Friday, May 30, 2003

Bullies and Empty Hands

I come to you with only Karate,
Empty Hands,
I have no weapons.
But Should I be forced to defend myself,
my principles or my honour,
should it be a matter of life or death,
of right or wrong,
then here are my weapons
my Empty Hands.

(Senior Grand Master Ed K Parker)

Bullies. I've had to deal with them my entire life.

In the present day and age, the schoolyard is a land of zero tolerance. A child can't use the word "gun" in a sentence, let alone take a swing at anybody, without alerting the PC police. And if a young miscreant decides to pick on some weakling of a schoolmate, the one who defends himself in any way is subject to the same punishment as his attacker. I've had more than one shouting match with some twit school bureaucrat. ("You mean to tell me that my son is supposed to just stand there while some punk beats the crap out of him until one of you decides to show up? Is THAT what you're trying to tell me????")

Where were these intellectual giants when I was growing up? In high school, my principal would tell me I had the right to come back swinging. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. He wasn't around when it didn't.

I was telling Mom about it the other day. I got the usual question: "Why didn't you tell us about this at the time?" Uh-huh. I did, Mom. You and Dad couldn't agree on what to do. You wanted me to clean the guy's clock, and Dad wanted me to walk away.

As a father, I made up my mind to settle the matter for myself and my son. I was in a martial arts school for several years. But I didn't beyond the fourth belt, and to this day, the only black belt I have is the one holding up my pants. My son fared better, though. He earned a black belt in American Kenpo (a Western variation of a Japanese art form) about seven years ago.

Paul can hold his own in a scrape. With a smart mouth like his (a genetic trait handed down from both parents), he has no choice.

Roughly half the zydeco dances I go to are in bars. One in particular, the Cat's Eye Pub in Baltimore's colorful Fells Point neighboorhood, was the scene of a near mishap one week ago last Sunday.

I was at one end of the bar, laughing it up with two young ladies I had just met. I was prepared to show them both how a guy can cut a mean rug (and I can, you know). Down toward the other end was a tall, lean, somber-looking fellow, obviously in the company of a woman with whom I -- well, shared a common history, one that she ended rather discourteously. I was looking at the game on the TV at the far end, with this guy's head in the way, from time to time. A couple of times I passed by the entourage, which consisted of the man (let's call him "Biff"), my former companion (let's call her "Betty") and a mutual female friend of us both (let's call her "Veronica"). Being the good sport I am, I'd say something in passing to Betty.

At one point, it got REALLY crowded. Somebody shoved me, or I otherwise misstepped, right on poor Betty's toes. We both laughed out of embarrassment, remembering how she hated going there for that very reason. I apologized profusely, and continued wading through the crowd, while the band played on.

And that's when it happened.

I walked back to my place at the other end of the bar, and Biff just snapped. Coming up right behind me, and grabbing my arm, he upbraided me for staring at him the whole evening, and trying to "mess with my head." Biff challenged me to take him on. As he boasted of his prowess, and what he could do to me, I assured him there would be no such match on that evening, as I made it clear that I was unimpressed with his bravado.

Biff backed away. So did I. The whole crowd saw it, including the bartender. I went to the back room to cool off. After about ten or fifteen minutes, I and a couple of the gals in back decided to head to the front, where the music was more accessible. Unfortunately, it involved passing by the trio of BB&V. I thought I'd try the gentleman's approach: "Sir, I must apologize if I gave a false impression. I was just watching that TV over there, and your head was..."

It didn't help. Biff had had a couple of pints by now, and he was ready for action. "Don't try to fool me, buddy..." and on he went, while I kept walking. I assured him I wasn't afraid of him, when he replied, "Go ahead, name your poison!" With the certainty that this did not mean offering to buy me a drink, I looked right at Betty, and gave the parting shot: "So this is who you're hanging out with these days, huh?" Betty and Veronica shouted back, "Go away, David."

This was certainly not in the interest of my personal safety. But knowing Betty, I could not help but wonder whether or not she might have put Biff up to this. Of course, I had no proof of any connivance, and Biff did not make any point of defending the lady's honor. Still, I wondered...

Whatever the prospect of hidden motives, that's when I took it to the next level. I met the guy taking money at the door.

"Here, pal, you forgot to collect the cover from me when I came in early."

"Hey, thanks. I appreciate your honesty."

"Not at all. The guys in the band are friends of mine, and I don't want them stiffed. Oh, uh, by the way..."

That's when I alerted the staff about Biff. He was six-foot-four, with a Panama hat and a deadpan demeanor. Not exactly the life of the party. The management offered to have one of the gals on board go to the gate at the alleyway in back and let me in to get my stuff.

I met the Red-Headed Lady in back. "Hey, I ran into the guy you're talking about. I asked him to move so I could get past him, and he wouldn't budge an inch." I was counseled to avoid this troublesome trio for the evening, which I did. Betty was like a cheerleader after the big game, bouncing all over Biff to the beat of the music, while her Knight in Genuine Draft Armor barely moved the whole time. Obviously a man out of his element, at least on a dance floor. Maybe something else was on his mind. Go figure.

Of course, I had my own moments that night. The two young ladies gave me the benefit of a dance, and one of them, who saw much of what happened, allowed me to walk her to her car. We had never met before that night, but we had mutual friends in Philly. I taught a young couple very much in love how to dance; first the lady, then her boyfriend when he came over.

On the down side, I didn't get to sit in with the band on the blues harp. It might have meant negotiating for passage with the Two Lovebirds mentioned above.

When I finally left, I walked out like a man. Facing one's fear, whether in combat or elsewhere in life, has a power of its own. It is one that is tempered by wisdom, knowing when and when not to use one's power.

Through self-discipline and self-restraint, Biff's kneecaps will both live to see another day.

Talking to Veronica on the phone the next day proved most illuminating. Seems Betty was "less than impressed" with Biff's conduct that night, and that we probably wouldn't see much of him again. Knowing Betty, I'm not so sure. Veronica didn't remember much of that evening, but was fully prepared to defend Betty's good judgement in such matters. (I'll make a note of that if Biff ever does what Betty's second husband... no, that's another story.)

In a subsequent e-mail, I reminded Veronica of how she told me I behaved with her a few years ago, after downing five Coronas in an evening. (Don't ask.) Veronica accused me of implying that she was a liar. But I didn't. I simply drew a comparison between how both of us responded to a similar situation, each at different times.

There's a fine line between lying and denial. The former is when we deliberately attempt to deceive another. The latter is when, out of fear or human weakness, we deceive ourselves. Calling such a person a liar doesn't make it any more so, and failing to call them one doesn't make it any less. Was Veronica lying? I have no idea. Was she kidding herself? Probably.

I was also reminded of something Veronica once told me, of how "the novelty was wearing off" with respect to the local zydeco dance scene. Indeed. In the past year, I have had to come to grips with the possibility, that a few of my fair-weather friends may be little more than a bunch of drunks. Maybe it was the influence of my son, who at seventeen, recently celebrated one year of sobriety. And so I have broadened my interests of late, both on and off the dance floor.

Or maybe I simply decided to grow up.

Betty, if you're out there, maybe you should too. Before Biff decides you're the one trying to mess with his head.

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