Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas (and go train!)

I was going to write this wonderful post about love and forgiveness for Christmas. I had it all planned out in my mind. Then I remembered I suck at both those things.

When Jesus came, he introduced these new ideas. Sure, people had love, personal love, but they didn't have the love-your-enemy kind of love. 

And forgiveness was pretty much unknown. They had the Code of Hammurabi which is where we get "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Believe it or not, the Code of Hammurabi was seen as progressive for its time because its purpose was to limit the cycle of revenge to one eye for one eye, one tooth for one tooth, and that was it. Up until then, it was an endless cycle of violence and blood and sleeping with one eye (your only remaining eye) open. It was exhausting. But it was what was expected of you.

The Code of Hammurabi

And Jesus came along and said, "You don't have to do that." And it was a very big deal and it was part of the reason Jesus was reviled by the Establishment at that time. Because you don't want to stand between people and their victimhood.

Because that's what hate is, really. It's victimhood. I hate you because you did whatever to me and you hate me because I did whatever to you.

People will give up their lives before they will give up their victimhood. Because victimhood is an ironclad alibi. It's "I could have been and done so much more" (if you hadn't done x, y and z to me). My failure is not my fault - it's yours.

And Jesus took that away. He allowed himself to be crucified but he never allowed anyone to give him victim status. He turned his own murder into triumph. If you think about it, it was pure genius.

Because Jesus won. He was like, Go ahead, kill me, I'm just gonna rise from the dead, and he did.

Jesus: Win, by resurrection. Death: Loss, by sucking.

It was the biggest upset in history.

We tend to look at the story of Jesus as the story of sacrifice, and it was. But even more than that, it is the story of victory - victory over hate and evil and death itself.

Victim and victor have the same Latin root, vic-, which means a change or substitution of some kind. The point is that a word, or an identity, starting with vic- can swing either way. It's up to you.

People don't want to hear that. I don't always want to hear it, because it's true, and we hate truth almost as much as we hate having our victim status threatened. Actually, the truth is what threatens our victim status. 

Even if what happened to you was really, really shitty, there is usually something you can do to change your circumstances and there is usually something to be gained from your shitty experience.

That doesn't mean that what happened wasn't bad and it doesn't make it right. Terrible things happen to good people, to children, every day, and those things stay with you for your whole life. 

Even so, you can change from victim to victor - but you have to want it.

That was Jesus's message.

If you think about it, that's what jiu-jitsu is all about. Jiu-jitsu was not invented for the big, strong guy to beat up on the little guy, even though that's kind of what it's turning into. Jiu-jitsu was invented to give the little guy a fighting chance.

Jiu-jitsu gives us the tools to transform our reality by transforming ourselves.

Robinho vs. Big guy

But there are no guarantees. A fighting chance doesn't mean you're always going to win. It means that if you try hard enough, you can win - at jiu-jitsu and at life and at love and at anything and everything that means something to you.

It's not going to be easy and it's not going to be pain-free and it's probably not going to be fair. You are going to experience pain and injustice and heartbreak and betrayal.

But what's your alternative? Give up? Claim victim status and talk to all the other victims about who's the biggest victim?

Carolyn Myss calls the language of victimhood "woundology." It's when you get together with other victims and secretly compete to see who's the biggest victim. And according to Myss, that's why people don't heal from disease. That's why people don't get out of abusive relationships, or the favela, or the past. Because they identify too strongly with their victimhood. #victim #poorme #boohoo

That doesn't mean you shouldn't own your past and your experience. If it happened, it happened, and it shaped you and formed you and made you who you are, and you need to look at it and you need to understand it, not just sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn't happen. Awareness is a huge part of jiu-jitsu and it's a huge part of life. You need to understand what happened to you and how it happened and why it happened so that hopefully, it won't happen again.

In life and in jiu-jitsu, shit happens. You can wallow in it, or you can plant something and watch it grow. There is a song in Italian that says: From manure, flowers grow, but nothing grows from diamonds. (De Andre)

And that's what jiu-jitsu is about: it's about turning manure into flowers, turning bad situations into good situations or at least, okayish situations.

There are two fundamental rules in jiu-jitsu and life:
Rule 1) Don't get there.
Rule 2) You're probably going to get there. So here are some things you can do to get out of there and maybe even emerge victorious.

And this is why I coming back to Robson Moura's story. Yes, I've talked about it before. But the point is, his story exemplifies, to me, someone who at the age of 10 found himself at a crossroads: on the one hand there was a sign marked VICTIM STATUS. On the other hand was a sign marked INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT ROAD TO SUCCESS, HAPPINESS, AND LIFE ITSELF. And Master Robson never hesitated.

I don't think it was a tough decision for him, because I don't think Master Robson ever doubted himself. I don't think he knows how to doubt himself. But even if he had any self-doubt, Master Robson knew himself well enough to know that failure was never going to fit him, any more than a pair of size 38 L jeans would ever fit him. Victim status was never going to be an option.

