It was a long-drawn out internal battle. I had already made the decision to take up boxing - a long time ago. So - why did it take so long to actually learn? When I took up judo, I had a mysterious force literally draw me to a judo club, which practiced in a dumpy warehouse in New Zealand. I walked in one day and decided to take it up. I was a terrible fighter, who was so lacking in the basics, everyone could see it. It's like how I could see the level of your education by how you read and understand information. Then, literally, one dark and stormy night, a girl from the East came into the club; she was an ex-Olympian for Korea. On the first night, she defeated the best male fighters of the club and made them eat the mat. She was my master for two and a half years and really taught me how to make others have it. Why, then haven't I taken up boxing, I thought?
The thing about being in purgatory is that I have this nagging and unsettling feeling I've been here before. This purgatorial deja vu is the kind of feeling one gets when he believs they've kicked a bad habit and finds himself doing it again. It's the kind of feeling one gets when a disease goes into remission and comes back. It's an evil force that shatters your hope and resilience.
But while reflecting on my days in limbo, somewhere in Saint Gabriel's Valley, I thought I should return back to the art of fighting. The last time I was thrown in a world between Heaven and Hell, I took up judo. Somehow that brought me out of it. But how did I end up here is always my question? I don't know, but I did know I had to return to fighting. So - back to fighting I had to go. (Sometimes I believe that I'm just a spirit living in a human shell with other spirits also trying to find their way out.)
I come from a poor area. Just to quantify it for you - the average family here makes $20K a year - that's a mother-and-father household. In my high school, anywhere between 12.5%-33% of the girls didn't finish graduation because they ended up becoming teenage mothers, which is almost a surefire road to poverty. Down the street - we have the ugliest and the worst nightmare of neighbors that goes beyond the realm of imagination.. Loyal readers will know how the neighbor's Nephew pointed a rifle at me in July. So - that's where I'm back in. My childhood home - which is not all so terrible because in my threshold existence of real, unreal, mystical, and hellish, meals are good, and they are free.
But there is at least one benefit, perhaps there are more, while living in my childhood area. My city is Mexican and Chicano dominated. In general, Mexican neighborhoods in America produce few football players and fewer basketball players. Those are two sports that require the tall gene. Boxing doesn't. Mexican neighborhoods make good boxers. And I obviously don't have the tall gene either.
I walk into the community center. It's in the center of town, and it has a gym complex inside. In there, I meet the head coach. He tells me, "We're gonna start you off with Louis." He's a good natured looking Chicano in his early twenties and just a little taller than me. I shake his hand. I tell him, "My name is Paul. Pleased to meet you. I'd like to let you know," and I'm not sure why I told him the next fact, "I'm 30."
He looks me up and down and looks at my face again. He actually asks, like if I was lying, "Are you sure?" He calls to an older Santa Claus looking gentleman, who's the old coach, and says, "Coach can you believe this one is 30?" There seems to always be a Santa Claus gentleman in every fight gym I've been at.
He says in a gruff voice, "He don't look 30 to me."
I tell Luis, "I know boxing is all about the footwork. So, I guess that's what you're gonna start me on, right?"
"That's right. But first I'm gonna wrap your hands."
He gets out the Mexican wraps. That's what they're called. They're the kind of wraps for injuries as well. He holds one of my hands in his left and wraps it like a mummy with his right. Then he mummy wraps the other one.
He takes me to the mirror to train me in front of it. "We're starting you here, boss. The mirrors. Here, you can watch yourself and correct your mistakes. Got it?"
"Your first movement is gonna be bobbing. First you duck. Then you dip. Then you go forward with your front leg. Got it?"
"Got it." But I didn't get it. I tried over and over again to get the front thrust. I looked silly in front of that mirror, and I felt really frustrated and embarrassed I was making that mistake.
"Hey, look, Chief. You don't make the forward movement with that way. With a forward movement in your thighs." He showed me. I tried to follow. Over and over again, I tried to learn bobbing with frustration. That perfectionist in me started rising its ugly head. I don't if law school drove in the pesky and impossible need to be perfect at everything - at least in front of others. I don't know if it was my judo instructor or my Korean parents. In any event, I can see the Chicanos in this gym don't think the way I do. We were just raised differently.
Stupid, Paul! How come you can't get this? I ask myself over, and over, and over, and over again.
My coach sees I'm getting frustrated. "Look boss," he says, "you ain't gonna get it overnight. And you're overthinking it. Smooth." He bounces back and forth with the balls of his feet again. A red lighted timer blinks, and he says, "Time to stop. 30 second break. When the green light turns on, do it again for three minutes."
I train like for what seems to be forever. My calves are twitching. I suck at boxing! The coordination is so hard. Why can't I get it?
My coach goes, "Hey - time for the jump ropes. They loosen you up. The ropes fix your coordination. Hands, eyes, and feet. You need to do a lot of them." I can jump rope and have the stamina for it, but the other trained boxers are so much better at me. They have way fancier footwork than me. I suck at this!!! I think. Aye, this is the price for purgatory.
At around 7pm, the advanced crowd come in. Most of them are teenagers from the city. Immediately, the boxing gym takes on its own living rhythm. The bags are being pounded at certain intervals. The ropes are whipping the floor, emitting a hissing beat. It's a sort of loud but natural cadence that fills the whole gym and brings it to life with fighters' energy. They're all chicanos from the high school I graduated from and the rival one. I thought to myself, if they worked this hard at high school - they'd all actually go to college.
I see so many parents come and talk to the coaches. I never saw that during the parent teacher conferences, while growing up in this city. But here - the fathers are attentive to their boys dreams to be a boxer (or is it the fathers' dreams?) All of the kids want to be like Oscar de la Hoya or Marquez. In any event, the chubby fathers smile at the small Chinito boy pathetically learning to box.
At the end, I walk to my coaches. Thank them. I bow my head to Luis, the one who was personally attentive to my training that evening. I could tell no one's ever showed him the ritual deference. I remember bowing to elders since I was five years old. Then I remember rebelling against the practice when I was 15. Now, it seems like I'm returning to it at 30.
* * * *
I came back the next day, same time. I saw my coach. I smiled and said, "I bet you didn't think I'd come back."
He smiled nervously that telegraphed to me he was guilty of the bad conclusion. "Well, boss, I see a lot of people come and go, you know? It's hard to be a boxer. Let's start your training. The mirrors."
I liked how he didn't know yet how to be pretentious, like they are on the West Side of Los Angeles. I bobbed in front of the mirrors.
He said, "Good. Good."
I said, "I was practicing at home."
"I could tell."
He calls out to Santa Claus and says, "Hey Chief. Look - he gotz it!"
Chief calls back and says, "Sure does. Keep at it, Boss. You're gonna get there. But don't you be driving yourself in the ground with drills."
I said to him, "I'm Asian. We learn to be perfect."
Chief says, "I know your people do that, but that's not how we train here."