Monday, August 7, 2017

This beautiful gift

The difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, whereas an ordinary man takes everything as either a blessing or a curse. 
- Don Juan Matus (Carlos Castaneda)

I haven't had what you would call a fairy tale life. Or maybe I have. Because if you look at fairy tales, they're not fairy tales until the end. Up until the part where They lived happily ever after, fairy tales are soap operas.

They're full of drama, passion, tragedy, betrayal, magic, dragons and demons, witches and fairies, calamities and miracles, all locked together in an endless dance of light and shadow, good and evil.

My mom had two IUD's when I was conceived. She wanted to sue the doctor when she learned she was pregnant with me but my dad wouldn't let her. She told me this when I was already in my 40's but it still hurt.

When I asked her why she told me she said, "Well I don't feel that way now."

The point is, I was not wanted and that didn't change after I was born. My mom was a hitter but she didn't do it when my dad was around. But when I was five, she divorced him, and then there was nobody to see, nobody to know except my brother and he kept his mouth shut. I guess I could have told my dad but he didn't want to know. Even when he was dying and he asked, "Why don't you kids get along with your mom?" and I tried to tell him, my father just chuckled as if I had said something humorous.

My dad wasn't the only one who didn't want to know. Nobody has ever wanted to know. You don't want to know. And that's the hardest part of all for people like me.

My mom hit me until my 33rd birthday. That was the first time I grabbed her wrist and told her "If you hit me I will hit you back and it will hurt." And she has never hit me again.

But the result was that I grew up alone, and I think that's why I relate so strongly to Master Robson's story about growing up in the favela. He said he realized when he was very small - let me amend that, when he was very young -  because otherwise you're going to think I'm talking about last week - that he had to get out of there and that he was going to have to do it himself. And jiu-jitsu was that way for him and he says he knew right away that jiu-jitsu could be that way.

Little Robinho

And the rest, as they say, is history.

But if Master Robson grew up in a favela outside Rio, I grew up in a favela of the heart. Unwanted, unloved - at least in any kind of healthy way, since my mom used to tell me "You know I love you, right?" as I was obediently pulling my pants down so she could make the yardstick hurt more -  I was aware very early on that the only person I could trust was myself.

I didn't believe in God, I mean I kind of did. God to me was an abstraction, an old man with a beard who didn't even know I existed. Church was excruciatingly boring, full of people with cold hands and bad breath. It was a prison of needless talking, and I hate needless talking.

At that time, we didn't have Asberger's, we didn't have ADHD, and if we did, there was an easy cure: the yardstick. Any abnormality you might have had was simply beaten out of you.

And it has taken years for me to emerge from this shell and look at myself objectively and say, Oh that's why I'm this way, rather than just chalking up my various quirks to the fact that I'm "bad." Because the worst thing is not what people do to you. The worst thing is that you continue to do it to yourself. You are taught that you are unloveable so you don't love yourself. You are taught that there is something wrong with you so you go through life looking for people who understand how profoundly flawed you are, people who are honest enough to tell you that you suck. And when you find those honest people, those heroes who are willing to tolerate unloveable, crappy you, for just a little more money and a little more sex and a little more of whatever it is someone as unworthy as you can provide in exchange for pseudoaffection, you put them on a pedestal.

And it's really sad. I mean just objectively speaking, it's sad. And it's also interesting, also objectively speaking, to look at the imprinting process. What do we know and when do we know it? At what age do kids become aware that they are either good or bad, the center of the Universe or perpetual outlanders? When does that become irrevocably cemented into our psyches and is there any way to reset back to healthy?

At the same time, let me get this clear, I had enough to eat. I went to school, I went to college. My mom "loaned" me the money she had saved from my dad's child support checks to pay for my college but I had to pay it back to her, because she said she had used her own money to feed me and clothe me so the college money was rightfully hers. And maybe it was.

But the point is, I did go to college. I graduated cum laude and that's only because I was lazy. I could have done better but why? Summa cum laude, magna cum laude, or just scraping by, at the end of the day there still weren't any jobs for a linguist when I graduated in 1990.

Meanwhile, there are kids growing up with profound disabilities because their mothers were on crack when they were conceived, kids who don't even know who their fathers are, kids who slept on the floor because there wasn't money for a bed, kids who were inculcated early on with the idea that education was for suckers and the way to prove yourself was through jail time or having a baby at 14. And that's just in the USA. 

Robson grew up in the favela. He said hello to a friend of his on his way to the store and when he came back two minutes later the guy was still sitting there with his brains blown out. That was his reality.

And what I'm trying to say is that even if my life wasn't easy, there are a lot of people, maybe the majority of people, who had it way worse than me. I'm aware of that and I've always been aware of that.

