Anger Management

mad kitty

“Good. I can feel your anger. I am defenseless. Take your weapon! Strike me down with all your hatred, and your journey towards the dark side will be complete!” – Emperor Palpatine, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

You gotta love a great villain, especially one with deliciously quotable lines like Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars series. (Besides, that overused Yoda quote “Do or not do, there is no try” is a bunch of smarmy self-righteous crap.) Palpatine’s taunting statement made me think about anger, how we express it, when to use it to our advantage, and when to let it go.

Last night in sparring class a teenage green belt and I were minding our own business, snapping kicks and punches and chasing each other around the ring when we heard an eruption of anger from the other side of the room.

“I’M DONE! I DON’T NEED YOUR BS!” screamed a teenage black belt who has a history of mouthing off and losing his temper. For whatever reason he started shouting at our instructor during their sparring match. He stalked out of the room, leaving my partner and I to continue our fight under our instructor’s watchful eye. I felt a little bit like I did those times my brother got in trouble and I was left alone at the dinner table saying things like “Uh…this corn is good!” and trying to please my parents any way I could. There is an anger in this kid that is threatening to be unleashed. I know from experience that that type of anger will only destroy him while the rest of us look on unscathed.

Sparring can either bring out the best in us or unlock our demons. Most of the time I’m positive, curious, ready to work hard, and even jovial. I got hit in the face last night and just laughed it off, taking it as instant feedback that I needed to block and dodge faster (and I was really really thankful I always wear a mouthguard). But I can’t claim total innocence as I’ve lost my cool a few times during sparring class—no screaming eruptions like my classmate, but a I’ve thrown a few glares and muttered nasty comments under my breath. Those few times I did lose it had nothing to do with my partners or instructors or even anything to do with taekwondo. I was angry at things in my personal life and angry at myself. My hatred was poisoning me and taking me closer and closer to the dark side, whatever that means for you.

I have felt a lot of anger and hatred lately in my personal life. It ebbs and flows, reaches a boiling point and then simmers down until the next trigger is pulled. I feel intense boiling hatred for someone I’ve never met, someone who interfered in an important part of my personal life and indirectly led to the end result. This person’s interference and tricks pulled behind my back humiliated me, and I have my moments of wanting revenge. I feel my hatred toward that person much more acutely than the anger I’ve felt towards the person directly involved in my situation (I’m trying to keep this anonymous; ya’ll’ve figured out there are two people I’m talking about, right?).

I’ve been able to gain closure and do whatever forgiving I can with the person directly involved.  But it’s still easy and in a way comforting to hate this other person I’ve never met, the one who interfered in my personal life when they had no business doings so. They exist only as an idea, an effigy, a target on which I can pin all my frustrations and blame. The poison of this hatred feels good, like a hit of a dangerous drug. I’m not quite ready to let it go.

This teenage black belt and I share some of the same demons, although I’ve never disclosed that to him. The demons are not an excuse for certain behavior; they simply serve as an explanation. At this point I’m not sure sharing my story would help him. I don’t think he’s ready to be helped or to take responsibility for his own feelings and actions.

While he was aggravated and explosive, sparring class actually quieted my own anger and stress. By the end of class I wondered what all the fuss in my head was about. Taekwondo usually has a way to twist and work my mind and body to the point that my frustrations, worries, and fears are obliterated, like stamping out a burning cigarette. They’re gone with a quiet hiss. Unfortunately for my teenage classmate, I think his demons and anger are far too strong for him to, as my yoga teacher says, “rest and receive his practice.”

There are some people I can’t forgive. A particularly abusive ex-boyfriend from many years ago, a toxic former friend, this person whom I’ve never met who contributed to a very painful situation in my personal life. I know I am giving them too much lease space in my head, and I know I will never be free if I continue to hate them. But I like the anger, and I like the way the bile and bitterness feels in my veins. I rarely think of the former two people any more, but I’ve never forgotten how they treated me. My anger and intense hatred towards the third person are still raw, and I haven’t yet figured out how to put it all behind me (don’t tell me to forgive; that’s not happening).

If there’s anything positive to gain from it it’s the sense that I now have a better understanding of human nature. Some people simply can’t be trusted, and some people are snakes in the grass, waiting to strike. Anger doesn’t necessarily need to be squelched. It can be a healthy emotion that keeps us from being abused and taken advantage of. Anger can been a feedback tool to show us our own insecurities, and I’ll admit that some of my current anger and hatred stems from my own insecurity even though that other person still is a triflin’ no good dirty bi–never mind.

