Enter the Dragon

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If I think about it, there are a number of threads in my life that I have left too short.  A number of choices to stop chasing after something or an inability to muster the motivation to keep something going.  It’s easy to blame dropping a thread on the Egyptians and Hipparchus.  The Egyptians allegedly bear responsibility for the 24 hour day.  They counted finger joints, not fingers, to get to the number “12” on each hand.   The Greek Hipparchus later came up with the idea of dividing a day into 24 equal hours, based upon 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness on the days of the Equinoxes.  

This astronomy lesson shouldn’t obscure the fact that I’ve dropped a couple important threads.  At least one of those, I’m pretty sure, was a big mistake.  Karate.

My father is fond of telling the story about how he dragged me to a karate studio in a suburb outside of Syracuse, New York when I was maybe six years-old.  This would have been circa 1974, before karate became more mainstream, I suppose.  In any event, apparently I enjoyed the experience until I was punched in the gut for the first time.  I have a vague recollection of that sickening feeling, the breath suddenly knocked out of the lungs in my pipsqueak body.  That is the feeling of wanting to quit. 

I don’t remember the exact timing, but I understand that I gave into that queasy, unfamiliar feeling, and quit.  Went back to maybe Little League, Nerf basketball, and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Pursuits that don’t promise the threat of delivering up the feeling of wanting to quit.

As a senior at Duke some 15 years later, I picked “karate” out of the Physical Education section of the book of classes.  My diet during undergrad was heavily weighted towards barley, yeast, hops, and the water used in the brewing process.  I figured I could counteract some of that with a semester or two of profuse sweating in a thick karate gi on Thursday mornings.  As i think about it now, I suspect that I may also have been drawn back to karate because I didn’t feel good about giving in to that feeling of quitting first introduced to me 130 pounds ago.  But I probably couldn’t have articulated that vague motivation as a 20 year-old.  I managed to enjoy the class, push through some keg party hangovers, and progress a bit such that I caught just a glimpse of something unique about this particular thread.  Something visceral that would stick with me.

But graduation that spring pulled the thread out of my hand.  And a year of adjusting to law school perpetuated the notion in my head that karate was over for me.  Just a phys ed class I happened to take in undergrad.  And that gym on Duke’s East Campus is a long way from the cold winters of Cleveland and these thick Contracts textbooks. 

At some point, while banging around on some Nautilus machine or another, I spied a group of people sliding around on a small, wood-floored room upstairs at my local gym.  They kept to themselves.  They were not physical specimens.  The gent who seemed to be leading them through their various motions appeared tiny and meek when sitting on a bench across the locker room from me.  But they were intense, different from what I had experienced with karate to that point. They seemed to know something that I didn’t.  I was intrigued.

I don’t exactly remember how or when I managed to show up at the door to their training room, their dojo, for the first time.  But I do remember that I knew immediately how important this thread would be.  Despite the time-constraints of law school, I stayed committed to this new pursuit.  It was time-consuming on its own and very challenging.  It showed me the feeling of wanting to quit during just about every practice. 

And in case the feeling wasn’t powerful enough, the people who practiced this type of karate regularly held events blandly called “Special Training.”  My first was in a basketball gym at a nondescript college somewhere outside Pittsburgh.  A full weekend, totally focused on karate.  Jamming several years worth of facing the feeling, facing your fears, into a single, sleep-deprived weekend. 

There was plenty of fear stemming from sparring with a superior partner, or rather, a whole series of superior partners, bent on delivering a crunching punch to my nose.  And these guys did not wear big plastic cushioned gloves.  Just very thin gloves like cycling gloves, primarily to avoid the transfer of bodily fluids from puncher to punchee.  I can still imagine their faces, piercing blue eyes holding mine, poised an arm’s length away, ready to knife across that distance in such a way that I can’t perceive their movement until it is too late.  

But that piece wasn’t the one that taught me the feeling most powerfully, that made me want to quit, want to cry, want to vomit maybe, made me feel like a tiny 6 year-old with the wind knocked out of him.  That teacher would be Kiba Dachi or “horse stance.”  We all gathered in a concentric circles, spread our bare feet apart, then dropped our hips probably half way to our knees.  Then stayed there.  For an hour and a half.  No breaks.  No standing up.  Just you, your unfathomable leg pain, your breathing, and the feeling of wanting to quit.  Your fears.  Facing that feeling for 90 straight minutes, dripping sweat, watching a handful of others literally pass out and fall over as the blood in their heart pulled down to fuel their shaking legs at the expense of their brains.  Watching several throw up into the inside folds of their gi tops, so as to avoid being impolite, and never straightening their legs through this.  

That horse stance at Special Training was the most difficult thing I have ever experienced.  I earned a black belt shortly after law school graduation and continued training for a few more years while living in Boston.  I held the thread tightly, then let it go when we moved to San Francisco 15 years ago.

I think about karate a lot.  I’ve found other things along the way that provide me with the hint of that feeling of wanting to quit, I suppose.  But I don’t think it’s as pure as that horse stance. 

A few times each year, I check out the local Shotokan Karate website, actually do the math of seeing whether I could possibly jam practices into our family calendar.  Egyptians and Hipparchus still working their evil, I tell myself.  But I am afraid.  It has been a long time since I faced my fears in the powerful way that only karate and that 90-minute horse stance can deliver up.  And I am afraid.

Thanks for reading.  

Note: The fantastic dragon mural pictured at the top of this blog entry is the work of a gifted local artist named Zio Ziegler.  This particular piece graces a wall in the library of my kids’ K-8 school.  I happened to tweet about the photo yesterday during parent-teacher conferences.  My dad saw my tweet and reminded me that a very similar-looking dragon painting adorned one of the large picture windows at that Syracuse karate dojo where I first experienced wanting to quit, nearly 40 years ago.  Funny how life works, eh? 🙂

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