from the archives: remembering Shuseki Shihan William Oliver

Yesterday was the 13th anniversary of the death of Shuseki Shihan William Oliver, who founded the discipline of karate that I study. Tonight, we had our annual Shuseki Shihan Oliver Memorial Workout, which we hold on the Tuesday closest to the anniversary of his death on 20 November 2004. Here’s what I wrote in 2014 about Shuseki Shihan Oliver:


Today I find myself remembering and memorializing a person I never met.


Ten years and two months ago, I started training in karate. I was an overweight 35-year-old white belt struggling to actually do the 30-40 push-ups per class that were required. I barely knew anything about karate, was still trying to remember all the terms and get all the moves right. I hadn’t really met any of the black belts aside from Shihan Paul, the owner of the dojo and at the time the only instructor of adult classes. The only color belt I’d met was Cliff, then a brown belt, who assisted Shihan in teaching us white belts.

Ten years ago today, at what was, up until that day, the primary dojo of our discipline, several students arrived at the Upper West Side Kenshikai Karate dojo on 99th and Broadway to find that the founder of Kenshikai, Shuseki Shihan William Oliver, had died.

I never met Shuseki; indeed, on that day ten years ago, I didn’t really know who he was when I was told that he died, except that he was Shihan‘s teacher and the founder of Kenshikai.

In the years since, I have learned quite a bit. Shuseki studied Kyokushin (as did Shihan), and when Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura broke off from Kyokushin to form Seido in 1976, Shuseki joined him (again, as did Shihan, a teenager at the time). In 2001, a disagreement with Kaicho led to Shuseki forming Kenshikai, along with several people who ran their own dojos in New York, Ecuador, and South Africa (Shihan among them).

I got a copy of Fighting Black Kings, the late 1970s documentary which focused on Shuseki as well as two of his fellow Kyokushinkai, Charles Martin and Willie Williams. I found YouTube videos, I watched The True Way, the posthumous documentary put together by the students he left behind to run Kenshikai after his death.

On the one hand, it’s one of the great regrets of my life that I never got to meet Shuseki Shihan William Oliver. On the other hand, I feel like I do know him, because in a sense I see him all the time. He taught Shihan, and he taught other black belts with whom I’ve trained over the years.

And I see him in myself. My own teaching style evolved from watching and learning from and emulating the students of Shuseki.

The one thing I know is true from the footage I’ve seen and from the commonality among those he taught in how they teach is that Shuseki encouraged and pushed without discouraging or forcing. He’d never make you do anything you couldn’t do, but he’d also make you realize that you could do more than you think you can.

I love that I can watch footage of him teaching in 1986 and see that he’s running his students through the same punching drills that I ran the kids through at the afterschool program I teach yesterday.

I wasn’t going to go to the dojo tonight. I’m on deadline, I’ve got a busy weekend at the dojo coming up (there’s a promotion Sunday), and I’m teaching the kids fighting class tomorrow night, and I just didn’t want to. But then I read this magnificent blog entry by Kyoshi Jennifer. Along with her husband, Kyoshi Matthew, they now run the Upper West Side dojo, carrying on for Shuseki (though in a different location). And after reading that, I realized that I had to train today of all days.

So tonight, I plan to go to the dojo, and I plan to punch and kick and block and sweat. And I plan to remember a person I never met, yet who has continued to have a huge influence on me.

Osu, Shuseki Shihan. Rest in peace.

my black belt promotion essay


When we go through a black belt promotion, we have to write an essay. I posted my essays for when I went up for first- and second-degree here, and now I give you my third-degree essay:


 The Place to Find the Way is Also the Place to Find the People

sandan promotion essay

by Keith R.A. DeCandido

One of the things I love most about my career as a fiction writer is that it connects me to people. I do upwards of two dozen events a year—convention appearances, talks at schools and bookstores and libraries, writing conferences, and so on—and I love the opportunity that gives me to interact with other people.

When I first came to Riverdale Kenshikai Karate thirteen years ago, my primary motive was for me: making myself stronger, getting into a shape that wasn’t an oval, increasing my stamina. What I got, besides all that, was a wonderful community of people, probably best exemplified by the six fellow Riverdale karateka by whose side I’m standing at this promotion.

Senpai Charles was a brown belt when I became a blue belt, and I remember being impressed with his intensity, the fluidity and grace of his movements, and his spirit—not to mention his generosity and friendliness. The U.S. Army kept taking him away from the dojo to serve, and as a result, he and I got to go for our nidan promotion together four years ago, and we do so again now. It has been an honor and a privilege to go through both these promotions with someone as dedicated, as talented, and as humble as Senpai Charles, who is one of the most accomplished people in our dojo.

