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Friday, November 8, 2013

I Don't Care That Much

I was recently watching a video of a class led by a very famous aikido instructor. In the course of teaching the class, he told the story of how his instructor had corrected students by whacking them with a shinai (a bamboo sword used in kendo). When, for instance, his elbow was out of place in the middle of a technique, whack! The elbow felt it. He called this practice a very effective method of teaching, and blamed "treehuggers" for the fact that it is no longer in use.

I was recently part of an online discussion with an aikidoist who had just joined a new club. He was frustrated by the club's different way of doing things, and wasn't sure whether to continue with them or to try the next-nearest club, which was an hour's drive away. One person, a devoted aikidoist who had immigrated to another continent to follow a particular instructor, responded harshly, telling him that his interest in aikido was merely "superficial" if the distance to the dojo mattered to him.

It's worth noting at this point that both the hardass instructor and the intercontinental traveler probably know more about aikido than I ever will, and are probably better at aikido than I will ever be. Their devotion and sacrifice are undoubtedly keys to their skill and knowledge. Here's the thing, though: I just don't care that much.

I don't care enough about aikido to endure being regularly beaten with a stick while I practice it. I don't care enough about aikido to pack up and move across the ocean so that I can train with a particular instructor. In fact, I don't even care enough about aikido to drive a two-hour round trip every night I want to train: I would barely get to spend a waking moment with my wife on those days, and two or three days a week of that would get old quickly.

Maybe that makes me a "treehugger"; maybe that means I'm only "superficially" into aikido. I can live with that.

I have nothing against people who are willing to make great sacrifices for their arts. In fact, I'm very glad there are such people; they often become great resources for the rest of us. I certainly don't want to disparage that kind of devotion. I just don't have that kind of devotion myself -- at least not to a martial art -- and I'm not particularly interested in listening to people tell me that I should have it.

I used to have an aikido instructor who told me that aikido should be the third most important thing in my life, after God and my family. I nodded to him politely when he said this, but I knew it would never be true for me. My priorities are not his. I'd rather be a great musician or a great writer than a great martial artist, and my martial arts interests are not limited to aikido (though the time and the money I budget for martial arts training currently are). By telling me how important aikido needed to be to me, he wasn't helping me; he was alienating me.

The veil over the martial arts is being lifted. As more and more information about them becomes available to the general public through the internet and sports like MMA, more people see through the myths. The martial arts are not a shortcut to enlightenment. They do not offer us supernatural powers. They are not inherently moral or noble. Only a few of them are trained in a way that really prepares practitioners for the rigor of combat, and even those are virtually useless against modern weapons. We are running out of reasons for the martial arts to be important.

The increasingly obvious truth is that the martial arts are only as important as the people who practice them choose to make them. To be sure, some people really get into the martial arts and make them into a way of life, just as others do with cars, basketball, or writing poetry. But we aren't all like that. In fact, I suspect most of us aren't like that.

The people telling us that we must endure this hardship/make this sacrifice/rearrange these priorities for the sake of our martial arts aren't trying to help us get what we want out of the martial arts; they're trying to convince us to want the same things they want. I have a different idea: what if we all just tried to help our training partners achieve their own respective goals?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Thanks, Rob

Rob Redmond
The few of you who have been reading this blog regularly for a long time are no doubt familiar by now with Rob Redmond of the karate blog 24 Fighting Chickens. I have referenced his writing several times here. Though I've never met Rob, and have never (with the single exception of one rather unpleasant evening) even trained the martial art he writes about, Rob has had a profound impact on the way I understand and train martial arts.

It was Rob's writing that encouraged me to examine my romanticized preconceptions about the martial arts -- about what they are, about what they can do, and about what my job is as a practitioner -- and I am better for it. I might have quit training long ago if I hadn't given up looking for things in the martial arts that aren't there.

I have made extensive use of Rob's words here on this blog, and I suspect I have sometimes misused them (especially in my posts from 2010 -- I grow increasingly dissatisfied with much of what I wrote that first year). Were Rob to read this whole blog, I'm not sure he would be happy with all my uses of his words, but I hope he would at least take some satisfaction in how much he has affected me and my training and writing.

