I do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. There. I said it. This isn’t some kind of dirty confession, nor is it something I feel must remain a secret. I just, as a general rule, don’t want to talk about.
It’s a year and change into my journey. I’ve toed the waters slowly, as other, more substantial life goals took precedence over training. I have earned a single stripe on my white belt and feel rather accomplished for having done so.* Skill level aside, I can be relied upon as a solid training partner who works hard to improve; if I get nothing else out of this undertaking, I hope it’s that, and trust of my teammates. But I still don’t want to talk about it.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is something I wanted to do for quite some time. It was easily a decade in the making. The desire to become proficient, if not expert, in a martial art has long been a pursuit, one that was generally pushed off to the side along with many other “someday I’ll get around to it” type projects. Well, I still can’t read latin, but I can apply and arm-bar, or triangle, or collar choke to varying degrees of success. You just won’t catch me talking about it.
Some people know I do this. My wife. My family. My close friends.They will occasionally if I have been to class, but for the most part, they don’t want to talk about it either. And I’m fine with that.
At work I sometimes show up with a hickey-like gi mark running it’s way across my neck or face. Round, fingertip size splotches serve as little beliers of the death grip someone had on my wrist the day before and talk to my co-workers for me. They tell of a life outside the cozy walls we find ourselves confined by; they speak of impact, and of violence, the kind which most people avoid. The rules of polite conversation prevent most from asking what kind of trouble has befallen me, and that’s fine. The bruises can whisper to people about what I do in my free time, because I don’t want to talk about it.
Occasionally people do ask why I am bruised up or why I am limping. I usually say I hurt myself exercising. If pressed, I will tell them the specific means by which an injury occurred; I do Brazilian jiu jitsu. It is the near inevitable follow up questions that are the reason for my reluctance to talk about it. “What is it that?” It’s a martial art. “Like karate?” No, not at all. It’s grappling based. “Oh, like wrestling?” A little, but only in the vaguest sense. “Do you want to be a fighter?” Uh-huh. Nearing forty years of age isn’t when most really great careers in the fight game take off. “Can you kick my ass?” I don’t know, but if I can, jiu jitsu will not likely have much to do with it. “Why do you do that?” I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it.
BJJ occupies a similar space to MMA. People have heard of it, have maybe seen it a little, and yet even a negligible grasp on how it works doesn’t curb the ignorant pontificating that dominates public discourse on the matter. I once sat cringing on my sister’s couch, while I listened to some guy give a detailed and completely false account of the way UFC fighters go about purposefully breaking their hands in order to strengthen them. As someone who keeps up a ruthless pursuit of even the most minute details of the MMA world, and who has actually broken his hand only to have it heal as a disfigured shadow of its former self rather than a better, stronger version of the original, I can tell you the mess this blockhead peddled was patently wrong. I hear things like this all the time; rarely with such unbridled and proud ignorance, but more often than not, when the topic of fighting comes up, I remain quiet. I’m too obsessive and I remember everything I read; the burden of caring enough to know enough keeps me silent, lest I spend many a conversation correcting people’s inaccuracies and coming off like a pedantic dick. So I don’t talk about it.
The same holds true for jiu jitsu. People just don’t know enough about it to warrant negotiating a conversation in which they will assuredly be uninformed. Unless they do jiu jitsu too. While I tend to demur when it comes to my martial arts participation, many are effusive. They’ll happily espouse on all manner of things about the jiu jitsu lifestyle; how doing BJJ changed their life; how they got a sweet new Shoyoroll gi; are you a leg-lock guy? And on and on and on. Much noise is made about living this coveted “jiu jitsu lifestyle.” Other than always talking about jiu jitsu, the only things I can reliably associate with a jiu jitsu lifestyle are a curious, and culturally skewed preoccupation with acai fruit, and an equally incongruent usage of the Hawaiian hang-loose-shaka-hand thing. These types share a similarity to crossfitters in that you’ll know they do jiu jitsu, because they’ll tell you they do jiu jitsu. You won’t have to ask questions in this case because they really want to talk about it.
