31 March 2011

falling right

One of the things at which I am supposed to be good but am not is falling. We practice falling all the time in fighting class, particularly in advanced fighting class, but I still suck at it.

When we do the scenarios, we are supposed to pretend to hurt the person by elbowing and kneeing them in specified places, and then take them down. Most of the time, though, we don't take the person down. It's the last stage and probably not the most important, because if the person is already incapacitated, you have the time to run.

Last night, I was working with a brand new student, and one of the longest-standing students was quasi-instructing. He came by to show the newbie and me what to do, with me as the demonstratee, and as he finished the scenario, he said, "I'm going to do the take-down," and he dropped me to the ground.

I do know how to fall. You keep your head tucked and you slap the ground with your hands at a 45 degree angle. I practice falling on an almost weekly basis.

I still fell directly on my ass. Tailbones, may I say, hurt a lot when you land on them.

Then today, one of the newer - and possibly overly-exuberant - students in advanced fighting class was flipping me in a grappling drill and tried to do it at a speed beyond his skill and got it wrong. He wrenched my back as he tried to scissor his legs, and I felt my back go pop-pop-pop along the left side.

"Are you okay?" the instructor asked, and when I said, "yes," from the floor, he calmly continued showing the guy how to do it right, while I, squashed underneath, wondered if I actually was okay, since I hadn't yet tried to move.

I was okay.

But I again feel like I've been beaten up. This is possibly because I have been, practically.

I crowed a bit when I got a knife away from an experienced student, and seconds later I was on my face on the mat, startled but unhurt. I have a lot to learn.

30 March 2011


I got my white belt in kung fu today.

I do accept applause.

You don't actually have to do anything to get a white belt, other than come to class and buy a uniform, so it isn't like there is a whole lot to be proud of, but somehow I do feel proud, all out of proportion with the fact that getting a white belt is not earned but given. (The bursting of pride I will feel when I test for my yellow belt will be probably unbearable. You will want to look away.)

The instructor ties on the new belt in front of the class, and as he did it, he gave me a little talk about the road to a black belt. I am a long, long way from a black belt, but for a moment it felt possible.

There are also a few new people, which means that I don't stand way at the end of the seniority line anymore.

Plus, the kicks and stances look about a million times better when you are wearing the uniform.

29 March 2011

radioactive rain

I went into the video store last night wearing my kung fu pants with my high heeled work boots. I was also drenched with sweat. It was a good look.


It's pouring down radioactive rain these days, more like midwinter than new spring. I try to use my umbrella in this state where umbrellas are practically sacrilege, to keep the minute levels of radioactivity off my skin, but I can't help looking at it and thinking, "it's just rain," just like I looked out at Liberia at night and thought, "it's just Liberia," when people told me it was unsafe in 2006. Sometimes it's hard to believe that something so familiar could even possibly be dangerous.

That, and everyone seems to die of cancer eventually, and I can think of toxins aplenty that will probably start my cells mutating before the tiny traces of radioactivity that is blowing across the Pacific Ocean.

28 March 2011

put together

I wrestled a 47 pound, 76 inch long box into my car yesterday, my new bed frame in about fifty pieces. When I got it downstairs to my bedroom, M. said, "Are you really going to put that together tonight?"

"Of course," I said. "I've put this bed frame together many times. It won't take me more than an hour."

Two hours later, after various stages of annoyance, frustration, cursing, and hammering (despite the late hour, and the kids on the other side of the wall), I finally had the bed set up. It's miraculous how much more space I have with a bed that actually fits the room, but it becomes clear how very much there is left to do. Like, for example, something in which to store my clothes. The laundry basket and a suitcase and the floor no longer look quite as practical a clothing storage site now that they cannot hide over there behind the bed.

I lived out of a suitcase for three months in South Sudan, and I promised myself I wasn't going to do that again.


25 March 2011


Gone West has never seemed quite so far away as it did tonight, maybe because I needed it so badly. I kept passing signs and thinking, "How can it possibly only be ten miles since that last sign?"

It really was only the same two hours it always is.

And now I'm in the K.s' living room, feeling the tension drain out of me and out through the door. What it leaves behind is exhaustion.

