December 02, 2016

Weekend reading, 3 December 2016

[tldr: the payoff is at the end of the page]

Let's get back in the saddle, folks. This weekend's reading is brought to you by the fact that this week I was given my purple belt.

I started doing Brazilian jiu jitsu just over four years ago, and around about six months after my husband died. My life at that time was frenetic, over-saturated, hyperbolic: I felt like an electric wire that had come loose from its pole and was now lashing and sparking all over the road, an enticement and a threat to anyone who came near.

I went to GSW* because I was looking for something extreme. I had always been idly interested in doing a martial art, but equally, I'd always been put off by the stereotypical yelling and posturing that (according to the movies, anyway) go along with them. I loathe raising my voice, and all that hi-YAH stuff was very off-putting.

I also loathe doing new things in front of other people. It's the primary reason why I never smoked: I never wanted to look like that choking, gasping chump in front of my peers. It's a miracle, I've often thought, given my reluctance to look incompetent in front of other people, that I ever managed to lose my virginity.

But that period after my husband died was (unsurprisingly) like no other in my life. The bottom fell out of normal existence, and to my great fortune, my experience of that was freeing, not frightening. So when my yoga teacher suggested I might like to try BJJ at the club he trained with I went against all my natural inclination, and went along.

I had no idea what to expect. Today when I try to explain BJJ to other people, I sometimes say it's like full-body peaknuckle with armbars thrown in. For a visual explanation, try watching a couple of matches, like Michelle Nicolini vs Mackenzie Dern or Rafa Mendes vs Cobrinha. (I do not look like any of these people when I do BJJ.)

The single most important thing to wrap your head around with BJJ is that you do nothing alone. Everything is done in contact with a partner. There are no kata, no smacking each other with sticks or jumping up and kicking in the air. Like judo and wrestling, it works only when you are in contact with another person's body.

And such contact. The physical intimacy of BJJ is one of my favourite elements, because the sheer awkwardness of having another person sit on your head, or having to bury your face buried in someone's crotch, or dealing with the fact that someone's sweat is trickling off their head and into your face, throws you through normal social boundaries. The end result is either that you freak out about spending time in a room full of people wearing heavy-duty cotton pyjamas and pressing their genitalia against each other, and never, ever come back - or, you find a joy in being connected to people, in trusting each other, in being surprised (and occasionally appalled) by what the human body can do. The camaraderie I share with my BJJ friends is a constant wonder to me.

It took me about six months to stop nearly quitting every time I stood at the bottom of the GSW steps on the way to class: six months where I took a deep breath and made myself do this terrifying thing. It wasn't just the strangeness of the sport: it was putting myself in a situation where I was undisguisedly bad at something.

From a very young age I have fostered highly sophisticated techniques to avoid doing things I'm bad at. In fact, I often think I ended up moving into leadership roles because they are great places to hide yourself. At jiu jitsu though I could not hide the fact that I sucked. I sucked then, and more than four years later, I still frequently suck. I am bad at things far more often than I am good at them. I fail far more often than I succeed, and I've had to learn to not protect my ego, because doing that stops me from getting better. Someone said to me early on that if you're scared of looking stupid, you might as well give up. I still struggle with this all the time, but the more I embrace it, the more I love what I do. 

When you start doing jiu jitsu - at least, if you come at it cold, like me - you have no idea what you're doing. I don't know who this Sam Harris guy is, but what he wrote here totally resonates with my experience:
I can now attest that the experience of grappling with an expert is akin to falling into deep water without knowing how to swim. You will make a furious effort to stay afloat—and you will fail. Once you learn how to swim, however, it becomes difficult to see what the problem is—why can’t a drowning man just relax and tread water? The same inscrutable difference between lethal ignorance and lifesaving knowledge can be found on the mat: To train in BJJ is to continually drown—or, rather, to be drowned, in sudden and ingenious ways—and to be taught, again and again, how to swim.
Today when I roll* with white belts and they do inexplicable things, I cast my mind back to when I didn't know how to do jiu jitsu either. Getting my blue belt after about two years marked for me the moment when I knew enough to know how much I have to learn. Getting my purple belt says to me that I've learned how to learn, and it's time to stop being lazy and really knuckle down: I can avoid learning stand-up and De La Riva and Berimbolo (and continue to avoid looking stupid), or I get real and admit that this lopsided game isn't good enough for me.

