Karate Saved My Life

Bill Mattocks

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To begin with, this is not a story of self-defense. If you were hoping for a rock-em, sock-em story, I'm afraid I don't have one right now. By saying "karate saved my life," I mean it both literally and figuratively, but not from the standpoint of defense against an attack. Sorry.

Some background is in order. I'm 56 years old in a couple months. Former US Marine, I was a Military Policeman. I had some basic hand-to-hand combat training, some police-style non-lethal techniques training. A few credits shy of an Associate's Degree in Criminal Justice (I switched to Computer Science and graduated with a degree). I worked as a security guard and Class 3 Jefferson County Sheriff Reserve Deputy for Martin-Marietta Denver Aerospace, security for Mariott Hotels in Denver, a 911 call-taker and police dispatcher for the Lakewood Police Department in Lakewood, CO. You could say I lived a reasonably healthy and active lifestyle from my late teens to my early 30s, and worked in 'law enforcement' from a variety of angles. My goal was to eventually become a police officer. However, exposure to real civilian law enforcement work through my work as a police dispatcher led me to understand that it wasn't the job I wanted it to be. I got my degree in Computer Science, left law enforcement, and never looked back.

When I was in the Corps, I was stationed on Okinawa as an MP. I was a senior Corporal at the time, so I ended up as Desk Sgt, Admin Chief, Patrol Supervisor, and a variety of other duties. I worked with a lot of fellow Marines who studied various forms of Karate in their off-hours, including Shorin-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, and Isshin-Ryu. One of the Japanese Security Guards who worked with me was a man named Angi Uezu, who was teaching Isshin-Ryu to some of my fellow MPs. I met him, I worked with him, but I did not study martial arts with him. We all make choices in life. My choices were to spend my off hours exploring Okinawa, buying stereo gear, and drinking a lot of beer.

After the military, after my work in civilian law enforcement and security, I transitioned to working in the computer field. I monitored satellite traffic as an operator. I wrote code in Business BASIC and learned Informix SQL as a programmer for a company that made mailing lists for junk mail. I sold computers at a retail computer store. I got certified in Novell and was a technician for a company that installed networks for businesses. I supported end-users with an accounting program aimed at Culligan water dealers. I was a network manager for a French-owned company that made a non-sugar sweetener called Sorbitol in Gurnee, Illinois. I was a consultant for a computer consulting company in Milwaukee. I was a traveling consultant for a company that made software to control software source code revisions. I worked for a bank in North Carolina that used that software.

During this time, my early 30s to my mid 40s, I moved around a lot, skipping from job to job, usually earning a larger salary, going from state to state. I made a lot of friends, I had a lot of fun. Tried my hand at running a computer store of my own (didn't work out). Was interviewed by the media as an 'expert' on various subjects such as anti-spam and security bugs in software. Mentioned in a book or two as that same 'expert' for reasons I don't really know. Got married, divorced, helped to deliver the daughter I only recently became father to at last, got remarried. I should mention that after my divorce, at age 31, I wisely chose to start smoking. Dumb. I was up to 2 packs a day by the time I decided to quit at age 43.

What I did not do during this time was to take care of myself physically. I no longer did any exercise. After I stopped traveling for a living, I didn't even have to run through airports anymore. I used to joke that I did all my exercising in the Corps, so I didn't need to anymore. I got fat, then fatter, then fatter still. I eventually topped out at nearly 300 pounds, on my 5 foot 10 inch frame.

By my mid 40s, I was beginning to suffer the effects of neglect. My smoking had given me a hacking cough. My weight was causing me to have plantar fasciitis, which is a really fabulous and intense pain in the feet when getting out of bed in the morning or getting up after sitting down for awhile. I was pre-diabetic. My teeth began to crumble in my mouth - not from decay but from the intense pressure on them from my unremoved wisdom teeth. I drank a lot of bourbon to kill the tooth pain, which is also very wise.

Then I lost my job. In a small town in North Carolina, where the only IT employer in town was the one that had just fired me. Chances of finding another job that paid anywhere near the same was nil. I put my resume online, got contacted by a few headhunters, and began the road to employment.

I was offered a 6 month contract position in Detroit, for a contracting company that contracted with a contracting company that worked for a big automaker. I took it. Rented a room in a house with a bunch of idiot drunken post-college morons for roommates and started working. My wife, her elderly mother, and my house were still in NC, and I came home twice a year to visit.

