Am I learning to lose? Half the time I'm taking falls. When I'm not taking falls, what am I learning then? If what I'm learning then is how to win, then why, when I play with a Judo or BJJ guy, do I not win?
And if I'm not learning how to win, what then?
Cheryl and I played a lot of tennis in 2009. Good chunk of that year I wasn't working so I had the time. We'd go weekday evenings, do marathon weekend sessions. Lot of tennis. And I behaved badly. Often. I knew better, and I didn't want to be that guy -- unemployed and over-invested in games. The sore loser. But I was. For a long stretch, I was.
Worst part was knowing I was doing it and still doing it. Poor tennis partner, poor life partner, poor training partner. Too earnest, too touchy, too much inside my own head. Feeling at the mercy of circumstance. And angry. And knowing angry wasn't going to help.
One of the navel-gazing, frothy things in my messed up head was the question of what, exactly, I had a right to be angry about. Yes, I'd been laid off in 2008. Yes, I' been fired from another job spring of 2009. But none of it was unjust. I couldn't look at it and say, with a straight face, that I'd been "wronged". There was, in fact, an awful lot of that kind of thing going around. So many other people dealing with the same thing, shouldn't be that hard for me to deal with it.
For no good reason I could see, it was hard. Just a few months without a job. That's all. Everything else stayed in place and strong as ever. My marriage, my health, my dojo -- all there for me. My job gone, for a very short spell, and I'm a mess.
I confessed to a friend -- "confessed" is the right word; it seemed a sin to be so lucky and so lost at the same time. I told him, "Gotta say, I'm really struggling."
He was quiet for a while before answering. We were in the dojo changing room, the two of us. He gathered his stuff, and then answered while walking out, "You're not poor by any measure."
I was working three jobs fall of 1990, but I made time for Monday nights. Pizza night. And beer. Frank and I would watch football and do ourselves a nutritional disservice -- pepperoni and crispy bacon. Coors Light in a can. We'd settle in, over feed, and usually be asleep by the half.
It was during one of those Monday nights that I told Frank about Cheryl.
"Ask her out," he said.
"Was thinking about it."
"Don't know," I said. "Doesn't seem like she's maybe out of my league?"
He waited, but that was the only excuse I offered. He said, "What's wrong with you?"
Greg and I were going at it, practicing a jo kata Greg knew and I was learning. Going fast, repeating the same kata over and over. It ended with a strike to the forehead implied by extending the strike off to one side or by stopping it just short of the target, but I didn't stop. I hit him between the eyes. He dropped, folding down onto himself. Couple guys came over and knelt down with him. He didn't move.
I left the mat and went to the changing room. I got changed. Greg caught me as I was leaving. He didn't look good, but he smiled at me. "Come on back out," he said. "Get back on the mat." That was maybe fourteen years ago.
Last year I broke a guy's nose playing basketball. My elbow caught him just so. He ended up needing surgery to fix it right. I didn't dress out for a while. He came to see me, smiling behind the repairs, and telling me to get back out there.
The dojo is dead. It doesn't know it yet, and it's still up, walking around, and talking to passers-by, like Bruce Willis did in The Sixth Sense
. It's still my dojo, but it's not really there anymore.
For years I watched, ready for what I figured would happen: my teacher would die; the dojo would carry on best it could. Didn't happen that way.
Mom didn't come to the wedding. Cheryl understood. Me too. We'd seen Mom a few months earlier and knew she had no business traveling. But Dad made the trip. One of my favorites from our wedding album is a picture of my brother, my dad, and me. We look good.
Mom died five years later, spring of 1998. I'd started my Aikido practice a few months before. It was good getting back on the mat after traveling with Cheryl to the funeral.
Haven't talked to my brother in a long time.
Dad doesn't travel any more. I see him infrequently, but when I do, I make sure to tell him goodbye. I make sure to tell him: "You're a good dad."
It was contracting that got me employed again. Back in the game. My first contract job was local, but since that first one wound down, I've been working out of town. I don't like leaving home -- home is where Cheryl is, so it ain't about location. But once I'm away, I don't mind.
Last time I saw Ellis was late night in a dark, Seattle hotel parking lot. I'd had too much to eat and drink, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I said to him, "I love you, man." To anyone watching -- God, I hope nobody was watching -- it must have looked like an outtake from a particularly pitiful reality show. But I said it.
I should be saying it more.
Long time ago, an old Cajun named George Dugas was a good friend to me. I learned a lot from him and grew to love the man, but I never said it to him. He's been dead maybe a dozen years now. Few months back, another good friend stood in my driveway on a fine Saturday morning, and just before getting in his car and driving away, he said to me, "Love you, Paulie." And I said nothing.
I remember my mother saying, long time ago, I should tell people how I feel about them. Even when it seems they don't hear. Even if it seems they don't want to hear. I didn't really think she was talking to me.
Johnny's is the kind of place where they call you "hon", serve coffee in a heavy mug, and let you linger over your grits. It's maybe two miles from my teacher's house, so I meet him there when we can. Last time was last year. I had ham and eggs. He ordered something healthy. We talked about his Aikido teacher, his wife, his family. He asked me about Cheryl. He didn't say much. I asked what I should be doing for my Aikido practice. He said, "Read some philosophy."
Few months after that, we agreed to meet again at Johnny's for breakfast. I sat alone, drank coffee, and waited for a long while.
Our usual state, Cheryl and me, after an afternoon of tennis, is sweat soaked and pretty much worn out. We don't play as often as we used to, but it's our usual Saturday thing now and often my favorite part of our weekends together -- they go by fast. By the time tennis ends and we're back at the house, still slightly sticky with sweat and starting to stink, making our way together to the bath -- peeling off our clinging clothes -- we pause, move together, and hold on.
we are very clean
soapy and slick
wet and warm
your hair sticks to my chest
you laugh and say you might drown
I let you go
stop the shower water
and watch you step
to the bare floor
Paul Schweer is a student at Shindai Aikikai in Orlando, Florida. More about Paul can be found here.