29 January, 2018
For those of you who follow my other blog, Panlasa, which is a blog for foodies, I apologise but this post isn’t about the edible squash. Sorry. No, this post is about the sport of squash. It’s a sport I started playing in my youth in Hong Kong, fell away from when I moved to the United States, came back to in my university days at Rutgers (I even represented the university against Steven’s Tech in a hardball match; the one and only time I’ve ever played hardball squash and, likely, the only time I ever will), fell away from again after graduation and have reacquainted and fallen in love with since 2011.
What’s funny – or sad – is that while I do enjoy playing and I do appreciate and look for the fitness and health benefits of playing, being a part of the Rutgers Squash Club (RSC) was partly inspired by a connection to home, to Hong Kong. In addition to the health benefits and enjoyment of playing, squash takes me back, emotionally anyway, to my youth.
A fellow Southeast Asian student, who I believe was in my Economics class, introduced me to the RSC. He’s from Singapore and we’re still in contact with each other and it was the camaraderie and familiarity I had with him and the other friends from Singapore and Malaysia he introduced me to that got me hooked. We became friends and went on to play intramural football together and do other things that friends do. We have so much in common, both being from former British Crown Colonies, that there was an instant connection and, for the first time since I moved to America, I felt safe and I had a set of friends – barkada, to use the Filipino term – that made me feel like I had a place to belong.
You see, squash tethers me to home, to Hong Kong, and helps me hold on to memories and a place and time that was easier, in some ways better, and, most definitely, a lot more innocent. The first time I played squash was at the Hong Kong Squash Racquets Association courts which was literally across the parking lot from my school, Island School. Incidentally, Island School was officially shut down last month and is relocating as the buildings, playgrounds, sports halls and classrooms get demolished so, today, the sound of a driven ball against the front wall to die at the back corner brings me back my secondary school days. Looking back on them, I recall hot, sweaty and humid summers playing with friends then pretending to be members in the lounge and rejuvenating with an orange cordial - Schweppes or Robinson’s, of course.
Squash, as strange as this might sound, also offers me a feeling of hope. I think this comes also from my days playing at Rutgers University since Rutgers, as the school I attended to shape me into a professional in my field, was the bridge towards my future and nurtured a sense of conquering the world. Almost forty-nine, those feelings a college student gets that he has his whole life ahead of him are fading but as a father whose son has also fallen in love with squash, there’s a different kind of hope I feel now. It’s a hope for my son and his goals and dreams on and off the squash court. Another feeling of hope squash provides me is the hope of, one day, getting back into shape and being fit and healthy again. Any type of movement is great but squash, which I read once in an article that I recall may have come from Psychology Today, burns 1500 kcal per hour on the highest levels of play. Of course, I’m not playing anywhere near that level but on average it’s still worth between 800-1,000 kcal per hour.
So, these are some of the reason why I play squash but this post wasn’t really meant to be about that. As the title of this post suggests, I want to express my observations with the intimacy of squash. On some level, anything that anyone does has a certain level of intimacy simply because it means something to that person but there’s more than that. On the outset, squash is intimate because of how it’s played. Any sport that involves one person going one-on-one against another is intimate. Make the proximity of that interaction closer, like putting them in the same room, makes it really intimate. Add the element of having to get out of the other person’s way while still not making things easy for him, that’s intimate. Fighting – boxing, martial arts (I’m a fifth degree black belt in Taekwondo and had a short but decent competitive career in the 1990s) – is also intimate but if one fighter is dominating, he can keep his distance and get by on running out the clock. He can knock the other fighter out, too. That’s always impressive but it’s not intimate. It’s like a one-night stand. Worse, it’s like a one-night stand quickie. In squash, with the exception of quitting, there is no quick way out. The combatants have to play, at least, three games to eleven points while hitting a rubber ball that doesn’t bounce unless it’s warmed up, getting out of each other’s way, not hitting your opponent, changing direction like a rabbit on the run, producing constant bursts of speed like a sprinter out of his starting blocks while possessing the endurance of a marathoner, and bending and reaching with strength like a guru yogi.
Off the court, I discovered recently how the squash community offers its own sense of intimacy. For the second consecutive year, my son and I (this year my wife joined us) attended the Tournament of Champions at Grand Central Station in New York City. It was held between 18-25 January, 2018 and saw Germany’s Simon Rosner get crowned as the men’s champion and Egypt’s Nour El Sherbini as the women’s.
At the TOC, the seats are close to the court and relatively inexpensive so you really get to see the players. The players come and go like commuters catching an Amtrak, and they are genuinely very friendly and open to chatting with their fans. In one weekend, my son, wife and I were able to meet and/or interact with a dozen world-class squash players. We were invited to a reception to honour one of the best ever, Nick Matthew, who happens to be my son’s favourite player. He's to my son what Jahangir Khan is to my generation. We got to meet him, chat with him and when we left the reception he said goodbye to my son using his name.
