Earning My Second Degree Black Belt

Part of our Second Dan promotion test is to write an essay on What Earning A Second Dan Means to Me. Here is my essay.

There were a few things my Taekwondo instructor Mr. Bill Canegata told me before he died. One, was, “You’re a thinker. Thinking is what you do. So think. Stop beating yourself up for not being able to stop your mind. That is your talent.” Two, was, “Don’t quit martial arts, no matter what happens.” He was plugged into something I still hardly understand, as if he could clearly see the future — he knew my ego and big mouth would get me into trouble, which they did. I got into a battle of wills with my instructor who’d replaced Mr. Bill, forgetting for a moment that Mr. Sevilla is not only much stronger than I am, but also that he is my instructor. Walking home from the school in a blind rage, I decided to quit, but then I remembered what Mr. Bill had said and I changed my mind. Quitting was a perfect example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Next day, I went back an apologized to Mr. Sevilla for losing my temper.

Working out doesn’t get easier as I get older. I turned 50 this year. One of the most important things I learned in preparing for this Second Dan test was that I had to stop beating myself up for not being able to compete physically against students who are half my age. Or for not being as flexible or in shape as Anna, my partner, whom I love and admire and who has been on this journey with me from the start. Anna had a moment herself where she wanted to back out of taking the Second Dan test. She was having trouble with the form, one of the only areas I wasn’t struggling. I talked her out of it and we worked on the form together for months and months, until we had it down tight.

My first impulse when I look at the video and photos of myself during the test is to only see what is not perfect, what is not right. I should have done better, I think. I forget, of course, that we were already 90 minutes into a grueling endurance workout by the time we got to the form. Notice the gentleman guiding us and judging our performance — Mr. Eric Anthamatten — a Fifth Dan Black Belt in Taekwondo, a brilliant mixed martial artist as well, and a PhD student in Philosophy. He teaches Philosophy in the prisons. If you look carefully you can see the five red stripes on his belt.

If you ever saw him practicing forms, you would think he can fly. I am barely able to get off the ground in my tornado kick. But, hey, at least I am able to do a tornado kick!

I was looking on line for a tailor or martial arts equipment store that could embroider two gold stripes for Anna and me onto the ends of our belts. Right now we have two strips of masking tape. Many of the internet forums stated that it was ridiculous to have stripes on one’s belt — if you need to prove you have a Second, Third, or Fourth Degree, then you probably don’t deserve it. Real experts can tell from watching you. Well, I’m 50, and I’ll never look like I deserve a Second Degree Belt. But I physically worked harder for this honor than I ever have on anything in my life. Those strips mean something profound and everlasting to me. They are a symbol of the fact that Anna and I didn’t let Mr. Bill down; they are a symbol that Mr. Luis Sevilla and Mr. Eric Anthamatten thought we deserved to be promoted.

When they get angry at us in class, they yell, “Pull yourselves together! You look like a bunch of 40 year olds!”

“Thank you, Sir!” we shout back.

The fear of failure, of being laughed at, of being a fool for having the hubris to even consider attempting this — all these feelings I had to wrestle with right up to the moment I started the test. Then, a strange calm overtook me. I prayed constantly, and I didn’t look at the clock once. (Mr. Sevilla, naturally, shouted things like, “Only two hours and forty three minutes left!”) But here’s what getting through this test gave me: the courage to face other fears, like my fear of heights. Two days after the test, I rode almost all the roller coasters at Six Flags, terrified the whole time.

My daughter Eyrna received her Second Degree Belt a year before I did. Well, she’s 13, and not plagued with bouts of paralyzing bronchitis (from 20 years of smoking) and aching bones and joints. Next summer, she and I are going to China for a month to study Kung Fu with the Shaolin monks. How many kids can say their moms did that with them?

It sounds like a cliche to say that martial arts have changed my life. I’m sorry, but martial arts have changed my life. I don’t for a second think I could get out of, say, a knife attack or a violent rape, but I think I would not give in easily. I think my only chance would be the element of surprise. Hopefully I would be able to hurt the bastard enough to make him think twice before he did it to someone else.

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