Are You Living Life Like You Borrow It or Do You OWN It?

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“Are you driving it like you borrowed it or are you driving it like you OWN IT?!”

My Body Combat teacher growled and grinned at us as she threw jabs and pushed her sweaty acolytes to work harder. As I bounced and punched I had to suppress a chuckle and filed her comment away in my brain for a future blog post.

Continue reading “Are You Living Life Like You Borrow It or Do You OWN It?”

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Playing the Long Game in Pool, Taekwondo, and in Life

“I’m playing the long game.”

My billiards partner glanced up at me as he said this and then narrowed his eyes at the pool table as he adjusted his stance. I had suggested he take an easier and more straight shot, but he was focused on long-term strategy. He wanted to set himself up to get multiple shots in one play. This involved taking a more difficult shot first so the cue ball would end up where he wanted it. Continue reading “Playing the Long Game in Pool, Taekwondo, and in Life”

Crowdsourcing

happy crowd

Yesterday I didn’t feel too jazzed about “cardio night.” My allergies have been acting up since Friday, so I was headachy, grumpy, and phlegmy, plus my right…um…“high hamstring” still had shooting pain whenever I did a front or roundhouse kick on that leg. However I knew I needed to get out of the house and get some exercise, and I know I always feel better once I get some sweat and endorphins flowing. When I arrived a white belt class was still going on, and a few advanced students had trickled in to quietly warm up. As I squinted and creaked and stretched by the barre I was approached by a little blonde red belt who sells Girl Scout cookies and has developed quite the hook kick. She began peppering me with questions about red-to-black belt training.

“Do you want to be a black belt?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. She nodded emphatically.
“Then you’ll have to work hard. Do remember your form?” I asked, leaning down to look her in the eye.
“Yes, but it’s confusing,” she said, miming some of the motions of Palgwe Chil Jang.
“Okay, we’ll work on that after this class is finished. We have to be quiet until then.”
She gazed at the white belts and mused, “I like watching them sometimes.”
“You can learn how to teach by watching a white belt class,” I said. “You have to know how to do that to be a black belt.” She nodded again and started mumbling all the things white belts have to learn under her breath: stretch kicks, front snap kick, low block…

Once the white belts had scattered I rushed her out onto the mat and soon convinced a fellow bo dan and a red belt who is testing for black tip on Friday into joining us. Even though I sounded like I was smoking a pack a day I quickly started to feel better as I walked the kids through the form. I smirked with pride when my fellow little bo dan took it upon herself to explain to the blonde red belt a particularly difficult part of the form.

It was a great class with lots of variety to keep us on our toes and infectious enthusiasm from other students. We giggled when a black belt (and incidentally the only one who speaks Korean fluently) did the wrong kick when we were told to do “hyeo chun cha-kee”–I’ll give you a hint; it’s NOT jump snap kick. We muttered compliments and words of encouragement to each other during fast paced rounds of flying kicks.

By the end of class I still had a dry throat and the sniffles and couldn’t tell if I had a mild fever or I was just my usual roasting man-sweaty self, but I felt much better. I enjoyed the thrill of a good workout and had the feel-good fuzzies when I coached some of the younger kids.  Being around like-minded people I care about definitely helped lift my spirits.

Meanwhile tonight I am sitting at home pouting because I am coughing way too much to make it through a vinyasa yoga class…I even start hacking in savasana. Meh. You win some, you lose some.

How Giving Up Drinking Saved My Skin

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The last time I drank alcohol was exactly three months ago after a lonely Sunday spent on the couch with a bottle of Malbec and a dark mood. I had been toying with the idea of giving it up after I got bo dan rank in April and would “officially” begin black belt training, but circumstances demanded that I give it up sooner.

My skin is very thin and sensitive, and I don’t just mean metaphorically. I can only use the gentlest cleansers and moisturizers or else my face will burn and turn bright red. My face regimen sounds like I’m making a salad dressing: I wash it with olive oil, tone with apple cider vinegar, and after I put on gentle moisturizer with SPF I splash on a little rosewater and glycerin for extra softness and a fresh sweet scent. I even exfoliate with sugar or sea salt.

