Sunday, February 12, 2012

Close Combat

This one is for my friend, Lisa.

I have never been in a fight. OK, I was beaten up a few times as a kid, once by a neighbor whose mother told him I threw a mud pie at their 1965 Oldsmobile when I was five. He was eight. Yes, I threw the mud pie, but in my defense, I was aiming for my friend Jerry. I missed. This woman held onto that for the entire day, and that afternoon, when the school bus dropped her son off, she came out, said something to him, pointed at me, and next thing I knew I was on the ground getting my ass kicked. I didn’t throw any punches because I was too busy guarding my face. Every drag queen knows never the face, never the face!

My father, the original Mister Macho, who tried to make Robert Conrad look like a flaming sissy, once gave my brother and me boxing lessons using the cushions on my mother’s mid-century modern teak couch. All I learned from that experience was that my father knew nothing about boxing.

Funny thing about my father, he always talked about all the fights he got into as a kid in Brooklyn. Once saying, “I’ve been beaten up by guys smaller than I, and I’ve beaten up guys bigger than I.” Actually, he did not say, “I.” He said, “me.” I just felt like cleaning up the grammar.

What is it about Brooklyn? Everyone who grew up there said they fought every day, yet none of them have cauliflower ears or crooked noses or missing teeth. Is this just an urban legend or is everyone from Brooklyn full of shit?

He also told one story about how three Marines beat him up when he was in the Navy. Apparently, they called him off a bus full of recruits, took him into a room, told him to straighten up his hat, turned off the lights, then punched him in the stomach. All mayhem broke loose, and when they were tired out, they cleaned up in the bathroom and had a good laugh.

My father also told the story about the guy in the Navy who never bathed, so he and two other sailors were ordered to take the guy into the shower and scrub him down with brushes. This was forty years before the Village People made their first appearance.

OK, a fight in the dark, and four naked sailors in the shower. Interesting.

Of course, he always followed these stories with the one about how he fell asleep in a Jeep, and the guy driving it reached over and fondled him. He immediately had him stop the Jeep, beat the guy up, and left him wherever they were in the desert. I have two problems with this story. Anyone who has ridden in a World War II era Jeep will tell you the only way to fall asleep in one is to be dead or passed out drunk. And what were two sailors doing driving a Jeep in the desert?

Needless to say, I did not inherit my father’s mortal combat history. I have also never been fondled in a Jeep. My loss.

I did manage to talk myself out of more fights than you can count on two hands, two feet and an open zipper. I have never punched anyone in my life. This is not to say I have not wanted to. I have also never put my fist through a wall, but then again, that is a very straight thing to do. Straight guys love to punch walls and doors. My friend Chris always said that one day I would get into a fight, and when I threw my first punch, all the rage I have held onto for years would come out, and I would end up killing the guy.

When I was ten years old, my mother thought it would be a good idea to enroll my brother and me in Judo classes at the Jewish Community Center. OK, Judo at the JCC – I am not even going to go there, but you can imagine all the Jewish mothers sitting on the sidelines watching to be sure Irving didn’t get injured or sweaty, and that he had nosh when class was over. OK, I went there. Our mother just dropped us off.

At the time, I thought it might be fun to horse around and learn to fight at the same time. However, Judo is not a martial art for those needing to learn how to defend themselves. The translation for Judo is “gentle way.” How often do you get into a fight in your pajamas? In addition, to engage in Judo combat, your opponent must also be barefoot in pajamas, and you must grab the collar of his pajamas in a certain way in order to throw him. But if he throws you, you must land on your back, throw out one arm and yell, “Hiyah!” with an accent on the “yah.” Seriously?

I am amazed I can remember that since it was forty years ago.

“Excuse me, sir, who just broke into my house, will you put on this snazzy white robe, take off your shoes, tie this lovely pastel belt around your waist, stand with your feet parallel and shoulder width apart, and let me grab you by the collar and throw you over my shoulder?  Oh, and don’t forget to flex your knees a bit and bounce on the balls of your feet. Thank you.”

No offense to Judo enthusiasts, but even at that young age, I found this martial art to be useless for self defense. I wanted to take Karate, but that would never be taught at a Jewish Community Center because you might poke or kick someone’s eye out. Or worse, you might injure your hands and not be able to take piano or violin lessons or worse hold a pastrami sandwich again.

