I’m going for my third degree

In 2004, I turned 35 and the warranty ran out on my body. I developed a hiatal hernia, my knees and feet hurt so much I was on prescription pain meds, I had the stamina of an asthmatic ant, and my doctor said, “Hey, maybe you should try exercise, y’know, once.”

Since most exercise bores me (I prefer only to run when chased), I decided to go for martial arts, since that was a subject that always interested me.

That first day, 20 September 2004, was one of the most physically grueling, awful days of my life. I did everything horribly, I barely managed three or four of the thirty push-ups that we did over the course of the hour (three sets of ten spaced out throughout the class), and I finished it a sweaty, exhausted mess.

I can be rather stubborn, so I was determined not to let this beat me. I don’t like it when I can’t do something I want to do, so I swore that I would get the hang of this.

This was no easy task. That comment from my doctor was only a little facetious. As a kid, my only athletic accomplishments were to be part of the worst grammar-school soccer team in the history of Westchester County (we not only never won a game, we were never in any danger of winning a game) and a last-place Little League team. By high school, I had foresworn athletics in favor of theatre and writing. I pursued a career in publishing as an editor, and then as a writer, a profession that involves sitting at a computer all day long.

So this was uncharted territory for me, trying to actually be in good shape.

Five years, one month, and five days after that first class, on 25 October 2009, the year I turned 40, I was awarded my shodan, my first-degree black belt, after an intense promotion.

The journey since then has been amazing. I’ve learned a ton of stuff, I’ve really come into my own as a karateka. And then on 24 March 2013, after an even more grueling (but even more satisfying) promotion, I got a second stripe on my belt, making me a nidan.

I’ve also started teaching, now responsible for the Friday night kids’ sparring class as well as a couple of afterschool programs at local facilities. I’ve also taught a bunch of classes in the dojo, generally as a substitute for Shihan or other black belts who can’t make their assigned classes for whatever reason. I’ve taught adult beginner and color-belt classes, I’ve taught all of our kids classes.

What really blew my mind recently was when Shihan was out for a full month, and he asked me to teach the Monday black belt class. I’m only a nidan, but he let me teach that class (which sometimes has sandans attending it!), which showed amazing trust of my teaching abilities.

Last night, I attended both the regular color-belt class and the sparring class that followed it. During the former, Shihan was quizzing me on several things, and at the end of class, he had me perform a kata in front of everyone (after doing the same for the three advanced brown belts in the class who are also going for their shodan this fall); during the latter, he kept pairing me up with the best fighter in our dojo. These were all unmistakable signs that I was going for promotion, which was confirmed by Shihan after class.

So this October, I will be going for my sandan. It’s going to be a big one — seven other people from my dojo are going for promotion, including another nidan going for sandan (Senpai Charles, one of the people I went up for nidan with four years ago), four advanced brown belts who have been coming up through the ranks together going for their shodan, and a couple of kids going for junior black belts. Plus our sister dojos in South Africa and Italy will be joining us, and they may have some candidates going up as well.

I’m at once elated, frightened, honored, humbled, confused, eager, and about five billion other emotions. The little kid who got made fun of and beat up and was always on the losing side and was the last one picked for dodge ball and softball and basketball teams is now going to try to get a third stripe on his black belt. Holy cow.

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