24 March 2011


I came back from advanced fighting class tonight (this week featuring how to break someone's elbow when they've wrestled you to the ground and how to tear all the ligaments in their ankle when they have you trapped between their legs), and I came down to my room because my roommate was having a party and the attendees all shared a single interest which is an interest that I do not have, and I thought about how much I love fighting class, and I wished that I had discovered martial arts much younger.

It isn't that I regret my lack of skill. You can only do what you can do, and nowhere is that more accepted and acceptable than in a martial arts class, where you all line up in the order that you started the class, but the belt colors do not necessarily go in the same order. I feel like I am progressing acceptably quickly. I am satisfied, anyway, and that is all that matters. Fighting class comes more naturally to me than any sort of sport I've ever tried, which isn't saying much, since I have been universally abysmal at anything requiring hand-eye coordination. But I work hard, and I get better.

The reason I wish I had started martial arts long ago is because of the people. I went to school when I was young, and I was good at school, but everything was stratified there. There were groups, and you knew yours. There were sports, but you had to be good at them to fit in on a team. I've never attended anything where everyone was as quickly and surely helpful and friendly as a martial arts class. It's a place where anyone fits, without really needing to do anything but work hard. I think I would have been a different person back then if I knew that one could interact so comfortably with such different people.

There is a teenager in my kung fu class who is probably fifteen or so, maybe younger. He is tall and gangly, and he seems to balance impossibly low in his stances on his spider legs. He is also just about the nicest kid I've ever met. I base this primarily on the fact that he says, every single time I end up near him after doing some ridiculous kick or movement that I can't actually do, "Good job!" with such enthusiasm that I can't help bursting into smile.

Today I was the only woman in the advanced class, again. We do this warm-up where one person lies on their back and the other person lays sideways over them, with their elbows on one side and knees on the other. The person on their back gets their arms under the top person, lifts their torso, and flips the top person over their head, then scrambles over to be the top person. (This is the drill during which I dropped the instructor on my head two weeks ago.) The flipping is very hard to do when you are smaller and weaker than the top person. The guy I was practicing with today practically threw me across the room, but I could barely heave him over my head, and all of me hurts now.

"This is especially important for women," the instructor said. "You have got to be able to get your attacker off you. You have just got to have the core strength." And as we finished the drill, as I hauled the guy over my head once again, I heard the female half of the owner couple and the top woman from the kung fu class cheering for me.

23 March 2011


I went to the symphony last week, and watching all the musicians in their uniform black outfits (women get much more flexibility than men, who all wear suits), I thought about junior high. Logical leap, no, but junior high was the last time I played in a band.

I played the coronet. I liked the coronet almost as much as I liked the violin, which is to say that I liked the idea of playing it a great deal, but I despised practicing and I was therefore never very good.

Our junior high band played in competitions every once in a while, and one Saturday morning my dad got up early to drive me to the school to get on the bus for a competition.

It wasn't until I was on the bus that I remembered that I was supposed to wear white on top and black on the bottom. I was, in fact, wearing light jeans and a purple sweatshirt. (This was the early 1990s.)

I had a fun day, anyway, even though I was 12 and wearing something totally wrong. I liked the band people. We played pretty well.

When we got the tape of the judges' comments, though, one of them said something about, "the girl in the back wearing purple," when talking about our appearance.

The funny thing is that I don't really remember being embarrassed. I should have been mortified, and I probably was, but it doesn't really stick out as The Most Embarrassing Moment of My Life. Maybe I didn't know enough to be embarrassed. I've either blocked out the embarrassment or I was still protected by the third culture kid obliviousness, and I don't know which.

19 March 2011


It was brilliantly sunny when I woke up (I don't even want to admit what time this was), and it seemed like a good day for a hike. The only problem was the weather forecast. Clear at 2, clear at 3, thunderstorms at 4. A short, close hike, then, seeing as it was already 1:15 by the time I started seriously contemplating getting out of the house.

A. met me at the trail-head just south of town, and the rain started just as I pulled into the parking lot.

We started out anyway. It rained for a while, and then it started hailing. Hail is one of those odd things that I never actually seem to see. The very first time I remember hail during my lifetime was in Nigeria in 1985. I was six years old, and I fell asleep and slept through the hail. I only heard about it later. That seems to have been my entire experience with hail up until today: I always just missed it.

Today it hailed right down on my head. I caught some of it in my hand, and it looked like tiny balls of snow.

