THE LADIES OF MANDRIGYN
This was my karate book.
I remember very clearly the moment of its inception. Sensei Ray Dalke – who at that time taught at the University of California, Riverside – offered a Women’s Self-Defense Class sometime in the early ‘70s. I was a brown-belt, I believe, at the time, but training with the Women’s Team at the downtown dojo: non-contact, old-style Shotokan. Sensei asked me and the black belt women to be on hand for the class, to use as demo-dummies and for crowd control, since it would be a huge class and all beginners.
We seniors were sitting around on the floor of the dance-room, warming up, as all these brand-new young ladies come in, in their gis and white belts, TALKING. Chattering. Like the twitter of birds (since none of them were warming up or anything). More and more of them came in, all twittering amongst themselves, and you could just about feel the level of estrogen in the room rising to the ceiling. At last Sensei yelled, “I can’t STAND this! Everybody get in a line!”
And I thought, Hmmn.
And the whole book fell into place in my mind.
The Ladies of Mandrigyn, like The Walls of Air, is principally about training. For a number of years, my life was about training, the same way it has been about writing for decades now. In the dojo, we all understood each other because that was where we all were. We were also a fairly hard-partying dojo, and I’m not going to go into the dojo party stories: it was the ‘70s, we were all very young (including Sensei, who was I think 34 when I started training), and we all did some fairly stupid and irresponsible things. It was a pretty educational experience for me.
At one point I did a huge oil-painting of a group of barbarians sacking a town, with portraits of Sensei and the various black-belts. That was how it felt. (I traded it to Sensei for a year of training, I think).
One of the things I never forgot was how the women pulled together in the face of training against the men. Sensei always had the women spar against men as well as women, and every woman in the dojo, from #1 blackbelt Anne down to the newest white-belt girls, knew which men were good to spar with, and which men got off on hitting women. There were guys who would push you – HARD – without malice, without ego, without hurting you: gentlemen who knew that they were there to help you learn how to deal with someone who was physically stronger and had a longer reach. There were others who came to class and you could smell alcohol in their sweat. We ladies were always pretty pleased when one of these got his ass thoroughly kicked by one of the Men’s Team. One thing you learn in karate, at a visceral level, is that there’s ALWAYS somebody out there better than you are.
Another thing you learn is that who you are inside is going to come out in the dojo, whether you want it to or not. It was direct, non-verbal, and very intense, and under those circumstances, you can’t hide. Not even from yourself.
The women got very close to one another, and mostly looked out for each other. Sensei called us the Broad Squad (after the old TV show the Mod Squad); some very close friendships were formed. I don’t think there was any of us who hadn’t had a night when we came off the floor in tears. It brought out one of the essential differences between women and men. One of the guys on the Men’s Team told one of us (I forget who) that they sometimes envied this closeness among the Women’s Team because the guys – being guys – were VERY much into, who could kick whose ass. The competitiveness among the men never let off. Everybody KNEW that Ed was #1 bad-ass on the Team. (And a total gentleman – a joy to spar with). I still remember when John – the smallest of the team at about 130 pounds, and the only guy I believe could actually have killed someone with his bare hands – broke his leg. He’d train with the team – 3 hrs on Friday nights – with his leg in a cast, propped up on a chair. We were all impressed.
It was a place to do crazy things, to let out your craziness. I look back and think I must have been crazy to put myself through all that, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in this world.
Sun Wolf, by the way – the mighty-thewed barbarian mercenary of Ladies - isn’t based on any single person. He’s a rough amalgam of several of the instructors, though some of the mercenary troop – Ari and Penpusher and Dogbreath – are pretty much straight take-offs on various of the guys in the dojo. The women of Ladies aren’t straight copies either. The book is about the feeling, the atmosphere I lived in for eight years: sex, violence, and calluses on your feet.