He kicked me in the stomach. Then he did it again. It was part of the exercise, after all. I put on the belly pad, which I have to strap over my hips to keep it in place because it’s so big. Or, rather, because I’m so small, which is what most people would conclude after seeing my husband partnered with me to practice push kicks. Nowhere, in no martial art, would you see us paired off in a ring together, several rungs apart in weight class.
We’re paired off in rings together, but they call that one a “marital” art.
It was one thing when my lawfully wedded spouse joined my martial arts school. It was quite another when he leveled up and joined my advanced class, doing in six weeks what took me six months.
At first it was cute. I knew all the instructors and their training styles, I got to introduce him around to my friends, give him a tour, and teach him about the different equipment. For the first time in our thirteen-year friendship, I was the experienced one in the trainer role. I admit I was digging it.
Then he started catching up to me, as I expected he would. I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. In recovery from herniated disks, we both assumed he would proceed slowly, with perhaps some setbacks and a lot of ice. Much to both our surprise, the strenuous warmups seemed to speed his progress. He still avoids Krav Maga, due to the bending and twisting, but I anticipate he’ll be in there within the year.
Picture a sine wave. Now overlay a cosine. That would be our physical states. I spent the first half of the year getting stronger and stronger, only to get sick just after I joined advanced classes. I’ve been struggling to get back in action, since the class is about three times harder than the beginner class. Every time I would feel well enough to start training again, I would push too hard too soon and find myself coughing in bed again. Meanwhile my hubby, who had been out of commission for nearly a year with severe back pain, was regaining mobility and strength by the day and feeling very pleased about it.
He started doing double-ups. Morning and evening classes on Fridays followed by Saturday morning class. He’d ride his bike home and bring hot tea for me to drink in my nest of blankets.
The balance of power shifted.
“You have the baton,” I said. We have a joke about this. For whatever reason, we rarely seem to be in sync on our fitness goals. Recall the months I spent training for my marathon while he went on a diet, and I resorted to hiding Nutter Butters in my office closet. I’m half his size and that summer I was eating twice his daily calories. I had the token ring, and I passed it off after I developed a repetitive stress injury in my ankle.
If we waited for a time when neither of us was hobbling around, we might as well just give up, climb into a pair of recliners, and float out to sea.
By some miracle, we found ourselves synchronized, in the same class at the same time and doing the same thing.
I wasn’t feeling all that great. I really only showed up because I’d promised to bring my man a clean workout shirt. I’d also hurriedly scarfed my thousand-calorie dinner right before jumping on my bike. In my boxing gloves and belly pad, I felt like a potato volcano about to happen. Just my luck that we’d be taking turns kicking our partners in the navel tonight.
“Turn down the heat, would you,” I asked plaintively. Calibrating is a challenge. It’s like when you feed each other the wedding cake and half your family wants you to smear it all over each other’s faces the way they did back in the Seventies. (The Steve Martin/Gallagher wedding). We were both going to wind up covered in... um... potato if this kept up.
The teacher wandered over to see what we were doing. We had a substitute instructor that night, a visitor from the other school, and he didn’t know either of us. “We’re married,” I explained, and he nodded. Ahh, that explains it.
Two alphas, face to face and sparring. Again, in no other sport would we be paired off, a lightweight and a super heavyweight. Here we were, and I had to remind myself that this whole thing was my idea.
That’s right! This WAS my idea! This is MY school! This is MY sport! I OUTRANK YOU!
It was my turn to kick.
I had no compunctions, knowing that 1. My husband likes this sort of thing; 2. He is physically massive and fights like a locomotive; 3. Laws of physics apply; 4. I wasn’t exactly at my peak strength; and 5. He signed the waiver. I started putting my hip into it.
“THIS is for making me bring you your shirt! And THIS is because I had to do laundry today! And THIS is for making your dinner! And THIS is because there’s still a dirty pan on the stove!”
At this point he was laughing so hard he could barely stand upright.
I chased him around the mat room, kicking out a litany of minor and stupid grievances. He snickered and snorted, utterly unable to keep a straight face.
When in doubt, resort to comedy.
At the end of the session, all the students lined up. My husband and I faced each other and bowed. We rode our bikes home together, along the beach under the moonlight, our little bit of romance, two kickboxers in love.
Tiredness is one of the top reasons people give for not exercising. This is sad, because paradoxically, exercising is one of the four ways to quit being tired.* When lack of physical energy is the problem, lack of movement only contributes to it. What I’m learning in Krav Maga is that being tired is an explicit training goal. Train to be tired because fighting will make you tired. Tired is a training goal because you need to be able to focus and keep going in that state. It’s how you find the strength to do what you need to do, at the moment it really matters.
Modern life is exhausting. Our culture valorizes busy-ness and lack of sleep. Our automatic response when someone asks, “How are you?” is “Busy!” As though being busy is the only way to be relevant. It’s quite common for us to start the day with caffeine, eat lunch over our desks and dinner in our cars, and stay up an hour or two later than we’d planned due to social media and Netflix. With all that going on, who has time for sleep, much less exercise and healthy meals?
