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a moment of burnt hat

martial arts. and me.

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martial arts. and me.

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Recently I joined a martial arts forum and they ask people to introduce themselves before posting, so I started writing this post for that purpose.  But it’s gotten so long-winded that  I’ve decided to put it here.  

In fact, this post is so long that I'm going to have to split it in two.  Because this will be of zero interest to anybody outside the martial arts, I’m hiding it behind this handy LJ-cut.

 

When I was thirteen and a half, I started training in a Goshin-do school in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey under John Porta, who was himself under Frank Van Lenten in Florida.  I was placed in the adult class because, I think, I looked a bit older than I was.  I had been training six months when most of Porta’s instructors left him.  I was a white belt with one stripe and was asked to ‘help out’ with teaching, first the kids and then the kids and beginners.  As a female, I was also assigned with the other women in the club to do cleaning tasks (mine was the toilet).

 

Due to the sudden absence of black belts in the school, I rose quickly through the kyu grades despite no real natural athleticism, because I was ‘teaching.’  I trained five days a week and took it very seriously.  I had just turned 16 and received my third kyu brown belt when a delegation from our organization travelled to Okinawa and Japan to ‘meet the masters’ because Frank Van Lenten was rediscovering his Goju roots.

 

In Okinawa we trained under Masunobu Shinjo and visited various other dojos.  We met local government officials and participated in ceremonies and festivities. I was among one of five women on the trip who were repeatedly asked to perform Sei-enchin kata on television and at demonstrations.  We trained a lot.  It was very challenging and I thought I was in heaven; the training was physically and mentally much more demanding than anything we’d done back home.

 

My instructor, John Porta, embarrassed me and I think quite a few other people by his pathetic performance of kata and his awkwardness in being on foreign soil.  When offered tea, he kept asking for Diet Sprite, and his Sanchin demonstrations looked like they were performed by a piece of overcooked rigatoni. 

 

At the end of the trip, the Okinawans wanted to grade everybody, and they invited me to test for shodan but Porta said I hadn’t been training long enough.  I didn’t mind about the not-testing—I wanted to become much better than I was before I went for black belt—but I minded about the reason.  I knew I had gotten a lot better during the trip, but Porta almost always promoted people in order according to how long they had been training, not how good they were.

 

In Okinawa, the idea of women training seemed to be a big sensation.  The Okinawan women performed dances which were kata-like, but they were barred from the dojo.  All five of us females were treated differently, not so much during the training, ironically, as outside of it.  The Okinawans would knock us down, hit us, push us hard in the class. Outside the class they wouldn’t let us pull out our own chairs at a table.  Very weird.

 

Eiji Shinjo, then a sixth dan and second-in-command to Masunobu, took a special interest in me.  He kept singling me out for extra kakei training and to teach me various bunkai, all of which involved dumping me on the floor.  I was naïve enough to be flattered, but his attention then progressed to getting his wife to make romantic overtures to me.  At the street party the night before we were to leave for a brief tour of Japan, the forty-something Eiji introduced me to his wife and got her to translate for him.

 

‘He say you have face like doh,’ she said.

 

‘Uh…what?’

 

‘You have face like dog.’

 

‘Oh.’  I mean, I admit I’m no Nicole Kidman, but I felt a bit hurt at being openly insulted.

 

Both of them gesticulated wildly around their faces.

 

‘Face like doll,’ she said.  ‘Very pretty.’

 

Then she started going on about how much Eiji liked me.

 

On balance, I would have felt more comfortable with being called a dog.  At 16, I had no idea how to deal with being propositioned by a man’s wife! 

 

Later, in Tokyo, a bunch of us ended up in a tiny karaoke bar where Eiji arranged for lots of slow dancing which involved clinching me very tightly and slobbering on my neck while feeling me up.  I remember being barely able to breathe, let alone move; he was very short but also very strong.

 

The other American guys, all black belts, looked uneasy but later they told me they weren’t going to say anything because Eiji was a master.  They seemed scared of him.   The thing that kills me about myself is how I didn’t even object.  I was naïve enough to think that he was a karate master and so it couldn’t be what it seemed. 

 

There’s my stupidity.  But nothing much really happened, and when we got back to America, I was keen to train.  Threw myself into it wholeheartedly.  But John Porta decided, now that the training was getting a bit tougher, that he’d separate the class into two groups.  Women and children in one, men in the other.  Although I was annoyed with the ‘women and children’ label (technically I was both) I went into the first group, but there was nobody to train with who was any challenge most nights.  There were a couple of female black belts who had also gone to Okinawa, but when the black belts were separated out for their special black belt training, my own workouts were a joke.  I wanted to get better.  

