Losing the fight

I nearly started off 2012 in:

1. the hospital, or

2. a jail cell.

Option 1 is definitely more likely. It’s a sobering realization, but now that I think on it, I doubt I could have subdued the guy. I know my friends would have intervened, but possibly not before serious damage occurred.

The confrontation

You see it at every boxing weigh-in. It’s a ritualized encounter. Young men have the script for it printed in their cultural DNA.

Even in boots, I was a good three inches shorter, staring up into his shiny, unblinking eyes, our flared noses nearly touching. (This was extremely dumb on my part. It meant my spine was arched a tiny bit back. With my feet square, an uppercut would have sent me into the wall.)

As he growled dire threats into my face, I could have paused, tented my fingers, and said “sir, that’s a criminal code violation carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. I suggest you lawyer up.” Instead I grinned and started yapping back like I learned to do on ice rinks, baseball diamonds, soccer fields.

I’d been drinking, and I wasn’t going to back down. (Again, astoundingly stupid.) Our alcoholic breath mingled as we breathed hard through our mouths, oxygenating muscles in preparation to contract explosively, smash bones and cartilage, tear limbs out of sockets. My heart was pumping adrenaline to my fingertips like nitrous oxide to an engine.

It’s an amazing feeling. I imagine some people get addicted to it. It’s real in a way that is:

1. Rare in our gentle society, and

2. Very difficult to simulate or train for.

I think that’s exactly why this kind of primitive stand-off is so important to process and learn from when it happens in real life. We consume a lot of violent entertainment and we speak all the time in combat metaphors, but I suspect most of us are quite detached, day-to-day, from the feeling I’m trying to describe.

It’s simultaneously frightening and intimate. I mean, some people don’t even make eye contact when they’re having sex. In this case, blink or look away and you conceivably might die. Other people have described it as like being underwater. You literally can’t hear your friends trying to talk you down. You can’t spare the mental bandwidth.

I remember him grabbing the flesh of my chin and ears, twisting, pinching, pulling me close, tickling my face with his beard as he goaded me, called me a puppy, told me how many little boys like me he’d humiliated and broken. It was very colourful.

He slapped me in the face. I laughed, but my peripheral vision was on red alert, watching for that lightning moment of commitment. He slapped me again, a little harder. The sound was like a starter’s pistol to my lizard brain, but something else kept my hands at my sides. I know that game. If I take the white chess pieces – if I commit first – my odds drop through the floor.

The imprint

Something weird happened the next morning. I was crossing Robson street in downtown Vancouver. It’s the most placid, tourist-friendly retail strip in the city. I was still in my post-apocalyptic costume from the night before. Mohawk haircut. Desert camo. Cowboy boots. Some doofus in a champagne-coloured sedan advanced too far into the intersection, got caught by the red light, then tried to back up into the crosswalk. The voice that came out of me was not my own. “You fucking idiot,” I snarled. Without thinking, I had pivoted and cocked my foot to kick his car. I blinked, lowered my boot and kept walking.

I saw an article from the Telegraph later on Facebook. This UK newspaper was highlighting the fact that December 23 was the second-busiest day in American history for firearms purchases. The FBI’s background check program saw its busiest day ever in November, the day after Thanksgiving. In other words, some combination of factors has Americans spooked, and they are arming themselves. Giving weapons to family members as Christmas presents.

A chilling, if facile, realization. Under subtly different circumstances, I could have been shot the other night. Or the next morning, if I’d kicked that car. Never mind Detroit or Baltimore, my friends and I in Vancouver know people who have been murdered or maimed by gunfire. Lee Matasi was a couple years ahead of me at Templeton High School. I went to his memorial at Leeside after he was pistol-whipped and shot, execution-style, by a stranger outside a bar. A random confrontation between young men.

What bothers me even more is knowing that with a tiny cultural adjustment, I also could have pulled a weapon. We all like to think we wouldn’t, or that guns only exist in a world parallel to our own. I remember admonishing my friend at a New Year’s party a few years ago after he showed up with a 9mm Beretta tucked in his waistband. “It’s not loaded,” he protested. “That’s even stupider,” I said. “If you’re gonna flash a gun, it better have bullets in it. You think the other guy is going to be bluffing?”

