The Devil is in the Details

I couldn’t find an image that accurately reflected my thoughts. Here’s a picture of my favorite Futurama character, the foppish Robot Devil.

“I’m not good with this technical mechanical stuff!” I shrieked in mock-desperation after a number of flubbed attempts at hand-to-hand techniques (painful twists and joint locks) with my partner. Including my instructor there were only four of us in advanced red and black belt class. It was getting late, and three of us were already worn out from an intense sparring class beforehand, so we were all getting a little loopy and giggly. Throwing in complicated and intricate self-defense work after a long day only fried my brain even more.

As far as martial arts go, my skill with detail seems to be a mixed bag. Thanks to years of yoga and dance training (and classical guitar, oddly enough) I’m very attuned to my body and can make minute and precise adjustments as needed. This helps me with executing kicks that are effective AND look good, and I can bring a form to life with very intentional movement, focus, and breath. I’ve got the art part of martial art down pretty well.

….Not so much with one-steps and hand-to-hand. Maybe it’s because I get tangled up in my thoughts, which are moving faster than my body can keep up. Wait, do I step here and what do I do with my hand? Is it like this or this…or maybe more like this? One-steps and hand-to-hand are very logical, but I’ve discovered that it takes time to build up not only the muscle memory but more importantly the intuition of how to perform these self-defense techniques. It’s not just about a block here or a strike there. It’s about weight distribution, timing, accuracy, force, balance, and a working knowledge of how to incapacitate an attacker as quickly as possible. It’s actually quite interesting but can be frustrating if you get hung up in the details. I can’t even wrap my head around grappling arts. My boyfriend, a longtime wrestler and Brazilian jiu jitsu-practitioner, has taught me a few moves, but it’s all grappling Greek to me. Wait, I move my arm here and turn this way or that way? What do I do with my other leg? Is it clockwise or counter-clockwise? I felt like I was playing Twister, but I was able to choke him out (okay, he let me, but he still had to tap out).

Ironically I was praised by my boss for my organization skills and level of detail during my annual performance review today. My other colleague, who is a P to my J if you’re playing the MBTI game, is amazed at how I keep all my work organized, fine-tuned, and executed while remaining cool and calm. I don’t know any other way to be! Organization is calming to me. I even wrote and conducted a workshop on time management because I love that stuff so much. Details seem to elude me, though, when someone grabs my wrist or throws a punch at my face.

Like my slowly but surely growing intuition with free sparring, comfort and muscle memory with the complexities of one-steps and hand-to-hand will just take time and patience although right now in my head I can hear my instructor protesting: “Complex? How is it complex? It makes perfect sense!” Other physically and mentally-demanding activities I’ve done (swimming, ballet, classical guitar) have all had that distinct moment when everything clicks. I can never go back to a clunky slow crawl stroke and can never un-know the technical tools of the musical trade when I watch a classical guitar performance. One of these days I’ll glide through a one-step flawlessly and throw my partner to the ground before he even knows what hit him.

At the end of class Grandmaster unknowingly demonstrated to me how intuition and precision are the perfect pair. He was chatting with us about some of the nastier self-defense tricks when he gently clasped my wrist, turned my forearm up to face the ceiling, and lightly but firmly pressed his forefinger and thumb into the flesh just below my elbow, smiling innocently the whole time. My eyes widened and I squeaked in pain, not even knowing what was happening. Then, still smiling sweetly, he pressed his thumb into the middle of the underbelly of my forearm, which left me stunned and hoping the feeling in my arm would come back to me some time that evening. He didn’t even have to look down at my arm to know what he was doing. Decades of practice and intuition have made him quick and very effective.

Whatever you are pursuing, you will have that “click” moment. Your intuition will kick in and you will be so smooth and effective you’ll wonder why you ever found it difficult in the first place. You just have to be patient and trust the process.


How I Get My Sweat On When It’s Below Freezing Outside

funny-Texas-cold-Solo-cup-iceLast night for the first time in over a year, a winter storm rolled into much of Texas. Now, before you start scoffing at us for running inside with our cowboy hats tucked between our legs at the sight of a few snowflakes, let me tell you about winter in Texas. Other than the far northern panhandle areas we don’t get much snow, but we get ICE. Ice, nasty sleet, and freezing rain that happens so fast that the Texas Department of Transportation can barely keep up with sanding the roads behind it. Even if there’s barely a dusting of snow outside the road could be covered in several inches of slick deadly black ice. A week ago it was 70 degrees. As a native Texan and lifetime resident our wacky weather still never ceases to amaze me.

True to Texas winter storms the area outside my home is a skating rink, and the temperatures aren’t rising above freezing for days. I’m not going anywhere for a while. While it’s nice to have an extra long weekend thanks to Jack Frost, not having access to the gym or the dojang can spell trouble for staying fit. It was really tempting to stay huddled up in my nest on the couch with an electric blanket, hot tea, and my laptop, AND I polished off the last of the stuffed shells I made over the weekend. I had to get creative and come up with a home workout.

After a quiet day of working from home and chilling out in my nest I got up and started moving. I did forty-five minutes of yoga, combining some vinyasa that I learned from my teacher with my favorite relaxing and deeper poses such as pigeon for the hips and hamstrings and shoulder stand for my back and upper body. Then I did a half-hour taekwondo work out: I ran through all eight kee-bons (we have seven more in addition to the universal kee-bon one) and eight palgwe forms. I also did a few kicks on each side: stretch kicks, front snap kick, roundhouse, side kick, turning back side kick, sliding kicks. My downstairs neighbors are home, so no jumping or flying kicks unless I want them to bang a broom on the ceiling.

I finished my kicking workout with spin kicks on both sides about seven or eight times. Just since my little home spin kick “workshop” one or two weeks ago it’s improved even more, especially the left side. I’ve discovered a new trick. I imagine I’m winding up my body like it’s a slingshot. I slide my front foot back and take a little step, almost as if I’m replacing the position of my back foot. It feels a little like cheating, but it works for me. Taking that little step helps propel my body into a spin but gives me enough control that I can whip my kicking leg around in a pretty hook. Finally I ran through a few one-steps, which is awkward without a partner, but at least I know what I’m supposed to do in theory.

