I am lying in bed, half-naked, half-asleep, dead tired, and full of fear. I am only 10, so my small hands can’t grip the mattress with the same white-knuckled zeal of a 21-year-old. My heart flutters across my ribcage like a cornered bat; my stomach, hostage to its own acids, churns in terror. My eyelids struggle to stay open as my eyes dart to and fro, the vision of my dusky bedroom constantly shifting before me. But release is not an option, for sleep is when they come. The saucer-shaped ships with no doors or windows. The small men with gray skin and black eyes. The white light. The aliens.
Suddenly, in a single whip-crack motion, I find myself seated on the edge of the bed, dressed in my snow-white Tae Kwon Do uniform, black belt in my hands. My gaze passes over it as it would a shimmering sword — with this belt I am strong, powerful, invincible. My name, embroidered in gold lettering on either end, in both Korean and English script, glows from the coal-black piece of fabric. As I tie it around my stomach, my fatigue vanishes, my fear slips away; I am alert, tensile and calm, conscious of my surroundings and ready to fight. I’m the Bruce Lee of prepubescent Jewish boys: fists clenched, belt snug at the waist, I stand like a warrior next to my bed. Assume the Horse Stance. Kiya! My limbs burst forth like battering rams as the alien hordes storm my room. Tiger punch to the face — boom! Roundhouse to the neck — pow! I pummel their inhuman bodies with the strength of 20 men. Ear-splitting techno music provides the heart-throbbing soundtrack — “Another Night,” perhaps, or the immortal “What Is Love.” As the battle reaches a critical frenzy, I am transported to my martial arts studio, sprinting laps around the room as Nicki French blares on the speakers.
When I wake up from the dream, I am still holding on, but to the black belt this time, instead of the mattress. I perform my usual morning ablutions — brush my teeth, wash my face, eat breakfast — belt and all, and when I leave for school, I slip it into my backpack. Though the aliens aren’t nearly as active during the day, you can never be too careful when it comes to intergalactic colonization.
I earned my black belt in fifth grade, three years after my first Tae Kwon Do class. In the course of my training, I tamed and transformed my growing body in ways that, at the time, seemed perfectly in line with the life of a tweenage ninja: breaking nails, tearing skin, pulling muscles, spraining ankles, swelling lips. I did push-ups until I was blue in the face. I toned muscles I didn’t even know I had. I punched pads, kicked bags, and screamed to wake the dead. In those three long years, I learned how to sweat. When I finally received that majestic belt, falling to my knees in glee before Mr. Moen, my instructor, I was less of a boy than a piece of human meatloaf.
Yet now, 11 years removed from the world of contact sports, I’m not at all surprised at how much abuse I withstood. If the Power Rangers could do it, why couldn’t I? I lived in worlds of cartoon violence, places of pixilated sprites on TV screens kicking the shit out of each other, places where the blood disappears as soon as it touches the ground and resurrection is just a reset button away. As soon as I could write, I could hold a video game controller; I was a live-wire on an endless high in those days, friends all around, gunning it tournament-style through hours of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. “You must defeat my Dragon Punch to stand a chance!”
What’s a boy to do? I was only fulfilling my inherent masculine imperative to rearrange the face of any motherfucker who got in my way. Of course, I was born and raised in Palo Alto, a suburban paradise in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area, crime rate negative four. That expansive Northern California sky was a burnished bowl of electric blue Bubble Yum-colored tranquility, an apt reflection of the peaceful, tree-lined streets below. I walked to school alone from age 7 on up, looked straight ahead before crossing the street and took candy from strangers all the time. I was ensconced in the upper-class liberal yuppie boredom that mutes our primeval urges and turns us into respectable, polite, Keds-wearing model youth.
So street smarts weren’t exactly a major life lesson of my early days. Please, give a young boy something to smash: let him feel the wind rush past his fist as it flies through the air. Let him hear the crunch of breaking bone and the snap of breaking wood. Let him bellow his lungs in victory and eat the heart of his enemies — let him be an animal, a primate, man. In the idle world of suburbia, let him run wild.
And then there were the aliens. My boyhood nightmares of fleet-footed acrobatic ass-kicking weren’t entirely confined to the subconscious, but in that uncertain space where if it’s on TV and it’s not a cartoon, it was as real as anything. The intersection of The X-Files and my mile-a-minute imagination resulted in my grotesque visions of alien abduction: bivouacked EBE’s and the government conspiracy covering them up. Every time the Cigarette-Smoking Man took the screen, I knew the night-light wasn’t going off anytime soon.
Think of it: you’re a doe-eyed 9-year-old, eyes glued to the TV on a dark Friday night, watching a grown man get a hole drilled in his teeth by a clutch of extraterrestrial ne’er-do-wells. As he sleeps peacefully, they cut his power and disable his phone; moving silently, they surround his bed and cart him off to the mothership; they immobilize his body and place implants under his skin; they extract his fluids and erase his memory. Heck, if it could happen to Agent Scully, it could happen to anyone!
So I wouldn’t sleep for a night or three. I took the cause to my mother more than once — “Mummy, I can’t sleep, I’m scared of alien abduction,” delivered in spot-on irresistible British orphan-style — and she forbade me to watch The X-Files until I was old enough to handle it. Of course, if I didn’t watch the show, it would stop existing, so I needed another option. Lead shielding? UFO detector? Alien repellent?
I didn’t actually think I could defend myself against ET’s with a few punchy routines, but I begged my parents to let me take Tae Kwon Do lessons anyway. The Tae Kwon Do had a two-fold purpose, both to combat the ridiculous fear The X-Files instilled in me and as a channel for the aggression I needed to alleviate. After a few months, though, the show existed in one world, the Tae Kwon Do in another. I did the sport because I liked it, and I watched the show — well, why did I continue to watch if it scared me so wretchedly? I think fear, similar to rage, is something we need to tap into, something we need to feast upon in order to successfully mete. Palo Alto doesn’t lend itself to haunted-forest vision quests in the dead of night; instead, we get our fear spoon-fed to us through TV, our mechanical second brain. During my gaming sessions, I pulsed rage down through the controller and onto the screen, and during my favorite show, it vomited fear right back up to me.
Looking back now, I realize that the dreams of dueling alien hordes were a channel for the absurdity of my fears and the pure fantasy of it all. Sure, I’d still go to bed quivering in dread, but I’d wake with a confidence and serenity as a result of both my martial arts classes and, simply, getting older. Indeed, without the Tae Kwon Do, I don’t know what I would have done with this aggression, this violence, this latent need to lash out. By the time I earned my black belt, I’d never kicked a shin or punched a gut that wasn’t going to earn me points on my sparring sheet. I still haven’t — I am, in fact, an absolute kitten, a turn-the-other-cheek pacifist who’s never taken a strike of rage to another person and feels a guilty rush with every squashed mosquito. Sometimes I wonder what happened to the young banshee in the Tae Kwon Do studio, the ferocity of the fight and the thrill of pure, physical victory. My foam helmet and padded chest guard were only window dressing; in that ring, I was a creature of violence, training to control the most dangerous weapon at my disposal. Afterward, I would go home to my clean home, my loving parents, eat flesh I didn’t kill and sleep guiltlessly under the smiling moon. My skills would seep from my mind, only to be revived during the next day’s class.
But at night, when the aliens came, I’d be ready. Lying in bed, I’d touch the muscles I’d flexed that day, feel my body as I only I could feel it — compact, dense, like a can of soup, everything inside me wet and moving. Black belt in hand, I’d watch the door for signs of movement, tense up at the slightest noise, turn over and fight the sleep washing over me. If I could fight it as hard as I fought in practice that day, I’d be up all night — if not, I wouldn’t stand a chance.