The Deep End of the Pool, Part II

It wasn’t even that first day that practically killed me. Practice was fine. I spent most of the time trying to avoid collisions with other students. Doshu walked by a few times before stopping to say, “So you’re practicing today.” Yes. “Yesterday, you just sat in the corner watching.” Yes, as he turned his back to me and glided off. I’m very sorry. But I got the feeling he was smiling about the whole thing. I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t exactly see him but he seemed to be admonishing me in good humor.

No it wasn’t that first day. It wasn’t until the following Tuesday that I hit the wall. Or the mat. Or it hit me. Or was that his armpit?

The consistencies in any situation are revealed through repetition and variation on a theme of making the same mistake. When you choose a partner at Hombu, you practice with that same partner for the whole hour unless you are instructed to switch. Now there are a few smart people who don’t want to deal with the unknown so they will find someone and pair up before class starts. The majority, however, choose the “Box of Chocolates” approach and work with what they get. I figure it’s all part of the adventure. However, I do find myself looking around before class sizing-up possibly suitable partners and those to avoid at all cost. Typical human behavior, we all know we should be open to working with everyone but we also want to work with people with whom we can work, and not with people who we think suck.

So for my second ever Doshu class, I felt lucky to be sitting next to a relatively young male Japanese black belt. Someone I could work with, who wouldn’t, from lack of control and awareness, repeatedly throw me into the path of on-coming traffic or spend the class trying to fix my technique while nursing his bad back.

Doshu starts his class with shomen uchi iriminage. My partner went first. Good pace, I thought. This is what I’m used to. Then I went. As I’d assumed, his ukemi was amazing. I focused on the movement, bringing him down then back up again and trying not to throw him into anyone, in our 2-ish tatami wide space. Then it was his turn again. I struck. And realized, somewhere in the middle, that the mat was coming at my face a lot faster than I’d anticipated. When he let me up it was, of course, just to give me a close-up of his bicep before I was down again. And as I stood up and went to strike again, one short but deafening Chord of Doom sounded very clearly in my head, you’ve got him for the whole hour.

It was on maybe the third technique that my partner’s stature was revealed when Doshu asked him up to take ukemi. Ah. So that’s it. Well, nothing to do but keep practicing. I was in awe. This guy had absolutely no attitude. He pasted me to the mat over and over again but I felt no anger in him. The couple of times that I got stepped on or knocked into by someone else he asked me, with seemingly genuine concern, if I was ok. I was surprised every time. His face was actually very kind (yes, in a very deadly sort of way). The practice was dogged. The only thing my brain could process was what movement to make next. Get up. Strike. Follow. Get up. I know there were times when I wasn’t keeping up with him but he didn’t crank or bend parts that don’t. Instead, he graciously allowed my body to catch up before applying the final slam.

Nope. No attitude. Kind of like the mat, the contours of which, I was becoming well acquainted with. The mat also has no attitude. It is white canvas that soaks up sweat. It’s uneven and discolored by dirt, sweat, and a little blood. It receives everything you throw at it from every angle, whatever mood you’re in, good technique or bad, but what you receive from it is always the same.

Yes, I was getting to know the mat that day, or was that his gi? They’re the same color. Toward the end of class my nose couldn’t tell the difference between the fabrics it was being shoved into.

But the end of class did come. And I was still conscious to appreciate its arrival. We all bowed out and I bowed to my partner. No chit chat with him but I was glad for the experience, especially since I’d survived it.

I still don’t pick out my partner ahead of time. I’m still fine dealing with the unkown. But this I now know, if you wind up with one of Doshu’s ukes at 6:30 in the morning, you’re not making any more classes that day.

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