Antarctic Kata
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Jun 2012)


      A few years back, I had the totally unexpected fortune to be sent on a trip to Antarctica. Antarctica? Yeah. Antarctica. It is still a bit surreal to accept that I saw it with my own eyes, so more about the trip itself another time. For now, I want to tell you about the morning I decided to do kata (preset series of karate techniques) on the deck of the ship.

      This story comes to mind because I have been away from karate for several months and have recently returned. Though I was sore after my first time back, everything felt very natural, from standing in my usual spot in the locker room to executing techniques on the dojo floor. There was rust, but it was happy rust, joyous to be crumbling off a little at a time.

      Being away and returning offers many opportunities for reflection. Why do you train? Why is this important to you? What have you sacrificed over the years, and what have you gained? For everyone the answers are different, but one truth remains: in any challenging, physical pursuit, you meet yourself. Anything that makes you push your body towards its limits – sports, dance, martial arts, the list goes on – teaches you that those limits are sometimes a product of your own perception.

      No one was out on the deck of the ship that morning. I saw only one early workout warrior through the glass door of the small gym I passed as I searched for a spot. I wanted solitude, so I moved to where even that person could not see me.

      And there I was, taking in the sunrise over the icebergs, the waves rustling against the ship, and the rhythmic sway of everything beneath me. I stepped out of one of my sandals and, as I set my bare foot down on the wooden planks that had soaked overnight in Antarctic Ocean air, as well as a fine mist of actual Antarctic Ocean, I knew with every molecule in my body that someone hated me, and that barefoot karate was that person’s idea.

      It might have been the most stunningly beautiful, peaceful atmosphere in which I have unleashed profanity. The shock of my foot meeting the damp, nearly frozen deck shot up my leg. Before it could continue upward for attacks at stomach and face level, it was interrupted by my foot’s immediate return to the sandal. If my foot had arms, it would have crossed them in defiance. If my foot had a face, it would have pursed its lips and given me the sideeye.  

      I reconciled myself to doing kata in sandals and got into my beginning position. But my shoulders sank as I sighed. It felt off. I was disappointed. This is karate! I should be able to handle this. It wasn’t really that cold, was it? I lifted my foot out of the sandal again and placed it on the deck.

      Yes. Yes, it was. Yes, it was really that cold. The foot went back into the sandal.

      Now I was irritated with myself. “Don’t be such a wuss,” I said. I took the sandal off.

      “Oh, holy crap! OK, it’s not so bad to be a wuss.” I put the sandal back on.

      “Focus!” I took the sandal off.

      “&%*#^!” I put the sandal back on.

      “Dammit. Just do it. You can do this. You’re stronger than this.” I took the sandal off.

      “I’m only human! I! AM! BUT! FLESH!” I put the sandal back on.

      At least in an argument with myself, I know that I will always win. Eventually. It just takes a little patience on either side. In the meantime, I was quite glad that no one could see me. I appeared to be standing on the deck of a ship playing the sandal hokey pokey to the sound of a broken children’s record. You put your right foot in, you take your right foot out – scratch – you put your right foot in, you take your right foot out– scratch – you put your right foot in….

       This nonsense had to stop. I would either do it or I would not. But no more of this.

       And with that, I jumped out of both sandals at once, kicked them across the deck, stood erect, bowed, and began kata number one.

       I knew nine other kata at the time and did them all, bowing both before and after. I found out later that gym guy snuck a peek so, somewhere out there, I have a witness other than the ship, sea, ice and sky. Were my feet heavy blocks of numbness afterwards? Was it concerningly difficult to put them back in my sandals? Was this one of the most valuable training sessions I’ve ever had? Do penguins smell really, really, terrible? Is it awesome to see an albatross flying around your ship? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and oh, yes.

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