The bills slowly began to add up. The costs of running two households became too much. We began to tilt towards bankruptcy. I continued to neglect my weight and my health. I was eventually diagnosed with diabetes, and by that time, I was suffering from extreme symptoms of it. I was also diagnosed with Sarcoidosis and Psoriasis. My employer cut my pay three times, the last time by 20 percent. Things were not looking good for the home team.

Something had to give. In 2009, it did. We lost the house to the bank amid the general economic issues of that era. We knew that we were going to have to file for bankruptcy, and we started preparing to move the rest of the household to Detroit, with hopes that things would get better.

It was during this time that I discovered a dojo that was near where I was staying in Waterford, Michigan. It was an Isshin Ryu dojo and I remembered back to working with Angi Uezu when I was an MP in Okinawa in 1982-1983. I stopped by and watched a class, talked to the instructor, who had been in the Army for 8 years himself and had been training at the same place since he was 13; he was now in his 40s.

So I signed up and started taking classes.

At first, I could not get through the warmup exercises. I would start, stop, huffing and puffing, and have to go sit down, sweating like a pig. The instructors would tell me to "control your breathing or your breathing will control you," but I could not seem to stop panting like a dog.

Eventually, though, I started to improve. I lost a lot of weight. I dropped down to 225, which for me is fine, although according to the height and weight charts, I should weigh more like 180. Yeah, whatever.

I learned to step with a slight C shape. I learned to stand in different stances. I learned to bend my knees. To relax. To sink into my stances. To make a proper fist. To punch with the distinctive vertical fist. To kick with a chamber and rechamber. I learned to spar with intent, to get off the fightline, to circle, to look for openings, to keep my head up. I learned how to set my blocks. I started learning kata.

I also made friends. The people at the dojo were universally friendly towards me. They came from all walks of life, from people who mowed lawns for a living to lawyers, commercial pilots, electricians, corporate executives, retired people, students, and lots of IT people like me. Younger, older, and everywhere in between. Every race, gender, and ethnicity. Our dojo is not large; but it represents a real cross-section of the multicultural land that is the metro Detroit area.

What was amazing to me was how willing they were to stop and show me what to do, adjust my position, walk me through a kata, and just generally help me in every way. There was no hoarding of knowledge. There was no looking down on lower belt ranks by upper belts; everyone helped everyone, and sometimes a lower belt might know something that a higher belt did not; they shared and no one 'pulled rank' or acted as if they were too good to learn from someone below them in rank.

As I became familiar with certain kata, I was shown some of the many applications of the movements inside the kata, the so-called 'secrets' that are not really secrets at all; it just takes time to see them and more time to get good enough to apply them. They're not shown to beginners not because they are secrets but because they are difficult to master and would frustrate a beginner for no purpose.

I started to gain confidence, I started to notice my health improving. I also noticed my attitude improving, inside and outside the dojo. There is a sign on the entrance that says, "Leave your shoes and your attitude at the door." That is excellent advice. But even more, I began to realize how much of my happiness was controlled not by outside events, but by my attitude, how I reacted to them. This is a lesson I am still struggling with. I backslide, I fall into depression and anger and resentment; at work especially. But I can control my outlook by controlling my attitude. A wonderful lesson for those who can apply it as I am struggling to do on a daily basis.

As the years went by and I continued to train, I learned one of the 'secrets' of karate just by observation. I saw that many people started training, full of enthusiasm and promise. For some reason, it often seemed as though those who had the most 'natural talent' stopped training. Some right away, some after a few months or even years. Most people, in fact, stopped training at some point. The secret that I learned? Martial arts success is a matter of perseverance above all else. The least talented, the least coordinated, the most inflexible, the people who just didn't seem to be 'getting it', if they kept training, got better at karate. In fact, many became amazing students and teachers. Your secret is to keep trying. Never give up. You only have to give up once. To keep trying is a daily choice. But daily choices become habits, and good habits engender success and excellence.

Studying my kata, my weapons, my basic exercises, I began to work on my own, trying to find the perfect stance for my body, the perfect transition, the right placement of my hands, and as I did so, my instructor noticed and began to show me more things for me to work on.

