During the week of January 7, we’ll post a new installment each day. Use the TOC below to find your place.
For the late Hunter S. Thompson, breakfast was the psychic anchor to reality, even if the meal he held with such reverence included six lines of cocaine. I imagine the reason Mr. Thompson lived so recklessly and eventually shot-gunned a hole through his head was because of a black hole in his chest, one that sought infinite nothingness.
The desire for nothing—it’s a compulsion that comes too easily. I could give myself a bedsore the way I like lying down all the time. Sometimes, a shotgun doesn’t feel that far off. But, I only think that way when I’ve let myself stray too far from my path.
Throughout my life, the practical study of body movement has been my psychic anchor to reality, specifically the practice of martial arts. Like writing, martial arts have given me an outlet that gives my life purpose. The inherent joy that comes with perfecting movement and the desire to not lose to a lesser opponent motivates me to not be an asshole. The moment I stop training, even for two days, I fall into a black spiral of frozen pizzas, menthol cigarettes, and cheap beer. So I’ve got to keep the mojo moving. A ball in motion is easier to keep in motion.
Today, I wake up at 6:30 a.m. and wash my bedsheets. This will give me at least two hours where I am not allowed to lie down. With my sheets in the wash and the blue plastic mattress that came with my furnished apartment looking uninviting, I work on my novel for three hours. Then, I go to the pool and shadow box, warming my muscles. The blood flow lubricates my joints. Kicks go from low to high. Punches become more fluid. I work a good sweat before I lay out my yoga mat, a purple one with a pink crown chakra etched in the center. I stretch, saluting the rising sun with basic yoga poses.
My morning routine complete, I shower and cover my bed with the cleaned sheets. Then I nap. Before sleeping, I ask myself a question about my novel. What comes next? I close my eyes and forget the question, forget everything, and doze to the scent of lavender detergent. When I wake, I work on the novel for three more hours. Then, I grab my duffle bag and head to the dojo. Sitting in the shuttle bus, I pull out a hardcopy of the latest chapter of my novel. I breathe in and out with the mantra No Judgment. Fear without Fear to keep myself from taking a break and losing momentum on the novel. Imark possible revisions in story shape with a blue pen.
Before I applied to UCF for an MFA in Creative Writing, I Google mapped martial arts gyms in the area. If there were no decent martial arts gyms within an accessible range for a lonely boy without a car, I would not apply to the MFA program. I couldn’t find any Muay Thai kickboxing gyms that weren’t at least seven miles from UCF campus. All I could find within my three-mile range was a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu gym. This was no good. The flow of footwork between kicking and punching techniques gave me release, allowed me to feel good about myself on a consistent basis. Learning ground fighting would be like learning a foreign language. Learning a foreign language would be like sucking at something for a while. Plus, I was getting kind of old to be wearing a white belt. UCF barely made the cut for sufficient access to martial arts.
I take a shuttle from my apartment to campus. I walk through the Student Union and over a bridge cutting through an alley of trees. I take in the sight, breathing in the calm pulsing from the towering pines. I walk through the Public Health building on the other side and to the engineering stop where I take another shuttle bus to the Riverwind Apartments complex in Oviedo. The sun wanes, hinting of night. I walk around the corner toward a strip mall. A dead pedestrian shrine greets me on the sidewalk. This one is much nicer than the one by my apartment, with a clean plaque and a battery powered light to provide a restless spirit some comfort at night. Every time I pass this shrine, I think this one is nice—probably belongs to a white person.
I keep the mojo moving. A Hookah Bar, a Taiwanese restaurant, and a vape shop come into view. I veer off the sidewalk into the strip mall parking lot, making my way to Gracie Barra Oviedo, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu dojo.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a ground fighting system that originated from Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, an art that focuses on chokes, joint locks, and positional control. In the early 1900s, an influx of Japanese people immigrated to Brazil due to the new labor shortage on the coffee plantations. Some Japanese people who immigrated opened martial arts schools. Generations of Brazilian students eventually became masters and modified Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, paying more attention to the moves on the ground, developing an art that has been proven to be the most effective one-on-one, weaponless combat defense.
The story continues. In the 1970s, a third generation Brazilian master immigrated to Orlando, Florida, seeking a better life in America. He started a school that grew into four more in the Central Florida area. Then, in 2016, a lonely boy without a car born of Korean immigrants left Chicago and came to Orlando for his MFA where he started attending a martial arts dojo within an acceptable three mile range of his apartment.
The glass storefront of Gracie Barra Oviedo sparkles. Beyond the sitting area, kids grapple on gray mats. Banana bags for striking practice hang from an iron frame. This is the place members call the Black Sheep squad because of the dojo’s history as the unwanted child of a Gracie Barra franchise in Florida.
Inside the gym, an ease comes over me. I say what’s up to my professor, a black belt and a vale tudo veteran with kind eyes and a dangerous grin. Some of the students from the children’s class squint at me and bow. I look behind me to see if they are bowing to someone else. I think they have me mistaken for someone with authority. Seeing little white kids abiding Asian traditions trips me out a bit and fills me with an unearned sense of pride.
In the BJJ dojo, I take off my shoes. I bow to the mat before walking across. I bow to the mat before leaving to enter the dressing room. Some of my fellow martial artists are already here in their gym gear. I grin at them. They grin back. Today is a no-gi class, meaning no kimono and no belt. I put on a shirt tighter than any figure skating costume I ever had to wear. The shirt makes me feel cool and sexy. Sometimes at home, I wear the tight shirts and look at myself in the mirror.
