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Still crazy after all of these months

Dear readers.  It has been so long since my last post, over two months, that I was beginning to accept the idea that this little experiment in blogging had run its course. Work demands and the duties of being a new daddy were so consuming that maintaining blog seemed a silly luxury.  After all, I reasoned, it’s not like anyone really cares that much if some old dude starts training jiu jitsu.  Or stops, for that matter.

But then, I received a comment from a gentleman in Manchester, UK. It read (initially quoting me):

“Week 1. I Am completely awesome….Week 2. I SUCK!” – I’m so glad it’s not just me brother :) I can’t even remember how I happened upon this website but I am glad that I did. Keep pushing forward bro – there’s a bunch of us out there doing the same :)

He was responding to my post on the ego roller coaster I found myself on during the very beginning stages of training BJJ.  That post was almost six months old by now, but it still hit me – there may actually be people out there who give a crap about all this stuff.  People who, when they notice the blogs have stopped, conclude that I gave up.  Just one more middle aged dude in mid life crisis who tries out some new path but soon gets dragged back down by the relentless gravity of aging.  I realized that this might all be about more than just me, and I hated the idea that someone else starting down this path may have lost just a little wind from their sails from my apparent failure.

Well, I am happy to say that, while my blogging may have entered a hiatus, my training in BJJ has definitely not.  I got my third stripe in May and am still at it.  And it’s fantastic.  I continue to develop, though perhaps not as quickly as I’d like at times, and I feel stronger, healthier and more alive than ever.  I just re-upped my gym membership for another six months and hope to get my blue belt before the end of the year.

But a belt is a piece of cotton. That’s not the point.  Training BJJ has radically altered my body and my mind in so many ways.  Example: I just went on a shopping spree for new pants as  all my old ones were falling off (and believe me, no one wants to see that).  Turns out I had dropped 3 inches in waist size since starting last December.

Not that there hasn’t been a bump or two along the way.  Recently, I was out of town for almost a month visiting family and, though I managed to train a handful of times at Gracie Barra gyms in Chicago and Minneapolis (BTW, shout out to all the wonderful folks at both those gyms who were so welcoming) I couldn’t maintain the 3 or 4 times a week minimum I try to stick with here in Albuquerque.

When I got back, I was so exited to dive back in that I trained 6 days in a row, twice on a couple of days.  It felt great.  But I was a little rusty I suppose, and feeling the mile high altitude.  Maybe because of that, or just my over excitement at being back to it, I sustained a string of minor injuries.

First I came home with a black eye I got from an unintentional upkick while passing someones guard.  Baby Momma was a little concerned.  Then I got my nose smushed by a shoulder during a sweep.  I thought it was just a friction burn, but when I got home and wiggled the bridge of my nose, “click, click click”.  Busted.  But not badly.  Still, Baby Momma was now very concerned.

Then, about a week and a half ago, I was rolling with a very nice but much heavier and and pretty aggressive young guy.  I had a little more experience and did fine, but a some point I noticed that my little toe was hurting.  When I looked down, I saw that it was now pointing about 20 degrees south of normal.  Don’t even know how it happened.  It didn’t hurt badly, even when I pushed it back into place.  I even finished the class.

But by the time I woke up the next day it was all black and blue and swollen.  The toe also had a new little zigzag thing going on. Again, clearly broken. Baby Momma was now not concerned at all, as she had already completely given up on my sanity.  “Just don’t get killed,” she added.

So now I’ve got to wait a bit to get back to it.  I taped up the toe and am working out every day so that I don’t lose my strength and conditioning.  My foot swells up a little after, but it would be riskier, I believe, to go back in crappy shape and risk even more injuries.  And its nothing a little ice can’t take care of.   I imagine I’ll be back at it in another week or two at the most.

So there you have it.  For anyone out there starting out in their “mature” years, don’t give up!  Maybe it feels like all those techniques are the physical equivalent of learning Chinese.  Maybe you wake up after the first week and feel like rabid wolverines have been chewing on your tendons all night.  Believe me, it gets better.  And don’t let my tales of dings and dents dissuade you, either.  In fact, the occasional black eye or broken nose is WAY less painful than being sore, exhausted and out of shape.  And these injuries are minor annoyances that will go away soon enough.  The knowledge, confidence, strength and conditioning, that sticks around.  So, to me, the total tally is clearly in the positive.  Or maybe I’m just crazy.  Like a fox.  Or a rabid wolverine.

10 ways life is like jiu jitsu

As a recovering Catholic with a psychoanalyst for a mother, I think I know a thing or two about guilt.  In fact, I feel guilty about how much I know about guilt.  It seems to me no one should know as much about guilt as I do. I don’t know entirely who’s responsible, but I’m pretty sure it’s all my fault.  Or perhaps, more accurately, the blame lies with the unholy trinity of Sigmund Freud, myself and the Pope.  And while that might sound like the start of a bad joke, it is in fact only my way of expressing my blogga culpas for being so remiss in my bloggular duties.  Father, it has been three weeks since I last blogged, hear my confession.  There, now I feel better.

My absence from the blogosphere was mainly due to some very time-consuming but compelling projects at work (more on that later), but the growing demands of fatherhood played a major role as well.  Apparently, four-month-old babies require a lot of attention.  I wish someone had told me –  I would have planned ahead.  But he makes it all pretty easy, what with all that being adorable and cooing and smelling great and such.  I barely notice that I am a complete slave.  In fact, I actually find the arrival of this 14 pound despot that has brought about the sudden demise of my free will to be the single most joyous experience of my life.

Daddy duty and work demands (plus some more minor injuries) have also kept me out of class more than I would like.  This week I was finally able to get back into the swing of it and made it to four classes.  These happened to focus on what I believe is one of the most unpleasant yet important aspects of BJJ defense – escaping from full mount.  For the non-BJJ-practicing reader, that essentially entails learning to get out from under someone who has sat on your chest to punch your head, choke you unconscious or break your arm.  It is a humbling experience at first, to be stuck under some 220 lb purple belt, trying to breathe, feeling like your ribs are about to snap like baby cucumbers, while he attempts to wring your neck.

Thankfully, I have had some great, higher-belt training partners who clearly want to help me learn.  Only occasionally do I wind up rolling with someone who seems to just want to beat up on the white belt.  (I’m grateful the professor ends each instruction segment with “take care of your partner.”)  And as I began to hit the techniques with some success and actually escape, I realized that this is why I’m here.  If I can become comfortable getting out of the worst possible situation I can imagine, I can know that, no matter where things go, I’ll be ok. It is one of a thousand parallels I now see between jiu jitsu and the rest of my life, which is either a sign of my increasing wisdom or my escalating, single-minded obsession, depending on your perspective.  If the Baby Momma, for example, has to hear “you know, that’s just like jiu jitsu” one more time, she may wring my neck herself.

I admit, I see aspects of jiu jitsu in almost everything.  From getting off the sofa, to carrying groceries, to holding my son, I wind up employing principles I’ve learned in class.  This has been one of the more interesting and unexpected side-benefits of my training.  Jiu jitsu seems to have changed the way my body and mind work through the normal bio-mechanics of everyday life.  In particular, I now have mad baby carrying skills.  Enough that I have found I can incorporate him into my workout, a topic I will, against my better judgement, address next week.  I even promise to include a video sample of my upcoming exercise DVD, “Babyometrics: aerobic babycare for the martial arts dad.”  Or at least, if I don’t, I promise to feel really guilty.

Until then, and without further ado, I present to you:

Ten ways life is like jiu jitsu

1) When you find yourself in a bad position, calm down and continue breathing.  Panic is exhausting.

2) If you are not being attacked, do not waste energy defending yourself.

3) Always have multiple escapes in mind before trying one.  Fake one and do the other.

4) Maintain a solid base.

5) Keep your extremities close to your core.

6) First and foremost, improve your position.

7) When defending, create space.  When attacking, eliminate it.

8) Use leverage, not muscle.

9) Don’t force a move that’s not working.  Go with the flow and use what you are given.

10) Take care of your partner.

The World’s Most Dangerous Vegan

Warning: the following post contains excessive blogging gimmicks including social commentary, embedded video, a recipe and a poll.  Read at your own risk.

It’s late.  You’re walking alone on a dark street.  Down the block, a shadowy man is ambling toward you along the otherwise empty sidewalk.  You tense up and consider crossing the street, because this is clearly a dangerous man.  And how do you know?  Well, he looks dangerous.  Maybe he’s wearing a hoodie, or has tattoos, or a shaved head, or “gang” clothes.

