Tag Archives: badassery

I own a punching bag full of women’s clothing.

If I ever told that to my therapist, she’d probably get that hungry look. But there’s nothing symbolic about it, I swear. The guy who used to own the bag, a schoolmate of mine in college, went to the basement of the girls’ dorm at the end of the semester, collected everything from the box of castoffs, and stuffed it all in.

I guess he didn’t have any sand. Or he hates women. Whatever.

I’ve had the thing for nine years without really using it. In my previous house, I hung it from an eye bolt that was already sticking out of the garage ceiling. If it hadn’t already been there, I wouldn’t have bothered. And then, since it was a fairly thin bolt, a few good kicks were enough to break it, so that was the end of that.

But I’ve got a competition coming up and I want to learn to do a spinning back kick the way Sihing B. does, like a cat lashing out with its paw, quick as lightning; so I finally hung it up in the basement.

Hanging the thing was its own ritual, and I wanted to do it right. I laid out the steps: ask the internet how to do it, check for the right tools, buy what you don’t have, and then get to it. I tend to cut corners whenever I’m doing anything technical. I want to do things the quick way instead of the right way, and I’ll often make do with the wrong tool because the right one’s all the way upstairs.

Something in me protests against paying attention to details. Details are unfair; desire should be enough.

This way of doing things doesn’t usually end well. I’m not quite convinced that it’s necessary to spray the bolt with loosening agent, and it probably won’t work anyway, and even if it did, who wants to wait? So I give it a cursory spray, wait ten seconds, tug at the bolt, and strip the !@#$ thing. The ten minutes to wait for the spray to penetrate would have been worth the untold time it’ll take to deal with the stripped bolt, but I gambled, and I lost.

This makes me angry. But oddly, I’m not angry at myself for being impatient. Instead, I’m angry at the universe, for not being the sort of place where eagerness and good intentions are enough. I want the universe to be merciful; I want it to say, “Very good, Joey, you tried; so I’m going to go ahead and let that bolt turn for you.” I want the punching bag to be hung just because I’ve willed it into place.

But Christians aren’t pantheists. God made the universe, but he allows it to run according to its own rules. If you don’t do things right, they either don’t get done at all, or they end up worse than they were before.

I’ve quoted this bit of William Lynch before, but it’s one of those paragraphs that changed my life. Listen:

People who do not attend to detail are poor in hope. They do not believe that anything will come of detail. They rather expect that the pattern will form of itself, without the detail. This is contempt, which is the opposite of hope. The mentally ill frequently find it extremely difficult to have hope in language, in talk, in the use of one word after another, in actually saying to the doctor, step by step, word by word, what they think or feel.1

We love to paint our lives in broad strokes and bold colors. There’s comfort in saying I’m depressed or I’m defective or I’m broken or I’m different. Believing these things about ourselves — believing that change is too big a thing to be possible — relieves us from the responsibility of taking steps, actual small detailed tiny real steps, towards getting better. Like walking all the way upstairs to get the philips head screwdriver instead of the flat one. Like waiting an extra ten minutes for the spray to penetrate.2

Like going to your computer for five minutes to order Clean Of Heart, even if it takes you six weeks after it arrives to actually open it and start. Like emailing your mother to tell her, no, you’re NOT fine, actually, even if you don’t know where the conversation will go after that. Like going to Confession one more time, even though you’ve fallen into the same stupid pattern every stupid week for the last six stupid months.

What is hope is also humility. It is arrogance, as well as contempt, to believe that the atoms of the world will arrange themselves just because we decided they’d look better that way.

If we can’t even bring ourselves to submit to the laws of nature, how can we ever hope to submit to nature’s Lord?

1 From Images of Hope. I forgot to write down what page, so you’ll have to read the whole thing. Oh wellsies.
2 Yup, that’s it, that’s my only excuse for this post’s title! I hope you like it.

A reader writes:1

I’ve always had a love/hate perspective on martial arts. On the one hand, it’s so cooool! And I’m really into Avatar (the cartoon), which sort of shows some very different real-life fighting styles, and it’s all very interesting. And…I think it could only be a good thing to be capable of defending myself and others if need be. And anything that gets me in better shape is good.