Uncontrolled anger turns itself back on the one feeling that emotion. It’s the old adage of swallowing poison and hoping the other person dies. They don’t tell you that the poison tastes like Coca-cola and cupcakes at first. When you discover how disgusting it is it’s too late.

I can hear my instructor saying in my head, “Don’t let it escalate,” so maybe that’s the best thing to do at this point. You can walk away from a bully or a snake. You can still be angry at them and they’ll still exist, but you’re not wasting your sight or breathing space on them anymore. It doesn’t kill them, but it keeps your fear and anger from killing you.

Sometimes just acknowledging that you feel anger and figuring out the reason why you feel it can help lessen its power.
Ahh, I feel better already.


Doing What We Dread Can Do Us Good

quote-about-discipline-is-doing-what-needs-to-be-done-when-we-dont-want-to-do-it “Well, the majority voted for forms so we’ll do self-defense tonight. If no one wants to work on it that must mean that’s where we need the most help, right?” one of the instructors said cheerfully as we all inwardly groaned. It was Wednesday night, which is reserved for sparring followed by red and black belt class. Most of us in the late class had already attended sparring class and were so exhausted that we were ready for an easy evening of gliding through forms. Instead we would be spending the next hour working on intricate hand-to-hand techniques.

We selected partners and once again I was paired with a quiet, poised young girl whom I had coached during sparring class. She possessed the grace and long limbs of a dancer, an elegant maturity well beyond her years, and here’s the rub—she’s ten years old and already taller than me. We spent the evening working on our hand-to-hand techniques, which she has to learn for her upcoming bo dan test and I will have to repeat for my black belt test. I enjoy working one on one with the kids so I let her twist my wrist over and over until she finally worked up enough aggression to make it effective, meaning it hurt like hell.

“Is everyone worn out? Maybe mentally more than physically? Being frustrated can make you just as tired as working out,” our instructor mused at the end of class. It’s true, self-defense works my brain harder than any other taekwondo technique, and it’s easy to become frustrated when my body won’t do what my mind knows it’s supposed to do. However, I also felt surprisingly refreshed and relaxed at the end of the class. It was as if putting my body and mind through the wringer had squeezed out any residual stress, distractions, or worry.

Sometimes we have to do things that are good for us even though we don’t want to do it. We don’t want to eat our vegetables. We don’t want to practice self-defense. We don’t want to deliver bad news. We don’t want to expose our insecurities. Once we do, however, it doesn’t feel so bad. It’a not as scary or unpleasant as we thought it would be.

I had to do something very difficult yesterday that I had been dreading, but in the end it was what was best for me. I didn’t feel “refreshed and relaxed” after the fact since it was a sad situation, but I knew I had to go through with it. It will help me reach the next level just as I have to keep trying things that are uncomfortable to progress in my taekwondo practice. Perhaps we could even do what we dread with a little more confidence and faith next time.

Happy Fails to You

failure kirk

“Failure is the new awesome,” my yoga teacher said in his deep booming voice as we eased back into child’s pose after a hearty, vigorous vinyasa series. This is interesting, I thought as I breathed into the space between my nose and my mat. I wonder where he’s going with this?

“We’re afraid to fail. Some people say the opposite of success is failure. I beg to differ. Winston Churchill said, ‘Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.’ When you fail it means you’re awesome. It means you took a risk, you stuck you’re neck out.”

He then asked us to move into downward dog he added, “And if you want to stay in child’s pose for a while that’s OK too. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means you’re listening to your body.” I propped my hips up but remained resting on the ground as the salted cashews and piece of salami I’d snacked on earlier this morning had suddenly conspired to form an angry ball in my stomach. (Hey, it was organic cashews and nitrate-free salami so don’t toss my halo in the trash yet…)

I don’t like failing. I don’t like embarrassing myself. I don’t like exposing myself as being less than perfect. But I’ve failed many times and came out on the other side as the winner. I’ve quit jobs, friends, relationships, classes, school programs, and hobbies and they all ended up being the catalysts for change and success that I couldn’t have envisioned being possible if I’d continued to cling to what wasn’t serving me anymore.

In taekwondo I have fallen flat on my back, been kicked in the head, endured countless injuries, and had to try things over and over and over for months or years at a time before I got my mind and body to click and do it right. In my last post I mentioned that I quit ballet and my college dance major, which set off a domino effect that landed me in the awesome life I have today. I’ve learned just as much, perhaps even more, from my “failures” than I have from my successes.

Later in the class we were balancing on one leg in warrior III/airplane (funny, there’s no Sanskrit term for “airplane pose”) with our upper body, raised leg, and arms stretched out behind us. He instructed us to lean, lean, leeeeeaaaan forward…and then dive into standing split. “You see?” he said. “You thought you might fail if you fell forward. But you ended up going exactly where you needed to go.” Sly, this yoga teacher of mine.

We did it again on the other side, and this time I was braver. I tipped my upper body straight towards the floor like a seesaw, stretched my arms and raised leg as high as I could toward the ceiling, dove my face as far down towards the mat as I could, all the while snickering and hearing my taekwondo instructor’s voice inside my head shouting, “Why don’t you do that during spin kick?? I always have to remind you to lean your shoulder back!!” If I fell, who cared? I was going to catch myself and land in the next pose anyway. I was going exactly where I wanted to go.

Are you afraid to fail? Are you afraid to even try because you’re afraid to fail? You might fail. You might fall on your face, embarrass yourself, and totally screw up your life. And you might not. Either way, the final outcome is in your hands.  You have the power to learn from your failures and use them as catalysts for success. Dive in! You’re awesome either way.

(Funny side note: earlier today I was wearing a Nike t-shirt that says, “Behold Awesome.” I guess we’re all on the Awesome Train today)

Swan Lake Would Have Been a Lot More Interesting with an Odile/Odette Smackdown


Ultimate Fighter, Waterfowl Edition

“Move over, ballerina,” my instructor said impatiently as I was attempting a takedown during hand-to-hand practice. “You’re taking these little steps and going nowhere,” he continued. “Take one big step around like THIS,” he said, swooping his leg around into a low stance and swiftly pulling the other student to the ground.

“So I can’t do little pique turns?” I said, grinning and waggling my eyebrows. He rolled his eyes and stalked off.

Little bit of trivia about me: for about three years in college I was a dance major. I wanted to learn dance so badly that I immersed myself in it the first opportunity I had. Seeing as my dad changed his major to art and later became a college art history and painting/drawing teacher my parents didn’t have much room to protest. I absolutely loved everything I was learning about the art and science of dance and the surprising things I was learning about myself in the process (because even back then I was an introspective little hippie always searching for deeper meanings and life lessons. Maybe I could have had a blog called Little Black Swan).

My taekwondo instructors and classmates like to tease me when I do something that’s a little too dancey like rising up on my toes during a transition in a form instead of staying low and stealthy, that one time I did a tour jete instead of a flying turning back side kick, or, much to my instructor’s annoyance, taking dainty, twirly little steps during close contact self-defense. It took months just to train myself to keep my chin down during front snap kick. My dance training did come in handy when I told my young partner, who takes ballet in addition to taekwondo, that looking at your target before executing a turning back side kick was like spotting during pirouettes. Her face lit up and she immediately improved during her next kick.
So THERE, guys. So there!

Here’s the funny part—I hated ballet. I wasn’t very good at it. I felt like a clunky, broad-shouldered, thick-waisted jock amidst the other students who had been studying dance for much longer than I had. Ironically the picky attention to details that so frustrated me in ballet would later appeal to me as I studied classical guitar and taekwondo technique. Meanwhile I was all over modern dance. My athletic build worked well with the modern style, and besides, you could just make that sh*t up and no one was the wiser.

Early into my final semester in college I had my 19th nervous breakdown after a particularly bad day in ballet class. I dropped all my dance classes except one, changed my major to English since it was just a matter of swapping my major and minor, and got the hell out of there so I could start graduate school, where I had another nervous breakdown that motivated me to drop all my classes and change my major to library science….which led to Career Number One…which led to Grad School Part Two…which led to Career Number Two and all the awesome things that have happened since then.  So in a way sucking eggs at ballet was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

I think it’s funny that ghosts of my past lives continue to float around in my body. Somewhere inside me resides a dancer even though I have denied her existence for nearly fifteen years. Other people, like my taekwondo instructor, recognize her presence before I do. Even deeper is that pensive, moody, quiet girl who spent all her time reading and drawing cartoons.  Anyone who knew me during those years still sees her lurking in my eyes. And somewhere deep in my heart is that serious, determined ten-year-old kid who fell in love with taekwondo and found her calling. It’s nice to bring her back to the surface.

