Photos by Barrett Emke
I am a part-time dad. It's a hard thing to admit in print, or to myself. My eldest daughter was largely raised by my first wife—for most of her childhood I only took care of her every other weekend, though she did live with me a bit during her teenage years—and my two younger daughters, Portia (seven) and Margaret (nine), are mostly being raised by my second wife.
Let me be blunt: I think that my failures as a husband, and many of my failures as a father, have been the consequence of two of my character flaws—laziness and cowardice. I'm even a little frightened, as I sit here writing this on a Sunday evening, of the prospect of putting my kids to bed tonight and getting them up and fed before school in the morning. True, I used to do it often when I was married to their mom, but it's been a few years...
Well, I'm 47 years old now, and lately I've been waking to an urge that was a daily part of my psychological life in my teens and 20s: the desire to improve myself. I don't know when or why it went to sleep. Maybe it was all the good wine I started drinking when I opened my jewelry stores and my wine bar. Maybe it was the ten years of alcoholism that dominated my 30s and early 40s. Maybe it was a cynicism that emerged from the many moral mistakes I made during that time—a kind of "Yeah, I'm a shitty person, but so is everyone else, so what the hell?" attitude. But we're not all shitty people. And we can make ourselves better. Or at least, I can try to be. To be precise, that's what's been happening inside me recently: I remember what it's like to want to try to be better.
So my ex-wife texted to say that the girls wanted to take karate lessons. We already spend too much money on violin and cello lessons, aerial silk lessons (don't ask), acting lessons, and my knee-jerk reaction was "No karate." But then we were lying by the community pool one day, watching the girls jump into the deep end, and Amie, my current wife, said, "Maybe I could get my black belt." She was about nine when The Karate Kid came out, and it's still one of her favorites.
I said, "Now that's a great idea! All three of you could go to karate together, and it would be a big bonding thing for you guys."
She's no stranger to my bullshit.
"Since it's such a good idea, how about all four of us get our black belts together?" she asked.
"There's no way I have the time. Plus, it means we'd be getting them after school three days a week. You're in shape. I'm too old. I can't go to a karate studio. Not to mention keeping track of the uniforms... It sounds way too ambitious."
But when I looked at my daughters—who both said they'd love to take karate—I thought, Don't you want them to be able to defend themselves?
The next weekend we were walking into AKKA Karate on Broadway, a dojo about a mile from our house in Kansas City. We opened the door, and there it was—the gym. I saw 3,500 square feet of failure: a place I had hated and feared in school; the sour stale smell of sweat; the blue mats on the floor; the jumbles of equipment; the mirrored wall I wasn't going to want to look at myself in; the locker rooms in back. Instant involuntary memory—seventh grade. I was trying, and failing, for the 20th time to do a lay-up (I still can't do one); the other seventh graders were laughing; the gym coach was loving my humiliation (how I hated Mrs. Nagel).
Behind the desk was a five-foot, hundred-pound, early-30s Indian woman named Ritu Nanos. Meet my future sensei, a fourth-degree black belt, a kind of soft-voiced, graceful, deceptively gentle reincarnation of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket.
"Pick 'em up and put 'em down, Private Pyle! [Read: White Belt Clancy.] Move it out! Quickly! Are you going to die on me? Do it now! Do you feel dizzy? Do you feel faint?" In fact I don't think Sergeant Hartman could go two rounds with Mrs. Nanos.
"Front row to the line!"
It was the first day of karate class. New Order played on the studio speakers. There were about 20 of us—all girls, aged seven to 12 or so, and Amie and I. I couldn't look more ridiculous. We stood in four rows of five and ran to taped lines on the floor.
"Honesty in the heart, knowledge in the mind, strength in the body!"
"Ma'am!" we all shouted in response.
It was 90 degrees outside and nearly that in the gym. We did 50 jumping jacks, 50 plank jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, mountain climbers, and some kind of squatting exercise I can't remember. That was the warm-up. Then class started. Square horse position: Spread your legs and bend your knees until your thighs are almost parallel with the floor, keeping your back straight. Now hold it for 30 seconds. Then, just as you're about to collapse: "OK, let's drop a bit lower! I want to hear thirty more, louder! Four-knuckle punch! Hammer fist! Reverse hammer fist! Knife hand thrust! Tiger claw! Let me hear those kiais like you mean it!" Our kiai, or battle cry, was ites (rhymes with "bites"). Front kick: "Ites!" Wheel kick: "Ites!" Half fist, thumbless fist, front-back combination...
"Mr. Martin! Lower those legs! You're sitting on a horse! Fists at your waist!"
Mrs. Nanos stood low to the ground, fists in front of her face, a wall of samurai swords lined up behind her.
An hour later I was in the changing room, and a gold belt walked in for the next class.