I can speak to this, because I have a parasomnia disorder (actually several) and I’ve struggled with sleep all my life. I started having insomnia problems at age seven. Being tired is miserable. In our culture, it also doesn’t get much sympathy. Oh, you’re tired? You and everyone else! Sure, but being able to sleep when you’re tired is a feature of an ordinary person. Not being able to sleep no matter how tired you are, that’s like finding out the brakes in your car have failed. It’s a problem.
As a chronic insomniac, you have to figure out how to go to work and earn a living, even if you’ve been awake for 27 hours. You have to figure out how to keep going, even though you get sick more often. You have to figure out how to concentrate even when your vision is blurring. You have to figure out how to care for children early in the morning, even when you’re so exhausted you’re literally stumbling and walking into walls. The worst part is that you have to figure out how to drive in traffic, even if your chin suddenly hits your chest.
There have been days when a high-functioning alcoholic probably functioned better than I did at work.
It takes grit. Being an adult in this world takes grim determination, focus, and perseverance. All of these qualities are very useful in physical culture. If you can get through a rough work week on little sleep or fighting a headache, if you can get through a week when your tiny kids are sick and keeping you up at night, if you can handle the stress of long hours and money problems, then you have everything you need to be a serious athlete. Everything but the block in your schedule.
Everything changed for me when I started learning how to be fit. The first thing I noticed was that I slept more. I could fall asleep much faster and sleep longer. If better sleep was the only thing I got from working out, that would absolutely be enough to keep me going!
The second thing I noticed was that I quit getting migraines. Instead of three or four days a week lost to blinding migraines, now I get... none. I haven’t had a migraine in about four years.
Then I realized I had quit getting night terrors.
I always felt like I was too tired to exercise. Most people would probably accept that as a reasonable reaction to having a sleep disorder. Instead, exercising helped fix the exact same physical problems that made me so tired. What I thought was impossible was the one thing with the power to solve my worst problems. I ruled out what I needed the most.
Strenuous exercise is not the same as walking more, or going to yoga a couple times a month. I never knew anyone who worked out at that level until I started running, going to various gyms, and meeting athletic people. Examples: training so hard you can’t tie your shoes afterward. Training so hard your fork is trembling in your hand when you eat dinner that night. Training so hard you can’t get your foot over the two-inch lip of the shower stall and you have to grab your thigh and haul your leg up. I don’t often push myself that hard, to muscle failure, but I do it often enough now that I have a really good sense of my true physical limits. The next obvious goal is to push those limits farther out.
Tired is a training goal because working until you’re tired is the only way to increase your physical strength and power. The more you work until you’re tired, the less tired you will be. You quickly reach a point where the demands of daily modern life don’t feel like a big deal. When you’ve lifted your end of a 200-pound heavy bag over your head in class, carrying groceries and laundry baskets stops feeling like work. When you’ve done enough burpees and tuck jumps, climbing a few flights of stairs barely slows you down. When you’ve done two hundred pushups and a hundred squats, and that’s just the first 15 minutes, getting through the workday feels like a rest day. Suddenly you realize that all those times you were pushing until your arms shook, your whole body was busy transforming. Who is this muscular person with great posture staring at me out of the mirror?
We never know the shocks and surprises of accident and fate until they happen. We never know when we might be called upon to drag someone out of a crushed automobile or help up an aging relative who has fallen. We never know whether we’ll find ourselves in situations when our personal strength and stamina could make a literal life-or-death difference to another person. A spouse, a child, a parent? At some point, it isn’t wrong to ask ourselves, Where do I quit? What’s the top level of physical strength I’ll ever want for myself? What is enough for me? It’s not always a personal choice how tired we’ll be, when the random events of life come to roll us over. Tired is a training goal because it’s how we build up reserves of strength before we need them.
* The four best ways to quit being tired are: consuming food with adequate micronutrients; getting enough sleep; improving physical fitness; and drinking enough plain water.
I can’t explain my sudden attraction to knife fighting, not really. The fixation came upon me, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about it. Knives! For Halloween, I figured I’d be a little scary and go into what it’s like to face down a deeply rooted fear.
Something I’ve learned from training in self-defense is that men, women, teenagers, and children are all there for slightly different reasons. Teenagers are usually just fascinated with something they think is cool. Children are usually wherever they are because their parents put them there. Many of my adult friends are studying Krav Maga because they’ve been physically attacked, sometimes several times.
When a man has been attacked, his decision to study self-defense may seem self-explanatory. For instance, several of our students are ride-share drivers. I just talked to a guy who was mad-dogged by a drunk passenger who started punching him from the front seat. “What did you do, did you use an elbow strike?” I asked, naturally, and he nodded. Imagine fighting sideways from behind your steering wheel! The fight ended when he connected a palm strike to the attacker’s nose, sending him out the open door, and then drove to the nearest police station. The police found the guy trying to hide and arrested him. Nod, nod. Note: do not attack someone who is driving you; how dumb.
