I signed up for karate class for the fourth time in my life the other night.
The first time, which I’ve written about before, followed my very short-lived dance career at the age of four. To recap briefly, after a painful bout of chicken pox I caught at my first recital, and faced with the prospect of being forced to wear a costume that looked eerily similar to a JonBenét Ramsey People magazine cover, I persuaded my parents to pull me out of dance class and put me into karate.
I didn’t want to be a ballerina or tap like Shirley Temple, I wanted to be a Power Ranger. More specifically, I wanted to be Kimberly. I also had very strong feelings when they changed up Tommy’s look from Green Ranger to White – everyone knows he looked better in a bandana mullet than a slicked-back ponytail, but either way, I had his karate VHS and tried out all the moves on my dad and brother.
I also remember cussing out my mom, as much as a toddler can cuss anyone out without really knowing any swear words, one day after a nap because she had let me sleep through that day’s episode. Aka we had words. Granted, this was also around the same time I asked her to keep an eye out for Gaby from Ghostwriter in case she walked past our house one day, so she could kidnap her to be my best friend…
As you can guess, my parents humored my more realistic, non-illegal request, and put me in park district karate classes. My first crush was on my sensei, and I was over the moon to participate in my first belt test and tournament. I don’t think I scored a single point, but I took home a little trophy anyway, which I held onto well into high school, despite the fact that I had to drop out of the program when we moved to a different suburb right before kindergarten.
Somehow, seventeen years later, that fantasy stuck with me, and I signed up for karate again shortly after graduating college. Binging the entire Alias series during those years at school had reincarnated the image of my childhood idol, that feminine protagonist who could also take down grown men with her bare hands. I was frustrated by the pervy old men on my daily commute on the Metra who stood on the stairs, blocking my path to the upper-level seats in the hopes I’d rub against them to get past instead of insisting they move out of the way. I felt so young and unequipped to deal with this big, new adult world I had no clue how to navigate, and I was yearning to be a student again. I was also just antsy AF after sitting at a desk all day.
So karate became my solution for all of it.
I was so happy, and in great shape, and found this amazing stress release kicking grown men (with protective pads on, of course) after work. As someone who always failed the toe-touch test in P.E., I was becoming flexible for the first time in my life. I was also meeting people – one of my senseis was still in high school, so there was no crush this time around, but I had found this thing. My thing that I did while I was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Having it helped.
I passed my first belt test, this time with more nerves than enthusiasm, and then, for the second time, I moved and had to quit karate all over again.
I signed up for a third time in my new neighborhood, but it didn’t stick. The class was mislabeled and was made up of mostly parents and children. I felt out of place, and there weren’t any grown men for me to kick, so I stopped going.
And somewhere between now and then the world changed, and so did I.
I had been taught, or been lead to believe, that liberal or conservative, Americans had certain things we denounced and rejected as a nation: Nazis, The KKK, attacks on the press – but I was wrong, and I was forced to acknowledge just how wrong I was every time I turned on the news.
I don’t want to summarize the 2016 election here. I don’t want to list facts or figures or try and illustrate the tension with anecdotes or metaphors. I don’t want to try and put into words how emotionally tumultuous that time was for my “generation”. I don’t think a single phrase can contain that much disenchantment. The shock was entirely disorienting, and it rendered the world temporarily unrecognizable.
What I’m more concerned with is everything that came after. I’d also had my designated dose of feminism while picking up an English minor, but that too had been sterilized at the time, Foucault, hysteria, patriarchy, binaries – they were just like the injustices I thought lived in the “past tense”, preserved behind a pane of museum glass. The Trump Administration shattered that glass, except I realized I had been wrong there as well. That glass belonged to a petri dish, and everything inside it was still very much alive – and growing.
Growing too was a suffocated frustration inside me. It was like the only way to return to any sense of normalcy was to desensitize yourself to your own outrage. Outrage at racism. Anti-semitism. Sexism. Sexual assault. Bigotry. Xenophobia. Homophobia. And every other kind of persecution that people now seemed unashamed to openly exhibit. Because being informed doesn’t mean not having a limit. Because unless you are a fact checker who is being paid to do so, reading every ignorant tweet, or listening to every hateful audio clip doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t change anything.
