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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Boys With Toys

Though a beginner, I do consider myself a serious martial artist. I strive at all times to approach the martial arts as a serious pursuit, and have a tendency to look down on those who treat them like childhood playacting. Aikido, with its (relatively) safe kata-style training, its ritualistic kneeling and bowing, and its traditional weapons and garb, is particularly susceptible to the playground mindset, and attracts no small number of fantasy enthusiasts looking to get their geek on.

I like to think that I'm above all that, but the truth is that I'm a fantasy enthusiast myself. I spent my youth absorbed in novels, role-playing games, and video games full of romanticized medievalism. Every time I step onto the mat, there is a great temptation to wrap myself in childish fancy. Usually, it's a temptation I can resist, but there is one thing that still always brings out the nerd in me: the bokken (wooden sword).

Throughout my formative years, I rolled dice and pressed buttons to pretend I was swinging a sword. So the first time I took a bokken off the rack, bowed, and took up a kamae (stance), I was in nerd heaven. Repetitive suburi exercises became samurai training out of  a bad Eighties movie. Kumitachi (paired sword kata) was particularly geektastic, creating the feeling of being in a samurai duel.

I'm slowly getting the nerd moments under control, but the thrill of actually doing something I'd previously given up to the realm of fantasy never really goes away. And I can't help thinking that it should.

A serious martial artist, it seems to me, ought to be able to puruse the martial arts for what they are, not what he can pretend they are. If all I'm doing in the dojo is getting my fantasy fix, then I'm not a martial artist at all.

Black Belt columnist Keith Vargo expresses similar sentiments in a 2002 article called "Star Wars Geeks" (you can read it in its original context here, but I found it in Vargo's 2009 book Philosophy of Fighting: Motivations and Morals of the Modern Warrior). He warns that if we forget the practical elements of our arts in favor of fanciful play, we are danger of becoming "costumed buffoons like those rabid Star Wars fans, aping an epic story instead of creating one for real with our lives".

I'm not sure I want my life to be an epic story, but I am sure that I want more from my martial arts training than regular opportunities to be a "costumed buffoon". Still, I do put on the costume, I do swing the sword, and I do get a thrill from it that has nothing to do with real martial art.

Can I do both? Can I be an honest martial artist and a giddy fantasy nerd at the same time? I hope so, because the giddy fantasy nerd dies hard.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In the Presence of Mine Enemies

I write this from the site of my greatest defeat in life.

My wife is currently suffering from an injury that prevents her from driving, so I am her chauffeur to and from this evening's night class. She is now working on her master's degree at the same small private college where we first met ten years ago as music students. That time, she left with a bachelor's degree.

I did not.

I wasn't a wild partier or a headstrong rebellious type; that would make for a much better story. The truth is that I simply paralyzed myself with a  poisonous combination of fear and apathy. The more complex a task, the more I feared to face it. And the more I feared, the more likely I was to seek escape in my guitar, my friends, or my roommates' video games.

Of course, there is really no escape, only ignorance. I ignored my way through four years of college, and then left with a lot of debt and no degree to show for it.

My failure here at the college is a weight I carry constantly, one that holds me back both personally and professionally. I work at a school now, trying to help kids stay the educational course. But why should they listen to me? I didn't stay the course; I couldn't. Who am I to tell them they can?

On occasions like this, when I am forced to revisit campus, the wounds are opened anew. Just down the hallway from the lobby where I now sit waiting for my wife is the classroom where I attended my first CSS (college success seminar) with a group of freshmen. I was full of hope and wonder then, excited about the four coming years and about the future to which I thought they might lead me. It just feels like a cruel joke now.

I'm like Dickens' Miss Havisham, frozen in time and immersed in the tangible souvenirs of my worst moment.

I have come to think of this place as an old opponent who has defeated me and who holds it over my head whenever I am forced to endure his company. He isn't rude or boastful, mind you, but we both know who won. And his smug smile is much more reminder than I need.

Tonight, though, I find my attitude toward this place is changing just a little. I have a glimmer of hope now that I might be slowly turning into a different person from the lazy, insecure kid who first walked this hallway more than a decade ago. It's not that my failure has become less of a burden, but perhaps now it seems a little less permanent.

That kid, I think, would not have been able to endure a year-plus of the rigors and frustrations of marital arts training, nor keep up a regular exercise routine simply for the sake of being an honest martial artist. The interest would have been there, but he would have missed a week when he was sick, or busy, or just not in the mood, and then never gone back.

It is a comforting thought, that in aikido and (to some lesser degree) taekwondo I might be chipping away at the ground that hides a more responsible, perseverant man.

Someday soon, I will have to go back to school. Perhaps it will even be here; It's possible that I still have credits here that will not transfer to anywhere else. It's a daunting prospect, stirring up memories that continue to intimidate and antagonize me.

But through the lens of the dojo, I see a glimpse of myself as a man who just might be up to the task. Maybe next time, rather than hiding from college behind piled-up walls of distractions, I will meet my old opponent eye-to-eye.

Maybe next time, I'll straighten my hakama, smile, bow, and say to him, "Onegaishimasu."

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Changing of the Guard

But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

- Bob Dylan, "Changing of the Guards"

This year has been marked at the dojo by the loss of instructors.

One sensei, a former football player and judoka, finally needed to get a hip replaced after a lifetime of abuse in sport and the martial arts. He'll be back, but we don't know when. Another, well into his seventies and a recent veteran of two surgeries, is simply not physically capable of training (at least  as we do in the dojo) on a regular basis anymore. Still another, our primary weapons instructor, is taking a "leave of absence", though I don't know why or for how long.

We do not have a shortage of instructors. We still have three who were teaching before this momentous turnover, two yudansha (black belts) who joined us in the middle of the year, and one more who has recently earned his black belt and begun teaching. Still, the change hit many of us hard, especially beginners like myself.

I'm still learning what aikido is, how it works, and what it means in my life, and half the people who were teaching me that are gone. They've been replaced by capable teachers, but teachers with different ideas about aikido and different methods of teaching it. It's been confusing, to say the least.

Frustrating, too. Two of the lost instructors I mentioned above were the head instructors during the classes I came to watch when I was considering joining the dojo. It was their aikido that convinced me I would be learning a martial art and not a meditative dance. Under some of the new instructors, I haven't always been so sure. There have even been times I've (briefly) considered quitting aikido altogether and finding something else.

Of course, there is nothing else. There is nothing else so modern and yet so clearly connected to a historical tradition. There is nothing else with a philosophy and morality that shine through so clearly in every technique. There is nothing else that provides such a wonderful workout without requiring practitioners to be star athletes  at the outset.

And more practically, there is nothing else so inexpensive and yet so convenient.

By the end of my last post, I had resolved, on account of the above, to suffer through aikido for now and decide somewhere down the road what else was needed in my journey as a martial artist. The same night that was posted, I attended the first class that was taught by one of the dojo's new yudansha (the one I mentioned here).

It was a magnificent class.

His knowledge is astounding, and his understanding of weapons training and its connection to the rest of aikido is something I have been positively craving. Training under his direction was an absolute breath of fresh air. It made my future in aikido seem a little brighter, and made me appreciate what I already had in aikido a little more.

Suddenly, all that whining in my previous post sounded silly and melodramatic. Poor me, I have a dojo full of friendly people trying to help me learn a martial art. Alas, I can only get five-and-a-half hours a week at one-third the price that would get me two or three hours at many private places. Oh hell, three of my six quality instructors are new quality instructors rather than old ones.

To think the prospect of remaining an aikidoka seemed like such a chore only a week ago. What a baby I was.

Right now, aikido is asking me to ride the waves. And an instructor turnover, at least when the turnover provides me with good instructors, is a small wave indeed. All I need to do is approach their teaching with an open mind.

Less whining and more training probably wouldn't hurt, either.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tough Choices

My green belt test was supposed to be yesterday.

The trouble is, my instructor at the Academy is now following USA Taekwondo rules about not promoting his own students, which means that, in order for him to conduct a test, he needs to bring in an instructor from the outside. And, this time at least, that instructor was only available during the school day. That's all well and good for the kids, but of course I'm working then.

Sure, I probably could have worked it out for someone to cover me for the length of a test, but I really don't want to be that guy who looks for enablers so he can do personal business on company time. I told my instructor this; he understands, but since he doesn't have another instructor at his beck and call all the time, my green belt test has been postponed to a date and time to be determined.

Since discovering this, I have slacked off on my taekwondo training in favor of more aikido and shorter workouts. The kids were at a tournament last weekend, so it's been a week-and-a-half since I've actually trained in the dojang. I haven't felt the drive. I haven't been in the mood. It's hard to convince myself to keep practicing for a test without any promise that the test is, in fact, coming.