He went after success with the same fierce tenacity, the same unique "Robinhoness" that made him, not only successful, but a legend in the sport.

People look at him now and they act like it was meant to be. I've literally had people brush off the favela as if it were inconsequential by saying, "But he was so talented."

But as Robson himself told me some time ago, "There were 50 guys more talented than me."

Why did he make it while you've never heard of those 50 guys?

Sure, we can talk about will, and athletic talent of course, and tenacity, and all those things, but one of the things that has always struck me about Master Robson is his ability to sort things into important and not important.

It's a binary system. For those not familiar with the binary system, it's the system computers are based on, and it just sorts all information into two groups - 0 and 1. That's how everything is coded. And I feel like Master Robson does that in his jiu-jitsu and his life. Everything that comes his way is either a 0 or a 1 and anything that's a 0 he just ignores. Which gives him more energy to deal with the 1's.

In other words, he doesn't sweat the small stuff. He doesn't even sweat the big stuff unless he absolutely has to. He just ignores it. Granted, sometimes he gets it wrong. He admitted to sometimes throwing away important documents in his war on clutter.

But for the most part, his system has seemed to work out pretty well, and I'm going to tell you why that matters in a minute so bear with me.

Jesus came here to teach about love and forgiveness. After 50 years on this earth, I still don't really understand what those words mean.

Jesus is hot!

The problem with love is it's so big and it's so varied. Sometimes love looks like love and sometimes love looks like hate and sometimes - a lot of times - love looks like jiu-jitsu. I mean it's a fight but it's also a team effort and it's fun and it also hurts but no matter how much it hurts you never want to stop.

Meanwhile, the problem with forgiveness is it's just too hard. Because there are two scenarios: one, the person who hurt you deliberately tried to hurt you because they are a fucking asshole; two, the person who hurt you loves you, and they either didn't mean to hurt you, or they hurt you on purpose because maybe you hurt them too, or maybe they think you don't love them like they love you, or something.

Either way, I don't really get how we can turn either of those scenarios into forgiveness. Because if the person is just a fucking asshole, why should you forgive them? 

On the other hand, if it's somebody you love, and/or somebody who loves you, what's to forgive? If you hurt me because you love me or vice-versa, then that pain doesn't really hurt, or at least it hurts in a good kind of way. And no I'm not talking about abusive relationships. I'm talking about misunderstandings.

I've had a lot of those in my life. Part of it is, I just feel invisible. Not in a bad way. I just never imagine that I could be that important to anyone that they really notice whether or not I'm in the room, or on the mat, or whatever it is. So I just kind of come and go like a ghost and people think I'm blowing them off. This happened with my father a lot. We were both aloof, proud remote people who were so smart that we were dumb, because we forgot how to say simple things like: I love you. I miss you. I want you in my life. When my father was dying, I still couldn't tell him that I loved him. I still didn't know if it was okay to hold his hand. I wrote a blog post instead, and my mom read it to him, and he liked it a lot, and if you want, you can read it here:

The Big Wave

We both had hurt feelings - a lot. But when you go and sift through it, when we were at the very end, we looked at each other and there was absolutely nothing to forgive, because everything we did, every mistake, every unforgiveable offense, we did out of love.

And that kind of thing happens in jiu-jitsu - a lot. Our training partners, our teammates, our instructors become like our family and sometimes, more than family. We have certain expectations of them and they have certain expectations of us and the problem is, we don't always voice those expectations. Which leads to disappointment which leads to pain which leads to estrangement.

The longer you train, the more you will experience the painful side of jiu-jitsu, both physically and emotionally.

I'm not suggesting you forgive the unforgiveable. I do believe that's what Jesus wants us to do but as Steve Harvey said: "I ain't there yet."

I don't know about you, but I ain't there yet either.

What I'm suggesting is that we adopt Master Robson's strategy of a binary system. Focus on what matters and let the rest go. As Jesus said, Leave the dead to bury the dead. Don't let the grudges and hurts mess up your game. Don't let the assholes get you down and don't let the people you love trick you into believing they don't love you.

The assholes don't matter. The people you love do matter.

And if they've done something unforgiveable to you, or you've done something unforgiveable to them, stop worrying about forgiveness. God sees into their hearts just as He sees into yours and He sees the love there and He will handle the forgiveness part if we handle the love part.

In real life, love can be hard. In jiu-jitsu, love is easy - just train.

And if you really think about it, love is the ultimate victory. Because love is who you are, it's who we all are. It's the magic Silly Putty out of which the Universe was created. When you allow someone to stop the love, the darkness wins and you lose. But when you can say, as Jesus did, I don't give a fuck what you do to me, I don't even care if you kill me, you can't make me stop loving you because you're not the boss of me, that's when you win. And winning is what it's all about.