As time went on, things got better in my life, but the light in my life was always accompanied by shadows. My stepfather Tom came into our lives like the sunshine when I was 11. He was a minister, but he wasn't boring. He always had a smile and a joke. He was the chaplain for the local PD for years and one cop who I happened to meet years after Tom died was obviously thrilled just to hear Tom's name again.


"He was the best chaplain we ever had," he said. "He didn't make us, you know, pray or anything."

I said, "Oh, I'm glad that there are some people who still feel that way. I know Tom wasn't perfect..."

The cop looked inquiring.

"You know, the alcoholism," I said.

The cop gave me a Look like I had just stepped over some invisible line. 

"I don't know about that," he said, and his tone said, "I'm going to issue you a warning this time. Don't do it again."

And I got that to some people, to this cop, to his colleagues, Tom was not an alcoholic. Tom was a man, a chaplain, someone who brought light to their lives, who made them laugh, someone who rode around with them in the middle of the night, who gave them moral backup in the tough times.

Why am I talking about Tom? I don't know. I wanted to save Tom. When he came into our lives, things got better. They didn't get good, at least for me, but they got better. I never had the impression that Tom was really my biggest fan and I didn't blame him. At that time of my life I was a lumpy nerd, a "problem" my mom's beatings couldn't manage to solve. On the other hand, he was a neutral presence. It was as if Switzerland suddenly moved in between England and Nazi Germany.

He was with us for 22 years. He always drank, like most people of that generation. I don't know when he actually crossed the line into alcoholism. I don't know if it matters. But eventually, he found AA and he went on the wagon. But then my mom decided to leave him for another man. I was living in Italy at the time. I got the phone call at around 7 one night. It was my mom.

"I'm going to tell you something," she said, "but you have to promise not to get mad."

When she told me she was leaving Tom I knew he would go back on the bottle and I knew he was going to die. He did, six months later, in a motel sometime over the Christmas break. Nobody knows the exact day. They found his body after the holidays. I had called home on Christmas and my mom didn't say anything about Tom. I just assumed he was in the basement watching TV, since she had decided the other man wasn't all he was cracked up to be, but he was probably already dead.

I did see Tom before he died. I went home that summer and went to visit Tom in the apartment he rented when my mom kicked him out. He liked it because there was an artificial lake with ducks. He liked watching the ducks.

"I'm sorry I never protected you from your mom," he said. "I was afraid of her too."

A few months later, I got sick with my first mysterious illness. From one day to the next, I just stopped digesting my food. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I was 34 years old and every time I put something in my mouth my abdomen would swell up like a balloon. My husband was a doctor and he took me around to all his friends. We had every test. I even had a colonoscopy, an experience I wouldn't necessarily recommend. But mine had a sort of party atmosphere.

I mean this was in Italy, and all the doctors were young and my husband's friends. Tommaso was allowed to come into the room and hold my hand and we both watched the progress of the colonoscopy on the TV screen.

My ex-husband Tommaso

As the test went on, and on, there was evident amusement in the room. All the doctors were chuckling.

"You're making the tech sweat," my husband said.

"You have the colon of a dinosaur!" said the examining doctor, who was getting red in the face with a fine beading of perspiration building on his brow. "Your colon is supposed to look like a U-turn. Up, over, down. Yours does loop-de-loops like a roller coaster!"

Anyway, they couldn't find anything. I just got sicker and sicker. In the meantime, Tom died. I was in Vienna celebrating the New Year with friends and I got a call on my cell phone from my husband.

"You need to call home," he said. I did. So I flew back to Rome and on to Ohio. The memorial service was right around my birthday. And I kept getting sicker.

Tommaso's friends were getting concerned. The test values were getting worse. "Your wife is really sick," they said. "What's wrong with her?"

Tommaso said, "You guys are supposed to tell me."

After 7 and a half months, I went into a health food store asking if they had anything for digestion. The young lady asked me if I had ever tried acupuncture. She gave me the name of a woman.

"It's not just in my head!" I snapped.

"That's not what I said," the woman said. "You could try it. Tentar non nuoce."

I did try it, but I thought the whole thing was nonsense. I couldn't wait to leave. "What a waste of 70 thousand lire," I thought. I went home and had sharp pains in my side. I thought it was just my luck that acupuncture had actually made me worse.

But when I woke up the next morning I could digest again. The acupuncturist said I had a block in my liver and gall bladder meridians. She asked me if I had anger issues, and I thought about my mom's phone call.

