Recently several readers have asked how karate is going. Ok, only one of you asked and was subsequently forced to endure my lengthy explanation. Such is the plight of a wife, I suppose.
The short answer is: Fantastic! Not only am I losing a little weight but I have learned so much about the fascinating martial art of Tang Soo Do, one of many that we Americans generically call karate. This art was developed in Korea and brought to the United States by returning Korean War servicemen, including none other than one Chuck Norris.
I didn’t know Norris practiced Tang Soo Do when I started, but I thought it was pretty cool when I found out. His epic battle with Bruce Lee in “The Way of the Dragon,” despite the loss, showed an American with truly comparable skills to those of the world’s most famous martial artist at the time. Norris has been an idol ever since. As a loyal fan, I relish the “Chuck Norris Facts” that have “gone viral” online. My personal favorite: When Chuck Norris does pushups, he doesn’t lift himself. Chuck Norris pushes the Earth down!
As in most martial arts, many Tang Soo Do forms are named and designed after the movements of animals. Beginners attempt simple items such as the Horse Stance, while advanced students achieve more sophisticated forms, such as Jin Do, mimicking the Crane, and Sei Shan, the Praying Mantis.
As I have progressed, I have been amazed at my own accomplishments but try to stay humble. Master Ott trained with some of the same great masters as Norris and, my children and I suspect, also pushes the Earth down with his pushups. Brilliant instructor that he is, he recently rejected my attempt to dismiss his encouragement with claims of being “not bad for a big guy.” Instead, he pointed out that many people of girth practice martial arts, and Tang Soo Do has a form specifically for us larger folk, Sip Soo, the Way of the Bear, utilizing slow and powerful techniques.
While slow and powerful sounded right up my alley, honesty required that I inform him I had already mastered one form of the Bear – hibernation.
My son Jacob, a yellow belt and frequent interrupter of my hibernation practice, has been quite impressed with my new skills as well. In fact, he gets as excited over every new stripe I earn (to mark progress towards the next belt) as those he earns. A few weeks ago, I finally graduated to a level allowing me to begin sparring.
Jacob’s autism had complicated his own experience beginning sparring. Jacob, for the greater good of the public, dons clothing only at great discomfort to himself and loses most of it within 15 seconds of entering the front door, the greater good of family members and friends notwithstanding. Convincing him of the merits of, shall we say, “male protective wear” is a weekly chore. But a bigger challenge, at least at first, was his mouthpiece. Autism seemed to have gifted Jacob with a remarkable gag reflex. With some exasperation after 30 minutes of trying just to “fit” the mouthpiece, I pressed him on, convinced that he could conquer this as he has so many other aspects of his autism.
Like Jacob, I had my own concerns with sparring. What if the intense 4th grader with the scary brown-belt moves laid me flat on my back in my first bout? (I don’t want to name names, but Diego knows who he is.) What if I threw out my back and had to be waited on hand and foot by my wife for the next week? (This one caused less loss of sleep than Diego.) Then, as it turned out, apparently it wasn’t autism that had gifted Jacob with the mouthpiece-rejecting gag reflex but instead genetics. I learned this after the third gag during my own “fitting.”
Finally, the day arrived, and it was pretty neat to stand with my more experienced son while donning our sparring gear and talk strategy. For a couple years now, I have shouted encouragement along with a litany of suggested “moves” during his sparring bouts. Occasionally I even hold fatherly discussions about why he so seldom incorporates my suggestions. But strangely as the first punches and kicks started coming, the only move that came to me was Jacob’s solemn parting advice:
“Don’t get hurt dad, ok?”
I’m pleased to say, Diego was in a different weight class for sparring, and I did not get seriously hurt. I may have sprained my diaphragm as a result of breathing so heavily, but I toughed it out in my usual masculine fashion. Meaning I whined enough about sore muscles that my wife, while not exactly waiting on me hand and foot, has taken pity and brought me a drink or two.
I am clearly no Chuck Norris or Master Ott at pushups, but I have noticed that the foam flooring of the dojo has begun, ever so slightly, descending beneath my slow and powerful palms. And Ms. Haislip, a black-belt co-instructor, assures me that the overwhelmingly fast pace of sparring slows down with experience. Except she did recount a time when she and another advanced belt were sparring but neither had the smarts to back up or slow down. Well, she needn’t worry. This Bear has got those smarts!
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© Michael L. Collins
Originally published in the March 25, 2015 edition of The Mountain Press