We got last minute tickets, at a discounted price, from someone who works with Nick Matthew but whom I’d never met before until this particular weekend. Up until the time I got the tickets from him, we’d only engaged in email communication. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of footballers or tennis players or basketball players, I doubt if in the span of about ten total hours in and around the competition venue would I and/or my son be able to stand side-by-side, meet and chat with twelve of the world’s best. Moreover, they all came across as ‘regular’ people who they really cared that we wanted to meet them, shake their hands, say hello. In some ways, I almost feel like if I were in England visiting my sister and her family and we ran into Nick Matthew, he might actually remember us. That’s the kind of warmth and welcome were given. We didn’t attend as part of a club or school team or because my son is an upcoming star in the junior circuit. Heck, he hasn’t even competed in his first squash tournament yet. We were just two nobodies who love squash.
There’s definitely an intimacy, a fraternity and sorority, among squash players and enthusiasts that I’ve never felt before. I have a hard time picturing the players from Manchester United and Manchester City sitting down side-by-side after one beats the other in a semifinal. At the TOC, beaten players, those eliminated from the tournament, are often seen the next day or even just a few hours later, sitting in the stands watching the opponents who’d bested them and clapping when they do something amazing. In many cases, they’re even cheering for them. From what I saw at the TOC, there’s a feeling of goodwill between and among players that I haven’t seen at basketball matches, football matches and other sporting events I’ve attended. There’s even a sense of humility from those who win that I haven’t seen often from victors in other sports. The only other place where I’ve seen and experienced the same kind of closeness has been through my decades of being a martial artist and spending day after day, kick after kick, bruise after bruise with my fellow Taekwondo practitioners and those younger years when I was a serious but not so fast runner.
I honestly don’t recall who introduced me to squash. It all likelihood, one or two of my friends played and the gang just gravitated to joining in the fun. It was probably Ravi or David or Sal. I was never the best. Even today, I’m a competent player but far from being good. My club’s handicapping system has me at 66, which I think translates to somewhere between being a 3.0 (DD) player to a 3.5 (C) player according to US Squash standards. Click here for US Squash’s rating scale. All of that aside, I’m glad I was introduced to it and, regardless of the reason, I’m glad it found me again and that it’s found my son, too. There are worse things I could be into but not many better ones.
On that note, there’s just one thing left to say, “Up or down?”
So, 2018 has arrived and it’s time to take a look back at my literary life of the past year; the books I read and the ones I really enjoyed. I read thirty-eight books last year ranging from adult fiction, adult non-fiction, YA and middle grade fiction, and graphic novels. I even read an e-book novella the author wrote as a conclusion to his YA-dystopian series.
For those of you who are be new to Contemplations and my annual top ten list of books I read in 2017 list, with the exception of number one, the books aren’t listed in any particular order. Number one is the book that made me feel the most or the one that taught me the most. It’s the book that I know I will read again so it gets top spot and, perhaps, me look inward more than any of the others. It’s the book that truly hit me at my core and, without tying to sound too dramatic, may even have made me change something in my life. I also name a few ‘honourable mentions.’ These are books that were truly entertaining and worth my while but didn’t have quite an impact as the others but books that I would still recommend to others. Lastly, the books in my annual list don’t have to have been printed in the year I read them. This is, after all, my top ten list of boos I read in 2017 and not came out in 2017.
So, without further delay, here is my list of the top ten books I read in 2017.
1. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (updated edition) by Anthony Bourdain. Published in 2007 by Ecco/Harper Perennial (first published in 2007). Paperback.
2. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd (Conception), Jim Kay (Illustrator). Published in 2013 by Candlewick Press (first published 2011). Paperback.
3. Jahangir Khan 555: The Untold Story Behind Squash’s Invincible Champion and Sport’s Greatest Unbeaten Run by Rod Gilmour and Alan Thatcher. Published in 2016 by Pitch Publishing. Kindle edition.
4. The Last Kids on Earth and The Zombie Parade (Last Kids on Earth #2) by Max Brallier, Doug Holgate (illustrator). Published in 2016 by Viking Books for Young Readers. Hardcover.
5. Nanjing: The Burning City by Ethan Young. Published in 2015 by Dark Horse Originals. Hardcover.
6. The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies. Published in 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardcover.
7. Miguel and the Grand Harmony by Matt de la Peña, Ana Ramírez (illustrator). Published in 2017 by Disney Press. Paperback.
8. The Zodiac Legacy: The Dragon’s Return (Zodiac Legacy, #2) by Stan Lee, Stuart Moore, Andie Tong (illustrator). Published in 2016 by Disney Press. Hardcover.
9. Brooklyn Antediluvian: Poems by Patrick Rosal. Published in 2016 by Persea. Paperback.
10. Dog Man and Cat Kid (Dog Man #4) by Dav Pilkey. Published in 2017 by Graphix. Hardcover.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Published in 2012 by Knopf. Hardcover.
If You Were a Kid at the First Thanksgiving by Melissa Sarno, Lluis Farre (illustrator). Published in 2017 by C. Press/F. Watts Trade. Paperback.
Sweating Blood: My Life in Squash by Nick Matthew, Dominic Bliss (editor). Published in 2014 by internationalSPORT group. Kindle edition.
