Part 1: The Intro
I just spent the week in California.
(Well, most of a week anyway.)
As a reporter, or journalist, or whatever it is that I am, (when I’m not being an artist/teacher/dad/husband,) I’ve written about the Golden State, here, on many occasions.
Needless to say, California in the age of over-tourism is not a pretty sight.
Perhaps that’s the wrong turn of phrase, because it’s the undeniable prettiness that’s led to the insane overcrowding, and now the ridiculous tourist hordes.
But as a travel writer, bashing tourism, (in general,) would qualify as biting the hand that feeds me.
And while I may occasionally tend towards the quixotic, people rarely call me stupid.
Therefore, I’m going to let my California experiences marinate a bit, (as usual,) so I can return to the subject in the future, without the road-weary-bitterness I’m feeling at the moment.
Rather than rip on Gavin Newsom’s hair, or the now-legendary homelessness problem, (which I first reported here 3 years ago,) I’m going to step back into my memory, and re-visit my life-changing trip to London.
Part 2: The Sifu
“Whatever you do, don’t be late,” said Hugo, and those were his last words before I headed out the door.
“Right,” I replied, “don’t be late. Got it.”
Hugo had set me up with City Mapper, an app that was meant to offer directions, even without an internet connection. And we’d planned the route carefully.
I had to change trains a couple of times from Holloway, so we discussed the track I’d need, and that I ought to check with one of the rail workers before I boarded.
He even told me to make sure I saw New Malden on the electric ticker, as there were multiple trains that left from each track. (I was headed from North London to Surrey, so it was going to be a long-ish trip.)
And where was I headed?
I’d booked a private lesson with Sifu Leo Au Yeung, one of the most impressive Kung Fu masters, and instructors, in the world.
Am I exaggerating?
Sifu Leo, who is seemingly only in his 30’s, was the Wing Chun choreographer and instructor for Ip Man 1, 2, and 3, which happened to be the most popular Kung Fu movies of the new millennium.
Ip Man, if you don’t know, is credited with popularizing Wing Chun around the world, via his dojo in Hong Kong, where he trained Bruce Lee, among other greats.
Sifu Leo was also the Kung Fu teacher for Iron Fist Season 2, the now-departed Netflix-Marvel show that was notable mainly for being better than the genuinely bad Iron Fist Season 1. (How Marvel missed the moment, and cast Danny Rand as a whiny, rich, entitled white guy is beyond me.)
In addition to his star-connections, Sifu Leo also has a thriving Kung Fu program in London and Wimbledon, and unlike many a closed-minded martial artist, travels the world to study with other teachers, and learn from other arts.
In other words, he’s a genuine badass, and the nicest guy you’d ever meet.
Or so I’d been told by Hugo, after I’d recommend he study with Sifu Leo, after watching a few of his videos on Youtube. Hugo’s trained with him once a week for well over a year now, so oddly, after I recommended my friend to him, my friend now recommended me right back so I could book a lesson.
And his final words were, “Whatever you do, don’t be late.”
I left with plenty of time, (though perhaps not enough,) and did exactly as I was told. I double-checked with an attendant that I had the right track, and then watched “Malden” scroll by on the ticker before I boarded the train.
It was supposed to take 20 minutes or so, so I settled in for the ride, nervous as hell to train with a genuine Kung Fu master.
After about 15 minutes, I checked with a conductor who confirmed we were headed to Malden.
But then at 30 minutes, I started to get a funny feeling in my chest.
Something seemed off. Not right.
So I got up, took a good look at the map, and noticed that there were in fact two Maldens: New Malden, where I was headed, and Malden Manor… where apparently the train was headed instead.
On the convoluted map, I could see where the spurs diverged, and that I was already two stops past where the train cut towards my putative destination.
I jumped off the train at Malden Manor, and considered taking the next train back in the opposite direction.
Thankfully, the uber-polite English folks on the platform were uniformly helpful, and assured me that would be a mistake. They said head into town and wait for the K1 bus, it would be faster.
I had about 20 minutes, before I’d be late, and my heart was pumping harder than Donald Trump’s, while he’s digesting an after-dinner snack of 2 Big Macs, an order of Chicken McNuggets, and a large fries.
I ran to the nearest bus station, as I could see a bus approaching, but the folks waiting assured me it was going the wrong way, and that the proper stop was around the traffic circle.
No worries, they said, they come every 10-12 minutes.
You’ve still got time.
So I sat, and tried unsuccessfully to poach wifi from a nearby food co-op.
Eventually, a nice English lady sat down next to me, in her late 50’s, and then a gentleman around the same age, of South Asian descent.
They could see I was miserable, so I told them the story, and they assured me it was best to wait, rather than walk, or try to find a nonexistent cab.
Sure enough, the next bus that came was also headed in the wrong direction, and then I was officially late. The lady had a calming voice, and told me things would turn out alright.
The nice man offered me his phone, so I could text, but at the last minute, the free wifi kicked in, and I was able to send an email to Sifu’s assistant, explaining the circumstances. (I assumed she was down the street, but later learned she lives in Japan, and therefore my message went from Malden Manor to Tokyo and back to New Malden.)
