Friday, May 7, 2010

The Under-Appreciated Tai Chi "Master"

An often difficult part of retirement and aging is adjusting to the loss of former roles and identities. Our work and community involvement gives us meaning and a sense of self worth. I thought I would easily slip into retired life and that I was beyond needing the status, respect and appreciation I sometimes felt through the professional and non-professional roles I played during those years. But the days can be long and there is that nagging feeling that I’m wasting my time and not getting any younger. I am slowly piecing a life together as a retired person. My decision that writing would be my main activity has been working out well so far. Everything and anything about my retired life here in Arizona is grist for the writer’s mill.
A writer’s life can be a lonely one however. I had been used to working with people in either a counselor or a teacher capacity over the years. Recently I decided I would like to again start teaching Tai Chi. I learned Tai Chi in the 70’s and have regularly practiced and taught since that time. In the 80’s I started learning Kung Fu and over the years have learned and practiced 30-40 different Tai Chi and Kung Fu forms. I’ve participated in tournaments, practiced sparring, given many demonstrations and for years with my friend, Chris, instructed and ran a Kung Fu/Tai Chi studio in Bellingham, Washington. You get the picture. I love Tai Chi and I love teaching it. I also love the Taoist philosophy that it springs from. I believe in and embrace “the way of non-resistance”. All that having been said, a few weeks ago I went to the Parks and Recreation Center in the town just north of us. I heard they didn’t have anyone teaching Tai Chi in the area and thought it would be a good place to start. I put in an application and waited. The other day I got a call and was asked to come in for an interview.
The interview happened yesterday. The young woman interviewing me was the director of programing for the center. I say young woman, she was probably in her 20’s but looked like she was about 13. The first thing she asked me was “Are you a certified Tai Chi instructor?” I had to answer that one with a “No”. She told me “We really want all our teachers here to be certified.” She didn’t know exactly where one gets certified to teach Tai Chi, but told me there was another person wanting to teach Tai Chi at the center also and this person had certification. I thought of Mr. Miyagi in the movie "The Karate Kid". Daniel, the teen aged main character desperately needs help defending himself against some school bullies. He is checking out Mr. Miyagi as a possible Karate teacher and asks him what belt he has. Mr. Miyagi looks down at his pants and says “J.C. Penney”.
Much to my dismay I didn’t come up with a poignant Martial Art Master-like comeback. I instead began trying to convince “Gidget”, how I was well beyond these petty certifications and told her of my many years of teaching and that by the way one of my former students is in the Martial Arts Hall of Fame. Who knows what else came spewing out of my mouth. It seems like it went on for quite a while. She patiently waited until my apparent soliloquy was over and then asked. “Is there some way you could get certified, maybe over the internet?” (I subsequently looked on the internet for Tai Chi certification and found one site that guaranteed teacher certification after only 4 weeks of training. And you didn’t need any previous experience in Tai Chi!) I went home from the interview discouraged and depressed. To misquote Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, “I used to be somebody.”
This whole affair reminds of another personal incident. In 1995 my family and I traveled back to Missouri to visit relatives. We all went out to the private school I attended from 6th grade through 11th grade. Having grown up in the St. Louis area I wanted to go to all my old haunts. Puberty came late for me so for the first few years of high school I was exceptionally small for my age. On the wrestling team I was in the 95lb and under class. When we entered the school I recognized a coach that I’d known from all those years ago. “Coach Simon” I called as I spotted him walking down the hall. He stopped and came over to where we were standing. Introducing myself I said, “I’m Mike Yeager. I used to go to school here in the late 50’s and early 60’s.” I could see he was trying hard to remember who I was and after a few moments recognition spread across his face. “Oh yeah,” he said. “You were that little squirt.” Without hesitating I blurted out, “I’m a counselor now and I have two Master’s degrees.” He looked at me unimpressed and asked if we’d like a tour of the building. Ever since that time Katie and I joke about my “two Master’s degrees syndrome”. In fact when I returned home feeling dejected from my interview and told Katie how discouraged I was, her reply was simply “Maybe you should have told her you have two Master’s”.

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