Hey, Bourdain, I would have loved that roll.

“I will never be a young man or younger than I am today. I will never be faster or more flexible. I will never win a competition against a 22-year old wrestler in my weight class. I will never be a black belt. None of these things will happen but none of that matters anymore.”

– Anthony Bourdain/Parts Unknown Season 6. Episode 4

That moment you laugh when your professor, your mentor, your brother calls you out on shirking your deeper responsibility toward your own journey.  "You've been dodging this moment my brother", he said in not so many words, "you've been complacent as a blue belt, it's made you lazy and soft. you have responsibilities, let me help you with that." -Prof. Carlos LEmos Jr. (4x World, BRazilian, European, American & Pan-am Champion) Gbdownersgrove.com

That moment you laugh when your professor, your mentor, your brother calls you out on shirking your deeper responsibility toward your own journey.

"You've been dodging this moment my brother", he said in not so many words, "you've been complacent as a blue belt, it's made you lazy and soft. you have responsibilities, let me help you with that." -Prof. Carlos LEmos Jr. (4x World, BRazilian, European, American & Pan-am Champion) Gbdownersgrove.com

I mentioned sparring (rolling) with Chef Anthony Bourdain about 2 years ago on my other blog, TheGaitGuys.com.  It never happened, and now, it never will.  At the time, Bourdain and I were both blue belts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Bourdain did not know me, nor I him, but we had some things in our lives rooted in common ground. His death to me was a bold punch to the gut, one that doubles you over and makes you stumble backward begging for breath.  I think his early life departure in 2018 hit some of us hard because we felt some inner connection, perhaps jealous aspiration, to him and the life he appeared to have commandingly by the tail.  Bourdain and I had some commonalities, the love of good food, a late life start into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, writing, art, and creative outlets.  His broad palate of creative works was an inspiration to me. I also enjoyed what he said, but more so how he said it; his descriptive and colorful command of the English language spoke to me. Bourdain's death was a tragedy to us all, the world has lost another creative talented soul.

In a unique way, similar to living into one’s 40’s and 50’s, I think the purple belt represents the mere beginning of one’s enlightenment years. A time when things just start to make a little more sense in life. I recently was presented with my purple belt in Brazilian JiuJitsu from one of the art's legends, my mentor, my brother, 4x World Champion, Professor Carlos Lemos, Jr.  Some consider the purple belt as a transition in the art where the basics start to congeal into something more clear and meaningful. (I refer the reader here to my previous post on "the language" of jiu jitsu LINK). It defines the completion of a long base of fundamental work, and of stronger resistance, heavier responsibilities and bolder headwinds to come. 

It took me 5 years to get my purple belt in jiu jitsu. This is far longer than it will take many to get to this stage, many will be into their brown belt by this point, yet still far from the coveted black.  In Brazilian jiu jitsu, purple does not even mark the half way point to the multi-tiered black belt. Thus, my mere five years still represents a kind of adolescence in the journey.   Many will not get to this purple stage, they will quit before they reach this pivotal point in this most difficult art.  Trust me, I almost gave up as well, I too found all kinds of excuses to abort, but for me the trick was to make myself go to the academy on the days I truly did not want to, when I was finding something else that I could, should or wanted to otherwise do. When we are uncommitted, it is easy to find excuses not to follow through. We might use our marriage, our work, our kids, money, time, injury, these are all excuses that will be victorious if one lets them grow into such a thing.  If one is weak enough, an individual can let one of many forms of resistance grow into a plausible victorious excuse, one that trumps commitment and personal growth. I know this problem all to well, it is part of my past and my every day.  Wishing and hoping are like dreams, they are not real, it is only execution that makes anything real. How badly do we want it, that is the greater question.

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The color purple, the color of resistance?

I am slow at learning what many already know, that the stuff in life that seems to matter is the stuff that is difficult. It is the stuff that we have to work hard at. It is not the stuff that comes easy, it is not the gifts and not the handouts. It is often the stuff that makes us weak and tremble. It is the stuff that actually asks something more of us, it is sort of a sacrifice to step into an unknown void.

I recently had a patient come in who is a recovering heroin addict. As I was working on his shoulder and he rambled into a dialogue about feeling lost in life. I have known this young man since he was a little boy.. He said he was looking for some relief and an easier time in life. I asked him why he was looking for that and he said he was tired. I asked him to at least consider if perhaps he needed something else that was difficult and hard to embrace, something else that would ask him to make a different kind of sacrifice in life, a different set of choices. He looked blankly at me.  I expanded my words, sharing with him what a jiu jitsu lifestyle looked like; mental and physical struggles, fitness, rewards, commitment, loyalty, purpose, brotherhood, family, leadership, general well-being. He said it sounded like just what he needed. It is never hard to give out the phone number for that recipe.