I visited 24FC for the first time in a couple months last night, and was saddened to discover that the site had been archived and Rob would no longer writing new articles. Barely a day after I had last visited, digging up a quote for one of my blog posts, Rob had said goodbye:
I think 18 years of logging in here and cleaning out the spam is long enough, don’t you? I’m 45. I started this site when I was in my 20′s. Since I started it, I’ve built two houses, owned five cars, and have had two sons, one of whom is in middle school now. I have other things to focus on. I’m writing some sci-fi stories. I volunteer in the Boy Scouts of America heavily. I’ve taken up mountain biking and running for most of my exercise. 
The people who were so obnoxious about doing karate a particular way have mostly died or have been discredited by the rise of MMA. Where once was a world-wide panic over “the internet black belt” burning the temple of Shotokan to the ground, today there is mostly just a field with some kids playing in it and no one really even knows what happened. 
I’m looking around, and I think we’re done here. Time to lower the flags of discontent, and move on to other projects.
I suppose this is a happy ending for Rob. He has spent the last 18 years trying to teach the Western world what his instructor in Japan taught him, and he seems to see no need for him to continue. A teacher with nothing left to teach, I think, is a teacher who has succeeded.

With that in mind, rather than using this space to lament the end of 24FC, I'd like to share a list of lessons that 24FC taught me:

  • Contracts should be avoided. No matter how good a club is, a contract can only really do one thing: force you to keep paying for something after you no longer want it or can no longer get it.
  • A martial art is no more moral or spiritual than the person practicing it. By extension, martial arts experience does not make someone a moral or spiritual authority.
  • Martial arts ranks don't mean a whole lot. Those who ascribe a great deal of meaning or importance to ranks are probably doing so for the sake of their egos, their wallets, or both.
  • A martial artist (especially an adult) has the right to decide what he wants out of his training, and is not obligated to have the same goals as his instructor or anyone else.
  • A martial art isn't a person with a will, feelings, or a philosophy. A person who speaks on behalf on an entire art (e.g., "This is what aikido is all about," or "That is bad for taekwondo!") is really only speaking for himself and trying to impose his own will, feelings, and philosophy on it. His art doesn't care and never authorized him to be its spokesperson.
  • Learning a martial art is not the same thing as learning self-defense, and most of the people trying to sell the martial arts as self-defense systems know nothing about real self-defense.
  • None of the practices martial artists treat as sacred traditions are sacred, and most of them aren't particularly traditional, either.
  • Static stretching should be done after training, not before.
  • Martial arts training, in the grand scheme of things, isn't all that important.
In hindsight, I feel like these things should have been obvious to me from the beginning, but it took Rob's unflinching  and uncompromising writing to make me see what was right in front of me. Reading the comments on his final post, I see that my experience is not unique. Rob changed a lot of minds during the long run of 24FC.

For those of you who want to keep following Rob, he has started a 24 Fighting Chickens page on Facebook. He presumably won't be writing long articles anymore, but there will still be some small doses of Rob to be had there. And of course, all of the old 24FC stuff is still up.

Rob, you don't know me, and I'm pretty sure you've never read this blog. For what little my thanks are worth, thanks. And good luck in your future endeavors.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lessons From a Long Weekend of Aikido

The YGH performs a kokyu nage at the seminar.
Note his bent knees and (more or less) level
shoulders, which might indicate that he is
actually starting to learn something.
I undertook seven hours of aikido training between Saturday the 21st and Sunday the 22nd of last month. It's not quite a record for me, but it's still much more than I'm used to in such a short period of time, and I was sore for days in the wake of all that training.

On Saturday I attended a large "friendship seminar", during which five different instructors from five different clubs taught and students from all over Wisconsin and northern Illinois trained together. Sunday morning I attended a workshop at a club I've visited once before, led by two high-level instructors from that club's organization.

It was all free, so I had no business missing any of it. Money (or, more precisely, a lack of it) keeps me from many a seminar, so opportunities like these need to be seized.

As is usually the case when I write about events like these, my post here is going to take the form of a list of observations rather than a cohesive piece building to a single point.

I'm getting better. That's not to say that I still don't have a long (long!) way to go, but the long workout gave me an opportunity to observe some changes in my posture. My knees were more relaxed, my stance was lower, and my head and shoulders followed throws less and stayed over the rest of me more. What this means practically is that I was keeping my balance better and using more core and less upper body in my techniques than I have noticed in the past.

Aikido, in general, is not an activity for people who want to feel like they're accomplishing something. The more I train, the less I go looking for milestones and the more I try to enjoy training for its own sake. Trying to get somewhere seems to just get in the way. I have to admit it's nice, though, for just a fleeting moment, to feel like I'm getting somewhere.

