I don’t remember the incident, maybe a rape in our neighborhood, that prompted me to bring up the subject of self-defense lessons. But when I did, Anat lit up. She was seven at the time, with honey-colored hair and liquid brown eyes that could melt granite—a spunky kid with a passion for painting and drawing and for hanging by her knees from monkey bars. Her mother, Ruth, was my lover. I was 39.
Anat and I had a conversation with Ruth. “I’d rather do judo than piano lessons, Mama. That way I’d exercise my whole body and not just my fingers.” After some discussion, Ruth agreed. “But”—Anat turned those eyes on me—“I’m not going unless you come, too.” I understood. It was exciting but scary, and I had to be there to protect her.
So there we were that first day, Anat the youngest and me the oldest in the group. Shifu Alex Feng’s school occupied the ground floor of a small building in Berkeley. His acupuncture clinic and office took up the second floor. The school smelled of freshly laundered cotton trousers—the kind with a gusset at the crotch that allows your legs complete freedom of movement—and a faint trace of Chinese herbs drifting down the stairs.
It was kung fu night. I’d done a little judo in my teens but was new to kung fu, and was out of shape. Alex led us in stretches and then ordered us to do loosening-up front kicks. Ten waist high—that was no problem. Ten more, face high? Another ten, above my head? Shifu Alex, you’re dreaming, I thought. I’ll never be able to do this. I’m too old. By the end of those 30 attempts, I was red-faced and pouring sweat. Anat was naturally flexible, easily doing front splits and side splits, either seated or in a headstand. Alex was really taken with her. “She’s a breath of fresh air,” he said. I don’t know what he thought of me.
Anat and I studied both kung fu and judo until Ruth broke up with me and left the country, taking Anat and her two brothers. I collapsed into my bed and cried for four days. I almost lost my job. Once I got out of bed, I kept going back to Alex’s class, though I’m not sure why. By the end of that year, though, I could kick above my head.
I had remembered some of the basics of judo from twenty years before, like how to take falls without getting hurt, but Alex’s instruction went beyond the physical. At the end of each class, he led us in guided meditations. My favorite was when he said why he loved judo: “Because you get thrown. You get thrown once, a hundred times, a thousand times, ten thousand times. Each time you are crushed, humiliated, defeated, but you get up again. And then one day you win.”
I was never very athletic, and I progressed slowly. One day when I was 45, Alex pointed to several of his lower-ranking judo students—that would include me—and informed us that we were going to be in a tournament. I hated the idea but refusing was not an option. At home, night after night, I practiced to bagpipe music on the stereo—“Scotland the Brave.” In school, a few days before the actual contest, Alex had his “volunteers” go up against the black belts. We were thrown, over and over again.
On the day of the tournament I faced two opponents of the same rank. I won—mostly, I think, because I was bigger than the others. I pinned them to the mat and held them down for the required 30 seconds, until the referee called “Ippon!” That first place trophy is somewhere in the attic. The real prize is in my heart.
Over the years, before Alex, life had handed me a series of defeats. A women’s organization that had meant the world to me dissolved into acrimonious factions, and its members stopped speaking to each other. None of my love relationships had worked out. I was dead broke, and had been living in a series of slum apartments. I had always wanted to write novels, but never managed to make the time.
Yet somehow that guided meditation penetrated, became part of me. And that part, conscious or not, always asks, what have you learned from the last catastrophe? What is the next step forward?
It’s been almost 40 years since that first class with Alex. I don’t know if Anat continued with martial arts lessons in Israel, but she seems to have had a good life: a long-term partner (they can’t get legally married over there), two kids, and an almost-completed PhD in art.
As for me, I’ve been blessed with good luck. I had parents who cared about me, robust health, a good education (at a time when college was free), and friends who happened along to steer me in the right direction at the right time. Alex was one such friend. In 1997, another friend suggested applying for a job that I almost rejected, but that turned into a decades-long career. A third friend invited me to a birthday party where I sat across the table from the woman who would become my wife—and who encouraged my writing and edited the three novels that are now in print.
I’ve written elsewhere that at least 95% of life is luck. The remaining 5% depends on whether, as Alex taught me, you choose to get up after being knocked down. That you get up and go to the tournament, take the job, or get dressed up and attend the party.
BTW, at 78, I wouldn’t enter a martial arts tournament, but I can still kick above my head.