It sounds stupid to say that because I promised not to get mad, I felt bound by my promise. I wanted to kill my mom, the same way I felt she killed Tom. But because I promised, I didn't say anything. And you can believe it or not believe it, up to you, but I believe that the anger I felt that night, like a blinding sheet of white nausea, nausea in my brain and my stomach and my heart, is what made me sick.

Anyway, that was my first real introduction to the Unseen. Up until that point in my life, I was a typical down-to-earth Capricorn. I believed what I saw, if I believed anything at all. I believed in myself, i.e. my body and brain. My heart, to me, was the retarded kid tagging along, the crybaby always whining about "But I want...." or "But that hurts!" and my brain's inevitable response, "Shut up, nobody cares."

But between acupuncture and Tom's death, I couldn't ignore the Unseen anymore. When Tom died, I desperately needed to find some way to make it so Tom wasn't really dead. I got my hair cut for the funeral, actually by the woman who always cut Tom's hair. She learned about his death when we were making small talk about what I was doing in town. I thought she was going to drop her scissors. She turned white.

She loved Tom like everybody loved Tom. But we couldn't save him.

But she turned me on to Sylvia Browne, the psychic. So here's me, Phi Beta Kappa, polyglot, checking out Sylvia Browne books from the library, reading fairy tales for adults about the afterlife.

I believe this - that fairy tales are true. Taken all together, they are -
in their ever-repeating and ever-varying case studies of human affairs -
a general explanation of life, born in remote times and conserved
in the slow rumination of rural consciousness until they get to us;
they are a catalogue of the fates that may befall a man and a woman.
-Italo Calvino

I don't know if the fairy tales are true, but I needed to believe them, I still need to believe them, and so I do believe them. Not just fairy tales about life and death but fairy tales in general.

At some point I started believing that life is epic. It has to be epic, in order to not be a colossal waste of time. We are all living in a fairy tale, or multiple fairy tales, and the key to life is figuring out which fairy tale you're in RIGHT NOW so you can figure out what to do.

I mean, when I say figure out what to do, that's easy. You win. That's what you do. Life hands you a lemon, you make lemon meringue pie. Because life is epic. You make the best lemon meringue pie that anyone has ever made, the pie that killed the dragon and snagged the handsome prince, the pie that broke the spells of the evil witches and the jealous stepmothers and the conniving stepsisters, the pie that has the huevos that the men in the stories lack (because meringue is made with huevos in case you don't know), the pie that wins the money and restores balance to your life, the pie that makes you a superhero, and all because of that one lemon.

Be grateful for the lemons

And you say thank you. For the lemon. Because you can think of that lemon as a challenge, but what I have realized, perhaps belatedly but not when you consider that I'm going to live forever, is that that lemon is not so much a challenge as a gift, this life is a gift, everything and everyone is a gift, and when you understand that, then everything in life, love and BJJ falls into place.

Even after I had my first encounters with the Unseen, I began to think of life as a barter system. If the Universe hands me a lemon, it has to give me a lemon squeezer as well. In other words, if something bad happened, something good had to happen to cancel it out. And it mostly did. I literally had a kind of abacus in my brain where I would tally the good things and the bad things.

And it wasn't until recently that the bad things started to pile up without a corresponding number of good things to cancel them out. Health problems, people acting batshit, attacks to my person and my reputation. Unrequited love, not for one person but just in general. I have always felt like a dog running by the side of the road looking at every car to see if that's the person who will want to take me home, and it never is. And I don't even mean men. I just mean someone who cares.

Anyway, I started to get very resentful, towards God and towards life, love and BJJ. Yeah I'll make the sacrifices but I need to see some reward. And sooner would be better than later.

But it wasn't happening, and I eventually got to the point where I stopped expecting it to happen. The resentment gave way to resignation, the humiliation gave way to humility, and at some point I realized, Life doesn't owe me anything. The Universe doesn't owe me anything. God doesn't owe me anything. Robson doesn't owe me anything.

For whatever reason, I was given the opportunity to step onto this giant Zebra mat called life. For whatever reason, I was given the opportunity to wear the RMNU patch. I didn't deserve those things. They just happened. I was in the right place at the right time.

The rest is up to me. The Universe doesn't owe me jack shit. Just because I'm on the mat doesn't mean somebody owes me a gi, or a belt, or a stripe, or love, or even help or kindness.

Chances are, if you stay on the mat long enough, those things will come, but you have to understand that other things will come as well. There will be injuries, misunderstandings, envy, cruelty, gossip, difficulties of every kind and degree. Hopefully those things will be in the minority but in this fairy tale of your life, every character will get his or her chance. There will be a wicked woman who tries to destroy you with the willing consent of someone you thought cared and it's up to you to follow the trail of ponytail holders to get back to the mat.

