Several months ago, while making my, oh, I don't know, thirteen zillionth lap in the last four years around the thousand square feet of superheated dust they call a yard, I stopped to chop it up for a minute with a guy who had some interesting gossip about one of the guards. Unlike the professional thugs employed by the CDC, whose mission in life is to make absolutely certain that no inmate ever harbors any illusion that he is anything other than a irredeemable piece of shit, the security personnel hired by the GEO Corp. are essentially uniformed babysitters trying to put in their eight with a minimum of hassle, and as such tidbits about their internal squabbles, romances, and intrigues will occasionally reach the inmate population. I don't actively traffic in it, not really much caring about their personal lives, though I will listen to and duly pass on any especially juicy morsels. I'm only human.
We were standing just behind and slightly to the left of the handball court, where a spirited game was in progress. At one point a ball came zinging off the wall toward us at a high rate of speed, though not, due to our oblique angle to the court and the position of our bodies, in our line of sight. Still, I managed to casually reach up and make a backhanded catch mere inches from my friend's face, without breaking eye contact, and flick the ball back toward the court. He gaped at me in awe and said, loud enough for the handball players to hear, "Dude! You're a ninja!"
They cracked up and took up the call. "Ninja!" "Handball ninja!" they shouted, and I don't mind saying I was immensely flattered. It was an empirically ninjical move, and while I had no idea how I was able to pull it off and surely never could again, I was all the way down with adopting the ninja mantle. If you think about it, there aren't many compliments much higher. In the annals of badassery, the ninja reigns supreme. He is the silent assassin, flitting all but invisible through the night, doing his deadly business, and disappearing in a puff of smoke. It is an article of faith that if you want something done quickly, quietly, and efficiently, you call a ninja. If you want something done on a grandly destructive scale, with lots of noise, tumult, and collateral damage, by all means call the Avengers. They may get the job done — or, more likely, leave it just un-done enough to keep the sequel chain intact — but you're going to have some serious infrastructure problems once the dust settles. Ripping up a mile of train track and using it as a lasso may look impressive, but what's the Blue Line going to run on tomorrow? Not so after a ninja-ed problem, because he enters the fray like a slim Chinese diver into an Olympic pool, with nary a ripple, and leaves like a momentary breeze.
If you want to maybe get something done with a lot of teenage angst and drama, go ahead and call Spiderman, but by the time he's resolved his daddy issues and restored his self-esteem, there's a good chance that the problem has evolved beyond his capabilities. This is never a problem for the ninja, who has no emotion, probably killed his parents just for practice, and quite rightly considers himself the bull moose alpha dog in any given situation requiring the darkly arcane arts for which he is trained.
So yes, I was pleased as punch to be referred to as a ninja, but also quite conscious that the relative sticking power of a nickname is directly proportional to its degree of disparagement, laudatory or complimentary sobriquets being much rarer than mocking or depreciative ones. For every "Flash," there are a dozen "Stinkys."
It was going to take some effort to become permanently associated with "Ninja," and I was just desperate enough to do it.
As anyone with any facility at ball sports knows, it is possible to extrapolate with reasonable accuracy the future position of a ball in motion from observation of its current trajectory and velocity. With this in mind, I began making a point of observing the path of the ball and placing myself advantageously vis-a-vis its position relative to me should it escape the confines of play, an occurrence I calculated to happen about 17% of the time. Therefore, there was a good chance that every sixth pass or so, I'd be in the right place at the right time to make a flamboyant, ninja-esque save and shore up my own personal ninja status.
As I approached the court, I'd track the ball carefully and moderate my speed accordingly so that wherever the ball ended up, there I was, scooping or snatching it up and making it look easy. Like a ninja.
It worked, mostly. My grabs were generally responded to with calls of "Ninja!" or "Ninja strikes again!", which were gratifying, but the usage didn't develop into widespread general use. In the dorm or chow hall I was just Flynn or, to my constant and extreme vexation, "O.G."
You might think this stands for "Original Gangster" and in some cases you'd be right, but these days mostly it just means “Old Guy” and is used in prison as a catchall term of address for anyone over 40. I find it disrespectful in the extreme and actively dissuade its use so that the same person rarely calls me that twice, but every now and then someone unacquainted with my pointed aversion to it will say something like, "Yo, O.G., you gonna eat that cake?"
I react with stony silence and if pressed, say, "FLYNN. My name is Flynn. Kindly use it if you wish to address me."
