On September 20, 1973, I took my first martial arts class. It was 35 years ago today. Grandmaster Sin The was teaching Shaolin Karate-Do (kung fu) out of a converted garage in the back of a shopping strip mall. Because of Bruce Lee's impact that year, the first class was overflowing with students, and some of us stood outside.
Out of all the students who took up martial arts because of Bruce Lee in Lexington, Kentucky at that time, I wonder how many are still at it? A handful maybe. The photo at left is the proud green belt several months later in 1974. I still use the staff I'm holding (it's moved with me everywhere). It was the old fashioned kind--much heavier than modern staffs. I call it the "Staff of Death."
I was drawn to the martial arts for the self-defense and the philosophy. I had to study philosophy on my own, since few teachers included it in their art. But with that first class I was hooked, and over time, kung-fu became part of my life.
This anniversary comes at an interesting time during what has been a very strange year. In May, 2007, Nancy and I closed our kung-fu school and I left ACT, the college testing company, to take a position in Tampa at the University of South Florida. She left an employer where she had worked for 25 years.
The job I took here at USF was a very stressful position, working with the media (some of them trying very hard to tear the university down) and serving as a spokesperson for the president, but I enjoyed it. This year, I was laid off in April as the university reorganized to withstand a 52 million dollar budget cut.
Over a long professional career in news and PR, I've been amazed at just how bad management is from one company to the next. If top executives understood how so many of their VPs and middle-level managers were destroying their companies from within (or at least holding morale and productivity down by treating people with disrespect) you would think there would be action. The trouble is, top management often behave just as badly as the executives who report to them.
I decided that after a lifetime of dealing with it, I was ready to strike out on my own. Nancy said, "Go for it." She's the absolute best wife I can imagine.
So we're moving back to the Quad Cities in a week and a half. We're moving into a smaller house and slashing our expenses. She's returning to her long-time employer and I'm going to produce new internal arts instructional DVDs and continue developing more content for the online school, which is showing real promise, growing as anticipated and attracting new members around the nation and the world who appear to be very pleased, considering the emails I receive.
So after 35 years in the martial arts, I'm launching a new career. I've been working at it since April. I look forward to each day and sometimes forget what day of the week it is because I'm no longer living for Friday. On Sunday, I don't stress over the upcoming work week. I can't wait to get up each morning, grab a cup of coffee, and make the commute into my home office to edit new lessons for the web or work on marketing. It is total creative freedom. I'm doing all of the things for myself that I have tried to do for other companies, but could never quite satisfy myself that we were doing it right because of the strange politics and hierarchies that infect every company and organization. Each day, I create marketing pieces, video promotions, podcasts, emails -- I videotape new lessons and end up turning the lessons into DVDs that include real instruction.
This year has also been strange because of something I haven't experienced before -- a health problem. It hasn't slowed me down (okay, a little bit but not too much) and I continue to train, but it has been a concern and we still don't have it quite fixed. A week before I was laid off from USF, I was diagnosed with a heart problem - atrial fibrillation. I've had two heart procedures this summer--the most recent just a week ago. Instruments were sent up the veins (my kua are very bruised) and into the heart, where spots were burned or frozen to stop extra electrical signals and pathways that have been causing the heart to beat in strange patterns. So as I've dealt with this problem and sudden unemployment, I've been creating the material and the new online school.
I was told by one friend that most men would be in a pretty sad state of mind after going through all this. Instead, I took two days to think a bit after the layoff (and the heart diagnosis) and I told Nancy, "I can't imagine going to work for more people that I can't depend upon to treat me right." So I didn't mourn and didn't get very angry (Nancy was angrier than I was at the university). I set my goal and began working, sometimes 12 and 14 hour days. Kung-fu has had a very centering impact on me during the past three and a half decades.
Nancy and I are a bit sad to leave Florida, but we're very determined to make all this work. Don't ask us to say anything kind about the University of South Florida. We just won't say anything at all. But despite that, we're on quite an adventure, we're returning to family and friends in the Midwest, and we're looking forward to it. I'd be lying if I said it didn't contain a little excitement. I have a two year vision and plan for the online school and the DVDs, and I look forward to diving into it even deeper when we get finished with the move. And I plan to return to the tournament circuit next month at age 55.
35 years ago, as I took my first class, little did I know what an important role the martial arts would play in my life. As I tell people who've known me a long time about what I'm doing, they often tell me, "This is what you love, so go ahead and live the dream."
Stay tuned to see what happens during my 36th year as a martial artist. It should be fun.