I save coupons from packets of tea

Tuesday was a marginal evening: if I’d felt any worse, I would not have gone to jiu-jitsu. As it is, I still ended up taking an open-handed biff to the head and a shot to the gut in the course of scrapping that evening. Not to mention the eight to ten chokes that were demonstrated on me in various positions, plus one cross-collar strangle that I had to take an aspirin for the next morning. But the beauty of our school is that when you take a slap to the head, the attacker immediately asks, You all right? And I was, and I said so. My own fault anyway, not putting up a block. Plus – I learned some key stuff that I needed for defending against multiple attackers. So the class was definitely worth it, as they usually are.

Anyhow, forty minutes earlier: I’m in my apartment, munching some snacks to boost my energy and staring into the open cabinet I’ve just taken them out of. I’m reading the ingredients on the loaf of Multigrain 100% Whole Wheat Bread that I’d bought at the Shaw’s five days earlier, because I have a busy mind and my eyes needed something to occupy them. Whole wheat bread, the kind I use four slices of to make sandwiches for lunch every day. Multigrain; more than one grain; grains being Good For You, as every American student of the food pyramid could tell you. Probably the best cheap bread I could buy in a chain supermarket.


Shaw’s Multigrain 100% Whole Wheat bread has 100mg of sodium per slice and contains high fructose corn syrup. God damn it. So with four slices in two sandwiches, not counting what goes between them, that’s already 400mg. And high fructose corn syrup. Damn it all. I don’t eat greasy corn chips, I have maybe one soda a week, I drink water or milk with most meals and I still can’t get away from high fructose corn syrup. It’s not the health implications that bother me – I’ve been ingesting it for years and I’m fine – so much as the feeling of being stalked. I don’t feel that I need to cut HFCS out of my diet. But I’d like to know that I could. I’d like to know that the greasy fingers of Archer Daniels Midland aren’t stroking my hair as I wander the aisle of my favorite chain supermarket, steering my head towards its preferred breads, baked goods and gelatins. I’d like to know that, if the doctor told me tomorrow to expel HFCS from my life, I wouldn’t be limited to an index card worth of food. I fear an unlikely future of asparagus, rice cakes and apple sauce with a farmer and a sunrise and some synonym for Promise on the can. I’m all lost in the supermarket; I can no longer shop happily.


it doesn’t matter; put your fists up and instigate it

Every night after jiu-jitsu, as I stagger into the tiny curtained room that two dozen men change in, I play the where-am-I-bleeding game. We practice at a kids gymnasium; our practice space is four inches of foam rubber, atop flexible plywood, atop another four inches of foam rubber, the whole affair covered by a thousand square feet of cheap blue shag. As a workspace for advanced judo (tomoe nage, hane goshi, harai goshi), it’s almost decadent, a far cry from the thin mats on the basketball court of our BC days or the packed dirt of Nagoya rice paddies. But you have to deal with rug burn. So, as I strip off the heavy cotton gi, I check the backs of my hands to see where I’m bleeding.

It’s never bad, of course: a scratch, a few light scrapes. But after I have a few drinks with the other students, I go home, wash my hands and then apply bandages. A gangly adolescence taught me to ignore scrapes on my hands – which live something like a mile away from my head and thus my brain – on the presumption they’d eventually go away. But they no longer go away. And while no one dies of a scrape to the knuckles anymore (in the First World at least), it hurts. Every time I reach into my pocket it hurts. But there’s no good way to bandage the knuckles or the inside of your finger so you’re left with beige tape crossing your hands at jagged angles: your drunk uncle Ben taping up your Christmas presents.

And these aren’t rough, intimidating scars either. If you’re looking for someone who’s been in a lot of fights, look at their knuckles: they’re flattened and misshapen, broken from repeated forty mile-an-hour impacts against other people’s jaws. Mine are still whole knobs rising toward the front of my hand like cliffs, dotted with pinpoint scars. There’s the one from the sharp tip of a fake wooden knife. There’s the friction burn from the sleeve of my own gi. The two newest ones – which will become scars no matter how long I bandage them or how much bacitracin I apply – on my left major ring knuckle and the middle of my left pinkie, from when I stopped grappling for position with a man who has sixty pounds on me and just lay atop him, dead weight and sprawling limbs, breathing like a furnace with my left hand pinned to the blue shag, shifting from half guard to full mount an inch at a time. Not resting, but advancing with care (UPDATE: that entire last sentence sounds unwittingly pornographic; not at all what I intended; leaving it as written because, hey, what is a blog if not a history of first drafts)

where, only there; when, only then

Two blocks from the school where I study (and teach) jiu-jitsu is a bar called 21 Nickels. It’s built in the low, narrow style of urban bars: bar running from entrance to bathroom, row of bar stools, aisle and a row of tables. This makes sense in the heart of a city, where square footage is at a premium; less so in the Watertown suburbs. But architecture is a language; the space evokes a type of bar, just like the high ceilings and faux ranch construction of an Outback Steakhouse evoke a type of restaurant. Realizing that occupancy counts more toward rent than ambiance, however, the owners added a side car. Literally: a dining car, rolled up on the long-rusted tracks that used to bisect Watertown, welded onto the side of the bar and connected via two sloping walkways. The dining car’s windows, which look out onto the wild grasses between a clapboard tuxedo rental outlet and the local Armenian lodge, are framed with imitation velvet curtains.

