Dear Mark,

There are days, like today, that I want to talk to you about.  I want to pour out the silliness and pain and new knowledge.  I want to hear how you made it through 24 hours.

Today, like all days now, I find myself waiting for you to call.  A simple “hello” or “hey, big brother” would do nicely.  Just once.

I recorded your voicemails to my archive.  And your voice will wait there for me. For days like today.

I love you, little brother.


Dad the Avenger…

In other installments of my blog, I have discussed some difficult aspects of my childhood.  And by “difficult”, I mean deeply traumatic.

At the heart of my childhood was domestic violence.  During rages that were unpredictable and intense, my father would bellow and hit his children.  If my mother intervened, it got worse…for everybody.  And then, the storm passed, and in the days that followed, Dad would be intensely quiet and remorseful.  While the exact details aren’t today’s topic, redemption is.

I have written about how–unlike my siblings and my mother–I tried to understand my father and how I pitied him for his loneliness and isolation.  I felt then that it was my job to try to understand what made my father the way he was.  It was a daunting and scary task.

First and foremost, my father was a man of extremes and contradictions.  Never, for one moment, did I feel he was emotionally detached.  Quite the opposite.  I found my father’s behavior was one of extreme attachment.

His emotional outbursts were unpredictable, but, as a rule, the outbursts usually involved money or his family’s security.  Dad was very tribal, and, by that, I mean there was HIS family and then there were a bunch of OTHERS.

One summer, the City of Warren experienced a rash of child abductions.  My baby brother was six years old, playing in the driveway.  I was a few houses down the street.  A strange car pulled up to the front of our home.  A man inside tried to lure Mark into the car.  The man leaned over and pushed open the front passenger door of his gold-colored Chevelle.  Mark took a step closer to the stranger’s car.  I ran toward the car, screaming at Mark, “No!!!”  My father heard the screaming and ran outside.  The car screeched away. I held Mark in my arms and sobbed.  Mark started crying.  I told Dad what happened and described the car.  My Dad went into the house, grabbed his .45 and peeled off in his car.  Dad searched for the perpetrator’s car for two hours, driving all over Warren.  He stopped people, questioned them and kept going.  I have no doubt in my mind that my father would have killed the man who tried to kidnap my brother.  No doubt at all.

In another incident, a neighbor’s son “Tony” got into a fight with my brother, George.  Tony’s father, who was “Tony Sr.” or “Mr. Tony”, liked to brag that he was in the mafia and would occasionally show kids his gun and shoulder holster.  Mr. Tony walked up to the entrance of our garage where Dad and I were working on an orange Chevy Vega, replacing the clutch.  I was eight years old.  Mr. Tony complained loudly that George, my brother, had beaten up his son.  The discussion quickly became heated.  Neighbors started to notice the commotion.  Dad was easily six inches taller and a 100 lbs bigger than Mr. Tony.  Feeling more than a little “disrespected” by my father’s attitude, Mr. Tony pulled back his suit jacket slightly and indicated that he would come back and shoot my father if something  happened again.  Instead of yelling, my father’s voice dropped to a deadly whisper.  My father’s exact words “Tony, you’d better pull that gun out right now and shoot me, because I’m about to shove it up your ass and pull the trigger.”  We never saw Mr. Tony after that.  He moved away.

I have dozens of stories where my father’s tribal instincts to protect his family led to hilarious and not-so-hilarious results.  We developed a saying in my home: “Dad is great in an emergency.”  For whatever reason, Dad would become calm under fire.

In 10th grade, Leonard Draving, my science teacher, accused me of cheating on a final exam.  It was/is the only time anybody had accused me of cheating at anything.  I was emotionally destroyed.  Mr. Draving had been one of my favorite teachers.  Moreover, he was a very passionate and talented teacher.  Unfortunately, he was also very rigid and had odd quirks.  Mr. Draving frequently lectured us about how the “black squirrels” were taking over the trees in his neighborhood.  He would then launch into a discussion about how much he hated “black squirrels”.  Most of us didn’t mind these diversions.  They were usually followed with something interesting and germane to the subject of the class.  Still, his obsession with rules and “black squirrels”  bordered on obsessive.

Getting back to the final exam…

I had been talking to one of my friends near the end of the test, but it wasn’t about the exam.  It was the last test of the semester, and we were about to be free for several weeks.  My friend was done with his test.  I was still doing mine.  Mr. Draving saw me talking and exploded, “Give me your test!”  He grabbed it from me and accused me of cheating in front of the entire class.  Humilitated, I went home to tell my parents.  I expected my father to hit me.  He didn’t.

The next day, my mother and father had an appointment with the principal, Gene Miller, and Mr. Draving to discuss the accusation of cheating.  I sat between my parents as the adults in the room discussed my fate.

