Light the Way

Driving down the street, I turned right and felt my car labor up the hill. I dropped the stick shift into second gear and sped up before I realized I had passed the house I was looking for. My tires crunched the gravel until they halted. I stepped out of my car and saw a set of stairs that led up to what I thought to be the front door.

This part of Oakland seems nice, I thought. I wasn't sure why that thought buzzed in my head. Maybe because I opened the trunk and brought out hitting pads and didn't want to start a fight. Not that I couldn't take care of myself. My car could be a good getaway vehicle.

I walked up the stairs and remarked at how quiet the street was. Once at the front door, I could see through the screen door an old Chinese gentleman sitting in his cushy chair. His trim hair was as white as the white marble rocks that paved the front of the home. His wife, I assumed, approached the door. Her hair complemented his, but permed. I think. What spurred in my mind was her impending accent. In fact, there was no doubt that she would greet me with an old thick Chinese accent. I wasn't afraid of not understanding her as much as not liking Chinese accents. Especially thick ones. Don't ask me why.

She smiled. "You must be Jimmy. Tony is waiting for you. Common in," she said in perfect English.

There wasn't a drop of an accent. If I closed my eyes, the last image I would expect to see was an elderly Chinese woman. The next thought in my mind was that her English was probably better than mine.

Tony's grandfather stood from his chair and shook my hand and welcomed me in. Also in perfect English. Was I in the Twilight Zone?

No. But this assignment was about to teach me three life lessons.

That was my first: What I see in contrast to what really is can and often be two different things.

Truth be told, I was a little nervous. Taking on a paying client was new to me. Not only that, but I had to figure out how to imbue this Tony with confidence while teaching him how to be a lethal weapon.

Down this narrow hallway that splintered off into bedrooms strolled a skinny thirteen-year-old Chinese boy, standing about five feet tall. His eyes were heavy and hair matted from his nap, which I eventually found out to be a daily habit. We greeted each other, and Tony led me down a steep set of stairs.

We had met once before at my best friend's going away party, Tony's former martial arts teacher. And mine. Penn was chasing his Hollywood dreams and was leaving for London to study theatre and drama at the famed The Old Vic. His departure had been dramatic for me because I was losing a close friend, and he gave me little guidance of how to continue the martial arts training of his clients he had gifted me. This added to my nervousness. Why? Both Penn and I had been throwing around the idea of opening our own school that not only delved into self defense, but also addressed issues that these kids might be facing. That of course went out the window when Penn had decided to go to London. Now, I didn't want to screw Tony up as a person. I had issues of my own with no concrete idea on how to solve them. So I had been trusted to solve Tony's? Good luck kid.

"This is where Penn and I would have our lessons," Tony stated.

We ended up in the basement that was filled with a lot of nick knacks that only an old couple who had been together for decades could collect. Toys from the past were stashed in shelves along side old books. Boxes and crates were shoved against the wall, and an old Chinese calendar hung along side faded pictures. There was so much stuff, I couldn't recall what color the walls were. What floor space we had was enough to run basic drills, which was fine, but when we shifted to movement drills, I would need more room.

"Oh, they can move their car from the garage if we need more space," Tony said, referring to his grandparents.

I didn't really know what to say except for, "Fabulous."

What peaked my interest was a door on the back wall. It just sat there, waiting to be opened. For some reason it looked ominous because nothing blocked access to it, despite all of the stuff packed into this tiny space.

Since this was our first official lesson, I wanted to spend time assessing his abilities, which helped lower any student's guard, so I could converse with Tony and try and figure out who this skinny kid was. I slipped my hands into my striking pads and held them up a little higher than his height. He struck the pads with pretty good efficiency and power for his size. His pad work filled the small basement with explosive sounds like firecrackers. I wanted to say he could beat up little girls now, but this was our first lesson, and I didn't know if he could take my sarcasm. Yet.

The door kept stealing my attention. It was a few feet off the ground. So to step inside, someone would have to climb in. And it wasn't a normal door like those that led into bedrooms or bathrooms. It was squarish. Why was that?

"What's behind the door," I asked.

