July 11, 2023
I am up in Maine writing this after spending two days cutting down a ½ acre of forest for a gazebo. It was on sale -- the gazebo, not the forest.
If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I’m sure I am not the only person who hates cliches like that. Better late than never. – How about just being on time? Beggars can’t be choosy. – You have never been to NYC. Cliches are just too easy, pat. They make me think of “Leave It to Beaver” or “Happy Days.” Old sitcoms that always have tidy, happy endings. Well, the weekend before the Fourth of July had that vibe: Lemonade was made that Saturday at ASNJ.
Sometimes things happen that change you, hopefully for the better. Often these things are expected, sometimes, they are not. Some of us like surprises (roller coaster fans like me) and others want everything as planned (NOT roller coaster fans, like my wife). My marriage was planned (no shotgun needed) and game changer (I am still amazed how many things we had to plan. Who knew picking napkins was so important?). I can still remember that day three decades later. The bad things are the ones that usually happen without warning (illness, accident, death. These things usually hit you by surprise. You get the idea.). This is a story of an unexpected bad thing that became an expected good thing and changed a bunch of people unexpectedly for the better. This event was unexpected due to United Airlines.
It all started on Friday evening, June 30, with a phone call.
I got a call from Frank that evening from the dojo telling me Aaron Cass, Sensei of Portsmouth Aikido wanted my number. Of course, I told him. My cell is no secret, every member at ASNJ has it. I met Aaron when I took Hal’s annual seminar in Portsmouth. You see, Portsmouth is on our drive to our house in Maine. We have often stop for a meal there (Colby’s was a breakfast favorite. Great food but there is always a line). When Hal first did a seminar there, it was an easy detour with some Aikido fun while heading up to Maine to enjoy our ‘Happy Place.’
Later that evening, I got a call from Aaron. He had planned a dojo trip with 21 students and family members to visit Japan, do some sightseeing, and practice Aikido. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. Aaron had lived in Japan for a few years and met his wife, Yuka, there. So, as a great sensei, he planned a trip to share a Japanese experience with his dojo members. Everything was planned and set in motion. They boarded their plane in Portsmouth with a transfer in Newark to continue their flight for the ten-day excursion. They arrived at Newark on Friday when United Airlines, due to “issues,” cancelled their next flight. The next available plane to Japan was on Sunday. They scrambled to find hotels in Newark along with the few other hundred travelers stranded in the tourist mecca of Newark, NJ (or those not from the east coast, Newark is an armpit. Not a nice armpit but an overly sweaty one that had never experienced deodorant.).
After such dreadful news, Aaron was looking for something to do to take everyone’s mind off their trip being truncated. He called me hoping there were Aikido classes that Saturday for a distraction and, as anyone who knows me can attest, I can be quite a distraction. (My wife might suggest the experience of me is akin to a kid kicking your seat on a 4-hour flight kind of distraction. Did I mention our wedding thirty years ago? We picked napkins. She loves me. Ed Note: I do love him, and he is that kid.). I told Aaron to bring everyone to the dojo on Saturday and asked Aaron to teach the 2:00 adult class -- a treat for my students -- and I would teach the 3:00 class. We are usually in Maine this weekend, but Jacob was performing in a new musical being workshopped on Sunday, in Princeton, NJ, so, as supportive parents, Rachel and I planned to leave the following day. The musical was set during the Revolutionary War, apropos for that weekend, and who would have thought that a retelling of the Revolutionary War as a musical was a major cultural void that needed filling! And I learned that George Washington was a tenor and wore sneakers! (Ed note: It was performed on the field where the Battle of Princeton occurred in 1777. Cool, no?)
I reached out to Aaron early Saturday morning to set plans in motion (not too early as I am sure they were exhausted. I can be a benevolent distraction.). Aaron was excited. It was a quiet Saturday at ASNJ with the holiday weekend. I reached out to Paul to order food for dinner. We decided on Portuguese BBQ from Stephanie’s, a local eatery (a usual Saturday lunch at ASNJ is pizza.) Paul ordered ten trays of chicken, ribs, rice, veggies and of course, empanadas (Who doesn’t love a good chicken empanada? I would even suggest that empanadas might be the official favorite food at ASNJ.).
I headed to the dojo that morning and stopped by Stephanie’s restaurant to pick up the food, then hit the liquor store for beer, and finally to the dojo in time for the Kids' class to meet a family whose three kids were taking their free trial class. I announced the plans to our students (You know, like in a dojo letter) The air crackled with excitement. Frank canceled his original plans to be able to stay at the dojo. You could already feel it was a special day. Like an wedding (still no shotguns, just empanadas).
