Saturday, July 29, 2017

First time

Those of you who follow this blog will know it mostly for my musings about my writing career and the fire department. After the closure of Rhemalda Publishing in 2013, I found myself drifting away from the publishing world as I eluded to in my last post over a year ago. I still write because I love it and it is a part of who I am, but some of my enthusiasm for the publishing world ended with the close of Rhemalda. While I have a couple of finished books sitting in my computer, I no longer have the desire to chase agents and publishers and sales. Maybe I’ll put them out myself someday, but who knows.

Today, I’ve decided to return to my blog but this time I’m taking a bit of a different direction. Whereas I’ll continue to update you on developments in my waning writing career as well as pass along any potentially entertaining stories about the fire department, I’m going to write about a new endeavor I’ve undertaken. After all, this blog has always been a way for me to entertain regardless of the subject matter I’ve chosen to talk about.

While my new endeavor might not exactly be your cup of tea, I’m hoping you’ll stick with me for a bit. I’ve always believed if the writing is good enough, the subject matter isn’t as important. Hell, I’d read about origami if it was Stephen King writing about it.

“What is this new endeavor?” you may be asking yourself. For many years there has been something I’ve wanted to try but have never had the balls to actually step into a gym and try it. As a 24-year fan of MMA and, more specifically the UFC, I’ve always been mesmerized by Brazilian jujitsu. So, that’s my big announcement—I’m going to learn to fight and join the UFC.

Ok, not really.

Over the years I have been able to speak intelligently about MMA in the sense that I could talk about previous fights, make reasonable predictions on upcoming fights, and generally understand what’s happening in the cage. But here’s the thing, I’ve always felt like more of a fraud than anything when talking with others who have actually attempted some aspect of MMA. It would be like you telling me what it’s like inside a house fire because you’ve watched training videos of one. Sure, you could tell me about the temperature in a room at the ceiling (1100 degrees or more) or that it’s crucial to stay as low as you can, but could you really know how your knees burn through your gear each time one touches a new spot on the floor when the basement below you is on fire? Or how the space between that bulky gear and your skin is designed to buffer some of the heat and, in particularly warm fires, every movement that causes the inside layer of the gear to touch your skin removes that air buffer and makes it very uncomfortable? Without experiencing those little details, it’s hard to speak with a lot of credibility. That’s how I’ve always felt when talking about the sport I love.

My personality is one in which I have a difficult time stepping out of my comfort zone. It was probably my biggest hurdle in leaving my small town to apply for firefighter in the big city of Columbus, Ohio. It’s odd because making myself apply 18 years ago turned out to be one of my best decisions ever, yet leaving my comfort zone still remains difficult at times. That apprehension kept me from ever walking into an MMA gym despite my love of the sport. I guess I feared being the new guy in a gym full of killers. At least, that’s how I imagined it.

A few years ago I was walking through a hotel with my wife and my buddy and his wife. We were in Indianapolis for a night out and we were staying in a downtown hotel. I was wearing a Tapout t-shirt. Tapout apparel is a brand that, at one time, was associated with MMA and derives its name from the act of tapping out, or surrendering, when you’re in an unwinnable position and you want to avoid having your arm broken or being choked unconscious. For a while you could buy Tapout clothing anywhere and it became somewhat popular. We were walking through the hotel lobby when someone said, “Hey buddy,” from behind.

I turned, as anyone would, and pointed to myself like, “Me?”

The guy was a fit, bulky guy wearing a pilot’s uniform and pulling a suitcase. “Where do you train?” he asked.

I didn’t know what he meant at first. Seeing my confusion he added, “Your shirt, man. You train?”

I was instantly embarrassed because I didn’t “train” anywhere. I shook my head and mumbled, “Oh, I don’t train.” I could almost feel my balls shrivel up.

“Oh. My bad,” he added and continued walking.

The embarrassed part of me secretly justified my choice in apparel by reasoning that wearing a Tapout shirt was merely a stylish show of support for the sport. The pilot (and I can only assume 900th degree blackbelt, king-of-the-world practitioner) wheeled his suitcase past as I joined my friends in a chuckle. But I felt like an idiot. Even my buddy was a black belt in Tae Kwon Do back in the day. Once the pilot was gone I played it off and said something like, “I’m wearing a Steelers shirt tomorrow for the football game but I’m also not on the Steelers,” but the damage had been done. I felt like a phony despite that I wasn’t trying to advertise the contrary.

I’m successful in all of the metrics of my life that I consider important but, to this day, that incident still eats at me. I’m a family man. I’m a promoted officer with a great fire department. I’ve had 4 books published as an author. And I’m still a fraud when I talk to friends about MMA.

I turned 44 years old in June and decided age was just a number. My wife and I signed our son up at a local martial arts gym and, with my wife’s nudging, I decided to join him for the jujitsu classes. I had been working on getting back in shape since January so I wasn’t exactly starting from the couch. My first jujitsu class was scheduled for the coming Friday and I spent that week nervous and excited at the same time. I told myself that no amount of embarrassment was going to hold me back. I was diving in head-first. Even if the gym was full of parents and other spectators and I knew I’d look like a 44-year-old idiot trying to learn to “rassle,” I wasn’t going to let it stop me. In the days before my first lesson, I even took a yoga class to help with my horrible flexibility. BTW, Yoga is HAAAARD.

