Black Tip Test – An Exercise in a LOT of Patience

Blacktip Shark5

HOW many yellow belts are testing? NOOOO! Swim away! Swim away!

Thursday night we held a color belt test in the dojang. I was testing for my black tip along with the two little prodigies Violet* and Karim, and Noah, whom I mentioned in a previous post, who was testing for bo dan. My boyfriend and I arrived there early so I could warm up and cram in a little flying kick practice. I had a talk with Noah about exercising some control during takedowns as my boyfriend glowered protectively in the background. We agreed not to kill each other and practiced our one-steps before the room became too choked with students warming up.

Apparently the gaggle of yellow belt boys who rushed in had been free-basing their Halloween candy before the test. Soon the room was filled with giggling tumbling little monsters as my instructor scurried around angrily trying to keep them from bashing themselves into the mirror.

We had to wait for five white belts, four orange belts, and about five thousand yellow belts to test, so I thought I would provide a good example to the group and show how an advanced belt sits quietly at attention. I perched prissily in half lotus, a smug smile of content on my face. That went out the window about ten minutes into the test. There’s only so much one can take of watching kids with glassy stares fumble through blocks, kicks, and a hot mess of forms and one-steps. Thirty minutes into the test I was rolling my eyes at my boyfriend and pointing an imaginary gun at my head.

black tip

Three hours and a Whataburger patty melt later…

Two hours later it was finally my time to test! Thankfully my hips hadn’t tightened up too much and I was able to scramble to the middle of the floor without tripping over myself. Violet and Karim had tested together, much to the entertainment of the crowd. The kids whooped and cheered as they expertly threw snappy blocks and tossed each other to the ground. I wondered why everyone had to make a fuss over them since I saw them do it all the time in class, but my boyfriend reminded me later: they’re six. I often forget that.

Noah and I tested together although we did our forms separately and did different kicks. Thankfully I did not have to do my sad rendition of a jump spin kick. (Okay, the right side isn’t so bad). I was proud of how I performed my form, and jazzed it up a bit when I could. (Hint, breathing helps keep you from rushing) I was nervous during one-steps as usual, but got through it without forgetting anything and did a decent job of landing properly during a face-forward takedown. Breaking was a fun crowd-pleaser as usual. I did a palm-heel strike, jump side kick, and turning back side kick. All those years of smacking my steering wheel in rush hour traffic had prepared me well. My biggest concern was messing up my left and right during flying kicks. Thankfully I didn’t have to do a flying turning back side kick. Right now the closest I can muster is a tour jete from my college ballet days.

Finally it was over and my sweet long-suffering boyfriend and I went home, happy that I only have one more color belt test until the Big One.

*Names changed


How to Prepare for a Taekwondo Belt Test When You Are as Old as Your Classmates’ Parents


Belt tests make me more nervous than any of the presentations I do for work or any of the hoops I had to leap through in graduate school. Here are some tricks I’ve gathered along the way that help me relax, do my best, and have fun.

1. Get over the fact that you will be flanked by children who are just about as good as you are…and who might beat the crap out of you in front of a room full of people during sparring.

2. Dip into your coworker’s peanut butter M&Ms stash the day before to calm your nerves. It’s carb-loading!

3. Practice your form at home without bashing your knee on the big coffee table you got at the Neiman Marcus outlet. That takes mad skill and reflexes, Grasshopper.

4. Take the day off work or find a reason to leave early. (Bonus points if your boss thinks it’s cool you do taekwondo). If I have the day off I like to take a yoga class. You will need your time to stretch and warm up after doing boring grown-up stuff all day. Prolonged sitting is much worse for your body than any of the kicking or jumping you’ll soon be doing.

5. Ladies: put on a little eyeliner and mascara. It makes you feel better when you’re a red, panting, dripping swamp beast.

6. Leave your house early to get to the testing site so you’re not panicking and yelling at your partner in traffic. Not that I know anything about that first hand.

7. Threaten the same partner with banishing them to sleeping on the couch if they laugh at you during your flying kicks.

8. Warm up! Anyone old enough to remember Ronald Reagan does NOT want to do a jump snap kick with cold muscles and joints. Feel free to tell your little buddies that you need “quiet time.”

