Old Dogs Do Learn New Tricks
I am sixty-eight years old. That means I’m at the point where age alone is enough to affect my karate performance. It doesn’t bother me as much as you might assume it does. My local club is composed almost entirely of members who began their life journeys even earlier in the Twentieth Century than I, including two born when World War II was still raging. In terms of stamina, strength, flexibility, and even speed, I really don’t have much reason to be discouraged. I’m doing well. As long as I don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m still in college and attempt something I have no business attempting, I am pretty much in a thank-my-lucky-stars position.
Except that I face one other hindrance, and even more than age-related decline, there is no getting around it. You see, seventeen years ago, the lowest disc in my spine herniated. My sciatic nerve on the right side was pinched so badly it lost seventy percent of its signal-carrying capacity, or so my spine doctor estimated during a neurological exam. That same doctor was uncertain I would be able to continue to walk once my muscles went through additional atrophy. Karate looked like it was to be a “thing of the past” part of my biography.
Now? Well, obviously, the gloomy prediction missed the mark. Now, it would even accurate to say that doing karate has never been more interesting.
Getting to the “interesting” phase did take a while, of course. I would characterize it as about a five-year process. The physical accommodation was the lesser adjustment. The rest was mental, as in, figuring out how to ditch the victim state of mind. Naturally when I first sustained the injury I was a long way from that. I didn’t view being crippled as an opportunity. Instead I moped about what I had lost.
In the earliest days, what composure I managed to maintain stemmed from a close-at-hand example of how the situation could have been even worse. My next-door neighbor was injured the same month in a motorcyle accident. Same disc. Nerve pinched in much the same way. The difference was he was left in constant pain. He lost his high-paying job because it required him to drive up to a thousand miles a week to call on customers. He couldn’t endure the pressure all that travelling put on his lower spine. He had to quit. He went on state disability, reducing his income to a quarter of what it had been. He couldn’t make the mortgage. And at the end of it all, despite two surgeries, he was still in pain.
Me? Well, at first, yes, I did have pain. The morning the symptoms peaked, I woke up in so much agony I knew I had to go to the emergency room. I tried calling out to my wife, who was downstairs, but I couldn’t suck in enough breath to shout. I dragged myself bit by bit to the top of the stairs, taking ten minutes to move ten feet, and pounded on the top step until she began to wonder what that strange noise was.
When I got to the ER, I couldn’t sit in a chair in the waiting room. (There were no other patients at that early hour. Not one. But still they expected me to wait.) I got down on the floor in a fetal position. At that point it dawned on the staff that they actually had a room to put me in, and they got me onto a gurney.
Six or seven hours later the drugs finally got the upper edge. The pain subsided.
Subsided and never came back.
This was good news and it was bad news. Good in the sense that I did not end up like my neighbor, suffering every day for the rest of my life. Bad in that it meant the nerve had sustained so much damage that any part that was still getting actively pinched was dead.
It was a “damage done” scenario. No surgery could have helped. The pain component had resolved on its own, so the only treatment was physical therapy to teach me the regimen that would have kept the disc from bulging in the first place. If that strikes you as a “too little, too late” approach, I have to agree.
I am not the sort of person that would have resisted adopting the regimen if I’d been pointed in that direction in time. No stubborn “I’ll tough it out” crap from me. That’s one of the unfair parts. It’s not like I knew my disc was bulging and was at risk of herniation. My mistake was neglecting to buy a crystal ball.
My spine healed up just fine. The bulging disc retreated. Unfortunately, the nerve damage was irreversible. One way of describing me now would be to say that I am about four percent paralyzed. The right half of my right foot is numb 24/7. Though the problem is in the spine, I feel it in the foot. Or don’t feel it, if you catch my drift. The biggest impairment is that my right Achilles tendon does not get enough signal to tighten up when required to “go to maximum.” I have no ability to forcefully push off from the floor. No sprinting. No thrusting forward. And most of all, no swivelling on the ball of the foot. Without tendon strength, my heel won’t stay up unless the left foot is taking some of the load.
