[Note: this post contains some vague-as-I-could-make-them spoilers]
Like many other martial arts enthusiasts and children of the 1980s, I was very excited to spend the final weekend of August bingeing both seasons of the breakout hit series “Cobra Kai” on Netflix. A friend, who is also a fellow taekwondo black belt, and I had watched the first season together when it debuted on YouTube Red in 2018. We loved it and marveled at how clever and heartfelt it was.
Much has changed in two years, both on a national and global scale, and also for me personally. I knew I’d be entertained by watching the series, but I didn’t realize how deeply therapeutic it would be.
Friday night my same black belt friend and I settled in for a long evening of bingeing “Cobra Kai,” going back to Season One so it would be fresh in our minds. Once again, the quick, witty humor sent us cackling, and we enjoyed watching the characters’ arcs over both seasons. (And quarantine or no, I need every piece of Courtney Henggeler’s, who portrays Amanda LaRusso, wardrobe. Girl.) My friend and I would pause the show often to reminisce on our own training adventures together, and as the story progressed, we became more and more emotionally invested in the fate of the characters.
This time around it felt personal. The clever writing and character development made way for a much deeper connection to the content and helped me acknowledge some difficult issues:
1. My current disconnection from martial arts
As I said in my last post, taekwondo has taken a backseat while I focus on the immediate needs of post-ACL reconstruction recovery. Post-surgical knee rehab requires a lot of time and effort, and more recently, I’ve been slowed by swelling and stiffness thanks to a very irritating topical skin infection. The swelling requires me to spend even more time doing focused, tedious, and often painful home therapy to meet the flexion and extension goals my surgeon set for me. I’ve had little time to do anything but my day job (from home) and attend to my high-maintenance knee.
Even though I can’t do much physically right now, just watching people do marital arts and being able to comment on it with a friend who understood helped me reconnect to practicing, analyzing, and enjoying my sport. More than once I stood up, promising my friend I wasn’t “really going to do the kick” as he looked worriedly at my braced leg, and talked through a movement on the show I liked or questioned as I waddled stiffly around the living room.
Aside from watching the sometimes very familiar action, there was one moment that really moved me and helped me appreciate the show even more. To most viewers this moment is probably not even memorable, but for me, it reignited the martial arts spark that’s been dormant since my ACL injury in July. When older and slightly wiser Johnny Lawrence, played brilliantly by William Zabka, screamed “Joon Bi!” at his students, commanding them to move into a “ready stance,” I shrieked and popped up in my chair.
“That’s Korean! That’s what we say! He said ‘joon bi’!” I yelled at my friend, who proceeded to take us down an internet rabbit hole of analyses of the martial arts styles used in The Karate Kid and its sequels. I will not take you down that same rabbit hole in this post, but I will say the theorists posit the Cobra Kai style is based on or is at least influenced by the Korean art Tang Soo Do. Even though Johnny did not yell any other Korean commands in Seasons One or Two, that one word put me on cloud nine and brought back good memories of yelling Korean commands at my own students. (I don’t think anyone can master barking “QUIET!!” the way Zabka does though.)
[In my opinion, the best spinning hook kick in the entire franchise is done at the beginning of The Karate Kid III when we first meet the maniacal Tony Montana-esque villain Terry Silver, played by kenpo and taekwondo black belt Thomas Ian Griffith…because of course it is.]
Watching Zabka and Ralph Macchio (reprising his role as Daniel), who are both in their fifties, kick, block, and punch made me feel like I was in a special club. Doing martial arts over age forty or even age thirty comes with both benefits and unique challenges, and while these were not dwelled upon in the series, there were some funny shout-outs. The first time Johnny did a kick he seemed surprised at his agility but also yelped in pain. I’ve been there.
My advice to the two main costars is to keep up the training but maybe avoid jump kicks if they want to keep their knees intact during filming. Just a hunch I have…
2. Johnny and I have similar demons met with similar redemption
The series begins with Johnny Lawrence face-down and hungover in a crummy apartment surrounded by beer bottles. At first it feels like a wink to the audience–“Hey, remember this bully who thought he was hot shit? Now he’s a drunk and a loser, ha ha ha.” Johnny is a jerk with some of the funniest one-liners on television, but over time we see he’s much more complex than his teenaged bully persona, who was really just an insecure kid at heart.
