Little Black Belt is Three! My Favorite Posts From the Past Year


Hello readers! Today celebrates THREE YEARS of my blog! Thank you so much for reading, commenting, and supporting me on my continued taekwondo journey. During the past year I cut my teeth coaching at a few more tournaments, proudly saw fellow students test for and receive their black belts, wrote several guest posts for the martial arts travel website, and I even had two guest writers contribute to my blog!

To celebrate my blog’s third birthday, here are my favorite posts from April 2016-April 2017:

1. Getting Fat Shamed as a Size Four (April 2016) One of the most popular posts of my blog and one of the most difficult for me to write. I didn’t let a humiliating insult keep me down.
2. 10 Signs You’re Dating a Female Martial Artist (June 2016) This one always shows up in my blog stats for some reason. People keep reading it. If and when I’m ready to date again maybe I’ll refer them to this post.
3. You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long (July 2016) A lesson I learned from my musician brother. 
4. Why I Like Mean Girls (August 2016) My instructor has a knack for turning his female students into mean girls, and it’s awesome. This post explains why.
5. When Life Takes a Swing at You (September 2016) Shit went down in my personal life, and I maneuvered through it like a black belt.
6. Turning Lemons Into Limoncello (October 2016) The second worst yoga class of my life taught me a valuable lesson in self-reliance.
7. Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two (December 2016) The most meaningful part of being a black belt is sharing what I love with others.
8. In Defense of Complacency: When Good Enough Is Good Enough (December 2016) Another popular post that argues the case against striving for perfection every single time.
9. Channeling Your Power: When Brute Force Just Doesn’t Cut It (February 2017) How teaching a teenager the nuances of poomsae helped me appreciate the nuances of approaching life’s challenges.
10. Don’t Forget Where You Came From (Feb 2017) The case for always being a “good white belt.”


So…I Stopped Eating Meat


I haven’t eaten meat for the past three months…well, six months, really, but with a caveat. I stopped eating meat on September 12, 2016. Exactly two months later I made an exception for a gyro, pastitsio, and souvlaki at the local Greek food festival and later meatloaf for dinner. Worth it. Gyros, you guys, come on, gyros. Then I went right back to not eating meat. I had a little bit of meat over Thanksgiving and Christmas, and when I got on the plane to fly back home after the holidays I was done.

Before I move on, let me just do my instructor and other Texas friends favor and yell “HIPPIE!” Yes, yes, I know. I am a hippie.

Going vegetarian was not difficult for me. I’ve done it before, and even during periods when I ate meat, I rarely ate it every day. It’s not so much that I’m giving up meat (and most of the time dairy, but I’m still hanging on to my local farmer’s market eggs), but rather, I’m taking the opportunity to eat a boatload of vegetables and fruits plus keep up the good work with whole grains and nuts. I’m much more likely to make vegetables the star of the meal when meat isn’t an option.

Meat and I just don’t work well together. It tastes good, and I’m daydreaming about a gyro right now as I write this, but it’s not nice to me, especially beef. One year I spent a week with my then-boyfriend’s family at Christmas. While his parents were fabulous cooks, nearly all the meals were centered around their hearty Bolivian diet of beef, white rice, potatoes, and thick bread. By the end of the week I felt very sick, heavy, and unable to digest anything. I felt awful. The starchy carbs didn’t help, but I knew it was the beef that was doing a number on my digestive tract. I’d never craved green vegetables so much in my life.

Sometimes I can’t even get meat down into my unhappy digestive tract. Just about every time I eat beef, chicken, or pork, no matter how tender it is or how tiny of a bite I take, it gets caught in my throat. I’d rather not be strangled by my own food. (How ironic would it be if I choked on a baby octopus?) Plus—and this is a big reason—I’ve seen and read way too much about factory farming and slaughterhouses to in good conscious continue eating meat from nationwide producers. And I still occasionally eat dairy and eggs and own several leather accessories and pieces of furniture so I’m not going to pretend to be absolved of being involved in this process. I do what I can even though it’s minimal. My blog is not my political platform, so I’ll leave it at that. You can learn more on your own if you choose.