I stopped carrying a knife years ago. Too many of my friends got stabbed. I’m not that kind of guy, I tell myself. It’s safer not to have a weapon, I say. And I believe that more than ever. New Year’s Eve was an important reminder. I suppose he knew when he slapped my face that I wasn’t going to do anything about it. But I was angry. Secretly, disturbingly, angry. It roils my stomach even now – a combination of shame, confusion, and worry.

I have no issue with the guy himself. Our friends brokered a handshake and I went to another party. I found out the next day why he was so hostile and I apologized. It made a lot more sense once I had some context. No, I’m upset because I think of myself as having control over who I am and how I act, and most of the time I do. But in that moment, the lure of the clash itself was more powerful than my ability to resist it. It intrigued me. I could have walked away, but I didn’t. This is ironic, given that I was running my mouth about the Ki Aikido concept of “blending” a week ago.

All the bad stuff Yoda talks about was only a few drinks down after all. It’s a problem.

Losing the “fight”

Scan any newspaper and you will see a headline about a “fight,” a “battle,” or a “war,” be it “brewing” or already “unleashed”. In debates, we talk of “knockout punches” and “wiping the floor” with opponents.  A lot of my politically engaged friends like to talk tough about “taking down” or “taking out” the enemy – which they tend to define as roughly 40% of their family members and fellow citizens. “We have to beat them!” Really? You think you have the stomach?

I guess this doesn’t surprise me so much coming from my right-wing friends. It fits with a mindset that accepts a system of economic competition upheld by militarism.

But I think all this talk of fighting is a serious liability for progressives. A deadly trap. Very smart people have been saying the same thing for generations. If we accept these terms and engage in conflict, we have no hope of the systemic change we yearn for. If we agree to fight, we’ve already lost. Even if I had won the other night I would have lost. Lost peace of mind, lost trust and respect, lost the chance to be friends.

All this flaky feel-good crap people have been putting on bumper stickers for years seems increasingly important. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Or, “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Gandhi and Dr. King are only two of the most famous proponents of this now very clichéd principle – that the personal is political, and all change starts with the individual.

New Year’s eve was a good reminder for me. There is a direct connection between how we react to confrontation as individuals and how useful we can be to projects of nonviolent social change. I’d be a hypocrite today to tell someone not to go looking for a fight. I’d be a hypocrite just like the marcher who tussles with police because “they started it”. Or the organizer who gets angry when people question and challenge their leadership. Or the occupier who hates dumbass entitled yuppie sheep.

Judy Rebick had the temerity, in a wonderful piece published on rabble.ca last July, to suggest that progressives need to take a time out and work on some personal issues. This paragraph, among others, has stuck with me:

“In addition to the sadness about the state of society and of nature, almost all of us whatever oppression we might have experienced for social or economic reasons suffer from some kind of deep personal wounds. And if we don’t face that sadness, that pain, we will inflict it on ourselves and others in a way that is hurtful. Much of the dysfunction on the Left comes not from political differences which can be creative and productive but from people acting out this pain. We become part of the problem instead of the part of the solution.”

New Year’s evolution

This doesn’t mean we don’t have a duty to point out, criticize, and protest against injustice, cruelty, greed, and short-sightedness. But we have to do it without blindly mimicking the behaviour patterns that perpetuate the stuff we’re objecting to.

That means we have to save enough time and energy this year to turn inward and address the toxic effects of this culture on our poor, overloaded ape biology. In my case that means trying not to be a jackass at parties, for starters.

I’m inspired in this regard by another thought from Martin Luther King, Jr:

“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”

Happy New Year.

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39 comments
  1. I cant find out how to contact you can you send an email thank you
    Second request

  2. Geneva said:

    “I grinned and started yapping back like I learned to do on ice rinks, baseball diamonds, soccer fields.”

    We need to re-evaluate what kind of character organized sports are really building! There will always be people who take pleasure in ritual (and sometimes real) combat, and we’re all safer if there’s a designated place for such activity. But should sports continue to be a publicly funded national fetish that every youth is pushed into, receiving a separate section of newspaper and a third of TV newscast time? I didn’t feel safe on the streets after a big game even before last year’s hockey riot.

