The Jyo Kyo Neem’s On You: First Days as a Black Belt

the essentials
The essentials: Louboutins, Gucci, and a Little Black Dress, I Mean Belt. Probably not a great example of my martial arts humility, but…you know…the title of the blog and all…I couldn’t resist.

This past Wednesday I was awarded my first degree black belt in taekwondo. My years of hard work and dedication paid off! It was a wonderful, memorable moment to share with my instructors, fellow black belts, classmates, and the supportive family members who have patiently sat through countless hours of our classes.

Am I proud of myself? Sure, just as much for overcoming the mental and emotional hurdles I’ve faced over the years as I am for the physical feat of earning a black belt. Plus, I don’t know many other cubicle dwellers who willingly get sweaty, stinky, a little bit crazy, and enjoy getting in fights on a regular basis with people who are half their age and twice their size. I’ve pushed myself harder these past few years than I ever have, but unlike reaching academic or work goals, this never felt like a chore, even during more frustrating moments. It was always a privilege, always enlightening, and always a joy to train. More than anything, though, getting a black belt is humbling. I’m so honored to share this title and this martial arts practice with so many talented and brave people.

It still hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m a “Black Belt.” I’m still me. I have blue eyes, I still have my corporate day job, and my favorite gelato flavor is pistachio. I’m still me in taekwondo class too. In sparring I turn so red I start to look charcoal grey. My favorite kick is hook kick, and my favorite forms are a toss-up between Palgwe Sah Jang and Palgwe Chil Jang, although surprisingly, Palgwe Pal Jang has really grown on me over the last few months. Same old me, just with a new belt.

There’s a misconception that a black belt means the end of one’s training. I’ve reached the pinnacle of my martial arts prowess, at least according to the well-meaning folks I’ve talked to. If first degree black belt were “it” that would be the equivalent of peaking in high school, and who wants to be that girl? Several people have asked, “Now what?” as if I’ve gone as far as I can, and now it’s time to quit and pick up a new flavor of the month. Some people also assume that suddenly I can go all Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” and knock out ten people with a cartwheel or something. And don’t get me started on the registering my “deadly” hands jokes, UGH.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. In, fact the little mnemonic we have around the dojang is that “jyo kyo neem,” a Korean term that very roughly translates to assistant instructor/first dan black belt, means that you’re a “joke” because you’re at the bottom again. I won’t go into how being a first degree black belt means that the journey is just beginning, because you can find many articles and blog posts about that concept by martial artists who are much more experienced and eloquent than I am. I’ll just tell you how it feels from one little jyo kyo neem’s perspective…

There are several different meanings of the black belt floating around, so it will take some digging to find an authoritative resource describing what the black belt represents. (Sounds like a job for an ex-librarian!) Black Belt Magazine has a beautiful parable about the black belt symbolizing a dark time: the practitioner has skill but not necessarily the wisdom to make the right choices all the time. Another resource states that a martial artist who achieves black belt acts from a place of humility and serenity. Another mentions that a black belt has a high level of skill, including a rejection of darkness and fear. Serene, humble, fearless…that’s pretty sweet. I imagine that, like any other form of leadership, a black belt also requires a heightened sense of self-awareness, both of one’s strengths and of one’s deficiencies. True leaders know when to swallow their pride, ask for help, and be humble enough to lean from others.

So that’s where I am right now. I’m a black belt puppy, a freshman. I’m that toddler who’s really good at running around, screaming, and breaking stuff, but is stumped by skills that require more refined motor skills and intellectual prowess, like buttoning a shirt. (For me, in the realm of taekwondo, that would be hand-to-hand self-defense techniques. That part of my brain moves much slower than the one that handles forms and fighting.) I’m not discounting the skills I’ve demonstrated so far. I just know that, like the book by Marshall Goldsmith says, what got me here won’t get me there, i.e., the next black belt level. This will hopefully be a lifelong and ever-evolving practice. My instructors and classmates are stuck with me.

There is still so much more to learn and so much room for improvement, and becoming a black belt opens up opportunities to do that. I’m just now starting to break some bad sparring habits. I’ve only had a few months of getting to play with weapons defense, half of which I’ve spent flapping my hands and giggling and getting “killed” because I can’t think or move quickly enough when my opponent slashes at me with a rubber knife. I still can’t quite remember all of the color belt one-step sparring techniques. And my jump spin kick? If that’s all I have to defend myself with then I’d better just go full Texan and buy a gun.

