Sunday, June 28, 2015

Month 3: One Of The Big Kids

Month Three is the best month of training. So far. I'll 'splain exactly why in a bit.

First, some real talk: I have a problem with authority. Always have.

See, I am the oldest of five children. The Biggest Sister. The playground defender, bedtime ignorer, and nutritionally inadvisable snack provider. The parental underboss: not exactly in charge, but I’d do in a pinch. The superhero who knew how to do All The Things (for no better reason than I had already learned how when they weren’t watching). The one who got the bumps and bruises and scars that taught four kids what not to do. The one who stress-tested The Rules so they’d be all comfy and broken in by the time my siblings got around to using them. The first of our generation to be given pieces of grown-up responsibility to handle, and the first to spectacularly screw those responsibilities right the hell up. The Example: good, bad, and very bad.

Now that all my sibs and I are grown, I’m the mother of two small children and the undisputed bossypants mamabear of my own little household. All of this, combined with the natural contrariness that seems writ upon my bones, and you’re dealing with someone who has all the willingness to cooperate with authority of your average scalded housecat.

I have an instinctual disregard for anyone who might wish to boss me around. If you could spare a moment’s sympathetic thought for my parents, teachers, and employers, I’m sure they would appreciate it.

To be clear: this is a character flaw. One that I have an on-again-off-again struggle with. It’s exactly the last thing in the world I would want to bring into Kung Fu training, but I could no more easily leave it behind than I could unzip my skin and check my contrary bones at the door. Dilemma.

Luckily, the Ving Tsun system is ready for punks like me.

There are many parts to this system, most of which I could probably list in under a minute but will spend the next many years of my life trying to fully comprehend. The one that’s most relevant to who I’ve been up to this point and where I am now in my training (and this blog post), is the concept of Kung Fu Family.

Kung Fu Family isn’t just a nice idea. It’s not some empty slogan, a set of words to be mouthed as needed, slapped on to a conversation to add the illusion of meaning, convenient and disposable as a post-it note. The concept of family permeates every aspect of this training, starting with the very basic structure of who’s who in the school.

We’ve got the school’s dad and mom: Sifu and Simo. All of the other students are siblings. Some are older because they’ve been training longer; we call them sihing. Some are younger because they’re newer to the school; they’re called sidai. It’s a hierarchy of sorts, but only for lack of a better word because it’s got nothing to do with skill or merit or some arbitrary measurement of each student’s worth, and everything to do with when we started training. We’re all equals, it’s just that some of us have been there longer than others. The first student to join the school would be the oldest sihing, and the most recent student to sign up would be the youngest sidai.

Which means that when I walked into that school for my first class, I suddenly became everybody’s baby sister.

I’ve never been baby anything to anybody who hadn’t given birth to me, much less to a small army of strangers trained in hand-to-hand combat. Nothing about my life experience thus far could have prepared me for this. When confronted with bizarro circumstances, my instinct is typically to puff up and bullrush my way through until things look familiar again. Which is exactly how you don’t learn Kung Fu.

So for the past three months, I’ve reined in that instinct and tried to keep myself on a simple three step program:

1 - show up for training
2 - keep my sassmouth closed and my ears open
3 - watch my sihings

If any of my new older brothers and sisters had ever tried to alpha dog me, had ever done any of the thousand little dominance displays we humans are too often capable of, had ever bossed or barked or demanded, I would have turned on my little heel, sashayed away, and never looked back. But that’s not what good sihing do, at least not at this school.

Being sidai does not come easily to me. I'm just too me for it to ever feel natural, and I’m going to slip up every now and again. Hell, just this past week I showed half an ounce of accidental disrespect to a sihing by thoughtlessly setting up my hands for a two-person drill as though I was the sihing. And you know what? Days later I’m still all squirmy inside about it, actually chagrined at myself for being the kind of pain in the ass I’ve always been. Weird.

See, when my sihings are all, for the most part, calm and skilled, friendly and willing to help a newbie along without being condescending, and (bless them, this above all) patient, well … it’s not so much a matter of having to suppress my attitude problems as it is not having to use them at all. The sihings are there to help their sidais, just as they are helped by their own sihings. Not just willing to work with the younger students, but happy to. Showing respect to people like that ain’t difficult.

