Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Not really. This is not about the latest Japanese anime jackpots I memorize with my five year-old son, the ones I learned with my sixteen year-old being now passé and just junk in the memory banks, along with therapods, velociraptors and the one hundred and fifty-two other species of dinosaur necessary to know at the time in order to make conversation flow. No, I just think “Pokemon” every time I hear the word Poekelan.

Poekelan, pronounced poo-kuh-lawn, is the short name for the martial art my thirteen year-old daughter and I are beginning to train in, an Indonesian kung fu form focusing on self-defense and light on competition, housed in One With Heart, a funky studio in hip Hawthorne, a neighborhood where I feel like an old fuddy-duddy, despite six tattoos and an alternative lifestyle.

This should be the beginning of one of those stories unfolding like an ABC Afterschool Special, in which mother and daughter become estranged by the inevitable tensions of adolescence meeting middle age, and are then reunited by their joint efforts to kick serious butt—perhaps after being shamed into it by the rest of the family, tired of the familial strife--who then use those kick-butt skills to save the family from burglars/kidnappers/terrorists, one of them played by either Denis Leary or John Goodman.

That’s not how this story goes.

My daughter and I ended up signing up for Poekelan partly because two of our past renters, incredibly cool women, taught there and told us about it enthusiastically, partly because we took a one-hour self-defense class taught by the studio when she was in fourth grade, partly because we did the Poekelan-based Three hours of Power self-defense for women class together two years ago (because she’s a petite blonde who could find self-defense useful in her future, as could any girl), and partly because we require her to be involved in some athletic activity as part of homeschooling this year.

Her older brother did crew when he homeschooled during eighth grade.

We hedged on signing up all last year, letting the issue slide as she meandered through seventh grade at home, and we had one of the most stressful years in family history, one in which despite our usual adherence to every holiday tradition, we never carved the pumpkins, sent Christmas or thank you cards, went to the dentist or noticed Mother’s Day, and aneurysms threatened on a daily basis from stress.

But fall arrived full of hope, and the pumpkins on our porch may become Jack-o-lanterns in due course, and I’m beginning to take the insistent advice of physician and therapist alike and exercise daily, including the bold step of taking Poekelan with our daughter.

She is fit and bold and nervous about new things, but more confident than I was that we could do it. We went to three introductory classes with Mas Emily, a kindly, straight-talking blonde who gave good instruction and made it all seem easy, if a little overwhelming at first. We graduated into white belts, involving a gratuitous amount of bowing toward photographs, and were anxiously planning on attending a real class shortly.

But three weeks passed and we hadn’t put on our gis.

Our daughter had her own reasons for not jumping in with two feet, and one of them was me. She couldn’t know that it took every ounce of bravery for me to attend even the three half-hour sessions with gentle Mas Emily, and that my fear around classes focused on my bladder giving out during warm-ups and my potential disgrace in front of twenty-somethings, including a cute lesbian or two. She can’t know, like I do, that it’s not only shelter dogs who pee when they’re nervous, and that even tough gals, like the mom who spent half an hour talking about her urethra lift in Costco one day, have lost the bladder control they once had due to childbirth and age.

But a thousand kegels later, I was willing to try.

This is where the story should go back to ABC Afterschool Special territory but doesn’t. On the first day of class I realize that over half the students are male, and all the teachers are; wait a minute, both our renters were women—where are the female teachers? And then, after barely surviving the warm-ups without having a heart attack (and I’d gone to a hospital for a panic attack only days before), it developed that we would be paired off with attacker and victim, and they expected me to be choke a young man almost the same age as my older son, and weirder still, I was expected to let him put his hands around my throat.

Meanwhile, our daughter was happily flipping the guy’s fiancée on the next mat.

But I thought, “OK, I can do this,” and continued, only to discover that Mas Emily’s standards of attack were calm and gentle compared to this student, who felt there should be a fair degree of verisimilitude in his attacks. Both his offense and defense were more physical than I was ready for, and it was only by glancing at my daughter and repeating, “I need to come through for her, I need to come through for her,” that I didn’t go out for beer and cigarettes and never come back.

I may be a mom, but I’m still me, I thought, wondering why on earth a woman who ran crying out of every P.E. class as a kid would ever consider a class like this. What was I thinking?

So, we made it through, our daughter loved it, my wife was proud of me, and everything was set for another class, with the expected lessening of stress that familiarity should breed.

The second class started well enough. I was in better shape (having begun a hill-walk each day to improve my stamina), knew more, and had practiced. Sure, I felt like a fool, but I was doing OK, and when it came time to line up and practice our throws, I was doing fine.

And then I watched the attacker go into action. Thick, ropey forearms wrapped around the boy’s throat ahead in line, and I couldn’t believe they were lifting the kid off his feet while he tried helplessly to free himself, and they eventually landed in a pile on the floor. Was that how it was supposed to go? Our daughter was ahead of me and flipped him with ease, though lifting him with her tiny frame was a struggle. And then it was my turn.

The first jarring note was when he manhandled me into position to strangle me, moving my body around as if there wasn’t a human attached; then he slung his arm across my throat blocking my airways and crushing my windpipe.

No, nothing was broken, but my mind—panic set in and outrage as well. This was my second time in class—was he supposed to be this realistic in his attack? Was I supposed to black out if I didn’t succeed in flipping him off? Was that the lesson for the day?

Somehow I stepped away, got the teacher’s attention and asked if he, the teenage attacker, had to be so forceful. The instructor looked at me like I was nuts—this was a self-defense class, right?

I was willing to try again, but the same thing happened, as soon as I got near, he grabbed me by the shoulders, positioned me like a mannequin, and tightened his grip around my neck, blocking my airways.

That was enough. I was out of there. And spent the next hour in the women’s changing room, alternately crying, angry, and disappointed in myself for letting our daughter down.

Eventually, I left the ladies lounge and sat in the hallway to wait, and one of the black belts, a muscle-bound man resembling the Jack LaLanne of my youth, asked me into his private sanctum to chat. Initially he suggested my reaction was personal—yes, I’d been throttled by a teenage boy before, a boyfriend who later went on to threaten me with a straight edge razor to the throat and talk about a gun—and while I believe his thoughts on muscle memory and triggers, it wasn’t post-traumatic stress that left me mad as hell, it was the overzealousness, the unfairness, of putting a student through that on the second day. I was more afraid than when I’d started.

Good job listening to your boundaries, my therapist said later, when I described the event in detail. She applauded my communication to authority, my unwillingness to overstep my safety lines, my willingness to even think about going back. She did suggest some desensitization exercises around my neck, but was sure that when I was ready I could “kick ass.”

It was two weeks before I could make myself go into the building and look to see whether the day classes were taught by women, had less enthusiastic assistant teachers, or were somehow different. With my heart pounding, and adrenalin coursing through me, Mas Emily came to say Hello. Before I could stop myself, the whole story tumbled out, my fears, my guilt, my sense of incompetence, and my rage, and she validated my feelings even more than my therapist and the black belt strongman instructor—it should never have happened like that on a second day she assured me.

The jury is still debating, but my daughter and I made it through a third class yesterday, after a re-intro session with Mas Emily the week before. When it came time to get throttled by the teaching assistant, another young man with ropey arms but more awareness of his strength, I passed. I wasn’t ready. And it felt good to say so. I paid attention, I learned, but I wasn’t ready to defend myself against airway blocking attackers.

Maybe at lesson four.

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