Thursday, April 20, 2006

on fighting

I'm pretty jazzed about taiji lately. Of course I mentioned that Sit started me on this new training, but I can't really talk about that in detail. Not that it's a Forbidden Topic punishable by death or anything. We kind of expect kung fu masters to have secrets they only impart to their inside students, right? But the details have to stay private. I can't show it to anyone, and I'm not supposed to discuss my progress with anyone but Sit. This is to prevent jealousy and confusion between the students, because people inevitably progress at different rates.

As also mentioned, this training is generally not taught to married people, and Sit's never taught it to a female student. The bias against married people is partly due to the time commitment. It would take a pretty understanding spouse (or a writer?) to put up with the long silences behind closed doors. However there are a couple of guys in class now who are married and doing it, and Sit did offer it to me back before anyone knew I was moving out.

The exclusion of women is not a deliberate thing, it's just that Sit's never had a female student stick it out this far. I remember when I'd been doing kung fu about five or six months, and was working on the continuous cannon (Cannon Fist) form, and Tony remarked that women usually dropped out prior to that point. Then last summer Sit mentioned the sole female student he'd had finish the Internal form, which I've been working on since January. And I believe I'm the only woman in American to have learned the Six Elbows staff form, unless one of Sit's kung-fu brothers has another student somewhere else.

But even as exceptional as I am, I can see why women don't generally go in for advanced fighting training. We're afraid of getting hurt. I think it's partly out of interest in protecting our assets--our faces and breasts, which are very vulnerable. And about the same time we get those breasts, the boys get that growth spurt, and we learn very fast to be concilliators, rather than aggressors. Not that it does much good, considering rape statistics.

Generally, if women enroll in martial arts at all, they choose one of the flashy external styles, tae kwon do or karate or jujitsu, which can look damned impressive and tend to be marketed as useful for self-defense--but are, in my opinion, generally inappropriate against a larger, stronger opponent. Especially if you breeze through the katas and gain a brown belt in two years; you may learn the moves but that doesn't mean you can fight.

No, learning soft-style fighting is probably the best way for a woman to go, and I don't say that merely because it's the style I study. I've heard several big tough karate guys with big tough beer bellies remark on how those little soft-style guys seem to have so much more stamina. Problem is, learning soft-style takes time. And it's hard. And it's difficult to know when you're making progress. I've been with Sit about four years now, I've been doing kung fu for a little over three, and I've been in the advanced application class for about 18 months. Periodically, each time I move up in the ranks, I get this glacier of fear in my guts when I realize how much more I have to learn and how vulnerable I still am. I don't seem to have gotten that with this new promotion, but I could simply be in denial.

I generally give myself about 70-30 odds against the average rapist/attacker, depending on body type and discounting weapons imbalances. Knives don't particularly scare me, either; I handle them too much. I may not get away clean, but I'm not getting in a car while I'm still sensible and I'm not going down without taking an eye and a testicle, at least. However a lot of other women don't feel that way. I once saw a horrible newsmag story about a girl who was abducted from her home in the middle of the night, at gunpoint. The attacker forced her to drive her own car to a couple of ATM's, then to an abandoned field, where he raped and shot her.

WTF lady?! You were behind the wheel--you couldn't drive to a gas station, a police station, through a brick wall into a bank? You really think he's gonna shoot you while you're driving ninety? More like he'll be diving out the passenger door. Anything's better than doing what he tells you! But women still think if they cooperate they won't get hurt. That's kind of like assuming if we leave the terrorists alone they won't bother us.

But then again, there's no guarantee that I wouldn't freeze up in a crisis. I tend to think not, because I am generally pretty cool during emergencies, but you never know. That's part of the point of meditation in martial arts training, by the way. It trains your brain to override the fight-or-flight response, so you don't freeze up. That's why Sit tells us to practice with less emotion.

There are a couple of new guys in the Wednesday-night class: one who's a complete novice and the other who's been doing form for a number of years but never seemed to pursue the application side of things. They're both near my weight class, light and wiry, and somewhat beneath me in skill. I toss them around for a while, then when I get to feeling cocky I move on to Tony, who's built like a small tank. He's a lot harder to move. I can slop through it with the skinny guys, but Tony is not only very strong, he's very focused. He outweighs me by thirty pounds so I can't just use muscle and luck; I have to pay attention. That's an important test--if I can move somebody stronger than me it means I'm using intent(will) and technique, rather than muscle.

