Wednesday, June 19, 2013

For Life

"Even while both your hands are empty, you still have a lot." -Shakudo Go, my life-long friend

Karate is saving my life. It is the one thing I look forward to.  Everything else I do in a day is predicated on the idea that I get to keep going to karate if only I survive the day. I drag myself to the dojo no matter how or what I feel. And it isn't much of a struggle, because it's really the only place I want to be. The only question I ever have is whether it would be responsible to rest. The answer is, if I need to rest I will do it on the bench at the dojo. There is class, and that's where I need to be. No excuses. 

My wife has been my entire world up until April of this year. We had been planning for our first pregnancy, I invested in achieving the best possible health, she worked on her career, and as far as I knew we were the rainbow dream team. Nothing was impossible and we learned the hard way to make good choices. 

When she left, everything came crashing down. Suddenly my beliefs of undying devotion to her were the most acidic ideas in my mind. 

Here is what people do not really think about because same-sex marriage--and therefore same-sex divorce--are so new: 

-We didn't just fall in love. We fought to be in love. We fought our friends, families, neighbors, the police, the government, our employers, insurance companies, hospitals, guards, churches, and anybody else we had to get off our backs just so we could exist. You are kidding yourself if you don't think this constant pressure can be enough to kill a relationship. Yet we endured every fight, every day. We even fought each other about how to defend our relationship and ourselves without putting other people down. We believed that much in our love for one another. 

-When I got sick Julie had to fight constantly. She fought my family that thought it was in my head. She fought her family who said she could do better. She fought the doctors to be with me. She fought like hell because there were neither social nor legal structures to protect us. When Julie went through something I fought tooth-and-nail to stands up for her. I fought businesses, premiums, pastors, mechanics, whoever screwed with this beautiful girl. For each of the problems to which I refer, the only issue was that we were gay. 

The love of a same-sex couple is so politically charged and so publicly discussed that we were constantly scrutinized, whether positively or negatively. Everybody we met needed us to know their stance on gay rights. Such is the climate of the day and age, where we are gaining momentum more quickly than ever for marriage rights. It takes an enormous toll. The political charge of equality issues dehumanizes us by tossing us all into a big cauldron for the fire of human indignity to chap our asses.

June is Pride Month. During this time we celebrate how far we have come. We reflect on those we have lost. We mourn what the darker days have been like. The lucky ones manage to find peace with themselves after having been disowned by their families. And most importantly, we all organize so that we can fight even more, even harder. Until this year my primary motivator has been her. Always Julie and me. 

There is so much more, but I am wiped out from trying to articulate even this much. Without her, little of what I do feels like it has meaning or value. This is where karate comes in: the most important person in my life walked out, gave up, and lied about it. Sensei wrangles me in, pushes me back into class, and makes me face my challenges no matter how much it hurts. He isn't going to let me fail. And if he isn't going to give up on me, then I shouldn't give up on myself, even if my own wife did. 

It feels terrible to write what I am entering here, and puts a lot of pressure on my karate. But this is how things are in my life right now, and I can only hope that this suffering becomes meaningful by helping others connect better with the world around them somehow. 

My whole body and mind still ache for her; the departure was abrupt and catastrophic. I still haven't recovered. But at least I have a place to spend my energy. It's not good energy so I really need the safety of Sensei's watch to get it out and become stronger... by being more vulnerable. 

Divorce sucks. I never thought in a million years that this would be happening. If you have a spouse, tell them the truth. 

That Smell Was Me. Sorry, Everybody.

That stink in the dojo was totally me.  Sorry, everybody.  But it's an incredible milestone for me, believe it or not!  This blog entry will give you an idea of what I go through just to be able to get through an hour of karate.  It is worth every grueling effort.

For the first time in four years I have been hydrated enough to workout and sweat to the point that I get stinky!  No passing out!  It took five litres of saline coursing through my veins throughout the day, but I made it.

Why so much saline?  I had a training at work and the training room tends to get too hot for me (again, at which point I pass out).  I have to run IV fluids all day during training to stay conscious.  Then, I always run fluids during karate.  Today, for karate, I was plenty hydrated, so I had lots of stuff in me to sweat out.  Why not just drink water?  I do drink water as well, but I throw it back up, so I have to drink in very little sips throughout the day.