But there will also be the good things. There will be mentors, signs and portents, those people and things placed deliberately on your path to guide you and keep you safe. There will be Tom. I don't know how this stuff works. I don't know what kind of deal God had to make with Tom to make him come into our lives and save us - not just me, but my brother and my mom. Because as much as we all needed Tom, my mom needed him the most.

People look at Jesus and they are awed by His sacrifice. They look at Tom and all they see is a weak man who lost the battle with the bottle. I look at Tom and I see a man who sacrificed himself to give strength and healing to others. Whatever pain Tom felt, he kept it to himself. He led our family and he led his congregation with gentle warmth and humor. He never preached. He just told a story and made you laugh and you felt a little better. He stood in the pulpit but he never talked down to you.

He saved me. He saved us. I don't know how many people Tom saved, even just for a night, or just for a day. Tom had the work ethic of people of his generation. He went to the church office every day from 9-5, and he only left if he was visiting shut-ins. He headed hospice as well as being police chaplain for years.

If somebody walked in needing help, there was a discretionary fund and Tom didn't hesitate to use it. And if the discretionary fund was empty, Tom would buy you lunch out of his own pocket. He saw that as his job, his calling. Now, there's paperwork to fill out and the minister is never there. Translation: if you're hungry, if you're in need, if you want to talk, tough shit. You're better off hanging around Arby's begging for change.

But with all the people Tom helped, we couldn't help him. With all the people Tom saved, we couldn't save him. The fairy tale malfunctioned. Unless it didn't. Because maybe that was Tom's job on this earth. Maybe he wasn't supposed to be perfect. Maybe God doesn't work through perfect people. Maybe He doesn't even make perfect people. Maybe perfection isn't the point.

Maybe the point is triumphing over your own imperfections and those of others to do your job in this life. Maybe.

Or maybe not. I don't know.

Life, love and BJJ come with their share of tough times. You're going to feel pain. You're going to feel sad.

As Mario Sperry said: If you train jiu-jitsu, you will feel pain. You're gonna get bumped. If you can't take that, then maybe you need to do something else. Like, I don't know, play cards or something.

You're gonna feel pain

And I think that's valid for all of it: life, love and BJJ, the whole nine yards.

It's going to hurt.

But there will also be the day that someone you respect says the nicest thing ever to you. There will be the day someone new comes to town and helps you with your jiu-jitsu and with your life. There will be the day you are invited to train with a BJJ legend at his home academy for no good reason. There will be the day the handsome prince inboxes you on Facebook messenger (even though FB messenger is Satan but that's another fairy tale). And there will be the day you get four stripes on your purple belt from the man who represents the infinity sign on your jiu-jitsu compass. 

The day you get 4 stripes on your purple belt

There will be the day that the rainbows submit the clouds and all you see is blue skies. That day will come too, and it doesn't depend on your hope or belief or your jiu-jitsu or on anything else. 

All you have to do, all you can do is what my teacher Ricardo said to me once long ago: Stay in the game, Deborah. Always stay in the game.

"Always stay in the game." - Master Ricardo Pires

And when that day comes, be ready. And be grateful.

Because that day, like every other day, is a gift. A beautiful, beautiful gift for you and for you alone.

Just don't forget to say thank you.

And they lived gratefully ever after....

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

Merlin the Magician.
Because life is epic.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The meaning of a patch

“If I were to be made a knight," said the Wart, staring dreamily into the fire, "I should insist on doing my vigil by myself, as Hob does with his hawks, and I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it."

from The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Shield of King Arthur Pendragon

When I first started training jiu-jitsu, I didn't know about patches. I didn't even know about teams. I didn't know about anything, actually, but that's kind of the white belt thing.

I just thought of Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a business, a service that was offered in exchange for money, like any other service.  I noticed my teammates had patches but I figured it was just for decoration.

You could say I should have known about patches and teams but the point is, I didn't. 

And nobody told me.

Part of it is about what we call "culture,"  which is simply the assumptions we make without knowing we're making them. 

It's about what's done and what's not done, what's ok and what's not ok in any given environment.

In jiu-jitsu academies, every gym has its own culture. In some gyms, you can only wear certain color gis. In some gyms they train hard and in some gyms they go light. In some gyms the guys go hard but the women are expected to go light. In some gyms, when you run up against another pair, lower belt rank moves. In other gyms, it's whatever. And it's all good until you step outside your home gym and you meet up with another culture, because chances are, you're going to get something wrong.

And nobody ever explains, just like nobody explained the patch to me, and I had to figure it out on my own.