Eventually the bus came, and the nice lady took my hand, determined to see me off to my destination. So we sat next to each other, and she told me of her travels to Las Vegas, as her husband’s brother was a renown musician, who’d worked on the original James Bond theme.
The bus moved slowly, and all I could hear in my mind was the opening riff to James Bond, mixed with Hugo telling me, “Whatever you do, don’t be late.”
Late, I was.
I feel awful that I never asked my friend her name, as I was so frazzled, mostly because I wanted to turn up suave and calm, and that plan was clearly out the window.
New Malden was a fair bit shinier than Malden Manor, with a cute little High Street, and then I finally made it.
Of course, Sifu was as gracious about my lateness as anyone could be, and his assistant Crystal wrote that she’d made the same mistake herself once. (Taking the wrong train.)
Plus, I was paying for the time I’d lost anyway, so in the end, it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.
I went in with expectations, hoping to mix it up a bit to test my skills, and maybe practice on the wooden dummy, but when Sifu asked what I wanted to learn, I said, “Whatever you want to teach me. You’re the Sifu.”
I’ve heard from other teachers, (as I am one,) that the experience of getting a proper teacher, of being subordinate in the learning environment, can be a liberating and exciting feeling, and I must agree.
So Sifu Leo, instead, felt my body structure, appropriately detected my weak spots, and gave me some tips on how to improve.
Then, he taught me a technique of releasing my joints simultaneously, from the inside, with my mind, so that I could always regain leverage in any situation.
It was as close to a Jedi Mind Trick as I’m likely to ever encounter, and he demonstrated it by reversing position, every time I had the upper hand.
Rather than fight, or tussle, or show off his strength of body, Sifu showed me how the mind-body connection can be taken to levels I’d not previously considered.
And in the end, he even let me snap a few photos to share with you.
For my UK readers out there, I cannot recommend Sifu highly enough. If you’re looking for an opportunity to build up your mind, body and spirit, this guy is for real.
And in the end, my biggest fear came true, and it wasn’t that big a deal after all.
Part 3: Speaking of Violence…
I’m rewatching “Luther” this week, from the beginning, as I’m desperately trying to get a little bit of rest before Antidote, (our photo retreat program,) begins next week here in Taos.
For those of you who don’t know, (though I referenced it once already in the London series,) Idris Elba plays John Luther, a super-cop who’s such a badass, he seems more like a super-hero than an actual guy. (Which could probably be said about Elba himself.)
The series is as dark as it gets, with enough gruesome murders, haunting killers, and proper wing-nuts to give you a permanent set of nightmares.
The show fetishizes the grotesque, and the Gothic, in a way that sheds light on the recesses of the English soul. (Much the way Stieg Larsson’s books seemed to plumb the depths of Sweden’s buried-Viking-persona.)
I love “Luther,” and if there’s a better anti-hero than Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan character, I’d like you to show me.
But much the way John Luther is the hero England wants and perhaps needs, over here in America, it’s another John we’re all crazy for: John Wick.
As it happens, Keanu Reeves’ “John Wick 3: Parabellum” opened while I was in London, and I managed to score a ticket on opening weekend, without even waiting in line.
I bought the ticket from a robot, because there are few humans doing such jobs in London, from what I could gather. (Look out, American movie-ticket sellers… I’m betting the robots are coming for your jobs soon.)
The film opened with commercials, which are the norm over there, I was told, as TV didn’t used to have commercials, so they were on the cinema instead. And when I saw Jeff Bridges, in full “Dude” character, pimping beer in Amsterdam, instead of weed, I was sure we were living in 2019.
I wrote on Twitter the other day that everyone’s on the hustle these days, and you know it’s true.
As for the film, I’m an action-movie junkie, and have seen more martial arts/action movies in my life than I could possibly count.
I know my Donnie Yen from my Jackie Chan from my Jet Li from my Bruce Lee from my Steven Seagal from my Keanu Reeves, is what I’m saying.
And the world is right to love the John Wick movies, which are so fucking stylish. World building is in these days, (Just ask Marvel,) and the John Wick films do it brilliantly, with their gold coins, assassin hotels, and intelligent use of Ian McShane. (And now Boban Marjanovich?)
I mention this, though, not to write a proper movie review, but because so much of the film felt made for the audience. It was fake-real, with trained dogs, kicking horses, and knife-throwing scenes that managed to bring humor and awe to a lot of blood.
Until a scene near the end, when John Wick decides that the only way forward is to get the biggest gun he can, with armor piercing bullets, and start shooing the bad guys one bullet a time.
The sound was so deafening I covered my ears, and the feeling was one of mass shooter on the rampage.
Immediately, I was taken out of the narrative, and thrust into my head again, thinking about all the AR-15 wielding, racist lunatics roaming my country, which at that point was 3000 miles across a big ocean.
I’ve never been near a mass shooting, thankfully, (before I drove past the Gilroy Garlic festival on Sunday, two hours before the shooting started,) but the references were unmissable.
If I thought it was political commentary, I might not have minded.
Instead, it felt wrong, and exploitative, and awful, and sad, and misguided, and strange, and I don’t know why they included it.
7 minutes of reality, in the midst of a violent fantasy.
And maybe that’s the problem?
I’ve been raised on fantastical violence, in all those movies, and maybe it was wrong to romanticize it in the first place?