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How I learned the art of self-defense and became a man

What Sensei taught me about karate and life.

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A few weeks ago, I was mugged as I was walking from the grocery store. The road I usually take home was dark, and a duo on a motorcycle rolled up beside me asking if I had a gun. I tried to sprint home but the vegan ice cream and lettuce I had in my bag was heavy and my orthopedic shoes weren’t meant for high-speed chases. They caught up to me and tackled me to the ground. I tried to give them the $8 I had in my wallet. I even tried to give them my gift card to the new restaurant in town I won at the company picnic the weekend before. But they didn’t want any of it. They were strong and wanted to prey on the weak.

I spent the next few weeks feeling sorry for myself. I cried — a lot. Then one night I saw a commercial that changed my life. I found Sensei.

There are two periods in my life: Before Sensei and After Sensei. When I first walked into Sensei’s dojo I was intimidated. The men here were men; they were hitting each other with their fists like I always assumed other guys did when they were being masculine in the locker room or at the meat factory. These guys wouldn’t get mugged walking home with a bag of their dog’s special dietary restriction pet food. They wouldn’t have gotten their loyalty card to the coffeeshop with eight stamps on it — two stamps away from a free drink of my choice — taken and then ripped up in front of their faces. They would have kicked that 16-year-old’s ass for making fun of their shoes at the mall that one time.

Sensei could, uh, sense something happened to me. (I guess that’s maybe why they call him Sensei?) He knew I was weak. He wanted to make me strong. Strong enough to break through cartilage and bone, but also strong enough not to cry when those commercials with the sad animals came on the TV late at night. My training would be more than just learning how to punch with my feet and kick with my fists. Sensei told me the only way to a new life was to kill the old me that had caused all my problems. Sensei would show me the way. He also said he would never kill the new me, which I appreciated.

My training was tough. Sensei made me throw out all my adult contemporary cassettes and replace them with heavy metal CDs. The sumptuous, decadent sounds of clarinets and French horns had made me soft, Sensei said. The thrash of guitars and drums would make me a man in a hurry. I hate adult contemporary now. It is garbage music. Sometimes you don’t know what you like until someone like Sensei tells you what to like.

When Sensei wrapped that white belt around my waist that first day and told me that this belt was my property now (and that I should never lose it and that if I did lose it it would cost $15 to be replaced), I felt like I finally belonged somewhere. I started sparring my first day, and even though my partner’s kick felt like it crushed my spleen into a million pieces, I knew this was the right decision. Organs can heal (I think?) but my masculinity was on life support. Violence was the only medicine worth swallowing, even if it had to be delivered via someone’s furious fists.

I graduated to yellow belt after a few more lessons, and I never wanted to take that beautiful, $15 piece of cloth off. It was a symbol of my power, and I wanted everyone to know that I wasn’t weak anymore. No one and nothing could stop me: not my coworkers who made me feel weak and cowardly, not the man who slammed his car door into mine in the grocery store parking lot and yelled in my face. I sought my revenge when I brought down his car’s side mirror down with a single hand kick.

The lessons I learned from Sensei showed me that being a man isn’t about personal responsibility or learning the difference between right and wrong. It’s about power, and power comes from muscles and karate chops. I am not prey anymore. I am a predator. Sensei changed my life and he can change yours too.

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