Right as we got to the top of the little mountain, the sun came out. We took off our coats and sat on the rocks. I laid back, closed my eyes, and tried to soak up enough sunshine to stave off that frantic feeling that I get this time of year, the feeling that I will never be warm and happy again, because the sun is too often absent. I want to clutch at the sunshine. I want to keep it.

18 March 2011


Because I am a dork, I belong to a book group. Because I am an even bigger dork, I belong to a book group that meets on Friday nights, when the cool people are out partying or drinking or some such. I stayed late at work today, because I was behind on returning phone calls, and when I got done, I went straight to book group (minus a brief stop at Trader Joe's for some almonds and a sample of gnocchi with meat sauce, which I ate, including the meat. Lamb, check. Pork, check. Beef, check. I am officially off the wagon.).

The book group hostess had water boiling for tea. We sat down in a cozy family room with tea and snacks and books and conversation, and it was exactly what I needed after a week of running about putting out fires. After a few minutes, I could breathe again. I could have, had I not been interested in the discussion, laid my head down right there amongst friends and gone to sleep.

17 March 2011

inanimate objects reach out and attack me

I think this world is trying to kill me.

I just reached into the fridge and a vase fell off the top of it onto my wrist. For a few minutes, hopping around and tearing up, I thought it was broken, and I was not at all sure how I was going to get to the hospital on my own.

It's not broken. I don't think. It is just a very painful lump that hurts when I move my hand.

See also: knee pain from kung fu (I'm doing it wrong), general not-over-a-cold, non-allergies that feel like allergies, the massive hole I grated in my thumb with the cheese grater the other day that keeps oozing.

16 March 2011


I'm sleeping on the floor again. Not the very floor itself, but on my mattress, which is once again on the floor. It feels familiar, this floor sleeping, largely because I slept on the floor for about nine months when I moved to Gone West, although that was on an air mattress and now I have a Real Mattress.

How I ended up on the floor when two days ago I had a real bed goes like this: I bought a bedframe before I had a mattress because I was sick of sleeping on the floor and I could not afford both. I had some prospects for free beds, and one of them was a queen, so I bought a queen-sized bedframe, but I ended up with a full-sized mattress, courtesy of the K.s. This was all very well in my old place - I just used the extra space around the mattress (the bottom was slatted) to store things like my old long arm brace and my flax seed warming pillow.

My new place does not have enough space to play around with a bedframe that is six inches too long and six inches too wide. I need one that fits, so I can fit a dresser into my room. Being me, of course, I have been living here for five months and have not gotten around to this. I am literally still living out of a suitcase. I have an embarrassing tolerance for things like that.

Serendipitously, this weekend I found out that my friends needed a new queen-sized bedframe, preferably with open slats. Magic.

It's just that I had forgotten how annoying it is to have your mattress on the floor. I mean, where do you set things?

This is definitely going to drive me to the purchase of a new bedframe the very next time I get up to Gone West, the location of everything awesome, including 1ke@. (Hearts, flowers.)

14 March 2011


I washed my hands between fighting class and kung fu so that I could eat some almonds. There was only a half-sheet of paper towel left, and my hands were still dripping when I walked out of the bathroom. Just for a moment, I thought that I shouldn't eat with my hands until they were dry.

Then I remembered that the water is safe to drink here.

12 March 2011


I read a book this week that seemed to be full of very familiar stories. I thought it was just that they are the same stories that I have read over and over, namely African Tragedies of the 1990s, but then I happened to see the opening quote and I remembered that, hm, I have used that quote on my blog before, and then it came back to me that I have read this exact book before, not just many books about the same era.

When I was in college and law school, I read book after book about Africa, and since most of the books were written between 1998 and 2005, most of them dealt with the 1990s, and most of them chose to write about some combination of Liberia, Rwanda, and the DRC. Having lived in two of the three of those places and visited the third (only for a couple of hours), I'm always interested to read the stories, even if I've read it before.

Lately, when I read the stories of Liberia, of Rwanda, of the DRC, I can't help but feel this sinking in my stomach at the thought of all the people living their lives, trying to improve their countries, who were about to be in the middle of war. I want to go back in time and warn them so maybe a few of them can escape.

One lasting result of having lived in both Liberia and Rwanda is that there is no place on earth of which I think: it couldn't happen here.

When I was in Liberia in 2000, I was talking with one of my mom's former students, who had lived in Liberia all through the then-ten years of the war. "I used to think people couldn't do those things to each other," he told me, "but now I know that there is no human being who will not do terrible things to other people."

