Only two days ago . . .

March 21, 2020 at 7:10 pm (By Amba) (, )

and it’s old news, burned up, bypassed, trampled under the stampede of events. New York’s more strictly locked down now, and karate classes have gone virtual. (Sensei and his wife drove all the way in from Westchester to the empty dojo to beam that dedicated space into our heads and homes, especially important for the kids.) It was a revealing conflict for a moment, though—revealing of my own contrary arrogance as well as of various aspects of various coexisting cultures. So I’m copying my journal entry about the question—go to the dojo while I still can, or start staying home?

3/19 I showed up at the dojo last night in defiance of being berated and pleaded with by Mom, Sara [infectious disease doc sis]. and what seemed like half of Facebook, who, in effect (if not in so many words), either said I was going to die, or that I was going to kill somebody. I’ve never been the target of a mob shaming before: they differed in their tactics—some expressed coaxing concern for me, others compared me to selfish spring breakers—but they were united shoulder to shoulder, a phalanx letting no light through, in the conviction that it was irresponsible to go out, that in this we ALL had to be As One, and strays had to be driven into line. I’ve never seen Americans so unanimous, never see them enact a uniform consensus, like the Chinese army, breaking away only to act as border collies nipping stragglers back into the sea of units, all individuals choosing to subsume themselves in a unified action. I didn’t know we had it in us. It was impressive (if also oppressive).

Well, there was an exception: the martial artists, a couple of them, who understood the importance of training, and even training together, in defiance of consensus and even common sense. It’s belonging to that culture that drives me in the other direction. Yes, there is pride: I’m expected to be an example and a role model, someone demonstrating the benefits of matter-of-factly continuing to be “a karateka” rather than meekly submitting to the straitjacket of “old age.” Sensei relies on me for this mute demonstration, and I don’t want to let him down, even now, when it goes directly against the overwhelming tide of fear and epidemiological prudence. I am hoping that the city goes into lockdown and spares me this conflict.

It doesn’t help that I read a diversity of voices on the internet, including the right-wing point of view that the lethality of the virus is being overblown for either political or nefarious governmental ends. The people who were scolding me were all progressives or moderate liberals (well, not all: Ann Althouse is a center-right independent and contrarian). Many if not most conservatives tend toward the other extreme, or did (they haven’t quite caught up with Trump’s head-spinning pivot from scoffing Ostrich-in-Chief to “Wartime President”). But not Newt Gingrich: he lives in Italy and has seen the virus do its worst.

There’s that self-sacrificing recklessness in karate culture (which I dubbed “maso-machismo”) that gets guys so brutally banged up (ripped knees, perma-dislocated shoulders, broken bones) that their older age is a torment of disability. I avoided that not because I had any brains, but because sexism and Jacques protected me from my own zeal and vanity. I am paradoxically a tribute to the benefits not only of karate but of not too much karate.


  1. A said,

    As John Wayne tells the kids learning to break their own ponies in The Cowboys, trying not to get bucked off, “Keep your mind in the middle”.

  2. amba12 said,

    Zen advice from John Wayne??!

  3. Heidi Gucinski Menocal said,

    Wow. I think maybe karate takes more dedication then ballet. The dancers I know are struggling to with this decision of risking yourself and others to go to class or staying home and losing technique. I think most are self quarantine and trying to find ways of practicing at home. It is hard.

  4. Cat Dean said,

    I faced the same question in my mind last week: Go or don’t go to what may be the last karate class for a long time. (As it turns out, it was). I decided to stay home, deciding to “flatten the curve.” I want this all to be finished as soon as it can be. For me and for my 93-year-old mother. I suppose your friends were well-meaning and trying to be loving. At least many of them. But it did rather look like a gang beat down (so to speak). I’m planning to practice from home. Hopefully, my katas will look magnificent (er) when we get back.

  5. amba12 said,

    Heidi, they should do what we did and hold classes virtually. The instructor could even Zoom from the empty studio, as my teacher did from the empty dojo, to convey the atmosphere of attention and discipline that it’s so hard to recreate for oneself alone at home.

  6. Heidi Gucinski Menocal said,

    Many teachers are holding zoom classes and live classes from their studios or homes. As you know it just isn’t the sane as being in the studio with others and your teacher.

  7. amba12 said,

    Really not for new people. If you’ve already experienced live classes, you could “translate.”

  8. Alexandra Leh said,

    I’m one of your crude shaming mob on Facebook. I walk a spiritual path that includes Paramahansa Yogananda’s philosophy, “Life should be chiefly service,” and I do see that my tactics were not, ironically, that of the yogi I’ve trained for 40+ years to be. But I believe the entire population of the world is being tested to show up for each other in ways we may never have done before, and I’ve been frustrated–even infuriated–by any apparent lack of concern for our fellows during this crisis. I’m over 60 and have health issues that put me at risk, so I’ve stayed home for 16 days, now…not only to protect myself, but to protect others from any microorganisms I might unknowingly be harboring that would put others in danger. A small and temporary sacrifice that will end sooner if we all make the commitment to be of service to each other.


  9. amba12 said,

    For the record, “crude” wasn’t aimed at the gang-up or its participants. It was aimed at my own reduction of what was said to “you’ll die” or “you’ll kill.” I should make that clearer.

  10. amba12 said,

    This was a pertinent post in Quora by a Westerner living in China (dated Feb. 22, so it was not yet clear how efficient South Korea would be at getting the virus under control):

    “My concern is once it begins to spread in western countries.

    “I currently live in China and the government control to combat the spread of this virus has been astonishing. All gathering places like malls, restaurants, theaters have been closed for a month now. To come into my apartment I must pass a health screen, to go into my office another health screen. The only stores that are open are supermarkets, yep another health screen. If you are outside you MUST wear a mask. There are drones flying overhead to check. Most people simply stay home. But, schools are closed and there is no sign of them opening soon. Everybody is just doing their part to keep this virus from spreading.

    “In the future though, this virus will spread to countries like the US where individual rights supersede the good of the country. If people are told to stay home, don’t go outside, if companies are ordered to close they simply won’t do it and this virus will spread rapidly. Just look at what’s happening in South Korea to see a microcosm of what can and possibly will happen in the US or Europe.

    “The numbers are low now, but it did not take long for the numbers to escalate here in China.

    “The good news in the west is that there are not the population densities that there are in China, the bad news is there are not the government controls as there are in China. Imagine the government quarantining a whole city like LA or New York…it will get UGLY!”

  11. amba12 said,

    Ironies upon ironies: 1) We were studying an Asian martial art that teaches you to transcend (literally, “get over”) yourself, to burn through your own limiting comforts and fears. 2) But there are different emphases. 3) My American karate teacher friend in NC emphasizes subordinating yourself to the cohesion of the group (at least in training)—maybe because he realized through training in Japan that that’s a counterbalance Americans need. 4) My Japanese karate teacher in NY emphasizes individual uniqueness and self-discovery—maybe because he discovered by living in New York that that’s a counterbalance Japanese people need. Or maybe because he thinks it’s the only approach Americans will be attracted to and understand.

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