After my home yoga and taekwondo practice I’d worked up quite a sweat, which felt pretty good on a cold day today. I celebrated with a big bowl of roasted chicken and vegetables, a glass of wine, and a chocolate rice cake to satisfy my sweet tooth (hey, I’m stuck inside the house; I’m desperate). I crawled back into my warm nest, satisfied with my home training and eager to do it again tomorrow since I’ll be stuck here at home for at least another day.

How I Stay In Shape for Something as Demanding as Taekwondo When Netflix Beckons and Forty is on the Horizon

couch-potato-cat fat
Mr. Fluffy is having an “Intervention” marathon. The irony is not lost on him.

My grandfather is eighty-seven years old and swims a mile every morning. He and my grandmother have a much better quality of life than anyone else their age, and as a matter of fact, better than many people I’ve met who are half their age. I’ve been a gym rat since I was a teenager, so getting back into taekwondo wasn’t as much a shock to my system as it might be for someone else, but it still required me to re-evaluate how I care for myself so I can participate in the sport safely and at the best of my body’s capability.

My fitness needs have evolved over time as my interests, work-life demands, and body have changed. Several years ago I got into long-distance running, so of course my training focused on running with swimming and yoga for recovery. After three successful half-marathons running started to feel more like work than fun, so I “retired.” I didn’t like the toll it was starting to take on my joints…not that taekwondo is exactly gentle on your joints either. After that I was going to wear a strapless dress for my brother’s wedding so my training shifted to sculpting my upper body through swimming and weightlifting, otherwise known as Operation Gun Show. It’s all about priorities.

For many years I got up around four AM to swim, jog, or lift weights at the gym. I’m an early bird and hate the crowded chaos of the gym in the evenings, so this worked well for me. Then I hit thirty-five and suddenly needed seven to nine hours of sleep to function rather than the typical five to six I’d relied on for years. I miss my morning gym treks but have learned to listen to my body when it needs more sleep. Having taekwondo three times a week has picked up the slack for my gym absences, although I’d really like to squeeze in another swim or two during the week on my off days.

On weekdays if I wake up early enough I do some gentle sun salutations while I wait for the water for my tea to boil. Then I do about fifteen minutes of Pilates then run through my forms. I go to an intense vinyasa yoga class two to three times a week and on the weekend will swim in the mornings and add a light weights workout and do the elliptical or a short run. Between a chaturanga-happy yoga instructor and a push-up-happy taekwondo instructor plus having inherited my father’s swimmer shoulders and back I don’t have to do much for my upper body. A few push-ups or bicep curls and I’m ready for summer sleeveless dresses. I spend more time focusing on my legs and core. I probably should be doing more pointed training exercises like jumping rope, sprints, and box jumps to help with my short-term stamina, but doing box jumps scares me way more than sparring a six-foot long-legged man.

As for nutrition I’ve learned that super-restrictive diets tend to backfire at some point, so I eat a balanced diet of whole foods most of the time with some treats thrown in. I’ll go on sprees following my intuition: for a while I craved hummus and could not get enough of it. Now my desire has shifted to avocados. Processed foods and fast food have become less and less appealing over the years. Barring holidays or special occasions here’s what I typically eat during the day:
Breakfast: oatmeal with soy milk, a spoonful of ground flax, and blueberries, green juice
Snack: banana and some nuts or a spoonful of peanut butter
Lunch: roasted vegetables with brown rice, a hard boiled egg, a piece of fruit, and maybe a small salad if I’m extra hungry, dark chocolate (I can’t overeat dark chocolate; it gets kind of sickening after a piece or two)
Snack: Greek yogurt or a Larabar
Dinner: shredded chicken mixed together with a mashed up avocado. Sometimes after really rough tkd classes I’m too nauseated to eat so I just guzzle water, eat a banana (or don’t eat at all, which is not ideal for recovery but sometimes I just can’t stomach it), and go to bed.
I’ll indulge a little more on the weekends, but overall keep it light. I made a plate of homemade stuffed shells last night since I was craving some childhood Italian comfort food and still clocked in at 114 pounds this morning so I think I’m doing OK. I do like alcohol, but I drink it sparingly: (1) Nothing productive gets done after I have a drink (2) it makes me want to eat everything in sight (3) I sleep terribly if I have even a little too much. A smooth glass of red wine, an occasional ice cold beer on a summer night, or a tiny shot of Jack Daniels is good enough for me once or twice a week. I usually avoid alcohol after tkd class since it is dehydrating although my old running training partners swore that beer is a great recovery drink.

This morning just like my Grandpa I swam a mile. For a treat I followed it up with a cinnamon roll from my neighborhood donut shop. I figure if I log more swims than cinnamon rolls I’ll be fine. Training and diet will get more intense the closer I get to the fall black belt test, but rest assured there will always be room for chocolate.

Back to Basics

building blocks

“Can we do other asana [yoga poses] besides just upward dog, downward dog all the time?” chirped an older woman right as our instructor had settled us into our first child’s pose in this morning’s yoga class. I’m not very fond of this woman. She is sour and cranky and doesn’t have much respect for other people’s personal space. (She once sandwiched her mat between me and the woman next to me when there was plenty of room around us. I practically had my foot in her face until I moved.) On the surface she seemed to be complaining about the sequence my teacher used every class. It’s a vinyasa style built on the sun salutations A and B sequences, which include a lot of upward and downward dogs. Unlike other teachers I’ve had he rarely varies from his routine and instead challenges us to be present and heighten our awareness of how our bodies feel in the poses.

I wondered what was really driving her question–was it cultural? (She is from another country and doesn’t have sweet-as-pecan-pie genteel southern manners like we do here in Texas. We’ll still stab you in the back, but you’d never know it.) Had something happened earlier that morning to put her in a bad mood? She is rather frail and often struggles to keep up. Was she really just frustrated with her own body’s limitations and was taking out her anger on the teacher? We all giggled when she asked her question.