The ever-present splotchiness and little broken capillaries across my nose and cheeks make me suspect some mild rosacea. In eighth grade a boy once called me “Rudolph” because of my red nose. At that age you could never really tell if a boy really liked you or hated your guts because they were all immature little assholes either way. That was long before I’d ever had my first glass of wine (even communion wine), so I know my red face isn’t just a symptom of riding the sin wagon.

My already pinkish nose and cheeks turn bright red if I have a hot drink, spicy food, wine, spend too much time driving straight into the setting Texas sun, or even just sit still at my computer too long, which causes the blood to pool towards the center of my face. I am tomato red through an entire sparring class, and during one particularly energized class I turned so red I was grey. The more alcohol I drank the more I noticed how red and splotchy my face was becoming….and staying permanently.

In case you still doubt the sheer crappiness of my skin and circulation, there’s more. I bruise very easily, and they last for weeks. Scars from small cuts or bites can last up to six months. I’ve gotten several drive-by diagnoses from nurse and doctor coworkers of Raynaud’s phenomenon in my fingers. The good thing about that is I was able to commission my mom to knit me several cute pairs of fingerless gloves.

So what did giving up booze do for me other than save me from too many calories and drunken Super Mario Brothers sessions?

I lost a few pounds. I don’t attribute that entirely to giving up drinking. I amped up my workout routine and cleaned up my diet about the same time I gave up the bottle. It certainly didn’t hurt though. Drinking wine is like pouring a big glass of sugar down your throat, plus it gives me the munchies. I wouldn’t drink a fully-leaded soda every night. How is drinking wine any different?

My vitals changed as well. I went to the doctor in April, and my resting pulse was 60, and my blood pressure was 114/62. I typically have low pulse and BP rates thanks to exercise and good genetics, but I’ve never seen it lower than about 120/75. At a June health fair it was 106/68. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

My skin did clear up. Even after just a few weeks of not drinking I noticed that some of the persistent redness had calmed down, and it looked brighter. Within a month other people noticed that my skin looked clearer.

The biggest thing was that I got out of my funk. I had fallen into a deep depression earlier in the year, aggravated by the cold dreary weather and some complications in my relationship. I was lonely, restless, and starting to question whether anything was worth the trouble anymore. I got to the point that I needed a drink when I got home, and it kept me company throughout long dragging weekends of isolation and brooding.

I learned to rely on my pure unfiltered self rather than the hazy distraction of an outside substance (whether it was alcohol, food, Netflix, whatever) to cheer me up, get me through a rough patch, or just pass the time. A few weeks after I stopped drinking alcohol my relationship imploded. I wanted to drink myself into a blind stupor during that lost weekend, but I didn’t have a single drop. These days I actually look forward to treating myself to an occasional soda, perhaps ginger ale in a wine glass if I’m feeling fancy, or if I really want to indulge, lemonade mixed with ice tea (and not the kind from Long Island).

Will I start drinking alcohol again? An emphatic YES. I have a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne that I will open immediately after my black belt test in the fall. I’d say that’s about as special as you can get for a special occasion. I LOVE wine, and not just for the slow-building heady buzz. I love the texture, the taste, the complexity of smell and flavor, the beautiful color of it, how it can complement anything from filet mignon to peanut butter crackers (cabernet sauvignon and a really dry cheddary chardonnay respectively in case you’re wondering). It’s my partner in crime while I make a fresh batch of marinara—some for the gravy, some for the cook. Virginia Madsen’s candlelit soliloquy about wine in the movie “Sideways” makes me tear up a little.

Yes, I will start drinking again after my self-imposed oenophile-exile is over. The difference will be that I will truly be able to enjoy wine without being weighed down with the anxious expectation for it to save me from my worries or give me a false sense of cheer and peace. Plus I’ll need to make a new batch of marinara.

Choose Your Priorities, Don’t Let Them Choose You

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Tonight a teenage black belt who should be testing for second dan in October was throwing up one argument after another as to why he couldn’t stay for the extra classes we have on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Finally he said that his priorities have shifted for the summer.

“And what’s your priority this summer?” my instructor asked with a sigh.
“Video games.” The student turned on his heel and stalked out of the training room.

We often think we are at the mercy of our priorities and everything that’s “on our plate,” but the truth of it is it all comes down to choices. Yesterday I talked about how we have a choice in how we feel rather than being a victim and blaming someone else for our anger or sadness or self-doubt. Claiming helplessness in the face of priorities is robbing yourself of your very potent power of choice.

