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.

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