Got a girl named Daisy, she almost drives me crazy

They say if you can dance, have rhythm, you're one step closer to karate. I don't dance worth shit, maybe that's why my karate not so good.

When my sensei wanted to teach us a lesson in humility he would invite a dance instructor's students to our exercise session in the dojo. What to us seemed like chinese water torture, to them was like floating on their back in a spa.

There was a girl named Daisy, dance instructor, that came to teach us some stretching exercises. We were moaning and groaning, and she was as fresh as her name.

The dojo fell silent for a week or two afterwards, nobody complaining about the ten-step push-up, everyone licking his or her wounded ego. We might know how to kata but don't know how to cha cha.

I remember when in the prime of my training days and youth my mother used to leave me far behind as we hiked the slopes of her mountainous hometown.

Karate is not just a physical thing. It is a frame of mind, not a mindset. It is a way of looking up from the floor with a broken nose.

It is what you do next. It is dealing with imperfection.

Yes that Daisy almost drive me crazy.


Warm memories

I ran into my old "warm-up" exercises where I least expected to, a Mas Oyama video, of all places. It brought back old memories. I was amazed to find this warm-up associated with Oyama because of his reputation. On the other hand I felt that we were quite in line with old school traditions. As I have said before in these posts, warm-ups in my dojo were quite excruciating and the Oyama video covers just a fraction of the pain endured.

From the first stretch to the last kick, well to an hour might pass...and still we had kata and programmed bunkai and kumite to do.

I've changed my view as to the necessity of this ordeal, but still see its value for young people starting karate for its lessons in endurance and spirit. the sensei always used to say that we should see these exercises and routines as one long kata and this is how you would do them over time as you learned to pace yourself. They also teach you to breathe properly and cultivate a sense of space and awareness of those around you.

Needless to say, I only do a very summarized version now, focusing my time on the kata proper, but maybe I would not have achieved this focus if it were not for those years doing that one long kata.


An Intellectual Approach-es

At first glance, an intellectual sees karate, its structure, its syllabus, its canon, and EUREKA! sees a system that he or she can deconstruct. Runs home, brushes up on his zen, sits down in his easy chair, pours himself a cup of wine and sits back to read that article that caught his eye as he was perusing the sports section of the magazines in his favorite bookstore, The Zen Philosophy and its Application to the Martial Arts.

Call her May. Doctorate in literature from UCLA, classic pianist with a Baby Grand in her studio apt., two years in law just for curiosity, at a loss for her mood swings, got suckered into going to the Violeta Dojo by a kindred spirit. She had a nervous tic, an impromptu giggle. Three months into it she confessed to me, after offering me a ride, that she didn't think that the karate she knew could actually save her ass in a tight spot. I agreed. She said that maybe she was better off taking shooting lessons, getting a gun permit and buying a good solid .45. I agreed. What's the point, she asked. She'd read all she could get her hands on and still all those katas seemed meaningless. All the while giggling at the most inopportune moments. She was paying for the beers, so I heard her out.

I knew she wasn't being flippant about it but I just didn't have an answer. I got the feeling that she was upset because it was the one thing she had gotten herself into that she didn't immediately excel and wow them with her proficiency and insight. She felt that since she couldn't get a handle on it maybe there was no handle to be got. I told her I didn't understand Opera and flunked College French. It did little to raise her spirits. Then she giggled and said good night, leaving me stranded in the bar. Shortly afterwards she dropped out.

She had been dutiful in the dojo, really did try her best, giggles and all. I guess maybe she needed a more intellectual dojo, with koans flying left and right. Meaningful conversations. Sutras she could mull over. Tea ceremonies in pastel kimonos. Maybe the sensei for a boyfriend.

When I run into her every now and then she still giggles (even with 2 kids and a husband). And she giggles even more when I tell her I'm still doing karate. She finds it amazing, and funny.


Sponge Bob Karate

A lot of wily characters show up in a dojo, but there is a certain category that defies all logic: the erstwhile nincompoop. Within this category, we have subclasses, to wit: the self help addict, the nutty professor, the wayward nymph, the Ophra Hot Momma, to name a few. They have in common their complete lack of motor and/or social skills. Most have never ran, skipped or hopped in their youth and appear in their overzise or undersize gis in the hope of exorcizing their demons.