“Everybody sit up, I want you to ask the rest of the class and see if they feel the same way,” my teacher barked. No one laughed at that point. I detected a slight amount of irritation in his voice and wondered how he was going to handle the situation. He went on to ask some pointed questions and explain the reasoning behind why he takes us through the same vinyasa sequence every time–to build heat within the body to prepare us to safely move into deeper poses, not to mention that it was a tried and true sequence passed down by the great yoga teachers of India. He said that students are welcomed and encouraged to modify poses for our own physical needs. He made his point without being defensive or ridiculing the old woman, even thanking her for her question, but I could also tell that he was staying firm in his belief in the power of his chosen form of yoga practice. He wasn’t going to throw it all away and go back to the drawing board just because one student complained.

A fellow student remarked that my teacher hadn’t heard from the rest of the class, which seemed to be quite satisfied with his sequence. We nodded in approval. You rarely hear from people who are happy with things as they are. My teacher wrapped up his lecture by reminding us to be present and practice from a place of love and tolerance. I wondered if that was as much a reminder to himself to keep his cool as it was to us to not judge this woman too harshly for disrupting the happy vibe of the morning. He did add some variation, but his main sticking point was reminding us to see if we can be present and go deeper into the poses. The old woman stuck it out through the class, and I noticed that she took more time to modify the poses for her slower pace and her body’s needs. I smiled as I watched her out of the corner of my eye. She seemed more confident and comfortable. Maybe that was all she needed–the green light to make the practice her own. My teacher made sure he paid attention to her just as he did with all the other students. She scurried out as soon as class was over. I wonder if she’ll come back next week.

But here’s the thing–I’d found myself getting bored with that sequence, so maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to cast stones at my crabby classmate. Sure, it’d be fun to try different balance poses or sink into pigeon for an extended time, but I can always do that on my own. Doing the same thing over and over again and actually benefitting from it requires a different mental discipline than always having the luxury (and the shorter attention span) of variety. I challenged myself during that class to try and learn something new from the same old poses, to really feel my body from the inside out and make micro adjustments to help me get more fully into the expression of the pose. If you’re not present and mindful you’re just going through the motions.

Today’s yoga class experience made me reflect on a similar theme in last night’s taekwondo class. Fridays are reserved for technique and forms. This class, which precedes the new adults only class, is open to green belts and up. After some kicking drills my instructor calmly announced that we were going to work on some orange belt (rank above white belt) techniques. For several minutes we performed strikes and blocks that formed the foundation of our forms, one-steps, and to a lesser extent free sparring techniques. Without a strong front stance your balance is compromised. Without a solid low block you can’t deflect a kick from an opponent. Without being present and making the micro-adjustments you can’t fully express the intent of the strike or defensive block. That rings true for a white belt or a black belt. Sound familiar?

The theme continued as we reviewed palgwe sah jang, one of the loveliest and most complicated color belt forms. Although it seemed like Grandmaster was doing this for the benefit of the two little blue tip boys who needed to practice the form for their next belt test, I felt like he was doing it even more for the red and black belts. He intellectualized the form, explaining the why behind the moves and demonstrating intricacies of each strike and block so it would all flow together in a logical sequence.

“Be patient,” Grandmaster chided the two little boys as they fidgeted behind us, but like my yoga teacher, he did not bend to the influence of the complainers. He continued walking us through the sequence, something we’ve done a hundred times before and something that’s built on those old foundational blocks and strikes we learned as lower ranking belts. It’s our taekwondo version of all those old familiar upward dogs and downward dogs. As I did with my yoga practice today I learned something new from a form I’ve practiced for over a year. Both classes gave me a stronger appreciation for the foundations that support all the complicated pretty stuff.

Every once in a while we need to go back to basics. What routine are you doing that needs a refresher? What is something new that you can learn from something old? How can you revisit and strengthen or reconfirm the building blocks (morals, values, beliefs, etc.) that make up your the complexities of who you are?

If you’re making time for your yoga basics, make sure you have the right support. Check out for the Best Yoga Mat Reviews of 2017.

Adult Swim

old taekwondo
Elvis’s back stance is way too wide and he needs to keep his knife hand fingers together, but we’ll give him an A for effort.

I haven’t written a plain old “class diary” in a few weeks, and I can’t think of a better night than tonight’s debut of the adults only class. This may not sound like a big deal to those who belong to a mega-dojang, but we are a very small school. A new student (especially and adult) is an addition to be celebrated, and we ache from absences and drop-outs.
NOTE: This is intentionally a longer post than usual. I’m including details from tonight’s class in case any of my fabulous readers are martial artists and wish to use these techniques in their home dojang.

The nice thing about belonging to a small school is that there is a deep sense of camaraderie and in turn a deep sense of obligation and accountability. Barring a vacation, family visit, or illness I rarely miss class. During a recent stressful period I did stay home more often (a dark mood is a tempting bedfellow), but after the fact I realized that I needed taekwondo and my little dojang community more than I knew. I don’t just do it for myself. It’s gotten to the point that I show up for my instructors and classmates. It’s like my job, which I happen to enjoy very much. I don’t just show up for a paycheck; I show up for my boss and my team. My work and taekwondo comrades are counting on me just as much as I rely on them.

As I’ve stated in a previous post, taekwondo more than other martial arts tends to attract the kiddie set. A new adult student is like that extra Christmas present that’s tucked behind the tree, the forgotten one you don’t notice until after the wrapping paper is crumpled haphazardly into a paper bag and most of the cinnamon rolls have been eaten. Suddenly your afternoon is brighter. You can guess my excitement when my instructor announced his intent to hold an adults only class last Friday.

It didn’t quite go as planned. In fact…nobody showed up. I was there in spirit but had a very good reason to be absent. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. We tried again tonight, and it was a resounding success. There were seven students (remember, we’re a really small school) ranging from orange belt to black belt and ages from teens to late sixties. As usual I was the token girl. Unlike the nights where I have advanced red and black belt class after sparring I wasn’t bone tired and brain fried by the second class. We were all enthusiastic and cheerful, and I was actually disappointed that the hour flew by. I could have kept going. My instructor was just happy that for once he heard more ki-yaping than chit-chatting.

First we warmed up with some light cardio and then moved into some jumps, which were meant to simulate jump front-snap kick and jump roundhouse kick. The sticking point is to hike both your knees up high so your feet are in a neat point and you gain some serious air. With roundhouse you want to make sure you turn your hip over, which is both a little scary and a little fun mid-air. If you try it at home be sure to land lightly with your knees bent, hitting first with the ball of the foot and then curling down to the heel.

