A friend asked me for advice on choosing a martial arts class, and in writing a response I found this flood of narrative that was apparently waiting to be told. I'm posting it here, in sections. I hope--if I can say this without sounding too pompous--that those who seek enlightenment will find some here.
I have wanted to do martial arts for as long as I can remember--probably from the time I was eight and I learned that a girl in my third-grade class was in karate. Before then, I hadn't realized that karate classes were an option for a third-grade girl in my white-bread town. I don't know why, I don't remember ever seeing any kung-fu movie and going "hey, that's cool, I want to do that!" It just seemed to make sense to me. I'm very physical but team sports don't do it for me. I'd rather compete with myself than with someone else; at the same time I think I'm too independent and/or self-centered to share the responsibility/attention with others. However my parents had little money to spare and my father didn't think that I should take karate; he thought I was too aggressive as I was.
My first martial arts class was a semester of karate in college. I was probably twenty. I did all right but.... I dunno, the instructor and I didn't gel, I guess. He had that military-style bark, but as I look back now I don't think he had much bite. He spent a lot of time talking about how deadly his art was, but he had kind of a shady, trying-to-get-by character and he ended up stiffing my parents for rather large debts at their copy/printing shop (at one point he offered me free lessons to pay off his debt, but by then it was no longer an option). At any rate, I was a starving college student and didn't have time or money to pursue further study.
Fast forward a couple of years. I dropped out of college, went to work for a title insurance company, put on ten pounds. I hated work, I was running every day after work for stress-relief and exercise, but I hated running, too (I still hate running and avoid it whenever possible—also I don’t believe it’s all that healthy). I was drinking too much Pepsi and coffee and my guts were very unhappy.
It was a very long time ago, but it seems to me I had two or three reasons for seeking out a martial arts class. One was for exercise. Two was that the itch had never gone away; I think I was instinctively seeking that mind-body connection you just don't get from treadmills. Three definitely had to do with my character, Quinn Taylor. I started writing again, heavily, about a year after I dropped out of college, I was writing Quinn's trilogy, and I knew I needed some practical knowledge about martial arts. Four, if I'm being honest with myself, I was very angry at that point in my life--my bosses at that job were horrible, bullying people--and I wanted the opportunity to kick some ass.
I visited a couple of strip-mall tae kwan do dojos in the Kansas City area. They were both decent for what they did, I think. They both operated their classes in the military-inspired, order-barking, line-up and salute style. Their top students were young men in their late teens or early twenties, who spent their time doing flashy kicks. Each had several classes that met during the week; some just for kids, some for adult beginners, and at least one all-levels cattle-class. The Korean guy, in particular, had a large following, with several women students. A couple of them were very encouraging and welcoming to me when I visited.
But it just didn't feel right to me. I know now that many martial artists call those kinds of schools "belt factories." You pay to enroll, you pay for the uniform, you pay when it's time to get tested, you pay for the belt. The Korean guy had a "guaranteed black belt in two years" program. Even as inexperienced as I was, I didn't see how that could be realistic. He was very cagey when I asked him for prices.
I didn't want to be in a "beginner's class." I didn't want to do push-ups before every class—I could do push-ups at home, for free. I didn't like the military structure of the classes--that was why I didn't go into the Air Force when they were courting me as a linguist. I didn't want to be a peg in a hole and a wallet to draw from. I'd had enough mass-market education from 12 years of public school, and I knew from experience (although it wasn't a conscious thought at the time) that being put in a cattle-class would only hold me back. I knew quite conciously that I didn't want to be in a class with children--or anywhere near children. Children make me edgy, and I had a sense that, if I kept with the school long enough, sooner or later I'd be put in charge of teaching (read: babysitting) the children, merely because of my gender.
I saw a guy who billed himself as Brazillian jujitsu. His neck was as thick as my thigh and he spent twenty minutes trying to sell me on how grappling was the best rape deterent. The disparity between his bulging muscles and his talk about not using force was ludricrous. I didn't even attend a class; I shook his hand and got the hell out of there. There was no way I was going to let that guy demo anything on me (and I had my 300-lb. boyfriend with me for that visit, thank God).
I don't even know how I heard about tai chi. I must've heard somewhere that it was a soft martial art, and supposed to be better for smaller people. I think I was attracted to it because it was less well-known in the midwest ten years ago than it is now; I knew very little about it and I have always preferred to take the road less travelled. By this time I knew I didn't want a factory class, so I got in the phone book and looked for the smallest one-line listing that mentioned tai chi. There were three. Two were adjunct programs to bigger sinophile organizations--The Enlightenment Center and the Center for Asian studies, things like that. The third was a guy named Li.
Li taught down in a suburb two counties southwest of me, about as far from where I lived as it was possible to be and still be in the greater city area. When I spoke to him on the phone, he suggested that I might want to try a lady north of the river, a friend of his. Her name was Mary Ann Burt.
That sounded auspicious to me, so I called Mary Ann and found out she taught in a church. I probably asked her some other questions about what the class was like and what I needed to bring, but I don't remember what she said. I pursuaded a friend from work to go with me and we went to the Methodist church on a Tuesday night.
To be continued....