This Excerpt from An Obese White Gentleman In NO Apparent Distress by Riki Moss appeared in Zingology Magazine, October 2008
Look at this photo of me. It was taken in 1947 at our summer home on Lake Champlain. North Hero was the name of our town and for a long time I thought welived there because we were heroes. Why not? I’m a huge glowering twelve-year old in a baggy sweatshirt, chino pants straining at the thighs, and a plaid hat with the brim smashed down to my nose. I’m clutching a tomahawk and a crossbow in my left hand. A bullwhip and powder horn dangle from my neck. My right hand holds a stone axe-head-on-a-stick, there’s a hunting knife in my belt, a revolver in a holster, and a rifle pointing to my jaw. Concealed: a toy grenade in one pocket, ammo in another, a bowie knife in my socks, and a vial of poison made in my mother’s kitchen tucked into my shorts. It’s a pretty weird photo, but what’s really weird is that Mother took the shot.
She was hosting one of her croquet luncheons down by the lake for cousins and friends. On the lawn, people in white shirts and knickers sat in wicker chairs around the bar cart. Peals of laughter.
Do I remember all this? Of course not, I remember the mood. It was a Gatsby summer day, but I was in a Grendel kind of mood, hanging out by myself around the icehouse. Here’s where my weapons were stored. Now let me be clear here. These weapons were not to harm these beautiful people. They were meant to protect them. Should our property be somehow invaded, I would save their lives. At some point I heard Mother calling for me. “Oh do get Max in here at once to show us his weapons.” The next thing I knew, I was propped up against this wall facing her Brownie. When I tell you Mother was trained to shoot by Annie Oakley, you’ll see the scene makes a certain sense. She liked weapons. Most of mine were borrowed from her private collection. Whenever her blood reached a certain alcohol level, she’d call me out and show me off. It was a form of humiliation, but also a point of pride.
This picture is embarrassing but I always show it to my students. This is a truthful picture. And extremely provocative: If a misfit like me grows up to teach peace and nonviolence, then there’s hope for any one of us, right?
Now, take a look at this other photo. It shows another side of Mother, a different take on her plans for my future. Here’s my baby brother, Evans, and me all dressed up in our worsted suits with ironed white hankies sticking out from our breast pockets. My short pants are already too tight. My arm is around him. Note my stance, one leg in front of the other, hands in my pockets. This is a power pose. I see myself already, at the age of seven, as a protector of the Democracy. This photo was taken in our New York apartment, probably at a Red Cross fund raiser. “Here they come, my little men,” Mother would call out from the couch. This was her signal for Cook to send us through the swinging doors like two bumper cars, each of us holding a tray of hors d’oeuvres - cheese whip on Triscuits, pigs-in-blankets, grilled shrimp - while a hired photographer took our picture. My poor little brother, trying so hard not to drool in the dip, would inevitably dump his tray in some relative’s lap and then we’d be whisked away like dust motes. To this day I remember how the sweat gathered under the itchy wool, streamed down my legs to the backs of my white leather shoes.
One Thanksgiving, we were on the Island when some guys appeared. They looked about fifteen - my age - and they were hunters. They surrounded a big bush, trying to rouse out a deer, and started shooting at each other’s feet. I was hiding on top of a hill watching. I saw my mother come out of the house shooting rounds in the air with her rifle as she walked toward the bush, and when she reached the boys, who were now frozen in place, she said “Get off of my god-damn land or I will shoot out your eyes,” or something to that effect. In my eyes she looked stunning with her flared gabardine skirt ruffled by the wind, holding a thirty-aught-six out like a champagne flute, and I was howling with laughter. But in my heart, I knew without a doubt that my mother would have shot their lights out, had she had a mind to, which meant that none of us was safe, especially me.
She divorced Dad right after my little brother was born, and shortly after remarried a man with two kids whose mother had died while he was in the war. The kids and I hated each other on sight, starting in fighting right at the airport. I was a fat, dreamy kid, used to being Little Master, and they were older, they beat me up every day until I was down at the bottom of our new pecking order.
In boarding school, I found the sport where my particular combination of brilliance and violence would be rewarded; football. Once in a tight game I told my opposite number to lie down or I’d kill him and to encourage him, I gave him a shot with my forearm right in the mouth. Two of his teeth were stuck in my arm, I broke his nose and his cheekbone and we won the game. Afterwards, walking to the locker room, everyone congratulated me. But I felt miserable. For the first time in my life, inflicting pain had brought me no pleasure. Now I was beginning to believe there was some sort of demonic spirit, old and mean, living inside of me, who hated me, thought I was an asshole, and was bent upon using me as an outlet for his violence. I realized then that when my teammates applauded me for knocking out that kid’s teeth in the game, they were applauding this old one inside of me. This was very alarming, for I had no idea when this person would jump out.