You have a choice in how you spend your time and energy. In EVERYTHING. “But I have to go to work or I’ll get fired!” you might say. Oh really? Is someone yanking you out of bed and shoving you into your car every morning and forcing you to drive to the oil field or the office or the restaurant or do you choose to drive yourself to work no matter whether you love or hate your job? “I have to take care of my kids!” No, you choose to. There are plenty of idiots out there who don’t.

You have a choice in how much attention and energy you devote to that next phone call, email, project, or conversation. Your boss might have told you to do it, but you are ultimately the decider. You could certainly stay home and yes, you might get fired. That was your choice.

You have a choice in how much time and attention you devote to your partner or family. I have never said, “I’m too busy” to someone I really liked or loved. Like everyone else and more times than I’m proud to admit I’ve used the “I’m too busy” line to get out of something that I chose not to do but don’t have the courage to admit it.

Not to be an apple polisher here, but my priority this summer IS taekwondo. Yeah sure, I have a full-time job, but that’s never stopped me before, heh heh! I choose to stay in shape so I have the endurance for sparring, the strength for jumping, and the finer motor skills for forms. I choose to watch what I eat (well, most of the time) so I have a clear head and high energy. I choose to devote my time to my practice rather than doing all those other fun things I could be doing this summer.

I choose it because it is so important to me. I don’t really care about titles or measuring myself against anyone else. I’m doing this for me. The dojang is my second home, and the people there are my second family. Getting a black belt is the icing on an already delicious cake; I just want to be there as often as I can.

If you catch yourself saying, “I want to do that, but I don’t have time,” pause for a moment. Do you really not have time or do you place your values and importance on something else? Either scenario is OK. You have more freedom than you think you do. Everything is a choice, and the power is yours.

Eat, Practice, Love

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I spent the final week of May indulging in home-cooked Italian food and fine dark chocolate and to no surprise gained a few pounds.

In my defense I was nearing the end of a very sad, painful, drawn-out situation in my personal life. Usually I stop eating when things get really bad, but this time I seemed to stress eat, albeit good quality food rather than chips and cheap candy bars, as if that makes any difference. Then whenever I start to feel better I “happy eat,” so I can’t freaking win.

I did exercise and attend taekwondo class as usual, so my very slight weight gain was only noticeable to me. Then again, I’ve been fat-shamed at 116 pounds and told I looked better when I was “skinnier,” i.e., miserable and haggard and subsisting on whiskey for dinner (yes, really), so everyone’s perspective is a little different.

It’s starting to sink in that my black belt test is around the corner, so that’s as good a reason as any to clean up my act and stay motivated. I’ve already been off alcohol for two months and feel much better–stay tuned for a blog post about that in a few weeks. Why not, as my yoga teacher would say, let go of other things that no longer serve me?

I didn’t even enjoy my Netflix movie marathons or heavy food towards the end of my mourning period/indulgent exile. It was time to let go. So last Sunday morning I hit the gym and the juicer and have deflated back down to, well, 116 pounds. I even feel confident enough to prance around my condo complex’s pool this afternoon.

Besides chocolate, pasta, Netflix, and sleeping in, I’d also been indulging in an emotion that tastes good at first but makes you feel crappy later: anger. Bitter, searing, hateful anger that was finally unleashed after about six months of pent up stress and frustration. I was surprised at the grinding resentment I felt for someone who once held a very important place in my life.

And then I heard my taekwondo instructor’s voice in my head say, “Don’t let it escalate.”

A long time ago I’d jotted down a quick “gratitude list” about this person, probably when I was annoyed with them, ha ha. I’ve always kept it in my desk at work, so Monday morning I dug it out and read it again. It calmed my anger and reminded me that this person is more than just a culmination of our most recent encounters and is hurting just as much as I am. It reminded me of how much I once loved this person.

If you’ve been regularly following my blog you know I’ve been dealing with this “situation” for the last several months. I think we’re all tired of talking about it, and I’m tired of clinging to it as justification for being cranky, eating poorly, and until two months ago, drinking heavily. The anger and hatred are no longer serving me. It’s not motivating me to move forward and make bold decisions anymore.

I won’t forget and am not ready to fully forgive, but like the junk food and sleeping in and movie marathons, I can at least let the anger go. The bitterness and anger and hatred are making me just as unhealthy as the salami and chocolate were. If I let it escalate then I am responsible for the consequences. How can I possibly love myself if I’m so wrapped up in hating somebody else?