The jiu-jitsu class goes there at least once a month, typically after the belt test and promotional on the fourth Thursday. The owner recognizes us and goes out of his way to accommodate our size and post-workout stink: grouping tables in the back, firing up a preliminary order of nachos before we even have to ask, pouring out pitchers’ full of ice water. Last time we were there he kept the kitchen open late. We migrated from our usual exile in the dining car (don’t mind us) to take over the front bar, which was empty save for a middle-aged Mediterranean romancing a bottle blonde with a tan like a Camry’s driver seat. Every time we’re there we order vast quantities of food and streams of beer, then try to split the check six or seven different ways. And they always oblige. Not that Watertown’s a bad neighborhood, but most bar owners would consider being known as “the bar where the jiu-jitsu school drinks” a sound business investment.

I can’t hang like I used to – I could never really hang – so I’m usually one of the first to go. 21 Nickels is covered in sports memorabilia, old press clippings and iconic photographs, like every local bar in every suburb in America. As I exit, I note one that strikes a subsonic chord in my gut every time. Google Image Search isn’t helping, so I’ll have to describe it; this’ll be a good exercise for me.

A white man – not just white, but white – in a turn-of-the-last-century suit and tie, chin at his chest, eyes closed, mouth curving into a smirk’s imitation of a smile. He hovers over the State House like a giant ghost rising out of the earth; it’s visible through his torso. Hundreds of hands reach up from the bottom of the illustration, clutching the air through which this titan passes. A vague limning along the top of the black-and-white drawing, perhaps meant to convey a halo over the hovering figure, suggests nothing so much as a slow dawning horror, especially as the rest of the picture is chiaroscuro black. The entire drawing invokes nothing so much as a Lovecraftian terror – Nyarlathotep, perhaps – and the listless hordes drawn toward him. “THE MAYOR OF THE POOR,” the caption reads. “ELECT CURLEY.”

everybody’s at disadvantage speaking with their second language

So I’m at a bar on Saturday with the other jiu-jitsu students after one of our own promoted to nidan, or second degree black belt. We rented the back room in one of the nightclubs on Boylston St, less than a block from where I work. The outside’s full of scheming scenesters with unbuttoned shirts; the back room is quiet and full of fellow students. One of these has just returned from a year in Israel, where he practiced krav maga four hours a day six days a week. He has a friend with him from Paris, who has black belts in karate and jiu-jitsu. The Parisian speaks good enough English to point across the bar I’m leaning on and ask, “What’s tonic water?”

“Well,” I begin, “it’s water that’s … tonic. Y’know, like in … gin and tonics?” My voice tightens, already apologizing for my own words.

The visitor asks the bartender for a glass of tonic, with ice, a straw (“a pipe”) and some lemon. He stirs and takes a sip. “It’s like a Schweppes,” he declares.

One of the reasons I want to be a writer – and one of the reasons I suspect I come across as a pedant – is because I’m always looking for the best possible way to convey something. I’m never satisfied with a “clear enough” explanation. When I give directions, they have to incorporate street names, landmarks, turns and fail-safes (“if you hit Trinity Church, you’ve gone too far”). When I describe someone, you not only need to know what they look and sound like, but which celebrity they resemble; if I can describe them in a way that makes you chuckle, so much the better. And when someone who speaks perfect conversational English asks me what tonic water is, I need something better than “it’s got quinine in it.”

I care more about whether something’s evocative than whether or not it’s true. Not that we can ignore truth – nothing turns me off more than the line or description that rings false – but it waits its turn behind the image. If I share a common language with someone but not a common culture, I want to find the words that bridge that history.

The bartender produces the gin and tonic I didn’t order. I was thirsty anyway. I slide a packet of bills across while the Parisian describes the search for a valid form of identification for the bouncers outside. “In the States they check your ID,” he explains. “In Paris, they check your shoes.”

I’m in love; what’s that song; I’m in love with that song

Last week.


