg hamstring just 2 weeks prior to my 8th gup test (lots of pain, rest, ice, compression, elevation, and beer got me through that one)
  • Pretty damn painful ankle twist the night before my 7th gup test (swelling, weakness, and pain persisted for nearly a month)
  • Strained inside-left thigh/groin muscle 3 weeks ago (bit too aggressive on partner stretching -- 2+ weeks before it started feeling better)
  • Strained inside-right thigh/groin muscle last night (while throwing a high kick during free sparring)
So, let's look at the data and see what's what here. The good news is all of these are actually fairly minor injuries: Nothing permanent or debilitating, nothing that a little rest and care can't fix. The ankle, in particular, was lucky -- that could have been nasty, could easily have been a break instead of a bad sprain/strain. I also find it interesting the way the injuries are migrating -- I think the locations indicate something about my progress. Particularly those groin pulls -- they wouldn't be happening if I wasn't kicking higher and stretching deeper than ever before. I just need to dial back the activity and strain on them a bit and they'll settle down by the end of the month. And really the only recent injury that was caused by an error on my part was the ankle twist, which obviously can happen to anyone at all. Weight landed exactly the wrong way an wham-o, twisty twist.

So, I think that's actually something to be positive about. The pain doesn't bother me so much as the worry that somehow I'm simply not cut out for this level of demanding physicality. I mean, aside from the pain I feel great. And I think my progress and persistence demonstrates that I am certainly capable of seeing this through, physically. And really the pain isn't really that bad -- it's more discouraging than anything else. I hate holding myself back during training, being careful to not kick to high or too hard. I hate sitting back and watching people spar rather than getting out there and mixing things up a bit.

Which leads to something Sa Bom Nim said last night, and once again to the realization that I've got a long way to go. Aside from the ankle twist, every single one of my injuries was directly attributable to my ongoing issues with Shin Chook, with my inability to just freakin' RELAX already. I have so much fun training, but typically I'm wound up like a freakin' spring for the first half of class at least. I walk in there stressed out and slowly, over the course of the class I start to relax, some nights more than others. But I also punch hard, kick hard, stretch hard, all that crap, while my body is tight and unyielding.

Gee, wonder why I'm getting all this soft-tissue pain and strain? Duh.

I just wish I could figure Shin Chook out. That it was just one of those switches that I could flip and suddenly, whammo, relaxed and at ease. I think I've made a lot of progress, but obviously I have a long way to go on it as well. I'm so worried and stressed about messing up techniques that I find challenging that I ramrod my way through them, hard and stiff and inflexible and tight the whole way. It drives me nuts some days, the knowledge that as much as I love and enjoy Tang Soo Do training, I'm making it harder for myself than it needs to be and that I'd enjoy it even more if I could just Stop Stressing Out So Much.

If only knowing this was the same as doing this.

Mood: Vaguely annoyed
Now Playing: Blur, "Parklife"

Friday, August 11, 2006

Kyum Son, Yong Gi, and Self Doubt

Definitely having "one of those weeks," training-wise. I'm kind of unfocused, having trouble keeping the new techniques I've learned in the past couple of weeks straight, and getting myself frustrated in the process. Which, of course, leads to more errors, less focus, more frustration, and so on. Gah.

Some weeks I almost feel like I'm sliding backwards, no matter how hard I try. My energy is off, and I just don't have the clarity I have at other times. It might just be end of Summer burnout -- the kids are heading back to school in just a few days, so the last few weeks have been pretty packed with events and activity as we try to jam in everything we wanted to do over the past few months but just didn't get around to. Hopefully, once our schedules settle back into the nicely moderated school year patterns my energy will come back up to the typical waterline. Who knows.

That said, I'm pleased with some things. For one, Sa Bom Nim commented several times over the past few classes that my kicks were looking really good, particularly from a height perspective. I've been working on increasing my flexibility pretty aggressively for several months now (lots of stretching, lots of warm-ups before working out, etc.) and the results are really starting to show. I routinely kick over my head on my front, side, downward heel, and crescent kicks these days, and my round and hook kicks are easily to chin level when I try.

And I think my technique on several kicks has finally started tightening up some -- my side kick and front kicks feel solid and powerful, my round kicks are finally starting to feel controlled and effective, my downward heel and crescent kicks have solid form (although I feel they are lacking in power -- I've been focusing on getting the technique down, and will work on power later), and I'm even feeling more comfortable with hook kick and spinning hook kick. Back kick still screws me up -- not sure why, but I keep throwing it as a sort of half-assed side kick. I need to unlearn and re-learn it I think. I've noticed that this feeling occurs at periodic intervals -- I think it's a fairly decent measure of advancement in my own skill. Realizing that the way I've been doing something is not the right or correct or best way, and then kind of breaking my technique, getting frustrated with it, and then re-learning it again.