After our awarding ceremony Wednesday night my chief instructor started teaching me and one of my classmates one of our new forms (which means there will be a revival of The Poomsae Series!! Stay tuned!!) and hand-to-hand self-defense. I spent most of the time nodding dumbly and watching him with the wide, glowing eyes of the proverbial deer in the headlights. I’ve accepted that that’s going to be my expression for the next few months.

Being a newbie again is actually refreshing. It keeps me fresh and on high alert. One of my favorite songs by rapper Jay-Z is “My 1st Song,” especially the introduction, an interview with Biggie Smalls talking about how to approach a project: stay humble, work hard, and act like you’re an intern, like it’s your first day on the job, and it’s your first project, “just stay hungry.” That’s how I want to approach taekwondo: black belt maturity on the outside, white belt curiosity on the inside. I’m a martial arts Oreo. Mmm, Oreos…

So now what? It’s life as usual: attending class four days a week, continuing to strengthen my right hip and hamstring, continuing to teach and coach the lower ranking belts, and continuing to learn and practice. I’m glad the heat’s off me at least for being a testing student, and I’m looking forward to watching the progress of other students. I still need to learn how to hold focus pads the right way, so I imagine that’s how I’ll be spending some of my time in the dojang. I’m not joking; it’s confusing.

I definitely have my work cut out for me. There are EIGHT levels beyond first dan (and possibly one more, but I’ll let the TKD historians confirm that), each one requiring an increasingly difficult level of physical and intellectual mastery, not to mention decades of training. Were I to seriously pursue the progressive black belt path I wouldn’t be eligible to even think about testing for the level my own Grandmaster is at 9th degree until I’m eighty years old, and that’s not happening. If I make it to eighty I’m going to be busy eating bacon sandwiches every day and sipping from a flask of whiskey in my old lady purse—not really Grandmaster material although hopefully I’ll still be yelling at little kids and throwing teenagers on the floor in taekwondo class. I’d love to progress to at least fourth or fifth dan, but if I’m a first degree black belt forever I’m happy with that too.


I Tested for My Black Belt and Ate a Cupcake: Both Were Equally Glorious

After weeks of brown rice and vegetables I needed a treat…What? I’m just carb-loading for the next class!

My much-anticipated first degree black belt test was on Saturday. Six members of my family had traveled from out of state, more family was joining us Saturday night for the after-party at my house, my favorite dobok (as in, the one that’s less baggy and has fewer sweat stains) was clean and folded, and I hadn’t had any more unsettling dreams about forgetting a form, or worse, my pants. I felt physically and mentally prepared, and I was so grateful and happy for the opportunity to test that I wasn’t worried in the slightest. All was right with the world.

The last time my family had gathered just for me was at my graduation for my master’s degree twelve years ago. Graduation is different from a belt test, though, because when I received my diplomas I was essentially severing my relationship with my institution. (Ninjas don’t join alumni associations.) I was so sick of classes and exams and paperwork and projects. By the time I donned a cap and gown I couldn’t wait to get as far away from my schools as possible.

When I got my MBA in 2012 I skipped graduation altogether and instead fled out of state to my parents’ house, where I celebrated my new degree in a much more understated way by drinking wine and smoking cigars in the backyard with my dad. No crowds, no fuss, no boring speeches, and I had a nice little buzz going. I didn’t even wear shoes.

Unlike graduation, the black belt test was an event that further deepened my commitment to my dojang.  It was more like when I was thirteen and received the sacrament of Confirmation in the Catholic Church, which ironically happened not long after I quit taekwondo as a child at blue belt/red tip. The Confirmation ceremony is the opportunity for young people in the Church to take responsibility for their faith and their ability to choose the right path.

We Catholic children didn’t really get a say when we were baptized as babies, so Confirmation was the chance for us to state, “Yep, I’m in it for the long haul.” Kind of the same thing with a black belt test: you’re making a commitment to stick it out for the tough stuff and reap all the great spiritual and emotional rewards.
Either way, your Grandma is there, you have to stand a lot, your forehead ends up greasy, and if you’re lucky you get cake afterwards.