It was about then I began thinking about what it is to have power and that how you use power matters in life. It is to weep. I just feel so miserable when I think about that kid. I’m a little lord serial killer in waiting. What saved me was what saves all martial men: love. Martial men are filled with love.
There's a wonderful line by Chandler, “down these mean streets walks some one who himself is not mean,” and while I'm not that man yet, maybe I will be someday.
I'm no longer a little fat kid: I'm a big fat guy. I have this power. I know how to hit and I know how to receive. And so do you. So what are we supposed to do about it?
At five-thirty in the morning, Max sits at the kitchen table drinking bitter coffee, fingering the faded photo of his sullen preteen self laid out beside his half-eaten plate of fried eggs and toast, watching through the open window the reluctant dawn lighten the edges of the dense west coast fog. He thinks of the fog as not born from the sea or air but rather as from his own body, carrying fearful dreams from the terrible night from which he’s still trying to awake; dreams of himself as a lone soldier running from futile battles raging on distant mythic mountain tops, sometimes hiding, sometimes killed. If he were looking for a reason to get away from this coast, he thinks, refilling the cup and heading for the shower, the fog alone would suffice.
By the time he’s out the door and hits the drizzly street, his thoughts shift to the day ahead, and he pulls down the brim of his old fedora and plants his fists in his leather jacket, lowers his head and hurries – he’s late for the morning aikido class, a habit by now - through the thickening commuter crowd headed for downtown, turning left at the bottom of the residential hill. Midway to the dojo, at the corner, he has to stop for breath. He puts a hand on the glass bay window of a coffee shop, crosses one foot over the other and wills himself to appear nonchalant, as if he’s merely taking a moment to enjoy the urban landscape while in effect he’s paralyzed by vertigo and his heart threatens to leap from his throat. He’s distressed not only by the weakness in his body, but also by the irony of feeling so stricken when only last year he had been introduced in an aikido demonstration at the UN as a legendary teacher of the art. He who had only half in jest warned his students to never miss a class, even if it meant dragging their iron lungs through the subway turnstile. But that was back in New York when the streets were his, and this was Berkeley and how times have changed.
Thinking of New York, of the Bowery dojo he’d founded and led for so many years before the sirens of California lured him out with promises of fame and fortune – neither of which have materialized - reminds him that he’s due shortly to return. Immediately, he feels better. He straightens his shoulders, wills his dizzy brain onwards and upwards and soon finds himself breathily climbing the stairs towards the closed dojo door, a sign that the class has begun without him. Which means, he grumbles to himself, his thick hand on the knob, that his gloss has worn thin and it’s time to move on. If I were truly legendary, class would wait for me, sitting on their hands if need be, impatient for my blessing. He changes in the empty dressing room listening to the sounds of practice on the other side of the curtain.
He puts on the worn gi, his name embroidered on the left sleeve by a former girlfriend, puts on the hakima, and when he’s done carefully knotting the black belt, his bit of breakfast rebels and he feels his belly drool over his belt like a meringue. He gives it a smart rap and slips out on the deck with a joint in hand. He lights the joint, but as it heads for his mouth, he catches himself – careful, do not get sloppy, do not teach stoned - and extinguishes it with a finger. Do not let on that you believe yourself to be the cobra in the bunny house, he warns himself and with that, he opens the curtain and sails through.
A guy named Kevin – blond curls, long lithe limbs - is leading class in warm ups. Max freezes him in place with a firm tap on the shoulder and Kevin turns long enough to fix his uncompromising gaze on Max before dissolving back into the class with a hollow bow. Max bows deeply to the kamiza, the altar holding his teacher’s photograph flanked by vases of purple iris; he bows to his class. The class bows to him; he claps three times. He scans his brain for an opener. Nothing. He starts shuffling toward the far side of the room, swinging the upper part of his body from left to right. Fifteen pairs of bare feet paddle behind him. Still nothing. Finally something comes to mind. He calls out “Irimi, entering throw!” and practice begins: one person as nage, the attacker, the other as uke, the receiver of the attack.