For the last five years or so, I’ve been teaching the Friday night kids fighting class. Back when he was a brown belt, Senpai Dylan was a regular attendee of that class. He was already an excellent fighter, but what stood out to me then, and still stands out to me today, is how generous he is with his advice and assistance. He’s always working with his opponents, pushing them, yes, but also taking the time to help them learn and get better. The maturity and generosity Senpai Dylan has always shown in the dojo is rare in adults, much less the pre-teen he was when he was taking the Friday classes. I said then that he would make a great black belt, and his time as a junior shodan has proven me right, and I have every confidence that he will continue to be so as a junior nidan.

One of the reasons why a black belt promotion is so special is that it shows a level of dedication and consistency that’s hard to come by. We all have lives, we all have other forces pulling at us. When I was a white belt in 2004, I started at the same time as three other people. Three others joined shortly before me, and three others joined shortly after me. Of those ten people, the only ones still affiliated with our dojo in any way are myself and Senpai Lio. People move away, they grow older and shift their priorities in a different direction, they join other dojos, they get injured, they get new jobs that don’t fit with the dojo schedule, or they just don’t get the same fulfillment from karate that they used to.

Which is why seeing our four advanced brown belts going up together is so impressive. Vivian, Helene, and Alicia all started at roughly the same time, and they have gone through the color-belt ranks together. They are three very strong karateka, and that’s at least in part due to the fact that they have taken this particular journey together, pushing each other and encouraging each other.

As for Libby, she’s one of those people you could easily have never seen again. She had to leave the dojo for a bit due to pregnancy, and it’s a testament to her dedication that she came back after so much time away and picked up right where she left off, joining these three who had been her juniors on the climb to this promotion.

Libby also has an intensity that I have always admired. Even when she was a white belt the first time, she had a laser focus that stood out. She’s also a fellow freelance writer, and it’ll nice to have another word-slinger in the black belt ranks.

Vivian has an inquisitiveness that I love. She always wants to learn, not just how to do the techniques, but why we do them, what our theoretical opponent is doing, the history of a particular tradition, and so on. She’s always asking questions, which is the best way to learn things.

Alicia is an absolute joy to watch in the dojo. Her movements are so fluid and impressive, as is her dedication to punching hard, standing low, and kicking high. (Kicking very very high, as I have been reminded every time I’ve gone against her in fighting class.) The clarity of her movements is something I constantly aspire to.

Vivian and Alicia also both have two children in the dojo—Vivian has two young boys, Alicia a girl and a boy. They’re all excellent karateka, as is Vivian’s husband. I must admit to always loving seeing families join the dojo as a group. Senpai Charles’s two children have also trained at Riverdale, at least until college whisked them away, and so many other adults have family joining them to train. And Alicia’s daughter in particular is one I’ve enjoyed seeing mature, as she regularly attends the Friday fighting class, and she is turning into a world-class fighter—she is utterly fearless. The spirit her mother shows has obviously been passed on to the next generation.

Finally, there’s Helene, whom I saved for last of the half-dozen fellow candidates, because she reminds me so much of me. Like me, Helene had never truly done the fitness thing before walking into Riverdale Kenshikai. Like me, she has spent her adult life in a profession that is relatively sedentary. And like me, she struggled mightily in her earliest days, as she asked her body to do things it had never ever even considered doing before. But she came through that crucible to become as strong a student as we have, and I’m beyond thrilled to see her going for her black belt this week, and honored that I get to go through this promotion by her side.

The seven of us have been preparing for several months now, doing quite a bit together, from regular classes to review classes to fighting classes to assorted perambulations through Van Cortlandt Park. At the last of the latter this past Sunday, Shihan Paul said he wanted us to hike a long trail together as a team-building exercise. It actually worked quite well in that regard, although the manufacture was already pretty much in place. However, the lengthy hike through the back forests of the park did reinforce our team spirit very nicely, and we came out of it feeling strong and ready for this week’s trials.

Our little group of promotion applicants is just part of it, though. One of the things that makes our dojo a place worth coming back to is the fact that we’re not just people who show up, sweat for an hour, and then go home. Shihan Paul has fostered a community here, from the many events he does with the kids to the adult outings and so much more. We’ve all become friends in addition to colleagues in karate, and while I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, I do know that my own life has been enriched by the people I’ve been training with all these years.