9. Be as picky about how you stage your breaking techniques as a demanding theater director is about blocking. It’s all about the creativity and presentation (okay, it is to me anyway).

10. Justify the celebratory greasy fast food meal with the 10 minutes of hard work you did at the test.

11. Brag to your parents. You never get too old to do that.

Detoxifying Douchebags From Your Life


“Hey, that’s not fair, I had to play Jesse last time. You always get to be Heisenberg!”

About a year ago I realized that all the toxic people had disappeared from my life. Grumpy or conniving coworkers, bullying friends, disinterested love interests. I never had the “break up” talk that’s often suggested to women who are agonizing over cutting ties with someone. I just removed myself from the situation and severed communication. Passive aggressive, but it worked. Once I realized that they were gone I noticed how much lighter and more free I felt.

The weird thing was for a very long time I NEEDED these people. For some reason I looked up to them, as if their absolute negativity gave them some kind of authority. They were so strong in their convictions of hating something or someone (sometimes that someone was me) that they seemed unshakeable. By commiserating with them or tolerating their abuse I was getting the approval I so desperately craved. When they rejected me or insulted me or criticized me I was absolutely crushed but crawled back for more.

I’ve heard the saying that every person in your life is a blessing or a lesson. I have had a PhD’s worth of lessons. That being said I’m not going to climb up on my enlightenment high horse and say I forgive these people or are so appreciative of what I learned from them. F*ck them. There are some that I would be happy never to hear from or see again. I wouldn’t get all Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight” on them and let them drown, but I would laugh at them for a little while before I threw them a rope.  Luckily the dwelling period has passed, and I no longer allow them to rent precious real estate in my head and heart (except for the occasional revenge fantasy).

What does this have to do with taekwondo? Everything. TKD was one of the major factors that helped change who I am both inside and out. It touched the very core of my being and helped my real self break through the protective but restrictive shell I had built around myself many years ago. I was fortunate enough to find something that got me out of my obsessed tunnel-visioned brain and shifted my perspective about myself and about life.  I don’t have the easy answer for everyone. Find whatever that joyful thing is that doesn’t measure your self-worth by the approval (or disproval) of others.

If I ran into one of these toxic people today I’m not sure they would recognize me. They’d recognize the external physical features, but the person they knew and were so easily able to abuse died under their weight so the real me could emerge. They no longer have power over me, and their approval no longer interests me. As my boyfriend says, “I don’t sweat fools.” The confidence and self-assurance I now have is a better self-defense tool than any block or strike. As martial artists we begin to fine tune our intuition and strengthen our ability to anticipate our opponent’s next move. My gut screamed “get out of here!” when a few of these toxic people entered my life, but I didn’t always heed my own advice. Hopefully by now my mind has been honed to listen to those gut feelings and let those fools pass me by.

Pain and Gain


“JEEEEZZUZ CHRIIIIIIST!” I screamed as I was thrown with the force and speed of a freight train (and yet somehow also in slow motion) to the ground by Jack*, a teenage black belt who is normally self-deprecating and gentle but surprised me with his sudden brutality. Immediately I felt remorse for taking the Lord’s name in vain and being disrespectful to the others so I quickly apologized to my partners and my instructor after I had recovered.

My other partner was Noah, a giant man with the disposition of a lamb and the strength of an ox. I was still recovering from the bruises he left on my arm during last week’s sparring class. When Noah threw me I didn’t hit my head, but I was definitely shaken, like a cartoon character who walks smack into a gong and then shudders around like a human pogo stick. “I’m glad I have some junk in my trunk!” I snapped after I landed on my hip with a splat.

Pain. It comes in many forms. It comes in the aching back I nursed all weekend. It comes from being thrown to the ground by male partners who don’t know their own strength. It comes from the disappointments and cruelties, big or small, that we inflict on each other. It comes from fear.

When I am under serious stress, which I am facing right now, I often manifest it in physical pain or discomfort. All day at work the right side of my neck burned with an ominous tickle. My head felt flushed and light with the pressure of a ghost headache. I trembled and stumbled over my words in a staff meeting like a drunk. And finally, I knew my discomfort and pain had moved beyond the I-just-need-chocolate-and-I’ll-be-fine phase to the threat-of-major-change-or-loss phase when I felt what I only feel in very dire straits: a tiny squeeze in my chest. The telltale sign of my telltale heart on the verge of breaking.

