A Typical Night at the Dojo, Pt 1
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Apr 2014)

            ←Prev Column       Next Column→

            I bow as the glass double doors close behind me. Bowing is not easy when burdened with a bag that includes uniform (gi), belt, deodorant, sports tape, baby powder, flip flops, towel, water, padlock, notebook, and pen, but I manage. With the exception of fewer than ten classes, I have taken notes after every karate class that I have attended. Thus the notebook. I do not wish to be “that guy,” making nearby students cringe with every burst of air passing through my gi. Thus the powder. One evening, I rushed to the floor without first shaking out the powder I’d dumped into the top of my uniform. I was mortified to see tremendous puffs of white smoke emerge from my sleeves with each warmup punch during that night’s crowded class, and I have not since forgotten to pat myself down before leaving the locker room.

            When I purchased my first uniform, a senior student – a senpai – taught me how to tie the belt. Putting it on has become a small ritual for me over time. No matter how late I am, I always stop in front of the mirror to look at that visible sign of my progress, and my training. I remind myself that it is an honor to be a part of this tradition, to have come this far, to wear the uniform, to be a student of karate. Now I am ready. I tighten the knot, pass through the tunnel-like locker room, and walk up the other set of stairs muttering a brief prayer for safety. The rear exit, the showers, and the main office appear, then fade behind me as I approach the dojo floor. I kick off my shoes, line them up against the wall, bow, and step onto the cold, hard wood.

            I pass a bulletin board with exam results and tournament information, and a window into the paper-filled office where the business of running a dojo takes place. Beside the window is a framed copy of the Dojo Kun, or the rules of the dojo, above a long banner featuring a quote by the founder of Shotokan karate, Gichin Funakoshi:

The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, 

but in the perfection of the character of its participants.

            Everyone around me is aglow in white, heavy, woven cotton. Training in a traditional gi is the rough equivalent of working out for an hour and a half in a winter blazer and slacks. Still, there are advantages. 1) It’s easy to pack. Pants? check. Jacket? Check. Belt? Check. Go. 2) It’s democratic. People of all ages, sizes and proportions can feel confident in a karate uniform, as it is equally unflattering to all who wear it. 3) It’s enormous. As much as I adore dance, it is not always a good plan to put a young girl in a leotard and surround her with mirrors and multiple spectators. Karate has mirrors, but no leotards. Getting girls involved in physical activities beyond the spandex-ridden realms of dance, gymnastics and figure skating (not instead of these realms, but beyond them) can offer a rare and delicious taste of what boys often take for granted: the chance to be judged by skill, strength, and mastery of movement in loose-fitting clothing, with less scrutiny of the contours of their bodies.

            In those uniforms, dotting the honey-colored, wooden landscape of the dojo with varying shades of white, we warm up, stretch, greet one another, and practice our techniques. But when someone yells “Rags!” we stop what we are doing, scurry to the bucket near the entrance, and reach inside for warm, damp, pine-scented washcloths that might once have been white like our uniforms. Once. Long ago. We form a tight line on one end of the floor, squatting, rags stretched out before us edge to edge. When there are more students than rags, a lower-ranking student – a kohai – takes the place and the rag of a senpai. Then the highest ranking student yells, “Go!” and we push our continuous rag from one wall to the other, picking up delicious treats like hair, toenails, Band-Aids, tape and calloused skin, as well as a day’s worth of dust and foot microbes. We line up again, and so on, until we have cleaned the entire floor. In addition to the obvious practical benefit of doing this before a class, it is meant to teach humility and responsibility, akin in my mind to Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. This is our dojo, and it is special to us, so it is up to us to help maintain it. But, while I bet Jesus cleaned feet like no other, the floor does not benefit nearly as much as I’d like from this whole “rags” procedure. On more than one occasion, I have had to restrain myself from standing up and screaming, “Forget tradition! Swiffers! We must have Swiffers!

            The class gathers around the bucket to toss the rags back in, and then the three lowest ranking students have the privilege of rinsing them out and hanging them back up while everyone else finishes stretching. Back at the big sink, despite the hot water, the cap full of Pine Sol, and much enthusiastic wringing, the fact that this is all done by hand means that the rags go back looking not unlike how they did when they left the floor. I have considered sneaking into the dojo to steal the rags and put them through a washer and dryer. Extra bleach. Could I get them back in unnoticed? Would I get in trouble? Or worse, would I be expected to do it again?

            Once, when I was a child, I thought it would be nice of me to wash the dishes for my mother. I had never done it before, and expected her to be pleased by this one-time gesture. One-time, indeed. I was so naïve. If I were to launder the dojo rags and get caught, it could actually become my job. You know, upon reflection, washing by hand is not so bad. At least the skin and toenails get rinsed out, though the microbes are at the mercy of the chemicals.

(To be continued.)

            ←Prev Column       Next Column→