Now, eight and a half years later, seeing people without a patch or with the wrong patch bothers me. I was present when somebody got promoted by Master Robson wearing a Gracie patch and it bugged me. On the other hand, I guarantee that guy had nothing but respect and admiration for Master Robson and if you asked that guy he would tell you that respect is not something you show, it's something you feel.

It's exactly what I would have said eight years ago. To be honest, that's probably what bothered me. Because I used to be that guy. But what I've learned, in the meantime, is that respect is also something you show. That's just the way it is. If Master Robson went to the trouble of becoming a legend, and founding an association, and creating a patch, then the least I can do is wear it.

But like so many other things in life, love and BJJ, I had to learn that lesson the hard way. I learned it by getting it wrong, by inadvertently offending a lot of people with my "Kumbayah let's all just love each other" attitude. I mean I still believe that's the ideal. Let's all just love one another and train.

I had to learn the hard way

But in life, love, and BJJ you will come to a time where you will have to make a choice. You can't have it all. You can't get married and also have total freedom. You can't eat crappy food and also look good in a bikini. And you can't get anywhere in Brazilian jiu-jitsu without a team, and what's more, it has to be the right team.

It took me a long time to figure out which team was right for me. When my first instructor quit, I was cast adrift on a sea of jiu-jitsu. I knew that in any direction I went, I would find land, but I wanted to find the right land. But while I was studying maps and saying eenie-meenie-minie-moe, my heart was steadily paddling in one direction and in one direction only, and that's how I washed up on the shores of RMNU. It wasn't my brain that got me here. It was my heart.

I don't know which way to go...

My heart was following a star and it still is. And that's what the patch means to me. It's my heart, and the star, and it's where hearts and stars come together to train jiu-jitsu. And I don't mean star like rockstar, even though Master Robson is obviously that, I mean the light that guides us in a particular direction, if not a destination. Because to have a destination it means that you will eventually stop. But if you have a direction you will never stop.

Direction vs. destination

And the patch, to me, is a person, and a place, and a direction, and a beating heart, and a guiding light. All those things.

But the patch also represents something else.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu attracts all kinds of people, and some of them, a lot of them, are awesome. They're your friends, your family, your support system. Even the people you barely know treat you like royalty when you visit their gym.  

On the other hand, Brazilian jiu-jitsu also attracts another kind of people, the insecure kind, and the way insecure people react when they feel something or someone threatening their egos is to attack. It can be a physical attack, an emotional attack, an attack to your reputation, or any other kind of attack. It can be a knee in the ear or a knife in the back, a nasty post on Facebook or a choke across your nose. And the attacks are always justified, in the minds of the insecure people, because you accidentally bumped into their egos and left a bruise.

I got to the point where I stopped wearing the patch because I was afraid it provided a target for these people to attack Master Robson through me, and maybe it does, but what I didn't realize was that Master Robson doesn't care about those people.

He said one time, with that little Mona Lisa smile of his, "We need the haters," and I think he really believes that.

He could give two fucks about the haters

The haters give him energy which he burns as if it were Biodiesel, which it kind of is. It's energy made out of other people's garbage.

All the time I was worrying about protecting Master Robson, Master Robson was protecting me. I just didn't know it. That patch isn't just a flimsy piece of yellow and black cloth. It's a shield against all the evil in the world. That's the deal.

Does it mean Master Robson is going to kill my dragons for me? Not necessarily. But I also haven't spent eight years on the mats so that somebody else can fight my battles, not even Master Robson. What RMNU gives me is the tools I need to fight my own battles and a shield against all the evil in the world; or at least, all the evil in jiu-jitsu.

A shield against all the evil in the world

But it's not just a shield against the evil outside. It's a shield against the evil inside.

The most dangerous attacker, the one who can hurt you the most, is yourself. For me, it has always been my own self-doubt, my belief that anybody who saw something bad in me must be smart and anyone who saw something good in me must be dumb - or blind. That's my enemy. And that's how the haters get to me. My heart is the leaker - the spy that tells the haters how to attack and when and where.

I thought if I didn't wear the patches I could fly under the radar, but it didn't work out that way. Because you can take the patch off your gi but you can't take the patch off your jiu-jitsu or your heart. I'm not saying I'm so awesome, by any means, but training with Robson Moura is inevitably going to take your jiu-jitsu to another level.

And because of that, the haters have multiplied like roaches in the dark.

But what I realized, what Master Robson told me, is that the haters don't count. Those people are all around us and they don't matter. Their only purpose is to teach you to protect yourself, at all times. To not indulge in a false sense of security. Their purpose, oddly enough, is to help you learn jiu-jtsu, because jiu-jitsu isn't just technique, it's defending yourself, at all times, from all kinds of attack, including attacks from the people you thought were your friends, and including the most dangerous attacks of all which are the ones that come from yourself.

