Today is my birthday.
I was born thirty-one years ago at the Scripps Memorial Hospital here in San Diego at about 12:50 in the afternoon. A Cesarean birth, I came into the world buck naked, soaked in blood, and screaming my fool head off. I have every intention of leaving it the exact same way.
I share the 17th of June with cultural luminaries like M.C. Escher, Igor Stravinsky, and fellow TNBer Darian Arky. I also share it with Newt Gingrich and Joe Piscopo, but please, don’t hold that against me.
Thirty-one. It’s an odd year, no pun intended. I don’t mind aging into it, especially since I seem to be doing it with a reasonable amount of grace, but thirty was a good age for me, and I’ll miss it. It was the age where I realized the act of becoming my adult self was complete, and I was happy with the result—far happier than I was with myself at eighteen or twenty-five. Sure, I haven’t set the world on fire the way thought I would, but there’s still years to go before my inevitable naked screaming bloodbath. In the meantime I feel perfectly comfortable telling myself, Hey, you. I like you. Let’s go get a beer.
Thirty-one, though? Meh. Just a number. Not even worth bringing up, really, and the only reason I do so is because, in addition to my birthday, today marks a personal anniversary too important for me to let pass unacknowledged.
Fifteen years ago, on June 17th, 1995—my sixteenth birthday—I was promoted to black belt in karate at a large, once-a-year ceremony held at our dojo, in front of every gathered student and their families. I was the only one who qualified to test that year, so I was the only new black belt promoted. As far as birthdays go, that experience didn’t suck.
I tested for black about three years after I started training, a much faster progression than usual, which only happened because I was there training or serving as an assistant instructor every day I could. I went to every special training seminar and every tournament possible, both in and out of the state. I went to open workouts and scheduled private lessons to develop the areas where I was struggling. In short, I progressed that fast because I worked my ass off.
The black belt test is a private matter, and different for each student, so I wouldn’t discuss the details of it even if I weren’t forbidden from doing so. But I can tell you this: fifteen years later it remains the most physically and emotionally demanding thing I’ve ever done. It was so exhausting I slept for most of the two days afterwards. By comparison, defending my master’s thesis was a cakewalk.
Until then, my life had been all about keeping my head down and my parents happy so they’d leave me alone. I brought home excellent grades, but only because I more or less had the freedom to do whatever I wanted as long as I kept my report cards covered in As. Applying myself to my schoolwork was a necessary evil, one I took no pride in whatsoever.
Putting that belt on for the first time, though, the fabric still darker than the unlit night sky and so stiff it resisted knotting, was something wholly and completely for me, and the joy of it was so overwhelming I wept a little bit, there in front of all those people. Remembering it brings unashamed tears to my eyes even as I write these words.
I cannot, and would not, deny that it’s that accomplishment and the training that went into it that shaped me into the adult I’ve grown into. One reason among many, for sure, but one that shines out like a gold nugget among the granite scree.
My belt has aged a bit worse than I have. At fifteen years it’s physically older than some of my students. It’s faded and tattered, but still bears the four red stripes that mark me as a fourth-degree sensei. I’ve gone from being a novice black belt to one of the senior instructors. My next promotion will elevate me to fifth degree, the internationally recognized rank of shihan (Master). I imagine I’ll retire my current belt when that happens and start over with a new one. Though this might seem somewhat undignified, the belt is really only the symbol of the accomplishment, not the accomplishment itself; that, I carry within me at all times.
These days it’s my honor to exclusively teach our dojo’s adolescent brown belts, to train and prepare them for their own black belt tests, and I’m proud to say I’ve never had a student fail. I’m a taskmaster who doesn’t feel complete unless my students are some combination of sweaty, sore, or exhausted at the end of a lesson, and these kids continue to humble and surprise me with their energy and exuberance in rising to every challenge I throw at them. Even the goofballs. Especially the goofballs.
Though thirty-one might be a humdrum number, starting tomorrow night I’m going to celebrate it all weekend: drinks with friends and coworkers; my annual viewing of Blade Runner; maybe a new tattoo. I’ll get a few presents, I’m sure, and who knows, maybe I’ll even meet a girl; there’s nothing quite like “It’s my birthday!” for earning a bit of cache with the opposite sex. Well, it works on me, at least.
And all that will be fun, but I already know tonight is going to be the best part. Tonight I’m not just celebrating my birthday, but my fifteenth year as a black belt, and I’m going to do so by training with my students. We’re going to get tired and sweaty and bruised and have a lot of fun doing it. Working with them is the gift I give myself, and it never disappoints.