Now that I’ve been taking taekwondo (henceforth referred to as TKD, on account of me not wanting to type “taekwondo” any more than I ever have to), I’ve learned quite a few things that would greatly benefit me if I were ever in a situation where I needed to protect myself or my loved ones from attack from bullies, muggers, or deadly gravity-defying ninja pirates.

OK, if it was also a cyborg Jesus, we'd be screwed.

However, as I’ve increased in rank and belt color (I’m purple with a green stripe now, baby. I’m like the Prince of TKD), the chance of injury has also increased. Let me let you in on a little secret, folks – I don’t like getting hit. At all. It sucks quite a bit, and the amount of knowledge you gain from be struck in the mouth by someone’s foot isn’t proportional to the amount of pure pain and embarrassment you also gain. Granted, as you learn different ways to defend and attack, you often just get pissed and try to seek vengeance, but vengeance only goes so far when you take a side snap kick to the ribcage. Vengeance has a way of rolling out on you like it was doing a dine ‘n’ dash at a new Red Lobster restaurant. Although pain itself is moderately effective as an instructor for what not to do, it is most certainly not an accurate measure of success. But I’ve learned that a very effective method for assessing success is by how often I DON’T get hurt.

Case #1: The Jealous One

When I started TKD, there was a woman and her son who were a rank and a half ahead of me. As I proceeded, I showed enough progress that the black belts allowed me to skip some ranks to the point where I caught up with the two of them. The woman (who I’ll call Kicker) was at first somewhat relieved to have another adult to work with, but when we were placed together in a group with a black belt instructor, it became evident that I was a bit more advanced than she was. Now, I’m not saying that to brag – hell, I’ll readily admit that what I know about TKD can fit into a thimble with room left over for the script for “Glitter 2: Electric Boogaloo”. But I do pick things up quickly, and I have the added advantage of having a son who takes TKD on different nights, allowing me more chances to pick up additional information and to practice more. She noticed that I could pick up things after seeing them once, but she needed a few more repetitions to catch it, and perhaps felt threatened by that. Who knows. But whenever the subject of my rapid advancement came up, she would wrinkle her nose.

Part of what we learn in TKD are pre-packaged hit-and-react maneuvers called One Steps. One Steps need 2 people, and require that one person punches at the other, and the other does a series of blocks and counterattacks that are pre-arranged. One of the One Steps (One Step #1, if you’re curious) involves a block and a punch to the solar plexus or ribs, whichever you can get at easier. When we perform them, the intent isn’t to do harm, but to demonstrate that we know the proper technique. Since it was just me and Kicker in our group, we had to take turns on each other. She was the attacker first, and I successfully did #1 from the right and left side without difficulty. But when I became the attacker, Kicker couldn’t seem to get her technique down. She needed to repeat it…a lot. And each time she hit my ribs, she did that shit with gusto. Now, she’s a good bit smaller than me, so the first couple of punches didn’t really affect me. But after around the 8th, my ribcage sent a text message to my brain that basically said “Dude, WTF r u doing? Make her stop!” By the time she finally got it, I could barely lean to that side, which I wanted to do really badly after that beating. She kinda smirked, but I got the last laugh later. She skipped a class, and during that class the head master allowed us to go ahead and test for the next rank. I passed. That act of kindness was not repeated, so now I’m ahead of Kicker, and don’t have to be kicked or punched by her anymore. My ribs thank me.

Case #2: On The Good Foot

A couple of weeks ago in class, we finally got to spar. Sparring allows you to actually hit and kick someone besides the air, which is terrifying and awesome all at the same time. We’re fully padded (mouth guard, helmet, hand and foot guards), so there’s little real danger unless you do something wrong, or do something dumb. That’s where I come in. Among the matches I had that day, I was paired up with an adult orange belt. Orange is one belt rank below mine, so I immediately began fiendishly plotting all the evil things I was gonna unleash on this unsuspecting and undertrained guy. I mean, why not? It’s all a learning process, right? I’d learn how to use my advanced techniques, and he’d learn how to take a kick. Win-win. As we worked through our match, I noted two things: (1) that my punches weren’t very effective on him, as he was a bigger guy than I am, and (2) the guy stood very tall and upright, meaning his ribs were exposed. That was like seeing a bacon-wrapped honeybaked ham with my name on it…in cursive. I said to myself “OK, make a fake to his head to make him rise up and block, then give him a hard roundhouse to the side. That’ll show him.” So I faked a punch to his head, making him rise up, and then I came around with a roundhouse kick to the ribs. SCORE. He sucked in wind, and I felt better about myself.