It's all aikido. The organizer of Saturday's seminar counted 15 different aikido clubs represented by the attendees, and there were probably a couple more at Sunday's workshop. Among these clubs, I myself counted affiliations with at least five different organizations (one of which is not even affiliated with Aikikai Hombu), as well as one independent club with no affiliation.

Aikido is an art which has written a very fractious history for itself in a very short period of time, and much is made of the differences between different lineages of aikido. Over two days, I trained with students of many different lineages, and we all did the same techniques, we all used the same terminology, and we all learned from the same instructors. In light of this, it's hard to see the differences between "styles" of aikido as anything but overblown.

There is a good sore and a bad sore. After doing seven hours of any kind of strenuous exercise in two days, you're going to be in some pain. I certainly always am after a lot of training. There are ample opportunities for pain in aikido: hard falls, wrist locks, and unblocked atemi, to name a few.

What was sore for me after the weekend, though, were my abs, glutes, and thighs. This is the good kind of pain. It's a soreness from using muscles (they're even the "right" muscles), rather than from being twisted, hit, and thrown. It's the kind of soreness that indicates I got a workout, rather than the kind that indicates I was abused. This is the soreness I'll try to reproduce at my next seminar.

There are no strangers at a seminar. I've said this once before (see the link above), but it bears repeating. After the seminar on Saturday, the instructor whose club had hosted the seminar threw a party at his house. I found myself talking at length with an instructor from Chicago like we were old friends -- about music, about movies, about lists, about anything and everything. I'd never met him before, and only knew him by reputation.

There is something about an aikido seminar that breeds familiarity at an accelerated pace. I still haven't figured out what it is yet, but it's definitely there.

It's easy to forget how easily I can hurt someone. Aikido is hardly the roughest or most dangerous martial art, but there's still ample opportunity to cause a great deal of harm in the course of aikido training. For my part, aikido has sprained my wrist and permanently messed up one of my shoulders.

This particular weekend, I stepped hard on one uke's foot, causing a bruise troublesome enough to force her off the mat, and clocked another in the face with a strike I had expected him to anticipate and block. Neither incident resulted in a serious injury, but both were reminders of an important truth I sometimes forget: uke is giving me the power to hurt him, and that is a power that needs to be respected.

Aikido is fun. This should go without saying, since I'm still doing it after almost four years, but there is something about a weekend like this that brings to mind everything I like about aikido all at once. The friends, the workout, the struggle to understand something too big to ever be fully understood: they were all there in abundance. It was a good weekend.

Friday, August 23, 2013

What is a Martial Art For?

I have stumbled into many discussions on Bullshido, Martial Arts Planet, and AikiWeb lately with people who have a very strong sense of what their martial arts are all about and what is good (and not good) for their martial arts as a whole.

Performance art is not what taekwondo is for and is bad for taekwondo. Aikido is a spiritual pursuit and people who leave the spiritual element out of aikido are missing the point. People who aren't really learning to fight are wasting their training and are diluting the martial arts.

These claims are all rooted in the same basic belief: that a martial art is for something, that it has an objective raison d'etre which is independent of the needs and goals of the individual martial artist. If your practice of the art does not serve this particular purpose, then it is wrong, and, even worse, it harms the art as a whole.

My favorite martial arts blogger, Rob Redmond of 24 Fighting Chickens, addresses this belief in discussing one of his blog entries:
Karate is not _for_ anything. Karate doesn't have emotions. It isn't a person. Karate is a concept, an instruction set, a gathering of principles.

The people who do the Karate determine what they do it for. That is where the purpose comes from -- from the people who do it. Each of them does it for a different reason.

Just because I do not do Karate for a particular reason does not mean the reason is invalid for you. It simply means that we are habituated to thinking about Karate incorrectly and speaking of it as if it had willpower and personality -- as if my doing it one way would affect the other way of doing it someone else practices.

That has come to us, I believe, from the group-think of organized sports, organized religion, and the Japanese culture.

"Gambling isn't good for baseball." What the heck does that mean? It means that the person saying it doesn't like what happens when people gamble. Baseball isn't damaged by gambling. Baseball happens all over the country whether anyone gambles or not. But his experience is lessened, he feels, if the players gamble.

"What is Karate for?" is the same sort of group-think question. Karate isn't for anything. Nothing is good or bad for "Karate." Karate isn't a person.

I'm with Rob. I think a martial art, like all forms of art, exists for its own sake (ars gratia artis). It doesn't need to have a point. It doesn't have to justify or validate its existence by serving a particular purpose. It is up to me to determine what purpose my aikido serves in my own life, and it is up to every other martial artist in the world to make that determination for himself. Their reasons do not  invalidate mine, and vice versa.