The Wangs vs The World by Jade Chang. Published in 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardcover.
Well, 2018 is almost here and once it arrives, inclusive of New Year’s Day and my birthday, I will have 396 days to reach the fitness goals I want for myself at fifty. Yes, friends, fifty. Just to clarify, especially for those who know when my birthday is and/or don’t want to do the sums, I’m talking about my birthday in 2019 and not 31 January 2018.
You see, Grandmaster Chuck Norris – yes, THAT Chuck Norris – has always been someone I’ve admired. Watching his movies, Walker, Texas Ranger and, of course, his Total Gym infomercials, I couldn’t help from noticing that he was in really good shape. I was in pretty good shape at that time (late 1990s) and I remember telling myself that if I could be in half as good physical shape when I turn fifty as Grandmaster Norris was then I’d be alright. I might even be happy. Well, now, at seventy-seven, Grandmaster Norris is still in fantastic shape and that’s after hip surgery. And, I can tell you from experience, that a lower leg injury is just about every martial artist’s nightmare.
Over the years since I made that statement to myself, my fitness and physical condition has peaked, fallen, peaked again and, over the last thirteen years or so, followed an undulating path of fair times and bad times. The most recent time I might be able to claim that my fitness level was good was in 2011. I was teaching Taekwondo and training regularly, won my first New Jersey State Poomsae (Forms) title and competed at the US National Taekwondo Championships. This level of ‘good’ physical condition lasted until around June of 2012 when I officially stopped teaching Taekwondo for a second time in my life.
The up-and-down fitness started in 2004. I got married that year and I moved to a new place. I’m blaming neither the institution of marriage nor my wife. In the end, I can only blame myself. Change elicits stress and how one handles that stress leads to either success or failure. With getting married and moving and, later on, the birth of our son, my lifestyle changed and stress levels rose. In terms of my physical condition, I handled none of them successfully. In many other ways, the changes have been for the better. Understanding patience, generosity, ‘presentness,’ and family, for instance, are clearer in my mind than they’ve ever been. For my fitness, however, they haven’t been. I take full responsibility for my decline. There have been many starts and stops. The starts were full of energy and vim only to burn out with lack of discipline and excuses. This time it’s different because, while I still have years ahead of me after fifty (as far as I know), achieving this goal by fifty is important to me. ‘Fit at Fifty’ has been in my psyche for the better part of the last twenty years and now is my last to chance to achieve this goal at the target time.
There have been some legitimate setbacks too, mainly illness and injury; both of which tend to happen when things were going really well. For example, since April 2016, I was running well and completing the New York Road Runners Club’s ‘9+1’ plan to get guaranteed entry into the 2017 New York City Marathon. Then, during a 10K, I sustained a knee injury. Subsequently, I got treatment (cortisone shots, physical therapy and a gel treatment from Canada called Euflexxa). After that, my knee was feeling great and I was running, playing squash, and training in Taekwondo. Then, of all things, I tweaked my knee mowing the lawn. Mowing the lawn! After that, I saw my orthopedic doctor again and the talk of knee surgery began. In follow-up visits, he said I don’t necessarily need knee surgery (he says I’m still young and fit enough not to need it right away) and that I can workout. I just have to monitor my movements, observe some restrictions, and observe how they impact my knee.
In the meantime, with my knee in usable condition, I’ve been playing less strenuous squash with my son and a little more intense squash with a friend. I plan on taking my last year pre-fifty to fulfill (or exceed) my proclamation from the late 1990s. My goal is to get into half as good a shape, or better, by the time I’m fifty as Grandmaster Norris was in 1998. To achieve this is going to require commitment, discipline and support. I’m hoping that my wife, other family members and friends will help me. Knowing the kind of change that is needed, it’s not going to be easy on me or on those around me. I won’t be available for social engagements. My eating plan will be strict and different from my wife and son’s. All I’m planning on doing with regard to my training and eating is what I used to do in the late 90s and early 2000s. My wife followed Whole 30 for a while, twice, and now she’s following an Intermittent Fasting plan. The former worked well for her and the latter is still going well. Me, I need to do what I used to do. I need to follow the guidelines – no, rules – that I list below. I’m not going on a diet. I’m changing my lifestyle. I’m going back to my fitter, healthier and successful lifestyle that I didn’t follow just during the week and allowed for letting go on the weekends or on holidays. This is a 24/7 change. It worked for me then and I’m trusting that it’ll work for me now.
So, here are the basic rules. I’m posting them here to make myself accountable. Laugh at me, ridicule me, support me or ignore me. But, if you can, support me. I’m going to need it. When I started all of this in April 2016, I called this my ‘Resurrection Plan’ - my resurrection to a healthier and happier me and, consequently, a better husband, a better father, a better teacher, a better coach, a better human being.
Goal: Resurrection to fitness level circa 2004/2005
Targets: Goal to fitness is priority. Goal is a 70-80 pounds drop. Goal is to improve flexibility to Taekwondo levels. Goal is to firm and tone to circa 2002 when I was working out with Ted, my son’s baptismal godfather.