For those who say they don't care about winning, you're either a) lying; b) in the wrong art on the wrong planet. Does winning always look like winning? No. The real victory is conquering yourself, your fears and weaknesses.

The real victory is imposing your game. And I believe, really and truly, that the only game that matters is the love game. Not love for your opponent, necessarily, or love for your neighbor, or anything hard like that. Just love for this art, love for beauty, love for fun, love for the opportunity to escape from your Homer Simpson world for a minute and be epic. Just love, baby. 

So get back on the mat and train with the people who hurt you and the people you hurt. Train until the pain of jiu-jitsu makes the emotional pain go away. Train until the blood, sweat and tears turn into a little puddle of pain on the mat. Somebody will be by soon with a bucket of bleach to wash the pain away.

Don't worry about the assholes. Your time on this Earth is so short. Why not spend it training with the people you love?

I'm not saying forgive and I'm not saying forget.

I'm saying you have a choice between victimhood and victory,  and when you choose, choose wisely, because there are no do-overs.

I'm saying go train.

And Merry Christmas.

For unto us a child is born

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Leap of Faith; The art of believing in yourself

What we need to do to allow magic to get ahold of us is to banish doubts from our minds. 
Once doubts are banished anything is possible. 
- Carlos Castaneda (Juan Matus)

Banish the doubts

Last weekend I drove to North Carolina to attend a Robson Moura seminar.

Although I've definitely covered some distances to train with Master Robson since I met him, this was the farthest I've ever driven and along the way, I found myself asking: What am I doing? What am I trying to accomplish? Is it worth it?

As I watched the road flash by, the trees and the mountains, the golden dome in Charleston, the fading autumn colors, the overambitious trucks trying to pass uphill, the cops hiding in the shrubbery, as I stopped for gas and cider and mysterious Southern pork products, stumbling out of the car bent over like an old woman, driving through the rising sun and the setting sun, getting stuck in rush hour traffic in Raleigh and driving through pitch black on the final stretch to Greenville and pushing, pushing, pushing to arrive at last in time to watch the rank review, it was as if I were reliving all the ups and downs of my purple belt journey.

It was long - longer than I had expected - and exhausting, and just when I thought I was getting close, I hit a snag. Just like purple belt.  And I thought about giving up, but when I imagined what it would feel like to quit, it felt awful. It felt empty. And emptiness is worse than discomfort. So I kept going.

Friday evening traffic outside Raleigh

My stepfather, who was a minister, used to tell couples who came to him to get married that the best way to get to know a person is to take a long road trip together.

If you want to get to know someone, go on a road trip together.

"If you still want to get married when you come back," he would say, "give me a call."

And it occurred to me that his advice works pretty well for getting to know yourself. Whether it's a road trip to an actual place, or a road trip into jiu-jitsu, both provide plenty of time for soul-searching.

I just got my brown belt. Not to change the subject, but the point is, I met Master Robson when I was still a blue belt, back in 2011, and I started to really follow him in earnest in 2012, which was the year I got my purple belt.

2011: My first Robson Moura seminar

I trained with a lot of different people at purple, because I realized I had a choice: I could either just affiliate with somebody local (since my instructors had disappeared) and work towards my brown belt, or I could look around and figure out where it was I wanted to go with my jiu-jitsu. Who it was I wanted to be. What kind of jiu-jitsu I wanted to have.

Because if at white belt, I just thought jiu-jitsu was a stable, static thing you learned, like, I don't know, memorizing the times table or something, and at blue belt I discovered the top game and thought I had achieved bjj enlightenment, by purple I realized that jiu-jitsu is language. 

And you never stop learning a language, just like you never stop learning jiu-jitsu.

Do you speak jitsu?

It took me a long time, as I knew it would, although I didn't fully realize how long. I was a purple belt for five years and four months. And during that time, I was constantly on the road. I was like the little bird in the book looking for its mother, and I got to train with a lot of amazing people while I tried to figure out where I was going. 

Are you my jiu-jitsu mother?

Saulo Ribeiro called me "Ronin." Which was nice.

When the student is ready the teacher will come

And I love Saulo's jiu-jitsu, except when his students beat me with it. I love Ricardo Pires's side control. I love Pedro Sauer's finesse and tenacity. But over time, I found myself focusing more and more on one person, and that was Master Robson.

And that's because, first of all, I really and truly feel that his jiu-jitsu is just on a completely different level. As an irrepressible white belt (now a blue belt) put it: Robson moves better than a hypothetical Jesus.

He moves better than Jesus

But while Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fishes to feed the thousands, Robson has turned four limbs and one neck into thousands of submissions - sometimes, all at once. More often than not, his subs are what I call "BOGO" (buy one get one) because the shoulder lock is also a wrist lock and an armbar and a choke and a toehold. On the rare occasions that an armbar is just an armbar, I admit to feeling - just a little - cheated.

