Sunday, May 29, 2011

When I am an Old Woman I Shall Practice Jiu Jitsu

We seem to want to understand our world in binary terms—on/off; heads/tails; good/bad. Although binaries look like opposites, lately I’ve been reflecting on their similarities. If a switch is on, current is flowing. If it is off, current is not flowing. Both describe the state of the current, the state of the appliance. Heads and tails are sides of a coin, and a coin can’t have one without the other. Whether something is good or bad relates to the level of detriment or benefit received from it. As I sit on the grass at my son’s baseball game, I ponder this because it’s way more exciting than the game. That should tell you what a yawn-fest it is watching 9-year olds get walked for two hours.

Binary thinking assumes we can quantify something, that there is no in between. What if it’s neither “good” nor “bad”? What if it’s good  for one person, but bad for another? When we can’t select an option from the drop-down box, what do we do? Check the appropriate box, goddamn-it, or you can’t go to the next page! Our post-modern society often forces us to ignore the complexity of the world and of life.
            I see binary thinking in education. There is more pressure every day for teachers to ask students to check the right box. For a complex task, the answer isn’t necessarily A or B. The student makes a judgment and comes up with a solution. The teacher might anticipate their answer, but it could also be totally original. In a complex task, teacher judgment assesses whether the student was successful.
            Teachers receive soft, but consistent, pressure from parents, students, and administrators to steer away from complex tasks because teacher judgment is continually challenged by students and parents. Teacher judgment is called subjective—and it is, absolutely. Any judgment call is. It’s easier to give a multiple choice question where the answer is right or wrong. No one will question that 2 + 2 is 4. When teachers give a complex task, we sometimes design “fail-proof” rubrics with quantitative rather than qualitative descriptors (e.g., “Has three sources” instead of “Has adequate sources to support research”). No one can accuse us of dreaded subjectivity when, instead of looking for quality, we look for quantity.
            I see binary thinking in the reactions people give when they learn I practice jiu jitsu. “Isn’t that for men?” “You fight? Like UFC?” Jiu jitsu isn’t masculine or feminine—it is jiu jitsu. And I love jiu jitsu because it’s not binary. In jiu jitsu, to make things work well you need pushing and pulling. A push is just a pull, but away from you. Force in the opposite direction. If you don’t have your opponent in the limbo of the push-pull, you will not get the sweep. Notice it is not the push or the pull, but a combination, a meeting in the middle, that gets the job done.
Binary is great for a computer. Not so good for humans. Real life is not black or white—it is black, white, and all the colors in between. So, yes, I’m a (rather old) woman and I practice jiu jitsu. It’s part of the color of my life.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Kick in the Teeth

The other night I got a kick in the teeth. A couple weeks ago I was dropped on my head. I wouldn’t care too much but afterward, I had to stop sparring. For one I was afraid I had a concussion. For the other, images of a toothless smile were popping into my head. At the end of the month I have an appointment with my dentist for a custom mouth guard. It would be my luck to lose a tooth before then.
            Both of these incidents happened with the same person—a new white belt, about two to three months in. The first time, he lost his balance. It was balance the second time, too. His foot slipped and—crack!—met my tooth. I’m starting to think I shouldn’t roll with him anymore.
            Although he might be a newbie spaz (And really, who isn’t? Certainly not Shark Girl), he has not had similar “accidents” with the other guys. This leads me to believe that I am special. Of course, he felt bad afterward—both times. No one wants to be That Big Guy That Hurts the Tiny Girl in class. But you know what newbie dudes want to be even less? That Guy That Got His Ass Handed to Him by a Hundred Pound Old Lady. That’s what I figure.
I suppose I should be flattered. Does he think if he’s not careful I could school him with my nasty jiu jitsu skills? In situations when my Magic Reguard is about to activate, he desperately flails and loses balance, leaving me as collateral damage. Is he just a newbie spaz?
Ladies, how do you deal with these situations? Guys, help me out here. Is he worried about his manhood? Or are we just a couple of newbie spazzes and this is how we roll?

Much Love,
Shark Girl

Friday, May 13, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me

Shark Girl is officially one year older. One year further into the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages are what drove me to jiu jitsu.

