I drove down to the Central Valley to visit my octogenarian parents for a few days recently.  They live out in the country and generally spend their evenings watching TV, my father in the pitch dark of the spare bedroom, volume turned up to deafening decibels, my mother in the family room with all the lights on.  Sometimes they even watch the same show from opposite sides of the house.  Most often, however, my father is watching a documentary or drama (the more violent, the better), while my mother contents herself with BBC reruns or whatever reality show beams in clearly enough on one of the four over-the-air channels that my parents can pull in.

To my surprise, on this particular occasion both of them were sitting on the couch with their visitor.  And to my total shock, they settled on watching “American Ninja Warrior” on the Esquire Network.  At the same time.  In the same room.

For those who are not familiar, the show features well-muscled contestants who run an impossibly difficult obstacle course that seems to involve a lot of hanging upside down by the fingertips.  “Upper body strength” is what they call this skill.  Contestants get to shimmy up the salmon ladder one rung at a time, run up the warped wall and get clonked in the head by the propeller bar.  Losing one’s grip involves splashing down in the lagoon and then swimming for that Pom Wonderful towel.  This torture comes in four increasingly difficult levels, with no one having reached Level 4 until this year, when two contestants managed to make it all the way to the end.  The finale was thrilling, with Geoff Britten beating the clock in his long rope climb to hit the button.  After proudly announcing that he is the first American Ninja Warrior (which comes with a million dollar prize), Isaac Caldiero duplicated the feat, but even faster, causing Britten to lose his million.

As the hosts often mention, ANW is a United States version of the Japanese sport of saskei.  The Las Vegas finals course at the MGM Grand is known as Mt. Midoriyama, after the original Japanese location.  Someone needs to tell these people, who obviously don’t know the first thing about the Japanese language, that it is embarrassingly duplicative to call the place “Mount Midori Mountain.”  I write it off to ignorance.  What I don’t understand, however, is how the American version of this obstacle acquired the word “ninja” in its moniker.  My guess is that some manga fan decided that ninjas are cool, so why not?

So what the hell is a ninja anyway?  A Japanese warlord bearing a long, curved sabre?

The first time I ever heard the word “ninja” was in 1989 when one of my writer friends from New England informed me that the hottest new thing to hit the consumer market was called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Books, movies, licensing deals for toys.  The whole nine yards.

Seriously, Dan?  Teenage?  Mutant?  Ninja?  Turtles, for God’s sake?


Yep, and they’re all named for Italian painters.

Wha?  Talk about mixing metaphors!  Reptiles, Tokyo and the Renaissance — you gotta know someone is getting rich.

I have to admit, however, that I still know as little about ninjas now as I did back then.  Then, while out to brunch the other day, I spied a little girl, maybe five or six years old, stalking the buffet tables in a pink T-shirt that proudly declared “I’m a ninja!  That means like you can’t see me!”

Despite being familiar with this particular pejorative speech pattern, I detest adding the word “like” to a sentence in willy-nilly fashion, particularly when it isn’t even surrounded by commas.  Once an English major, always an English major.

So, ninjas are supposed to be invisible?  I had to check this one out.  Wikipedia informs me that, in feudal Japan, the functions of the ninja included espionage, sabotage, infiltration and assassination.  Now I’m starting to see the mass appeal of larger-than-life military figures from the 14th century.  Apparently, the ninja captured the Japanese imagination hundreds of years ago just as it has done in America today.  Reading on, I see that, at least in folklore, the ninja had special powers, including invisibility, walking on water and control over the natural elements.  These types of super powers have been popularized in many cultures, with the latter two well-known by readers of the Bible.

A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers informed me that my workspace blatantly violates the tents of feng shui.  Why is that?  Because I face a wall and am unable to see people walking into my cubicle behind me.  I need to get a mirror, I was informed.  Then, if a ninja sneaks up behind me, I will see him and can quickly turn around and dispatch him with a throwing star.

Say what?

You guessed it:  I had to look up that one, too.  Apparently, a throwing star bears no relation to a shooting star.  While I’ve witnessed the latter zip across the night sky on many occasions, I now know that the former is a type of shuriken, a hand-held weapon designed more to injure than to kill.  Wikipedia tells me that the throwing star was intended to be a nuisance or distraction that injured the enemy when it was thrust at his eyes, face, hands or feet.

So it looks like, wherever I go and whatever I do, I’m going to have to get used to ninjas and their weapons, particularly since they’ve now infiltrated my workplace, my favorite restaurant and even my parents’ living room.

Note to self — Add to Christmas list:

  • Mirror
  • Throwing stars
  • Little plastic stand-up reptile kids with tortoise shells on their backs

No, Santa, I haven’t lost my mind.  Really.  It’s just that 14th century Japanese warlords are taking over my life.

Tomorrow:  The hazards of faking it in Spanish

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