Sunday, October 6, 2019

Can We Talk? Jiu Jitsu is a Conversation.

Lately, Shark Girl has been thinking a lot about what jiu jitsu means to her.

As I face a terrifying start at a new gym , I wonder whether it’s time to give up jiu jitsu forever in favor of less injurious pursuits. Therefore, I keep coming back to this: why do I do jiu jitsu?

A few reasons bubble up.

The first is that I am a control freak. Undisputed. Capital C. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I’ll save that for another post.

Today I want to talk about how for me, jiu jitsu is a conversation. My partner says something to me and I respond.

"How you doin', pal?" "Not bad, how 'bout you?"

I grew up in a family where verbal sparring was the main form of recreation. The person who was the loudest or could overtalk the other person was usually the victor. To even enter these arguments as the smallest, youngest person there, I had to stealthily choose when to assert my point of view. I had to be quick and concise, and I had to understand that most likely, no matter what I said, I was going to be brushed off, overpowered, ignored. Or worse, someone would use twisted logic to turn my thoughts into something I didn’t even recognize anymore. 

These days, I have found that it is not really worthwhile getting into one of these family-style arguments. Last night on the phone Shark Dad tried to goad me into a lame shouting match over whether I had a lot of stuff left at his house from thirty years ago. (Spoiler: I don’t.) He complained that it was causing him and my elderly mother stress because they had to clean out all my shit and figure out what to do with it. 

I tried to deflect with a joke: “Oh, those rolls of quarters from when I was a waitress? Please save those for me. It’s my escape money if things go south with me and Husband.”
Watch out, Husband! Shark Girl could be movin' on out with this bank!
I tried to rationalize: "Those empty photo albums (that aren't mine)? No one uses those anymore, Dad."

But Shark Dad wanted contention. Stymied by my stonewalling, he pushed it forward: “Now your mother is getting mad at me because I’m upsetting you,” he said.

“You’re not upsetting me, but I’m not going to argue over this. If I have a lot of stuff left there, feel free to throw it away or leave it for me to sort through when I come home. I really don’t care.” 

And then he passed the phone to my mother. 

I think we were both sadder for that conversation. My 84-year old Dad was trying to connect the only way he knew how, but he only succeeded in causing tension. I saw a lonely, old man cleaning out his house so his kids don’t have to. But instead of having a meaningful conversation about that, Shark Dad made me feel guilty. I had disappointed him because I did not take his bait (chum?). And I disappointed myself because, in the heat of the exchange, I failed to realize what it was really about: (I’m not going to be here much longer. You better come see me and) Get your stuff
Just take the bait, Shark Girl! Doesn't it look tasty??!
That made me feel guiltier. 

I get frustrated rolling with people for whom it’s a fight. I’ve had enough fights in my lifetime. I don’t want to fight. I want a conversation. A communication. Something that when we are both finished, we do not have to agree, but we can respect each other and we know each other a little better.

I don’t play closed guard, but I respect yours. I don’t have long legs, but I enjoy learning how to get around yours. 

I do jiu jitsu to connect with the person I am rolling with. When that person smashes me or uses disproportionate strength, then I have nothing to say. I feel like, Why am I in this conversation, anyway? I have nothing to contribute and you wouldn’t listen if I did.

I recognize that not everyone is on the mats for the same reason. People have different demons to exorcise. But I need to understand what I want and need from this sport/art.
Check out this jiu jitsu demon by tattoo artist Fabien!
For me, when my partner does something clever, I laugh out loud. When they frustrate me, I try to find a different way to answer their moves. I walk away from those rolls feeling like I know my partner, and myself, better. 

When someone uses their full muscle and crushes my little person so that I can’t move, I usually walk away disappointed, defeated. I feel brushed off, overpowered, and ignored. Inconsequential and unheard. I’ve experienced that a lot in my life and it’s not fulfilling for me to experience that on the mat. Sure, I could learn to “speak louder,” but then, wouldn’t I just be doing the same thing to someone else? 