A veil of coldness draped down Tony's thin face. His eyes seemed to darken and his shoulders tightened toward his chest. "I don't know. I don't go in there."

Images of dead bodies sparked in my mind.

"Where does it lead?" I prodded.

Tony shrugged. "Under the house?"

"Have you seen what's in there?"

Tony took a few steps away from the door and gazed at it as if he was seeing a long dead tormentor come back from the netherworld. "Someone might be living under there."

What was interesting was there had been no easy way of getting under the house other than through that door. So where did this poor kid get the idea that someone could be living under there like a troll?

As my weekly lessons continued, there was one simple truth I had found out about this kid. Fear was a very real thing that he had been living with for a large part of his life. It had to have originated from somewhere. Tony lived in a very safe neighborhood where the idea of a robbery was sinister. I mean, he attended private school. His parents were well-to-do. He had friends.

What gives?

Tony was close to his older sister who had Hollywood aspirations as well. Crystal had talked shop with Penn when he was Tony's teacher. She seemed well adjusted, aware enough to know what she wanted, and had a healthy social life. He often talked about her and had the normal brother/sister conflicts that all siblings have. During times of struggle, he would go to her for advice. It's heartwarming to know that he still does to this day.

His father was a restauranteur at a well known eatery. He was a tall man of six-feet, the shortest among his brothers. His demeanor was gentle and friendly and giving. I had never heard a harsh word come from his mouth. Except when talking about his daughter's then boyfriend. If anything, Tony inherited his father's temperament and eventually, his height. Yes, Tony would outgrow me. Then I met Tony's mother. Talk about ominous doors. I'm not referring to Norman Bates kind of relationship. But...

Tony's mother worked as an assistant D.A. for the City of San Francisco. She had prosecuted people that horror movies were based on. And like any civil servant, she was overworked and stressed. But both parents were on top of their kids' needs and education. The mother more intensely, like the military's Apache helicopter. To say she was overbearing was understating things, like saying Bruce Lee was some Asian dude. I understood, coming from a Chinese family myself, that overbearingness had come from a deep love and want for her kids to be successful in life.

This was when I learned my second life lesson: Children are people too. I watched Tony struggle with the constraints his mother placed on him. And I watched the struggle she had with her son, trying her damnedest to mold him into the man she wanted him to be.

All of this was to say that Tony had learned and lived with a lot of unnecessary fears that came from somewhere, and I inherited the simple job of showing him most—if not all—of his fears were created in his own mind. In other words, not real.

Another twist had shown up during one of our lessons. We were in the middle of a drill, and I slapped the back of his hand. He cradled that hand with the other, brought it up to his mouth like a mother would, and kissed it.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm kissing it to make it feel better."

"Are you serious?"

Tony nodded.

Lord. How does anyone teach toughness? The fastest way? By throwing that person to the wolves. Knowing his mother was a prosecuting attorney prevented me from doing this. Also, I was taking a shine to the kid. But an idea popped into my head. One that would possibly get me sued. Again, I reminded myself what his mother did for a living.

In our next lesson, I walked through the door and greeted Tony with a smile. He turned around to lead me to our training area. I targeted his back. He suspected nothing. "How are you?" I said. And slapped his back hard. Really hard. So hard that it could be heard a mile away.

"Ouch! What was that for?" he cried.

"What? It's just a friendly pat on the back."

Next lesson. I enter Tony's home, greet him with a smile. He turned around. Slap!

Next lesson. I enter. Smile. He turned around. Then looked back at me.

"How's school?" I asked.

Tony put his guards up.

"What?" I said, giving him the most innocent look I could muster.

"A lot of homework."

"Ah. Are you done with it?"

Tony turned around. "Not yet."

Slap!

The boy learned to have his guard up, to be more aware. But that didn't stop the slaps. Sometimes they would come during a drill. Sometimes after the lesson. Other times I would slap his shoulder because he would never present his back. In the end, he didn't kiss his hand when he got hurt. At least not in front of me. And hopefully Tony learned that he was a lot tougher than he gave himself credit for.