My balance is also really coming along as well. Lately I've been working on lots of balance exercises while at home -- sometimes just standing on one leg with the other foot hooked in behind my knee, other times, holding one knee up in a side or round kick prepare position, typically trying for 30 or 60 second intervals and then switching legs. It's damn hard, but I've really noticed a difference in the way I hold my weight and balance during training these days.

I've also been working on some strength and flexibility stuff -- my favorite being standing on one leg while holding the other leg out straight to my side as high as I can for as long as I can (typically I can hold it at about a 90-100 degree angle for about 5-10 seconds, tops), and then switching legs. Not as directly practical as some of the other balance exercises I've been doing, I don't think, but it looks damn cool and it definitely builds strength in those outside hip muscles. Plus my thigh muscles look freakin' amazing when I'm holding that stance -- training has given me some pretty great definition in my quads and whatnot, and those stances really accentuate it.

But I'm not vain. Nope, not me.

But again, as usual, I can sit here and rattle off a list of things I know I'm doing very well, acknowledge the advances and accomplishments I've made in my training, and still feel like I'm failing. I really wish I could just kick myself in the ass and get over these bouts of self-consciousness and self-doubt. I'm doing well. I know it, intellectually. But there are just days when I can't feel it. I need a really good class, where I just feel that I nail a lot of stuff and walk out feeling solid and sure of myself, to clear my head. It would be so much easier to just accept that I have some off days and not sweat it so much.

In considering this weakness (and it is a weakness, especially in that it tends to undermine my resolve to train through the tough times) I've begun to think that it's associated with two of the eight key concepts of Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan: Yong Gi, which is courage, and Kyum Son, which is humility.

The Yong Gi connection is obvious -- when I get these bouts of self-doubt I tend to feel the way I did as a 10th gup, frightened and embarrassed. I find myself apologizing for my failures, feeling as though I'm wasting the time of my partners, peers, and instructors as I flounder through my lessons. It would be so easy to quit, to listen to that voice in my head that whispers "You look ridiculous. You're a foolish man, approaching 40, trying to act like a teenager. Give up your charade, stop being a cliche, and quit." Ignoring that voice is perhaps one of the most continual tests of Yong Gi I've encountered in my training. Luckily I can look to several peers and dan members my age or older and draw strength and resolve from their accomplishments.

The Kyum Son connection is perhaps a bit more subtle, a bit trickier, and maybe a bit more insidious. I think that some of this hypercriticality of my own abilities is grounded in a sort of prideful hunger for recognition and approval. I want so much for people to tell me I'm doing ... not just well, but better than others. On some level I have to admit that I want to be recognized as more skilled than so-and-so, stronger than this guy, faster than that guy, and so on. It's not enough to improve myself -- some part of myself wants to show up others. It's pettiness.

I work my ass off training and practicing whenever I can. Most, nearly all, of this effort is an honest attempt to get a firm grasp of my techniques so that I'll be prepared for testing. But I also want to show off a bit, to compare myself against others and be compared and praised. It's far from my first impulse -- I'm not an arrogant or boastful guy. But if I were to claim that the opinions of my peers and the approval and praise of my superiors didn't matter, a lot, I'd be lying. And this seems, to me, to be a sort of failure of humility, a sort of pride that undermines my focus and resolve. A need for the spotlight and the applause that, when I don't get it, makes me feel like I'm failing.

Sigh. I have so far to go.

Mood: Pensive
Now Playing: Sarah Brightman, "Harem"

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Thinking of Bill

Some days, I really miss Bill Hicks.

"I'm glad [drugs] are against the law. Cause you know what happened when I took em?

I laid in a field of green grass for 4 hours going My God ... I love everything. The heavens parted, God looked down, and rained gifts of forgiveness onto my being, healing me on every level, psychically, physically, emotionally. I realized our true nature is spirit not body. That we are eternal beings and God's love is unconditional and there's nothing we can ever do to change that. It is only our illusion that we are separate from God or that we are alone. In fact, the reality is that we are one with God and he loves us.

Now if that isn't a hazard to this country... you see my point? How are we going to keep building nuclear weapons, you know what I mean? What's gonna happen to the arms industry when we realize we are all one? It's gonna fuck up the economy!"

Not really meaning to advocate drug use, here. I don't do 'em, you probably shouldn't either. But you gotta admit, the guy has a point....

Mood: Conflicted
Now Playing: Bill Hicks, "Rant in E-Minor"

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The family that trains together ...

... sprains together?