If I have the time and am feeling especially salty, I will launch into a fullblown tirade. "O.G.? Okay, I'm old, as a natural and unfortunate consequence of being born a long time ago and not dying. You are stupid, probably as a result of being repeatedly dropped on your head as a child. Do I call you ‘S.G.?’ No, because you probably don 't want to be reminded of your cognitive limitations or your mother's drunken inability to maintain a grip on you. As a sensitive and considerate guy, I recognize that and would appreciate the same consideration from you regarding my age. Thank you."
"Cheez. Maybe O.G . should stand for Oscar the Grouch."
But, at least among the handball players, I was the Ninja. Not everyone gets to be even a part-time ninja, especially at my age, and that's something.
On a recent yard outing, I was concluding my perambulations with an all-out gallop, and, being focused on maintaining my speed and not causing any collisions, I ignored the handball players as I approached the court. As I ran by, a ball came in hot and low, caromed off my heel, spun up and over my head and landed in my hand. I stopped and looked at the ball in my hand, dumbfounded, and then at the players who were looking agape at me. "Damn, Ninja," one said. "You have outdone yourself this time."
I turned off my shock and tossed the ball back lazily. "Happy to help," I said.
Ninja rule #1: never appear impressed with yourself. He was right, though: I'd outdone myself. Out-Ninja'd myself, really, as not only could I never hope to surpass the catch I'd just made, I'd set a level of expectation I could not possibly hope to meet. My ninja days were numbered and I knew it. I had a good run but I thought it best to go out on top. Let them remember me as I was, the nimble and omnipresent backstop, and not what I would eventually inevitably reveal myself to be, fallibly, perfectibly human. I began giving the handball court a wide berth.
Every free-range, night-roving, light-fingered, criminal tweaker out there doing his nocturnal creepy-crawl fancies himself something of a ninja, and is in fact, ironically enough, the anti-ninja. All the defining principles and characteristics that make the ninja the sleekly efficient killing machine that he is, have their opposite number in the tweaker. Where the ninja is silent, the tweaker kicks up a racket entirely disproportional to his emaciated configuration. The ninja breaches barriers calmly, quickly, and with a minimum of effort; walls and locked doors mean no more to him than a shoji screen.
The tweaker, foiled by a screen door fastened with a hook-and-eye, will immediately give up and drive through the wall, blithely incurring thousands of dollars worth of damage for a $50 score. The ninja leaves no trace of his presence besides the rapidly cooling bodies of his victims, swiftly and silently dispatched before they even knew they were being attacked; the tweaker treats his crime scene like a raccoon in a trash can.
I personally had my own misconceptions about my ninja skills visibly and painfully dashed by the Ukiah P.D., who had 45 or so minutes of video of me trying hilariously and ineptly to gain illegal entree into a commercial building in Redwood Valley. Watching myself fruitlessly poke and flail about reminded me of those videos you see of animals who are just smart enough to recognize they have a problem, but not smart enough to solve it, like the dog trying to enter the doggie door with a long stick in his mouth or the monkey with a fistful of nuts trying to get it through the bars of his cage, and was terribly embarrassing besides.
"Alright, I confess," I said. "I did it. Can we turn this off now?"
"No, wait, this is the best part coming up right here," the detective said. "Hey, everybody, come here and watch this genius."
The “best part” referred to was me giving up trying to finesse my way in, picking up a large chunk of concrete, and hurling it at the window, which was apparently made of some kind of atomic space-glass because not only did it not break but bounced back and hit me in the torso, knocking the wind out of me.
As I lay gasping on the ground, the assembled law-enforcement professionals, and I use the term loosely, were convulsed with laughter.
"Please stop," I begged. "I'll clear your whole caseload. Write it up, I'll sign it. Just turn it off."
As it turned out, I wasn't even charged in the Valley incident — they just thought it was hilarious and wanted to mess with me, and had better charges besides.
True ninjas, it occurs to me, are no doubt born to it and only acquire their awesome skills through years of specialized training and rigorous self-denial. They are as far removed from the common man as an entirely different species and therefore aspiring to ninjahood is folly, but that does not mean we cannot apply their principles to our daily lives to enrich and enhance them. Not the murdering part, of course, but the swift, silent efficiency. I think I smell a self-improvement fad. Books, seminars, boot camps… Sky 's the limit. Find your inner ninja!