Some believe that an overindulgence in sunflower seeds and the timely incantations of zen koans will somehow enable them to open the secrets of the oriental fighting arts and thus ascend to an elevated plane of consciousness.

Some come in the hope of meeting people, finding at long last their soul mate among the bitter sweetness of aching bodies and secondhand sweat. Because you never know.

Some come hoping to reconciliate their postmodernist view of the body with the results of their last medical checkup.

Some come in search of karmic resonance to their otherwise futile lives.

And some come to wed the east with the west somewhere south of the border.

They all hate to sweat. They all have a lot of questions that need to be answered. They all would prefer to be elsewhere while there. They have all been 6 months learning the practice kata, the two or three time a month they would saunter into the dojo.

But a few are sticklers, and after a sojourn through dojoland finally find someone that gives them a black belt. Like champagne bubbles, they froth to the top of many martial arts organizations, appearing fat and beaming in seminar photo ops.

Proving only the tenacity of the human spirit to rise to all ocassions.


Cruising with a Samurai

I don't know how it was that I found myself one day hitching a ride to the Violeta Dojo with Jaime Acosta sensei. It was so long ago that all the collateral reasons have faded to just that fact of being in a car going to Old San Juan. It was the 80's and there was a lot of political turmoil on the Island and me and the sensei were on the wrong end of the political landscape of the times. I have left out the political realities that hovered in the background of my karate experience because I believe it would distract too much from the purpose of the blog and would prove meaningless to all but a few of us who lived it, and also, because in retrospect it was a very subjective view. But having said this, being in a car with a black dude with afro, on the Old San Juan boulevard that passed close to the hottest criminal and drug spot in San Juan was a situation rife with possible trouble and it happened. We were pulled over by the police.

At the time the police had a special squad they called (loosely translated) "Impact San Juan." The idea was to "impact" crime in the streets. What they really did was intimidate anyone who just happened to cross their path, especially if they were young. I had had a previous run-in with them a few years before when my then wife wrongly turned into a one-way street. They had yanked us out of our Volkswagen, rammed us against a nearby building and held us at gunpoint, whacking my ribs with batons as I protested them to leave my wife alone. The two friends visiting us from New York looked on in terror. So it was with a certain knowing uneasiness that I spied them alighting from their Land Rovers, pointing rifles as Jaime sensei pulled over to the curb.

True to form, they slammed us against the car, hand on head, spread-eagled, padded us down and wheeled us around. Then they questioned. We answered the necessary, steering clear of mentioning karate. I spoke nervously about visiting a friend at a local restaurant, while Jaime glared silently. I thought all the while that they moved around us that they had no idea what the skinny black dude was or what he could do. I prayed that Jaime would remain still. I prayed that the police would make no move to strike him, for I feared all hell would break loose, for Jaime had the stillness of the eternal second before battle. I saw his eyes follow their every move, calculating where he could do the most harm. I saw all this and found myself falling into that same state of minute assessments of intent and where the flow of violence would lead after the spark. They let us go.

We spoke not a word as we donned our gis. There was nothing to say. Practice of the kata awaited and we tread slowly onto the dojo floor.


Bananas with Kimo

Kimo liked bananas. I'd run into him around one of the plazas in Old San Juan, close to the supermarket where he'd buy his fruit to eat out of the plastic groccery bag on a park bench. You'd run into him everywhere in the old city, white shirt, gi trousers, flip flops, shooting the breeze.

That was the thing about the sensei, you'd never know where you'd find him. Like seeing the priest outside the church in civvies, a bit unnerving at first. So he'd invite you to sit down, grab something from the bag, a grape maybe. Shoot the breeze.

It could happen on a Friday night. I'd hear a Jorge san over my shoulder and there he was, tropical shirt ironed and colorful, ask you to buy him a Perrier with lemon, sit at a table close to the pub door, sit there awhile with the sensei, taking in the bar scene and the passerby. I didn't mind except I couldn't smoke or drink all that much, didn't dare to.

Jaime sensei used to tell me that the custom was to look after your teacher, do his bidding wherever, the simple pleasures, to sit at his pleasure. That that was all part of it. It's true. I did it then and I do it now. So it was the custom for black and brownbelts to take Kimo out to his favorite Chinese restaurant, to talk shop every so often. It was no burden, really, he asked for little, fruit, a time at a table in a bar or sidewalk cafe, a walk through the cobblestone streets at dusk. It could happen at anytime, anywhere.