The ominous door stared at me.

I had been teaching Tony for around a year. The slaps ended. Naturally. But Tony still had irrational fears. So in the beginning of our lesson, I told him that he had to open the door in the basement.

"Will you be here?" he asked.

 "I'll be here."

Tony stepped up to the door and hesitated. "You're not going to trick me and stuff me in there? Right?"

"Would I be that mean?" I assured.

He gave me a look to remind me of the slaps he had received.

I found a flashlight from the piles of nick knacks in the basement and stood about a few feet away from the door.

Trembling a bit, Tony reached for the door handle and let a moment pass. He closed his eyes and took a breath, then opened them. He pulled the door open. Cool air entered the basement, bringing an earthy smell. The concrete foundation expanded under the house into the dark. More nick knacks were packed off to the sides. Some lumber. But there was enough room for a person to hide with evil intentions. That was what I read from Tony's eyes.

"Let's go in," I said.

"Serious?"

"Yeah. If there's anything in there, then you and I will handle it."

"You're not going to just lock me in there, right?"

I didn't bother asking if he thought I could do such a thing. "I'll be here."

Surprisingly, he climbed in first, trusting that I wouldn't shut the door behind him, forcing him to suffer alone. I climbed in after with the flashlight. There wasn't much height between the foundation and the bottom of the house. So we had to squat. We shined the light around different crevices so Tony could see nobody was lurking, hopefully dispersing his fear like a shadow.

"I'm gonna turn off the light."

"For how long?"

"Fifteen minutes."

Tony's eyes widened to almost round-eyes. And that was a feat. He had very slanty eyes. "Serious?"

"How long then?"

"A minute."

I smiled and agreed. I turned off the flashlight. And we waited, squatting like old Chinese men in kung-fu shoes, smoking cigarettes.

"You OK?" I asked.

"I think so."

"Nothing to be afraid of."

"But you're here."

"So?" A moment passed. "You could have done this alone if you wanted to."

"You think?"

"Don't you?"

Tony didn't answer. "Is the minute up?"

"Don't you?" I asked again.

"Probably."

"Want to try?"

Tony thought for a moment. "Next time."

I opened the door and stepped down. Tony followed.

We never tested that fear again. Maybe because I knew he could do it. Or that he had outgrown that kind of train of thought because he could reason it out, that most of his fears were fake.

Five years had gone by. I relished our time together because we became friends, much like how Penn and I had been. As all kids do, they grow up, graduate from high school, then move out-of-state to attend university.

He had been at university for a year or two. He was talking to his roommates who were going through their own growing pains. And he realized something. In one of the rare times we saw each other, he said that he had been thankful for having me help him through his issues. That he was glad he was beyond them. Truth of the matter was that Tony was more than capable of moving beyond his own issues. Sometimes people need a flash light to find their way.

And it's not like he would never have problems again, or that sometimes life shits on people. But it's how we handle it that shows how far we have grown. And it was at this moment that I knew Tony didn't need a person like me anymore. That was my third life lesson. I would have failed as a teacher if he did. But I hope he knows that I'll be here.

Make Perfect Mistakes

Look at the board!

Look at the board!

I was talking to my best friend, whose wife had just given birth to a son, about the best way to practice writing. Taking heed to Buddha's words, I said dive into the work. He went on to tell me his preferred method. That he analyzed other writers' work to find what made it click. That he worked with a writing coach. That he practiced specific techniques that he found valuable. And that practicing needed to be perfect practice.

I then calmly asked him, "What the hell is perfect practice?"

To me, it sounded like you couldn't make mistakes while practicing when it's really the best time to make mistakes. It's those mistakes that we make in practice or immersed in our work that can give us some of the most profound insights. I told him there's no one correct way of doing anything well.

It's the geniuses, the innovators that create the rule, the market. Just look at the world of media. We have books and TV shows about wizards and vampires and wolves.

Eddy: I will suck your blood.  Buffy: I'll suck your blood, sucka!

Eddy: I will suck your blood.  Buffy: I'll suck your blood, sucka!

