Secret information has to be out there, right? Some super top-secret information that tells us how to be strong, smart and beautiful. Otherwise it just doesn’t make any sense. You’re not sure what I mean? OK, go out to the Abercrombie and Fitch store in Jordan Creek and pick up a bag depicting a model of your gender. Good. Then go home, stand naked in front of the mirror and put the bag up next to you. Now just contemplate the difference between you and the model for a moment.
See, there has to be secret information out there that we missed.
Take this whole bullying dilemma. The schools, churches and communities are teaching wonderful techniques to address the problem of bullying in a nonviolent manner. But, the cultural message in movie after movie is to buck up, be a man or a woman and fight back against the bully with old-fashioned fisticuffs. Of course, this ignores the obvious problem — you are a 97-pound weakling who works at Nationwide, or Principal, or Meredith, and drive a van with a child seat in the back. What is the 97-pound weakling supposed to do? There must be secret information about how to survive in a world of bullies, right?
Angelo Siciliano, otherwise known as Charles Atlas, totally recognized this problem. Mr. Atlas had a plan. Sand kicked in your face? Well, he had secret information, the “Dynamic Tension” program, that would put an end to all that sand-kicking. I know, because I read this in the back of comic books when I was growing up. Of course, these same comic books also advertised small sets of dice that, when put into a glass of water, would transform into pictures of scantily clad women. I only had enough money for the dice. But, you understand, there was secret information out there that once obtained would change your life for the better.
Jose Mendoza seems like the kind of guy who might have secret information. A martial artist of some repute. He teaches Chinese Martial Arts with an emphasis on Tai Chi, Kung Fu, Classical Chinese Weapons and various esoteric internal martial arts. He also runs an early morning fitness program for everyone, multiple children’s programs for various ages and a senior healthy-living program. He must have secret information, right?
For a starter, he grew up on the tough streets of Chicago where the Jets and the Sharks existed in reality.
“Was it tough growing up in Chicago? Well, my mom bought husky pants from Sears because I was a little chubby, and I wore a flattop haircut,” Mendoza said by way of apology for his decidedly un-tough beginnings.
Sure, sure, that’s the classic setup for the redemption story. But then didn’t he transform himself into a killing machine like Bruce Lee?
“Before all the martial arts training, I would seek out the tough guys in the neighborhood and pretend I was one of them,” he said.
And after? Did he rain mayhem upon his enemies?
“I avoided the tough guys,” Mendoza said with a smile.
Mendoza started winning martial arts tournaments in the Chicago area by the age of 16. This success, he claims, gave him the confidence to graduate near the top of his high school class, which enabled him to win a scholarship to Drake. Before long he had his own martial arts school up and running in Windsor Heights.
Great. Good to know that it all turned out. But what about the secrets? What about the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique to take care of bullies?
“It’s not about the bullies. Let me tell you… A mother came to me concerned that her son was acting like a girl. She asked if I could change him. Well, I can change him to be more confident. I can change him to have the spirit of a Tiger… but I cannot change the mother.”
This is so not helping me. What about secret killing techniques to feel powerful and beautiful?
“People are trying to eat everything on the menu — they want the end result, but they’ll get sick. The real secret? You have to work hard. I can talk to you about the end result, but I can’t give it to you. If you’re here for your anger, I would rather you punch me to see if you feel better. It’s my job to keep things interesting, to move you forward every day, to give you an essence and a purpose — and to make you smile, which will make me smile,” he said.
Recently, late at night, Mendoza sewed black belts for those students who trained with him over the last six to eight years and were to test for promotion.
“I smile, too, when I make the belt. I reflect on the student to receive the belt. Certainly, there are failures and setbacks, but I try to continue moving forward… and by all of this I measure my life. Not by toughness.”
So, is that all there is for secret information? Hard work? Sitting alone at a sewing machine late at night? Where’s the public acclaim? Where are the adoring fans? Where’s the Abercrombie and Fitch bag with my picture?
“I bought the Charles Atlas program when I was a kid,” Mendoza said. “Saw it in a comic book and ordered it — $4.99. Guess what? The real secret is that there is no secret.” CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.