Party Punch
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa (Oct 2009)

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            My coworker Sarah and I arrived for our company holiday party at Jenny’s beautiful new home after about 45 minutes of driving through deepening snow. Festivities or no festivities, we were just happy to get indoors. After we greeted those who’d had sufficient time to thaw, Jenny gave us a tour ending with the basement, where Sarah turned sharply to the left, sighing, "Ooh, air hockeeeeeyyy.” I would have mocked her, but I was too busy turning to the right, sighing, "Ooh, punching baaaaag." It was an enormous, leather-covered heavy bag hanging on a stand, and I actually recall hugging it while Sarah draped herself over the game table. Clearly we would return.

            After eating and socializing upstairs with the group for over an hour, Sarah suddenly sat very upright, as though reminded of something urgent. She then chirped, "Who's up for air hockey?" Six of us flew downstairs. The first match was between Sarah and Missy, and I egged them on while three guys watched the action. I noticed the nearby bench and free weights and, thinking, hey, while I’m here..., started cheering from the bench in between overhead tricep extensions. At this point, one of the guys – Brian – looked from me to Sarah and Missy and announced, “There seems to be a significant gender gap in the activity level down here.”

            Once everyone’s attention was back on the game, I decided to get to know the heavy bag. I must have been like the “special kid” in the room in that no one really questioned my behavior when I got into stance and started punching. Sarah won the match, and about ten minutes later, Missy appeared next to me in a T-shirt and sweats carrying hand wraps and gloves. A bit confused, I asked, "Were you wearing that before?" She explained that she “used to do a little kickboxing,” and was inspired seeing me hit the bag. While I was unaware that anyone was paying me any attention, she was getting gear and a change of clothes from her car (! ! she keeps it in her car? that's hardcore).

            After losing the next match, Sarah crossed into the newly designated “Amazon Training for the Holidays” area. She had no experience, but we had piqued her interest. Missy, naturally using her own gloved hand as the target, began teaching Sarah how to punch while I circled them to adjust Sarah’s form. As a unit, the guys ceased all air hockey competition and moved towards us to observe. I foolishly wondered if they might like to train with us, and made the offer. In response, they may have blinked once or twice. Only then did I realize that we had our very own live studio audience.

After our episode (“Sarah Learns to Punch!”) was complete and the guys dispersed, Missy and I returned to the bag. Karate means “empty hand,” though, and both of mine were telling me to call it a night. I glanced downward at the back of my fists. As a predictable result of hitting the bag repeatedly and at length, the normally deep valley between the first knuckle of my index and middle fingers was now completely flat and filled with fluid, showcasing a changing array of yellows, blues and greens. SWEET, I thought.

            I headed upstairs, where the reaction was slightly different.

            SHRIEK!

            "What HAPPENED to your HAND?”

            “Oh, God, BOTH of them?"

            It was the best company holiday party ever. What a rare treat; in my experience, fun social games like weightlifting and hitting a heavy bag tend to be rare outside of parties hosted by my karate friends. The average person would not expect to hear one woman politely ask another, “Would you like me to punch you?” under any circumstances, let alone at a birthday party. But when the other woman’s response is a grateful, “Do you mind?”, you might be surrounded by ninja. It made perfect sense in context. I was flipping through a book in 2nd degree black belt birthday girl Katrin’s karate library (because, of course, she has a karate library), and I became intrigued by an unconventional defense against a chest-level punch. Karen simply offered me the opportunity to try it. And, really, what kind of friend wouldn’t offer to punch me in that situation?

            To be sure, these parties are not all about karate. Only about half of those present at a birthday celebration for karate-mate Alfredo were members of the dojo. His fellow 1st degree black belt wife Vivian served me a beverage and showed me around their home, and I found myself in yet another fabulous basement. Just as we began to climb the stairs, someone in the living room turned up the volume on a very kicky merengue. When I emerged, dancing, I noticed a man swaying near the opposite wall. He smiled, already making his way towards me in time with the music. With one hand he led me to the middle of the floor, while with the other he reached for my glass and set it on a nearby table along the way. His feet never stopped moving. Color me impressed. Another couple promptly joined us on the makeshift dancefloor, and everyone else formed an enormous smile around us.

            That people here knew how to merengue was no surprise; the invitee list read like roll-call for a UN subcommittee. Our host couple represented Cuba and Peru, and guests hailed from there, Argentina, Brazil, Hungary, Germany, Japan, the United States, and probably more. I’m sure some European folk dancing would have broken out if only we’d had the music. Still, whatever dancing, gaming, karaoke or photo album perusal may take place at these get-togethers, karate is inescapable.

I returned to the basement later that evening to join a small group of dojo-ites for some martial arts videos. As per usual, these were not slick, sexy movies starring Jet Li, but boring-as-all-heck-to-anyone-else, home/documentary-style films of demonstrations and competition. Funny how non-karate practitioners tend not to stay long once the videos are underway. Towards the end of a 4th of July party hosted by 4th and 5th degree black belts Evie and Dwain, wide-eyed faces of all colors drank in black & white sparring footage of our Sensei in the 1950s. The last non-karate-ka among us, poor soul, finally got up to leave.

            “Bye,” he said, with noticeable relief, on his way up the stairs.

            “Buncha freaks,” Vivian finished on his behalf. When our laughter died down, there we sat, transfixed. A buncha freaks. Among our own. And the video played on.

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