Now on Facebook!

"Like" The Young Grasshopper on Facebook at

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.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Swimming With Sharks

Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.
- Proverbs 17:28

"Take that meathead rhetoric to Bullshido."

"Don't post stuff like that on Bullshido -- they'll eat you alive."

"Are you going to challenge me to a fight like the goons on Bullshido?"

If you frequent martial arts-themed internet communities, you are likely to occasionally hear things like this. has built up a rather a scary reputation in the martial arts e-world, and I think it's fair to say its members like it that way.

Back in 2010 I decided to make a Bullshido account. I'm not sure what I was thinking; perhaps I got it into my head to go defend the honor of stylized, traditional arts like aikido against the evil hordes of MMA exclusivists rumored to dwell there. I never gathered up the courage to actually post there, but I'm sure that I had Bullshido in mind when I wrote "Haters Gonna Hate" in February of 2011.

My perception of Bullshido started changing last spring, when I began looking up information about infamous "ninjas" Frank Dux and Ashida Kim in preparation for the writing of "We're the Problem". In the cases of both men, Bullshido's Martial Arts Encyclopedia proved an invaluable resource, full of well-researched information from credible sources and solid investigating and reporting done by Bullshido members themselves. Perhaps, I began to think then, this was more than just a hangout for Tapout thugs.

Even that, though, wasn't enough to actually convince me to post there. I still feared an aikidoist like myself would be chewed up and spit out by Bullshido's famous "Bullies". Every once in a while, I lurked on the forums or read through the investigations on the Martial Arts Encyclopedia, but that was as close as I was willing to get.

What finally changed my mind a few weeks ago was a desire to start an "investigation" of my own (I won't go into the details here, but those interested can follow this thread on Bullshido). I didn't want to be that guy who shows up out of nowhere, asks for help with a particular matter, and then disappears, so I browsed around the forums a little bit, hoping to contribute a little to some discussion without stepping on anyone's toes.

Wonder of wonders, these supposed MMA-minded thugs had a whole board devoted to traditional Japanese martial arts. That didn't sound too scary, so in I went. Inside, I even found a thread about aikido. It was a longish thread, already eight pages, so rather than try to read it all and respond to everything, I just gave my two cents in response to the OP.

I braced for impact, not sure what to expect. A caps lock rant? A condescending lecture? A warning? A ban?

"I like this n00b," came the first response. "We shall keep him." It was one of the forum leaders.

It's a strange feeling having all one's preconceptions shattered by a few words.

It didn't take me long to figure out that I'd pegged the Bullies all wrong from the start. Bullshido, I quickly discovered, isn't about declaring the supremacy of a few full-contact martial arts, but about exposing the dishonesty and delusion that plague the martial arts world. Most of its members are more than willing to converse respectfully and open-mindedly with an aikidoist, so long as said aikidoist isn't delusional about the applications of his training and is willing to remain silent on subjects he doesn't know anything about.

That last point is one I can't stress enough. If the stories of Bullshido's single-mindedness about MMA are exaggerated, the stories of their harsh treatment of those who earn their disfavor certainly are not. I know of no faster, more effective way in the world to have one's ego taken down a peg than to spout off on Bullshido without being able to prove oneself.

The Bullies take their proof very seriously: anyone making a bold claim had best be prepared either to cite evidence from a credible source, to participate in one of Bullshido's many meetups, or to be carried away on a wave of condescension and ridicule.

This dynamic, while some find it harsh, certainly has its merits. Many martial artists claim to train "scientific" arts (some Wing Chun players come to mind), but Bullshido is the only group of people I've ever known whose approach to the martial arts resembles anything genuinely scientific. Their acceptance of a claim is not based on who makes it or how eloquently it is made, only on whether or not that claim can be or has been confirmed by experiment. Those who make claims that they cannot substantiate in this way can expect the same reception on Bullshido that a young-earth creationist might receive at a convention of evolutionary biologists.