It’s funny how the mundane becomes special. If not special, at the very least, important.
For my son and I, one of those things is a broken piece of sidewalk a block or so from our house where a tree’s roots have simply overgrown and broken through the sidewalk. To be honest, I don’t know exactly how or when it became special and which one of us made it so. Initially, for me anyway, it may be something that stems from the OCD in my family. Right or wrong, good or bad, it’s become a part of ‘the me’ that has to do with my son and our relationship. It’s crazy how this silly piece of concrete has taken hold in our minds and hearts and bodies that it will likely become one of those things that we’ll look back on with fondness and remember as one of our father-son bonds. I can hear it now: “Hey, Dad. Remember that rock?” or “Son, you were so full of energy. Do you remember jumping off that broken pavement near our house every time we walked Bauer?” That silly piece of damaged concrete has become so meaningful to us that we’ve worried that it’ll get repaired one day and our rock and our ritual and our bonding will be lessened somehow. (I happened to talk about our rock with a neighbor recently, without giving away its meaning to me, and he reassured me that it’ll not likely get repaired because fixing that part of the sidewalk would involve uprooting the tree and that’s not likely going to happen anytime soon because the roots are so big. Phew.)
Every time we walk by it, usually when we’re walking the dog, we have to touch it. I step on it with my right foot when we’re walking away from home and with my left on the return leg. Even when I’m alone walking to my son’s school to pick him up or walking the dog without him, I still touch it.
My son might do something that simple as well but usually he’ll attack it with some kind of run up and his version of a Parkour maneuver that ends with an aerial spin and landing where he’s facing me in some kind of Matrix-inspired martial arts stance/landing; one knee down, an arm outstretched behind him, his head up and his eyes firmly locked on mine. More recently – since his eighth birthday or so – he’s taken to using this broken concrete as a springboard of sorts to the perpetrating tree and makes his final dismount off said tree’s trunk. (Naturally, the protective father in me says an instant prayer to my guardian angel, his, guardian angel, Saint Jude, whoever will listen to protect him from hurting himself. Additionally, I’m impressed with his fearlessness and that he does all of this without hesitation. Even at his age, I wasn’t as daring, although I did have my moments. Some of that may just come from his youth and lack of experience in getting busted up but some of it must also come from his mother who is still fearless into her forties.)
My son and I have other meaningful things that come from everyday events and rituals that have taken on special meaning. To some people they would seem ridiculous. Others, meanwhile, might relate because they have their own special mundanities. The best part of this rock thing is that it just happened and evolved into what it is. I think that’s important. It’s important to have those quirky bonds with people, especially family members and children. Children often see adults as those bigger versions of themselves who are often grumpy, loud, are always serious and, basically, no fun at all. We’re also their heroes simply because we’re older and can do things they can’t yet do or know things they don’t yet know. Through things like this, my son gets to see a side of me that’s real, even vulnerable. As an older dad (I’m nearing 49 and my son is only 9), my son will remember, long after I’m gone, that we had a relationship and that it was goofy and fun and creative even though his dad was aging, beyond his prime, and busted up while never giving up in trying to get to where he wanted to get to and becoming who he wanted to be. In turn, my son will, hopefully, develop an even closer relationship with his own children. While doing so, if he can spare a moment to remember his own dad, maybe he can share that relationship with me too.
As I’m getting older and trying to reconnect more fully with the things that make me happy – in this case, martial arts – I recently reread Joe Hyams’ Zen in the Martial Arts and I’m rereading Karate-Do: My Way of Life; Sensei Gichin Funakoshi’s autobiography. I first read Hyams’ book in 1989 when I was a sophomore at university. Sensei Funakoshi’s autobiography, I first read in 1986 around the time I’d earned my green belt. From the first time I read these books – yes, I’ve read them many times and, for a few years, I read Zen in the Martial Arts annually – these two books, along with The Book of Five Rings and The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, became primers for how I should live and act in the dojang, at school, at home and, in general, life.
In none of these works does it say martial artists are superhuman, immune to emotion, insecurity or error. Martial artist are not infallible. None of them say that martial artists are indestructible either. I bring this up because I just reread the section of Karate-Do: My Way of Life called ‘Recognizing Nonsense.’ In these few pages, Sensei Funakoshi cautions against falling for the tales of amazing feats and the outstanding claims some martial arts masters assert. This section, in turn, reminded me of something that happened recently and my friend’s comment about my reaction to it.
Here’s it is.
I’m a teacher and in the summer months I am part of a teacher-manned maintenance crew that works out of my school district’s Grounds Department. We do landscaping at all the schools, painting jobs, and other basic construction-type tasks. On occasion, we help teachers move from one classroom to another or one school to another. We also spread mulch in our elementary schools’ playgrounds. So, on one of our lunch breaks in July, I went to the bathroom in the Faculty Lounge of the school where we were working. My friend had just come out of the bathroom and I figured he was going back downstairs and outside to rejoin the rest of the crew. The bathroom is a single-person setup with a door that opens out and into the Faculty Lounge.