I trust my partners even though they are idiot brutes at times. I know how to fall and I know how to dodge and block. I know in the end it will be okay. I’ve experienced this creepy chest pain before. What I didn’t have in my toolbox in past instances was trust in myself and faith that things will be okay. I’ve learned that pain or loss or even change aren’t reflections of me as a “good” or “bad” person. I’ll be okay no matter what. Bruises heal, tears dry, and words fade over time. Things will be okay no matter the outcome.

*Names changed

It’s Complicated – The Poomsae Series Part 5


I don’t remember this part being in the form.

The Poomsae Series is intended to glean lessons from the meaning of each form (poomsae). My school studies the palgwe forms so that’s what I will use for each post. Descriptions are taken from the book “Complete Taekwondo Poomsae” by Dr. Kyu Hyung Lee and Dr. Sang H. Kim.

Do a scissor block. Right now. Seriously, do it. Weird, eh? Palgwe Oh Jang is the fifth form and is learned at the blue belt level. It’s a complicated pain in the ass. It is as ambitious as it is disjointed as it tries to cram everything you’ve ever learned and more into the standard H pattern.

The last time I did this form in class I breathed and moved in unison with a teenage blue belt who happens to have some developmental disabilities. Afterwards we both smiled at each other and reveled in our weird little moment of silent synchronicity.

When I first met him he was an overly talkative and awkward preteen, and I did not like him at all. Although sweet-natured he doesn’t know when to stop talking. EVER. EEEHHHVEEERRRR. His cheerful mom hints at the darkness behind her smile when she talks about his problems. He is somewhere on the autism spectrum, has OCD, is on a number of medications, displays tics when he’s nervous (repetitive sneezing, sighing), and has a hard time recognizing other people’s emotions and expressions. He is as brilliant as he is troubled.

Like this form he’s a complicated pain in the ass.

When I advanced to the next belt level I was eager to be rid of this form although I knew that I’ll never be truly rid of it—it’s a part of my comprehensive toolbox that I mentioned in a previous post. Instead of clomping through it grudgingly and mourning the beautiful Palgwe Sah Jang  I decided to embrace it and see what it could teach me.

This form has helped me handle life’s unexpected and annoying twists and turns. A side kick then an elbow. Just throw it in there. Yeah it looks cool…but WTF it came out of nowhere! And ANOTHER scissor block? REALLY??

I’ve learned a lot from this complicated and troubled boy as well. Like this form his complications give him a uniqueness that might otherwise go unnoticed. His technique is terrible and half the time he’s on the sidelines sipping water and catching his breath, but in the end he never gives up. He smiles with excitement when he masters (well sort of) something new and feeds off the positive energy of the few of us who make the attempt to be patient and engage with him. His side kick during sparring is surprisingly brutal. He still annoys the crap out of me, but my heart has softened towards him, and I want to make his time in the dojang as pleasant as possible. The world is not going to be kind to this boy.

Naproxen, take me away…

I double dog dare you to get this as a tattoo.

(Friday night class) “I did my second graduate degree while I was working full time,” I said with a yawn over my young instructor and the three teen boys who were arguing over who was the most tired by rattling off their AP classs and hours devoted to homework. They dropped that subject and then circled each other asking their ages.

“You can’t be more than twenty,” said J to me in his monotone, overly articulated voice. J is fifteen and a little special, as detailed in tomorrow’s post. While he’s starting to grow up sometimes he blurts out very childlike things. I grinned at him and sweetly told him “thank you” before I turned around and rolled my eyes at my giggling instructor. That’s not the first time I’ve been mistaken for a twenty-year-old. The first time was from T, a sixteen-year-old black belt. These boys have either never been around adults other than teachers and parents (who are always “old”)  and therefore have no reference point for age or they are humoring me. I don’t care to be twenty again. The only thing I had going for me back then was clearer skin.

Today I was reminded of how much I am NOT twenty as I lay on a heating pad cursing the advanced wheel pose I did in yoga class Thursday night. Then again sitting in an office chair 40 hours a week can’t be any worse for my back. I’ll take the wheel poses and jump kicks any day.

