Please explain what just happened.

In 2001 the United States of America entered an alternate dimension, and the real world has continued next door or across the street running in parallel. We live in a world where there is a black president, half the country believes he is Muslim, and they don’t believe in evolution.

In the real world our president is of no consequence. In our world the sea is rising, rainforests are burning, crippled children labor day and night to make our fancy toys. In the real world people still worry about real things like love, and truth, and being a decent person. Our world is a construct, generated by fear and run-away technology. Our world doesn’t exist in the present, only in fear of the future and the nostalgia of memory. In the real world I run a small shop that sells ties.

Today is my birthday.

I was born thirty-one years ago at the Scripps Memorial Hospital here in San Diego at about 12:50 in the afternoon. A Cesarean birth, I came into the world buck naked, soaked in blood, and screaming my fool head off. I have every intention of leaving it the exact same way.

bow at the edge
bow at the line
              Hajime!
one step forward and it’s over
that fast
     no you sidestep
         grab
  resist        the other
hooks your ankle
     midstep
hip taps the mat
              Koka!
small point
                      not yours
one minute in and you’re already
        choking on your lungs
burning and blurry and down
             arm bar across your throat
  chin down clench every joint
          to your chest
     fingers pry but can’t unlock you
so the ref calls
              Matte!
                   reset
breatheHajime!
       grab\twist\kick\brace\block\sprawl\stand/step/fake/throw
    fall forward
            on top of the other
chest-to-chest-to-back-to-mat
              Ippon!
              win
bow at the line
bow at the edge

                                                                                                                                              breathe

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.

Author’s Note: The American Camp Association created a video in which actors and musicians share how their lives were changed for the better “because of camp.” After watching their video, I realized that I’d had a very different summer camp experience…


Because of camp I developed my first severe case of poison oak.


Because of camp I discovered that rock climbing didn’t build confidence, just bruises.


Because of camp my very first French kiss was with a circus arts girl whose tongue moved around in my mouth like a rabid skunk on roller skates.


Because of camp I thought that all girls French kissed that way, so I began kissing the same way too.


Because of camp hardly any girl ever wanted to kiss me. Only the crazy circus arts girl.


Because of camp I developed my first severe case of pink eye.


Because of camp I learned that I could lip-synch the hell outta “Stairway to Heaven.”


Because of camp I discovered that I enjoyed lanyard making far more than instructional swimming and horseback riding combined.


Because of camp I learned that the foxy girls rarely went for the lanyard-making guys—especially the ones with pink eye, poison oak, and couldn’t kiss for shit—no matter how good they were at lip-synching “Stairway to Heaven.”


Because of camp I discovered the true beauty of bouncing breasts during a volleyball game.


Because of camp I realized that I totally hated at volleyball, but kept playing because of the breasts.


Because of camp I discovered that the girls in the dance program were far hotter, and far better kissers than the girls in the circus arts program, but that on first hook-up the circus arts girls would easily go to third base, while the dance girls would only go to first.


Because of camp I discovered that most kids, without any hesitation or sense of remorse, would gladly torture and kill any insect or woodland creature they could get their hands on.


Because of camp I learned that I sucked ass in both carpentry and martial arts.


Because of camp I never got a chance to score with any girls I found remotely interesting because they were either getting scammed on by the male counselors or the guys that excelled in carpentry and martial arts.


Because of camp I learned to see backwards and forwards at once because no one could be trusted; especially the animal killers, the male counselors, and the guys that excelled in carpentry and martial arts.


Because of camp I took numerous enrichment classes—drama, SAT prep, photography—and realized that I only excelled in one: crime science forensics.


Because of camp I learned that, yes, I could still be severely depressed, even in the great outdoors.


Because of camp I discovered that there was actually a class for learning how to make your bed, and I sucked at it.


Because of camp I discovered that when you flip over in a canoe, once you hit that cold, dick-shrinking water and your balls go up into your throat, even your closest of friends suddenly adopt the mentality: Every man for himself.


Because of camp I learned to truly despise tie-dyeing. And balloon animals. And yo-yo tricks.


Because of camp I learned that I was prone to sleepwalking and snoring, but could make one hell of a Smores.


Because of camp I discovered that both golf and ceramics were a hell of a lot more tolerable after smoking a joint.


Because of camp I learned that the whole camp experience had very little to do with my parents wanting me to have an enjoyable summer, and more to do with them just wanting to get me the hell out of their lives for a month.