And the patch is, quite simply, the shield that protects you from attack: attack from without and attack from within. The shield on your back is Master Robson's way of saying that he has your back. And mine too.

The roaches are always going to be there. They have existed for at least 300 million years and they're not going anywhere anytime soon. They thrive and multiply in the darkness of insecurity and mediocrity and entitlement.

You can't destroy the roaches and I can't destroy them and Jesus couldn't destroy them and Master Robson can't destroy them. On the other hand, you can't let the roaches take control of your heart. The way to keep the roaches away is to keep the lights burning, in your mind and in your heart and in your jiu-jitsu. Roaches don't like the light.

You can't fight all the evil in the world. All you can do is be the best you can possibly be, to live with honor and integrity, and train. Train light, train hard, but keep training and don't stop. You can't destroy the darkness, but you can shine your light into it, as bright as you can, and thereby keep the darkness, and the haters, at bay.

The patch doesn't mean that I think I'm Robson Moura just because it says Robson Moura on my back, and it also doesn't mean that I can't be friends with people from other associations, because I am. It means that I fight, literally and figuratively, behind the protection of Robson Moura's shield.

That's a pretty strong shield.

People have always told me that I'm tough, and maybe they're right, but not because of jiu-jitsu. I think God just made me tough so I could survive all the stuff life was going to throw at me. My ex-husband Tommaso said to me once: Yes, you are strong. But your strength is not in your body. It's in your mind.

I had a dream when I was very little that I was trying to climb out of a steep ravine. The walls were sheer and I didn't know how I was going to get out. But then I noticed that there were statues of Minnie and Mickey and Donald Duck on the ravine walls and I figured, in the dream, that I could drag myself up on the statues, like I did with the trees in the ravine by my house. But when I got to the statues they came alive and started to pinch me and I still remember the pain I felt in the dream. And that dream is pretty much how my life has been. The people I looked to for help have been the ones who hurt me the most. And maybe it's my fault, and maybe everybody feels that way. I don't know.

Trying to climb out of the ravine

The point is, I stopped hoping for anyone to help me. I stopped trying to be part of anything, because the pain of isolation is less than the pain of betrayal.

And then I found RMNU, or RMNU found me, whichever, anyway God hooked it up somehow, and I'm not alone anymore. And as tough as I am or think I am, Master Robson is tougher. As strong as I've had to be, the team is stronger. It's stronger than me, stronger than the fear, stronger than the haters, stronger than all the evil in the world.

And that's what the patch means. At least to me.

The power of the patch

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The rainbow IS the pot of gold; 6 years training with Robinho

RMNU Camp Tampa (with Shaolin in the white gi)

I don't want to become complacent in contentment so I'm constantly dissatisfied. - Ronda Rousey

Seminar, Grants MMA Toronto

It's been exactly six years since I first had the opportunity to train with Robson Moura, at a seminar at my now-defunct home gym, Dudu Barros Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.

As I have previously described in other posts, I was simultaneously wowed and humbled by that experience. It was as if Master Robson opened a window into a world I did not even know existed.

Falling apart: My first Robson seminar 2011

My instructor at that time, Dudu Barros, was a teammate of Robson's from the days of the Nova Uniao Dream Team, and their games were not dissimilar. 

Dudu Barros was a child prodigy in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He began training at the age of 5 and was known throughout Brazil, as RMNU black belt Flavio "Viola" Kenup described him, as "Carlson Gracie's little baby." People like Xande Ribeiro recount watching Dudu's videos to learn. Just to give you some idea that Dudu is a legend in his own right. His jiu-jitsu is as free and slippery and unexpected as a killer whale frolicking in the sea. You have no idea what he's doing until you hear tapping and realize it's coming from you.

Watch Dudu fight (and hear his dad screaming "Ataca Duduuuu!") here:

Robson's game, too, is unexpected to say the least and in fact he described it on his Fusion dvd set as his "surprise game." But what Robson did for us that day in that seminar was to dissect a tiny section of his game to show the method behind the madness.

It was a revelation. We were used to being mystified and awed by Dudu's incredible jiu-jitsu. What was new was to see the behind-the-scenes view of the inner workings of a high-level game. As Master Robson said that day, he likes to teach everything in what he calls a "flow," in other words, a sequence that is almost mathematical. If A, then B. If B, then C. If A-B, then D, and so on.

Robson Moura jiu-jitsu is not just a hodgepodge of random, if brilliant, moves. It is a system; or rather, it is a system of systems. Every move has a rationale and occupies its own proper place in a series of sequences that overlap and morph into other sequences.

