Monday, October 19, 2009

She's gone /Oh I, oh / I'd better learn how to face it

It's the end of an era. The TMMB has shut down.

As inappropriate and harsh as that place could be, it was bar none the finest collection of incredibly smart, talented and funny people I've ever come across. People I'm proud to have conversed with. Soldiers, engineers, scientists, health workers, lawyers, alcoholics, bums, writers, professional strongmen, MMA/BJJ competitors etc. etc. etc. (and attractive women too) made that place astoundingly informative and entertaining. Before I make it sound like a paradise, I have to mention the incredible ability of even smart people to engage in cognitive dissonance, lie or refuse to listen. Stuff that was truly sad or made me incredibly angry that popped up there every so often. Stuff that I laughed for days about popped up too. Stuff that made me think intensely came along amazingly on the regular.

That board was probably the biggest factor in my transformation from an eighteen year old bad person to the twenty-three year old less-bad person I am now. In a way I didn't get often from the real world, it forced the rapid improvement of my analytical and writing abilities, while dramatically raising my standards for performance and conduct - both my own and those of others. Stupidity was not tolerated there and the community self-enforced in profane and hilarious manner.

Morons with entitlement complexes were swiftly ridiculed, banned or prompted to grow beyond who and what they were before. The board, along with the stories its creator told, helped me discover who I was, what I wanted from life and how I could achieve those goals. I made true friends there and frequently go on drinking expeditions with one who lives close by (as well as spoil his dog rotten).

To commemorate its passing, I post the link to Hall & Oates's She's Gone. I'll miss ya, TMMB. You weren't real, but the people that frequented you were. I'm sorry that my brother won't have the chance to surf you.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"They just fell out of your pocket."

So I tried an acrobatic move against Phil recently (for those of you interested in exactly what I tried to do, it's the headstand/waggle/fall at 0:56 of this Leo Viera video).

I failed.

Phil's about 225 pounds, a blue belt and turtles up real well. I'm about 163 pounds, so I basically went up in the air, waggled a little bit and then WHAM, hit the ground flat on my back. Phil didn't move. I'd done a lot of nothing without anything getting done.

What's more is that Phil, Victor and the others who were watching knew precisely what I was trying to do, who had made the move famous and had probably seen the exact video I'd seen.

So once I scrambled and managed to regain Phil's back, I look over and saw Victor laughing quietly. I look down and I saw Phil cracking a smile. I look to my right and I see Bryan looking at me with a "That was funny" expression on his face.

I don't mind failing, even on the "larger stage" the mat offers. So I smiled too and got back into it. There was no taking off of the shoes, one sock or crying going on here.

I tried it again with a lighter opponent again later. I got the turn and hooks in, but I didn't have the audience watching this time. So only you, dear readers, know about this success.

I love this sport and it's completely distracting me from the original purpose of this place. I even scoot out of bed these days on instinct. More on the Nepali side of things to come soon.

Enjoy the summer days and summer nights!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

What It's Like

Maybe you had a coach all up in your face, spit flecks flying and flinty eyes osmosing determination, telling, yelling, almost begging, you to Get out there and leave it ALL on the field. Win this for you. Win this for the people in the stands. Win this for me.

Maybe you saw a movie where that happened. Pre-sporting miracle, of course.

Maybe you never had that. I didn't.

Maybe that coach is hidden inside you and needs to be awakened.

I spar at least twice a week at my BJJ gym. We usually work with a partner of similar size for drills, but the sparring match-ups are on a different level mentally and physically. Some people have to sit out due to injury or there won't be an even number of people in the gym that day, and matches between someone 50 pounds lighter than me or 90 pounds heavier always happen. The intensity dials up dramatically and the sweat flows.

At least twice a week, Victor says "Pair off" in a strangely muted voice. I don't usually notice. Everyone else does and I swear that the atmosphere changes in the gym - this I notice - because it's time for the real thing. These sparring rounds are done at 70 to 80 percent intensity and can go for several five minute rounds, a half hour straight or anything in between. Any tap-out means a quick reset and resumption of "hostilities".

I drift to a random spot on the mats, take off my hearing aids and put them somewhere safe off-mat, eyeball who I'm up against, settle down into posture or guard, slap hands in acknowledgment and then wait for the signal.