When I was done and exiting the bathroom, as I went around the door to shut it, lo and behold, my friend was hiding behind it. He took a step toward me, hands raised, arms outstretched and said, “Waah!” Naturally, I responded. My hands, in turn, rose and my elbows were relaxed. I must’ve looked like I was about to grab the lapel of his gi, had he been wearing one, and deliver some kind of nage waza that I’d learnt during a semester of Judo in college. Upon realizing that it was my friend, I relaxed and let out what sounded to me as a slow motion “Whoa!” I sounded ridiculous and we both started laughing. All of this happened in a matter of seconds; say, two or three.
My friend, however, still smiling, said, “Great. Some kind of black belt you are.” While I was still laughing at the ridiculousness of my verbal response, something about his statement struck me. I was hit with the thought that he has such an inaccurate perception of martial arts practitioners. I surmised that his ideas of what martial arts are and how they behave come from what he’s seen in movies and from all of the myths and legends that get shared all over the world from one generation to the next; things like having to register one’s hands and feet as lethal weapons and that just because we’re martial artists (or maybe it’s just black belts) that we can kick everyone’s butt from one side of town to the next. This is what prompted me to write this blog post. I want to set the record straight on what it is to be a martial artist.
Before I say anymore and you think I’m just some yahoo who’s simply flapping his gums and has no foundation for what he’s saying, here is my very brief CV: I’m a martial artist with thirty-two years of experience. I hold a master rank in one style and I’ve trained in others. For varying lengths of time – one-day workshop to several months to several years - I have trained under many notable masters and instructors. Some of them include Grandmaster Kwang Jae Lee, Grandmaster Ik-Hwan Kim, Grandmaster Sung Bok Nam, Master Levy Diogene, Master Herb Perez, Master Steve Loh, Dan McGhee, David Sonta, Sifu Larry Tan, Grandmaster Sang H. Kim, Master Giduk Kwon, and Grandmaster Sungkeun Yoo.
So, here goes.
Martial artists are human beings. We laugh, we cry. We can be scared. We can be startled. We can be confident and we can be insecure. We can be kind and we can be mean. We succeed and we fail. We have desires and we can be selfless. We lust, love and lose. What we’re not are the superheroes you see in the movies. What we’re not are emotionless robots. That prototype of the infallible seemingly everyman who turns out to be a fighting machine is stuff of fiction. It’s cool but it’s not real. It’s Seagal, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Statham and Snipes. Don’t get me wrong. I love all of those martial arts badass movies but they don’t depict an accurate portrayal of what a real martial artist is like. Granted, the characters in most of these movies are ex-Navy Seals or CIA or MI-6 so perhaps the real life versions of these individuals are on high alert all the time. Otherwise, simply because of our training, martial artists are not.
Many, if not all, martial artists are badass fighters when called upon but that person who’s always on alert and knows when they’re being followed and wakes up in the middle of the night at the slightest feeling of danger is a rarity. We, everyday martial artists - even masters - are merely human beings. We get up in the morning and go about our days just like anyone else. We get mad, we get sad and we get happy. We worry about taking care of our families, of the monthly bills, of the chores we have to do just the same as everyone else. Not all of us are that smooth, witty-tongued centre of attention. Martial arts training, however, does teach us to control our emotions and impulses in every aspect of our lives but especially when dealing with our troubles. When we go somewhere unfamiliar or have to do something stressful, our training has taught us to be confident and alert. Having been knocked down on the mat and gotten up many times in the dojang, when we’re down in real life we’re able to rise up yet again. Martial arts training, of course, does give us better fitness and healthier bodies. We learn skills we can use to protect ourselves if ever attacked. We acquire and live by a set of rules and act according to a certain code of respect, self-respect, decorum, propriety and service - what the Japanese call Bushido - but, ultimately, martial arts is about control – control of you - and being the best version of you that you can be at any given moment.
I didn’t need to be on high alert when I came out of the bathroom so I wasn’t. However, when I am in a situation that makes me feel or sense danger, my alert level does go up. In fact, contrary to what my friend might have preferred, I didn’t respond with a block and arm locks and a submission hold or with a redirect and front kick to his middle. That’s because my training allowed me to respond, and not react, to the fact that it was my friend playing a joke on me and not simply attack who was in front of me. I was able to control my mind to assess the situation, my emotions to know that I wasn’t really being threatened, and my body so that I didn’t punch or kick or throw my friend.
So, my dear reader, remember that martial arts might transform a person from a regular version of him or herself to a superhero one but they don’t make us superheroes in the ways martial artists practitioners are portrayed in the movies. Regardless of style or rank, we are human beings first, just like you.
19 June, 2017
I have depressive tendencies.
I haven’t been diagnosed but I’ve read enough to see a lot of the characteristics of a depressive in myself; things like being alone, losing interest in stuff, not wanting to go anywhere or do anything, feelings of hopelessness, to name a few. I also tend to see things darkly. That, however, might just be a practical approach to things. I’d rather prepare for the worst so that I’m ready for it if or when happens – in my mind, it’s more likely when than if. If it doesn’t happen, that’s a bonus.
