Survival of the Fittest: Karate Without Walls
Local martial artist combats his own inhibitions.
I once had a karate teacher who liked to hold class in the open air. On an otherwise quiet street in the general vicinity of Mountain Station, he had me marching outside in full view of the world, blocking and kicking my way from one end of a strip of grass to the other during the early evening hours.
Sometimes a thick wooden staff was involved, and the sound effects could be bloodcurdling. “Kiai!” I would yell when I reached the end of the kata, or form, I was executing. “No, kiai!” he would reply, amplifying my scream tenfold to the point where I thought the furniture in the houses around us had to be rattling. Meanwhile, oblivious to our battle cries, his daughter did her homework under a nearby tree.
Karate, I have come to understand, not only requires considerable self-discipline and hard work but also the shedding of inhibitions. Let’s face it: for all their gracefulness, the forms, which have names like “Capture a City” or “Iron Horse Riding,” are not about settling disputes through tactful negotiation. The time for that has passed. Rather, they consist of pantomimed blows to the necks, groins and rib cages of scores of invisible but no less doomed opponents. Particularly when practicing these on your own without the handy excuse that you are merely following orders shouted in Japanese or Korean (Tae Kwon Do), it's hard not to look like someone who has just walked out of a bad relationship, work meeting, or, worst case scenario, summer movie. Right back at you, G.I. Joe!
The revelation of so primitive a side of the self can also feel a bit like dancing naked in public, something that most of us who are too young to remember the '60s still have trouble doing. When traveling and unlikely to run into people I know, I have practiced (karate, not nude dancing) in hotel fitness centers, parks, and even on semi-crowded beaches. But this does not come so easy to me back in the suburbs of Essex County, New Jersey, where two or, at the most, three degrees of separation seem to be the norm between even perfect strangers.
There I am still most comfortable in the privacy of my own basement, trying to maintain a safe distance between my kicks and the furnace. My wife, who has made no secret of her desire to reclaim the basement “dojo” for more peaceful and kid-friendly uses, often brings up the virtues of the grassy, more or less level training area behind our house, otherwise known as the “backyard.”
“Too exposed. The neighbors will think I have serious issues."
“They’ve already made up their minds about you,” she sighs.
But as it turns out, the time to make up your mind about someone in training to put various parts of his body through one-inch-thick wooden boards is never. “What’s this I hear about you threatening the ref on Saturday?” my wife recently asked me after venturing down into my subterranean training space.
For a moment, I was genuinely stumped, unable to recall a single colorful outburst on my part while watching my youngest son play soccer. Then I realized.
“Oh no,” I assured her, “that was just a few moves from a form. I figured everyone was watching the game. I was nowhere near the ref.”
“Nancy from book group said you were threatening to neck-chop him, then do something weird to his kneecaps.” She shook her head. “I thought you didn’t want anyone to see you.”
Despite our best efforts not to, we give ourselves away. Most of us could write down our few remaining secrets on an index card, and even then it probably would fall into the wrong hands. After all, what must the neighbors think of the exclamations of “kiai!” that filter out through the open basement window? Yankees having a bad inning? One of my kids’ play-dates gone south? I was only fooling myself to act as if those living nearby didn’t already have some inkling of the would-be ninja in their midst. No doubt, if their tables and chairs began to vibrate uncontrollably, they might even bring it up with me. But so long as I don't let the decibels rise above a certain level, we can continue on with the convenient fiction that my high-stress job has taken a toll on my nerves and that I am so often down in the basement because it's where I keep my ant farm.
Executed well, of course, a martial art is a wonder to behold. I was reminded of this recently when I drove past a cluster of early risers doing Tai Chi outside of the Baird Center. Harmony. Balance. Centeredness. Perhaps some of the other parents at my son’s soccer game had a similar impression of me as I practiced my form. Perhaps they were considering calling the police. The point is that I am no worse off than I was while the ref, I noticed at the next game, seems to have developed a nervous stammer. And better to start preparing for the day when inhibitions are a luxury I can no longer afford. For I can read the writing on the basement wall and know that it's only a matter of time before I come downstairs to find a ping-pong table and a beige carpet occupying the space where I used to decimate multitudes. In which case the neighbors had better look to their furniture.
David Baker is a South Orange resident and an English professor at Rutgers-Newark. This piece is part of a series on midlife fitness.