Testing Day
I was wondering if my standard testing day anxiety was going to pop up. Even though I’ve always felt well-prepared and eager during a color belt test, my subconscious or sympathetic nervous system  or something dialed up my nerves. I would always feel stiff, shaky, sweaty (more than usual), and breathe a little more shallowly when I was gunning for that new color belt or stripe. It turned out that between doing damage control on my ever-troublesome right hamstring and a strained lower back this past week and surviving a treacherous drive home from class during torrential rainfall and flash flooding Friday night, I didn’t have time to worry about a belt test.

After a good night’s sleep I spent some time with a heating pad and electric massager on my right leg, and did my usual testing day calm-down ritual: I shoved a soft cloth ice pack down my sports bra while I sipped ginger ale. Of course I also wore my lucky testing shirt: a faded black tank top from The Gap. Unlike some superstitious athletes who wear certain items of clothing on game days, though, my lucky shirt was nice and clean.

Testing for first degree black belt is a little like what I imagine freshman hazing to be. Multiple people are yelling at you, and you’re literally jumping on command. They could yell at me all they wanted. I just wanted to (1) remember which foot was which during the flying kick portion and (2) nail my board breaking. Everything else was gravy. As my classmates and I were warming up and practicing before the test began I wondered if my heart was going to pound and my breath was going to quicken, not from exertion, but from nerves. So far, so good. I didn’t feel nervous at all.

A black belt test, at least at the first degree level, is pretty much a blown up version of a color belt test: there are kicking requirements, forms, one-step sparring and self-defense, sparring, and breaking. I decided to psyche myself out and pretend that it was just an extra-long class. I was in my familiar dojang, where I hung out four days out of the week, and I was with classmates and instructors who knew me very well. Nothing out of the ordinary about that. Nervous? Nah.

We had to do every kick and every combination of kicks we had learned since white belt. We did kicks that snap and kicks that slide, kicks that spin and kicks that fly. Why, I could write a whole Dr. Seuss-esque book on all the kicks we did. I was worried that my endurance would run out, but I felt just fine. Apparently I was in better shape than I thought. Sweaty and red as usual, but it would be weird if I DIDN’T look like a swamp monster in the dojang. Nervous? Nope.

Forms and one-steps went well, although I had one blip of a moment of forgetting what I was doing in the simplest of the five forms we performed. Suddenly, as if I had awoken from a dream, I was caught wide-eyed and blank-minded in the middle of a back stance. Wait a minute, where am I? Why am I dressed like this? Who are all these people? Crap! I quickly recovered, though, and did my little drama queen laser-eyes thing with the rest of the forms portion. Nervous yet, especially after that little flake out? Nope.

Oddly enough, or maybe not, the sparring portion of a belt test has always been when my mind is the most relaxed. Sparring forces me to be completely present and single-minded. If I spaced out for even a second I could suffer an unanticipated (and hard) blow from my opponent. Even though I’m fighting with my friends I always like to add just a teeny dash of crazy to keep it interesting. Swiping a hook kick at someone’s face keeps them at bay for just a moment so I can figure out what to do next, and it also makes me look like a psycho. I’m small, so it’s funny when I go all Tasmanian devil. In those moments I’m always reminded of a joke my instructor once made: “Crazy beats big every time.” Nervous since I was fighting people bigger than me? Who, me? NOPE.

The board breaking portion, which was the finale of the test, was especially meaningful. Albeit brief, there’s a deep level of trust and intimacy between the testing student and the board holder. The person holding for the first of my three breaking stations was a long-time friend from the past. My childhood instructor from my rural west Texas hometown reports up to my Grandmaster in my current Big Texas City (still trying to keep it anonymous), and he had traveled the 250 miles to help serve as a judge. He knew me as a soft-spoken, sensitive ten year old and was now seeing me finish what I started as a shrieking, sweating grown woman. Not only was he watching me complete my testing requirements, but he was also holding a piece of wood that I would soon snap in half with a jump roundhouse kick. Cool, right?

I followed the roundhouse kick with a spinning back fist (that means I did a little half circle and bashed through the boards with my knuckles, ouch) and ended with a flying snap kick, which meant I took a running start, jumped into the air, and hit the board with the top of my left foot. My cousin’s fiancee recorded a video of it and added slow-motion to the end, so I had my own little Matrix moment. Was I nervous? NOOOOOPE.