I can hear you asking: But you still eat fish, right? NOPE. I hate the taste and smell of fish and never eat it anyway, plus I’m allergic to shellfish, so giving that up was a non-issue. I don’t get people who claim to be vegetarian but proclaim they still eat fish. It’s from an animal, therefore it’s meat nor do I understand that question when I say I follow a vegetarian diet. My brother and I used to argue with our Catholic Sunday school teachers that eating fish on non-meat days didn’t make sense. Have you ever seen a fish gutted and cleaned alive? I’ve seen plenty, and the fish are PISSED. It’s an animal, duh! I guess if I wanted to do penance I’d choke down some fish because I hate it so much. Forgive me, Father for I have sinned, let me just skip the Hail Marys, hold my nose, and eat this disgusting packet of tuna so I can be absolved of my sins…

I feel good! I’ve lost nearly 10 pounds over the past few months. Some of that was due to some unexplained stomach problems, but I think not going to Arby’s and Jack in the Box and eating more fruits and vegetables helped.

But where do I get my protein? I get plenty of protein; I’m just fine. Animal products are not the only source of protein. I still eat eggs, plus avocado, nuts, tofu (to the point that I actually crave it, mmmm!), beans, lentils, almond or coconut milk, seeds, and of course, God’s gift to humanity, peanut butter. More plant-based food sources than you think have protein such as quinoa, steel cut oats, leafy greens, and broccoli…yes, really!

So what DO I eat? More like what DON’T I eat! I eat just about anything other than meat of course, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and eggs and cheese on occasion (and chocolate…and alcohol). I’m not vegan although my diet ends up being vegan many days. I have plenty of energy for the taekwondo classes I attend 4-6 days a week. And I don’t care what some of these purist fat-phobic hippies in the vegetarian/vegan world say, I’m not giving up olive oil. Not because it’s a source of healthy fat but because I’m ¼ Italian and cook everything with it. I can’t give up olive oil now, not while a picture of my Nonon is glaring at me from my living room mantelpiece.

I try to stay away from refined carbs and processed foods, although I have to have a little bit of the junk poison from time to time…okay, sometimes more than a little bit. I once knew a “vegetarian” who only ate mac & cheese and cheese pizzas so it is possible to avoid meat and still have a very unhealthy diet, but I haven’t quite fallen that low yet…well….Uh…I had a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for dinner Sunday night and okay, so I had a grilled cheese sandwich and fries Monday night, but that was after a REALLY hardcore taekwondo workout, shut up, whatever! (Sigh) Was it vegetarian? Yes. Was it full of helpful nutrients? NOPE. Will I eat that stuff on the regular? Nah, probably not. I did put fresh raspberries in my cereal and used an almond/coconut milk blend. That should count for something, right?

During my little meat-eating holiday interlude did I my mother’s delicious Thanksgiving stuffing made with Italian sausage? OH HELL YES. Did I eat her Christmas Beef Wellington? F-ckin’ A, you know I did, and I even took on the job of wrapping the tenderloin pieces in puff pastry. If I go to someone’s house and they make a special meal just for me that includes meat, will I eat it? Yes, I probably will to be polite although I’ll be piling on the veggie side dishes. But 95% of the time I’ll pass on the meat and load up on plants. But then there’s this BBQ place I’ve been stalking for a while. As a Texan it’s my duty to try it out…maybe on my birthday. Just one time.

So what did I eat today? I had egg and veggie tacos for breakfast with some raspberries on the side, brown rice/quinoa pasta with homemade marinara for lunch plus a clementine, and Thai vegetables and tofu with brown rice for dinner and a big fat juicy navel orange afterwards. Yummy and satisfying! (And a tad more healthy than sugary cereal and fries)

Should you go vegetarian? That’s entirely up to you. If you’re into fitness and want to explore a vegetarian diet a good blog to check out for tips is No Meat Athlete by Matt Frazier. Frankly I don’t care what anyone else eats so I’m not going to judge anyone for eating meat. Like sexual orientation, reproductive choices, and religion, what other people eat is none of my business. I just know this works well for me. If you’re looking for something to shake up your diet and help you eat healthier, then consider joining me on the green side and giving a plant-based diet a try.

Send Off to 2016…Bye Felicia!


Ah 2016, the year where everybody sat back and said, “WHAT THE F_CK IS GOING ON??” Seriously, what was up with this year? A bunch of cool celebrities died, people were blowing each other up and shooting into crowds, scores of refugees were trying to escape their war-torn countries and many died in the process while the world watched, the US presidential campaign was a nightmare that further divided the country, sexual assault is still a thing that goes unpunished, racial inequality still runs rampant, people were walking into traffic trying to catch a damn Pikachu, and that’s just some of the stuff that was happening publicly.

