Finding Your "One Thing"June 2014
"Fresh cup of coffee, Mr. Marty?" asks a waiter, as my neighbor Marty grandly pulls up to the Manhattan Diner bar like he's Norm from "Cheers."
"Actually, Miguel, I'd much prefer some sludge from yesterday."
"No problem, Mr. Marty" says Miguel, unfazed by Marty's sarcasm. "I kept a whole bucket for you in the back."
"Excuse me, young man," says Marty turning to me. "Is this seat taken?"
As if I could say "no" to the mayor.
But while I came here seeking some solace, I'm not feeling entirely inconvenienced by the intrusion. It provides just another excuse to avoid contemplating the "what karate means to me" essay Katie asked me to write a year ago. Yet despite Katie's generosity with my "deadline," it's been near impossible for me to find the words to express karate's impact on my life without fleshing out the story of a diminutive Jewish boy who, at six years old, walked into 11 Main Street with his mom and found not only a new language, but the person who he would come to believe is its finest interpreter.
But I do like Marty. He has 27 years, two kids, a marriage, a divorce, several oddball jobs, and a lengthy list of successes, failures, and more successes worth of experience on me, all of which he uses to give me life insight when we bump into each other in the lobby of the NYC apartment building Jenny and I will have [hopefully] departed by the time of publication. Marty and I met one evening when he artfully injected himself into a conversation I was having with another resident about boxing. He couldn't resist telling us about his surrogate uncle, boxing journalist Burt Sugar. His long-time friend and client Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. And his relationship with the Ali family. (Yes, that Ali.) He then invited me to check out the boxing paraphernalia in his apartment. Autographed gloves, vintage black and white photographs, and old clippings adorned his modest one-bedroom. It was incredible. But then we got to really talking, and I realized Marty was a bit of a scrappy fighter himself—a guy who could not get along in corporate America and consequently set fire to more than a few bridges.
Truth be told, most of my conversations with Marty have revolved around what kind of business we could do together—I was a book editor at a publishing company, he has a list of clients who want book deals—so when Marty sits down, pats me on the back and asks how I'm doing, I feel I should answer as it relates to our mutual business. What comes out of my mouth, though, is a garbled mess of life bewilderment. I no longer feel a part of the world where I thought Marty and I co-existed, nor remember the lines from a script I had rehearsed so many times.
Marty smiles knowingly.
"You ever seen that movie with Billy Crystal in the desert?" he asks.
"You mean, 'City Slickers'?" I respond, perhaps sounding a little too proud of myself for filling in the blank.
"Yeah yeah, that's the one. You remember that scene with Jack Palance?"
I think I know where he's going with this.
"One thing," says Marty, imitating Jack Palance as Curly. "Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean sh**."
"But, what is the 'one thing?'" I say, echoing Crystal's character, Mitch.
I expect Marty to continue this charade by reciting Curly's next line in the film: "That's what you have to find out." But instead, Marty asks, "Adam, what is your one thing?"
He drops his chin and averts his gaze just above his glasses and into my eyes, indicating that he's really curious for an answer. I swivel my head to make sure no one's listening in and say, quietly, "You want to know the truth?"
"Yeah, I can handle it," says Marty, humoring me.
"I love karate."
He lifts his eyebrows in genuine surprise.
"No kidding," says Marty. "How in all our talk about fighting, have you never mentioned that?"
I tell him that it was my first love, that it charted a course of behavior when I was a child, that my teacher set an example for what's possible—not just as a karateka, but as a man.
"Hold on a second, are you a black belt?"
"Sure am," I reply. "Fifth degree."
He looks at me as if I just told him I invented the cup from which he's drinking his coffee.
"That's your one thing!" he says excitedly.
Marty continues to probe my passion, and, detecting a genuine interest, I'm more than happy to talk about kata, body awareness and efficiency, and, most of all, Sensei and the dojo—or, as I call it, the place where I go to play with my friends.
"For what it's worth," says Marty, "you lit up when you started talking about karate—and got rid of that black cloud hanging over your head." I think to mention the symbolism of Unsu, but figure that might be a little much for an introductory conversation. He does, however, indulge me as I recount my history.
In the beginning, there was the Word. Or in my case three: "The Karate Kid." I saw it on VHS at six years old and begged my parents for lessons. But while they encouraged my enthusiasm, they insisted that we audit classes to find a teacher with whom I connected and an environment where they felt I could flourish. After a couple questionable experiences, we found "Takahashi Karate Dojo."
