Fear, friends and fighting

Last Friday night at around 2.30am, after a busy night working at the art-house movie theatre / restaurant that employs me, three colleagues of mine (R, S and T) and I were standing outside my work, talking and getting ready to go home. A scooter with two people on it came riding up to us, slowed down and proceeded onwards, having to deviate slightly from a straight line. On it sat a big fat man and his slightly smaller, fat wife (I assume). He yelled something at us as he passed and thinking nothing of it, my colleague T called out ‘Sorry?’, not having understood the heavyset individual.

The man stopped, once again said something unintelligible and T repeated himself. The man then backed up on his scooter, stood next to T and emphatically told him he was in the way and asked if T had a problem. T denied, and explained that he had only misunderstood him, thus saying sorry more as a question.

However, the man seemed to take T’s ‘Sorry?’, and anything else he said, more as a challenge. He grabbed T, proved himself not only jiggly, but very drunk as well, and pulled him in, once again angrily stating that we were in the way and that we should have moved. T explained himself once again, as tension became palpable within the group. The man had become angry and pushed T away, causing him to trip up on my wheel.

Most likely due to no conscious effort of his own, the calorically challenged man let the ensuing chorus of protests and call to behave pass him by and seemed to gather more and more anger from the situation. ‘He wants to fight. That’s it, he wants to fight,’ he said, failing to convey whether his words were intended for his bundled up, spherical wife, or to verbalize his thoughts before they would be inevitably lost to him.

Thankfully his wife said ‘No he doesn’t’ and for the same unfathomable reasons to get off, the man once again applied an inordinate amount of pressure to the shock-absorbers on his scooter and rode away, taking our wishes for a drunken accident with him.

During this entire event I experienced a cascade of thoughts and emotions, strongly influenced by natural paranoia, academic education in psychology, action movies and 13 years of martial arts training.

The belligerent slab of flesh impressed on me the assessment of a man who has led a less than exemplary life, rife with situational setbacks and behavioural difficulties, nurturing a natural lack of impulse and temper control and a predisposition for aggression into a large, cantankerous, alcohol abusing midnight scooter driver. His wilful misinterpretation of T’s words (however few they were), as well as his readiness and indeed willingness to fight led me to believe that this man, who must rightly pay road maintenance tax, must have a good measure of experience with street fighting, even if it’s simply due to others taking umbrage with his behaviour. Additionally, his girth, coupled with his state of inebriation, would make for a trying encounter to say the least if it would have come to blows.

At the moment the man backed up, I immediately became tense. When he stood next to T, I noticed myself flexing my fingers and loosening my bag and when he grabbed T I began to imagine the best ways to attack him; the best ways to cause the most damage in the least amount of time. Within moments I settled on a right elbow strike to the left temple, followed by a left open hand edge strike to the throat and a right dragon fist (middle knuckle extended) to the left eye. If still a standing threat, a turned in right snap kick to the left knee would bring him to the ground, where he could more easily be subdued with feet, knees and an uncomfortably placed bicycle. Then I would call the police. I had confidence in this plan.

However, I also had fear. I was not so much in shock, or afraid of the man attacking me, but afraid, because I thought I was really going to take serious action if the man became combative. The techniques described above, if performed properly, can be horribly damaging. Even if I would have come out of such a physical encounter without being hurt myself, I would have to deal with the aftermath of my own actions.

A strange sense of satisfaction came over me as well. The comparatively uneventful happening came to a close and our little group broke up after a few shared moments of stupefied confusion. On my solitary bike ride home I mulled over what did and didn’t happen. I remain uncertain as to how I would have fared. And though most of me is perfectly happy with the idea that I’ll never find out, part of me wanted it to happen, to satiate my anger and aggression, but also out of curiosity. Would I have done well? Would I have frozen or failed? It’s always easier to ascend the podium of victory in the mind, where the pedestal of triumph is built of speculation. Thus, if I am to focus solely on what happened, even if most of it was immaterial, I will take away a feeling of pride for being ready to fight on behalf of a friend.

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Obstacles?

Another piece I wrote this past summer. The setting is no longer relevant, but I believe the development and conclusion are. Let me know what you think!

A friend and I went for a run the other day. We headed down-town to grab a quick cup of coffee and then run back. It seemed a nice day to run, a bit of sun and a breeze. I asked for and expected a leisurely run; something to get the juices flowing and a start to work away three weeks of vacation in the US. I was motivated and feeling good about myself, feeling good about my decision to exercise. But as is often the case, the day turned out slightly different than planned and my brain played catalyst in changing a simple run into something much more meaningful. Or slightly odd at least.