It's easy to pretend that such things can only happen in other parts of the world. We like to think they happen only in places like Africa, which as the book I just re-read pointed out, is a comforting and racist delusion.

But it could happen here. It could happen anywhere.

10 March 2011

the sight of stars

We are doing ground survival in advanced fighting class. Ground survival involves someone attacking you while you are lying on the ground, and you have to get very close to people you barely know. You have to put your nose in someone's sweaty neck, and however suggestive that might sound, it's quite gross. I think I mentioned that you barely know these people. It's good incentive to make you learn to throw them off and damage them.

Also, ground survival involves the instructor using phrases like "full mount," which, I may be about 12, but I find hilarious. You can't react to those phrases, though, because someone is about to attack you.

I seem to damage myself more than anyone else while practicing ground survival. I am not, of course, actually attempting to damage anyone. But last week I left with three large bruises and a sore neck. This week, I dropped the instructor on my head. It really, really hurts to drop a person on your head. I saw stars.

That was most probably the fastest possible way to learn how not to flip him. I did it right the next time.

09 March 2011


I took my morning break at a coffee shop. It took a while. I stood there, leaning against the counter, waiting, thinking, happy for the break.

Two middle-aged men in work clothes came in and ordered their coffee.

"You are so patient," one of them said to me, just before I finally got my coffee.

I smiled, but inside I was thinking, "This five minute wait for delicious hand-pulled espresso is nothing. In some places, you can wait an hour for a thermos of hot water and a tin of instant coffee. Ya'll haven't even seen patience."

I took my coffee outside, into the sunshine, and pulled a chair out near the road by the bike rack. I took out my journal and a pen.

A couple came out to unlock their bikes.

"That's so cool!" the guy said. I looked around.

This is the sort of coffee shop full of hipsters in skinny jeans and women in dreads holding babies. I am near the bottom of the list of cool people who frequent that coffee shop. I'm the boring one. He could not be talking to me.

But he was. "No one does that anymore! Everyone has switched to the internet."

"That's not the same at all," I said.

"Oh, I know. I used to fill notebooks like that all the time."

"The internet doesn't feel the same," I said. "It doesn't even smell the same." I gestured with my hand, as the guy said, "I have my old journals somewhere. I should go dig out one that is half-finished and start writing in them again."

I spoke, I gestured, and the journal went flying. It bounced off the curb, eerily reminiscently of the way Wallace bounced into that pit latrine in South Sudan, and it landed in the puddle on the side of the road.

"Except that things like that happen," I said. I got up and fished it out of the puddle, laughing at myself. "Oh, well. It adds character."

"Don't forget to burn the edges, now," the girl said, "to complete the look."

It recovered remarkably well, though. You'd never know that it had been in a puddle unless, you know, you knew.

08 March 2011


I think I'm going to give up chocolate for Lent. Never in my life have I given up anything for Lent, but I seem to have become far too dependent on chocolate. It's the first thing I reach for when I get home, like a security blanket.

It all started with mochi. Specifically, it started with the chocolate version of this mochi. That stuff is massively addicting. It's the brownie chunks. I cannot resist them. It's gotten to the point where I do not feel like my meal is complete until I have a mochi. This is a problem.

So I'm going to give this a try. We'll see how it goes.

When I was in South Sudan, my colleague from Central Asia was fasting for Ramadan when I was passing out chocolate and gave her a piece without thinking. She, also without thinking, took it and ate it. She told me later that accidental eating or drinking doesn't count. You don't have to fast for another day later if you don't realize that you are eating until after it's done.

That's my basic plan for chocolate: attempt to avoid, shrug and move on if I fail.

05 March 2011


I've been a mostly-vegetarian for a decade. I eat chicken, periodically, but I stopped eating any pig by college, and I think the last beef I ate was in Rwanda. So was the last goat. I've never quite been able to make myself eat lamb. The vegetarian concept started with ham when I was 8 or 9, when I figured out where it came from. We were still in Liberia, I know, because I remember which house was my school when I figured it out. For some reason, meat just seemed gross to me, and the longer I went without it, the grosser it seemed.

Then, a week or two ago, I went to Trader Joe's after work. I was so hungry when I got there that I went straight to the sample table, only to find that the sample was some sort of lamb... thing.

