Half a lifetime ago, the flaneur was a meatloaf. He needed a makeover, big time. In the early ‘80’s it was his habit to sit like a bull frog on the front porch of the Woodstock Guild and philosophize about his wayward heft, female beauty, and the meaning of meaning.
One fine Saturday, he noticed a troop of ten year olds in white uniforms headed into the Kleinert Arts Center. They were clean and purposeful, like Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid movie that was popular then.
Intrigued by their self-discipline, the flaneur stepped into the Kleinert to check things out. He was immediately assaulted by a male voice so strong it seemed roughened in the throats of a generation of gym teachers, and then polished in the vocal chords of a Navy S.E.A.L. instructor. It was a voice that grabbed you by the collar and threw you against the wall of your torpor. It had a charisma that made you want to please it, and a tone of command that made obedience the only viable option.
The flaneur observed the class — calisthenics, forms, and sparring — and became a student of Korean Tang Soo Do karate.
The owner of the powerful voice was Britt St. John, and the class was a family affair: his wife Marilyn also taught. Their two young daughters were usually in attendance, demonstrating the moves in martial arts forms to kids their age.
It reminded the flaneur of dance class in 6th grade. He was clumsy then, and the years had not brought him any closer to gracefulness; but now he was twice as tall as his classmates. He was an awkward crane among white chickens, Gulliver in Lilliput. He was aware of how ridiculous he looked to the parents observing the class, but he didn’t care. He was learning what the kids were learning: submission to discipline.
He slowly improved. Other adults joined the class. He didn’t like sparring, but if Britt said fight, he tried out some of the punches and kicks he had practiced. His fears dissipated. But then he found himself matched with a fellow who didn’t pull his punches, as Britt required. The new guy was a bully, and in fighting back, the flaneur broke a toe.
Toes heal themselves in time the flaneur limped around town wondering if the gain would equal the pain. A graduation ceremony was to be held in the elementary school auditorium. Each student had to break a board with his foot. There were no tricks involved. The board was real — as the embarrassment would be if he failed.
He broke the board, and a light bulb went off inside his thick skull. The lesson was about self-confidence. Courage, not fighting, was being taught. Self discipline was an important ingredient of courage, an essential but seldom noted aspect of our personalities, perhaps too often confused with aggressiveness. (According to surveys, our two greatest fears are public speaking and walking on a dark road.)
After four years of karate classes, the flaneur felt in good enough shape to undertake the more rigorous training in Fu Jow Pai Kung Fu at Mountain View Studio, with sifu Eric Brugnoni. A frame maker by trade, married to an artist of Japanese ancestry, Eric ran his classes with quiet authority. He taught forms, calisthenics, and light contact sparring, assisted by imperturbable senior student Greg Dinger, who in his other life is a classical guitar player.
The flaneur kept his mouth shut and observed — as well as he could while standing with a log balanced on his outstretched forearms. The students around him were concentrated on the workout as if sitting in Zen meditation. Sweat beads dripped from foreheads. He heard stifled groans. Eric smiled.
Courage was a given in kung fu. Pain was to be ignored. The flaneur became fond of banging his forearm against that of a partner, to toughen it. The bruises were displayed with nonchalant pride. After a month of training, the flaneur lost his fear of fighting. He was never good at it, usually he could hold his own, and some times he got lucky, like the time he knocked a giant cop down. The young officer towered over the flaneur, but the bigger they are…
Martial arts become addictive. The flaneur went to the Byrdcliffe Barn for Aikido classes with Harvey Konigsberg and Lowell Miller, and spent a year studying Tai Chi with venerable Master T.K. Shih. Studies in Taoist fighting completed his education. Ten years passed this way.
What had he accomplished? He was in the best shape of his life, and when he walked down Tinker Street or Avenue B, he feared no evil. To celebrate, he took a solo walking trip across Wales.
Martial arts had shown him that he could live free of fear, but he could feel the ten years of work in his bones. Was he in danger of losing his idler status?
Now when he spent navel-gazing time in the philosopher’s corner on the Guild porch, he day-dreamed still about Schopenhauer’s pitiful pessimism, and feminine pulchritude; but sometimes he just relaxed, and let his meat loaf.
Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.