He can’t help but acknowledge this; how handsome and fluid these students are! The problem is, they know it. Except for the few genetic klutzes who hang out together on the far corners of the mat, everyone in the room acts as a star in his own Steven Segal movie. He wants to rattle their reliance on good form by throwing them off point until they have no choice but to open up their instincts and work from their souls. To this end, he steps on their toes, grabs at crotches, rips shirts and mocks narcissism, paws at egos, distains old habits, questions all assumptions. It’s his best teaching, this crazy wisdom but not everyone can handle it, especially not Kevin who silently mocks him (he’s sure) for allowing himself to get to so out of shape.
As he works the room, one particularly unbalanced pair -- a large, white-belt guy in his forties, working with a small wiry woman of higher rank -- rankles him. Max knows the man is holding back, that he thinks he has to pander to his partner’s femininity. “Stop patronizing her,” Max says, pushing him aside. “Here’s what you look like.” Exaggerating a wimpy attack, he flaps his hand on the woman’s wrist. “This woman can destroy you, she can stand up to a tank; don’t you condescend to her. Your job is to rise to the occasion. Give her your best so she can respond with her best.” He’s noticed this girl before in the unisex dressing room unwrapping her teen-boy body from a mini dress he suspects she’s made herself from a Vogue pattern. She’s a pink-haired jackal capable of seriously damaging her insincere partner. He guesses she’s been working on her strength because she’s sick of feeling like prey.
But maybe that’s just him being novelistic. “You want to know if it’s like you see in the movies?” he says to her, folding his big fingers over her bony wrists.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you wonder if, when you meet an armed creep in a stairwell, this martial art can save your life?”
The look she throws him is unmistakable. She’s already met this creep. Feeling for her, he lowers his voice. “Your attacker wishes to hurt you. His desire defeats him from the git-go. Blend with his energy to drop him.”
“Thank you Sensei,” she says sarcastically. “You want I should lean into an attack while he has a knife in my throat? Maybe he’ll ask me out for coffee?”
“No, you run like hell.” With a quick twist, he brings her down to the mat, finishing what they’d begun. She jumps to her feet and bows.
“That’s a terrible bow,” he says to her, “and you know it. There’s no room in a bow for irony. Bows must be utterly sincere. Now listen to me. This maniac thinks you are his meat and so you learn to sense him before you stumble into his domain, you turn on your dime and you disappear before he shows himself. That is what you train for. You train to transform violence, not to combat it. We are all bits of energy churning through space, we are all the same, we are all ki. You and I, we feel it through our flesh.”
In a flash, he’s behind her, covering her back with his body, leaning his chin on her shoulder, flooding her until – heaven help him - he images his ki burning right through her jog-bra.
“Root yourself in the ground, go ahead, you know about this. The ki is here, some place behind the belly button. Some people say they know the spot, that there is a real spot for ki. Gotta do something with that anger,” he chides, poking her shoulder with an avuncular index finger. Then he spins around and claps his hands.
The students turn to face him.
“Everyone wants to know if aikido works in the street. But don’t try it. I had this kid once in New York, broke my heart.” he says, modulating his voice, “a fifth dan black belt, the handsomest person you could imagine. He was an actor and also he ran a street garage on 34th and 8th, a little cubicle under the stairs in a tenement building where he kept his tools to repair trucks on the sidewalk. He had a world-class temper that he figured was under control after ten years of hard training in aikido. But he never counted on cornering a preteen gang rat robbing one of his trucks. It was the kid’s gang initiation and his thirteenth birthday and he wasn’t going to fail, so when Tommy reached in the truck and tried to extract him by the hair, the kid planted a knife in his kidney. He died in the cab en route to the hospital. So forget about this street shit, leave that to the Karate Kid. Let’s work on your spirit instead, so you learn how not to attract a teenager on the day he’s being initiated into his gang. Now let us do….wait. One more thing; when you ask about what self-defense means, ask yourself as well, what is this self we defend. Now work on that self.”
The students resume, changing roles: the attacker becoming the attacked. Max prowls around, correcting moves, commenting, making sure to connect with everyone. “Well, don’t you look exactly like a martial artist,” he says, poking the shoulder of a black belt who is studiously executing perfect form. “Let us imagine you are on line for the movies, an eleven o’clock show in the Bronx. A kid slams into you demanding your wallet. Are you going make him wait while you assume your martial stance? No you are not. You will already be prepared to react. Preparedness is a mental state, don’t advertise!” Neatly swiveling, he takes the student down, then jokingly puts a foot on his chest and preens. The kid laughingly tries to get up. Max mock-slaps him back down, then graciously extends a helping hand. “One of my teacher O-sensei’s greatest lessons was to protect your enemy, for your enemy is your brother.” The kid jumps up and bows.
