Board Breaking 101

The instructor stood in front of the class. “Today,” he said, “Only brown belts and black belts will break boards.”

The previous week, he had asked the class for a show of interest. My hand shot up: I had always wanted to break a board.

I had been offered the opportunity only once, several years ago. It had happened during a bad week. Two days before that class, an ice-climbing friend of mine had died in an avalanche in Alaska. I had attended the funeral the day before.

That first opportunity, I felt shaky. From the front of the room, the then-Sensei seemed to eye me, as if expecting me to give the board-breaking a try. Feeling that I didn’t have the necessary focus for the task, I chose not to. Afterward, when I mentioned my dilemma to Sensei’s wife, she agreed with my decision. “Times like this,” she said, “karate should take care of you.”

Now, another opportunity presented itself. The instructor greeted me personally at the entrance of the dojo and asked to speak with me. “I’m worried,” he said. “About your reverse punch. I’m not sure you’ll be able to break a board.”

My mouth opened.

“You should use a kick,” he said. “That will work better.”

I thanked him and turned away.

Oh, how I wanted to stomp. Vast were the realms of self-pity. Also: internal grumbling and sulking. How was it possible that my punch wasn’t good enough?

Could it be that the instructor was off the mark? I’m tiny, I thought to myself. One of my punches probably looks more like a hole puncher trying to poke through paper than the heavy-weight, gong-like slams of the gargantuan men. No doubt, the instructor is not able to envision the tremendous power of my awesome punch.

I wanted to cry.

There was something else. I’d often thought about board breaking, and I’d always thought I’d do it with a reverse punch. Since the ability to break boards depends, by and large, on what is happening in the student’s head, I wanted to break this board using the technique I’d always visualized. I didn’t want to imagine a different technique. In my various daydreams, I had been sure of my success, and I wanted to capitalize on my imaginings.

I thought of my good friend and career counsellor, Ayelet, who likes to tell me to find opportunity in every difficult situation. Perfect, I thought. This is good. This is great. What an opportunity for humility! And for learning. Let’s not forget learning.

I left to seek out an experienced master. Pulling aside a senior student, I explained the situation. I sniffled and tried to look calm and not like I was begging him for reassurance. I channelled my inner Anne Lamott.

He looked at me with great compassion. He explained that each instructor has his or her own focus. This instructor focuses on strength, he said. In the end, I had to use my own judgement. “Don’t take it personally,” he said.

I restrained myself from hugging this kind man.

I marched back into class. I was going to break a board. With a reverse punch.

The rest of the class gathered. My daughter sat on the floor with the other children. I didn’t dare look at her. I needed all my powers of concentration. Oh goodness, I thought. Here is where I let my daughter down. Disappointment and years of therapy will follow. For both of us.

One by one, senior belts broke boards. Boards shattered, not with a splintering crack, but rather with a dry “pock” sound. All of the students used a reverse punch. One woman kicked a board, failed, and then broke it with a punch.

My turn came. I punched my board. Once. Twice. Nothing happened. I kicked it. Still nothing. I turned and sat back on the floor. I crossed my legs and didn’t look at anyone. I didn’t weep. If anything, I felt my determination harden.

Another person went up and punched the board. The board did not break. Even from where we were sitting we could see that her fingers were raw and bloody from raking the wood. (I’m sure that it would never occur to any of you to hope that she not break the board on her next try.) She tried again. The board broke.

“Anyone else?” the instructor asked.

My voice seemed to come from somewhere else. “Can I try again?”

“Sure.” The instructor held the board, and I pushed against it a few times, testing my form. “Don’t let me push against you,” he said.

The following thought crossed my mind: I don’t care if I break my hand, I’m going to break this *#$*#*$*# board. 

I punched. “Pock.” The board broke.

My daughter beamed.

Turns out I wasn’t grounding my back foot enough when I punched. This is very instructive. Crucial, when you think about it. What if I were attacked in the street, and I didn’t ground my foot in enough?

And it became an opportunity to talk to my daughter about perseverance. “You see?” I said. “I didn’t succeed the first few times. Only on the fourth.”

Of course, I’ve caught myself miscounting the number of times I failed to break that plank. In some stories I’ve said three; in others, two. And I’m going to frame the two wood pieces. I took these home, of course.

After all, it’s not every day that a person breaks a board.

 

 

 

 

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Drive

A few weeks back, I received a compliment. I was in karate class, practicing Sanchin kata. The scene went like this:

Fellow colleague and instructor: “Ma’am: beautiful, flowing arm movements on the take-off.”