This being bad at something, and sticking it out nonetheless, has evolved into the core attraction of the sport for me. Nowhere else in my life do I permit myself the luxury of learning like this. In my professional life, failure is not necessarily punished, but it imperils the welfare and reputation of far more people than just me. 

Three other things continue to give me so much more back than just fitness. One is my BJJ whanau. When I started at GSW, there was a blessed freedom in being in a place where no-one knew anything about me. At that time I felt so branded as a Widow, so soaked in Coping With Tragedy, that a room full of people who didn't know my story was the greatest freedom I could have asked for. Now I'm deeply embedded in the club and the thing I love is the utter diversity of it, the builders and psych nurses and lawyers and coders and students I spend time with. Sure, there's probably 100 men on the books and eight women, but coming from the art world this can be very relaxing too.

The second is the calmness BJJ brings me. When I started BJJ my head was a mess. On the mats, I found peace - I couldn't keep up my mental churn whilst making my body do these bizarre things. It took so much concentration to figure out how to put this shoulder there and that foot there and then get my butt up in the air, that I couldn't possibly think about anything else. Today, drilling is more like yoga, a kind of meditative activity, and I spend more time attending to other people's learning, but rolling is still a series of six minute encounters where everything else gives way to the need to choke someone before they choke you.

And the third is resilience. After I started I got adopted by a Brazilian dude who - among many other things he taught me - explained he was going to help me by holding me down and smothering me until I learned to stop freaking out. And it worked, maybe not from his lessons, but in general: today I think I handle stress so much better not because I go to training and take it out on people, but because through putting myself under regular physical pressure I've learned to manage all the chemical and physical alerts your body throws at you when you feel afraid. I also can't overstate how much I have gained in physical confidence. It's not just the mind-body connection I've developed, where I can tell my body to do something and miraculously it does; it's also that now that my body is honed for a purpose I can stop thinking of it as an aesthetic object to despair over. I might not have articulated it in the way Ronda Rousey did, but I get where she is coming from:
I have this one term for the kind of woman that my mother raised me to not be. And I call it a do-nothing bitch. A kind of chick that just tries to be pretty and be taken care of by somebody else. That's why I think it's hilarious when people say my body looks masculine or something like that. Listen, just because my body was developed for a purpose other than fucking millionaires, doesn't mean it's masculine. I think it's femininely badass as fuck because there's not a single muscle in my body that isn't for a purpose. Because I'm not a do-nothing bitch.
There is so much more I could say to you about jiu jitsu. I could talk to you about how I think this whole "it helps a smaller person defeat a bigger person" thing is bullshit (newsflash: a bigger person will always be bigger than you and if they land on top of you - well, maybe having excellent guard retention is going to help me out, but the likelihood I'm going to triumphantly rear-naked choke a 90kg assailant in the street and run off with his pants is fuck-all). I could talk about how new it is as a code, and how the whakapapa of the community fascinates me. I could talk about how I could still never hit or kick someone for fun, but for some reason entangling a guy's leg then trying to break open their knee joint is my idea of a great night out.

But the whole point of this newsletter was actually to get you to this point. Before Grantland closed David Samuels wrote an extraordinary piece for the site called One Hundred Years of Arm BarsMore like a short book than an essay, it chronicles the key family in Brazlian jiu jitsu, the Gracie dynasty, and the evolution of the sport from judo to a more ground-based practice through the 20th century to its incorporation in the commercially-driven MMA environment. Detailed, poetic and quietly violent - it's everything you want BJJ to be.

*Grappling Sports Wellington. Or Gospel Singers Wellington. Whatever you like: we are not a school that bows before they get on the mat.
*'Rolling' is sparring; 'drilling' is learning a move.