In the world of men, there are many such dumb, drunk, violent mad dogs out there. They basically look for reasons to start fights as a sort of hobby. Casual, random violence and fist fights are a part of the male world, and it starts in early childhood, and it never really stops, even when you’re a middle-aged guy just trying to get through your workday.
It’s different for women. Part of the reason it’s different for us is sheer size. I remind my male classmates that they probably don’t meet many dudes who are ten inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier, but for me it happens everywhere I go. In spite of this differential, martial arts is not a common practice for women; it seems... dangerous. For us.
The other reason it’s different for us is pop culture. So many shows, whether drama, thriller, or cartoon, have someone attacking a woman who can’t fight back. Our job is to stand stock-still and scream. There have been more murders in fiction, television, and film than there ever were in the entire history of humankind. For some reason, pop culture seems to run on women’s terror. The ultimate terrifying image? To me, it’s the killer in a ski mask, holding a knife.
That’s something true, by the way, if you’ve read about the Golden State Killer. Eff that guy.
The truth about knives is that just because you get stabbed, does not mean you die.
Another important truth about knives is that because they are considered to be objects of power, the person wielding it and waving it around probably has no real idea of how to fight with knives. My husband saw one at the end of a bar fight once. The guy whipped it out and showed it to everyone, right before running out the door and leaving. Like: “BOO!”
If you haven’t listened to the podcast Dirty John yet, go off and do that. It’s good for the soul. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s relevant to this talk of knives.
Where does serious knife-fighting happen? In prison, mostly. According to lore, someone can get shanked a couple dozen times and live through it. It’s actually fairly complicated to kill someone with a knife. I was riding the bus with a friend one day in high school, and a bare-chested man got on the bus with a knife wound in his sternum that was over an inch long. The red sides gaped open. Blood was running down his stomach. He looked madder than hell. He sat there, his shoulders heaving from rage, and rode through several stops until the hospital, which is where I had assumed his destination lay. He walked himself in, where I suppose that deep, long knife-wound to the torso was disinfected and stitched closed.
I also saw a woman at the hospital one night, who had sliced her calf to the bone on a broken vase at her mom’s house. That cut was at least eight inches long, and it wasn’t even bleeding. She wasn’t considered an emergency, obviously, because we waited together for nearly an hour.
See? Just because some sick individual with a ski mask and a knife might show up and menace you, does not automatically mean that he wins. He’s surely built up some highly detailed fantasy where he has all the power and you just stand there, screaming, until he does whatever he wants.
We practice knife-fighting in our advanced class. I haven’t even learned all the knife disarms, but already I feel like a knife is just a weapon, not a magical artifact. You can bat the knife hand away. You can trigger-kick the knife out of someone’s hand. You can block the knife with your own knife, or any other instrument, such as a mop handle. You can press the knife hand against someone’s body, just as you can with a gun. If you learn the techniques and practice them, why, it’s not really more complicated than a dance move. It’s a thing that can be done.
The important thing is to remove the mystique from what is an ordinary household object. Think of how many knives there are in your kitchen. Think of how many times you’ve used a knife to butter your toast or dice some onions. You have an instinctual familiarity with a knife as a household object. You understand its weight, its edges and points. You may in fact have a deeper familiarity with a knife as a tool than a sicko would. You think these mental cases spend a lot of time cooking for themselves?
Fighting has taught me to value my natural physical advantages. I am small and lithe and agile. I excel at footwork. I’m very patient (and humble) about my limitations, meaning I have the focus for precision that larger people often lack. Where they can rely on power and strength, I am technical and disciplined. It also helps to know that no matter how big and strong someone is, his knees and elbows are not strong. No matter how large his frame, his blood vessels are similar to mine, and I know where they are.
If someone attacks me, I am the one with the element of surprise. He thinks he’ll win. He thinks I’m an easy target. He thinks all that I will do is stand there and scream like a ninny.
I have a right to defend myself. I don’t go around attacking people and I don’t deserve to be attacked by anyone else. More, I have a duty and responsibility to protect and defend others if I can. If someone attacks me, he’s probably attacked other people, and he’ll probably try to do it again after me. I must try my level best to incapacitate him, to get justice for his previous victims, to stop him from repeating himself, and also to save him from himself. Maybe he’s just damaged and he needs help, too. Or, at least he will if he tries to come after me.
“Don’t overthink it.” This is something I hear in martial arts class all the time, maybe even as often as once per class. I understand why. That doesn’t really make it easier, because what’s happening is complicated, at least from my end. I’m trying to learn what other people have acquired naturally. From their perspective, it looks like I’m adding unnecessary layers of complexity to something easy. If I didn’t overthink it, I wouldn’t still be training.
Overthinking is my way of explaining something to myself that is otherwise confusing.
As the “last kid chosen for team sports,” small for my age and young for my grade, I was slow and awkward. This is automatically reinforcing. Those of us who felt humiliated and out of place in gym class tend to quit exercise for life. Our reluctance to be active in any way, shape, or form means that we deliberately miss out on the hundreds or thousands of instances when other, more active kids are practicing physical skills. We think they’re “natural” at it when really, they just put in 100x or 1000x more effort into this stuff, starting in early childhood.
