Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Defense Mechanism

I was talking to a guy in boxing class today about his other class: krav maga, the Israeli-based form of martial arts. He has a full-contact class that tends to get nuts. I jokingly call him “The Italian Stallion” and he says, ‘No, I’m more like ‘The Italian Scallion.’” He’s had a woman kick him square in the balls in that class and in general gets roughed up a good bit by over-zealous sparring partners, but wearing head gear, cup and mouth piece. Our boxing class is just hitting things, which I prefer. My advice is unless you’re good enough to be a professional or highly-ranked amateur, you should not allow people who really know how to hit routinely hit you.

It’s always a pleasure to talk with this guy, or most people in these classes, because no one is there to kick somebody else’s ass. Every now and then you’ll get a hothead, but he (always he) will rarely last. Like me, most people realize it’s just a good physical release to hit something, and the workout in general is designed to break you down physically, and will, unless you’re in astounding physical condition. (I’ve also found the better you get, the harder you workout. The harder you hit, the more energy you burn. It builds on itself.)

This often makes me think about what it means to hurt or dominate other people, not just physically, and what the point is. Want to hurt me? Got news for you. There are things I understand about myself that are darker, more ugly and more hurtful than anything my worst enemy could come up with. As life goes on, if you’re honest with yourself, you see your own darkness, and embrace it in some strange sense, forgive it whenever possible, try not to encourage it. By the same token, I see great things, too, that sometimes come through clearly, especially when I write.

Gonna’ hurt me? Physically, that’s surely possible, but otherwise, I doubt it. Or at least nowhere near as hard as I could hurt myself. It comes in handy to understand this when you put yourself out there for public consumption. And I’ve learned plenty of people who abhor physical violence and see themselves as miles above it, don’t think twice about trying to inflict the same emotionally and mentally. That’s one major thing I don’t get about adulthood. Kids grasp this instinctively. Adults feel some need to bullshit themselves about this.

That’s one of the interesting things I grasp about New York. The way you see yourself fluctuates constantly because you’re placed in so many situations that tempt you to be the worst you can be one moment, and the best a few minutes later. I’ll be seconds away from popping some nimrod on the subway carrying on about how much he hates white people, fully knowing white people are listening to him carry on with this sort of senseless, baiting crap. An hour later, I’ll take five minutes to help an old lady with a walking cane make it up the subway stairs. Come back in half an hour, and I’ll be contemplating kicking some jackass thumbing an iPhone down the same set of stairs. Aspiring saints should not live here: they'll be tested far too much to make the ecumenical cut.

Boxing to me serves as a defense mechanism against the world. For every man or woman boxing in our class, there tend to be a dozen guys out on the floor pumping iron, building their own defense mechanism. The bigger you are, the less people mess with you. It’s a pretty simple equation. It occurs to me, too, that this is fear in some sense. And I think to understand manhood, you have to understand fear. Because it’s a huge part of the deal. Traditionally, a man had to deal with fear in his world on a daily basis, instilling it in others or controlling it within himself. Life was about regular physical confrontation leading up to the last century or two.

Of course, it applies now, too. It will always apply, as it’s part of man’s nature to feel dominant in some sense. When I’m back home, Mom and I will often sit watching some war documentary on the History Channel. She’ll shake her head and say, “I will never understand why people have to always be fighting.” And I’ll shake my head and reply, “Mom, it’s the nature of men to fight each other. I’ll never understand how peace breaks out so often.”

But the older I get, the less I feel the need to dominate other people. I can understand it in a very base form, living in the most powerful nation in the world, with a standard of living that allows me to think such thoughts. But, really, you see a show on TV about a tribe living in the Amazon, what do they know or care about this kind of dominance? They care about food, and shelter, plants growing so they can eat, water running so they can drink, animals in the forest they can kill and eat. There’s something seductive about that way of seeing the world from my apartment in New York, just walking around with something covering your private parts and only worrying about food and shelter, as opposed to the endless mind games of society. The sense of male dominance in those closed little groups seems incidental to the larger sense of tribal community. Somewhere along the road, long in the past, we lost touch with that. Or more likely wiped it out on purpose.

This country was built on the concept of people dominating each other, and the tradition continues financially, so that we have a place filled with millions of people who don’t feel any sense of worth or happiness unless they feel dominant over just about everyone else they come across. It gets disgusting after awhile, especially in New York. Tiresome. Not something I want to base my life on in any sense. I was never like this as a kid. Or a teenager. Or a young adult. I’m sure as hell not going to start embracing it now. Thought we were going to catch a break on all this shit with the economy nearly collapsing and still ailing. But I can see now, that’s impossible. This system would have to crash for everyone to abandon it. To do so would be to openly admit how empty it is, and we are by extension, and you better believe the people benefiting the most from it will do everything possible to ensure that never happens.

