I’m lying with my back on the tatami, clutching my throbbing skull while invisible cartoon Tweety Birds and disembodied snippets of random Elliot Smith songs drift up from the long-forgotten pockets of my brain. There are crickets chirping just outside the dojo’s huge, open barn door. There are crushed mosquitos to all sides of me. Somewhere, our collective furry friend whose real name I don’t know, but who I have taken to calling Mat Cat, is enjoying eating a dead bird.
I have just taken a knee to the dome.
The knee was accidental. These types of collisions happen all the time in Brazilian jiu jitsu class. They are the cost of training a combat sport. My training partner meant me no ill will. He was only passing my guard, and didn’t intend to snipe me out of nowhere with his Thor-like kneecap. I probably went at him a little too hard and he responded in kind. And as easy as that, boom… knee meet head.
I’m not going to lie. This shit hurts. I don’t go out completely, but I do lose my grasp on reality for a minute. When I come to, Mr. Smith is inviting me to “follow [him] down to the Rose Parade… throwing out candy that looks like money…“
Part of me immediately wonders if I should run to the nearest hospital and get checked for a concussion.
Don’t sleep! You could die!
I don’t want to die yet. I’ve only been here a month.
Did I mention that the dojo I’m training at is in the middle of a jungle in mountainous, beautiful Northern Thailand?
Yes, I moved here recently. No, not to the place in the picture, but to somewhere else in Thailand. I have only been here a short time, but I already know it’s a place I could spend the rest of my life and still not have enough time to enjoy it.
It is true, my friends, fam, and fans (all five of you): I am no longer living as a selfie-absorbed American expat in Europe, where I’ve been for the past almost five years of my life, since I was twenty-seven years old. I’ve graduated to the next level. I’m now living the life of a selfie-absorbed America expat in Southeast Asia.
And I’m thankful for every second.
I am thankful for the crickets and the tatami and the big open door. I am thankful for Mat Cat munching on her birds. I am thankful for the waterfall I swam under two weeks ago and riding on the backs of girls’ motorbikes through mountains that look like the masterpiece of an elite cake artist or possibly Bob Ross.
I am thankful for my training partners kicking the ever-loving shit out of me on a daily basis, making me feel like a white belt again every time I show up to train. I am thankful for my training partner’s knee connecting with my skull, which has led me to this epiphany. I am thankful, because there is a lesson here.
The lesson is twofold. Firstly, I will not defeat my training partner’s knee. It’s too late for that; it’s already connected with my skull, pushing play on buried memories of songs I haven’t listen to since college. I may not win this time, but I will learn. What will I learn? To keep my head up, like Pac said.
The second, and more important takeaway, is that I am grateful for the chance to feel this gratitude in the first place. I am grateful to be here, at all. Living, breathing, learning.
Because as recently as four months ago, I almost wasn’t.
I Fucked Up A Long Time Ago
In the words of legendary Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor and hair model Kurt Osiander: I fucked up a long time ago.
The career path of a writer in the video game industry is murky even in the best of times. And by murky, I mean about as straight and clear as a canal in the middle of a medieval city, where the citizens are known to discard everything from their night soil to their unwanted young. Jobs are scarce. Competition is thick. We wear many hats, we deal with a lot of unspeakable bullshit even on the best case scenario projects, and we drink too much for a reason.
The game industry seems to only have two kinds of companies, with very little (if any) middle ground: companies that treat their employees like human beings, and the other kind. If you’re in the industry, especially as a creative, do extreme due diligence into the companies you work for. Otherwise, you may not find out until the ink on your contract is already dry that you’re working for scum.
I recently escaped one such nightmare job situation. I took the gig despite seeing massive red flags both toward myself and others (Thus Spake Kurt: “You fucked up a long time ago”). I’m not going to mention specifics here, as this website, at least, is not for bitching and complaining, but for sharing news about my books, and occasionally, my personal life.
Let’s just say, you know it’s going to be bad when multiple co-workers give you “the talk” during your first week, and warn you to reconsider working for a company you just moved across the world for. The place was a bucket of crabs on a good day. On bad days…
I Ignored the Red Flags
“Don’t ignore red flags.” We all know this point rationally, if not instinctively. But, I’m a stubborn man, and the only thing I hate more than admitting I’ve made a mistake is leaving things unfinished. I shouldn’t have taken the job in the first place. That much was clear from the moment I got there. But I liked the city, and most of the people I worked with. So, I gave it my all, wrote the best stories I could for the projects on my plate, and stuck it out for a year and a half – way past the point when the rotten smell grew overpowering and I should’ve made a quiet exit.