I’m in the stage of life Erik Erikson called Number 7. My time is spent caring for others. During the day I teach the young people. I come home and wipe noses and bottoms, feed and care for my two precious children. (Until recently, 21-Year-Old Cat was among the cared-for in my home. We had to let her go last weekend. RIP.) I spend most of my time worrying about the generation(s) that come after me—being generative. Erikson says that if we are not generative enough, we stagnate and feel no sense of purpose in life. However, if we are too generative, we overextend and lose our sense of self. This is the stage where we can experience the dreaded mid-life crisis.
This is why I started jiu jitsu. I was way too generative. I felt a personal stagnation. Living in suburbia, I feel tremendous pressure to live life through my kids. To sign them up for activities and cart them to classes. To attend school functions and communicate with teachers. To arrange play dates and relay anecdotes that show how charming/smart/perceptive my children are. To sock away money in a 529, to measure my worth in the achievements of my kids. This is a mid-life crisis: to realize that life is half gone and we can either embrace it or let it pass us by as we ride in the slow lane behind a minivan headed for soccer practice.
I love my kids. I am proud of their achievements. However, I am not setting a good example for my kids if I show them that my adult life is meaningless. How can I instill a love of learning in them if I do not continue to stretch my own boundaries?

I was afraid to start BJJ. Twenty years ago, that fear would have kept me from it. As a 41-year old I recognize that this is the fear we experience when we are about to encounter something so foreign, so new to us, that it could challenge and change the way we look at the world. Albert Camus would say this fear makes us “porous,” or completely open to learning.

I read over my Suburban Mom Handbook. There’s plenty in there on packing lunches and picking pre-schools. There’s nothing in there about kicking ass. Jiu jitsu has both challenged and changed me in the short few months that I have practiced it. If this is what the Middle Ages is going to be like, then I say, “Bring it on!” Just hold the chastity belt.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Stranger Between My Legs*

 Before starting BJJ, many women worry about having a strange man between their legs. Will it feel awkward? Will it feel sexy? Will he get aroused? How can a nice girl put herself in that position with so many different men on one night? And then do it over and over again?
When I tell other people I practice BJJ, the first thing they ask is, “What’s that?” When they find out, they usually screw their face up into a twisted knot. You do what? With whom? Where? It’s like I said that I eat newborn kittens for breakfast. For some reason, putting men between your legs in order to control their bodies and lock their joints is not as socially acceptable as one might think.
I’m not normally shy about my body. Never really was. I’m no exhibitionist, but as a long-time exerciser, I have learned to feel comfortable with the parts I have, to see them as tools. I have two arms, two legs, like most people. I use them to run and cook and do all sorts of neat stuff. I didn’t think I’d have trouble adjusting to The Stranger Between My Legs. But I knew there would be an adjustment period, and worried about how the men would adjust, too.
I looked to the Internet to help me feel more comfortable with this potential awkwardness. In my search, I found this great on-line community of femme fatales. Three bloggers in particular helped me work through this. Leslie helped me feel comfortable being a woman in jiu jitsu. Georgette helped me see that a woman could appreciate the sport. Slideyfoot showed me that guys get over it. They roll with women and take them seriously.
Armed with this assurance, I dove into BJJ. And guess what? For the most part, no awkwardness. In fact, I am surprised at how completely The Stranger Between My Legs becomes just a sparring partner. It’s the closeness of grappling. We are so close to each other’s bodies that our partner’s body feels like an extension of our own.
Sometimes we don’t talk to each other, we just use our bodies. For example, you’re in the heat of grappling, and you get too close to the wall. Does your partner say, “Hey, you’re gonna crack your head. Let’s move!”? Or does he just drag you by the feet away from the wall? When you’re repping a move and you need your partner in your guard, do you say for the 10th time, “Would you please get in my guard?” Or do you just grab him with your legs and pull him toward you? These are very intimate movements. How quickly our bodies become familiar tools to our partners. How fast is the transition from Stranger to Partner. Socially acceptable? I don’t know. But it sure is a lot of fun.


I got some great rolling tonight with another white belt. He’s on the small side so my sweeps actually have a chance of working. Our skill levels are about the same so it’s a real challenge and I actually have a chance of submitting. The New Girls came again. Everything worked out fine. There were only two of them so they partnered up. 

* Wish I could take credit for this phrase, but it's all Georgette. Thanks, gal!

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