    I wonder if soldiers are so willing to go to war because they frame it as a sports game, where it doesn’t matter which team is right, just which team you’re on!

  3. Geneva said:

    Yeah, I’ve seen a 16-year-old given an AK-47 with ammo as a Christmas present from his mother!

    My own mother asked: “Are you sure it was a good idea to buy him that gun from the pawn shop?”

    The boy’s mom replied: “They cost a lot more at Wal-Mart!”
    Then she added, by way of explanation: “He’s a collector.”

    I could only think: “Michael Moore was right!”

    Miraculously, that boy came of age without any mayhem occurring. But several other youths in the same school were busted for machine guns in their lockers, preparing to hold a rumble.

    • Good lord. Did this happen in the States?

      • Geneva said:

        Yes, of course – in the States.

  4. Martin said:

    Personally, I finally learned (the easy way) not to self-righteously get in other people’s faces a few years ago during a potential altercation with a guy about twice my size and half my age. He did me the wonderful favor of almost falling over laughing in genuine glee when i suggested we ‘take it outside’ after I took exception to something he said.

    After he regained his composure, he did me the further favor of clapping me gently on the shoulder, clasping my right hand in his and saying, ‘Pops, one thing I’ll say for sure – you’ve got spirit even if you left your brain at home’.

    I’d like to say we became fast friends and that now we have an occasional beer together, but we didn’t and we don’t – I don’t even know his name – my loss, I’m sure.

    • Yeah, there’s always going to be someone bigger and stronger out there.

  5. Joseph Turian said:

    Why do you write: “If I take the white chess pieces – if I commit first – my odds drop through the floor?”

    In chess, White is generally acknowledged to have the advantage. In a fight, why would this be different?

    • It might, if your intention from the outset was to kill the other player, and you were willing to follow through. Chess is pretty ruthless. In real life, from what I’ve observed, it’s not smart to throw the first punch.

  6. This is some powerful writing. At the risk of sounding clichéd (oh never mind, you covered that!) thank you for using your gift for positive change. You’ve articulated some of the thoughts I’ve been working through for some time now and bringing additional unique personal perspective, as well as a cultural gendered view I think. The language that we use and the level of ‘generic’ violence on television are the two places where I have developed the most sensitivity. I think that it makes a real difference when we take the time to change the way in which we engage with others on the level of choosing certain words and phrases over others, even to the extent of pointing out that you’re doing it. I also think that uncritical or passive exposure to real or staged violence (in actions or words) impacts us over time, and I’m not talking about children and television but us adults. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • We’re taught to be blasé in the face of all kinds of horrifying representations of cruelty. It’s a sign of mature critical detachment. Having some film training and a brief stint in uniform, I tell myself “yeah, right. That’s not real.” But I think you’re right, even the staged stuff has some curious cumulative effects.

  7. erika said:

    kai, i’d love to send you an issue of our magazine “our schools / our selves” that i think you might enjoy. can you forward me a mailing address?

  8. mark lyons said:

    while reading the blog i kept remembering all the stupid situations i’ve been in over the years, some my fault, others by trying to stop bullies picking on others. what you’ve learnt in one night took me years of black eye’s and the being the occasional guest of the province,or in my case provinces, the states, and mexico. eventually it came to me that 1) no one wins a fight( cliche` i know) 2) violence of any kind can not be justified. we live in a society that wants to stand up for people, this is a good thing, but stopping violence against women still leaves violence in society, i believe in stopping violence against everyone. people need to just stop trying to prove they’re tougher or smarter or richer and be glad that we are living in the greatest country in the world. we can be even better but we have a head start on everyone else. this may make no sense to anyone coming from a un educated ex-con but it might to one person and that would be great. p.s. i still can’t watch ezra levant on tv without wanting to throw something at my tv, so i know i need to still work on myself.

    • I offered Ezra a hug over the summer, because I thought he might need one. He rebuffed my advances. It’s a long road. Thanks for your comments, Mark.