All of us have our own (usually false) preconceptions of what traits indicate danger when we encounter our fellow homosapiens.  But unless I’m severely mistaken, there’s one trait completely free of threatening associations.  I’m pretty sure no one in the situation I described has said to themselves “oh crap, here comes a vegan.”  Of course, I’m not sure how you would even recognize a vegan assailant, unless he was walking down the street eating a slice of kelp-cake and a tofu pup, but the point is that most of us associate vegans with peace, love and patchouli oil, not potential ass-whuppin’s.

Those of us, that is, unfamiliar with Jake Shields, whom I am officially dubbing the world’s most dangerous vegan. With an MMA record of 26-6 and a #3 world ranking, Shields is one of a growing crop of top MMA fighters who are turning to an increasingly animal-free diet as a formal part of their fight preparation.  As I write this, I can hear the dull scraping sound of a thousand deceased wrestling and football coaches turning over in their graves.  When I was growing up, sports nutrition was a nascent field that hadn’t made it down to the level of the high school coach.  My coach’s idea of a proper diet was a bloody steak and some fried eggs for your pre-match breakfast.  But in the last twenty years fight training has evolved into a true science and the bloody steak has been replaced by brown rice and a vegetable-based protein shake.

Albuquerque, NM, where I live, is home to Jackson’s MMA, one of the top fight gyms in the world and the training Mecca for dozens of well-known UFC fighters, so I occasionally see one out at a local eatery.  It never fails to amaze me when I notice a former or current world champion sitting at the next table munching on a Nicoise salad and sipping on a chilled bottle of Evian.  With a twist, no less.  It might seem odd that men trained to methodically pummel each other’s faces into bloody messes are adopting eating habits previously reserved for characters on Sex in the City.  But the demands on a pro fighter’s body during training are so intense that what they eat becomes a critical part of their fight preparation.  Many learn the hard way that having poor nutrition could literally get your ass kicked.  And that’s probably even better motivation than looking good at the annual pool party.

Then there are fighters who are jumping on the animal-free bandwagon for moral reasons, such as UFC fighter Matt Danzig who describes his dietary ethos as follows:

I have to admit that while I respect Mr. Danzig’s values, there is a certain irony in a man who has sent numerous opponents to the hospital having such concern for his furrier fellow mammals.  But then again, fighters step into the cage voluntarily.  Chickens?  Not so much.  Plus, the chickens don’t even get groupies or an after-party.

All this has me thinking about my own diet, which has changed fairly dramatically and in ways I would have never imagined when I was younger.  You see, when I was in my twenties, my approach toward the digestive process went something like this.  Eat food.  Wait.  Expel waste.  Spend exactly zero time thinking about how any of this works, ever.  It made no difference if it was brocollini, a burger or a bucket of lard – it all worked out the same (and forgive me for this phrase) in the end.  But by the time I had indiscriminately chewed my way into my forties, my digestive tract had mutinied like some gassy, noxious pirate intent on sacking the ship of my body.  I’m sure you, the reader, will be quite relieved if I fail to provide any details.  Let’s just say that the sustenance I consumed daily to stay alive seemed to be threatening to kill me.

After a seemingly endless series of tests, I was diagnosed with the beginnings of celiac disease, a kind of auto-immune ailment triggered by consumption of gluten, found in wheat, rye and barley.  There is no cure except to avoid eating anything containing those grains.  So overnight, I bid farewell to bread, pizza, pasta, cake, cookies, sausage and beer.  In other words, 95% of my former diet.  But it worked.  And though many might imagine the sudden loss of most of their comfort foods to be a traumatic event, I was actually quite relieved.  I had begun to conclude that my entire digestive tract had probably just morphed into a giant greasy tumor.  But I didn’t stop with wheat.  I began to eat way more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, way less meat and cut out most dairy and all refined sugar.

And, thus, I became one of those people that had always bugged the crap out of me – holier than thou health-foodists who would preach the gospel of acai berries or kale juice or raw cocoa nibs until I wanted to vomit just to make them shut up.  So it shocks me that my current morning regiment begins with – and it pains me to say this – a kale juice and an acai smoothie. If you had told me this would be my diet ten years ago, I would have choked on my bacon-cheeseburger laughing.

Sure, sometimes I kind of wish I could go back, but I have so much more energy, endurance and recuperative ability with my irritatingly healthy diet that I really don’t pine much for the old days of dietary freedom.  The fact is, I’ve simply come to a point in life where, like the aforementioned UFC fighters, I have to eat this way, whether I like it or not.  It’s just that in my case, it’s not some guy across the cage that’s going to kick my ass. It’s my own 49 years of hard living on the planet.  And believe me, that is a dangerous opponent.

But, as the family cook, I firmly believe there is no contradiction between healthy and delicious.  Sure, my first few kale ginger juices tasted like someone spilled chinese take-out on the lawn then juiced up the mower clippings.  But after extensive experimentation I got something that tasted good and felt great.  After drinking it, I can almost hear every cell in my body sighing in relief.  The only problem is, I can’t figure out what to call it.  This seems important because it would be good to have a snappy reply when Baby Momma asks “what the hell is that green sh*t you’re drinking?  I can smell it from here!”

So it is with the best intentions and a huge sense of irony that I now ask you, dear reader, for a little help naming the concoction shown in the pictorial recipe below.  Peruse, and if you might, express your opinion using the poll at the end.

Yet Unnamed Green Concoction

1. Assemble the following ingredients: carrot, celery, kale, cucumber, parsley, apple, pear, ginger (optional: juice of half a lime, dash of maple syrup)

2. Grab a couple of scary looking knives and get busy all Benihana style

3. Dump it all into a Cuisinart, puree and amuse yourself for five minutes.  I like to watch the carrots go round.

4. Pour pulp into a nylon or clothe mesh bag (I use a salad crisper bag) and apply your best collar choke

5. Chug and yell “booyah!”

6. Apologize to the Baby Momma for yelling “Booyah!” at 6 a.m.

And now the poll:

I don’t totally suck anymore

It is made of plastic. White, shiny plastic, with adhesive on the back.  It measures one half inch by three inches and is wrapped around a white cloth belt. It is a piece of tape.  Only a piece of tape.  Perhaps it was made in China and came here on a tanker surrounded by children’s toys or door knobs or coat hangers.  I would guess it’s value to be perhaps one tenth of one cent.  Yet I have been staring at it as if it were a Faberge egg or an Olympic gold medal.  Why, you ask?  That tiny piece of tape represents my first “promotion” in jiu jitsu.  I am now, according to the plan, one fifth of the way to blue belt.  This reaction, I realize, is patently absurd.  Getting all self-congratulatory about this would be like training for a marathon and boasting that you could already make it around the block a couple of times.  Besides, belts are the point of training no more than grades are the point of learning.  The knowledge and skills themselves are the reward. But…ok, I admit it.  I’m like a twelve year-old who got a gold star on his book report.  It’s ridiculous and yet another indicator that I have gone mildly insane.  But I don’t care.  Who has two thumbs and one white stripe?  These guys!

Of course the guy on the right happens to have a black belt as well, which is also pretty cool, I suppose. (All joking aside, I can’t thank Professor De Freitas, and instructors Wes and Dave enough for their incredible teaching and encouragement.)  But now that I’ve patted myself on the back for graduating to essentially one grade above useless, its time to get back to work.  And speaking of working and going mildly insane, I will close today with a household tip for the domestically challenged martial arts dad.  With the stringent time requirements of training and classes, it may seem that domestic chores are just frivolous time wasters getting in the way of your inevitable jiu jitsu greatness.  This attitude, though completely understandable, may generate some…friction, shall we say in the household from Baby Mammas who expect outlandish things like support or doing your share of the housework.  Don’t worry!  It’s “Domestic Crosstraining” to the rescue!  What’s that, you ask?  Domestic Crosstraining is the latest trend in martial arts conditioning.  Get in great martial arts shape without gyms or expensive equipment and have a spotless house while you’re at it!  How, you ask?  Well, here’s an example.  If you happen to have a brick floor, head down to your local all-mall and pick up a fitness ball and two scrub brushes.  Then fill up the bucket and get all Daniel-san on that shizzle, as shown below.  Great for core strength, arm endurance and really getting those bricks to shine!.  Wax on, wax off, baby!

So healthy it’s killing me – the one month progress report.

One month.  It’s not that much time – enough for for the moon to go through it’s cycle, for a baby boy to gain over two pounds,  or for a jiu jitsu class to make you feel like your 49 year-old body slept on a mattress full of pool balls.  With lead sheets and steel wool blankets.  Don’t get me wrong, jiu jitsu is doing great things for my body overall.  I’ve managed to stick to four classes a week and it is definitely paying off.  I’m stronger, especially in my core, than I have ever been and my cardio is increasing daily.  But I now awake each morning to a complex process of unfolding my body out of bed like a rusty deck chair.

