Ghostwood Farm

Boys don’t cry.
July 4, 2019, 8:17 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

A thing happened to me during hapkido class last night that has never happened to me before. It’s not much of a story, really, but I’m telling it as an excuse to tell a different story, one that I’ve struggled with whether and how to tell for a couple of months.


Hapkido is, as you probably know, a Korean martial art that focuses on self-defense methods (how to hurt someone who is trying to hurt you). This is in contrast to the more famous Korean art of tae kwon do, which tends to be more sport-oriented (think sparring rather than true fighting, though there are certainly powerful techniques taught in tae kwon do!). In hapkido, we practice joint locks, punch and kick defenses, throws, defense against various weapons, and chokes. I have been attending 2-3 hapkido classes a week for about two years, and hold a blue belt. Our belt progression is

white – yellow – orange – green – purple – blue – brown – red – red/black – black,

so I guess I consider myself in the middle of the intermediate range, at least for a colored belt. It is often said that one doesn’t truly begin to learn a martial art until one reaches black belt, so there are differing perspectives. As a blue belt, I think I’m starting to feel the flow of hapkido (finally!), which means that transitions between techniques are coming a little easier. Overall, it is a much more difficult, more…subjective…art than tae kwon do, and therefore, more frustrating. But I think I’m getting it.

Hapkido classes are generally small. One reason is that our school does not teach hapkido to students younger than 18. This is to prevent growing joints from being damaged, and from putting potentially lethal self-defense techniques into the hands of children. Another reason that classes are small is that it hurts to learn hapkido. In order to practice joint locks and throws, one takes turns applying techniques to others, then having them applied. Joint locks hurt. Being thrown sucks. But being thrown and locked is how we learn the techniques, as well as how to fall safely (not to mention how to counter these techniques). At any rate, the pain and discomfort of the techniques tends to limit practitioners to those who really want to learn, and our dropout rate is quite high. Since I have been at this school (almost three years), I have seen many tae kwon do black belt tests, but not a single hapkido black belt test.

Currently, we have two 2nd dan black belts, 2 brown belts, a blue belt, two orange belts, and a white belt who regularly attend hapkido classes. Frequently there are only two of us in any given class. The biggest class I’ve ever been in was 6.


Not long after earning my blue belt in April, on a Monday night, I was working with the 2nd dan black belt who usually attends on Mondays. He was beating my ass as usual. He is a big guy, a little older than me, I guess, and his knowledge of hapkido can only be described as encyclopedic: various interesting and painful joint lock variations, new ways to toss someone around, and especially how to use pressure points. I learn a tremendous amount from him every single time we work out together. He is a big part of the reason I have the small amount of proficiency I have.

On the night in question, I took him to the ground to get out of a lock. To say that ground work is not my forte’ is a gross understatement. I am uncomfortable on the ground because I lack proficiency and it tends to be very claustrophobic. I can hold my own against some opponents, but I am just totally outclassed against our black belts. We had gone to the ground several times that evening. In this instance we went to the ground, and after a minute or so I tapped out (as always). I got up, put my hands behind my head, and walked away. The Master was asking if I was all right: Was I injured, gassed, or what? I was not facing them, and couldn’t answer him because I didn’t trust my voice not to break. I was…not crying, exactly, but in tears.

After 30 seconds I realized I couldn’t get it under control and I just turned around to face them and said, “I’m fine. I’m pissed. I’m sorry,” I added to my partner, who said, “That’s all right.” The Master asked, “Frustrated?” and I said yeah.

But I didn’t feel frustrated. I felt pissed. I was pissed because I was on the ground, getting my ass beat. I was pissed because I had just been there a few minutes ago, with the same results. And yes, some of that is frustration: Being angry with myself because I couldn’t do anything to better my situation. But I think that part of me in the moment was just thinking, “Goddamn it, man, you’re way better than me, you’re on top of me, maybe hitting my facial pressure points isn’t really necessary.”

Now, understand: I bear him no ill will. I respect and admire him and I count him as a friend. But in that moment, yes, I was angry. And I don’t have an easy time controlling my emotions at the best of times.

