Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Something Completely Different

On Sept. 1, I started tae kwon do as a "white belt," the stupidest belt. I did know I must respectfully bow as I stepped onto and off the mats, but not toward blank walls, dummy; toward the U.S. and Korean flags hung in front of the room. I received an all-white uniform and a white belt, symbol of what is kindly called "innocence," and was shown how to tie the belt properly. At home I worked for 30 frustrating minutes before succeeding in tying it. Next class I proudly showed up in uniform with a well-tied belt, and a black belt said, "Your top is on inside out."

Each class begins with calisthenics: pushups, situps, stretches, twists. My 11:00 a.m. class consists of three four-year-olds, a three-year-old, and myself. The sympathetic black belt instructor who knows I'm 58 told me "Do what you can." Thought I was fairly fit from lifting weights and walking.

Because I'm the only adult in the class, the master instructor, Dien, patiently leads me in a set of slow-motion pushups and situps. Then we stand and I follow the master as we practice, in slow motion, intricate arm movements: the head block and I forget what else. Then slow-motion kicks. Unlike a flamingo I can't balance on one leg; the master either holds my hand so I don't fall over, or I grip for dear life a stationary punching dummy. I'm learning the front kick, roundhouse, and back kick, discovering they take foot and ankle strength, exactly the muscles that weight training ignores. Then, drenched in sweat, I punch the bag with my bare knuckles, lightly, concentrating on the target and my form. The knuckles split open anyway. The goal is 60 punches in 15 seconds. At the end of the lesson the master and I bow to each other. Then all other belts shake hands with any black belts present.

Why do this? Because it's only 6 highway miles to the gym. Because the natural year is declining and instead of getting depressed as usual I'm setting a healthy goal: a yellow belt. One must be able to block, kick (without someone holding your hand), punch, obey three commands and count to ten in Korean to pass the exam. After I stuck out my first three lessons, I received, not a new belt -- that'll take months -- but a new top with the school's emblem and the U.S. and Korean flags.