When I first started, this was the signal to go ape-shit. Completely balls to the walls, max energy exertion. I'd immediately try frantically to do something - anything - and initially it'd work. I'd land in side mount or have something halfway in. Then the other guy would swoop right in for the choke. I would sit out for a match by the third round, gasping for breath. This got old fast

I asked someone what the secret was. He told me that I got tired doing stuff that didn't matter while my opponent just rode the storm out. Now I try to pick and choose my moments. Doesn't work real good, but it's better than what I did before.

My world shrinks when I grapple. During the workouts and drills, there's headspace to spare, people to watch, things to think about. My brain can run on multiple tracks. When Victor says Go, that all slides away into no-space and the lizard brain scrabbles into dominance.

That family shit? Gone. Worries about money or school? Gone. Frustration/bewilderment over a girl? Gone.

To focus so deeply on something that all the other tracks running trains of worries, desires or cares disappear is restful. And revelatory. This is the zone where I find out what skills and resources I have and gaze upon the enormity of what I don't have. This is where I find out in truth how I measure against the others.

Do you ever ask yourself: Am I good at what I'm doing?

Fight and find out.

The first 300 seconds isn't bad. My heart rate's up and I'm fresh. Even with the slower pace I set these days, I move quickly and surely. Sometimes even acrobatically. So does he (or she). The end always comes as a surprise.

I could have done more, we weren't finished here yet, what would have happened...

I let go of my opponent, sit up, slowly stand up, straighten my gi and face my opponent. The instructor tells us to shift to the right or left. We move to a different match. To a different mind, to a different set of strengths, weaknesses, predilections. Adrian likes collar chokes. Rich leaves the omaplota open a lot. Bill's working on his upside down guard.

The second matches are the ones that I have the best shot at escaping unscathed or even locking in a submission myself. I've made the change from remembering what it's like to roll to actually rolling again. In the flow, mind zinging, and the energy is there to take lots of risks, to experiment.

So, if I hang out here and keep this down, I can slide up my foot and Wow, I wasn't expecting that. Okay, worked/didn't work. Next thing...

The third match is the beginning of the slide. I used to think that this was my limit, but the combination of the new rhythym, getting more experienced and pushing through some mental barriers lets me go on. By now, I've usually gone up against one blue, maybe someone around my level and either another blue or someone newer than me. Maybe I get a solid row of blues, maybe I work only with people newer than me.

It's a shuffle. I admit to being tempted to position myself so I get an easier session, but the coach is there in the back of my mind. You didn't come here to puss out, did you?

I get what I get.

When the grapple permits, I look up and see Victor watching us roll, holding that stopwatch and barking out one or two word orders. With me, he can't bark those orders, so I have to be watching as he mimes the techniques or clearly enuciates the orders while I'm looking.

Sometimes, it's just a smile or a shake of the head and I understand him anyways.

By the fourth, I'm tired. Twenty minutes of grappling. I make a lot of mistakes. Arms out of position, legs aren't where they should be, holes open up. The coach inside is starting to rant and rave. I roll onto my hands, knees, forehead and breathe for a few moments after each choke. I look forwards to the end. A sense of duty propels me to shakily regain my feet, rearrange my rumpled gi, retie my white belt and line up again for the switch.

"Shift to your right."

Again? This is some sick satanic spin cycle of sweat, pain and jiu-jitsu, isn't it?

Usually around the fourth switch, I reach THAT match - the Lay it all on the mat match. Third wind. This is when I burn those reserves of energy I save for later. This is when that coach inside break into AlPacinoInAnyGivenSunday mode. The coach pushes me to do everything, absolutely everything, I can to win. Breaths come hard and I grimace. Any smoothness I had to my technique is gone. It comes in jerks and stutters. I make more mistakes. Stupid mistakes I know better than to make. I also learn how to succeed here too.

As I gain more experience in rolling, I'm learning to see the doors that the moves open. Even when they don't go as planned, there's alternatives, different routes to take. From my back, I can try the gogoplata (which almost always fails), shift to an arm-bar (sometimes works), perhaps scoot out and go for an omaplota (sometimes works, if it doesn't, I'm usually in better position), sweep (with the one plausible sweep I have, sometimes works), try to take the back, disengange, roll into upside down guard and so on. The doors were always there. I just had to build the instincts to see and to open them by being on the mats.

The next match is my breaking point.