We all collected our "I ran into Kimo" stories. I remember one night going past a place and seeing Kimo doing kata in a pub and it turns out that a poet was reading something about a brother stationed in Okinawa. Kimo was game for just about anything.

What made the moments with him memorable was not that anything special was said or learned. Being around him was calming, almost soothing. Hard to explain. Because nothing really happened. You just felt good, at peace, a pause in the helter skelter of things.

I experience that now whenever I run into an old dojo buddy, how time sort of stops. How we can just sit there doing nothing. Sharing an old Kimo yarn or some other dojo tale.

Looking back, it smells like Zen to me.


The everydayness of it

Karate in the Violeta Dojo was part of my weekly routine. I was no longer a university student with all the time to spare, I worked full-time and was barely able to squeeze in two or three practice sessions per week, maybe an extra Saturday. Karate was usually at the tail end of a workday. What did I hope to accomplish? I had no time to think, I just did, like going to work, or waking up at 3:00 A.M. to my son crying in the other room. It was a juggling act where more times than not the balls eluded my grasp or all the plates fell off the poles.

So I practiced karate half in and half out of it, much like everything I did then: writing, working, marriage. I just kept going, hoping it would all fall into place. It didn't. I marvel now at the discipline of others, young men whose blogs denote a dedication and awareness of the art that I scarcely perceived at their age. When things do fall into place you're at an age that it leaves a bitter taste of irony in your mouth.

I did what I was told, sweated my way from one belt to the other. Learned the katas, where to move and at what pace. I was an optimistic Sysyphus on the slope of the ten-step push-up, then slinked to a bar for two or three beers. Karate was looking at me in the face and I didn't see it.

Karate then just drowned out the day, the mere physicality left me light enough to just be. In that sense it served its purpose. But the hours do add up. Whether I knew it or not, karate was leaving its mark. Maybe that was what Kimo sensei knew. In any case, I was bad enough to retain my humbleness. Whatever the zeal or dedication, or lack of, you know who you are, because the body does not lie.

The Kimo years were a continuous reminder of what my mind and spirit could and could not do. On the dojo floor I could not fool myself. Outside, maybe.


Kinship of Poets

I've made several references in past posts to one Jaime Acosta. He was to be my last sensei in the mid 90's to early 2000's. He was one of Kimo Wall's first students in Puerto Rico along with the senseis in the old Ochoa Dojo. When Kimo had first left the Island, Jaime took classes with an old army buddy of Kimo who practiced Isshin Ryu. Somewhere along the line he made his way back to Goju.

Jaime was one of the island's first homegrown sensei in Okinawa Goju Ryu. He was a black belt in Isshin Ryu when Kimo came back and convinced him to switch. Jaime had been practicing karate seen his early teens in the 6o's. Competed and went to the Olympics in Mexico as part of the Puerto Rico team in karate well before coming back to Goju.

The important thing about Jaime in terms of me is he came from the same barrio. It was the same rough and tumble streets that I walked in my teens, with all the different gangs and inviolable territories. The long avenues of tract houses, bars, colmados, billiard halls, and broken down open-air basketball courts with missing nets, movie houses you got in for soda pop bottle empties and condensed milk wrappers to watch Tarzan, third run westerns, and Mexican comedies. His older brother was a black belt judoka, later to become a union organizer. We grew up seeing the first junkies on the island, streets where barrio style kobudo was executed with trash can lids and baseball bats, and girls could cut you with safety razors they hid under their tongue, sweet kiss.

I never saw much of Jaime in the Violeta dojo, he gave morning classes and rarely showed up when I came at night. As I got to know Kimo better I found out that he grew up in Hawaii in a poor neighborhood with a high oriental population, and also a Puerto Rican community dating back to an early 1900's immigration. Tangents and concentric circles. Kimo spoke English with what I wrongly assumed was an affected oriental accent until I learned that he was brought up hearing it spoken that way on the street. Small island mentality is different from a continental one, horizons are water, and you can just walk so far.

I was streetwise enough but my university years made me more bookish. Kimo and Jaime had a corporal intelligence that had its own bodily syntax. They liked the fact that I was a poet though neither had ever read a line. They told me the ancient practitioners were mostly artists, poets and philosophers. It took me awhile to realize that they also practiced an art and felt a natural kinship with practitioners of other arts.

It took me decades to realize what they meant.