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walk softly and carry a big schtik

December 5, 2011

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.

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9 Comments
  1. jessieshires permalink

    Fantastic post, Blake. I think I didn’t stop nodding along in agreement/understanding for the whole thing. Bookmarking for Dion to read when he gets home…

    You’ve inadvertently also captured what it feels like to grow up a girl–we’re not supposed to fight, so we never learn to (physically) defend ourselves, and that’s bothered me my whole life. If you’re faced with an adversary/assailant who can’t be distracted, talked down, or outrun, what do you do? Will attempting to fight–and failing miserably–make it all that much worse for you? It all gets into some terribly dark territory.

    I, too, have considered martial arts training, off and on for years now. I haven’t pursued it seriously because… well, for lots of reasons, but probably the big one is that my bubble of security (somehow (how?) and thankfully) remains largely intact. I’ll be really interested to hear about why you chose jiu jitsu and how this journey goes.

    By the way, congrats to you both on that chocolatey headed tiny master of your universe.

    • blakeminnerly permalink

      Thanks, Jessie. I hope your bubble of security remains intact. No reason to pop it just to gain martial arts motivation – that would be like punching your self in the face. But I would mention that the BJJ training I have done so far (all seven classes worth) is also just hella fun. Tiring and occasionally mildly painful, but hella fun.

  2. Rev Tsolwizar permalink

    Wow brother, your 49 year old ass is looking good in that last photo. 🙂 Seriously though, I enjoyed reading this. As a fellow 49er I too have recently, for the first time in my life, been considering some kind of martial art. My reason being much more about facing my own mortality and a sort of weird sense of starting life anew. I think that my interest is motivated in a desire to experience a sort of physical “rebirth”, not one imbedded with a false sense of being young again, rather to experience my 49 year old body in fresh, new ways, to challenge and stretch it to be alive and vibrant and strong at the very time that biology, if left unchecked, would quickly and easily take it in the opposite direction. I wish to reinvigorate my body and engage it in new activities that bring the excitement and joy to it, even if that causes some pain and discomfort in the process. Thank you for the inspiration. Writing this response has helped me gain further clarity and motivation on the matter.

    • blakeminnerly permalink

      Glad I could provide a little inspiration, Rev, hope you find the right path for you soon.

  3. Lucia Villela Minnerly Kracke permalink

    Blake, you moved me to tears. Lagrimas de emocao ao ver teu talento como escritor, como pai, como esposo e simplesmente como um ser humano que e o que um ser humano deve ser, aberto ao mundo e a propria alma. Que Deus, se um existe, te abencoe. Minha bencao voce sempre teve. Um grande abraco pra voce, Clare e Milo da Vovo Lucia.

    • blakeminnerly permalink

      Obrigado, Mae, mais parabens a voce. Era voce que me criou:)

  4. Ghandi, a hero for me as well, also said this about violence: “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor.”

    The way I interpret his words is essentially that a person is truly choosing a path of non-violence ONLY if he has the capacity and ability to also choose violence. In other words, pacifism from a position of weakness and cowardice, without the courage of conviction and the ability to inflict harm, is shameful and to be avoided. Training in martial arts and preparing yourself to defend yourself and those whom you love means that when the time comes to choose, it’s not an illusion of choice stemming from cowardice.

    • blakeminnerly permalink

      Very interesting thought – I will probably use that quote in a post soon, thank you, Steve

  5. John Holden permalink

    Man, you are my hero. You really are and you are an inspiration to me.

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