That’s How Boys Play

I want to be a little oblique about this.  Back in my 20’s I was in a martial arts school that produced many champions. And none of them were more impressive to me than someone I’ll call “Ted.”  Ted had distance, timing, and precision down to a level where he slid in and out of critical distance range like a magician. Man, he was beyond good.


I wasn’t even vaguely in his league.  We re-connected years later, when our mutual instructor was being honored, and got together a few times. The man was still magic, but like most of us, had moved on to other priorities in life, although martial arts was still close to his heart.  Still…I wasn’t even close.


About a week ago I got a call from him.   “I want to be you in my next life, Steve” he said.  I was a little puzzled by what he meant, then he mentioned that he’d seen a Youtube video of one of Cliff Stewart’s “Camp of the Masters” weekend workshops (there’s one coming up in three weeks–I HIGHLY recommend them) and apparently had seen some images of me working out and having fun.  I still didn’t quite understand…


Then he told me that he’d had a stroke early this year.  I was stunned.   It was a little hard to imagine this dervish with any kind of diminished capacity, but he was learning to walk again, as if for the first time.   He spoke of his friends, many of whom boxed, and how they couldn’t recognize him any more.


I felt something beyond sadness.  This is one of the things you learn to deal with in life: everything rises and falls.  He had been a great champion, that focus dictated by his environmental pressures: learning to fight was simply what every young man did in our neighborhood. If you didn’t, you were dead meat, victimized and disrespected by both the men AND women.  Did he stress his body too much? Take too many shots?   I don’t know. It’s possible.


Achilles’ Choice: a long dull life, or a short glorious one.  Or…just the circle of life.  Everyone loses everything in time.  And now, this paragon (who is about six years younger than me) envies me.   It is tough to think about.




When I was a kid, I wanted to be strong.  Had been bullied by guys and ignored and mocked by the girls.  I understood where “Ted” was coming from, but didn’t have the athleticism to master the skills as he did. Lacked the self-confidence, and hadn’t had a father or brother or uncles to “push against” to discover my strength and learn what this aspect of “being a man” was about.  I remember when Jason was about eight years old.  Every night when I tried to put him to bed, he attacked me.  Every night. Heck, Nicki hadn’t been like that!  And one day I asked him point blank why in the world he did that.


He looked at me with surprise and simply answered: “That’s how boys play.”  That’s how boys play.   The simplicity of that answer was gobsmacking. I suddenly realized I had misinterpreted countless antagonistic interactions with guys over the years. They hadn’t disliked me. It was nothing personal. They just pushed to make themselves strong, using other guys like living gymnastic equipment (wrestling and boxing are among the most extremely taxing physical exercises. Believe it.  Nothing is more extreme than a resistant human body), or trying to learn where they were on the hierarchy.  Without that knowledge, it is impossible for a tribe to respond swiftly to external threat.

That’s how, and more importantly WHY boys play.


I couldn’t compete with those guys on their terms. They terrified me.  The energy was just amazing.  And even years later, speaking to Cliff about them, I was still a little nervous about the very idea.  “I was so intimidated by those young warriors” I said.


And he laughed in my face.  “They weren’t warriors, Steve.”  They weren’t???


“No. They were athletes, playing warrior games.”   Then….what WAS a warrior?


” Those guys would have been good at Hula Hoop, or basketball, or break-dancing. A warrior is someone whose word is good. A warrior protects his community. Raises his own children.”

And in that instant, the light went on in my head.   No, I hadn’t been the best.  Or anything close to it.  But my fear of being weak had kept me in the game.


I remember forty years ago, driving down La Brea avenue in Los Angeles, tears streaming down my face, wondering why I had so much fear and agony around practicing, but being unable to stop.  “Please, God,” I prayed.  “Either take away my urge to practice this stuff…or just let me do it.”


Why couldn’t I quit?  Because I knew on some level that if I did, I would never know who I was.  That I would have let fear stop me from becoming a complete human being. A complete MALE human being in some very specific ways.  Remember I said that a core perspective in my life was that I wanted to be respected by the men I respected, and desired by the women I desired?

Well, you can believe it or not.  I’m not controlled by gender politics, I’m interested in what is true, actual experience,  especially when it is aligned with history, anthropology and animal behavior. The reality is that once I saw it, it was obvious: if you couldn’t hold your ground, you were not respected, and I couldn’t marry a big guy to hold that ground for me.  Both men and women made it very clear.  VERY.


And anyone who thinks that the physical threat isn’t subtextual in emotional and intellectual arguments isn’t paying attention.  The animal and savage underlies the civilized shell. What is explicit  in the barroom is implicit in the board room and even the bedroom.

Fortunately, the answer is NOT a matter of physical size. It is a matter of the following statement:  “I’m ready to die, and I’m ready to take you with me.”

That forces you to connect with your core survival drive, the emotional Third Rail of your psyche.  It is beyond culture, beyond social rules.   And all the techniques of the martial arts are secondary to “plugging in” to this high-tension line.  Really, in a lot of ways they are just toys to keep your monkey-mind busy while the real work, the deep work, re-wires your hand brain.

Everyone has it.  You could be depressed, and suicidal, and if I stuck your head in a bucket of water you would fight like a tiger.    Ego has nothing to do with this, and once you find it, it is almost like magic. And…the martial arts are about approaching it in a safe fashion, and plugging in in a way that doesn’t shred your psyche.  Real survival situations often do this, drastically, but without the care and balance, producing genuinely dangerous human beings who often struggle to function in the “normal ” world.


I was forced by fear and guilt and pain and hope to find that place. And once I found it…and connected it with what Harlan Ellison called the “Burning Core” that artists must find…and connected THAT to the kind of heightened orgasm experienced in sexual magic work…


Wow.   I began to be able to channel that energy, to put it where I wanted, and learned how to keep it in a healthy way in my mind and body so that it wouldn’t burn me out.    In other words…I turned my bullies into blessings.  I never would have found myself without them.  Thanks, Rudy.




If I had been stopped by comparing myself to the Teds of the world rather than letting myself be inspired by them, I wouldn’t be who I am.  If I hadn’t kept 80% of my attention on improving who I was yesterday rather than beating or comparing myself to others, I would have quit, and lost my childhood dreams, and paid for it with a loss of aliveness.


You have to admire the Teds of the world. But not be intimidated by them. To use them to drive you on, without beating yourself up for not being them. Ted walked his own path.  He hit heights I never did, never could have


And now…he wishes he was me.    How humbling.  How terribly sad, and wonderful.  Life is an unknown adventure, and you must always, always, work your own diamond mine and not pay so much attention to what the other guy is pulling out of his.


Sigh.   I need to work out today, to celebrate my life and aliveness, and give thanks for all I’ve been given, and the wonderful men and women I’ve met along the way, so many of them fallen now.  Every one made my life better.


I think…I think I’ll make time to go and see Ted.  Thank him for being one of my heroes…


As I am now one of his.  You never know, you know?





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