With the ongoing saga that is my knee, my depressive triggers have resurfaced. I had a follow-up appointment with my ortho last Tuesday and he examined my knee, which was feeling pretty good. During the examination, a sharp pain emanated from within the joint. As the days passed since seeing him, the pain has gotten stronger. (Over the weekend, though, it’s subsided but that’s because I’ve been off my leg for a lot of the time.) My doctor ordered an MRI that I got last Saturday. He also used the word ‘surgery.’ It’d be a 30-minute arthroscopic procedure but with a four to eight week recovery. He said at four weeks I’d be walking again, although not any long distances, and at eight weeks I’d be ‘normal.’ Whatever that means, I’m not entirely sure.
The last few days, my mind and my heart have been in a whirlwind of uncertainty. I coach volleyball. I don’t do a lot of the drills or jumps and runs I put the team through but I do need to be able to instruct and demonstrate. I need to be on my feet on court. I also have a summer job that pays hourly and I need the money. Knee surgery now would impact upon both of these things and not in a positive way. With a four to eight week recovery period, if I got the surgery now, I’d be better by mid-August. There’s plenty of volleyball left to coach and I can continue to prepare for the sixth degree black belt test in December I’m trying to get approved for. Getting the surgery now, however, would also mean no income because I wouldn’t be able to work. On the flip side, and if the diagnosis isn’t so bad that I have to undergo the surgery now and I can put it off, I could possibly go about my summer as normal and get the surgery after the volleyball season has concluded in November or, maybe, even after the sixth dan test a month later.
Deep down, I know I’ll end up not taking or not being able to take test and that pisses me off and brings me down. I’ll either be laid up recovering, my knee will be in even worse shape, and/or I won’t be prepared. Since I was a kid, there are two things I’ve always wanted to be – a writer and a martial artist. I’ve been both to some level of success. In the 1990s, I managed to sell articles to various martial arts magazines and get paid for them. I’ve published a book and gotten a touch of respect and notoriety because of it. That’s not enough, however. I want to be a working writer. As for the martial arts, I’ve had several good years of training, teaching and competing. I had my own dojang (training hall) twice in my life but, more than that, I’ve tried to live my life and guide my actions according to the warrior ways prescribed by the codes of Bushido, The Samurai and The Hwarang. Even without a dojang now, I try to train at my wife’s dance studio whenever I can and, through my daily actions at work, on the volleyball court and more, I try to live according to what my black belt symbolises. Thankfully, so far, I am able to absorb and accept the situation I am in because of what I’ve learnt and taught as a martial artist.
For now, I’ll use my indomitable spirit and of perseverance to forge ahead and battle this renewed opponent, my knee, and its allies of age, injury and life. Throughout the battle, I hope I make the right decisions on when to get my surgery, if I do actually need it, and my training for the sixth dan test.
Thanks for stopping by.
2 June, 2017
Last autumn, I reinjured the knee I damaged in 1996. I was doing a lot of running, getting back in shape and training towards earning a guaranteed spot in the 2017 New York City Marathon (NYCM). I’d begun my training the previous April and was in a good groove. As a result of my injury, I had to forego my 2017 NYCM dreams. I followed my doctor’s instructions, did the PT (physical therapy) and slowly my knee was getting better. Before long, I was doing some cardio training (no running) and playing squash. Throughout all of it, I’d do some flexibility training and some light Taekwondo training when I could squeeze it in. I don’t have my own school anymore and I coach volleyball from August to November so finding a time and place wasn’t - and isn’t - always the easiest thing.
Recently, I’d gotten into another good groove. I was training regularly, eating better, and dropping weight. Then I discovered that the Kukkiwon (the world governing body of Taekwondo) will be holding special promotion tests in the United States throughout the year in various locations. One of them is taking place in New Jersey this December. This coming August, I will have met the time requirement to test for my sixth degree black belt and I’m using the test as impetus to up my training; all while monitoring the strength of my knee. I don’t know if my application will be accepted and, depending on my knee, if I’ll even be able to perform. If I am, I hope I am able to perform that deems me worthy in the eyes of the examiners, and my own eyes, to be awarded my sixth dan.
As life would have it, I reaggravated my knee two Sundays ago while mowing the lawn - our uneven, undulating lawn. I maneuvered the lawn mower to turn left but it got caught on one of the bumps and didn’t turn. My knee did, however. All this after completing the Euflexxa treatments my doctor recommended. So, I went back to the doctor, got another cortisone shot and was given a pair of loaner crutches. I’ve stopped using the crutches but I still have a minor limp and there’s still a little stiffness and an occasional shooting pain. I’m hoping in a week or so that the pain and limp will vanish enough that I can get back to some cardio and, eventually, light then regular Taekwondo training.