Max claps and calls out, “Now, kote gaeshi, please, reversed wrist, you figure out what that means. Change partners, please. And again, forget that crap about the stronger upper body strength that men have over women, because we do not give a shit, our lower body strength is very similar, and where does our power come? Power comes from the waist down. We are grounded, people. If you are a big male and you think women are weaker, you are in for a surprise; and if you’re a little woman, you are walling yourself into a room of helplessness.”
Partners reform; cajoling, whirling, Max continues instructing. He demonstrates first with a white belt, then with a senior student. Students become looser, more enthralled, less self-conscious, time flies, they’re about to go into overtime.
Max realizes he should end the class right here on a high note. But there’s something about the way this class has been trained to do irimi nage that bothers him. There’s a more elegant way. Slyly, he calls on Kevin to partner for a demonstration. Kevin rises to his feet, offers a perfunctory bow and immediately attacks. Max looks unprepared, he’s scratching his nose lethargically but then in a series of infinitesimal movements, he arches Kevin over his belly, one hand cupping his cheek while the other hand comes under his chin. A twist of his hips flips Kevin down on the mat.
The class drops its collective jaw. The move was clearly dangerous; in lesser hands, it could have broken Kevin’s neck. Max knows this. He says, “You have to be careful, make sure to cup the chin to control the motion of the head. Don’t try that part yet. You can practice the first part, coming directly in with a twist of your hips.” “That was transcendent,” someone says. “Not just the nose scratching.”
“I had moments with O-sensei where he was simply magical. I’d stay up all night trying to figure out the gimmick. But of course, there wasn’t any.”
Kevin has remained lying at his feet on the mat. Max reaches down automatically, to give him a hand up. A phrase from some Japanese sensei – which he does not utter – flits across his mind, I like making tall men small. He should realize that, instead of feeling grateful for having been thrown hard by a superior in rank, Kevin feels humiliated. He should know that Kevin thinks of him as a slovenly, posturing East Coast bully, an inferior in fact, despite the rank, and that’s why he’s lying there consumed in his anger. And Max should deal with it, he should practice aikido to defuse what could be a dangerous situation, but instead he goes on pontificating about magical moments with his old teacher. If he had any idea how self-satisfied he sounded, he would have stuffed his ego back in its sack, for it’s running amuck and strutting in spades.
The irony is that for two hours he’s been on his students’ backs about their inflated egos and now his own has blinded him. Kevin suddenly shoots up, lunges and punches him right in the heart.
It takes all Max’s strength to keep upright, but he does, he swirls into the attack and manages to ride Kevin’s fury right back at him. With two slapping steps, he immobilizes him in his long thick arms, presses against his left ear and sticks two fingers in his mouth. Humping his belly sack in the hollow of Kevin’s back, he twists them both around and lunges at the wall, stopping one hair’s breadth from connecting Kevin’s now terrified face with the exposed red brick. He keeps him there long enough for the class to understand that no matter how well conditioned they are, how long they’ve trained, how much younger and healthier they might be, he could smash any one of them back to their molecular structure because he is possibly insane. Furthermore, he will never, ever do such a thing, because– he whispers this hoarsely, planting a kiss on the back of Kevin’s head, “I don’t know why, but martial men are given to love.”
That night there’s a party. It’s celebratory, but he’s in a terrible mood. That thing with Kevin never should have happened. It had ended in injury – his chest was killing him, possibly the jerk had broken his ribs. He’d come too close to seriously injuring a student. Even worse, most of the students were impressed. Shocked by the force of his violence, but impressed nonetheless. They’ll be discussing his belly thrust and practicing shoving their fingers into their attacker’s mouths for many classes to come and that’s the last thing he wants them to take away from his teachings.
In the parking lot, sitting cross-legged on the hood of his truck is the young woman he’d told to run like hell from danger. She’s there, he knows, as he walks slowly toward her, because he’s the danger now and she has no intention of running, he’s the risk worth taking if she dares to want what he has to offer. Being Sensei means he gets laid a lot; many a woman has invited him to her chambers to discuss his great big heart. He’s up and down and around about the ethics of sleeping with students, and currently he’s on record as squarely against the practice, although not without regret. It’s come to this, he thinks, putting a hand on her hip. That’s all right. You fuck up, you go down, you stay down for awhile. And then God willing, someone shines a little light down the well and you think maybe it’s possible to start climbing back up.
So, taking her small hand, helping her down from his truck, he smiles and tells her to go home.