My family all adjourned to my condo to relax and celebrate. We popped open a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne, and I joined my father and cousin on the balcony to sip our drinks and smoke cigars…you know, like a good athlete would do. I was very proud and satisfied with how I performed that day. Having people who cared about me, both my family and my instructors, definitely added to the unbreakable positive mood I’d had that afternoon.

I think part of my success also came from the fact that I didn’t put an insurmountable amount of pressure on myself. It was a strange although pleasant feeling; this was the first test when I hadn’t felt nervous at all. I weirdly calm the whole time. I was so grateful for the confidence and happiness that I’d gained that I could barely keep myself from smiling all through the test. I was just too damn cheerful to be nervous. I didn’t get into taekwondo to get a black belt; that was never the end goal. I did it to get out of my house and more importantly, out of my self-destructive head. I desperately needed to do something good for myself. This was just a milestone in what I hope is a lifelong journey.

Finishing a college degree usually came with the feeling of being burned out. I’m far from being burned out with taekwondo: I’m on fire and can’t wait to go back to class tonight.

Yep, I’m in it for the long haul.

Day Before the Black Belt Test: It’s Rainy, So I’m Feeling Contemplative


Stats For the Week:

Weight: 115 pounds
Number of early morning swimming sessions: 3 (YES!! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, I’M BACK!! Get outta my lane!)
Number of therapeutic massages because I think I’m younger than I am, but my body says otherwise: 2
Number of times I’ve done a round of heat and ice on my back today: 2, but the day is young
Visible bruises: 4. The rest are fading so right now I kind of look like a washed-out leopard
How much I want a cheeseburger, fries, and a Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie: Infinity
Number of unsettling dreams I’ve had this week about taekwondo: ZERO!!

About the unsettling dreams:
For the last few weeks I’ve had at least one weekly dream about taekwondo mess ups, and not all about the black belt test. There was the one where I was at my childhood home trying to practice a form, and I kept running into furniture, plus, I couldn’t remember the form. Then I had another dream that none of the students had turned in their paperwork for the black belt test, so we just did a demonstration of one-step sparring with our partners and all went home feeling sad.

The worst dream was the most recent one: my classmates and I were flying (Southwest of course) to a tournament in Houston. I have two doboks (uniforms), and instead of packing the top and pants, I realized at the gate that I had packed two tops but no pants. The look of disappointment and frustration on my Grandmaster’s face was something I never want to see in real life.

While I didn’t have any creepy TKD dreams this past week, I did have a rough night on Wednesday. My back and legs were protesting loudly and warning me that their patience with my abuse was running out. I got winded and loopy much earlier than usual during sparring class, and it seemed that I could do nothing right with one-step sparring or hand-to-hand in the later class. The one thing I was really proud of was my breaking practice. I’ve been having trouble getting the distance just right for my flying snap kick, and last night, finally, it felt precise and powerful. At least something went right.

I’m not too bummed about it though. Sometimes it’s good to get all the worries and wiggles and dumb mistakes and crap out of our system before a big event, whether it’s a play, a speech, a competition, or a black belt test. The day before my bo dan test in April I ate the floor during a spin kick I was practicing for the breaking portion. It happened so fast I didn’t realize I’d fallen until I found myself dazed and staring up at the ceiling. The next day at the test I did a perfect kick and got a second black stripe on my belt. Spin kick has been a thorn in my side from the beginning, so I was especially proud and grateful that I had pulled it off.

Maybe my dreams and real-life flub-ups are my body and mind’s way of working out any remaining tension and anxiety about what is going to be a wonderful day. I get to hang out with people I care about (my blood family and my taekwondo family), and I get to spend a few hours doing something I love. I think that’s a pretty nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

It’s TendonOSIS Even Though Spellcheck is Being a Jerk About It


“So, even though I’m not getting an MRI I’m still curious about what’s wrong with me. The doctor said it was either a tear or tendonosis. What do you think, based on what you’ve seen with me so far?” I asked Cody*, my physical therapist, during Tuesday’s session.

A little backstory: I had turned down my orthopedic doctor’s suggestion from two weeks prior to get an MRI of my right leg.  It seemed unnecessary since my pain in both the front of my hip and top of my hamstring had lessened quite a bit thanks to therapy, and the thought of being shoved into a tin can coffin for forty five minutes was a big NOOOOPE. I’m not anywhere even remotely close to needing surgery, so all we’d get out of an MRI was a confirmation that my leg’s f-ed up. Yeah, I know already.

