short story

Ukemi, The Art of Receiving

By Barrett Bowlin

(originally posted on The Rumpus on May 29th, 2014, and re-posted here with the permission of Barrett Bowlin)

 

In my daydreams, my kindergartener is a samurai.

My daughter is five-years-old and three-and-a-half feet tall, not grown-up like she will be someday, but a child. She differs from her elementary school peers because she’s gone through extensive training and has muscle tone and has seen battle. She’s as fearsome to her enemies as she is to her mother and me just before she needs to be put down for a nap, and in those daydreams, she is wearing blood-tinged armor and is staring down her enemies with a bright daito curved in the air, a pink and purple shoto in her belt for close sword combat.

There is a rage in her heart and barrettes in her hair.

When I remember the laundry I’m folding and am back at attention, however, she is there with me at home, putting on her gi for her karate lessons that afternoon and asking about her missing socks.

We’re late, I tell her. Just grab your sandals, sweetheart, and let’s head out to the car.

On the way to her dojo, I think of her as a feudal retainer in the Kyoto countryside from centuries ago, training others so that they can protect their lord like she protects their lord: with practice and discipline and steel. And as we get close to the entrance to her school, she says, “Um, daddy?” just before I miss the turn. We loop her belt carefully around her waist―just like what I remember from my days in judo―and we follow the other students inside, where her sensei will teach her how to kick and how to block haymakers before we go out for ice cream.

*

My wife and I have plans for the kindergartener. We have the usual hopes of the middle class for their children: rigorous academic programs for her that are funded by our taxes, enriching family time, structured recreational programs, a knowledge of healthy eating habits that will let her maintain low-cost life insurance policies, and so on. For right now, though, we want her to know how to swim and how to deal with potentially abusive fifth-graders.

One or two Sunday mornings each month, we go to the community pool and outfit our children with swimsuits and water shoes that will prevent them from catching athlete’s foot from the tiled deck. While I try my very best to keep my son from drowning as he jumps from the edge into my arms over and over and over again, my wife teaches our daughter how to swim.

 

When we first started dating, my then-girlfriend was a NCAA Division I swimmer. Years before she tells our daughter to “kick, kick, kick,” she plowed through the water in backstrokes, wrecking her shoulders and burning enough calories to justify trips to the Sonic drive-through after practice, where she would pack away two cheeseburgers at a time. Today, my now-vegetarian wife tells our daughter that she loves her and that she needs to keep her face in the water. Meanwhile, the boy and I shiver in the shallow end and huddle together for warmth as sexagenarians lap-swim behind us.

We spend this time at the pool because our children love the water, of course, but, like everything else we do as a family, there’s always the underlying and unmentioned contingency plan we’re all building. Will our children be able to swim when they’re not with us? Will they be able to save their drowning friends? Will saving a particular friend’s life lead to a fulfilling relationship couched by happiness and mutual respect built off of that initial, life-saving moment followed by a make-out session?

Each time we leave the pool, my wife and I are little more relieved. Today, our kindergartener swam ten feet back to the wall. Next time, we’ll try for fifteen. We envision Saturdays in the future when we have to get up early to take her to her swim meets, one where we all wear micro-fleece vests and mom jeans. Barring that, we envision a report back from her when she’s seventeen and when she’s just come through the front door after a camping trip with her friends, and how she’ll tell us all about the incident at the lake where she’s saved that cute boy or girl’s life.

There will be a chance recreational drugs are involved, but we won’t care, we’ll tell her; we’re just glad everyone’s safe.

*

This is the second time my daughter has taken karate lessons. I don’t imagine she’ll encounter a lot of street fights as a kindergartener, but I know the upper-grade bullies are slouching somewhere in the halls of her school, and I want her to avoid them. So she and a bunch of other four-to-six-year-olds study for five weeks at a time with Master Hidy Ochiai, one of upstate New York’s unknown treasures. Founder of the Washin-Ryu school of karate here in the U.S., the sensei trails a cloud of legend and tradition. He’s trained a lot of black belts since coming to America, and I like his school’s philosophy of self-respect over martial artistry. But what I love about the sensei is what pops out of the rumor mill. In his rough English, for example, he talks in vague terms about his training and the temple where he learned his art. His school’s website claims he was sent here by his own sensei in 1962 to extend his branch of karate to the U.S., and there’s some merit to the notion that he’s got a full martial-arts entourage each time he returns to Japan. His father was a kendo master, and Ochiai himself has a belly wound he once received from an opponent’s katana. He has his own IMDb.com page, and there’s a legend he was the guy who taught Bruce Lee his famous nunchaku routine in Enter the Dragon. I don’t quite believe that last bit of trivia, but I want to.

