Everywhere I go I find something to dislike, a trait that does not endear me to strangers but which does have its advantages. Life is full of ups and downs, and while it doesn’t pay to dwell on misfortune when you are in the midst of it, (fleeing a volcanic eruption, for example, or growing up in College Station, Texas) I find it helpful to keep in mind what I hate about situations I happen not to be in at the moment. This gives me something to appreciate in almost any circumstance, however awful.
For instance, I started swimming regularly when I was preparing for my first black belt test, in Kyokushin karate. At the end of the test, I would have to spar nine consecutive two-minute rounds (as it turned out I ended up fighting ten or twelve people, because they sent in multiple opponents during some rounds, just for fun).
You might think you can do anything for eighteen minutes. But sparring, especially kicking, employs all the largest, most oxygen-hungry muscles in the body, and when you add in the constant tempo changes, it’s virtually impossible not to override your anaerobic threshold. One time I tried wearing a heart rate monitor during sparring practice, and when I checked it afterward it had all but phoned in my obituary to the local papers. If you don’t control your breathing, you hyperventilate. If you hyperventilate, you’re likely to get clocked by one of your opponents, which is embarrassing for everyone, or to just fall flat on your face, which is bad for both your face and your morale.
So in the months leading up to the test, I took coached swimming lessons during my lunch hour. I figured swimming would teach me to control my breathing for the simple reason that if you don’t control your breathing when you swim, you drown.
This is a valuable concept I have learned over many years of training, and would like to share with teachers everywhere: If your students are having trouble mastering a skill, it often helps to raise the stakes.
Swimming lessons did give me a little more control over my breathing, or at least I didn’t drown (though I came close every time I had to swim butterfly. “Butterflies don’t swim,” I would brood liquidly as I churned up big ripples of failure). But I discovered a secondary benefit to swimming when our instructor, an insultingly healthy college student who had obviously hardened her coaching skills in countless summer camps for uncooperative children, made us tread water. “Hands at waist!” she would yell to start us off, and after a couple of eons, “Hands at shoulders!” My fellow students and I would hold our fingertips just above the water, kick harder, and sink faster. Finally the command was “Hands overhead!” and we all extended our arms upward, fondly remembered when we had feeling in our legs, and said our final prayers.
It was during these drills that I came to appreciate how good I had it during sparring. When you spar, you get to stand on the ground. You get unfettered access to all the oxygen you want. You get to function in the environment your species evolved in. I had never realized before what a boon that was.
Plus, it works both ways. During those agonizing swimming drills, as the water closed over my head, and I struggled to thrash my legs harder so the coach wouldn’t have to dive in and fish me out of the pool, I could always say to myself, “Well, at least no one is trying to hit me.” Conversely, during my black belt test, when my opponents spent two minutes each not just trying to hit me, but succeeding with remarkable frequency, I could comfort myself with the knowledge that, bad as it was, at least I wasn’t drowning. It’s a glass-half-empty-but-at-least-it-isn’t-hemlock approach.
It works with running too, a sport I take up sporadically when I’m not miserable enough at karate. I hate running generally; I admit it’s good exercise but I can’t see why a person would ever need to run 10 or 20 miles. Nothing is going to chase you that far. Yet sometime last year I took it into my head to run a half marathon. I don’t remember why, exactly; I must have felt guilty about something. Anyway, you don’t just run a half marathon, as I discovered; you have to “lay down a base” for it, which meant five months of lumbering up and down streets, lungs whistling, head roaring, chasing that elusive eight-minute mile. The only thing that kept me going was the sense of mental freedom I felt while running. Unlike martial arts, running has no curriculum. There isn’t anything to remember, other than “don’t stop,” which I repeat to myself about every three seconds. There’s a lot of suffering but not many questions, which is a pretty good trade-off.
Initially I chose my running route mainly by avoiding hills. As I increased my mileage I found myself gravitating toward the more cheerful streets in my neighborhood—the ones with nice lawns and trimmed hedges. If I’d bothered to think about this when I was breathing normally I would have realized it’s a stupid system; obviously I find the nicer streets more pleasant to run on, meaning I slow down and enjoy them. Eventually I figured out that if I wanted to improve my times, I needed to find the worst streets possible, where imminent danger would encourage me to hustle. So I went online to my city’s neighborhood crime maps and did some research.
