HOW I ENDED UP IN COLORADO
I started in karate at the Ja Shin Do Academy in Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1975. Andy Baumann, Joe Demusz, and Jane West were the instructors. I’d always been curious about karate. I had no natural athletic ability. Zero, zilch, zippo. Nada. Every physical contest was a chore to me, from tossing a ball to running. I was as coordinated as a tornado. I could barely lift my leg above my knee in front of me.
I could only get better and so I did, but every stage was a struggle. I had little confidence in my self-defense abilities. After a year training, I was in excellent shape. I can’t believe what we did in that class, in terms of sheer physical effort. For example, “Thousand Kick Night” was a regular feature. There’s no way I could keep up with that regimen today. If anything, Andy has become even more fanatical about rigorous physical training—you can check him out atbaumansextremetraining.com.
In ’77 I moved back to Madison, Wisconsin and began writing for Isthmus, the alternative weekly. I introduced myself to publisher and editor Vince O’Hern, who had been training with Jim Henry at Choi’s Karate on West Washington in the Fess Hotel, which also housed Rod’s Place, Madison’s premier gay club. I got as far as high red when Choi’s closed its doors and Jim left for sunnier climes.
I worked out sporadically with Vince, Bob Dodd, and Al Reichenberger at the University Natatorium. Then I broke my hip. I’d designed and built my own house, and one of my clever innovations was to put a trap door in the floor of the bedroom closet. One opened the door and there was a little ladder going into the basement. One night under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, I stepped into the closet intending to grab a jacket, forgetting that I had left it open to impress my date. I fell through the opening and broke my hip. My date was duly impressed.
My comics were selling and everybody wanted me. I was hot for fifteen minutes, but I didn’t know what I had, or how to keep it. My writing lacked discipline. I would snort coke to write. I tricked myself into thinking this made writing easier, but it didn’t. It just robbed me of judgment.
The hip injury put me on my back for six weeks. When I once again began to walk I realized I was seriously out of shape, so I turned again to martial arts, although I had very little ability and was now hampered by a gimp leg. I have a titanium brace screwed into my right femur, and a metal ball in the hip socket. My calves have always resembled boneless chicken wings. I wouldn’t be caught dead in shorts. My stretching had improved, however. I began training with John Fehling and his kali/escrima boys in the basement of the Vilas Neighborhood Community Center. John is extremely knowledgeable about Filipino martial arts. We trained with sticks and lock-flow. Unfortunately, after a year, John decided Thai boxing was the way to go and he stopped teaching everything but how to hit and kick.
I had married. As my career nosedived, Madeline’s health began to deteriorate. Nasal infections lasted for months. One snowy winter night she had an accident on the Beltline and damaged her neck. She suffered from fibromyalgia, a form of arthritis. One day she said, “I can’t take another winter here. I’ll die.” Okay, I said. We took a massive road trip throughout the southwest, and settled on Fort Collins as the most suitable. My sister Jill and brother-in-law Dennis live here. Dennis and Lee Casuto urged me to spend more time at Karate West.
Things were bad at home. Madeline was in constant pain, which sent her to every pain specialist on the front range. There were other problems. She was fired from her job for failing to show up and lost her health insurance. She suffered from depression. I suffered from depression. Once, back in Madison, I came very close to killing myself. And again, after we moved to Fort Collins, I fell into the Marianas Trench. (William Styron’s Darkness Visible was a hopeful guide map to these dark times.)
Karate was the only regular feature in my life. I looked forward to it every day because when I was on the floor, I was not aware of my home situation. I’ve discussed this with other students and we agree that one of karate’s benefits is that it requires such attention as to preclude dwelling on your troubles. Although I’d been granted a black belt by Joe Demusz, one of my original instructors, the performance gap between me and the standard Karate West black belt was instantly apparent.
I just put my head down and kept coming. While the rest of my world was in free fall, there was karate, noon every day, Monday through Thursday. Then a funny thing happened. I began to improve under the eagle-eyed tutelage of those sadistic bastards Lee Casuto and Brad Suinn. In fact, every higher belt with whom I’ve come in contact has gone out of their way to help me, particularly Mike Martin and Wayne from Budweiser.
One day I went to karate and when I came home Madeline was dead. I tried mouth to mouth. I heard the air rattle through her bronchial tubes but there was no response. I called 911. I was numb. My friend Pete accompanied me to the police station for the interview. Another friend spent the night at my house to keep an eye on me. The next day I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t write. So I went to karate. It helped me deal with overwhelming grief. My psychiatrist urged me to keep going. “Tell the truth, Mike,” he said. “Aren’t you a little bit relieved?”
Gradually, my grief began to subside. It was as if I were coming to the end of a long tunnel. I believe I’m a basically optimistic person, and my natural optimism, so long buried beneath an age of crisis and despair, surfaced.
The Karate West mottoes are keys to successful living. Attitude determines whether you see the glass as half full or half empty. Those who see the glass as half empty are in danger of slipping down the drain. Without something outside themselves to pull them forward they fill their time with the pursuit of pleasure or wallowing in self-pity. They have stopped growing. Why bother? Those who see the glass as half full see possibilities, a reason for living. They have enthusiasm, which is the keystone of a good attitude. Karate is a bridge toward something bigger than the self.
These days I look forward to karate with the enthusiasm I used to reserve for New Comics Day. Achieving second degree seems premature to me. I’ve only been at it thirty years.