Monday, November 30, 2009

Testing Your Boundaries

I lay on my stomach on wrestling mats while a strong man pressed what felt like his fist or elbow, or maybe some other kind of blunt weapon, into my lower back, putting the full weight of his body behind it. I tried to focus on breathing, drawing in breaths as deep and regular as I could make them, because this hurt a lot. The spot he was pressing into felt like the precise origin of the nerve that had been cramping up my lower back, tightening my right hip, sending flashes of pain down my calf and into my ankle.

Despite the fact that I had been in almost constant pain for several months, this fist or elbow accessed extra-deep pain that I didn’t realize was hiding there, like the pea under the mattresses, a crippling vulnerability that I did not know I had.

“Hmph,” said the thai massage practitioner, releasing the elbow. “You’ve been testing your boundaries.”

Testing my boundaries? What do you mean?

“Have you been throwing roundhouse kicks?” he asked me.

Of course, I wanted to say, scandalized. I could feel my face conveying my horror. Please, please don’t tell me I can’t throw roundhouse kicks again.

When I had my first encounter with the sciatica, I couldn’t stand upright for a day, could barely walk for a week, couldn’t touch my toes or lift my leg more than two feet off the ground for two months. It was now a month and a half since I had started throwing roundhouse kicks again, and I didn’t know what I would do with myself if he told me I had to stop.

“Yes, but…” I said, about to explain how I was throwing them so carefully, light, not full-power.

“For someone coming off sciatica, it’s pretty risky to be throwing them at all,” he said. “That’s testing your boundaries. Seeing how much you can do before you get injured again.”

I started to protest, to justify my actions: No, no, I was being careful.

“It’s okay, everyone does it,” he said. “Everybody wants to test their boundaries. That’s why we do so much stuff that hurts us.”

I know lots of people who seem perfectly content within their boundaries, who don’t feel the compulsive drive towards self-destructive activities, whether they are "healthy" or "unhealthy." Still, I had to agree that for most people I know who are heavily involved in any athletic activity, there is an element of self-destructiveness driving them. This isn’t just true of martial artists, though the self-destructiveness is a bit more self-evident in their sport. But I’ve seen people pursue hobbies like spinning or Pilates with equal reckless abandon, working out through colds, flus, bad backs, sprained shoulders.

My friend Julian plays soccer with a compulsiveness that could easily be called an addiction. He continues to play through all sorts of injuries that should rightfully preclude him from athletic activity, not just a game here and there, but all-day marathons. His Facebook updates regularly look something like: Supposed to be resting my hurt knee. Playing three games today, two scheduled and one sub.

It’s an addiction, certainly. But at least it’s a healthy addiction, people tell me, usually after pointing out that running sprints in between two kickboxing classes might be seen as a bit compulsive.

One common definition of addiction is behavior that we cannot or will not stop, despite its negative consequences. Are our twisted knees and sprained ankles and wrenched backs and broken toes and fingers negative enough consequences to counteract all the positive outcomes of our training? Are our healthy addictions really so different than all of our other types of compulsive boundary testing?

My adorable punker student Miranda was complaining about one of her friends:

“I hate going out with Sammy because she just wants to get drunk. I keep trying to explain that I don’t do that,” Miranda says.

“You don’t drink at all?” I ask her.

“No, I don’t see the point,” she said. “Sammy is like, ‘Let’s get a bottle of chartreuse and drink the whole thing.’ And I say, ‘That’s going to make you throw up.’ And Sammy smiles and says, ‘That’s okay.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? That’s what you want? Really?’ I don’t get it.”

It’s good that she doesn’t get it, but I do, and there’s a good chance that you do, too. All too clearly, I remember that drive to drink myself half-unconscious, the weird unlikely pleasure of stumbling around like a half-witted idiot, of feeling poison in my body that was not quite enough to make me sick, but almost.

When I began doing martial arts, I suddenly lost all interest in drinking. The reason was not, as my friends presumed, because I needed to be rested and healthy for my workouts, although that was certainly a concern. Instead, the part of my psyche that had decided that semi-oblivious intoxication was a great idea was now sated. Throwing roundhouse kicks by the hundreds, continuous punches for minutes on end, running on a treadmill after class when I was so tired that even walking was difficult, getting punched in the face and kicked in the leg and slammed to the ground—these activities seemed to satisfy the same need for self-punishment and sickness that drinking previously had.

Miranda has approximately eight piercings in her face and ears, several tattoos, and is considering getting designs branded into her skin.

“Do you think your friend enjoys drinking the way you enjoy getting piercings?” I ask her.

She wrinkles her nose skeptically. “Maybe,” she says, indulging me.

