For a while, I’ve kept what I’m about to tell you to myself. Why I’m sharing it with you now, dear writers and readers, I’m not exactly sure. Maybe it’s because TNB is celebrating its fifth birthday, and being one of the site’s original writers I’ve always done my best to be as open and honest as possible in every piece I’ve posted.

Sometime before I left the comfort of my parents’ home, the safety of my childhood church, and the sanity of an era before piercings, I believed that old people were good. There was nothing a person could say to convince me otherwise. They were pure, holy. I believed, among other things, that the old person should be protected, much like a child. To offer anything other than a smile and a hand was negligent. To cuss in front of an old person was a reprehensible act. Playing rock music within earshot was downright disrespectful. It was as if the very existence of white down upon that wrinkly crown gave them wings.

At some point in my 20s, I began to realize, of course, that old people aren’t necessarily so pure or fragile. Most of my dealings with the older set had been through my church, so once I started to get out into the world a bit, I was sort of jolted into reality. Literally.

It all started when I came back from Hong Kong. While living on a small backpacker island for a couple of years while I finished my grad work, I had become a student of wing chun kung fu. Wanting to continue my practice, I joined up with the closest thing I could find in Denver at the time – a school that called itself “Progressive Martial Arts”. It wasn’t pure wing chun, but the school did boast that it taught jeet kune do, Bruce Lee’s contribution to the martial arts world. Since Bruce Lee got his start with wing chun and since my teacher in Hong Kong was Bruce Lee’s teacher’s son’s student, I reasoned that jeet kune do was a natural progression for me.

For the uninitiated, jeet kune do basically comes down to one thing: street fighting. Sure, we practiced all manner of arts ranging from jiu jitsu to eskrima to kenpo, but the thing our school taught best was a little thing they liked to call “Two-Rule Fighting”.

Two-Rule Fighting: The first rule was that there were no rules. The second rule was that you could not change the first rule.

And in case you’re still not catching on, yes. I belonged to a fight club.

In this class, we were groomed as fighters. We ran endless laps. We were made to lie on our backs with our hands pinned under our butts so that we could have medicine balls thrown at our stomachs. We would line up against a wall to be punched repeatedly in the face until we learned to tuck under our chins instinctively. Sometimes, we would lie down on the floor in a circle while the children’s class played stepping stones on us, jumping from stomach to stomach as fast and as recklessly as they could.

It was awesome.

When it was time to begin our Two-Rule Fighting part of the class, we were already drenched in sweat. First blood had usually already been drawn. We sucked on our mouthguards – the only gear we were allowed – and waited to be called out into the center.

The first time I did it, I was thoroughly and intentionally humiliated. My opponent was a teacher who had heard whom I had studied under and took it upon himself to put me in my place. He had at least six inches and close to 50 pounds on me and didn’t give a crap that I was new to jeet kune do or to the school. I held my own for a while, able to parry most of his advances. I believed I was playing a game of tag, so I did not hit him full force when I was able to get through to his face or neck. Not long into the fight, however, he found my weakness: I hadn’t learned how to fight with my legs yet. Twice, he dropped me to the floor gasping for air with a knee to the solar plexus. When I got back up the third time, he finished me off neatly with a hit to the mouth and ended by slamming me to the ground landing full force on top of me with his arms around my neck. I barely had the strength to tap out before I lost consciousness from his strangle hold.

I went back.

After almost a year and a half of studying there, I was nearly at the top of my game. I wasn’t the best fighter in the class, but I wasn’t the worst. I could hold my own in the ring or on the ground with men or women of assorted size. Until one day, she walked in.

She was a tall, solid structured woman with cheekbones like a pair of loosely veiled Nike swooshes. Her short hair was curled into gentle waves the color of modeling clay. Having recently undergone open-heart surgery, she wore protective chest armor, a black square-shaped athletic breastplate. She was 74.

I didn’t want to hit her. I never ever wanted to hit her. She had that gray old lady hair and armor over her chest where they had tinkered under the hood and she even had an old lady smell: talcum powder mixed with lilacs or lavender, I’m not sure which. Feeble she was not, but there were enough sensory cues to turn me into an upright citizen. I wanted to help her across the street, not practice my elbow strikes and roundhouse kicks on her.

When we were working out, the gym often played some loud kind of driving bloodlust music along the lines of Rob Zombie. I wanted to make them shut it off. Surely it was giving her a headache. I cringed for her every time they made us run laps. What if she was incontinent? Or worse – what if somebody jostled her too hard and her chest split back open? What if her heart popped out like in the game Operation? It was too much to bear.