He's the master of transformation. But rather than changing himself to work within the existing framework of reality, Robson Moura has perfected the art of transforming reality. And besides his jiu-jitsu itself, which you could absolutely just copy and paste and not go wrong, I wanted to learn that art - the art of creating your own reality.

I wanted to know how he does that. I wanted to know how his mind works. Spoiler alert: I failed.  I still don't know how Master Robson's mind works. But, as one of his black belts told me with a shrug, "Nobody knows. It's not just you."

But what I realized, at the end of the day, is that it's not so much about getting a window into Master Robson's mind. It's about opening a window in my own mind, to allow this process of osmosis to take place, to allow the jiu-jitsu to flow in and myself to flow out.

Which means giving myself permission to be myself. It means, as Master Robson advised me before Master Worlds, "Believe in yourself."

Which is not really as easy as it sounds. In fact, it's really hard. It takes what my stepfather Tom used to call a "leap of faith." What Tom meant was that reason and logic will not get you to God. There has to be a point where you make a conscious decision to believe, to take that leap into the unknown.

In the same way, reason and logic will not make you believe in yourself, when you're standing there with your DIY jiu-jitsu and a body that has seen better days, looking at Robson Moura and a million people who are younger and faster and more athletic and more graceful and more technical than you could ever be even in your dreams (and yes I do dream about jiu-jitsu and Robson still beats me every time).

Believing is not a mathematical equation, but a choice - a choice to have faith, not despite the lack of evidence, but because of it. To embrace the mystery and the contradictions of life, love and jiu-jitsu and to understand that jiu-jitsu is not the point - believing is the point. Not just believing in God, but believing in yourself, whether you're training jiu-jitsu or falling in love or applying for a job or doing something completely unrelated and possibly even crazy. Believing that whoever you are, with whatever strengths and weaknesses you may have, you have something unique and beautiful to offer to life, love and BJJ.

When I was in the airport chapel on my way to Master Worlds praying, not to win, but just to feel less alone, a voice in my head said, "It's not about winning. It's about learning to fly. That's what I gave you wings for."

It's not about winning - it's about learning to fly.

This leap of faith, the leap that we make into ourselves and into our own perfectly imperfect jiu-jitsu, is when we test those wings. We may soar like eagles or flap like petrodactyls but that's not the point. The point is becoming aware that those wings are there, and they're there for a reason, and that reason is not achieving perfection. The reason we have wings is to enable us to fly into the great unknown of life, love and BJJ and transform it according to our desire and our will. The wings are our belief in ourselves, and the stronger our belief is, the farther our wings will take us.

The leap of faith is knowing, on some deep level that has nothing to do with logic and reason, that your wings are the wings you need to get you where you're going. It's not about getting better wings. It's about trusting the wings you have.

Trust your wings

At some point, which must have been very early on and possibly the first time he ever stepped on a mat, Master Robson must have realized that the get-on-top-and-smash game was not going to work for him. Since he couldn't fit himself to fit the game, he changed the game.

And when he changed the game, he changed the world. He created his world in his own image. And so can I. So can you.

And that's the big take-away, at least for me, in all these years following Master Robson. If the game doesn't fit you, don't change yourself - change the game. Change your world.

And transform yourself. Don't change - transform. With the difference being that change means becoming other than you are. Transforming means becoming even more who you are.

As iron becomes steel, as Pinocchio became a real boy, as the ugly duckling becomes a swan, jiu-jitsu gives us the opportunity to become bigger and better versions of who we are.

But you have to stay on your toes. As my teacher Ricardo Pires said, "You can't just take a nap." You have to be ready for the opportunity, the open door, the brass ring. 

But to do that, you have to believe that the opportunity will come for you, too.

The opportunities, the strokes of luck, the happy endings, those aren't just for other people - they are for you. There is a rainbow with your name on it, with your own personal pot of gold just waiting for you to jump on it.

Believe in your happy ending

And when you see that pot of gold, that brass ring, that opportunity that is waiting just for you, don't just jump on it - leap.

Take the leap of faith.


Believe in yourself

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Owning your monsters: Growing up in BJJ

Where the  Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak

Be careful when you cast out your demons lest you cast out the best part of yourself. - Friedrich Nietzsche

A few years back I wrote a post called Fighting Monsters with BJJ. You can check out the post here, but it was about how the monsters come out, at least for some of us, during the holidays.  I think a big part of that is that the holidays are, at least in theory, a No Fly Zone for Monsters. I mean the holidays are supposed to be about love and good cheer and reconnecting with loved ones and not sitting there thinking about possible replies to your aunt's passive-aggressive comment or wondering if your mom will be offended if you throw the entire plate of dry/burnt food in the garbage. Or whatever. The problem being that the monsters are like everybody else and the minute you tell them not to do something they immediately want to do that thing and no other.

