the above photo is of my mother and me laying on a mat for hours in the middle of Isaan, under the stars, waiting for my fight to come up on the card
For two weeks at the end of October and beginning of November, my parents came out to Thailand for their second visit since I moved here. The first visit was up in Chiang Mai last year and now they came to Pattaya, where we’ve lived since June of this year. My parents loved Chiang Mai. They had mixed feelings about Pattaya.
Part of the timing of this visit was to coincide with my birthday, which is November 3rd. I don’t believe I’ve had a birthday with my parents since I was a teenager; I just turned 31, so it’s been a while. It was certainly lovely to have them and my mom made a concerted effort (and effort was required because we were on an exhausting travel schedule) to attend all three of my fights during their visit, and both she and my dad came to watch my training at both gyms on the few days that I had to train between fights. They want to see what I do. Were you to collapse the time between the last birthday I had with my parents and this one, you might see a more direct line between the thought-processes of the parents of a teen and the parents of a 31-year-old woman. Parent’s don’t “get” teenagers and there’s a slightly desperate pressure to guide the little fledglings on to a safe and successful path, but by 31 a lot of decisions have already been made to cut out one’s own path and a parent can only nudge here or there in an attempt to redirect toward familiar lifetime landmarks: having a child, getting a(nother) degree, moving back closer to home, etc.
My mom doesn’t understand fighting. We’ve been at odds about it for as long as I’ve been fighting, but despite my very clear dedication and the many hours I’ve put into writing about my experiences and thoughts about this path in my life, she still cannot wrap her head around the “art” of what she sees as “violence.” To my parents’ credit, despite the huge gap in their understanding or appreciation for the nuances of my life in Muay Thai, they have never for an instant caused me to question their support or love for me. They’re amazing parents.
But it does hurt that there’s this chasm of misunderstanding between my mom and me. The pain comes from her attempts to graft reference points onto my life-path in an attempt to gain some grip on what can be recognized as “success” from an outsider’s perspective: what belts you win, what names you fight that someone who half pays attention will recognize, what rank you achieve so you can become a teacher in a gym somewhere. That’s understandable, but it also feels terrible. Martial Arts in general have a long history of being a process of self-metamorphosis and quite frankly there’s no “end game” in that process. There is “graduation” in the true sense of the word of continuous increase, but not in the sense that it’s used more commonly as the “culmination” of a number of years spent toward a singular moment of achievement. There’s a lot of “what’s after all this?” that gets thrown at me from well-meaning folks who want to know what my time spent as a fighter in Thailand will amount to when I ultimately go back to “the real world.” What will this be used for? What will I do with my “Thailand fighting experience” degree?
What’s interesting is that my mom has chosen an unusual path. She walks it at night, gaining distance in the moonlight. My mom was brought up in a strongly Catholic household and nearly became a nun; somewhere along that way she realized she had something different in her heart and she changed direction. Instead of a life wedded to Christ, she spent some time in a joyless marriage before leaving that to start a family with my father – she became a mother to four children and the honorary mother to all our friends who spent endless hours navigating childhood at the Gassaway family house. She went back to school and earned a Bachelor’s Degree when I was maybe 9 years old and has worked at the University in the same office ever since. In her free time, which isn’t a whole lot, she has pursued her passions for performance, art, writing, and becoming a Shaman (healing with sound). That last one isn’t something her mother understood. Almost none of them is something the family, when the kids were still young, supported. We do now, of course, but throughout my childhood my mom was doing this largely on her own, without the support of any of her kids or her husband. We “tolerated” it, I guess. I’m very proud of her now. But my mom’s divergence from a path that her own mother could understand is something that makes my mom who she is; it’s also painful to her that her mother could never, and will never (she passed last year) understand.
My mom has difficulty seeing my pleasure. She doesn’t understand where is the pleasure in fighting in a ring. She’s picking a very small part of what I do to focus on, but I do acknowledge it’s the tricky bit. She doesn’t seem to have such a hard time understanding that I put myself into challenging situations, or the concept of a warrior facing herself in battle – all the theoretical aspects she can kind of play around with. But the part she cannot hold in her hand is that I take pleasure in all of this. She thinks I take pleasure in something she perceives as violent and I think she has an ethical wall against her nose there; she just can’t see around it. I’ve explained to her before that violence, to me, is one-sided. Violence is abuse; violence is exploitation. What I do is get into a space that has rules and codes, and I’m in there with someone who has agreed to the same rules and codes and has prepared for the fight. None of that feels like violence to me. I reckon hitting people and hurting people falls into the house of violence – it’s contact and it’s combat, but there’s an ethical divide for me there. A soldier fighting another soldier feels ethically different to nearly every person in the world than a soldier putting his hands on a civilian.
