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.

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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…

The Year in Tang Soo Do (With a Couple of Thoughts on the Relationship Between Practicing a Martial Art and Writing)

1.

I spent 2015 as a red belt in Tang Soo Do, the martial art I practice with my younger son, David.  During that time, I moved from 3rd Gup to 1st Gup, which is to say, by the very end of the year, I had reached the end of my Gup, or colored belt, training, and was ready to start preparing for my Cho Dan, or black belt, test.  At 46, I find it all kinds of crazy to be at this point.  I’ve been part of this school for the last four years, during which, I’ve worked harder, physically speaking, than I ever have before.  In part, this is because, at this age, I have to attend class as often as I can, in order to maintain whatever health/fitness gains I’ve made.  In part, too, it’s because Tang Soo Do is full of all manner of jumping kicks, and for some reason, I find this the most consistently challenging part of the art.  I love doing it, though.  My school (Triumph Karate) is run by great teachers who don’t take themselves too seriously–but who take what they’re teaching with the utmost seriousness.  It avoids the quasi-cult atmosphere you can encounter in some martial arts schools.  The student body skews towards the younger end of the spectrum, but there are enough other adults taking classes for me not to feel out of place.  I have to thank Sa Bom Nim Rodney Batista, who runs the school, and his dedicated teaching staff, for their constant patience and encouragement; I also have to thank my family, especially my younger son, without whose support I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten this far.

Here’s a brief video of the two board breaks I had to do to earn this last promotion:

 

2.

A few months ago, I was contacted by a guy reaching out to a few writers he had noticed also practiced a martial art.  Would we be willing to write something, he wanted to know, about the relationship between our fiction and our martial art?  Yes, I said, of course.  I made a note of the invitation on my list of writing projects, and returned to the story I was working on.

Then I wrote the next story.

Then I started the story after that–which was when I remembered that I was supposed to have written about the connection between writing and Tang Soo Do.  I searched my correspondence for the contact information for the guy who had e-mailed me and couldn’t find it.  I could have let the matter drop, but I had been thinking about what relation my writing and martial art practice had, on and off, for a couple of months, and I wanted to record some of my thoughts.  Since I also wanted to write about this past year in Tang Soo Do, I decided to combine the two into a single blog post.  So:

Practicing a martial art will not make you a better writer.  (Not directly, at least.)

What makes you a better writer is writing, consistently, and reading, consistently.  What regular practice of Tang Soo Do or any martial art will do is maintain and hopefully improve your physical (and I think mental) health, which is no small thing.  From a physical standpoint, writing is a pretty sedentary occupation, and that poses all kinds of long-term threats to your health.  I don’t know a writer who doesn’t want some measure of success; it would be nice to be healthy enough to enjoy such success when it finally arrives.  Not to mention, if you have a family, friends, pets, it would be nice to keep yourself in decent shape for them.  The important thing is a decent amount of regular exercise; it doesn’t really matter what form it takes.  And if you think it’s hard to start now, at whatever age you are, it’s only going to get harder as the years speed by.  There’s no time like the present and all that.

(The mental benefits of regular exercise are harder for me to quantify, but there’s something to be said for spending a certain amount of time each day outside of your head, of whatever it is you’re obsessing over in your creative life.  Let’s be honest, your self-esteem doesn’t hurt from knowing you’re exercising, either.  And the endorphins are good, too.)

None of what I’ve written so far is anything other than obvious and ordinary.  Sometimes, though, I find it useful to state such things, on the principle that, just because it’s obvious, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

To speak personally, Tang Soo Do has worked for me because it’s more than simple repetitious movement.  I’ve never been one of those folks who can go to the gym and hamster-out–start running, or lifting weights, or whatever, and lose myself in glad animal movement.  I find that, the more I run, or lift, or whatever–and especially as the exercise I’ve selected becomes harder, takes more and more out of me–the more I plunge into my own head, and not usually in a way that’s terribly productive.  By giving me something to focus on, a growing body of moves, of different and increasingly elaborate combinations of moves, Tang Soo Do keeps my mind occupied, as well, with the end result that each class is a break from whatever else is going on in my life–especially the stressful stuff.