We then did some work on the ballet barre. Yes, we have a ballet barre in our dojang, and it’s a fantastic training tool. With partners we stretched our legs straight into the air, mindful to keep our shoulders and hips square to the wall as we grasped the barre behind us. Then we moved onto a an exercise that hits a few techniques: facing the barre at a 45 degree angle, flex the foot that is closest to the wall. Fling your leg straight up behind you, heel out and torso dipping toward the ground. It’s a great stretch that warms up the hips and legs and gets your body used to being tipped over for side and turning back side kicks. Be sure to keep your foot flexed and slightly turned inward with toes curled to practice for the side kick foot position. My instructor bemoaned the fact that his phone’s camera wasn’t strong enough to snap a photo of all of us mid-kick.

Finally we did my favorite barre exercise, one that my instructor created several months ago to help me with my spin kick. Standing parallel to the barre, grasp the barre with the arm that is furthest away, i.e., cross your body. Then spin out towards the shoulder closest to the wall and either swing a straight leg through the air or pop it up into a spinning hook kick. Return to the ready position with a roundhouse kick.
This improved my spin kick so dramatically that I am confident enough to use it for breaking technique at my upcoming bo dan test.

Then we moved on to hand-to-hand drills. We began with what I can’t describe any other way than “the blocking game.” My instructor took pity on my fellow classmates and threw himself to the lions as a sacrifice, i.e., I have dense bony little forearms that hurt like the dickens when they’re slammed against somebody else’s arm so he took one for the team and let me bang up his forearms. It’s great practice for sparring, when you don’t have time to do full blocks. Facing your partner in front stance, both right legs back, raise your left arm as if you’re going to do a low block, fist held tight. Smack your low blocks together, then cross your arm the other way and do low blocks again. Still using the left arm (both partners), flick your forearm into an inside-outside block and finally pop it up into a high block, smacking your arms together with each block. Low block, low block, outside-inside, high block. Then one partner will step back with the left foot and the opposing partner will step forward with their right foot. Same thing on the right side, and keep moving forward (or back if you are in the Ginger Rogers role). My instructor and I have done this several times before, so we got into a good groove fairly quickly. Pretty soon we were sliding back and forth furiously, breathing rapidly and lulled into the rhythm of our slapping arms. We glanced up to realize that we’d left the other students in the dust. My instructor wandered off to help my classmates and I admired the red welts forming on my arms.

Then we practiced blocking punches from the ready position, which is a little more realistic than someone throwing a punch from a static front stance. We played around with blocking and grasping the wrist, twisting our opponent towards the ground. It was a good lesson in gauging distance. I tend to grab too far up on the arm if I’m not paying attention or get sloppy. We continued the lesson in precision and distance as we practiced a few one-steps. It wasn’t so much about doing it “right” as it was about doing it “smart.” We explored issues that can’t be delved into as much when the kids are around—correct distance, positioning yourself based on your size, making sure you’re grounded enough that you won’t inadvertently lose your balance as you throw an opponent to the ground.

We finished with some target practice on the bags, again practicing distance and precision. Slamming your foot into a dense bag is much different than slicing it into the air. We took turns improvising different techniques–a roundhouse here, a ridge hand there, a sliding side kick followed by a spin kick. Once in a while we’d giggle with the self-consciousness only seems to affect the adults rather than the kids in taekwondo class, but we were having fun and experimenting. The most impressive move of the night was by a giant of an orange belt, a lanky fellow well over six feet who makes the little kids’ jaws drop when he wanders in with his motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm. He lurched toward the bag and whirled into a heavy-footed 360 roundhouse, bashing the bag with a sickening thud. It wasn’t the most precise or graceful 360 I’ve seen but I certainly didn’t want to be on the receiving end of it.

There are many fun, exciting, rewarding ways to spend a Friday night. Tonight was pretty high up on my list. I can’t wait to go back next week. The best part actually happened as I was driving home (listening to Snoop Dogg, naturally). Something inside me shifted and I realized that I don’t even care if I get a black belt. That’s not what’s driving me anymore. I just want to keep doing this. I want to keep learning and improving my skills and sharing it with the people around me. I’m home.

A Visit From an Old Frenemy

find-the-frenemy-devil-in-a-friends-disguise-1 The dojang is usually my happy place.

For a few minutes last night, though, it was the last place I wanted to be. As soon as the first round of sparring began my mood crashed and burned. Suddenly my instructor’s guidance sounded like taunts and my partner’s attacks felt like physical manifestations of all my shortcomings. This of course was all in my head. Neither one did anything wrong. They just happened to be in my line of sight when my old friend Low Self-Esteem decided to play. All my flaws were exposed, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was pissed.

I glared at my instructor and whined, “I’m tired,” which was a lie. I had been looking forward to class all day and couldn’t wait to work out. I was tired, but not physically tired. My mind and heart were tired. I am tired of holding it together and being “on” all the time. I’m tired of carrying myself and being my own hero. I’m tired of bearing my crosses alone. I’m tired of being slow and clumsy and weak and ineffective when I spar. I’m tired of trying to live up to my own impossible expectations.

But even that isn’t entirely true. I love my life and sometimes can’t believe I have the stupid luck to have it. I’m so much more at peace and in tune with who I really am and have accepted that happiness truly comes from within. What’s become confusing is that my tiny glimpses of bliss and enlightenment cause me to glance around, yawn with boredom, and say, “None of this matters one bit. This is all pointless. Who cares about these activities or possessions or achievements or relationships? All that matters is internal peace and happiness. F*ck it all. I’ll be dead in sixty years anyway.” My inner Buddha is sometimes more like an enlightened Eeyore.

As my partner and I circled around each other I continued to throw nasty glances and mutter curses through the plastic of my mouthguard. For a split second my instructor’s eyes glinted with a mixture of confusion and irritation. Even though I was silently willing him to go away, leave me alone, and stop reminding me that I didn’t know what I was doing I almost wanted him to call me out on my rudeness to snap me out of my downward spiral. Instead he continued to coach me and my partner, throwing out commands and not letting up until we were finished. I couldn’t look at him or my partner after that. Ultimately I was thankful that he kept pushing me to improve my sparring strategy. It kept me focused on the present moment and shielded me from myself. I’m a much more deadly opponent to myself than anyone I’ve ever encountered.