Maybe I need to give my Old Shark Dad a call. Perhaps we both didn’t have the best conversation skills last night. Maybe I was passing his guard (avoiding his sadness) while he was trying to choke me (with crushing guilt). Sometimes a conversation is not about what it seems on the surface.

Sometimes jiu jitsu is not about who wins the match. It’s about how much we listen to each other.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Shark Girl is Back. And She’s Bad.

I never thought anything could be more intimidating than starting Jiu Jitsu: walking into class every night as a white belt, knowing nothing, feeling lost, and getting tooled on by the regulars, who had spent years developing relationships, inside jokes, rapport, and techniques. And yes, they were all guys. Boy was I wrong.
       Try walking into that same gym as a brown belt.
       Yep. That’s me. My gym finally closed, a year later than expected. My coach awarded me a brown belt, years earlier than deserved, in my opinion. 
     And now I start from scratch. At a new gym. Where everyone knows everyone else’s name, but illogically, I am the highest belt other than the coach.
     Everyone has been practicing their style of Jiu Jitsu, so different from mine, and I’ve got to catch up. 
     Everyone has had real, serious coaching and goes to competitions. And I, well, I just love a good roll, hate being crushed, and have learned not to care much about submissions because sometimes they cause more trouble for a girl on the mat unless you have a real good relationship with your partner.
     Everyone expects me to be awesome and I suck.
     Everyone expects me to have something to teach them, and I don’t.
     I stopped writing posts a while ago because I felt this blog’s purpose was served. I started it as a white belt so many years ago, looking for support to go into that gym every night. I vowed to give it three months. You all, dear readers, kept me going and I fell in love. 
      Now I am back in the same spot, needing your help to walk back into a gym week after week. I have vowed to give it a year. Some nights I want to cry. Some nights I feel the bile creep up in my esophagus and my pulse quicken an hour before class. Of course, there are some moments of joy, too, but they feel fleeting and disconnected, overshadowed by everything else.
     Shark Girl is back. But she’s bad.

Monday, August 6, 2018

You Can't Fight City Hall


In the mid-90s, while alt-rock raged across the airwaves, twenty-something Shark Girl used to visit two elderly Italian sisters who lived in the North End of Boston. They would make me lunch. We would talk about Italy and life as an immigrant in Boston. We told stories of our families and discussed the problems of the world. These conversations usually ended with the older sister, Filomena, saying, “Well, you can’t fight City Hall.” It was one of the few English expressions she could say clearly, understandable even to those not well-versed in Italian-tinted English. Almost once a visit, Filomena would declare to me that City Hall could not be fought.

The other day I was leaving the kids jiu jitsu class that I started assisting. (I know. We have a lot to catch up on.) In my head, I heard Filomena say those words: You can’t fight City Hall. 


My blog has documented well the outsider feelings I have as a woman on the male-dominated mats of jiu jitsu. I guess I thought the kids class would be different. It’s not. It’s more of the same. When it comes time to work with me, I see the boys avert their eyes to the other male coaches or another member of the class, hoping that lack of eye contact will “save” them. At first I thought, Maybe it’s just the pre-teen weirdness of rolling with a female. That could be it. 

But the other day one of them got stuck working with me and said, “This time can you go full force?”as if he was insulted that in the past I had not. “Do you want me to?” I asked. “I don’t know . . .” he said. This summed up his whole dilemma for me. He was anxious that I wasn't going full force and it would look like a “girl” was taking it easy on him, but he was also afraid that if I didn't go easy on him a “girl” would crush him. He didn't have these same concerns with the male coaches.

(I use the word girl here, because I think in those moments that's what I was to him, even though I am I’m a 48-year-old purple-belted woman who clearly should have some skill over a white-belted 11-year-old boy, if there is any truth to jiu jitsu.) 

I'm not sure why I thought maybe kids would be different. This youngster is simply reflecting his culture.  Filomena’s words came back to me: You can’t fight City Hall. As women in jiu jitsu, we can’t fight City Hall. After eight years of jiu jitsu, it still stings. I bet it always will.