 

I confronted Sensei Porta and he told me he wasn’t being sexist.  He had to protect the class from being hurt.

 

‘But how am I supposed to train?’  I said.  ‘It’s way too easy.’

 

He told me to be patient or somesuch.  It was all ‘part of the journey’ and he had his insurance to think of.

 

Now, I have never been very good at bowing to authority, and when I look back on it, I find it pretty remarkable that I was able to do so for so long in karate.  But I was really only a kid.  So I swallowed.  At first.

 

I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t happy.  I learned that Porta had lost a whole succession of black belts; he had a tendency to use people to teach his classes (he spent most of his time in the office counting his money) and eventually they’d get sick of it and go.  This time, the people in question were my friends. 

I was invited to train with a group of disillusioned black belts who wanted to go over to Frank Van Lenten’s dojo.  This included my own brother Dan (a ni-dan by now) plus Bob Kelly, his then-wife Candy Romano, and a couple of other people I think.  When we brought this up with John Porta we were told we weren’t allowed to change instructors within the organization, even though Van Lenten had been Porta’s teacher.  Van Lenten appealed to Okinawa.  A sort of tribunal was held in Porta’s dojo on a Sunday afternoon.  They put a wooden door on cinderblocks and all the senior grades from the East Coast sat around it wearing gis.  As I listened to John Porta’s bullshit about how we were disloyal and ungrateful, I experienced the strong urge to bash  one of the cinderblocks through all his teeth.  I could actually see the blood.  Later I would play around with some of these events in fictional form in my novel DOUBLE VISION.  The fictional outcome was much more satisfying than the real one.

 

The Okinawans rendered their decision by telephone: they agreed that we were disloyal and had ‘insufficient karate attitude’ and everybody in the group was expelled except me (I was ‘too young’ to think for myself—not too young to grope though, eh?) and in disgust I quit anyway. 

 

I was gutted.  Of all the people in the delegation, I’d been most impressed and inspired by the experience (leaving aside Eiji’s advances).  I’d improved the most of anybody.  And now I was deprived of contact with the Okinawans.  They were currying favour with John Porta because they knew he was best positioned to ‘propagate the system’—which is what they were always exhorting us to do.  They wanted American money.  He was a political animal and he’d be anybody’s bitch.  He was a total asshole.  And yes, I’m quite happy to say that on the interweebs.  He.  Was.  An.  Asshole.  And if he doesn’t like it, he can come over here and I’ll happily fight him.  If he can.  Which I doubt.

 

A group of us started training together while we waited for Frank to come up from Florida, because he’d decided to get out of the organization, too.  But he never actually came.  Without a teacher, we were lost.  So that was the end of that.

 

I later tried going to some other dojos, but the training never measured up to what I’d experienced on Okinawa and couldn’t hold my interest.  Then I went to a tiny rural university where there were no martial arts except for another student who was a Tae Kwon Do black belt.  We tried training together but it was a joke.  I also tried starting a group because some other girls asked me to teach them self-defense, but I didn’t know what I was doing as an instructor.  I only knew how to teach by rote; so I dropped it.  I had no idea how to train on my own.  I tried; but I had no idea.

 

After graduating I kept looking around for somewhere to train.  I experimented with a bit of more practical stuff, including some reasonably contact-oriented kickboxing with a guy in NJ who came from a mixed background;  I’d already known that the Okinawans couldn’t spar for shit, but now the combative shortcomings of karate were even more apparent.  Especially timing.  I still believed in dim mak and stuff.  People reaching in with nukite strkes and grabbing your liver and ripping it out.  Killing bulls.  All that shite. 

 

In fact, around this time, my then-boyfriend Todd started watching the Ultimate Competitions on pay-per-view.  Like a lot of guys I knew, he was fascinated by the mystique of the martial arts, but he’d done very little training.  I can remember saying to Todd, ‘Oh, but the guys they have representing karate aren’t actually any good.  If they had a real master in there, he’d mop these guys up.  I mean, look at them.  They have no form.’

 

Yes, I really thought that.  I looked at the UFC and I just couldn’t see what was right in front of me.  I’d been conditioned to see these stiff, punctuated movements.  It was all I knew: a kind of aesthetics.

 

Still, the UFC fights were fascinating.  I watched with bated breath as Royce Gracie got jammed up against the cage like a splayed frog by Dan Severn and held on so long that the pay-per-view cut out.  When it came back on, I remember being astonished that Gracie was still alive, let alone that he would go on to win the match.

