The Furies – Serial #5

BP 2

Fifteen minutes to midnight. Just enough time to celebrate. The prosecutor had drawn his customary bath after yet another successful prosecution. Twelve to be exact; and he’d always been exact. He’d prosecuted countless more, but jury trials for capital crimes were the only ones that counted. A dozen guilty verdicts for Class A felons. He refused to call them defendants. These twelve were heinous criminals who had committed murders, brutal rapes, and other acts too horrific to speak of, and he had put them all away for good, all before the age of 33—just. He would celebrate that tomorrow. Tonight he’d drink his after-supper Opus One; a treat for such occasions.

Five minutes to midnight. Tonight he had uncorked his finest bottle, an Opus that had been crafted by the hands of the master himself, which now bled thickly into his glass. The prosecutor put the heavy-stemmed chalice on the wooden deck planks of his sauna’s claw-footed tub, and stepped in with deliberate care so as not to taint the porcelain. The television pantomimed silently as the prosecutor submerged beneath the bubbled water’s break.

Two minutes to midnight. He’d been waiting for this moment for three years now; ever since the sentencing. It had been his first capital felony trial; the most gruesome. The crime: the murders and rapes of a pastor and his family: a wife, a boy, and a baby girl. They’d been immolated in their parsonage. The criminal: a six-time loser who after seventeen years of sin, had decided to graduate to the big time on the night of his eighteenth birthday. No easier case for a virgin prosecutor to make his bones, though his more reasonable colleagues held to their doubts, as the courthouse corridors to their whispers. They were timid creatures needing iron-clad evidence to secure convictions. He didn’t have that luxury, but he’d found two witnesses: cellmates who testified in detail about the murders, the arson, and yes, the rapes; a fact that would have remained undiscovered but for their testimony.

The criminal had confessed to them there in his cell as he wept upon his knees—they swore. He had no alibi. He had recently been released from a boy’s home. He’d stumbled into the church that night where he slept. He was discovered at first-light prostrated at the altar. He’d helped himself to the Eucharist. Where he’d claimed hunger and thirst, the jury found sacrilege, and so his days were numbered. The criminal offered no words, no remorse, and strangely no appeals. He sought the comfort of swift justice.

One minute. The good people of the county had thanked the prosecutor with their votes. He’d thanked himself with the wine cellar to enjoy his guilty pleasure. The prosecutor opened his eyes to watch the television screen. The image of a man being strapped to a chair was blurred by the water’s refraction. Ten seconds. And then the chattering. It had always been there, resonating through the recesses since the wine cellar’s foundation had been laid. He’d been assured that it was settling; to be ignored. Yet now in the final moments, it grew into crescendo, and erupted from behind the television wall. The prosecutor rose through the water with a jolt. The rats had gotten their man.

© J. Manuel Writes

On the Gentle Art #6

bjj evolve

To Gi, or Not to Gi, that is the question: Whether tis nobler on the mats to suffer the bow and arrow submissions of your opponent, or to free yourself from the grips, and thus avoid them. For the uninitiated, I speak of course about the age-old (though new to me) obsession, dilemma, rift, cold-war between those who would practice traditional jiu-jitsu (for the purposes of this discussion, by traditional I mean those who wear Gi), and the No-Gi grappling contingent. If you don’t wear a Gi are you practicing jiu-jitsu, catch wrestling, or something else? I will not pretend to be an authoritative voice on the matter, because half of the time I think that my professor might want to see me move to a corner of the mats and practice hip escapes for the duration of the class. (I might still be doing just that twenty years from now!) The only thing that I can offer to the discussion is the following question: What’s the best kind of music?

You could hardly argue that Classical music is not the best? Have you heard Beethoven’s 5th  symphony, “Ode to Joy”, or perhaps Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries”? How about Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”; powerful stuff! Then again what about Classic Rock? Have you heard the in your face blast of Ozzy’s “Crazy Train”, the dark melodious thump of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, or the melancholy, introductory movements of “Stairway to Heaven” (regardless of possible borrowing by Zeppelin)? Then there’s the incomparable Jimi Hendrix with a little “Voodoo Child”, “All Along the Watchtower”, and my generation’s messiah, Kurt Cobain, accompanied by a little group called Nirvana. Now those examples are just a tiny sliver of the spectrum of great music out there, each with its objectively arguable elements that stand as testament to its greatness. However, you will find people that will stand on one side and argue that the other is without merit. And so it goes that there are those camps in jiu-jitsu that look at Gi practitioners as dinosaurs; curmudgeons wearing relics of a bygone era (the white Gi being representative of Samurai burial dress), while those sans Gi are looked upon as unrefined, unshaven wrestlers turned submission artists who sport shockingly ostentatious rashguards, and a plethora of tattoos.

The knock on Gi practitioners is that they hold on (pun) to quaint training methods that do not translate to the cage or “the street”. I can see where the first part of the argument might make sense where in mixed martial arts competitions competitors merely wear shorts and a smile, but I don’t believe that the assertion holds true for “street” (self-defense) purposes. I’ve never found the street where nudity was the norm, but if anyone knows its whereabouts please send me the exact address—for research purposes of course. People are usually clothed, at least wherever I tend to be in public, and any altercation will tend to involve clothed people. (No one wants to fight a naked guy! Point of fact taking off all of your clothes and chasing a would-be opponent might just be a great self-defense strategy—tons of YouTube clips on this.)