Which isn’t to say that all sihings are the same. Oh, very far from it. Each offers their own lessons, just by being themselves.

Some sihings are extremely tuned in to a sidai’s fatigue level, and will call a halt to the exercise at the first over-large huff of tired breath. Which is a mixed blessing. I mean, I do get tired suddenly and often apropos of not much at all thanks to that whole chronic illness thing, but I’m also prone to melodrama. That gusty sigh in the middle of Pak Sao could be a surprise onrush of fatigue, or it could be that I just remembered that I have two loads of laundry waiting at home for me to sort and fold. I can either babble an apology and explain myself every time this happens, or just stay focused in the moment and stop being a drama queen. Huff only when I need to huff.

Some sihings are vocally encouraging, cheering you on even as they come at you with forearms like accelerating concrete pylons. It’s like trading blows with a very skilled, utterly merciless golden retriever. Pak’ing punches like theirs really helps me get over that whole fear reactivity thing. Because if I flinch away from that simple exercise I might as well keep on backing up out the door and go hide in my car until a real grown-up can come rescue me from my life choices.

Some sihings are so quiet, not just in voice but in personal energy, as though if you dropped them into a pond they’d slip peacefully through the water without leaving so much as a ripple, that I can almost forget that they’re even in the room, that anyone else is in the room, and the world can shrink down to nothing more than the play of hands and the lesson of the drills. Their focus is like an aura that moves with them, and when we work out together I get to borrow it for a little while.

Sometimes they’re all precision, the kind of sihings who make horse stance look graceful, with huen saos you could set your watch by. Sometimes they’re all power, the force behind their hands just enough to imply that there could be ever so much more. Sometimes they’re all control, calm limbs marking the drill, holding position quietly until the mistake is seen and corrected, helping the sidai to sculpt their muscle memory. Sometimes they’re all of those things at once.

Occasionally, I wonder what kind of sihing I am, but I’ll never have the cajones to ask one of my sidais. Because I do have sidais, now. I’ve been in the school, a part of the family, for long enough that new students have joined up behind me. Finally, someone upon whom to inflict my frustrated Big Sister-ness. As interpreted through the lens of all that my sihings have demonstrated, of course. Got to give back all the good that I’ve gotten.

It’s a relief, not being the baby any more. A big step, and one of many reasons why Month Three is The Best Month.

Up to this point, for the past dozen or so weeks, I’ve felt like the awkward puppy person trying to scamper along with the big dogs. Which, for a career Oldest Sibling like me, is pretty wretched. Not because anybody made me feel that way, mind you. Sifu, Simo, all of my sihings, they’ve all been, in their own ways, the very soul of patient encouragement. Any perceived awkwardness is coming from inside my own contrary skull.

They’ve hung in with me while I’ve tried to get all three stages of Siu Nim Tao out of my head and into my muscles while soaking up enough of a working Kung Fu vocabulary to know what to expect when new drills are introduced. When a sihing introduced me to Lop Sao, I knew by the name of the drill that there would be a curving of a monkey-paw hand over a wrist and a pulling of the limb. What I didn’t know, but would quickly learn, was that this would be the first drill that actually felt like I was doing some legit Kung Fu. Not just fumbling through the placement of limbs on an endless repetition until the muscles can do it on their own without my mental micromanagement, but actual practical application of what I’ve been learning.

Look at me, world! I can do Lop Sao. I'm Kung Fu’ing. I Kung Fu now.

Now, in marvelous Month Three, I can ask half-bright questions about the science behind the drills, rather than just going through the motions by rote. When we circle up for conditioning I can lead the group through an exercise and not feel like a goober. I may have to close my eyes when I do it, because seeing other folks’ limbs moving slightly out of step with mine throws off my groove like hearing my own voice echo back on a phone line, but I get it done. The first time I led a group of my sihings through Siu Nim Tao without any of those endless awkward moments where everybody’s holding still waiting for me to remember what the next move is? Felt like a miniature Christmas.

This is what a baby bird feels like when it perches on the edge of its nest. Totally gonna fly any day now.

