Changes

Life is a journey that takes some strange turns now and then. I was taking a karate class in my senior year, in a desperate bid to halt the expansion of my waistline and get some college credit out of it. Even though karate was something I’d grown to resent through my childhood, I gave it a begrudging shot.

It was a little intimidating walking into the cavernous gymnasium; I felt like a complete dork, probably because I was one. There were also preconceived notions that martial arts movies had instilled in me. Grueling training with lots of flying kicks, punching of boards, and a hardass instructor with gravelly voice and a permanent scowl. I was quite surprised to instead find a beautiful young woman in a karate uniform and an attendance sheet, greeting each new student with a smile. Maybe I could get on board with this whole martial arts thing.

As expected, I flailed around awkwardly during my first lesson, but it was such a rush! Learning the finer points of each technique and movement appealed to the engineer in me, and gave me a goal to aim for. By the end, I was exhausted, having used muscles that had been lazing around for a long time, but I was eager for the next class.

With the progression of the semester, my interest in karate grew exponentially. At least part of it was thanks to the instructor, who I had a schoolboy crush on. Turns out she was engaged, though, so that wasn’t happening. However, I did strike up a friendship with her (and her future husband, who was also part of the karate club), one that’s been going strong for 10 years now, even though we’re halfway across the world from each other.

Over the course of my training, I learned how misunderstood the martial arts are. We didn’t do any crazy spin kicks, there were no boards to break, and I didn’t have to avenge anyone’s death by fighting ninjas in a ring of fire. Instead, I learned all about making precise, controlled movements to efficiently and effectively use my body as a weapon and a shield. I learned that karate should be a last resort, something to be used when combat was unavoidable; don’t use your fists when words will do. I also became fitter, stronger and more agile by following a regular training schedule. Karate truly is an art, one that challenges both the body and the mind. And it’s one that I found myself completely absorbed in.

After a long series of ups and downs in my personal life, and in my karate life (broken and mended friendships, forged and broken relationships), I finally reached the point where I was ready to take the next step n my training. In November of 2008, almost 4 years after I’d started training karate, I finally attained the rank of black belt. It was a major milestone for me and is, to this day, my proudest achievement. I poured my heart and soul into training for that test, and I’m glad I was able to make my teacher, and myself, proud.

It as the start of what should have been a long journey but, alas, a mere two years after that, I was ripped away from the world that I knew and found myself in a familiar land that now seemed so strange. Having moved back to Dubai from the US, I had to start over in many ways, including with karate. I needed to find a good local club that would help me in continuing to hone my skills.

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Metamorphosis

I had always been a skinny little kid, the sort that might blow away in a harsh breeze. The word ‘lanky’ would have made a good description for my teenage self. But when I started college, everything changed.

American universities use an expression known as the ‘Freshman 15’ to describe weight gain that happens during the first year of college, set at 15 pounds (for no real reason). I may have gone for the Freshman 20. Away from home for the first time, I had complete freedom with my schedule and my meals. Turns out, too much freedom leads to a full plate. One of my favorite snacks during my freshman year, the thought of which makes my heart break into a cold sweat now, was mozzarella sticks dipped in nacho cheese sauce. That’s right. Fried cheese. Dipped in melted cheese. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Needless to say, all that cheese decided to hang around and settle on various parts of my body. My friends remarked on my more filled out frame, but I didn’t believe them. I was still the scrawny young man I’d always been. My pants had just shrunk in the laundry or something. It took a few months for me to come to terms with the fact that I was overweight. Attempts were made at a healthier diet. I even started jogging…in the fall. Once the temperature dropped, so did my jogging routine.

As I got closer to graduation, I decided that enough was enough. I needed some sort of fitness routine, one that I could stick with. My brother suggested taking up karate, as he’d done a few times in the past. I’d always brushed it off. Karate? Kicking and punching and fighting people? No thanks. But it could be the key to helping me drop a few pounds. I only had one semester of college to go, and I still had a health and fitness course pending as part of my graduations requirements. My brother urged me to choose a karate class for that. Maybe I’d like it. If nothing else, it’d get rid of that pesky course requirement. It was win-win either way.

So, on a chilly January morning at the start of my final semester, I found myself in one of the gymnasiums on campus, about to embark on a life-changing journey. Nerd that I am, I was in a buttoned down shirt and jeans. Perfect workout wear. I was ready to rock.

Man of Arts

So you’re already familiar with my writing and got an introduction to my love for drawing. I find it interesting that I have such a love of the arts as an engineer; a lot of engineers I’ve known are pretty much just focused on their field. Not to stereotype or anything. Then again, people do have some surprising and unexpected talents.