  9. Heather said:

    Kai, your writing in both this and the previous post is so insightful and honest. As a therapist, I believe many of the problems we face both as individuals and in society are a result of unresolved core issues stemming from violence. I see it most often in families, where it can be entrenched over generations, but it is also endemic in society, reinforced by media and entertainment. You are right that change starts with the individual. Thank you so much, I can’t wait to see where you go next.

    • I know a couple of therapists, counsellors, and social workers quite well. Given the ubiquity of those unresolved issues you mention, I’m always impressed and humbled by the people willing to wade into this five days a week. Thanks for your work.

  10. I must be missing something??
    Is it that he got a gun alone or that it was an automatic?

    I should of course point out that with all the designer guns on the market ….its still a knife that kills more and its 85% of the time some one we know who is attacking

    You know how many kill ……just with cars?

    Or that legal pharmaceuticals killed 26,000 last year …IN HOSPITALS ?

    My personal view is no one needs a handgun but I also believe that prohibition never works

    Though I took it upon myself at a young age to just learn how to defend myself and kill with my bare hands instead… in our armed forces

    I imagine even that statement bothers a few

    I find the best defense is intelligence

  11. Sorry that was to Geneva and I tried to respond direct in that post

    And I guess as I am here already….

    Congrats on not making a bad choice Kai
    Sadly odds are you will get many more opportunities to try again

    • Geneva said:

      @john, yes, you’re missing the point. Deaths do indeed occur by knives, and accidental deaths and suicides by pills, but a machine gun doesn’t have any constructive purpose; it’s designed only for mass murder – and in the case above, that school narrowly escaped being turned into a war zone. At another school in the state that same winter, a kid did rum amok with a machine gun. I don’t think it ever made the national news.

      I had to testify at one (1) murder trial where the weapon was a knife, and a local boy ran his mother and her lover through with a sword. But through my own circle of acquaintances, I could probably list a dozen murders and suicides by gun, not counting the attemots that failed, plus two men were arrested in two different cross-border gun-smuggling rings. I’m not advocating for banning all guns, but does anyone not in the military *need* an assault weapon? If so, we should be addressing the reason why!

      FWIW, I received a BB gun for my 8th birthday, and soon shot an elderly relative in the back with it. Fortunately, the spring was weak, so no harm was done except to feelings. I was not an ill-behaved child, and even at the time I had no idea why I did that. I can’t even blame it on violent TV, for my family didn’t own one yet. In that era, folks were still blaming kid violence on comic books! However, I may have been seething with repressed anger, for in that culture most adults’ first response to an unruly child was to smack them, while more serious transgressions were punished by belt-whipping.

      • Yes of course children and guns dont mix I agree
        But I am a realist
        Of course I too wish guns were never invented but that’s whimsical thinking

        The fact remains no one campaigns politically (except me)….that bullets cost one thousand dollars because that makes too much sense
        And no one campaigns to add 20 year old technology to stop anyone but the owner of the gun firing it

        You do realize that the ban on fully automatic weapons was allowed to fall by the way side by Bush and that soon 50 Cal fully Automatic machine guns will like in Mexico soon kill many here?

        I actually think the stupidity in charge meaning the bankers obviously must mean for every citizen to have one eh?

        Until the sheeple actually wake up and pull their blotted bodies away from the larva creating trough …sadly I am sorry to say ..nothing will change

        At least Kai didnt just go out to his trunk and pull out a 50 Cal though eh?…LOL

        So we still get to enjoy his style
        Thanks for your reply…good luck eh

  12. prin said:

    So, like, if he had been smaller than you?

  13. lukitas said:

    Thanks Kai. Brilliant.
    I work as a train conductor. the guy who whistles, closes the doors, and punches tickets. The number of confrontations that could turn ugly is virtually endless. I used to become angry quite easily, but have learned that violence can only generate more violence. Supplication, begging can sometimes work, but often results in the dominant party needing to confirm it’s dominance. Being pro-actively generous is one of the few ways I have found that allow me to keep my sense of autonomy, while defusing any situation of the violence that could erupt from it. Things go a lot better when I want to make the people on my train happy.
    Best hopes for a year full of compassion.