I am always sore, except during class where, once the blood and adrenaline start pumping, nothing hurts at all.  I always leave class feeling like I’m several prime-numbered birthdays younger than when I walked in.  Then sometime after the ride home and the shower, my body re-ages back into its former debilitated glory like a time-lapsed blossom of ache.  That’s when I notice the tweaked knee, the jammed finger, the aching hamstring.  They say you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.  I agree.  I guess I just hoped less of those eggs would be essential body parts.

My instructors are always encouraging, but the frustrating thing is that I know many of these injuries result from my own bad technique.  Jiu jitsu is based on leverage, position and timing, not strength.  I have often been amazed by how a particular move seems impossible until a small adjustment in posture is made, after which it seems effortless.  The converse is that a move meant to neutralize an assailant can just neutralize yourself if executed poorly.

This is especially true for throws.  It is remarkable how easy it is to throw a two hundred and fifty pounder with proper posture, hip placement and rotation.  And equally remarkable how hard it is to toss a one hundred and forty pounder with poor posture.  (On a side note, proper ‘posture’ is vitally important in jiu jitsu, especially when in guard, hence the frequent and slightly amusing instruction “posture up!” which always makes me feel like voguing.)  Without proper posture, the level of force required to execute a move goes way up and that extra force is applied to your knees or back.  Or, believe it or not, your fingers.  I have jammed fingers so often that I must now tape my hands into some permanent parody of the vulcan peace sign before class.

So I’m in a kind of race. In lane one, my aging body with its rusty joints and symphony of pops, clicks and groans.  In lane two, my (oh so slowly) increasing technique, strength and conditioning.  It’s been an up and down affair with several lead changes, but it seems like the technique, strength and conditioning are finally starting to pull ahead.  My re-tweaked knee has healed up nicely, I can finally keep up with all the sit-ups and push-ups in class, and that mattress full of pool balls?  Well, that’s still there.  But maybe they’re slightly softer pool balls.

And it’s not just my body that’s been altered.  Jiu jitsu is two games, one physical, the other mental.   And, no doubt, jiu jitsu has made me mental.  As in mental patient.  During this month, my internal patter, that egoistic mix of doom and elation that plays out in my semi-conscious brain like neurotic muzak, has been all over the map.  By week, I would say it’s gone something like this:

Week 1:  “I am completely awesome.  This is way easier than I thought.  It must have been all those YouTube video’s I watched.  Clearly, I am a natural, and my instructors will soon notice as much.  Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if they just move me up to the black belt class.  I mean, I know they have their “traditions” and all, but this is obviously a special situation.  I’ll probably invent my own signature move with a cool name, like the Blakinator, or the earthblake or the two-fanged blake bite of death.”

Note for the future jiu jitsu novice:  You are not awesome.  Everyone is taking it very easy on you, because otherwise ninety-nine percent of new starts would never come back for the second week.

Week 2:  “I suck.  No, I would have to improve to suck.  I am pre-sucky and maybe after years of hard work I can graduate to sucky. But probably not.  My instructors will undoubtedly soon inform me that they can’t afford to allow me to associate with the other students because my sucky habits are rubbing off. The only signature move I could invent is the suckinator, or perhaps the crapcake.”

Note for the future jiu jitsu novice:  yes, you do suck.  It doesn’t matter what sports you have played before or how many YouTube videos you watched.  But its ok.  You’re supposed to suck.  So just shut up and train.

Week 3:  “Man, I managed to avoid getting tied in a pretzel knot once in twelve attempts!  Not bad.  And I think I won that last match up!  Good thing I know I can defend myself against a one hundred and twenty pound woman taking her first class.  But she still seemed pretty happy.  I’ll resist the urge to tell her next week she’s going to think she sucks.”

Week 4:  “Ok, ego, I don’t like you and you don’t like me.  So we’re going to have to make a deal.  I’m going to leave you at the door from now on during class.  Afterwords, I’ll pick you back up and you can tell me how sucky and awesome I am.  Till then, I will be listening only to Mister id.  And mister id says only one thing: shut up and train.”

So there you have it.  One month down and who knows how many more to go.  And as my forty-ninth year on the planet ends, I have but one resolution: shut up and train.  That, of course, plus appreciate every single moment of my new son’s presence as if it were my last.  But I don’t think I need a resolution for that one.  I just need eyes.  And maybe functional hands capable of changing a nappy without being taped into flippers.  Happy New Years, everyone, live long and posture up.

Top ten tips for the old(er) martial arts dad

As a kid, I used to tune in regularly to the “Six Million Dollar Man,” even though I thought the show sucked.  It was cheesy, cliche-ridden propaganda, but somehow the basic premise – of a mortally injured man receiving a super-charged, medically improved, crime-fighting robo-body – was intriguing enough to keep me coming back.  Sometimes, hanging out at the park across the street, we’d act out the show’s opening, with its catch phrase: “Steve Austin – a man barely alive.  We can rebuild him – better, stronger, faster.  The six million dollar man!”  Then we’d make that weird sound effect of him using his robo-eye to see like ten miles away.

The irony is that these days, six million might get you a hip replacement plus maybe some liposuction, if you shop around a little.  It was a thought that came to mind while sitting in an orthopedic surgeon’s office about nine months ago as he flipped through the images of my recent MRI.   I’d torn my meniscus badly playing soccer in my early twenties and now, a quarter century later, the knee was threatening to secede from the union of my body.  My doctor was the prototypical old-school surgeon – snowy haired with aviator glasses and a serious porn-stash.  He had greeted me with an absurdly firm handshake, a booming voice and confident manner of an airline pilot or ex-quarterback. With each appearance of a new slice of my knee on the screen, he uttered an another escalating sound of disapproval.  “Oh my…oh, Blake…my heavens…” he exclaimed, tsk-tsking and shaking his head as if my knee was a severe disappointment – like it had brought home a bad report card.  “You’ve got the knee of a seventy year old!” he summed up at the end.   I restrained myself from blurting out that they should find the old bastard, so I could give him his crappy knee back and demand the return of my own.  “I can’t fix it,” he said, “but I can help you buy some time before you need knee replacement surgery.  Maybe fifteen years.”  Great.  An expensive, painful procedure that would, at best, delay another even more painful, expensive procedure.  As I left the office, I could practically hear the announcer’s voice-over: “Blake Minnerly – a man still more or less alive…We can rebuild him…slower, weaker, but perhaps slightly less crappy than before.  The six thousand dollar man.  Plus co-pays and deductibles.”

So, though no fan of hospitals, I did wind up having the meniscus “cleaned-up” again and, yes, my knee is still crappy.  But the rehab wound up being a turning point on a road that was slowly edging me toward a destination my father had reached at an age just a little past my own – overweight, sedentary, a heavy smoker and drinker, barely able to walk on bad knees.  I loved him dearly and it was difficult watching him hobble around only in his fifties.  But he hated sympathy and hated hospitals even more.  At sixty-three years old, he died of a heart attack while taking a nap.  I knew I wasn’t nearing that point yet, but I could start to see it coming over the hill, so to speak.

I was still basically healthy, but I was the heaviest I’d ever been, I smoked too much and the base of my food pyramid was beer.  Except for being a bike commuter, I never exercised.  My knee was just one of several body parts that were approaching full mutiny.  I would flirt with better diet and exercise, but could never sustain it for long.  I know.  You would think my father’s last years would be enough of a cautionary tale to give me the resolve to draw a line in the quicksand.  Or the fact that I was dating someone I loved who happened to be nineteen years younger than me.  But it took a different of kind line entirely to do that.  Two of them, in fact.  Two little pink lines.

Clare (my girlfriend of two years) and I sat on the sofa staring at those lines as if they might rearrange themselves into some sort of explanation for what the hell was happening to us.  You see, this particular soiree was, to put it mildly, a surprise party.   I had been told by doctors many years earlier, should I put this…my swimmers weren’t swimming.  My soldiers weren’t marching.  My metaphors weren’t..metaphorizing, I think is the word I’m looking for.  But apparently biology had one more trick up it’s sleeve, and his name turned out to be Milo Daniel Minnerly.  If you believe the doctors’ math, he was a 10,000 to 1 underdog.  Whatever the odds, he is a perfect little dumpling of humanity and we can barely even remember what life was like before he arrived.  But on that day eleven months ago, staring at that second pink line, it seemed almost incomprehensible that such a tiny little squiggle could in fact redraw the entire map of our future lives.  Clare and I had been joking, still sure the test would be negative, that if it was a girl we’d name her Tilapia and, if a boy, Torque.  Now the joke was on us and we had not seen this particular punchline coming.  But, surprise aside, it didn’t take long to figure out what we were going to do.  Suddenly it seemed a lot more important to stay on the planet a good long time (or at least die trying).

