Monday, October 1, 2018

Giving Up the Booze

Zelda doesn't care if I drink Martinis or not.
Nearly six months ago, I essentially stopped drinking alcohol.

It wasn't because I have problems with addiction or dependency; quite the opposite. As I wrote in an earlier post, I've always been a moderate drinker and virtually never drink to excess. No, the reason for giving up alcohol was a health scare my wife had this spring. Something unexpected showed up on her mammogram. We were of course worried it might be cancer, but it turned out to be nothing. However, the doctor did inform my wife that she was at a higher risk for breast cancer thanks to her unusually dense breast tissue. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Women with dense breasts, but no other risk factors for breast cancer, are considered to have a higher risk of breast cancer than average." The Susan G. Komen organization states that "Women with high breast density are 4-5 times more likely to get breast cancer than women with low breast density."

Another risk factor when it comes to women and breast cancer? Drinking alcohol. It's an underreported risk factor but a well-established one. With that in mind, my wife decided to stop drinking alcohol. So did I, more or less (details on the wiggle words to follow). I did so out of solidarity, and because having a glass of wine or a beer in front of my now teetotalling wife does not appeal to me. For the record, she never once asked me to quit drinking.

Shortly after we chose to give up alcohol, I came across an article in Mother Jones magazine going into great detail about the cancer risks of booze for both men and women. A short excerpt:
On 1988, the World Health Organization declared alcohol a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning that it’s been proved to cause cancer. There is no known safe dosage in humans, according to the WHO. Alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, but it kills more women from breast cancer than from any other. The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that for every drink consumed daily, the risk of breast cancer goes up 7 percent.... The research linking alcohol to breast cancer is deadly solid. There’s no controversy here. Alcohol, regardless of whether it’s in Everclear or a vintage Bordeaux, is carcinogenic. More than 100 studies over several decades have reaffirmed the link with consistent results. The National Cancer Institute says alcohol raises breast cancer risk even at low levels. 
The article also states that "researchers estimate that alcohol accounts for 15 percent of US breast cancer cases and deaths—about 35,000 and 6,600 a year, respectively." 
There's still espresso.
The article strongly reinforced our decision regarding alcohol. I highly recommend giving it a read, especially if you are a woman, though if you are a man with a family history of cancer (like me), you should read it as well. Really, everyone should probably read it.
Now, back to those earlier weasle words, about me "more or less" giving up alcohol. Since my wife and I made our decision, I haven't had a drink, nor have I especially wanted one. However, I could see potential circumstances in which I might cheat a little. For example, I'm not going to say I'll never join a friend for a beer ever again. That could happen. But, to be honest, I very rarely find myself in social drinking situations anyway so the little escape route I've provided myself with the phrase "more or less" might prove to be irrelevant.
Finally, though I'll probably change the main photo on this blog at some point, I'm not going to engage in some sort of Stalinesque whitewashing of history and delete any of my older alcohol-related posts. You can still find my thoughts on bargain bourbon, the joys of Campari, and mixing the perfect Martini.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Philosophy Thursday: Good Men, Bad Men, Anger, and Thich Nhat Hanh

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is in some ways a better human being than I am. Whenever I read his work, I am moved by his dedication to peace and compassion, and try to incorporate his teachings in my daily life. I strive to be a bit more like him.

But not too much like him. To put it bluntly, I'm an angrier person than Nhat Hanh, and I'm OK with that. He strives to surpass anger, to rise above it, while I—paraphrasing Capt. James T. Kirk—need my anger.

In his excellent book 'Being Peace', Nhat Hanh shares the following story:
After the Vietnam War, many people wrote to us in Plum Village. We received hundreds of letters each week from the refugee camps in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, hundreds each week. It was very painful to read them, but we had to be in contact. We tried our best to help, but the suffering was enormous, and sometimes we were discouraged. It is said that half the boat people fleeing Vietnam died in the ocean; only half arrived at the shores of Southeast Asia. 
There are many young girls, boat people, who were raped by sea pirates. Even though the United Nations and many countries tried to help the government of Thailand prevent that kind of piracy, sea pirates continued to inflict much suffering on the refugees. One day, we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. 
She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. 
When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we can't do that. In my meditation, I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, I would now be the pirate. There is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I can't condemn myself so easily. In my meditation, I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we might become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.
While I certainly admire Nhat Hanh's ability to see the situation from the pirate's point of view, and can acknowledge the role of environment in shaping the pirate's life, this doesn't change my anger. When Nhat Hanh writes "If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we can't do that..." I can't help but think, "Yes, we can. And should."