It's hard to do anything right. I maintain position. I'm in straight survival mode. I left it all on the mat last match. I cannot reliably match thought with action - nothing works right anymore. The sweeps, the shifts in position are slow and the more you slow down, the harder you have to work because your opponent has more time to see the move and react. The coach inside is subsiding, angrily muttering and giving me dirty looks. When "Time" is called, I actually blank for a few blissful seconds. I get back to my feet, rearrange my gi and then look across the mat at my opponent. Sometimes the last bout is a good one and we're both happy with it. Sometimes it's a bad one and I'm frowning in disappointment. Or my opponent is.

No bout has ever been precisely the same as one before it. I don't know if I remember the entirety of them either. I think I remember just bursts, impressions, sections I didn't like, or moves that worked. I do remember vivdly the time my elbow went crunch in an armbar. John and I looked at each other with those Oh shit! expressions on our faces and disengaged before the pain hit me.

In the locker room, I stand with a subtle smile on my face because there isn't anything else I'd rather have done with my time. The coach inside is tentatively satisfied and knows that I'll be working in and out of class to come back again stronger, faster and smarter. Injuries be damned.

I'm pushing that exhaustion point farther and farther away now.

Victor added two stripes to my white belt recently. I wasn't expecting it and was honored. Now I'm trying to live up to it and then some.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Shouldn't have put it up

Had a post up here. It was an honest mess. I'll get an improved version back up in a few days.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

↑ ↑ ↓ ↓ ← → ← → B A

I had the beginnings of a post written up about how position was the key to BJJ and perhaps to life itself. Then Aesopian came out with this post.

That pretty much beats everything I can put out right now. But I'm going to try and salvage what I can by mashing up his stuff with my own and seeing if I get something workable.

I'm too new to BJJ to have ingrained conceptions of what works and what doesn't work. It pretty much all doesn't work for me. For the last two weeks, I gave up looking to get any submissions or chokes at all during the grappling sessions. I wasn't getting them and all I was doing was opening myself up to them. Ending the fight was two or more steps beyond what I needed to focus on: position.

A while after making that decision, I noticed that my entire conception of what I had to do on the mat had changed. I used to think that everything I did was supposed to get me working my way up this procession: Guard < Half guard < Full Mount < Back Mount. If I got bucked off, slid the wrong way or the guy escaped, I had to start all over from the beginning.

That was wrong.

Now I can see the beginnings of this:

Now, I don't want to sound like a big shot, but I strongly suspect that the person who wrote this up simplified it. There should be lines looping all over the place instead of the "all roads lead to mount" idea here. I say simplification because all those loops and lines would make the durned thing unreadable and make the whole thing moot.

Note how there are NO chokes or submissions in that picture. It's because control of the fight is more important than making the other guy stop breathing. BJJ is not really about preventing the other person from doing what he wants; it's about working to improve your own position relative to his at all times.

I was spreading myself thin by worrying so much about somebody going for a submission or choke on me. It doesn't matter if the opponent is in a dominant position - you can always work little by little to take the control back. Move a foot, grab a wrist, shift your body and then EXPLODE when it's time. Using that, I actually managed to get through one five minute grapple with a blue without getting submitted. I even managed to pass his guard into side control and get full mount (only to be bucked off).

Once I had that revelation down, I was ready for the next one. I quote the following from that Aesopian piece:
What happens when I think of mount as “guard from the top?” I get omoplatas.

What happens if I think of leglocks as a part of open guard? I use them as sweeps and don’t sacrifice position to get them.

What if I look for the harness grip and not just rear mount and two hooks? I can attack the back from everywhere.

What if I see how long I can hold on to an armbar or triangle position without finishing the submission? I see how people will try to escape while learning how to control them and transition to other moves.

I don't think I'm quite ready to do stuff like this - especially since I miss so many opportunities by not seeing them or being slow to take advantage of them. However, I need to keep chewing on this in the back of my head because this is about fluidity. Decision trees have dead ends. OODA loops don't. BJJ doesn't either. I can move from almost being put into mount, to standing and slap on a crucifix in about six seconds flat. The blues can do it even faster.