My dad, for example, is very much a computer geek. His hobbies mostly involve reading software manuals and tinkering around with old work laptops. He’s not much for fiction reading (or anything not computer-related, for that matter), and while he does enjoy movies, he only watches them when I do. But, he’s a very talented singer. Sadly, I don’t think I’ve heard him sing since my mom got sick, but before that, he’d regularly belt something out while cooking, or at any random time. He was also into theater. When we lived in Kuwait, he was part of a theater group, and I have a vague memory of going to watch one of his plays, though I have no idea what it was about.

The musical bug actually bit everyone in my family, but decided to skip me for some reason. My dad sings (well, sang), my brother’s also a great singer and can play music by ear. My mom taught singing and has even performed on stage. And me? When I was in kindergarten, or maybe 1st grade, I was part of the orchestra during some school show and played the triangle. Ding-a-ling-a-ling. That was me. I was supposed to be in some sort of musical play in 4th or 5th grade, but I had such a horrible case of stage fright that I dropped out during rehearsals. Music just didn’t want to be my friend, and I was happy waving to it from a distance.

However, there is one art that I fell in love with quite unexpectedly – karate. It was a classic movie romance: two people meet, can’t stand each other, spend most of the movie bickering, and end up together. My brother had started training karate towards the end of high school. He’s always been a fitness buff, and was on various sports teams throughout his school life. He’s also had a long-standing love of martial arts and martial arts films. But rather than running around the living room with a ruler pretending it’s a samurai sword, he decided to actually take up martial arts as a hobby, and a way of life.

As a skinny nerd with no athletic abilities whatsoever, I had no interest in any of that. My brother would often practice punches and kicks on random pieces of furniture or the walls, and would even try to get me to be a human punching bag. He wouldn’t actually hit me or anything, just throw punches aimed toward my face or torso, for practice. What it lacked in pain it more than made up for in annoyance. Imagine sitting in your favorite chair and reading a book, when a flurry of fists breezes past your face. Not distracting at all.

My brother was a fierce competitor too, participating in all sorts of tournaments and coming home with many a medal. He earned his black belt, became a part-time instructor, and took up a few other martial arts too. As indifferent as I was toward the martial arts, I was pretty excited when he started doing kobudo (weapons training) because it involved using nunchucks, staffs and sais. That’s three of the Ninja Turtles right there! Sadly, swords are banned here, so no Leonardo to complete the set. But I digress.

Martial arts was of no interest to me at all, even though my brother tried now and again to get me into it. Martial arts films were cheesy and over-the-top, and while Bruce Lee’s skills were certainly admirable, he couldn’t hold a candle to cartoons when it came to entertainment. I was pretty determined to never have anything do with any of that stuff.

Until college, when my stance on that matter took a pretty sharp 180.

Moving On

I had to go to my old office a couple of days go to take care of a few final formalities; they’d been kind enough to give me the option of working with them again if, within a month, I changed my mind about the new job.

My old office is a little bit closer to home, so I actually got to sleep in an extra hour and only had a short train ride to get there. But, as I got off the train, I felt ill at ease. This was the exact same routine I’d been following for a year, but doing it again after a month felt kinda depressing. The familiar little office looked the same, but there was something different about it. Its wood paneled floor and glass-walled cabins like an alien landscape and me the explorer who’d landed here by mistake.

I spoke with our HR person and we discussed the few logistical matters that needed to be taken care of to completely end my association with the company. There was, again, a sense of unease and apprehension creeping over me. The same doubt I had before about leaving a boring but safe job for something new resurfaced in my mind. This was it. Once we were done here, I’d be walking out of that door forever, completely absorbed into a new life.

Looking around the office reminded me of lazy afternoons spent with no real work to do, and insane deadlines that more than compensated for those afternoons by pushing everyone to their limits. It wasn’t an atmosphere that suited me well, but it was the only atmosphere I’d known for the past year.

I left the office feeling bummed and depressed and lost in my own head. Time to go to work.

It was about a 40 minute ride to the new office, and over the course of that time, my day got brighter. I was looking forward to getting there in spite of the longer journey, something I never really felt at my old job. It was a place I went because I had to, but now I was actually excited. It made me realize that’s how I’ve felt this whole month. I’ve been excited about work, about new assignments coming my way, about getting my work published on the site.

I got off the train with a spring in my step. It was the start of a new week and a new month, and I couldn’t wait to see what was in store for me.