Rant 45 February 2008: Let’s get this party started

This story begins, as all good stories do, with having margaritas with Eddie Bravo in a snowstorm. Toronto has had record snowfall this year, and it started early — to be precise, the weekend that BJJ rockstar Eddie Bravo was due to fly into town to give a seminar to our Brazilian jiu jitsu group. For those of you who don’t know him — which would be understandable, as every sport has its heroes who are total unknowns to everyone else — Bravo is the dude who tapped out the legendary Royler Gracie while still a brown belt, and the originator of a quintessentially American style of mixed martial arts fighting. Oh yeah and he’s a serious pothead and funny as shit. So really, what’s not to like?

Anyway, perhaps irked that Bravo was adding to the carbon load of the earth by flying across North America, the old man in the sky decided to excrete a big messy load of white flaky inconvenience just before The THC Twister was due to arrive. Panicked phone calls and emails flew like the quintillion unique snowflakes threatening Revelations-style weather whupass, and Bravo’s rescheduled plane touched down in the middle of the night just as the hellflurries were beginning to unleash their icy rage.

The day was saved. Ten hours later the baby jitzers were practicing their leg locks and spine cranks under Bravo’s uncompromising tutelage, and the world unfolded as it should. That evening, tummies rumbling after long hours of yanking each other’s joints out of their respective sockets, a small but hearty party set out into the frigid and dark wilderness to procure nourishment, trying to keep their sneaker-wearing and culture shocked Californian idol from being lost in the snowbanks. As it happened, the group stumbled (literally) upon the doorstep of a Mexican restaurant, and after a brief mumbled consultation through frozen lips, the goodness of gorditas was agreed-upon.

It was thus that I ended up seated across from a legend, munching rock salt and lime, and laughing my ass off at speculations on whether it was technically murder if you could just guillotine choke people into a vegetative state rather than killing them outright — and then, if you were a grappling legend, how would the cops take you down?

I say all this not to name drop, because if I know one thing about famous people it’s that they have to hog out, get wasted, and go pee just like everyone else, so one often finds oneself rubbing elbows with greatness simply by virtue of securing sustenance, having a little drinkydrinky, or popping into the loo. Once, entirely unintentionally, I literally ran face first into the late John Candy’s protuberant belly. (To be clear, dear reader, Candy was alive if not entirely well at the time.) Also, I got yelled at by Quentin Tarantino (with Mira Sorvino on that occasion, before she chucked his creepy arrogant ass like last week’s takeout) in a Bollywood porno theatre, but that’s another story.

No, I mention this because of HOW the whole thing came about. It’s this. OMGBFF A, who is missing the part of her brain that tells her that she shouldn’t be able to do certain things, is a big Bravo fan. So, she emailed Bravo and said, “Hey, how would you like to come to Toronto?” And Bravo said sure. The end.

In other words, OMGBFF A came up with a crazy idea. Then she tried to do it. When challenges came up she busted her butt a little harder. And it worked. It wasn’t perfect. It involved a few late nights and some snow shoveling. But with lots of effort, organizational skill and enthusiasm, she ended up with an amazing experience that she’d never have had if that missing buzzkill part of her brain had been working. Because most of us have that buzzkill part, and it says things like “No” and “Too hard” and “You could never do that” and “That’s a silly idea” and “You’ll look stupid”. If the buzzkill part is off duty then the laziness and lack of follow-through parts kick in as a backup. So we have a great idea then we never do it because it’s too much work, or would require taking a risk, or we’re afraid of a variety of imaginary Bad Stuff.

But here’s what occurs when you tell Buzzkill to shut the hell up, and La-Z-Boy to get off its ass. THINGS HAPPEN.

Before you know it, you’re giggling over a big plate of spicy meat with a celebrity, and your BJJ game is working towards being “sick”. (After discussion, OMGBFF A and I decided that while “sick” was clearly equivalent to “good”, “off the hook” was the best. So, we’re working on “sick” and then will take a shot at “off the hook” eventually. We haven’t yet established where “mad skillz” fits into that theoretical model.)