There’s Sensei Gustavo, who is Shihan’s right hand, and whose love of karate is as infectious as his smile. Our wonderful sandan quadrivium of Senpais Stephen, Karen, Dorian, and Liza, who are the engines that make dojo events happen, and who also inspire all of us every time they come to class with their strength, spirit, and generosity. Senpai Cliff, who assisted Shihan with the white belt classes when I started thirteen years ago, and from whom I learned so much about etiquette and discipline and staying within myself. The many black belts who also teach, or have taught in the past, from Senpais Michael and Joel, who would fill in for Shihan when I was a lower belt and from whom I learned a great deal, to Senpais Dago and Jorge, who also teach in the dojo, and who provide a superlative example. Senpai Lio, with whom I came up as a white belt, and whose friendliness is always a welcome sight. And so many more, from our growing and impressive collection of junior black belts to all the other black belts and color belts, to the ever-rotating white belts, who are all starting the journey.

And finally, there are the students I’ve taught, both here at the dojo and at the afterschool programs in upper Manhattan that I’ve been responsible for the past three years. Teaching has been a superlative experience, one I did not expect when I first started training. I have come to love teaching as much as I love writing, which is no small accomplishment. Seeing the students I’ve taught learn things and advance in rank has been the most magnificent experience, giving me a particular sense of accomplishment unparalleled in any other aspect of my life. In addition, teaching has made me a better student, I believe. I certainly think I’m a better fighter after teaching sparring to kids for several years.

I look forward to continuing my time in this community with my fellow karateka, with my students, with my friends, as I venture forth.



day 3 of promotion


There it is. My black belt with a third stripe on it.


We did thirty rounds of fighting. All of our best fighters were there, and everyone pushed us hard.

In the end, we actually got spontaneous applause, which I’m fairly certain is the first time that’s happened. (Usually after the final round there are whoops and cheers and things, but usually not applause. That was cool.)

I also got my legs swept out from under me by one black belt. Three black belt promotions and this is the first time I got knocked on my ass…..

But it was great. I held my own against some very strong fighters, and was still going — well, maybe not “strong,” but upright and still moving by the time we reached the 30th round.

It has truly been an honor and a privilege to go up with six such tremendous people. And the support of the other black belts really made all the difference, having them cheer us on and push us and encourage us. It was truly a fantastic experience.

But man, am I tired….

It’s not quite over yet. I have to teach my afterschool classes today and then we have one final workout in the dojo tonight. It’s the usual Monday color belt class, but it’s focused on the black belt candidates. It’s also open to the entire dojo. The main three days of promotion are for black belts only (we even cover the windows and doors so people can’t look in from the street), but tonight is for the entirety of our dojo community.

And then afterward, we go to a local Japanese restaurant for revelry.

This has been such an amazing journey. I still can’t entirely believe it’s true, even though I’ve got a certificate, and everything!


day 2 of promotion


The second night of promotion was even more amazing than the first. While the first night covered basic material and combinations, the second night covers kata and self-defense. These are my two favorite parts of karate, so Friday night is usually my favorite part of the black belt promotion, whether as a participant or as a spectator. (The black belt promotions are closed — we cover the windows and door and everything — but all black belts are welcome, and I have made it a point to make it for at least one day of each promotion since I got my shodan in 2009.)

Friday is also when we talk about our essays. I’ll run my essay here after the whole thing is over (I posted my previous two essays for my shodan and nidan promotions here), but I noticed there was a theme throughout all our essays about the community of our dojo and how welcoming it is. Some of the other candidates told very personal stories about their journeys and the difficulties they had to overcome in life, and what led them to the dojo, and all kinds of other incredibly heartwarming and heartfelt things.

This is what I love about our dojo: it’s not just a bunch of individuals who come inside, sweat for an hour, and leave. These aren’t just fellow karateka, these are people I consider to be good friends.

I actually digressed a bit from my essay, which was about the other six people I went up with, mostly, and in general about how the dojo has given me all these cool new friends I never would have met, plus a bit about how much I love teaching. But when I went up to speak, I mostly talked about how the prompt for the essay — how has the dojo changed your personality? — was kind of backwards for me. When I was in first grade, I got a commendation from my teacher because I was always trying to help the kids who were struggling with something. My parents are librarians and teachers, and that dual whammy of trying to help people learn things obviously took, because I have taken to teaching like a duck to water. Even when I was a color belt, I was always offering to help folks out who were struggling with things and to answer questions. (Of course, sometimes, even now, the answer is, “I have no idea.”)

