In the 5th grade, I was beaten up by the skinniest and scrawniest kid in school. Having attended a different school every year of my life up to that point (except for a couple of years when I attended two in the same year), I learned how to size up new social situations and adapt pretty quickly in order to survive. I had never been in any kind of physical fight except for maybe my older brother, and that was usually never much of one because we were pretty good friends. We had to be friends in light of our ever shifting surroundings. I learned very quickly that humor could be a pretty effective deterrent in the whole alpha dog schoolyard thing, and so I was funny, not tough.
I was also a rule follower, and a very sensitive kid. If I got my feelings hurt or thought I was going to get in trouble, a legion of dutch boys wouldn’t be able to plug the dam that would gush forth from my eyes. And that is exactly what happened one afternoon as we were lining up to come in from recess. Skinny kid (SK) cut in front of me in line, and I called him on it. He shoved me hard and wouldn’t go to the end of the line. Here I was, being set up with a twofold problem that would likely end up in tears. One, a great injustice was being done to me by SK, and two, the teacher came up and asked “What is going on?” That was it, 5 alarm fire requiring a full pumper truck and there they came. I couldn’t have stopped the ensuing deluge after that question, not from a teacher. That moment set into motion an entire series of events fit for an ABC Afterschool Special, or in today’s world, a LifeTime movie, or maybe one of those YouTube videos where a bullied kid flips the handwritten 3×5 cards to tell their story.
As I began to cry, every other child within eyeshot, which was most of the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade began to laugh. I was caught up in a surreal experience and the world started to stretch and warp, like in an old B horror film. When I thought it couldn’t get any worse, SK leaned in and whispered, “After school, I am going to kick your ass!” It is amazing. In that era we were still 15 years before the first PC’s and 30 or so before texting, and there certainly was no social media, but the news of this fight spread like a massive group text to every single kid in school within seconds. It was like the hive mind! They all knew simultaneously.
Since I am, and shall remain, anonymous I am going to have to use initials in place of names to tell the rest of this story. SK = Skinny Kid, K = my best friend at that school, J = K’s brother, M = the toughest and biggest kid in school.
My father, a highly educated man (3 degrees) and philosopher, never taught me or my brothers anything about the pugilistic art of fisticufs. The only thing he ever told us about fighting was that we were supposed to choose the field of battle. To this day I am not sure why that is the only piece of martial instruction he ever gave us, but there it is. And so before school let out, I had decided that we should fight at K’s house. I chose K’s house very strategically because I knew that K’s brother J knew judo. I figured that we could leave as soon as the bell rang, run to K’s house, and J could teach me how to flip a guy. If I could flip SK, then this whole mess would go away!
I know this is cliché, and you don’t have to believe me, but the fight was scheduled for 3:00 high. We got out at 2:30 and surely we had enough time to get to K’s house for me to learn how to flip SK. Problem, J wasn’t home. He should have been, but he wasn’t. We stood in K’s entry way waiting as the clocked ticked mercilessly toward the moment of execution, and it appeared that no reprieve was coming. Finally at 2:55, J walks in and I frantically try to explain that he has to teach me how to flip a guy RIGHT NOW! So, J calmly shows me that he can easily flip me, and I am feeling pretty good, but when I try it on him it isn’t working. Then again J was in the ninth grade and he was huge. SK was nothing by comparison. J said to just give it a try.
When we opened the door I could not believe what I was witnessing. The entire school was in K’s yard and spilling onto the street. They had already formed a semicircle (the octagon did not exist yet) around K’s front door with about a fifteen foot radius. There in the middle stood SK. The only way I can adequately describe SK is as a skinnier and younger version of Paul from the Wonder Years. Only no glasses. Yep, that was my nemesis. SK stood there with a smug look of certainty at the eventual outcome, completely unaware of his impending humiliation due to the newly minted flip in my martial arts arsenal (consisting of exactly one skill, and maybe not even that many).