When I had my teaching and mentoring business, I was all about changing behavior. Shit. I was one of the laziest people I knew. I watched TV to no end. I had little passion for anything, or at least I thought I had little passion for anything. I slept for most of the day when I could. That was the life! Then something changed. A yearning grew. Not that yearning. Well...not the place to discuss.

I started to think about the things I wanted. Things I wished to accomplish. And somehow I was disciplined enough to go to the gym, write, have a social life, teach, and still have free time to just chill. How did I become disciplined? Hell if I know.

Hey! Up here!

Hey! Up here!

Actually, they were things that I wanted to do. Loved to do. I mean going to the gym was easy. There's a lot of hot chicks there.

During the years that I taught, I made a slow discovery. As awesome a teacher as I was, I couldn't make my students do anything. Yes, they listened to me. Yes, they behaved when I shushed them. But they eventually fell back to their shenanigans.

What I could do was listen to them, guide them toward their own well being, help them realize their own potential in real time physical exercises, and help them realize what they truly wanted in life. Their behavior was outside of my reach, outside of anyone's reach, except their own.

Your Breath Stinks
Your Breath Stinks

One parent came up to me and was extremely concerned about her child's time management skills. He loved to procrastinate. She was my client, so I did my best to try and change that behavior, asked him why he procrastinated, gave him specific things to do to swerve him from waiting till the last minute.

He made the changes for a day. Then he reverted back to his old ways. His grades never improved from the mostly A's and B's he already received. I know, I know.

Now in college, I asked him how school was going. He loved it, tried a slew of different things, as I suggested, so he could have a better idea of what he might love to do in life. I asked him how his grades were. Mostly A's and B's.

I asked him if he was ok with that. Totally fine, he answered.

Do you still procrastinate, I asked. He reluctantly nodded.

I laughed, told him that this was his method and that it seemed to work. If he felt bad about his grades, that he wanted to improve, then changes may need to be made (depending on why he felt bad). Since everything was fine, there was nothing to do but catch up on old times.

I had told my best friend this story, as he's also close to this family, and the silence on the phone meant he didn't agree.

He has his way toward excellence. I have mine. And as long as those methods work for us without any feelings of guilt or anxiousness, but with peace of mind, then whose to say that were wrong?

Do Ya Hear Me?

Propaganda.  We've all seen it.  Heard it. "Elect me and I will save the world."

"Read my lips:  no new taxes."

I've worked in many corporations.  The one thing they all do is shell out propaganda.  They hail how innocent and awesome they are.

When I turn on my computer at work, the homepage is locked to our intranet webpage.  Every day we're bombarded by propaganda.  Sometimes I feel chained.

So it was a bit entertaining for me to read an article my company posted about why teens are angry.  They even had a doctor share some advise.  I mean, he's got a PhD.

"I think zombies are defined by behavior and can be "explained" by many handy shortcuts: the supernatural, radiation, a virus, space visitors, secret weapons, a Harvard education..."  -Roger Ebert in reviewing The Crazies.

The doctor's article was a magnificently crafted and well written piece of crap.  I found one crucial thing missing.  And upon teaching and mentoring kids for most of my adult life, there has become no one-size-fits-all advice, save one.

Listening.

I had a student once whose parents put him under so much pressure to do well in high school that he was on the verge of suicide.  At first I thought, "What did I do?"  But it had been a year since the end of our sessions.  So I thought back to them to see what was the root cause of such destructive behavior.

My student and I had taken a walk one day and just talked.  My approach in teaching, despite coming from a very tier-structured martial arts background, was to view any student as an equal.  I'm not a teacher.  They are not students.  We are human beings.

The subject of ivy league education came up, something his parents expected of him.  I asked him if he wanted to go.  He answered yes.  There was a lot of trepidation in his voice.  So I asked him if he was sure.  He slumped his shoulder and said he really didn't care about going to an ivy league school.  That he was happy to just receive a normal (whatever that means) education.

I presented what I'd learned to his parents and, of course, they were upset.  Like I had opened Pandora's Box.

A couple years later, he was on the verge of suicide.