Redirecting the Blog, Bruises, and Boys

redirect-folders This blog has started to take a self-development/self-help/change-yourself-change-your-life vibe, which was part of the package, but it’s starting to overshadow my taekwondo journey other than my weekly Poomsae Series. It’s starting to lose its story arc and the context behind the life lessons. I’m going to make a better effort to tell stories from the dojang on a more regular basis.

Wednesday nights are reserved for sparring followed by an advanced class for red and black belts. Sparring brings with it both a sense of dread and a sense of excitement. I hated it as a kid. Whenever “free sparring” was announced in class my stomach dropped and beads of panicky sweat sprung up on my pre-pubescent forehead. I hated it for the same reason I hated improv acting—I didn’t know what to do next! Nothing seemed logical. I couldn’t just pull stuff out of my tightly-wound intellectual ass. I’ve mentioned my guitar playing before. I’ve studied various instruments since I was six so while I was well-versed with dynamics, tempo, time measures, and sight reading, for the life of me I could never improvise. My lockstep rule-following brain just couldn’t put it together without that proverbial recipe.

Since then I’ve become adept at ad-libbing during workshops or presentations, and I’ve created several delicious meals from scratch. These days I actually look forward to sparring even though it’s my weakest area in taekwondo. With sparring I get to apply what I’ve learned, pick up new strategies, and well…improvise. Even the best intentions and willingness to improvise, though, are sometimes derailed by little things called age and size differentials.

This is where my boyfriend says “I told you so” about my preference for hour-long swims over 30-second sprints.
“I’m 37.”
“I’m 30.”
“I’m 35,” I said as I twisted my head around and grinned at my classmate in the back of the room. “You win.”
We were doing some aerobic warm-ups, and the two men and I cracked jokes about being able to beg out of doing them because we’re “old.” It was a very sparse class, so the two men (a red belt and a yellow belt—hey, we’re a small school) went at it while I paired up with J, an awkward but polite teen who informed me that he misplaced his mouthguard and asked me to please be careful. Damnit, I wanted to practice head shots!

J and I started giving the “let’s go easy, I’m tired” eyes about 30 seconds into sparring. We heard huffing and puffing from the two men and hoped our instructor would show us some mercy. I don’t sprint. I just don’t. It’s not an aversion to it; I just don’t think about it. My exercise of choice is swimming, and when I’m not doing that I’m in yoga class. I look good, but that all goes out the window when I spar. Hopping around for five minutes is way worse than swimming a mile.

“I hear a lot of heavy breathing,” my instructor barked. “That either means we’re all working hard or our conditioning is down.” The poor 37-year-old almost started retching after he and I lumbered around for a minute or two throwing weak kicks into the air at each other. He had attended the lower ranking sparring class before and was understandably exhausted. “Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “When I first started sparring I was bright red the entire hour and so disoriented that I’m surprised I was able to drive home.” I admitted to my instructor that the first time I attended red & black belt class right after sparring I was so wiped out that I yawned every time he turned his back.

Black and Blue is the New Black
Our school is tiny, and our advanced belts are few and far between so unfortunately that leads to a lot of mismatched pairs in sparring class. The best I can hope for in a size match is a chunky 10-year-old boy. Usually I’m letting the boy and girl 6-year-olds win by encouraging them to try out a new move on me or I’m getting knocked halfway across the room by men a foot taller than me and a good 70-100 pounds on me. As I watched young women spar at the tournament this past weekend I was both relieved that they weren’t at my school because they would have all wiped the floor with me and bemoaned the fact that they weren’t at my school because I don’t have any proper partners.

Neither of the 6-year-olds were in class, so I got to spar the 30-year-old man who outweighs me by at least 70 pounds. I had to ask him more than once to chill with the super-hard hits and shoving me across the room with his front kicks. Was I being a baby used to easy sparring with kids? Maybe. But the look on my boyfriend’s face when he saw several dark ugly brusies and scrapes across my elbow and wrist (from catching the brunt of those big grasshopper monster legs flying at my ribs) told me I need to call the petite woman card the next time I’m up against this guy. I really don’t want a broken elbow. Besides, if I were really fighting a guy his size I’d fight a whole lot dirtier.