From what I can tell, every martial art is an amalgam, a combination of elements taken from numerous traditions (though you’d be amazed at how many insist on the absolute purity of their particular style…).  In learning and practicing forms that go back to Okinawa, or Southern China, or Japan, or Korea, I’m in touch with traditions that extend back through the decades–in some cases, centuries.  I find that connection grounding in a way I can’t quite articulate–maybe it has something to do with that Willa Cather quotation about the happiness that comes with losing yourself in something greater.  Except I don’t quite lose myself, so maybe not; instead, what happens is a kind of meeting of that larger historical tradition with my individual expression of it.  I see a parallel here to my writing practice, which as I conceive it involves me engaging prose forms that reach back to such writers as Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Robert E. Howard, and so on.  As I see it, these kinds of traditions are inescapable, so I prefer to meet them in a self-aware fashion.  What results, I hope, is a kind of hybrid:  my use of the prose form revealing new aspects of it to the reader, even as it helps me to express my particular concerns, the personal and the historical twisting one into the other.  Yes, it’s the whole yin-yang thing.

The biggest thing my practice of Tang Soo Do has taught me is patience, and that is something that I think has all sorts of applications outside the martial arts studio.  To earn a back belt in this particular style takes between four and a half and five years, which is longer than some martial arts, not as long as others.  Particularly as what I’ve been learning has grown more complex, and it’s taken me longer and longer to properly execute this or that particular move in a form, I’ve had to develop more and more patience with myself.  There’s a tendency, in martial arts as in anything, for early success to go to your head, to give you an illusion of mastery that can ultimately hinder further growth.  As an example, take the first tournament I competed in.  I was still a white belt, my competition form the second basic form, which I was sure I had down cold.  The other adult beginners at my school told me I looked great.  At the end of my portion of the forms competition, however, I took the silver medal.  Looking back on this now, I realize what an accomplishment that was, especially for someone who had been studying Tang Soo Do for a little over three months at that point.  At the time, though, I was secretly disappointed, so sure had I been that I deserved the gold.  Do I need to say that, with the benefit of what I’ve learned since then, I can see that my form wasn’t quite as good as I thought it was, that there was plenty for me to improve upon?  When I do that same form now, I like to think I’m better at it than I was those years ago, but I recognize that there’s still room for improvement, that there will be for as long as I continue to practice Tang Soo Do.

And as long as I continue to write.

 

 

I Know Some of You

are wondering why I study Tang Soo Do.  I could tell you that it’s for the long-term health benefits, or to share in an activity with my younger son, and while each of those would be true, neither is the REAL reason.  This video explains it better than I ever could:

That’s right:  I study Tang Soo Do to enable me to fight HOPPING VAMPIRES.

That is all.

A New Year’s Reflection, Prompted by Jet Li’s Fearless

Yesterday afternoon, my younger son, David, wanted to close out the old year by watching a martial arts film.  I opted for Jet Li’s Fearless, which I hadn’t seen before.  It’s a version, you might say, of the life of the Chinese martial artist, Huo Yuanjia.  As you would expect, the martial arts portion of the film was impressive.  There was an emphasis on not using your kung fu to beat up other people/take revenge on your enemies that I appreciated, especially since I was watching the film with my eleven year old, red belt son.

What struck me most, though, was a scene towards the end of the film, when Jet Li’s character is having tea with a Japanese karate master he’ll soon face in combat.  Huo Yuanjia, as he’s portrayed here, puts forth the idea that there is no single martial art that’s the best.  They’re all valid; there are simply better and worse practitioners of them.  So why compete against one another? the karate master asks.  To find out what our individual shortcomings are, Huo Yuanjia says, and work to better ourselves.