“I’m just not sure if I’m doing the right thing,” she said, shrugging.
I thought for a moment, settling back into the couch. Then: “What’s the one thing you could do right now that would make you feel in control?”
“Driving somewhere.”
“The beach.” A pause. “Salem. That would do it.”
“Okay,” I said. “You want to go?”
“Yes.” Then she did a double-take. “Wait; do you?”
I checked my watch. “It’s only 10:00 now. There’ll still be a bar open when we get there.”



Someone on the Davis Square LiveJournal community asked a few months back for volunteers to practice Rubenfeld Synergy on. I volunteered because I thought it would be interesting.

Rubenfeld Synergy relies on gently shifting or pressing the subject’s body while they lay back. The subject describes how they feel while this goes on: what parts of their body are in contact with the table, how the realignment of weight affects the rest of their body, and so forth. It’s not a massage, or even acupressure. The subject has to remain present and vocal throughout.

It’s like assisted meditation. Constantly narrating how your body feels keeps you grounded in the present moment. You focus on sensations and abandon the stream of background chatter we all have in our heads. I came out of the session feeling the opposite of detached: very present, as if continually being told, “I’m standing, I’m walking, I’m sitting.” A very Zen type of concentration.

I wouldn’t ascribe any more mystical aspects to this than I would to meditation or massage. But it was interesting.


don’t get me wrong

Games People Play
I hadn’t seen Melissa and John in too long, so they obliged me for a drink at Drink, where Aaron served us a variety of historical cocktails. Mine were all whiskey-based; Melissa and John’s were primarily gin-oriented, if I’m not mistaken. We talked about Chicago and reminisced on the virtues of Boston. We also spent a lot of time talking about WoWcraft (their obsession, not mine) and tabletop gaming ( … okay, that one’s mine).

Despite the lateness of the hour, I stopped off at The Cellar for the vestiges of Sara F’s goodbye party. Only the hardcore drinkers had remained: Lisa C., Meghan O., Robert W., Taylor, Rachel R. And of course, me, who didn’t even have cab fare home.

The conversation turned to the games men and women play when courting each other. “Say you give a guy your number,” Robert posed. “And he doesn’t call you back for six, seven days. Would you still pick up?” Which is a valid question, of course, but exactly the wrong way to phrase it. If you asked a guy, “Say a girl is really hard to pin down and flirts with you but is never available; would you still be interested?”, he’ll answer no. When in fact the accurate answer is yes. Guys respond to that behavior like catnip. We just don’t like to think we do.

I wished Sara F. nothing but success in San Francisco*. She mentioned – completely unprompted – that she reads this weblog. And she makes a living writing blogs! This makes Sara Faith Alterman the Greatest American Hero.

Roll The Dice, Man; Roll The Dice
I had some folks over to roll dice on Labor Day. Auston, David F. and David M., Pete and Christine indulged my first halting steps with 4th edition. Despite nearly killing everyone in the second go-round, everyone had a blast.

Only this morning did I realize I had an entire fridge of Diet Coke left. I bought a twelve-pack of the stuff – typical gaming fuel – but forgot to offer it to anybody. People went in and out of the fridge all day, but were either too health-conscious or too waist-conscious to tap into the soda. And I almost never drink the stuff. Long story short: could anyone use some Diet Coke? I have some.

That evening I went to jiu-jitsu for some actual melee. Despite the soreness of not having really worked out for over a week – and taking several breakfalls from the head sensei – I enjoyed the exercise. One of the reasons I agonized for so long about moving to Chicago was due to feeling in a rut here in Boston. An easy way to change that up is to shake up my schedule, which is hardly fixed. So I’m going to be teaching jiu-jitsu on Sundays and studying on Mondays now. That, plus the move to the downtown office, should spark some interesting developments.

Put Your Picture On A Stamp
Here’s a brief glimpse into how my mind works:

Because I regularly send a modest check to the Institute for Justice** every Christmas, I get on a wide variety of conservative mailing lists. Yesterday’s came from the Law and Economics Center, urging me to write a check to help their efforts at “educating judges in sound economics, science and constitutional principles.”

From the letter:

For a small organization, they’ve attracted a good deal of attention. They’re often criticized in the New York Times. Al Gore attacked them in his latest book. Senators John Kerry and Russ Feingold tried four times to cripple the Law & Economics Center and failed every time. […] The New York Times, Al Gore, John Kerry, Russ Feingold. I suspect you’re thinking that the Law & Economics Center must be doing something right!

I have no love for the Times, but I dislike the presumption that the enemy of my enemy is my frenemy. So into the trash it went. Except for the enclosed Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope. I feel it’s a shame to waste the stamp. It already has my return address typed on it, so I could just get a blank label and use this for something else. But how often do I mail something? There’s the rent check, of course, but oh fuck what’s today’s date.