But the influence of my parents goes beyond that. When I was a kid, three separate sets of friends called my parents one weekend asking to come over and/or for a place to crash. My parents, of course, said yes each time. After the third call, my mother turns to my father and says, “What are we running here, a halfway house?” And my father shook his head and said, “More like an all-the-way house.”

My own house today is like that, too, as Wrenn, Dale, and I all are always willing to take in anyone who needs it. We had six house guests the weekend of our wedding, and three the weekend of New York Comic-Con, and so many others. We’re always happy to open our doors without hesitation or question.

So it isn’t so much that the dojo changed me, it’s that I found a dojo that fit me like a glove. My dojo is my second home, really, and it’s because of the wonderful community that Shihan has built.

Anyhow, that was the end of the night, which included some remarkably personal stuff from some of the candidates. It just tightened that community feeling.

Prior to that, we did tons of kata, tons of self-defense, lots of other nifty things. One of my favorite parts was when Charles and I — the two people going for sandan — did a nidan kata called Koryugojushiho. Most of our katas have very nifty, flowery translations (“peace and harmony,” “fortune and luck,” “keep pure,” “the rhythm of the wind”), but Koryugojushiho has a much more prosaic translation: “traditional 54 movements.” It’s the longest kata I’ve ever done (and one of the two longest we have, the other being a sandan kata I look forward to being able to learn after Monday), and Charles and I did it twice together. I made one mistake the first time, which is I think part of the reason why Shihan asked us to do it again. (We also did it in two separate directions.) Charles and I also faced each other to do a bunch of fighting drills, five of them attacking with punches and kicks, and then three more with bo staffs.

It was fantastic. We all had tremendous energy and we fed off each other’s spirit and intensity, and it made all of us stronger. As I said above, I’ve been to every black belt promotion since I went for my shodan in 2009, and this was one of the most powerful I’ve been to, and I’m not just saying that because I’m in it…..

Tomorrow morning, we go back to the dojo for the final piece, which is kumite — sparring. Where Friday covered my favorite parts of karate, Sunday will cover my least favorite part. But I will persevere, and I hope to make it through.

We’ll find out tomorrow…..

day 1 of promotion


I’m generally someone who sweats a lot when I exert myself. Very early on in my time training in karate, I started wearing a sweat band on my forehead, which is vitally necessary given a) how much I sweat, b) that I have a lot of hair, and c) I wear glasses. Without the sweatband, the sweat would pour off my hair and onto my glasses and into my eyes.

However, as I’ve progressed further in my karate, I’ve noticed that I don’t sweat as much. Mind you, it’s still an issue, but I’m not dripping all over the floor like I used to when I was a color belt. Not sure why that is — maybe just a byproduct of being stronger and in better shape, so the actual effort to do things is less than it was. It’s not like the old days, where my gi would look like it was gray, rather than white, after a particularly intense class.

I mention all this by way of saying that tonight, after the first of three days of promotion for my sandan (third degree) black belt, holy crap, was I drenched in sweat. And my gi was gray.

And it was fantastic. All seven of us showed good form, strong spirit, and good knowledge of the material. Usually, when Shihan or Sensei asks a question and the candidate asked gets it wrong, the candidate in question has to do push-ups. I’m pleased to say that none of us had to do push-ups tonight.

Well, extraneous push-ups, at least — there were lots of push-ups that were a normal part of the promotion, of course, including me, my fellow nidan-going-for-sandan, Charles, and Dylan, who’s going for his junior nidan, doing ten push-ups on jo staffs. Fun fun fun.

It was a fantastic night. I’m pleased with how well I did — I made a couple of small mistakes, but no big ones, I answered all the questions I was asked correctly, and all seven of us showed amazing spirit. I may have said that already. Hi, I’m tired.

Seriously, I’m pretty much wiped out and am amazed I’m coherent enough to write this blog entry. I’m’na go lay down on our nice, comfy, memory-foam mattress and be a lump until I have to go teach tomorrow.

(By the way, I also completed a short project. Tomorrow, I do the great superhero movie rewatch before teaching. Friday I dive back into A Furnace Sealed in the fond hope of actually finishing the fershlugginer thing.)

from the archives: my black belt promotion essays


Today, Shihan gave me the official application for my promotion to sandan (third-degree black belt). From now until the promotion — which starts on the 18th and ends on the 23rd — I will be a white belt again.

