restricted access A Life of Balance Through Martial Arts (1992)
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A LIFE OF BALANCE THROUGH MARTIAL ARTS TIM ALLEN It ’ s f o r t y m i n u t e s into the martial arts class being held in a classroom of the Phinney Neighborhood Center, and perspiration is pouring from Charles Johnson’s brow. A mirror runs across the north end of the classroom, and Johnson, a lanky, forty-four-year-old black man dressed comfortably in gym shoes, sweat pants, and shirt, spars fiercely with the reflection that matches him move for move. Johnson is focused on this particular moment: All the world’s concerns, all the day’s annoyances have been left outside, transforming this classroom into what he calls a “privileged space.” This is not quite the image Charles Johnson’s creative writing students at the University of Washington might expect of their English professor, winner of the National Book Award for the novel Middle Passage. 93 Reprinted from Phinney Ridge Review (Summer 1992), with permission. Johnson is one of four co-instructors in the Chinese martial art of Choy Li Fut, along with Gray Cassidy, Dave Sawin, and Tim Frisino, that meets at 8:00 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday , and Friday in the Center. And though this is a serious class based on a four-thousand-year-old tradition of rugged combat and gentle philosophy, the four instructors conduct it with the camaraderie of old friends who have studied together since 1980. A unifying theme in many martial arts is “balance” in all things, both physical and spiritual. Visiting Charles Johnson’s home office, you can see that he tries to attain that balance in his own life. One end of his office is devoted to the martial arts, and is outfitted with weights, a kickbag, and pictures of revered masters of the martial arts. The other end is devoted to writing, with a computer; framed plaques and awards; wild stacks of books, notes, and journals; contracts; research papers on his next novel about Martin Luther King, Jr., screenplays for Columbia Pictures and Home Box Office; and correspondence from friends and fellow writers. Scattered here and there are figurines of Captain America and Batman; an incredibly detailed model slave ship like the one in Middle Passage, fitted with miniature brass and rigging; old photographs of family back in Illinois; a model of a P-51 Mustang fighter plane like those flown by the all-black Ninety-ninth Pursuit Squadron that Johnson has written about in a screenplay for an upcoming HBO movie; and a hand-drawn comic book by his daughter, Lizzie. We’re back in the classroom in the Phinney Neighborhood Center. The students are stiff from their daytime activities; the chilly night air doesn’t help. Gray Cassidy, a sandy-haired, barrelchested man who looks about as easy to push aside as an oak tree, loosens up the class members by leading a series of formalized stretches and exercises, called kuen. The class is always small on Friday evenings, so students have plenty of room to spread TIM ALLEN 94 out. Gray counts off each movement in Chinese, and soon the air smells of honest sweat. Charles Johnson grew up in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb just north of Chicago, and attended his first martial arts class while in his late teens. He was excited to hear about an interesting karate class being held in Chicago and faithfully commuted to the city every weekend. But different martial arts espouse different ideals, and though Johnson did well in the class, he found the class harsh both physically and philosophically. He sought something else. Charles is a man with a love of learning. As a student at Southern Illinois University, he double-majored in journalism and philosophy , and even had a program on the college PBS station teaching cartooning. In 1965 he sold his first cartoon; five years later he had sold over a thousand. But by 1970 his interest in philosophy and fiction started to take precedence. The class in the Phinney Center has warmed up now, and Charles is practicing his kuen. His movements are smooth and fast; his breathing deep and steady; and his arms snap like whips as he channels the power of his entire body through his fist. Each student’s style is modified by his unique musculature and body shape. Though he is moving all the time, Gray seems solid as a rock. He says the class is suited to anyone...


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