I'm not sure I fully deserved this purple strip of heavy cotton around my waist. I am not where I should be in my opinion, but I am where I am. In any chapter of life, it is about accepting where we are. To my mentors perspective and wisdom, I think maybe, just maybe, this was a message to step forward, to step up, and accept the responsibility of where I should be and force me into the responsibilities I have been shirking. And if that's the case, the point was made, loud and clear; step into the resistance, accept active responsibility. Take action, instead of making excuses. These are easily comments made on many of our lives.  Easy doesn't pay the bills. Easy doesn't generate growth, or insight. Easy doesn't add to a quality of life and a sense of achievement. The dis-ease of "easy" has led most into regret upon their last hours of a life.

I will never be a young man or younger than I am today. I will never be faster or more flexible. I will never win a competition against a 22-year old wrestler in my weight class. I will never be a black belt. None of these things will happen but none of that matters anymore.” –Bourdain

Bourdain was right on some things, many things in fact, this could be noted if you followed his work over the last decade. He is right in that I will never be a younger man than I am today, but with constant pressure against resistance at the age of 51 I do feel better than I did a decade ago. This year I will work to be faster, stronger, and more flexible than I was last year. The alternative path will not get me to a better place, so I will meet those resistances head on. As Bourdain eluded to, I too may not win a battle with a 22 year old, but knowing what I know now, it just might now be fun to try. As for Bourdain's feelings on a black belt, I do not care much either. I have more deeply discovered that meeting the path of resistance head on in the moment, and facing the responsibilities and expectations that confront me as I press through the dominance hierarchy (thanks Jordan Peterson) is the true journey.

I was getting lazy and complacent as a blue belt in arguably the toughest martial art that exists. Having purple firmly tied around my abdomen, and all of the responsibilities that accompany it, was a lesson I needed to feel deep in my being. I believe that if one is not struggling and moving forward into more difficult winds, they are being held back, in fact losing ground, being further pushed back by one's own laziness in accepting that place of mere perceived comfort. Nothing good comes from complacency, even though we feel stable and safe, that is the deception of the moment, we are in fact becoming more fragile.  Lesson learned. I was the clay pot, never to meet the heat of the furnace.

" A clay pot sitting in the sun will always be a clay pot . . .

 it has to go through the white heat of the furnace to become porcelain."  - Mildred WitteStouven


I am still on the adolescent scale on this martial art's journey of lessons. These are just a few things I have gleaned to this point that might help those a few steps behind me, maybe even beside me:

  • Purple. It might just be the true color of resistance in this art form (I reserve the right to amend this statement).

  • If you choose to give up on jiu jitsu, make it a real good reason, because it just might turn into later regrets. I quit for 2 months early on, and I am ashamed of that. If you say it is because of your work, your marriage, your school, your whatever, have a good talk with yourself. Make time for something this important. This is not supposed to be fun or easy all the time, if it is not hard at times, you are doing it wrong and you are not being forced to grow.

  • If you disappear after a year, you missed the message. This is a journey, a marathon, a lifestyle, a grand path inward, and outward. If the journey showed you the destination too soon, the pot of gold, the long path to enlightenment would be missed.

  • If you are not getting what you want, don't leave or give up. Those things might not be what you need. Be patient with the lessons of jiu jitsu, often you will be surprised that what you needed was far different than what you thought. This goes for our training, and our lives. Let the art deliver its message and lessons to you. Most things in life do not turn out how we hope or plan, but often the best things in life are the surprises.

  • If your focus is the color of your belt or the number of stripes on it, you are missing the point. This is an investment, a lifetime journey and insurance policy on our soul. Forget about the color of the cloth around your waist, or around another's waist for that matter.

  • Persistence always wins. Even if you lose, you win. I've been here 5 years now. I'm still here. I have seen more people leave, disappear, or give up, than have persisted. Pace yourself and stay the course, sprinters do not get very far. Be the tortoise, not the hare.

  • Look beside you. One of the people on either side of you won't be here in 6-12 months. The problem is, we forget that the person beside us is saying the exact same thing about us. Don't give them the satisfaction of not being present on the mats in a year, persist, prevail. Stay the course.