And yes, I know that soon I’ll be learning even more new things and basically starting back over on that whole repeat-it-till-the-body-memorizes-it cycle, but I’m cool with that. Thanks to this whole huge family that I had no idea I would be gaining when I started this wacky training thing, I have the basic tools I need to make it work. They’re not handing me the keys to the Kung Fu Family car or anything, but at least I’m out of diapers. 

I’m one of the big kids, now.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Month 2: To Train Or Not To Train

{Month 1}

Whenever there's a thunderstorm, I get a migraine. The mass of angry water in the air beckons to the water in my body which, in its eagerness to ascend and join the throngs in the sky, crowds into my skull and tries to punch its way out through my eye socket.

That's my theory, anyway.

It has rained every day for weeks. Awesome for the drought, but not so much for my cranium (or the homes of anyone living near one of the bajillion creeks and rivers around here, but that's a different blog post). Marathon games of Dodge The Skull-Pain, which I don’t always win, tend to leave me narrow-eyed and growly, with a fast-burning fuse cut several inches too short. I’m generally unfit company for anyone who doesn’t love me enough to forgive my snarling. It’s best for all parties involved if I just find a cave to hibernate in till the weather improves.

Long story short (too late), I didn’t want to go to Kung Fu.

Hip-deep into my second month of training, and my momentum finally hit a speed bump. I’ve been going to training twice a week like clockwork, and working on my own at home every day. Sometimes it’s just Siu Nim Tao in my jammies, but that totally counts. Given my madcap immune system and natural tendency towards laziness, that pace is nothing short of epic. An excuse to slow down was bound to tempt me eventually, and this ice pick in my right eye was just the thing.

It was perfect. Nobody would judge me if I took a day off from training because the joints in my skull were creaking apart.

Except me. I would judge me. For skipping out on the thing that is most healthy for me (training) so that I can sit at home and wallow in that which is most unhealthy (agonized misanthropy). I would judge me so hard.

And … I did manage to handle my kids' after school wackiness without biting anyone's face off.
And … I did somehow finesse the perfect balance of coffee and medication to get myself mostly pain-free right around class time.
And ... just because Simo would totally understand if I called in sick didn't mean that I wouldn't know the truth, that I could have gone, I just didn't try very hard to make myself go.
And … I’ve met me, so I know that if I let myself skip training just because I kinda don't feel good, I'll never set foot in that school again, so okay FINE, look at me putting on my red shirt and scrambling for my car keys, I’m going to Kung Fu, are you HAPPY NOW, SELF?

There are days when I’m grateful that I have a twenty minute drive to class during which to fix any lingering attitude problems.

Fun fact: nothing grates on a migraine quite like sudden noise, bright lights, and ostentatiously pain-free people. If I had walked into that school and found chipper students doing loud things in spotlights, I would've crumbled into a frowny pile of hateful goo. But of course there was nothing like that. Not in the place with the warm lighting and the soothing plants and the Best Sign In The World:

I love this sign. It speaks to my soul. Quietly.

Turns out, when I’m a little hurty and a lot surly, I could do a lot worse than a quiet class run by people who are trained to be sensitive to the energies of others. Our women’s Tuesday night class all know each other, and our routine, well enough to just move into warm-ups without having to say much. I was left to my own devices to play through Siu Nim Tao. If I had wanted to just claim a corner of the room and do forms for the next two hours, nobody would’ve minded a bit. It would’ve been time well spent - there’s plenty to learn in forms, alone.

There is no pressure in this training. Just a sort of calm expectation. I’m never told to compete, or over-exert myself, or even interact with anyone. Which is precisely what makes me want to try harder, get stronger, and work with folks - because that’s what is being asked of me, not demanded of me. I’ve got a contrary streak a mile wide; if anyone tried to boss me into training, I'd balk like the ill-tempered mule that I am. Ving Tsun turns that streak around and makes it a positive motivator. That is some crazy reverse psychology shiznap right there.

