Saturday, October 31, 2009
She gave me a puzzled look. I thought it was my Turkish. It usually is.
I said it again in English, making appropriate hand gestures -- "boom? biff?" I pointed hopefully at the punching bags. She still looked puzzled. Finally, one of the guys translated for her. Her boyfriend, as it turns out.
She laughed as if I'd suggested something whimsical but delusional. She didn't just say no, mind you. She laughed as if I'd asked whether she'd like to adopt a pet unicorn. As if I had tried earnestly to persuade her that unicorns are not hard to housebreak and don't shed nearly as much as people imagine.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Thursday, October 29, 2009
A few years ago, I certainly would have been bored.
Actually invented by a woman only a few hundred years ago, Wing Chun is a principle-based system, and a rather scientific one at that. A kind of ‘scientific street-fighting,’ Wing Chun lends Jeet Kune Do a lot of its principles (i.e. the simultaneous block and attack, the centre-line theory). This is probably not surprising as Bruce Lee started off learning Wing Chun and drew from its strengths. Strength and size isn’t [sic] an issue in Wing Chun, as the way the techniques are set up are to allow you to negate the attackers strength, flow round it and unleash your own attack. It’s often said that if you can’t make a technique work in Wing Chun without using your strength, then you’re not doing it right. It’s a very short-range system, allowing you to do some serious damage if a guy gets to close to you, before you run away. It has lots of nasty surprises for attackers; eye and throat jabs, knee stamps, neck breaks … that’s why it isn’t a sport, but a last resort for when you genuinely believe your life is in danger. But hey, it’s your life you’re saving, right? Seriously though, as with all these arts the best form of defence will probably always be a quick, vicious knee to the unmentionables, and then run as fast as you can ...Now consider this response:
The martial arts with “deadly moves” have a serious flaw: you can’t practice them realistically. As you say, “when you’re under extreme pressure, you fall back on what you know.” And chances are that when it comes to the crunch, you’ve gouged no eyes in your life, crushed no throats, stamped no knees and broken no necks. Miming doesn’t prepare you for the real thing.
Sports and arts that improve your conditioning and balance, ensure you get manhandled and hit very hard in training and competition, and include ungraceful all-out struggles with opponents of any and all relative skill and size differences will train your gross motor skills and positional instincts much better than eye-gouge katas could.
By all means incorporate dirty tricks into your fighting, but without real practice those are academic. In a rumble between a boxer/wrestler/muay thai bruiser and someone who’s practiced poking ping-pong balls out of a dummy, who would you put your money on?
The real essence of self-defense for women is to stay as far away from potential trouble as you possibly can. Change your life if you must. Move out of the crappy neighbourhood. Dump the wife-beater. Plan your walking routes. Travel in groups. Teach your kids respect for others. Make the world a better place.
The last point, I think, is inarguable. The others are arguable ad infinitum, and I have to listen to them being argued ad infinitum all the fucking time. If you hang around martial artists, you will inevitably suffer through a great many debates about which martial art is the best, and these debates tend to go on and on at great pointless length. I say “pointless” because the question itself is incoherent, just as the question “which car is the best?” is meaningless. We can rule out the Ford Pinto, but beyond that we won’t get far until we ask, “best for what?”
The Wing Chun-versus-Muay Thai debate is particularly noisy at the gym where I do Muay Thai. It is not unknown for the denunciations of Wing Chun to become so protracted and emotional that everyone forgets to train. It’s rumored there that I’m engaged in a dangerous flirtation with Wing Chun (or at least, a dangerous flirtation with a Wing Chun instructor), so the proselytizing efforts tend to involve a lot of meaningful stares in my direction. My conversion, I assume, will be complete when I publicly declare my loyalty to Muay Thai, assert my belief that it is the superior martial art, and denounce Wing Chun as being about as useful in a real fight as the mambo.
I preface what I’m about to say with a disclaimer: What do I know? I’m not qualified to speak about any of this. I’ve never even been in a real fight. This isn’t exactly Ramon Dekkers speaking. Most of my wisdom about the martial arts comes from watching fights on YouTube.
I love Muay Thai: There’s a reason I keep showing up at that gym. Quite a few of its techniques seem to me simple, effective, and possibly useful in a real emergency. But let’s also admit that some of these Muay Thai techniques are entirely inaccessible and impractical for anyone who isn’t a world-class athlete.
Consider, for example, this Muay Thai video. These are athletes of almost preternatural strength, grace and ferocity. Particularly consider the clinch with left and right knees followed by the flying knee-to-the head at approximately 52 seconds into the video. This doesn’t look easy, and anyone who has ever tried to do what they’re doing will know that it’s even harder than it looks. That the fighter in the video was able to execute that move with such exquisite timing is an athletic miracle.
That could not be a remotely practical or realistic maneuver for street self-defense—you’d have to be insane to think trying that would be your best bet in an emergency. I experimented with that flying-knee trick on a stationary punching bag the other night. Stationary, as in, not a moving target. Out of about twenty attempts, I managed to hit the thing with reasonable force maybe one time in four, and I damned near fell on my face without anyone even trying to hit, grab, choke or kick me. It’s a lot of fun as a game, but in reality? Leave that one to the professionals, kids. Practicing that move is probably no better an investment of anyone’s time than poking ping-pong balls out of dummy—not, at least, if the goal is to have a few simple, practical self-defense reflexes deeply engrained in your brain.
If your goal is glory at Lumpini Stadium, though, there’s your ticket.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
This is Egemen. He occasionally splits my lip, bloodies my nose, and leaves me covered in bruises.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Sunday, October 25, 2009
What are your reactions to the following items?