Watching Senseis Takahashi and Horie teach a class of young, advanced students, there was magic in the air, and my mother promptly scheduled a private lesson for me with Sensei Takahashi the week of my seventh birthday. I was excited, nervous, embarrassed, all those things that I suspect even adults experience when they put on a gi for the first time, but Sensei helped me tie my belt, put his arm around my shoulder, and bowed with me at the door and then on to mat, explaining the distinct meaning of each gesture.
"When you bow at the door," said Sensei kindly, "you make a promise to yourself. When you bow at the mat, you respect the training area and everyone in it."
Yet, while I remembered Mr. Miyagi's explanation of how to bow—"Eye, always look eye!"—Sensei had a different opinion.
"When you bow, always look downward," he said. "This means, 'I trust you.' If you don't trust the other person, don't bow to him."
No adult captured my attention the way Sensei did. (Mom and Dad, if you're reading this, I always listened to you, too. No, seriously…)
After my first lesson, he taught me to write my name in Japanese, and I replicated the kanji on just about everything I owned. I spent every day practicing and begged my parents for karate books that I found in the aisles of Fox & Sutherland (which the older folks might remember). The kids book and toy sections were officially behind me.
I was lucky to have cultured, multi-faceted parents who introduced me and my siblings to a variety of arts and sports. I gravitated towards baseball, theater and music, but both my parents stressed school and karate above all else, though neither had any history with or even outside interest in the martial arts. And so, my dad would take a break from work, pick me up from school, and take me to the 4:30 Tuesday and Thursday classes, ignoring my frequent gripes about being too tired to go. Of course, once I got to the dojo and had my gi on, I came alive.
October 1992 was a big month for me. On the 17th, I became a metaphorical man when I became a Bar Mitzvah. On the 29th, I became a literal one when I passed my test for shodan. Sensei has always said that when I received my black belt, he wanted to give one to each of my parents as well. Today, I fully understand what he means.
Mom and Dad schlepped me to the dojo until I got my driver's license and they felt comfortable allowing me to make the drive from Stamford to Mt. Kisco. But as the pressures of college, career, and conditioning myself to corporate culture began to build, padding my college resume became paramount, and so I threw myself into a whole host of activities that competed with my karate time until college.
I spoke with Sensei and Lisa at a few points over the five-plus years since graduating from high school—notably when Sensei and Lisa called to congratulate me on my graduation from NYU—but generally speaking, I was an absentee karateka, much to the dismay of my father.
To put it mildly, my dad and I are close. If we don't talk every two or three days, there must be a problem with the phone lines. But there was a part of our regular conversation that I dreaded, and that was when he would ask me if I had been back to the dojo.
This guilt trip lasted from 1998 until early 2004 when, deeply entrenched in the corporate culture for which I had prepared myself, I felt lost. My enjoyments felt frivolous, my job draining, my salary dismal, and my girlfriend—well, no longer my girlfriend. Basically, I needed meaning, and in my heart (and in my father's loving harassment), I knew where to find it.
I re-entered the dojo having prepared a variety of excuses for someone who doesn't ask for them, and when Sensei saw me, true to form, he gave me a most excellent look of surprise, and said, "Adam! Where have you been? Go get dressed!"
I'll spare you talk of my renewed enthusiasm and deeper appreciation for the gift my parents gave me as a child (if anyone wants to read the article they wrote about me in the Dojo News of March 1988, you'll get the most visceral impression of my karate experience) and just say that when things get tough, karate always brings me back to myself. It makes me appreciate my body and mind, and the spiritual explosion that results when both are in perfect sync. I live for those precious few moments in kata, where the expansion and contraction of my body feel so attuned, that my resulting kiai shakes the rafters. I keep coming back to class to experience those few moments because they remind me of my inner power and that of which I am truly capable. But even when those big moments seem elusive due to injury, fatigue, or just a bad day, the practice affords me a respite to dream of those moments.
What's most notable, perhaps, is my drive to constantly evolve, not just so that I can be a better karate practitioner, but a more considerate and useful person. This is not some magical side-effect of a regular kata practice. Rather, it's from my teacher, Sensei Takahashi, who, on the floor and off, shows that there are always ways that we can improve ourselves. Karate is just our medium for doing so. My brain perceives karate as the art of controlling my center of gravity. My heart, perceives karate as a life objective that will continue to be influenced by how it was taught to me—with enthusiasm, patience, and an open mind. What I call, Takahashi-Do Karate because of the way Sensei and my dojo family continually demonstrate how karate is not just an art of self-defense, but a pursuit of general excellence.
Marty distracts me from my reverie. "Sorry, pal, I have to run," he says, as he throws down money for both our breakfasts on the counter with a generous tip for Miguel.
"Karate," says Marty to me, almost as a directive. "That is your one thing."Back