And that’s what found me scrambling for my checkbook on a Tuesday evening to mail a rent check eight days late. I would have used the SASE, but I didn’t have any sticky labels.

* Which I knew you couldn’t call “Frisco,” but apparently you can’t call “San Fran” either? “SF” is okay.
** Which has the coolest name of any think tank in DC. I expect to see Batman’s name on the letterhead. I challenge you to find a better one.

everybody’s going nowhere slowly, they’re all fighting for the chance to be last

Holly over at Pervocracy (NSFW text but image free) wrote an interesting post a week ago about the one safety class that every woman ought to take, but nobody offers yet:

I’ve seen a couple dozen assaults in my day, and about two of them were between complete strangers. (Both of those, incidentally, weren’t in “fringe areas” but in convenience stores. Perhaps we should teach our daughters never to go to 7-11, it’s just not worth it.) The rest were committed by partners, siblings, friends, cousins, my boyfriend’s weird friends he invites over, this john my pimp said was cool, and of course Sumdood. It’s sort of comforting in a way to think that threats come from “outside,” but it doesn’t reflect reality. You can creep through the parking lot with a can of mace and total situational awareness and then go home and get raped by your husband.

There’s a class I’d like to teach young women, actually. (Young people. I’ve seen a man streaming blood after his wife broke a heavy ceramic mug over his head.) Identifying and getting the fuck out of destructive intimate relationships. Not a brief sideline to Stranger Danger self-defense but a whole class on the real threat. Best for kids young enough to not be in serious relationships yet, but open to any age. It would save ten times as many lives as this “young ladies are fragile flowers that mustn’t go into the big bad world alone” bullshit.

Hell yes.

Picture a four hour seminar. The first two hour block would cover Signs of Abusive Behavior. Not just physically abusive stuff, but the psychological trauma as well. Does he act like a radically different person in private with you than he does in company? Does he make you feel dumb, weak or vulnerable? Does he threaten you? There should be lots of discussion on this, as a lot of people make excuses for this behavior (“but he takes care of me”; “but he says he loves me”; etc).

I’m not an expert on that part, so I’ll let someone else write that curriculum.

That’s the first two hours. Everyone gets a break to cool down. When they come back, all the chairs are pushed out of the way. The second two hour block is nothing but self defense.

You cannot teach a new student everything there is to know about self defense in two hours. You couldn’t teach it in twenty hours, and you’d have a well-meaning amateur after two hundred. But there are three reasons to include this part anyway:

  • Two hours of self defense, taught well, are better than zero hours.
  • It demonstrates to a willing audience that self defense is accessible – that it’s not the province of ninjas and commandos, but something anyone can learn.
  • If one technique sticks in someone’s mind and saves their life a month, a year or a decade down the line, it was worth it.
The first hour of this two hour block: learning how to strike. How to throw proper boxing strikes (throw from the shoulders, square the hips, turn off the rear foot). How to throw elbows and knees. How to use the base of the palm, the edge of the hand and the heel of the foot. Where to strike. Which targets will stun someone (sternum, throat, groin), which will break something (elbow joints, knee joints) and which will kill (back of the neck).

The second hour of this two hour block: responses to four common attacks. Why four? Because that’s pushing the limit of what a brand new student will retain. I’d feel better if we only did three, but we’ve got the full hour; why not use it? Maybe someone’s videotaping this.

Each response will have two variations: a submission response (control the attacker through pain) and a striking response. I include two different levels because of the potential variety of attackers. People talk about how “there are no rules in a fight.” While this is true, that doesn’t mean we completely ignore context. If your husband of ten years tries to sexually assault you because he got drunk and isn’t taking your “No” seriously, you don’t want to gouge his eyes out. But you want something that will get him off you immediately.

I pick these attacks based on some fairly common male-on-female assault scenarios (if anyone has some better suggestions, let me know):

  • Two-handed choke (attacker has both hands around the victim’s throat).
  • Lapel grab (attacker grabs the lapels of the victim’s shirt or jacket. This response can also be used for an attacker grabbing at the victim’s chest).
  • Pinning on the ground (attacker pins the victim’s wrists and kneels between her legs. Grapplers will recognize this as being “in the guard” and can guess at some responses).
  • Hammerlock (attacker grabs victim’s wrist and pulls it up her back)
We’ll spend fifty minutes working those. In the last ten minutes, everyone gets up in front of class and fights off one attacker, who uses any of those four at random. No model mugging suits, either. I’m not qualified to say if those full padded suits work or not.

Teach that two hour seminar at one major university in each of the fifty states and male-on-female assaults, murders and rapes would go down by a third in five years. The first two hours would teach prevention – helping women identify bad situations and get out of them. The second two hours would teach the cure.

As always, constructive feedback is appreciated.