As adults, when we set out to do something about this sorry state of affairs, we’re trying to build physical and athletic skills that a “natural” or “real” athlete might have mastered by the age of eight.
What kinds of skills?
Internalizing the rules of various games and sports
Vascularity, lung capacity, bone density, muscle strength
Eyes adjusted to bright sunlight
Stoicism as regarding bad weather
Tolerance of boredom and repetition
Linguistic adaptation to jock lingo
Awareness of altered states derived from athletic pursuits
Respect for achievements of athletes, both professional and amateur
Curiosity about one’s own athletic potential
I didn’t have much or any of that as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult. I had nothing but contempt for people who liked that sort of thing, having felt bullied by mean kids and gym teachers. I had nothing but disgust for the idea of getting all sweaty and dirty and somehow being absorbed into some sports cult. I had no idea what I was missing. Now, as an adult, I just really wish I had figured out a different approach.
All I can do now is to be patient with myself and keep trying. That’s why I’m still doing this thing they call “overthinking it.”
To an experienced athlete - I won’t say “natural” because I understand that this is something taught - every athletic pursuit is like dancing. They see and know what to do. If someone throws a ball, they can run toward it and catch it, because they’ve developed their proprioception and depth perception and all of that. They also feel a connection in those situations. If someone is throwing a ball, that is an invitation to a kind of party. My dog would agree. He doesn’t need to overthink anything involving a ball.
An athlete can watch someone go through a set of physical movements and then copy them. Actors are trained in this as well. I remember in grade school that a theater troupe visited and put on a show for us. They invited volunteers from the audience to walk across the stage, and then one of the actors would follow them and mimic their walk. It was hysterical, an innocent and playful trick that involves the same proprioception used by athletes and dancers.
For someone like me, a bookish and late-blooming middle-aged athlete, copying someone else’s movements is really, really confusing and challenging.
This happens in every class. I’ll watch a demonstration between the instructor and a partner, either another student or one of the other instructors. Then we’ll break into pairs and take turns going through the forms. My partner will usually get it right. I will somehow manage to combine the motions of both parties. I’ll strike with the opposite arm, step forward when I was supposed to step backward, step right when I should have stepped left, and on and on. One of my best tricks is to “bob and weave” directly into a punch instead of away from it.
Instructors are always rushing over to help. They can take one look at me - one single look! In one single split second! - and instantly see that once again, I’ve gotten myself all mixed up.
It was the same in ballroom dance. I was trying to learn the basic steps of the rumba. My dance teacher paused and asked what was going on, why I was struggling with this. I said, “My third leg keeps getting in the way.” “Your... third... leg? Your THIRD LEG?” He was incredulous. In my poor overthinking mind, it felt true. I did eventually get it, and in fact with tons of practice I became a pretty fair ballroom dancer. I just had to practice a lot more than most people. I practiced those three basic rumba steps at the bus stop, at work, in my kitchen, while brushing my teeth, hundreds and hundreds of times until it entered my body memory.
I’d do the same with boxing combos if only there weren’t so darn many of them...
I’m not so great at watching someone and copying them. I am pretty good, though, at talking to myself. I’m also good at communicating and asking questions, and I’m not ashamed or reluctant to do so. I can explain, “Oh, I see, I missed that step to the left and that’s why I was striking with the wrong arm” or whatever other blunder I just made. Thinking in text helps me to visualize and remind myself of what I should be doing. Also, I count, just like I did when I played clarinet in band class.
It isn’t hopeless. We’re never too old, or too clumsy, or too awkward, or too dorky. At least we aren’t if we believe we aren’t. We can draw upon our other strengths to help us learn to do these new things. As we keep at it, eventually we find that people think we are “natural” at it as well. Some time after that, maybe it even becomes true.
It was going to happen eventually anyway. My husband joined my martial arts gym, and despite my determination to give him space, I showed up in his classroom only three weeks later. How would I set appropriate boundaries and let him train at his own pace?
Simple: I asked him.
When I walked in, his was the first face I saw. He was holding forth, telling a story, his classmates gathered around. This is what he does. I’ve known him nearly fifteen years, and no matter the group, he winds up at the center of it. It’s part of why I wanted him to join my gym. I knew he’d fit in. I also suspected I could convince him to build a catapult that fires watermelons into the sea, but that’s a story for a different day.
He didn’t wave at me when I came in. That’s fine. As I got within range, I could hear that I already knew this story, could probably tell it for him. I’m not always his audience.
I went into the changing room, put my stuff away, and swapped out my shoes. These are the things I do before I train. Whether my mate is in the hallway or not, I have tasks. I have my own training goals. I’m here for myself, he’s here for himself.
I came out and said hello. I walked up to my husband and asked quietly, “Do you want to train with me or not train with me?”
