Damage III

In the end, it’s all about either making yourself better or stronger or more fit or just more of something than you were. All that means is staying around a little or a lot longer because when it come down to it, we’re here to either make more of us, survive or both. All the rest is just window dressing. And don’t be fooled. It’s not the person who dies with the most toys who wins, it’s the person who dies last.

So we join health clubs, buy home gyms, make buckets of money for those morons who stick two aluminum poles together, rivet a braided steel cable to it and call it “the greatest weight loss machine eva.” To what end? Lighter bank accounts and larger bellies. But sometimes a person will hit upon something that works, something they can both feel the passion for and actually manage to get fit, stay fit and be stronger. When passion exceeds logic, you get damage.

Such was the case with martial arts. I had met someone smart, beautiful, strong and independent. She was her own person and I loved that about her. She didn’t do the usual softball games after work (I’d met her when I myself was on an after work indoor soccer team). Having recently gone through a time where the carpet, or more aptly the world, was yanked out from underneath me resulting in my landing very hard on my head, I was feeling like I wasn’t all that up for being in crowds either, nor following, so different was good and different was what we did.

And it worked. Through martial arts, we found something we could get excited about. But after a time, with anything involving humans, there is at least one person who wants more power than they can get and politics started rearing an ugly head in the school. As we saw the life begin to drain out of our passion, we knew it was time to depart.

After a few years, we gave it another shot. It was Tae Kwon Do as before and it was better, it was doing for us what we needed it to do. But, alas, despite a consuming passion for the martial arts and a commitment and dedication to the school, the politics and internal bickering amongst the leaders and the small skirmishes for power amongst the high ranks finally took a toll as well. It became like that relationship in college you cling to over the summer, hanging on to it because it’s all you’ve got. Then someone shows you the pipe dream you’re living, and the poor treatment you’re enduring. The bubble bursts leaving behind nothing but the air it held which is quickly carried away on the wind. It was goodbye again but what had revealed the pipe dream was something altogether different. The same world, but vastly different environment of Kung Fu.

Kung Fu is a hard, exhausting art. It was one of the best ways we had found to move our bodies, make them do what we needed and get the benefit of becoming much stronger and much more healthy. Mentally and physically it changed us and made us better people. We gave as much passion to it as anything we’d ever done. But if you’re passionate about something long enough, sometimes you miss the signs that you’re getting in too deep. Miss those and there will be damage.

It was an honor being asked to begin training in Iron Palm. It became every day, day in and day out, for what turned out, in that first part, to be 6 months. Grueling, mind numbing training that was both physical but also mental. There were deprivations in order to keep my chi full and clear. Training exercises to build more chi, chi gong meditations for building even more. I had all that chi and no place to put it.

Anything that requires the striking of a body part against an unforgiving surface, requires that skin and bone be conditioned to take the impact. Done properly it neither hurts nor causes any damage. But there is change, or what some might consider damage. Because the skin thickens and there are micro fractures in the bone that make bone more dense when they heal, filling in any holes that could make it weak during high velocity strikes.

After months of thousands of full force strikes against a leather pillow filled with copper BBs, after enduring the mental anguish of wanting that which I needed to deprive myself of in order to reach that level of mental strength, I broke two cement landscaping cap stones with each of my bare hands. The accompanying rush was astounding.

When you jump out of an airplane, take a class 5 rapids in a kayak, or maybe take a sport bike around a turn and actually touch your knee puck to the pavement, the rush of adrenaline is, by all accounts, like nothing else. I can say that the rush of adrenaline one feels after snapping two inches of concrete with a body part probably comes pretty close. And the buzz lasts for a couple of hours.

But that buzz is dangerous. Like anything else that makes a person feel more alive than they had before, they sometimes want more. They go further for it. They demand more of themselves before they are ready or have done enough mental preparation in order to ensure they will do what they endeavor. It was in that zone when I was doing a more difficult break with a right knife edge. I wanted so badly to make it I lost my focus. At the moment of impact, my wrist came down on the edge of the stone between the knobby wrist bone and the fleshy part of the edge of my palm. The blocks broke, but I would never break with that hand again.

Toward the end of my breaking “career” I was too driven, holding on too tight and not paying attention to what my body was telling me. The liniment I used for conditioning was drying out my skin. It was starting to crack and with the thousands of training hits I was doing each week, the crack grew. Finally, having paid it no mind, I ended up with a hole in my left wrist a quarter inch deep. It hurt a lot and bled each time I trained. What was this insanity? Just what exactly was I trying to prove? It may have been at that point I realized it was too much. There was too much going on for me to be focused enough to control my desire to excel. And I realized I was cutting corners to get to that buzz quicker, see the crumbled concrete between the cinder block stand. One last break, three blocks this time and it was over. I watched the video over and over, seeing the less than perfect form, seeing that it was more brute force than the finesse and focus it should have been. The bricks broke, it didn’t hurt and the roar of the audience sucked me into that vortex of adrenaline just the same, but that wasn’t what it was all about. It had to be about me, the chi, the focus, the art. But that was slipping.