  • Stop trying to win each time you spar. There's very little value and feedback in winning. The lessons are in the losses, the meaning is found between the arm bars and chokes. The lessons are in the smallest of things, and often in the sharing afterwards. Stop trying to win. Be a step ahead of the guy trying to win, be the observer, be this listener, you will learn more.

  • It is all relative, see your journey as where YOU are at this moment, not where others are. The beauty of this art and it's journey is that you cannot and should not compare yourself to others. Let others help to be a measuring stick for your own progress, but more importantly, mostly compare yourself to your yesterday's self. What do I mean by this? Let me help. I am a mere footstep into a Purple belt. I cannot compare myself to other purple belts that have been here a year, let alone one that is 20 years my junior. Nor should I compare myself to a youthful 25 year old blue belt who is just 3 years out of a college wrestling program. I cannot compare myself to a 200 pound white belt. I cannot compare myself to a 60 year old black belt. I am my own unique package, a 51 year old, 155 pound doctor who trains a few times a week, who's hands are raw and pummeled by most Tuesdays. I cannot compare myself to anyone else other than the person I was yesterday, nor should you. Trust me on this, I speak from experience.

  • Most things in life that are worth anything do not come quickly or easily. This is about choices, habits, routine, commitment, struggle, fear, pain, and sacrifice. This is about meeting resistance every day.

  • Do not be afraid to fight for worthy things in life. (This is a good time to remind the reader of the all too important, yet mostly sarcasm piece, here on this blog which I wrote in 2016. My first post, The death of the schoolyard fight: The great unravelling of our modern day social fabric.)

  • Close your mouth. Open your ears. Show up. Practice. Be patient. Share the story of your journey, it might save someone's life.

  • In life, if one steps back far enough, and often enough, enough to see the forest instead of just the trees, the messages and lessons become more clear. "Once you understand the way broadly, you can see it in all things."-Miyamoto Musashi

Dear Chef Bourdain, I would have loved that roll, but maybe in another dimension it now seems. However, I am going to imagine that a few threads within the tapestry of this purple belt are yours brother, just as there are threads within it of my fellow academy brothers and sisters. Through them I have reached this stage of the journey.  Bourdain, rest peacefully until we meet old man. Save a little sweat for me, and a heavenly street side "meat in tube form" with all the fixin's, for I am a fan as well.

Sometimes we need a "band of brothers" to shine a light of truth on our ways, leading us back to the  honest path. Thank you Professor Carlos Lemos, my fellow teachers, and all those who paved my path to this point. The struggles, pain, sweat and defeats were worth it, and continue to be.  Being completely honest with myself, I can see the woes of my ways in finding peace in comfort and complacency. I feel that I did not honorably serve the blue belt previously wrapped around my waist to the level I should/could have. That weighs heavily on me, this early part of the journey feels a little tainted now. And because of that, this purple wrap now too weighs heavily upon my hips, and with it, a bigger target on my back. Lesson again learned. It is time to make things right.

-Shawn, purple belt, Brazilian JiuJitsu, ("the gentle art"),

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Gracie Barra Downers Grove,

Professor Carlos Lemos, Jr. 4x World, Brazilian, European, American & Pan-Am Champion



A Black Belt Life

"Fighting is winning. Don't give up. Don't ever give up. 
You beat cancer by how you live, while you live, and in the manner in which you live. 
So live, and fight like hell." 
 * Stuart Scott, July 19, 1965 – January 4, 2015


Every day you are just a little bit closer to your own ending, your last breath.
So, what are you doing about it ? What if that day was tomorrow ? The problem is that you think you still have plenty of time for all your hopes, wishes and dreams. The reality is that you may not have the time you think you have, or at the very least, enough time.

I am at best a novice martial artist, however, I am in the game and learning. It is not logistical for me to be on the mats 3-4 times a week, but I study, I think, and I study videos when I am not at the academy. Jiu-jitsu is a very complex art, it is a life long understudy. For me, studying human movement is part of the process, it is rewinding film over and over studying the pieces, breaking things down and chunking them into digestible pieces before building them back up into complex forms. To be clear though, being a martial artist is more than just a journey on the mats and in the school, it is a journey that exists in your mind, in the community and in your family.

Presently, I am a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu when I am in my school, but I strive not to be a blue belt in life, though many days I fail. This is perhaps the deeper and more important teachings of the Masters. One simply cannot be on the mats 24 hours a day, and so one's jiu-jitsu mentality must transcend the mats and the academy and be reflected in one's life, in the community and those you interact with daily. No matter what your belt color is on the mats, one must portray "the black belt way" in life.

