Whenever I would ask my mother a question, the answer somehow would go back to 1917 and the Russian revolution. I soon stopped asking questions …
I was the first born grandchild of Russian and Lithuanian immigrants who had survived revolution, Nazism and the depression. Growing in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of two leftist intellectuals, I heard constantly about the woes of the world beyond the confines of our comfortable home full of books, music and art.
By the time I was out of my red diaper, I knew the difference between state capitalism and socialism, and how it felt to be an outsider. Playing in the local sandbox, the children of parents who had been gossiping about our presence in the neighborhood put sand down my shirt. I sat there in shock as they jeered at me, “Your Mommy is a Commie!” Several years later when Dad told me about the civil rights movement, I donated my allowance to the NAACP.
A series of assaults on me in my early teens led me to a burning desire to learn self-defense. I am not alone in this. An estimated one-third of all women on the planet have been raped, groped assaulted – verbally, physically or spiritually.
I was sure I wasn’t interested in carrying a gun, and was clueless about martial arts. I asked a neighbor if she knew of a self-defense school in the area. As if fate were guiding her, she directed me to a kung fu school in Santa Monica, run by Bob Cook.
The kung fu academy was a bike-ride away from Venice beach where I resided, so I signed up for a month of lessons. I was totally unprepared for the physical conditioning in Bob’s Tiger Claw Kung Fu School.
I had been raised in Detroit in public schools which had piss-poor excuses for Phys. Ed. programs. In the winter, we square-danced in the gym, and Spring and Fall, we played soft-ball, and kick-ball outside on the playground, which involved standing around till a ball came flying out at you, or waiting your turn to hit something with all your might, at which point, if you succeeded in hitting the thing, you were allowed a brief sprint to a base or two. Compared to the sun-drenched, body-surfing, Amazonian specimens I had encountered since my trip from the east to the west, I was a pale, shimmying glob of flab.
I tried to do Yoga on Venice Beach. There, in the shadow of the hulking body-builders, I copied B.K.S. Iyengar’s pictures as best I could on my beach towel. I also followed extreme regimens of juice and fruit diets, so when I tied myself up into a variety of knots, I probably looked like a beach-ball, and those giant body-builders, with whom I made friends would play catch with me. We compared diets — 6 egg omelets vs. watermelon juice cleanses.
I was happy to find work doing physical labor in Malibu, digging trenches for new construction. I worked in a bathing suit and swam in the ocean on my lunch breaks. Southern California by the beach was an outdoor life and I loved it. I spent all my time training — swimming past the breakers, snorkeling in the Marina, riding my bike and especially, practicing my kung fu forms.
I found myself practicing day and night, as if possessed. I remember spending a whole Thanksgiving Day at the kung fu school, with no desire to be anywhere else in the world. Nothing seemed more challenging and interesting than trying to perfect a shape and move it across the floor.
One day Bob invited a bunch of us students to come with him to San Francisco to see a kung fu exhibition at Cow Palace. We drove up together in a van. There we saw Chinese masters in black silk uniforms performing flashy forms, broadswords slicing and steep-whips clanging. I was transfixed.
As soon as I returned to LA, I stuffed my clothes into a duffle-bag, said goodbye to Larry, my roommate and training buddy and grabbed the next greyhound bus going North to San Francisco.
Landing at the downtown station, I asked the bus-driver which way it was to Chinatown. From one block to the next, the buildings’ signs were all written in Chinese characters, the smells were entirely different and Chinese people bustled along paying me little notice. I soon found a tiny room for rent in a sort of shabby, residential hotel. I saw not a single other Caucasion. I was fascinated.
…to be continued …