You can imagine the downside in terms of karate performance. While sparring, I can’t surge in like I might have done in the past. I can’t always twist away as deftly as before.
Sparring, though, isn’t where I feel the bulk of my frustration. For one thing, my group is so mature in years and because we work out on thin tile atop concrete, we haven’t done any sparring for years now. And when we did, I did not feel the full measure of frustration at my disability because, frankly, sparring is imprecise. It’s always been a matter of doing the best I could. It’s the other part of class where I felt it: the individual exercises. Because those things I had done with precision.
I have been a black belt for forty-five years. Some time in those decades, performing had become almost a kind of meditation. Whether it was a basic drill or an entire kata, I had done all of the moves thousands of times. I’m a perfectionist. It’s fair to say no one ever performs any move to utter perfection. The goal recedes, remaining forever out of reach. Yet before my injury, on any given night, I knew there was a chance I’d equal my personal best. Every once in a while would come one of those nights when I knew I’d raised the bar even higher.
No more. Now no matter how hard I try to perform a kata, I will come to a spot where I will fail to have the degree of grace and precision I once could depend upon. There is not a single kata within my style, goju-ryu, that can be done from start to finish without swivelling on the right foot at least once. When I come to those spots, I have to make some sort of accommodation — swivel on the heel, or swivel my left foot in support, or step rather than swivel and slide.
My performance is compromised. It is, by my old way of thinking, a failure.
For a few years, this dissatisfaction nagged. And then a funny thing happened. In the summer of 2010, after a few years of “taking it easy” at workouts, doing more teaching and analysis and less exercise, I rededicated myself to my training regimen, picking up with my old instructor, pushing myself. I didn’t think I’d be able to regain my conditioning. To my surprise, I did, and fairly quickly, too. True, I had limitations, but I could compensate in various ways and keep doing 95% of what I’d done before. I could still push out the sweat. I didn’t have to sit out any parts of class. It is safe to say that I am currently working out as hard as I would have if I had never been injured and made it to age sixty-eight the regular way. Am I happy about that? You bet.
What I didn’t expect is that some things are better.
Here is the nutshell version:
I had spent years slogging through kihon, the part of each class session where we do the blocks, strikes, and kicks of goju-ryu by a commander’s count. The idea is to perfect the form of the individual technique. So we stand there and repeat the moves over and over. I would always try hard. I would aim for the ideal. But at some level I was bored out of my skull. The same thing?! For decades?!!! Inevitably I had tuned out. Maybe not as much as a sane person would have tuned out, but certainly I had engaged the autopilot more and more often.
But now? Class holds my attention. I can’t count on being able to stay steady when I lift my left leg to kick. I can’t run on automatic or I may literally fall down. But if I concentrate, I can do the kick. Every time I do the kick right, it’s not, “Oh, I did that kick right for the 141,569th time. Ho hum.” It’s, “Wow. I did it! And it was better than last time!”
Now, when I perform a kata, there are so many new ways to tinker with my interpretation. When my body was whole, I tried to perform the same way each time, striving for that impossible perfect ten. Now I cut myself some slack. On a given night, I’ll emphasize power, even if it means tapering off from the “standard and correct” pace. The next class, I’ll emphasize precision of form. The class after that, I will tweak the moves to emphasize the self-defense aspect, overriding the tendency within my organization, Goju-Kai Karatedo U.S.A., to do cleaned-up “classic” positions and angles. And even on those nights when I’m tired and I just try to make it through the kata from beginning to end, no frills, I no longer take for granted my ability to do so.
Karate isn’t just karate anymore. It isn’t something “out there” that I’m chasing. It’s very much all about what’s going on inside me.
It’s my karate.
I won’t say I’m happy I’m a cripple. I will say it’s enlightening.