The Sweet Smell of Success

November is kind of a weird time for me. There is the inevitable promise of winter hovering in the air; a slight chill, the 5pm sunset. As the days grow shorter and the trees outside my window start to shed their leaves, I find myself leaning towards the remaining sunlight like a dog out a car window. 

My daughter was born in November and Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, both causes for celebration. But once I have finished the last bite of pie and thrown out that bit of turkey that no one is going to eat, all I am left with is three more months of cold. Yuk.

I hate winter. Especially here where all the magic of the season's first snowstorm is overshadowed by mountains of dirty slush and the endless chore of digging your car out over and over again.

And then there is November 20th, the anniversary of my teacher's passing. 

I don't really do the memorial thing. I mean, the year after Shuseki-Shihan Oliver died was kind of a big deal. And we did a special workout at our dojo for at least three years after. But at a certain point I feel you have to move on. That's not to say you don't remember. You just stop making a big production of it. Besides, I am running a dojo. I have plenty of opportunities to celebrate my teacher; every time I tie on my belt. Every time I line up a class of 4 year olds. Every time someone kicks me in the head. 

Last year, around this time I shared a story with all of you. Here it is, in case you missed it. So, in the spirit of tradition, (if two years in a row can qualify as tradition), here is another fine tale. We'll call this one "Stinky Headgear."

On March 29th, 1998, I competed in my first Oyama Karate semi knockdown tournament. For those of you unfamiliar with karate terminology, semi knockdown means that you are hitting each other at full power (as opposed to the fast, tag-like style of point system sparring) but with gloves, shin guards, headgear and a mouthpiece. There is also full knockdown, which is the same stuff, but with no protective gear. I didn't do that. I am very little.

Anyone who has ever competed in any kind of fighting, be it in stand up, or jiu-jitsu, knows the drill. Waiting around all day with butterflies in your stomach. The adrenaline rush you get the second before the referee says go. The feeling like you have absolutely lost your mind, that ohmygodwhatifthispersonactuallykillsmewhatwasIthinking moment.

Maybe its just me.

I had three fights that day. I won the first two easily, not by having incredible technique but simply by being more aggressive. My last fight, the one that decided first and second place, was against a black belt woman who took my ass, chopped it up into little pieces, and handed it to me all wrapped up in a nice little package. I still remember her as one of the only woman I have ever fought who used her brain. She could hit me with anything. At one point she threw a lovely axe kick that planted her heel like a small tree, directly through the top of my head. At another point I remember being so exhausted that I considered laying my head on her chest and taking a nap. She was awesome. I have never been so proud to lose a fight.

I still have the trophy. At the end of that last round, the referee, who clearly knew the other girl was going to win from the beginning (she was from his style), actually looked impressed with me when he grabbed my sleeve and said "Don't go anywhere, you got second." But that is not what I remember most about that day.

Matthew, who was not my husband at the time, acted as my coach during that tournament. I can still hear his voice in my head, telling me to go forward, to throw low kicks, can see him looking at me with a combination of pride and surprise after the first two fights and exclaiming "You're doing GOOD!" But that is not what I remember most about that day.

Driving home sprawled out in the backseat with an ice pack on my head and some random radio station on in the background, I was filled with that wonderful sense of pride and exhaustion, that dreamy feeling that only fighters know, when adrenaline drains out of your body like rainwater trickling down a windowpane and all you want to do is sleep. And all the while, as I gazed out the window at the trees speeding by, there was this smell in my nose, a combination of old leather, blood and sweat. It's that smell that I remember most.

I did not have my own headgear. Well, I did, but it was an old point system one that barely covered my bouncy ponytail. So my instructor, the legendary William Oliver, lent me his. It was a boxing style headgear, the kind that wrapped around your forehead, and part of your cheeks. It was at least ten years old. He wore it every Friday night when he sparred with black belts and lower belts from all over New York City. It was the headgear of a 6th degree black belt, a world champion, and I was wearing it in this tiny women's lightweight division in this tiny high school gym somewhere in Connecticut.

Oh, and it smelled terrible. Like sweaty gym socks.
God, I love that smell.

There is a shelf life of sparring gear, after which there is no point even trying to clean it. You can hang it out on your balcony for a week, spray it with Lysol, perform an elaborate cleansing ritual involving incense and candlelight, but the minute a drop of sweat hits it is instantly smells like balls. So you buy new gear. Well, no, not right away. Because there is a pride to that smell. A stinky pride. Years of beatings, both given and received, have settled into the folds of those gloves. Stinky memory foam. 

Its awesome.

Just think of all the magic that must have been in that headgear. No wonder I did so well.

So, in honor of the 9th anniversary of Shuseki-Shihan Oliver's death I would like to proclaim November 20th as stinky sparring gear day. Put on your oldest, foulest stuff, and get on out there and kick some ass. 

Trust me, its well worth it. 


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