The only solution the doctor had offered was a shot of lidocaine into the front of my hip or hamstring, whichever hurt more. What good would a temporary numbing agent do for true healing? The impingement on the front of the hip was barely noticeable anymore and was something I could live with, and I’d already seen vast improvement with my hamstring with only eight weeks of therapy. Besides, the last time I had a needle shoved into my ass was a vaccination as a kid, and I wasn’t exactly looking for new opportunities. No thanks.

I brought up the subject to Cody while I was lying on my stomach on a padded black table in a small exam room and resting the side of my face on my hands. Cody had just started a deep tissue massage of the back of my leg in response to the sharp pain I’d felt the night before in taekwondo class when doing a flying snap kick with the right leg.

When executing a flying kick the TKD student takes a running start, jumps into the air, and pops the leg into a kick. It’s our one little moment of feeling like we’re in The Matrix. I felt a sudden burst of pain when I jumped and shot my foot into the air, and my leg remained irritated for the rest of the night. I hadn’t felt that type of pain in several weeks.

I was very disappointed that I was still having intense pain, but I reminded myself that we weren’t really warmed up for highly aerobic and explosive movement. We had spent most of Monday night’s class doing forms, which is a workout on its own but very low key compared to repetitive kicking and jumping. Even though I’ll only have to do flying snap kick on the right side once during my black belt test on Saturday I wanted to figure out what I could do to minimize pain that might linger during the rest of the test after the long kicking portion was finished. Cody and I were on a mission.

“Well, I’m not sure it matters at this point since you’re not getting an MRI, and the treatment would be the same…a rose by any other name, you know…hmm…” Cody’s hands lingered in one spot for a moment while he thought of what to say.

“Based on where you’re feeling the pain, it presents itself as more of tendonosis. ‘Osis’ means a degenerative state, in this case of the…” He waited a beat for me to answer.

“Tendon!” I replied, playing along with the anatomy lesson.

“Yes, and we’re doing exactly what we should do for tendonosis: repetition, strengthening, and damage control. Tendon-itis, which is inflammation of the tendon, is usually treated with the RICE method: rest, ice, compression, and elevate. If it were really a tear you’d feel it more in the belly of the muscle.” Cody dug his sharp elbow into the meaty middle of my hamstring as if to illustrate his point.

“How long do you think it will take to heal?” I shifted my hands out from under my head and rested my cheek against the pillow. Cody paused from stabbing me with the point of his elbow for a moment and considered my question.

“Six to ten months, maybe a year,” he murmured as he began making deep circles in my thigh with his fingers. “High hamstring tendonosis can be the kiss of death for a sprinter. They injure themselves when they’re pushing really hard towards the end of the season, or in your case, for a black belt test, and if they don’t treat it properly there’s a chance they’ll re-injure themselves during the next season. The tendon likes consistency, so we want to continue doing repetitive exercises. It will also get cranky if you completely stop what you’re doing with it, so you have to keep doing at least some kind of activity. What we’re doing and what you’ll need to continue doing on your own will minimize the risk of re-injury.”

“So…is he comparing me to a sprinter?” I thought as he continued massaging the back of my leg. “I guess I kind of am given the short bursts of speed and power I have to exhibit for sparring and the more demanding jump kicks…Cool.” 

“How does that feel?” Cody asked as he shook the back my leg a few more times and gave my ankles a reassuring pat.

“Good and painful at the same time if that makes sense.” I grimaced as I groggily sat up on the table. Cody smirked and ushered me out of the exam room so I could do my usual exercise routine on my own: side leg lifts while lying on a table, one-legged dead lifts while holding a kettle bell, and stepping up on a box with one leg while raising a kettlebell and lifting my opposite knee.

I took a break from the routine to try a little experiment Cody suggested for dealing with front snap kick, the current bane of my existence. I positioned myself in fighting stance, fists raised and all, and did a short series of front snap kicks with the right foot: ten to the ankle, ten to the torso, and ten to the face. I had to clamp my mouth shut so I wouldn’t ki-hap on instinct and startle all the other patients in the clinic. I felt a sharp burst of pain when I did the first few low kicks, but the leg seemed to relax once I’d warmed it up. By the time I got to the face kicks I could do them without the ripping sensation I’d felt the night before.

