Black Belts!

Here’s some much-needed good news:  recently, David, myself, and the three other students from our karate studio who tested for our black belts last month learned that all of us passed the test.  In another couple of weeks, we’ll be presented with our new belts and uniforms after a demonstration at our studio.  Thanks very much to everyone who supported us along the way.  As part of the testing requirements, each of us had to write a thousand word essay on the topic, “What Tang Soo Do Means to Me.”  I thought I’d share what I wrote here.

Sons and Fathers, Fathers and Sons:

A Reflection on My Experience of Tang Soo Do

 by

 John Langan

 I

Um

      It’s February of 1983.  I’m thirteen years old, and sitting in the front seat of the family car, a gigantic blue Ford LTD.  My father is driving.  It’s after 9:00pm, late for me to be out on a Wednesday night.  We’re heading home from the IBM Country Club in Poughkeepsie, where I just earned my yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do.  The room in which I tested was huge, carpeted, probably a ballroom, full of people of all ages wearing doboks, some of them doing forms, others sparring.  While my father watched from the sidelines, I performed the three forms required for my exam and was awarded my yellow belt.  On the small green grading card, Master Sun, the head of our local Tae Kwon Do organization, wrote a couple of Korean characters with an exclamation point next to them.  My teacher told me this means I did a great job.

The car ride home is quiet.  This is not a bad silence, though, like when I’m in trouble and listening for the sound of my father pulling into the driveway.  This is a companionable quiet.  My father has never seen me do Tae Kwon Do before; I go every Monday with a pair of school friends, one of whose fathers drives us.  Truth to tell, I’ve never been much of an athlete.  Although I played in the local soccer league when I was younger, I wasn’t very good.  My career came to an end when I was ten, and broke my foot trying to take the ball away from a bigger kid.  (He kicked at the ball, and hit my foot, instead.)  Since then, the closest I’ve come to participating in an organized sport has been trying out for CYO basketball this past fall and not making the team.  For my father, a self-described sports nut who was offered a position on the local soccer team when he was a young man in Scotland, my lack of athletic ability is difficult.  Outside of Saturday afternoon Bruce Lee movies on Channel 9, he isn’t familiar with martial arts, so he hasn’t known how to think about my Monday night training.

After we return home, I’ll overhear him talking to my mother about the test, and while I won’t be able to make out all of what he says, it won’t matter.  What will is the tone of his voice, surprised, impressed, and proud.  Across a distance of thirty-four years, I will still be able to hear it.  For the moment, though, what matters is that feeling between us as we’re sitting in the car, heading down Route 9, that closeness.  In the ten years we have left together, there will be other good times, but none quite like that one.

 II

Yung

      (I’ll stick with Tae Kwon Do for about another year.  Not long after I earn my yellow belt, my teacher moves to Florida.  The man who takes over the class doesn’t believe that kids my age have a place in a martial arts class.  I train and train and train, but he refuses to send me for my next belt exam.  I finally stop going.  My father doesn’t comment on my decision.)

III

Um

      It’s August of 2011.  I’m forty-two years old, sitting at a table in front of Boice’s Dairy Bar with my wife, younger son, David, and David’s Tang Soo Do instructor, Master Rodney Batista.  David has been a student at Triumph Karate for a couple of months, and is having a great time as a white belt.  He and the other white belts from the dojang are at Boice’s as guests of Master Batista, who’s treating all of them to ice cream.  While the kids socialize, Fiona and I talk with David’s teacher about his training.  After a few minutes, Master Batista looks at me over his ice cream cone and says to my wife, “Hey Fiona, I think this guy wants to do karate.”

I demur.  Yes, I’m interested, but this is David’s activity.  The last thing I want to be is one of those parents who can’t let his kid have a life of his own, who’s always crowding in on his activities.

Master Batista nods.  “Tell you what,” he says.  “Why don’t you wait until David gets his orange belt, and then you can join.  This way, he’ll be ahead of you, and you won’t have to worry about competing with him.”

I agree, tentatively, but on the drive home, I ask my son if he’d be okay with me taking karate with him.  He considers the matter, then says, “I think it would be a good idea.”

IV

Yung

      (Needless to say, David earns his orange belt much more quickly than I anticipated.  The following December, I take my first class in Tang Soo Do at the Kingston YMCA.  Although I exercise to the point I’m sure I’m going to throw up, I manage to keep the contents of my stomach in place.  David, I think, doesn’t have anything to worry about.)

V

Um

      It’s September of 2014.  I’m forty-five years old, and seated at a long tale at King’s Pizza with David, my wife, my older son and his wife and children, and my younger sister and her husband and kids.  It’s a Friday night, a little after seven, and the restaurant is busy.  We’re here for a celebratory dinner:  earlier this evening, David and I passed the test for our third gups.