*After reading this post, many of you jiu jitsu playahs, well-versed in fighting, are saying, "Wait a minute Shark Girl! You may not be able to fight City Hall . . . directly. After all, isn't that what jiu jitsu is about? Figuring out how to fight the bigger, stronger opponent?" To you, I say, "Well played." You are absolutely right! No self-respecting jiu jitsuer would try to break down the locked front door. No, we look for the key under the mat at back door. Now, I'm going to stop before you all take this in some, tawdry, NSFW metaphorical way. But know this: I have a companion piece percolating about how we actually can fight City Hall, but we have to do it jiu jitsu style. Stay tuned!





Monday, November 20, 2017

Shark Girl Faces a Change

It is a turning point for Shark Girl.

I haven’t written in a while. When I was a white belt, everything was new and curious. And being a woman on the mat was challenging. I needed help and support, and you, faithful Internet readers, were there for me. You helped and guided me.

Now, as a purple belt and then some, I have drifted into stasis. My game doesn’t change so rapidly anymore. The huge strides I used to make in a month are now incremental improvements over months and months. I used to practice how to escape; now I work on shifting moves slightly to the left to see if that will help, or moving my center of gravity *here* and seeing what that will do.

Likewise, in being the lone woman at my gym (still), I have fallen into a pattern, a habit if you will. Some of the same problems remain, but after this many years, you either put up or get out, and I have chosen the former. I believe I made the right decision.

So at this point in my jiu jitsu career, change is slow. Glacially slow. And to write about that on a regular basis seemed, well, boring.

Now its global warming time, my friends. My gym just announced that it is closing. I don’t have many options. But one thing is certain: Change is coming, and it is coming fast.



Tuesday, August 1, 2017

It Took Me Over Seven Years, But I Have Finally Done It!

Yep. Last night. I let out an expulsion of gas that echoed throughout the chamber, shook the walls, and was finally absorbed by the mats. How embarrassing! 
Others before me have done it, followed by eruptions of laughter from the class. Usually it's the older
guy. Every once in a while it is one of the younger dudes. Me, for my part, up until now, I have only let out those ones that could be mistaken for a foot rubbing against the mat, making a squeak. Should I say excuse me? Or would that call attention to something that no one noticed anyway? Best to let those go.

But last night was different. Last night, it was like a balloon letting out a quick burst of air when some little kid spreads apart its lips to annoy a roomful of partygoers.  And of course I was in north -south. “Excuse me,” I said sheepishly. It was clear I could neither ignore or deny this one. 

Now, I am always very careful on the mats. I do my best to hold my sphincter tight. As a mom who pushed out two babies in less than fifteen minutes a pop, sometimes things are not as . . . sealed . . . as we would like them to be. But, Good Lord, I use all my muscles to keep it in! Sometimes I sacrifice power moves and opportunities because I have to keep my “core” engaged. But last night in drilling, I was committed to holding down my partner with my upper body, and I had to jerk my leg away. There was only so much my core could keep track of at one time. Kind of like when someone talks to me at the copier. Look, I can make copies, or I can have an intelligent conversation. I cannot do both, and if you make me, my brain will fart.

Last night, I was pulled in so many directions that I was not able to hold in my body's brain fart. In fact, I never even suspected it was coming. My partner, gracious even though his face was inches from the scene (scent?) of the crime, remained professional and businesslike. We continued drilling the move. I, however, decided to use slightly less power than before.     



Sunday, February 12, 2017

What Shark Girl Would Do. . . to Not Miss Class

I don't know about you, but skipping class freaks me out. Here is why:

My friends and partners, whose Jiu jitsu I want to encourage and foster, whom I care about as human beings, whom I love dearly and spar with only to improve their Jiu jitsu and NEVER for any egotistical reasons (I am much more Zen than that), if I miss a class, those wonderful people will totally get a leg up on me with some new move or extra practice. Then they will wreck me mercilessly the next time I am on the mat.

I also hate missing class because mat sense is real. I have been sidelined by inuries, keeping me off the mat for months. When I came back, it felt like that blue mat was water and I was floundering to stay afloat. It takes a while to get used to the mat after an absence. Like walkng on land after being at sea. Any time I miss mat time, I worry that my mat sense will diminish.