Moving through the forms gave me a chance to concentrate on something other than my headache. Somewhere in the mathematics of tension and not-tension, balance and precision, I forgot to be mad at the weather. Growling at a thunderstorm for hurting your head is exactly as effective as it sounds (which is to say: not at all). I couldn’t do a thing about the sky, but I could do something about the rotation of my hands at the end of correctly placed wrists. I could either keep fussing, or I could sink into horse stance and try to figure out how to relax my torso.

After a few rounds of Siu Nim Tao, I was ready to return to the land of the civil. The first person I made eye contact with was Simo, who wandered over and measured off with me for Pak Sao. I don’t think she even said a word; we just fell into the rhythm of it.

“I know the drill” has a new, very literal, meaning for me nowadays.

After a few exchanges to wake each other up, she quietly urged me to work on Pak Dar. I have a completely irrational dislike for this drill. It’s just a quick smack-aside of a blow to create just enough space to fit my own fist through, an elegant and efficient little move, simple enough, and yet I still hesitate to throw that punch into the middle of the exchange. Which is just irritating enough to make me want to master it. And by “master” I might mean “destroy with fire”.

Had Pak Dar come along before all that Siu Nim Tao had flipped my negative switches back to positive, I would have been gnashing my teeth over every little stumble. As it was, I just sighed and tried to find that magical headspace where I’m concentrating without concentrating. It’s that half-step between thinking too hard and zoning out completely. For a chronic overthinker like me, achieving that state is like juggling jell-o in the dark. If I do manage to catch it, it’s by accident. But hey, gotta keep trying.

Class went on, as it is wont to do. I had some strangeness with my right leg - a weakness/numbness situation that sometimes comes part-n’-parcel with the migraine gig, since apparently all the nerves in the body are connected (who knew?) - that slowed me down a bit and kept me from training for the full two hours. But the important thing is that I wanted to keep training for the full two hours.

We were covering sensitivity in drills, the older students getting some insightful tips on how to test the balance and rhythms of younger students, all of which felt a little like getting a glimpse behind the sihing curtain. The older students were then testing those tips out on us redshirts, and I wanted to do my part to help them learn. I also wanted to do my drills so perfectly that they’d have nothing to test, but that’s just my contrary streak talking.

The subject matter was fascinating, and I had gone over an hour without thinking about my ridiculous headache. That adds up to a pretty good class. Sure, a wobbly leg was sending me home before I was ready to leave, but I wasn’t even mad about it. I walked out of that class a very different beast than I’d been when I walked in.

I walked out of that class looking forward to my next one.

So of course by Friday’s class, the callow punk of a microbe that was barely able to give my kids the sniffles found my sinuses to be a delightfully ill-protected home and threw a big damn party. I had caught a headcold that I knew for sure was contagious, which meant I would actually have to skip class. I have a strict policy of paying it forward on that whole keep-your-germs-to-yourself thing. 

All of that sturm and drang to haul my carcass into the Tuesday class, and by Friday I was too plague-ridden to go even though I wanted to. If I had given in to the migraine and let it keep me at home on Tuesday, a whole week of training would have been missed.

Let’s all give a slow handclap to the Irony Fairy for delivering that little lesson. Yes, yes, you’re very clever. I see what you did there. Now flutter away and let me train.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Week 4: The Worst Of Times, The Best Of Times

Folks warned me there’d be ups and downs with this training. I just didn’t realize both could happen in the same week. Silly me.

Tuesday night started simply enough. We warmed up with Siu Nim Tao, and then Simo offered us the option of starting with conditioning or drills. I appreciate conditioning, but I like drills. See the difference? Lemme ‘splain.

Conditioning is … It’s a lot of things. I’m not about to try and explain the theory and spirit of it better than much smarter people than I already have. The long and short of it is that I’m pushing my body to the point of discomfort, and then a little farther. Every time I do, that point gets reset to that new distance and I can measure my body’s growing strength in how long it takes me to get there. Incredibly valuable work, if not very exciting.

Drills are a different beast. Not just the motions, but the response to those motions, and the response to that response. If conditioning is a monologue, drills are a conversation. Two people dancing to the music of skin and breath while calculating the endlessly mutable equations of muscle and bone around the infinite variables of physics and human thought. Or, ya know … trying to hit each other. Depends how poetic you’re feeling. I tend to fly a bit fancy in my own head about it (as you might have noticed).