Class starts. We start warm up drills, running in circles on the balls of our feet, forward and backward, high knees, karaoke step, tumbling drills, stretching, and wrestling and judo takedown entries. The heart rate elevates. I push through the initial discomfort, the hardest part of class. Once I break through the sweat barrier, I can hit a flow state and enter highway hypnosis. My feelings lift and I hop around like a monkey, because this is my natural state.
The technique portion of the class begins. The professor moves through if-then scenarios. While he teaches, I think about this nonfiction series you are reading right now. What if there were aliens? Should I just keep it nonfiction? Was it all a dream? And then everyone woke up.
A buddy at the gym nudges me in the ribs with her elbow, pointing to the sun setting beyond the glass walls, the wonder swirling impossible shades of purple and magenta. We stare together, part of us holding back because we don’t want to get in trouble for not paying attention to the lesson.
Everyone claps and breaks off into partners. I am paired with a newer white belt and I am expected to teach him what we just learned. I have no idea what we are doing. ADD is something I have struggled with since I was a kid, which was one of the reasons I write the way I do, and why my parents put me in Taekwondo when I was six. Focus and Discipline. While my ability to listen hasn’t gotten much better, I have learned to intuitively feel the major elements of concepts being taught or discussed.
At the end of class, we fight a gauntlet of eight minute rounds. I’ve gotten myself into a bad position against a superior opponent. My opponent is on top of me, grinding his forearm into my neck. Even though I am not in danger, I am about to tap because this sucks. I want to go home. But I think the difference between a white belt and a black belt in anything is perseverance. I start barking like a dog inside my head to DMX’s You Think it’s a Game?
For a moment, I think the opponent hears my battle cry, because he flinches. An opening appears. I swivel my hips out from beneath him, shove him sideways, and reverse, attacking his leg with a straight ankle lock. He counters and gets on top of me, digging his knee into my belly. I try not to die. I try not to give up. Back and forth we battle. The opponent is in much better shape than me and has better technique, so I have to be wary of how I use my energy. I let him grind me out while defending my neck and limbs until he thinks I have given up and leaves another opening. He rises to his feet in a sloppy transition. I swivel and latch onto his leg again, secure position, and slowly bend his ankle until he taps. We untangle limbs, slap hands, dap, and start again.
Translation: You just killed me. Let’s play again.
We re-engage in the clinch, feeling each other out for weakness. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they fight. One could argue that your fighting style is the truest expression of yourself.
Do you fight conservatively, waiting for an optimal moment to strike?
Do you use basic moves or flashy stuff?
Do you go for the Hail Mary?
Are you aggressive?
Do you mainly look to disengage?
Energy flows back and forth in conversation. My opponent and I are at optimal performance. Hunger, time, pain, sorrow—none of that exists. Even my writing does not exist. The flow state achieved through martial arts is one of the few things in this life that makes me feel less alone, gives me a sense of solace. Even if the moment is fleeting, I am reminded of how I live for the feeling of balance with all things.
A wall slam in the corner breaks me out of trance. My opponent and I stop and look over at two guys who tend to go too hard, usually white belts who feel like they have something to prove. They roll around like rabid monkeys. We look to the professor to see his reaction. He hasa manic grin on his face. Then we grin. I know this grin. It’s the same one I feel during natural disasters. This grin is the joy of chaos.
After class, we line up by belt level and walk a loop, shaking hands with everyone once. Depending on the person, I do the creepy finger stroke thing, because this is a moment to look family in the eye and let them know you appreciate them for spending time on the mat with you. When you spend hours a week sweating into each other’s mouths, eating accidental hairs and battle hugging, you’re going to form a bond. It’s only natural. In this respect, I know martial arts means that I will have family wherever there is a dojo, a family who comes from all walks of life. Some of them will even be Trump supporters. But on the mat, none of that matters. All that matters are the people who desire to grow their art with you.
After sparring, heat steams off my back like clouds, unfurling all my aggression into the sky. The end of class is the best moment. This is the best part of everything. I feel like I have the world figured out. We sit along the walls across the mat, stretching and chatting. In the back of my mind, as we pall around, I think this is the most loving martial arts gyms I’ve ever been a part of, a place I feel like I could belong to for a long time.
I think about my thesis for my Masters program, my Hail Mary at finishing my first novel. Finish a novel or don’t graduate and lose funding to finish school. I think about the ending of this real life story. It’s going to hurt when I eventually have to go back to Chicago after I graduate. But I know I have to go back to Chicago, at least for a little while, because as a kid who grew up under the construct of filial piety, family must come first. And to a lonely boy without a car, the family tree starts in Chicago.
But seeing everyone’s smiling faces in the dojo, a selfish desire comes over me—to be family with everyone. Everywhere. Not letting distance or time separate us.
The ending to my story in Orlando flickers. I thought I knew how the story would end when I first set out to write this series. Part VI. Lonely Boy Says Goodbye. The scene would be framed at the Orlando International Airport with me taking the plane back to Chicago, a samurai vagabond with a beautiful man bun walking away with his backpack and his thumb out, his pen and Lyft app his sword, a story where the entire arc wraps up nicely and neatly.
Still nothing to hold me back.
Still nothing to lose.
But life isn’t always so simple. Because two years is enough to feel like you belong to anywhere. To anyone. Two years is enough time to grow roots and feel like they are being torn out when you leave. For the first time, I wonder.
What if after I graduate, I stay in Orlando?