This was it. Like a first time gladiator stepping into the Coliseum, I walked into the center of the semicircle. I had no idea how to get this thing going. I just thought I would let him throw a punch and seal his fate. We stood there for what seemed like hours, and then he finally said “Okay, let’s fight.” I thought we were fighting. I was so confused. SK begins to dance around like Muhammad Ali and air box in my direction. He begins to inch closer and I am thinking to myself that one of those air punches will be my opportunity. Here it comes! I caught SK’s hand in mid flight and turned around to try O Soto Gari on him, and… nothing. This jodu stuff does not work! I yanked and pulled and gave it everything I had. SK just stood there wondering what on earth I was doing! After a minute or so, I knew that no flip was happening today.
I repositioned myself in front of SK, and he recommenced with the air boxing, and began inching in again until wham! Right on my left cheek! I thought it should have hurt, but I was so pumped with adrenaline, that I wasn’t going to feel that shot for at least an hour or so. Then another hit, and another. They just kept coming. I guess I should mention that I had a serious aversion to the idea of striking someone in the face. It literally made me want to throw up. Flip a guy? No problem. But punch? In the face? Nope, not gonna happen. So I did not throw a single punch back. I then developed a new strategy. Backup, declare SK the winner, and ask if we could just be friends. If I only had the ability to look forward in time in that moment to obtain the future line “Can’t we all just get along?” But either line would have failed. Mine certainly did. When I said that, the roar of laughter was deafening. I was utterly and totally defeated, and worse, thoroughly humiliated.
About that time a man stopped his car in front of K’s house and broke the whole thing up. By then I really didn’t care, SK could have killed me and it would have been more merciful than what happened upon my return to school.
Since force = mass times acceleration (f=ma), and SK had almost no m in his equation, I really didn’t look the worse for wear. I did feel a little sore, but no classic black eye or anything close to it. Nevertheless, the pain from that fight was deep. When I returned to school the next day I felt like Joseph Merrick (the elephant man). Everyone was looking at me and laughing. It’s one thing to get beat up, but it is a whole other level when that someone is (was) the wimpiest kid in school.
Two weeks. That was it. That was all I could stand. The thought had been germinating in me for a few days, but on this day I had decided I could take it no more. At recess every day the most sought after activity in that school was full court basketball. Everyday M would be one of the captains and that was never to be disputed. M was the biggest and toughest kid in school. M was not a bully, but everyone knew that you don’t mess with him. He was a legend, because every single time a kid tried to take him on, he destroyed them. He didn’t start the fights, but he finished them.
Recess had just started and all of the boys that hoped they would be picked to play were milling around in the middle of the court and M was at courtside. I was a torpedo. I was laser guided. He was in my sights. I walked up to him swiftly, and with every ounce of m coupled with every bit of a I could muster, I hit M in the stomach. That’s the best I could do. The face was still not an option for me. You could feel a noticeable drop in atmospheric pressure from all of the sucking occurring due to the simultaneous gasps that took place on the playground. R (that’s me), has lost his f’ing mind!
M didn’t budge. He was not doubled over as I had planned. But in that moment, he saved me. He looked down at me and said, “R, that took a lot of guts. But, if you ever do it again, I’ll kill you.” He then picked me for his team, and I was restored. For the rest of the year, no one laughed at me or bothered me, and I resumed normal kidhood. As would be expected, we moved away that summer to a brand new set of social dynamics, and I never had to worry about SK again.
Why did I tell that story? Well, today I thought I would have the first day of no tears in several weeks. It was sort of a goal. It didn’t happen. I know it would be very very easy and tempting at this point to just relegate me to the category of wuss. Ok, you can do that if you wish. But that might be a snap judgement. You might also consider me to not be very masculine. And, with all of the information you have so far, that is one possible, if not plausible, conclusion. However, If I didn’t tell you that story, and told you instead that I was a champion martial artist with a 4th degree black belt, and that I had previously competed in the World Karate Championships, and had earned a room full of trophies, you might say something else. You might consider me “a man’s man!”
Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that boys don’t cry. After SK beat me up, I swore to never cry in public again, and really had determined never to cry again. When I did that particular day in the 5th grade, it was like sharks smelling blood in the water, and I became an immediate and easy target. I showed weakness. Weakness can be fuel to those that thrive on consuming it, like SK. My guess is that SK had been beaten up plenty of times before, and was sick and tired of being low man on the totem pole. When he saw my weakness, he saw his salvation. With the exception of one devastating event, losing my best friend to brain cancer when I was 16, I pretty much honored the pledge I made to myself to not cry anymore. When he died I cried for many days, and when I was done that was it for decades.
When I began my professional career, I was focused, determined and very insensitive. I never wanted to be seen as weak. In that world I excelled, I was seen as strong and together, and my career flourished. Determined to be strong physically as well as (what I thought was) emotionally strong, I started practicing martial arts in my early 20’s obsessively. I trained relentlessly, and competed in every possible tournament in my area, and would even travel out of state to compete. I still carried around with me the vision of the 5th grade fight with SK, and it fueled me. I eventually won grand champion of a major west coast regional tournament, and qualified for the World Championships. I ended up with 10th place in kobudo (weapons) that year, and felt very manly indeed. I knew in my heart that I could demolish SK if we ever met in a fight again!
But after the financial crash of 2008, something began to dissolve in me. I had been so impervious to heart pain for so long. I had erected a facade of toughness that was not the true sensitive me. Don’t get me wrong, I had natural empathy and a good measure of caring for others, and I certainly had a strong sense of protectiveness, but I wasn’t feeling anything. I couldn’t feel the pain of loss or tragedy anymore. There were some moments of breakup tears in some relationships along the way, but those were the extreme exception. Romance and relationship loss always trumped that toughness facade if anything could. But I couldn’t cry at tragic stories, or even when a relative died. I felt guilty about it, but I couldn’t produce the tears.
If you read my last post entitled “Does Physical Beauty = Attractive,” then you know that in 2008 my 4th wife (now ex-4) and I completely disconnected from one another emotionally. Ironically, that is about the same time my true sensitive self began to re-emerge. It began without an invitation too.
If I am anything at all, then I am a lot of things. I don’t believe I am that easy to categorize on first glance. I have many aspects of me that seem incongruent, yet they are all the true me. For example, I love historical romantic films like “Sense and Sensibility.” I love romantic comedies like “The Proposal.” I love quirky offbeat and deep thought movies like “The Lobster.” These are not a “man’s man” type of films. Yet I have always loved them. I have even preferred them over any slapstick, sci fi, or sports movies. But if you are a guy and you meet me, you would never think of me as effeminate, or wussy. And, I would probably never ask you what you thought of the “Sex and the City” motion picture. But I wish I could!
In 2008 I began to really cry again. At first I thought it was because I was losing more money that year than many people make in a lifetime. I thought the pressure was getting to me. But I noticed something. I always felt better the day after. Always. My first inclination was to resist it. Then I began to embrace it. My 14 year old son would even tell you that I am a crybaby, even though he thinks of me as invincible. In 2009, I was in a theater, and a trailer for the movie “The Soloist” came on, and I cried at the trailer! Anne of Green Gables? Cry. Return of the King? Cry. Tragic news stories? Cry. Tragic real life stories of people around me? Cry. Funerals? Cry. Bury the kid’s dead rabbit? Big cry (they did too).
For the past few weeks, I have been crying because I am lonely and I am forced to be with and examine the person that is me. I cry because of the horrific wake of damage I have left in the lives of the people who have depended on me the most, my children. I cry because I always wanted to be a man of character, and instead I am a broken man that has placed his own needs before those of others his entire life. But with these beautiful tears comes understanding and healing. I thought today that I might get through without crying, and frankly there was no way that was going to happen. I have shed many tears while writing this silly blog post. But tomorrow I will be a little better. I will have understood a little more about how I got broken.
If you want to think of me as a wuss, fine. I don’t care anymore about pretending to be unattached from the deep stream of emotions that flows in me. If SK saw me now, he might even be tempted to try again. And I could flip him or worse if I wanted to, but I wouldn’t.