I took my first lesson when I was thirteen, around the time that The Karate Kid came out. (It is very strange to reflect that I once considered Ralph Macchio a role model.) I have practiced martial arts on and off ever since, but I've never been sure why. It was one thing in my teens or early twenties, but as I begin to approach a rather jiggly middle-age my doubts about it all have been steadily mounting. I can think of much better kinds of exercise and the claim to be learning self-defense seems hollow somehow. Thirty-something professionals living in the suburbs don't get into a lot of fights. My chances of being the victim of a random act of violence are about as great as my chances of driving into a lake, but I don't spend hours every week practicing underwater evacuations from my car in case I ever need to. In my adult life, I've never been in a fight and have never felt remotely threatened by physical violence, except once while learning martial arts. So I'll take my chances. If anyone ever did break into our house, there are plenty of things I could brain him with before it became necessary to pull out the old karate moves: wine bottles, frying pans, the Oxford Companion to Canadian History.
"Why do we do this?" I once asked a friend, both of us wheezing and battered after a session in which some young jock without a lick of training had positively mopped the floor with us. He looked at me incredulously. "Because it's fun," he said. And there you have it: two suburban martial-arts consumers with fantasies of invincibility, stripped positively bare.
Probably just as well. Unarmed combat gets you killed. While most martial arts claim to have their roots in ancient battlefield techniques, the fact is that no army has ever invested much in unarmed combat training for the simple reason that people have always had weapons. You could train for decades in the Kung-fu Mantis Death Touch and still have less than an even chance against a peasant conscript with a pointy stick — let alone one with an assault rifle. In Tokugawa Japan, the socially leveling implications of firearms were so great that most such weapons were rounded up and destroyed by the Samurai.
Later, I took up kung-fu, in an effort to hugely increase the mumbo-jumbo quotient in my life. People who've never done it but who have seen the t.v. show tell me that they're interested in the "philosophy" of kung-fu. About the only philosophy I encountered was slightly less profound than what you'd find stuffed into a fortune cookie. The odd time you'd meet a master who thought he was Yoda, but when it boiled right down to it most of them were just Mark Hamill.
I did meet a lot of very funny people — adults who spent a large portion of their waking hours stomping around barefoot in their pajamas and shouting out the only ten words of Chinese they knew — and they were all the funnier because they took themselves Very Seriously. One even made murmurs about dire retribution if anything unkind was said about the Grand Master. "I'll hit anyone who disrespects him," he said. (In the rational world, that's called assault, and it's a criminal code offense.) Well, the Grand Master, as it turns out, was an immensely overweight crackpot whose power in the martial arts was so vast than he passed from this Earthly realm only sixteen years earlier than the predicted lifespan of an average North American. This particular club pretty much met all of the definitions of a cult, including the attribution of supernatural powers to the Grand Master. I exited rather abruptly, only to receive a nasty phone call a couple of months later — when they finally clued in that I was gone, I suppose — informing me that I wasn't welcome back.
Anyway, attributing supernatural powers to "the master" is actually much more common in the martial arts than you might think. Yup, you heard it here first, folks: the accumulated scientific knowledge of Western civilization — and that stooge Newton's 2nd Law in particular — have been overthrown by kung-fu masters in strip malls across America. News at 11.
One instructor I knew swore that his teacher could convey the day's lessons through touch - transmitting knowledge through his chi. (In my profession, teachers who try to convey lessons through touch get into serious trouble, and rightly so.) And then there were the various claims about healing powers and the ability to move objects without touching them.
Take this group, for instance:
Notice that the level 3 training video includes lessons in "telepathy", which you have to admit could be handy in a fight. The person offering the video is himself at level 6. God knows what he can do. Sell videos to suckers, probably.
Oh, don't get me wrong. In my time in the martial arts, I also met some lovely people, made some friends, got some exercise and had some fun. Perhaps I'm just feeling my age, and just need to go with it. As a friend of mine used to say, "you're just skeptical because you've never been on the receiving end of the Chinese Death Kick. I have - and it worked every time."