You can see on his face the depression, weariness, addiction, and loneliness that drives some of his poor choices or impulsive behavior. You can see the heartbreak during confrontations with his estranged son. And you can see a light in him as he builds his dojo and grows closer bonds with his students. He starts to warm up to people. He starts to take risks. His confidence grows.
I do not have Johnny Lawrence’s life, but I have similar demons that have driven me to lash out, shut down, or both. I am still the “shifty, mistrusting loner” I describe myself as at the beginning of my memoir, but I’ve grown and have been able to enjoy life a lot more since I got back into taekwondo seven years ago. Johnny and I both have lost decades where we didn’t train and just dealt with life as best we could, and often times not at our best. Reconnecting with something we loved as kids and that boosted our confidence has awakened a spirit of perseverance, determination, and…dare I say…positivity.
3. Anguish and worry over a loved one
At the end of Season Two, a character suffers a grave injury. Johnny’s grief, anger, and helplessness is palpable and heart wrenching. It was so painful to witness that my friend and I stared straight ahead and didn’t say anything to each other for a while after the episode ended. We knew if we opened our mouths our voices would break, and we’d be weeping like it was the end of a Pixar movie. (Watch the ending of Toy Story 3 if you want to ruin your life for a few hours.)
Later, my friend said it made him think about times his students had been injured in class or at tournaments and how upset it made him. Meanwhile I realized the sadness and worry I saw played out by the characters echoed what I’d been feeling for days since Thursday morning, when my sister-in-law, who was six months pregnant, had been admitted to the hospital for serious pain. She’d had pain before, but this time her water broke. My niece was going to be born twelve weeks premature.
I kept my grief and fear and anxiety tamped down while I waited for the facts. I freak out over silly things, but when something really serious happens, I tend to shut down and feel stoic, even numb, while I wait to see how things play out. Over the weekend my family went from the initial devastating fear that we could lose the baby to excitement about her being born to disbelief and confusion over whether this kid was going to do anything. There were contractions. Then they stopped. Then more contractions. Then she backed off. As I was watching the final episode of “Cobra Kai” Sunday afternoon I had one eye on my phone and learned this baby was going to, as my brother described, “punch her way into the world like Chuck Norris.”
Monday morning, August 31, at 2:04 a.m, my niece Clara the Destroyer, the Eater of Worlds, the Shining Star in what has been an awful year, was born yelling, kicking, and very lively.
My niece is so tiny and delicate, but oh how she can kick.
I haven’t cried, like really cried, in a very long time. It’s been months, maybe even a year since I had a good sobbing cry. I can’t remember. I’ve had a few depression/anxiety meltdowns during this year, but I never actually cried. Looking at pictures of my niece around mid-morning on Monday, and letting the gravity of how crumpled and red and so very small she looked sink into my brain, I gulped panicky breaths and felt a few hot tears roll down my face, but I still didn’t cry.
It’s an odd thing for someone who used to have regular crying jags and raging emotions to feel so…even-keeled, but once in a while, it’s nice to have that release. I’ve thought about watching that last episode of “Cobra Kai” Season Two again and forcing myself to have a good hard cry over the characters I’ve come to love, everything that’s happened this year, and all the fear and drama and worry that’s been haunting our entire country and our personal situations.
Something in me, though, some primal voice, told me this was the opportunity to get my mental act together and be better for my niece and for myself. She has her whole life ahead of her, and I still do too. I think I’ve found a new Sabumnim. (Y’all know I can’t say “Sensei,” even in a Karate Kid-themed post.)
Johnny, we can fight our way out of this. Cobra Kai never dies.
Stay tuned for my upcoming book– “Kicking and Screaming: a Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts” published by She Writes Press. Coming to a bookseller near you April 20, 2021!
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