Fearless Still

From what little I know of martial arts, this strikes me as pretty much the case.  (As my Sa Bom Nim likes to say, “What’s the best martial art if you’re attacked?  The one you know.”)  And however hokey the scene in which it was expressed, the sentiment seems equally applicable to a variety of contexts, particularly the arts.  Since writing is what I do, I’m thinking of it specifically in that way.  Yes, there are plenty of kinds of narrative, plenty of genres, and within each one, all sorts of subdivisions.  But I have yet to see any compelling evidence that one type of narrative or another is intrinsically superior to the rest.  (Which is not to say that I haven’t read a lot of assertions to that effect.)  What I have seen are individual writers whose use of a particular genre, or one of its subdivisions, allows them to create brilliant art.

Don’t get me wrong:  I don’t deny the usefulness of larger categories of narrative, either to serve as a frame for the writer to work within, or to aid the critic attempting to interpret and contextualize the writer’s work.  The martial arts comparison applies:  the specific styles and schools allow you a way to direct your individual development.  If it helps you as a writer to see yourself as part of a larger movement, to publish manifestos, to align yourself with this writer or that writer who’s gone before, then by all means, do what helps your writing.  I cheerfully identify myself as a horror writer, and am happy to place myself within a tradition that includes Stephen King, Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, and Robert E. Howard, to name a few.  I try not to confuse my identification with the genre, however, and my love and respect for it, with any sense that it’s superior to the other kinds of narratives people choose to write.

Ultimately, my real contest is with myself, to try to be a better writer tomorrow than I was today.  The more I’ve practiced Tang Soo Do, the more I’ve discovered I’m able to do.  (Flying side kicks–it’s crazy.)  The more I’ve written, the more I’ve discovered I’m able to write.  Horror, weird, strange, bizarro:  whatever you call what you’re doing, use it to help you become a better artist.  Your contest isn’t with your fellow writers:  it’s with yourself.

The Fall in Tang Soo Do

As you know, Bob, my younger son and I study a Korean martial art named Tang Soo Do together.  David’s been taking classes at Triumph Karate in Kingston, NY, since July of 2011; I joined the school the following December.  Although David is still technically my senior, I’ve caught up to him rank-wise, and our last several promotions have been together.  This past September was time for our next major promotion, to red belt, which is the last belt before black.  (For those of you who are savvy to such things, we were testing for our third gups.)  (Actually, we were ready to be tested in August, but asked our Sa Bom Nim (teacher) if we could wait a couple of weeks until my older son and his family were going to be up visiting.)  So on a Friday night, David and I tested for and passed our red belt tests, and were awarded our belts:

Red Belts!

I’d be lying if I said I was anything other than delighted for the two of us.  This is the farthest I’ve ever gone in anything like this, and to have done so alongside David was a privilege.  Afterwards, Fiona, David, and I retired to a local pizza restaurant (King’s Pizza in Kingston–highly recommended) together with Nick, Mary, and their kids, plus my sister, Christina, her husband, Tony, and their two kids.  That meal is one of my favorite memories from this past year:  everyone seated at one long table, talking with, over, and into one another, a general sense of well-being and merriment (and pizza!) filling the air.

Almost immediately after that night, however, I had to have my hernia surgery, which kept me out of Tang Soo Do for about six weeks.  When I returned, it was just in time to help Fiona, David, and our Sa Bom Nim put together the studio’s first Halloween party, which was a smashing success and which climaxed with me telling a group of kids and their parents the story of a cursed black belt.

Triumph Halloween 2014

Two weeks after that, David and I participated in our studio’s first annual tournament.  Neither one of us was as prepared as we would have liked; despite which, we both earned medals.  He took second in sparring and second in board-breaking; I took first in weapons (sword) and board-breaking, third in sparring, and fourth in forms.  I was maybe most pleased with the weapons win, for which I adapted one of our forms to use with a sword my older son had given us a couple of years ago.  The tournament was harder for David, who had practiced long hours on a bo staff form that didn’t place.  But he kept his chin up, and later that same night, he was back at the staff, working on new forms for it.

The year to come will be full of a lot of training, as David and I look forward to our black belts (we hope) sometime in 2016.  Thanks to Sa Bom Nims Batista and Duncan, and everyone associated with Triumph, for a great year.