“Jiu jitsu changed my life!” is a common exhortation. It certainly has change my life, and I’ll tell you why: because I do jiu jitsu now. Before, I didn’t. Now, I do. So indeed, my life has changed. But it hasn’t become my reason for being, nor has it made such an impact as to affect my life in the manifold ways some claim it has. Certainly there are positive by products of jiu jitsu: From outwards appearances, I am in better shape now than I have been in a good many years; when I watch MMA I appreciate and understand grappling in a new way, observing a universe of details I never knew, or knew to look for. Largely though, there is no difference. If I eat better, it’s because that is a change I was ready to make in my life, and one which might also come along with the decision to get into a new sport. Perhaps there was an overall lifestyle change that jiu jitsu was one portion of. I think far fewer people are changing their lives because of jiu jitsu than the case is that people wanted to change their lives, and started doing jiu jitsu. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is not a fire-sale of self belief, positivity, and healthy living; it is merely a form of exercise favored by a small percentage of people. Even unhealthy people do it: overweight people; drunks; smokers; people unafraid of gluten. Many of them do jiu jitsu, and do it quite well, but are otherwise very unhealthy. If jiu jitsu were a magic, cross cultural panacea of sorts, I wouldn’t have to explain what am arm-bar is to my mother, which is especially hard when I don’t want to talk about it.
Maybe the jiu jitsu lifestyle is just a matter of having at any and all times no less three outstanding injuries. I have torn intercostal muscles in my ribs and screwed up both knees. My legs are a patch work of amorphous bruises in various shades of purple, brown, and yellow, each one a badge of honor, or more probably, feeble attempts to retain guard. My lower back stings with random sciatic pain that shoots through it and down my leg. The middle of my back cracks when I inhale deeply (this I actually like). My right shoulder pops when I wipe my ass, my left shoulder can barely stand to have a seatbelt strap placed over it, and they both have tendonitis bad enough it sometimes keeps me awake at night. My neck stings and freezes if I look left or right too acutely. My fingers crack with a violence and frequency they’ve never before known. Everyone who has put even a minimum of regular mat time in must have a list of their own, but complaining seems to be universally maligned in the jiu jitsu lifestyle, so we try not to talk about it too much.
I struggle with the “why?” portion of this whole equation sometimes, too. That I should find it difficult to explain to others is no surprise. There are a lot of reasons I suppose, no one having much more weight than the other. It’s empowering; not that I have any delusions about an ability to defend myself, but, because every single class I get through without giving up is a victory. A confirmation of my ability to endure. I do it because it occupies the same part of my brain as other activities I love. I was shocked to find I obsess on jiu jitsu the way I do when I’m in the middle of a long research project or paper. I lay awake in bed at night mentally rearranging jiu jitsu moves they way I would words in a sentence or putting together the melody for a song. What if this goes here, then that goes there? What will that look like? Will that work? The variations and combinations are endless, the pursuit for perfect technique relentless, and for a person like myself who has an excess of mental energy that needs to be channeled into something positive, jiu jitsu is a tremendous vehicle. Mostly though, I do jiu jitsu because it is fun. In spite of the sweat, the blood, the pain and discomfort, I never end a roll, whether I was the hammer or the nail, without a huge smile on my face and feeling excited for the next one.
A few months back, after a particularly good round of sparring, I rolled off another grown man, sweaty, heaving, out of breath, and said to him, “that was beautiful,” as though it was the night of our wedding and we’d just consummated marriage. I recounted the absurdity of this incident to a friend and he asked, “Who was the guy?” I didn’t have an answer. It was someone I’d never seen before that class and who I haven’t seen since. I have plenty of regular training partners whose names I do know, but aside from a name, mostly I don’t know anything about these people. One of them seems to be in labor of some kind, a few in the tech business, a couple others perhaps students. It occurred to me how strangely intimate training jiu jitsu is, how much trust we must place in the people we practice with, and that we do so not really knowing the person at all. We don’t speak at length about our jobs or our lives, yet we lie around on top of one another for hours on end, chest to chest, cheek to cheek, huffing and puffing, and doing our damnedest to kill one another. We slap hands, we smile, we say “see you next time,” and go about our business. We exist outside the walls of the academy, but we don’t really talk about it.
“It sounds like Fight Club,” the friend joked to me. “Are you allowed to talk about it?” he asked. Maybe it’s just that. Perhaps my need for this is a symptom of my condition; that of a modern man seeking out some primordial struggle as a means of getting in touch with my wounded masculinity, and my sense that life, as wondrous as it can sometimes be, is too often rendered dull as we slog through the monotony of it all, bearing the weight of the blunt force trauma of morning alarm clocks and traffic and unfulfilled wishes that isn’t quite strong enough to kill us outright. I am Jack’s acceptance of life in the middle. I am his boredom. I am his disappointment at never being a child star, his search for something visceral, his underlying horror at the futility of it all. I am Jack, balled up on the floor in a sweat soaked gi, trying to breathe while life slowly digs its hooks in and chokes me out. But I don’t want to talk about it.
*In the week and change I spent writing this I earned a second stripe on my white belt.