Like any reasonable kid growing up in the 90s, I wanted to be a goddamn Ninja Turtle. I wanted sais and to do backflips. Fueled by a belief that pizza and skateboarding were the requisite skills for ninja training, I was assured my destiny was to become a human warrior fighting alongside my heroes.
And like any forward-thinking person, I begged my Dad to sign me up for karate classes. There they would teach me the ninja secrets to defeat the foot clan. Surely their methodologies were sophisticated and performed in secret. I prepared myself for the lonely bushido lifestyle of solitude and discipline, fully ready to abandon my previous life for one of heroic servitude, acrobatic feats of agility, and furious wielding of deadly weapons.
The first day they taught us how to stand. It was called “Horse Stance.” Basically you stand with your legs shoulder width apart and bend them at a forty-five degree angle. Of course I’d be holding a battle axe or some similarly gnarly and impressive weapon, right? Nope. My little paws were wadded up in flaccid fists next to my poorly tied white belt. This was the first in a series into a brutally disappointing let-downs in my life.
I fucking quit. I quit hard. I quit the next day. Fuck that shit. Fuck it in its boring, ineffectual, down-blocking ass.
This went on a few more times. I’d forget how crappy it was, and want do karate again. My Dad said yes. I’d quit.
Years later, aided by the forgetfulness of youth and reinvigorated by The Power Rangers, I again asked my father if I could join the martial arts. He acquiesced on the following condition: if I rejoined, I would not be allowed to quit. I, being all of ten, agreed immediately. He then added a caveat that haunted me for the next thousand days: were I to quit, secret ninjas would come to our home, drag me from my bed, and force me to return to the ranks of my fellow martial artists.
Three years later, I got my black belt. I went on to teach the weapons class, join the live demonstration team, and win several state tournaments.
Did I become a ninja? Kind of. Did I learn any lessons? Kind of. It turns out that fear totally fucking works. Do I regret any of it or wish it to be different? No. Sometimes worthwhile things aren’t rewarding at first. They take time and dedication and work. Fundamentals are boring as shit. They’re awful. But you need them. And my Dad knew this. And he insisted I develop discipline and character. I phrase it like this because, to the extent I still have these characteristics, it is a direct ratio of the work my Dad put in to instill these values in me. They are not innate. My Dad saw it valuable to engrain them in me, and he did. They are buried so deep in my DNA I couldn’t shake them if I tried.
On Saturdays from 9-12 was a Black Belt Training Class. It was grueling. Hundreds of push-ups and squat thrusts, sparring, running, getting yelled at. It was, hands down, the worst way to spend a Saturday morning. I begged my Dad to stay home and watch cartoons. It was the same dance every weekend.
"Dad, can I stay home?"
And he made me go every week. Said it built character to face something difficult head on and not run from it. Fucking eighteen years later and I still can’t call off from work. I’ve had perfect attendance for over a decade. The only time I did was because our van broke down on tour and I was stranded in California. Even then, I tried to make it in to work.
We feel heavy with the weight of our choices, but so much of who we grow to be is decided without our consent. I keep telling myself that I’m going to call in sick as an existential proof I control my destiny, a tiny reminder that I’m at the helm of this tiny ship. But the ocean is immense. And while you can steer and fight the tempest with white knuckles, sometimes it takes you where it wants.