The only guys in class whom I have difficulty handling are John and Big Mike. John's just really hard. He did aikido for years so all his movements tend to be abrupt and jerky, rather than smooth. He's not much taller than I but he's pretty heavy. Not fat, just thick. Padded people are harder for me to work with on some of those delicate applications because my hands are smaller and I can't always get a grip. Eventually I'll learn to compensate but for now it's frustrating. Then there's Big Mike, who's really a gentle giant, and Sit says he has the fastest hands of any student he's ever had. Mike's got to be at least six-two or -three, because I tend to think I'm bigger than I am, ("You never think anybody's tall," Shara complained to me once) and I've gotten worse as I got more cocky about my fighting ability. Mike is tall enough that all my body mechanics get messed up when I try to work certain applications on him. That's okay, really, because if I were fighting a real opponent who was that tall I'd simply use a different application--focus on the ribs and knees instead of the head. Technique is a luxury anyway, in most combat situations, and Sit will be the first to tell you that. "If he attack you, hit him," he says. "If he try to grab you, hit him. If he throw a punch, hit him! Just keep hitting him until he go down."

Which is the most useful thing any woman will learn in any martial arts class.

Even aside from the physical limitations and the blocks in her own mind, the average woman just plain doesn't have time to devote to serious martial arts training. Who does, really? How many people do you know who really stick to their exercise regime? Hell, I'm no good at practicing on my own, either, I just happen to be athletically and mneumonically gifted. It drove my ex-husband nuts that I never seemed to practice but I kept making progress. (BTW, it's not that I NEVER practice, it's just I can rehearse moves in my head, such as while driving. Not the same, I know, but it goes a long way.)

What can I say? I'm an unusual specimen. And yet I am still a woman, and I never knew a woman who didn't have divided loyalties, whether it was kids or work or husband or church or God forbid, the soaps. Even the famous women artists and writers have a history of undermining themselves and their work for the sake of their men. Remember God's curse in Genesis?--"your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." Who cares whether it was divine punishment or not--that's a damn accurate observation on the nature of womankind. I've done it myself, though not recently, and I know plenty of women who never outgrow it. Fortunately that's no longer a concern for me.

Now, with regard to Sit, I think there's a specific reason why women don't last long in his class. He's intimidating as hell, and much as I've always admired him, I've really only gotten comfortable around him in the last year. He is not friendly, unless he takes an interest in you, in which case he can turn suddenly and disturbingly blunt. He doesn't make small talk. He tends to lecture, even at the dinner table. He doesn't seem to care whether you show up to class or not, but if you're sloppy or unprepared, he'll roll his eyes and mutter under his breath. Plus his English is so strongly accented that you're never sure how much he understands or how much you're understanding of what he says.

This creates a barrier for women students because women have to feel accepted before they'll commit fully to a group. And women, alas, bond by talking. Nobody talks in class except Sit. Sit will walk into a conversation you're having with someone else and take it over. It took me months to learn everybody's names, and even now I don't know most people's last names or anything else about them. Most women can't cope with that. They need the support of relationships, even superficial ones, and I'll admit that I get pretty impatient with the older crowd in the Sunday tai chi class because they treat it like social hour. Yes, I felt very uncomfortable and isolated the first few months I was in kung-fu class, but it didn't matter. I was used to being the only girl in a troupe of boys. I wasn't looking for anybody to accept me, I was going for the workout and to learn.

As it turned out, that was exactly the right attitude to have. People have to prove themselves in Sit's class. Oh, he'll let anyone attend, he'll start the first form over and over again and repeat the same liturgy of drop-elbow/relax hip/suspend head-top until you're ready to scream, but he seldom dishes out individual attention. He won't spoon-feed you. He never corrects people one-on-one until they get to a certain level, at least have indicated that they've got a grasp of the basics and can learn by watching and listening. And he loses interest real quick if your attendance is sporadic.

Furthermore--and I think this keeps away students of both genders, but particularly women--there's no official ranking system in Chinese-American kung-fu, the way karate et ux have belts and such. Americans tend to think that they have to get regular recognition for something or it's not worth doing (my ex-father-in-law couldn't seem to grasp the fact that there were no belts in Sit's class). And Sit dumps all his students of all ranks into a single class, which is good for the beginning students in the long run but can be intimidating as hell to start out.