Me, flushed with pleasure: “Thank-you, sir.”

My energy picked up. I went home feeling newly committed to karate. This was in contrast to the previous weeks, during which I’d been experiencing a sense of lethargy during practice. For months, I’d been receiving mounds of (well-intentioned) criticism, and this had taken a toll in the form of my diminished drive vis-a-vis karate.

I’m not the strongest karate-ka in my school. Far from it. I have much to learn. When I tried to improve my rolls two years ago, I ended up injuring my neck and going through months of physical therapy. And my spinning wheel kicks make me look like a Weeble. You know: those egg-shaped toys that, as the Hasbro commercial says, “wobble but don’t fall down”? My average skills are probably one of the reasons why I have a complicated relationship with karate.

Although it’s not obvious to most people, I’m extremely competitive. I like to be the best at, well, everything. This has obvious drawbacks. For one, I sometimes experience an ugly hatred for those who are better at karate than me. Perhaps hatred is too strong a word. It’s more like powerful resentment. Toward, for example, karate-ka who have some sort of immunity to attacks of nerves, which I experience every time I demonstrate a kata. Those are the ones who go up in front of a tournament audience so that they can show off their moves. Who are these people, I think, upon encountering this bizarre phenomenon. And why can’t they just go away? (Okay, I only think this in my very darkest moments).

In his book, Drive, social scientist Daniel Pink argues that intrinsic motivation keeps us interested in a pursuit longer than extrinsic (reward-based) motivation. Intrinsic drive also purportedly produces the strongest results. That makes certain sense to me. I’m certainly not doing karate because of my enormous talent for it: I don’t garner many compliments these days. I practice karate because I love it. This passion keeps me going back to class, week by week. As to whether my passion has improved my technique, well, I’m reserving judgement in this regard.

This morning, I came across some notes I took of a conversation I had with my son when he was three years old. I wanted him to go with a babysitter and was trying to disengage him from my leg, to which he clung, a koala to a bamboo tree.

“You will go to the park with J—,” I said to him. “We’re going to say goodbye.”

He looked up at me, serious. “Ya,” he said. “And Mama will go to karate and Abba will go to work.”

Yes, indeed. And Mama will keep on going to karate.

 

On Risk

I am not two people, I am one.

Photographer Annie Leibovits, on the confluence of her art and life.

 

I’ve been thinking about risk.

A decade ago my husband and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. He loves mountain-climbing. He loves the journey itself, the actual climb. I like getting to the top. (Our differences became evident on the slopes of an Ecuadorian volcano, where we had our first, near-break up fight. There is a photo taken of me on the slopes of Mount Tungurahua: my hair is flattened by a downpour, and I’m smiling through gritted teeth at my not-yet-husband. Incidentally, the volcano erupted half a year later).

As to Mt. Kilimanjaro, I wanted to see its ice cap before it melted. On the way up, we suffered from unpleasant mishaps. A torrential downpour destroyed our camera. We experienced extreme nausea caused by altitude sickness (so much so that, on our third day, despite a six-hour climb to the summit, I couldn’t force down a single bite of breakfast). Our guide turned out to be an disagreeable man who, when he deigned to speak to us, did so with a crankiness bordering on dislike. In the end, though, we made it. After three days on the mountain, we summitted and watched a sunrise at an altitude of 19,341 feet.

Over a decade ago, when I started a PhD in Comparative Literature, I decided to learn a language from scratch, while completing my degree. This didn’t work out. I had underestimated both the amount of work required by the degree, and its rigour. Although I learned a new language, I didn’t complete the degree. There were, of course, other factors at work that made it difficult for me to finish the project. But my struggle also had to do with the difference between calculated and reckless risks, and the fact that, in taking on too much work, I’d tackled a reckless risk.

For a while, I risked little. Then, last summer, a karate instructor told me that my side kicks were too careful. “Let your side kicks fly,” he said. “Forget technique.”  On my next side kick, something shifted. My hip spun out, my body followed. My mind emptied, and I lost my sense of self. I embodied one of karate’s principles, “Mu-no-kukoro”, “mind without conscious thought.”

I promised myself to reacquaint myself with risk. A few weeks ago, I decided to start performing kata again. Although I’d been teaching for almost a year, I had not been demonstrating my kata. This was unfair to my students: I wanted to demand as much of myself as I did of them.