Coming back to the issue, traditional jiu-jitsu teaches you how to use your attacker’s clothes to your advantage not only for control, but as a weapon against them. Practicing jiu-jitsu in the Gi fine-tunes the muscle memory as to the proper hand positions required to play the notes. Collars, ties, sleeves, pant legs, and belts, can be harmoniously manipulated as instruments in a symphony of pain. This symphony will no doubt astound a tone-deaf attacker. When I first set foot on the mats, I certainly was ignorant to the fact that I could be choked unconscious so easily with my own collar. It reminds me of when I took my Classical music composition class in college. I was frustrated. My mind struggled to comprehend the diatonic scale, but I was moved by it nonetheless.

So what about the No-Gi contingent? What is the benefit of practicing that type of grappling? From my limited experience in both forms, I can see that No-Gi grappling is more dynamic than its counterpart, in that it is more kinetic. It’s a Jazz quartet playing in the chromatic scale, incorporating the typical seven keys of the diatonic, but leaving room to add color and improvisation. Once you have freed yourself from the bonds of the Gi, you can rely on your instinctual abilities to move, to flow. The lack of grips allows you to escape the clutches of your opponent more readily. You don’t have to worry about the collars, the sleeves, or the pant legs, but your opponent shares the same advantages, and so you have to develop different patterns to create your choke, arm-bar, and leg-lock compositions. Its free-flow brings with it its own complicated techniques that are no less difficult to master than the classical Gi hits.

My points are nothing controversial. There are many grapplers who appreciate both Gi and No-Gi for what they are, and for what each can bring to the practice of the other. Ask someone what the best kind of music is. When they give you the answer ask them if they listen to anything else. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t. This is undoubtedly the case in jiu-jitsu. We all have our favorites, but variety strikes different chords that add to the richness of our experience. Both types are poetry in motion. And what is poetry, but a song in words?

It has been too long since I’ve listened to a little Wynton Marsalis, so let me just pop in my earbuds. Oh, and next week I’ll get back to the mats without the Gi.

© J. Manuel Writes

On the Gentle Art #5

bjj evolve

Monkey see, monkey do, white belts look a lot like blue. Now before all of my fellow blue belts take offense, the blue belt that I speak of in this case is me. Last Saturday marked my two year anniversary of practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at Marcio Cruz BJJ Academy. It’s been a long, fun, hard, and at times painful experience. Today I am feeling the aftereffects of one of those painful experiences that occurred on the mats during last Saturday morning’s class. Lesson learned from that experience; don’t use your neck as the lever or your head as the fulcrum, because your neck is bound to go “pop”, which mine of course did, again painful. But of course being sucker for BJJ, I showed up to class today regardless. This time however, I kept my promise to myself, and to my adoring, supportive wife that I was going to abstain from drilling, specific training, and sparring. (Well 2 out of 3 isn’t bad!) And so, after drilling the technique a combination x-guard sweep that we’ve been working on for the past two weeks, I sat and observed.

At first, I sat in the corner of the mats like someone had just pee’d in my Cheerios. (A term used by philistines that I picked up in the Marine Corps.) I was tempted to roll, but I resisted to the benefit of my neck, and my own jiu jitsu. Do you recall the aforementioned monkey? Well like I said before, I am that monkey. And guess what? So are you! At least you probably are if you don’t happen to be autistic. The reason is that me, you, and most everyone learns in this way thanks to the help of our friend the mirror neuron. “Mirror neurons are brain cells that are located in your premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex, and the inferior parietal cortex” (citation omitted), basically the part of your brain that processes movement, and motor skills. The cool thing about these tiny brain cells is that they activate, and respond in the same way as motor neurons, (the brain cells that work when you are actually doing an activity), except in this case the mirror neurons are working when you are just watching. To your brain, you watching the activity is almost no different than you doing the activity.

Do you have an uncle who watches boxing and throws combinations from his Lazy Boy? Well it’s his mirror neurons forcing his motor neurons into action. He’s just so rev’ed up that he can’t help but let his hands fly, especially if he used to box, too. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he’s reliving those boxing days. This appears to be supported by a recent Penn State Medical School Study that found that the correlation between mirror neuron activity and observation of a specific task was higher in people that were familiar with that specific task. Simply stated, a person who plays a sport learns more out of watching others participate in that specific sport, than someone who doesn’t know the sport at all. Similarly the more a person uses their motor neurons while they participate in jiu jitsu, the more that person’s mirror neurons activate when they watch it. That’s why fans of a sport usually enjoy the sport more when they participate in it. At least physiologically there is more activity there.

So as I sat there and observed, I kept saying to myself “damn”, over and over again. I would watch the white belts leave their arms behind when trying to pass guard, only to get caught in an armbar (this monkey still does that). The white belts would often try to compensate for technique by using their speed or power (this monkey still does that). Then I observed the other belts for fixes to those mistakes, and though they weren’t flawless, there were fewer mistakes. The funny thing is that these are mistakes that I am either acutely aware that I make, and others that I must still make because of where I end up repeatedly. I am that white belt, and I’m starting to get the feeling that I’m going to be that white belt for life, no matter what belt I am promoted to. Oh and there’s also a bit of bad news that you may or may not have caught. The inference that these neurological studies make is that the better that you are at doing something, the better you get just by watching others do it, but this relies on the fact that you have to actually be good at it first to improve. So needless to say there’s no way around it. I’m going to have to nurse this neck quickly and get back to rolling because I won’t ever be able to monkey see my way out of a rear-naked choke.

© J. Manuel Writes