Part of the promotion is to write an essay, and I’ve also done this for my first- and second-degree promotions. I posted them on the old blog, and here they are on the new one, the first from October 2009, the second from March 2013:


Black Belt Promotion Essay
by Keith R.A. DeCandido

In 2004, I turned 35, and it seemed as if the warranty had run out on my body. I was 25 pounds overweight, I had developed a hiatal hernia, and my knees and feet hurt so much that my doctor had to prescribe medication to manage the pain.

I also had done essentially no exercising in my entire life. Certainly not since grade school, when I played on the soccer team. After that, and through to adulthood, my life was the textbook definition of sedentary. By profession, I’m a writer and editor, both of which are jobs that require one to spend a considerable amount of time sitting at a computer. My hobbies include watching baseball, watching television, watching movies—generally from a nice comfortable seat. Physical activity simply never played a role in my life.

That changed five years ago, when my doctor told me in no uncertain terms that the best way to deal with my assorted health issues was to exercise regularly.

The next step was to choose what form this exercise would take. Simply joining a gym was never going to work. In order for me to motivate myself, I would need to be engaged mentally as well as physically. Walking on an elliptical or lifting weights would not provide that.

However, I’d always had an interest in the martial arts, and that would have a practical component beyond simply losing weight. I’ve always enjoyed watching martial artists at work, always been fascinated by the controlled movements and the elegance, and always thought it would be fun to learn.

My reasons for choosing this dojo were rather prosaic: it is walking distance from where I live. I don’t own a car, and proximity to my own shower was an important criterion for choosing a place of exercise.

Studying karate under Shihan Paul has exceeded my expectations. Initially, that is because those expectations were not terrifically high. I mainly wanted somewhere that would aid me in improving my health. And I accomplished that. While my weight is actually the same as it was five years ago, it’s mostly muscle, and my body fat ratio is quite low. My blood pressure is better than it’s ever been, my knees and feet no longer hurt, and the hiatal hernia’s barely a factor anymore.

However, I have gotten so much more out of my experiences as a karateka.

The first day I came to the dojo on 20 September 2004, I wasn’t even capable of doing more than one push-up. Every moment I did was a tremendous struggle. In the five years since, I’ve gone through nine promotions, several Kagami Birakis, and countless kumite classes, but none of those resulted in the sheer bone-weary, sweat-drenched exhaustion of that first class.

But I came back the following week. One of the reasons was Shihan Paul (he was Kyoshi Paul, then). From the start, I noticed that his teaching style was very much geared toward allowing you to work within yourself. He didn’t force me to do anything I was unable to do, though he did encourage me (not push—an important distinction) to do the most that I was capable of. I have had many teachers in my life, whether in schools and universities or in my professional life, and Shihan Paul is one of the very finest. His compassion and understanding, his skills at demonstrating and communicating, are superb. He is also a truly fine storyteller, whether giving a Zen lecture after a Thursday class or a toast at a dojo celebration. Stories have always been the greatest teaching tools humanity has, and Shihan Paul uses them to excellent effect.

I freely admit that my own stubborness played a part in keeping me coming back as a white belt. I do not like to fail when I set out to accomplish something. My response to that first class was less, “I can’t do this, this will kill me,” and more, “I can do better than this.”

A third factor that continued to inspire me to return to the dojo week after week is the other students. Initially, the others in the white-belt class provided encouragement. I started the same day as three other students, and in those early days we all pushed each other. Three more students joined the class in December, and again, we pushed each other, helping each other out. Two other fellow white belts from those days remain students at the dojo, both now brown belts, and over the past five years the three of us have continued to inspire each other, and become better karateka together than we would have individually.

Our black belts have also provided daily inspiration. In particular I must single out Senpai Cliff—who still assists Shihan Paul during the adult white-belt classes, and whose guidance was invaluable then and remains so now—and Senpai Gustavo—whose Wednesday classes I have happily attended since they began in 2005.

The black belts also remind me that this promotion is not the destination, but another step on the journey. I look forward to continuing that journey for many years to come.



Nidan Promotion Essay
by Keith R.A. DeCandido

One of my favorite parts of a book to write and to read is the acknowledgments section. I’m always curious who it was that helped the author on his or her writing journey. The acknowledgments can be very revealing about the process of the book’s creation.

Some authors refer to that as the “acknowledgments page,” but I really can’t do that, for rare is it that my acknowledgments can be confined to a single page (unless the typeface is really small…). One of my colleagues once joked that he was going to nominate the acknowledgments in one of my Star Trek novels for Best Short Story, because that one went on for several pages.