I excitedly ran back to the office and told Cody what I’d discovered. We both determined while I wouldn’t be magically healed by the weekend, it was likely by the time I reached the flying kicks portion of the test I’d be fully warmed up, and I shouldn’t feel the amount of pain I’d experienced the night before. Hooray!

So perhaps the saga of my messed up hip and hamstring is coming to a close (for now). We’ll continue therapy until the end of the year, and then I will fly from the physical therapy nest. I have enough exercises in my arsenal to address the problem on my own should it flair up in the future. Or I can call Cody again; I won’t let just anyone poke around my ischial tuberosity.

Now I can focus on other things athletes above a certain age have to worry about: not throwing my back out or getting the flu before the test on Saturday.

And then I can have cake.

*Name changed

Trying to Stay “Fun Size”: One More Week of Tough Training


Here are some stats on my next-to-last week of training for my black belt test:

Days until Black Belt Test: 6
Weight: 116 pounds
Taekwondo classes: 5
Morning swimming workouts: 1 (I was shooting for 3, but wouldn’t you know, my bed is REALLY comfortable at 4:30 AM)
Yoga classes: 2
Physical Therapy/Personal Training/Butt-Kicking sessions: 2
Pain Scale of My Hamstring: 1.5-3 depending on how much kicking I do (YAY!!)
Pain Scale of My “Impinged” Anterior Hip: 0-0.5 (YAAAAAYYY!!!)
Number of sweaty sports bras drying out on a door knob somewhere in my house: at least 1 at all times
How much I want a cheeseburger and fries right now: 5,000,000
Productive things I’m going to do immediately after the test: 0

Sunday we had a communal dinner at the dojang to celebrate the 35th annual tournament and to thank the planning committee for their hard work. I hadn’t had a solid meal for dinner in a week, so I thoroughly enjoyed the Texas BBQ. I do eat healthy, hearty meals for breakfast and lunch, plus snacks, but in the evening lately I’ve just been having a protein bar and an apple, and maybe a small serving of nuts. Not a great nutritional choice, but I don’t like feeling really full late at night since it keeps me from sleeping well, and I’m still trying to get a little leaner for the black belt test.

I’m short and petite, so a little bit of weight gain goes a long way, and I can put it on fast if I’m not careful. I’m sure my eating method right now borders along the disordered territory, but it’s working, and it’s a good excuse to get a little thinner before enjoying the inevitable awesomeness of Thanksgiving and Christmas food.

Oh I still have my chocolate. Every other day or so I sneak into my boss’s office to grab a “fun-size” piece of slightly smashed candy from the communal bowl he keeps out for everyone. But seeing as I’m trying to stay “fun-size” too I keep that to a minimum.

My classmates and I have been working hard in taekwondo class to test our endurance and make sure our memories are sharp. I held up well during a hard kicking workout Friday night, and was able to help out my fellow bo dans with hand-to-hand and one-step sparring during Saturday class. The pain that was once excruciating in my hamstring is almost non-existent. At this point I feel calm, eager, and ready for the task at hand. Oddly enough, though, that sense of dedication and positive attitude didn’t reach its crescendo in taekwondo class. Instead, it bubbled up in my most recent physical therapy session to address my injured hip and hamstring:

Thursday at therapy was a full-on gym workout, and for an accidental jock like me, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon (well, maybe napping and eating fun-sized chocolate). After a surprisingly UN-painful psoas massage (even when he did the gross fishhook thing into my pelvis), I got to work with kettle bell dead lifts, balanced one-legged squats, and one-legged jumps.

We ended with the PT student who’s been helping out at the clinic holding my ankles while I, perched on my knees up on a table, leaned forward and did little reverse sit-ups using my legs and glutes to pull my torso back to the upright position. By the end of three sets I was grunting, red, sweating like a man, and feeling that little rush of painful pleasure that I always get from exercise….pretty much how I look whenever I work out.

“Need one of these?” my therapist Cody joked, waving a fluffy white towel at me as I rested my hands on my hips and slowed down my breathing.

“Oh you should see me after sparring,” I said, gratefully taking the towel and mopping my face. “I’m so red and disgusting. I caught a whiff of myself after class last night—Whew! I stunk like a man! My hair was so wet it looked like I had taken a shower.”

“But isn’t it cool that you can push yourself that hard?” he asked with a grin.