And suddenly I decided that I just didn't care. I took the lamb sample, and I ate it.

Last night, I met my friend L. for dinner in Gone West at a gourmet pizza place. "You're a vegetarian, right?" she said, as we perused the menu.

"I was," I said, "but I think I'm ready to eat meat again."

We ordered a pizza covered in house-made sausage with fennel. It was probably a bad place to start with the return to meat, though, because that sausage was so delicious that I am very likely ruined for factory-farmed ground chuck. When I was a vegetarian, I never missed meat, because I never liked it that much in the first place, but last night I caught myself forking up the pieces that fell off the pizza and eating them on their own.

Sausage is pig. I really cannot say what came over me. It's like I don't even know myself.

Further evidence: after the pizza, we went out for dessert. As we all know, I believe that mixing fruit, particularly cooked fruit, with anything else, is just unacceptable. Why would you mix disgusting cooked fruit with perfectly good chocolate?

As we looked at the menu, one man up by now, picking out three desserts to share, I was suddenly tired of that food prejudice, too. We ordered two fruit desserts and one chocolate, and I ate of all three of them.

I don't know why, but some switch has been flipped in my head, and now I feel willing to try whatever food is put in front of me.

02 March 2011


I've been doing fighting class + kung fu for a month or so now, and I'm starting to get to the point where, as long as I eat enough before I go, I'm still mobile at the end of the night, rather than wanting to collapse into a heap.

Doing fighting class and then kung fu right in a row is like listening to an ipod on shuffle: one song is metal and the next is soothing pipes. I mean that literally. The actual music goes from one to the other.

The movements do, too. Fighting class is immensely practical. We stand like boxers. We block with whatever we can. We keep our shoulders up and our elbows in* and we punch and kick and fight dirty if we have to. (One of the instructors loves to say, "Ladies, don't be afraid to gouge the eyes. Also, if you can manage to grab in the right area, grab, pull, and turn." He demonstrates, and we practice the motion, and all the guys hunch over in imagined agony.) We pummel the tombstone pads. We hold people's heads down and knee them. We kick low and hard.

Kung fu is probably practical, too, once you really know how to do it, but for now, for me, it is all stances and poses and mechanics. The poses have purposes, I know - that hand over the head is a block, and so is the angle of the knee - but for now they are just movements. I can't get into them fast enough to make any use of them. I can't lift my leg high enough to get any force in that kick. They are beautiful, though. When the whole class moves through the poses as I stand off to the side trying to figure out the most basic stances, it all looks like a dance. Everyone's heads are up. Their shoulders are straight but relaxed. Their hands are held gracefully. It's a far cry from the gritty street fighting of the other class, right now, since I haven't yet made it to the sparring class.

That is why, despite it taking up my entire evening on Monday and Wednesday and nearly my entire evening on Thursday (I haven't exactly figured out when I'm going to do things like, say, clean the house), I keep going to both. I like both of them. I have this fantasy that someday I will be good at both, that my body will figure out how to be both graceful and strong, even though I've never before in my entire life managed to be graceful.


* Sometimes we are required to just stand there with our elbows together and our hands up in front of our faces to train our muscles. At first, my arms ached when I did it for more than a few seconds, but now I am fairly certain I could do it all night. Many of us in the class keep our arms like that the whole time we do squats, etc.

01 March 2011

safe, part 2

Every once in a while it occurs to me that there are things that I do not worry about, in my safe suburban North American life. Today, for example, I was sitting in my car after dark, in a parking lot. The door was unlocked. I was looking for something in my bag when suddenly I realized that I was not worried.

I was not worried.

Ok, maybe I should have been worried.

But I wasn't.

People in this country worry so much about crime, about those isolated incidents that they read about in the paper (exceptions made if you actually live in a place with frequent, violent, stranger-to-stranger crime), but I am more and more struck by how safe people's lives are here.

We were talking about roadblocks, earlier, and I said, "Sometimes it still surprises me how long you can drive in this country without being stopped at a roadblock."

"Yeah," the other person joked, "it's been a while since you had an AK-47 stuck in your face, huh?"

I've never actually had an AK-47 stuck in my face. But the general idea, yes. It's been a while since someone with a big gun stood in front of my car and made me stop to answer his questions.

It feels weirder that it's been a while than it ever did to stop at roadblocks on a regular basis.