"Jesus Christ, I had no idea," I told him. "It's horrible!"
He laughed. "Yeah, I lost fifteen pounds in the first two weeks. One of the teachers here lost a hundred pounds in her first six months."
Afterward, as we got into the car, Portia said, "Dad, are you OK?"
Margaret said, "You're kind of sweating. A lot." They both were laughing. My jeans were stuck to my legs. My eyes were stinging. My shirt was plastered to my back.
"So you guys thought that was fun?"
"I loved it," Amie said.
"We're going back tomorrow, right, Dad?" Portia said.
"Day after tomorrow."
At AKKA they teach kenpo karate, a style popular in America that traces its roots back to Shaolin kung fu. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but kenpo was effectively brought to the West by an American, James Mitose, who lived in Hawaii in the early 20th century. Mitose was sent to Japan at the age of three to learn what was then called the Kosho-Ryu kempo (or Old Pine Tree) style of karate. The story is that Mitose taught it to William K. S. Chow, who refined kenpo under the influence of his father, a Shaolin master and Buddhist priest named Hoon Chow. William Chow in turn taught Ed Parker, who formalized the kenpo—also called "fist law"—system and became its great popularizer in America. The basic idea behind kenpo is that it is self-defense, and as a martial-arts technique it relies heavily on a series of very swift punches and a knowledge of the vulnerable points of human anatomy.
When you begin kenpo you are a "drunken monkey." I quote from our manual: "A drunken monkey is lazy, rude, skeptical to a fault, undisciplined, and seeks to escape himself through indulgence in external stimulation." They left out "cowardly"—then they would have my character more or less nailed. So I'm a drunken monkey, and I'm hoping karate can straighten me out. "Sober monkey emerges and sits in the gymnasium of the warrior soul," our manual promises, by the time I get to 1 Tuan (first-degree black belt). After consultation with Amie and the girls, that's what we agreed to: The four of us, for the next four years, will study karate until we all become black belts.
Fortunately, the white-belt class is more mixed than I feared at first: A few boys and even one grown man, my own age, showed up for our third lesson. And then, one day, maybe seven lessons in, as I was taking off my robes, I suddenly felt like my body was, well, not my enemy in quite the way it had been before. I don't want to exaggerate, but for a minute or so I felt almost at home in my body.
Amie and I were watching a movie last night, and I told her that, in the session the day before, I had finally taken the time to watch Margaret and Portia at work. (For most of class I'm just panting with the effort of keeping up.)
"They watch Mrs. Nanos. But I see them sneaking looks at us all the time too. Both of us. They're watching us to see how we do the moves."
"Really, even me?" Amie asked.
"Yes, definitely you. Both of them were watching both of us. And it got me to thinking, you know, here are these two little beings, and they are looking at us for... for everything. Like there are a handful of people they think about, and our opinion and what we do is basically their whole world, and all they want is for us to love them, and encourage them, and tell them it's OK, and take care of them..."
"Yeah," Amie said.
"And I can't help thinking that someone like me shouldn't even be allowed to be a parent."
Amie watched me quietly. "I think you're being a little hard on yourself, but I think you're telling the truth about how you feel right now."
So here we were. Basic training on Ritu Nanos's "Parris Island" of Kansas City. Learning to stop being a drunken monkey. To get a black belt. To be a better dad.
We were learning Dancer B, a series of head and shoulder movements, two open hand strikes, and three leg moves that result in a prone opponent with your elbow on his throat and his left shoulder dislocated. There was another family in the dojo—a mom, dad, and two daughters, just like us—and I was practicing the move with the father, who was about to get his gold belt. He's a stocky guy, shorter than I am, 48 years old, and he felt like he was built of iron. When he took me down to the carpet I was like a kitten on its back. When I took him down, it was like a great tree falling in the forest and I was the squirrel holding on to the tree.
"Dig your right elbow into my Adam's apple," he told me. "Yank up on my arm. Get your left arm close to my side so I feel it in my ribs."
After 60 push-ups—yes, 60—and another couple hundred jumping jacks, we walked out of class to the car. The girls are usually quiet when we pick them up after school, but they babble away after karate. It loosens something up in them.
"So what are you going to do in the tournament, Amie? I think I'm going to do short kata," Margaret said.
"Tournament?" I asked.
"I'm not sure," Amie said. "Maybe opponents at sides B." (A complicated dancing-style kung fu move that I still can't do, even in slow motion. I'm the worst of the four of us.)
"Dad, there's a tournament in two weeks. All the karate schools in Kansas City are gonna be there. What are you going to do? You should spar with somebody, Dad."
Our dojo is planning to host a citywide tournament. That's why they've been painting the walls and installing new mats, I realized, moving the chains that the weight bags swing from.
I'll be sparring.