Thursday, 22 November 2012

Sh*ts And Giggles In Boston

November 3rd saw us trotting off to Boston.

Andy had been asked to be a resident instructor for a week his friend Gershon’s academy - Krav Maga Yashir Boston. And given our devil may care, life-embracing ethos, it seemed rude to decline a freebie trip to the East Coast.

So, it was up at 5am, and off the airport. 5am is very early. It doesn’t feel nice at all. Well, to me. For Andy it seemed an ideal time to work on his Jiu Jitsu strategy.

One very long plane ride later (despite an exhorbitant level of education, I still find it hard to believe it takes as long to get across America as over to it from the UK) we arrived in Bean Town (*I have no idea if this is a real nickname, but Wikipedia seems to think it is).

Gershon had very kindly booked us into the Wyndham Chelsea, which had exceptionally efficient heating and a chair which made Andy look like a ‘Thunderbirds’ puppet.

Obviously my Boston report is tardy in the extreme, so in the spirit of blogdom, I’ll sum up the highlights and get back up to speed.

First up, the weather. The reason that hotel heating was so efficient was because Boston is as cold as the Devil’s sauna is hot (*presumably, I’ve not been round there lately). There were face-slicing winds, spitty rain and snow all over the shop.

Given we only packed California clothes when we left from the UK, this meant we had to wear them all at once and then execute an emergency shopping mission.

Thank you, Forever 21, for three exceptionally cheap jumpers, two pairs of socks, a hat and some full-length trousers (that crop look just doesn’t cut it under 10 degrees centigrade) and thank you H&M for a scarf that several people subsequently described as “fun” (I’m not entirely sure what scarf “fun” entails, but two of them followed up by saying it was “too much fun” for them personally).

Despite my recent transition into a woman of regular exercise, the sudden drop in temperature rather put paid to my training.

I have always been the type that starts to layer on blankets once the thermostat drops below 25 degrees, and Gershon’s brand new Krav studio is being built in a giant warehouse.

Spectacular and functional yes. Weeds out the men from the boys, very definitely.

Sadly I proved myself to be one of the smallest, weediest boys on this occasion and after two days of training, I holed myself up in the hotel and made wimpering noises whenever going outside was mentioned.

I did however manage to sample the joys of power slapping, power kicking and some knife defence in those first two days.

Once again I apologise to the tiny woman who put up with me whapping her repeatedly in the forehead during the warmup fighting games – until told otherwise I did believe it was a legitimate target.

If you can put aside my obvious prowess in the photos, you will see how I am sporting leggings, gi pants and three hoodies, whilst everyone else is in a t-shirt.

Kind of kills the deadly assassin image a bit.

Whilst I was berating the cold, Andy had a battle of his own to deal with. Halfway through our Monday afternoon shopping trip, he started sporting this face.

Whether it was a bug, food poisoning or the switch from semi-fresh Cali fare to sin-laden fast food (put it this way, this was our breakfast selection) his stomach had gone into overdrive, and despite powering through the first few days, by day three he was bedbound, and I was on nurse duty.

Which roughly translated as buying some Pedialyte, stroking his fevered brow and ignoring the unholy sounds from the bathroom.

Still, within 24 hours of taking to his sickbed, the Big Monkey was back upright and ready to teach again, though I did lend him some of my leggings to wear under his gi (he’s not particularly fat-coated at the best of times, and three days of starvation had stripped any last bits of insulation).

After an eventful (well, that bit’s more true for Andy, given my hotel-dwelling habits) week, we were up at 4am and off to the airport.

Intriguingly, this photo of us on three hours rest has garnered several ‘likes’ on facebook, suggesting that I might look better without my beauty sleep.

About fourteen hours and one interior-designed mini-tornado later, we arrived back in Cali.

We spent the weekend eating (god bless fish tacos), sleeping and thawing out, and headed back to Atos on Monday.

Monday, 19 November 2012

One Month In At Atos

So, it’s been just over a month since we left the UK (give or take a couple of weeks, let’s call it “creative license” rather than “plain old laziness”).

We spent the beginning of November in Boston (more on that trip later) and the shift in location and temperature, along with some chunky moments holed up in a hotel room, gave me an ideal chance to look back and reflect on our metaphorical journey.

When we were planning the San Diego leg of our sabbatical, our ideas as to how it would be were mixed.

We were excited about training at an elite BJJ gym, and harboured fantasies where we would indulge in matplay on an almost 24/7 basis, soaking up information at warp speed.

On the flip-side, and given my six months or so of sporadic and psychologically troublesome training, I was also secretly terrified that I might rock up for my first class, get smashed about, cry pitifully and publically and then give up for good.

I’m not sure how well I kept this feeling under wraps – we did have a couple of roundabout discussions about how the trip might be a great chance for me to take up drawing.

As it happens, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the “let’s chuck everything we know out of the window and do something different and unplanned” nature of the trip, the reality of the first month has worked out, well, different from our predictions.