And guess what? It turns out I was running on the worst streets, or at least on streets just as bad as any others. It didn’t matter how gentrified a street was, how fresh the landscaping, or how many non-operational cars were parked on the lawns. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did: You really can’t tell, from the outside, what goes on in anyone’s house. The newly renovated 3-2 on the corner across from the school? Family disturbance, two months ago. The cute bungalow with the cedar fence? Assault and domestic disturbance. The two-story New Urban townhouse? Possession of marijuana. (The cops report that? I marveled. In Austin?)
I was appalled but oddly impressed by the varieties of assault in my small, quiet neighborhood: Assault by contact, assault with injury, aggravated assault, robbery by assault, assault by threat, and aggravated assault with a motor vehicle. Trying to sort them all out made me wish I had an illustrated field guide, like birdwatchers carry, with colored plates and a checklist in the back. And according to the police, my neighborhood is pretty safe. Meaning, I guess, that my neighbors only hurt the people they live with. Hooray for them.
So now as I run through the neighborhood, I distract myself from thoughts of not running by matching up addresses with crime reports. I warm up from criminal mischief to burglary of a residence, pick up the pace at public intoxication, sprint through sexual assault, stalking, and a report of a suspicious person, and cool down as I pass an intriguingly reported “abusive gesture.”
It’s a new experience to see, or rather, to be aware of, my neighbors’ violence. You’re moving in a different element, and it feels strange. When I’m in the swimming pool and I can’t breathe, I know I’m surrounded by water, not air. But running through my neighborhood, the difference between safety and danger isn’t as stark. You may think you’re in a safe environment, and maybe you are, but it’s probably not “safe” the way you think it is.
I wonder, as I plod around the cheerful, assault-riddled blocks in my ‘hood, if there’s anything I can do about this invisible violence. Is part of the problem people like me, who pass blithely along these streets and never question how much violence takes place there? Should I be doing something? Is there anything I can do?
A lot of people would say “No.” I had proof of this a few weeks ago when I attended a seminar on Rudeness and Incivility in the Workplace. (My co-workers, who I’m suspect think of me privately as “that smartass in the basement,” wanted to know if I was attending in order to pick up some pointers, or if I would actually be providing demonstrations.)
From the other attendees at the seminar I learned that, while many people are concerned about rudeness and incivility in the workplace, and want it to stop, immediately, none of them are willing to do anything to stop it. They will be civil (of course they will; these are the people who chose to come to the seminar; they wear their civility like Joan of Arc’s armor), and they are quick to recognize incivility in others, and remark upon it to their civil friends. But they are completely unwilling, from what I could tell, to say anything to people who behave rudely. The poor woman moderating the session was fighting a losing battle, but she forged ahead, trying to convince her audience that bitching about incivility was not going to make the world a more civil place.
Like a lot of self-defense workshops I’ve been in, it was eye-opening and depressing at the same time. In fact, one attendee, rationalizing why she wouldn’t confront a rude co-worker, brought up a situation we often talk about in self-defense workshops. “Well,” she sniffed, “if you saw someone screaming at their child in the grocery store, you wouldn’t get involved!”
I have a very low threshold for idiocy other than my own, so I made a loud and entirely uncivil noise and said (rudely), “I would; I think everyone should intervene if they see someone screaming at or abusing children.” This outburst marked me out as an infidel for the remainder of the workshop. The moderator threw me a grateful glance but everyone else looked at me as if I probably beat my own children and spit in the office water cooler to boot.
We don’t see a lot of the violence around us because we don’t look for it. But how can you see violence sprawled undeniably across the aisles of the grocery store, and claim it’s none of your business? It’s one thing if you’re afraid to speak up. That’s a completely legitimate feeling; certainly if you intervene in a conflict you may not be treated like a hero by everyone involved. But it bugs me when people justify their denial as somehow being a social obligation; that ignoring violence is polite, well mannered, a sign of good breeding.
Why is every child forced to memorize “Excuse me,” and “Thank you” but so few adults know phrases like, “Looks like you and your kids are having a rough evening. Can I help with anything?” Or, “Hey, my son used to throw tantrums all the time. Don’t worry about it. You’re doing great.” Or, “I understand if you don’t want any help. I just want you to know that you’ve got a beautiful baby there and I hope your day gets better.” Why aren’t the people who are so busy teaching and enforcing good manners also teaching healthy, effective ways to interrupt violence before it gains traction?
It’s easier to pretend that we can always breathe freely, that streets are safe if they look safe, that a disapproving stare will make adults and children behave. We want to stay in the environment we evolved in, where we’re comfortable.
It’s better to get out once in while. You may not like what you find there, but so what? At least you’re not drowning.