I can't honestly say I'm sure I'll ever have the opportunity to test. My instructor is not professionally obligated to me the way he is to the kids. What's more, i'm still not sure the Academy, my source of taekwondo, will even be around after this school year. It seems I must return to a rather stubborn question: do I really need taekwondo?

I do have aikido, an art that both challenges and fascinates me. And taekwondo, at least as it is available to me at the Academy, does not really seem to be meeting my needs. The trouble is, there clearly are needs, needs that are slipping through the cracks in my aikido training. That, as I have explained before, is the whole reason I've kept crawling back to taekwondo.

So if I'm going to abandon taekwondo for good, now a more attractive prospect than ever, one of three things has to happen:
  1. I need to find something to replace the physicality and martial mindset of taekwondo,
  2. I need to make peace with the occasional lack thereof in aikido, or
  3. I need to find something that would satisfactorily replace both.
The first option seems impossible in terms of time and money without abandoning aikido, and the third option doesn't seem to exist at all, at least not at an affordable rate on the south side of Milwaukee. So I guess I'm left with the second.

I keep going round and round in these arguments with myself, and aikido and I always end up together at the end. Maybe this is the way it's meant to go.

I think I hear Peter Cetera singing somewhere.

But if I am to be solely an aikidoka, I am, at some point, going to have to address the problems I see in my aikido, the problems I have been trying to address with taekwondo. I'm not singularly obsessed with combat effectiveness, but I do need to be sure that what I'm learning is a real martial art. And right now, I'm not, at least not always.

Maybe there's nothing a not-quite-sixth kyu can do about that within the confines of the dojo. I am more or less at the mercy of my instructors at this level. But if I stay aikido's course and continue to gain experience and skill, the time will eventually come when I must take responsibility for my art, when I must start making it into what I need it to be in my life.

What will that entail? Seeking out new instructors? Traveling to far-away seminars? More crosstraining? Maybe. But whatever it is, I'm almost sure, even now, that it will eventually require something more than just showing up to the dojo at my regular times. Am I ready for that?

I'm not sure. But for now, it seems that, for better or for worse, aikido must be my journey.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Aikido for the Classroom

I spent last Wednesday and Thursday at nonviolent crisis intervention training. This is something required for all staff at the Academy, due to our abundance of students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

The training covered how to deal verbally with a student in crisis, how to escape a violent attack from a student, and how to physically restrain a student as a last resort. It was, as I said, nonviolent crisis intervention, which means all of the above needed to be accomplished without harming the student.

A couple of the other teachers had trouble with this. It bothered them that, in a situation in which they would feel totally justified in striking back, the wellfare of the student remained their legal responsibility. For my part, aikido's precept of minimizing harm to the attacker had already prepared me for this conundrum.

In fact, I found that my meager year of aikido gave me a head start on much of the material covered in the training. The stages of dealing with students in crisis verbally were very reminiscent of the way Thomas Crum applies aikido principles to interpersonal conflict in his book The Magic of Conflict. Some of the physical techniques covered in the training could have come straight from an aikido class.

One restraining hold, for instance, had me next to my restrainee, him bent over, my hip against his, my inside hand on his upper arm and my outside hand holding his hand tight to me, palm-up and elevated above his shoulder. Anyone familiar with aikido will recognize this position:

(Thanks to the Ueshiba Aikido Association for the picture)

We know it from the technique ikkyo.

Indeed, I got so far into an aikido state of mind during our arm grab escapes that when a fellow trainee accidentally grabbed me in a way that hadn't been covered by the training, I had her halfway into katate dori ikkyo before I knew what I was doing.

I suspect I looked rather foolish, grinning like a child as I escaped simulated punches, kicks, arm grabs, and hair pulls, but I was, quite frankly, overjoyed. This was the first time I had been given any indication from the outside world that what I had been learning in the dojo could be applied to something real.

I have complained before that the practical applications of aikido are not always readily apparent at my dojo. It's something I constantly struggle with: trying to keep a martial state of mind while sometimes being presented with things that look and feel more like two-person yoga exercises than martial arts techniques.

But last week, I got to see the physical and ethical principles of aikido at work, in the hands of trainers who knew nothing about aikido but everything about dealing with real crises. It was an encouraging moment for me, one I will try to remember the next time a sensei wants to work on mystifying connection exercises.