For now and for the next six months, that’s where my focus has to be. I have to give up squash, which is going to be a killer because I enjoy it, it’s a great workout and it’s my son’s and my ‘thing’ together. Without a school and master to train under, I need these opportunities like the Kukkiwon special promotion test and preparing for it is going to take up much of my extra energy and time. Like the old Chinese adage says, “One has to eat bitter to taste sweet.” It’s a choice I hate having to make but it’s one that has to be made. As much as I love squash and athletic pursuits, Taekwondo is a martial art and martial arts are about life. They’re not just the physical attributes one develops through practicing them. If you’re reading this and you’re someone who knows me well, you know that since 1985 I am and have always been a martial artist before most everything else. You’ll also know that I didn’t get into martial arts training for the physical benefits but for the psychological, spiritual and emotional ones. If I could have a regular place to train, I would be willing to give up almost everything else to train daily even if my knee wasn’t injured. The other option, albeit a forced one, is to choose to hang up my squash racquet and my black belt but that would be completely contrary to what martial arts are all about. Quitting martial arts just because my physical abilities have waned decision would be akin to giving up on who I am and what I’ve believed in the last thirty-two years.
So, while life leads two-nil in our current match, I’m hoping to pull a goal back in December. And after that, who knows? Maybe I’ll find an equalizer and even a winner. In the meantime, trying to see a positive out of all of this, I’m hoping that my predicament can be a lesson my son can learn as well; that one has to make sacrifices and choices that he might won’t like or want to make in order to get what he wants or needs.
This coming March 10, Chuck Norris will turn seventy-seven. Two Tuesdays ago, I turned forty-eight. Both of us are martial artists, masters even, specializing, or at least, getting our foundation in Korean martial arts. I’m not comparing us. Not by any means. He’s a champion, successful, a legend and pioneer. Me, I’m small fry. But, in a roundabout sort of way, Master Norris has been a part of my martial arts life from the beginning.
I began my formal martial arts training in 1985 when I was training in Shotokan Karate. A friend from school and I went to take a class, a semi-private class, given by a journalist friend of his father. At the dojo was another Hong Kong-based journalist who was a mutual friend of my friend’s father and my father. My friend’s father worked in government publications and my father was (and still is) a journalist. To be completely honest, it wasn’t a class per se. The two men were there to work out. It was a Sunday morning and my friend’s dad’s friend said to just come around and he’ll show us the basics and give us an intro-type workout. With the other man there, a higher-ranking student and, based on his black belt rank, a sensei (master), we got a proper intro to Karate. Although there for his own training, in true black belt fashion, he gave us his time and passed down a little of what he’d been taught. This man won’t likely remember me but when I was younger, even before this impromptu karate class, I’d called this man ‘Uncle Alan.’ Some of you reading will know who this is. Anyway, Uncle Alan showed us attention stance (musubi-dachi), front stance (seisan-dachi) and low block (gedan-uke). He showed us how to travel in seisan-dachi and how to turn. Both me taught us how to bow. From then on, I was hooked. I wanted to be a martial artist.
Around the same time, the summer of 1985, my friend, his cousin and I went to the cinema to watch a Bruce Lee movie. It was The Way Of The Dragon (released in 1972 and in the United States as Return Of The Dragon). This is the one in which he goes to Rome and the one Bruce Lee wrote, starred in, and directed. (You know, I think he might have even produced it too.) It was also Master Norris’s introduction to the world. He played Colt, the American champion for hire. At the end, he and Bruce have an excellent showdown full of skill, respect and honour.
Move on a couple of years and I’m living in The United States and Master Norris has movie after movie coming to a theatre near you. Some of them were Delta Force, Code Of Silence, Missing In Action, Firewalker, Invasion U.S.A., Hero And The Terror, Sidekicks. Then, Walker, Texas Ranger came on TV. I’ve also read his two autobiographies – The Secret Of Inner Strength and Against All Odds. All this time, I was training in Taekwondo, getting my own black belts and opening my first (sadly it failed) dojang. Nonetheless, Master Norris was there. Some years after that, I saw him in an infomercial for the Total GymTM. I almost bought it (If it was good enough for him, it’d be good enough for me) but didn’t because there wasn’t space in my flat and I already belonged to a gym. At that time, the late 1990s, I remember being amazed at how fit he still was at almost sixty years old. I remember saying then, “If I could be half as fit as he is now when I am fifty, I’ll be happy.” Sadly, due to a mix of circumstances – not least of which were cumulative moments of weakness and my surrender to depressive thoughts of constant failure – I am less than half as fit as Master Norris was then. And I’m turning fifty in less than two years!
Master Norris has, in more recent years, undergone hip surgery and gotten older, yet he’s still in good shape and he’s still kicking. You might have seen the commercial in which he crescent kicks a saltshaker to the face of a man after that man’s friend tosses the saltshaker to him. He’s also inspired a series of websites listing ‘facts’ about how tough he is based on the characters from his movies. They’re all in good fun and I believe Master Norris was quoted as saying that he was okay with them. Some of my favourites are: “Chuck Norris counted to infinity. Twice.” and “Chuck Norris can hear sign language.” Then there’s, “When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.” I got these from the website http://chucknorrisjokes.linkpress.info/top-100 but there are others.
