My two least favorite words in the English language are “used to”.  As in:  I used to study Kajukenbo.  I used to live in San Diego.  I used to be an oceanographer.
And someday when I’m older?  I used to run.  I live in particular denial about that one, plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis and all my other rhyming ailments notwithstanding (is bursitis next?  Psoriasis?  Bad trend!)  None of those are enough to make me ready to admit to any piece of that particular reality.

40th bday

The author at 40. Denial – it’s not just a river in Africa!

And what is this thing we call nostalgia, anyway?  If Chi is the energy of our lives, why are we predisposed to notice its absence more than its presence?  Why is it so difficult to simply be where and when we are?

There are scientific arguments to be made, of course; evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists have a great deal to say on the subject.  Selective memory is a powerful tool.  I mean, full apologies for speaking outside my own direct experience, but how would anyone get pregnant a second time if they had full memory of what it was like to give birth the first time around?  Damn, but that looked hard.  Just sayin’.

And speaking of useful abilities – so is the trick of envisioning a future and working towards it.  The one thing, the argument goes, that separates us from all other (best David Attenborough voice) Life on Earth.

Me?  Yeah, I believe that stuff.  I believe we are all of us on some level simple persistence hunters.  That we are all still chasing after the giraffe – which requires us to remember that there was in fact a giraffe once, even though it has long since disappeared from our view.


There is the slight issue of what to do once we catch it…

But I have no use for used to.  And why should I?  If nothing else, am I not still the person that used to do those things?

Chi and ghosts.  The absence of energy and intention; the missing voices of departed friends.

Well.  My blog; my exorcism.  Come along, and I’ll tell you a story about two haunted places, where the Chi of my own life used to flow.

They’re far apart geographically, and separated by vastly different amounts of time.

But psychically, they feel equally distant from where I am now.

The Kwoon
I last set foot in my Kung Fu school in January.   A pair of visiting instructors from a sister school in California were in town for the weekend, teaching workshops on sparring and falling.  My own teacher’s teacher was also there, someone I always had a great deal of respect for.  And not just because of her skill, but because I related to how much of a priority she placed on making the training as real as it could be.  This is an aside, but thing is, in martial arts, there is a substantial gap between what you can do in training, and what you are actually training for.  It is awfully important to stay vigilant about those differences, because it is all too easy to slip across the line between doing real work, and fooling yourself into thinking you are learning something useful when what you’re actually doing is practicing to get killed (this gets particularly true as soon as someone picks up a rubber knife, by the way.)  But when this woman led workshops, you came out the other side thoroughly workshopped.  I would describe her as inventively old-school in her approach – the highest praise I possess.

Anyway:  I went, had a blast, and at the end, my Sifu promoted me to second degree black belt.  No test, just ceremony; this is sort of how it goes as you age in the art.  Everyone knows you know how to suffer, and nobody particularly wants to watch you hash your joints for another four or five hours, so the promotion process becomes more of an acknowledgement of the work put in than anything else.

As it turned out, that Saturday was the last day I ever trained.

The last time, in fact, I set foot in the school.

Understand – the break was at least in part planned; Isa was on her way, and I don’t like doing things by halves.

But time is going by so fast.

I can still close my eyes, though, and visualize everything about that space.  How could I not?  I practically lived there for ten years.  I know the smell of it.  The feel of it.  The creaking of the springs under the floor, the whirring of the fans. The thick heat of the place in the dead of summer; the cold of the floor in winter before the body warms.  I’ve been dropped on those floors more times than I can count.  I’ve worn blindfolds, and tried to block punches from unseen attackers; I’ve done forms with my eyes squeezed tight, to see if I could hold my balance with no visual anchors.  I know everything about how the light comes through the windows, how to tell direction when I could not see.

I fell in love there, with the woman who would become the mother of my child.


Seven months. It feels like yesterday; it feels a very, very long time ago.

The school is a mile from my house.  I drive by it all the time – it’s literally on my way home from the grocery store.

But I don’t go in.

Oh, I will someday soon – my Sifu is there, and I have friends there still, and I’d like them to meet my daughter if nothing else.

It’s not easy to think about, though.  That place, where I poured so much of my own energy for so long – no.

Not easy at all.

San Diego
September, 1994:  my dad and I pack a few random items of  furniture, my clothes, scuba gear, and computer into the smallest trailer U-Haul has on offer, hitch it to my pickup truck, and begin the twelve hundred mile drive to San Diego, by way of Eugene where we stop for a run, and Anaheim – where we stop to visit Disneyland (a nostalgia trip all its own, but a story for a different time).

I am single, 21 years old, leaving my hometown for the first time.  I have a few thousand dollars in the bank, my truck, and a three year fellowship which pays me sixteen thousand dollars a year.  My first few months I will rent an apartment in Pacific Beach for $500 a month.  It’s one block off the main strip with all the bars; my bedroom window opens onto the alley that kids throw up in at three o’clock in the morning.

