It was midway through the spring of 2001 that I worked up the nerve to ask my mom if I could learn Karate. It might not seem like a big deal, but for me it was risky: Mom ran a strictly pacifist household in which toy guns and swords were verboten, even after the Return of the Jedi rerelease when every other kid I knew had a toy lightsaber. Karate seemed like the last thing she'd agree to.
I asked. She frowned. It was an expression made famous by a former President, her lips pressed together as she tried to communicate how little she thought of the idea without dashing my hopes and dreams. I saw where this was going and I stammered ahead, making my pitch before she could shut me down. I don't remember what I said, but the longer I fumbled for a winning argument the more I knew she wasn't buying it.
There are a bunch of reasons people want to try martial arts: fitness, confidence, self-defense, enlightenment. For my part, it was mainly because Karate was cool, like, almost as cool as superpowers or lightsabers, and maybe the unvoiced belief that I possessed supernatural potential, to be realized by the strictures of Asian tradition. Teenagers are idiots, you see.
Back in the living room on that spring day, I finally fell silent. And to my surprise, my mom said yes. Maybe it seemed like a healthier outlet than video games: I was getting chubby, chubbier every year actually, a trend which would take decades to reverse though we didn't know it yet. But at the moment my burgeoning flabbiness wasn't on my mind. I made sure I'd heard her right ("Really?"), thanked her ("Really?!") and scurried off before she changed her mind, off to the side-room that used to be the kitchen before we remodeled and still had a telltale kitchen counter where you wouldn't expect, to find the dog-eared phone book and begin my search for the perfect martial arts school. My martial arts school.
Pickings were slim. There was Taekwon Do, which I didn't want because the name looked funny, and there was American Freestyle Karate, which I could tell was bad because most things with "American" in the name don't have anything else worth bragging about. But there was one school at the very end of the list, located in Buena Vista, forty minutes drive from us. I leaned in and squinted at the page. This one had a cool name, I decided. It was definitely the right one. Undaunted by last-minute hesitation, I dialed the phone and waited.
"Hello," came the voice on the other end. Confident, brisk. He sounded like an Army guy.
"Hello, excuse me, is this the Kokoro dojo?" I asked. I was a polite kid, too. That was part of what made me weird.
"Yes, sir." He continued to speak quickly, but without hurry. "How can I help you?"
I inhaled. This was it. I'd learn karate, and I'd be great at it. I wouldn't be one of those dorks who Knows Karate and gets pummeled anyway. I would master karate – heck, I would master the world of Martial Arts. I was going to be amazing.
Back in reality, I was stammering out my reply. "I would... um, am interested to take classes with you," I managed. This is how life is when you're a dork. Unlike the chubbiness, that doesn't seem to be going away with time.
"Okay," said the voice. "Classes are Tuesday and Thursday. Youth from six to seven, adults from seven to eight. Be here at five thirty so we can get you squared away."
Mom was an awfully good sport about picking the school furthest from our house in the woods. My head was buzzing as I went to bed that night, equal parts excited and terrified as visions of being Goku danced in my head.
Buena Vista is a sleepy town a few miles south of Lexington, slumped in exhaustion against the banks of the Maury River. It sprouted up around a couple of factories which, years ago, died a sudden death to globalization. The town, best as I can recall, consists of a thirsty four-block main street with a Hardee's at one end and a depressing Mexican joint at the other. Just past the second restaurant is a sandlot that falls into the river. As we drove through, I looked at the address I'd written down and wondered. We'd been to Buena Vista a few times, and I'd never seen a dojo. I strained to think of anywhere a pagoda and a Shinto shrine might be hiding. There wasn't much town.
We turned onto a residential street and my confusion increased. Maybe the dojo was on the other side? But, no. The address was a house, and it looked exactly like every other house in the neighborhood. My heart sank. How would I learn ancient Oriental secrets here, I wondered, as we pulled into the driveway.
Behind the house was what looked like a garage, but a little larger and without a door for cars. With a smile of encouragement from my mom, I took a deep breath and got out. Somehow, all the anticipation and yearning from the past few days worked against me as I went inside.
Just beyond the door was a waiting room, big enough for four people to sit in the small office chairs opposite the large, glass viewing window. At the other side was the door to a small office. I caught a glimpse of the training hall, white-painted cinderblock walls and hard wooden floor, a small rack filled with wooden weapons, a couple small framed photographs too far away to see - but before I could look properly, a stocky man in a crisp, worn gi stepped out of the office and shook my hand firmly.