She might disagree, but it seems to me that the negative consequences are part of the appeal of so much that we do. Why else do we work out until we’re sick and broken? Why do we poke holes through our bodies and inject ink under our skin? Why do we purposely cultivate unnaturally large muscles, drink poison for fun, eat chemicals that make us hallucinate, follow strangers home from the bar, work until 5 a.m., drive down country roads at 120 miles per hour, pick fights with people we care about, breathe in burning smoke to help us “relax,” fall in love with people who make us miserable? Why would we hurt ourselves if it didn’t make us feel good?

This illustration is a drawing I did during my first year of martial arts training, depicting my love-hate relationship with bruises.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Being Aggressive

A girl comes flying in at me, her arms whirling like a pinwheel, throwing punches and kicks all at the same time, a writhing ball of fury and rage.

What did I do to this girl again? I search my mind for some past offense. Did I make fun of her poor arithmetic skills back in fifth grade? Or did I unwittingly erect a shopping mall on top of her ancestral homeland? Did she think I was flirting with her boyfriend? Because I definitely wasn’t, but you know how some girls get. Or maybe she overheard me making a dismissive comment about her pink boxing gloves…

Oh right—this girl wants to beat me up because we are in a kickboxing tournament. So I suppose that’s her job. Come to think of it, wanting to beat her up is my job, too.

Why did I want this job again?

In the moments before this fight, I thought: I am going to lose, and I don’t care at all. Actually, that sentiment might be backwards. What I was really thinking was, I don’t care at all, and so I am going to lose.

I knew that’s a bad way to think, so I began saying a mantra to myself: Want to win, want to win. It wasn’t a statement but a command. You need to want to win.

I felt like I was faking wanting to win through the entire fight. I knew that body kicks were supposed to score the most points, so I thought, You want to win, so throw more body kicks. I made sure that every time my opponent threw any punch or kick, I would throw one or two body kicks in return.

That should be enough to win this thing, I thought, counting up the kicks. Because I want to win.

But this girl wasn’t counting her kicks. I’m not sure what she was thinking, actually. She was flying around so quickly that she never planted enough to hit me with anything that hurt at all. So I don’t know if she was really trying to hurt me—if that were her goal, she probably could have done it. (And I don't say that to dismiss her abilities, because I wasn't trying to hurt her, either). But she definitely wanted to win, wanted it with all her being; every movement manifested desire to dominate, to aggress, to be the best, to be on top.

This desire for dominance is perhaps something I just don’t have in me. I love “friendly” sparring, with my friends or with strangers. I love seeing if I can keep up with an opponent, seeing if I can withstand whatever that opponent throws at me, figuring out ways to trick that opponent into opening himself--or occasionally herself--up for a kick or punch.

I don’t know if those feelings will ever translate into me being a good competitor. I do get angry and competitive when I spar sometimes, usually when I feel like someone is hurting me. That never happened during my fight. I never felt scared, hurt, attacked, all the things I am used to feeling during my regular sparring with people who are bigger and stronger than me. I felt more annoyed, irritated, like being poked over and over by an annoying twelve-year-old playmate.

I had anticipated that once something hurt, my desire to hurt my opponent back would kick in. That’s what fighters always tell you: You think you don’t want to throw hard punches at this person, until he starts throwing hard punches at you.

I have experienced this enough times in my training, times when I was terrified, when I felt, with good reason, that someone was trying to hurt me. The thought that always comes into my head at these moments is: I am going to fucking kill you.

I've always thought I would be scared of my competitor in a tournament, and always expected that this desire to kill would be a central feature of any competition I did, for better or for worse. But that self-defensive rage never kicked in during my fight against this 106 pound ball of antagonism. I mean really, can’t we settle this in some more civilized manner? Why am I fighting you again? I felt completely calm, logical, aloof. That’s actually how I had wanted to feel, and I had worked very hard on being calm and collected as I approached the tournament. Unfortunately, being calm and collected may not actually be the best way to goad oneself into an irrational fury.

The worst part about my want to win mantra is that I then did feel angry and upset when I lost. But I was counting, I thought, indignantly. I threw like a million body kicks! If I just needed to look more aggressive to win, I wouldn’t have bothered throwing all those kicks.

Being disappointed that you lost is the most horrible part of not wanting to win enough, because then your not wanting to win seems like the most pitiful sort of sour grapes: well, I didn’t want to win anyway. So really, I am not sure if I did or didn’t. But I do know what I thought as I watched my opponent jumping up and down before each round began, barely able to contain herself, as I stood waiting quietly: Whatever she’s feeling over there that’s making her act that way, I can’t imagine feeling like that.

One of my teachers told me that I needed to do at least one more competition. “You need to do one more so that you can win,” he said.

“I won’t win,” I said. “If I’m doing it just to win, I’ll lose, and then I’ll have to keep doing them and it will just make me lose more and more.”

“Don’t think like that!” he chastised me.