So, I do still have time to get back my mojo and become the martial artist I should be. But I don’t have a lot of time to get back there by fifty. Time goes by very fast as one gets older. It does for me, anyway. To be in half as good, or better, shape as Master Norris was in 1998 and get back into being a fulltime martial artist. Those are the goals.
In some ways, I feel like this is my last chance; that if I don’t do this, everything else I shoot for will be missed yet again and I’ll never truly be the best version of me I can be. But if there’s one thing going for me, I’ve never quit anything and I am a martial artist. It’s the source of my power. I can’t fly or read minds and I don’t have x-ray vision. What I do have is a black belt with hours of training. I may not have trained like I used to in a long time but the lessons learnt from all the kicks and punches and falls are longer lasting than the ability to kick, punch and fall. I’ve learnt fighting spirit, a warrior’s spirit. I’ve developed an indomitable spirit – maybe to the point of stubbornness and delusion – but I have it nonetheless. It may not always win but it’s there. It’s dormant and I have to wake it up. Master Chuck Norris and the examples he has left for me and younger generations of longevity and consistency and being a black belt versus wearing a black belt will be its alarm clock. Thank you, Master Norris. Thank you, Sir.
How far back would you go?
There are times in our lives – I admire those who’ve never felt this way – when we want to change our lot in life. It might be everything, it might be one thing, it might be somewhere in between. To do that, we might wish for a lottery win. In some cases, we might wish to be able to go back in time and change the course of events in our lives that led us to where we are into events that lead us to where we wish we were. Sometimes, we wish for that to come with the knowledge that we made the change. At other times, we wish for complete ignorance so we don’t suffer the heartache of losing the good things we have. I mean, it can’t all be bad, can it? Maybe bad is the wrong word. Maybe disappointing or unfulfilling or empty are better.
Some people would stop me right here and say all someone needs to do is trust in God and leave everything in His hands. Perhaps that is so. But, being human beings – flawed and imperfect – it’s only natural and, I think, even good to let our minds wander and wonder ‘what if.’ And that brings me to the question at the top of this post. How far back would you go?
For me, there are several times I might jump back to and, in doing so, I would prefer to go with the knowledge of everything that had happened to me in the previous future (my present reality). I would try to steer things so I’m where I want to be and what I want to be but in a way that I still get the good things I had before going back. Yeah, I’m greedy but why not? This entire notion is a greedy one, after all, isn’t it?
So, one of the places I might jump back to would be when I moved to America. What I would change: I would return to Hong Kong and finish my secondary schooling there. Then, I might come here with a full sense of closure and completion of my Hong Kong youth.
I would go back to when I was applying to college. I wouldn’t have gone into teaching, knowing what I know. I would’ve gone into Communications like I originally thought I would in 1983 when my brother was going through the college process and I was reading through his college books. This might get me closer to being a working writer today.
I would’ve gone into the Air Force as I almost did when I was eighteen. I would’ve ROTC’d, flown and retired after my seven years. This might’ve given me a sense of patriotism, fraternity and a place to belong.
I would’ve taken a leave from school and trained hard core in Taekwondo when it was announced that Taekwondo was going to be an Olympic sport. I remember having that chat with my college girlfriend. She was indifferent to the idea. I might not have gotten on any kind of team to fight at The Olympics but, then again, who knows, right? Even without this, I became a martial artist in real life (less so lately though) but this might have solidified my place in that world. I might have made better connections and never stopped. I might have become a fulltime instructor. Still to this day, Martial Arts is THE single best thing I’ve ever gotten into. Like I told my son the morning after I turned forty-eight, I’d give up almost everything – squash, my marathon finishes, my volleyball successes, some relationships, to name a few – to have a place and be able to train everyday and get back to being the fifth dan I am supposed to be.
I’d have gone to school at sixteen when I moved to the US, done my last two years of American high school and, perhaps, America would feel more like home than it actually does today. As it was, I ended up taking a year off because I was supposed to get my Green Card and go back to Hong Kong to finish school. After that, I’d come back to the US and do college and live in America.
Well, I could go on.
The thing is, I consider myself an average guy and there are many aspects of my life that I wish I could go back and change. Some of you reading this might be average Joes and Janes too and wish you could go back as well. Sadly, we can’t go back and we have to deal with our lot in life, hopefully get support from those around us and change the things we can in a way that works. Good or bad, as the saying goes, “it is what it is.” It is nice to dream, however, and imagine what life would be like had things gone the ways we wish they had. And, it’s not all boo hooey, pining and sad. You see, even though the motivation to wish for the ability to go back in time and make these changes stems likely from a missing piece in our lives, wishing and imagining are also ways to remind us of our goals and dreams. It reminds us that, while things may not be what we want them to be, we don’t have to accept our lot in life. Wishing reignites that desire to be something bigger than what we are, to reset our goals, to start believing and re-believing in ourselves, and to make change. Truth be told, we might not always get there. I may never get an agent and become a working writer but I’ll be damned if I ever give up. I’d rather fail knowing I never quit than quit, forever wonder and live with endless regret and doubt.
So, my two cents’ worth: Never stop dreaming. Never stop fighting. And take those time travels as often as you need to.