I was hopelessly distracted. I would be on the floor in the middle of practicing a jiu jitsu side sweep when I would accidentally look over and see some young man she was practicing with on top of her and ready to choke her out and all I could think was that I wanted to grab her purse and beat the living crap out of him with it.

On the day they paired us up for two-rule fighting, I wanted to cry. I already decided that I would let her win. She was bigger than me anyway, so it would look legitimate. I just couldn’t do it – actually fight her. It’s wrong to hit old ladies, isn’t it? There’s some kind of special circle of hell for that. I’m sure of it. It is kept even warmer than the rest of hell and smells like ammonia and mothballs. They serve liver and onions there. Every night.

We bowed to each other, and began a slow circling. I didn’t want to look like I was throwing the fight, but where was I supposed to hit her? Her face? Her arm? Her Milton Bradley chest? From the corner of my eye, I could see my teacher watching me with his arms crossed over his chest. I loved my teacher. I wanted to make him proud. He was the US kickboxing champion in 1976 and I had a great deal of respect for him. Sensing his disapproval, I knew I had to make a move. I flicked her. She threw a punch. I parried.

“Come on, Erika, you’re not afraid of an old woman,” he taunted from the sidelines over Cradle of Filth playing in the background.

She smiled—an undeniable evil glint to it. Suddenly, without warning, she charged me with a jab-left-right combo. Only she didn’t stop there. She followed with another, which was in turn followed by some full on chain punches. Taken off guard and without the safety of a breastplate, I was getting pummeled. Something inside of me clicked and I began to defend myself. And then it all fell into place. I crossed over from “I’m beating up an old woman” to “I’m being beaten up by an old woman” and when that happened, well.

I’m not proud of what happened next, but it was an important transition for how I would feel about the elderly for the rest of my life. Once I worked out that I couldn’t aim for her center line, I went for her legs, her arms, her old lady waddle. I had been forced to confront my bias. And that’s when it hit me. Old people aren’t children who need protecting. Old people are just young people with loose skin…that jiggles when hit.

In my head I have a quote I can’t attribute. I want to say it was Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Maybe Steinbeck. It noted (I’m paraphrasing) that we writers don’t compete with our contemporaries; we compete, rather, with the greats.

It’s possible it was Hemingway. Because there is another quote I can attribute to him, from a New Yorker profile of him:

I started out very quiet and I beat Turgenev. Then I tried hard and I beat de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Stendahl, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.

Even besides that profile, the idea of wrestling with the greats sounds like Hemingway, especially considering his running with bulls and hunting on safari and writing hills like white elephants and shooting himself in the face. Hemingway’s always struck me as though he was born smack-dab in the middle of a mid-life crisis he never actually grew out of, only they didn’t have tiny sports cars back then, so he had to over-compensate in other ways.

I got this idea, of rings and fights and competitions, in my head when I read that The Nervous Breakdown’s founder, Brad Listi, will be having a conversation with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk in mid-May at LA’s Largo at the Coronet Theater.

Fight Club the book was published a week and a half before I started college. I don’t remember hearing much about it until Edward Norton and Brad Pitt signed on to do the movie. Now, this doesn’t mean people weren’t talking about it. I could just be forgetting. I could have missed it for one reason or another (who am I kidding? I was probably studying).

“I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” I’ll not spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (though, really, it’s been ten years. What’s the statute of limitations on spoilers?), but I think pretty much everyone knows Fight Club‘s story is its title. It’s about a guy who meets a guy who wants to be hit as hard as possible, and I guess it becomes about male dissatisfaction and aggression and coming to terms with the fact that we’re not the rockstar gods we assumed we’d grow up to be.

Or something. There’s a lot of punching. Also some fucking Helena Bonham Carter (in the movie). Also some shit blowing up. Also, Meatloaf (again, movie) and his boobs. Also, a penguin.

***

I think one could make the argument Fight Club is about men dealing with emasculation; I’m not sure I would, but Fight Club is the sort of book—along with The Great Gatsby and American Psycho, for two—that makes me consider the idea of feminist literary theory, and seems to corroborate the necessity for a complementary masculinist theory. I’ve heard it argued that such a thing is not necessary because the male viewpoint, in a patriarchal society, is the default; I’m just not sure of that, and I tend to hesitate in making generalizations.