The only other time I’ve gotten upset in sparring class was when I was about ten in Taekwondo Iteration Part One. I did the classic green belt slapstick move of hitting myself in the nose as I was attempting to block a blow from my sparring partner. It surprised me more than it hurt. I went after the other kid in a blind rage, breathing fire and kicking furiously until my gentle-hearted instructor pulled me aside and talked me down from the ledge. I was never really angry at the other kid, other than that he unwittingly exposed what I deemed at the time to be an unforgivable flaw. I was angry at myself for being a failure. I was mortified that I had made such a rookie mistake.

My reaction was just a symptom of a much deeper problem. Even at that young age I was embarrassed at what I deemed to be a sign of weakness, a stumble, a cause for people to laugh at me, a reminder of how much I hated myself. I believed I couldn’t do anything right, and that attitude would haunt me well into adolescence and adulthood. Shame, humiliation, and feelings of unworthiness were ingrained into me so early on and so deeply that I am still digging out the pieces. These days when I think about the incident I’m not embarrassed about hitting myself in the nose. If I got hit in the face now I’d probably just start laughing and high five my partner for giving me a funny story to tell at work the next day. I’m much more embarrassed at how I reacted, just like I was embarrassed at how I lashed out last night, even though it was only for a few seconds.

At the end of class I apologized to my instructor, who was wondering what that side of me was about. I muttered a quick explanation that I was “stressed out,” but that wasn’t entirely accurate. I knew something weird had happened. I knew that for a few seconds the Old Me, the angry, lonely, self-loathing perfectionist, had clawed its way back to the surface. Dexter Morgan had his Dark Passenger. I have Old Me, and she is very troubled and very mean.

The next class, advanced technique for red and black belts, was much more relaxed and comfortable. But the tiny peek into darkness kept nagging at me. I felt like such a fraud! Who cares if I know all the forms or my slow motion front snap kick is pretty or I can explain the “whys” behind the one-steps to a young girl? If I can’t put what I’ve learned to practice to adequately defend myself and fight off an attacker then do I deserve to test for black belt this fall? Do I even deserve to be the rank that I am now? I am all talk and no action.The rational side of me says, “Chill, you’re learning, that’s why it’s called PRACTICE.” The irrational side of me says, “F*ck you, I want to be perfect NOW.” Short of smacking myself in the head the way Chris Farley did during his endearingly awkward celebrity interviews on SNL, I’m pretty tough on myself.

Last night instead of letting Old Me pour a shot of Gentleman Jack and crack open a trusty bottle of (legal) prescription pills to console myself I chastely chugged a giant can of Goya coconut water that I buy from the same neighborhood mercado where I treat myself to pan dulce and rose-scented soap and snacked on a bowl of shredded roast chicken mixed with a mashed up avocado and topped with garlic salt, which…OMG, you guys, you don’t even know…so yummy…OMG, yum!!!

In the end I was pleased that I had turned an unpleasant situation into a learning moment. For so long I let the violent flash floods of my troubled mind rule my life. I let myself be a helpless victim and I couldn’t figure out why everything kept falling apart. Even though I couldn’t control my reactions for those few moments, I knew exactly what was going on and why. Maybe that’s why it’s better to keep my friends close and my enemies even closer.

Why I Ate Meat on Ash Wednesday

lent chocolate
I was raised Catholic and still consider Catholicism to be my faith of choice even though I don’t regularly attend church and disagree with the Holy See on just about every political and social issue. (But Pope Francis seems like he’d be really fun to hang out with on a road trip, doesn’t he?) Every year around this time someone will ask me what I’m giving up for Lent.

My reply: “Nothing. If I did I’d be a hypocrite.”

I don’t really observe any other holy days so why start now? On the other hand it would fall in line with the stereotype of the “cafeteria Catholic”—picking and choosing what I want. Praying to St. Anthony when I lose stuff? Yes. Going to Easter Mass just to hear the part where the priest goes “Do you reject Satan and all his works?” so I can pretend I’m Michael Corleone at the end of “Godfather I” when his nephew is being baptized while his enemies are being murdered? A resounding YES. The harder, more polarized, and antiquated stuff? Not so much. I don’t even want to go there on this blog.

I’ve noticed that Lent has started to lose its reverence as a time of inward reflection and spiritual preparation and has instead become a quick fix diet fad for the masses. Just this morning I overheard a woman at work say, “I’m not Catholic but I could give up ice cream for a while.” Then just stop eating the f*cking ice cream! That’s not what Lent is about! Dare I say Lent has become trendy. These days most of the people I hear talking about giving up something for Lent have never known the discomfort of a blessing of holy oil gooping up their bangs on their already oily adolescent forehead during Confirmation or have had many a sticky, styrofoam-y Host get stuck to the roof of their mouths and they don’t have anything to wash it down (because who drinks the shared goblet of Communion wine / congregant saliva? gross!) so that  they have to do that weird thing with their tongue that makes them look like a cat hacking up a hairball…i.e., not Catholics. Maybe I should start observing Hanukkah. I hear you get presents for eight days. Plus I love candles.

If you want to observe Lent whether you’re Catholic or not, fine, do it. I don’t care and wish we’d all keep our religions to ourselves anyway. Maybe you’ll get something positive out of it. People like having a way to keep tabs on themselves and compete with themselves in a healthy way. Sometimes it helps to have an outside force whether it’s a FitBit or the suffering of Christ to hold ourselves accountable for our behavior. But why do you have to give up something to attain the inner peace, love, and spiritual growth that you are (hopefully??) seeking during this time? What if you make a change or try something new? What if you gain instead of give up?

The most fruitful observation of Lent happened when I was around thirteen. I was an unhappy child. I was probably suffering the early stages of clinical depression, but at that time I was just labeled as “moody,” which made me feel oh-so-much better. It was really easy to talk myself down into a darker and darker state of mind. As the law of attraction teaches us, like attracts like. The sadder I was the more sadness I attracted to me….so when Lent started I decided to cut the crap for a while and smile every day. Just smile. Not a big dumb grin. Just smile.