Perhaps Nhat Hanh is right that if I "had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, I would now be the pirate. There is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I can't condemn myself so easily." I actually can condemn myself so easily. If I try to hurt an innocent, I deserve to be stopped. Think of the horror movie trope about the man bitten by a werewolf, who then turns into a werewolf himself and terrorizes the community. The cursed man, unable to bring himself to commit suicide, begs others to kill or imprison him. Or, to look at things more scientifically, consider the fact that brain tumors and injuries can cause serious behavioral changes. There have even been incidences of brain tumors being linked to pedophilia. Taking that as an example, if I ever develop a tumor and it compels me to try to rape a child, I hope someone stops me, even if it means killing me.

I can't help but think of the fascinating graphic novel 'My Friend Dahmer' by John "Derf" Backderf. It's the true story about growing up and going to school with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Even though Backderf shows some sympathy for the young Dahmer, in the book's afterward he clearly states
It's my belief that Dahmer didn't have to wind up a monster, that all those people didn't have to die horribly, if only the adults in his life hadn't been so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent. Once Dahmer kills, however—and I can't stress this enough—my sympathy for him ends. He could have turned himself in after that first murder. He could have put a gun to his head. Instead he, and he alone, chose to become a serial killer and spread misery to countless people. 
I absolutely agree with that. There are times for compassion, and there are times for justice.

It's important to state that I don't consider Nhat Hanh's position to be wrong or unethical. I actually find it admirable. Quite possibly, if I could achieve his level of benevolent compassion, I would be a happier, "better" person. I just wouldn't be me.

To quote a great PiL song, "Anger is an energy." It motivates me. I wouldn't be a martial artist if it weren't for anger. I wouldn't teach self-defense classes if it weren't for anger. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I think in my own small way I make the world a better place by teaching people to protect themselves while at the same time being able to protect them myself if necessary. Breaking someone's knee while simultaneously slamming face-down into the ground isn't very nice, but there are times it is necessary.

In season one of 'True Detective,' Matthew McConaughey's character Rush Cohle is asked "Do you wonder ever if you're a bad man?" He responds, "No. I don't wonder. World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door." The show's creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto further elaborated on that concept in an interview: "Regarding bad men being necessary to stop the other bad men, that’s probably more true than I’d like it to be, but the point exists outside of gender: You need physically capable, courageous, and potentially violent people to deal with the violent, dangerous people."

Again, I absolutely agree. Compared to Thich Nhat Hanh, I am something of a bad man. And I totally accept that.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Practice the Martial Art You Like

Lou Schuler
Regarding exercise, certified strength and conditioning specialist Lou Schuler wrote in his book The New Rules of Lifting that what matters most is for people to

1. Do something
2. Do something they like
3. The rest is just details

I agree, and have the same philosophy when it comes to martial arts. You are more likely to practice and therefore get better at an art that comes naturally to and that you really like than an art you don’t like as much or aren’t as naturally inclined towards. (This is a big part of why I’m vastly better at Kali than BJJ.) 

For example, let’s assume you want to take up a striking art. You take a few classes in both
Muay Thai and Taekwondo. For whatever reason, you find you enjoy Taekwondo and don’t care for Muay Thai. Maybe it’s the art itself, maybe it’s the instructor, maybe it’s the vibe of the school. However, your UFC-addled buddy tells you should stick with Muay Thai because it’s been “proven in the ring” and is more useful for self-defense. Leaving aside whether or not that is true, signing up for Muay Thai classes won’t do you any good if you skip practice because you don’t like it. Being a consistent student of Taekwondo is better than being an inconsistent student of Muay Thai.

Don't get me wrong... It's good to challenge yourself and try things (including martial arts) that are outside of your comfort zone. I'm thankful for the time I spent earning my BJJ purple belt. But it's important to have a base core to work off of. It serves as your foundation. In my case, that foundation is built on Filipino martial arts. I came to that foundation by going through a period of trying different  martial styles and seeing what clicked. Kali is, simply put, the martial art I enjoy practicing the most.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Film: Quick Thoughts About Black Panther

I finally saw Black Panther, weeks after seemingly every other human on the planet watched it. This late in the game, an in-depth movie review seems rather superfluous, though I will say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Instead, this post will focus on some quick thoughts and general observations about the film.