There can be no wrong answer to this question. There can’t be any strings, there can’t be any pitfalls. If we’re both going to train here, in a few months we’ll be in classes together a few times a week. We have to establish the ground rules.
This is true of anything, from where we sit in the movie theater to what format we use to share documents. If we don’t set up some kind of guidelines, we have to keep figuring it out as we go along. That demands more mental bandwidth, more decisions, more time, and more discussions. It allows for a lot more miscommunications.
In martial arts, it also allows for some physical consequences.
Training with a partner is an intimate act. You have to be profoundly aware of each other’s physical space, facial expressions, range of motion, speed, fitness level, breathing rate, and pain threshold. You find yourself accidentally punching someone you like right in the face, or connecting your elbow to your friend’s chin. If you aren’t paying attention you can really hurt each other.
That’s bad enough with any friend, acquaintance, or even frenemy. If you bruise up your spouse, well, it can get people to talking. Try to avoid this.
I said I asked my husband whether he wanted to train with me or not. That’s not entirely true. First I had to have a conversation with our teacher.
I came in to train with the white belts because I was getting over a chest cold, and I knew I couldn’t handle the advanced workout yet. That’s what happened the last time; I wasn’t quite at 80% yet, we warmed up with “fifties,” and I wound up getting sick again a couple of days later. I didn’t realize that I was about to break the rules.
(Advanced students pay more for classes, and masters students sometimes drop in to train at lower levels, so it didn’t strike me as a problem).
Our teacher tactfully explained that advanced students don’t train with beginners out of respect. I had wondered if it was to keep the room from being too full, or if we hit too hard. Really the reason is that it’s discouraging for white belts to compare themselves to more advanced students.
This made perfect sense. My first class showed me that I couldn’t do a single pushup, that I had to grab my thigh to do a sit-up, and that I didn’t even know a lot of fitness terminology. What the heck is a jump squat? I used to turn pale when I’d watch the advanced class warming up. They seemed to move at triple speed, and their warmups seemed three times as hard. (True, all true, as it turns out).
I apologized and offered to sit out the class, because OF COURSE. I also explained that I was coming back from a chest cold and wasn’t operating at my peak. I was allowed to train, because of course - I’m known for my grit, good cheer, and positive attitude, but not for my stamina or athletic prowess. Nobody would be in any danger from me.
That includes my husband, who tactfully rejected my offer to train. He looked away and said he figured it was best to train at least once with everybody. (Technically that would include me, the new person in the room, but I didn’t need it spelled out).
I had to laugh when we went in, because my husband’s partner bears a very strong resemblance to me! We’re close in age, same height, and not only could we share a wardrobe, but I think we could even trade shoes. I liked her right away and knew I would have chosen her, too. As a shy person, she gravitated to my hubby for the same reasons I did. I felt somehow comforted that he was there for her, a safe option, something like a natural resource.
It’s a privilege to be able to train with men, especially men of exceptionally large build. I can flip another woman of my size, sure, but how often do I get to test my mettle with men over six feet tall who weigh over 200 pounds? How could I deny access to my bearlike mate to other ladies who want to learn self-defense?
Instead of my new friend, instead of my husband, I got to train with a power lifter who helped me improve my roundhouse kick. I’m sure I got the best bargain out of the four of us.
Both ladies are promoting in a couple of weeks. Not only will I be training with both of them soon, but by January all four of us will be in class together.
Back in the beginner class, I felt two things. I felt winded and a little sad at how much ground I’d lost while coughing all night. I also felt a little smug that I was still comparatively quite strong. I skipped rope the fastest and didn’t need to pause. I did my tens faster than anyone else in the room. I did walking lunges and bear crawls like they were routine - although I was still feeling it two days later. Part of me felt entitled to be there, trying to rebound from a respiratory illness, working just as hard as anyone else. Part of me also felt kinda evil, that my very presence could be discouraging, could interfere with other people’s motivation. I got it.
Not training with my husband means two things. It means we don’t have to calibrate and avoid kicking each other in the ribs. It also means I don’t show off for the brief time when I’m more advanced. I’m not going to want him to flaunt his prowess when he surpasses me six months from now, so I’m not going to do it to him today.
Ultimately, we’re training together, even when we’re not even in the building on the same days of the week. We both study under the same teachers. We both wear school t-shirts. We both follow the same cultural norms. We’ve even befriended some of the same people without realizing it. A few months from now, we’ll both go through a belt promotion together, doing brutal amounts of squats and pushups in a large pool of communal sweat. One day, we’ll meet face to face in the shark pit, and when it happens, we’ll have to manage it in the same way that we would with any other partners. We’ll respect each other.
Something momentous happened. My husband signed up to join my martial arts gym.
This isn’t a huge surprise; after all, we’ve been discussing it since I joined back in January. I’ve been talking him up to the instructors, and he’s met them and some of my friends either at promotions, around town, or at the summer barbecue. He has some martial arts experience and is generally about ten times the athlete I could ever hope to be.
Still, it’s a big thing when two spouses join a gym together. It’s even bigger when they’re on different schedules. Most of all, it’s really something to consider when there’s a ranking system involved, and one is a beginner while the other is advanced.