Being loving parents, they got the best help they could afford.  Interestingly enough, the parents were instructed to relieve all pressures of any kind, which included the pressure of school, and to allow him to express himself in anyway he wanted to.

Today, I'm very glad to say he's thriving.

We talk so much about listening when in intimate relationships.  But we rarely talk about it when it comes to raising children.

I tell parents that their children are like people (wink wink).  Treat them like people.  Ask them how they feel.  What they want? Why do they want or feel that way?  Is there anything they need?  If not, let them know you'll be there with no judgement.  For judgement is the lock that will shut the door to their children.

Be open with them, and they'll be open with you.

In my lessons, I let my students, no matter the age, say what they want.  Swearing included.  I do give advice, if they want, but I tell them it's up to them to follow it.  My mentoring process changes as they change, which is why I believe there is no one-size-fits-all guide to children.

Just listen.

Hard Lessons

In my years of guiding people in their lives, I've learned there are two kinds of lessons.  One learned without experience and one by experience-the hard way.  Noshee in myepisodeslearned many lessons by experience.  My whole book is about lessons learned the hard way. Which way is better?

Let's ask a question.  Does getting hit by a car feel good?  I can tell you by experience it doesn't.  But if I wanted to teach someone this, would I plow through them with my car?

Maybe.

For most people they don't need to be hit by a car to know it'll hurt.  I guess, I wasn't one of those.

I was talking to friends, a mother and father, who have a daughter.  She's been dating this boy who doesn't treat her well.  I can't go into detail but he's abusive.  By his behavior he's possessive, needy and manipulative.  I know this because I was once possessive, needy and manipulating.  It takes one to know one.

My friends want their daughter to rid of this boy for good reason.  They talked to their daughter on numerous occasions, but she's become codependent.  In her case, the codependence comes from a lack of self-worth, despite her confident facade.  And it's sad because my friends feel helpless to do anything.  In listening to their conversations I know the daughter has to learn this lesson the hard way.  The lesson that she deserves to be treated with much more respect, the lesson that she deserves someone who'll truly love her, the lesson that she deserves her independence.

Just as I had to learn that my behavior of possession, neediness, and manipulation wasn't healthy for the women I dated, it was unhealthy for me as a human being.

For those who think the parents should force separation, let's look at the bigger picture.

If they were succesful in permanently separating the couple, they would alleviate the immediate situation.  But will the daughter have learned the lesson of self-worth that she deserves better?  That her relationship is unhealthy?  No.  How do I know this?  Because humans repeat their behavior until lessons are learned.  And lessons are learned only if the person is ready to change.  It's obvious to me the daughter isn't ready for that.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Not only will she repeat the behavior, she may enter another relationship that is even worse.  Once she learns this lesson, she'll be able to identify future relationships that won't be good for her, no matter how good they appear on paper.

She's also an actress.  In the future, a role may be given to her.  A role in which the female character went through something similar.  And she nails the audition because she knows exactly what the character is experiencing.  And this role may catapult her career.  Where without this experience she may not get the role.

This experience can also lead to the man, her 'soul' mate.  Again, without going through the hard lesson, she may not see herself deserving someone so great and overlook him.  There are infinite possibilities.

Sometimes, lessons must be learned by experience.

Neverending Karate Kid

When I was a kid, I loved movies.  But there were certain ones that I've always connected to but never knew why.  Now, as I'm wiser, not necessarily more mature, I know why I loved certain movies, why I kept watching them over and over. One day I was rummaging through a fantasy book store and came across The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende.  The book was first published in 1979 in German.  Ralph Manheim translated it to English.  I must have seen the movie dozens of times.  I loved the characters, I loved the story within the story, and I totally loved the soundtrack.  So when I saw the hardcover, I bought it.

For parents and children, this is totally appropriate.  It's an allegory on life, and if you watch the movie with your kids, ask them what the movie means.  It's the one thing that I don't see parents doing is asking their kids what things mean to them.  Do it and you'll be surprised by what you find out.

