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

December 25, 2011

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.

  1. Ernie permalink

    Thanks for your post! I’m approaching 42 and have not done any BJJ in about 15 years. I’m considering getting back to training but have heard that it’s really hard on body’s ligaments as you get older. What has been your experience? Any insight you can share would be great.

  2. Craig permalink

    Dude: Reading this was good the first time. But reading it again now; it is some great writing. I hope all is rocking with you and the family. Craig

    • Thanks, Craig! Life with the fams is over the top good, though I miss my old training ground in ABQ. NOLA is awesome, but the BJJ scene is not as strong. Great to hear from you – hope all is well and that we get to reconnect next time I’m in Chitown. Blake

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