It is about the journey.  Just as in life, everything is about the journey, but we get distracted. We get drawn away from the journey and its purpose by the intoxicating meanderings and lies of the media, of the drama of the day, the 9-5 work day slog, and of the other life fluff that glazes our consciousness. Perhaps it is by design that we are distracted, for if the journey was clearly laid out for us all it might be meaningless, It might be too easy. The prize would be guaranteed, the wisdom achieved by the journey would be meaningless.  The journey would have no mystery and it would be free of the side roads and detours that take us off the path where the painful stuff lies, the good stuff that changes us. It is those side roads, at their ditches and potholes, that harbor the pain, the misery, the disappointments that force us to course correct, to back track to find our way again onto the main path to our journey.  The trouble is, we never really truly know if we are on that path, but we let our gut and our heart guide us if we are wise, for they often show the way. Just like when you were tempted to sneak that extra cookie as a child from momma's cookie jar, in our guts, we know when the path is right and when it is wrong. It is in us all, it's speaking to us daily, but are we listening clearly enough? Life is about choices, and then executing those choices. At any moment we can choose the right way or the easy way. In the silence of a painful lonely night, when we are feeling all alone, we should be able to hear the truth and know the path, but are we listening ? And perhaps more so, are we willing to endure the pain to walk that path day in and day out ? If it's too easy, question if you are doing the necessary work and engaging the right lessons. Make no mistake, there will be pain, there must be pain or there is no growth. So what kind of pain are you willing to endure ? What pain will you choose to face to get to your dreams and goals ? That is the tough question, what pain are you willing to endure to get to that place of joy and peace? 
Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) only has 5 essential belts, though the masters might argue the only one that matters is the first one, the white belt because that is where the good stuff is harbored and borne from. And, perhaps more importantly, it is the belt that recognizes the initiation of the hero's journey, one filled with the most fear, the most curiosity, the most excitement, the most challenges, the least expectations but the greatest rewards. 

For some it may take a lifetime to get that black belt, but for most, they will not make it. The odds are very small that one will eventually have a brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) black belt tied around one's waist, it is a longer process than many other of the arts. Life choices will get in the way, injuries will derail us, focus will diminish, children, work and spouses will all tug at our time.  Just try to remember to endure, for the black belt is not the pinnacle. Ask any black belt and they will share that the true journey may in fact really begin there.  In BJJ there is an old story that there used to be only two belts, a white and a black.  And it was the journey, day in and day out, where the white belt was tugged, pulled, twisted, getting dirtier and more gray every day. It only became seasoned by the sweat and blood and tears until only after great adversity and pain it turned black with resolve. It is the journey, just as in life, we become our finest self after enduring the hardships. 
As in BJJ we all start life as a white belt. The goal for most is to earn the black belt, a thing representing a status where wisdom and peace are supposedly found. A status where lessons can be shared and brotherhood grows deeper.  As in life, it may represent a another circle of life, a new beginning to start again, a kind of second level white belt.  A black belt is not attained alone. The belt is colored by the sweat and pain of our brothers and sisters, who afford us the opportunity of the struggle with them to better ourselves. It is a grappling with our mistakes, our misfortunes and our misgivings and the graciousness of their forgiveness.  There will be pain, just as in the journey of life, there will be pain.  As the lessons and skills of BJJ are imparted, embraced, learned and perfected we rise up in belts, just as in life from toddler to adolescent, to adult and to a senior citizen. Senior is a precious word, it means "holding a high and authoritative position". It means they are seasoned with pain, tears, faith, disappointment, defeat, victory and eventually the wisdom of life's teachings. Make no mistake though, not everyone gets to these grand levels, in fact, few actually make it. Many get stuck somewhere in the blue-purple belt of life where some lessons are learned, others are conceived but not executed, and others are ignored because they are just too painful to endure.  The same goes for jiu-jitsu I have been told; it is struggling day after day, week after week, year after year with the hard truths and the realities of life that get us to wisdom. But just showing up doesn't get us there, we have to engage, we have to sweat and bleed and quash the ego to get there, in jiu-jitsu and in life. I am guilty as charged, I can do better, I can do more. But I would like to say to my brothers and sisters walking the journey with me, that I do not think that all of the lessons in jiu-jitsu occur on the mats, so be sure to let it seep into your life, your kids, your family, your interactions and life choices. I think that is the secret.