Because of camp I learned in religious studies class that if my parents didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their savior they’d go to hell, but that I wouldn’t.


Because of camp I learned that that maybe wasn’t such a bad idea: having my parents in hell while I kicked back in heaven.


Because of camp I discovered that the apocalypse didn’t necessarily have to be all war, famine, and death. It could simply be having to attend golf or ceramics class without a sufficient buzz.


Because of camp I learned that the girl with Bells Palsy—which made half of her face go numb and uncontrollable—would actually turn out to be the prettiest girl there after a week’s worth of antibiotics.


Because of camp I discovered beer pong. And consequently learned that what I lacked in ping-pong skills, I sufficiently made up for in drinking and barfing abilities.


Because of camp I learned that the kids on crutches always got the most attention. So during the night, when no one was around, I’d jump off the Smokey the Bear statue, trying to break my legs by landing on my knees. But it never worked.


I always landed on my feet.

________________________________________________________________

 

Final Note: A special thanks to the following people for sharing with me their inspirational (and traumatic) camp experiences: Jessica, Marlene, Desiree, Tony, Tammy, Meghan, Khadija, Jean, Tracy, and MJ.

And now, dear readers, if you’d like to share your own comments and/or summer camp stories, I’d love to hear them…


When your opponent is going to strike, and you are also going to strike, your body is on the offensive, and your mind is also on the offensive; your hands come spontaneously from space, striking with added speed and force. This is called Striking without Thought or Form, and it is the most important stroke. Learn it well.

-Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

 

I don’t go to Las Vegas looking for a fight but I end up with three of them anyhow. I win the first two, but the final one, the most important one, is giving me trouble.

My opponent is older than me by at least fifteen years and built like a bear, thick in the torso with stout, strong limbs, but surprisingly fast. Twice now I’ve underestimated his quickness and paid the price for it. He’s good, cautious, refusing to commit to an attack that won’t succeed and maintaining a solid defense. Trying to go toe-to-toe with him is foolish, so I keep my feet moving, waiting for an opening to present itself. The score stands 2-1, his favor.

This is final match of the Black Belt Men’s Heavyweight division. Championship bout. My first competition in twelve years.

As a teenager I did well enough on the tournament circuit to be ranked 5th nationally in my weight class, but I “retired” after my first year of college, unable to maintain the rigorous training schedule necessary for regular competition. I came out to Vegas because the promoters are friends who offered to comp my hotel room if I served as a judge. Competition anywhere other than the gaming tables was not in my plans. But that was before I turned five bucks into two hundred playing blackjack, and on a whim I signed up in the morning, galvanized by a sense of good fortune. I expected to lose in the first round, and I’m surprised–and more than a little proud–to have made it this far, and I know that I’ve already scored a victory regardless of how the match turns out.

But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to let this guy roll over me. Oh, hell no.

If he wants that trophy, he’s damn well going to have to fight for it.

He is, however, giving as good as he’s getting, and maybe a little more on top of that. Though I’m the more flexible of the two of us, faster with my feet, I have to keep surrendering ground to maintain kicking distance, and every time I do he presses the attack. I block a flurry of punches but I’m trapped up against the edge of the ring, and he scores with a lunging thrust kick to my belt. 3-1.

Despite what may be shown in movies and in the UFC, sparring in a karate tournament is less about brute force and more about skill, finesse, and technique, and even open tournaments like this one have lately been cracking down on excessive contact violations. Lower division competitors win by being the first to reach three points, but for black belts it’s either the first to five or a three-point spread: 3-0, 4-1, 5-2. It’s one point for a shot to the body, torso or groin, two points for a more difficult headshot. There are five judges in the ring, and at least three of them must confirm a point for it to be valid.

My opponent retreats a bit, trying to lure me in the appearance of an easy point, but I hold back, controlling my breathing and waiting for a real opening. Most of his previous attacks have come over the top, taking advantage of his greater size and longer reach, but this time when he lunges in I switch-step into a right stance and pivot on my right leg, launching a spinning back kick with my left. It’s a risky move, one that leaves me largely defenseless, and if I’ve fudged the timing I’m going to get clobbered. But my foot slips right on up under his elbow to land solidly in against his rib cage, and the judges give me the point. 3-2.

One way or another, we’re going for five.