    • Wow, talk about daily practice. If you decide to expand on this idea of pro-active generosity, please share. I’m quite curious.

  14. lukitas said:

    There is of course the conundrum of the beaten wife. Sitting on her knees and begging will not work. Asking the priest to reason the brute will at best get the priest a black eye. Punching a knife in the beater’s gut will get rid of the problem, but now she is a murderer.
    Most of the useful solutions consist of a sort of refusal: refusal of laundry, food and sex, going away, getting him arrested. Taking the fight out of the dominant partners zone, going to a place where you are dominant and he isn’t, or getting him to a place where he is not dominant. Feels like aikido, I think.

  15. Shawn said:

    I was trying to capture in words the reason why we fight. I wouldn’t have said it as you did, nor perhaps as eloquently, you did manage to come close to what I had been thinking.
    How do we avoid the confrontation? Try to picture the other person’s perspective. And remember that there is always someone bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled at hand to hand combat than yourself.
    I keep reminding myself of these things.
    It’s been 3782 days since my last fight.

  16. Davoid said:

    As a kid watching action flicks, I learned 3 lessons: 
    (1) the guy on the other side is inevitably wants to kill you, or is affiliated with someone that does, 
    (2) violence is the only real way to settle a dispute,  
    (3) people love tough guys who prevail through violence.  

    Of course, action flicks are based on a delusional reality that barely even applies to edge cases, and are completely counter-productive. Embracing (2) tends to lead to (1) as an outcome, which is no way to go through life. Moreover, the ‘audience’ referred to in (3) tends to be a little weak on basic social graces like please, thank-you and bathing.  We know that there is always someone else who has a size, weapon or numbers advantage.  And that fighting can get you arrested or fired.  Besides getting all banged up just makes it harder to get anything done in life.  

    Still,  when it comes to  conflict resolution in our country today, I fear that the action flick too often informs the default assumptions of too many people. The possibility of dumb violence just makes people scared of conflict, or prone to stupid zero-sum solutions. None of which is useful.  So thanks Kai, thanks Lukitas and thanks to others for your powerful stories of how self-knowing, discipline and social smarts can serve a higher end.

    • Man, action flicks were great. Every Friday when school let out early, I would watch two. Thanks David.

  17. You Fail said:

    For all your rationalizing, in the final analysis that guy made you his bitch and you let it happen.

    You should have gone for it and taken a beating if necessary. Broken ribs, bruised knuckles, or a split lip heal eventually.

    There’s no recovery from having to spend the rest of your life with the knowledge you’re a eunuch.

    • MLK got around, or so they say. I’m not sure there’s a correlation between avoiding violence and being a castrato.

      • You Fail said:

        Martin Luther King? Really?
        Whatever you’ve got to tell yourself, I guess.

        • Geneva said:

          It’s true – MLK was a notorious ladies’ man. You don’t have to be a saint to leave a good legacy in the world.

          • You Fail said:

            Actually, you don’t know that was true.

            Regardless, King was a card-carrying Republican and a prodigious gun owner. Ironically, his application for a concealed carry permit was denied by the racist Democrat state authorities in Alabama. Today, these types like to re-label themselves “progressives”.

            Dr. King was a man of peace, but, unlike our fey gelding above, he was also a real man who would have judiciously deployed violence to defend himself.

        • Jenny Mcpherson said:

          I can’t believe you actually took the time to come back to be a douchebaggy ballsless anonymous basher stereotype. You really do fail. Hard.

          • You Fail said:

            Oh look, now the ladies are are stepping to it to defend your honour, Percy, LOL!
            Ah, the estrogen flows freely here. How appropriate.

            • mark lyons said:

              take it from a guy that never backed down, and won most fights, i’d rather wake in the morning with a bruised ego then wake knowing i beat someone over something that has no value at all.”you fail” , your writing like a guy that has never seem the fear in peoples faces after you show the “bad” side of you.grow the f*ck up!!!!

  18. Jenny Mcpherson said:

    What’s your purpose, “You Fail”? To leave a trail of negativity wherever you go? God knows you don’t have any ladies defending your honour.

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