Learning to love myself has been a very long arduous learning process. My yoga practice and especially my taekwondo practice have been instrumental in helping me turn the corner. Much of it has involved learning to let go—of impossible expectations, of doubt, of fears, of hatred and anger. Do you know how many years I’ve wasted hating myself for being “fat” (as in, to the point of being suicidal) even though I’ve never weighed more than about 125 pounds? Do you know how many times I’ve silently chided myself for being stupid, boring, ugly, and a failure? How could I possibly love myself if I was so wrapped up in hating myself?

I’ve learned that I have to let go of those same feelings toward other people—the expectations, the fear, the anger when they make mistakes or when they hurt me. I have learned to let myself be a perfectly imperfect human being, and I suppose I should extend that same gesture to others who cross my path.  The weight of the negative feelings is much heavier than a few stress eating pounds (or happy eating), but easier to lose if you give it a try.

So what will I do on this new bright path?  Keep taking care of my body, mind, and spirit, keep practicing taekwondo, keep learning from mistakes and triumphs, keep growing, keep loving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Ate Meat on Ash Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will This Be On the Test?

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For the last four months I have been preparing to test for my black tip. As the days draw closer my anxiety creeps upward. When asked what I want to work on in taekwondo class I immediately jump to testing requirements. Is it my responsibility to practice outside of class? Absolutely. Does it happen every day? No. I read my one-step instructions daily and practice all the forms I’ve learned to date on the weekends. It’s a little harder, though, to work on my flying side kick when I have a creaky floor plus downstairs neighbors and would look like a crazy person if I practiced them outside on the parking lot of my condominium complex.

Preparing for the test can give me tunnel vision. I’m so focused on practicing the particular kicks, forms, and one-steps I’ll have to perform that I let the rest of my technique slide. Ironically my schoolmates and I used to admonish our 10th grade English teacher for “teaching to” the state standardized test. Here I am 20 years later doing exactly the same thing.

How often do we direct our actions towards other “tests” in life that hinge on someone else’s approval? That’s not always a bad thing based on the thousands of articles out there on how to ace a job interview or how to compromise with your spouse. It becomes detrimental, though, when we lose sight of the big picture. We become so concerned with pleasing others and snagging that one particular golden outcome that we lose sight of our own stake in the game. Eventually we can no longer benefit from the richness of the journey since we’re focused on a sole non-negotiable outcome. It becomes a performance based on ultimatums: I’ll do this if you continue to pay me. I’ll do that if you continue to love me.

Sure I want to do well and impress my instructors and pass my test. But I don’t want to cast what I’ve learned aside in order to cram for the next test. That’s not learning; that’s regurgitation. Taekwondo practice draws from a comprehensive body of knowledge, not a single kick or a punch existing in a vacuum.  Only one student from this past spring’s black belt test has continued coming to class. He understood the connection to the bigger picture, and I have enjoyed watching him mature emotionally in his practice (plus his mom drives him to class so he kinda has to).

Cramming for the next “test” is akin to chasing the carrot on the stick. It’s always juuuuust out of our reach. When we do catch it we’re immediately dissatisfied and are chasing another carrot. Our self-imposed blinders keep us narrowly focused on a fragile dream. We stop connecting the dots. We miss out on the rest of life happening around us.

Let’s get real. I WILL be cramming for my black tip test over the next two weeks. The REAL test will occur later when I’m able to demonstrate (or not) that what I performed on the test is an easily accessible and repeatable piece of my taekwondo toolbox. Passing that knowledge onto others will seal the deal.

…Oh let’s cut the sanctimonious crap. I’ll start cramming for my bo dan and black belt tests.

Your Guru of Imperfection…Mind the Mess in the Ashram

Last night I dreamt about flying side kick.

The first time I attempted it I landed square on my bottom in a pile of kicking pads. I had just gotten my green belt and joined the upper ranks in my first advanced class. Frustrated and embarrassed I was ready to give up. A year later and I’m looked up to by other students. I have this blog. I have my red belt, which is further than I ever got as a child over 20 years ago on the dusty lonely plains of west Texas. I still can’t do a flying side kick.

Continue reading “Your Guru of Imperfection…Mind the Mess in the Ashram”