So on Tuesday, when I was presented with the choice of which aspect of training to start with, I chose conditioning. Having the brain candy of drills to look forward to would, I figured, help the conditioning go by faster. Spoonful of sugar and all that jazz.

And you know what? I rocked that conditioning. The body that had spent half the day nursing a migraine had no complaints about moving through the exercises Simo presented. I sailed past points that had once been full of breathless near-agony, and actually caught myself grinning when my legs finally, long after I thought they should have, began to shake just a little.

I was mighty. The superhero version of myself. I could arm wrestle bears and hurl exploding cupcake grenades at evildoers. Obviously. Pondering how many busloads of orphaned kittens I could save with my newfound powers, I sat down for a quick break to rest and rehydrate.

Break done, I measured off with my partner for cross-arm drills. Imagine my bewilderment as every word of Simo’s instructions skittered off the surface of my mind like oil across a hot skillet. There and gone, nothing sticking or sinking in. With a buzzing behind my eyes, I watched my partner move through the drill a few times and hoped I’d catch on. Alas. The buzz turned into deafening static on the line of communication between my brain and my body. Signals were being sent out, but the reception was garbled. Lacking any clear orders from my brain, my arms became sluggish noodles, delivering my hands to their positions long seconds after my partner’s fists arrived.

The fog had rolled in. The dreaded brain fog.

Lupus Fog is a real thing. You can tell, because it has a page on WebMD. When I get tired, or the lupus kicks itself into high gear, I find it hard to think around the fuzz inside my skull. Memories disappear for a little while. I lose the words for things and the will to find them as my vocabulary dissolves and my attention span shrinks to microscopic levels. It’s like being stuck in that moment when you’re just about to nod off to sleep. There’s a short list of things you can do with a brain in that state, and Kung Fu isn’t on it.

The fog is frustrating under any circumstances, but when it happens while I’m trying to learn a new thing? When I should totally have seen it coming, what with the migraine and the conditioning-induced fatigue, but either didn’t see it or didn’t want to see it? When my goals for the night rapidly dwindle from the long, lovely conversation of drills to simply getting the damn sequence right once, just one time, before I call it a night? That took me so far beyond frustrated that I would’ve chewed nails and spit bullets if I could’ve focused on my teeth for more than two seconds.

It felt like I was saying "I won't do this because it's too hard", which is something that I'd sooner walk on my own lips than say. But I didn't exactly have a choice.

Simo and the other student were fantastic, very empathetic and totally willing and able to work with my sudden onset of special needs, but ultimately I had to concede defeat. Splash some water on my angry face and quietly play through Siu Nim Tao until I calmed down. The drive home involved a lot of really loud, melodramatic music.

The next day dawned on a clear, but discouraged mind. I made coffee and did the grumpiest Siu Nim Tao ever. But I did it, so that’s something. Eventually, I remembered that there were people I could talk to about this mess. Sifu and Simo, other students. Plenty of folks had reminded me, repeatedly, that they were available to help out. One student at the school, in particular, had also started his training with a disability, and he had said I could ping him if I ever needed to.

Now, look ... I’m not normally one to reach out for help or commiseration. People say things like “if you need anything, call me” all the time, and they don’t really mean it. It’s just the Nice Thing to say. Besides, it’s been the habit of a lifetime to stew in my own moody juices until I either work through the mess or decide it’s not worth my time any more and just move on. But this wasn’t something I was going to get over on my own. And it seems to me that maybe Kung Fu isn’t made for loners. There’s a community that builds itself around the study, the teaching and the learning and the work that goes into it. People who have been, if not precisely where I am, then at least very near it.

So I took a deep breath, got over myself, and messaged my fellow student:

Bless his socks, he got it. Mine was not a unique incomprehensible snowflake of an issue. Someone else had gone through something similar, survived it, thrived on it, and was happy to help me do the same. I’m starting to get the idea that, in this Kung Fu life thing that I’m still trying to figure out, when someone offers to help you it’s not an empty courtesy. They actually want to help. They have energy and knowledge and muscle on reserve for you, should you ever ask.