Tricks Up Your (Dobok) Sleeve — The Poomsae Series Part 9

An ace up the sleeve  (Credit Image: Image Source/ZUMA Press)

An ace up the sleeve (Credit Image: Image Source/ZUMA Press)

“It’s a short form. If you can do palgwe pal-jang you can do this form,” one of the masters said as he walked me through the form I will need to perform when I test for black belt.

Famous last words.

A few weeks ago we learned Koryo 1. UPDATE: Thanks to an update from reader Jon (see video link in the comment below), this form actually exists out there, albeit with some minor changes. It’s not used very often. There is a universal form called Koryo, which we’ll also have to learn (in our school it will be Koryo 2), but for now until first dan we have this additional form. No pressure, right?

This form has a surprise around every corner. I haven’t thought “WTF??” this often when learning a form in a long time. It has the same funny-strange creepiness of oh-jang and the same diva-like flair as yuk-jang. While it doesn’t quite match the anger of chil-jang or the cool complexity of pal-jang it’s full of dirty fighting and unconventional combinations. It starts with two nose strikes (or they could be throat or eye punches depending on where you aim), a knee to the face punctuates the middle, and it is topped off by a flying snap kick to the head at the end. Ouch.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty fun. It keeps you on your toes even though we’re not supposed to be on our toes except for this one part at the end and…never mind. I actually wish it were longer so I could keep “playing” in it. Pal-jang seems to take an eternity, but like yuk-jang, this form is over in a flash.

If a form could be humorous, this is the one. Oh, you think I’m backing off and retreating? Nope, how’dya like a knee to your face, BAM! HA HA! Oh, you think you can sneak up on me because my back is turned? Nope, gotcha with a knife-hand block, BAM! HA HA HA! Looks like I’m slowing down, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?? Doesn’t it—BA-BAAAM!! Two kicks to your face, sucka!

So what’s to learn from this form? As the great George Strait sang, “you’ve got to have an ace in the hole, a little secret that nobody knows.” Whether it’s a hidden talent you use when you really need to shine, a few thousand dollars in your “F You” account (yes, that’s a real thing), or a few dirty moves you can pull in a street fight, that little ace in the hole can boost your confidence, maintain your sense of humor, and remind you that everything is going to be OK if you just trust yourself.

Dragged Kicking and Screaming Into…well, Kicking and Screaming

inner peace

“Don’t let it escalate,” my instructor offered as a final tip for the evening. We were hanging around the dojang practicing some self-defense techniques. I was a little disappointed when he said that. I’ll admit that I’ve daydreamed about snapping the elbow and repeatedly stomping on the face of some nameless gropey man, a drunk at a bar or perhaps a cocky teenager trying to show off for his friends, screaming “Women aren’t squeeze toys! If you do this to me or any woman again I’ll hunt you down and gut you like a f*cking fish!! Now apologize!!!”

Turns out that’s not really what self defense is about. My instructor likened it to how we handle our emotions in an argument, and we don’t want them to escalate out of our control.  I was a little envious that this guy, twelve years my junior, already had it figured out when it took me many years of humiliating blow-ups and breakdowns and having to teach this crap at work for it to start to sink in. His practice had obviously given him much more than the ability to do a flying side kick.

I wondered how different I might have been had I stayed with taekwondo as a child–mentally more than physically. It would have given me purpose, focus, discipline, and most importantly, calmed me the hell down. One of the teenage black belts, who knows about my childhood foray into taekwondo, likes to joke that I’m really a fifth dan, and I always say, “No no no!” and waggle my hands at him. I really don’t think I would have stayed with it. The way my self-esteem plummeted–juxtaposed with my impossibly huge entitled ego–and priorities shifted (not necessarily for the better) as  a teen and young adult was so powerful that I doubt taekwondo could have survived.

Maybe I had to go through all that unpleasantness to become who I am today. Had I not gotten to the brink of total self-destruction I would not have gained exponential growth through the help of trusted (and very patient) guides and the tools of observation, reflection, and accountability. If I’d started taekwondo even five years ago I still would have been brooding over how fat I thought I was or how much I wanted whatever jerk I was obsessed with for the moment to text me instead of quieting my monkey mind and focusing on my flying side kick.

