What’s cooler than a ninja? It’s a trick question because nothing is cooler than a ninja. Little boys want to break wooden blocks with their bare feet and yell things loudly as they do. They want to flip someone high in the air. Disappear in a puff of smoke. They want to walk confidently down the halls of their school knowing they can take out three bullies coming from three separate directions at once.
I never took karate lessons when I was a kid. But I was intrigued by the television show “Kung Fu” and the extreme patience and pacifism the lead character showed, enduring all manner of personal insults and degradation before finally becoming a lethal whirlwind of feet and hands to take down a bully and his gang of henchmen. I was dismayed to learn much later that Bruce Lee was considered for the part, but David Carradine got the lead role after producers felt Lee was too Chinese-looking to play a Chinese Kung Fu master/monk in the Old West, according to Lee’s widow.
Avery took martial arts classes when he was five. We were living in Alabama at the time, and the Florence YMCA was the center of our recreational lives. I was taking beginner yoga classes, and that was going pretty well. I was the only guy in the class, but I was determined not to worry about that. I was more worried about the fact that all the women in the class could bend double like pretzels with no apparent effort. My range of motion was more modest. I could almost touch my toes with my knees straight while the women put the palms of their hands flat on the floor beside their feet, displaying the casual flexibility of Gumby.
Avery’s martial arts instructor was a very nice guy. “All right, Young Dragons,” he’d say. I loved him for calling Avery a young dragon. Making it seem like Avery had already accomplished something astounding although he’d just started the class. They would go through a series of poses. Avery would follow along for a bit. Then he’d run in circles. The running in circles part was not in the martial arts manual.
Did I mention Avery is autistic? He’s autistic. Running in circles is definitely a part of the autistic manual, although the “autistic manual” is not a real manual. If it were, the autistic manual would be terribly complex and come in several volumes like encyclopedias once did. Crucial pages would always be missing, or the autistic manual would be written in a language no one can read anymore. It’s a bit of a mystery, this whole autism thing. And no one manual really explains it.
So, Avery would start running in circles while all the other Young Dragons were punching the air and standing just so with their feet for maximum impact. I’d chase him around as he weaved through the line of participants. I’d catch him, finally. I’d whisper harshly in his ear. He’d seem to understand. He’d get back in line and punch the air with everyone else. Then we’re back to running in circles. I’m chasing him. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
I think we attended three lessons. The instructor was very patient. Other parents were understanding. I wanted to explain to them all that Avery was autistic so that they’d know that I was not a horrible parent with an out-of-control child. If they’d never heard of autism, I would have been happy to grab one of the many books we had on the subject that didn’t explain it all and loan it to them so they could be just as confused as we were.
In those days, I wanted Avery to fit in, and I wanted to fit in, too. The “fitting in” is something we still struggle with many years later in New York City in increasingly separate ways. Back in those Alabama days, it seemed vitally important for Avery to fit in. But running in circles during karate class is definitely not fitting in. It’s kind of the opposite of fitting in, actually. So, we left karate class behind.
We tried soccer. Avery had a great soccer coach. The guy was friendly and warm. He didn’t call Avery a Young Dragon, but that wouldn’t have been appropriate anyway, since this was soccer. Avery did alright in practice. He kicked the ball. He ran around. Great. What more can you ask for?
The first game rolled around. Parents in the stands were yelling at their children. I guess they might have been yelling for the children. Encouraging them. But exactly what kind of yelling they were doing is a distinction without a difference in this case. I wasn’t yelling. I was watching Avery. He didn’t like loud noises back then. He really didn’t like them. So, after he’d heard enough yelling, Avery stopped playing soccer and ran off the field to a nearby playground to go down a slide. Play continued unabated without him.
I climbed down out of the stands, jogged over and sat down beside him. “What’s up? Your team needs you. Why are you on the playground and not in the game?” He explained that it was because of the yelling. Could I make the yelling stop? he wanted to know. I could do many things back then or maybe imagined that I could, but making a whole bunch of parents in the stands of a youth league soccer game stop yelling enthusiastically for their children was beyond my power. I explained that the yelling wasn’t going to stop. He explained that if the yelling wouldn’t stop, he wouldn’t be going back to play soccer.
So, Avery was not going to be a ninja warrior or a soccer player. What sport called for running around in circles without any loud noises being made in the immediate vicinity? I racked my brain to think of one. It was a puzzler. The best I could come up with was to play a lot of tag with him on the playground. He never seemed to get tired of tag. Other children played with us sometimes. But when there were no other children, we played endless games of tag. Just the two of us.
We also wrestled around on the floor of the living room. We had stinky foot fights on the couch where the object of the game is to put your stinky bare feet nearly up the nose of your opponent in the most offensive manner possible. We sang with gusto the Stinky Foot Song I invented, “Stinky Foot. Stinky Foot. Smells so bad. Stinky Foot Stinky Foot. Run away mad.”
Trash talk is encouraged in this game. “Kiss it. That’s a beautiful foot,” I tell him. “Yuck, get it away from me. You’re gross,” he tells me. “Your feet are stinkier,” I retort. “Do you bathe regularly? I mean, like, with soap and everything.” But then I can’t say anything else because one of his toes is in my mouth, and I’m spitting it out and squirming away from him.
What’s cooler than a ninja warrior? Maybe a Stinky Foot Fighter who isn’t running around in circles in karate class or running off the soccer field in the middle of a game to play on a nearby swing. Just a kid on a couch wriggling and giggling ferociously, trying to shove his stinky big toe all the way up my nose. Our version of fitting in.