Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Karate, Exercise, and Me

I've been thinking about my karate days, 'way back in the early 1990's, and how that missing grandfather of mine might have made a difference in the outcome.

I've never been into the regular athletic stuff. What I remember of the softball, soccer and touch football games of middle school in the early '80s is being the last kid picked. I was typically passed off to the other team--"Eh, you can have him." I was used to being the kid no one wanted; I didn't want to be there, either. PE was more punishment than pleasure.

I'd stand way out in left field, ignoring the game, wishing I had a book, wishing the class would END already. Every now and then a batter would lob the ball out into my real estate and I'd mosey over to its general area, pick it up, and throw it toward whomever was waving the hardest, not really caring whether the ball got that far or not. Payback for picking me last. Should have been nicer to me.

Once I got up to bat, though, I put everything I had into hitting the ball--but not to help the team. I just wanted to hit something.

Soccer was fun that way, too. Last one picked, put with the other outcaste kids at the goal, ignoring the game and just hanging out. Every now and again, the ball comes our way and I run all-out to intercept it. Then I'd kick it as hard as I could downfield, not bothering to aim for any of the arm-waving jerks. It was fun to watch both teams suddenly reverse course and go barreling after the ball. Payback for picking me last, etc. Soccer for the passive-aggressive!

Fast-forward to college in the early '90s. I fell in love with Shotokan karate from the first class in 1990. It was exercise that didn't feel like exercise, wasn't boring even for being repetitive, and was individual instead of a team thing. I kept my enthusiasm going for years, never in a hurry to get that black belt, because I was having so much fun in the moment.

I wasn't a prodigy, some reborn Bruce Lee. There were plenty of techniques to learn and some of them came easily. There were some--especially roundhouse and spinning rear kicks--that I couldn't seem to "get" no matter how hard I worked at them and it aggravated the hell out of me. I'm a perfectionist about the damndest things.

Apparently some of the higher-rank folks misinterpreted my enjoyment as arrogance. I didn't know it at the time, but they thought I had an attitude, that I was acting above my rank, wouldn't listen, and stuff like that. That's not how it really was, but I can see how people would think that of a socially-inept kid (25 is still a kid). I tried to explain that I was frustrated with those kicks, or that my left ankle didn't have quite the same range of motion as my right.

It all came to a head--and an end--in 1992. It was a good class and we were working on spinning rear thrust kicks. I was utterly failing, spinning too far or not getting my kicking leg up, juggling a thousand little things in my mind, trying to get it right this time and getting more and more aggravated.

Sensei stopped the class and called for a circle so he could demonstrate the kick with one of the black-belts. I must have muttered something, because the guy I was partnered with (both of us green-belts) asked what was wrong. I told him I was frustrated. No big conversation. But across the circle, one of the black belts--Farmboy-san--saw me talking. A breach of etiquette. After the class was over, Farmboy-san pulled me aside, stood me at "attention," and bitched me out: "If you ever do that again I'll kick your ass!"

All in that moment, it wasn't fun anymore. I gradually stopped going. Within 3 weeks, I was done with it.

I've looked at my journal for that month. I can't relate to the 20-something kid I was then, furious and scared, freaking out over being yelled at by someone with no real authority. It looks like I was back in middle school, ranting about one of the bullies.

I wish I'd at least given him some of his own--a simple, calm "You can try" in reply, or maybe just one of those Looks Clint Eastwood used to be known for. I don't doubt that my grandfather would have grinned his shit-eating-grin and fed Farmboy-san his belt.

I don't particularly believe in karma, but I learned that within a year of all that crap, Farmboy-san slipped on a ladder while doing some roof work and damaged his knee. No karate for him, at least for a few years.

Every once in a while I'll pull out my karate notebook and folders to see how much I still remember, what I can still do. I've got a few books on Japanese language, some on the culture, a crapload of martial-arts movies and anime. But right now, I can't do most of the karate stuff: ever since that aortic dissection hit me, I've been warned to avoid any stress or strain, or anything that might raise my blood pressure, which has stayed in the 160 to 180 range while the doc tinkers with my meds. I finally got it down to 141 over something in the last week. In the four months since I left the hospital, I've regained only a little of the muscle tone I lost in both legs; a short walk or shorter bike ride is about the most I can do, but it occurs to me that I can work on the basic karate stances as low-impact therapy, if I can get my knees to handle it.

All I have left is two sets of karate pajamas and my green belt that are more than slightly smallish, fading memories of the things I learned, and a slogan I thought up back when it was fun: "Two years of karate, and all I can do is get my ass kicked in Japanese!" The karate class didn't make fighters out of anyone. We weren't learning self-defense. It was Art Karate, or Tournament Karate, aerobics, exercise, form over function.

Even so, it was fun. I miss that most of all.

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