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August 12, 2004

Thrown to the Mat

The past few days have found me struggling for motivation, even for sense, wading through the detritus of my schedule, which has crumpled under the weight of too many obligations and desires. If life is a series of decisions, the only conclusion to which I can come is that I must be making more than my share of the wrong ones. As I've endured the strain on my knees to walk the dog down a steep nearby street with what is surely one of the prime views in Rhode Island (a secret of a street, quiet and unknown, large houses with broad balconies), thanking God for the gift of its proximity but begging for some direction in my aimlessness, I've realized that the closest that I've come to a sense of calling is with activities that I never manage to pursue.

Such are the strains of life; I've resolved to be content to keep my passions in sight, tinkering with them from time to time, until I've got the necessities under control. Still, I can't shake the feeling that what I'm meant to conclude is that there is no path but toward my sensed vocation. I don't know. The barriers are many, and many are those who pursue it with the passion of the damned, not the patience of the called. But long paths can still lead home, I suppose, and my secret is that our home is uphill from that street of million-dollar houses, and if we ever manage to rise above the tree line, at least some of their view will be ours.

Tonight, after I'd let the dog loose in the backyard, I went into the living room, where my wife was decompressing from her long day of watching over our too-active children by watching one of those makeover shows, TLC's What Not to Wear. The episode starred a woman from the Olympic judo team, whom the fashion consultants surprised at her dojo. "Wow," I remarked to my wife. "All judo dojos must look alike."

I took judo classes for a few years when I was a boy (early double-digits, I'd guess), and the dojo on TV matched the one in my memory. The big bright room and small windows leading to night. The big window into the office in the far corner. The hallway to the bathrooms on the other side of the same wall. The large Japanese flag on the opposite end of the room-length beige mat. But the woman, whom I assumed to be an instructor, did not look like the Olympian daughter of my sensei, and in fact, her father wasn't even oriental.

My sensei had two daughters. My most vivid recollection of the younger involves at least one time when we were paired with each other and she wanted to try some new moves — which seemed consistently to wind up with me lying on top of her and between her legs. My memories of the older sister, the Olympian, involve the embarrassing sympathy with a rag doll that lingered as I switched, much relieved, to partner with somebody else. Now, as a twentysomething writer, it occurs to me to wonder whether the circumstances of the latter memories mightn't have somehow been a result of the former. At any rate, the experience is ripe to be woven into tales. The warrior's two daughters and a somewhat bumbling boy poet.

As tonight progressed, I passed through the living room again at the end of the show, when the madeover subject stuns her friends with her metamorphosis, and I myself was stunned at the setting for the event. The Iron Horse restaurant in Westwood, New Jersey, right around the corner from my childhood dojo.

I determined to find a timely lesson in the coincidence, and an allegory for my current situation came quickly to mind. A while after I'd stopped taking judo classes, I was rushing somewhere on my bicycle at night. (Probably doing something I oughtn't have been, although I don't remember much except that I was hurrying for a reason.) It was autumn, and as I flew into a turn at the bottom of a steep hill around the corner from my apartment, I skidded in a pile of leaves and flew from my seat. I hit the pavement in a roll, tucking in my head as I'd practiced at the dojo, hopped to my feet, waved to a witness, and rode away. The skill returned to me, you see, after long disuse, and very possibly saved my life — at least my limbs; perhaps some other semidormant ability will help me through my current skid.

I turned to Google to see if I could confirm that Celita Schultz's televised dojo had been mine and to see whether she'd bought it from my sensei or something. Ms. Schultz's featured spot on the front page of the Kokushi Dojo's Web site quickly confirmed that my memory had been accurate, and I took a moment to smile at the discovery that the sensei's younger daughter, Liliko, has also been to the Olympics (in 1996). But then stories of being flipped by girls and flying from bicycles lost their profundity.

In the upper left-hand corner of the Web page is a picture of a boy with an afro and a trophy. The caption: "Kokushi Student Hero: September 11th Hijacked Jet." Jeremy Glick. You may recall the name as that of one of the passengers who defeated whatever plan the hijackers of Flight 93 had. In the series of headshots of the men to whom Todd Beamer said "let's roll," Glick is the one kissing a baby. His daughter.

I'd thought it neat randomly to spot on TV a room in which I'd spent many memorable hours. Small world. Small indeed, and not so much neat as awe-inspiring when one realizes the subsequent heroism of somebody with whom I very likely shared that room at one point or another.

Callings will come when they come; we may not know the hour or the form. In the meantime, we can only attend to life and do our best to choose wisely, to love well, and to remember those who've shown us what it means to fulfill a purpose for which we didn't even know we were preparing.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 12, 2004 1:53 AM

It's strange that you would mention judo: I did it for about a year in college, which was about twelve years ago. Just two ago I decided to start again and was pleased to find that the only instructor in town is a very good one.

I had also heard someone mention recently that one of the passengers on Flight 93 was a judo expert. I have no doubt that he was able to break several elbows and shoulders on his way to the cockpit.

Hang in there, Justin. Most of what happens to you in the job world is due to forces beyond your control. Just keep improving your own skills, and something will eventually open up.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at August 12, 2004 12:00 PM