 

I couldn’t reconcile the traditional stuff I’d seen on Okinawa with the televised UFC footage.  It was as if the two things came from different worlds.  I knew, of course, that the Okinawans couldn’t spar because I’d seen them.  They’d do things like try to side-kick each other in the knee. 

 

But still I thought their ‘real techniques’ were too deadly to do in a ring.  They were above competing in stuff like that anyway, right?  Because they practiced a high art form.  And they were real warriors.  And who were we in the West to presume to challenge their knowledge?

 

That was 1993.  In 1995 I moved to London with my husband and through an odd set of coincidences I found myself training at the Armoury in Hampstead, where Mark Tekinalp was holding Goju classes.  The training was pretty low-grade, but there didn’t seem to be much choice in London, and anyway I was very unfit and out of practice—I’d been working and going to grad school and writing my first novel, so fitness had become a very low priority.  Mark’s class was someplace to start.  I trained a few times, then was away for six months and when I came back, Mark had totally changed the training.  It was all ‘reality based’ now.  Much more interesting.  Mark had started training with Steve Morris.

 

‘Who?’ I said (like you do).  When Mark described Steve to me I had the mental image of some hulking brute, shaven-headed like an ageing pro wrestler, with cauliflower ears, tattooes, and possibly a pierced nose.  Grunting in words of one syllable.

 

Mark invited me to a Steve Morris seminar in East Finchley.  This was autumn 1996.  I went along and before the seminar started I remember thinking that nobody in the room looked like anything special, except for this one guy with longish dark hair who came whirling in, exchanged a few laughing comments with Nigel and Kate, and then started doing a bit of Muay Thai knee drill and shadowboxing off to one side.  That must be Sensei Morris’  senior student, I thought.  Wow.  Seriously hot.

 

But where was the master?

 

The guy stepped forward, to introduce the master I assumed, and said something like, ‘OK, if we all stand in a big circle…’ and then I realized that the ‘student’ was actually Steve.  There was no lining up, no bowing.  No bullshit.  Just…well, just a mind-blowing session, really. 

 

I could go into why it was mind-blowing but it would take pages and pages.  Steve spent a good bit of time explaining the jumbi-undo and trying to get us to understand the purpose of the exercises and to feel what we were doing and why we were doing it.  I’d never even heard the word ‘proprioceptive’ before and had to go home and look it up.  He talked about being conscious of what was going on in your body and being able to feel and sense everything around you as well as inside of you. 

 

That makes it sound New Age.  OK.  I also remember doing some pad drill with a gold-toothed black belt from Essex who looked pretty hard.  Steve came over and, annoyed, told us we’d got it totally wrong and we needed to do it like this.  Whack.  Whack.  The poor guy could just about hold on to the pad. 

 

‘Release the shot,’ Steve said.  ‘There’s more going into your shot than is coming out.’  Whack.  Whack-whack.  Whack!

 

 Then he whirled away and he was gone.  You know, if you’ve ever been in Steve’s vicinity with the eyes and the hair and the sort of wildness, it’s a far freaking cry from anything you’d see in Okinawa.  Because they are slow and controlled and methodical.  He’s like greased lightning.  If he were a horse and you tried to put a bit in his mouth, he’d probably eat it.

 

I never looked back.  I started training on the Saturday sessions in Horsham.  Steve totally destroyed what I was doing, and rightly so.  I have never felt like such an idiot in my whole life as I did during those early sessions.  It was the kind of thing where you could see that he wasn’t being intentionally insulting, he just couldn’t believe how bad you were.  But it wasn’t just me that heard about it from Steve.  He said to a black belt called John Clewlow once, ‘I have to leave the room.  Do you understand?  Your movement makes me physically sick.  Do you understand?’  And he did actually leave for about half an hour to regain his composure.

 

Poor John.  But it was the way Steve said it that was really funny.  He seemed to be truly in pain at the sight of us.  I’m laughing now thinking about it.  We were really, really bad, and the reason we were bad was because we’d internalized karate movement patterns and had nothing else to fall back on. 

 

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve seen some real athletes within karate.  In Mark’s dojo there was a French guy called Christoff who turned up, a green belt, and more athletic than anybody in the class by far.  Karate hadn’t ruined him because he was a natural; there were lots of guys like that.

 

But it had ruined me.  I was totally motor-oriented.  I was like a wind-up toy.  Nothing in my karate training had taught me to be otherwise.

 

And nothing in my repressive, controlled karate training had prepared me for dealing with somebody like Steve, who simply says exactly what’s on his mind.  And who expects you to engage your brain when you’re training.

 

(continued in next post, above)
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