Ending the night with comic relief
“S, You’d make a terrible pet,” my instructor said during warm-ups in red and black belt class. We all paused as the words hung in the air and then burst into laughter. S, a goofy, gangly 14-year-old would not stop talking (mainly about Ebola) during warmups so my instructor gave him what my yoga teacher would call an “assist” during stretches. S squawked harder with laughter and pain as he was shoved deeper into a seated forward fold. “With animals you give them a little smack and they stop misbehaving,” my instructor continued. “You don’t seem to learn anything with pain!” For a long time, neither did I (told you I’d still keep the self-development/life lesson theme).

Bonus: baked beans, On the Border tortilla chips, and an avocado eaten off a paper towel on the coffee table make an AWESOME recovery dinner.

Having an Attitude of Gratitude When Cynicism Is So Much Cooler


Smoking looks cool. I’m sorry, it does. In my fantasy life, after I’ve gunned down human traffickers without getting any blood on my sleek black trench coat and before I head off to  a gig with my Led Zeppelin cover band I lean up against my black Ducati…and light a cigarette. It just wouldn’t have the same effect if I, say, bit into an apple or patted a kitten or posted a double rainbow meme on Facebook.

Smoking kills. Duh. And it causes a myriad of other problems. Duh. So why do people still do it? Despite knowing the risks there seems to be some sort of satisfaction from it, even if it’s temporary. The same could be said for letting anger and catastrophic thinking dictate our day. It causes you all kinds of grief but there’s something addictive about it. I’ve never been addicted to smoking, but I spent a good 25-30 years being a Negative Nancy. I hated school, I hated work, I hated people for not being my friends (how dare they!), I hated men for not falling at my feet hopelessly in love (how dare they!!), I hated my body, I hated my personality, I hated my inability to be perfect, I hated myself for not even being able to end my miserable waste of a life.

Venting my anger and hate and frustration had the same instant gratification of that first tingly drag on a cigarette. Having a good sobbing ugly cry was as much as a release as that first exhale of smoke. I was at the mercy of my emotions. Although I felt helpless, I also felt secure—something or someone else was responsible for my situations and feelings, not me! I didn’t have to do a thing but just sit back and watch the misfortune that I seemed to be so good at attracting unfold. My addiction was killing me.

If it takes more muscles to frown than smile then it burns more calories, right?
For years I was blind to the amazing things I DID have going for me. It was like having a garage full of beautiful race cars but continuing to commute on a rusty old bicycle. Putting all my happiness onto one outcome was a crapshoot. Narrow expectations often led to disappointment. Through guidance from a trusted mentor, using journaling as a way to observe myself, and several years of hard work, I realized that I had more power over my destiny than I thought. The more appreciative I became, the more good fortune came to me—work situations, relationships, money, health.

Here’s the thing: gratitude takes a conscious effort, at least at first. Complaining and commiserating is contagious and almost expected. Misery had been my default setting for so long that I had to (and still do) make constant attitude adjustments. That heady buzz you get on the first drag of a cigarette feels pretty good, but coughing up mysterious green goop the next day feels pretty awful. The more I practiced gratitude, though, the easier it became and joy eventually replaced the emotional stronghold of anger and misery. For those of you who follow the Law of Attraction, my vibration was much higher.

Okay I’m done rolling my eyes at the sappiness. What do I do to feel better already?
1. Have a crap day? What was ONE good thing that happened? It’s OK, I’ll wait…oh, you woke up, right? Awesome!

2. Something else I like to do is play the “Lucky Breaks” game. I think about all the “lucky” things that happened, even if they’re small and silly—I got a parking spot when people were circling a crowded lot like vultures. Yay! We happened to go to yoga class on a different night and saw a random display of fireworks outside afterwards. Woo-hoo! A coworker ordered an extra sandwich by mistake and gave it to me. Yeah buddy! A meeting on a day I wanted to take off was rescheduled. F*cking A!

3. Write it down. I know its clichéd, and I know you’ve seen this a thousand other times online, in books, and on TV, so I’m not taking credit for the idea…but it works. Writing down what you’re grateful for, the luck you had that day, or whatever positive things happened or epiphanies or changes of heart you had gets it out of your head and puts it square in your face—proof that things aren’t as bad as you thought they were. It’s like celebrating Thanksgiving every day but without gaining weight from all the stuffing and pumpkin pie.