A. This video of a passive, helpless woman who allows her lowlife thug of a boyfriend to slap her around, with a caption deploring violence against women.
B. This article about an Indian farmer's daughter who disarms a terrorist and shoots him in the head with his own AK47.
C. This article about a would-be rape victim who fights off an attacker with a box cutter she just happens to be carrying in her pocket.
D. This video of the Carrano-Cyborg match.
This isn't a trick question. I'm just curious.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
It is a truism of psychoanalysis that depression is anger introjected against the self. The psychoanalysts are right. When at last you are in a social context where it is permissible, indeed encouraged, to haul off and slug something as hard as you fucking can, you realize quickly how much aggression you carry around with you, every minute of the day, how much energy you have spent repressing it, and how remarkably well you feel when you don’t. When you feel your fist make contact with a punching bag or a focus pad, and when you have put all your force, all your anger, all your energy behind the punch, and you fondly imagine that you've just hit that thing hard enough that had it been someone's head it would have exploded like a grapefruit on the business end of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, there is really an astonishing rightness with the world.
If you find this thought unpalatable, congratulations: Your socialization has been successful. But what I'm saying is true, alas. Primal violence is just below the surface in us all, in even the most mouselike of accountants. We just repress it, all the time, and thank God we do.
Let us speak frankly now, among friends. Hitting things feels great. We are not just talking about the familiar endorphin cascade of exercise. I used to be a distance runner. I know enough about exercise-induced endorphins to recognize what is and isn't their effect. I do yoga, too—I am very familiar with the rewards of pious non-violent exertion. This is different. Aggression offers a unique pleasure of its own. The point is unacknowledged by hand-wringing sociologists who lament the problem of violence among feral youths. They seem genuinely to have persuaded themselves that if only these hoodlums were loved enough by society, if only they had ample economic opportunities, they would lose their desire to attack people.
Forget it: They’d still want to. Perhaps they wouldn’t do it, but they would still want to. They’re doing it because they like it. And you’d like it too.
Obviously, there are other reasons to do this sort of thing, but this is certainly one of them.
Friday, October 23, 2009
In 2005, I moved from Paris to Istanbul to live with my then-fiancé. David, another American expatriate, lived here because Istanbul was equidistant from Iraq and the Balkans. It was a cheap and convenient base for a die-hard gonzo war correspondent, such as he fancied himself to be. For two years, we were happy.
Jump cut: I was approaching 40. David was out of work. The putative future father of my children had developed a keen interest in pirated Battlestar Galactica videos, which he watched alone in his study. Having completed the third season in extended daytime marathon, he announced his intention to return to Iraq and ride with Ba'athists, who were hoping to stage a comeback. Not long after this, we split up.
By that time, I'd adopted seven orphaned kittens from Istanbul’s mean streets. I couldn't take them with me, and I couldn’t leave them behind. I loved our apartment, with its beautiful view of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. I had planted a garden of yellow roses on our terrace. Not really knowing where else to go, I stayed.
I had not planned to be a single, middle-aged, American woman living alone in Turkey, but I was. Moreover, I was a journalist who wrote about Islamic extremism, neo-Nazis, corruption. From time to time, I received letters from readers who did not seem entirely right in the head.
I was writing a biography of Margaret Thatcher that year. Working in isolation, surrounded by her papers and photos and memoirs, it was easy to imagine that she was somehow in my apartment, floating spectrally above my computer in a prim starched blouse tied with a pussycat bow. She was always lecturing me, of course, in her stern, school-marmish way, delivering herself of homilies about the value of hard work and self-help. When she did this I hated her horribly. But I listened, having no other choice; after all, she was the only one talking to me, and at least she was speaking English.
Mostly, she inveighed against socialism—it could no better cure the British disease than leaches, she declared. But when she caught her breath, she castigated me for sitting around pointlessly in the evenings, playing Scrabble on line, and having conversations with my imaginary friend, the dipsomaniac former Prime Minister of Great Britain. I could, after all, jolly well be doing something.
I say this to explain, in some fashion, why I decided to take a martial arts class, but in fact the connection isn’t obvious: Margaret Thatcher was hardly athletic, and she had armed bodyguards, who would be far more useful to a woman in a fight than knowledge of the proper application of an arm bar. But something about my circumstances, and something about Margaret Thatcher’s incessant hectoring, prompted me to think it would be good to acquire skills in hand-to-hand combat, and if this makes no sense, I can say only that it made sense at the time.
I lived in Cihangir, one of Istanbul’s most secular and Westernized neighborhoods. It is full of cafes with cute punned names and lazy rich women with anxieties about their figures. There was a gym not far from my apartment; I had seen classes in something called Wing Tzun advertised on their website. I had little idea what that was, but from the photos it seemed to involve punching, kicking, and good-looking young men. I decided to give it a try.
What began as a whim quickly became an obsession, one not confined to Wing Tzun, and not confined to good-looking young men, either.
This blog is not, strictly speaking, about me. It is about the environments in which I found myself, and what I've learned from them—and what I could have learned no other way—about the real meaning of “patriarchal culture.”
It is about self-defense, and about what it's surprisingly possible for a 40-year-old woman to achieve as an athlete.
It is about martial arts personalities, martial arts culture, and Martial Arts Asshole Syndrome.
It is not a guide to martial arts techniques, per se. For one thing, I'm no expert—far from it—and for another, it's been done and done again. Instead, my central theme—the theme that goes beyond Turkey—is aggression, especially in women, and competition, and the extraordinary ambivalence people feel about both.