You cannot direct a living system, you can only disturb it. - Francisco Varela

When I mentioned this to a black belt not long ago, he said, "I don't really do that. I just pick a move and go for it."

And with all due respect to that black belt, I think that's one of the many things that sets Robson apart from everybody else or at least, from most people. In other words, that's why it works. When you're pushing 300 lbs, you can make a lot of things work. When you're 5'4" and 135, you need to have a plan, and a couple dozen contingency plans. And that's what I feel is one of the most unique features of Robson's jiu-jitsu.

I don't know how many people know how video games work. I don't mean how to play them, I mean how they're programmed. My understanding - and admittedly this is the understanding of a person who still doesn't know how to use her smartphone - is that the way video games work is that they are programmed so that every step of the way, every possible move by the human player is foreseen and provided for.

Video game

And I have frequently reflected that Robson's game seems to function very much along the same lines. Every possible move by his opponent has a preprogrammed counter. At the same time, since it is impossible to predict every move, it seems that a space in Robson's brain has been reserved for "unforeseen circumstances," and that part of his brain takes over on the rare occasions an opponent manages to surprise him.

In other words, even the unforeseen circumstances are foreseen, accounted for, and preventatively neutralized.

In rereading this post, you would think that I am describing a boring game, but as everyone knows or should know, the opposite is the case. Robson Moura is widely considered one of the most exciting jiu-jitsu fighters in the history of the art.

Many people, myself included, can say jiu-jitsu has changed them. But how many people can say they have changed jiu-jitsu?

In my opinion, the answer is, Not that many. And Robson Moura is one of them. It's hard to quantify his effect on the art because the jiu-jitsu gene pool is in constant mutation. The second somebody does something cool, everybody is doing it, in a million different ways. And you need to be an archeologist, or something, to go back and figure out who did it first. But chances are, when you compare the blood and guts jiu-jitsu of the 90's to Robson's style of organized chaos, there's a good chance the one who did it first was Robson. 

People - especially large, out-of-shape people - like to attribute Robson's success to his athleticism, and there is no question that he is a phenomenal athlete.

He's a little bit athletic

But, speaking from the perspective of Robson's "number one stalker," I would say that what sets Robson apart, what makes his jiu-jitsu so otherworldly, is his mind. He's not just a super athlete drilling passes 50 million times. He's more like Captain Kirk boldly going where no jiu-jitsu has gone before. Where others zig, Robson zags. Where others struggle to think outside the box, Robson has no box. He had one but he threw it away (he hates clutter).

And that's what makes him different. 

Six years ago, I got a glimpse into a new world at a time when I wasn't looking for it. After my experience with Dudu, I had begun training with Ricardo Pires, who introduced me to the beauty of the top game and particularly, side control.

Ricardo Pires teaching the beauty of side control

At last, it was something I could understand. Pass the guard, take side, finish. Jiu-jitsu can be that simple and the knowledge that it could be that simple was a light in the fog that had enveloped my brain since I was first introduced to jiu-jitsu.

So the last thing I really wanted, as a blue belt who had seen the light of the top game - which, for the record, I still love and go to whenever humanly possible - was to meet Robson Moura. But, as we all know, life, and jiu-jitsu, do not always go according to plan. To paraphrase John Lennon, The bottom game is what happens when you're busy making plans to play top.

Not that it's really fair to just put Robson into the bottom game category. As Parrumphinha, Robson's once and future opponent, described him prior to their match at the BJJ Expo in whatever year that was, "He has everything." He's good on the top, he's good on the bottom. Recognized as one of the top guard passers of all times, Robson's guard is one of the most lethal in the art. As one Brazilian announcer put it years ago, "Passing Robinho's guard is the most difficult thing there is in all of jiu-jitsu."

Check out the BJJ Heroes list of All Time Best Guard Passers here:

Listen to what Robinho and Parrumpinha have to say about each other here:

But suffice it to say that just as I was seeing the light of the top game, I saw a rainbow on the horizon and that rainbow represented this new world called Robson Moura jiu-jitsu.

When you see a rainbow, the traditional thing to do is to follow it. According to legend, you will find a pot of gold at the end.

In reality, modern life is not rainbow-friendly. The magic we feel quickly gives rise to practical considerations and often we tell ourselves that "I'll get to the rainbow tomorrow."

But the problem with rainbows is they're not there tomorrow. Their expiration date is RIGHT NOW. And if you see a rainbow that appeals to you, the only way you can hope to catch up with it is to drop everything and run like hell.

And that's what I did.

For whatever reason, that rainbow hit me at the right time. I had no social life (still don't, for that matter!), no family obligations, and just enough disposable income to make it possible to follow my rainbow. 