Still, I can see my take on boxing is self defense, not dominance. I don’t walk around beating the shit out of people. I surely walk around thinking about beating the shit out of people – many of us do – but recognize doing so would be much more trouble than it’s worth. It would slowly corrupt my soul to do so (just dwelling on it is surely a minor form of corruption). And the ultimate truth: sooner or later, probably much sooner than I’d expect, I’d come across someone who could beat my ass to a pulp in a few seconds. As I’ve stated before, boxing is about recognizing your limitations. You hang around a gym and see a few guys who are high-end amateurs, it occurs to you, fast, that some people were made to kick other people’s asses, and chances are you or I aint one of them. Catch a few of Mike Tyson’s early fights on ESPN Classic: it’s like watching the perfect ass-kicking machine.

This next generation coming into adulthood, I don’t know what to think. On one hand, you have guys who, no offense, seem like women with penises. They’re all over my neighborhood. Guys who have never been in a physical confrontation and never will be, if they can help it. I’d applaud their pacifism if I didn’t also recognize there’s some key missing elements of manhood in so many of these guys. That flinty quality you’d get with war vets and mechanics. There’s nothing “guy” about these guys. It’s as though any vestige of manhood has been sucked out of or willfully abandoned by them, in favor of being these wimpy, sort of always smirking beings who, as noted, have emotional warfare down to a science, but have somehow erased traditional manhood from their DNA. (This New York Times commercial nails that vibe, that deeply annoying type of guy for me, in a terrible way. I want to kill everyone in this commercial, slowly, but particularly the men, and particularly the balding guy with glasses.)

If you don’t believe me, watch a few current movies, especially comedies, which seem to delight in presenting men as lovable losers who are always sensitive, funny souls life has passed by, but they learn some important life lesson through a strong woman or other like-minded guys, all to the tune of some dumpy indie music that espouses the same airy “let’s just chill, dude” form of quasi-masculinity.

And let’s not forget the “bromance,” i.e., buddy movies, which have been around for decades. The concept of platonic love between men has been discussed since the days of Greek philosophers. But let’s sum it all up now by attaching a vaguely gay slur to the concept of two men being friends … which seems like a neat summation of what I’m getting at. These guys are being raised to be so disdainful of any sign of masculinity that they turn it all into a smirking inside joke, nod-wink, we really know what’s going on here. Right. Abbott and Costello movies were bromances? Eat me.

On the other hand, you have these hyper-macho, heavily-tattooed, nose- and ear-ringed, Ultimate Fighting sort of guys who walk around like open sores waiting for someone to bump into them so they can blast off. It’s like a cartoon caricature of manhood, taking all the obvious physical elements – muscular signs of strength, marking up one’s body with foreboding drawings and designs, inserting metal into one’s face, ears, nose, eye brows, nipples and whatever else, head shaving, facial hair sporting in various awful configurations, glaring at everyone when not wearing wraparound shades …

All I’m seeing are guys who are very afraid of the world, and this is their defense. Constant defense: defense as a lifestyle. I saw a recent story about a champion ultimate fighter beating the shit out of his porn-star wife. So, the guy’s a champion ultimate fighter … who beats up women, too. You have the bravery of this guy climbing into a steel cage to beat another guy’s ass, mixed with the cowardice of beating a woman, particularly one he married and made vows to. So what does the ability to kick somebody’s ass mean in the context of manhood, when you can readily do both these things? What did this woman do to him to make him flick that switch and treat her like a male opponent in a steel cage? What weakness did she exploit so well that his only recourse was to kick her ass?

What’s even stranger are guys who mimic all these affectations, but clearly don’t lift a finger to acquire any of the physical necessities required to be a genuine badass. They’re either rail thin or beer-bellied fat, slobby in general, but ramped up with that “badass” look and attitude … that I can assure you, is going to radically fail somewhere down the road, hopefully not to the extent that the guy gets permanently damaged.

Which is worse, the nancy boy or the alpha male? I’m describing physical extremes here, but admit it, when I describe either, you know the type of men I’m writing about. Surely, most of us guys see ourselves as somewhere in between, with elements of both. I’m not convinced that abandoning any type of physical/strength training would be an answer to anything. It helps to have these skills. Even the weightlifters, it helps to be able to physically intimidate people, even if you have no intention of doing so. In and of itself, it’s not a bad thing: it’s a defense mechanism that is as healthy or harmful as you want it to be. And history is sprinkled with people (Jesus, Gandhi, etc.) who had no defense mechanism, were peace-loving and gentle, advanced souls, who had something greater to teach mankind, and held a different kind of power that’s far deeper than any physical show of strength.

We tend to kill those guys because we can’t handle what they’re saying. Look at us. Look at the world. Look at this country. I don’t mean this as any sort of harsh “we’re fucked” rhetoric. The world has always been this way and most likely always will be. These are just some of the odd things I think about as I’m putting on my hand wraps and slipping on those heavy-bag gloves. Of course, were I Mike Tyson, I would probably be thinking, “Kill! Kill! Kill! In way! Bad! Bad! Kill!” Instead of, “I should really say something complimentary to the pretty girl wearing the retro Led Zeppelin concert shirt on the other side of the gym.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Boy does this bring back memories. Some good. Most, well, not so much. I remember one class when Mr. Welker rubbed his face and had chaulk all over it. Of course no one said a thing and he taught the entire class that way. Glad to hear 'brother M' is doing well.