If you’ve ever tried to teach your spouse something, or been on the receiving end of any kind of lesson, solicited or otherwise, you probably know exactly what I mean. Tutorials that are interesting and helpful when coming from anyone else can be unbelievably obnoxious when taught by the one you hold most dear. This is exactly why my ex-husband and I wound up not ballroom dancing together; he couldn’t stand my being better than he was, and even more, he couldn’t stand the idea of me dancing with anyone else. It seems like maybe the reason a lot of people give up on hobbies and interests when they get married is precisely this, the skill differential and the attendant ego conflicts.
What I’ve learned is to be patiently available on demand, if I have a skill that my (husband, friend, relative) wants to learn. Otherwise, I stay well the heck away and keep my opinions to myself. It’s hard to do, a skill available only to those more advanced in age.
Mentoring people is fun, and it’s a big part of my life. That makes it easier. I have plenty of outlets to evaluate others in their speaking skills, or help encourage newer students at our martial arts school. I’m much more proud of my ability to cheerlead and inspire others than I am of my own skills, wobbly as they are. I know my husband will quickly surpass me as a boxer, and it’s exciting to me to know how quickly he will develop. He’ll learn from the same teachers as I did. I trust their teaching abilities, certainly more than I could my own.
Okay, so we have some hiccups in his onboarding process. He has his gym bag all packed and ready to go the day after Labor Day. He gets to work, only to find out that he’s expected to travel out of town later that same night. He has to come home after lunch, pack his suitcase, and turn around and fly out of town. Winds up traveling a few days every single week for six weeks and counting. Finally, I convince him that it’s worth it to meet me at the gym one weeknight to take advantage of a promotional discount. I bring his gym clothes and a water bottle and agree to wait and ride bikes home with him afterward.
Having your spouse watch you through a window while you plank and do crunches, that’s quite an act of courage, am I right?
So I’m standing in the hallway, grinning through the window, having already done my own workout earlier that morning. It’s uncommon for me to hang around in casual clothes; one of my classmates doesn’t even recognize me. He comes up and asks, “Do you do this?” Um, we’ve met? We’ve spent hours training together? The guys start asking questions.
Why aren’t you in there with him?
You know you can go in there, right?
(Advanced students can attend beginner classes, but not the reverse).
These are all guys around our age or a little older. As far as I know, all of them are either married, or used to be. I think they know better, and they’re just curious what I’ll say.
“Look, we’ve been married for nine years. I know how this works. If I went in there with him, his first class would be his last class. I need to give him space to do things his way, on his own time.”
One of the guys says his wife refuses to train with him. I have trained with him myself, and I don’t tell him, but I totally understand why. He’s super bossy!
Another guy just smirks knowingly. He’s with me.
See, I’ve already won the game. He’s signed the contract, bought the gear, invited me to watch him train, and now he’s actively in there dripping sweat on the mat. He’s doing exactly what I would wish he would do, which is to commit and form his own relationships with the instructors and the other students.
I prove my point two days later, when he puts on his school t-shirt and goes to Saturday morning class without me while I sleep in.
It wouldn’t be helpful for me to step in and try to correct his form, teach him basic combatives, help him put his gear on, or otherwise Tell Him What to Do. He’ll have most of that down by the end of his third class. Learning from the trainers and fellow students is a completely different experience than having his wife stand over him and boss him around. What I can do is to listen with genuine interest and full engagement, nodding and laughing because I know exactly what he means.
Also, I can create opportunities for him to make observations and teach me things. This was really tough for me when I first started running and asked him to coach me. He told me I was untrainable. I learned how challenging it is to humble yourself before someone close to you and allow them to be the expert. I also learned how much he loves coaching, how very good he is at it, and how silly it is of me to hang onto my precious ego needs when I could be taking notes instead.
Part of what makes us work as a couple is that we bring non-overlapping skills to the table. We’ve learned to respect one another’s expertise. We’re also really good at exploring new things together, being willing to be a good sport when the other wants to try something. In this case, I can expect that my hubby the lifelong athlete will be able to help me work on my form and some of the technical skills that have eluded me. This is leverage. This is a valuable opportunity for me to take leadership toward the goal of greater fitness for both of us.
If I went in there with him, with the goal of showing off, I’d fail. If I went in there with the goal of impressing him, my classmates, or the instructors, I’d fail. One day, a few months from now, we’ll go in there together, both in orange belts. We’ll go in as equals. If I go in there with him, we’ll probably still be training together a year later. That’s how the match is won.
It wasn’t a problem until it was a problem.
See, I have this crazy belief that as a citizen and taxpayer, I have the right to go about my business every day. I have the right to walk around town, engage in commerce, visit public buildings, and do whatever I want, as long as it’s legal and it doesn’t bother anybody. I persist in believing this even when I’m honked and shouted at by Rude People out of their vehicle windows while I’m running, bothered by barbarians on the bus, or pestered by perverts at the public library. What is a genteel lady of mature years to do?