And I have experienced real violence. The youngest of four siblings and the only girl, I was outnumbered and overpowered by my brothers in every altercation. I was picked on. And I couldn’t do anything. When I was 11 years old I was assaulted by strangers and not only was I violated and seriously injured, as well as emotionally and psychologically damaged, but I didn’t even know the words to express what I’d undergone. That, to me, is real violence. I cannot hold those early experiences and the experiences I have now in the ring in the same hand – they’re worlds apart. My mom cannot hold the former experiences at all. I’m her child; to understand it is just too painful. But because she won’t look at the violence I didn’t choose, she cannot look at the violence I do choose. For me, I’ve taken the pain and heaviness of those early violences and turned them into something valuable, something that gives me value; I’ve turned lead into gold. But my mom doesn’t see the alchemy as a complete transformation, she still sees the lead in the gold; she still perceives it as lead.
I don’t know that I need my mom to really understand and love my fighting the way that I do. But I do need her to understand that it comes out of the ethics and values that I was raised in, that it’s consistent with the values instilled in me through my upbringing. It comes out of the path she’s been walking in the moonlight for my whole life. I was raised to believe that you should honor your passions and your love, but I was also raised in a working class ethic of putting in the time and work that is demanded of you – whether that’s the responsibilities of being a parent, or working a job that doesn’t fulfill you in any recognizable way. My parents have never loved their jobs and I wasn’t raised-by-example to believe that it’s important to love the means by which you make an income. But because I don’t have children, I’m not obligated to dedicate my hours in sunlight to making a living and save my true passions for moonlit hours.
The other day my friend Zippy, whose values I admire wholeheartedly, shared a link on his Facebook wall that resonated with me. The link was for a comic strip drawn by comic blogger Gavin Aung Than in the style of Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, with the words taken directly from a speech Watterson gave at his Alma Mater, Kenyon College in 1990. I grew up reading Calvin & Hobbes comics (we had anthologies on our bookshelves) and was most definitely informed by their content in a way that has shaped my overall person. The comic homage below uses a perfect piece from Watterson’s commencement speech to the Kenyon class of 1990 to illustrate the kinds of messages Calvin & Hobbes was teaching me as a kid:
I read this comic and immediately started crying. It came to me via Zippy’s page right after I’d dropped my parents off in Bangkok for an early morning flight back to the US. They’d visited for nearly two weeks and in that time there had been a lot of moments where it was very clear that my parents don’t fully appreciate what I’m doing out here, even though they went to great lengths to witness it, take part in it and support me in it. It does hurt that the most substantial undertaking of my life is largely misunderstood by two of the most important people in the world to me. My mom gently pressured me to think about having children (my middle brother is 36 and he and his wife are expecting their first child – and my parents’ first grandchild – by early next year), or turning what I’m doing here into something recognizable on a western “success chart,” like starting a gym or going back to school for gender studies or becoming a trainer… the kinds of things you ask a kid in college: what’s next? What are you going to do with your degree? To be honest, these questions make me incredibly sad because I cannot see myself doing any of them. To engage in the kind of fighting I’ve thrown myself into, the training regimen and the fight frequency against bigger opponents, one has to be either delusional about one’s own abilities or love the work that’s required for improvement. I love the work. To ask me what’s next is as sad as asking the mother of a 3-year-old, “so when you’re kid’s gone, what’s next?”
I have a degree. My four years of college resulted in a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts along with crippling student loan debt. If I didn’t have such high student loan payments each month, my husband and I could stay in Thailand indefinitely. It’s my choices on the normal timeline of go-t0-school-and-get-a-job that are limiting my current endeavors. Nobody else is benefiting from my degree – I’m not benefiting from my degree – but I’ve received literally hundreds of messages from persons around the world who profit from what I’m doing now, from what I share online, my writing, my videos, etc. Going to college was an expected next step after high school, but it wasn’t practical. I had wanted to become an epidemiologist when I first entered school and became strongly interested in prison reform (that would likely require a law degree) in the later years of my studies. I don’t think my mom understands either of those subjects in a meaningful way, but because one has to go to school for them and acquire letters after one’s name to practice them, the appreciation takes care of itself. But college, for me, was largely just an experience. I think it’s that way for the majority of students who aren’t certain that they want to become a doctor, surgeon, lawyer, chemist, etc. I came to Thailand to become a better fighter, then ultimately to become a “good” fighter, and I’ve been more diligent about that goal and process than I was when I decided to go to school. I’ve produced more in my nearly 3 years here than I did in my 4 years of college, and my studies required graduate-level papers for undergraduate studies, so it says a lot that I’m outdoing my former academic work!