And you know what? I felt much better, even though I only kept it up for about a week. The simple act of smiling brightened my mood and attracted hope. The residual effects were short-lived since I was young and foolish hadn’t yet figured out that happiness comes from within, not from a thing or a person. But the lesson has stayed with me ever since then.

So today on Ash Wednesday, a day when Catholics typically fast and avoid meat, I had chicken for lunch at my favorite Lebanese restaurant. I have been dreaming of this chicken for weeks—spicy, juicy grilled chicken kebab dipped in the tastiest, oiliest hummus I’ve ever had. A coworker and I joined a former coworker to catch up, and we had a fantastic time. Our lunch was a celebration of our friendship, and that fellowship means a lot more to me than eating a greasy fried fish dinner with strangers in a parish hall. (I consider fish a meat anyway. Have you ever seen one cleaned and gutted alive? A fish is a lot more pissed off about becoming a meal than a potato is.)

Eating is not part of my spiritual practice and is therefore not significant to my growth other than showing love to my body “temple” by eating nutritious foods that keep me healthy and strong. I eat a vegetarian/vegan diet half the time anyway because I’m too lazy to cook meat. Giving up meat is not a meaningful gesture for me. Perhaps your connection to eating and spirituality is different for you, and that’s fine.

So how am I going to observe Lent and honor my personal faith and relationship with God? Jesus didn’t die so I could mope around and punish myself. Here’s what I’ll do:
Be happy. Love life.  Show gratitude for all that I have been given. Do all the things that make me feel healthy, happy, and whole. Be nice to people. Give a homeless guy standing on the freeway access road five bucks before the cops run him off. Take care of myself and treasure the body that I have rather than bemoaning the flaws. Make my coworkers laugh. Help a little kid learn a new taekwondo form.  Eat chocolate without feeling guilty, drink wine and enjoy the smooth flavors and heady buzz, go to the pool and rock out the butterfly stroke, laugh my head off at stupid movies with lots of naughty language, thank God for something hilarious and random that happened today.

Why stop when the forty days are over? I’ll be having too much fun.

How an Introvert Ended Up Talking by Day and Yelling by Night

Oh if only I had this! Add a doormat that says “GO AWAY” and I’m all set.

Yesterday I conducted a workshop for a tough crowd of nurses despite having a voice weakened by allergies and an absent second speaker, and then I went to taekwondo class where I jumped around and yelled with my classmates and worked on my sad-looking flying side and turning back side kicks. I didn’t get nervous at all. If you had told me twenty or even ten years ago that that’s how I would be spending my Monday I would have run away screaming.

I never talked to strangers…or anyone for that matter. My dad’s best friend told me that when I was little I would throw my forearm over my eyes whenever he (or any other adult) tried to talk to me. Once I was in a store investigating a little toy when a kind woman came up behind me to show me how it worked. Out of sheer shyness and mortification of being spoken to I turned on my heel and walked away, leaving my frustrated mother to apologize for my rudeness. Sometimes at school my voice would sound clogged and hoarse the first time I spoke in class since I had used it so little that day, leaving me feeling more self-conscious and less motivated to talk at all.

I never had a really bad experience with an adult (or another child for that matter) – I just didn’t like interacting with people. I turned down invitations to hang out at friends’ houses after school when I’d reached my comfort quota of people time. No one understood that I needed my down time to read and draw by myself. Then I was good to play again until another self-imposed exile.

To this day I don’t talk to little kids I see out in public because I remember how much I hated strange adults invading my space and acting like they could get all up in my grill. Now I only have to contend with the occasional insecure redneck or patronizing old gentleman of the Greatest Generation barking at me to “smile!” as if I owe them something. Sometimes I want to go all Russell Crowe in “Gladiator,” throw out my hands and scream, “Are you not enteraaaaained?!?”

I still prefer time alone with my thoughts and interests over socializing. I’m curious and fascinated by life; I just don’t need a gaggle of margarita-sipping cronies to click and cluck behind me while I explore. It took me a good two years to really gel with my team mates at work. We work very well together, but I couldn’t be in meetings with them or “on” with clients every single day. Other than taekwondo all the athletic activities I do are completely solo even when I’m surrounded by others doing exactly the same thing. I would much rather spend a silent hour gliding back and forth through the water than cutting up with buddies on the basketball court. I still need to take breathers when I’ve been in an over-stimulated environment with a lot of people and noise. I just want to explore and enjoy my world on my own terms. Go away before I hold your head under water.

If you haven’t figured out by now, I’m an introvert. Now, does that mean I’m anti-social or pass out at the thought of speaking in public? No, I’m not. I happen to like people, and part of my job includes speaking in public, which I’m quite comfortable doing. For those of you playing the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator game at home, my personality type is INJF. No, I did not get that off some random internet site that promised to match up my type to a Star Wars character. I’ve taken the real MBTI twice, and I’m certified to administer and interpret the assessment….so to get really picky and technical I should say I “prefer” introversion. Preferring introversion or an extraversion (yes, that’s how it’s really spelled) refers to how you are energized, not whether you’re the stereotypical quiet wallflower or lampshade-wearing center of attention. People, noise, crowded spaces, congested streets—all those things may be stimulating and exciting to another person, but they drain the heck out of me. Huge department stores with too many choices and swarming shoppers have nearly brought me to tears.

So how the hell did I end up in a job and a hobby that both require me to interact with people and perform in front of a crowd?

I like learning and in turn like helping other people learn. That’s the core of it. My job centers around helping other people learn and improve their performance. My number one hobby, taekwondo, centers around not only my own learning and improvement but helping others learn and improve too. This, for the MBTI followers, is where my F comes in, the extraverted feeling portion of my personality. For those of you who are sitting here saying “MBTwhaaaaat?” that means I care deeply about and connect to the well-being of others, and I seek out ways to encourage it. For the MBTI techies, yes, “feeling” actually indicates my decision-making preference, and more often than not, my personal values and concern for other people’s feelings and well-being play into my choices. In fact, my MBTI Step II report (that’s the one that goes into much more detail than just the four main letters) states that as an INFJ I am “most interested in helping people see new possibilities. [I] like others to develop a deeper understanding of themselves and often work one-on-one to help individuals do so.” Yup, that’s right.