So we talked, and I felt better. I walked into the Friday morning class expecting no more of myself than to get through the basic forms and drills without falling apart. Setting the bar low makes it easy to step over, thus scoring myself a quick victory to help rebuild what discouragement had knocked down. It’s pretty standard op when you’re used to nursing yourself through rough spots. It also turned out to be pretty unnecessary.

I don’t want to wax fangirly, here, but that class was … it was fantastic. Somewhere in the quiet intensity of a room full of people working very hard, an environment both soothing and invigorating, through the calm encouragement of instructor and friends, I found the superhero me that I’d left behind on Tuesday. I wasn’t leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but I was damn sure throwing and pak’ing hundreds more punches than I’d thought possible, testing my balance in new and exciting ways, and finally starting to grok the concept of relaxed energy.

In the middle of conditioning, with sweat soaking my bandana and one foot in the air, I realized … If I have to power through the Crucible Of Teeth-Gnashing Frustration every now and then, I'm cool with it. Because now I know that there is support within the school for me and my crazy princess disease, and that for every day of defeat there will be at least one day of triumph. Maybe more, if I play my forms right.

The drive home from that class may or may not have involved Uptown Funk on repeat and car-dancing all the way to Round Rock. No regrets. Everyone should have a chance to feel that awesome.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Week 3 - A letter of apology. To my knees.

My dearest knees,

I love you. I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but I do.

You have dutifully bent my legs at the middle for over three decades, now. You have endured a childhood in which I spent more time on my bike than off, an adolescence full of horseback riding, and an adulthood that has (thus far) included a college campus made entirely of hills, two pregnancies, and an inflammatory autoimmune condition. You have been slammed, scraped, kicked by horses, swollen and waddled upon, and attacked from within by crazed antibodies. And yet, not once have you shirked your task. Not even back in ‘97 when that half-drunk frat boy hit you with his Toyota Supra and gave one of you a bone bruise and the other umpteen stitches. My knees, you are troopers.

Horse stance must have seemed like quite the betrayal.

After all you’ve done for me, here I am asking you to support my not inconsiderable weight while bending at heretofore unimagined angles. And not just briefly, but for long minutes at a time, until your ligaments groan under the strain and it’s almost a relief when I start forcing you to awkwardly hobble across the floor in a shuffling movement that could only, at this stage of my training, be very charitably called a “crab step”. Horse stance has been deeply unpleasant for you, and for that I apologize.

It’s my fault, you see. I was doing it wrong.

My toes were pointed forward, which left you canted inward, bearing the full brunt of my forward-tipped hips with no support from the lower legs. Literally all of the pressure was on you, my stalwart knees. You had no assistance from the feet gripping the floor, no counterbalance in the angle of the shins, no even distribution of my weight in the space between tailbone and heels, you and toes, rather than on the joints themselves. 

How you endured weeks of this without packing up your patellas and leaving me to a lifetime of skipping certain lyrics when I sing with my kids, I’ll never know.

Simo caught the problem at our last training session. In that gently matter-of-fact way that I’m starting to suspect may be the hallmark of all good instructors, she told me to turn my toes inward. I wouldn’t think such a little thing would make all the difference in the world, but I’m sure you can agree, sweet knees, that it has made all the difference in the world. Also, she hooked us up with these:

kungfuslippers (2).jpg
(the shoes, not the cat hair)

What these shoes lack in hella cuteness, they more than make up in usefulness. Which is like being cute, but better. See, up to this point I’d been training in sneakers. The feet got to lounge in cushy comfort while you knees did all the heavy lifting. But now? Now the feet can actually feel the floor. They can spread the toes to grip and balance and provide better support for you and every other bit of me. There is actual balance, now. Suddenly, we have a chance for stability and a growing awareness of where tension is and is not being held.

These are some magical freakin’ shoes.

And so, my darling knees, with our Cinderella kung fu slippers and some improved technique, I promise you it’ll all get better. We will get stronger, you and I, and soon horse stance will no longer be a thing of wobbly torment, but our go-to place for strength. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a letter of apology to write to my feet. They’ve never had to grip a floor before, and they’re kind of freaking out about it.

Peace, love, and buckets of cayenne salve,

- Stefannie