THE VALLEY, 1994
It’s hot, it’s LA, it’s another smoggy day in some semblance of desert paradise when I walk into the dojo to get a taste of long-sword techniques from Tanemura Sensei, the head ninja (no really) of the Genbukan World Ninpo Bugei Federation. He’s about five feet max and holds a sword that looks like it was made for someone at least three feet taller.
Here’s how I got into ninjutsu.
I’d landed a somewhat steady job as a producer’s assistant (read in-house corporate video director), making a whopping $7/hour, and one weekend I looked at my meager horde of savings and decided I was either going to:
A) Go to San Francisco.
B) Take a martial arts class.
I have no clue either how these are related, but since I met my husband with option B, let’s call it destiny.
I began my dojo search using this odd contraption called “The Yellow Pages” (if you were born after 1997, here’s the Wikipedia link), and then made some calls, starting alphabetically. The first seven dojos were more than a little intimidating— while the guys who answered the phone gave me their spiel in a rush, I could hear dull thumps in the background like punching bags were being beaten into dust along with the cliché “Hai Ya’s” that made me flashback to Johnny in The Karate Kid who had to fight dirty but lost anyway.
Just as I was beginning to calculate how much gas money a seven-hour car drive north to San Fran was going to cost me, I finally reached a Ninpo dojo, and I heard things like “soft art” and “meditation” and “eastern philosophy.” I signed up on the spot and spent the next two months mastering these two key basics which have served me well throughout life:
A) How to fall.
B) How to get out of the way.
Just to give you an idea of how important B is, here’s the test that my sensei passed.
You kneel on the floor. You wear a blindfold. Your sensei stands behind you with a live sword. He will make one of six cuts with the sword. You don’t know which. You get out of the way. If you live, you pass. If you don’t, well, it was an admirable try. Can someone call an ambulance?
Now I’m about to meet that guy with that sword. Thankfully, I’m only a green belt and a long, long, long away from the fabled blindfold test. I’ve barely gotten good at rolls (which you non-martial artists call ‘somersaults’).
And it turns out this man trained nearly from birth on the thousands of different ways to kill people is surprisingly humble. Of course I don’t doubt for a second he could eviscerate any living person in less than three seconds, but here’s what he tells us.
He’d worked as a police officer in Japan (yes, that’d be a perfect cop show, HILL STREET NINJA BLUES) and says that whenever he saw an actual criminal his first reaction was sheer panic. First thought.
Then he’d remember, oh right, I’m a ninjustu master, I got this. Second thought.
He tells us he never worries about carrying a weapon, because his opponent will bring them to him. And if they don’t bring a weapon, he has the perfect alternative. He’ll use their body as one. Because the real long sword is one’s own imagination—handy because you take that everywhere you go.
Using what you have in spite of what you don’t is a valuable lesson for writers. There’s never enough time/money/time. Sometimes that blank page feels like emptiness with criminal intent, while a host of enemies whisper, you’re not a writer. Writers wear sweaters with leather patches on the elbow. They read E. E. Cummings and understand it. Give up before you reveal what a complete idiot you are. First thought.
Using those whispers to develop the interior voice of the main character, Dimitri, in my novel POE…Second thought.
Entering POE in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, where in spite of the odds it won the Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror category…
Well that’s the long-sword.