First up, and I’ve mentioned this before, the intensity of the Atos training came as a big shock.

This is a reflection on me rather than any of my UK teachers or clubs, but there are ways to use chitchat, loo breaks and brand new whitebelts with zero defence to cruise through a class. That doesn’t happen at Atos. After each session you will want nothing more than a four-hour bath, your body weight in carbs and hibernation.

If you’re on a whirlwind gym tour, or are ramping up for competition season, there might be logic in charging on through the physical destruction regardless and just clocking up the mat hours. But as I crashed straight into illness at the beginning of week two, and with a full eleven weeks ahead of us, I was forced to reassess.

So, one month later, what’s different?

Well, first up I’m training less.

I know some of you will see that as a step in the wrong direction, but I’ve realised that going into a session exhausted, sore and bitchy is a guarantee that I’ll forget the techniques, perform horribly in sparring and leave the class feeling frustrated. Jiu Jitsu is a sport where you ask people to bully you, there’s no room for a simultaneous “it’s so unfair” inner monologue. And whilst one or two off days might be par for the course, skipping the rest and then experiencing a 4:1 ratio of sh*t:passable was threatening to kill my love of the sport entirely.

It’s still a work in progress, but on those days where my gymwards journey is plagued with “Oh, the wind is too cold/my rucksack is too heavy/the bus driver is too rude” type commentary, I just turn around, head homewards and try and get back on form for the next session.

On the subject of unfairness, Atos is a place where pretty much everyone is likely to be bigger, stronger or more technical than you (more normally a combination of the above). There won’t be anyone you can tap for a quick ego boost and you will work your excuses all the way down from “they’re a world champion black belt,” through “they’re a world champion brown/purple/blue belt” to “they just won the kids section at the Worlds.”

Around the time I got schooled on the mats by a 17 year old, and out-Bulgarian bagged by a couple of 11 year olds, I learnt that a new definition of “a good training session” was necessary. These days I try, and again, it’s a work in progress, to give myself a pat on the back for smaller things (like movement, defence, stamina, attempting new techniques etc) and chuck the tap count in the bin.

It’s not the only comparison I’m giving up. My fallback position, and one which has threatened to ruin my BJJ path more than once, is to self-flagellate with the “you were better back in 2009” mantra. Despite being distinctly rose-tinted, and housing a very public burnout, I always envisioned the me of three years ago as fitter, faster and more invincible. And I used that belief to ruin pretty much any session I had since (the good old “well, it was ok, but you gotta work to get back to the pinnacle of yesteryear” defence).

In a rare talking (rather than shouting) moment, and after a particularly gruelling Saturday conditioning session, Coach Nave suggested that a start point of now might be a more helpful foundation for progress. I’m 39, I’ve got some injuries to work around, and my life outside the sport is incomparable (I have one for starters). For the coming months that’s the base material I’m working with.

So, that’s where I’m up to after the first month.

Because I’m only hitting the mats when I feel positive, training is a pleasant experience about 80% of the time (when it’s not, I look at factors that might have played a part before falling into the pit of despair). Thanks to the “no water, no breaks” regime, I’m getting used to challenging myself, and not just throwing in the towel. I’m starting to perform better, and to get my confidence back. And I’m noticing the wealth of new techniques on display at Atos (even if they’re used to kick my arse) and feeling inspired to get to grips with them.

The plan for month two involves a shift in schedule to focus on BJJ first, and conditioning second, and to take in more classes taught by the man himself (Andre Galvao). Along with that all important sofa time, of course…

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A Very Expensive Scratch

As misfortune would have it, the day after my birthday I woke up at 2am.

This time it was nothing to do with present-opening anticipation (though the US Postal Service still has one of my parcels) and everything to do with the fact I was crying like Gwyneth Paltrow on Oscars night. Out of just one eye.

Somehow, in the excitement of birthday shenanigans, I had done something untoward to my eyeball.

Now, way back in about 2002, I had experienced a similar incident, which began with some overvigorous contact lens removal and ended with a trip to Moorfields Hospital, where they informed me I had ulcerated my cornea and was at distinct risk of blindness. Losing my sight would put a distinct dampener on the holiday mood and my media career, so I thought I’d best get it seen to. And, given we were heading off to Boston the next day, sharpish.

For added medical value, a common or garden skin-type deal had also flared up. Buy one issue, get one free, you might say.

Or not, as the US health system might have it. Because for someone who’s grown up with the begrudging but functional NHS system, having to shell out like P Diddy on club night just to get checked over hurt almost as much as the injuries themselves.

A walk-in at the emergency clinic had a starting price of $125, and a warning that any additional tests would incur extra fees.

I will say that it was comprehensive in the extreme – weight, blood pressure and pulse (a slothlike 54bpm despite the stress of the circumstances), full sight test and plenty of gazing and prodding at the relevant regions. It was also uncompromisingly jolly – a demeanor that is rarely to be found in UK doctors’ surgeries.