But when I went up to the front of the class to demonstrate Kanku Dai, I faltered. I felt like I did twenty years ago, as a white belt learning Tai-Kyo-Ku Shodan, when I forgot which way to turn. I was an octopus trying to dance. (I often tell my kids that Mama cannot meet everyone’s needs all at once and that she is not an octopus, but perhaps, on this front, I’m wrong).

Afterward, the instructor gave me some corrections. I had to implement them while the class looked on. I was mortified. My kids and I had recently watched The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps, I thought, someone will throw a bucket of water over me, and I’ll melt away.

Implicit in risk is failure. If I don’t want to fail, I shouldn’t risk. But this flattens life. And of course success is born of risk, too.  As is learning.

Last week I understood that training is not enough. I must also practice demonstrating kata. I’ve always struggled with performance, in its various permutations. The only instance I didn’t mind performing was during high school theatrical shows. But in that case I was on stage in the guise of someone else. Karate is another matter: when you demonstrate kata, you showcase yourself.

I’m going to keep taking risks, in karate and elsewhere. I could use some practice in failure. Worst case scenario, I’ll learn something.

Struggles and a Sense of Play

I realize that I haven’t been entirely honest. Also, that I’m being too preachy. Mainly, I haven’t been open about my struggles. Among others (Haruki Murakami, Sarah Selecky, Anne Lamott), one of my greatest influences is Ayelet Waldman. What I admire about Waldman is her candour. I wish I had even half her chutzpah. Writing honestly is easy; facing your parents at a family dinner after they’ve read one of your “tell-all” pieces is something else entirely.

So, in the spirit of Waldman and some of her (possible) literary predecessors like Colette and Anaïs Nin, here goes.

The reality is that I struggle every day. Each day, I have to talk myself into doing simple things. Partly this is because I’m often at home, with young children. Most of the time, I feel exhausted, with a mountain of housework to be done (I hate housework almost as much as I hate living in mess. In the interest of full disclosure, I have help, but anyone who’s ever run a household knows that housework is Sisyphean). I have financial business to attend to and children’s activities to organize. In this atmosphere, karate starts to seem like another item to be ticked off, one of many tasks keeping me from curling up on the couch with Real Simple, or watching another rerun of Angel (and when is Game of Thrones starting up again, anyway?).

Some of my other struggles include:

    • Leaving my happily playing children at home while I go to karate class
    • Leaving my whining children and a cranky husband (sorry, husband) at home while I go to karate class
    • Practicing karate at 9:15 am after school drop-off, following a white night (I’ve had many of these lately, mostly due to the Toulouse terrorist attacks. Like the victims of this attack, my children are three and six years old, and go to a Jewish school. You can imagine the sleeplessness these resemblances have prompted)

In other words, these days, I approach most tasks with a feeling akin to making my way through molasses.

But I also think that many of struggles have to do with my relationship to performance.

Lately, I’ve noticed that I’m atypically afraid of doing karate, of, for example, trying certain techniques.

The other day, the instructor prepared us to do flying side kicks. For years I had been studiously avoiding practicing flying side kicks, for the very simple reason that I suck at them. Until Saturday’s class.

The instructor brought out two large, blue mats. Two tall men were instructed to hold them while the rest of us kicked them (the mats, not the men).

“Line up,” said the instructor.

Great, I thought. I’m weak (I’m still recovering from that darn neck injury), I have to do flying side kicks, and I have to do them in front of everyone.

We lined up. My turn arrived. I ran, I leapt, I executed a terribly weak sidekick. The mat barely moved: it gave a weak knee kind of tremble, the type you get when you haven’t eaten lunch and for a split second your legs give out. I went back into the lineup.

Watching the other students, I noticed that the kids had the easiest time with these kicks. Of course, being two decades younger than me, they have flexibility working in their favour. And the young men, especially, have a kind of helpful gusto, a brash confidence. But I think that in addition to these attributes, they have something else. And that is, a closer relationship with playing. Those young girls and boys kicked the mats with joy. They approached the exercise with a sense of play, and not with a feeling of dread.

I kept kicking. My kicks improved slightly, but not much. I’ll keep you posted.

I think that it’s also helpful to approach poetry this way. When I read poetry now, I think of Emily Dickinson’s line, “My business is circumference”. It speaks of measurement and linearity, but also to something circular: doing something with intent but without trying to master it, to hem it in.

I want to approach karate this way, particularly difficult techniques such as rolling, flying side kicks, and reverse crescent kicks. With a kind of circling or, using another analogy, in a kind of darting, humming bird motion. In other words, with a sense of play.

So, in this spirit, I pledge: 1. To be more honest and 2. To play more, in karate and in these entries.