I am rich beyond compare.

All doors are open.  The chance to study, to really learn.  To make new friends and find romance.  Hell, I can learn to surf if I want to (Spoiler alert:  that didn’t work out.  Long story.  Actually a short one.  Surfing is hard.  Start young.)

Seven years later, I would make the same drive north, hammering up I-5, stopping only in the Bay Area to crash with some friends for the night.  The truck was the same, but everything else had changed.  I had my PhD, a contract job at Microsoft waiting, and a room in my sister’s basement to stay in.

I was also married (for the first time, as it turned out), though my wife stayed behind on that first trek north, to spend the next three weeks winding down her job, and preparing to move with me to the town we’d both at separate times called home.

That was twelve years ago.

I’ve been back to San Diego a handful of times since, mostly to attend ComicCon.  The last of those trips was about ten years ago – roughly the same time I started to learn Kung Fu.

San Diego is full of the absence of chi.

The last couple of years I visited, I developed a new ritual.  This was during my brief but glorious triathlon career (yet another thing I used to do).  One day of the trip, I would make my way to a bike rental shop downtown, near the convention center.  The so-called road bikes they had on offer were for crap, though the woman that worked the shop had interesting stories to tell about having once ridden with George Hincapie – part of Lance Armstrong’s crew, back before “bag of blood” wasn’t just a term that showed up in HBO originals starring Sookie Stackhouse.  Anyway, my ritual was this:  I’d ride the bike the ten or so miles to La Jolla, make my way down to the cove, swim maybe a mile and a half in the open ocean, get out, drink as much water as I could hold, run up Mt. Soledad and back (five miles of what by then was the heat of mid-morning, and a grueling climb to boot), and then slowly bike back to the shop.


Triathlon glory days! Alas, more bad hair (yes, that’s a mohawk. Moving right along…)

The whole thing would take three, maybe four hours, and leave me sun-drenched, soaked in sweat, dehydrated to the point of dessication, and deliriously happy.  Why?

It wasn’t just the endorphins talking.  It was a way of making the time in San Diego, San Diego itself, relevant to my current life.

It was a way to restore, even briefly, the flow of chi.

la jolla cove

La Jolla Cove – not a bad place to start an open-water swim.

mt soledad 2

The view from Mt. Soledad. See that pier way off in the distance? When I was in graduate school, my office was in a building at its base, complete with 180 degree view of the ocean. Beat the cubicle farm all to hell, that’s for darned sure.

Sundogs and Shadowcats
A last thought.

Molly, Isa and I went to a birthday party on Vashon Island last weekend.  A pig roast, in fact, which brought back memories of its own.  I’ve been to three different pig roasts in my life, always on islands:  Catalina, Hawaii, and now Vashon.  (Which is weird, come to think of it; the invisible hand of James Cook, perhaps?)

It was an absolutely fantastic event, as measured by my newly found barometer of party greatness:  how much fun the kids were obviously having.  I’m not sure how many there were, to be honest – just this sort of steady stream of 7 to 12 year olds, like I’d blundered into a William Golding novel, occasionally charging through the crowds of adults – while carrying spears (not making this up).  Or retreating to their tents to plan orders of battle (not making that up, either), or appearing in twos and threes, dripping wet, soaked to the bone but refusing all adult comforts, from having won or lost this or that water fight staged on the highly prized turf surrounding the above-ground swimming pool.


The Endeavor – Cook’s ship. He introduced the domesticated European pig to the Hawaiians (though the Polynesians had imported pigs all over the place hundreds of years before). Cook also died there – though I’m pretty sure that didn’t have anything to do with the pigs…

Many of the kids were locals, though not all – but those that were, one of the adults said in me, were thick as thieves.  There were two groups, the Sundogs and the Shadowcats (or perhaps the adults were the Sundogs?  I was unclear on this point).  One girl in particular was known as the keeper of the Shadowcat lore, responsible for meticulously tracking each member of the group’s superpowers.  Apparently, every Fourth of July, the Sundogs and Shadowcats meet on the field of battle.  I shudder to imagine what those events are like; the last thing our pig roast needed was class-C fireworks tossed into the mix.  (I kid, of course.  Every pig roast is better with fireworks).

I can’t stop thinking about those kids.  I imagine them two or three decades from now.  I see them returning to that place, where the absence of Chi will hit them so hard they’ll barely be able to stand.

But honestly?  Who the hell cares.  Watching them play, I was ready to sell the house and move to the country tomorrow, just so Isa has room to run.  I want nothing more than for her to find her own Sundogs and Shadowcats someday.

Lord knows I still miss mine.