But as the nurse laid out a plethora of swabs, syringes, lab slides and petri dishes on the side table, along with gloves, gels and antibacterial wipes, it was impossible to ignore my ever decreasing bank balance.

Half of me wanted to sprint from the table yelling, “If I’m not blind in a week, I’ll pop back”.

As it happened all was relatively minor, and I was sent on my way with a prescription for antibiotic drops, creams and tablets.

Despite two of these items being sold over the counter in the UK for around £5, the medicine totalled another $98.47. By this point I was ready to just hand over my entire wallet, along with an IOU for my firstborn child.

Being somewhat clumsy, I never travel without insurance, but with an excess of £100 (yeah, no one really reads that bit) and a daily spending allowance of just $15 each, the $223.47 overall bill was definite insult on top of injury.

We’ve chalked it up to the contingency fund, and the “adventure” of travelling, but it was a rude (actually exceptionally-courteous) reminder of how easily things can go downhill if you're in the US without health insurance. And in recent week's I've encountered several sporting types who are nursing serious injury, without treatment, for just that reason.

Next time I encounter the surly scowl of the receptionist at my local London GP, I’ll just count my blessings I’m not paying for the privilege.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Halloween Grinch (aka A Very Monkey Birthday)

Being born on Halloween has its good and bad points.
The good – well it’s kind of badass to hang with the undead (legend has it Halloween babies have extra perception and the protection of the spirit world) and I can use it to explain away my teenager-like obsession with all things skull-print.
The downside is that every year, when you ask folk to come to your birthday party, they will all already be prebooked with something Halloweeny.
Rather like those who are born on Christmas, and perpetually hold a grudge against Jesus for watering down their gift potential, I have developed a Grinch-like bitterness when it comes to pumpkins, fake blood and witch costumes. Skeletons I can live with on account of the aforementioned skull-print fetish.
And whilst my silent “but it’s my birthday first of all” sulk can go relatively undercover in the UK, over in the US, Halloween is big business.
Walmart, for example, was already sporting a Halloween theme way back when we arrived in the States, at the end of September.
Every aisle boasted cobwebs, and leering cats, along with the well-known haunted outhouse.
Every aisle that is bar this one, where it was already Christmas.
Sensing (perhaps because I never stopped banging on about it) that encountering Halloween revelry on my “special day” would be a hiding to stroppiness, Andy steered me away from my original plan to go to the crabshack in Pacific Beach (an area packed to the gills with drunk students) and towards a nice, grownup restaurant for dinner.
But before that, there was the day itself to attend to, kicking off (and for this, I applaud Andy’s patience) at 6.30am with cards and presents.
I might be 39 now, but I retain the impatience of a five year old attacking Santa’s stocking.
Andy (Big Monkey, long story but stems from how we started dating) had bankrupted himself on the card front (for some reason stationery seems exorbitant over here), with four separate offerings – including one on behalf of absent friends and family, and one mocking my (Little Monkey) time-wasting ability when it comes to getting in the shower, along with a couple of smoochy numbers.
All other cards and presents (even those I was instrumental in buying) had been painstakingly guarded till the day itself, and gloriously wrapped in paper and ribbons for a full-on rip-open experience.
Having witnessed the abomination that was Andy's Christmas wrapping last December, I know how much effort this must have entailed, and once again expressed my gratitude with some “happy crying”.
After breakfast in bed (good old poached eggs again) it was time to head off to the nail salon (me, not Andy).
For some reason, I imagine the life of an American lady entails endless sessions of buffing and gelling, and given I was having a day off from grabbing hopelessly at big boys coattails and collars in BJJ, it was the ideal opportunity to hand myself over to the varnish maestros.
One manicure, pedicure and spicy sandwich later (Andy liked his so much he decided to sport it across his chops), I bedecked myself in as many birthday gifts as it’s possible to wear simultaneously, and we headed off to downtown San Diego.
The Gaslamp shopping gods were smiling on me, and Vans offered up two new pairs of sunglasses (the last ones lasted roughly two days before I sat on them).
Heading home to swank up before dinner, we made a last minute detour to the beach, to watch the sun go down and take way too many pensive “arty” shots. There are a lot of them in this blog, but trust me, it's a drop in the photo ocean when it comes to our collection. We are well on our way to becoming the proverbial "let me bore you with our holiday snaps" couple.
We ended the day by blowing the food budget (put it this way, there’ll be a lot more poached eggs this month) at Table 926.
It was a chance to ponder our first month (and a bit) of travels, and where we will head in the New Year.
As well as stuff ourselves to the point where we felt rather sick.

I’m not one for public outpourings of emotion (crying excepted) but it was quite possibly the best birthday ever. For everyone who posted, gifted and greeted, and of course the exceptional efforts of the Big Monkey, I want to say thanks, it left me feeling something like this…