Last weekend was the big taiji tournament in Dallas. We drove down in a rented minivan--myself, my partner Tony, my sifu Sit, his wife Mary Ann, and our classmate Heather. Mike and Matt took a separate car and met us down there. I could go into a long exhaustive description of what it's like to be trapped in a van with four other people for ten hours, but frankly I don't want to relive it.
Just kidding. It went pretty smoothly. There were the predictable ego struggles and back-seat driving, and Mary and I were both a bit ill--she had food poisoning, I had cramps (isn't that inevitable?), but there were no accidents or flat tires and we didn't get lost. We got to Dallas in good time, checked into the nicest Best Western I'd ever seen, and then met up with Matt and Mike for a marvelous fish dinner. It was good to see Matt again; he's off at grad school in California. He's tall, whipcord-lean, intense, and talks really fast. He's twenty-five but will probably look eighteen until he's forty. He kept getting carded, everywhere we went.
Pappadeaux seafood restaurant was really marvelous, even if I was too low to fully enjoy it. The guys ordered raw oysters, which I didn't quite have the stomach for that night, and boudin sausage, which I did try and was very good. They also have a marvelous fish called "pontchartrain," which (purportedly--I haven't researched this independently, so don't quote me) comes from some lake in Louisiana with the same name, and is served with crabmeat and shrimp in a white-wine/butter sauce. WOW, is it good. They've got some similar dishes at Copeland's, the best Cajun-Creole restaurant in my neck of the woods, so I guess I'll have to patronize it more frequently.
Tony had a gift for me, in honor of my first tournament: a puzzle box he built with his own two hands, the kind where you have to slide the side panels and bottom in just the right combination before you can open the top, and then there's hidden compartments inside. It was very cool, beautifully made. Even cooler, inside the box was this lovely wicked little double-sided fighting dagger, the kind I've wanted for about fifteen years. Utterly useless unless you're a collector or an assassin, but Quinn and I loved it. Tony said it looked like me. All my close friends give me weaponry sooner or later. It's like a pact.
He had another gift for me at dinner, but I can't talk about that yet so we'll fast forward to the next morning, Friday, when we all trooped over to the adjacent hotel for the workshops.
I already had some inkling of how famous and respected Sit really was, but as in many specialized fields, he's only well-known in his venue. He sometimes complains that he's famous everywhere but Kansas City. Still, I felt a bit like tai chi royalty on Friday, because Sit's workshops were packed. We later learned he had been the top draw at that tournament, with nearly 1/3 of the workshop attendees signing up for his classes.
I attended his first workshop, "Tai Chi Secrets," and listened to him say the same old things he says every freakin' Wednesday, but for some reason it sounded fresh and more poignant, and the crowd was enthralled. He loves to teach and loves to have an audience, and he can be so charming and funny when he's in that environment. It also doesn't hurt that he's a genuine master of his art. He always makes a point of using the biggest guys for demos and putting them on the floor before they can blink.
It was tremendous fun. The expressions of astonishment on his volunteers when they get bent into pretzels are priceless. He never hurts anybody, that's the impressive thing. His art is all about softness and subtlety--he has this whole theory about how aggressive, hard movements transmit "information" to the nerves and brain of your opponent, so by responding softly and gently, you give them no information to fight against. This is a marked contrast to some of the hard-style guys who are all about mowing you over. Late Friday night, Tony and Mike took a workshop with a guy named John Wang who, though "very nice and funny," left vicious bruises on their arms. Wang claims he "feels uncomfortable" if he goes for more than a few days without feeling pain. "If you ever have to fight a gang," he said, "take the biggest guy right away and throw him down on the ground and bust his skull open. Then put a piece of his brain in your teeth and smile. Then you won't have to fight anymore."
I can just see myself using that in a story some day.
Needless to say, Sit's method is a bit different. I've had him put me on the floor plenty of times, and you never feel it coming. He doesn't grip tight. He doesn't even move all that fast. He's just so damned efficient. In workshops he invites the biggest guy to grip his shoulders and then pushes the volunteer's hands off with one finger. "Here it comes," Sit says. "One--two--three--" and the hands are off and the big guy is left standing there gaping. One muscle-head (there's one in every group) was making noises about how all that soft stuff doesn't work "if you do this," so Sit calls him out and went to work on him. The guy broke the pattern, tried to get cute by twisting out of the grip, and Sit goes, "Oh, you asking for trouble, now," and puts the moron in a headlock. In about ten seconds he had the muscle-head's nose pressed to the floor.