Plan ahead, that’s what.
A lot of things changed for me when I took up martial arts. I started to feel more strength and self-confidence. I started to be more situationally aware in a new way. I also began to realize that the vast majority of belligerent people are shouting or posturing to appear threatening because they are afraid and don’t actually know how to fight. As I practiced various techniques like escaping from chokeholds, I started to watch action movies and crime shows from a completely different perspective. I began to reassess my assumptions about my public life.
That process is ongoing. It certainly wasn’t complete the day I realized I had a problem at my local cafe, a place where I do hours of work every week, a place I consider to be a safe haven.
The first time, I was deeply absorbed in my writing when another customer demanded my attention. I looked up, assuming he had some very important and urgent reason for interrupting me. “You look good,” he said, leering. Um, thanks? I didn’t ask? I’m a married, middle-aged person in sub-casual clothing, sitting in a back corner of a coffee shop. What about me says PLEASE INTERRUPT ME, RANDOM PEOPLE?
Okay, whatever. Back to work. Trying to flag down another train of thought since the first one has left the station and is no longer in view.
The second time, I happened to be sitting in the same spot doing the exact same thing, which was 1. Minding my own business 2. Not bothering a single soul on this sweet earth and 3. Obviously working. I had a timer to remind me that I needed to call a Lyft and get to a business meeting. As I gathered up my things, a voice came at me from my elbow. I didn’t even realize it was directed at me, because why would I? I was alone and the only people I knew were the staff.
The voice repeated itself. I looked up, only to realize that the same Interruptor from the previous week was sitting not an arm’s length away, turned sideways in his chair and spying on me. Possibly even reading my screen. He had a broad grin and looked delighted with himself.
I understood several things at that moment. 1. This person recognized me. 2. This person believed he had a right to interact with me, sit near me, speak to me, and press for an acquaintance. 3. This person may indeed have been on my turf hoping to run into me again. 4. I had no idea how long he’d been there. 5. This person now knew something about my schedule and habits. 6. If I wanted to avoid him, I’d either have to give up my cafe habit altogether or start going to the location two miles away.
I really did have to leave within a few seconds. I didn’t say anything; I did what I’ve done so many times and simply held up my left hand, showing my wedding ring.
“That’s good,” he said, “that’s good.”
I left, feeling flustered and grossed out and annoyed.
A week later, I realized that I had unintentionally upended my work habits. It clicked that I was creating reasons to avoid my natural stomping grounds. Since I had just come home from a lesson in advanced Krav Maga, I also realized that I was being dumb and that they call them ‘stomping grounds’ for a reason.
No way am I letting some old lecher scare me away from my three-square-foot corner of the neighborhood. No way am I letting this person establish himself as a behavioral norm. What if he moves on from bothering me to bothering someone younger and less secure? Or lots and lots of others?
See, this is more of a Boomer thing. I’m forty-three today, and over the past thirty years of my life, the vast majority of men who have taken it upon themselves to aggressively “flirt” with me have belonged to the same generation. There’s a certain cultural assumption about thinking you should shoot your shot with someone ten to thirty years younger than you. I had always assumed I’d eventually age out of this sort of thing, that I’d become blissfully invisible. Instead, it continues to happen, and all that changes are that both parties are incrementally older. I still think it’s presumptuous and annoying and they still think they’re doing me a favor by “flattering” me in some way.
I’ve had these conversations. If you get mad, they think they’ve got a chance because they’ve obviously aroused your tempestuous, passionate nature. Either that or you’re a bitch. If you ignore them, they think they should just keep trying, because you haven’t asked them to go away yet, and even if you did, well, you’ve noticed them and that means they have a chance. If you get nervous, that’s just proof of your innocence and purity, and boy could they change that for you. There’s no response in that echo chamber that comes across clearly as GO AWAY AND STAY THERE.
My husband offered to come down and “take care of things” for me. He didn’t take it well, the thought that random ruffians would bother me even though I wear the world’s most unambiguous wedding ring.
I told him I’ve got it. As soon as I realized I was psyching myself out and changing my patterns to avoid someone else’s inappropriate behavior, I knew I had to take a stand. I started rehearsing.
The truth is that this sort of thing happens to people all the time. It isn’t always an overconfident, entitled dirty old man. Sometimes it’s a rude sales clerk, a notorious gossip, a religious missionary, or an aggressive panhandler. The more timid among us retract ourselves, living in a smaller world rather than pushing back against the obnoxious behavior of others. We forget that in reality, there is always an ally nearby. A bus driver, security guard, waiter, or even a passerby will stand with you when you speak up. *Nobody* wants unacceptable behavior, especially if it might lose them customers or create a legal liability. If someone else is acting up, the majority will be on your side when it’s time to put an end to it. This may not be their first offense, but hopefully it will be their last.
There are a bunch of ways I can easily make it clear to the cafe creeper that he should probably get up and leave if he sees me coming.