I also noticed that when our instructor took the time to show a student something important and they did not practice it, he did not show them anything else until they had worked on what he had given them to do. It wasn't down to yelling or shouting or complaining or ordering anyone around. It was a simple, subtle, lesson. When advanced training is given, it is given on an individual level as the student is ready in the instructor's eyes. If the student can or is willing to try to master it, more is given. Again, not a secret as such. The information is there and will be transferred at the appropriate time, when the student shows that they are both willing and able to accept it, train it, and be ready for more. Like a mother robin feeding her chicks so to speak. One worm at a time.

Looking outside the dojo, I started to see how nearly every lesson of karate can be applied to life in general. Keep your balance. Don't get hit. Keep moving. See in all directions, hear in all directions. Assess risk and take chances where the odds seem to be in your favor. Know when to retreat, when to move in. When attacking, trust your training to keep you safe and throw everything into your effort. When you see an opportunity, take it.

More deeply, one begins to see how training itself becomes a way of life, a philosophy, a method of living. There is harmony in training for the sake of training. There is family inside the dojo, a safe place where ideas can be tested with friends who don't mind a little pain or giving you a couple thumps either. A place of mutual honor and respect. Whether a student is excellent or not, they are there, they are training, they are trying to be better, and that deserves both honor and respect. The same is true of life. Honor those who struggle to improve themselves. Respect them. Do not dishonor yourself by indulging in ridicule or feeling as if you are better than anyone.

Now as I train, my mind and body and spirit are more closely related to one another. It is about punching, and kicking, and blocking, and at the same time, it is not about that at all. It's about breathing and balance and movement, and it is important inside and outside the dojo.

It is a way of self-defense. It is a way of living.

Karate saved my life. And it continues to do so.
 

oftheherd1

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Good points Bill. It is what we all should try to achieve. Many have been fortunate to travel the same roads as you, and lingered at the same rest stops. Always getting better, even if we didn't realize it at first. Another insightful post. Another answer to the 'Am I too old to study MA question? Thanks.

BTW, wasn't Novell the cat's meow? I took courses up to CNE, but never got certified as I wasn't working with it yet and money was tight for me then. Then I was forced to go to Microsoft Server 4. What a let down! I haven't done much of anything IT related in about 14 years, having returned to the security field

Another BTW. A friend who worked here is a Marine. He tells me one of the recent Commandants declared there was no such thing as a 'used to be' or even a 'former' Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine. What Marines have always said, he apparently declared officially.

Again, thanks for your post. No clich矇s there as they are indeed verifiable points along our MA journey. I hope many somewhat new to MA will take it to heart.
 
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Bill Mattocks

Bill Mattocks

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Good points Bill. It is what we all should try to achieve. Many have been fortunate to travel the same roads as you, and lingered at the same rest stops. Always getting better, even if we didn't realize it at first. Another insightful post. Another answer to the 'Am I too old to study MA question? Thanks.

BTW, wasn't Novell the cat's meow? I took courses up to CNE, but never got certified as I wasn't working with it yet and money was tight for me then. Then I was forced to go to Microsoft Server 4. What a let down! I haven't done much of anything IT related in about 14 years, having returned to the security field

Another BTW. A friend who worked here is a Marine. He tells me one of the recent Commandants declared there was no such thing as a 'used to be' or even a 'former' Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine. What Marines have always said, he apparently declared officially.

Again, thanks for your post. No clich矇s there as they are indeed verifiable points along our MA journey. I hope many somewhat new to MA will take it to heart.

I've been urged to write a book. This may be one of the first bits in it. I will entitle the book "Karate as I found it, and what I did to it when I found it." ;)
 

oftheherd1

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No motorcycles or Zen? ;)

Actually, if anyone could make it a worthwhile book, I think it would be you. Good luck on that.
 

Buka

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I've been urged to write a book. This may be one of the first bits in it. I will entitle the book "Karate as I found it, and what I did to it when I found it." ;)

If I may, Bill. What I think should be the "first bit in it" is the brief story you told about bringing a firearm to school back in the day. (I can see youngsters horrified by that statement) And that should be framed around the world as it was back then in that particular area of the country. And expanded upon. Greatly.

As a reader, a long time reader, that story was just the balls.
 

JowGaWolf

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Wow.. That's a really long post. I 'll have to give it read when I have more time lol.
 

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