Bruce Lee

I must be getting old. I used to be able to drink coffee at any hour of the day and still get to sleep whenever I needed to. 5 years ago, I could have a cup at 9 pm and be asleep by 11 pm. Not any more. Too bad, because I like coffee like I used to like cigarettes.

Because I like coffee like I used to like cigarettes, 11 pm this evening found me laying in bed, wide awake, with way too much of my conscious mind focused on the unbearable noiselessness of it all. And who should happen to whirl through the vast, resonance-prone soundstage that was my coffee-addled brain, but one Bruce Lee. And if you’ve ever seen (heard) Bruce in action, you probably correctly guessed that he wasn’t quiet about it either.

So, in the interests of wearing out the jittery hamster that is my conscious mind by running it through the wheel in the corner of my brain, here are a few things that I remember about Bruce Lee from when I was a youngster that may or may not actually be true.

Bruce Lee was ahead of his time. Way back in the 60s he was already at least intuitively aware of ideas which as recent as last year were the subject of a best-selling book. Lee understood that when it comes to winning a fist fight, intuition plays a key role. It matters less whether one has fancy belts than it does that one can step aside at the appropriate time or land a solid punch on time and in the right place like a pallet in a UPS commercial (I don’t know that Lee ever yelled “LOGISTICS” as he landed a punch, but given his awesomeness, I’d bet that the idea of doing so occurred to him at least once). To win a fight you need to operate with the split-second timing of the finely honed intuition that is the “fast thinking” alluded to in the title of Kahneman’s book.

I haven’t made it all the way through Thinking, Fast and Slow. What with all the glitz and glamor of graduate school and familihood, who has the time? I have read the introduction for the book AND I think I totally heard an interview with Kahneman on MPR once, which is pretty much exactly the amount of familiarity required to hold a water cooler conversation about the subject. Here goes the water cooler-level summary. Kahneman bifurcates thought itself into two types. Fast thought is generally our default mode. It’s like an autopilot system with enough awareness built in to know when it’s in over its head. Slow thought is what happens when fast thought bows out. Slow thought tells you why you really need to quit smoking sometime after fast thought led you outside, lit your cigarette and relished in the warm, glorious feeling of chemically-sated addiction.

Slow thought will also lose you a fight. Here’s how: if you are about to fight someone and you aren’t comfortable fighting, the first thought that will occur to your fast thought cogitation system is “Uh oh. Can I run here, because, dude, that guy looks pi-issed?” and if running isn’t an option, its next thought is “This situation is tense and unfamiliar. I’m not quite sure what to do here. Uh, I better think about this more.” Then slow thought takes over and you get punched. Because when you have to think about how to respond to a fist flying at your head, you’ve pretty much already gotten punched.

Lee recognized that this dynamic existed even for highly trained martial artists. This is because martial arts training in Bruce Lee’s time rarely effectively simulated the street fighting experience. Lee’s idea: I should expose myself to as many different fighting styles as possible, figure out the circumstances under which they are effective and then use this knowledge to gain such a comprehensive, visceral understanding of how to fight well that no matter the circumstances, I will be able to rely solely on my fast-acting intuition rather than my slower, more deliberative mode of thought.

So he pursued that idea, and he yea, it was good. Because Bruce Lee had a mind like a hungry octopus angling for fishies made out of pure fact. He was driven by his own curiosity and enjoyed connecting disparate ideas in innovative ways. He wanted to figure out how to kick anyone’s ass without even having to think about kicking their ass while he was kicking their ass. Hence, Jeet Kun Do, which roughly translates as “Hey, how about instead of rigidly clinging to one way of fighting, you learn about and capitalize on the strengths of a variety of styles”. Its brilliance is in its lack of specificity and its adaptability. Lee saw it as more of a philosophy than a fighting style.

I had the pleasure of taking 6 months of Jeet Kun Do at a certain local martial arts academy. My stint ended when I broke a foot doing something completely unrelated to training. Then, after my foot healed, I popped a rib doing something completely related to training. Then fell out of the habit of going to class and eventually cancelled my membership. It was fun while it lasted and if I ever have the time, I’d love to go back.

Final fact before bedtime: Bruce Lee also starred in Fist of Fury, which was later remade with Jet Li as Fist of Legend. Both of these movies are better than Enter the Dragon.

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