All I know now is that my daughter is laughing but also taking very seriously the stilted words this small Asian man is saying to her. He is telling her all this through an infection-control mask that loops around his ears. The children have been told that Master Ochiai was recently very sick―cancer―but that he’s feeling much better and that it’s time to get into their assigned positions for warm-ups and a light jog around the safety mats.

*

An obstacle all children must suffer through is the passions of their parents. If a parent was once a model or if they were a fan of woodworking, for example, there would be a strong chance that they would pass these personal fervors down to their children so that they, in turn, would learn to love these activities as well, or at least fake it enough for recognition. Our children want so badly to be loved and noticed that they’ll sign up for a lot of what we throw at them. Since there are as few reasons for child pageants to exist as there are Pinewood Derbies or cheerleading camps, then, I think it’s important to remember this when dragging children into passions.

Mine were martial arts. For years, I took judo classes and ranked my way up through the belts, never achieving a black belt, though, which is probably why I’m seeking closure through my daughter. I took karate and fencing in college, neither of which got me laid, and I picked up judo again when I went back to school. I’ve learned submissions and sweeps and throws, and I’m a good enough student to appreciate getting my ass kicked by a training partner.

I took to judo quickly because of my size. I have a linebacker’s body without any of the desire to get into pads and a helmet and run sprints, so it feels natural to use my weight to push against other objects. I think this is why I went into judo, actually: for the chance to use my body as a force without hurting anyone else, for the chance to create and receive violence in a controlled environment. A few years after coming to judo, I realized I had learned not to fear violence anymore because of this desire and ability. I looked forward to being thrown and flipped, and I was thankful to learn about technique in those long seconds after having the wind knocked out of me and while I was pounding for breath. So when I started up the occasional grappling sessions with my kindergartener, it was because I wanted her to know how to defend herself, against her younger brother’s bouts of rage in the future and against anyone else who might wish her harm.

Tonight, we are working on a juji gatame, a crossed armlock, one of the fastest and strongest holds to build in judo and jiu jitsu. If you don’t want someone going anywhere up and away from the mat, you put them in an arm lock, and then you hyperextend their arm if they sass you.

“It’s a good hold,” I tell my daughter. “Feel free to use it on your brother once he gets to kindergarten.” And I hope she will. I’m doing this for him, too, so that he’ll always wonder if his sister or any other woman in his life is going to pin him and make him submit. So I’ll get more entertainment value out of watching my children fight if they both know pressure points and finger locks.

Like I’ve shown her before, the kindergartener lifts my arm up while I’m on my side on the floor, and she wraps her legs across my face, leaning down to the ground while pulling my arm as close to her chest as she can. She has my arm locked in place but not as tight as she needs it, and I pull away from her and escape as I think about the fact that I need to start sautéing dinner.

We try again.

She lifts my arm up once more and goes right back to the floor with it, scooting her bottom up close to my deltoid and pushing her legs across my throat with as much strength as she can. This time, she keeps my arm from getting any leeway, and I can’t leverage out of the lock unless I cheat and push her off. But I do cheat anyway by tickling her with my free hand, and we laugh and roll around on the floor like we’re supposed to, like the parenting journals encourage, and then we practice it again.

When she hits first grade, I tell myself, we’ll start working on those kimura locks and gi chokes.

*

At Hidy Ochiai’s dojo this afternoon, the children are rehearsing one of the sensei’s favorite katas. The stances they hold as they punch, kick, or block in formation are shown first by the master in front of the huge mirrors that line the mats and then by the students, including the volunteer instructors who hold black or brown belts themselves. Another thing I like about this particular school is that a diverse body of older students come to help instruct the Little Pandas: hard-jawed high school graduates who owe something back to their sensei for years of instruction, middle-aged women with black belts and glasses and paunches, and slightly effeminate, aryan man-children whose gi pants run just a little too high-water to be taken seriously. Everyone is there because they want the children to learn from the best, and the best is now demonstrating how to dodge hammer fists.

Near the entrance to the dojo, the families of the students are given folding chairs to sit in just off the mats. Parents stare down intently at their shoes to make certain they don’t touch the rubber pads directly, as if it will bring their children dishonor. I’ve seen some of these other parents in the elementary school’s lobby or around my daughter’s pre-k classes. We’ve bonded over strange smells from the auditorium or from complaints about dietary strategies, and now we meet each others’ eyes when the children laugh after watching their sensei disable one of the volunteer instructors in a demonstration. Each time a brown belt is hijacked to the floor by a quick flip and a loud yell from the master, our kindergarteners screech with delight. They’re getting a taste for violence, and we’re all paying tuition for it.

The mother of one of my daughter’s friends in class turns to me and whispers, “He’s so good with the kids!”