This brings me to the events of February. There were two big firsts, neither of which happened to me, but which are worth mentioning all the same.

Number one was that I got an email from my regular correspondent Neil, whom many of you know as Shaky Man Down Under. It read, in part, as follows:

I entered my gym’s Iron Man Challenge on Wednesday. Competitors are timed across:

500 metres row in rowing machine (I’m new to this)
20 unweighted squats (have never done these before…amounts to dropping one’s bum close to the floor, then bobbing up again while holding arms stretched out in front)
20 pushups
2 kilometre bike ride
20 unweighted squats
20 pushups
500 metres run on treadmill
20 unweighted squats
20 pushups

My run was more like a long stumble. I survived to the end, which is the best I can say… On Wednesday no-one else’s time mattered. I’d feared failure but had at least finished. Tonight I’m despondant about how long it took me…

P.S. It was gleefully satisfying to sign a declaration prior to the challenge, stating no knowledge of having any medical condition that could cause me harm when taking part. I also had to acknowledge that if I dropped dead then it would be all my fault.

Now think about all the 60-plus people you know. Then think about all the 60-plus people you know who have Parkinson’s. And tell me, if you can, how many of those folks would finish in Neil’s sub-15 minute time, or at all? I assured Neil that the average sexagenarian would have upchucked by the second set of squats.

When I got Neil’s email I nearly cried with fierce momma bear pride. This man had been told by countless Experts that strength and conditioning training was a waste of time and that he should just shuffle off to some nice easy chair in the cosmic waiting room of mortality and leaf through old copies of Reader’s Digest for the next couple of decades until his appointment with infinity. He didn’t listen, and says defiantly, “This shaky man will keep on training hard despite exhortations to the contrary”. His blood work is stellar, his Parkinson’s medication dose hasn’t increased in five years, and he’s thinking about how he’s going to improve his time in the next Iron Man. I bet he looks pretty decent in a Speedo as well.

However, I did for-sure cry about the second big first of February, which was my teammate T’s first BJJ match in competition. I don’t normally bawl at tournaments, but this one was kind of special. T was my very first training partner when I dipped my toe into BJJ last year, and by virtue of our Keebler Elf proportions, she and I had been paired up almost every class.

At first I worried our training partnership was a mismatch. The women I’d gotten used to training with at the boxing gym before I started BJJ were hardened, lean and agile like otters or solid and immovable like inevitably advancing glaciers (indeed, one was nicknamed Iceberg, for her icy demeanour and big hard punch lurking just below the surface). One of them, nicknamed Tank, liked to smile when things got really shitty, like some kind of X-(wo)men mutant that sucked up negative energy and gathered strength from it. In any case, a punch in the face was child’s play to the boxing grrls. They were used to getting into a confined space with someone who terrified them, and slamming their adrenaline production into overdrive. Later, when I trained at the morning co-ed BJJ classes, I became accustomed to riding the razor edge of sphincter-clenching fear when working with the guys, conscious that at any moment their testosterone-fuelled strength and diminishment of executive function would result in my rotator cuff or kneecap being splattered all over the room like a fleshy water balloon dropped from a tenth floor window.

Not so with T. T is a sweet and gentle soul, a yielding water element to my sprightly fire. Where I was hard she was soft; where I was aggressive and (stupidly) confident she was patient and occasionally fearful; where I was prickly sinew and gristle she was a warm marshmallow. In the movie of our lives, if I was played by Clint Eastwood she was played by a Care Bear. I fretted about snapping her wrist, or bonking her in the nose, or crushing her ribcage, or scaring her, or any number of psychically and physically damaging outcomes. As the months went on, and I learned to control my limbs, I started to look forward to my time with T. Working technique with T was like staring into a lava lamp: my world distilled itself to a pliant, gently bubbling point of focus. My game became more about precision, care, and awareness. My breathing became deeper and intuitive and I focused on the finer elements of my movements. It was like going to some kind of spa where instead of giving you a nourishing seaweed mask, they slowly arrange your limbs into a mildly dislocating configuration. I emerged relaxed and invigorated.

