Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My shoes are too tight,

but it doesn’t matter. I have forgotten how to dance.

Babylon 5’s Londo Mollari was reminded of his father’s words, above, when struggling with regret. In Londo’s case, he personally regretted many of the choices that had brought him in seeming disgrace to an alien space station so far from his homeworld. Moreover, he regretted his civilization’s changing values – particularly valuing power and wealth over love and kindness. It was a foreshadowing of even darker decisions that would be made by Londo and darker changes that would come to his home planet, Centauri Prime. But regret, itself, is common to the human (and presumably, alien) condition. A bit of reflection is even healthy.

There are various types of regret. It’s common to regret things that you’ve said or done to other people. Making direct amends for hurts done to others is even step 9 of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program. Then there’s the regret you have about poor decisions or missed opportunities – things that seemed harmless or even like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight were clearly mistakes. This might include that fateful car ride that ended in a terrible accident, or that investment that went from a “buy” stock to a penny-stock right after you got involved. For me, there’s a particular type of regret that’s especially irksome – the failure to “stick with” something that you wish years later was still a part of your life.

For example, I trained in two different styles of martial arts when I was younger (or arguably even three types), and I enjoyed them quite a bit. Had I stuck with them, I’d be an expert by now, and I’d certainly be in better shape. Assuming, of course, that I wasn’t crippled in some freak training mishap or something. I mean, when you talk about alternate history, even on a very personal scale, you never really know what all of the variable and repercussions of a particular change will be. But in both cases, I decided, for whatever reason, to quit. I regret not heeding the advice of Babylon 5’s Marcus Cole, who at one point asks Commander Ivanova, “And how old will you be in a year if you don’t learn to speak Minbari?”

I started training in Tae Kwon Do when I was about fifteen, and stayed with it for around a year – long enough to test a couple of times. I remember I was working on my Green Belt when I quit. And I remember that I “got it.” I really grasped the fundamentals and saw how balance and strength and speed and focus worked together to produce exceptional results. I recall picking up on the techniques faster than others in my class. I wasn’t Bruce Lee by a long shot, but I knew my Sensei, Albert Fortunato, was pleased with my progress. I was, also. I don’t remember specifically why I quit – I suspect it was so I could slack off with my friends or something. I do remember that I really enjoyed the training while I was doing it.

Next, I remember in the late 1980s going with my friend Bill Mehlem to check out a different dojo. Bill was a very serious karate student who had trained in Kenpo for a number of years and was, at the time, working toward his black-belt at a fairly hardcore dojo. He had seen a demonstration of Aikido and wanted to learn more about it, so we headed over to Eastwood to check out the Aikido of Central New York school. Neither of us signed up right then, but it must have stuck with me. Within a year or so, Sensei Mehter had opened up a new dojo on Erie Boulevard and I joined in 1990. It’s an understatement to say that I loved Aikido. I really loved it. I loved the training and the style and the dojo and I liked my fellow students. I trained there for around eighteen months, give or take, and while I was training I went full-bore. I often attended two or occasionally even three classes in a day. I went on Fridays for the weapons training (the jo staff and bokken/katana were the preferred weapons of Morihei Ueshiba, Aikido’s Ōsensei, and are often taught as part of the art). I attended every seminar offered at the school, wherein experienced masters of the art were brought in from as far away as the main Hombu dojo in Japan to lead a day or two of intensive training. I had the great good fortune to train under, among others, Shihans Yamada and Sugano, both of whom were students under Ōsensei and now teach in New York City.

My Aikido training also represents the only time I’ve ever broken anything. I never played sports and while I’m by no means graceful, I’m either dexterous enough or lucky enough to have never broken a bone. I did, however, smash my nose to pieces during my 5th Kyu Aikido test. And it was quite clearly my own damn fault. I can’t remember how many times Sensei had told me to keep my back straight when performing techniques, particularly iriminage. Regardless, I would often find myself bent over rather than squatting as I whirled my opponent, or Uke, around. When testing, it wasn’t uncommon for an Uke to be very enthusiastic in trying to help you look good, and mine was no exception. His name was Tom, I think, and he and I had joined around the same time. He was thrilled to be able to help me gain my next rank. There’s a point in the iriminage technique where you have spun your Uke around and, off balance, they have fallen to the ground. You then are supposed to place the crook of your elbow under their chin, forcing them to rise so you can twist your hips and send them flying over backwards. Mark my words carefully here – if you bend over them when they’re on the ground and they decide to stand up, helpfully, on their own, the top of their head, which is very hard, will connect firmly with your nose, which is fairly soft. It will then get even softer and a fair amount of blood may gush out. After that, you’ll need to have your nose stuffed with gauze and wear ridiculous-looking tape over it for several weeks, possibly including the trip to visit your new fiancée’s family for Thanksgiving dinner. Yeah, that was me.

I also don’t remember why I quit Aikido. I did pass my test – either because I’d demonstrated a basic mastery of 5th-kyu techniques before my ignominious failure to properly apply an iriminage, or because I had the guts to get back up after my nose stopped bleeding and finish my test. Or because Sensei took pity on me for smashing my nose all to pieces – I can’t be sure which. But I was a 5th Kyu, so I’m sure that’s not why I quit. But I also had a new fiancée and I wanted to spend every possible second with her, which may have been part of it. And it was godawful expensive to a student with only a part-time job, and that, I think, may have been most of the problem.

But to bring this full circle, it’s now been about 23 years since I quit Tae Kwon Do and 17 years since I quit Aikido. More than enough time to be a black belt several times over in either style or both. My wife also trained me in Okinowan Goju-Ryu for a bit – a bo kata, a sai kata, a few other basics – but I didn’t have much determination to stick with it outside the formal atmosphere of the dojo. But I suppose it could still count as a third style in which I’d dabbled, if only briefly.

Now my kids have gotten into the martial arts, and if they really hate it, I certainly won’t make them stick with it. But if they seem to genuinely enjoy it, I’ll do my best to help them think real hard before giving it up. As much as regrets are part of the human condition, so is the desire to spare your children such pain as you’re able, and regret certainly counts. It’s too late for me. My gi is too tight, but it doesn’t matter. I have forgotten how to spar.


  1. It's never too late dude!

    1. They make bigger gi's
    2. You can learn to spar again.

    /__ /
    / /

  2. Hah! Thanks, Lightning, and fair point. I probably won't, but it's true that I could if I were so inclined (and had the time, money, and self-discipline necessary to do it on top of everything else I have going on). I could totally see myself getting back into Aikido if it weren't for lack of the above.