On the other hand, I’ve got a gentle disposition. I’ve been called extremely phlegmatic, and I always favor amiableness over confrontation, to a fault…And while I’ll readily admit that I could stand to toughen up some, I also see a lot of good things in my peaceful nature.

So, while it seems prudent and valuable to be capable of self-defense, I don’t actually relish the thought of fighting itself. Plus, I get the sense that martial arts should be studied for the “right reasons,” whereas
I would admittedly be reveling in the “look at this roundhouse kick, I’m badass” factor a bit.

Even had I not previously corresponded with this reader, he would have instantly endeared himself to me by revealing his love for Avatar, and distinguishing it both from the Cameron glitzfest and the Shyamalan atrocity.

I think Avatar is a true work of art, and if you’re not sure how a cartoon that’s (ostensibly) for kids can be a true work of art, (1) that’s silly, and (2) how many kids’ cartoons do you know that have the artistic cojones to visually quote from Michelangelo, and can pull it off, too?

Katara and Aang recreate the Pieta

But I digress.

Let me address the coolness factor first. If a thing is cool, and is in no way morally objectionable, I think you should do it. Kung Fu is cool, and is in no way morally objectionable. Therefore, I think you should do it.

That’s a simple syllogism, but people who are thoughtful, serious, and sensitive (like this reader) are not always willing to accept that they should do something just because it’s cool, or fun, or enjoyable — but in the same breath will openly admire somebody who does things just because they’re cool, or fun, or enjoyable.

Sometimes we think we need a nobler reason to do something than just because we like it. This is because of a misunderstanding of virtue. A thing is virtuous despite being unpleasant, not because of it. If we were perfectly virtuous, virtuous actions would be perfectly easy and enjoyable — the way Glenn Gould not only played the piano exponentially better than I ever will, but (after years of practice) had an easier time of it, too.

Or we imagine that it’s selfish to do something just because we like it. While it’s true that it would probably be selfish to spend all our time doing things just because we like them, I doubt that this reader — being thoughtful, serious, and sensitive — lives a life of constant self-gratification. So Kung Fu is probably a good idea.

This business of “doing things for the right reasons” makes me think of Sihing2 Bengie, who is a black sash at my Kung Fu school, and claims that, had Neo mentioned a different martial art,

say, Tae Kwon Do, his own path would have been very different. Twenty-something Bengie saw The Matrix and decided to be just that badass, and so he was.

Thinking of Sihing Bengie reminds me of something else about “the right reasons”: just because you’re doing something you enjoy doesn’t mean you won’t be presented with opportunities to bring love and light to the world while you’re doing it.

Our Sifu3 is very much a father figure to us, and Bengie extends that fatherliness to those below him: he engages others in conversation, he offers encouragement during drills, and when he spars with you, he uses it as an opportunity to teach rather than to dominate. Whatever your religion, these things — care for others, giving of self — lead to saintliness.

I guess you could limit your activities to things you don’t enjoy, but that would be dumb, and you wouldn’t be any holier for it; you’d just be sadder. Or you could limit your activities to things that are only done 100% for the right reasons, but then you’d never do anything at all.

Kung Fu is a field where taking delight and showing love are often done at the same time and for the same reason. Like Heaven.

Stay tuned for Part II on Monday.

1 As always, I have asked the reader’s permission to publish his email, and would never publish private correspondence without explicit consent. That being said, feel free to let me know preemptively if you wouldn’t mind seeing an email of yours appear here.
2 “Sihing” means “older brother”. It’s the title by which we refer to a male black sash. Some systems use this title for any student who is more senior than you.
3 “Sifu” means master or teacher or father.

If you don’t mind their trademark combination of foulness, expletives, poop jokes, and brilliant insight, I highly recommend this article on Cracked: Five Great Joys In Life That Healthy People Never Experience.

If you’re lucky enough to have a condition that can be treated — not even cured, just treated a little — the moment the medication kicks in is like unlocking a secret level in life. All these years, you’ve existed at half power because chronic illness Harrison Bergeroned your ass, so any meds that take even a fraction of that weight off of your shoulders are basically giving you…superpowers. If people thought you were obnoxious after you got those glasses, with your constant prattle about wood grain and cloud patterns, they’re going to strangle that newfound health right out of you the first time you wake up to find it doesn’t hurt as much as it usually does.