When four of our women’s BJJ team decided to compete for the first time in September 2007, and then more in November, T was there on the sidelines sending rays of nurturant energy. It seemed that by virtue of her calm and kind nature she would always be a BJJ bridesmaid, never a beatdown bride. After all, those of us who competed seemed suited for it. One woman was an ex-wrestler whom I nicknamed The Goon in my head for her determined take-no-prisoners style. The second I nicknamed Anaconda, because she would lie in wait, carefully circling around her victim, before suddenly striking. The third, OMGBFF A, already had a nickname, Machine, and she’d earned it. There was a woman I nicknamed Steamroller. And there was me, a wee spastic simian whose style was described, generously, as “angry little monkey”.

Then the universe lurched a little bit and hiccuped. T decided to compete this February.

In the weeks leading up to it, she seemed increasingly worried about this decision, and sought my advice. “I need to talk to you about how to be aggressive”, she said one day. (I’m not sure if I’m pleased about this, but it beats people saying “I want to talk to you about how to be a spineless wuss.”) T feared she would not be able to summon the requisite energy to make headway in a grappling match. We talked about where aggression comes from, and the difference between aggression as unfocused manic rage and aggression as willfullness. The former is often observed at powerlifting matches, with guys yelling and punching themselves in the face before a lift — in my experience, this generally leads to a lack of focus, a deficit of oxygen, and consequently a barbell on the face. But the latter, if channeled, can move mountains.

I began to detect something new about T. When I grasped her neck practicing clinches there was a new hardness there from daily practice. She began to be what I can only describe as intentional. She began to express desires and wants, and to execute her wishes kinetically. It started getting a whole lot more difficult to make T do what I wanted.

Half an hour before her first match, T and I warmed up with some takedown practice. I started to believe that this shit was really going to go down.

T’s division got called and things were on. The rest of the team plus the coach were at the opposite end of the gym coaching another match. It was up to me and Anaconda to see T through this. The clock started running down the five minutes. We yelled instructions. T didn’t bother waiting around for an opportunity to come to her. She chased opportunity down the street, followed it into a dark alley, and rattled it upside down for loose change.

With the energy of a lioness, T grabbed her opponent’s leg and yanked it out from under her, flattening the hapless opponent on the mat. Anaconda and I looked at each other in astonishment and said, in stereo: “Ho. Lee. Shit.”

Halfway through, coach came running and took over. (Thank heaven, cause I still don’t have much of a clue.) After the spectacular single-leg takedown, T carefully worked her practised moves. In the end, she lost. But really, and pardon the cheesiness, she won something a lot more important: the knowledge that she could do something scary and survive — and not only that, find a little bit of healthy aggression inside her gentle soul.

When it was all over, I cried. (Cue Tom Hanks bellowing, “Are you crying?! There’s no crying in baseball!”) I was so proud of T I could plotz!

(By the way, in case you’re wondering how I did, I became the team den mom this time round, complete with big Tupperware container of healthy muffins, as a result of an ankle sprain two weeks prior to the tournament. Note to all of you out there: if someone puts a foot lock on you, assume it’s for realz and don’t ignore it just because it’s not allowed in the beginner divisions. Otherwise the soundtrack of your life will suddenly include the wet squicky snap of your ligaments declaring mechanical failure.)

If you never start anything you will never know what you can become. If you never try something a little crazy, or a little scary, or a little new, you will never change your life. You may end up a little worse for wear — T is sporting a yellowing bruise. But very likely, you’ll end up more determined to improve and grow. T is working on her guillotines now. Yesterday her clinch felt even stronger. “I’m afraid of having to fight you one day,” she said. The feeling, my dear, is mutual.