“A Little Change of Plans”
by Prof. Thomas Green
In the beginning…
As the news began to arrive about what was eventually labeled Covid-19, I was enjoying my first week of retirement from university teaching. I settled into a semi-structured daily routine that was orderly without being compulsive. After all, I am “retired.” Along with writing and publishing with no need to consider “impact” numbers, I devoted as much time as I wanted to weight training, practicing and teaching martial arts, and preparing to tackle my bucket list of martial and physical challenges. After all, I am the “Iron Prof,” as my friend Margie Serrato tagged me on Instagram. Of course, there’s some rust collecting in my left knee and shoulder. Some of the more outrageous playing around, tying a karate belt around the oak tree in my yard and trying to throw it, is more a joke, parodying myself, than an achievable goal, of course.
At the head of the aforementioned list was a trip to China in April for a month of teaching, research and martial arts training. In July I was headed to the Martial Arts Studies meetings in Marseilles. A side trip to Spain was next. Friends were arranging opportunities for me to test myself at combat games such as Leonese traditional wrestling and maybe even a little stick fighting. In August, the plan was to pick up my daughter to spend a couple of weeks in Scotland and Ireland, where I hoped for a chance to compete in other vernacular challenges (maybe Highland Games for old, weak guys). To round out the martial year, I would head to Malaysia for another conference and a look at some of the local Pencak Silat systems. Along the way, in addition to recovering, I had my mind on traveling to see friends, staying active, getting out of the house, and socializing.
With close friends scattered across China, I began to keep a close watch on Covid-19 early on, fearing that one or more of them would be touched by the “mystery virus.” They described to me an insatiable disease that compelled authorities to enforce rigid lockdowns, almost “house arrests” in some cases. Restaurants, shopping malls, bars, schools, and other places in which the public might gather were closed. As a result, when the epidemic moved toward being a pandemic, I was better prepared than most. On each visit to the supermarket I bought what I needed and “one extra.” So when my neighbors began panic buying and hoarding, I bought those few items I believed I would need to replenish over the next week and continued my daily routine.
I assured Chinese friends that I would arrive on April 10 as planned and that I didn’t require the gloves and surgical masks they urged me to acquire and use. Fortunately, I had second thoughts and persistent friends. Those items are carefully donned on those rare occasions when I am compelled to leave home today. But then, it was early February.
When in short order, the virus arrived in the US, I remained in denial (albeit cautious). I continued to attend social gatherings, eat in restaurants, and visit friends. I even continued to train at the gym six days a week. This continued even after a colleague in Italy who was to join in the China project, sounded the alarm.
In early March, we were notified by our host that the trip would be postponed for a few months. He assured me, however, that the project funding was still intact. I told myself that this delay was only a little bump in the road, and that I would use my time well: writing, reading, training for Spain, and becoming tree wrestling champion of the universe. A week later my daughter’s university went online and eventually asked students to evacuate campus. The “rescue” made me set aside self-pity at having my plans change. When she asked how much to pack, I answered that enough for a week should be fine. Obviously, I still did not understand the situation. We had to return to her apartment a few days later for more clothes, art supplies to finish her semester’s projects and the contents of her refrigerator.
At home, my daughter organizes her day around classes, and I am grateful to gain a roommate. The gym, martial training, and the plans for Europe next summer keep me motivated, sane, and rolling out of bed in the morning.
During the next week the dialogue about “social distancing” intensifies. I binge watch the more reliable news sources, and I avoid social media. With increasing frequency, I stay away from other human beings, going only to my impeccably clean gym, and there I maintain the recommended six feet away from both the other “gym rats” and the trainers. After my daughter’s arrival I take a hiatus from teaching martial arts students in my house, a labor of love to which I returned after retirement. I do this more to keep Alex from potential exposure, than from personal concern. I am, after all, the Iron Prof, and this will be over very soon.
On March 20, I had finished my day at the gym when one of the trainers called to let me know that Texas’ Governor had ordered all gyms closed until April 7. This even included our “Plan B,” training in a local TKD school. Our gym would re-open on April 8 she said. The previous week we had been discussing plans for which “Irish Pub” to patronize for St. Patrick’s Day toasts; for Alex’s sake I stayed home on March 17. Although I didn’t accept the downplayed version of the epidemic that was being “fed” to my country: a sort of “but it couldn’t happen here” scenario, I held on to the illusion that me and mine were going to be ok. The virus would be under control well before my April 10 departure date to Chongqing and I was still in control. But uncertainty was eating away at this resolve.