(I was driving in my truck once, and I had to pull over because I started crying, like CRYING, because I was struck by the power and majesty of music. The music in question was the introductory chords played by Ed Crawford on fIREHOSE’s cover of Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker.” That Telecaster through a Marshall hit me so hard that I had to pull over. It’s worse when I’m tired, but it can happen to me anytime. I guess I’m lucky I was 2 and a half years into my martial arts training before it happened to me there.)

I cooled down, and we got back to it. But I was so embarrassed. Mortified. A 46 year old grown-ass man, losing his shit for little reason. I don’t know exactly what happened or why, and I can’t be sure it won’t happen again. I never addressed it with either of them further; I considered an e-mail after the fact but never sent one, and that’s probably for the best. I had some concerns about my relationship with them moving forward, but I shouldn’t have, of course. They have been doing this for a long time, and have probably seen worse displays.

I’m still embarrassed by it. I don’t think that will ever change.



Last night, there were two of us in class. My partner was one of the brown belts. He has been doing this a long time and has excellent technique. The Master asked if there was anything we wanted to work on, and he answered immediately: “Chokes.”

So we worked on a couple of different styles, maybe the three main ones: Guillotine, head-and-arm, and rear naked chokes.

Guillotine went well. It’s a good defense against attempted two-leg takedowns. We practiced getting the choke on one another, then taking it to the ground, trying to get in guard while holding the choke. We moved on to head-and-arm, which is the first choke and throw I ever learned, for my green belt test. It’s a good defense against a punch, but it’s easy to overextend on the choke, which makes it more painful, as your forearm tends to cut into the muscles on the back of the attacker’s neck. That’s bad for a few reasons.

In general, I suspect most people think of “chokes” as cutting off the air supply. That’s not what we are trying to do. The chokes we are after are blood chokes. This sounds awful, but what it means is that the chokes we are pursuing cut off blood to the brain, rather than air to the lungs. It’s far less painful, and causes a loss of consciousness very quickly (within seconds) when done correctly. This loss of consciousness doesn’t cause any long-term damage, as long as it is released immediately after the loss of consciousness occurs.

I get the head-and-arm pretty well, at least partially because of instruction from my black belt partner mentioned above. It’s a choke I’ve done many times and it lends itself to a nice takedown/throw, which I prefer to choking anyway.

We then moved on to the rear naked choke, which is maybe the most technical and the most famous. This involves getting behind your opponent, putting their neck in the V of your arm, taking hold of your opposite bicep, cupping the back of the head with the opposite hand, and squeezing. The bicep and the forearm squeeze the arteries on the side of the opponent’s neck, cutting off the blood supply and putting them to sleep.

I’ve had this done to me dozens of times. The choke is applied, my vision starts to go gray, I tap, s/he releases, and we do it again. As I said above, it’s how one practices these sorts of martial arts.

Only, last night, after the first choke, when I tapped, I was woozy. I took a minute, then he applied the choke again. My vision tunneled immediately. I remember tapping.

Then, I’m on the ground. Both my hands are…not shaking really. Twitching. I can’t see very well, but I can see the Master’s legs in front of me. Why am I on the ground? Shit. WHY AM I ON THE GROUND? What happened this time? How long have I been here? Am…am I crying again?

In seconds, I was on my feet as if nothing had happened. The Master looked…I’m not sure, but I think a little concerned. My partner looked at me and said, “Did…did I just choke you out?”

“Is that what happened?” I replied. Relieved, honestly. A physiological response, not an emotional one. I felt fine. My partner was freaked out. He kept ensuring I was okay, wringing his hands.

The thing is, I was fine. Totally fine.

It wasn’t a big deal, once I understood what happened. Once I understood I didn’t fail again.


I tell the kids all the time, when one of them gets hurt, especially when we’re fighting/sparring:

“You just got (kicked in the head/punched in the mouth/kicked in the nads). That sucked, right? But you didn’t die. If that happens to you for real now, in a real fight where you have to protect yourself, now you know that getting (kicked in the head/punched in the mouth/kicked in the nads) won’t kill you and you can continue fighting, if you need to. It’s tremendously important to have that experience when you’re safe so you know you can handle it when you’re not.”

So what does this mean for me? It drives home the fact that no one takes my back. I tuck my chin. I grab for fingers, for eyeballs. Because my partner did not like that he choked me out, but the next guy might not care so much. It wasn’t a big deal at the time: It was safe and I’m fine. But I learned a valuable lesson that I’ll keep with me.

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