The red belts have come at the end of a couple of years of hard work, during which, I’ve finally caught up to my son.  A few days after I earned my green belt, one of the Dans offered me advice about my new rank.  “The green belt is the hardest belt,” she said.  “Most people who quit karate do it during their green belt.”  I asked her why this was.  She said, “Because it’s in the middle.  When you’re a white belt, everything’s new.  When you get your orange belt, it’s your first belt change, and it’s exciting.  At red belt, you’re looking ahead to your Cho Dan.  With your green belt, though, you’re no longer a beginning student, and you aren’t a senior student.  This is the belt when you really have to commit to Tang Soo Do.”

For the past two years, my son and I have followed that advice.  We’ve worked on our offensive and defensive hip movements.  We’ve increased our repertoire of hand and foot techniques.  We’ve made our way through the rest of the Pyung Ahn forms.  We’ve learned more of the Korean terminology for what we’re doing.  We’ve been to a tournament in Greenwich and brought back medals.  And our engagement with the martial art we study three and sometimes four times a week has deepened in other ways.  We’ve encouraged one of David’s oldest friends to join the dojang, and together with her mother, she has.  Most days we go to karate, we give them a ride.  We’ve encouraged my younger sister’s older son to try Tang Soo Do, which he has, and he likes it.  We’ve become friendly with the other students at the dojang, including the boy who will become one of David’s closest friends.  The more I train in Tang Soo Do, the more I see parallels between its structure and discipline and other aspects of my life.

Sometimes David and I discuss these connections on the drive in to and back from karate.  To family and friends, I’ve often said that one of the best things for my son’s martial arts training has been my decision to join him in it, because this has meant I’m too busy to interfere with it.  (Not to mention, it’s also provided me with a healthy dose of humility, trying to learn things that come so much more easily to him.)  What I haven’t said to anyone except my wife is how much I’ve also come to enjoy this time alone in the car with David.  Our conversations range all over the place, from how he’s doing at school, to his relationships with his friends, to Minecraft, to The Amazing World of Gumball, to whichever of the Marvel movies is currently in theaters.  Occasionally, he’ll ask about my day, what I’m writing now.  He’s become quite the young fisherman, and increasingly, our talk turns to fishing, spots we’ve been to, spots we might visit.

No matter what we’re discussing, though, our shared martial art is never that far from us. It’s an odd feeling, to have this experience in common with him.  Typically, fathers introduce their children to things, whether sports, or movies, or music, or food.  Certainly, that was the case with my father and me.  To learn something together, to share the experience of being fellow students—particularly in an art as rich and complex as Tang Soo Do is proving to be—feels like a gift, something I never would have guessed I’d want or appreciate as much as I do.

That gift has brought us here, to a table full of family talking with one another and eating good food.  I’m part of the general hubbub, of course, but there are a couple of moments when I fall silent, listening to the conversations around me, the easy laughter between the members of my family.  Within my quiet, I hear another silence, decades past.  Unexpectedly, I feel my throat tighten, my eyes moisten.  Fiona leans toward me, says, “Are you okay?  You seem kind of quiet.”

“I’m fine,” I say.  “Just taking everything in, you know?”

VI

Yung

      (Immediately after I receive my red belt, however, I enter the hospital for surgery to repair an umbilical hernia.  The recovery period my doctor assures me will take one to two weeks stretches to a month and a half.  After I return, I feel slow, graceless.)

 VII

Um and Yung

      It’s September of 2016.  I’m forty-seven years old, and preparing to test for my Cho Dan in a little more than a week.  David is getting ready to test with me.  It’s been a long summer of preparation, during which the martial art I thought I knew so well has become, I tell anyone who asks, engraved on my bones.

One afternoon, as we’re driving to the dojang, David says, “Do you think Grandpa would have done karate with us?”

The image of my father, dressed in a white dobak and dee, flashes in front of me.  He looks much the same as he did when he died, the only real difference his hair, which is completely white.  He, David, and I are performing Chil Sung Ill Ryo Hyung together.  The Chil Sung forms, I remember, are called the River.  I think about what flows from my father to me, from me to my son.

“Yeah,” I say, “I’m pretty sure Grandpa would have.”

johnanddavidmedals

From our last tournament, this past March.

Upcoming Events

Well, David and I survived our black belt test this past weekend; now we just have to wait for the results, which should arrive at the end of the month.  The test was long (almost seven hours, from start to finish), but we were prepared for it, so I’m feeling reasonably optimistic.

In the meantime, here are a few events I’ll be part of during the next month or so.