A participant in a workshop I facilitated told me I had a very “nurturing” style. That’s the mode I go into when I do my day job or coach other taekwondo students. It’s not about me and getting praise for my vast knowledge; it’s about bringing out the best in them and seeing those lightbulbs go off over their heads. The most joyous moment in workshops or meetings I’ve facilitated is seeing participants discuss topics with each other, generate their own ideas, and get excited about their own work. Last night in TKD I quietly pulled a promising young student aside and gave him some feedback on his roundhouse kick. That was just as fulfilling as doing the kick myself. Coaching, facilitating, and even consulting with clients every day would kill me, but I sure would miss it if I were stuck in an office by myself all day.

As for the performing part—the day job really is about being a channel for other people’s learning, although I am very proud of the workshops, meetings, and learning tools I’ve created from scratch. There’s a little more ego and striving for perfection in taekwondo. I did theater in high school and minored in dance in college so I’m not terrified of being “on stage” or stared at by strangers. I lose myself when I am facilitating by day or kickin’ it with my peeps (pun intended, sorry) by night. I am the most focused and peaceful in those moments, even when chaos is swirling around me. I joke to people that I black out during those moments, but it’s partially true. My spazzy mind completely shuts down and who I really am at my core takes over. I can express myself in these moments when it can otherwise be very difficult.

Both the athleticism and beauty of taekwondo pull me out of my isolated shell. I love the way it feels to kick and jump and lose myself in forms, and you can’t help but be enthusiastic and let out a yell (or you yell because your instructor gives you the side eye and says you didn’t ki-yahp loudly enough). What a delightful way to slough off everything I’ve been holding in all day in my internal world–yell and hit sh*t! I don’t care what I sound like. I don’t care who sees me. I know I look ridiculous! So does everyone else. I. Don’t. Care. At the end of most classes I am as red as a tomato, mascara is smudged under my crazy bloodshot eyes, my hair is plastered to my head, and my dobok is crumpled against my profusely sweating body. I. Don’t. Care. I was more nervous during the first few months, especially doing things that highlighted my weaknesses, but I soon realized that the dojang was a safe place to experiment, practice, and even fail. Everyone respects and honors each other, and even when we’re throwing kicks at each other’s heads we’re doing it from a place of love.  I am doing what I love, and there is no room for any doubts or fears or self-consciousness in that moment.

And then I go home and get the hell away from everybody.

Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD

stooges graduate

[Disclaimer: There’s nothing I can do in the post to NOT sound like a humblebragging privileged tool, so if that really bothers you I suggest you cut bait now.]

“When are you going for a PhD?” my dad asked jokingly during a recent visit.
“I’d rather just advance in black belt ranks,” I replied.

I’ve done the grad school thing. Twice. The first time was when I was a fresh-faced twenty-two year-old who could handle the crazy hours of commuting six days a week to two internships, managing two to three classes a semester, and staying up until 2 AM most nights to finish assignments. The second time was when I was a sallow-faced thirty-two year old, slogging through three hour night classes after a full day’s work, plus changing careers and buying a house within that time period. It was difficult, tiring, and sometimes I wondered why the hell I was torturing myself, but in the end they were some of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I have some nice diplomas on my wall and a career that has been boosted by my education…and I’m done. If I never see the inside of a university classroom again I won’t be too heartbroken.

Taekwondo is difficult, tiring, and sometimes I wonder why the hell I’m torturing myself…but going back to it was also one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Here’s why I’m glad I chose going after my black belt over another round of grad school:
Better ROI: A college degree, whether it’s a bachelor’s degree or a PhD, isn’t a surefire ticket to career success and financial stability. It’s certainly a leg up in the working world, but what you do with your education is what really sets you on the right path. I’ve already looked at the numbers for what a PhD in my field would make, and it’s not much more than I’d make now. I don’t want to teach or go into leadership, so how far would that degree really take me? Would it be worth the thousands of dollars and hours spent on attaining another degree? For some the answer is yes. For me it is no. I’m happy where I am in my chosen profession.
A black belt is just a stop on the way of continuous growth and improvement in skills. You also gain confidence, a higher self-esteem, better health, new friends, mental strength and discipline. You could gain some of those things in grad school (except perhaps the better health part), but with taekwondo it seems to be a more immediate return, and one that keeps growing over time with compounded interest.

Less Expensive: Have you seen college tuition costs lately? And I’m just talking about state schools. If your martial arts school costs more than a year’s tuition then you have a serious problem with your choice of dojang.
Besides, I’ve never heard of anyone thousands of dollars in debt from a martial arts school loan.

Better Health: Do I really have to explain this? Graduate school required a lot of sitting—sitting in the car after sitting at an office job all day, sitting in class, sitting at home studying. The only sitting we do in taekwondo class is a few seconds at the beginning and end for a brief meditation. Taekwondo class is an hour of crazy cardio, sprints, lunges and squats disguised as jump kicks, and of course knuckle push-ups. (I add Pilates abs if I’m leading the class) You should even be breathing hard and sweating with forms if you’re doing them correctly.

I didn’t really need to lose any weight when I started TKD, but I’ve noticed my muscle tone has improved quite a bit as well as strength, speed, and stamina. Grad school makes you smarter (sort of), but you look like death warmed over half the time from the stress, plus it’s easier to slip into bad eating habits when you’re on the run or cramming school work in with the rest of your busy life. I still like fast food and candy, but TKD motivates me to maintain a healthy diet that keeps me fueled and doesn’t slow me down. I sleep like a rock on nights I have taekwondo class. That’s way more fun than logging into Blackboard at 11:30PM to upload an assignment.

Better Hours: We have to account for kids, so our classes don’t go any later than 8:30 PM. We’re efficient and get stuff done in an hour. Some of my college professors could have learned a thing or two about getting to the point from my TKD instructors. And see my comment above about doing school work late at night. Who does flying kicks at 10 PM unless they’re drunk?

Studying Is a Lot More Fun: Improving my spin kick versus reading a thirty-page article…hmmm, what to do…. I had to force myself to study, as in setting timers and giving myself little rewards when I had made it through a study session. I hated studying, even though I was paid to be an expert researcher for many years! Practicing (studying) taekwondo is the reward in itself. Study = fun, instant payoff.

