Saturday, 28 April 2007

Cold War casualty

My Judo career collapsed with a bang and a whimper. UNIS held a tournament, and I was paired against the daughter of a diplomat from a Warsaw Pact country. I think she was a belt above my paltry orange status, but I held my own until I came down heavily on one knee. By heavily, I mean that I weighed well over 11 stone or 154 lbs (I'm just under 5'6" and hopelessly non-metric). My opponent went over to talk to her father while the ref decided whether we could go ahead. I might have been imagining things, but her stern-faced diplomat dad seemed to be telling her: "return with your shield or upon it" for the honour of the Soviet empire. After all, those were the days when the USSR was dosing female athletes with steroids to win Olympic gold medals. One small victory for Slovenia (not the real country), one huge step towards proving the validity of Communism and all its works. Alright, I was probably over-dramatising the whole thing, but then I was just 18 (though my daughters say I'm still a drama queen). I insisted on going through with the bout and lost by a fraction of a point. Soviet honour was saved and my opponent could return to hearth and home (I had less riding on the outcome - just personal pride). I spent the next few months recovering from a meniscus cartilage tear - a knee injury that is now common among athletes but was seemingly unheard of in the early 70s. When the x-ray showed nothing (the bones were fine), the doctors assumed I was making it all up to just get out of gym class (my gym teacher agreed). So I hobbled off and tried using a knee brace - wrong move, as it turns out, because it prevents the meniscus from moving and the cartilage from healing properly. It took years for sports medicine to catch up with my injury and heal me up before Capoeira damaged both knees more or less permanently.
There's a heartwarming postscript to this story. I put a Judo symbol next to my photo in the school yearbook and the teacher sought me out to thank me. He must have thought that my experience had embittered me against Judo and all martial arts. Far from it - I felt like a wounded warrior. Years later, my Judo skills would still stand me in good stead.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Judo at UNIS

Fast-forward to 1973/74, when I went to the United Nations International School (UNIS) in NYC to get an International Baccalaureate. I had decided to take the two-year course in one, as I had already graduated from high school and needed the IB to get into a British university. There were cultural requirements as well as academic ones, and Judo was among my options (the others I chose were playing double bass in the chamber music ensemble and orchestra). That's how I met Sonny Lwin (shown performing a flying kick in the photo). A former Buddhist monk and a grandson of U Thant, he also had a couple of black belts and the humility, good nature, cheerful disposition and patience to work with rank beginners like me. (Yes, I had taken Judo years before, but I had to start all over again and barely made it to an orange belt before crashing out in a competition with an injured knee - but more on that later.) Sadly, Sonny died recently, after battling demons that not even a black belt is equipped to vanquish. [Next installment: How I became a casualty of the Cold War]

Monday, 23 April 2007

From Kato to Kwai Chang Kane

I hear they're planning to do a film based on the "Green Hornet" series. I hope they don't destroy another favourite series from my childhood - the devastating blow to "Wild Wild West" was hard enough to bear. When the original "Green Hornet" came out in 1966, I had no interest in the masked white man in the dark green coat. For me, the fascination was all about Kato. Look at those moves! I had never seen anything like them. There was something so graceful and artistic about leg kicks and sweeps - they were much more exciting than fisticuffs. Of course, along with the rest of my generation, I was being introduced to Bruce Lee, who became a lifelong idol. I also loved "Kung Fu." One of my favourite episodes involved Kane, imprisoned in a Wild West jail, being put into solitary confinement in a searing hot tin-roofed shed. The idea was to either kill him or drive him mad with the unbearable heat. He promptly went into the lotus position and meditated for hours. To his captors' surprise, he left the shed fresh as a lotus, er, daisy. I always try to use that approach to stressful situations. (In Brazil this technique often comes in handy - especially during the recent air controllers' strike.) Years later, I learned that Bruce Lee helped conceive the "Kung Fu" series, and when David Carradine was chosen to star instead of him, Bruce went back to Hong Kong and became a legend.

First kick at a martial art

Here's the deep background: When I was 12 or so, my two brothers signed up for Judo lessons. Since I was the eldest and for 11 years and 5 months (yes, I was counting) the only girl, I decided that there was only one thing to do, for my own protection: I signed up too. Our sensei was Mr. Egermeyer, an American hairdresser with a black belt who looked like a Fat Buddha. He only played with brown and black belts because less-skilled judokas might hurt him (at least, that was my theory). We also had a teacher from Hungary - Gabor Kovacz. I had such a crush on him. He was a hairdresser too - somehow, in Westchester, NY, there was a beauty salon whose staff did hair by day and hit the futons in their spare time! I eventually dropped out, but when the same Judo team gave a demonstration at my high school, they invited me to join in. I demonstrated my favourite move - a "rear sacrifice throw" called tomoe nage, which involved dropping on my back, aiming a kick at my opponent's abdomen and flipping him over my head. Afterwards, the teacher I'd flipped (this one was French) whispered: "Too close to the groin!"
In the interests of full disclosure - and even deeper background - I was born with a disability that affects my coordination. It isn't too noticeable until I try playing sports. I can adjust for it when bowling but I'm hopeless at tennis. High school basketball was impossible. Once, at UNIS, a gym teacher actually asked me if I knew I should aim for the hoop! But Judo I could do - at least, I never kicked too far below the belt.

Friday, 20 April 2007

"As voltas que o mundo dá"*

“We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.”
- T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

I've lived in Bahia, in the northeastern part of Brazil, for over 20 years now. My original idea was to spend 3 months here and return to the US, where I had already been accepted by the UCLA History Department's PhD programme. After searching for Capoeira for nearly a month, serendipity (or my orishas) put me side by side with a mestre who ran a Capoeira Angola school. He invited me to take some lessons, I accepted, and for that and many other reasons, by the time I was supposed to leave Bahia (in the middle of Carnival) I'd decided to stay. One of the highest privileges I've had since then was learning Capoeira from one of the greatest mestres alive today - João Grande - but life steered me in another direction. Then, just recently, in February 2007, some 15 years since I'd last entered a roda, I visited him at his school in NYC, and he invited me to play a bout. Then he had me sit beside him and play berimbau. It was a huge honour and one of the happiest moments of my life.
"In my end is my beginning"
To paraphrase Michael Corleone's line in the Godfather, "Just when I think I'm out, it pulls me back in." Capoeira is more than a martial art. For a Capoeirista, it's a way of life. It changes your way of thinking and behaving and alters your DNA. This blog is about how I became a Capoeirista, starting with how a complete non-athlete developed an early disposition to learn martial arts. I can thank my brothers for that, in part - and it's probably no coincidence that one of them is now a Ving Tsun sifu.

*An untranslatable Brazilian saying referring to the strange turns life can take as "the world turns".