That night I made a list entitled “What now?”  First on the list was “get healthy.”  (The second, incidentally was “buy condoms.”)  Only a month later, I was having my knee critiqued by the aforementioned surgeon.  But that’s not all.  I quit smoking (ok, virtually).  I  started eating better and quit drinking beer.  Let me repeat that last part.  I quit drinking beer.  As in none.  For those who don’t know me, that’s like Popeye giving up spinach.  If spinach got you drunk. Third on the list might seem a bit odd: “start training a martial art.”  Even with my new motivation to keep myself on the planet a little longer, I knew myself.  I needed some new challenge to keep me honest.  And thus, a truly bad idea was formed – learn jiu jitsu – a dream I’d had for years but had always felt I was too old to start.  Three weeks and a lot of aches and pains in, maybe I was right.  But its too late, now.  I’m hooked.

After the surgery It took six months of rehab and exercise to feel even remotely ready to start training.  By then Milo had entered into the world via a 30 dollar kiddie pool in our bedroom.  He cried the second I put him on Clare’s chest but has barely done so since.  In the months before his birth, I had converted our garage into a tiny gym with a heavy bag and couple of used tumbling mats.  I started working out and doing solo jiu jitsu  drills I learned online.  In an attempt to get jump start on learning jiu jitsu’s thousands of moves, I built (and I do realize I am exhibiting signs of serious obsession here) a life-sized grappling dummy out of metal pipes, wire, moving blankets and, of course, lots and lots of duct tape.

Drilling with a homemade grappling dummy will achieve two key things.  First, you are able to slowly practice moves over and over with a tireless opponent and, second, your significant other will conclude you have gone batsh*t crazy.  This is because you have, in fact, gone batsh*t crazy.  But if you are as lucky as I am, s/he will believe you when you say there is a logic to this insanity.  S/he will accept your rambling explanations about needing the challenge of this journey to embrace a healthier lifestyle, motivated by the fear of sparring against guys who might be, like Steve Austin, better, stronger, faster, not to mention half your age.  S/he will see that this journey is a gift you hope to give your children, not a distraction from them.  And even if s/he can’t see that, s/he will trust that if you feel this strongly about following a path, there’s not much point in fighting it.  Especially when you start coming home with a steady assortment of limps, bruises, swollen knuckles and fat lips.  That’s if s/he’s as awesome as my baby momma, and that might be tough, because she is very, very awesome.  But at least I have some evidence, as well.  As I learned during our recent life insurance medical exam, I’m now at the same weight I was when I was twenty, my blood pressure is 90 over 60 and my resting pulse is 58.  I am in the best shape of the last twenty years. So I think she understands that while jiu jitsu might be kicking my ass a bit, it may also be saving my life.

But with all that as (potentially too much) background, allow me, without further ado, to present my top ten cautionary tips for the nascent, over-the-hill, martial-arts dad.

1) Do not use your infant son and a stuffed animal to reenact famous moments in cage fighting history.  This will, understandably, seem hysterical to you, but in fact is kind of creepy.

2)  Avoid attempting to show your sore-boobed partner the hip-toss defense to a front choke.  Incidentally, it will not help to add that you just want her to “be prepared.”

3) During class, refrain from referring to your partially torn ligament as a “boo-boo”.  This will be misunderstood and result in scorn or even getting biatch-slapped

4) The best product for removing baby puke from a martial arts gi is…vinegar.

5) Do not attempt to argue that Hong Kong action films are baby friendly because they are produced by the Chinese mafia, which is, after all, a family-centric institution.

6) Do not cover your foot blisters with your infants band-aids, as it will result in the instructor calling you forth to demo a move with the phrase “alright, hello kitty, get up here.”  Much laughter at your expense will ensue.

7) Before sparring, refrain from asking your younger training partners to “take it easy on an old man.”  If you do poorly, they will pity you.  If you do well, they will hate you.  So just shut up and roll.

8) Buy stock in the top ten manufacturers of ibuprofen, ice packs, athletic tape and joint braces.  That way you will recover a tiny fraction of the twelve thousand dollars you will spend on continuing to walk upright.

9) Never, under any circumstances, use a male hair dying product.  You might as well start sporting a toupee and a girdle.  Accept your age with the dignity

10) To maintain self-esteem, watch movies with aging action figures like Sean Connery and William Shatner.  Ignore the fact that these actors dye their hair and wear toupees and girdles.

There you have it.  I know I promised in the last post to provide an update on the actual training.  The problem is, I don’t feel remotely qualified yet.  The only thing that comes to mind is a quote by Renzo Gracie that’s on a poster in the locker room.  “In jiu jitsu there is no losing.  There is only winning and learning.”  Well, if that’s true, than I’m learning.  A lot.  The gym’s closed today because of some obscure holiday event commemorating something or other.  But I’ll be back Monday, ready to learn.

Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be malandros

When I first walked into Gracie-Barra Jiu Jitsu in Albuquerque, NM, the scene inside was not what I had been expecting.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I was imagining some Hong Kong movie scene of ninjas training.  You know, maybe a bunch of dudes dressed in black tossing throwing stars under the visage of an old man with a bamboo stick and a mustache down to his kneecaps.  Ok, maybe not exactly.   But apparently some seventies kung-fu meme to that effect still plays out in the background of my brain like a hidden computer script.

What I actually witnessed was… not that.  From a simple entry/waiting room, I peered in on a large space, empty except for wall-to-wall mats, the American and Brazilian flags and a picture of Carlos Gracie, the founder of Gracie-Barra BJJ.   That and the twenty or so students rolling for position or attempting nasty-looking submission moves.  I have to admit, they looked pretty tough.  But I was confident, as I eyeballed my potential competition, that if it came down to it, I could take them all out with my natural athleticism and tenacity.  Especially because their average age was…um..about six years old.  Yes, I had walked in on the kids class.

One of the things I love about jiu jitsu is its emphasis on family and children.  Kids as young as three can begin training safely because of the nature of ground fighting.  Unlike the stand-up arts, it is possible to engage in something approaching full intensity safely, without wearing seven mattresses-worth of protective padding.  That’s because jiu jitsu is based on achieving a position in which you could do significant damage to a joint or could choke someone unconscious if you were to really finish the move.  But you don’t.  Not in training, at least.  Not even in sport-jiu jitsu competition, usually.  Your opponent, in theory, will acknowledge that they have been put in a checkmated position by tapping.  If they don’t, gradual application of a little gentle pressure will make the situation clear.  It is extremely difficult to replicate this level of realism in striking because it is almost impossible to punch or kick with full intensity without risking immediate injury.  Yes, if you are extremely well trained, you can pull your punches at the last instant, but in jiu jitsu, even beginners can come very close to experiencing how the techniques would have to be applied in an actual self-defense scenario without that much risk of injury.

But to watch these kids, you would never guess that fighting or self-defense had anything to do with their exuberant motions.  Yes, they were busting out sweeps and armbars, but with laughter in their voices and light in their eyes.  The scene reminded me more of preschool recess than a fight.  And that’s yet another aspect of the style I deeply appreciate.  Jiu jitsu can be simply be play, even though it’s techniques are very, very real.  The playful aspect is no doubt due in large part to it familial origins.  Brazilian jiu jitsu is the product of a family dynasty – created by the Carlos and Helio Gracie nearly one hundred years ago, carried on and developed by their hundreds of descendants who now teach all over the world.  So there were always dozens of children and grandchildren hanging around, most of whom were rolling practically as soon as they could walk.  The distinction between playtime and training was undoubtedly vague, or perhaps non-existent.

The class ended and, after bowing to the “professor” (as black-belt instructors are called), the photo of Master Carlos and each other, they came off the mats with their eyes gleaming, mobbing the professor with hugs and attempted take-downs.  He, in turn, showered them with copious  praise and affection and take-down defense.  That professor turned out to be Rafael “Barata” De Freitas, an unassuming, small-framed young man from Brasilia, the capitol of Brazil.  His constant smile and easy-going, encouraging manner mask the fact that he is an accomplished mixed martial artist with a  5-0 record and an impressive pedigree in top-level jiu jitsu competition.  I suppose, in that sense, he embodies the same seeming contradiction that I observed in the children’s class – childlike playfulness merged with the capacity to inflict great bodily harm.  Like merging Willy Wonka with Chuck Norris.