I’ve never felt more physically sure that I’m out of my twenties than I do now. The previous matches have taken their toll on me and I’m bone weary. My limbs ache in a way they never did when I was a regular competitor, and I’m sharply aware of the heaviness of my arms and the dull ache in my left thigh that will most certainly turn into a cramp tomorrow, of the nasty silicone taste of the mouthpiece enrobing my teeth and the way the sweat gathering on the bottom of my feet is costing me traction on the ring floor.

We both attack when the center judge gives the command to start, clashing together in a flurry of mish-mashed punches and chops, close enough to taste each other’s sweat, to hear each other gasping for breath and grunting with effort. It’s a clumsy, awkward hit, and neither of us scores any points.

When the judges start us again, I get too aggressive, too cocky, very nearly giving him a free headshot and ending the match. I get my block up just in time, but he still manages to land couple of shots to my solar plexus as I do. 4-2.

My opponent thinks he’s found a weakness. He throws a roundhouse kick to my groin, but it’s just an easily-blocked feint, a cover as he tries to come in with a backfist-punch combination to my head. Instead of raising my block again I sidestep forward and under his attack, landing a couple of quick jabs to his ribs while he strikes the air where my head used to be. 4-3.

I’m starting to feel like I might actually have a chance of winning this thing, but I clamp that feeling down. Fights are lost by indulging it.

We circle each other warily, throwing a couple of feints, trying to feel each other out, but not committing to an attack. My opponent doesn’t need to score anymore to win; he just needs that two-minute clock to run down and the match is his. I know there are only a handful of seconds left, and my energy reserves are reaching a critical low.

Heck with it, I think. You had your fun. Give ‘em a good show on the way out.

My opponent’s strategy has been solidly based on linear backwards/forwards progression, so I for my last attack I play the angles, feinting sideways into hard right stance, intending to transition to the left oblique across his line of attack and deliver a roundhouse kick to his undefended head as he takes the feint and tries to counter attack.

But as I make the switch my sweat-soaked right foot slips forward as though it’s just come down on a stray skateboard, hard enough to make the muscles attached to my hip groan and throwing my weight forward instead of at the angle. I stumble, completely open and undefended, and my opponent moves to take advantage.

I’m screwed. My balance is shot and there’s no way to regain it in time to get my defenses up. And with out any traction available on the ring floor there’s no way to resist as my own center of gravity carries me forwards.

So I go with it. With all my weight balanced precariously on my right, I kick up and out with my left, aiming for the one target zone available.

It’s beautiful. Practically a moment of Zen.

My foot curves up and around like an inverted smile, whipping back into a perfect hook kick to my opponent’s unguarded head. It’s the kind of shot that gets the slow motion treatment in a movie, the physical equivalent of tossing my last five dollars down on a blackjack table and walking away with two hundred. It stops him in his tracks.

The judges’ decision is unanimous: two points to me for the win. 4-5

My left shoulder hurts, my ribs ache, I’ve pulled a calf muscle and wrenched both my right foot and right knee when I scored that final kick.

Damn it feels good.

You have just left work for the night, backpack slung over your shoulder as you make your way back to the car. It is 4:30 a.m. and still dark, the early spring air already laced with the coming summer’s humidity, and as you walk a fresh patina of sweat fills the void between your T-shirt and your back. Although the nightclub you work at is closer to the Canal St. side of the French Quarter, you habitually park on the far side off of Esplanade Ave., congratulating yourself on once again outfoxing not only the overpriced parking lots but the draconian New Orleans meter maids.

Four nights a week you make the half-mile or so trek each way down Decatur St. You find the stroll allows your mind time to unwind from the stress of work, and if it needs assistance, well, there are plenty of good bars along the way. The boisterous tourist crowds have largely vanished by this hour, and the few individuals you encounter are service industry employees like yourself, off the clock and looking for a little fun. You’ve got an early afternoon meeting with one of your professors, though, and a few blocks past Jackson Square you turn onto a darker cross-street, hoping for a short cut.

As you come round the corner a knife dances out of the dark, headed for your face.

At this point in your life you’ve been studying martial arts for just over a decade, and it is this and only this that prevents the knife from embedding itself in your cheek. Out of reflex you sidestep and the blade stabs the air where you just were. Only as it passes do you recognize it for what it is: a mid-sized hunting knife, single-edged.

Because of the darkness and the adrenaline invading your system like the Visigoths entering Rome, you get only an impression of your attacker out of the corner of your eye. The image is one of a scarecrow, dark-skinned, dirty clothes barely clinging to his scrawny tweaker frame.

