“Growing up, I was interested in all the normal sorts of things my peers in suburban Pennsylvania were interested in, yet there was one thing that seemed to be mine alone, a love for traditional Japanese culture. I was knocked out by calendars of Japanese gardens, books about ancient wood temples, art prints of old Japanese landscapes, pictures of ancient calligraphy, and by all the kung-fuey chop-suey martial arts movies that started to appear in America at this time.”—Jerry Zimmerman
Squibs & Blurbs
By Jerry Zimmerman
Note: This column first ran on “Weekly Hubris” on December 8, 2014.
TEANECK New Jersey—(Weekly Hubris)—May 2018—It’s not often that you’re struck by lightning, particularly while you’re sitting in your living room quietly reading “Esquire” magazine.
But that’s exactly what happened to me.
How is that I’m still here writing this account of that moment? The lightning was a real, authentic strike, but it was not electric volts from the skies that got me but, rather, the story I was reading that shifted my life in an instant.
Growing up, I was interested in all the normal sorts of things my peers in suburban Pennsylvania were interested in, yet there was one thing that seemed to be mine alone, a love for traditional Japanese culture. I was knocked out by calendars of Japanese gardens, books about ancient wood temples, art prints of old Japanese landscapes, pictures of ancient calligraphy, and by all the kung-fuey chop-suey martial arts movies that started to appear in America at this time.
These all spoke to me of a particular esthetic, a special attention to craft and sensibilities, a feeling for design made to move the spirit and, in the martial arts movies, as hokey as they seemed even to me, a far different way to approach training one’s body and mind. Everything seemed finer and more precisely focused than in my own American culture.
Growing up male, I was innately moved to somehow gird myself for physical conflict. Although athletic and strong, I still felt a deep-seated need to be able to protect myself against all comers, though god only knows who and when that might ever be.
Eventually, I decided that an Asian martial art would be good for me, especially since I had gleaned some insight about this question from an imperfect mish-mash of having read about Samurai, having watched movies like “Fists of Fury,” and even from having absorbed a nice dose of “Grasshopper” philosophy from the TV series “Kung Fu.” I was convinced that one of these mysterious arts would allow my artistic temperament to flower while I developed indomitable physical skills.
I saw myself as the quiet villager who, if need be, would rise up and subdue the marauding bandits who had come to steal our rice . . . or something like that.
As time went on, this impulse surged and ebbed. During my times of interest, I explored many martial arts paths, but never felt called to actually pursue any. Perhaps it was all just dreamy musings of youth.
But back to my mysterious in-house electric transformation.
The article I was reading was written by George Leonard, a man of many talents who also happened to be one of the first practitioners of Aikdo in California in the early 60s and who eventually became a well-known Aikido Sensei (teacher). His piece for Esquire described his struggles in training to take his Black Belt test, a rigorous physical and mental exercise for anyone, and definitely even more so for a man of 52.
Leonard was a clear and perceptive writer, and within the story of his preparation for his test, I felt the spirit of Aikido surge through me. Instantly, I knew that Aikido was what I had been both dreaming of and pining for all those years.
Struck by lightning!
I’ve written a lot about Aikido here at “Weekly Hubris”; suffice it to say that this is an art that embodies what I had imagined THE “Asian martial art” to be: a deep, esoteric training to develop the whole man within me.
OK, awesome. I had found my art, and, it had found me. Now what?
Normally, I would be excited and happy about such an amazing discovery . . . and then spend some time thinking about all that was required to make it happen and then plan what to do.
Not THIS time.
I immediately put down the magazine, picked up the phone and called Esquire magazine, my only link to Aikido. I’m not sure what I blabbered into the phone about the article, but I ended up talking to a secretary somewhere in the bowels of Esquire’s offices in Manhattan.
My first coherent thought then arrived. “Do you know where I can contact the writer George Leonard?” I asked, hunkering down for the many calls that would surely be needed to track down his contact information. She calmly replied, “Oh, Mr. Leonard lives in California. However, he happens to be standing right next to me. Would you like to speak with him?”
Would I whaaaaat?
I managed to get out a comprehensible “Yes,” and then there he was.
George Leonard was a gem. He was in town for a Sports Symposium being held at Macy’s the next day and invited me to come by and talk with him after it was over.
Meeting George was a delight. A tall, thin man with the air of an English gentleman and the friendly confidence of someone who can handle himself anywhere, he gave me a brisk run-down about Aikido and asked if I was looking to train in New York. When I said yes, his response was simply, ”If you train in New York, you have to go to Yamada Sensei.”
I immediately agreed, not knowing where in New York this might land me though, of course, Yamada Sensei’s dojo turned out to be only three blocks away from my art studio.
I had found it! That mysterious martial art of the Japanese people that would train me to be better and safer and bigger in life!
I ran right to the dojo and signed up!
No, I didn’t!
After all this: procrastination? Really?
Thank god some of the most important stuff that happens in life isn’t always left up to us; several weeks later it was my birthday, and my girlfriend, Alice, gave me the first month’s dues at the dojo as a present.
I went and I joined a school and a teacher I knew nothing about. As the years went by, I realized my great good fortune. It was as though I had asked a friend if he knew anyone who gave dance lessons and he had kindly pointed me in the direction of some guy named Baryshnikov. I had arrived at one of the pre-eminent dojos in the world and was being taught by one of Aikido’s most famous teachers.
Thirty years later, I’m a teacher at Yamada Sensei’s dojo, New York Aikikai. I’m a Fifth Degree Black Belt and I have my own terrific dojo, Aikido North Jersey, in Teaneck, NJ. I am still, and will always be, a devoted student of Aikido.
Aikido is everything I imagined and much, much more.
Sometimes, it’s very hard to find your path. Sometimes, when you’re ready, it just smacks you on the head and says, “This way, please.”
Now, I’m finally ready to take on those crazed, rice-stealing bandits.