It strikes me that there is something uniquely Brazilian in all of this.  I don’t want to fall into facile national stereotypes, but as someone primarily raised by my Brazilian mother and grandmother and who has traveled to Brazil extensively, I suppose I feel roughly qualified to comment on Brazilian cultural norms.  And I see those norms buried deep into the cultural DNA of jiu jitsu, though when I say that, I doubt I’m thinking about the same norms as most of my fellow citizens.  Put another way, I feel like Americans know shizzle about Brazizzle.

That ignorance is exemplified by a joke I heard a few years back.  President Bush is attending a briefing on the war in Iraq.  One of his generals informs him, “Mr. President, I’m afraid I have a little bad news: three Brazilian soldiers were killed in Falujah yesterday.”  The president’s face becomes a mask of horror “What!?!” he replies.  “Three Brazilian diplomats?  Oh my god! That’s horrible!”  The rest of the staff, shocked by the president’s unexpected compassion for the Brazilian citizenry, exchange puzzled looks.   “Wait…remind me,”  the president adds “how many is a brazillion?”

Although the joke was clearly more meant to lampoon our former leader’s mental capacity, it wouldn’t work as a joke if Brazil was not to most of us an obscure, ill-defined culture.  I have found that, for most Americans, the word “Brazil” brings to mind only three things: soccer, samba and sexuality.  But now that MMA has exploded in popularity, even farm-boys in rural Iowa have added a fourth S to that lexicon –  Silva.  As in Anderson “the spider” Silva, the UFC middleweight champion overwhelmingly considered the best mixed martial artist on earth (and, I’m guessing, coming close to surpassing Bruce Lee in poster preference among fourteen year-old boys). Silva, however, is just the top of the heap.  There are literally dozens of Brazilian fighters in the upper echelons of MMA.

So now, the picture formed in the minds of most Americans when Brazil is mentioned is a fuzzy montage of sports, music, dancing, fighting and sex.  In this regard, Brazilians fall victim to the kind of racist stereotyping usually reserved for African Americans – of happy, jiving and shucking songsters with a propensity toward sex and violence.   Of course such stereotypes are always absurd.  Brazil has the fifth largest land mass, the seventh biggest population and the eighth largest economy in the world.  It is a leading manufacturer and exporter of cars and airplanes.  Academically, it is considered a major player in the fields of sociology, architecture, anthropology, ecology and design.  And during the last decade Brazil has become a neo-con’s worst nightmare – a socialist government whose bearded “worker’s party” leader, Luis “Lula” Da Silva managed to institute major anti-poverty programs while transforming Brazil into one of the fastest growing economies on earth.

Brazil contains roughly half of the world’s fresh water resources and half of the worlds species of trees.  And If one agrees with the concept that diversity and integration is a strength, then Brazil is a super power.  There are huge immigrant populations from Japan, Germany, Italy, Holland, Lebanon, Portugal (no, they don’t speak “Brazilian” there) and, of course, virtually every country in Africa.  Brazil was by far the primary end point of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Portuguese colonists availed themselves of the slave trade much more than even the U.S.  Over four million slaves of African origin were brought to Brazil by 1850.  But unlike the U.S., those colonists at times intermarried openly, both with the African population and with the 2.5 million indigenous residents of Brazil.  As a result, race in Brazil is more of a blur than a dichotomy.  The terms “black” and “white” are seldom used.   A ex-pat friend I played soccer with in Sao Paulo (a humbling experience) once told me “We say America is a melting pot.  America’s not a melting pot. Now Brazil, that’s a melting pot.  America’s a salad.”   And, yes, they’re very good at soccer.  That, and giving birth to super models.

But Brazil is certainly no utopia.  The need for Lula’s social programs and perhaps even his rise to power could be traced directly to the extreme inequity in distribution of wealth in Brazil.  (Though this is an extreme we in the U.S. seem to be approaching daily, while Brazil appears to be trying to move in the opposite direction).  Yet, it’s true that many parts of Brazil are hard, dangerous places.  Maybe as many as are breathtaking and vibrant, often at the same time.  Terrible poverty, especially in the big cities has led to high rates of violent crime.  Razor wire lines the walls of the wealthy and bullet proof glass is a standard option on luxury vehicles.

If you weren’t born to money in Brazil, you’ve got to hustle to get by.  It can be a hard life.  There are whole neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, just blocks from where Carlos and Helio once trained, that are practically abandoned by the city, except for the police incursions aimed to take out the gangs that run the favelas, as the poorest ramshackle areas are called.  Basic services in the favelas are minimal and many residents feel it is the drug dealers that take care of them, not the state.  Rival gangs sometimes war and even the chic get caught in the crossfire.  Then there are the kidnappings.  And the police brutality.  The last time I was in Rio, my cousin said to me, “Here in Rio the mountains are beautiful and the hills are at war with the beach.”  She laughed, saying it as if it were a tourist slogan.

Yet, in a political sense, Brazil is very peaceful country.  The last time Brazil invaded another country was in 1865, when they annexed a portion of Uruguay.  Since then, they have managed all of their international relations without armed conflict.  In recent years, Brazil has begun to take a leading role in peace-keeping operations, conflict resolution and diplomacy.  And that regard for resolving conflict peacefully extends to society at large.  Working things out, getting along, physical affection, laughter, fun, family, tolerance, playfulness, not taking things too seriously – these are all very highly valued traits in Brazilian culture.  A very high premium is placed on the social graces.  There is in Brazil, in comparison to the U.S., a much more subtle and complex set of unspoken rules regarding social interactions and a much higher sense of one’s social duty, especially to one’s extended family, but to friends and coworkers as well.  The very worst thing you can be in Brazil is rude.  (As a side note, this is especially relevant when leaving a Brazilian party.  If, for future reference, you visit Brazil and find yourself at a dinner party and wish to leave at, say, eleven, it would be wise to start saying goodbye at approximately 9:00.  This is  because it will take you two hours to hug and kiss each person at the party, including the twelve of them you just met, and make plans with seven others to go to the beach on Tuesday when, in fact, you both know you will not.)

Perhaps these seemingly contradictory traits are actually two sides of the same coin.  In a country with so many cultural extremes in terms of class, ethnic origin and race living in such close proximity, “getting along” skills are critical.   I see it as a testament to Brazilian restraint that, given the number of ex-colonial enemies seated next to each other on the average bus ride, everyone wasn’t murdering each other with more regularity.  But with all the dangers, the need to hustle, to look out for one’s own, it is also critical to be able to fight in Brazil – for protection, for family safety, for respect and yes, for honor.  Machismo is alive and well in Brazil and someone demeaning your family name is serious business.   Brazilian jiu jitsu definitely evolved partly from the various brothers fighting half of Rio, defending the Gracie name.  And way before the UFC shot to popularity here, mixed martial arts gyms were popping up in every city in Brazil.  So I will admit, perhaps Brazilians do tend to reinforce the fighting part of their stereotype just a tiny bit.  Even my Grandmother was, in the heat of an argument, fond of throwing the occasional dish.  Or two.  Or five.  So, for those of you keeping score at home, let’s sum up, shall we?  Brazilians are: fun-loving, macho, peaceful gangsters, who love family, are very concerned with being polite and getting along, and are ready to fight at the drop of a hat.  In other words, a mess of contradictions, like the rest of us.

In Brazil, that mess of contradictions has a name: Malandro.  If one were to reduce the American ethos to one cultural icon, it would probably be that of the cowboy – independent, tough, taciturn, a lone wolf who seeks justice with his fists, a gun and a square, honest jaw.  In Brazil, that essential icon would almost certainly be the “malandro”, the charming bandit, who breaks all the rules but does so in such a witty, inventive way that everyone loves him anyway.  The malandro is kind of like robin hood, except that instead of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, he just, well, takes from the rich and keeps it.  He’s essentially a peaceful, loving guy, the malandro, all laughter and song.  But if you take him on, you’ll regret it.  The malandro  always wins, usually in some tricky, unexpected way.  He cons, lies, connives, and seduces, but all in the name of justice.  He is the poor man who beats the rich man at his own game.  While seducing his wife.  Then writes a hit song about it.

I guess my point in all of this is that I see jiu jitsu as a kind of malandro – fun, playful, tricky, but capable of snapping your ulna like celery.  Like the malandro, jiu jitsu is fighting from the bottom against a bigger, more powerful opponent, winning by technique, skill and trickery, not brute force.  This cultural juxtaposition of styles was on full display recently when the malandro-esque Anderson Silva (famous, among other things, for his post-fight dance moves) took on square-jawed uber-wrestler Chael Sonnen for the UFC middleweight title.  Sonnen’s pre-fight banter included plenty of xenophobic vitriol aimed at Brazil, including tweets to Silva stating, “Hey Anderson, stick to what your country does best, like soccer and harboring infections disease.”  and “Happy 4th of July, where we celebrate our domination over Brazil…Wait, that’s every day.”