One of the reasons I was slow to see Black Panther is because I’m rather ambivalent about superhero cinema and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular (I think I may be one of the few people who strongly disliked Iron Man). Yet in many ways Black Panther isn’t really a superhero movie at all. It struck me as more of a science fiction/fantasy hybrid with an occasional detour into James Bond territory. (I’d love to see director Ryan Coogler tackle a Bond flick, or at the very least a Mission: Impossible.) If anything, the blend of technology, hand-to-hand fighting, mysticism, and monarchy reminded me somewhat of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune, with vibranium as something of a stand-in for spice. Considering I love this sort of thing—I even liked The Chronicles of Riddick—it is no surprise I much prefer Black Panther over other superhero-based movies.

Not surprisingly, I paid quite a bit of attention to the fight scenes and weaponry. To prepare for his role as T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman worked extensively with martial artist Marrese Crump. According to Crump, T’Challa’s fighting style is a primarily a blend of Kali, Muay Thai, and Capoeira. If you know what you’re looking for, you can clearly see all these elements in the film. There’s also some prominent uses of Jujitsu.

In all due respect to the king of Wakanda, my favorite fight moves were displayed by T’Challa’s faithful spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). During a scene set in a Korean casino, she pulls off a cool Kotegaeshi (I think that’s the proper name), a wrist throw from traditional Japanese Jujitsu. Later, she performs an excellent snake disarm against Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). As a Kali practitioner, I was especially excited to see the snake disarm.

(You can see the snake disarm about 11 seconds in here. The wrist lock is about 40 seconds in here.)
The film also had some nods to Africa’s  traditional weaponry. For example, Killmonger channels the spirit of famous African monarch Shaka Zulu when he breaks the shaft of his longish spear, turning it into a Zulu iklwa. M'Baku (Winston Duke), leader of the Jabari tribe, carries a staff resembling an elongated version of a Zulu fighting stick.

I do wish the film contained more indigenous African martial arts, such as Senagese grappling (did you know wrestling is the No. 1 sport in Senegal?) or Zulu stick fighting. Thanks to my teacher Burton Richardson, I’ve dabbled a bit in Zulu stick work, and find it fun and fascinating. While there is still a tendency to immediately think of East Asia whenever martial arts are mentioned, Africa has a long, rich martial tradition that is well-worth exploring onscreen.

However, that’s a minor quibble. As great as the fight sequences were, what really made Black Panther work were the characters and their struggles. Despite the excellent special effects, design, and action scenes, the film was fundamentally about people, which is part of the reason audiences are responding to it with such passion. Yes, Black Panther is a popcorn movie, but it’s a popcorn movie with heart.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Thought of the Day, March 26, 2018: Robert Wright on Being Buddhist


“I don’t call myself a Buddhist, because traditional Buddhism has so many dimensions—of belief, of ritual—that I haven’t adopted. I don’t believe in reincarnation or related notions of karma, and I don’t bow before the statue of the Buddha upon entering the meditation hall, much less pray to him or to any Buddhist deities. Calling myself a Buddhist, it seems to me, would almost be disrespectful to the many Buddhists, in Asia and elsewhere, who inherited and sustain a rich a beautiful religious tradition.”

For my own thoughts on this matter, please see my earlier post So... Am I a Buddhist or Not?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Dealing With an Injury... Again *UPDATE*

Exactly two weeks ago I fractured my left kneecap.

It happened during my morning workout. I was preparing to do pull-ups using a doorway pull-up bar, something I've been doing for more than 10 years. Apparently that morning I got careless and didn't properly secure the bar, because on my first pull-up both the bar and I came crashing down. My left knee took the brunt of the impact.

It didn't take long for my knee to swell up massively. Had both knees been injured, I would have looked like Torgo. I proceeded to do all the RICE things you're supposed to do after sustaining an injury, i.e. rest, ice, compression, and elevation. That helped, and the swelling went down, though the first two or three days after my fall were quite unpleasant. Sitting down and standing up were very painful, and descending stairs was agony. 


By the fourth or fifth day, my knee felt better though it still hurt. Gradually the pain went from being sharp and acute to being more of a dull ache. After 10 days I was concerned that my knee still didn't feel right, so I finally went to a doctor. An X-ray revealed that I had indeed fractured my kneecap. Recovery time is around six weeks. Due to the nature of the fracture, there isn't much that can be done, though I am going to visit a knee specialist to make sure nothing else is awry.

Interestingly, the doctor was shocked that I was moving as well as I was and didn't seem to be in debilitating pain. I don't mention that to imply I'm some sort of "pain don't hurt" badass (OK, maybe a little...), but because I think it reflects positively on my training protocols. I suspect that yoga along with exercises such as Turkish get-ups, Hindu squats, and burpees have strengthened the muscles and tendons around my knee. My limp mostly went away fairly quickly, and I never had to resort to using a cane, even though as a stick-fighter I would have welcomed the opportunity to do so. (I should add that I own four or five canes.)