Yes, it is. Yes, it is. I’m ready.

Two Weeks Till D-Day: A State of the Union Address

Let’s hope I have some of this fierceness on the day of my black belt test.

I sighed as I looked at my lunch today: brown rice with roasted vegetables, topped with a chopped boiled egg and seasoned with low salt soy sauce. A small side of bland sweet potato chips and two clementines for dessert. To wash it down? A bottle of prickly pear flavored kombucha I bought on a whim at Whole Foods. (I live in Texas; we enjoy both looking at our cacti and consuming it…especially in margarita form). And for dinner? I had a protein bar, an apple, and some toasted nuts.

What I really wanted was a Whataburger value meal with a Little Debbie oatmeal crème pie for dessert and washed down with a glass of Gentleman Jack whiskey, but that would be giving in too quickly. I now officially have less than two weeks until I test for my black belt, and I’m not going to let something like fries and liquor, as glorious as they are, deter me from my goal. I’mma be one thin, cranky, slightly malnourished B by the end of two weeks. I’ll have to have some Halloween candy on standby for my after party.

So, how does one prepare for a black belt test besides the obvious: practicing taekwondo at every chance? It’s not like I haven’t indulged over the past few months, but since the clock started ticking really loudly about two months ago I’ve gotten my act together on what I eat. I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since late March of this year, and I want it to stay that way until after the black belt test. I try to get about seven hours of sleep each night, I guzzle water, and I supplement my taekwondo workouts with swimming and yoga. It’s not a matter of looking good. I feel like crap when I eat too much sugar and processed foods (and drink too much alcohol), so as boring as brown rice and vegetables and drinks-that-aren’t-alcohol are, they make me feel better from the inside out.

This morning before I swam (Hallelujah, I actually got out of bed when the alarm went off!) I clocked in at 117 pounds, and my waist is down to 26 inches. I’d like to weigh a little less because the smaller I am, the less I have to haul into the air during jumping and flying kicks, but I feel leaner at this version of 117 than I have in the past at that same weight. Hopefully all those squats and jumps I’m doing in physical therapy have built up some muscle, or at least that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself. Not bad for a thirty-six-year-old cubicle dweller.

Speaking of physical therapy, I’m responding to it very well. My doctor determined that I have two problems: hip impingement syndrome, which is caused by damage to the labrum, the squishy stuff between the femur and hip socket, and is identified by a pinching sensation on the front of the hip when the leg is bent. I also have proximal hamstring tendonosis or maybe a tear, which could take about six months to a year to heal on its own. His solution was to stuff me into an MRI machine and shove a needle full of lidocaine into my hip. I politely declined and decided to keep going with a more conservative approach to treatment since I’ve improved drastically with just a month of physical therapy. I don’t need a digital image of my insides and a temporary numbing agent; I need my f-ing little dinosaur leg to heal.

Sometimes my PT has to do the hip flexor massage from hell, which I’ve dubbed the “psoas spaghetti twirl” (his fingers are the fork, my muscle is the spaghetti; enjoy the visual), to loosen up my left side since it takes on the bulk of the work thanks to my lazy weak right side, but I’m not as knotted up as I have been in the past…except for one recent time when it was so bad I wept during the massage. Perhaps I could view times like that as some kind of catharsis or an opportunity to imagine myself pain-free and wearing a brand new black belt. Either that or just keeping doing what I normally do: silently spew curse words and cry, you know, like a grown up.

As for taekwondo itself? I’m feeling pretty good about it despite weird, unsettling dreams I keep having about the test. My endurance and strength are consistent, and I have a good grasp on all the forms and self-defense I need to demonstrate during the test. During my down time I read through the testing requirements and visualize myself going through all the motions. Lately in our school the focus has been pulled away from test preparation and instead pointed towards the tournament, which was held this past weekend. Even though it was a very long day that required a lot of energy and hard work, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was nice to take a break from obsessing over the black belt test and funnel my efforts into helping the other students.

For the tournament I served as a coach, which meant I could wear my teaching and pseudo-mom hats. (The best part about being a pseudo-mom is that I can give my little ducklings back to their real moms and go home to a quiet house.) I spent a lot of time yelling during sparring matches and holding boards for breaking, both of which were new and welcomed experiences for me. (I’m a little nicer when I referee during regular sparring class). I was just as proud of wearing my coach’s pass as I was wearing any of my taekwondo belts, and I was even prouder of how well our students did. My boss always tells me that it’s his job to make me successful. Perhaps the same can be said as a black belt and an adult taekwondo student: yes, my own performance is important, but a real sign of my dedication is how well other people who are in my care perform. That’s a good feeling.

