Adam Korn in CaliforniaJuly 2017
Greetings, Takahashi Dojo family!
I’m writing this West Coast dispatch before I’ve made a June trip to New York—during which we’ll have trained together and done some catching up about our respective lives on our respective coasts. I’ll have told many of you about the neat house we’re renting in Oakland with the avocado tree and raspberry bush in the backyard. How Maya is crawling over, climbing on, and taste-testing everything in sight. How I still enjoy teaching at Shihan James Henry’s Mojo Dojo Karate in beautiful Mill Valley. How, no, I have not seen any Ewoks stalking about the redwoods in nearby Muir Woods. How I have been studying aikido with two outstanding budoka, who have given me a different perspective on and enhanced my enjoyment of martial arts. And how I miss you all terribly.
As of this writing, the last time I saw you all was the last week in March, when Jenny and I brought Maya to meet you. Those in attendance might remember I was in a boot, recovering from a broken foot, and thus couldn’t practice. Though the doc sternly warned me about the consequences of barefoot impact, the only way I could be sure to stay off the floor was to leave my gi in California—and take a train that would get us to the dojo at the end of class. If either of those conditions weren’t met, I might’ve said, the heck with it, you only live once. But after we ascended the first set of stairs and I heard Sensei counting and all of you responding enthusiastically, I booked it up the second flight, dragging my bum foot and carrying my beautiful daughter, just to cop a vicarious thrill.
Nancy, who was waiting at the top of the stairs, just outside the door—she would be taking the second class—was the first dojo cousin we saw that morning. After exchanging hugs and the kind of joyful greetings I think only the Takahashi Dojo brethren and sistern (?) can understand, I unloaded Maya into Nancy’s waiting arms and surreptitiously glimpsed inside the dojo at a packed floor, everyone repeating a segment of Nijushi. As dismayed as I was to not be able to practice with you that morning, watching you all set my heart on fire. I couldn’t remember the last time I got to watch everyone practice because typically I’m on the mat with all of you, partaking in the pugilistic festivities. But the feeling I got as an audience for those few minutes was like observing a world-class orchestra being led by a world-class conductor in a private rehearsal. You all were so poised it was beautiful—which was why it was so funny when class ended a few minutes later, after you rushed off the floor toward us like a kimono-clad tidal wave, Robin gushed, “we lost all focus when you walked in!” Could’ve fooled me.
This is what’s so amazing about karate, to me. As Sensei says, “We’re kicking and punching each other and we’re still friends!” The paradox is what, to me, makes the martial arts so compelling. Having spent the last three years teaching mostly children, and now being a new dad, my ruminations on the apparent violence inherent in our practice keeps me honest about my responsibility as an instructor. While it’s fun to analyze the movement in our kata, the bunkai, and come up with possible interpretations for dismantling an opponent, the big-picture question I’m anxiously anticipating more than Daddy, where do babies come from? is Daddy, why do you like teaching people to knock someone out and pack them up for shipping?
Indulge me while I practice some dialogue:
Well, sweetheart, I want to arm people with the ability to defend themselves and their families…I mean, if a bad man ever tries to hurt you or Mommy, I have a full menu of devastating things I’m trained to do to them….especially if the assailant has time traveled from Okinawa between the years 1477 and 1868.
But Daddy, what do we do if they time traveled from after the Meiji Restoration?
Oh darling, you have such a wild imagination…how ‘bout we get some ice cream?
But she’s got a point, my hypothetical daughter. I mean, we live in an era where hand-to-hand combat is only guaranteed in the ring, the cage, sport. And sport, I think you’ll agree, isn’t really the essence of the Takahashi Karate Dojo culture. It’s a piece of our training, for sure, but our karate feels better encapsulated by the old martial arts adage ikken hisstatsu—to annihilate with one blow. Consequently, I’ve seen my own teaching geared toward empowering young students to not only stand up for themselves, but, in a safe environment, recognize their vast potential—and impress upon them that with great power comes great responsibility.
During one of my children’s weapons classes, a seven-year-old student asked about the application of a certain bo movement. “Well, my interpretation is—“ I started, then paused and looked out at a sea of wide-eyed seven-to-twelve year old karateka. I dispensed with words and mimed being gored by a spear and having my innards splattered all over the mirror, complete with sound effects. There was a combination of giggles and “ewwwws” from my young students, and uncomfortable shifting of parents in the box seats, “Which. Is. Why…” I concluded, “if you use this technique…you’re making a BIG decision!” Of all Sensei’s wisdom, this bit has come in handy most. It somehow makes me feel like I’m both being honest and making them accountable—should they find a stick at school and consider demonstrating for their friends what they learned in karate class.
But this is the work that Sensei has perfected and what I feel we’re all really working to perfect. Embracing our devastating physical potential to the point that we can find a sense of humor and even joy in what we’re doing. Takahashi Karate Dojo is a microcosm of a beautiful reality in this way. We come together to recognize how capable we are of cringe-inducing things and not only laugh about it, but love each other for it.
Here’s something to stick in your hachimaki: What if…what if this understanding is programmed into our very karate existence? Case in point, just days before visiting you all in March, we were in England for a few days. Jenny was attending to business, I was attending to Maya—or maybe she was attending to me, I dunno, in any case, one morning, Maya was on her back, playing with her toy giraffe Sophie, when from natural stance, I started throwing straight punches—because that’s what karate people do, we throw punches. Anyway, I’m snapping ‘em out, catching a rhythm, and then I hear…laughing. I look down, and Maya is overjoyed, waving her arms and kicking her legs. So I start throwing double punches, triple punches, quadruple punches, and with each successive combination, Maya’s becoming more and more hysterical. She’s loving it!
Let’s try some dialogue again:
Daddy, why do you like teaching people to knock someone out and pack them up for shipping?
Grab your gi, sweetheart, I’ll tell you on the way to the dojo.
Ok…can we get ice cream after?
Only if your Nijushi is awesome.
Love and hugs in budo,