“Holy sh★t, have you ever realized how great it is not to feel like you’re going to die after you eat?”

“Have you tried this walking stuff? It’s amazing! It hardly hurts at all!”

That’s how I felt last night. I had 7 or 8 guys over for a poker game, old friends and new. It wasn’t anything remarkable, except if you remember that I’m the guy who, five or ten years ago, would find it terrifying to even be in a room with 7 or 8 other men my age, forget about inviting them over.

A few drinks in and, thanks largely to having watched Warrior1 a few nights ago, I got the idea that after the game, wrestling would be a good idea. A lot of other people agreed, and we tore it up for a while — none of us particularly in shape, none of us knowing what we were doing, but everybody having a great time. We only smashed one lamp, but it wasn’t even a nice lamp.

Hitting people and smashing things is, obviously, fun enough on its own, even before remembering that I’m the guy who, back in high school, faked a stomach illness because I was too terrified to participate in field day. And now I’m wrestling in my living room, in front of 7 other guys who are ALL CHEERING, and I’m not even worried about if I’m gonna win or how I’m gonna look? And not only that, but I don’t do half bad?

I never would have believed it.

Like the guy on Cracked says, our condition is treatable. I’m not talking about SSA itself (the verdict is still out on that), but everything else, the stuff that really matters — the loneliness, the insecurity, the not-belonging.

The treatment is harder and slower than we’d like, but Oh man, it’s worth it.

1 You really have to see this movie. It’s about forgiveness in the face of tremendous, unforgivable dysfunction and hurt. That, and also ass-kicking. My kinda flick, and it’s on Netflix instant watch.

1: Black Dog

I know y’all have been praying for me. I know some of you pray for me all the time. I’m so grateful, and I do my best to return the favor. I’ve had a hard month or so, and I hate having hard months, because I’m not supposed to have those, and haven’t had one for years; kinda thought they were done with. So I’ve been moping around like the emoest of emo kids, spilling out over the side to anyone who will listen.1 Not ready to write about it just yet, but things are looking up; and a hearty thanks to everyone whose ear I’ve been bending lately.

2: Dying Animal

There’s a rich irony, I guess, in the fact that it’s only in the last four years or so that I’ve discovered how it actually, Surprise!, makes you feel good to get exercise; and it’s also in the last four years that my spine has decided to get all bulgy & subluxated & whatnot, so that I can’t be nearly as active as I want. It’s not that it’s so bad, I just hate having to be so careful. Like my sister says: how come you have to get good sleep, and exercise, and eat carefully, and go to therapy, and ALL THIS STUFF just so you can feel normal? I like my body, but I can’t wait for the resurrected version.

3: Good Stuff

Hey, check out this terrifying and enlightening and funny article by Dan Lord, whom I’ve somehow just gotten around to reading. While you’re at it, check out Letters to Christopher, a series of letters between a (fictional) uncle and his nephew on the subject of same-sex attraction. I’ve only read a couple, but I’ve found them bracingly honest. I also recommend a piece by Kevin Aimes called Sexuality and Astraphobia. Dude writes with verve — but be warned, there is at least one naked male butt on this website, albeit a very, you know, artistic one.

4: Bad Ass

After years of talking about it, Sal and I have set a date — okay, a year — for running with the bulls in Pamplona. It’s just far enough in the future to be deal-with-able, but just close enough to place it in the realm of actuality. There, Sal, I’ve gone and put it on the internet, so if 2015 rolls around and we haven’t yet come at least mildly close to being gored, please let me know exactly what a pusillanimous bundle of mediocrity I will have become, and I will do the same for you. Sal has also suggested we visit the famed HOLY CRAP IT’S A NEVERENDING LIGHTNING STORM of the Catatumbo River in Venezuela, and it’s not precisely on the way, but seriously: Wow.

5: Pure Gold

Oh my goodness, you should really read The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. It was an impulse buy, on the recommendation of Kate Beaton (who I only wish I actually knew), but I haven’t devoured a book so fast since I stumbled across Wonder Boys. Think Flannery O’Connor meets William Faulkner as directed by the Coen Brothers.