And what was the result? I ended up alone in a foreign country, mentally and physically at my breaking point, carrying so much stress around that my doctor started writing me prescriptions. I hadn’t written any new fiction in a year. I was self-medicating with alcohol and had barely lifted anything heavier than a beer in longer than I could remember. The only thing I did do that was in any way productive was Brazilian jiu jitsu, because it was the only thing that kept me sane.
Oh yeah, the same week I finally decided I’d had enough, and resigned from my job, my relationship with my now ex-girlfriend ended, too. Things had been on the rocks for a while, but I loved her deeply, and after four years and I can’t remember how many countries we lived in and traveled together to, I never imagined things could end with such a whimper… via Facebook Messenger, from a thousand miles away.
But, so it goes. I guess I never was the marrying kind.
It Got Worse Before It Got Better
Uncertainty prevailed. I was completely and irreversibly adrift. Were these the infamous lemons everyone had always warned life would give me? So they were. And I didn’t have even a pinch of sugar. I was the skinny guy in the photo above, who somehow got himself stuck under the local 300-pound purple belt with no way out, asking himself how it ever got this far.
If there is any place for honesty and sharing our Heart of Hearts, why shouldn’t it be out here in the Void of Voids? Everyone on the Internet wants to be smarter than, cooler than, and morally superior to the person they are in the real world. Maybe I should inject some realness back in this MF, stick a probiotic down her throat and try to healthy up her old, IBS-ridden guts.
I’m going to ditch the veil of this pen name for a minute and write an extremely difficult truth: that cascade of days that kept getting worse almost broke me. Interpret “break” however you wish.
Almost, but it didn’t.
I Hit Rock Bottom
I was messed up. I was jobless, and more heartbroken than I ever imagined could be possible. I hadn’t slept for weeks. I was dropping weight faster than Khabib before weigh-ins. There was pain in my chest that wouldn’t desist. My medical evaluation was not good. Worse, I was on an expiring Visa, with little time left in Europe before I had to go home to the US with no future prospects, and only a few hundred euro in my bank account.
Now, back in the day, or maybe a parallel universe, perhaps things would’ve ended differently. Better men have snapped for less. But what studying jiu jitsu these past few years has taught me is that no matter how bad it gets, there is always an escape. So I held.
You may not know the escape. It may take you getting squashed ten or a hundred times in a row by bigger and cleverer opponents to learn there even is an escape to the specific bad position you are in, and then another thousand to master it.
But the escape exists.
Gettin’ the Hell Out of Dodge
I left the nightmare job, I left the country I was living in, I left behind four years of a rocky long-distance relationship. I just… left. Part of me didn’t care where, or how I ended up. A smaller, but thankfully more vocal part of me, told me:
Escape. The escape will present itself. You only need to be clear enough to see it.
You may not win this time, but that means nothing as long as you still have the opportunity to learn.
I took a short-term job to make ends meet. I got certified to teach English. I got into talks with a few game companies to try and find a permanent place to land after the freelance work inevitably dried up. Miraculously, it never did. The Big Dry never came. I got one gig. Then another. Then another.
Freelance. There’s something seductive about that word, like a new lover, or a gigantic wet burrito you know is too big for your stomach. It’s both satisfying and slightly intimidating. It is the one thing J. Jonah Jameson truly relishes to say to his employees.
Holy smokes, Bud. Ten years of working for other people. Am I really ready to do it on my own? Or is this the highway to Hell? I wondered.
It meant I might not know where my money was coming from in a month, and that I couldn’t waste it away on bar tabs or three scoops of gelato a day anymore. It meant I’d have to make my own way, rather than waiting on a paycheck. It meant if I couldn’t make ends meet, there would be no one else to blame.
Christ. Am I going to starve?
What’s wrong with starving a little, anyway? Starving gives you abs.
It Was Worth It
No, that’s not true. Taking this leap rather than packing it in and going home or accepting yet another job I knew wasn’t a good fit, but that I may have thought was a safer bet, wasn’t merely worth it…
…it was one of the best decisions I ever made. My mental and physical health improved within days of leaving my old, stressful life. They didn’t repair completely overnight. The project is still ongoing. I had a few not insignificant bouts with mystery illnesses, some of which were no doubt aftershocks of stress. Things aren’t perfect now, but they are getting better.
In the past few months, the games I’ve been involved with have been my favorite projects I’ve worked on in my career. I’ve been able to explore new countries. I’ve met incredibly kind and talented people. I’ve trained jiu jitsu at a bunch of new academies, in a bunch of new cities, with a bunch of awesome people. I’ve cut down to an average of one beer a week (like hell I’d ever give it up completely). I even got back on the grind, and finished my next novel (stay tuned for more on that soon).