I find myself with so much time and solitude (although I am not actually alone) that it begins to drown me. As before, I try to keep a schedule with the personal goal of preparing for Europe in July and August and professional goals of finishing conference presentations and articles, maybe even starting new ones. I even add tasks such as organizing my martial arts files on my laptop, pulling together martial arts instructional notes and recordings that I had accumulated over the decades to make them more accessible for the study and training I now have time to revisit, and spending time with the three shelves of more esoteric martial arts books I had retrieved from my campus office, books that for years I had set aside for ”someday”. So far I have read two chapters.
I post training challenges online, I think now primarily to keep myself challenged and in contact with my martial arts students and colleagues. I have a few takers, but their resolve gradually seems to slip away. Much as my own does as I find the challenges becoming more obligatory than stimulating, as my 10 a.m. training time moves to 11, 12, and sometimes late afternoon. “Isolation” turns to ennui, and I find it necessary to write ‘training’ (stipulating what each day should entail) and ‘meditation’ down on the list that formerly included only onerous duties such as doing laundry, paying bills, and the like. I don’t need a reminder to stare blankly at a tv or computer screen. As one day bleeds into another and each becomes like every other, I begin to awaken to each of them with the tag line of the Old Talking Heads classic, “Once in a Lifetime” running through my mind “Same as it ever was/Same as it ever was/Same as it ever was,” ad nauseum.
Much later (Friday, April 10).
I received a phone call Friday night, I was happy for the contact from an old friend and teacher, Awo Fasegun. Joy is muted when he passes along the news that Kilindi Iyi had passed away, apparently as a result of complications from Covid-19. This is devastating to those of us who knew Ahati Kilindi as teacher and friend, as well as to his loving family. A giant physically and intellectually, a comment heard repeatedly over the weekend was “He seemed immortal.” Nevertheless, this man could be taken down by a disease that was so much on our minds, so much in our daily lives, but so little in most of our personal lives, yet. An international disaster immediately became for many a personal heartbreak. This loss of one of the “martial gods” makes the pandemic a hell of a lot more than a set of statistics and graphs.
Our community suffers inconceivable damage—martial artists at all levels die, schools close due to bankruptcy, embodied knowledge acquired over decades of practice is snuffed out. I begin to dwell on our obligation to pass along the knowledge passed along to us. This provides powerful motivation for getting back in the “game” whether it is in the garage, the park, or eventually the schools that will reopen after the pandemic has been laid to rest. Daunting as it may be, closing our places of instruction will not kill the practice of martial arts in the West. To pay the rent, we may be driven back to our day jobs (if we ever abandoned them), but the survivors – bound by loyalty to our martial discipline, respect for our teachers and camaraderie – will return to the business of passing along our arts.
The Future (April 14, 3 .a.m.)
Some years ago, in my local used bookstore while browsing through, where else, the martial arts section, I came across a particularly fine cache of books on Chinese martial arts. I opened the cover of the first and saw the title page inscribed with the name of a dear friend, a fellow martial artist, who had passed on the previous year. I discovered the same signature in the next book, and the same in the other fifteen volumes that I bought and that now rest in my bookcase. I’m sure many of their companions were taken away one at a time; I couldn’t bear to see the collection fragmented even more. Thinking back to that day, I wonder what may become of the volumes (commercially and privately published), notes garnered from classes and workshops, recordings, and memories of those colleagues and their schools that we might lose. The field notes, the rough drafts, and other ephemera that those of us who document martial culture also may be victims of the pandemic. The Covid-19 Crisis only dramatizes what slowly occurs in more stable times.
Perhaps this is a crucial issue around which we can unite to solve as we shelter-in-place. Surely the preservation of what is ultimately embodied knowledge is a cause behind which we can organize our energies. Is it possible to develop a central resource for accumulating and safeguarding copies of these source materials? Or, when we contemplate the loss of such an immense body of knowledge, should we simply dismiss that prospect and reply it “couldn’t happen here?”
About the Author
Thomas A. Green is Professor of Anthropology and Folklore, Affiliated Professor of Africana Studies, and Affiliated Professor of Religious Studies at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA. Author of over three dozen works on the martial arts, his publications include Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia , Martial Arts in the Modern World , Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation , ‘Sick Hands and Sweet Moves’ , ‘White Men Don’t Flow: Embodied Aesthetics of the Fifty-two Handblocks’ , and ‘I Am the Greatest Boxer: Articulating Group Identity Through Chinese Folk Drama’, . His recent research focuses on Chinese and African-American vernacular martial culture.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: “Professor Thomas Green on the Survival of Plum Blossom Boxing, Martial Folklore and the State of Martial Arts Studies.”