Sometimes, when I'm in a good mood, I'll make an effort to greet the new people, especially the women, and welcome them. But the fact is, the senior students are even less interested in the new people than Sit is. We know they're not going to be around long. In my case they knew I'd come from Sit's wife's class and I'd been coming to Sit's class for about a year before I started kung fu. They knew who I was so they were inclined to be polite, at least. I was intimidated but I tried not to put myself forward or act girly or self-deprecating. In fact I don't think I said a word in class for the first three months. Fortunately Tony took an early liking to me, because he had to student-teach me a lot and he knew I had focus and learned fast. Also it helped that there were only four or five of us at the time, and I'd only started about six months behind the core of that group, so Sit pushed me along very fast that year. Ironically, I think it also helped that I was the only woman, because I had to pair with a guy for practice, which forced them to get used to me and forced me to get used to a stronger partner, instead of dealing with a wimpy woman and her I'm-okay-you're-okay attitude. (Tony recently told his beginning students, "If I tell Holly to hit me, I'd better be prepared to block!") Once I got past that second-form milestone and started on the staff, they were ready to start taking me a bit more seriously.

I had a half-formed theory that perhaps the traditional Chinese masters didn't teach their secrets to women because women talk to much, but upon reflection it seems the sin of gab is not confined to gender. Tony was the first one who told me about the advanced meditation training, back when he was going through it. I hadn't even started kung fu at that point, and he prefaced the statement with, "I'm not supposed to tell you about this, but...." and then a two-hour recounting of the experience, including some the esoteric stuff which I am respectfully not revealing here.

What's funny is, Sit seems to have anticipated such a leak (admittedly Tony and I are pretty tight since the boys left, but we're not practicing together every day the way he and Matt were). When he offered to teach me the meditation he just dived in like I was supposed to already know all about it. He's also taking a more casual attitude toward teaching me the top-secret stuff than he did with his top male students--for them it was almost ritualized, but for me it was just another Wednesday night in the basement. Which is not to say that I'm being shortchanged in any way. Far from it. It's just that Sit knows how a student needs to be taught. Tony admits he probably expected and wanted more mystique and ritual surrounding that passing-down of secrets. I'm a far more pragmatic creature. I would've been rolling my eyes at any semblance of ritual, and Sit is more matter-of-fact with me than he is with some of the boys.

I think my seemingly nonreactive attitude frustrated him at first, as if I wasn't taking it seriously, but we came to an understanding about a year ago when he realized I wasn't going to flake out. It took me a while to understand that Sit's not really comfortable with intimacy, either, and I figure he found me as inscrutable as I did him. When he started talking to me about books and asking questions about writing I realized he was trying to bond. I quit being so insecure about my place in the class, I opened up a bit, and he started correcting and smacking me a lot more, which is the highest compliment the Chinese man can give.

I think he sees me as a bit of an experiment. I supposed I'd have to be, since I'm his first female student to come this far. Of course he knows I'm going through big changes in my life, and I've come a long way even without the advanced training. I think he wants to see what I'll turn into. I know I'm curious.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

a very happy birthday

Birthday was grand. Had a lovely Italian dinner with Amber; roasted salmon and tortelloni in cream sauce, plus chocolate ganache cake to die for. Yum!

Even though it was my birthday, she got some gifts too: I finally handed over the two corsets she commissioned from me months ago. They turned out beautifully, if I do say so myself. One is sleek black satin and the other is bone-colored silk shantung, with a monochrome lace-and-velvet trim along the top. I finished the insides by hand so they look as clean and professional inside as out. She wants to do some self-portraits in them so I hope to add the photos to my portfolio sometime in the next decade.

She gave me a lovely box-framed butterfly specimen. I managed to get a rather crappy scan of it at work.

Sabine and I like it. In my new office in Mom & Dad's house (which was my old office, and before that, my sister's room) I have cleared off the top of my desk and arranged all of my Fairweather memorabilia: antique bottles, a model human skull, some rusty skeleton keys, and a sepia-toned picture of a distinguished and forbidding-looking man who's standing in for Sabine's father. I hung the butterfly on the wall beside the desk, between a naturalist illustration of a vampire bat, and a sketch of a brain dissection from the late 18th century. It's cool.

It's also rather symbolic. A couple people asked me if I felt older, and the truth is I feel younger. I know I'm entering a new phase in my life, and I feel lighter, full of possibilities. I haven't felt like this since I graduated college at the ripe old age of 26, but I always love the sensation. I've come out of my cocoon this month. Wings are still wet, maybe, but if I can be really corny with a clich&eacute, I feel poised for flight.