A Karate Scrapbook: Old Dogs Do Learn New Tricks

I am fifty-seven years old. Six 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 my latest neurological exam.

Doing karate has never been more challenging. And it has never been more interesting.

It’s fair to say the “interesting” part surprises me. Naturally when I first sustained the injury my mood was, as they say, not good. I didn’t view being crippled as an opportunity. Instead I moped about what I had lost.

Whatever 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. 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 would 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 only 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 frustration. My bag of tricks isn’t as full as it was, but I still have a lot of things I can pull out. I’m able to hold my own. It helps that I train with a mature group. Our ages range from mid-fifties to late sixties, meaning that I am one of the youngest. Given the wear and tear the years have inflicted upon our bodies, none of us is operating at top specs. I just note how well I’m doing compared to my sparring partner and I don’t feel so bad.

Individual exercises are another matter. I have been a black belt for almost thirty-five years. Performing had become almost a kind of meditation. Whether it was a basic drill or an entire kata, I had performed 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 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. Yes, I am slower and less athletic than I used to be, but at fifty-seven? Even without a numb foot, I’d still be slower and less athletic than I was.

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Smeds writes about a lot more than martial arts. His latest short story collection is Raiding the Hoard of Enchantment from Book View Café.

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A Karate Scrapbook: Old Dogs Do Learn New Tricks — 4 Comments

  1. I have the same situation to a lesser degree. Caught the bulging disc early. Did PT and that helped but didn’t cure the problem. Went through a battery of tests and found a bone spur–the real culprit. I opted for surgery. It got rid of the bone spur, but the disc is bulging again. I’m employing the PT lessons but the time is coming…

    In the meantime my trusty cane or staff helps, especially at a con when I’m on my feet and not totally in control of every shift of weight and posture. I figure, if I have to carry a walking aid, I’ll make a statement. Some of them are becoming quite legendary. Not even the fold up cane is ordinary–I had it painted in purple and copper swirls with a purple handle.

    We do what we have to do to keep moving forward, or just keep moving.

  2. Thanks, Dave, for this amazing and moving story. In the 25 years I studied kung fu, I accumulated a slew of injuries, the worst being a torn meniscus in one knee and two damaged discs in my lower neck. The knee injury was amenable to arthroscopic surgery, but the neck problems took much longer, but again I was fortunate in that physical therapy and pharmaceuticals helped through the initial stages and a decade of yoga has continued the healing. I’m so glad you were able to continue your art. I might have been able to do so, had I not relocated to an area where the nearest studio was an hour an a half away, while I was working full time with a troubled teen at home. I went through a long period of feeling sulky about making the only reasonable choice, and then I came to a place of peace about it, and I think that’s the true gift of having studied a martial art for that long — it’s not what I do on the outside, it’s what I do on the inside, and no accident can take that away from me.

  3. Great story, Dave. I am glad that you are expanding your map of life and reality. I’m working on the same thing here — different challenges, different disabilities, but still moving forward.

    Has this impacted your design of characters in current works? How are they changing, as you change?

  4. After 30+ years in martial arts coupled with some genetic tendencies, I’ve got a bunch of aches and pains that inhibit my training: knees with little range of motion, a lower back that goes out easily, neck issues, an elbow that I can trace back to hyperextending it one time too many in about 1985, etc. If I do too much flying through the air and hitting the mat in Aikido class, I find it hard to get out of bed the next day.

    Fortunately, what really interests me is the small, subtle stuff. I’ve been going to seminars with a master teacher who has figured out how to teach people what some of the great master are doing when they throw attackers in an effortless manner. (It always looks like people are falling down for them, but if you’re one of the attackers, you know it’s real.) I can practice that for hours without having to do the things that will beat up my already beat up body. It’s truly wonderful, because I want to keep training until I shuffle off this mortal coil.

    A wordy way of saying I completely understand what you’re talking about! Though I confess I miss flying through the air and popping back up to attack again. (I can still fly a bit, but the popping back up doesn’t happen these days.)