After a very brief introduction ("I am Sensei Gary Cash, and this is the Kokoro dojo") he gave me the tour. I took off my shoes and followed him onto the training floor. A rack of battered Japanese weapons hung from a rack near the door - a few hanbo, shinai, and bokken - and I saw that the framed photos were of people in Karate outfits. Toward the front, there was a photograph of a stern-looking American in a gi, who I would later learn was the school's soke. Opposite the door to the waiting area was a doorway, which led to a darkened changing room and a bathroom. It was all immaculately clean and in good repair, with a spaciousness that could not be easily explained by the building's size.
Sensei Cash asked me whether I would like to take a trial class, and I agreed. We talked about dues, which were $10 per class. In retrospect, it was a truly excellent price; I don't think Sensei was making much more than it cost to keep the lights on. But at the time, I was just happy it was something my family could afford.
I waited for the other students to arrive, watching them enter, bow to Sensei, and cross the dojo to change. There was Alan, a lanky man in his late 30s with a similar haircut to Sensei; Gina, a broad-shouldered, strong-looking woman maybe a little younger than Alan; Garrett, a young fellow in his late teens, with short hair and a cocky expression; and Heather and Michelle, two girls about my age who I found intensely intimidating, mainly because they were girls about my age. As they emerged, I looked at their belts with curiosity: Alan and Gina wore green ones, Heather and Michelle wore yellow with several green stripes taped on the end, and the cocky kid had a black belt. As soon as everyone was ready, sensei stood at the front; we sat on the hard floor ("in seiza posture", sensei explained) and after one minute of silence we bowed.
That's when it got serious. Push-ups, sit-ups, crunches, jumping jacks. I couldn't believe how hard it was. Working through pain is a skill that must be developed, and I didn't have it yet. The trick, I would learn decades later, is to remember that it will pass: at the time, every repetition made me want to run away screaming. My lungs were burning, my muscles were burning, my eyes were stinging with sweat. I thought about quitting on the spot. After an eternity, we finished the warm-up. I stood hunched over, hands braced against my knees, breathing so hard I could hear it echoing through the room. I looked around, hoping that somehow, nobody had noticed. But everyone else was standing at attention, eyes straight ahead, so I straightened up and tried to play it off.
First, we practiced stances, and they were almost worse than the warm-ups. Heiko dachi, an open stance with feet shoulder-width apart, wasn't so bad. Zenkutsu dachi, forward fighting stance, was painful. The muscles in my front leg burned as I tried to lean into it properly. Shiko dachi, horse stance, was even worse with knees over the feet in a deep squat. Neko-ashi dachi, cat stance, made it very difficult to keep my balance. For a while we stood in each stance, as deeply as possible, and then we practiced stepping from one stance into the next.
Then, we moved on to the basics, called kihon waza: fundamental techniques. Gedan beri, the low block. Age-uke, the rising block. Uchi-uke, the middle block. Soto-uke, the cross block. These were easier, but I couldn't seem to do them right. Sensei corrected me several times before we moved onto punches and kicks. I felt like the world's biggest dweeb as I jerkily punched the air with my exhausted, drooping arms. I hoped Heather wasn't watching me embarrass myself. Fortunately, Heather was far too cool to look at me anyway.
Finally, with fifteen minutes left in the class, we moved to kata. Sensei had me step aside as the rest of the class performed Ten no Kata, which they did in perfect unison. I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. Class ended and I got my stuff, panting and reeling as I crossed the floor toward the exit. Sensei asked me if I was coming back, with a smile. I nodded, and told him I would. I went outside and slumped into my mom's minivan.
"Did you like it?" she asked.
"Yeah," I confirmed as I caught my breath. "Can we stop for a soda?"
Sensei Cash was at once everything and nothing I'd expected, with a G.I. haircut and a piercing gaze. He was not prone to doing anything without purpose: there was no standing around, no pauses while he was talking, no circling the dojo as we trained. His speech was unfailingly direct and to the point, and he never spoke in less than complete sentences. I never saw The Karate Kid during my childhood, but I think master Miyagi was, somehow, what I expected: Sensei Cash was emphatically not. He was, in a word, American.
He never talked about mysticism, and what he did say was highly practical. He seldom explained why we were doing something, but if we were not practicing it seriously enough we would receive an admonition. "Don't dishrag," he scolded me sharply, when Alan demonstrated a trip called osoto otoshi and I crumpled weakly to the floor. "You're in my dojo. You stand up until somebody knocks you down."