Yesterday I had a violent ankle dislocation.  I was sitting on the couch and felt my ankle slip right off of my tibia, getting stuck at a 90 degree angle.  It hurt like crazy, lost blood flow and swelled up dreadfully.  But once I got it back in place I wrapped it and now it's behaving like your average excruciating sprain.  No big deal in the grand scheme of things, just a bit of a limp and a lot of pain.

Still, a busted ankle didn't stop me from giving today my all in karate.  I had missed Monday due to 4.5 hours of medical appointments and a full work day.  I was miserable all night because I missed karate!  I wasn't about to miss today.  Oh man, I waited and waited, the day would not get out of my way fast enough.  When it's dojo time, I'm a giddy mess.  It's so exciting that I use cruise control the whole way so that I don't speed off in my car.

Tomorrow is my first shiai (tournament).  I hope my leg stays in place.  I've been wearing ankle and foot orthotics (AFOs) very strictly to try to keep the ankle positioned and the inflammation down.  My AFOs keep my bones in place similarly to an ice skate, and they are laced up at least as tightly as an ice skate needs to be.

Today's lesson was focused on neko washi dachi, or cat stance.  We worked on the 2nd kata of goju ryu karate, which is geki sai dai ni.  Sensei paired me up with Rafael, an amazing man who works with me to make sure I learn and advance, but that I take my time (descansa) and do it as I am able (como se pueda, poco a poco).  Today I got all the way through geki sai dai ni several times!

The hardest part of geki sai dai ni, for me, is the stomps.  My knees and feet always dislocate.  No matter how hard I try I can't seem to land right.  I don't know what it's going to take, but I need to get that under control.  Until then, I just stomp very gently, using a limited range of motion and a very light amount of force. But it does affect my focus and thus my performance.

When I work with Rafael I can immediately feel my confidence building.  He pushes me harder and faster, I work straight through a kata, I go full force and speed.  This man is quite an amazing coach, he runs around me to make sure I can see his face while he gives me directions and tips as I move.  I don't even know how he moves so quickly!  Surely he teleports like Raiden from Mortal Kombat.

But man, did I stink today.  The first thing I did when I got home was brush my teeth and shower.  Too fierce.  Great class.  Worth the pain.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Watch, and Do

"We are going to help you succeed. And if you don't succeed we're going to make you succeed until you succeed!" -Sensei Tony

Higaonna-Sensei has said in many a documentary that we are not fighting opponents, but rather, ourselves. Such is absolutely true. We are fighting our own frustration with ourselves, with our limitations, with the world around us, and our own ability to stick with it regardless of the pain. The pain can be physical or emotional, or a little bit of both, but the most important thing is to remember to have fun.

It happened again where I couldn't hear to keep up. I did my best but even though I stood in the front of the room so I could read instructor's lips I couldn't make out a word that was being said, and at the front and center of the room I had a nice clear view in the mirror of the fact that everyone else was doing something that I didn't understand. Neither was able to adapt the drills and exercises that I couldn't do because I didn't know what was being done.

Several times I asked the instructor to slow down or to repeat himself but it was no use for me. I struggled to understand, or at least to tune out. I thought for several minutes about this being what life is like not only for the hard of hearing but for anyone who does not speak a language that's being spoken in room, while others are perfectly able to understand. No instructor wants this to be the case and I could never fault anyone filled with such love and enthusiasm that it is hard for them to remember to slow down. Karate is exciting stuff and there is much to learn! But he is such a good instructor that I didn't want to miss it.

I finally noticed myself choking on the frustration and took myself to the bench, thinking maybe I could learn what he was talking about if I were just watching. It occurred to me that it might be less distracting for the other students if I just left but if I hid myself from sight because my differences are too hard for me to handle it sets a precedent that we are better off out of sight. Watching did not help. In fact I had so exhausted myself with frustration that I had nothing left to concentrate with.

Sensei came to check on me and I could barely even speak. It has been ages since I have been unable to speak due to something this commonplace in my life. "What's going on?" He asked.
"I can't hear and I can't do half of the stuff they're doing, I don't understand what is going on so I can't adapt it, I am so frustrated," I whimpered, as strongly as I could.
"Get back in there," he said, "watch and do."
"But I can't even--"
"Watch and do. Even if it's wrong, do it. Watch and do."