One more surprise: Aaron asked if could we rustle up five gis as some students' luggage were enroute to Japan (Don’t you love airlines? We cannot take you there, but we can get your luggage to fly without you.). We are a dojo, we should have gis, right? I went through my personal gi bin. Luckily most were recently washed. I had one that was a little ripe, so I gave all my clean ones to Aaron's students and wore the stinky one. They just got out of Newark and probably would not notice my stinky gi. (Did I mention Newark is the armpit?)
(Cliché alert) We were cooking with gas: food ordered, fridge full of beers, Danny showed up with a case of water and oranges (Huh, why does every Aikido event have oranges? That was the standard dessert at every Chinese restaurant when I was growing up.), we were ready as ready can be.
At 1:45, the Uber caravan arrived. We watched the carloads of New Hampshire’ians (not sure what a person from NH is called. I think people from Maine should be called Mainiacs. Ed. Note and Safety tip - Do not called a native Mainer a ‘Mainiac’ lest you wish to find out what a maniac really is.) We watched a group of tired and unhappy Aikidoka and families trudge in our dojo, depressed as their 10-day trip was now only seven days. We welcomed them as family. Aaron gave me a huge hug as did his wife, Yuka, who burst into tears when we embraced. All the frustrations, angst, and anger releasing. Being in a dojo is like being at home. We directed them to the changing rooms and the miracle of (clean) gis, they emerged awake, backs straightened, and hints of smiles.
Aaron took his familiar role of Sensei, bowed us in and taught a brilliant class of ryotatetori (two hand grab, one hand on each wrist) attacks focusing on relaxing the arms throwing uke into a forward roll. The technique usually done uchi (inside, in front -- Have you ever seen the brilliant t-shirt Aaron’s dojo has? The front says ‘Omote’ the back says ‘Ura.”) He then moved into a soto (outside, behind nage) variation. Aaron went through variation after variation, each more interesting, always focusing on relaxed arms and good posture. I was soaked through. The hour rolled along (Good one, huh?).
I took over and worked on what I have been working on, tenchinage (Heaven and Earth technique. One hand goes up, the other down), starting on ryotatetori (that seemed like we planned it) and then moved into tski (punch) variation showing that nothing changed from ryotatetori to tski. It is the same technique. We did other variations from there. 4:00 came quickly, the class ended, still drenched with sweat, Danny, cut out early and came back with a mountain of Portuguese food from Stephanie’s. It was a great two hours of Aikido working with new people.
The plastic tarp came out to cover the mat, tables pulled out of storage and piled with food (yummy, empanadas) and beers opened (We needed to rehydrate, right?). I showed them the dojo minibar in my office (For those of you unfamiliar with the ASNJ minibar, shame on you, you need to visit!) and the horrible weekend became a great afternoon of training, a day of new and re-newed friendships, and a lot of good food and better conversations.
Hal drove out from Brooklyn after his own class to join us (Every party needs a Shihan!). He felt it an easy one-hour drive to make to help distract them from the pain of Newark. Hal will be teaching a Seminar in Portsmouth on September 2 - 3. Please join us. Great dojo, great people, beautiful town.
Everyone hung out, ate, drank, talked for more than four hours after training for two. The afternoon flew. It felt like only a couple of minutes. I think I spoke with everyone that afternoon about almost everything from training, my time at Portsmouth when I beat the tattoos off Javier (He might have a different story, but I am writing this, so, Tough nuggets, Javier!), places to train, places to eat, pets, kids, how to teach classes, how not to teach classes and even watched a cartwheel demonstration. A little after 8:00, the empanadas were gone, the New Hampshirites piled into their Uber brigade and headed back to Newark for their connecting flight on Sunday.
I drove home and called Rachel to share my euphoria. It was an amazing day. I got texts from Frank, Danny, and a few students all expressing their joy in being part of this spur-of-the-moment event. Frank asked to join us for Hal’s seminar in Portsmouth in September! He told me he wanted to visit his new friends. We all do. We opened our dojo to a bunch of stranded Aikido “strangers” and left close friends. How? A little bit because we welcomed them, we fed them, we drank together but most of all, we harmonized.
I am sure this is not a unique experience, but I think Aikido lends itself to this type of experience based on the art and its principals, especially the non-competition aspect—blending -- as well as the love in Aikido that O’Sensei always talked about.
There is one of the most poignant lessons from Aikido we all learned that day: Aikido is not about what you do with your wrist or your stance but what you do with your heart. There is where the true power of Aikido is. Open your heart and you can never be defeated as everyone will be your friend.
See you on the mat, maybe in Portsmouth in September! Maybe we can make some more lemonade there. Aaron truly has a wonderful dojo filled with amazing people. New friends. Keep your heart open.
Sensei, Aikido Schools of NJ
“In true budo there is no enemy or opponent. True budo is to become one with the universe, not train to become powerful or to throw down some opponent. Rather we train in hopes of being of some use, however small our role may be, in the task of bringing peace to mankind around the world.”
-- Morehei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido