Karate Class

Everybody has a story. That one story we’ve told a hundred times. That story that we’ve honed through retelling, and that we know is funny, and interesting enough to be funny to new friends while old friends will laugh along to the retelling. Usually it’s something normal enough to draw people in but just weird enough to keep them there. It’s not just a recounting of events…or even if it is, the universe supplied the perfect punch line for us.

My brother moved out of the house when I was Seventeen. He flew off to Mississippi to join the Air Force, and I had a room of my own for the first time in my life. The two of us are close, and would send each other postcards that we’d doctored into personal memes, long before memes were a thing. Our notes were mostly ridiculous: new CDs that we’d discovered, a stupid joke, or silly thought that was on our mind. When he’d fly home for Christmas, we’d go to the mall together. This trip was partly practical, to get away from the house and do our holiday shopping. It was also partly because we loved the mall. People at the mall are endlessly interesting, and as the years passed, our parents got moved to new duty stations, and we both moved and visited malls together in other cities. Every Christmas we’d get together and comment on how the mall was the same no matter where you lived, but the people were just slightly different.

I moved to Saint Louis in the early 2000’s. That first Christmas here, both my brother and sister came out from my mom’s house in Kansas City and the three of us went shopping together. Every mall is pretty much the same, but the people are slightly different. The sports team shirts are different. People may be stockier, or have bigger noses. The weather in Saint Louis is notoriously inconsistent, so it’s not unusual to see someone here wearing a heavy jacket, hat and boots next to someone in basketball shorts and Adidas slides with socks…

Sometimes…we meet a person, and our life changes. My life didn’t change in a Chili’s bathroom after Christmas shopping with my brother and sister, but a spark of something remains from that encounter. The three of us went to a Chili’s on the perimeter of the Mall parking lot for dinner. It was pretty busy with holiday shopping families, and I must’ve had three soda, and had to excuse myself.

I don’t know how familiar you are with men’s restrooms, but usually there’s a sink by the door, partitioned off from that is a urinal, and then a stall with toilet. As I stood at the urinal, a kid started talking to me from the stall.

“Sir?” He sounded like he was maybe eleven or twelve. Still young enough to have the piping voice of a child, but old enough to not sound like a little kid.

It’s odd for anyone other than a kid or a dad who thinks he’s funny to say anything in a public restroom. So caught off guard, I said the first thing that came to my mind. “ummm…yeah?”

Without missing a beat, this piping voice asked, “Can I show you a karate move when I get out of here?”

My brain stopped. I could almost hear the gears grinding. I answered in the only way it’s possible to answer a karate question from a kid I didn’t know, in a public restroom. “Heck yes, I want to see a karate move when you’re done in there.”

I finished up and washed my hands while I waited patiently, next to the hand dryer, listening to the tinny pop music coming out of the overhead speakers. It wasn’t a long wait, but definitely probably the most awkward wait I’ve ever had. I’m not the kind of person that ever wants to tell a kid I’ll do something, and then not do it. This seemed important. At the same time…I was waiting for a stranger’s child to show me a karate move in a public restroom. 

Finally, the toilet flushed and the door unlatched and swung open. In front of me stood a chubby eleven year old boy, with dark, curly hair, wearing sneakers, knee length jean shorts with a belt and an X-Men tee-shirt tucked into them. “Are you ready?” He asked.

As I nodded my head and grinned, he positioned himself in the middle of the room. Checking the distance between his feet and bringing his fists up, he stepped forward and punched the air “Hyah!” Alternating fists he stepped forward again “Hy-! Oh wait…” He’d started too far into the room and nearly walked into the urinal on his second punch. Moving back against the wall, he took a second try, stepping forward, punching, “Hyah!”

As he began the second demonstration a well dressed, college aged man opened the door and stepped into the bathroom pulling up sharply, back straight, the picture of confusion as he looked at me, looked at my karate instructor, then back at me. I shrugged and we watched as the kid finished his punches. 

Step. “Hyah!”
Step. “Hyah!”
Step. “Hyah!”

The boy turned and bowed to us. “That was really great!” I told him, and walked out of the restroom and back to my table. “Sorry that took so long, but the weirdest thing happened when I was in the bathroom…”

I tell that story as a funny story. It is a funny story and we always laugh at the telling. But I also always feel a little melancholy about it. It’s weird to think that that kid is about the same age now that I was then. I wonder about him sometimes. He’s one of those characters that come into our lives briefly, but somehow kind of sets up camp forever. Frozen in time.  I wonder about whether he needed someone to just watch and appreciate him for a moment. And I wonder if I gave enough in that moment, or too little, or too much. I think about that kid and I think about how hard it is to ask for what we need. And I think about how easy it is to give, just a little.

I think of myself as a storyteller. In a lot of ways I am, but in a lot of ways too maybe I’m just a thoughtful rambler. Or a recounter of events. How do I cultivate the thing that I want, while retaining the voice that makes me who I am? When I first started making comics I was inspired by my friend Connie Sun, who at that time was doing these lovely “Illustrated Status Updates” which were often just a panel or two and were morning reflections of her emotional stance that day. At the time I had been doing daily self-portraits, and using that to find my voice and artistic style. Struggling with keeping those portraits interesting, and wanting to learn digital painting techniques, while at the same time not wanting to come up with ideas for “what to draw”, I transitioned to the single panel illustration with a daily life story approach to my blog. That was how “Life With Girls” began.

I “met” a lot of friends online. Autobio comics are my favorite, and its amazing to me that even in our differences, we’re all so similar. Inspired by this comic community,  I’ve drawn a lot of strips over the last several years, and identified as a comic artist. As we approach April seventh, and the start of the hundred day project, I find myself really looking at not just the project itself, but also what exactly I want out of it. What do I want to do with it? At first I thought that I wanted it to be the groundwork for a long form comic, but the thought of that fills me with more anxiety than excitement. 

So the universe gave me a nudge. Like it does.

The corona virus has a lot of us reaching out to each other. As we try to remain connected, a lot of artists and performers have turned to live streaming their work. I catch little bits here and there, and the other day I caught about four minutes of Tony DiTerlizzi’s live stream and he happened to be talking about taking Will Eisner’s comic class. The phase that leaped out and smacked me in the face…that made everything come into focus for me was “Will told me that I was a good illustrator, but that I was probably best suited for illustration, not comics. I learned a lot about storytelling in that class though, which has helped me with my illustration.” It’s such a simple mental leap. Like “you don’t have to let your nails grow long just because you stop biting them. Just clip them instead.” It’s simple but hard to see. 

The stories that I want to tell are prose. They’re stories about life and adventure and drawing and kids, but they’re prose stories. Kelly and I have been reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle to each other in the evenings this week. It’s a book of short essay style stories, usually only a page or two long, about life, and family, and self discovery. And the stories all stand alone, and they all unfold together and build on each other.  I want to tell stories like that. I want to use language and pictures, two different sides of the narrative coin and illustrate stories with single panels and spot illustrations and full color plates. I’m excited to begin to see the shape of this project…and I feel like I’m being honest finally about the work that I want to do, without abandoning my voice. 

What are you all working on or struggling through? What are the stories you want to tell but haven’t found the space for yet? I hope you’re all happy and healthy and whole. I hope you’re staying sane through all of this and I look forward to seeing you all in the world on the other side of this. 

Until next time, take care and be good.
Your friend,
Jeffrey

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *