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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Old Flame

We drank a toast to innocence, we drank a toast to now
And tried to reach beyond the emptiness but neither one knew how
We drank a toast to innocence, we drank a toast to time
Reliving in our eloquence, another 'auld lang syne' 

The beer was empty and our tongues were tired 
And running out of things to say
She gave a kiss to me as I got out and I watched her drive away
Just for a moment I was back at school
And felt that old familiar pain
And as I turned to make my way back home
The snow turned in to rain...
 - Dan Fogelberg, "Same Auld Lang Syne"  

Have you ever hung out with an ex? Bad memories, some people say, make this a difficult undertaking.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, though, the good memories are much worse. The hardest thing about being around someone you used to be in a relationship with isn't remembering why you broke up; it's remembering why you were together and knowing that you'll never have that again.

The summer after my first year of college, I went out for an afternoon with my old high school girlfriend (the Ohio Renaissance Festival--yes, I'm that guy and we were that couple). We were still friends and we were still into a lot of the same things, and it was nice to have someone back home I could hang out with. It was just a little bit awkward, though, catching glimpses of something that used to be and would never be again.

It's not that I was lonely, or that I pined for the old days. In fact, I was in a wonderful new relationship in college with the woman who would eventually become my wife. I would never have traded that for a chance to go back to high school. But that didn't stop the moment from being a little strange and bittersweet.

I found myself having similar feelings last week as I attended the rank testing at my old club. It was my first time there in almost three months. I would have been testing that night myself had I not been sidelined by an injury early in February. As it is, I'm now at a new club for many different reasons, the most pressing of which is impending changes to my schedule. I'm not dissatisfied with the new club, and I still have reservations about the old one, but that didn't stop the dojo from feeling like home.

To kneel beside my friends again, to take a few rolls on the familiar softness of that mat again, and to hear the kind voice of my former head instructor again were all wonderful--and a little bit sad. For all that I've complained on this blog, this club is family. It got me started in the martial arts, it introduced me to a lot of friends, and it taught me many lessons that will stay with me for a long time.

During the tests themselves, I had the luxury of losing myself in the aikido (the one exception was the test I would have taken, featuring the friend who would have been my testing partner--that one stung a little). I watched, silently analyzing my friends' technique, or walking through the techniques myself in my mind. I caught myself breathing in rhythm with the kokyu nages and moving my hands along with ikkyos.

After the testing was over, we all went out for drinks. Everyone wanted updates on the status of my pregnant wife, my job, and my music (respectively: well, going to hell, and should be picking up soon). I hadn't been gone long enough yet to keep me from fitting right in. We talked about aikido, about beer, about movies, about anything and everything.

The head instructor made sure to tell me they'll always have a place for me if I want to visit. I'm sure I will. Perhaps some morning classes over the summer after the school year is over. And I'd like them all to meet my daughter after she's born. I'm looking forward to it, but the thought of visiting the place that's been like home for the last couple years is a strange one.

I left the bar a little earlier than I would have liked. I had to work in the morning, and my wife was waiting for me at home. It had been a good night. By the end of the evening, I was in full club-member mode, and my goodbye was the brief goodbye of someone who would be back for the Thursday night class.

But, of course, I wouldn't be.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Best Way

I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, "But, sir, aren't we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?" He replied with total gravity--he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar--"Yes, but in England it's true." To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite.
- C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Whether the matter in question be religion, music, or the martial arts, I've never felt the need to assert that my way is the best way or the only way. Protestant Christianity, acoustic singer-songwriter music, and aikido, respectively, are all paths that I have stumbled upon, more by chance than by choice. Were I to take too much pride in the perceived relative merits of a fate that chose me far more than I chose it, I fear I'd become like the above patriot, boasting as if he'd chosen to be born English.

There are those, though, who'd have me do exactly that.

I was urged, even in the tolerant United Methodist denomination in which I grew up, to "save" people of other creeds from sin and hell by sharing my truer and more correct beliefs with them. I have been told by fellow musicians and music fans that my kind of music is "real" music, and that metal, rap, and electronic pop are "just noise". And from my first day in the dojo, I've had instructors telling me that aikido is something deeper, more sophisticated, and more moral than all other martial arts.

To be sure, on the spectrum of ignorant conviction Lewis lays out for us above, these particular aikido instructors have been much closer to the "loveable old ass" end than the "villain" end. My respect and love for them are not in question. But I still think they're wrong.

Aikidoka, tell me if you've heard these before:

  • Aikido is superior to other martial arts because it values technique over strength, so you don't have to be a big, strong guy to do it.
  • Aikido is superior to other martial arts because it teaches a way of life and not just a set of physical skills.
  • Aikido is superior to other martial arts because it doesn't dilute itself with sport competition.
  • Aikido is superior to other martial arts because O Sensei incorporated the best of many different martial arts into one art.

When I hear people claiming that aikido is the way, they usually support their position by making one of these four claims. There is much truth in all of these claims, but as assertions of disciplinary uniqueness or superiority, they all come up short.

All martial arts, not just aikido, aspire to be methods by which a smaller, weaker person can defeat a bigger, stronger one. And some, like Royce Gracie's jiu-jitsu, have proven themselves quite convincingly.  The "way of life" claim has never impressed me, and at any rate aikido is hardly the only art making it (check Google if you don't believe me). Absence of competition is not exclusive to aikido, and I find the argument that competition is a valuable tool a compelling one (Rob Redmond, for instance, makes it here). Finally, many arts, including Shorinji kenpo and jeet kune do, can make equally valid claims to being a brilliant master's synthesis of multiple martial arts.

Does this mean that aikido isn't unique or special? Of course not. It probably does mean, though, that aikidoka have very little cause to be looking down their noses at anyone.

What's more, I suspect most aikidoka are like me: rather than exhaustively researching every martial art available to them and making educated decisions about their relative merits, they got lucky and happened upon something that was affordable and convenient and looked fun and interesting. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this method, but it's not a method that puts one in a position to make claims about the superiority of a particular discipline.

To return to the other examples I used earlier, my music and religion came to me much the same way. I didn't choose to be born and raised in the United Methodist Church, and the acoustic guitar landed in my lap during an elective class my senior year of high school. Does that mean these things aren't vital and meaningful parts of my life? Of course not. But it does mean that I don't really have a leg to stand on if I start to claim my religion or my music are the best in a world full of options. Maybe I might claim that they are the best for me, but even then I'm not saying anything that does me any good in an appeal to a universal or objective standard.

One more thing: who cares?

Who cares which martial art (or religion, or music style) is the best? Why can't we just find something that works for us and let it work? Why do we need to be better than anyone else? It's a question that returns to my mind whenever I am foolish enough to read YouTube comments.

To be sure, there are a select few who genuinely need the most effective combat skills they can find, and for them the comparative efficacy of different martial arts is a valid concern. But I'm certainly not one of those people, and neither are most aikidoka, or even most martial artists.

Most of us, then, have no authority to declare our way better than all the others, and, moreover, no reason to. Rather than trying to prove how much better we are than everyone else--something we are entirely unequipped to do anyway--why don't we all just get back to training?