When I mentor students, I always ask what things mean, or how they feel about the experiences they're going through.  It's also my main tool in getting them to open up.  Eventually, they spill the beans about anything that I ask.  I need to know what they're thinking, feeling in order to help them out.  Click here if you want to read more on talking to your children.

If you read to your kids, read The Neverending Story.  If not, then watch the movie.  Don't have the money to rent movies, well the whole movie is on youtube:  Part 1.

While I was perusing youtube at work, don't tell my boss, I came across the Karate Kid.  This is an interesting movie.  Not because of the awesome cat-like choreography.  To me the hero is interesting.

A normal underdog story goes something like this:  hero enters new world (town, school, wizard school), is overwhelmed by bad dude (love interest's ex, bully, the most evilest powerfulest wizard), gets a gift (learns the way of love, learns how to fight, learns he's a great wizard), and, voila, hero wins.

Most of the times, the bad buy is an actual bad guy.  Not in The Neverending Story or Karate Kid.  The antagonist is the hero's disbelief in themselves.

When we look at Neverending, Bastian, the hero, must follow his inspiration, his love for books, fantasy, and story.  It isn't until he fully gives in does he overcome the antagonist, self-doubt.  In Kid, Daniel must believe in himself.  He never got stronger, faster, or learned more karate then the bully.  The bully was never the obstacle, just the opportunity.  His teacher guided him to trust in his ability, to let go of his self-proclaimed weaknesses.  In doing so, Daniel prevailed, or what I like to term kicked ass.

I've always loved stories that have this undertone.  When I look at the characters I've written in my book, all of them at some level must deal with self-belief.  It's the one thing I hone in on when I mentor people.   I use stories to open conversations with children, to guide them toward their passions in life, their truth.

Changing Role of Parents

If you've watched any movies or films where there's a parent/child dynamic, the parent always views their child as children, no matter the age.  My mom does this to me a lot.  When I visit her for dinner, she'll make three dishes-chicken, beef, and a vegetable entree.  She makes enough to feed an family of four, but it's just the two of us eating. First she'll say that all of this costs less than a single entree at a restaurant.  Then as I take a piece of chicken, she'll point to the beef dish and ask if I don't like beef.  I take a piece of beef, and she points to the vegetable dish and ask if I don't like vegetables.  I take some and put it in my bowl, and she points to the chicken.  She asks me why I won't eat the chicken.

Over the years of mediating between parents and their children, I've noticed that parents are reluctant to change their role.  As babies, parents provide everything-food, clothing, healthcare, etc.  When children get older, the amount of care needed lessens.  Obvious, right?  You're not going to prop your ten year old on the table and change their diaper.  If you do, then there are issues of discipline you'll need to deal with.  During the teenage years, kids tend to want some sort of independence.  That's why they don't like to be seen with their moms or dads.  It's totally uncool.  Once people grow into young adulthood, then further on as adults, parents still care and worry about them as if they were little kids.  As children grow, so must the parent's role.

When I taught privately, my advantage was not having any emotional attachment.  I would listen to my students problems or issues, and I wouldn't judge them.  Some had sex early on.  Other's cussed a lot.  Many had complaints about their overbearing parents.  They told me everything.  I'd help them if they wanted, but left the subject if they didn't.  Parents would be thankful that I was there to listen to their children's problems, but didn't really know how to gain their child's trust.  It's simple, but can be hard to do.

Listen to them, ask questions about what they're talking about, and do your damned best not to judge.  Don't overreact, yell, scream, or solve their problems.  Ask if they need help, for sure.  But just listen.  If you want to give your two cents, then ask if you can give your opinion.  Trust me, if they want it, they'll say yes.  IF they don't want it, and you give it to them, it'll go out one ear and out the other.  That doesn't mean you don't make them aware of issues of sex, drugs, or alcohol.  You do.  I'd recommend not to be overbearing.

I live by two guidelines when I teach.  The teacher appears when the student is ready.  So if people are ready to learn, they will listen.  When I teach, I don't teach, nor do I take the role of teacher.  When I teach, I take the role of guide.  Life is a massive landscape of unknown.  Just as you would hire a guide for a safari, be your children's guide when they need it.