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Dream On

This morning on my way to get breakfast I walked by a storefront for rent. It was two blocks from the dojo, a slightly smaller rectangular room with a tiled floor. It looked newly renovated and blissfully empty. I love vacant commercial space, particularly rooms with hardwood floors and high ceilings. Some people look at an unfinished room and just see hours and hours of work. I see that too, but I also see kids hitting pads and matted floors with sweaty people choking each other and a rock wall and a ball pit and a colorful classroom with learning centers that are all physical. (Can you learn math by dancing? Absolutely! Please don't get me started.)

Our dojo is doing well. By that I mean that we have enough students in all our classes, we can pay all our bills relatively on time, and everyone (students, parents and staff) seems satisfied. We have enough room for growth but not so much room that we are desperate for it. We have enough money to live our lives but not enough for a yearly cruise in the Bahamas. The car we drive belonged to my mother and we love it. In short, we are happy.

We are nowhere near the point where we are thinking about expanding. In fact, right now we are about to host a fundraiser to fix up our current location, new paint, new ceiling tiles, new pads.  But that does not stop me from seeing a vacant space and fantasizing about what we could turn it into.

I have visited dojos that really pushed the idea of setting (and ultimately achieving) goals. They have posters on the wall with motivational slogans like "If you dream it you can be it ." They talk about "winners" and "warriors", both on and off the mat. Sometimes it is the brass ring of black belt they are selling. Other times it is simply a healthier lifestyle, a skinnier, more confident you. These are all good things. In training, as well as in life, working towards something makes the actual work easier. It gives you a reason to do those pushups. It helps you come to class, even when you are feeling tired and unmotivated. It gives you a sense of purpose.

The problem is when you become so focused on the finish line that you forget all about the journey. A constant focus on the future implies that the present is not important, that it is just the stuff you have to endure to get the prize at the end. Nowhere is this attitude more prevalent than the American workplace. Thousands of people kill themselves every day, putting in long hours in jobs they cannot stand, all for the goal of saving money for retirement. (I am not talking about those who kill themselves every day because they have to put food on the table. Most of them, unfortunately, have no other choice.) Really think about this for a moment. These people work ten hour days, six days a week, to earn money that they have no opportunity to spend, except for their annual vacation where they lie on a beach and try to make the days last longer, as if they were inmates on death row. It is ok though, because after 30 years of this they will retire to a house on a hill and finally be able to enjoy their life. Really? This is how we want to spend our youth? Miserable, waiting, working towards the time when we are finally old enough to be happy.

My mother taught high school English for over 30 years before she retired. Her job was not easy, and it being in the NYC public school system, not always fun. (Not because of the kids. The kids were great. It was the administration that was usually lacking.) But she loved being a teacher, a fact that is clearly evident in her current choice of part time work. (Tutoring, mentoring other teachers, leading writing workshops) She was working towards retirement yes, but making a difference in the lives of teenagers the whole way there.

The goal obsession can be a problem in martial arts training too. There are only two tangible "rewards" in martial arts; belts and trophies. Belts are few and far between. Trophies are great except that it has been my experience that students who are always training only for competition are not very nice sparring partners for the rest of us. Put simply, the qualities that make you a good competitive fighter are not the same qualities that make you fun and beneficial to work with. You have to train selfishly to win. And selfish people are not so much fun to drill with.

The other rewards of training (the less visual ones like self confidence, body control, perseverance) are much harder to put on a mantle.

I think the key is to find a balance. Set long term goals that will keep you excited about your work, both in the dojo and out. They will help you when your days are long and boring as some are bound to be. But while you are pushing forward, dreaming about that corner office or that shiny new belt, make sure to stop and smell the roses every once in awhile. Take your kid to the park on a Tuesday. Notice the color of the paint on the walls. (Last Friday I had to stop my karate class so the kids (a group of 4-6 year olds) could all examine a giant centepede on the wall. The teacher and poet Taylor Mali has a great poem about trying to teach math while some movers are hoisting a piano outside the window across the street. Sometimes, as a teacher, you have to just let life happen, even if it is not in your lesson plan.)

I know I am lucky to have a job that I enjoy and a life that more resembles my mother's retirement that that of most of my peers. I am grateful every day that I do not have to drag myself to an office, squeezed between all the other L train commuters. I have lived that life before and it is not for me. And I love our current dojo,with its drafty corners and ceiling holes. But that love does not stop me from daydreaming about the next version, the one with the climbing structure and coffee bar, or the matted floor and weight room, the one that has space for an afterschool program and a gymnastics class and hell, while we are talking fantasies, the swimming pool and indoor playground! I have daydreams about our apartment too (hello rooftop deck!) and our beach house and a whole bunch of images in my head that have nothing to do with money. (Mostly of Maya, at various future stages of her life, 2nd grade, high school, her wedding, her black belt promotion...)

I also have smaller goals. I want to have three good classes this afternoon, classes where the kids work hard and learn a lot. There is one girl who often seems bored. Today I will make sure she isn't. Sometimes I ignore Maya in class in an attempt to not show favoritism. Today I will make sure I tell her how good her kata is looking, and not just after class when no else one is listening.

And then, after I am all done teaching for the day, I will sit down at my desk and visit the imaginary world where someone has read my blog and decided that it is genius and they must publish it right away. In that place the dojo is three floors high, Maya is running her own very successful restaurant and I am a black belt in jiu-jitsu.

But we are still driving my mother's old Toyota Camry. Some things are just us, even in daydreams.


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