 

October 16, 5-7pm

Children of Lovecraft reading:

The Lovecraft Bar NYC

50 Avenue B, New York, New York 10009

This celebration of Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology will feature readings by several of its contributors, including Livia Llewellyn, Laird Barron, Siobhan Carroll, Maria Dahvana Headley, Richard Kadrey, John Langan, David Nickle, and A.C. Wise.

children-of-lovecraft-cover

 

October 22, 10am-4pm

Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival 2016

Haverhill Public Library

99 Main St., Haverhill, MA

Join us as we celebrate books this Halloween season! 36 Authors and Artists gather to present panel discussions on New England horror traditions, ghost stories, why scary stories are good for kids, and much more! Authors will be selling and autographing their books. This event is sponsored by River City Writers and Jabberwocky Bookshop!

You can find a list of the writers attending and some of what we’ll be doing here.

merrimack-2016

 

October 28, 9pm-12am

Oh, the Horror! A Spooky Salon with Stories & Music
Be Electric Studios

1298 Willoughby Ave, Brooklyn, New York 11237
A brilliant and thrilling evening of ghosts, monsters, and other-worldly visitors, curated by DANIEL BRAUM, who is the author of The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance 2016). Mr. Braum will be reading alongside JOHN LANGAN, CHANDLER KLANG SMITH, and NICHOLAS KAUFMANN. Plus, the very talented JANNA PELLE will be our featured musician for the evening. Dress up in your most terrifying Halloween costumes, if you dare (totally optional)!
oh-the-horror-pic

November 16, 2016, 7-9pm

Fantastic Fiction at KGB
85 East 4th Street
I’ll be reading alongside the talented Matthew Kressel.
kgb-barnight
There are a couple of more things I think I’ll be doing; I’ll post a separate entry for them once I have the details ironed out.

Black Belt Testing!

This weekend, David and I will be heading to Connecticut to test for our black belts in Tang Soo Do.  This is not the kind of thing I would have predicted myself doing at 47; that I am makes me quite happy, and that I’m doing so with my younger son makes me happier still.  The last several months have been devoted to ever-more-stringent training, which has taken up most of my time and attention.  Thanks to everyone at Triumph Karate in Kingston and Saugerties, NY, for helping David and I in our preparation, especially Sa Bom Nim Rodney Batista.

Once the test is past, more normal service at this blog will resume.

David regards my feeble efforts to spar him with the skepticism they so richly deserve…

At Home in the House Charles Grant Built

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This year marks a sad anniversary, a decade since the passing of writer, editor, and critic Charles L. Grant.  For those who don’t know his work, Grant was part of the group of horror writers who came to prominence in the 1970’s, a group that numbered Stephen King and Peter Straub among its members.  Contemporary writer and critic Neil Snowdon has set about commemorating Grant’s death by asking interested writers to contribute essays on and appreciations of the man and his work, which you can find here.  Although I didn’t know Grant personally, I’ve come to appreciate his fiction more and more as the years have gone by.  Here’s something about one of his more famous stories.

 

 

At Home in the House Charles Grant Built

 

For me, the principle pleasure of participating in Neil Snowdon’s worthy blogathon has been the opportunity it’s provided for me to revisit Charles L. Grant’s fiction.  In the effort, if not obsession, to remain au courant in my reading, there’s a tendency to give short shrift to re-reading.  As a consequence, I can neglect fiction which benefits from a second or a third look—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, fiction which can sustain a second or third look.  And if there’s one piece of advice that I would give to anyone approaching Grant’s work, either for the first time or after many times, it would be to re-read it.

Take “Home,” the story that Stephen King, in his introduction to Grant’s 1981 collection, Tales from the Nightside, ranked with Ramsey Campbell’s “The Companion” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall paper” as one of the three best horror stories ever written.  It begins at night, with the sound of violence, a “fight, if that’s what it was,” which is “vicious, swift, and punctuated with such high shrieking yelps and truncated dying howls” that it awakens Art, the story’s protagonist (Grant 32).  His wife, Felicity, murmurs that the noise must be dogs and urges him to go back to sleep, assuring him that he’ll learn the cause of the commotion soon enough, in the morning.  Significantly, Art has been yanked from a dream of the early days of his marriage, when he and Felicity enjoyed a romantic dinner on a boat on the Seine.  After the sounds outside, he cannot return to sleep, or to his pleasant memory.  Instead, he emerges from his house the next morning to the sight of police cars and a van from the local ASPCA parked up the road, and blood visible on the street.  A neighbor’s dog, an Irish setter well-known for tussling with other dogs, has met a gory end, presumably at the teeth of a bigger, meaner dog.  The death has occurred in front of the house of another neighbor, an older man, Calvin Schiller, who has moved there within the last year.  Felicity suggests Art consult with Cal, ask if he knows anything about what happened.  Art demurs, reluctant to approach the man due to a weird feature of his property.  Although the man himself has neither children nor grandchildren, his yard is full of toys and play sets.  Reflecting on his hesitation to speak with his neighbor, Art thinks sourly that it is typical of what his middle-aged existence has become, a retreat into lethargy mental and physical.

