Saturday, March 14, 2020

Jiu Jitsu in the Time of Coronavirus

"We won't shake hands anymore," my coach instructed. "And we won't tap hands before rolling."
     "But then we're going to roll, right?" someone asked.
     "Yes."

This exchange happened after reminders to wash our gis after every class. This is jiu jitsu in the time of coronavirus.
But they look so cute! Like Frankenberries!

I was not sure whether to go to class on Thursday night. All around me are recommendations of social distancing. Jiu jitsu is the opposite of that. You get in close, you hug your partner, your gi soaks up the sweat beading off your partner's forehead. . . . I know. When I put it like that, it's a wonder everyone doesn't want to do jiu jitsu!

If I don't go tonight, I thought, then I really shouldn't go until all of this blows over. That could be weeks. Months. Am I prepared to go without jiu jitsu for that long? 

The answer was no. I am focusing on new grips. I want to try them out. I have been working hard lately, acclimatizing to a new gym, trying to legitimize myself and my brown belt. I feel like I can't spare a minute, never mind a quarantine.

So, with Husband looking at me sidewise, Shark Girl went off to class and heard words like, "As always, if you have any cold symptoms, stay off the mats."

I mean let's face it, I've been rolling around in these guys' sweat for months now. If one of us has it, we've surely passed it on. We know that carriers can be asymptomatic, I justified to myself.

Middle School Son wears shorts to school every day. In the middle of winter. Unless Husband forces him to wear "sweatpants at least." We've given up on the winter coat that he insists he does not have but has been hanging in our coat closet gathering dust and growing too small for about a year. Middle School Son has seen this coat. He knows it exists. Yet he refuses to acknowledge it.

One day I asked High School Son (who always wore pants but lived through this strange shorts fad a few years ago) why middle school boys did this. "Its a game of chicken," he said. "No one wants to be the first to wear pants and admit that they're too cold."

If I'm being honest with myself, part of my decision to go to jiu jitsu was like that. I don't want to be the first one to cave in to the virus. Especially as the token female. They are going to have to make me not go, in spite of the fact that I have a son who is at high risk if he develops the virus. (Yes, Shark Girl is crazy. But you knew that already.)

I also wondered if I was contemplating skipping jiu jitsu to wimp out on my feelings of inadequacy. Who knew that deciding whether or not to go to class was going to tap into all of my psychological issues?

When I got home Thursday night, I washed my belt along with my gi. I know that's sacrilege. But the belt was sweaty, too. What good is it to wash the coronavirus off your gi only to have it fester unchallenged on your belt?

Just today another gym I am connected with announced they would be closing for a period of two weeks, like our local schools. What a relief it would be if mine did that, too. Then I would not have to make the decision. Then I would not have to search my psyche to figure out why I should or should not go to class. Won't someone else please wear their pants first? You would make it a hell of a lot easier for me.

*****
I really like Stephan Kesting's resource on COVID-19 and BJJ. I haven't read it all yet, but it looks pretty comprehensive. If I find anymore resources I find helpful, I will update this post. Please feel free to comment with any resources that have helped you, too.

Stay Healthy,
Shark Girl




Sunday, February 23, 2020

Shark Girl's Big Learning #2: Jiu Jitsu Is Harder As a Small Person

Jiu jitsu is even fucking harder as a small person. 

I know what they say—size doesn’t matter. But let’s be honest. That’s a myth in just about any arena.

When you are tiny, everyone is bigger than you. Brand new white belts can muscle you. Brand new white belts freak out when they see you because you they are like, “Oh, damn! A 100# brown-belted, middle-aged woman creeping toward AARP eligibility. Damn! If she beats me my penis will fall off!” 

The other night a new small dude joined our gym. (Mind you, a small dude is still has about 35% more body weight than me.) I was partnered with him to roll. We slapped hands. Immediately he leaped on me like a starving zombie who has not seen quivering flesh since the Apocalypse. Or like Voldemort attacking Harry Potter.
 


Small Guy had no idea what he was doing, but he did it anyway. Well-muscled arms were flying. His torso was thrown at my face several times. I’m sure when the five minutes were up, he was thinking, “I survived a brown belt!” I was thinking, “I am so glad I do not have a broken finger or tooth.”

Staying safe is usually top on my mind unless I am rolling with one of a handful of “pre-qualified” people. If you have tips, tricks, or mindset tweaks that can help me here, I am all ears.