But my point here is that while college is an objectively successful path with an assumed direction or end result (the accomplishment of graduation, a degree, or moving on the graduate work or a job in one’s field of study), that’s not the reality of a lot of college graduates. The speech that Bill Watterson gave at Kenyon College’s commencement in 1990 recognizes that the greatest parts of a college experience are those unplanned spurs of creativity, the social relationships one builds, or the moments in class when you think on an idea you’ve never considered before and it opens your mind or inspires you to take up a more detailed study. Those were the most meaningful parts of my own college experience, and it’s taking those moments and turning them into a daily practice that I’ve accomplished by moving to Thailand to transform myself by the daily grind of training and fighting full time in a world to which I am an outsider in practically every way. And I love it. It’s a constant learning experience. Within a couple months I expect to have 100 fights in Thailand (over the span of a little under 3 years), an endeavor and accomplishment that no other western woman (or man, that I know if) has done. And I’ve shared every fight, in video and in writing, as well as my training, experiences, investigations, failures and successes along the way. This is not a phase in my life; this is my life.
While it does pain me to know that my mom might never understand or appreciate fully what it is I do, I also recognize that I have always been my mother’s “shadow” in the Jungian sense, her dark opposite: Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” My mom’s great undertaking has been to be a mother, which was important to her, and to become a healer through shamanism. In both cases, she is a caretaker. My path as a fighter is ultimately selfish and abstractly inflicts damage, both to myself and my opponents. In this sense, I am the blackest, densest shadow to my mother’s self. While she reads my blog posts and watches my videos, she does not see the community that my page often hosts, or for which my page acts as a nexus point. And I don’t know that she will be able to see it, because she’s not part of that community and because the shadow of fighting is so deep. I am very much like my mother and shaped in her image, but I’m an evolved version. Certainly when the next generation emerges from the shell with new wings or a different beak, the mother bird thinks, “what are you?” even while loving nonetheless. My mother’s nickname for me (among a few) has for most of my life been “Wretched Little Creature.” That may not sound as endearing as it is, but I think it adequately expresses the way in which I am her little monster, this thing that she can both love and fear as one. The only girl after a string of sons, the expectations my mother must have had built into my gender and my bond as her daughter, like a birthright to be like her, must be immense. And I suppose it’s always like this. For all the ways I am like my mother, I’m grateful; but for the ways in which we’re different, I’m also grateful, because limits are broken by failing to agree to them.
I’m including Watterson’s entire commencement speech below, because in the greater context of his speech the comic above is made more complete. I felt affirmed by the quote in the comic, but Watterson’s entire speech resonated with me in a way that made me feel validated. I feel validated because I have become exactly what I was raised to value.
Kenyon College Commencement
May 20, 1990
I have a recurring dream about Kenyon. In it, I’m walking to the post office on the way to my first class at the start of the school year. Suddenly it occurs to me that I don’t have my schedule memorized, and I’m not sure which classes I’m taking, or where exactly I’m supposed to be going.
As I walk up the steps to the postoffice, I realize I don’t have my box key, and in fact, I can’t remember what my box number is. I’m certain that everyone I know has written me a letter, but I can’t get them. I get more flustered and annoyed by the minute. I head back to Middle Path, racking my brains and asking myself, “How many more years until I graduate? …Wait, didn’t I graduate already?? How old AM I?” Then I wake up.
Experience is food for the brain. And four years at Kenyon is a rich meal. I suppose it should be no surprise that your brains will probably burp up Kenyon for a long time. And I think the reason I keep having the dream is because its central image is a metaphor for a good part of life: that is, not knowing where you’re going or what you’re doing.
I graduated exactly ten years ago. That doesn’t give me a great deal of experience to speak from, but I’m emboldened by the fact that I can’t remember a bit of MY commencement, and I trust that in half an hour, you won’t remember of yours either.
In the middle of my sophomore year at Kenyon, I decided to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of my dorm room. By standing on a chair, I could reach the ceiling, and I taped off a section, made a grid, and started to copy the picture from my art history book.
Working with your arm over your head is hard work, so a few of my more ingenious friends rigged up a scaffold for me by stacking two chairs on my bed, and laying the table from the hall lounge across the chairs and over to the top of my closet. By climbing up onto my bed and up the chairs, I could hoist myself onto the table, and lie in relative comfort two feet under my painting. My roommate would then hand up my paints, and I could work for several hours at a stretch.
The picture took me months to do, and in fact, I didn’t finish the work until very near the end of the school year. I wasn’t much of a painter then, but what the work lacked in color sense and technical flourish, it gained in the incongruity of having a High Renaissance masterpiece in a college dorm that had the unmistakable odor of old beer cans and older laundry.
