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The Real World

I was never any good at sports. When I played soccer in the Rosedale Rec League, every kid had to play at least one quarter every game. That was the rule, and every week, the coach would put me in opposite John Markley at fullback for a quarter (never more). When I played basketball, my team only had five players, so I was on the floor for every minute, and I averaged two points a year. I could do it in practice, but when it came to the game, I’d throw the ball straight up, then duck and cover my head. I used to get beat up some too. I was a fat kid and uncoordinated, I thought. When the bullies would chase me, I stopped running. I’d roll into a ball and wait to get pummeled. More often than not, they’d leave me alone, though not always.

Over the years, I became a sports fan—a huge one—but never an athlete. Then, a few years ago, I decided to try again. I saw a flier on the wall at A Common Ground in Hampden for Hapkido, Korean fighting, at a little dojo called Meridian Martial Arts Studio in the old factory where they used to make Noxema. Meridian is really just one guy, teacher John Smith. He’s half-hippy, half-samurai, and the best teacher I’ve ever had.

I came to Hapkido at 35, and it was hard. It hurt. It hurts when someone grabs your wrist and twists you face-first into the mat. It hurts when you land on your head and feel your spine compress when you fail your forward roll. It hurts when you’ve been kicking and kicking and kicking and you know you can’t keep kicking but you don’t want to be the only one to stop. Whenever I was getting close to quitting, John would say something, sometimes literally right out of the mouth of David Carradine in Kung Fu, but it almost always made sense. Or at least pissed me off enough to keep going. Somewhere along the way, something changed. Little things started to make sense and piled up to become less little. Even the way I stood changed. I’m 40 years old, and I got almost a half-inch taller, and in practice, I started getting through the tough spots in my own head. I began to believe in my sport, and to see myself as an athlete of sorts.

Sport is practice. In football, you run the two-minute drill over and over again, but you never know if, in a game, it will come together. Basketball players stand at the free-throw line shooting again and again, then they go home and visualize it. They see themselves—at the line with time winding down—making the shot, but they don’t know. They can never know if, when it comes up in the game, they’re going to hit that shot, whether their bodies and all that training will come through, or if they’ll choke.

In the dojo, we practice kata: elaborate rituals that mimic a fight against an opponent who’s not there. To practice our strikes, we wail on BOB. BOB, the Body Opponent Bag, is a thick-necked, armless torso made of silicon and affixed to a base filled with sand. BOB doesn’t hit back. When I stood for my brown-belt test, the man I faced off against knew which wrist I was going to crimp and just where I was going to throw him. It was his job to let me do it and to make me look good in the process.

I always wondered if it was real, if any of the years of training mattered, if they amounted to anything, or if I was still that kid who’d collapse in a heap in a real test. And besides, the practice, the training, it’s so far from the real world.

In the real world last week, I was walking home from the bar, and a man followed me home. In the dojo, I’m never drunk. But that night, I was. We weren’t standing on thick pads when this man came up behind me. We were on a narrow staircase, metal railings on either side, hard cement on the ground. And this wasn’t about getting a belt. The man showed me a gun and told me to open the door to my home, where my wife and baby boy were asleep inside.

In John’s class, we think a lot about guns. Generally, if someone has a gun, you give them what they want, but that was a choice I couldn’t make. He held the gun at his hip, pointed down, and, as drunk as I was, I am shocked that I remembered what I’d learned. I pinned the gun against him and, together, we fell down the stairs.

The real world isn’t like practice or even like that shot at the foul line with time draining away. In practice, the gun comes out and into my hands, my opponent flops at my feet, and all is right with the world. On the stairs, I was already bleeding from the fall. I struggled to cling to the pistol with both hands. The man who wanted to get into my home punched my face again and again with his free hand. I was bleeding from my nose, from my mouth, from my hip; my eye was already sealing shut black and blue. It was far from the elegant victory I’d imagined over and over. It hurt like hell—hurts like hell—and I don’t even know what really happened, why my finger still doesn’t work right, where the bruises on my arm and back came from, and I realize it wasn’t my training or my body that I’d feared would fail, but rather me, myself, that would prove the weak link. But I held onto the gun, and that man didn’t pass into my home.

They say sports build character, and that’s probably crap. I earned a moment of clarity when I might not have had one, and realized that what I’ve learned most in the gym is that strength doesn’t come from the ball or the heavy bag, but from the tough decisions. When we choose to keep pushing, to keep running, to keep lifting, to return to the dojo, whatever it is, it gives us a place to struggle, to persevere, and to succeed, so that we can make those tough choices out here in the rest of the world.

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