The futility of arguing with monsters

Which is maybe why Halloween is my second-favorite holiday, right after Groundhog's Day, and it just right this very second occurred to me that what both these holidays have in common is that they both involve letting the shadows out of the closet. Halloween, All Hallows' Eve, is traditionally considered the day the veil opens between the world of the living and the world of the dead. February 2 is the date the groundhog looks at his shadow and prognosticates how much longer winter is going to last. 

But whether it's spirits emerging from the Underworld or a rodent emerging from his den, both holidays are about looking at the shadows we normally prefer to ignore. But even before I woke up and it was suddenly Halloween, I had been thinking a lot about the monsters.

I had been thinking about assholes. Assholes I have met, and assholes I have been, or have been accused of being, on and off the mat.

I have never intentionally been an asshole. I have never intentionally hurt anyone. All I've tried to do is tap people. I thought that was the point.

But apparently tapping people is "ego," at least that's how a woman I know recently described it. Apparently tapping people, or trying to tap people, makes me an asshole.

And I think we need to talk about this.

I know I'm not the only one who is confused because other people - particularly women - have told me that they just don't know how to be. Specifically, they don't know how big of an asshole it's ok to be on a jiu-jitsu mat. The problem being that everybody defines the word asshole differently.

As hard as I've tried to not be an asshole, I still have people treating me like I'm an asshole. And at this point, I don't know what I am supposed to do. I have suppressed my bloodthirsty instincts for years. I have tried to play this girlie "are you ok" game and I have sucked at it, mostly because I don't care. I mean I don't want you to die, I don't want to send you to the hospital, but if your arm hurts because you didn't tap in time, I don't care, just like I don't care if my own arm hurts because I didn't tap in time. 

Pain is part of life, love, and BJJ. You don't have to like it - I don't - but you have to accept it, because it's an essential part of growing up. 

Growing up is about accepting responsibility for who you are and what you're doing and trying to do on this big beautiful lifelovebjj mat. I don't know what you're trying to do, but I know what I'm trying to do: win. 

If you're here for something else, good for you. It's not my business. All I ask is that you be honest with yourself and others. Don't say you don't care about winning and then choke me across the nose because you can't get the tap any other way. Don't say you don't care about titles and then spend all your time hating on the people with the titles and the medals. Don't act like you're so healthy and evolved and holistic-er than thou when you have a face like Spongebob Squarepants because of all the steroids you're on. Don't act like you're Professor Cool Guy when you're hitting on all the females you know in FB messenger.

Your face on steroids

Whoever you are, whatever you want, just own it. Own your goals, own your monsters, and grow the fuck up. And maybe I'll grow the fuck up, too. 

Growing up doesn't necessarily mean winning all the time, or succeeding in any conventional sense of the term. Sometimes growing up means falling flat on your face, losing a match, losing your business, losing a loved one, losing whatever is most dear to you, and picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting again. 

Growing up isn't about achieving enlightenment, on or off the mat. It doesn't mean we have eliminated our monsters. In Italian they call the little imperfections "moles," meaning the skin condition and the not the little animals my Aunt Bert reputedly used to slay with a butcher knife.

Growing up means owning our moles and our monsters and letting them work for us so we can achieve our goals. And when your monsters have achieved your goals for you, maybe you can learn to love them - and in so doing, maybe you can learn to love yourself.

Which is the hardest thing you can possibly do. At least sometimes.

I was born with what we can euphemistically call an hourglass figure. Nowadays, curves are back in, and nobody believes that in the 80's, having a butt was seen as a kind of moral failing. In short, to have an ass was the equivalent of being an asshole. And I'm really not joking.

Every day, in my crappy Midwestern high school, on my way from the bus to the locker I got treated to a chorus of "moo moo" and "oink oink," which was the delicate means the boys chose to let me know I was too heavy.

And I hated my body for a long time. I used to fantasize about chopping my thighs off with a butcher knife, the family weapon, and it's a fortunate thing that liposuction did not exist in those days. I went through all the eating disorders known to humankind and I think I even came up with a few new ones but none of it did any good because I'm just built this way.

One day, after a nasty binge-purge episode, I looked in the bathroom mirror, with tears and snot and vomit running down my face, and I said, "Doomsday, you need to make a choice. You can live in this body or you can die with your head in a toilet."

And if this is too raw for you, Happy Halloween, but the point is, I chose to live. I didn't like my body. It's not like I discovered self-love with my head in the toilet. But I decided to make the best of a bad situation and live in what I saw as a disgusting lump of way too much flesh in the wrong places.

At some point, I discovered weight-lifting, and I realized I could work on my upper body and thereby detract attention from the lumps, and that worked for quite a while.

And it wasn't until I started dating a Brazilian, who was far from being an ideal boyfriend, and after about eight months of dating he made the comment that Gisele Bundchen was "egly," because she was skinny, and, when pressed, he told me that "in Brazil we like the womans with the big legs and the big ass," that I realized that, somewhere in the world, there was a population that saw my body type, not as something to be tolerated, but as something actually desirable, that I started to make my first baby steps towards loving myself.