And in the end, as I stepped back further from what had become my obsession, I saw another result of my practice in Iron Palm. The last two fingers on my left hand were starting to spontaneously go numb. Depending on how I slept, I would wake up and the outsides of my hands would be numb and cool. This couldn’t be right and doubt had me wondering if I had done something wrong in training or the training itself was not as benign as I had originally thought. I was at the end, and it became easier and easier to walk away. I realized that damage was done. And while it was a beautiful thing while I was in it, I had turned away knowing I couldn’t go back. It might have been that I was not mentally as strong as I had hoped. Or maybe I was fooling myself into thinking I was doing everything I needed to do properly, not cutting any corners. Like the rider who’s dragged his knee puck but nearly high sided and gone off a cliff, I was glad to have done it, but I wouldn’t be doing it again.

Damage II

after2.jpgYou can recover mostly from trashing yourself skiing. Or at least after taking down a few pin up calendars from the wall; but sometimes things just keep coming back once you’re to that place called Damage. The human shoulder, for example, is the one joint in the body that moves the most. It is mandatory that it be flexible enough to handle the wide range of motion required of it. The compromise price we pay is the large number of problems not faced by other joints such as the hip (that just blows out and requires replacement later on down the road).

A little more than a decade after the mountain shook me loose and a decade before my hands went partially numb (what?…later), I worked at a sports supplement company. It was the company in the industry at the time and known as the gold standard of product lines that could pump you up, boost your athletic abilities, make you stronger, make you more powerful, smarter and better looking Well, ok, maybe not those last two but a lot of people thought that; and there were a lot of pretty good looking people milling around. I wasn’t one of them but they were there. It was the closest thing to a cult I had ever been exposed to and you could find plenty of people drinking the cool-aide in the building. As far as cults go the company had quite a distance to go before dying a fiery death as the sheriffs bare down on them with armored personnel carriers, but there were most definitely some pretty rabid fans and employees. There were people who would actually travel to the building from all over the country just to have their picture taken in front of the sign out front. The sign. Really! “I seen ’em do it!”

The result of this popularity was a cash flow that was like drinking from a fire hose, and one (of many) results of that was a state of the art gym with everything you’d need to achieve one or all of the above physical improvements. It was not a big leap to understand that if you got enough testosterone in that gym, grunts, shouts, screams and the gnashing of teeth would soon follow as the volume of Sports Center got turned up and the heat was on to “go big or go home”. Sheesh, it was a little much sometimes. When the CEO is a well known body builder, that just kinda goes with the deal, I guess.

It was usually the case in the mornings when my friend, Jeff, and I would go for our morning workout. He’d spot me, I’d spot him and it all worked out pretty well. The big boys around us would be doing their thing, busting out the reps with three 45s on each side…call me a sissy, but I was never going to get there and I could live with that. I got to looking like that silly fellow in his underwear at the top of the page (very silly!! But you should have seen the before…eeek…that wasn’t silly, that was just scary.) Feeling fit is a good thing. Being fit is even better. I was not as satisfied as I would have liked back then, but, of course, at that time being as satisfied as I wanted to be would have required dabbling in nutrients of an injectable nature which, thankfully, I did not pursue. Ah, to be relatively young, still mostly bullet proof and thinking stupid thoughts.

Then things kinda went sideways.

I don’t know if it was the heavy weight, improper form or just physiology, but my left shoulder started to go. First, it was just sore, then it grew to be really sore, and then it was painful enough to prevent any kind of heavy lifting or really much of anything day to day with the exception of typing software code. That was OK (as least I could keep my job), but the residual effect was being unable to lift my arm above head height and every once in a while finding an ice pick had been driven into it from the top.

So now, 10 years later and with much learning having been gained, I lament the beatings Jeff and I used to visit upon our bodies. The dips that went too far down so we could get that “extra burn”, the one last rep of the military press beyond what we were really capable of and all the other things I did to make sure the most flexible joint in my body remained out of balance and pain remained just on the other side of the door marked “just one more”.

The net result of that and all my exploits using my arms- like way back in the days in Alexandria, Virginia, I remember wanting to get that softball to home plate from the outfield. Not just get it there, but get it straight there, no bounce. That was an exercise in checking how far my left shoulder joint would go before it popped out. And it hurt like hell!- and every once in a while my shoulder will turn to me and make sure I understand that I am not the boss of it and if there is any question, there might need to be a reinforcement class next time I decide I want to lift an eight by eight pressure treated timber on to it.

We are never really in complete control, are we?