I came back to taekwondo when my mind and heart were finally tired of fighting, and they were more open than they’d ever been. Oddly enough kicking and screaming on the outside finally stopped the kicking and screaming on the inside. I became more optimistic and laughed a lot more. My life was no longer spinning out of control while I wailed in the corner as the helpless (and blameless) victim. I was finally ready to, as my yoga teacher would say, “receive my practice.”

Besides, if your monkey mind is distracted by anything other than technique during a flying side kick you’ll fall flat on your face.

Kicks, Camaraderie, and Cake

dobok cake

This cake is insanely beautiful. I must wear it and I must eat it…not sure which one I’ll do first. Maybe both at the same time.

The best laid plans for playing hooky are often waylaid by the promise of cake. For the last two days I have been EXHAUSTED. It’s not from Monday night’s TKD class or my Tuesday morning swim. It’s not from work. It’s from the little gray blob between my ears.

My brain won’t shut the hell up. Something pushed it past its tipping point into what is either a mild mania or the beginnings of a breakthrough. I simply could not stop thinking. All day I’ve been barraged by thoughts, ideas, insights, micro-epiphanies crackling through the circuits of my mind. After returning from a relaxing weekend I have been sleeping fitfully. My eyes are red and itchy, I’m short of breath, my voice is strained, and my sinuses feel like they’re filled with the vapor of diesel fuel. I’m tired, yo!

Here’s the difference between the past two days and past experiences: They’re not unpleasant or unhappy thoughts. They just won’t stop. Even though I’m sleeping fitfully, I am not overcome with a sense of unease and dread. My normal git-er-done chicken hawk brain has just gone a little further into the Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas mode (minus the cocaine and helicopters, and I bet my marinara sauce is better than his). I knew I had to do something before my annoying brain went into the dreaded little hyperactive kid snorting Pixie Stick dust off a coloring book mode.

So I gave myself a time out. I had just nestled into bed with a book and a small serving of delicate quinoa chips when I got a text from my instructor. He said we were celebrating Grandmaster’s birthday and it’s important that I be there. There was no question about going or not. I jumped out of bed and packed my gym bag.

Since we were using the time during the later class for the birthday party my instructor wore us out with a ten minute intense workout of kicking drills. We dispersed for the birthday party, and I had a riveting discussion with an eight-year-old about the refined motor skills one must use to open the complex yet sublime Capri Sun versus the crude juice box. I conspired with him not to tell his mom if he had a Coke.

After we set up for our little party one of the masters had us all—students, parents, friends, children–stand and bow to Grandmaster. Grandmaster blushed and waved his hand in protest at us. The master then cracked a few jokes and then said something that will stay with me long after the cake is gone: “This is a family. Grandmaster has been our father for all these years. For those of you who are new, welcome to our taekwondo family.”

I don’t take the word “family” lightly. I am very reluctant to share my heart with just anyone. I never found a tight-knit group of friends that I’d consider the “family you choose,” where we haphazardly make Thanksgiving dinner together and spill wine on the coffee table while we swap stories about our dysfunctional childhoods, which in the moment (and with the wine) seem hilarious rather than sad.  Even though I spend most of my waking hours laughing, creating, and commiserating with my coworkers I’m hesitant to consider us a “family.” I wondered in that moment if I had finally found my other family.

Grandmaster padded to the center of the room and thanked everyone for his birthday wishes. Like the other master he smiled, cracked jokes, and then went down an unexpected path of seriousness. He told us about another birthday–his grandfather’s 70th birthday and the party his family was planning that night. The next day Grandmaster would turn 10 years old. That night the North Korean army began its reign of terror and bloodshed on the innocent villagers in the area now known as the DMZ. Grandmaster and his sister were hurriedly whisked away to the safety of South Korea. He never saw his parents or grandparents again.

The room was silent except for the rustling of the breeze in the window blinds and the plods and plops of a tiny child lost in her own little innocent daydream flopping around on the mat. We all had our own backstories and diverse winding paths that somehow all landed us in a little dojang in Texas on a breezy Wednesday night. We were all there because of him. We were all united as a family.

And then we had cake. And then finally my mind went quiet.