Well, let's hope not. As of last week, Christine has begun training in Tang Soo Do, so now my entire family is training in our art, including my mom. And with my brother, sis-in-law, and their kids all training in Tae Kwan Do, we are quite the martial arts contingent. We're running the gamut of gup levels -- I'm 7th, Miranda and my mom are 8th, Trevor is 9th, and Christine is 10th. Hopefully, Trevor will apply himself and will be able to test come September, which will probably result in he and Christine reaching 8th gup (orange belt) together, and advancing on a similar schedule. I think that would be good for his confidence.

As for Christine, I think she's going to be very good at this. I caught the last few minutes of her first session on the mat and she looked great. She did a lot of cardio kickboxing a couple of years back, so she's fairly comfortable with a lot of our basic kicking styles (front kick and side kick, in particular, although I'm sure that the hip rotation for side kick is somewhat different). She's having the usual beginners difficulties with hand preparation, but that's 100% to be expected and she'll have a breakthrough on it real soon, just like everyone else does.

She already wants to learn "the ass kickin' stuff," which I explained will take a little while. From my experience, you get a little "ass kickin' stuff" at 8th gup -- intermediate one steps 1-4 and cross hand grabs 1 and 2 are both pretty fun in their way -- but you don't really start into the techniques that are obviously and clearly oriented around causing serious physical harm until 7th gup. Since advancing, everything I've learned has been almost startlingly brutal: Intermediate one steps 5-8 (7 and 8 in particular -- something about that part where you drive your elbow down into the back of their neck/top of their back really seems a bit harsh. But in a good way!), the next couple of crosshand grabs (all wrist twists and locks with elbows being thrown all over the place), and in particular the newest form I've learned (Pyong Ahn Ee Dan) are very clearly offensive and oriented around causing serious damage to an opponent. So much of the previous techniques I learned were sort of vague in their application -- really more oriented around teaching body movement techniques, weight shifting, things like that. This new stuff is clear in its intent and design.

Direct and damaging. Brutal, even. Incredibly cool stuff, really.

I sometimes see stuff online from other martial arts practitioners who really question (or even sometimes flat out mock) the practical application and necessity of things like one-steps and forms. The more I learn, the more I think that these are people who just miss the forest for the trees. While the likelihood of ever being able to actually defending yourself against an attack by executing all of the movements of, say, intermediate one step #7 (outside/inside crescent kick, side kick, center punch, grab back of neck and slam face into knee, bring opposing elbow down onto back of neck while dropping into a horse stance -- or is it a side stance? I think it's a horse stance...) is fairly low, realizing that these one steps are actually constructed of a series of independent and separate techniques, any of which could potentially be used independent of each other in a self-defense scenario, is pretty much the entire point.

Same goes for forms. I mean, anyone who looks at forms as strictly a self defense practice exercise is, I think, missing out on something that has become by far my favorite part of my training. But from a strictly practical perspective I suppose they can seem like a waste of time. I mean, how likely is it that you'd encounter a scenario where multiple opponents attack you from the precise locations that would enable you to execute a form as a matter of self defense? But it seems to me that there is tremendous practicality in learning the series of movements and transitions between different techniques as a meditative exercise as well as for offense/defense purposes. As you get better at performing your forms without having to sit there and count them out in your head, isn't that indicative of your growing confidence and ability to execute individual and combined techniques without wasting time thinking about them?

So anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing my wife out there kickin' ass. She'll start sparring within a month or so, I imagine, and will probably be testing for her orange belt come late September. After that, it should get really interesting! I can't say that I really want to watch her spar others -- I know that if I see her take a hit or two that I feel is unfair or due to a lack of control I'll want to jump in and knock someone's block off. I'll need to be aware of that attitude, since all it would do is undermine her confidence and my own relationship with my fellow students.

As for sparring each other, I have no idea what that'll be like. I think it could get a little too personal, too easily. It just seems like it could cross a weird line in our relationship -- I'm not physically aggressive, but I am physically imposing. I'm nearly twice her size, body mass-wise, and a solid 10-11 inches taller than her. And I've been told that when I spar I tend to be a bit ... well, kind of scary and intense. I don't really mean to be, and aside from the occasional light thump to the abdomen I've never thrown a shot that really hurt anyone, but I guess I come off as threatening. I worry that she might have a hard time separating my "on mat" behavior from our "off mat" relationship if I come off as too domineering, too aggressive, too threatening when sparring her.

Sigh. Time will tell, I guess. As we progress I'll need to try to feel the situation out and search my feelings a bit more. I expect that I'll be having a discussion with Master Nunan about this sometime in the future, though -- I just don't know what the appropriate boundaries are for couples who train together. Or if there should be boundaries at all.

Mood: Anxious (leaving for St. Louis for a work trip in a couple of hours)
Now Playing: Nada