And speaking of "pain don't hurt".... A self-defense lesson from this experience: Pain is not always a reliable fight stopper. I was in a great deal of pain immediately after I fell, but still managed to do a few rounds of heavy kettlebell swings. Smart? Probably not, but the point is that I could do it, that I could work through the pain. So could a predator intent on causing you harm. 

I've mostly taken a break from training, but plan to resume soon, with some necessary modifications. Despite having a good incident-free 10 years with doorway pull-up bars, I'm a little paranoid about using them again. Maybe it's PTSD, but if I do pull-ups it will be at the park. At home I'll stick to cable rows. Turkish get-ups and Hindu squats are off the menu for the foreseeable future. Gentle yoga is fine, as are push-ups and moderate swings. Any martial arts training will be limited to simple Kali stick and knife drills. (By the way, Filipino martial arts have much to offer someone who is injured or has mobility issues.)

Diet-wise, I'm eliminating alcohol and drastically cutting back on caffeine, as both can potentially interfere with the body's ability to absorb calcium and affect bone health. I'm also consuming more protein and calcium to aid with healing. For the discomfort, I take the occasional aspirin* (other painkillers spike my blood pressure) and drink plenty of ginger and turmeric tea. 

(For my adventures with a herniated disc, click here.)

* Update: I had a visit with an orthopedic surgeon and joint specialist yesterday. He verified that my knee is indeed fractured. However, there doesn't appear to be any damage to the surrounding tendons or ligaments. I have an appointment for additional X-rays in four weeks. By then I should be more or less back to normal. One interesting thing I learned during the visit is that many common painkillers—such as naproxen, ibuprofen, and yes, aspirin—can interfere with a broken bone's ability to heal. Acetaminophen, however, is fine. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

This One Goes to... 5: Favorite Books Read in 2016

In the past, my 'Favorite Books Read' lists have included 11 works of fiction and 11 nonfiction works. This year, that isn't the case.

To be honest, 2017 wasn't a great year in reading for me. Not only did I read far fewer books in general, of the books I did read, there weren't many that were really outstanding. Thus, a list of '11 Favorites' would be impossible.

Still, I did read some really great books. Here are my favorites for 2017, in no particular order. 



FICTION
  • The Book of Weird by Barbara Ninde Byfield (This vintage hard-to-classify gem is a witty encyclopedia of a fantastical alternate Europe. I wish I read this book back in my Dungeons & Dragons days.)
  • The Chronicles of Solar Pons by August Derleth (Yes, Pons is an unabashed pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. But he is also a great pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. The stories are a great deal of fun and I actually think August Derleth is a better writer than Arthur Conan Doyle.)
  • Lost Worlds Vol. 1 by Clark Ashton Smith (Along with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, Smith was one of the "Big Three" writers for Weird Tales. His fantasy stories are very dark and nightmarish. I especially liked the ones set in the dying earth landscape of Zothique.)
  • Red Sister by Mark Lawrence (This tale of a convent that trains novice nuns in the ways of assassination is one of the best new fantasy novels I've read in a long time. Great setting and characterizations. Features some good quotes about fighting and martial arts.)
  • Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (Gorgeously written, surreal, and dreamlike. A novel to read slowly and savor.) 

NONFICTION
  • A Buddhist Grief Observed by Guy Newland (I struggle with grief and loss. So does Guy Newland. He eloquently writes about his Buddhist beliefs both helped and at times failed to help him deal with the death of his wife.)
  • The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights by Norm Phelps
    and
  • A Plea for the Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, and Evolutionary Imperative to Treat All Beings with Compassion Hardcover by Matthieu Ricard (Two excellent books about animal rights, both written from a Buddhist perspective. Phelps especially makes some very strong, substantial arguments regarding the place of veganism in Buddhism.)
  • Survive the Unthinkable: A Total Guide to Women's Self Protection by Tim Larkin (The title is a little misleading; the book is not really a "total guide" nor is it only of use to women. Larkin address mindset more than specific techniques, and I find the things he has to say to be perfectly valid. His observation that "violence is rarely the answer, but when it is... it is the only answer" is spot-on.)


SPECIAL MENTION

  • Lazarus Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (Incredible dystopian graphic novel series that explores themes of wealth inequality and environmental destruction. Very timely and relevant... unfortunately.)
(My list of favorite books read in 2016 can be found here, and favorites of 2015 can be found here.)