So, this friend is going to participate in the 2012 Urbanathlon in Amsterdam. The Urbanathlon is a 14,5 km. long race with 29 obstacles on the way: jumping over cars, climbing walls, walking over beams, shimmying across ropes, you name it. And on our run he suggested we try to do similar exercises. Make it a kind of parkour-esque run with improvised, obstacle related challenges as we go along. Fun, right? Not at all leisurely, but hey, I wasn’t about to whine.

2012 Amsterdam Urbanathlon

We started running and quickly found out that the breeze was warm and the air was humid. More than humid, it was damn near wet. Before long it felt like we were running in soup and around that time my friend thought it’d be a great idea to run up and down a hill as fast as we can. Three times. And then, we climbed an electrical grid transformer shed. And then, pull-ups in a kids’ playground.

I wish we had come across this

Now, I’m not entirely sure, but I think it was around that third obstacle that I had totally forgotten about my intentions for a leisurely work-out and the pain coursing through my entire body. And as far as I can remember clearly, it was somewhere between the third and fourth obstacle that a strange realization hit me. Was it due to light-headedness? An over-abundance of endorphins making me high? I’m not sure, but as it’s wont to do, my brain went the way of the (not entirely necessary) philosophical. Stick with me now, because I need to elaborate just a little bit more to illustrate how I got to where I’m going.

Sadly, this one is closer to the mark

Alright, it’s no longer about the run, nor the different obstacles we tackled on the way. As soon as the click hit me it was all about the search for obstacles. As we were running along, I kept pointing at things and panting out the accompanying question: “Obstacle?”. Some we tackled, some we passed by, but I kept on saying it. Exactly the same way and with the exact same intent. Imagine saying it – “Obstacle?” – between breaths, exhausted, with that characteristic questioning lift of tone at the end and, most importantly, with hope. Or maybe not entirely hope, but something akin to gleeful anticipation. Just something that exemplifies the expectation of something good in the near future. The opposite of an obstacle.

Bam! Paradoxical random morning exercise brainstorm! Alright, calm down, it’s not that great a revelation. But at the time it was an epiphany to me. That contradiction of concept and intent provided me with a never before experienced level of understanding of the age-old mantra ‘life is what you make it’.

After a short bout of irrational self-loathing for thinking like a hippie and a bit of food and rest, the thought and understanding solidified to a clear, if somewhat convoluted, idea: life is indeed what you make it, but the tools you are given with which you must construct that life are not always tools that you would choose, nor are they tools you would necessarily know what to do with.

I kept on looking forward to encountering an obstacle. My focus on future opportunities was laced with positive feelings, yet the word I used is a quintessentially negative one. The word ‘obstacle’ is actually used to indicate difficulties and problems and not just physical, but emotional difficulties as well. Who hasn’t heard a self-help guru bandy about the phrase “overcoming life’s obstacles”?

The overly ambitious goal…

Maybe I should have used the word ‘challenge’. ‘Challenge’. A word fraught with opportunity. An obstacle that holds the possibility and expectation to be overcome, to be taken on and conquered. But I didn’t. If I did, then nothing about that run would have been special, philosophically significant. To some the word ‘challenge’ can be daunting, but it is inherently positive. It implies development, growth, victory. It wouldn’t have sparked that feeling of dissonance I had as I used the paradoxically positive use of the word ‘obstacle’.

So as I write, I realize that my convoluted addendum to ‘life is what you make it’ could be made more concise: rather than ‘life is what you make it’, how about ‘life is made by you’.

…and the pitiful, but fun, reality.

Mind-numbing

This past summer I worked at a mail distribution centre. I wrote this piece during that time.

Sorting mail at a large mail distribution centre entails putting very large numbers of letters, postcards and advertisements from an automated sorting machine into crates and then putting full crates on crate-carts. No difficulty. No multitasking. No thinking beyond ‘blue coded crate goes on blue coded cart’. It is the definition of a mind-numbing job

Since I’ve been working there, though, that definition has become much clearer and a lot more salient to me. The definition has changed somewhat as well. I previously thought that a mind-numbing job numbed the mind; that it dulled your thoughts, made you less sharp witted. Made it so that if someone asked a question or made a comment, it would be more difficult to respond than before. And I thought this would come about because you would be thinking less; you would no longer be honing your mind.

But this is not the case, at least for me. I can’t stop thinking while I work. And yet I do feel like my thoughts are dulled. To run with the analogy, you might say that as I work, I think so much about things (mostly my life at that moment) that I’m beating my sharp mind blunt. As if I’m wailing away on a wooden post, never re-sharpening my blade. And then, when faced with an opponent, my fencing skills come up short and my blade doesn’t cut as deep.