Nino isn’t content to simply use the omoplata as a sweep or submission like the rest of us. He camps out there. He meets the locals and takes in the sights. He can maintain it and control them despite their efforts to escape. He’s got a array of alternative ways to finish them. Sometimes he treats it like the crucifix and attacks the neck. Other times he attacks the far arm, simply using omoplata as his basecamp to launch attacks. Hanging off them with his leg tangled around an arm is a desirable and perfectly normal spot for him.

Look at other innovators and you’ll see something similar. They found a position (or a few) that they liked. It could have been part of something we already know, something they invented, or something they stole from wrestling. It worked for them and so they kept at it and figured out the elements that made it tick. They reduced these down to concepts and principles (or at least absorbed an understanding of these into their head somewhere). They learned the control points, where to grip, how to adjust, the leverage, timing, momentum, etc. They found how to get to it from other positions and fit it into their game. And maybe this new positions leads them to more new ones and further innovation.

This is the font of innovation right here. This is not something unique to BJJ. There is little out there that is unknown to all but a select few. Those that pick up something commonplace, work with it, play with it and make it do unforseen things are those that will eventually be rich.

So far, all the innovation I've made is doing the Macarena while in PNUT's guard. He laughed and then proceeded to brabo choke the hell out of me in about a minute. But I'll get there...

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Chokes and Mirrors

There is nothing like being choked out fifteen times in a row to bring your self-image back in line with reality.

I joined a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym a month ago.

I showed up on a Saturday morning in a t-shirt and shorts. After a short talk with the instructor, I was invited right into a class. I didn't do much right and I did almost everything wrong. I hadn't walked in thinking I'd be an immediate success, but honestly, I wasn't prepared to be that bad.

Guys almost half my size were constantly taking me down and showing me inventive new ways that I could stop breathing or possess freshly-broken limbs. The bigger guys were doing the same thing - only faster. Collar chokes, arm triangles, leg triangles, brabos, arm bars, knee bars, kimuras, ankle locks and rear naked chokes.

Haven't been in an omaplata or gogoplata yet, but I'm pretty sure someone's going to try and pull one eventually.

While I was being pulverized on the mat, every single person in the class - from the instructor on down - was willing and eager to tell me what I was doing right or wrong and what I should be doing or looking for. Everyone there wants to be there and not only do they want to get better, they want other people to raise their games - so they can beat 'em and get even better.

All I have going for me is the will to get better and the ability to show up four times a week for two to three hours of instruction, conditioning, drilling and grappling. And you know what? That's all it takes.

One of the coolest things about this experience is that I'm not sitting at a desk and having someone yammer on about equations and theoreticals. I'm being taught by proprioception - sensing where my body is and learning where it should be through short instructions/demonstrations, physical cues and actually doing the movements in drills and while sparring. Muscle memory and an ever-growing decision tree is what I'll eventually develope. Boyd's OODA Loop is going to come in handy here as well.

In a sport where the learning curve is measured in years, I've already improved significantly in a month. It sort of sucks that everyone else in the gym is better than me, but at least I can't go any further down. And I have some bitching bruises to show the girls.

(My arm)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

It's All In The Eyes (Racism in Nepal)

Racism in Nepal is a really goddamned weird thing.

My father, an educated and sophisticated man who has dealt with all kinds of things in life, including suspicious FBI agents after 9/11 (Nazi graffiti on a bridge he inspected), came back fron Nepal saying that Kathmandu was a "city that was moving very fast - so good to live in - but everyone these days is like this [he pulled the corners of his eyes back to show slanted eyes]."

That's pretty fucked up. What's more fucked up is that I had experienced something similar at the Baltimore ANA convention I went to a while back and understood exactly what he meant. I'm going to try and figure some stuff out on paper here, so bear with me.

Embedded in the religions that dominate Nepali life, by dint of institutional inertia, are structures that separate large groups of people on principles that shouldn't matter all that much, but do. Those reading this will probably understand it best as the caste system briefly mentioned in the Hinduism/Ancient India unit of high school World History.

There are so many ethnic groups in Nepal, that have been shuffled and reshuffled through migration and conquest rather often, that it seems both logical and completely wrong that there are tensions between groups. From my admittedly amateur survey of Nepali history, it seems that every twenty years or so, several religious/ethnic/socio-political groups who have the low rungs on the ladder band together and break stuff until they're placated. Most of this stuff has been low-level, quickly placated demonstrations and brief armed battles, but the 20th century has changed the nature of race in Nepal in a big way.