I haven’t seen the cafe creeper in weeks now. I’m starting to relax and feel like maybe brandishing my wedding ring actually did the job. I still feel a little anxious when I think about going to the cafe alone on weekday mornings. Then I remind myself why. I’m a good customer, and, like the majority of customers, I spend money quietly without detracting from the atmosphere. I have the right to the occasional use of a table from time to time. If I need to, if it ever comes to that, I also have the right to cause a minor kerfuffle. If you don’t like it, then mind your own business and don’t interrupt people while they’re working and you’ll be perfectly safe, just like the 99% of other people in the room.
On social media, a lot of people spend a lot of time saying a lot of things that make them indistinguishable from bots. There could be entire predictive text buttons with these bumper-sticker sentiments. You could even write a script that posted them for you while you went off to make a sandwich. Of all these repetitive, commonplace reactions, Quit Posting Your Workouts is one of the most common. After consideration, I tend to agree. I used to post my workouts to Facebook, and I quit... Facebook. If you’ve been frustrated by this particular issue, pro or con, maybe my outlook will be interesting.
Here’s the thing. Everyone does something that is interesting to some friends, irrelevant to others, and annoying to yet others. If we remove all of these topics, what could there possibly be left to talk about?
My workout is a significant chunk of my day and my life. It’s an enormous part of who I am. It’s how I beat illness, it’s a constant research topic, it’s an area where I explore and learn new things, it’s where I see and hear much of what I find interesting. It’s also where I now make most of my friends. Asking me never to share about this part of my life is precisely like asking someone else never to talk about their kids, their job, their home remodel, or any of their hobbies. Wouldn’t it be nicer to just unfollow, scroll past, or otherwise ignore posts that don’t interest you?
Maybe, like me, you’ve posted about workouts in the hopes of connecting with your other friends who also work out. Maybe, like me, some of your friends cross-train, and thus can’t capture everything we’re doing through an app like RunKeeper. Maybe, like me, you have a years-long running conversation with a small group of friends who are constantly exploring different types of workout. Maybe those conversations are one of your main reasons for ever logging on to social media at all. If there’s ever a more suitable social media platform for us, one without all the non-workout BS, we’ll all stampede toward it and never look back.
Or maybe you’re one of the forty percent of Americans who never do any kind of exercise whatsoever, not even walking for fifteen minutes. Maybe all this talk just irritates you to no end. I dunno.
What I found was that sharing my workouts tended to generate friction for a variety of reasons. It brought up disagreements and mean comments from people who I had previously liked, people I considered my actual friends before social media came along and ruined it. I exercise because when I don’t, I suffer physically, and I don’t really feel like I have an option. For whatever reason, other people interpret this as body shaming, as buying into the beauty myth, as some kind of psychological problem, as proselytizing, or as just being a terminal bore. I started to realize that it really wasn’t worth my time to engage in discussions where words were put in my mouth. Why go there if my character was going to be brought into question or my motives were misinterpreted?
This is part of the picture when people say that when your energy changes, your friends change. It’s not always that you become some sort of social climber and abandon your previous loyalties. It’s more that your new thoughts, behaviors, and conversation topics annoy your old friends, who can no longer stand you and don’t want to socialize with you unless you go back to your old ways.
If you want to know, my weekday workout typically looks like this: Ride bike along the beach to martial arts gym while listening to an audio book. See my friends. Crush it for an hour, learning new things, surprising myself with what my body can do that it couldn’t do a month ago, bonding with people from all walks of life. Gossip in the changing room. Ride home along the beach again. Walk the dog. Do an hour on the elliptical, reading articles about space, biomimicry, and robotics for my tech newsletter. Stretch for half an hour. Shower. Sometimes this all starts in the morning, sometimes in the evening.
Some days I work out for nearly three hours. That might sound extreme, but I do longer workouts a few times a year. Distance days for marathon training were two to three hours once a week. Martial arts belt promotions go for four hours. I’ve gone on four-hour bike rides many times. When I go backpacking, we typically hike for six hours or more. On vacation I walk eight to ten miles a day, basically from morning til night except for meal breaks. For someone who enjoys endurance sports, “time on feet” is a valuable training metric. I’ve had several jobs where I stood for forty hours a week. I think back to our pioneer ancestors, who walked thirty miles a day on the Oregon Trail, and I seriously question a modern society that thinks sitting or lying down for 20-22 hours a day is somehow normal. The more I find that I can do routinely, the more I wonder how much is out there for me.
In my life, what I do for exercise is equivalent to what I do for reading. I see both as exploration and adventure, as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. Both are endlessly fascinating and irresistibly attractive to me. The alternative to both I see as “sitting in front of a television for five hours a day,” which is something I did throughout childhood and now find impossibly boring.
I took everyone’s advice and quit posting my workouts. I write about them, sure, and if someone wants to touch base with me and find out what I’m doing these days, Wednesdays are the day for that. Otherwise, some of my most interesting conversations are happening in person, live, in my gym. For those of you who are likewise confounded by constant social pushback, don’t let it get to you. Just move the conversation to a place where it’s appreciated and leave everyone else to go about their business.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.