The story of a senior citizen with a mind (and mouth) as sharp as her martial artistry.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Judith Marx takes off her shoes and bows before she enters her dojo. It is a sign of respect for a sacred space, one she converted from a garage in her Carmel Valley home and opened for lessons in 2007. The walls are sparsely decorated with a few photos and prints, including a picture of her karate mentor, Dr. Thich Tien An.
There is a scroll of Japanese characters standing for “great power lies in great depth,” and a print of a demon with the cautionary words “toxic icons” written beneath its menacing image. Marx hands out two business cards, one that says “Family and Individual Therapy,” and another that reads “Sensei Judith Marx.” At 70 years old, she is a grandmother, therapist and fourth-degree black belt, but the title she is most proud of was bestowed upon her by Kubota: shinhinhan di, or karate master. It is all very impressive, but she declines a compliment.
Marx bows again as she exits the dojo, sinks into a lawn chair in the sun, tightens the black belt around her waist, and says brusquely, “Our lives are manmade bulls***.” She is ready to discuss her own toxic demons.
Married to a professional football player at the age of 19, she was tormented by her materialistic existence. Her biggest nemesis, she says: ego. “The pearls, the white gloves, the parties, my breast implants– it was all bulls***.”
Rejecting that life, characterizing it as weak and lacking in personal power, Marx left her husband and earned master’s degrees in marriage/family therapy and anthropology. While working as an anthropology research assistant at UCLA, she met a free-spirited artist.
“He turned me on to marijuana, acid and ’shrooms,” she says. “We would just lay in bed, have sex, and experiment with drugs. I was so enlightened by it. I realized everyone was pissing on my boots and telling me it was raining.”
Marx says this fresh awareness of how much she was demeaned by societal pressure, namely sexism, pushed her to seek refuge from what she calls “stupid Western culture” at a Buddhist ashram in India. There she reports that she discovered a sense of spirituality, realized her personal strength and the importance of living in the moment. But when Marx returned to the States, she felt even more dissatisfied.
“I had to go back to my daily routine and fulfill my role as a mother, brush my teeth, wipe my ass.”
She sought a tangible art form to renew her newfound Eastern peace and settled on a form of Japanese karate called Go Soku Ryu, meaning “hard and fast.”
It didn’t come easily. “I was afraid to fight at first,” Marx admits. “My fellow [male] students would flirt and tell me I should be doing ballet.”
One of her first steps toward earning their respect was to remove her breast implants.
“You can’t fight with fake tits,” she says. She took on the boys and– pushed by a dormant desire to retaliate against every bully in middle school, every jealous woman, her ex-husband and anyone who ever pissed on her boots– kicked their asses.
Marx’s students begin to arrive for the day’s class, girls and boys, fathers and sons. She is no longer Judith Marx. She is sensei. Her persona transforms from contentious to tranquil, greeting her students one by one, displaying maternal interest in their lives.
One 4-year-old student arrives asleep in the backseat of his father’s car. He wakes up, looks at Marx with respect, and she asks him in gentle tone, “Are you going to fight today?”
“Osu, sensei,” he says.
Marx proudly announces that her students placed first, second and third in a karate tournament they attended the previous weekend. She thanks them.
Marx then begins her class by bowing to the “great power lies in great depth” scroll. Her students chant the mantra of Go Soku Ryu: “Seek perfection of character–Be faithful–Endeavor–Respect others–Avoid violence.” Parents and siblings look on, whispering to each other, “I want to fight, too!”
Marx’s students struggle to keep up with her as they do jumping jacks and spar with one another. Marx pairs off with a man 6 inches taller than her and easily defeats him.
One of her students, a beginner, gets hit in the stomach too hard. Tears well in his eyes; Marx hugs him and tells him, “It’s OK, you don’t have to be macho.” Soon class ends as it began, with the students bowing to their sensei reverently.
When asked if she will practice and teach karate for the rest of her life, Marx’s answer is high-pitched.
“Of course!” she says. “I want to go out with a punch, pinning someone to a floor mat.”