Hajime - Part I
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa (Dec 2009)

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            Growing up only two years apart, my older brother Mike and I were very fortunate to have similar interests as children. The routine of choosing television programming would have been far more traumatic for us both had I not been such a tomboy. We enjoyed a good martial arts flick on Saturday afternoons, and routinely knocked things over during commercial breaks while practicing our poorly-formed punches, useless flying kicks, and highly entertaining voiceovers.

            “You killed my teacher! Ha ha! Now you must die! Ha! Thwap, thwap.”

            “Not so fast, villain! Ha! Whoosh, whoosh. Ha ha! First you must experience my lightning kick of doom! Ha!”

            Decades later we would find ourselves sparring after Thanksgiving dinner in my uncle’s new home. This time not a single lamp was disturbed, our punches and kicks had recognizable form, and our uncle provided the voiceover: harried pleas of, “Not in the living room! Not in the living room!”

            Mike trained in Aikido, a Japanese art, during his undergraduate years. He went on to train in Jeet Kune Do, which incorporates elements of Chinese Wing Chun kung fu, Thai kickboxing or Muay Thai, and Filipino Escrima. My response to his mention of the latter was, “I escrima, you escrima, we all escrima for ice-a-creama.” Once a kid sister....

            I observed an Aikido class in downtown Philadelphia one afternoon. The people were gracious. Their movements were graceful. Their feet were gross. Aikido practitioners train barefoot. As this class began its warmup, all I could think was, “Athlete’s foot! ATHLETE’S FOOT!” This group of men stood stork-like, bringing one foot forward into their hands to be cradled, rolled out and massaged. Some might be impressed with the balance required to achieve this, well, feat. I, however, could think nothing but, “Athlete’s foot on my hands! ATHLETE’S FOOT on my HANDS!” As the only woman in the room, I was not in the least bit concerned about sharing the floor with these big burly guys. I was repelled only by the notion of sharing the actual, physical floor with them. I did not return.

            Years later I, my mother and my kid brother David visited Mike for a weekend. Because I live in the big city, Mike offered to teach me some self-defense. Philadelphia, schmiladelphia. I would have been interested if I’d lived on a farm in Utah. As he put on a training mitt to provide a target, he explained that the elbow is one of the strongest parts of the body. Why risk damaging your fingers punching some idiot’s bowling ball of a head when you have a reasonable alternative? As such, Mike taught me how to use bony elbows to my advantage. He looked at me with great pride when he realized how much power I could generate and began to push me harder, showing me variations, correcting my form. Rising elbow strike. Roundhouse elbow strike. Other side. From the hip, not the shoulder. Use your legs. He stopped at one point to say, “You should really take a class. Seriously. You’re doing very well.”

            By the time we were done I was swollen and tender from elbow to mid-forearm, and the next morning those areas were full-on magenta. Cool, I thought. “Mom, look!” I said in the car, pointing to my elbow. She looked, made a guttural sound and turned away. Deep in my being, I knew that her reaction was the normal one. And that was the moment. Though I clearly did not get it from my mother, I realized that somewhere in my DNA was the defective gene that made people want to do this to themselves on purpose.

            Back home about two weeks later, I purchased a large, framed mirror at a local thrift shop. I decided on a whim to walk a slightly different route home that day, turning right instead of left. Not half a block away did I see a dojo, a school of karate, with a class in progress. It was as though it had just materialized. How had I missed it before? I felt it. Yes. Now. This is the time. I nodded, looked up at the sky and said, “OK, I get it. I’m going in.” Despite the unwieldy mirror in my arms, I managed to open the door.

            The instructor was demonstrating punching and blocking exercises with precision and command that suggested great technical expertise despite his apparent youth. He could not have been over 30. His deep brown, hairless head was completely drenched, and with every movement droplets fell to the wooden floor. I was amazed that he did not slip in this growing puddle. Twenty minutes passed, and I hardly noticed all of the bare feet as I sat taking in the power, coordination, and solid technique being passed on from teacher to student. When the class ended, the now serene instructor clasped his hands behind his back and approached. Instinctively, I stood. The mirror remained seated to reflect upon the class.

            “Do you have any questions?” asked the  instructor. I refrained from requesting the percentage of athlete’s foot sufferers in the student population, focusing instead on the class structure, the schedule, and the significance of all of the bowing. Among other things, I learned that I would not need to purchase a uniform to sample a class. I could go in sweats and a T-shirt if I wanted to. No commitment. No reason not to give it a try.

            As soon as the instructor walked away, one of the students stopped stretching and came over to find out if I had any more questions. He had the unusually broad smile of a news anchor, and his enthusiasm was unmistakable; the smile only faded when he looked past me to ask, “By the way, do you need help with that?” pointing at the huge mirror.

            I left without help, but with the knowledge that there was a dojo in my midst. With little else on my mind by the time I got home, I leaned the enormous mirror against the nearest wall, picked up the phone, and called my brother.

 

To be continued.

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