6: Roaring Lion

I read 1 Peter 5:8 at least once a week, ‘cuz it’s in Compline, but somehow I wasn’t aware of the full context until Wednesday, when it was the reading at Mass and was exactly what I needed.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, casting all your cares on him, because he cares for you. Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren who are in the world. But after you have suffered a while, may the God of all grace, who hath called us into His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, make you perfect, establish, strengthen, settle you.

7: Moonrise Kingdom

Other things I’m looking forward to: (1) Getting my poor ailing motorcycle fixed so I can (2) drive it to DC and visit old friends; (3) the new Whit Stillman; (4) The new Wes Anderson; (5) The new P. T. Anderson! I will be sorely disappointed if any of these movies stink. With Wes Anderson, at least, I’m used to being disappointed — but I mean, he couldn’t possible get more smarmy, right?, so the next one is bound to be good.

1 Ten points if you can identify this phrase!

It would be funny if it weren’t so embarrassing, the thought of a grown man like me hoping that the teacher is going to come tell me I’m doing a good job.

By “teacher”, of course I mean “Sifu.” Lord, how I love Kung Fu. I love it a surprising amount. I know I’m a little bit of a dilettante — I love to pick things up, but I don’t always follow through. Hence the odd musical instruments that litter my apartment (and my closet).

I think and hope that this time is different. I think about Kung Fu all the time, I dream about it, I practice kicks in the hallway at work.1 I want to earn the black sash some day, I want to move like they do; I want that physical joy that comes from a well-executed kick to be a permanent part of me.

Of course, some of the attraction is having a large, strong man around to tell me what to do. I don’t mean that in a sexual way. He’s good-looking enough and he has a contagious enthusiasm, but — it ain’t like that. It’s just that he’s the Sifu.

People think that men don’t like authority and don’t like being told what to do, but it’s not true, not even when we’re young. It’s only that we don’t like being told what to do by just anyone. When we’re younger, “just anyone” is usually our fathers, later on it’s the boss — but give us someone who’s got the right light in his face, the right nobility in his movements and his words, and we’ll be all his.

There’s something in a man that wants to submit. The key is finding someone who’s worth submitting to: someone better than us, who values our love and service. We want a master, a king.

Trouble is that most men aren’t kings. It’s easy to put a man on that pedestal, just like it’s easy for some men to set a woman up as a goddess. Disappointment follows, and so do hurt feelings. Not every Sifu is Ip Man2 — heck, even Donnie Yen probably isn’t like that in real life.3

So I have to remember, when Sifu Gary doesn’t notice how hard I’ve been practicing my form, or that I managed to stay in horse stance for a very costly extra five seconds this time — Lord, how it burns — that he’s not my father and he’s not my king; he’s just a good man who can teach me a lot.

Meanwhile, I have to keep on searching for, and following, and searching for all over again, the real King. Morning Mass tomorrow. Hope I’m not too sore to kneel.

1 Heh, and today somebody came out of another office just when my foot was pointing at the ceiling. Hard to play that one off. Yeah, I was just scratching my nose. With my toe.
2 You’ve got to see Ip Man 2! (And the first one, too.) It’s like the Chinese Rocky, except Donnie Yen is priestly instead of thuggish. Not that thuggish doesn’t work admirably for Stallone. Also the Westerners are evil, but that’s par for the course in Kung Fu flicks. At least in this one it’s evil Brits instead of evil Americans, and everyone knows that Brits really are evil.
3 Although I’m sure he still kicks a significant amount of ass.

Marc Barnes totally nails it over at Bad Catholic today. Excerpt:

So once again…why is it that following Christ while disdaining religion leads to the direct contradiction of Christ’s teachings? It’s a silliness of modern Christianity, to love Christ partially — “Ah yes, he saved me, died for me, opened the gates of Heaven for me, and I accept him as my personal Lord and Savior, but not what he said about that whole no divorce thing. That was just whack and unloving.”

Speaking of BC, I love this bit in Marc’s “contact me” section: “All death threats will be disregarded unless written in iambic pentameter.”

…that I am back. This isn’t a real post or anything, just sort of a hello. Here are some things I did on my sabbatical.