The pains and disappointments in life are like injuries in jiu-jitsu. They hurt, they stop us, they challenge us to drop out and quit. Injures somewhat mirror the five stages of grieving (ask any serious jiu-jitsu student), denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. I would tag patience and grace onto those five stages.  Our injuries, on the mats and in life, look us dead in the eye and ask us if we have what it takes to continue and rise, to climb out of the ditches and get back on the road forward, the road we trust with our gut and our heart. Some people never get out of the ditch.  For some, there have just been too many derailments and it is too painful to one more time climb out of the ditch and with humility and disappointment get back up and step onto the road and raise our brow to the horizon and not give up. Those that accept these challenges move forward, they move up a stripe or belt, and sadly those that lay back down define the limits of their jiu-jitsu journey, and arguably, their life's journey.  The struggles and pains in life ask us to move to the edge of our comfort zone, for it has been said that if you are willing to live at the edge of our comfort zone, to accept the pains of life, you will find your true life begins at that edge. The good stuff is as the edges.

So where are you in your life ? Are you a blue or purple belt ? Are you on your way to brown? Are you progressing in life through your belts and embracing the lessons, or are you stuck in some aspects of your life ? Are you merely showing up in life or are you grappling through it, moving forward and upward ? Are you fighting the progress of each stage, each level and each belt, maybe hearing but not listening to the lessons ?  Are you too fixated on the next belt, the next goal or are you engaged in the lessons of the moment ? Perhaps that is what those little white stripes should mean, to keep us focused on the lessons of the moment, and not the next belt. Are you stuck in the ditch, finding yourself in the same one over and over, repeating painful lessons ? Are you a black belt father but a blue belt spouse ? Are you a blue belt emotionally yet a black belt intellectually? Maybe earning some stripes in certain parts of your life is in order. 

As on the mats, as in life. Our life begins at the edge of our comfort zone. Will you embrace the lessons ? Are you hearing and listening ? Are you executing or going through the motions? How are you living ? Are you living ? Or, are you merely existing ? What pain will you chose to endure daily to reach your goals in life ? It has been said that cemeteries are filled with the greatest riches never sought.

On your last day, you will want to have just one more day, one more sunrise, one more laugh, one more kiss, one more hug, one more chance to climb out of any one of a myriad of ditches you left yourself in along the way, wishing you could go back just one more day and redeem yourself, struggle a bit harder and reach a little higher?  So, what are you waiting for, today could be that last day. Get busy living, or get busy dying, but get busy.  Don't die with a white belt in any aspects of your life. It is not the belt you wear on the mats that counts, it is the belt you wear out in the world while engaging mankind that truly matters. The only belt you can portray is the one you have presently earned and the integrity, respect, honor, and kindness with which you live your life and present yourself. It is really truly about the "belt" that you walk around with in the lives of others that matters. If you walk with the Bushido belts of rectitude, courage, benevolence, mercy, politeness, sincerity, honesty, loyalty, character and in compassion, love and kindness then you have arrived and are a teacher. With these belts your life will be more fulfilled.  But more importantly, you are once again permissoned to be a student.  These are the teachings of the masters, the teachings of Bushido, the teachings I am trying to embrace on my life's journey. These teachings are about life, not just martial arts alone. Work towards your black belt in life, today and everyday, because tomorrow just may be the day you take your last breath, your last day on the mats. Work hard, leave all you have on the mats, and on the mat's of life, each and every day. 

I write largely for myself, a manner of talking to myself and keeping myself aware and attempting to grow. To this end, I embrace the reasoning of Hunter S. Thompson,  "One of the few ways I can almost be certain I'll understand something is by sitting down and writing about it. Because by forcing yourself to write about it and putting it down in words, you can't avoid having to come to grips with it. You might be wrong, but you have to think about it very intensely to write about it. So I use writing as a learning tool. "

Through writings like this one, clearly, I have plenty of self-work to do. 

As on the mats, as in life, I am grateful to walk beside you my brothers and sisters.  Thank you for catching me when I stumble, and thank you for offering me your kindness and grace when I struggle and stagger.

“The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside of us while we live.”- Norman Cousins

-Shawn Allen,  Blue Belt . . .  on the mats

Gracie Barra, Downers Grove (under Prof. Carlos Lemos Jr.)



* Initial story quote was by Stuart Orlando Scott (July 19, 1965 – January 4, 2015) was an American sportscaster and anchor on ESPN, most notably on SportsCenter. Well known for his hip-hop style and use of catchphrases, Scott was also a regular for the network in its National Basketball Association(NBA) and the National Football League (NFL) coverage.  -From Wikipedia, read more about Stuarts life there.