But publicly thanking and praising and crediting those who assisted me in whatever way—even if it’s something minor, like helping me name a character—is important. Nobody ever works in a vacuum, and that’s particularly true for writers, for all that we spend most of our working time sitting alone in a room with only a keyboard for company.

It’s also a bit of a thrill to be so acknowledged. Every time I find my name in the acknowledgments of a colleague’s book, I’ve been very proud to know that I was able to help a fellow author out and ease or assist in the creation of the book.

As with writing, so too with karate. In the three-and-a-half years that I’ve spent as a shodan, I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about who and what came before. The karate that I learn from Shihan Paul and the other black belts was taught to them by Shuseki Shihan William Oliver, who learned from Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura, who learned from Masusatsu Oyama, who learned from Gigo Funakoshi, the son of Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate. I’ve read the autobiographies of both Funakoshi (Karate-Do: My Way of Life) and Nakamura (The Human Face of Karate: My Life, My Karate-Do), and watched the documentaries Fighting Black Kings (which heavily featured Shuseki Shihan Oliver) and True to the Way: A Portrait of Shuseki Shihan William Oliver on DVD, as well as various YouTube videos of Shuseki Shihan teaching, fighting, performing kata, and being interviewed.

Shihan Paul no more works in a vacuum as a karate teacher than I do as a writer: all those sources above show a lineage of karate instruction and of karate philosophy that I see every time I enter the dojo, from Funakoshi’s humility and stressing the importance of never using your karate if you do not have to, to Nakamura’s emphasis of the community of karateka and the importance of students helping each other.

Since attaining my black belt, the biggest change for me is that Shihan Paul has asked me to assist him in teaching children’s and white-belt classes. I have also taught classes on my own whenever Shihan Paul or one of the other black belts assigned to teach a particular class has been away.

Teaching karate has been one of the most thrilling and enjoyable experience of my life. I have tried to take the lessons I’ve learned from Shihan Paul to heart—as well as those of other black belts. I have, at times, found myself emulating something that Senpai Gustavo has done in his class, or Sensei Clai or Senpai Joel or Senpai Cliff or another black belt.

Primarily, though, I take my cues from Shihan Paul, and not just because he runs our dojo, but because he is one of the finest teachers I have ever known. It’s a particular joy to assist him when he’s teaching the children’s classes, as he has an excellent rapport with them. He never discourages kids, always showing them how to do it right rather than telling them they’ve done it wrong. But he also never stops pushing them, encouraging them to do more than they think they can, and never letting them get away with doing less.

Just as my acknowledgments tell people who aided me in my fictional journey, but the book is still mine, I try to make my teaching style be my own, filtered though it is through the lessons of Shihan Paul and my other teachers.

At our dojo’s spring camp in 2011, Shihan Paul performed Kanku kata for us. On YouTube, there is a magnificent video of Shuseki Shihan Oliver doing the same kata, and you can see the influence of the latter on the former—but also that Shihan Paul has made the kata his, even though he pays tribute to his teacher in many of the ways he demonstrates the kata. This is the same approach I try to take as a teacher.

While I no more seek out acknowledgment from the students I work with than I do fellow authors, the thrill is there when it happens in either case. Several of the children who study at the dojo—and many of their caretakers—have expressed gratitude to me for the work I’ve done with them. And seeing the kids succeed has become important to me because I’ve helped to guide them, even if only in some small ways.

The best example of this was recent, and is truly the answer to the question posed by Shihan Paul in his assignment of this essay topic, to wit how has being a karateka changed me? There is a young man in our dojo who suffers from a muscular disorder. His flexibility is poor and he sometimes has trouble with simple physical tasks that most of us take for granted. He began studying karate as a way of helping overcome the difficulties that this disorder has placed in his path.

But he has taken to it with an infectious enthusiasm. Even though his body doesn’t want him to do a lot of these things, he pushes himself to keep doing them. Few people kiai as loudly in class as he does, and he always raises his hand whenever Shihan or I ask a terminology question—and he often gets them right. I’ve taught some private lessons to him, and he also regularly takes the Friday night kids sparring class, which I have taught a number of times the past couple of years.

Earlier this month, there was a make-up promotion that included this young man, who was going for his green belt. Even though the promotion was at eight in the morning on a Sunday, even though I’d been out late the night before, I made sure to assist Shihan Paul with that promotion, because I wanted to be there to help him achieve his green belt. I took tremendous pride in his accomplishment and gratitude that I was able to help him in whatever way I could.

I look forward to continuing to train, continuing to teach, and continuing to honor those who came before me by encouraging and assisting with those who will come after.


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.