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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.

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