My father listened intently, with his head tilted backwards looking down his nose, as Mr. Draving passionately explained that I was talking during the exam and that I MUST have been cheating.  He explained that it was a RULE that you could only talk AFTER you turned in your exam; otherwise, Mr. Draving would be forced to presume that the “talker” was cheating.  My mother was furious that her son was accused of cheating (and from past experiences, she strongly disliked Gene Miller).  My father, in the same deadly whisper he used with Mr. Tony, said, “You think my son cheated?  Give him the test again.  He’ll pass your test.”  Draving wanted me to fail the ENTIRE course.  This was NOT his plan.  Draving sputtered, “Well, I am going to have to make up a NEW test specially for him.”  Dad said, “I know you’re going to try to fail my son, but he’s still going to pass your fucking test.”  My father’s profanity, the situation, my mouth hanging open, all of it combined into several pregnant moments of shocked silence.  Draving looked angrily to the principal, Gene Miller, who shrugged (as he always did during difficult conversations) and said, “Mr. Draving will give Stephen a new test tomorrow at 11am in Mr. Draving’s classroom.”

I went to the classroom.  I was alone with Mr. Draving.  He handed me an eight page exam that was EVERYTHING he taught that semester, plus EVERYTHING in the textbook (even though he only presented 70% in the class).  I churned away on it.  Mr. Draving announced that the hour was up.  He took the test from me and graded it on the spot.  He took out his red pen.  He marked a few answers with a small “x” but without any other elaboration.  He handed it back.  It said “B” on the top of the paper.  Through some magical number theory I still got a “C” in his class, but I let it go.

When my father got my report card, he smiled at the “C”.  We went out that afternoon, and he bought me parts for a Suzuki motorcycle we rebuilt together.  As we were elbow deep in the grease of the machine, he looked up and said, “I knew you would pass.  I love you.”

And so started a long, slow road we traveled together.


The Weight…

When I began studying jujitsu, I noticed a young man setting up a training facility next door, and he was using some unorthodox training methods.  I was no stranger to old school strength training (read “stupid and destructive”), so I kept an eye on his classes.

Eventually, I found the time to meet him and do an introductory class.  He introduced himself as Jerry Trubman.  He was the son of Russian immigrant parents.  Jerry was beginning his career in “The Protocol Strength and Conditioning”–a new business to Tucson and a new approach to mobility and functional strength.  I learned that Jerry trained athletes to office workers.  His methods were not aimed at making his clients “look” strong–his goal was to make his clients as strong as they could be (while maintaining healthy joints and ligaments).

I’ll admit: I was not sold at first.

The first session was simply an assessment.  I failed/succeeded in a number of balance and core strength movements.  I figured my years of sports injuries would keep a certain ceiling over me and any strength training I would do as a supplement to martial arts.  Jerry announced, at the end of the first session, that I was “hyper-stable”–a euphemism for being less flexible but strong.  That seemed fair enough.

I started a journey with Jerry that day, and I count myself lucky to call him a close friend.  Our road–his as a business owner and top-notch strength trainer and mine as a student of strength–has been years of hard work.

It culminated last summer 2016, when Jerry asked me to be part of a team that would become national champions in the RAW strength competitions.  Surrounding me were men and women of all ages and sizes.  The women were especially impressive–all were about to become state, national or WORLD record holders.  Thus, our battle cry became: “Let’s be strong like women!”

Because I trained hard (perhaps too hard) through my baby brother’s hospice and death, leaving his side long enough to lift ugly and lift angry at a gym near the hospital in Macomb, Michigan, I was deeply wounded in my soul.  Every repetition became an exorcism of sorts.

Mark is about to watch R40 with his “big” brother.

I returned home from burying my baby brother.  I returned home to Jerry’s gym and his coaching.  I wanted to prove that I could carry the weight.  He slowed me down.  He took weight off the bar.  Jerry wanted me to heal inside.  It was an excellent and loving gift.  Unspoken and gladly accepted.

Then, the day came.  The day came to load of the bars to practice for the three competition lifts: bench, squat and deadlift.  All lifts were to be performed according to rigid standards and commands.  We were going for the final round of HEAVY and DENSE lifting to prepare for de-load training.

My training partner, my son, my philosopher/warrior, Jeffrey.

We had a helluva day.  My son, Jeff, trained with me (as usual).  We topped the day off with deadlifting “stacked fives”–five repetitions for a set of five.  And the weights would jump upwards in the stack.  I lifted in my competition gear which includes a pair of men’s ballet shoes.

There’s something about THE WEIGHT.  The weight in your hands that fires up your entire nervous system.  There’s something opened inside you.  It’s like a door to a secret room where maybe you put all of the pain and the tears.  And you rip the bar off the floor.  Reset. Lift, reset. Repeating over and over the movement.  And THE WEIGHT breaks you down.

WATCH: Training Heavy Grip

I left the training area to catch a private moment.  I found myself weeping from the weariness and pain.  THE WEIGHT was not in my hands.  It was buried underneath an anger I could barely contain.  Watching Mark die was on a replay loop in my dreams and my waking thoughts.  THE WEIGHT.

I returned to the iron. I finished.  Jerry and Jeff knew how I felt.  They embraced me to ease my loneliness and pain.

Two weeks later, our team took first place in the state competition.  All of us placed first in our age/weight divisions.  The ladies CRUSHED several national and world records, because they are AWESOME.

What I never told anybody…what I will say now: every time I grabbed the bar, I talked to Mark and told him I would lift THE WEIGHT for him.  I promised him I would carry THE WEIGHT.  It was stupid, I guess.  Toxic masculinity and all that.  I could have hurt myself.  And even after collecting my medal and the team photo, I found THE WEIGHT was still there.

And so it will be.  And, I promise, baby brother, that I WILL carry it.

Peace & Love,