He was right, as usual. The biggest obstacle we face in karate is ourselves. We have to face ourselves in the mirror during drills, and during kata the invisible opponent is ourselves. I would be stronger by learning to face my frustration when I can't hear.

Sensei doesn't take no for an answer, especially when he knows he is right about something that will help another person grow. Moreover, he is my teacher, and I will always respect his instructions. He won't set me up for anything I can't do. And if it is too hard he will stay on me with support and positivity until I find my own way to succeed.

Back to the mats. "Sensei said so!" put a big smile on my wilted face. I could feel my eyes brightening up the expression on my face, the pull of Sensei's encouragement lifting their soggy corners.

I watched and learned in the back. It was a little easier there because I didn't have someone talking in my face whom I couldn't understand. When Senpai stopped to talk I let it go and focused on mindful breathing. I collected myself, having acknowledged that my teacher was right and I was better off facing the challenge.
But my place is in the front. The other students always make room for me up front so I can see the instructors' mouths. When I need to duck out for a break they do not fill in the gaps. They work patiently in their same spaces for the times I slip back through them into my spot. I did not want to go back to that spot today. Today, I had found a space in the back to collect myself.

As these stories go, it was not in the cards for me to stay back under Sensei's watch. He pointed to the front and nodded for me to go. I must have frozen. The next thing I remember he was right next to me, smiling and telling me to go. "Watch and do. SENSEI SAID SO!" he said with a laugh. I found myself smiling too, and I felt like I could have puked from the anguish of standing fourteen inches from someone I couldn't understand.
My family never taught us to speak Italian so that the adults could talk around the children. I have been so shapen by that and by hearing impairment that I have learned five other languages just to decrease the odds that I will ever have to go through that again. Here I was, facing that bit of family history that really hurt me. Their dialect was so beautiful, so musical, that I would have given anything to have spoken it with them.
But those days were over, I still can't hear, and I found myself up at the front-Sensei said so. Watch and do. Watch and do. Watch (pause) and do.

When my father used to hit me he would make me chant, "o-kay, Dad!" until he was satisfied with the volume and clarity. By the time I reached high school his standards had gone up and I had to say it for longer, and more clearly. I had to swallow the shaking in my voice to get it out and make him stop.
This was different. It was for my benefit. It was to make me stronger, to give me simple words that I could use to walk myself safely through my frustration, cajoling directions to help me ground myself. I wonder so often at the dojo, why couldn't my father have been like that? The answer is that he could have, and chose not to. But the point isn't even the comparison, for there really isn't one. The point is, it is nice to have someone apply gentle pressure to our wounds until the bleeding stops, be they physical or psychological. But the most special kind of bandage is the loving one that sticks with you while you get a nudge back into where you belong.

Watch, and do.

At some point in my life I will give up on hearing completely. I'm not far off. It's been three years since my ossiculoplasty and I'm still not getting the cognitive auditory processing I need to take the stress off of my frontal cortex, which spends way too much time and energy deciphering what might have just been said. When that point in my life comes I will have faced the fact that life will be just as it is today when I can't hear in the dojo. I will simply have to watch and do. I'll be alright.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Seiryoku Zenyou: Maximum Efficiency, Minimum Effort

My alarm goes off twice on Saturday mornings.  In its computerized text-to-speech fashion the first alarm says, "It's time to wake up for Saturday morning karate, and I know you're excited about it."  The second one says, "Karate is good for you, don't be late!"  Saturday morning karate is the best way to start a weekend.  I've started a lot of weekends, so I think I am qualified to say this. :)  The class is always smaller, so it's much more intimate and detail-focused.  The early bird gets the worm, because we get much more one-on-one feedback than we do in our evening classes.

Today was all about the judicious use of energy.  Every day life is an overwhelming iteration of today's lesson, which made it fascinating to explore the concept of balancing energy and outcomes in a controlled environment.  This is true for anyone, so we all have to learn this in our own ways.  Though out of context, a phrase I heard spoken to the new class spoke to my frustration with the amount of effort it takes to put less effort into an action:
"I am just this way." 

The drills we did were centered on relaxing, which was, paradoxically, rather hard work.  The point was to only tense what needed tension, and only for as long as possible.  The point was conservation.  The point was to be judicious.  The point was exactly what success with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is like.  In that sense, as it often turns out, having EDS put me at an advantage.