For about 2 hours.

About 2 hours and 1 minute later, my foot, the one I so viciously kicked him with, began to hurt. A lot. Like, a whole helluva lot. I’m not a wimp, so I tried to just put some ice on it and elevate it, but the pain only got worse. I couldn’t put any weight on it at all, and…I wept. Yes, it hurt that bad. I only cry at funerals and when watching “The Natural”, so imagine my embarrassment at crying over a hurt foot. It was the worst. DWW took me to the emergency clinic, and we found out it wasn’t broken, which was good to know. Apparently I pinched a nerve in my foot, and it was all better in a couple of days, but still – I hurt my foot while kicking someone. Who does this? Oh yeah, I do.

Case #3: Slippery Slope

Last Thursday night was the first time I’d been back to class since I hurt my foot, so I was supremely jacked up and ready to rumble. This class had a shortage of adults, so when sparring time came around, I was paired up with a black belt. This is basically like staging a slap fight between a 1st grader and John Cena, folks, and to be clear, I was not John Cena. But I wasn’t afraid – I wanted to prove myself against him, so I went all out. We had been going at it for 2 or 3 minutes, and I was sucking wind while he was buffing his nails and checking the TV listings for “Lost”. I figured the only way I could get through his defenses was to make a sudden shift to the right, then punch through his open fists. Sounds like a good plan, right? Well, let me tell you a little about the foot pads we wear first. They cover the top of your feet in a thick cushion, but there’s nothing on the bottom except for two thin plastic strips that prevent the top from flying into someone’s face. Those strips don’t have any traction on them whatsoever, and only our bare feet provide any friction to keep us from doing the MC Hammer dance while we fight. When you perfect your center of gravity (like the black belts have), you can practically do TKD on an ice rink without falling, but…I’m not a black belt. So when I made that sudden shift to the right, I quickly found myself…airborne. I have no idea how I did it. One second I was about to give him a taste of my right fist pad, and the next I was floating, completely horizontal in the air, just as if I had stepped on a banana peel. And the only think I could think during that 1 second of airtime was “…oh shit.” Then I hit the ground, flat on my back, knocking the wind out of me. As dark-skinned as I am, I know everyone in the gym could have seen me blushing. I was mortified, because not only had I slipped like a character from a Pink Panther cartoon, I had done it utterly on my own, with no physical contact.

I quickly jumped up, super-pissed at myself. Now I let my anger take control, which is exactly what they teach you NOT to do in Jedi School. Resuming the match, I circled around the black belt and decided “To hell with the trickeration – I’m taking the direct approach. I’m kicking him in his damn stomach with a side snap kick. Oh yes I am.” The problem with this strategy is that it relied on the black belt being a complete idiot, and on me suddenly becoming Jet Li instead of Jet Ski. Neither of those were the case. So when I unleashed my furious side snap kick, two things happened simultaneously:
1. The black belt was no longer in the place where I was kicking.
2. I got a ginormous cramp in my calf muscle.
Yes, I got a cramp in my kicking leg from kicking absolutely nothing. At THAT point I realized the best thing to do was to just call it a night and sit my dumb ass down, because I was obviously not a martial artist.  Most embarrassing of all was when another black belt came over, eyes full of sympathy, asking if I was alright. No, I was not alright. My ego and dignity both got knocked the hell out.

So now, instead of counting the number of belts I have, or the number of kata I can perform, I’ll measure my success in reverse – by how many injuries I come home without. Because truly, a green belt means very little if I have to carry it around on crutches.