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.

Is Rebelling a Bad Thing?

The hero of the 7th Province has a choice.  He either rebels against his close friend and former mentor, or join him in taking over the world.  Each choice ends in war.  That's a tough place to be.  Is there a correct choice?  For the hero I'm not sure.  As a writer, the choices that each character makes, ultimately mine, is a crap shoot. I love that.

Even though I've plotted my whole novel, each day I wrote brought new discoveries and challenges that made me giddy.  I'm never sure how things were to happen.  I just know they had to happen.  As a result, writing my fantasy was a huge adventure.

Is rebelling bad?

I have a secret.  It's one of my favorite things about myself.  I don't get along well with authority figures.  That doesn't bode well since my day job is encrusted in a corporate empire.  The funny thing is they have a lot of propaganda that emphasizes their business values.  I won't get into the hypocrisy of it.

Is rebelling not a good thing?

A parent tells a child to kiss Uncle Louie.  Child scrunches her little face and shakes her head.  Parents eggs the child on, saying Uncle Louie loves the child.  Child pouts her lips, turns, runs toward her parent's leg, and grasps with all her might.  Parent gets upset, unhinges the child, pushes her to Uncle Louie, and forces her to kiss him on the cheek.  (I credit this example to my best friend.)

Is this wrong?

Hell yeah.

The parent just took the child's power away, forced her to kiss a strange man, despite her not wanting to.  If Uncle Louie were a child molester, the parent just punched a large hole in the child's ability to resist the attack.  In the child's mind love is associated with force.  And we wonder why some women stay with men who batter them.

What if the child was just being a brat?

Firm discipline should take place.  You decide what firm is.  That's different in each culture, society, family and individual.  But in the example above, the child is not being a brat.

Teaching a lot of adolescent kids made me realize one thing.  Almost every single one exerts their own independence.  Every parent exerts their control in an attempt to guide them.  It's the nature of the ocean, the ebb and flow.  Parents think their kids are being a pain in the ass.  Offsprings think their parents are being assholes.  What more could you ask for in a relationship?

Think of a pendulum searching for their own center.

Parents often ask me to infect a behavioral change.  But that's an impossible task.  All I can do is mentor them without limitation.  Tom Cruise taught me that.

He was on Inside the Actor's Studio.  A great show by the way.  He said that his mother never limited him in what he did.  She was watchful, but allowed him to explore the world.  Now he's some actor making at least twenty million dollars per movie, chump change.

As you sit in your day job, and if it's not the place you want to be, then what are you doing about it?

See part 1 to this article.

Do Statistics Tell You What You're Gonna Do?

I’d received a frantic phone call from my student’s parent.  My student and his parents were having deep issues on his choice for a university.  And they’ve been arguing in circles, unable to come to an understanding of each other.

The next day I went over to their home and mediated.  The parents had significant concerns regarding their son’s decision process.  Keep in mind that he has a bouquet of Ivy Leagues in front of him to choose from.  He’d narrowed it down to three schools.  His parents, in their minds, narrowed it down to one.  That one university had better statistics regarding retention of freshmen and transference to graduate schools.

However, I saw that my student had already made his choice.  I kept that to myself.

The conflict was simple.  The parents based their knowledge of their favored university through guides and statistics.  My student based his choice on how he connected to the people and the university when he visited there on his college tour.

His parents didn’t understand how he could make a monumental decision based on feeling.  He didn’t understand why they wouldn’t accept his intuition.  Neither party listened to each other, or talked each other’s language.

I fully supported my student’s intuitive decision, but also supported his parents’ point of view.  So I translated what they were saying to each other.

So what’s the point?

There are two.

No matter where you go to get your education, it’s not the school that makes the person, it’s the person that makes the person.

When I was at the crappy martial arts school (see my bio), my fellow instructors always made fun of other martial arts, their weaknesses, their form, their kiai—yell (rolling my eyeballs).  What I learned, especially from watching people fight, is that there are two components to winning.  Skill and mental toughness.  But if you had all the skill in the world and no mental toughness, then you might as well lie down and die.  Because, when skill levels are equal, it’s the person that has grit that usually pulls the win.