We paired up.  While one karateka punched slowly, the other waited until the very last moment to tighten up the abdomen in order to sustain the blow.  Alternating this practice for several minutes gave us a chance to think about, feel about, and get to know which muscles we needed to use and which ones we could keep relaxed.  It took a deliberate exhalation and wiggle to relax those core muscles, especially after repeated blows, even though the blows were slow and light.

Next I learned the difference between a push to stop someone and a push to engage someone.  It seemed that the difference is in the degree of push and the amount of effort spent on that one short, limited physical contact.  On the street this would be one of those 2.ideas where first impressions are everything, because the way one declines a first approach can be a simple declension, or it can be an escalation. 

Sensei applied a method to relax the forearms, developed by Nakamura Tetsuji-Sensei, by loosening the hands immediately after a strike. We fell into shiko dachi (square stance) and punched downward with both hands.  After extending the fists downward, the objective was to relax immediately and allow them to fly back up freely, in whatever direction they would go.  

I had a hard time with Nakamura's practice for many reasons: 1. Shiko dachi is very scary because I never know when I will land wrong and get hurt, so I become scared and apprehensive.  2. I am trained by my efforts in physiotherapy to always tense larger muscles first.  Working with smaller muscles today revealed to me that I still need to focus on smaller and finer muscle tone, because my elbows kept dislocating.  In order to focus on not dislocating my elbows I nixed the shiko dachi stance and just focused on a downward punch and the subsequent rebound.  That made it really strange, because my body was in the way of a proper downward punch, all the wrong muscles were tensed, and my speed and power were terribly affected.  Unfortunately, I get into these incredibly deep assessments simply because I have to preserve my joints, and I lose the point of the drill.  But I did my best, and that is the point of the entire practice.  Although I was frustrated, I was later comforted when I heard, "I am simply this way."  This is it, folks.  If I want to practice, not every punch will be a fatal blow.  I just have to try again and again, like everyone else, until I find a successful way to adapt.  "Don't lose heart," says Tony-Sensei.  In line with the day's lesson, I let this lesson go, practiced it more gently, and reserved my energy for the next one.

Using mae geri (front kick) and mawashi geri (roundhouse kick) we practiced striking, and then relaxing our legs in between strikes.  Sensei explained that, when it's time for an endurance drill or fight, every second of rest is vital.  Being clever at timing and reserving energy in a fight can allow one's opponent to tire himself out before a fighter makes a concentrated effort to end the fight as quickly as possible.

A benefit of seiryoku zenyou is that a larger opponent may be left to tire himself out, giving a smaller opponent an advantage, assuming they survive the strikes.  Every dog has his day, they say.

On my penultimate (next-to-last) mawashi geri I landed wrong on my left leg and I felt my knee dislocate.  But I only had one strike left, and I went for it.  That sealed the deal, and I spent the rest of the class unable to stand.  It's a good thing I had spent time practicing balance on one leg earlier that morning.  I had to sit down for the next bit of instruction, and Laurel-Sensei was kind toward me in letting me sit down, but still making sure I could see and hear.  I had been running fluids the entire time, so I had the refrigerated saline bag attached to me.  I tossed the bag under my knee and elevated it a little.  Even a few minutes of rest and elevation made a world of difference.  When it was time to line up my limp was far less pronounced than it would have been.  In a real-life application, I had just done what we'd spent the last hour doing: rest when needed, work when needed. 

Okay, so I limped out of there.  That could have happened anywhere.  I rarely, if ever, get injured in karate. I end up sore and tired, but we are taught so well and carefully that I never have fear, but always have respect for myself and others.  Landing wrong and dislocating happens every day, and every step I take is carefully measured.  I spent a year and a half after diagnosis learning to walk and move safely, which dramatically reduced my injuries to about one-third the frequency and severity of the prior twenty five years.  How easy would it be to say, "See that?  You dislocated.  You shouldn't be doing karate."  But it happens no matter what I do: I am just this way.  If being this way (i.e., having EDS) ever catches up to me, and I get to the point that I can no longer practice (fat chance - it's in my blood now!), I will remember that when I could, I did.

If you want to learn more about your life, you have to wake up early and show up to live it.

Be well.