However, this is not what drew my ire. I can have discussions with people and read books away from my job, thus applying a whetstone to both my skill as my steel. No, there seems to be something more insidious about mind-numbing jobs. It crept up on me and I didn’t immediately notice what was happening to me. And then it hit me. It filled me with revulsion. It scared me.

I was caring less.

I was caring less about everything. It starts with simply caring less about the job. You have to work, because you have to pay rent and eat. Every day you go back and the thoughts that rage around in your mind become less focused on how much you hate the job. You dismiss them with an easy ‘whatever, just gotta do it’. It becomes easier to wave away your discontent until you coast through your shift thinking about anything but what you ‘have’ to do for the coming hours. It becomes more defeatist and then you find yourself calming the thought ‘what has become of my life, this was not the plan’ with an increasingly easy ‘this is how it is’. Followed by that most insidious of all: ‘it’s not that bad’.

Now the steel of your mind has rusted fast in its scabbard, slowly becoming increasingly immovable as well as wasting away. Someone lunges a witty remark straight at your face. You’re slow to respond, or don’t respond at all. You saw it coming. You just don’t care. You might attempt a weak parry, but let him land his attack. Whatever. It won’t really change anything. It is how it is. And it’s not that bad.

The Phoenix

and just like that, like coffee spilt one morning you’re in a hurry, like the nap that catches you unawares on the subway and suddenly, although the ride takes ages, you’ve got to fly out at your stop before the doors close. Like the irrepressible blush thundering up your cheeks when someone comments on your “striking new suit” (stained from the coffee, and you know they see it, but they hide their scorn or sympathy or some other horrible sentiment behind a sugary smile and a second compliment).

Like walking into a lamppost or a streetlight or a crate of oranges outside the local fruit-and-veggie shop whose owner is prone to demand payment if your glance lingers for too long on his precious pears, and you fluster about for a bit, confused, wondering at the tangibility of the Universe and your own blindness and how they keep colliding, physically, and you ponder the likelihood of Earth being malevolent and poltergeisty, purposefully placing objects in your way just for the heck of it and laughing at you afterwards: laughing so hard that there’s an earthquake in California – especially since it knows that you’ll have no choice but to blame your clumsiness, as you’re not very religious or superstitious in any way.

Like a flight of birds bursting out of a lush, leafy tree into a pale blue sky (and you realise with a start that the days are growing longer again), like a puddle of rainwater that never used to settle in that particular spot before, but now it’s almost the size of a pond and of course you stepped right in it with your new shoes. Like a ripple of laughter from a small child or a purring, soft cat happily rubbing its head against your hand and twining its tail around your legs that evening after your boss shook your hand for the last time – making you marvel that such a tiny thing can flip your mood around.

Like that overpowering sort of flutter in a part of your stomach you didn’t know existed, and perhaps it never did; a flutter that makes the corners of every house and every person around them gleam at the edges as if a beam of light always finds them – even if the sky is overcast – making them appear to you the way a skilled photographer attempts to lure the light into accentuating his objects’ best sides through his small lens and there capture them, perfect, always.

Like the emotion that lingers, persists; a greedy leech which drains you for blood and also, mercilessly, injects into your body some unearthly substance that throbs through your veins and makes you sense the caress of colours, bright, beautiful and warm against your skin even in the closing cold of autumn. You can smell the happiness in a sandy, busy playground and breathe the euphoria from the corners of a smile on a stranger’s face. You can taste the music of every clarinet laugh, every muted bass drum footstep; every cymbal cacophony of every sunset branch casting its yearly corpses to the ground, until you feel dizzy and have to watch your step – and come to think of it, maybe that’s why the owner of the fruit-and-veggie shop glares at you with such an exceptionally palpable menace nowadays, for although none of his fruit is outside at this time of year you still go to his shop all the time to buy tangerines if he has them in stock. You think that if you eat ten or eleven of them every day, maybe you’ll start smelling as fresh and sunny as a tangerine and everyone would sniff and turn when you passed them on the street. You would cry tangerine tears, slightly tart from the salt but still delicious when they trickled to your tongue, and you would read sad stories on the subway and on cafés and make sure you wept a little onto napkins and newspapers, and then leave them behind for people to pick up and get a whiff of tangerine melancholy.

Like lying on your back in the soft grass one of those summer days in July or August that would be too hot if it were not for a perfect breeze; one of those complacent days when nothing seems important because in that moment nothing is, and a spectre smelling of gall and guilt is fighting to flow to your consciousness, but losing pathetically to that loveliest of fires gushing down on you. And so you simply stroke your fingers slowly through the fresh, green pelt and you start breaking twigs that you come across and float away until you hear the baby screaming.

Like when the white stillness of snow has enveloped everything overnight, when nothing is recognisable (the game is always to only walk where no one has yet set foot) and it is winter, it is cold and just like that