Privately, I had three deaths in the family, lost a very sweet coworker to cancer, saw illness and death strike several friends and their families (and even a few pets), went through a very upsetting time of uncertainty at work, and to top it all off, a neighbor recently moved, taking her very friendly and affectionate cat with her. What the hell, 2016?

I have never been so happy to welcome in a new year. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the overall shittiness of 2016, so perhaps now is the time for me to be grateful for some good things that happened in my life:

  • I paid off my car. Now I can put that money into my mortgage and my vacation fund. Santa Fe, here I come!
  • I got my “Instructor” patch for my taekwondo uniform. Technically I’m an “assistant instructor” if we’re just going by rank, but I guess since I hang around the dojang so much they probably figured they’d better give me something to do.
  • I got more experience coaching at tournaments. This year we took students to five tournaments. I gained a lot of experience preparing students before the tournaments, coaching them during their fights, and giving little pep talks when they were feeling discouraged. I also discovered the joy of tapping into my inner Bianca del Rio and making fun of cheesy demos. Not today, Satan!
  • I FINALLY got to do leadership coaching at work! From April to early December I was running from one location to the next having coaching sessions with managers and directors in my company’s hospitals. I seem to have a knack for it, and it has been the highlight of my career. My clients trust me, value my advice and opinions, and on more than one occasion have referred to our sessions as “therapeutic.” Hmm!
  • I visited my West Texas hometown. I haven’t been back since my parents moved five years ago. In May there was a reunion for the high school theater department, and I had a blast enjoying the wide open landscape, driving around town (cuz “driving around” is a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment in West Texas), running around the old theater with my classmates, meeting the current fresh-faced students and watching their lovely production of “Julius Cesar,” and hanging out with friends I hadn’t seen in twenty years. Plus I got to stay in my old house! (It was purchased by a family friend.) AAAAND, they served really good catered chicken fried steak at the reunion because what else would one eat in a West Texas high school theater?
  • I didn’t lose my job, and I’ll be working a lot closer to home in 2017. That’s all I’ll say on that topic.
  • I stopped hating my body after twenty-five years of unnecessary pain and suffering…for the most part, anyway, and I reconnected with my Italian roots.

Okay, so maybe 2016 wasn’t ENTIRELY awful, but I’m glad to see it go, as I’m sure just about everyone else is.

So long, 2016! As Christoph Woltz’s character Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained said, “Normally I would say ‘Auf wiedersehen,’ but since what ‘Auf wiedersehen’ actually means is ‘’Till I see you again,’ and since I never wish to see you again, to you, sir, I say goodbye!”

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!

My Favorite Posts From 2016


2016 is almost over, much to the relief of just about everyone. Thank you all for reading and commenting on my blog. It’s been a busy writing year for me. I posted to the blog every month, am in heavy editing mode of my book, and most notably I started writing guest posts for the website You can read them by clicking here.

In other exciting news, I got my “Instructor” patch, so now I have to act like I know what I’m doing, at least when I’m wearing the particular uniform I sewed the patch on. I cut my coaching/refereeing teeth at two black belt tests and several tournaments. Some things remain the same: I still can’t get through self-defense and hapkido practice without giggling, I still can’t do a decent spin kick, I’m still going to physical therapy, and I’m still rank and disgusting after sparring class. At least I’m consistent.

Now I’d like to share with you my favorite posts from 2016:

1.A Black Belt Goes to Barre Class – I started taking a ballet barre class at my gym in February, loved it, and have kept it up ever since. My core and legs, on the other hand, are furious with me.

2. Love is Like Grape Soda – In my Valentine’s Day post I revel in the fact that for the first time in my life being single is (1) a choice and (2) a non-issue.

3. When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe – A sub-par art museum event showed me the importance of sticking with my true community.

4. Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class? – I still feel this way. Every. Single. Wednesday.

5. Getting Fat Shamed as a Size Four – One of my most popular posts and one that helped me get a very hurtful and embarrassing moment off my shoulders.

6. What I’ve Learned From Coaching Children and Business Leaders – There are more similarities than you’d think!

7. You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long  – Some insight from my musician brother showed me the importance of balancing the enjoyment of our past accomplishments with the challenges and possibilities of the future.

8. How the Olympics Rekindled My Love for My Sport…But Not the One You Think – Aw, I miss the summer Olympics, don’t you?

9. Black Belt: A Year in Review – I celebrated my one year anniversary as a first degree black belt, and I learned several things along the way.