Isn’t that life?  What do people always say?  Life’s a marathon not a sprint.  Not that life has to be hard.  But you have to delve into your work, be it raising children, building a bridge, writing a book, to succeed.  Then you have to continue your work once you do.

Side note:  Do what you love, and love what you do.

So once my student, who’s already smarter than I, gets his Ivy League education, it’s his grit, love for his work that will make him a great man.

The second point is never believe in statistics.  In this case, the parents’ top choice statically had greater retention of freshmen and graduate school transfers. However, the stats don’t say what my student will do, nor do they represent how well he’ll do.

In the end, peace fell upon the house, and my student will go to the school he wants to go to.  To him, whom I’ve worked with for many years, I only wish you the best.

Talking to Your Children

If you've read my bio, you'll know that I've taught martial arts/sexual assault prevention for 16 years.  More than half of the people I taught were kids of all ages.  Eventually, I came to disagree with the one size fits all treatment way of teaching.  The problem comes from looking at a group class and not see the individuals.  Soon I'd started my business of teaching privately, focusing on the individual. Kids represent an interesting puzzle.  They're very much like adults.  They think about adult things, they try and act on adult decisions, but many times they don't have the wisdom or knowledge on how to go about it.  This is where the parent is essential.  Here's what I've learned from teaching hundreds upon hundreds of kids:

  1. Always listen.
    • Specifically listen for words that'll indicate whether they need your help or not.  Sometimes kids, just like adults, need to let go of the thousands of thoughts that go through their minds.
    • If you can't read whether they need help or not, then ask them.
  2. Listen without judgment.
    • Parents always complain to me about their kids losing their trust.  I think it's even worse to lose the trust of your child.  Lose the trust of your child, you lose the ability to truly help.
    • If your child has done drugs, had sex, drank alcohol, it may come down to a couple of things.
      • They're dealing with issues of emptiness, loneliness, nonacceptance, isolation, etc.  Some form of connection has been lost.  It's the reason why kids of divorced parents tend to succumb to things like drugs, or kids join gangs, or kids seeking sex to feel that lost connection.
      • They're being forced to do something they don't want to do.  The source of this could be a parent forcing them to do well in school, molestation of some kind, nagging  adults - parents, coach, teacher, bullying.  One thing that most parents or adults realize is that kids know what they want and don't.  That doesn't mean you don't guide them to do well in school, or go to sleep at a reasonable hour, or talk to them about sex, drugs, alcohol.  But decisions on social activities, academic activities, family activities should be a dialogue between parent and child.
  3. Ask questions.
    • Whether they've threw up all their problems, or keep quiet, ask questions.  Even if they don't say anything, it will open up lines of communication.  But please ask questions on what they've talked about first.  Once and if they've answered those, then a door may be opened for you to ask other questions that may concern you.
    • If they ask you what you think or what to do, turn the question around and ask them.  This is a really great way of finding out how mature your child is.  Many times I've found that my client knew what to do, but didn't know if it was correct.  If they're solution to their issue made sense, I'd congratulate them for coming up with it, then I'd agree.
    • Follow up with them to see if they've followed through.  Again, listen, don't judge, ask questions, and guide them.
  4. If your kids don't have any serious issues like having sex too early, use of drugs, etc, then you've got a great kid.  Again, most of the parents I work with don't count their blessings.  They focus on what their kids don't have.  "They got a B instead of an A."  So what?  They're healthy, happy, and in your life.  Remember, you wanted to have kids.
  5. Last tip, view your kids as adults.  They may not be 18, but their core characteristics will remain for the rest of their lives.  There was a study that stated once a child is three years old, their personality had been developed and ingrained.
    • This brings up an important point.  Start discipline early.  Too many times I've seen spoiled children run over their parents.

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.