By age eleven, my career in white pajamas was over. I did get up to yellow belt, but to go beyond that, I would have had to fight someone, and again, I am not a fighter.

Several years ago, while living in Mount Pleasant (which was neither a mount nor pleasant, discuss), they started offering Krav Maga classes at Bancroft Elementary School, next door to where I lived. A friend of mine’s partner, a lesbian of course, took the course and loved it. I would chat with the instructor as she would head to her car, and she tried to get me to join the class, but at the time, I really had no desire for mortal combat.

For those who don’t know, basically, Krav Maga is an Israeli self defense technique that roughly translated means “close combat.” It is a combination of boxing, martial arts, and other fighting techniques intended to take down your opponent as quickly as possible, so you don’t miss the early bird special with soup or salad, coffee or tea, and dessert. Jews are nothing if not efficient.

My idea of fitness has always been weight lifting and running. I used to run five to ten miles a day in all kinds of weather until a fateful morning in 2007. My bad hip slipped (there is no other way to put this), and I ended up having the sidewalk for breakfast. Now, being the Neanderthal that I am, I immediately got up and started running again.

Archeologists say Neanderthals had a very high pain threshold evidenced by the fact that their bones are full of self-set fractures. A Neanderthal could fall hundreds of feet chasing a Woolly Mammoth, break a foot, reset it in seconds, and keep running. I am the same way. I have reset at least two broken toes. I told a doctor neighbor how I did this once, showed him the black and blue toe, and he got squeamish and almost barfed in front of me.

I knew immediately something was wrong. My shirt was covered in blood, and when I reached up, I realized a part of my face was bleeding as I had a four-inch wide, two-inch deep hole in my chin. I took off my shirt, held it up to my chin and walked home. This was 5:00 am on 16th Street in Washington, DC. No one stopped or noticed me. Upon arriving home, Serena, who was by then completely deaf, had no idea I was home. I showered then drove myself to the emergency room at Washington Hospital Center. Fortunately, it was empty that morning, and they took me right in.

The doctor could not get over the fact that I showered and drove myself over. He asked if I was in pain. I wasn’t. He also asked about my swollen fingers, which apparently I had sprained in the fall. I didn’t even realize I did. I then relayed my Neanderthal factoid, but I think a part of him thought I was on some kind of controlled substance. He checked my pupils and seeing they weren’t dilated came to the conclusion that I was just a freak of nature. Big surprise.

Thus ended almost thirty years of running. I tried cardio machines, but moving in place and getting nowhere to me is the most boring thing one can do. Cardio machines gave me heel spurs, and you probably guessed, they make me whine, too.

Going back a dozen or so years, at age thirty-two, I decided to take dance classes, beginning with tap, then ballet and modern. I wasn’t all that good, but I did manage to dance for a season with the Palm Beach Opera, only because they needed someone over six-feet tall to dance with one of the women members of the ballet, as we were called. I wasn’t a women member, I was just a member. The choreographer retired at age forty after trying to choreograph me. Some people make shoe salesmen cry; I do the same thing to choreographers.

I took dance for three years, but when I moved to DC, transportation and getting to a class after work proved impossible; thus ended my dream of becoming the next Ken Berry. Besides, Kinney Shoe Stores were out of business by then.

I did try a class at a studio a year before I left DC, but I was the only guy in a class of twenty-five-year-old women, and frankly, I did not feel like continuing.

In the armpit of Maryland known as Rockville, there was no way to have any extracurricular activities because it took two hours to drive three miles.

But now, I live in Jessup, where I can go grocery shopping during rush hour and still be home in time for Diane Sawyer.

Some guys deal with a mid-life crisis by buying a car or changing their wardrobe, so they have more street cred. I guess my sudden need to try something totally outside my comfort zone is my way of dealing with the approaching date of my fiftieth birthday. I started thinking about taking a boxing class. It looks like a great workout. I still go to the gym every morning and have not missed a workout since 1977, but frankly, weight lifting is starting to bore me, and I only workout for thirty minutes now just to maintain, and I cannot wait to be done.

I have no desire to bungee jump, parachute, race a car, ski, grow a beard, wear bikini underwear, or date a younger woman, but I think hitting someone would be a fantastic stress reliever. Working as a government contractor, I tend to think about hitting people all the time.

One Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I was watching a Jersey Shore marathon on MTV, and there was an advertisement for Krav Maga Maryland, and they mentioned a studio in Columbia, which I could spit at from Jessup. I also knew where it was because there is a great Asian-fusion restaurant in the same strip mall. I could drive there in seven minutes any time of day, and I could stop at Walmart on the way home. Win-win. The next day I called about classes.

I met with one of the trainers that week, and he explained the classes and the schedule and asked me what I did for a living and why I wanted to do this. I gave him the quick version of what you just read, and I signed up. After signing up, he took me over to the where they sell the equipment and told me I would need padded gloves and a cup. I understood about the gloves, but I didn’t understand the need for a cup. Apparently, there is a lot of crotch kicking in Krav Maga. “Excuse me, could we amend that contract I just signed?” He didn’t grab the cup and show me which one to get, he pointed from a distance. I said, “I haven’t put it on yet, so there is no reason to worry about touching it.”

I informed him that I would shop for those items elsewhere to get a better deal. I stopped at Walmart, and they had the same brand cup and gloves for one quarter the price, so I bought four of each. That way I could clean them after every use and not miss a class.

On Saturday, I arrived for my first class, wearing my new cup and gloves. Being a Saturday morning class, there were about forty of us in there, and thankfully, a range of ages from thirty years younger than I to around two years younger than I. Yes, I was the alta cocker in the room.

Everyone, including me, was wearing black sweat pants and black or gray T-shirts and tennis shoes or those weird socks with the toes in them that I find creepy. I was the only one in Chuck Taylors, except for the instructor. Yes, the tall drink of twenty-something water teaching the class shared my taste in shoes. We had a connection; he just didn’t know it yet.

There was one exception – there always is. One guy was barefoot, wearing red short shorts, a pink shirt, and aviator glasses. He also had the Tom Selleck mustache. I pictured him living in the house at the end of the cul-de-sac with a train set in his basement. I made a mental note not to partner with him. No need to be the crazy magnet during my first class.

The class started with running around the room for five minutes, then push-ups, then running backwards for another five, and guess who ran backwards right into me, knocking me on my fat ass? Yep, my magnet brought the weirdo right into me. He couldn’t knock someone else over. It had to be I? I bounced up immediately, as I always do, and kept moving.

We then ran sideways then did these jumps with push-ups between, and I thought I was going to die. The class was only six minutes in, and I was going to have a heart attack in a studio in a strip mall in Columbia, Maryland. I could see the obit. “Obscure blog writer and Gay Jew from a trailer park collapses in Hebrew self defense class during the warm up. No film at eleven.”

I somehow caught my breath, and the punching began. My partner was a guy who was shorter than I but could punch me through a wall if he wanted to. You hold a pad in front of you, while your partner punches you in combinations you call out, but my favorite part was when you say down, he drops and does five push-ups while you run to another part of the room, and he has to find you and begin punching you again. Then you switch. The theory behind this is that most fights happen because you see a love one being attacked and you might get knocked down and have to chase the guy.

To be clear, I am not chasing anyone. The only running I do now is to the 7-Eleven for a pint of ice cream.

At one point, the instructor came over to give me pointers, and I told him it was my first class. When I took dance, I told them it was my first class for almost six months before they finally caught on. He asked how tall I was and then showed me how to adjust for my height. I never knew punching someone could be so much fun – no wonder straight people get into bar fights all the time.

At the end of that exercise, he told us about fighting people at different heights then said, pointing to me, “Your opponent could be … how tall are you?”

No matter where I go, I get pointed out as the freak. Whatever.

The workout is so intense that you are drenched in sweat, and the entire class stinks of BO, but that is half the fun!

The class ended with a very intimate moment. He asked us to pick someone who was nearest to our size. I got as far away from Jeffrey Dahmer as I could and picked out this six-foot-two, twenty-three-year-old, hunkalicious slab of masculinity. Then we were instructed to lie on our backs, while our partner got into a push-up position above us, wrap our wrists around his neck then allow him to crawl across the floor dragging us all the way. Once at the other end of the room, you switched positions. I was the second fastest one in the room. And honey, I hadn’t had that much fun with a man’s arms around my neck since Bush choked on a pretzel.

Thank God, I was wearing a cup.

I cannot wait until the next class.

If you want to punch something follow me, get on my mailing list, tell your friends.

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