“He is,” I affirm. “And he’s so patient with them.”

 

This is true. Master Ochiai is full of smiles and nods and gentleness for our children, and his school is open and mirrored and has a soundtrack piping out from somewhere of a wooden flute playing softly. The place has an air of Pier 1 serenity to it that’s propped up by the off chance that a rival school of ninjas just might show up to challenge Master Ochiai and his Little Pandas to combat. Parents are invited to watch the instruction of their kindergarteners and first-graders, and there’s even a place for us to hang up our coats near the entrance, which is why none of us in the audience are thinking right now about the reports of another karate instructor from a few years ago.

The sensei of another dojo in an adjacent town, one right across the Susquehanna River, was charged with raping one of his own students, a 16-year-old who would often volunteer to help instruct the smaller kids, and so we’ve been holding our children a little closer when it comes to having other adults instruct them. But not Master Ochiai. He’s there again with my daughter, heavy with the smiling nods and the genuine approval for his students’ hard work, and we would have a hard time doubting the character of a guy whose bio claims he once performed stunts in The Chinese Connection.

*

The joke with fathers is that we all see ourselves at the door the first time, standing right next to our daughters when their date comes to pick them up. We don’t have to say anything, but the date knows that we’re serious: bring her back home in the same physical and emotional state you found her in or better, or we’ll find you and hurt you. We want them to feel as though we might have had sniper training before, or at least that’s what I imagine the fathers of teenaged daughters feel regularly.

“This is called ukemi,” I tell her. “You’ve practiced falling in Master Ochiai’s class before. This is just a little more of it.”

In Japanese martial arts, the uke is the ‘receiver’ of the technique, the one who attempts to attack their sparring partner, the tori. The tori defends against the attack of the uke, who usually winds up on the floor after getting flipped, swept, thrown, punched, or kicked. And so we practice landing safely. Where to slap the carpet when she lands on either side of her body, where to roll if she’s pushed backwards, and why it’s important to always, always tuck her chin.

“It’s like gymnastics,” I say. “You tuck when you do a somersault, right? This is just like that.” And I roll forward and into the path of the living room I’ve cleared for the occasion. Upstairs, her brother is taking an afternoon nap, and we’re downstairs making the floor shake. When it’s her turn, her frame falls forward, hitting the carpet hard, but she slaps it with a giggle so I know she’s not hurt. She is the uke, the receiver of the pain, and she’s learning how to absorb it.

On my end, I realize now that I don’t want to be the enforcer. I don’t want to be the threat of violence against someone she might love someday. Instead, I want my daughter to have the capacity for it if she’s ever threatened. I want her to be the scariest monster in the dark when it’s just her alone with her date, which is why we’re here on the floor again, learning how to land after being pushed off balance.

“I don’t care if she plays sports,” my wife says to me. “She’s going to learn how to swim.”

“And she’s going to learn pressure points,” I reply. We are wondering what our daughter might want to take lessons in after this round of karate ends. A soccer clinic is starting up soon, but I don’t know if she’ll be interested. “Scarf holds, chokes, submission techniques. I want her to learn how to bring bullies down by their thumbs.”

We whisper to each other on graduation day at Hidy Ochiai’s, on an afternoon when we’re both tired but on the same schedule, with cameras at the ready. The soft music of a wooden flute bounces off the polished floors from a speaker with audio cables that need to be readjusted.

“Just so long as she learns how to swim,” she says.

In my daydreams, the kindergartener is all grown now, and she has a man or a woman she loves, and the two of them have gone on dates to the pool―my daughter’s backstroke is amazing; the lifeguards make comments about it―and to the local Sonic for cheeseburgers. In the afternoons, between class sessions, she and her boyfriend or girlfriend will tell each other their histories while their roommates are out on errands for birth control. They’ll gossip about mutual friends and they’ll compare notes about the sports they played and how strange their parents’ behaviors are. My daughter’s love interest at college or culinary school will ask her about the photo I’ve sent with her, the one where she’s receiving her orange belt from Master Ochiai and looking into the space above the camera.

“What’s that from?”

“I took karate when I was little,” she’ll say. And this is where I hope she’ll continue with “And I stayed with it through high school. I’m a shodan black belt.”

And her significant other will say, “Show me,” and they’ll clear a space in the middle of the dorm room’s floor, kicking over bean bags and Calculus books. They will bow to each other and spar playfully there on the third floor of an expensive room-and-board dormitory, where my daughter will land her friend into a scarf choke on the area rug and will feel the tap-tap-tap of a hand, a matte, a signal to let up. And my daughter will smile because she will feel safe and equal to this person in her life. She will know full well how to cut off circulation to carotids and jugulars, but, more importantly, she’ll know when to release.

***