When fight day arrived, the first few rounds seemed to back-up Sonnens smack talk.  He took Silva down and inflicted four and a half rounds of good ole American ground and pound.  But after sitting on top of Silva and punching him about three hundred times in the head in an honest, cowboy fashion, Sonnen fell prey to a malandro trick. In the fifth and final round, Silva baited a punch, grabbed an arm and wrapped his legs around Sonnen’s neck, ending the fight with a triangle choke that would have left Sonnen unconscious if he hadn’t tapped.  After the fight Silva thanked God.  And jiu jitsu.

To many Americans, Silva’s unexpected comeback seemed a little…unsavory.  To Brazilians, it was sweet justice and catapulted Silva into full-on rock star status in his home country.  I’m not much for nationalism, regardless of the country,  but I guess I was with the Brazilians on this one.  I prefer the playful underdog to the bullying cowboy.  Or perhaps it appeals to my Brazilian half to have a little whimsey in my whuppass.  Either way, the playfulness of jiu jitsu won me over like a malandro’s charming patter.  I walked out of Gracie-Barra that day more confident than ever that jiu jitsu was for me.  Watching those kids roll, I was completely sure I’d found the right place.  And I’m still pretty sure I could take em all out in a fair fight.  All brazillion of em.

P.S.  I suppose at some point, now that I’m two weeks in, I should start posting about the actual training.  I promise I will, next post.  Oh, and I promise to keep it under two thousand words as well.  Suffice it to say, for now, that my instructors and training partners have been fantastic.  I feel like I’ve already learned a lot.  Unfortunately, one thing I’ve learned is that attempting a scissor sweep with bad technique against 220 lb man with a strong base will likely result a partially torn MCL.  Looks like no surgery is required, but I’ll be sporting a cane for a few weeks while it heals.  But that’s not going to stop me.  Time to slip on the knee brace, human up and get to class, even if sometimes its just to watch the others roll.  Then it’s back to the cane and an ice pack and handful of ibuprofen. A special thanks to all my training partners last class, for taking it so easy on an old man.

How I chose BJJ, or “what’s Brazilian Jew Jesus?”

About ten years ago, when I was volunteering with an after school program helping eighth graders make short radio pieces, I had a student who had the most amazingly creative hearing.  Let’s call him Carlos.  Let’s call him that because that was his name – Carlos.  He had a wonderfully playful way of perceiving and describing the world that was sometimes in conflict with his fervent belief that most of us were going to hell.  Carlos was, like the rest of his family, a devout baptist who took his bible quite literally and was prone to mishearing statements in the most inventive ways that often reflected his fascination with both spirituality and apparent contradictions – things that shouldn’t mix, but mixed nonetheless.

One day I was talking to another student as Carlos sat in the background, working on his piece.  The older student, let’s call him John, as his name was John, mentioned he had started “doing BJJ.”  When I asked him what that was, he looked at me like I’d asked what “walking” was.  “You know, Brazilian jiu jitsu?” he said incredulously.  “Like in the UFC?”  Now, as my mother is Brazilian, it happens I was vaguely familiar with jiu jitsu from an early age, but BJJ?  UFC?  I had no clue.  Apparently, neither did Carlos, who after a long pause, asked me in a tentative voice, “Mister, what’s Brazilian Jew Jesus?”  I laughed almost until tears came to my eyes, in spite of trying very hard not to, then explained that Brazilian jiu jitsu was a martial art, a derivative of judo, that focused on ground fighting.  When I was done, he seemed mildly disappointed.  So I mentioned that there actually was a group called Jews for Jesus, a casual comment which apparently led to an ongoing fascination on his part for which I believe his family never quite forgave me.

Fast forward ten years.  The same alphabet soup of acronyms – BJJ, UFC, MMA –   are mainstream in a way almost no one could have imagined.   Especially the UFC, now a billion dollar a year operation whose growth is outpacing that of every other sports promotion on earth.  The UFC, for those who have somehow still managed to avoid the exploding pop-cultural phenomenon, stands for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world’s premiere cage fighting promotion (though the term “cage fighting” has now been replaced with the more TV friendly “mixed martial arts” or MMA.)   The meteoric rise of the UFC and MMA are inseparable from the rapid transition of jiu jitsu from a relatively obscure specialty to a mainstream fighting system with gyms in virtually every city on the planet.  More on that later.  The point is, events of the last two decades have brought about a profound evolution in the understanding and efficacy of fighting systems, via the open lab of professional MMA competition.  These are not your father’s martial arts.  In other words, these are not…well…and it pains me to say this…my martial arts.

The martial arts I grew up with was a very different beast. This was the seventies, the age of Bruce Lee, of Enter the Dragon, and, most importantly, of old men who, through some semi-devine ninja training, could supposedly remove your liver with their eyebrows.  Such was the mystique we were willing to grant the storefront Senseis coming out of the woodwork in strip malls and converted laundromats across the country- guys with back stories as ridiculous as comic book origins.  They’d lived in a cave in China. They’d trained against tigers.  They could shatter bamboo with a high-pitched sound too dangerous to emit in public.  And we bought it all.  Given the steady diet of kung-fu entertainment we were consuming, how could we not.   Every Saturday, the kids in my neighborhood would head to the Majestic matinee to watch titles like Fists of Fury, Five Deadly Fingers and Ninja Assasin.  Everybody’d yell at the screen and imitate the sound effects as various Asian actors with taut abs and twitchy faces threw down in a ballet of violence.  And when we came out, we were so worked up from bad dubbing and sudden rack zooms that we’d hit up mom or grandma or anybody with two bucks for a lesson at the local Dojo, where some poser with nun-chucks was ready to pocket our testosterone-driven cash.  In my neighborhood, that dojo was Iron Dragon Kung-Fu.

Nestled in between Harold’s chicken shack and the Deltone Lounge, Iron Dragon was the closest thing to a school of martial arts that existed in our world, which meant that every Tuesday a group of sycophantic hangers-on let a supposed ex-ranger named Dale alternately beat them up and school them on fighting, manhood and the true meaning of life.  The true meaning of life, it turned out, usually involved assaulting someone’s genitals.  If Dale had a motto, it was that every self-defense scenario had its own appropriate technique.  And that technique…was the groin attack.  I could describe Dale and Iron Tiger to you in horrific detail, but I don’t really need to.  Instead I’ll just offer up this video, crafted by Albuquerque writer/director Matt Page and crew.  His webisodic series, Enter the Dojo, captures the absurdity and mildly abusive undertone of  martial arts at that time better than I ever could.  By the way, someone needs to pick this show up and put it on TV.  It’s that good.  If you agree, check out their indiegogo campaign and help ’em out.

There were two main problems with the version of martial arts offered up by the Master Kens of the world.  First, it was clearly more concerned with maintaining the ego and various delusions of the “master” than it was with teaching students, and, second, the majority of the techniques it had to offer simply didn’t work.  A combination of overly devoted students and the absence of any actual full contact fighting had reduced once viable fighting systems into the rote practice of rigid forms and questionable beliefs in semi-mystical powers.  The absurdity of these insulated and delusional fighting systems is brutally demonstrated by the following two clips.  A Japanese master of Daitouryu-aikido named Yanagiryuken was well known for his supposed Kiai powers – the projection of “chi energy” capable of incapacitating opponents while barely touching them.  Here he is showing his “techniques” in action. (The demo starts at 0:20 sec)

I’m sure most observers will recognize such antics as a form of theater, not self-defense.  Unfortunately, Yanagiryuken amassed enough gullible students to surround him that he actually began to believe his own hype.  So much so that he offered a 1,000,000 yen prize for anyone who could defeat him, if they offered up 500,000 yen of their own if they lost.  Eventually, an amateur MMA fighter with about a year and a half of formal training came up with the cash took Yanagiryuken up on his challenge.  The results are below.  Warning, this video does contain actual punching and kicking – the real thing.

Although, thankfully, Yanagiryuken was not seriously injured, this footage is difficult to watch.  No one wants to see an old man get kicked in the head.  Well, no one normal, at least.   But it demonstrates how some self-defense “techniques” can actually cause you significant harm, if you mistakenly buy in to the deluded belief that you will be able to employ them effectively in a fight.  A lot of us kids at Iron Dragon Kung-Fu found that out the hard way the first time we tried to confront a bully with the tiger claw stance (otherwise known as the “please kick my ass” stance.)