But it’s true, or at least I can’t see any other truth at the moment. I know this is not a particularly objective or logical moment, a week after this fight, when I am trying to process what it meant and how to think about it. And I know that these conflicting feelings are part of the point of competing, that it is supposed to teach us deep lessons about who we are and what our place in the world is. Right now, I feel my place in the world is not in a competition or a performance, not testing myself in some formalized public way, or that if I do so, it’s only for what I got from this, which was some really helpful video footage that I can study to improve my sparring. Right now, I feel that I will always lose, because I just can’t imagine wanting to win enough to make it happen.

One of my favorite things I got from this fight are the photographs my friend Amy took of me, with perfect lighting for drawing. And yes, I did this one myself, with heavy coaching from Adam. I have been working on my coachability.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Being Skinny

For the last few months, I have been having an experience that I gather would be envied by most adult Americans; I have been losing weight without trying to. A few small changes to my diet and exercise regimen have had the inordinate effect of causing me to drop about ten pounds, which is almost eight percent of my former body weight.

This weight loss has exposed me to something else that I wasn’t pursuing: unsolicited approval from casual acquaintances. This is especially true at one of my kickboxing schools, where I have been receiving a number of compliments.

A sweet but slightly unhinged middle-aged woman who takes every chance she gets to try to knock my head off with wide, looping haymaker punches appears behind me as I am warming up and pats me on the shoulder.

“You’ve lost a lot of weight,” she says, smiling, as I turn to face her.

“I suppose,” I mumble back, embarrassed at being complimented for this.

She smiles encouragingly at me. “You look good,” she adds, before heading off to grab a jump rope.

A friendly young kickboxer stops me on my way out of the gym. “You’ve really slimmed down,” he says.

I nod and shrug, not sure how else to respond.

“You’re not psyched about it?” he asks me.

“I wasn’t really trying to lose weight,” I reply.

Now he looks unsure of how to respond. We are clearly speaking different languages.

“Well, you look really fit,” he says finally.

This is a compliment that I can comfortably, even happily accept. “Thanks,” I say.

Of course, I have to appreciate their desire to say nice things about my physique; still, a part of me is tempted to respond with snotty answers:

I just got over pneumonia.
I have cancer.
I have an eating disorder.

After all, it seems to me a bold assumption that a person who has lost weight a) did so intentionally, b) did so in a healthy fashion, and c) is happy about it.

I’ve never felt good about being complimented on my weight, and I don’t compliment other people on theirs. Weight is bound to fluctuate, so the backhanded compliment is always implied: you look good now, but when you gain that weight back you won’t look as good.

The praise that I have been getting communicates to me that I needed to lose weight, which I don’t believe I did. Ten pounds ago, I was far from overweight; I was what most people would call thin, curvy, and athletic in build. I ate an extremely healthy and light diet, my weight was smack-dab in the middle of the “normal” BMI range, and I trained vigorously about fifteen hours per week.

I wasn’t trying to lose weight, nor have I ever tried to lose a significant amount of weight as an adult. The changes in diet and exercise were just to increase my fitness level, adding daily pull-ups, increasing my running speed, cutting some starch out of my diet. These were all things that I have done in the past, for limited periods of time; but for reasons I am not totally sure about, right now seems to have been the perfect time for these changes to stick. I can understand that I look fitter at this weight, but I resent the implicit suggestion that I was significantly less fit, or really less acceptable in any way, at my previous weight.

Perhaps the greatest reason I am not “psyched” is because I don’t feel that I necessarily look better at a lower weight. I have been enjoying looking more muscular and less soft, but I’m not sure this look is what I’d call attractive, at least not in any feminine sort of way. I associate my own skinniness with hard work, self-discipline, and a certain level of deprivation. Ever since I was a teenager, I have noticed that I am sexually validated for being skinny, yet I feel more ascetic and disembodied at my lowest weight. My figure is too spare to be sexy--my chest and hips are smaller, and my clothing floats around me like it's on a clothes hanger.

When I think of the woman and men I find attractive, they generally have a decent portion of body fat covering their nice, limber, hard-earned muscles. Sexuality seems like it should be associated with appetite, with indulgence, not with plain beans and steamed kale.

A friend of mine wrote an article once discussing women’s feelings of inadequacy when they compare themselves to models in fashion magazines. She urged women to think of these “perfect” models as objects of attraction, and to ask themselves: Am I attracted to this skinny, fashionable, painted woman? If not, what kind of women am I attracted to?

My own answer was easy: strong women, physically and mentally, smart women, creative women, women with wicked, clever facial expressions, brave women, women who are as wonderful with a BMI of 27 as they are with a BMI of 18.5.
Thanks to Sondra Gates for letting me use the drawing of She-Hulk, which she purchased at an auction benefitting breast cancer research. I was especially excited to learn where she got the drawing, since one of my favorite strong, brave, and creative women is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and yet somehow manages to throw crazy scary hooks and roundhouse kicks every week.