Furniture, Fisticuffs and Literary Criticism
Let’s start with some background…actually, is it considered background if I’m just going to describe for you what I’m doing as I type this? Or is it more like foreground? No, I think background was right. Anyway, never mind. This is a terrible start. I’m very disappointed. On that note:
I’m sitting in a public park, in a roundish clearing, in a folding chair. It’s a Kelty brand chair, the Essential model in blue—you’re damn right it’s the kind with the bottle opener…but that’s irrelevant right now, as it’s nine-thirty in the morning and I’m drinking an iced latte. What isrelevant is that my tuchus has never been so tenderly, so reassuringly, cupped by an inanimate object in an outdoor setting. Which isn’t to say that this is some fancy lad’s tea time fauteuil I’m talking about. I mean it could be—it’s comfortable enough. But it’s rugged, too. Say you were backpacking in the desert but things went wrong and you needed some place to park your ass for a minute while you sucked the blood out of a rattlesnake, just to survive to see one more sunset. This is the chair you’d want. In this chair, you feel you can do anything.
The clearing in which I’m sitting is encircled by twenty-odd trees curling over top of me in a way that would be sinister were it not, as I said before, nearly 10 A.M. now and horrifically sunny. Also it’s 95 degrees out, so the way these trees loom, casting such necessary shade, seems more protective than anything, like Tim Riggins putting his body between Coach’s daughter, whose name I forget, and a tornado.
Beyond the trees are some paths and literally the worst benches; also park shelters, picnic tables, a little trickle of a creek and several wide, uninteresting open areas, not quite large enough to be called fields, that have been set aside for volleyball and things like that. As settings go, it’s pretty dull, and my endless talking about it will end here, except for this: one of the aforementioned open areas isn’t really open at all. It is being mercilessly trod under the tiny feet of, I’d say, 45-ish boys and girls between six and eight years old, lined up nice and neat in rows, punching the air in unison with furious little fists and shrieking just as loud as their still-developing vocal cords will allow. Their soft, overly large faces are pinched with rage. This is the Müller Family School of Taekwondo.
I saw their vans in the parking lot, is how I know this. There were five of them, all white, with the name of their dojo stenciled in stern black type on the sides of each. Just the name, no contact information. You do not find the Müller Family School of Taekwondo; if you’re made of the right stuff, the Müller Family School of Taekwondo will find you, give you a T-shirt in one of four bright colors, teach you how to solve a problem whose answer is pain.
Right here is where I should finally take this meandering post and steer it over into more beer-adjacent territory, I suppose. Bar fights, drunken fisticuffs: those are the obvious choices. But I’ve never been in a bar fight myself—though I secretly imagine I’d be remarkable; old-timers all lining up afterwards to shake my hand and tell me they’ve never seen a man beat on another man half so well—so I have nothing to share. The last time I was in a fight of any kind, in fact, I was probably right around the same age as those kids over there, though not nearly so well-trained. Just gouging and kicking at my archenemy from up the street as we rolled together down a steep hill, exactly like Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach, except not a good story at all. For the second time since I sat down to write this, I feel like a real damn disappointment.
(An update: The wee warriors have stopped their punching now and have been issued foam swords. This raises questions, such as, “Where did the swords come from? I don’t see any boxes,” and “Is that even taekwondo?” No answers, however, are forthcoming; there are only the flat thwacks and screams of two score children beating the hell out of each other with pool noodles.)
I’ve seen some bar fights, of course. There was the Halloween when Fake Ronald Reagan tried to break a bottle over the back of Fake Indiana Jones’s head but missed and fell on the floor, not quite all at once, the way you’d expect, but piecemeal, the hand with the bottle pulling the rest of him reluctantly forward like a not especially well-liked military officer leading his men into battle against ticklish odds.
Or the time in Texas when an actual cowboy threw a punch at an actual astronaut and found himself, right in mid-swing, suddenly on the floor beneath four or five other patrons, men apparently old enough to have watched the moon-landing live on TV at a very impressionable age.
Or another time, in a college town, when one fat, young academic moistly screamed in the face of another, equally piggy, “Do you have any IDEA how many times I’ve READ “The Great Gatsby,” you tremendous shit?” And then they grappled uselessly for, like, three whole minutes. At last, though, they separated—faces red and sweaty, chests heaving, eyes pregnant with tears of righteous anger and frustration— and were forced to acknowledge the reality that neither was going to be able to move the other.
But that’s all I’ve got. You can’t build an article (that’s what I’m calling this) around that. You need more meat. You need the flavor of firsthand participation. Had I been a student at the Müller Family School of Taekwondo, where the traced-hand-turkey-drawers and macaroni-jewelry-makers of today become the killers of tomorrow, and had I been fortunate enough to survive the experience, I expect I’d have more stories than I could ever tell: stories of street justice, lethal but fair, meted out with fists and feet from nightmare. But I was never so lucky.
I could share with you the harrowing saga of the giant wasp crawling through the grass right next to me, but I’m afraid of how it will end.
I would have been content to let things trail off just then, but there’s news. The martial arts lesson seems to have broken up. Or perhaps not broken up so much as shifted into something new, more diffuse, less obviously disciplined than before. The children are climbing on a jungle gym behind me. Maybe I should have mentioned earlier, in that interminable description of the park: there’s a jungle gym behind me. On it, the children, done with combat for the day, are presumably polishing their commando tactics. I could turn around and watch them and likely gain some pretty valuable intel, but, as always when I’m alone in a park, I worry about being mistaken for a sexual predator. So I don’t think I will. I think I’ll just fold up my Kelty (easiest thing in the world), slide it into the simple-to-use transport sack, and head on home. None of us will know what the Müller Family School of Taekwon-do is up to until it’s too late to matter.
Hank Henry once read about taekwondo on Wikipedia. You can reach him at [email protected]