Continuously bearing witness to the unprofessional and un-American “leadership” of one man, and all the blame he rightfully deserves draws attention away from what should be the more concerning issue – that this man was elected to office in the first place. I am not a political scientist or an expert in constitutional law, so I won’t even attempt to discuss the role of the electoral college in the outcome of the election, but I don’t think it should have ever come that close to begin with.
I know years from now, someone, more likely many people, will write books on this period in history, analyzing and explaining all of the different social and economic factors that drove to this conclusion. They will come up with some term to describe it, some-ism to define it, like colonialism, McCarthyism, and neo-liberalism before it. It won’t be remembered as a uniquely American moment; we can already recognize a global sentiment building with the passing of Brexit and the election of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
But I’m not a historian. I’m not a reporter, or a professor, or a politician. I’m just a regular person. I’ve always heard that maxim if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain – but I did. I showed up early, did my civic duty, and cast my vote. I earned my right to complain, and did it just as frequently as anyone else, but participating, even in what feels like a huge, united front of collective complaining, always comes with this overwhelming and defeating sense of futility.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s so impactful to see so many of my fellow countrymen and women voicing their opinions together. There are so many brave, passionate, and eloquent activists out there trying to make a difference. And as an improv student, I especially admire all of the talented comedians who have the fortitude to find ways to make people laugh at a time when so many, themselves included, are so discouraged, and rightfully so.
But despite all these collective efforts, we are very much still dealing with everything in that petri dish. I don’t have an answer for it. I know it’s not going to get fixed by liking posts on Facebook, which I’ll be the first to admit to doing. Of course, it feels good to acknowledge solidarity with others – shared beliefs, shared frustrations, shared outrage, but we all exist within our own electronic microcosms created by algorithms that are designed to show us what we want to see. Our collective complaining brings those of us who feel similarly closer, there’s no doubt about it, but that’s not the gap that needs to be bridged.
How do you even begin to bridge the gap that exists in a country where people are marching for both women’s rights and white nationalism at the same time? I have no clue and no expectation that I am capable of arriving at a conclusion if one even exists.
And while I do acknowledge my own ability to be much more involved in my community than I currently am, and know it’s something I need to actively work on, I don’t have the self-importance to believe that personally becoming an activist is going to be the force that creates the changes I’d like to see. I fully acknowledge my own insignificance in such large-scale issues, and also have to admit how little I am directly impacted by most of the injustice I stand against as a white female living in a blue state.
So, what then? What to take away from all of these shortcomings and limitations? I don’t lay them out here to formulate an argument of pessimism or nihilism. I’m a firm believer in realism. I think it’s important to see things as they are, before deciding to do something about them, even if it means being honest about what we cannot see ourselves. I believe that real, concrete possibilities exist between the delusions of “nothing can be done” and “I’m going to change the world”. That just because bigger questions don’t always have an answer, doesn’t mean there aren’t smaller solutions worth looking for on an individual level.
I’m going to vote in the mid-term elections for the first time this year. I will collect my “right” to complain once again, and do my part, however small it may be. I’m also going to try and seek out opportunities to give back and get involved in my own community. To find a way to inject my own little dose of kindness into the world.
And I signed up for karate.
Because even if it’s just punching and kicking at the air, or a bag, or a classmate, I know it’s a way to let go of some of the distress I feel. A healthier way than just trying to suffocate my own frustration. I know that learning to defend myself will help me feel less frightened when watching the news, less intimidated by Nazi marches and unpunished sexual assault. That getting stronger, both mentally and physically, channeling all those feminine idols I’ve collected over the years: Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones, Priyanka Chopra in Quantico, and every other female cop from movies and television who shows up to a crime scene in a blouse and jeans (no wonder that is my ensemble of choice) and still kicks ass, will leave me feeling more prepared to deal with the world around me. Because sometimes that’s all we can do, the one thing we do have control over – how we deal.
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