10. Dealing With Uncertainty Like a Black Belt – Since change seems to be the constant in the workplace, you might as well put on your sparring gear and brave the fight.

11. Are You Driven by the Process or the Project? – What motivates you – the end or the means?

12. The Case for Getting Your Ass Kicked – We all need challenges.

13. Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two – Teaching, learning, and leading all go hand-in-hand.

14. How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body – I finally had a body image breakthrough over the Thanksgiving weekend, of all times. I also sneak in my recipe for gnocchi.




10 Signs You’re Dating a Female Martial Artist

karate couple

Love at first fight…

Fellas, do you have a sneaking suspicion your girl might be a martial artist? (That is, if she hasn’t mentioned it ad nauseam already). Here are some tell-tale signs that you might just have the coolest girlfriend in the world:

  1. She still likes manicures and pedicures but usually ruins them in a week by fighting and kicking focus pads.
  2. There is always a sweaty sports bra drying out on a doorknob somewhere in her house. Always.
  3. She has bruises on her forearms and shins and still rocks a sundress.
  4. She’s the one dragging you to the sports bar to watch a UFC match.
  5. She eats more than you do.
  6. She talks about her instructors, students, and practice more than she does work, family, or anything else.
  7. She’s honest, loyal, and hard-working.
  8. She respects and values herself.
  9. She doesn’t pull punches. (Literally or figuratively)
  10. She is a confident, beautiful badass, and you are lucky to have her!

A Black Belt Goes to Barre Class

Martial Arts Ballet Dance Kids Teens Adults Southlake TX 76092

I usually avoid the latest fitness crazes because I’ve found what works for me, but I’ve been intrigued by a trend that started catching on last year: barre class, as in, a body sculpting workout using a ballet barre.  Ballet, like Pilates and yoga, is well-known for its ability to build long, lean muscles and improve flexibility and balance. I actually like the fact that I’ve bulked up from taekwondo, which probably makes me the odd woman out, but having studied dance as an undergrad, I have an appreciation for the lean muscle tone ballet training can provide.

Luckily for me, I didn’t have to scrounge Groupon for a discounted pass to the PureBarre studio in my neighborhood. My gym, where I mostly swim and take yoga classes, recently added a barre class to the roster. Tonight I donned my favorite tank and stretch pants and went to check it out.

The only hesitation I had about the class was the name:

….um, okay, whatever.

First of all, I don’t need any help in that department. Nineteen years of yoga practice plus intense taekwondo classes and all the squats and box jumps I do in physical therapy have served me very well. Second of all, what a childish, pandering name for a class! It feels too ridiculous to even say out loud. I’m not trying to be a humorless prude, but…Bootybarre? Really??

I didn’t go into the workout expecting an easy, soft stretch class. Let’s level set here: Ballet is HARD. It’s strenuous, deeply technical, and demands full engagement of the body from head to pointed toe. The physical training and mind-body awareness I developed in college dance classes has helped me quite a bit with the equally highly technical demands of taekwondo, although kicking the crap out of someone has a certain…hmm…je ne se quoi that can’t be replicated in a dance class. I didn’t expect it to be too hard, though. “Bootybarre” is held at my gym, not a professional dance studio, so how hard could it be?

The short version: This class kicked my ass. Walking down my stairs tomorrow is going to be painful.

The class began with some simple plies. Okay, this was familiar, I could do this. When my quads started burning less than ten minutes in I knew I was in trouble. After the warm up we switched to dumbbell lifts. 2.5 pound weights? Pssh! No problem…until we started doing all the dumbbell lifts while standing tall on the balls of our feet. Ugh. Hopefully in taekwondo class my Koryo ready stance that I do on tippy toes (yes, that is the technical term) will be solid as a rock after this.

The rest of the class was a blur of leg lifts that left my legs feeling like jelly. After squeezing a ball between my burning thighs for what felt like an hour (okay, more like five minutes) it was a relief to drop to the floor and do some ab work. After being reminded to “zip up my core” for the last forty-five minutes I was pleased that my abs held up better than my legs did. Plus, the final song that was playing was a dance club mix of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” so I had extra motivation to keep moving. “Gon’ make you sweat, make you sweat, make you sweat!”

“Do you do ballet?” a woman asked me after the class.
“Oh, I did a little in college, but now I’m into martial arts,” I said as I put the aforementioned evil ball back in its designated box.
“Well you look like you do it. You move very gracefully.”
“Thanks…except these aren’t from ballet!” I cackled, flashing my bruised forearms at her.

