My wife, Robin Hunt, is a karate master.
She’ll scoff at the suggestion, of course, and probably make a wise crack. In our dojo, we avoid the word “master” like vampires avoid sunlight. And for much the same reason – it will steal your soul, if you let it. But the fact still remains. She’s a master.
Here’s the story.
I was watching her last Thursday working out in the back of class just inside the door, off to the left, in front of the desk. It was a normal class. Hot. Sweaty. Quiet. Thirsty. I was watching her pound through punches and kicks, basics and kata, huffing and puffing, knocking things out of the way, generally leading the dojo in intensity. Somewhere in the middle of watching her do Kururunfa, I stopped and stood there for a few minutes, staring off into space, trying to figure out what thought was trying to work its way out of my subconscious this time, when something dawned on me. What dawned on was the fact that I have been watching her back there doing that stuff for thirty-five years. Thirty-five years! That’s a long time. Who in the world practices something for thirty-five years? That was my thought.
She has been practicing for thirty five years. She knows all the kata from several styles of Okinawan and Japanese open hand and armed martial arts inside out, some of them backwards, and has been repeating them, literally, for decades. She knows front stances, cat stances, back stances, four kinds of horse stances, hour glass stances, immovable stances, front kicks, round kicks, spin kicks, wheel kicks, side kicks, back kicks, jump kicks, double jump kicks, double jump spin kicks, back spin kicks, back spin hook kicks, back spin jumping hook wheel kicks, every hand technique ever imagined by an Okinawan, take-downs, throws, chokes, arm-locks, wrist-locks, leg-locks, finger-locks, small joint techniques, releases, elbow strikes from five angles, eye gouges, throat attacks, and a pile of junk that I can’t even think of without stopping to take a breath. What would you call her?
If she’s not a master, who is – some pasty guy with a diploma, an arrogant strut, political connections, a gaggle of sycophants bowing at him, a neat blue blazer and maroon tie, who insists on being referred to as “Shihan?” I don’t think so. That’s not a karate master, that’s a dope.
Here’s why she’s a karate master (and that dope isn’t). Most of us who spend decades in a dojo do so positioned in front of a class – by that I mean, teaching. (The aforementioned dopey Shihan probably doesn’t even do that). We open dojos, and we try to make a business. Somehow we think it’s a good idea to work an eight hour shift at some stupid job so we can pay the dojo rent that we don’t make from the students because they can’t afford it and that it’s also a good idea to pay to teach other people, because…I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we have a captive audience who is very happy to work hard as long as we pay the bill, which creates the illusion of fame or respect or notoriety or importance or something. Who knows?
Whatever the reason, one thing is for sure. When you teach, you don’t practice. You stand in front of a group and tell them to practice. You correct them and encourage them and cajole them into ever greater accomplishments…at least, that’s what you should be doing. There aren’t a lot of people who spend 35 years actually practicing karate, night after night, year after year, decade after decade. Who would do that? Well…Robin, for one.
Teach? She would never teach. She whines if I ask her – holds her breath and stomps her feet. If I can’t make class, she pretends to be sick, so she won’t have to teach in my place. She just doesn’t want to teach. I swear, I couldn’t get her to teach a class if I used a cattle prod. She just wants to work out. I’m the one who teaches. And, after 35 years, you can see the result…she’s a karate master and I’m a teacher.
Years ago she was famous for her shaky knee. That is to say, when she performed kata in front of anyone and settled down into cat stance, her front knee quivered like an anxious bridegroom. Watch her now. That knee is solid like a rock. You could build a small block wall on that knee and never worry about the foundation cracking.
She flows through kata like a veteran (she is a veteran), punches and kicks beside men twice her size (everyone’s twice her size), is offered no quarter and expects none.
In fact, it’s the men in our class who sigh, especially me, when Robin leads exercises, and I’m the one who tells her to do it. You see, she does something out of the ordinary for a karate person – she actually works out. Every day. I mean every day. She runs and lifts weights, and that kind of stuff in the mornings and practices karate at night. I used to be able to keep up, heck, I used to be able to stay ahead. Forget it. I gave up trying.
This all started in the early 70’s, when Elvis was still King, the Beatles were on the downslide and I was a doofus teaching a karate course at a community college. She was a hot chick looking for an easy credit and I had an exposed chest. Fool that she was, she grew to like karate and stayed. She liked my chest, too, and we eventually married (Robin and I, not my chest) and she has been a student ever since. And that’s that. Don’t ask me any more. I told you she was hot.
Our 30 year marriage (and you thought it would never last) generally ends at the dojo door where karate begins. That’s unusual in itself – for a wife to be just a student. They normally, because of the ring, I suppose, want to be something more. Head student, possibly. I never mentioned anything about it. I never suggested how she should act in class. It’s just her way. I told you she just wants to practice. She wants to be a student. She likes it. She calls me “Sensei”. How many wives do that? Eat your heart out.