The painting lent an air of cosmic grandeur to my room, and it seemed to put life into a larger perspective. Those boring, flowery English poets didn’t seem quite so important, when right above my head God was transmitting the spark of life to man.
My friends and I liked the finished painting so much in fact, that we decided I should ask permission to do it. As you might expect, the housing director was curious to know why I wanted to paint this elaborate picture on my ceiling a few weeks before school let out. Well, you don’t get to be a sophomore at Kenyon without learning how to fabricate ideas you never had, but I guess it was obvious that my idea was being proposed retroactively. It ended up that I was allowed to paint the picture, so long as I painted over it and returned the ceiling to normal at the end of the year. And that’s what I did.
Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.
It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, maybe utilitarianism is overrated. If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year.
If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.
We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery-it recharges by running.
You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of “just getting by: absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people’s expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.
At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.
For me, it’s been liberating to put myself in the mind of a fictitious six year-old each day, and rediscover my own curiosity. I’ve been amazed at how one ideas leads to others if I allow my mind to play and wander. I know a lot about dinosaurs now, and the information has helped me out of quite a few deadlines.
A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.
So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.
I don’t look back on my first few years out of school with much affection, and if I could have talked to you six months ago, I’d have encouraged you all to flunk some classes and postpone this moment as long as possible. But now it’s too late.
Unfortunately, that was all the advice I really had. When I was sitting where you are, I was one of the lucky few who had a cushy job waiting for me. I’d drawn political cartoons for the Collegian for four years, and the Cincinnati Post had hired me as an editorial cartoonist. All my friends were either dreading the infamous first year of law school, or despondent about their chances of convincing anyone that a history degree had any real application outside of academia.
Boy, was I smug.
As it turned out, my editor instantly regretted his decision to hire me. By the end of the summer, I’d been given notice; by the beginning of winter, I was in an unemployment line; and by the end of my first year away from Kenyon, I was broke and living with my parents again. You can imagine how upset my dad was when he learned that Kenyon doesn’t give refunds.
Watching my career explode on the lauchpad caused some soul searching. I eventually admitted that I didn’t have what it takes to be a good political cartoonist, that is, an interest in politics, and I returned to my firs love, comic strips.
For years I got nothing but rejection letters, and I was forced to accept a real job.
A REAL job is a job you hate. I designed car ads and grocery ads in the windowless basement of a convenience store, and I hated every single minute of the 4-1/2 million minutes I worked there. My fellow prisoners at work were basically concerned about how to punch the time clock at the perfect second where they would earn another 20 cents without doing any work for it.
It was incredible: after every break, the entire staff would stand around in the garage where the time clock was, and wait for that last click. And after my used car needed the head gasket replaced twice, I waited in the garage too.
It’s funny how at Kenyon, you take for granted that the people around you think about more than the last episode of Dynasty. I guess that’s what it means to be in an ivory tower.
Anyway, after a few months at this job, I was starved for some life of the mind that, during my lunch break, I used to read those poli sci books that I’d somehow never quite finished when I was here. Some of those books were actually kind of interesting. It was a rude shock to see just how empty and robotic life can be when you don’t care about what you’re doing, and the only reason you’re there is to pay the bills.
“the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
That’s one of those dumb cocktail quotations that will strike fear in your heart as you get older. Actually, I was leading a life of loud desperation.
When it seemed I would be writing about “Midnite Madness Sale-abrations” for the rest of my life, a friend used to console me that cream always rises to the top. I used to think, so do people who throw themselves into the sea.
I tell you all this because it’s worth recognizing that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.
I still haven’t drawn the strip as long as it took me to get the job. To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I loved the work.
Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in the work. This turned out to be an important realization when my break finally came.
Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught. I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons, and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. It never occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of a bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I’d be faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple business decisions.
To make a business decision, you don’t need much philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how the game works.
As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I though about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons.
Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.
The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.
What the syndicate wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything calculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would turn my characters into television hucksters and T-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts.
On those terms, I found the offer easy to refuse. Unfortunately, the syndicate also found my refusal easy to refuse, and we’ve been fighting for over three years now. Such is American business, I guess, where the desire for obscene profit mutes any discussion of conscience.
You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.
Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.
But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.
Reading those turgid philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time.
I think you’ll find that Kenyon touched a deep part of you. These have been formative years. Chances are, at least of your roommates has taught you everything ugly about human nature you ever wanted to know.
With luck, you’ve also had a class that transmitted a spark of insight or interest you’d never had before. Cultivate that interest, and you may find a deeper meaning in your life that feeds your soul and spirit. Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you’ve learned, but in the questions you’ve learned how to ask yourself.
Graduating from Kenyon, I suspect you’ll find yourselves quite well prepared indeed.
I wish you all fulfillment and happiness. Congratulations on your achievement.
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