He withdraws the knife and strikes again, this time slashing the edge outwards in an arc. In the movies this is always accompanied by a whistling sound effect, but in real life it is quieter than a whisper. You dodge again, backwards this time, nearly stumbling at the edge of the curb.

You spent some time on Maui when you were sixteen, learning Filipino knife-fighting techniques from an older Hawai’ian gentleman, methods to intercept and disarm, to cut your attacker’s throat or slash the femoral artery with his own weapon, but those blades were only hard rubber, the instructor only simulating fatal strikes and cuts. This is a total stranger trying to knife you to death on a dark street, unprovoked. His strikes are clumsy, but what he lacks in training he makes up for in aggression.

If he really knew how to fight, you’d be dead already.

You have a knife of your own, a two-inch lockback with a serrated edge folded away in the front pocket of your jeans. If you could get it out it would even the odds significantly. If only there was time, and you weren’t at this point operating entirely on adrenaline and muscle memory.

He lunges in and stabs again, this time aiming for your torso, and this is when your body slips into the defense. You get the footwork right, stepping off to his outside, raising your right arm to block the blow and entrap his knife hand even as your left comes around to strike the humerus.

This is not a fantasy fight, or a video game, or the carefully choreographed ballet of an action film; this is spontaneous, brutal violence in the real world, and nothing goes perfectly. Your block is textbook, but as you lock his wrist up you feel something slip against the meat of your forearm and a trail of warmth sliding towards your elbow.

His wrist feels almost like a chicken bone in your grip.

Your aim is a bit off on the counterstrike as well. Meaning to hit the pressure point just above the elbow, you bring your left arm down in a hammer strike dead on the center of the bone, and there is a sickening crack, more felt than heard, as it shatters. Your grip on his wrist must be stronger than it seems, because at the moment of impact it breaks as well. You hear, but do not see, the knife clattering to the pavement.

Your attacker screams, a cry of pain almost childlike in intensity. It’s loud enough to be heard for blocks. Clutching his ruined arm, he bolts away in the general direction of Bourbon St., deeper into the Quarter.

The entire encounter has taken maybe a handful of seconds.

You stand on the street corner, watching the space where he vanished, forcing yourself to take slow, measured breaths. Your chest feels as though a young Ginger Baker is using your heart for a drum solo, and you need it to stop, it has to stop, it’s actually starting to hurt.

Your hands, to your mild surprise, aren’t shaking.

While bending down to retrieve the bag you don’t remember dropping, you retch up the minimal contents of your stomach in a nasty green sluice. It is only now you realize you are bleeding, crimson drops mingling with the other bodily fluids at your feet. The cut on your arm appears shallow, but there is a slick of blood running from your elbow to your fingertips.

Fumbling with your cell phone to call the police, you notice it has been less than five minutes since you last checked the time. You rush through your report to the dispatcher, your mouth trying to move as fast as your heart. She tells you to wait, a unit will be coming as soon as one is available. When she asks if you need medical attention you tell her no.

While waiting for the police to arrive you step into the bar on the opposite corner, a place you frequent enough to be on a first name basis with most of the staff. The bartender gives you a beer without being asked. When you try to give him some money he tells you to go fuck yourself, then hands you a clean bar towel with ice for your wound. You drink the beer so fast you hardly taste  it. After two more your heart finally begins to slow down.

It takes the cops half an hour to arrive. They are both overweight and ruddy-faced, and behave as though it’s an inconvenience to be dealing with you. One takes your statement while the other collects the knife in a plastic evidence bag. When you describe your attacker the one with the bag snorts. “Fucking junkies,” he says. They have you sign your statement, tell you that they’ll keep an eye on the hospitals in case someone with a broken arm comes in, that they’ll contact you if there are any further developments. You never hear of any.

You make it back to your car without further incident, sticking to the well-lit streets. On the drive home you realize you have just survived your third–and most violent–mugging since moving to New Orleans. You wonder what that means.

In your apartment you sit in the shower until the hot water runs out. The retreating adrenaline has left your body feeling sacked and pillaged. You clean and dress your wound with the first aid kit you keep under the sink. The cut is shallow, and you close it with adhesive butterflies and a large bandage. It will heal into a thin but noticeable scar.

Your hands will remember the echo of human bone snapping like a twig between them for years to come.