Still, I wonder if there is some connection between the idea of a fight club and masculinity. That single Y chromosome, despite its diminutive stature, is enough to change a lot, physiologically speaking, and the defining characteristic of male gender is a penis and testicles, the latter of which produce testosterone. So do ovaries and, to a lesser extent, certain adrenal glands, but when it comes down to testosterone, an androgen, a hormone that causes the body to exhibit stereotypically male characteristics—deep voice, hair growth in some places and loss in others—the primary source is the testes. Testosterone also increases protein synthesis in muscle cells, contributing to their growth, which is why bodybuilders use steroids, and bodybuilders’ balls shrink because their bodies suddenly think they have enough testosterone that the testes don’t need to produce anymore.

That increase of testosterone causes many other side effects, one of which is increased aggression—roid rage.

Which brings me back to the central question; not whether Fight Club is a male movie, but rather: who would you fight?

One of the movie’s jokes (among other things, it’s a deeply black comedy; is it really about masculinity, or is it satirizing masculinity? Must the two be mutually exclusive?) is when Brad Pitt and Edward Norton discuss which celebrities they would fight. Pitt, if I recall correctly, cites Lincoln, noting he was tall and probably had good reach.

In perfect deadpan, Norton states, simply, “I’d fight Ghandi.”

***

In finishing coursework to earn an MBA in marketing, I’ve had to write several business plans, and others concerning marketing and international strategy. Most of these documents contain a section that requires me to assess my competition.

Now, when it comes to these assignments, the courses always offer the option of using an already established company as model; some students choose companies like Google or Apple or Microsoft.

Me, I choose myself. I’m a bit of a narcissist like that. But seriously, I’m earning the MBA for the same reason I earned an MPW; for writers, I think knowing how to reach readers is as important as being able to produce something valuable to reach them with, so I think—especially nowadays, with Kindles and iPads and nooks—that writers should know business as well as they know craft.

Problem is, every time I choose to do a business plan concerning me, as an author, I have to write another section about my competition. The results always strike me as inherently wrong; am I really competing with Dan Brown or Timeline or The Time-Traveler’s Wife or The Historian or The Raw Shark Texts? I don’t think so (though that may be why I’m having such a difficult time selling the damned thing).

In a superficial way, the comparison makes sense: shelves, whether in book stores or readers’ homes, are finite, and only so many pages will fit on them. Writers vie with each other for precious shelf space.

But in another way entirely, we don’t. In that entirely other way, we compete not with each other but with ideas, with culture. We compete for attention. The fact that there’s room enough on the Internet for everyone might be both its greatest benefit and disadvantage.

To go back to the idea with which I opened: if we are to compete with anyone, should it not be with the greats?

***

Growing up Catholic, one of the expressions I most commonly heard—besides “You need to put on your God glasses” and “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”—was a question: what would Jesus do? Now, as my last TNB essay quite obviously demonstrated, when it comes right down to that question, I really don’t have a clue: I figure ride a pony, exonerate an unfaithful wife, have a meal with his friends (it’s worth noting I originally wrote “wife” there, then erased it. Freudian what?), die on a cross, that sort of thing. For me, wondering what he would do is fraught with more uncertainty than the situations during which one might actually ask it.

Still, the idea of role models, of mentors, is always useful, especially when facing a difficult choice.

I faced a difficult choice in 2005, when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school for writing. Articles about How to Choose the Right Writing Program for You tend to make the cover of magazines only writers read; you know both the articles and magazines I mean without my enumerating them. There’s probably an ampersand in the title, and each one tends to have a monthly quota of one article with a list of Ways to Pump Up Your Novel, one concerning How to Structure Your Memoir, one on a group of Agents’ and Editors’ Inside Secrets to Querying and Publishing, and finally one by a Current Best-Seller Encouraging Writers to Follow Their Dreams. We writers read each of the first three because we hope one day to write the last.

Most of the articles on choosing a writing program mention things like residency and financial considerations. Common advice is to choose a program whose faculty has written books you’ve enjoyed, or in the style or genre in which you hope to write and publish, but that just made me think of the writers I’d read: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Nick Hornby, TNB’s own Richard Cox. I’m fairly sure none of those writers went to grad school for writing—Crichton went for medicine—and only one, Gaiman, taught (at Clarion West).

I always wanted to be a mega-seller, but none of the faculties seemed to include really popular writers. I fear that dichotomy; if you look at the sorts of books millions of readers read nowadays . . . well, how about we note that the books that earn critical acclaim from prestigious institutions are often not the same as the books that dominate the best-sellers lists? That when New York publishing people start talking about the NBA on Twitter, most readers would probably be surprised they’re not talking about the Knicks?