And the fact that he was an asshole, and I'm sure that, wherever he is and whatever he's doing, he's still an asshole, just made the compliment more real. He wasn't a nice guy saying something to make me feel better, because every comment he made was intended to make me feel worse so that I wouldn't accidentally get self-esteem and leave, taking my lumps and my Gold Mastercard with me.

He was an asshole who had an accidental backhanded compliment wrung out of him because he let his guard down for a second while saying something offensive about a supermodel. And thanks in part to that accidental, unwilling admission that somewhere in the world, I had value, even in an objectified way, I started to value myself, just a little.

He didn't help me by being nice. He helped me, a lot, by being an asshole. 

We're all going to meet assholes in life, love and BJJ. We're all going to be assholes. As much as we try to not be assholes, the shadow side is going to eventually come out. 

And that's when we become whole. Ass-whole.

We try so hard to avoid the shadows, those raw emotions, the conflict, the drama. But jiu-jitsu wasn't invented to avoid monsters. Jiu-jitsu was invented to help us beat the monsters. Jiu-jitsu was invented so we can be the monsters.

At some point, like Puxatawney Phil, we all have to turn and face our shadows and then we can ask our shadows:  What  do you want from me? What gifts do you bring? When will this winter - "the winter," as Shakespeare's asshole extraordinaire Richard III put it, "of our discontent"  - be over?

Maybe your shadows want to rule the Universe and kill Luke Skywalker and all the little bunny rabbits and plunge the Earth into nuclear winter and throw recyclable items in the regular garbage dumpsters. And if so, that would be bad.

But maybe your shadows just want to be loved, with all their quirks and their moles and their weirdnesses and their dark sides and their light sides - just like you. Maybe the monsters come bringing you a superpower - asshole power. And maybe asshole power can finally get you what you want out of this life, whatever it is you were too shy, too nice, too afraid of being labelled an asshole to get before.

The dark and the light are not separate, but one

Maybe your inner asshole ain't so bad. Maybe the monsters ain't so bad. Maybe I'm not so bad. Maybe you're not so bad.  Maybe we're not so bad.

And maybe we are. And maybe that's just too damn bad. Maybe the world will survive.

Because as long as you're not out there with an assault rifle blowing away innocent strangers, how much of an asshole can you really be? As long as you're out there giving your all, and submitting people, and getting submitted, and living and loving and training as hard as you can, and taking your knocks, and dishing them out, maybe you're just doing your job on this Earth.

Maybe your monsters aren't the enemy. Maybe your monsters are just real. Maybe the monsters are your truest friends, your bloodiest blood family, your most loyal team: Team You.

Maybe your monsters are the best part of you.

When monsters get stripes

My interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being here, in this marvelous world, in this marvelous desert, in this marvelous time.
― Don Juan Matus, Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan 

Shadows 'R' Us
photo courtesy of Lucila Espedido

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Breaking the curse

You have no time, my friend, no time. None of us have time. 
Don't just agree with me. Act upon it. 
What I recommend you to do is to notice that we do not have any assurance that our lives will go on indefinitely. 
Change comes suddenly and unexpectedly, and so does death. 
There are some people who are very careful about the nature of their acts. 
Their happiness is to act with the full knowledge that they don't have time; therefore, their acts have a peculiar power.
- Don Juan Matus (Castaneda)

I believe this, that fairy tales are true...

I'm getting to the end of this blog. I never meant for it to be about me, or maybe I did, I don't know. At the end of the day, we all experience the world - and jiu-jitsu -  through the filter of our own being.

It has been my hope that maybe somebody can relate to some of the things I have talked about. Jiu-jitsu is a way to connect to other people, and talking about jiu-jitsu is another way to connect, and disagreeing with people is yet another way to connect. Just like kissing is a way to connect and fighting is a way to connect, and maybe fighting is an even more intimate way of connecting than kissing, if you think about it. Not that I have anything but a very vague recollection of what kissing is like, but I hear it's fun, although not as fun as jiu-jitsu. So if you agree, or if you disagree, in some way, we are connecting, and in this crazy isolated world, I think that's a good thing.

But I have one last thing to say before I go.

I started training jiu-jitsu almost 9 years ago. At that time my life was in turmoil. My health had come crashing down, and I left everything in California, my apartment, my car, what passed as my life, and came slinking back to Ohio with my tail between my legs.

I had been diagnosed with chronic Lyme and a few other tick borne diseases. During the time I was sick, somebody cloned my ATM and cleaned out my account. The money went in daily withdrawals of 600 euro, i.e. about 1000 USD, in Vegas. It was all the money I got from the sale of my house in Rome, and I never got it back.

Got bugs? Welcome to Lyme Disease

It took me a long time to heal. Years, in fact, and I still don't feel the same as before.

