The Riff and why we sometimes get stuck Part 4: Reality

The Riff and why we sometimes get stuck Part 4: Reality

 It’s summer here in Fremantle. It gets hot but it’s beautiful. Our house sits on the edge of the turquoise, Indian Ocean. There are long white sand beaches, and big cloudless blue skies. In the afternoons, the ‘Fremantle Doctor’, a fresh and gusty sea breeze, whips in from the sou’, sou’west and we open up our doors and windows to its welcome coolness. We live in a blessed place.

 My wife and I work from home. The sun is up about 5:30am so I rise early drink tea and get in a couple of hours work -writing, and training; usually some yoga then movement practise to get this old body going. We’ll often head down for a quick swim.

This morning, as we walked down the path to the beach, a random group of people joined us, making the daily trek. There was a bloke maybe late 40’s. He was shirtless, barefoot and clad in white cheesecloth ‘Indian’ pants. He was tanned and had a blondish ponytail and slightly unshaven pate. There was some ethnic music emanating loudly from his rolled up towel. 

The group splintered off to find various spots on the ample beach. We threw down our towels and took in the ocean view. People were wading, swimming, standing and laying on towels reading books. In the distance, a cruise liner made its way into port.

Despite the spacious beach, the cheesecloth bloke placed his stuff just in front of us and another couple with a young child and an umbrella. He proceeded to move straight into his ‘routine’.

‘Oh no’ I said to my wife.

‘Marc,’ she said knowing my disdain for personal practise in public.

I watched him for a bit as he proceeded to make a show of breathing deeply, flexing and performing various martial art and chi gung type moves. 

‘Well, I’m off then’ I said heading down the sand. My wife, not one to tolerate fools, watched him as he became more outlandish. 

‘Good grief,’ I heard her quiet sigh.

He was right on the waterline so people taking their morning walk had to go around him. The couple next to us looked on quizzically. We made our way into the water, bracing and salty. I swam about and looked back. He was still at it.

‘Please spare me the facial expressions,’ I muttered to myself.

He moved into a low posture arms swept back behind like a fighter jet and showed his teeth in some kind of animal facial gesture. A woman waded past me and rolled her eyes. I couldn’t help thinking of the ‘dragons’ prison scene in the Owen Wilson/Ben Stiller remake of Starsky and Hutch.

 I turned back to the horizon and searched for my equanimity, ‘he’s just doing his thing, his morning practise, don’t be an arsehole, don’t worry about it’. I counselled myself and reflected on why such things annoyed me. My wife told me off again, ‘its just your male ego macho bullshit again,’ she said and swam off.

Boxers, Florence Italy, circa early 1900’s

Boxers, Florence Italy, circa early 1900’s

When I was 15 and still in Adelaide, I remember being invited to an underground ‘fight club’. It was literally, underground, in a dank underground car park where a bunch of bags and rudimentary boxing equipment had been set up. I’d been training in Tae Kwon Do for six months and was a yellow belt. I’d got ahead of myself in that young guy way and was naively feeling pretty confident in my abilities with a head full of Bruce Lee movies and too much time watching myself in the mirror. I was already restless wanting to deep dive into things, to test my skills and explore this newly discovered world of martial arts.

The trainer was small and old. He looked more like a retired jockey than a fighter. He had a high- pitched squeaky voice. His sentences always finished on a rising tone, like a far north Queenslander. He views were eccentric for the time (it was the late seventies) and he had travelled the world visiting and filming different fighting styles.

‘Well, let’s see what you’ve got,’ he said.

A boxer in his mid- twenties stepped away from a heavy bag.

‘Have a go with this fella,’ he said smiling slightly.

The rest of the group gathered around to watch. We were standing on bare concrete. I was starting to feel a little uncertain. I had never boxed. I bounced around on the balls of feet with a low guard in that Tae Kwon Do way.

 We squared up against each other. The boxer was super fit and sharp. He probed me for about 20 seconds then feinted a jab, stepped in and hit me fair in the side of the head with a right cross. Things went black for a moment then white then I saw stars. My legs wobbled and I nearly fell. I tried to keep up my guard and keep going but was disorientated. The boxer and the trainer both stepped in and grabbed me. 

‘You right mate?’ they said.

I teared up and tried not to cry, I was shocked by the impact and shaken to my core.

‘Sorry mate,’ said the boxer giving me an awkward glove hug. 

‘You right?’ He said again with a friendly shake of my shoulders. The short, old trainer put his arm around my waist. We were an unlikely trio.

‘Its allright young fella, that’s what happened to me the first time. It happens to all of us. It’s always a shock. I cried the first time!’ He said laughing and reassuring me in his squeaky rising tone.

‘You’re lucky this bloke didn’t hit you hard. He was only on half power. Just a little test’. The group laughed not at me but with me. They had all been in my position. 


That’s what had happened to me. 


I’ve discovered that after twenty-some years, and as many marathons later, the feelings I have when I run twenty-six miles are the same as back then. Even now, whenever I run a marathon my mind goes through the exact same process. Up to nineteen miles I’m sure I can run a good time, but past twenty-two miles I run out of fuel and start to get upset at everything. And at the end I feel like a car that’s run out of gas. But after I finish and some time has passed, I forget all the pain and misery and am already planning how I can run an even better time in the next race. The funny thing is no matter how much experience I have under my belt, no matter how I old I get, it’s all just a repeat of what came before.

I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform-or perhaps distort-yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality.’

— Haruki Murakami, What I talk about when I talk about running,’ pg 67-68

I had constructed a view of my abilities that was a fiction. In the TKD Dojo, I had learnt fast. I was identified as a ‘talent’. I was flexible, could high kick and had great fitness. Other students would tell me how good my technique was. Yet my intention was misplaced. In reality, I’d been going to the dojo and poncing about in front of the mirror. I’d become a show off. Yes, it was part youthful naivety and bravado but I had already got stuck in a riff of self-satisfaction and ego. This is why we have to keep practising, to keep learning, to keep striving, to keep taking creative risks and testing ourselves through ‘sparring’ in our respective arts, because no matter how long we do something for, that first lesson holds true- there is always a reality check coming somewhere down the road. The struggle never gets easier. 

Without grounded intention, action and humility in our practice we run the risk of being stuck in that same looping riff and not growing, we are left with what Franz Zappa succinctly summarised as ‘light without heat’. We are left to poncing in the shallows at the beach and making tiger faces. 

Maybe that’s what annoyed me this morning. Maybe I saw something of myself.