  • Drove all over creation spending money like a drunken sailor
  • Had Christmas at my parents’ house, fought with my mother (in a productive way), and made my father cry (in a nice way), which is the opposite of how things sometimes go
  • Shot pool with an old friend who is still dear to me despite his latest idiotic attempts at self-destruction
  • Saw the Tintin movie, which was awesome
  • Discovered that Tony Jaa is basically a human panther and could kill you with his elbows
  • Visited Sal, ate too much pizza, drank too much beer, learned a very small amount of very painful jiu jitsu, and managed to say goodbye without crying, much
  • Played “Kill, Screw, Marry”, which is not a nice game but there was champagne
  • Took my little brother to experience his first Kung Fu class and got to be vicariously adrenaline-drenched all over again

In short, I messed up my schedule, lost my emotional equilibrium, regained it again, and threw out my back, all in about a week! Whew! I’m so glad it’s time to go back to work.

Yeah, I could do that. If I wanted to.

So I come home from Kung Fu this afternoon and read this in my daily meditation: “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for battle and my fingers for war.”

Being a Catholic is just so freaking cool.

Hello to all the new visitors from Young and Catholic and elsewhere! It’s wonderful to meet you, and thank you for the emails. Answers forthcoming as soon as may be.

This place looks just like a Kung Fu dojo should look. It’s in the seedy section of town,1 egg-rolled2 between a Chinese restaurant and a 7-11. Inside the students are moving in slow motion; the T’ai Chi class is right before the Kung Fu class. The sifu — that’s Kung Fu for sensei — is a big guy, with tattooed forearms and a ponytail, and kind eyes that (I’ll learn) look right at you but not through you.

When I open the door everyone’s heads turn, and they give me a chipper chorus of “Hello, sir!” That should be cheesy, but instead it feels welcoming, a relief. I didn’t expect to be this nervous. They are all ages: some early teens, some twenty-somethings, some middle-agers.

T’ai Chi ends and the Sifu gives me the tour: changing room, bathroom, practice room, lockers. “Well,” I say, “I sure am looking forward to watching a class!” “Watching!” he says. “Why watch when you can join in?” Crap. “Of course!” I say, not really unprepared for this — I wore athletic pants — but maybe hoping I could escape this time. No such luck.

Pre-class stretching. The students chat in loose groups. Unconsciously I steer away from the group of guys my age and land next to a middle-aged man who looks friendly. Tactical error: will they peg me as timid already? But no, of course not; they’re not thinking about me at all.

Stretches. On my other side is a fat girl. Maybe I won’t look so bad next to her? But then she spreads her legs out impossibly wide in front of her, and brings her left shoulder sideways till it touches her left knee. “Wow,” I say, gaping like an idiot. “You’re really flexible.” “Don’t worry,” she says kindly, “you’ll get there.” I don’t mind.

Class is underway, and somehow I’m already not thinking about how I look compared to anyone else. The effect, possibly, of the endless leg lifts and bicycles and pushups and crunches and twists and squats and — sheesh, I can’t remember the last time I’ve sweated this much. But I didn’t know I could kick that high in the air.

Sifu Gary is a good teacher, in that he doesn’t explain too much: he demonstrates a move a few times, then trusts us to learn from each other, walking around with encouragements and corrections. There’s something warm about him, and I can see that it’s rubbed off on the others. I look around: where do these people come from? If you scattered them in a typical Massachusetts crowd, you could pick them out by their glow.

I begin to see how the class works, everyone learning from those above, everyone building up those below. A good system. You would expect the men my age to be embarrassed by the yes sirs and the high fives and the general cheerfulness of the place, but they’re not. Nobody’s being ironic, nobody seems guarded. What is this place?

I’m exhausted. I look at the clock for the first time all night — it’s been over an hour! We are lining up and bowing. It’s not until I leave — after ordering a gi and signing up for the rest of the month — that I feel my face relax. It hurts from smiling.

Granted, I also smile when I’m nervous, but still.

1 One of them. I think seediness is this city’s primary export.
2 Ha, I was gonna say “sandwiched” but egg rolls are more Chinese. Get it? ‘Cuz…meh.