I remember the relief I felt when I saw USC’s website. While there were a few names I didn’t know, I’d heard of Irvin Kershner; he put my first memory ever onto a screen. I’d also heard of Marc Norman; Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite movies. I’d also heard of Janet Fitch; I’d loved her novel, which had been chosen for Oprah’s bookclub. I wasn’t yet familiar with Sid Stebel, who became a valuable mentor, but Ray Bradbury said he was great, and Bradbury I knew.

Am I right that it’s a maxim that students are supposed to, ultimately, defeat their masters? As a teacher myself, my aim is for my students to master the techniques I’ve demonstrated to them so they can find their own ways, but I keep thinking of martial arts movies in which the students fight the master to achieve enlightenment. I’m thinking of Christian Bale fighting Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, of Neo fighting Morpheus in bullet-time.

I keep thinking of Fight Club and of Hemingway’s ring.

Truthfully, I never had much time for the greats. Fitzgerald could have used a better editor, Faulkner a POV. Hemingway was a pansy who overcompensated via hypermasculinity, Poe a drunk who married his cousin, Cheever a closeted bisexual who seemed to hate himself and his wife. Dickens wrote like he was paid by the word, and Bukowski should’ve flushed his beer-shit prose. O’Connor’s Catholic guilt bored, while Austen’s propriety grated and Bronte’s melodrama depressed.

So none of them.

No, I’d fight Shakespeare.

When I wonder about role models and mentors, I don’t consider the cross. I always ask myself: what would Shakespeare do?

(I mean besides Anne Hathaway.)

This week marked an anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and christening; he died on April 23rd, and was baptized on April 26th. There is no record of his birth, but custom at the time was quick baptism, so he was probably only a few days old; he might well have died on his 52nd birthday. He was called a lot of things in his time, including an upstart crow, but maybe not a genius. Really, he was just a writer who sat down every day to write words for actors that the great masses of audience would love, and they, by most accounts, loved him for it; his work was as popular as Rowling’s or Brown’s, and we’ll see if their stories last as well.

When I wonder what I should do, I always wonder what he would have done. Mainly because I want to do better.

***

Truthfully, of course, this is all flawed. When it comes right down to it, I think we writers know we’re in the ring alone, and we only ever wrestle ourselves.

Lately, I’ve been having this urge: I want to start a fight.

I want to step inside the ring, look into the liquid abyss of my opponent’s eye, and kick some butt.

I want to approach her as if I’m going to tell her a secret, and then hit her with a roundhouse elbow.

I want to insult her mother.

I want her to hit me back for real.

I want to call out my demons one by one and see her face contort as they come forth.

I want to work up a lather.

I want to start a fight club.

I want to pull her hair and call her a cheater. A lowlife. A yellow bellied marmot.

The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club.

I would break that rule.

I want her to act all huffy with me, like she has no idea what I’m talking about. But she does. She knows all about it. The pussy.

I want to run up the front of her body and do a back flip off her chest.

I want to observe spittle as it flies through the air, catching the light into a rainbow of death from the one uncovered florescent bulb above us.

I want to feel the satisfaction of watching her struggle to get up, and flop back down like a fish.

I want her friends to come running to her defense. I would take them all one by one. Two at a time. Three for three.

I want to send them flying like they did in ancient China.

I want to strain a muscle.

I want to be able to feel it the next day.

I want to make strange noises at the back of my throat and have my speech come out at a different pace than my lips.

I want to wax on wax off and paint the fence simultaneously.

I want to bust out of the ring and out through the doors. Head on down the street. Rough up an evil punk dressed up as a businessman talking on his cell phone. And an elderly woman. But the elderly woman would be an accident. I would help her back up.

I want to feel the horrified gaze of strangers as they watch the bodies hit the sidewalk all around me.

I want to be surrounded by a team of professionally trained men in black at gunpoint. I would level them all with a single, all-encompassing chi bomb.

I want to then run down an alley, where I would take on a posse of Shaolin monks-gone-bad, who jump me from behind a dumpster. The last one standing would beg me to teach him my arcane arts. I would refuse.

I want to sleep with one eye open and sense anyone approaching within a two-mile radius.

I want to sew up a wound on my shoulder using a rusty needle and thread in the privacy of my sparsely decorated studio apartment.

I want to drink milk from the carton and harbor a runaway.

I want to give birth while running for the train.

I want to taste blood in the back of my throat; feel the sting of scratches at my neck.

I want to face Death and make him beg for mercy.

…Or I could eat some dark chocolate and call it good.