Black belt. I almost had to bribe her to take her black belt test. She was happy being a brown belt. All “black belt” meant to her was responsibility. Someone might accidentally ask her to teach.
We were in Japan one time, where women definitely play second fiddle. We were sitting around a table and Robin sat slightly behind, pouring tea for me and the Japanese karate men. She was the only woman there. Keep in mind that she could take those little guys down and choke them out without spilling the tea, if she wanted, but she enjoyed playing the role of the docile wife. One of the men finally leaned over to me, gestured toward Robin and spit out an intoxicated whisper “You have a good wife.”
I jumped up, bowed and responded with “Thank you, but she smells like a cow,” or something equally demeaning, as is the custom. In Japan, you see, it’s impolite to raise yourself or your own people up, you always raise the other person and put yourself and, by extension, your associates, down. Everyone at the table smiled and lifted one of those worthless, tiny cups of sake to my good wife. She smiled demurely and never learned the word “cow” in Japanese…until now, I guess. Oops.
Robin earned enough trophies through the years to fill a small gymnasium. We gave them all away. Shiny, plastic, ego-massagers mean so little, that it’s a joke to hang on to them. At some point, if you want to take yourself seriously, you have to get past the need to have other people present you with awards, especially people who don’t have any more of a clue than you. Admit it. Most of those judges don’t know what’s going on any more than the competitors on whose necks they hang medals.
Which brings us back to the dope. I suppose it’s all right to shake each other’s hand and award each other ornate, double stamped, eleven by seventeen, kanji covered, parchment paper certificates that say “Shihan” on them. But doesn’t anyone see the idiocy and irony in referring to oneself by the Japanese term for master and writing it on a business card, alongside the English translation, lest someone miss the significance of the fake title?
The Tao says – “It’s not very holy to tell people how holy you are.”
The original meaning of “do” was “overcoming the ego”.
Attaining mastery of an art, any art, implies achieving a whole liturgy of accomplishments – acquiring perfection of technique, absorbing centuries of philosophy, overcoming the ego – an impossible conquest to which some of us still aspire, regardless.
If you proclaim that you are now special because you, chosen among humans, have finally achieved the heretofore impossible feat of overcoming the ego, and the mastery of two thousand years of martial evolution…? Doesn’t anyone see that proclaiming oneself to be a master…oh never mind, you figure it out.
Back to Robin, the one who would guffaw if you associated the word “master” with her name. Remember, I’m the one calling her “master”, she’s not.
She sits rooted in her rooted stance. You could hit her with a sledge hammer and she wouldn’t quiver. I kick her, punch her, slap her, push her, pull her, insult her, call her mean names and…nothing. How does she do that? I taught her all that, but who ever believed it would actually work!
To call her precise is damning by feint praise. Take pictures of her kata and use it as illustration. You won’t be disappointed.
She can hold her own in a contest with anyone. She has a depth of knowledge and a wide range of training from the best instructors in the world (I don’t mean me, lord no, I’m just her coach.)
I’m going to make a t-shirt some day for our grandchildren that says “My Grandmother can kick your Grandmother’s butt,” and let them wear it to school to see what happens. That would be a hoot. Can you see some old bitty step up and get swept and punched before she can get the words “I’ll bet I could take her,” half way out of her mouth. Maybe it should say “My Grandmother can kick your Grandfather’s butt,” That would be a bigger hoot.
A long time ago I learned that women get a lot more out of karate than men. Men take naturally to fighting and that sort of thing, it’s no big deal. When women learn that they can actually take someone down, it changes them. They develop an inner strength and understanding that surpasses men. Maybe it’s something about the fact that they are so far out of their natural element that it carries them beyond training. Maybe it’s because they are Yin cultivating Yang and it’s the balance. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but if you have any ideas, let me know.
I can’t specifically identify it, but I can see it in the women I teach. In our dojo the two sempai are women and well respected by the men who bow to them.
Yes, I think Robin’s a master. “Master Robin Hunt”. Well, that doesn’t sound right. “Shihan” Robin Hunt. Nah. Shihan Hunt. Not that either. God forbid, people might think they’re talking about me.
See what I mean. Titles don’t work. Who cares, anyway? She’s not trying to impress anyone. She doesn’t want a bunch of sycophants kissing up to her. I told you she just wants to work out. If you want to verify she’s a master, come down here and watch for yourself. Call her out. You decide. That’s what it’s all about, anyway. Mastery is always in the eye of the beholder. You think Divinci called himself “a master”, or Einstein called himself “a genius”?
Besides, it’s all just hard work. You kick and you punch. You learn kata and bunkai and you repeat it endlessly until it becomes instinct. You get in such good shape that people groan when you step in front of class to lead them. You practice your basics thousands of times. You show up for class three times a week and you work until muscles hurt and feet bleed and you do it all your life and, some day, someone calls you a master. You bow, offer an embarrassed thanks, and practice harder.