It’s already apparent that Art will find his way to Cal Schiller’s house, and that the old man will possess information about the death of the dog.  However, before their first conversation, Grant fleshes out the details of Art’s life.  His and Felicity’s marriage is still passionate, yet it’s equally prone to squabbles and disagreements.  His job is an exercise in frustration, his salary stagnant, his boss hostile and unappreciative.  His only child, a son, is aimless, an incipient college drop out.  In the meantime, another neighborhood animal, a Siamese cat, is brutally murdered, and a couple of local children are bitten by…something.  There are darker reports, too, of a pair of older kids, runaways, found murdered.  And throughout the story, the summer heat renders each day oppressive.

When Art finally finds his way to Cal Schiller’s front door, he receives a friendly welcome and a can of cold Australian beer.  More importantly, he finds in Cal an agreeable conversationalist, who answers Art’s questions about the toys in his yard with the revelation that he plays occasional babysitter to his neighbors’ grandchildren.  Embarrassed at his previous suspicions, Art departs, his opinion of the old man improved to the point that he calls on him again in another couple of days.  In his bourgeoning friendship with Cal, it seems Art might find his way out of the dark rut into which his life has fallen.

Of course, this is not the case.  Art discovers that the children’s amusements around Cal Schiller’s house are for nothing human, and the revelation comes at the expense of his life.  Reduced to a single-sentence summary—a man discovers his elderly neighbor is caretaker to a pack of monsters—“Home” might sound familiar, an example of the trap story, in which the protagonist rushes headlong to the thing that’s going to kill him.  It also touches on the equally familiar theme of the dangers of knowledge.  The point to be made, however, is that this is not a single sentence, but a story’s worth of them, which Grant has assembled into a microcosm of middle-aged frustration and fear.  The parameters of Art’s existence, his assorted disappointments, are laid out as deftly as those of any character in a story by John Cheever or John Updike.  He struggles to uphold his marriage.  His job is subject to the whims of his boss, and to the larger vicissitudes of the economy.  He fights disappointment with his child.  The creatures that have him at the story’s end, whose features Grant only hints at, are a kind of fulfillment of his existence, a next step, symbolically speaking.  It’s possible to read the story’s title ironically.  Art is killed in the place he considers his home, i.e. his place of refuge and safety, by things that have claimed it as their home.  Undoubtedly, such a reading pertains, but it’s equally possible to read another kind of irony into the title.  Even before Cal Schiller and his inhuman brood moved into the town, Art’s home was not what he thought it was, had not been for years, if ever[i].

In this and in so many other stories, Grant constructs a fictional universe in which whatever monstrous or supernatural elements occur are not so much invading an unspoiled Eden as they are echoing and perhaps amplifying what is already wrong with a place.  It’s a narrative strategy employed by Grant’s contemporaries, Stephen King and Peter Straub, and that descends, at least in part, from one of his great ancestors, the Ray Bradbury of the Dark Carnival stories and of Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It’s also present in some of Grant’s literary descendants, particularly a story such as David J. Schow’s “Not from Around Here.”  What Grant and these others do in story after story strikes me as a challenge to the assertion that American horror fiction, writ large, tends to concern a threat to an idealized locale by an outside force which is subsequently defeated and the ideal defended.  Rather, a story such as “Home” demonstrates that the ideal was always already spoiled, that the monsters that menace us find their reflections in our daily lives.

In his 1985 collection of interviews with horror writers, Faces of Fear, Douglas Winter begins his interview with Charles Grant by quoting David Morrell’s description of Grant’s work.  “Stephen King and Peter Straub are like the luxury liners of the horror field,” Morrell says.  “They’re always visible on the horizon when you look out over these deep, dark waters.  But Charlie Grant—he’s the unseen power, like the great white shark, just below the surface” (Winter 109).  It’s an apt simile for the way in which Grant’s fiction achieves its considerable effects.  The surface of the water rises and falls from its myriad causes, with only the slightest of ripples revealing what is barreling towards us, mouth open to rows of sharp, sharp teeth.

 

Works Cited

Grant, Charles L..  “Home.”  Tales from the Nightside.  Sauk

City, Arkham House:  1981.  32-47.

Winter, Douglas E..  Faces of Fear.  New York, Berkley:  1985.

 

[i] I have to admit to wondering about the significance of the character’s names, which seem to me to verge on the allegorical, like something out of Hawthorne (not a surprise, perhaps, given the story’s New England setting).  Art’s wife is Felicity, whose meanings include good fortune.  Cal’s first name recalls Calvin and his awful, uncompromising God.  Art’s own name, in its shortened form, suggests the made world.  So, in this allegorical chain of reasoning, the happy world of human artifice is overtaken by a vengeful Deity.