The Learning Model is Actually Conducive to Learning: I’m a learning and development professional. I know how people learn, and passively sitting through a lecture is not that great of a method, at least it wasn’t for me. In TKD you do initially learn by listening and watching, but most importantly you learn and apply by DOING, plus you get instant feedback from your instructor.

The Formal Learning Never Stops: This isn’t exclusive—or at least it shouldn’t be—to taekwondo. You want to see continuing education in all professions. If your doctor hasn’t set foot in a conference or picked up a peer-reviewed journal since medical school…RUN.
First degree black belt is just that…first, the beginning. There is still so much more to learn, plus the expectation to teach others, which helps me learn my craft even better.

Cool Title: Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be addressed as Dr. LittleBlackBelt or see those three letters after my name, but that curiosity is often soothed by hearing a room full of people scream “YES MA’AM!!” at me when I am leading the class.

The Korean title for first dan is “jo kyo neem,” or “assistant instructor.” You know your place in the ranks, you’ve proven you are worthy of the title, and what is expected of you is written right into the title. The weight of that responsibility actually freaks me out a little more than being called “Dr.”

“Graduation” Is Actually Exciting to Watch: My family has been through their share of boring graduation ceremonies with me. I fell asleep during one of them and was only disturbed from my slumber when an undergrad tripped on the stage.
There will be no sleeping during the black belt test…unless I get knocked out during a sparring match. Hopefully it will be a lot more interesting to watch, and instead of long-winded speeches you just hear people yelling in Korean. We get to the point in taekwondo.

They make you work for it in the black belt test, though. We don’t actually get awarded our belts for another week or so, so you get to sweat it out a little while longer. The diploma you get onstage during college graduation is fake, but at least you get something.

I wasn’t nervous during any of my graduation ceremonies. Meanwhile at every belt test my heart feels like it is going to jackhammer through my chest. There’s a lot more at stake. At a graduation ceremony I know the degree is guaranteed. I’ve already completed the work and have been allowed into the ceremony. With a belt test there’s always that threat hanging over your head that you *might* not advance. That makes getting the belt or stripe at the end of the test all the more of a sweet relief.

I won’t say there isn’t such a thing as a boring belt test, but seeing people flop around and beat up on each other is vastly more interesting than hearing five hundred names being called out. The only redeeming entertainment factor of a college graduation ceremony is seeing all the colorful outfits of the faculty and staff PhDs. Every time I go to a graduation ceremony I pretend I’m at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the PhDs are professors of magic.

You Get to Yell and Hit Stuff: Do you know how many times I wanted to do this during those late-night classes, boring lectures, and tricky assignments?

Either Way I’d Get to Teach: I love teaching. I love helping others learn and develop and grow. A route for many PhD recipients is teaching at a university, and that’s just not my cup of tea even though I’ve been a guest teacher at a few university classes. I wouldn’t want to be a professor, because you have to…you know…work…and publish..and put up with whiny students and stuff. We have plenty of whiny students in TKD but they do what I say without question most of the time because they’re children and I’m an adult. TKD makes me want to give back to my fellow students, and I enjoy coaching and teaching almost as much as I do practicing taekwondo myself. I get to share what I love with others, and it doesn’t feel like work at all. That’s how my dad felt when he was an art professor, and that’s when I feel when I’m coaching two little kids to kick the crap out of each other.

You Don’t Have to Wear Shoes…Ever: This is the best reason by far.

It’s Hit the Fan

‘When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams , he found himself changed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” – Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

I woke up this morning from unsettling dreams, probably thanks to going to bed with a heavy heart and troubled mind. Although I had not been transformed into a giant insect I felt like I had gone through five brutal sparring matches in a row. My face was puffy and nearly unrecognizable from poor sleep and two solid hours of heavy crying the night before. My head ached dully and my mind felt like it was in a fog.

For once I was not ravenous as I usually am in the morning. I shuffled to my kitchen, stared numbly at the bright produce, gleaming eggs, and sweet Greek yogurt…and closed the door. That’s the one good side effect of the tailspin of a depressive episode—accidental anorexia. When I’m a little stressed and agitated I snack. When things get really serious I stop eating. I couldn’t take another bite of dinner after a very upsetting phone call last night. Breakfast wasn’t looking too appealing either. This was obviously one of those “really serious” times. For a few minutes I entertained my frazzled daydreams of letting the loss of appetite become full-blown anorexia—maybe I’d become so malnourished that I fracture a rib during sparring! Maybe no one will notice my weight loss under the billowing unflattering dobok that seems to make everyone’s butt look big. Maybe I’ll skip dinner every night until this issue is resolved. Maybe I’ll finally have a flat stomach and be ready for bikini season. Yeah! I forced myself to eat a Larabar and some fruit when I got to work, dashing the notion of wasting away before my own eyes.

So as you may have surmised I’m dealing with some sh*t right now. It’s a personal problem that has plagued me for many months, an issue requiring heart-wrenching decisions that will result in tears and regret no matter where the chips fall. I am consumed by grief, guilt, and anguish over not knowing what to do. It sucks ass, and yet somehow I always put on my professional mask to make it through the day. I’ve been doing that as long as I’ve been in the world of work. There was never the option of having a complete meltdown and (1) shuffling off this mortal coil or to a lesser extent (2) quitting work and shutting down for a while. Someone has to pay the bills. Someone has to show up being me. There never was anyone to catch me if I fell so I always had to prop myself up and fake it to the world, no matter what was going on behind closed doors. I can’t afford to fall because if I do I will drown.

Going to work actually helps. It gets me away from my problem, allows me to socialize, and lets my brain work on issues that have nothing to do with what’s going on at home. I know I’ll have to fake it a little in taekwondo tonight. I want to stay home curled up in my bed surrounded by a nest of books and Kleenexes. The thing about taekwondo is that it is like the Dreamless Sleep potion in the Harry Potter books: for that hour, and sometimes that hour alone, I don’t think about everything and I forget my troubles. It will be a welcome relief.

Addendum: I went to class last night, and of course it cheered me up. My spin kicks, including the left side, never looked better. The home practice I did on Sunday really paid off!