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Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Blonde and a Corvette or a Boot to the Head?

When I reached forty I was in a rut. I had been married for eighteen years. I had six children. I had been in the same job for ten years. Partying for me was going out to a movie with my wife and putting extra butter on the popcorn. A rebel I was not. My life was in dire need of something to wake me out of my walking, waking stupor, but I was too “stuporfied” to know it. I was at the point in my life where I needed something to validate my life—something to help me remember that I was a living, breathing man.

A beautiful woman and a hot car can do that for a man. We’ve all seen the gray-haired man with the sun glasses zipping by in his red corvette with the young busty blond at his side. Clearly he is feeling far younger than he looks. But maybe that is how we middle-aged men are looking to feel. If a Corvette and a blond are the answer to the midlife blues maybe doctors should prescribe them. But then again maybe the feelings that come with the ‘vette and the blonde are more an illusion than anything else. My problem was I didn’t know any blondes and I couldn’t afford a Corvette. Besides I had put eighteen years of my life into my woman and I wasn’t fool enough to think starting over now would be a good thing. No something else would have to change up my life and wake me up. My wife called one day and, unbeknownst to me at the time, said a word that would change my life – taekwondo.

“Tyquon-what?” I had asked. She explained that she had been told by a friend with children about a place in town that taught taekwondo, a Korean martial art. My wife wanted to take advantage of the “free first week” offer and let our kids try it. I wasn’t enthusiastic. My impression of the martial arts came mainly from the Cobrakahn dojo in Karate Kid. It was a macho attitude kind of thing that I didn’t think fit my kids very well. Who would have known that just a few weeks later I would be joining my kids on the mat on a journey that has never really ended.

I know that as silly as the middle-aged man in the Corvette with the young blonde at his side looks to me, I looked just as silly in karate pajamas doing karate moves (let’s all do the one-legged crane holding up our arms like wings). Let’s face it, over-weight, middle-aged men starting karate are often unwittingly a comical sight and someone you don’t want to be seen with by your friends. I knew this, and yet there I was, making a fool out of myself because for some reason practicing taekwondo made me extraordinarily happy. The question is why?

Exercise: I gained about 10 pounds for every baby my wife had. She had eight babies. Go ahead, do the math. I started marriage at around 160 pounds. When I started Taekwondo I was 240 pounds. That’s NFL linebacker size without linebacker strength. I’m a big guy and carry the weight well, but I was not healthy. The taekwondo workouts were marvelous. They included push-ups, running, kicking, forms, speed drills, hitting, endurance drills, kicking, crunches, kicking, sparring, and did I mention kicking? Now it isn’t the exercises themselves that made me feel so good; it’s that I was doing these exercises with people who became such close friends and doing them with more of a holistic goal in mind than a physical goal. At the end of stretching after workouts I would be sitting in a pool of sweat and feeling so happy. Oh, yes, I got to the point where I could do cartwheels with my kids again.
    I had lost some weight by this time.
Family: I followed my children into the world of taekwondo. I would never (never, ever) have started without them. The dojang became a second home for my family. We stood at attention in different places in the lines, but still feeling the family bond. We each progressed at different speeds with our own unique challenges, but each was a coach for the other either on forms, on a kicking technique, or for impromptu sparring matches. We did kick each other a lot. My butt, being the largest, seemed to attract the most feet. Our family grew even larger with the others in the dojang. A group of us spent ten years in the program and shared in personal, family, and taekwondo crises. It was a celebration each time one of us passed the test (after years) to gain the black belt.
Third son and his mother after black belt test

Second daughter focusing
Fourth son joining the rest of us in the class

First daughter and me at her black belt test

Instructor: I am certain that I would never had stayed in the martial arts had I not had the instructor I had. If you are picturing Mr. Myogi, don’t. One of the masters from the show “Kung Fu”? Nope. The school owner and instructor more or less fell into ownership by accident. He had a wife and two kids and worked maintenance for an explosives company. He really wasn’t full of ancient wisdom and sage advice. He was, however, full of fighting, taekwondo spirit guided by a genuine concern for his fellow human being. He was big and strong, yet he never once kicked me out of control. I saw him spar convincingly with my young children and yet never caused them any fear. He had a gift for bringing confidence and self-respect out of the most timid.
Our instructor with my daghter at a homecoming party (he just came back from Iraq)
My instructor (back left) and his wife hugging my daughter at her black belt test

Fear: There are many forms of exercise a middle-aged man can engage in to try to keep fit. I worked with a fellow who would bike sixty miles to work one or two days a week. My brother took up rock climbing. Others just hit the gym. None of these did the one thing I needed—strike at my fear. I am a big guy, but I have always been more fearful than fearsome. I lived in fear of confrontations, verbal or physical. When I saw my kids in taekwondo and learned they had full-contact sparring and competitions where knockouts were allowed it scared me. And so I joined up. Luke Skywalker went into the cave to face himself. I went into that dojang to face myself. I went in at least three nights a week for ten years with butterflies in my stomach. I always came out feeling great. In my first competition I faced two opponents who were yellow belts (I was just white). My coach came by and whispered to me these encouraging words, “I know your opponents and they kick hard.” I was terrified. When the first match ended and they raised my arm as the winner my heart sank. That meant I had to fight the second guy. I won that match also.  I saw the tape of the match. My hands were visibly shaking (from fear, not some martial arts mystery force). My opponents and I had nothing like Bruce Lee about us. We looked like two bulls trying to find their way out of china shop first.  From there I went on and my fears became controllable. Today I am no more “dangerous” than I was before I started taekwondo, just a lot happier.
That's me blocking the back kick with my stomach in a competition

I broke a brick at my black belt test

Me receiving my black belt. Oldest son is next to me and daughter standing in foreground
As you can see I chose the “boot to the head” over the “corvette and blond” approach to my midlife crisis (many boots to the head, actually). Considering the fact that I still have the love and respect of my wife and children (although I looked funny in my karate pajamas) I think I made a good choice. Martial arts isn’t for everyone. I had such a fantastic experience that I can’t imagine it happening twice. Everything just came together to give me and my family an unforgettable experience that continues on in different forms today.


Corybander said...

Thank you for that well written, well photographed, post! It was excellent! I am glad for the taekwando phase in our lives as well, and for the doing phases ever since.

Unknown said...

Awesome and inspiring! Thanks for writing about your experience.
The pictures add just the right touch to help us see your journey.