Wait! I promised myself I wasn’t going to complain about being small anymore! Oh, well, Screw that.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Shark Girl’s Big Learning #1: Jiu Jitsu is Fucking Hard


It's been just over four months at my new gym. I am still filled with self-doubt each time I suit up. But I have made it this far and it is time to take stock of what I have learned.

Image result for what I learned
Much of what I am going to say is not new or earth-shattering. It is mostly a reinforcement of what we already know—stuff it is good to be reminded of every now and again. Some of what I have learned is about what students need from their teachers, and it has informed (reinforced) concepts in my professional life as a teacher, too.

I have a lot to say, so my plan is to put it out in installments.  

Behold, Dear Reader, Installment #1: Jiu jitsu is fucking hard. 

Yes, you read me right, it’s fucking hard. Not flipping hard, not forking hard, not fricking hard . . . fucking hard.

Many of you are saying, “Yes, Shark Girl! That’s a good thing! It’s impossible to fuck without it being hard!” Well, to you I say, “Please! This is a family blog!” and “Maybe it’s time for you to get more creative in your personal life!” But, now I am off topic. Back to jiu jitsu.

Every time I think I have something down in jiu jitsu, every time I have felt that I was on to something or that I was gaining in knowledge or insight, I have learned that there is always more, there is always better, there is always something else, just beyond my reach. 

I work so fucking hard at jiu jitsu. Again and again I come back to the mat. I try something. I am humiliated. I come back. I try something else. I take notes. I make the same mistakes over and over again. I review notes. I see people better, younger, stronger, more talented, more [fill-in-the-blank] than I am, and I wonder why I put myself through this. Why do I press on in the face of insurmountable odds?
Image result for jiu jitsu is hard
(borrowed from BJJafter40blog)

Sometimes the answer, Dear Reader, is, “Jiu jitsu is a magical cocktail of kinetic connection mixed with nerdy undertones and street cred.”

Sometimes the answer is, “Duh, cuz I wanna be a badass.”

More often than not, however, the answer is, “I have no fucking clue.”

None at all, Dear Reader. No idea why I make my life harder than it has to be. I could be sitting home at night eating pretzels and chips, sipping herbal tea and watching Netflix. Getting my kids their dinner instead of wondering if and what they are eating and what mess I will cmoe home to. Correcting papers. Perhaps even stealing some precious “alone time” with Husband. But, no, I choose jiu jitsu. And it’s fucking hard.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Oops, I Mansplained Again!

I got mansplained by a white belt.

I get it. I suck. But at least have the decency to feign respect.

Literally, he tried to tell me why top pressure is important. Thanks, pal. I'm fucking 100 pounds. I think I know a bit about top pressure.

Then he went on to say that, when I have someone in good pressure, I should wait for them to try to escape and then think ahead and catch them in a sub. Again, thanks.

I nodded politely and smiled.

There's more: He said that when he rolled with someone significantly bigger and stronger than him, he took that opportunity to work on his escapes.

I don't know where to even begin unpacking this, but I can tell you that it gave me a stress espresso dream last night.

What is a stress espresso dream, you may ask? Well, Shark Girl takes her espresso seriously, and has spent more time than is rational on coffeegeek.com. I'm not the best barista, but I am the best barista I know.

Here is what a stress espresso dream looks like:

I was using a new espresso machine in public. I was excited to see what I could do with it. But this dude, like, watched me stumble a bit as I was getting used to the new equipment, and then he mansplained how to pull a shot of espresso. Like I don't fucking do that multiple times a day, fuckwad? How do you think I get this goddamned cheery? It's called caffeine.


This morning, I was grinding beans for my morning cappuccino and thinking that 2% milk foamed up much more delicately that fat-free, when I realized: Wait! That dream wasn't about me having a fear of pulling shots in public. It was about that White Belt mansplaining jiu jitsu to me!

Here is the last thing last thing White Belt said during that conversation.

After extolling the virtues of crushing your opponent, he said how much he loved rolling with me because I helped him learn.

You are fucking welcome.

So, here is the hidden meaning behind what he said:

"I can crush anyone I want and that's the way to do it. But, when I roll with you and you don't crush me, I actually learn something."

That's genius, dude. Try connecting the dots backward. When you crush your training partner, you hinder their growth. (Unless, of course, you are expressly working on escaping crushing control.)

So the next time you are on my chest and I can't breathe, maybe you just should ease up. You can make a mental tick mark counting that you beat the 50-year old who weighs half of what you do. But then give us both a chance to learn.




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!





Jiu Jitsu in the Time of Coronavirus

"We won't shake hands anymore," my coach instructed. "And we won't tap hands before rolling."      "But th...