There wasn't much call for Sensei to scold, but he did not tolerate poor stances. If your knee wasn't over your foot when standing in zenkutsu dachi or heisoku dachi, you could expect sharp words. If the words were not sufficient, you might receive a stinging blow to the leg from his shinai when you least expected it. The youngest student, a boy of about eight years named Cole, earned sensei's wrath with impressive frequency: his stances were always made with straight, unbent knees, his fists drooping beneath his waist. Cole was exempt from the shinai, but you could tell sensei was thinking about it sometimes.
Around six months after I began, I earned my ninth kyu. The test was grueling, even more so than the regular classes. I remember very little of it, except panic. Somehow I passed. Sensei Cash tied a yellow belt around my waist, and I felt a thrill of accomplishment as Sensei shook my hand and said "well done". I looked at the wall, where the rattan weapons rack held its assortment of sticks, swords, and weapons too exotic to identify, and thought about how I was one step closer to learning to use them.
One day, Sensei asked the class what kokoro meant. I'd read the handout when I started taking classes, and it defined the word as dispassionate passion, which appealed to me enough to stick. I put my hand up and answered confidently. Sensei nodded, and asked me what it meant to a martial artist. My hand sagged, because I hadn't memorized that. "It means heart," he explained, coming as close to spiritualism as Cash Sensei ever did. "It is the passion to train, to improve yourself, to be your best." I nodded, excited that I was listening to a profound thought from sensei, but didn't really think about it.
This was the pinnacle of my time there, and it was near the end. To my dismay, there was a new kata to learn after Ten no Kata, and it seemed to be much harder. Sensei had a different student lead each waza, and more often than not I was unable to recall what I had to do on my turn. The material got more difficult, but I didn't put in any more effort.
My progress slowed. I barely practiced my kata and never practiced my kihon outside the dojo. I didn't understand, or pay much attention to, my diet. I fainted once. One February morning I realized I was dreading going to class, where Sensei Cash would ask me with increasing vexation whether I'd practiced since last time - usually, I hadn't. I dreaded the exercise, which wasn't getting any easier because the dojo was the only place I did it. I dreaded kneeling on the hard floor. I found excuses not to go more and more often.
I have wondered for years why that was. I think that, more than anything, I liked the idea of being a martial artist more than I liked doing martial arts. As my attention waned I started missing tests, and my peers advanced beyond me. Before long, the only student junior to me was Cole.
And then, around seven months after I began training, I sprained my ankle.
It was a particularly bad sprain. Self-inflicted, while horsing around at a Scout meeting. I jumped, my ankle rolled, and something popped inside. In an instant, every fiber of my experience was pain; eventually my scoutmaster, a kindly fellow named Kenny, helped me limp up the wheelchair ramp to my family's car. Fully an hour after the accident it still hurt worse than anything I'd ever experienced, and I began to understand how serious it was.
The next morning it still hurt, and the day after that. It was swollen to an impressive size ("like a grapefruit", mom described ruefully) and walking was completely impossible. Thursday came, and I knew I wouldn't be going to Karate. A strange thrill ran through me, peculiarly more relief than disappointment. I called Sensei, explained my situation, and hung up. I was free. I settled back onto the makeshift bed of pillows and wadded blankets, and reached for my gameboy. I didn't know it, but I'd already stepped inside the Kokoro dojo for the last time.
Days turned into weeks, and I recovered slowly. I spent the spring and most of the summer reading, playing video games, and eating Doritos. Autumn came, and my mother asked me if I wanted to go back to Karate. I looked at my feet and said no, that my ankle didn't feel strong enough. This was actually true, the first time she asked: by the third time, early in November, I knew it was mostly fiction.
I continued to think wistfully about karate. My terrible injury allowed a peculiar duplicity of thought, where I wanted to do martial arts and was fully committed to it, but I didn't have to actually train. I read books about karate and aikido, I occasionally practiced my blocks, my punches, my kata (more than I did when I was really training.) I told myself I was going back someday. But I was done, and deep down I knew it.
I only saw Sensei Cash once more, shopping for groceries with his wife. He greeted me politely, but didn't ask why I hadn't been back. I don't think he was surprised I found a reason to disappear. Another year passed, and I moved in with my dad upstate. Eventually, my life happened. For over a decade, I didn't think about Karate much at all.