The Maoist rebellion, partly incited by ethnic divisions (as well as the usual battle cry of "More Bread, More Land and More Money for Me") comes almost twenty years after the massive anti-Panchayat street demonstrations of 1979. Those street demonstrations came about twenty-eight years after a violent deposition of the absolute monarchy and re-establishment of the same monarch in a more limited form.

I am Chetri, which is similar to Kshatriya - theoretically the warrior/ruling class - but not actually the same. In reality, being Chetri means that I come from a long tradition of farmers with some local influence and big families. I have something like 30 first cousins. I also look white, due to my father's unusual Iranian-like looks and my mother being a white American, and am 5'11'' and 174 pounds (well over the average height and weight for a Nepali male).

The lion's share of Nepal's money, land and power resides with the Chetris, Brahmins, Magar and Newar who mostly live in and around the major cities of Nepal. The mountain/jungle/plains people have had less of a say in what goes on for centuries now and they erupt periodically.

What's interesting though is that most of the immigrants from Nepal are Chetri, Brahmin, Magar and Newar. Many of the young are leaving the country for school and work, heading in particular to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Heck, I've been bringing members of my family for the last ten years over here to New York for school (with varying degrees of success).

That departure of the upper and middle class creates a vacuum, which the people from the hills and plains are filling. Kathmandu is flooded with young people from ethnic groups usually not seen in large numbers there. These younglings are eager to learn, primed to build their new lives and so ready to start amassing cool stuff they've seen through whatever forms of mass media. Most of them are young men (because that's how Nepali society works: women get much less than men do and often become manipulative and jealous bitches).

At the ANA, these guys dominated the soccer teams. They were all 5'7'' or shorter, many wore faux-hawks, dressed in Euro-hip clothing, refused to interact with the older crowds (who they weren't related to - ethnically or professionally) and drank the hotel bar dry. They also worked pretty hard at whatever lower-level jobs they held, led interesting lives and wanted more than what the old system gave them back in Nepal. Almost all of them were not with their families.

The older crowd does not understand them and even fears them at times. They feel the same way about their own kids, but since they had no hand in raising the faux-hawk crowd there is no smokescreen of love and forgiveness to blunt the culture shock. There is no longer one ANA or one Kathmandu. There are places where one big division is made (age line) and several smaller groups inhabit each division with lots of random particles bouncing around as they see fit. Not many particles cross that big line.

I was in a weird place because I could go with almost any crowd within either sub-division, being young, liking sports, more than willing to drink and I was related to or familiar with a third of the older crowd due to my father - who got pretty tilted themselves. So I tried out both, while spending some time by myself in Baltimore, and I came away with some cool new friends and a bunch of thoughts.

1) Being white-looking and essentially alone, I felt out of place a lot. What helped me get over that was having the courage to walk up to people and start a conversation.

2) The disconnect between the older crowd and younger crowd at the ANA mirrors that of Nepal. No wonder why very few Nepalis abroad understood why the Maoists, despite being a violent gang of criminals, weren't immediately stamped out. They tapped into the seething reservoir of discontent among the general populace. Guerillas can't survive without some popular support. Many non-residents have been away for so long and live in entirely different worlds. They don't know what it's like there anymore.

3) In the next fifty years, the ethnic groups will slowly dissolve and give way to independent collectives akin to those of Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age. Technology and consumerism WILL cause the ethnic ties to weaken more and more, allowing more freedom of movement and thought.

4) Nepal's education system is still fucked.

5) If I play soccer next year for the New York team, I could be pretty good.

6) Definitely BYOB to the hotel. Room parties are so much more fun than the crowd at the bar.

7) The people at the basketball tournament are, on average, much cooler than the general populace. There was a 6'7'' 270 pound center for Phoenix. I've lost my title of Biggest Nepali Alive.

8) Some people have no idea how to give a presentation. I'm not squinting to read the 200 words you just put on a Powerpoint slide, dude. It could be about Nepal's vast potential for hydropower or a cure for cancer, but I ain't reading it.

9) Getting things done matter more than talking. I've known this for a while, but gotdang, five minutes of actual work beats scheduling all kinds of conferences.

10) There are very, very few Nepalis who can talk honestly and insightfully about racism in Nepal. Some refuse to acknowledge it, some say they're not racist but show it in subtle actions and some are oblivious.