I went home exhausted and sore and consoled myself with a leftover empanada and Cuban rice.

The verdict: worth a try. It was fun, and it can complement the cross training I do to be an agile (and aging) athlete. Like Pilates, yoga, and taekwondo, it taps into the mind-body connection and keeps my muscles lengthened and joints supple. And most importantly, bathing suit season will be here before I know it. I’m already looking forward to next week’s class, ridiculous name and all.

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.

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.

Operation Fix My Hip Begins

kitten massage

So yeah this kind of has something to do with the post. I just used it mostly because it has cute kitties.

It felt appropriate that Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was playing as I drove to my first physical therapy session. After all, most of the pain I’ve been experiencing for the last two months has been “in the back of my Honda,” and I don’t mean my 2014 Accord. I was both excited and a little nervous. While I was ready to put a lot of effort into healing I wondered if I’d have to go through even more pain and discomfort to get there, and I also wondered how much I would have to modify my taekwondo practice.

Short answer…yeah, all of that, kinda. After the thumping beats of the rap song died down I arrived at the sports medicine clinic. I filled out the forms about where it hurts and what makes it feel worse or better and waited for my appointment.

“I’m back!” I cackled, and grabbed my PT Cody* into a back-slapping hug. I first met Cody about eight years ago to treat debilitating anterior hip pain that made sitting, driving, and doing just about anything else extremely painful. Even running was out of the question. He treated me mostly with core strengthening exercises and minor spine and pelvis adjustments, and after that I ran my first half-marathon. I knew if anyone could fix my hip it was Cody.

We were joined in the exam room by a shy PT student who was shadowing Cody for the day. Cody got right down to business and began running his fingers up and down my spine, poking my sacrum, and having me lie on an exam table while he twisted my legs around to check the alignment and see when the impingement was starting to really hurt in the right hip. He hummed the names of the muscles and tendons he was poking as if he were reciting a prayer. Finally he found a spot that was apparently asking for his attention and began to gently massage it and apply pressure.

“I’m going to work on her psoas muscle,” Cody said calmly as he eyed the shy student. “The art of therapy is knowing when to stop and work on something. As a student you might tend to compartmentalize–first take the history, then the objectives…no, there needs to be a flow to it.” He sank his fingers deeper into the side of my hip, which made me wince and inhale sharply. I felt shocked, curious, and disgusted at the same time. When he did a little fishhook move with his finger towards the ilium (that big bone in the front of the pelvis) I felt like he could have disemboweled me.

“Just keep breathing,” Cody said soothingly as he continued to do what I imagine a splenectomy must feel like. Thankfully it was over in a minute or two and he twisted my legs around again. As if by magic the pinching in the front of my hip was less severe.

I ended up on my stomach while Cody continued his lesson.

“See? Here’s the piriformis,” Cody said to the student as he poked the left side of my bottom. (You guys, I was wearing pants, don’t even go there!) “It’s a LOT stronger on this leg, one of the strongest I’ve ever seen. There’s a big difference between the left and the right.”  Hmm, interesting. I knew I was getting more junk in my trunk throughout my training, especially in the last few months. Skirts cling tighter in that area, and I’ve started to look like a little T-Rex, but apparently it’s lopsided. Not sure if Sir Mix-A-Lot would approve.

“Wait a minute!” I said, my voice half-muffled by the pillow. “How can that be? I’m so right-leg dominant! I’m right-handed. My kicks are better on the right. I thought I was stronger on my right leg.”

“You KICK a lot with your right leg,” Cody answered, “but you’re standing on your left leg while you’re doing all of that. If you favor kicking on your right then that builds up your standing leg and you have a really strong foundation. Your right leg is a lot weaker, maybe because you’re overcompensating for the long-time hip pain with the left leg, so you have nothing to hold you up when you kick with the left leg.”

THAT’S why my left leg kicks suck so much…” I mused and rested the side of my face back down on the pillow.Then I twisted my head around to face the student, who by this time looked a little green.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I chirped. “He’s explaining everything, and you’re asking all the questions I don’t know how to ask. We’re learning at the same time!” The student nodded his head politely and looked like he was trying not to think too hard about the fact that for the past twenty minutes he had been staring directly at my derrierre while Cody poked and prodded me.

After doing a few warm up and strengthening exercises I returned to the table where Cody sank his fingers back into my hip flexor.