 Here is a Short List of things I have done instead of missing class:

Skip Eating
I love food, just not when it is within an hour of Jiu jitsu class. Dinner will have to wait until I come back. Speaking of food . . .

Not Feed My Children Dinner
Look, there is cereal in the pantry, and they are old enough to understand the beauty and ease of ramen noodles. I am confident their instincts will kick in and they will not become some Darwinian statistic. In the meantime, I got me some learnin’ to do.

Laundry On the Off Day
SG has so much laundry. Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus rolling that big rock up a hill. Instead my rock is a laundry basket, the hill is the basement stairs, and when it all rolls back down it goes through a laundry chute that wouldn't exist anymore if I had my house renovated because it is against fire code and no self respecting contractor who wants to keep his license is keeping that shit around.
     But no matter how much laundry I have done, no matter how tired I am of my basement corner with the dryer sheets and the Arm and Hammer and the big bins of sorted, sweaty, elementary-school–boy laundry, I will get my ass downstairs and make sure I have clean Jiu jitsu gear for my classes. Period. My son doesn't need clean underwear or socks, really. Half the time he wears them for days straight of his own preference. But I need a clean gi.


Take Maximum Ibuprofen.
Whether I feel a migraine coming on, or my muscles are sore from running, it doesn't matter. I will pop this wonder drug like candy if It means being able to make it through jujitsu class.  



Take Other Pharmaceuticals
 . . . especially those quelling any gas that might erupt, embarrassing myself and my classmates. Yes I am saying that sometimes (maybe very often) I take a Gas-X about a half hour before class, what's it to ya’? Actually you should all be thanking me. I do it out of consideration for my classmates. 


Show Up Places in My Gi
Yes, I have appeared at school events in full gi in front of parents and students because I didn't have time to change after class. I have gone to the grocery store flaunting patches and a belt. I know my schedule is tight, but that doesn't mean I should have to sacrifice choking someone I care about.
 
Looks like I will have to wait until 2018 to be friends with Jason. 😢
And finally,

Fight With Husband

I don't care what he has scheduled, Jiu jitsu is sacred time. He best not get in the way! (I’m pretty sure I can take him!)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Beat Down Off the Mat

I expect to get a run for my money on the jiu jitsu mat. But I wasn't expecting one off the mat this Thanksgiving when I visited a gym with Cousin of Shark Girl.

I traveled back to my hometown. Cousin of Shark Girl was at dinner, and we made plans to catch a class the next morning to roll off all that pasta and stuffing. 
Yes, pasta. We are Italian American!

Cousin and I were the first there, except for a man in his thirties, kind of oddly shaped and out of shape. He seemed out of place for a high-powered jiu jitsu class. While my cousin changed, the man, I’ll call him Silvio, asked us what we did.
                “We’re teachers,” I said.
                “What do you teach?”
                “He teaches physics,” I pointed to the curtain behind which my cousin was changing.
                “She teaches Latin,” Cousin called from behind the curtain.
                “Are you married?” We get that a lot when we visit gyms together. Most people think we are a couple, not related.
                “No, we’re cousins.”
                “Oh. I thought you were married.”
                “Nope.”
                “So . . .” Silvio hesitated. I held my breath. I knew this was going to be good. “Latin, huh?”
                “Yep.” There are basically 3 reactions I get when people find out I teach Latin:

        #1 Isn’t that a dead language?
        #2 I took that in high school thirty years ago. I hated it.
        #3 I took that in high school thirty years ago. I loved it. Let me recite something for you.

This looked like it was headed toward response #1.
                “What’s the point of that?” he asked.
                Seriously? You are not seriously asking me that? By this time, I realized that “Silvio” had some issues that I should, as a sensitive person, be alert to and compassionate about. But this just pushed my buttons. Sometimes patience is beyond my reach.
                “What do YOU do?” I asked.
                “Nothing.” he replied.
                Round 1 goes to the Latin teacher. But not a very sweet victory.



Can We Talk? Jiu Jitsu is a Conversation.

Lately, Shark Girl has been thinking a lot about what jiu jitsu means to her. As I face a terrifying start at a new gym , I wonder whethe...