This strips me of the authority to say that something is "bad for aikido". I can only speak for myself and my own needs; all I really mean if I say that something is "bad for aikido" is that it is bad for me.

This doesn't mean I don't have complaints about the way some people practice the martial arts; I do. Some people (like the belt-chasers I described in "Karateville") practice martial arts in a way that negatively affects my own personal experience of my art when I train with them. But I cannot be so arrogant as to presume my complaints are -- or should be -- everyone's. I don't have that authority. No one does.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Two Lessons From Tim Detmer

Tim Detmer in 2006. (source)
Twice in the past two weeks I have had the great privilege of training under Tim Detmer, an American-born aikido instructor who has spent the last 29 years living and training in Shingu, Japan. Working with him was in equal measures challenging, educational, inspiring, and exhausting.

If nationality can be measured in years, Detmer Sensei is more Japanese than American. He was born and raised in Seattle, but has lived most of his adult life and done virtually all his formal aikido training in Shingu. He is, therefore, uniquely equipped to communicate a Japanese perspective on aikido to an American audience.

Apart from his insights on aikido method and technique (which would be difficult for a novice like myself to put into words and which would be very dry reading in any case), Detmer Sensei left me with two lessons that I'd like to preserve here, as much for my own benefit as for any reader's.

Do not be too focused on your opponent.

Another way Detmer Sensei put this was: "Do not give him the honor of being your enemy."

Aikido and life work better when we decide on our own course of action based on what we think it ought to be rather than on whom we want to defeat. In aikido, being too focused on our opponents can lead to badly aimed technique, exposure to reversal, and compromised balance. In an argument, becoming too focused on our opponent can lead to attacking the man and being dragged off onto tangents (yes, message board freinds, I'm guilty). In all things, there are goals and obstacles. If we focus on the obstacle, we tend to miss the goal.

One of the instructors at my old club used to say, "I don't care," as nage when talking about uke. I think he was trying to make the same point.

Undertake all things with gratitude.

In aikido and in life, learning to be grateful for what is keeps us from dwelling on what has been or what could be. This not only makes us more positive people, but it keeps us in the now. Detmer Sensei claimed that gratitude was a determining factor in the success of any undertaking.

Another way Detmer Sensei put this was: "Want what you have." He illustrated his point by saying, "I really wish I had a great aikido class with 20 students," then looking around and observing, "I do!"

We in aikido love to talk about taking what we learn in the dojo "off the mat". There are a lot of people who take this idea much further than I'm comfortable with, believing that everything they do is somehow a manifestation of aikido. I don't think I'll ever buy into that kind of thinking, but these past two weeks Detmer Sensei has shared a few things that I'll definitely be taking home with me.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Grappling With Humanity

(Image source: CBS News)
The latest innovation in the world of portable technology is Google Glass, the computer you wear on your face. I have yet to see this thing in person, but I can't help thinking that the first time I do I'm going to find it comical and creepy in equal measures. I mean, dude, you're wearing a computer on your face.

I especially hope that I don't actually have to talk to the person wearing it. It would be positively unnerving to try and have a conversation with someone who may or may not be looking at a LOLcat or a Twitter feed (to say nothing of the less innocent possibilities) while I'm speaking to him. According to an NPR piece I listened to last night, those who are wearing Google Glass are already being labelled "glassholes", and I think I can imagine why.

I'm sure the proponents of progress and innovation would be quick to assure me that I'll get used to Google Glass -- and the imitators that are sure to follow it -- in the same way that I've gotten used the internet, the laptop, and the smartphone before it. They're certainly right that I've gotten used to a lot in my short lifetime, but I think this particular invention might be going a little too far for me.

My whole life, I have watched real interaction with real people being slowly replaced by technology. Video games replaced ball games, discussion boards replaced discussions, virtual worlds replaced the real world. Then laptops let us take these replacements anywhere we could find a place to sit, and then smartphones let us keep these replacements in our pockets all the time. And now, with Google Glass, we will have the option of avoiding human interaction even while ostensibly interacting with people.

Now, before any reader who knows me points out my hypocrisy, let me point it out myself.

I am a blogger. I am a gamer (currently on my third time through Fallout: New Vegas). I am a regular poster on at least five internet forums. I have preferred books to people my whole life, and now I get my books on my smartphone rather than going to buy or borrow them from places manned by real people. In short, I am hopelessly dependent on technology and I am as guilty as anyone of using it as a replacement for a real social life.