So how do we know what fighting techniques actually work?  Well, by fighting, of course.  And that’s the rub.  If you, like me, want to learn real martial arts as a means of actually avoiding fighting, you have a real catch-22 on your hands.  If you don’t fight, you can’t learn skills that lead to the kind of confidence and calm that help you avoid fights.  But if you resort to fighting in order to gain those techniques, you’re not really avoiding fighting, are you? What ever is a self-defense minded pacifist to do?

Enter the UFC.  As mentioned earlier, the UFC is the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest and most prestigious league of no-holds-barred fighting and one of the fastest growing sports leagues in the world.  The UFC was originally conceived as a means of answering the question that had burned in the minds of many a twelve-year old;  namely, which style of martial art is really the strongest?  Who would win if a kung-fu master fought a sumo wrestler? How about a Karate black belt verses a champion boxer?  Those early UFC contests were often brutal affairs, barely regulated, with no weight classes and virtually no rules.  The “martial artists” were sometimes simply barroom brawlers or street fighters, but the crowds were clearly there to see blood and broken bones anyway, not technique or physical artistry.

But twenty years and thousands of fights later, the UFC is a completely different animal, largely due to CEO Dana White’s ability to reinvent full-contact fighting as a legitimate sport.  More rules were adopted that protected fighter safety.  Weight classes helped prevent gross mismatches and state athletic commissions provided oversight and medical exams before and after fights.  Most importantly, the ever increasing money and prestige for top fighters drew crossover athletes from other sports: olympic wrestling, soccer, football.  Top level Mixed martial artists now looked and acted like professional athletes; educated, articulate and highly trained, wearing suits at pre-fight pressers and mouthing all the standard cliches we’ve come to expect as fans.  Even Senator John McCain, who had called MMA “human cockfighting” and tried to ban it on the floor of congress, eventually conceded that it had a legitimate place at the sports table.

And along the way, that twelve year-old’s question regarding which styles talked and which styles walked was largely answered.  The UFC was like a Mayo Clinic of violence – effectively acting as a kind of research facility for fighters and trainers.  So many fighters trying so many different techniques in actual fights eventually revealed what worked and what didn’t.  The result? It is now generally accepted within MMA circles that to be competitive, a fighter must have a reasonable command of four styles:  jiu jitsu, muay thai, boxing and wrestling. No professional fighter is able to have much success without being good at these four forms and great at at least one of them.  Please, no hate mail from karate or tae kwan do folks – I am not demeaning those arts in the least, nor implying that they have nothing to offer to mixed martial artists.  I am only stating that the current consensus amongst professional fighters is clear.  Besides the aforementioned four systems, other martial arts are simply not trained extensively, except for the occasional borrowed and adapted technique. So now, in MMA gyms across the country, students can often take classes in all four arts, though many gyms specialize in one in particular, and each technique has been thoroughly vetted via the crucible of actual full-contact fighting.

But what if you had to choose one?  Say, for example, you were a forty-nine year-old dad with a full-time job and bad knees, for whom six hours a day of multidisciplinary training sounded as delusional as fighting live tigers? Is one discipline in anyway more crucial or essential than the others?  Well, that question, while hotly debated, has also, in my opinion, been answered.  In the early days of the UFC, back when groin strikes were legal, the fists were bare and one fighter might outweigh the other by a hundred pounds or more, one particular fighter dominated against all comers from all other disciplines, winning three of the first four UFC tournaments with a perfect record.  That fighter was normal looking 170 pound man who wouldn’t inspire the least fear in a dark alley.  His opponents, however, were often huge mounds of dangerous-looking muscle.  Looking at the two combatants across the cage at the start of the fight, you’d almost wince at the lopsided ass-whupping that was surely about to unfold.  Yet a few minutes later he would be on his opponents back, choking them unconscious like some cross between an anaconda and a crazed monkey on PCP.  That man was Royce Gracie and his art was Brazilian jiu jitsu.  He confounded other fighters and even more the spectators by almost immediately taking the fight to the ground, where his techniques could shine.  This is Royce in action against the infamous Japanese sumo champion, Akebono, a man who was nearly a foot taller and outweighed him by over three hundred pounds.  After intentionally letting Akebono take him down, he forces him to “tap out” using a shoulder lock.

One could argue, however, that Gracie’s success was not his alone.  In a sense, his entire family was fighting in the ring with him.  Royce Gracie was the youngest son of Helio Gracie, the frail young man who with his brother Carlos had inherited and adapted the teachings of Japanese Judo master Mitsuyo Maeda.  That’s the brothers on the right, circa 1935.  Both Carlos an Helio lacked the size and power to pull off many of Maedas moves so they began, in secret, to revise the system, utilizing leverage and position instead of strength and size and Brazilian jiu jitsu was born.  Helio and Carlos made the development of Jiu Jitsu – not just as a fighting system, but also as a philosophy and a lifestyle  – their singular mission in life.  Helio had seven sons, Rorian, Relson, Rickson, Rolkson, Royler Robin and Royce.  (Seriously.  This is especially hysterical if you’ve ever heard Brazilians pronounce the letter R.)   Carlos outdid his brother, fathering a mind-boggling twenty one children all of whom trainied jiu jitsu, thirteen of whom became black belt instructors.  By the nineties, with the addition of over two hundred grandchildren and great grandchildren, the vast majority of whom followed in their father’s (and mother’s) BJJ footsteps, they had become the largest family dynasty the martial arts world had ever seen.

But unlike the Master Kens of the world, the Gracies actually fought.  Constantly.  Early on, Carlos and Helio issued the Gracie challenge, stating they would face any and all challengers from any style in bare-knuckled no holds barred fights.  The challenge was accepted often and the fights became quite popular with the public, eventually growing into the “vale tudo” (everything counts) competition that was a Brazilian precursor to modern MMA.  So when the Gracies decided to expand their reach to the United States in the early nineties, they were looking for a way to demonstrate the effectiveness of jiu jitsu to the American public and the nascent UFC was made to order.  Royce was chosen to represent the family because he was relatively small and did not look overly athletic.  They wanted to make sure that the technique itself took center stage.  And did it ever.

Royce won his first eleven fights, most within the first couple of minutes, utilizing a variety of chokes and joint locks on the ground.  American audiences were dumbstruck.  Often, the announcers could not even describe what was happening, so unfamiliar were the techniques he was employing to most Americans at time.  It would appear that the two fighters were rolling around like animated pretzels – a mass of writhing limbs – when suddenly the other fighter was tapping and the ref was pulling Royce off him.   And that has been perhaps the only drawback to jiu jitsu’s popularity from an uninformed public’s perspective; it has none of the cowboy-style fisticuffs nor Bruce Lee acrobatics they had come to expect from a martial art.  Fighting on the ground was almost unseemly to Americans raised on John Wayne and Bruce Lee. (I have some thoughts on what that reveals about the construct of American masculinity, but that’s for another post.)   The fact is, police studies of street fights have shown the majority of fights wind up on the ground, confirming what anyone who has seen enough real fights already knew.  So whether we like it or not, being on the ground seems to be an integral part of human combat.

All that rolling chaos can mask the huge amount of technique used in jiu jitsu.  There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of prescribed moves, each with their own counter-moves and counter-counter-moves, like a decision tree for breaking bones.  That’s a big part of what drew me to jiu jitsu, its three parts combat tumbling and one part chess-match.  At the higher levels, so they  say, its all chess-match.  But even when two high level players are rolling, it can feel to the uninitiated more like they’re watching a two-headed octopus trying to eat itself.  The Gracies, aware that their art form is less than transparent, have created “Gracie University”, a jiu jitsu education site meant to demystify the jumble of limbs fans were seeing during the ground phase of fights.  Here’s a sample – third generation Gracies Ryron and Rener (they must be about to run out of R names) breakdown Royce’s victory over Frank Shamrock at the very first UFC tournament in 1993.  Their childlike enthusiasm and excitement is infectious and shows the family obsession is alive and well.

So there you have it.  My quest for the best martial art for me is over.  After countless introductory classes, gym visits, youtube videos and garage workouts, I finally put my money where mouth-guard was and plunked down for six months of classes at Gracie-Barra New Mexico.  I’m seven lessons in, sore, humbled and one hundred percent hooked.  It’s not without its costs – I’m already nursing some injuries, but its worth it.  I guess you could say jiu jitsu has got me in a mind-lock, and I don’t think I’m getting out anytime soon.

walk softly and carry a big schtik

Mahatma Gandhi once said: “All through history the way of truth and love has always won.  There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always. ”   I have always  admired the words and deeds of the Mahatmanator, as I like to call him, and I do consider myself a pacifist – it’s how I was raised.   Walk away, be the bigger man, turn the other cheek, all that.   But life has a way of softening the noble convictions to which we adhered.  It’s easy to turn the other cheek till someone punches that one, too.   Then what do you turn?  You’re all out of cheeks.   Even Gandhi was aware that, while tyrants may always fall, they might try kill you first, or at least sit on you and punch you in the face.  A lot.