I vowed to myself then and there that I would train every freakin' day for the next year and make myself a worthy representative of such a cool master. I had several people come up to me later, and ask me about him and try to persuade me to persuade him to come do a seminar at their schools. Which would be way cool, if he could make a profit at it. It makes me sad to think how his weekly class has shrunk in the last year, what with people moving away and leaving for college. We now have more women than men in our kung-fu class, which is not good for business, alas--sends the wrong image. I'm going to have to get really good and start recruiting.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Saturday was the forms competition. I didn't totally embarrass myself, but it wasn't my finest day. I was slightly crampy and more than a little high on Motrin Sinus, so I was simultaneously wired, limp, and light-headed from low blood pressure. The upside was that I was too physically drained to feel much anxiety. My empty-hand form sucked and my shoes were highly incompatible with the carpet so I almost fell on my face coming out of a leap, but I was feeling no pain.
Final score: I won two silver medals and a bronze in forms competition. That sounds pretty good unless you know that I was second out of two and third of three competitors in my division.
Oh well. I hadn't expected miracles. I had never done a major competition like this, and I knew I was unprepared, what with the divorce and the other upheavals this year. It means enough that I went and saw some other styles and got an idea of what the judges look for. Remember a couple weeks ago when I was complaining about how I had no idea of what was good? Now I do. It gives me something to work toward.
And I didn't completely embarrass myself. My weapons scores were better than the empty-hand. Matt said my broadsword form looked good, "like you were born with a broadsword in your hand," which is a high compliment from a guy who doesn't hand them out lightly. My fan form was rather respectable--the final score was 9.2, I believe. I didn't win, but I got a number of compliments, and the girl who beat me ended up winning Grand Champion of the entire tournament, so I can't feel too badly about it. I'd rather have approval from my peers than a gold medal, any day.
Ironically, my sewing-fu was what got all the attention. My new white suit was a big hit with the women, who liked the shape, and men, who also liked the shape. Many people stopped to compliment it and ask what pattern I used. I'd made my own, of course, but I took down email addresses so I could pass along the base patterns I worked from. The photographer from Kung Fu Magazine took several shots of me performing the fan form so maybe I'll end up in the next issue.
Sit told me I should write an article for them, "How to Survive your First Tournament," ("always take two pairs of shoes--you don't know what the carpet will be like!"), and he's been hinting for some time that I might help him write some of his own articles; he's had a number published but he's never comfortable writing in English. I had thought to attend the "Writing About Martial Arts" workshop on Friday night, but it was too late and I was too tired, and forgive me if I tend to think I've got the writing thing mastered. I did attend a push-hands workshop by a big bear of a Chinese named Sam SF Chin; Tony and Mike had taken his classes before and thought highly of him. The workshop was a bit pedestrian, to my mind, but that might've been because it was the introductory class and I'm a tad more advanced. Still, I got the master's hands on me a couple of times, and he does have an impressive, light touch. His general attitude toward me seemed to be approving, as well--he could tell I got his drift.
His senior student (another Mike) took quite a shine to Tony and our classmate, Big Mike, and spent a lot of time in-between events, giving them pointers on push-hands technique. Sunday was the push-hands competition, as since I was done competing, I got to watch quite a lot of it. Two years ago I did not see the point of push-hands AT ALL, but now it's the most fascinating thing ever.
Push-hands is a bit like Sumo, only without the diapers and the opponents don't charge each other. They start out toeing a line, the backs of their right hands touching and their left hands on each other's elbows. You circle a few times to feel for your opponent's balance or lack thereof, and then try to shove him off his position. In restricted-step push hands, you just have to make him move his feet; in moving push-hands you try to push him out of a ring, hence the Sumo comparison. This may sound simple, but there's a lot of technique involved. You can't just tighten up and brace your legs; your opponent will push you sideways or pull you forward flat on your face. If he's stronger than you and he pushes suddenly, you turn aside and let him fall. If he tries to grab your arm and turn you, you either brace his turn against him or you slip his grip and reverse it. It's complicated and fast, and the irony is, the ultimate technique is to stay totally relaxed and not think too much: you just have to go limp and react.
Tony won silver in his weight class; Matt got bronze. Mike surprised us all and won gold in the heavyweights--and quite gracefully, I might add; we all agreed it was the best technique we'd seen from him. Sit said to me, "You going do push-hands next year?" and I go, "Hell, yeah!"
What can I say? It was a fascinating, exhausting, intense, exhilarating weekend. I had been prepped with all these dire warnings about tedium and pompous judges and interminable demos, but apparently (as Sit said) my added chi tipped the feng shui in the right direction, because everything moved along briskly and was quite entertaining. The Masters' demos at the opening ceremonies were very good, quick and to the point. The lion dances were energetic and fun. Our own presentation onstage went off without a hitch and met with enthusiastic applause. The judges were pompous and biased, this is true, but hell, where isn't that true? I've been dealing with the publishing and editing world too long to let that upset me. The cream will always rise to the top, is my experience. My performance was not exactly cream this time around, but give me time. Now I know where the bar is, I've got something to work toward.