When Friday arrived I took a deep breath and walked into the gym, judging spectators be damned. The owner and lead instructor was a badass named Dale—an older man with buzzed, greying hair, a goatee, and about 200 years of experience. We started class with stretches and push-ups and jumping rope. Let me quickly add, if you want to get some exercise, jump rope. Holy crap. He said to do two minutes and I about laughed. Hell, I can do two minutes of anything, I imagined. But 40 seconds in I was ready to pack up shop and go home. OK, it wasn’t that bad but you get the jest.

After learning a technique called a shrimp where you basically lie on your back and scoot a very specific way backward across the mat we were ready to start class. Mister Dale said we were to pair up and grapple (another name for wrestling) for two minutes. He was to be my grappling partner so he could judge where I was in technique and experience. I imagined two minutes would be about a minute forty-five more than he needed to evaluate my skill level and lack thereof.

We started with a handshake as we faced each other on our knees. I asked, “What do you want me to do?”

He said to simply wrestle him. My superficial knowledge of jujitsu told me I wanted to get on top and ideally straddle his waist in what is known as the mount position. I also knew if he got on top of me I needed to get my legs around his waist in what is called the guard. I aggressively dove forward. He calmly dropped to his back as if inviting me to climb on top. So far, so good. I scrambled to get my right leg past his left leg so I could work myself into the mount position. At the same time I used my hands to push his left leg to the floor and tried to swing my leg over to have it beside his hip like I’d seen on TV. But he subtly shifted his upper body, and pushed with his feet. Somehow I was right where I started. I tried again and, again, I got nowhere. I pushed and pulled and strained but getting around his legs was like trying to untie a knot while riding a roller coaster. I was thinking, “I’m a grown freakin man and I can’t even get past this guy’s leg?”

Forty-five seconds in, I was a faucet of sweat yet he was dry (minus the sweat I had shared with his shirt) and didn’t seem at all winded. When he decided to attack, it was methodical. He wrapped his legs around my waist like a steel trap and held me there to see if I knew how to get out. I didn’t. I felt instantly helpless. He calmly reached up and grabbed one of my arms. In a flash, I was on my back and he was on top of me. It happened so fast I didn’t understand how I’d ended up beneath him. It was as if my brain had hiccupped and there I was. So much for getting my legs around his waist. If I didn’t know how to get out of his guard, I sure as Hell didn’t know how to get out of his mount. At this point we were about a minute in, give or take 3 hours. His every movement was deliberate, never using more energy than needed while I floundered like a fish. He leaned forward to where his chest was against my face forcing me to turn my head to the side in order to find breath that was nowhere to be found. Somehow, by ancient martial arts magic, he had all of the oxygen sucked out of the room.

For a split second I wondered what I had gotten myself into. He slowly wrapped his arms around my head. I gasped for air. I was drowning in a river with my arms and legs tied together and I couldn’t see the surface anymore. As he squeezed what little air I had left out of my lungs I realized I could never do this and was a fool to think I could. As I surrendered by tapping his side and he released his hold, I realized there was nothing in this world I wanted to do more. My self-doubt, while suffocating seconds before, had lasted about as long as it had taken me to surrender and was instantly replaced with a thirst—an unquenchable thirst. Dale let me free and we continued.

Exhausted and terrified to get close to him, my aggressiveness turned to apprehension. I had quickly learned that any movement I made would endanger me in ways I’d never been endangered before. If I reached an arm out, he could take it home with him. If I leaned to the left, I’d end up smothered and on my back again. Leaning to the right, I found, was no better. I was lost. Confused. Hopeless. I surrendered repeatedly and repeatedly he immediately released his vice-like hold. Despite all of this, at the end of the two minutes, I couldn’t stop smiling. This was as hard as any two minutes of my life and, as impossible as any future progress seemed, I couldn’t wait to try it again.

That feeling lasted about 10 seconds, or roughly as long as it took for Dale to say, “Change partners,” and I saw Steve—the next killer—waiting in line. This would not end well for me.

First Steve and I dropped to our knees and shook hands. Then, before Steve could annihilate me, I blurted, “Remember, I don’t know any of this stuff.” Luckily, Steve took it easy on me which was good because I gave about as much resistance as an exhausted rag doll.

After our open grappling session we began the teaching portion of the class. Using Steve as his victim, Dale showed us a basic way to escape an opponent’s guard (him on his back with his legs around Steve’s waist). This would have been good information a bit earlier. The rest of the class consisted a couple other techniques and practicing these newly learned skills. I loved it.

After we stood and bowed to end the class, I b-lined straight to Mister Dale. I thanked him repeatedly for opening my eyes to this world. I thanked Steve for his help and expressed my desire to do this every day I could from here on out.

I haven’t been this hungry for anything in a long time. When I was in my 20’s it was a potential firefighting career that drove me every day. When I was thirty I decided to get my body under 10% body fat and eventually I reached that goal as well. In my late thirties I delved into writing and put my heart and soul behind that endeavor. Now, in my mid-forties, I’ve found a new passion and, as long as my aching, 40+year-old body can hold up, I’m going to give it my all. I have no desires or illusions about competing in the future or becoming some great jujitsu practitioner, I only want to learn every time I’m in the gym and improve upon the class before.

Someday, I’ll be able to talk about the sport of MMA with real-world knowledge and, if the inevitable follow-up question “Where do you train?” comes up, I won’t slink away. I’ll answer with pride. And I’ll wear that fucking Tapout shirt again.