“Ewww, I feel like your finger is going to go through to the table,” I meweled, trying not to let myself be overcome by nausea or worse, a hysterical fit of laughter if I dared let myself think about how much it tickled.
“It might go through all the way to the floor,” Cody murmured quietly and dug his fingers in even deeper.

I went to sparring class later in the evening and after getting the green light from Grandmaster and my instructor, I hung back. My hip ached with just the fast-paced warmups we did, so I knew I’d better take my doctor’s and therapist’s warnings to take it easy seriously.  I focused more on coaching rather than fighting although I did chase around a few kids and them punch me in the stomach. I enjoy coaching and teaching quite a bit, so I was happy to shift gears. It gives me that nurturing fix that I need, plus it helps me improve my own taekwondo skills by giving me a different and more intellectual perspective of the sport.

“You don’t have the body you had at eighteen anymore,” one of the masters teased after class, reminding me that I needed to go slow for a while and care for my injury.
“But in my head I am!” I joked before stumbling out into the darkness.

So that’s how my life will be for the next two months: that balance between staying active and playing it safe. My yoga teacher always says smart yogis modify; they listen carefully to their bodies. I’d like to think that’s what smart black belts do too.

*Name changed

Fun with Cutlery

housewife knives
Defense against weapons typically begins once the student has achieved first degree black belt. Our school is small so we sometimes have to make do with the mix of students we have on any given day. I was the only bo dan among black belts in our tiny Friday night adult class, and that was my first opportunity to learn defense against weapons. We’ve been spending a lot of time on my test requirements, but my instructor didn’t want to neglect the learning needs of my black belt classmates, so he decided to bring out the rubber knives.

Taekwondo gets flak from other martial artists for the assumption that it is all about fancy kicks: jump kicks, spinning kicks, flying kicks, you name it, we do it. They claim we never do anything with our hands and don’t know how to fight in close quarters. Yes, there is emphasis on kicking because the legs are so much more powerful than the arms (even a Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner told me to fight off attackers on the ground with my legs since I’d have more leverage), but we do quite a bit with our hands. Several of our self-defense techniques include elbow and knife-hand strikes, and students start learning intricate wrist and elbow locks when they hit red belt.

“You look like you’re going to cut a piece of meat. Hold the knife right,” my instructor teased me as I readied myself to stab at him. Apparently I was not a very threatening foe. Trying to kill someone is a lot harder than it looks! I did get him back when I accidentally (or not?) swiped him in the eye with my ponytail as I grabbed his wrist and spun around to elbow him in the face. Just when I felt like I was finally one of the guys my feminine wiles resurface.

The next day in bo dan and black belt class one of the masters decided to continue with weapons training since we were all advanced students, and there were no little kids in the room to dampen our fun. Real life self-defense is not like the crazy choreography we see in the movies. The master advised us to keep it simple and become competent at one or two things we could do effectively and quickly. Protect yourself, disarm and/or incapacitate, and get the hell out of there.

For much of the class we practiced defense against stabs to the gut and overhead stabs from anyone who wanted to play Norman Bates. I was shier and more tentative than I usually am in class. My brain likes to make the hand-to-hand self-defense complicated. While I enjoy puzzles and complexities in other areas of my life I tend to feel overwhelmed with hand-to-hand. Suddenly I don’t know my right from left, up from down, or which way I’m supposed to turn. I forget to use strong stances to leverage my weight and instead stay stock still while I’m flapping my hands. I’ve talked about that magical “click” before, that moment when your body and brain FINALLY work in sync. I guess it just hasn’t happened yet with this technique.

For the last bit of class we tried out defense against “sticks,” which are actually like skinny baseball bats that could land a very ugly blow to the head. I’m not a boy from 1930’s New Jersey so somehow I resisted the urge to want to play stickball with it.

If anyone still doubts taekwondo’s powers to fight off a close-up attacker with the hands I would like them to have been in my place when I swiped at my instructor with the stick…All I remember is that my elbow was crunched, I was dropped on my face and then finally flipped onto my back while my wrist was twisted backwards. It happened so fast that all I could do was will myself to keep my head up in the safety position as I was tossed to the floor. This was all done with a quick block, a precise grab, and a few twists of the wrist and shifts in weight. No kicks. I was a little stunned right after it happened and had to ice my elbow later that night. He definitely got his revenge for the ponytail blinding.

Don’t tell me we don’t use our hands.