Jiu-jitsu has been a huge part of my healing adventure. It's customary to call jiu-jitsu a "journey," and we call healing by the same name, along with other names, like process, for one. But if the word "journey" has a sort of sedate, well-planned ring to it, and process just sounds like a lab experiment, I think adventure expresses it better. At least for me.

Because with a journey, you pretty much know where you're going and when you're coming back. With an adventure, it's whatever. And that's pretty much how it's been - in my health, my life, and my jiu-jitsu.

And I get that this is where you and I differ. I look around me and I see people who have gone from white to black in the same academy, with the same instructor, people who have been married to the same person for decades, who have had the same job for eons, people to whom weird and crazy shit doesn't happen.

And I think, Why them? Why not me? What have I done, or not done, to have such a crazy ride?

I'm sure some of the stuff that has happened to me in my life is my fault, or at least, under my control to some extent. But a lot of it has just been batshit out of the blue when you didn't even know there were any bats.

I mean, the thing with Lyme Disease, I was living in California. Who gets Lyme in California? But my doctor said she thinks you can get it young and it can lie dormant, and I do remember getting bullseye rashes when I was 11, but nobody knew they were bullseye rashes. They were just these huge infected things. Parents at the time said, "Wow, that's weird, have some more flat ginger ale and go play in the woods." Because we spent a lot of time in the woods and our parents used to regularly check our heads for ticks and burn them off with a spent match. That was just normal.

And the thing with the ATM, once again, it was a fluke. Granted, it didn't help that I was a technophobe, but you know, if it hadn't happened right when I got sick, things would have been different. I realized later how it happened. It was at JFK airport on the way back from Italy. I went to use the ATM and there was a guy standing there, and I asked him if he was in line, and he said No, go ahead. And now I know that it was him, but it doesn't do me any good to know that now.

And other things too, I mean, they weren't really my fault. I met this guy who I really thought was the love of my life, and he thought so too, and three weeks after we met he texted me that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, and I texted back that we could start with a week's vacation in the summer, and he didn't text me back and I thought he was mad, but actually he was dead. I still don't really know why. His relatives told me it was a heart attack, but I still don't really know, and I didn't go to the funeral, because honestly, we hadn't known each other that long, and what's the point of going to the funeral of the love of your life? I mean who does that kind of shit happen to? Me.


But anyway this isn't a poor me post. If it sounds like it, I apologize, because that's not what I'm trying to say.

What I'm trying to say is:  Life is epic.

Life is a fairy tale, or actually a zillion fairy tales all jumbled up, it's a spider's web of intertwined fairy tales, and your task, your mission, whether or not you decide to accept it, is to figure out which fairy tale you happen to be in and get to the happy ending, and make it snappy. Because there's another fairy tale waiting for you just around the corner.

Because one thing I learned last weekend at Master Worlds is that time matters. You can't go around acting like you have all the time in the world because you don't. This girl I ended up beating, basically by smooshing her, which I'm not particularly proud of but welcome to the Thunderdome, I was in a Brabo position, and just thinking about whether I wanted to finish with the hand or the foot, when the buzzer sounded. And the fact that I won by points didn't take away the sting of not having gotten to the submission, which her little remarks about how "You really wanted to submit me but you couldn't" didn't alleviate. And I don't know why women have such a hard time with the concept of sportsmanship but evidently they do.

My favorite submission

But back to life, once you realize that it is a fairy tale, that you are the hero, that all the crap that is being thrown at you is just dragons to kill, and curses to break, and evil to defeat, and handsome princes wandering around all willy-nilly looking for YOU and only you (for some unknown reason), then it gets easier. Because everything is easier when you know what you're dealing with.

Every challenge is just another dragon to kill

At the same time, the buzzer will sound, for you and for me and for everybody. Ask not for whom the buzzer sounds. It sounds for thee.

Anyway, competing in Master Worlds was not something I wanted to do, just like, if I had lived in the time when dragons roamed the earth, killing dragons would have been pretty low on my list. And there are a lot of reasons for that. First of all, it's really hard. You have to leave your comfort zone. You can't kill a dragon in your ivory tower, and I'm very fond of my ivory tower.

My ivory tower

I've had people ask me what the ivory tower is a reference to, and that's a fair question. The ivory tower is the tower the princess lives in. It's the tower where life can't get at her, in good or in bad. She is safe from evil but also safe from any handsome princes that may happen to be wandering around. She is safe from life.

Safe in the ivory tower

But you're not supposed to be safe from life. That's the point. Life begins where your ivory tower ends. On the other hand, life can be pretty uncomfortable. Love can be pretty uncomfortable. Jiu-jitsu can be pretty uncomfortable. And so you have to make this conscious decision to be uncomfortable, to come down from your ivory tower and to come off your high horse, and that is very hard.

Shortly before Master Worlds I had an epiphany, which was:

I don't have to do this.