For the record, I'm not rich. People have told me "I'm so lucky" to be able to train with Robson as much as I do, but I make my own luck because I make my own choices. I have a 12 year-old car. I don't have TV. I have no social life, which saves me a lot. My phone cost me 32 dollars on eBay. I don't eat out and I make my coffee at home. I don't go to bars. I don't go on vacation except to train. Even my gis are crappy. Basically, if I'm spending money, it's for food, taxes, or to train.

Even so, if the legend says you will find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I can say I easily spent a pot of gold following Robson around to seminars all over North America. And if my goal was to fully understand Robson's jiu-jitsu, then I failed.

On the other hand, when I mentioned to one of Robson's black belts that I feel like a failure because I still don't understand how Robson's mind works, his reply was:  Nobody does.

So at least I'm not alone.

Anyway, if decoding the enigma that is Robson's brain was my original goal, it has since been amended. After six years, all I can say is that I have lived in a different jiu-jitsu world, and it has been worth it. Worth every penny, every minute on the road, every mile on my car and on my body, every brain cramp. It has been worth living as a jiu-jitsu outlander because when I chose to follow Robson, that automatically put me on the outside everywhere I go, and now it's too late to go back in.

It's too late because the local gyms see me as an outsider and as kind as Robson has been to me, I don't live in Tampa and I don't fit in there either. But despite the awkwardness of being always on the outside looking in, I have no regrets and I wouldn't have it any other way. Because you can go from black-and-white to Technicolor, but you can't go from living in a rainbow to 50 shades of normal-jitsu. At least, I can't.

And if I could go back and unsee the rainbow, I wouldn't, and I think a big part of that is because I had already passed up way too many rainbows in my life by the time I met Robson. Because I thought it was the responsible thing to do, or the right thing to do, because I didn't want to disappoint people, because I was afraid that I would fail to find the pot of gold and even if I finally found it, maybe it would turn out to be Fool's gold and I would look like a fool.

And maybe that's why this time I was determined to follow the rainbow. I wanted to see it, I wanted to feel it, I wanted to know what it was like to make the rainbows. Because that's what Robson Moura jiu-jitsu is. That's the superpower it confers upon you, if you open your mind and your body and your heart to it. You can learn to make rainbows, too.

You can make rainbows too

And maybe my rainbows are little tiny baby rainbows, but they're real.

What Robson taught me, and what I mean by rainbows, is it doesn't have to be boring. Your jiu-jitsu doesn't have to be the same as everybody else's. You create your own reality and your reality can be as beautiful and as weird and as wonderful as you care to make it. It still happens that I'll go somewhere, like to a seminar or something, and somebody will explain the RIGHT way to play spider (your butt goes this way and your head goes that way), or somebody will reference the "no hands on the mat" rule, or something, and I'm like, Huh? Robson uses his feet and hands interchangeably, and he plays spider pretty much any way he feels like playing spider, and if you do anything unusual on the mat, he's not yelling about your butt being in the wrong place, he's looking at you to see if your mistake is something he can adapt to make a rainbow.

Robson Moura personifies the philosophy somebody shared with me in salsa dancing class years ago: "There are no mistakes. Just new moves."

And new is what it's all about. Not necessarily new moves, but a new you. As Rickson Gracie said at a seminar: I'm not here to give you new moves, but new feelings. If jiu-jitsu doesn't change you, and your strategies for handling adversity, and if you're just going to have the same jiu-jitsu as everybody else, and if you can't even make a rainbow, I mean really, what's the point?

And after six years training and studying and, as we jokingly say, stalking, six years in which I literally wore out a set of tires following this rainbow, years in which I grew old, or at least, middle-aged, that's all I have to show for it - a gi bag full of rainbows.

But you know what I realized as I was chasing my rainbow? That mythical place, inside and outside myself, at the end of the rainbow, that place where I was going to attain all knowledge of Robson Moura jiu-jitsu, that place where my hard work was going to be rewarded with some kind of Vulkan mind-meld where I would finally not only understand but be able to predict Robson's jiu-jitsu, that place where the jiu-jitsu pot of gold resides, that place doesn't exist.

The only thing that exists, the only thing that's real, the only pot of gold that matters, is the rainbow itself. And when you chase it, when you chase your dream, then you already won.

Elite BJJ Newark, Delaware

Degerberg Martial Arts, Chicago (photo courtesy of Lucila Espedido)

Seminar at Ronin Training Center, Columbus, OH

Seminar at Cutting Edge BJJ, Harrison, NJ
photo courtesy of Josef Manuel

Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

At rainbow's end the path leads home