All that said, Google Glass still worries me. The times when circumstances force us to come face-to-face with other human beings are the last bastion of real interaction. If I can't go to the store or to a restaurant without a computer screen literally attached to my face, it's pretty much all over. I might as well go full-on Mr. House at that point (if you don't get that reference, good for you). I admit I'm right at the line, but I'm still very afraid of crossing it.

In light of that fear, I'm glad to have aikido.

There is something that has always felt so very separate and different about aikido, like stepping into the dojo is entering another world. I used to think this was about things like the gi and the hakama, the bowing, the Japanese terminology, the weapon racks, the sitting in seiza, and the image of Ueshiba on the kamiza. The more I train, though, the more I come to see these things as nonessential trappings, and the more these trappings lose their novelty for me. What really sets aikido apart from the rest of my postmodern existence is the people.

Grappling is cooperative to the core; it cannot be done alone. Players at aikido, judo, jujutsu, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, etc. are unique among sportsmen. They have no ball, no bat, and no racket. They have no net and no basket. Even in practice, they have no pads or bags to hit, and no forms to train against empty air. There is no medium other than another human being -- one whose sweat will be mingled with your own, whose pain will mirror your own, and whose movements will be real-time responses to your own.

Aikidoists generally don't like to think of their art as primitive, but I think there's something wonderfully primitive about it. The thousands of years we have spent developing new, more diluted ways of interacting with other humans, from the first written words all the way to the current generation of social media, are forgotten: come to me, grab hold of me, and throw and be thrown. Aikido training is as low-tech as my life gets and is more physically intimate than anything I do with anyone other than my wife and daughter. It flies in the face of the e-world of profiles, avatars, and typed messages.

Grappling, I think, offers us a unique opportunity to remember what it is to be human. And it is this memory, I hope, that will prevent me from one day joining the ranks of the "glassholes".

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Aikido in the Park

The Young Grasshopper (in the hat and the blue shirt)
works out with a jo in the park.
Last September, a group of aikidoists from all over the Milwaukee area got together in the park for an afternoon of informal weapons training. It was great fun, and we all lamented that no one had come up with it earlier in the year, before the Wisconsin weather began to drop hints of the coming winter. As it was, we had to be satisfied with one such event last year.

This year, I took it upon myself to make sure there were more of these. I had a brand new list of aikido Facebook friends I'd met at recent seminars, and I started talking to all of them last month about setting up three or four of these events for the coming summer. We had the first of them the first weekend in June. What follows is a list of observations from the event; I don't have a story here that comes to a single point.

Training outdoors requires greater attention to footwork. Every step out in the grass must be a real, deliberate step. Even kata I knew very well were fumbling messes when I wasn't paying attention to my feet. Every little foot movement, even the move colloquially known as a "slide", demanded that my foot be deliberately and entirely lifted off the ground. It was quite different from the dojo, where an aikidoist can get away with "skating"on the mat (some clubs even prefer it).

Weapons training levels the playing field. Get a group of people from a bunch of different aikido clubs together and the hardest thing to get them to do as a group will be weapons work. The Saito, Tohei, and Saotome lineages (for example) all teach essentially the same kotegaeshi but have vastly different weapons curricula. What this means at a gathering like the one in the park is that everything, no matter how basic, must be taught to the group as if to brand-new beginners, even if the group includes some black belts who have been training for decades.

I'm getting better, but I'm still not good enough. Aikido's movements are largely based on kenjutsu, which means, in theory, that weapons training ought to be using mostly the same muscles as taijutsu (unarmed training). This in turn means that if I'm doing it right, my arms, shoulders, and back shouldn't be hurting too much afterward. At the end of two hours with the jo and then the bokken, my abs were sore rather than my arms or my back. I took this for a good sign: finally, I supposed, I had managed to use weapons from my center rather than my arms and back. When I woke up the next morning, though, my previously injured wrist and shoulder were very angry with me.

Outdoor training means being stared at. We have managed to find a pretty secluded place for our gatherings, but a public park is still a public park. More than once, a motorist who was just coming by to park or turn around slowed way down to watch the spectacle of more than a dozen grown men and women apparently playing with sticks and wooden swords. One of them had her window rolled down and went by so slowly that my training partner and I could read her lips as she wondered aloud, "What the fuck?"

All in all, aikido in the park is an interesting and educational experience, and there are much worse reasons to get a bunch of friends together. There's another one coming up late in July. Come join us if you're in the Milwaukee area.