Nobody had a gun to my head. I realized that competing in the Worlds was just a waste, of time, of money, and of energy. Among other things, I was alone in my division, and I didn't know if anybody would even show up for the absolute. Also I hate Vegas.

So I emailed Master Robson, and I told him that, unless he had any very strong objection, I had decided to withdraw from Worlds.  I did this knowing that Robson has a lot on his plate right now and that, in general, he's not a Do-this-Do-that kind of instructor. He'll tell you, once, quietly, what he thinks, about a particular position or whatever, but he's not going to yell and he's not going to nag. And I think that that is one of the things that I really treasure the most about Robson. He lets me make my own mistakes. He lets me do it my way.

He doesn't nag

We're all here for a different reason. I like to win as much as the next guy, but I don't want to win by being a puppet on a string. I don't want to win because my coach is better than your coach. I want to win because I figured it out myself. I want to win because I willed it.

And I figured that Master Robson would not have strong feelings either way, especially at this point in his life, and I was kind of right and kind of wrong because he eventually emailed me back and said, in the gentlest way possible: Go and have fun.

In reality, by the time I got the email back from Robson, I had already decided I was going to go through with it, not because I wanted to, but because I didn't want to. 

If that makes sense.

Fast forward to the day I flew to Vegas. I stopped in the airport chapel as I always do, and I prayed. I didn't pray to win the fight, or anything like that. I didn't pray for anything in particular. But I was feeling so lousy, so down, so hopeless, because it hasn't been an easy year, even compared to the last years which weren't easy either. And I just kind of closed my eyes and tried to open my heart.

Usually when I pray, I get an answer, and this time was no different. The answer I got was: It's not about winning. It's about learning to fly. That's what I gave you wings for. You came here to learn about limitations. Now it's time to transcend them.

After that, I felt immensely better. All the people who really meant well, who were telling me I was going to kill it, who were telling me I had to win, they were trying to help but they weren't helping. And I say this with love and with immense gratitude, because they really wanted to help.

But they don't know, nobody knows what the last ten years have been like. Up until then, I had always been a successful person. If I wanted something, I found a way to get it. But ever since my health crashed, my experience of life has been different. I had to learn about loss, and failure. I learned about victimhood. I learned about weakness. I learned, in a very conscious way, about fear, and depression, and despair. At a time in my life when I thought I had nothing anybody could possibly envy, I learned about the destructive power of envy and jealousy and gossip and hate. I had to learn to be ugly. I learned to be middle-aged. I started out life as the ugly duckling and I became a swan, just as the fairy tale promised. But the fairy tale never said I would have to go back to being an ugly duckling again. I didn't know how to deal with that and it hurt.

Back to ugly sucks

It still hurts. But what I learned is that nobody said it wouldn't hurt. Nobody said pain is a good reason to quit. Nobody said failure is a good reason to quit.

But it started to seem that everything I wanted would be permanently out of my reach. Bruno Bastos said, before last year's No Gi Worlds, Don't get used to losing. And he was right, in a way, but in another way, I have spent the last ten years getting used to losing. I had to.

Part of that has to do with my life and part of it has to do with jiu-jitsu. But the unfortunate thing, for me, was that all this losing, on and off the mat, had seeped into my soul, and I stopped thinking of winning as an option. I felt like I was under some kind of curse and I didn't know how to lift it.

But, since life is epic, it so happened that there was a huge solar eclipse the Monday before the Worlds, and I decided to rent Ladyhawke, which is my favorite eclipse-centric movie. And, spoiler alert, there was a curse, in the movie, and the curse may or may not have been broken at the eclipse, I'm not telling, but anyway, as I sat in the airport chapel, it came to me: The curse is broken.

And it was.

Ladyhawke eclipse scene

I didn't win the Worlds. I got silver. In a movie, or a fairy tale, I would have won double gold. I would have learned to fly.

But in my own personal fairy tale, I didn't learn to fly. In my fairy tale, like Ladyhawke in the movie, I finally shook the jesses off my feet and I left them there, on the mat, in Vegas. In my fairy tale, which is the same as my life which is the same as my jiu-jitsu, I became finally free.

Take this job and shove it: Ladyhawke is free of the curse

In my fairy tale, the curse was broken. What's more, I broke it. I broke it with my will and with my faith.

The power of faith

I went to Vegas to claim the treasure that had been stolen in Vegas from an ATM and to lift the curse. In place of my bank account, Vegas gave me a gold for showing up and a silver for smooshing. In place of the curse, Vegas gave me mat burn.

It isn't enough. I didn't get my life back, or my health back, or my face back. I didn't get the submission. I didn't learn to fly.

On the other hand, I have all the time in the world to learn to fly, now that the curse is lifted. Or at least, until the buzzer sounds.

Next up on the to-do list

And she lived happily ever after....
Jiu-jitsu has no