4. Do something you enjoy to get your mind off how much you think your life sucks. For me it’s taekwondo, yoga, swimming, and cooking healthy meals. For others it could be watching a funny movie, playing with their puppy, or meditating. For others it’s smoking. Ha, gotcha! I said it kills you; I never said people don’t enjoy it.

And lest I contradict myself and fall into the trap of magical thinking, I still keep my feet grounded in reality. Bad things are going to happen, and I’m going to have to do things I don’t like to do. That’s just life. But gratitude for the abundance that I do have makes it a whole lot sweeter and opens my eyes to opportunities ripe for the taking.

I’m still sarcastic. I still narrow my eyes and ask a barrage of questions when something seems fishy.  I still get angry and cry and curse unpleasant situations. But I’m doing the work on a consistent basis. I am quickly wielding the power to change my reality instead of letting reality own me. These days the only thing I light up is a scented candle. When I see the glass half-empty it doesn’t mean life sucks. It just means I need a refill on my wine.

Thunderstruck – The Poomsae Series Part 4

rainbow lightning

Oh, you like that pretty rainbow? BOOM! How ya like me now??

The Poomsae series is intended to glean lessons from the meaning of each form. My school studies the palgwe forms so that’s what I will use for each post. Descriptions are taken from the book “Complete Taekwondo Poomsae” by Dr. Kyu Hyung Lee and Dr. Sang H. Kim.

Palgwe Sah Jang means thunder, “undeniable power and dignity.” According to the authors the powerful movements should be performed seamlessly “just as thunder follows lightning.” Like a BOSS.

I LOVE this form. It’s beautiful, dramatic, and creative. A spinning back fist? A double block framing your face in a lovely crescent moon? That cool lunge thing where you pretend you’re being grabbed by an attacker?? Sign me UP! I would smile all the way through if I knew my instructors wouldn’t yell at me.

This is the first form that started to feel like an imaginary fight and the first one that got me in the habit of, as an actor would say, looking for my “motivation.” The student begins to ask the “why” behind the strike or block. It’s the thinking fighter’s form.

After months of the frustrating simplicity of palgwe sam jang, now it’s time to have some fun. With that fun, though, comes the responsibility of that seamless and powerful performance. Are you still flopping around with loose fists and no focus? Are you ready for the challenge that this form offers you? Are you confident enough to give this form the awful beauty it deserves?

It’s time to step up your game with this form, and it requires a belief that you can’t be shaken from your place of power. Each taekwondo form is not only a test of the student’s skill but a mirror of their confidence. What do your actions say about your confidence? Would I see questions if I looked into your eyes or would I see answers? Are you a walking apology for your existence or do you leave thunder and lightning in your wake?

Pants on Fire – The Poomsae Series Part 3


The Poomsae Series is intended to glean lessons from the meaning of each form. My school studies the Palgwe forms so that’s what I will use for each post. Descriptions are taken from the book “Complete Taekwondo Poomsae” by Dr. Kyu Hyung Lee and Dr. Sang H. Kim.

Palgwe Sam Jang. Fire. Now that the martial artist has gotten heaven and the river under his or her belt, it’s time to add some power and speed.

This is my least favorite form. It’s flat out boring until the end when it starts to get snazzy with directional changes and a mixture of inside and outside middle blocks. I want to do jazz hands after all those sliding back stances.

I wonder if the reversion into simplicity at the beginning of the form (low block, punch, low block, yawn) is a purposeful test of the student’s patience. This is the green belt form. Green belt is the transitional period from beginner to advanced ranks. Green belt is when many students seem to drop out. Just when you think you’re getting into the fun stuff—bam! You get the boring form. True skill, though, can be proven by the level of emotional and physical maturity the student displays when performing this form. According to Lee and Kim, “as physical strength and commitment grows, the passion for the art increases.”

It’s not just about memorization or doing it by muscle memory. Can you breathe life into the poses and the silence? Can you light a fire under those seemingly simple low blocks and middle punches? My guitar teacher once said the sign of a good musician is if they can have the audience on the edges of their seats with the simplest piece of music.

How do you handle silences in your life? Do you avoid them altogether? Sometimes simplicity is the most complicated thing to master.

Jazz hands!!