Dojo Joe circa 2012

I’d just finished checking out a local gym. As I was leaving, I saw a couple of guys in gis (gis is plural for gi, a martial arts uniform). Curious, I approached them. At first I thought one of them was a black belt. He was older and I thought his belt was black. As I got closer I saw that it was purple. Or maybe blue. The other fellow was wearing an orange belt.

“Is there a class starting?” I asked.

“Yes, are you interested in Karate?”

I had no intention of signing up. But I wound up doing so, for a whole bunch of reasons. I’ll get into those some other time. One reason was that the yellow belt was friendly. He introduced me to the Sensei (teacher), who was also friendly, and who invited me to audit the class. Friendliness is important to me. It often tips the scales.

At first I thought it was going to be a small class, a handful of adults, maybe. It turned out to be mostly kids, swarms of them, and half a dozen adults. White, yellow, orange, green, purple, brown and black belts. About seven of us, five kids and two adults, did not have gis (though I had one at home). I wore black shorts and a black T-shirt. We were all barefoot.

I need to clarify something before I go on.

I may write about this further, in a series of posts. I don’t know yet. We’ll see how it goes. But if I do, I don’t want to use real names or locations. I may change details and characteristics to conceal identities, with a few exceptions. I want to respect the privacy of those I’m training with, and with whom I’ve trained. Everything else will be true.

I just turned fifty-eight. I have trained in martial arts three times in the past. The first time lasted a few months, with a guy named Wally Slocki in Toronto in the late eighties . Wally’s his real name; I always wondered what became of him. (After posting this, somebody corrected my spelling of Wally’s last name and now I know what became of him, and who he actually was: a legend in Canadian Martial Arts. I had no idea. I just knew he was a nice guy. More about Wally in another post.) The second time I trained lasted maybe three years. The third, and the most intense period, lasted close to a year. Each time I hit a point where I could not go on. Even now I can’t quite explain why. I would wrestle with it each time. There were multiple reasons I started training and multiple reasons I stopped.

But I never stopped thinking about Karate. I dreamt about it often. And now here I was training again, almost by accident. Or maybe not.

My wife and I moved to a new town a few months ago. Before we got here, I looked up various dojos (martial arts schools) to see what was available, vaccilating on whether to take another stab at it.

The only thing I knew for sure was that I needed something to help me stay fit. My day job is spent mostly sitting at a desk writing emails and attending video meetings. It got worse during the pandemic. At first, working from home was a nice treat, convenient with no commute (the commute used to be one and a half hours each way). But now there was very little real human interaction, no walking to the bus stop, no walking around the Broadcast Centre, no walking around downtown Toronto, just sitting at home at my desk all day, apart from walking the dog a couple of times.

My body was feeling it. My neck and shoulders were killing me. I began to wonder if I’d permanently damaged them somehow, my body growing increasingly deformed as I sat with my shoulders hunched and my head jutting forward with eyes peering at the computer screen day in day out. I tried to maintain a decent posture with a towel rolled up in the small of my back, and that helped for a while, but my wife constantly had to remind me to sit up straight. And now for the last three months the neck and shoulder pain refused to go away despite the occasional deep tissure massage, which only helped for a day or two.

I finally found sufficient time and initiative to check out a gym.

And saw two guys wearing gis.

And shortly afterward found myself training with a bunch of kids.

Fifty-eight years old. The last time I trained I’d been forty-eight. I thought I’d been old then. On this day a brown belt led us through a series of warm ups. I wondered how my body would take it. I keep thinking of the Valdy song:

Old, tired, bent and busted

Gray, wrinkled and I can’t be trusted

The brown belt got us running in place.

“Knees higher!” he commanded.

I got those knees up.

Twenty push ups. Lots of stretching. More push ups. Then cross decks, during which the entire class forms multiple lines and crosses the gym back and forth throwing punches, blocks and so on, usually in a stance called Zenkutsu-dachi. As fellow Karateka Brian Martin notes, “Most of the weight (around 70%) is in the front leg. It means forward leaning stance.” I noticed they pronounced Zenkutsu-dachi slightly differently here than at my last dojo; one of many slight differences I’d have to get used to.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that I bore up well. I could handle it. I decided to join the dojo. I was training again, for the fourth time in my life. This time I would have to make it work. See if I could finally make it to black belt.

Or at least orange.

At fifty-eight, I wouldn’t get many more chances.

The next day I noticed that all the pain in my neck and shoulders had disappeared. A week and half (and four classes) later the pain has not returned.

And I feel great.