The money ain’t bad, either. I won’t say how much I make at my current gig, but it’s more than at my last job.
The Universe Balances Itself Out
Which brings me to Thailand. How, and why did I end up here? If you’ve read this far, it will be no surprise that the past few months have offered me the chance for some deep introspection. It was at times a rough ride, putting it mildly. I needed a detox; spiritually, mentally, and physically. I needed more than an escape. I needed growth.
And growth was what I sought. I had the time. I had the freedom. Why not pull the trigger and go? So, I did. I made it my mission to become the Julia Roberts of wandering jiu jiteiros. Eat, Pray Love: The Male Version. Or maybe, Eat, Fight, Fuck; no, more realistically, it would probably be, Eat, Tap Out, and Go Home To Ice Your Shit and Watch YouTube.
But what better way was there to heal myself from the poisons of a toxic year, or a toxic few, or the increasingly toxic world, than to go somewhere I could live simply and cheaply, and just train?
I’d been dreaming of this move for ages. I’ve wanted to slow-travel through Asia and spend a few months (or years) living the life of a Kung Fu movie monk since I was a teenager. As you probably already know from your Instagram and YouTube feeds, Thailand is beautiful, and relatively inexpensive for Western travelers. It’s also one of the only Asian countries where Brazilian jiu jitsu is relatively easy to find and practice with high-level people, including professional fighters (of which there are a few at my current academy).
But my interest in Thailand didn’t begin with a hashtag. It has been lifelong. The Beach was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. I took a few Muay Thai classes back in college, and always told myself I would at some point dedicate time to learning the basics of the sport. The older I got, the more it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen unless I moved here (my main focus is jiu jitsu, but I’m slowly building up my fitness level so I can train both simultaneously; my goal is ten classes per week; I am currently at six). Also, Thai food is my absolute favorite. It has, since my arrival here a month ago, even dethroned the dank burritos of Southern California.
I’ll keep my present thoughts on exes and dating to myself.
Everyone has a different conception of Paradise. For some, it is making millions of dollars they cannot take with them. For others, it is being able to have sex with lots of beautiful strangers without consequences. For many in my generation, it is fame or an elite career, which are both means to the same end, which is a perennial sense of importance. For the religious, it is meeting their creator and overcoming death and the relentless pain of loss. For most, I suppose, it is probably nothing that heady, and only means lying on a picturesque crescent of white sand sipping Coronas.
For years now, ever since I got back into jiu jitsu and started taking it seriously again, I have made it a goal to visit (or relocate) to Thailand as soon as I had the money and time. Thailand is one of the only places on Earth where there are MMA camps one can live and train at full time in jungled highlands or on tropical islands, where there is nothing else to do but hit each other in the face and wrestle in your pajamas.
Wrestling in one’s pajamas isn’t for everyone. I’m not even very good at it. I’m a lowly blue belt who gets beaten up by everyone here. I will never be world champion or have a wall in my house full of trophies. Training this sport won’t make me rich, and it won’t make me famous. It will never win me the Nobel Prize or make me a worthy suitor for the daughters of well-off New England families. In the grand eyesight of the universe, it is not altogether meaningful or important.
But for me, Paradise is merely the description of a place where I can grow. For without growth, what am I? And where do I have the chance to grow more so than here, on these mats, in the middle of this jungle, alongside veritable killers, including Mat Cat and her birds? There is no place I’d rather be at this point in my life. I may not win every day, but I will learn.
For now, that’s Paradise enough.
You Win, or You Learn
The title of this post comes from a commonly-repeated phrase in the Brazilian jiu jitsu world: you win or you learn. In combat sports, it means that there is no such thing as losing to a training partner or even in competition unless you do not adapt from your mistakes; even when you “fucked up a long time ago,” that doesn’t mean anything unless you allow it to.
It applies to chokes and arm locks, to double-legs and hip throws, and most certainly to getting trapped under a heavy opponent’s side control. But its true in a lot of other ways, isn’t it?
When it comes to shit jobs, you win or you learn.
When it comes to books you spend years writing that you fear few people will read, you win or you learn.
When it comes to relationships and the cruel twists of fate that determine who will become permanent fixtures in the blink-span of your life and who will only become a lesson, you win or you learn.
When it comes to finding what you want and making the moves necessary to grab it, you win or you learn.
You win, or you learn.
So bring on the knees to the face, and keep them coming.