Not to belittle the courage Gandhi displayed – he was ready to die for the cause of non-violence and, in the end, did just that.  I am not that brave (or not that foolish, some may be thinking).  If someone wants to kill me, I want to stop them, thank you. If someone wants to sit on me and punch me in the face, a lot, I want to be able to get them off me, even if its just to run away.

But why now, at an age at which most men are settling into armchair (or at the very least a nordic track) would I decide to take up martial arts, with all of its inherent risk of pain, injury and, given my complete lack of experience, flat out embarrassment? I think I can dimly hear the chorus of doubters answering with a three word reply: mid-life crisis (ok, two words.) Well, I admit that a growing sense of mortality may contributed to the decision in some form, as in “I’m not getting any younger.”   But really, the idea can be traced back to two formative events from my recent history played a much more central role.

The first event was in a bar in New Orleans about two years ago.  I was there on business and had stopped by Le Bon Temps Roule to see the Soul Rebels play a scorching set of Brass-Hop.  If you’re ever in town, go.  You’ll thank me.  The place was packed with the crazy mix of artists, students, gangsters and pool sharks that makes the Bon Temps so refreshing.  I was wedged into a small triangle of space by the formed by the bar and one of those huge, “hurricane” floor fans that was cooling down the overheated throng dancing to the band.  I had staked out the spot earlier because I knew how crowded it got.  I was there with a friend, but he was off somewhere else obsessively taking pictures on his new camera.

As I watched the band, I heard a very loud but nearly unintelligible voice behind me say something to the effect of “geh the fugg ouwmwh so I canh dkowa or I sjkh moowa!.”  When I turned, a very large, very drunk man was glaring holes though my face with a fiver in his rump roast of a hand.  Apparently, he was asking if I might possibly mind moving so that he might more conveniently access this particular spot at the bar.  Now, I did actually considered moving, but, first, I didn’t want to lose my spot and second, I literally couldn’t.  His substantial girth was blocking the open end of my little triangle of peace.  I offered to pass his order on to the bar tender.  I suggested he might try one of the open spots at the other bar 20 feet away.  These were apparently not satisfactory options apparently and he began simply pushing his fiver past me and muscle me out of the spot.  So I said, as calmly but sternly as I could “you cannot touch me” in spite of the fact that the statement was already clearly false.  I accompanied this with a hand in his chest, holding him off, and after a few seconds of impasse  he left, spouting a few incomprehensible threats.  Well, I assume they were threats.  His speech  was so slurred, for all I know he was reciting Shakespeare.

I had a little adrenaline buzz going, but nothing too intense.  Dude was big, but fat and nearly uselessly drunk, so I hadn’t felt too threatened.  Not till he came back.  With a friend.  “I hear you’re f_ing with my bro”  said dude number two, also clearly drunk and a little smaller than dude number one, but unfortunately not quite drunk enough or small enough to insure my safety.  I knew the situation was beyond discussion, so I said nothing.   But I did quietly switch my grip on the beer bottle I held down by my hip, from the body to the neck.  I think I’d seen it in a movie somewhere.

There is, for most of us not accustomed to the practice of bar fighting, a level of comedic disbelief when one finds one self in this kind of situation.  There is something so absurd about the posturing and bizarre intimacy of pre-conflict.  I remember feeling detached, like I was floating outside myself, watching bad B movie in which I was both actor and audience.   I was scared, quite scared, but I also wanted to laugh.  The though that kept entering my head was “really?”  The last fight I had been in was in eighth grade and I had become so confident in my  conflict avoidance skills, I think I really believed this sort of situation simply could not happen to me.  But now it had.  Outnumbered and trapped, I could not run, nor hide, nor talk my way out.  So I simply stared, as dully as I could muster, at the empty space between there heads and held my bottle and waited.  A few “bitches and “fag”s were tossed out by dude number one.  I remained silent.  After maybe another ten to fifteen seconds of very tense silence (apparently bitch and fag were the extent of fatter dudes talking game) less fat dude started saying “cmon, lets go”.  And that was it.  They left and went to another room of the bar.  I saw them as I left trying their act on the next potential victim.  I don’t know what would have happened if they’d started swinging.  Probably, I would have gotten my ass kicked, as didn’t and still don’t know what I’m doing when to comes to defending myself in a fight.  Other than swinging that bottle, I had no plan, no vision of some series of moves that would protect me.

That night had a profound effect on me.  Though I probably was never is truly serious danger, some bubble of security had been popped.  I began to view my complete lack of knowledge regarding self-defense to be not a badge of peaceful pride, but merely a form dangerous ignorance.   The next day, I began my search for martial arts wisdom, availing myself of that time honored bastion of fighting knowledge, the internet.  Before long, I had discovered Jiu Jitsu.  I will leave it to the next post to describe why I eventually settled on that discipline in particular and how I began to prepare my aging body for the journey.

But it took a the second event to transform me from armchair warrior and garage-gym trainer into, well, a fifty year old dude who still doesn’t know what he’s doing but is actually jumping in the Jiu Jitsu fire.  Eight weeks ago, my first child, my son, came into this world.  He is tiny and perfect and sometimes when he smiles I feel as if my bones turn to cream cheese from the sheer power of angelic innocence he exudes.  And his head smells better than chocolate.

My experience so far is that all those cliches about how parenthood changes your perspective forever – the very cliches I used to think of as just irritating platitudes that people espouse because they think they’re supposed to – well, those are all real.  At least for me.  And it bugs the hell out of me.  My attitudes about money, career, values, responsibility – all of them have changed, at least to some degree.  I used to think I was a unique individual with free will.  Now I see I am simply a servant whose only function is to protect and provide for the evolutionary success of my 11 pound master.  But it’s ok.  One smile from him and any objections I might have to this complete subjugation of my ego evaporate like the baby puke now crusted on the shoulder of every shirt I own.

But when it comes to my views on pacifism, becoming a father has produced some rather contradictory revisions in my outlook.  On the one hand, I find myself seeing everyone through a kind of baby filter.  When I look at anyone, just strangers on the street, I think, “they used to be a baby.”  It seems oddly profound now that every human who ever lived – George W Bush, Madonna, Mother Teresa, Hitler – was a helpless innocent little cherub whose head smelled great.  It reminds me of a Buddhist “technique” I once read somewhere meant to increase one’s compassion:  envision everyone as if they were your mother or father.  I appear to have turned this on it’s (great smelling) head.  I now feel more forgiving of everyone because they were once a baby.

On the other hand, becoming a dad has awoken in me a protective fervor unlike anything I have ever felt.  If I truly believed someone was attempting to harm him, I would not merely want to kick their ass, I would want to kick their ass, grind their bones into dust, then kick that dust’s ass.  Twice.  The martial arts in general, and Jiujitsu in particular, is in my opinion oddly well suited for containing both sides this paradox.  The martial arts, contrary to the perception of many, were conceived of as a means by which to defend someone else, not one’s self, and certainly were not designed to display how tough you are by opening an unnecessary can of whupass.  Within that ethos, success in any martial art depends on subjugating one’s ego and having respect for all life.

Plus, becoming a dad at forty nine evokes some frankly horrifying images –  images like trying to play catch using a walker, or being told by his high school teachers how great it is that his grandfather comes to every parent teacher conference.  Ok, so maybe my ego is not totally subjugated.  But at any rate, staying in shape is suddenly a huge priority.  Maybe yoga would be a bit more in tune with my aging body, but, seriously? What do I say?  Back off, buddy, or I’ll get all downward dog on your ass?  “How about tai chi?”, a friend asked.  Great, as long as the dude agrees to fight me in slow motion.

And here’s the real kicker, no pun intended.  I remember what it was like to be bullied as a kid. Until I hit growth spurt freshman year, I was the smallest kid in my class, and grew up in a rough neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.  Let’s just say I got good at running away, which is all fine, till you can’t.   Luckily, that didn’t happen too often, but I wish I had been given a little more than “just ignore it” or “they’re just as scared as you” .  And no, I don’t blame my parents – they were doing their best and just didn’t have anything else to give me.  Neither do I.  Not yet.  But I will. Yes, I will.