Will I be nervous next week during the test? Yes. Will I be physically exhausted? Yes. Will I be ready for fries and liquor after it’s over? A resounding YES. Will I give up if it’s scary or difficult? HELL NO.

What the Hell Happened to September??

vito baby
Seriously, what happened to September? Baby Vito Corleone wants answers.

I swear it was just yesterday that I wrote about August coming to a close. How is it that I now have only (counting today) 23 days until I test for my black belt?

Maybe it doesn’t feel like it’s that late in the year because it’s still 90 degrees most days here in Texas, and I’m still wearing flip flops everywhere I can. Maybe it’s because my work schedule suddenly became much busier, so I haven’t had time to notice that the weeks have flown by in a blur. But isn’t that how we always approach the passage of time? In a flash, the time is gone, and yet we’re constantly surprised by it.

So yeah, I’m testing for black belt at the end of this month. October didn’t start off that great. I was awakened at 4 AM this morning by a short but stressful dream. It was the day of my black belt test, and somehow I was in my parents’ old house—the one I grew up in back in my West Texas hometown. The fact that I was 250 miles away from my current city (and place of my current dojang) wasn’t the issue. The issue was that I couldn’t concentrate. The living room was stuffed full of oversized furniture, and a giant TV was blaring as I was trying in vain to practice a form in whatever bits of space I could find. I was doing Palgwe Yuk Jang, the sixth form learned at blue belt/red tip and one I might have to do during my test, but I couldn’t remember anything past the very beginning.

Great, the first dream I’ve ever had about taekwondo had to be a nightmare. The only thing pleasant about the dream was that my dad had this cute little wooden porcupine with sticky notes and a pen attached to its back. He was using it to write down the address of my (current) dojang so he could drive there to watch my test. I mean it, the porcupine was really cute.

I have weird dreams.

I’m trying to figure out what could have triggered that dream. Last night in class I was leading a group of kids through the seventh form Palgwe Chil Jang, which is learned at red belt, but I mixed up the ending with Palgwe Yuk Jang. I left out the final punch at the end of Chil Jang, and my little charges were all quick to remind me of that. Maybe that was it. It could have been that I was still having a little trouble nailing the finale for my board breaking sequence: the flying snap kick, which means I’ll take a running start, leap into the air, and smack a board in two with the top of my foot. Getting the right distance for this break has been tricky. Or maybe it was just the final vestiges of some waning anxiety that has been troubling me for the last few months (about random stuff, not just taekwondo), and it desperately trying to keep its tentacles wedged squarely into my brain. Gross.

After I consoled myself with some very early morning television and oatmeal I thought that perhaps the dream was presenting me with an opportunity rather than a problem. Physically, I’m doing just fine. I’ve not only been training for my black belt for the past six months, but really, I’ve been training for it for the past few years. I know—or my body knows—everything I need to do, including those two forms I mentioned earlier. My strength, stamina, and speed have improved quite a bit, although like everyone I have my off days (case in point: spin kicks are always a crapshoot). With the help (and torture) of my physical therapist, my hip is healing nicely, and my weak right side is gaining strength and balance. I haven’t sat on an ice pack or wept during a car ride in almost two months, and after all these squats, dead lifts, and jumps from therapy are over I’m going to look SMOKING in skinny jeans.

The only foreseeable problem is my own mind tripping me up, and it gave me a solid warning very early this morning. I’ve changed a lot since I’ve started taekwondo—I’m much more sure of myself than I was a few years ago, and I’m even nicer…well, that last one’s a stretch, but I know I’m more confident. Just as I can control the way my body moves, I can also control the way my mind reacts. I’m going to be testing at my own dojang (unlike other students) with my own instructors as judges (also unlike other students) who know me very well and who have seen me at my best and my worst. I’ll have the home team advantage.

Sometimes old habits of doubt and anxiety and fear are hard to break, but for the last few years I’ve been steadily chipping away at them. I’m going to break the hell out of those habits just like I’m going to break the hell out of a board at the test with that tricky flying snap kick.

No worries. I’ve got this.