The internet martial arts community is awash with horror stories about Bullies' disdain for traditional martial arts, and indeed for anything that doesn't belong in a cage match. Many of my friends from AikiWeb and Martial Arts Planet talk about Bullshido the way Tolkein characters talk about Mordor.

But I have experienced no such disdain, and the way I have avoided it is very, very simple: I don't make claims I can't back up and I keep my mouth shut unless I really know what I'm talking about. This humility and adherence to the rules have been the only prerequisites to my acceptance on Bullshido.

I have a hard time feeling sympathy for those who cannot manage these two things. About a month ago I watched the Bullies embarrass and then run off a Bujinkan stylist who was lecturing on unarmed defense against weapons but was unable to provide any evidence in support of his ideas. He seemed genuinely offended that people were not willing to blindly accept his words at face value, and mistook that unwillingness for a refusal to listen to him at all and a disrespect for his training.

He was a living personification of obsolete martial arts thinking: a guy with a black belt told me stuff, therefore I know all I need to know, and therefore anyone who disagrees with me is an ignorant fool. He probably still believes it all, and probably has added to the horror stories swirling around the internet about the evil place called Bullshido where there is no respect for traditional martial arts. The truth is that the lack of respect he experienced was only for him, specifically his willingness to lecture on things with which he had little or no experience.

Socrates tells us that the only true wisdom is the recognition of one's own ignorance. My message to my fellow internet aikidoists -- and, more broadly, to traditional martial artists of all stripes -- is this: if you are willing to accept the truth of your own ignorance, then you have nothing to fear from Bullshido. It is not the boogeyman, and it is an informative and interesting resource.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day and Zanshin

War is sweet to those who have no experience of it, but the experienced man trembles exceedingly at heart on its approach.
- Pindar

Today is Memorial Day, the day set aside in the United States for remembering those military personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. Typically, Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer, the first federal holiday of the year when it's nice enough outside to really enjoy the day off. This particular Memorial Day, though, the weather here in Milwaukee is much truer to the somber occasion than usual (which is why I'm here on my computer rather than, say, outside playing with my daughter).

This past Saturday, I dutifully sent my thanks to all the veterans on my Facebook "Friends" list. One of those thanked, an aikido instructor and former Army Ranger, was appreciative, but made sure to remind me that Memorial Day is for remembering the dead, not just for celebrating the living. My intentions had been good, but I had, as so many civilians do, skipped straight to the fun part of war and glossed over the rest.

Anyone who spends much time on the internet will see a lot of criticism pointed at Americans for being too enthusiastic and too idealistic about war. I'm not sure Americans have a monopoly on such things, but we're certainly guilty. No American my age has ever been pressed into military service or seen his country undertake a war that it had a realistic chance of losing: it's easier than ever for an American to watch a war with the carefree enthusiasm of a fan watching a sporting event.

Such detachment not only dishonors and trivializes the real sacrifices made by real people in war, but it also robs us of an opportunity to learn. Even if we are unlikely to be drawn into war ourselves, we have a great deal to learn from it, as individuals and as a nation. It behooves us, the sheltered civilians, to pay attention, so that we can choose and direct our leaders wisely.

As a martial artist, I like to think of this as a macrocosm of what we in budo call zanshin. In the dojo, even if our training is not an honest approximation of combat (and, frankly, most training isn't), it behooves us to keep in mind the violence from which our art was born. Maybe uke isn't really going to punch me in the face if I give him the opportunity to do so, but it still makes me a better martial artist to be aware of that opportunity and to avoid offering it. Maybe no one is waiting to attack me after I throw uke, but my technique and my stance will be better if I am ready as if someone were.

Zanshin is hard work. Maintaining awareness is not easy, in life at large or in the dojo. This is why we like our war without death and our training without the responsibility of risk management. But the benefits of living -- and of training -- the hard way are many.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Aikido the Word

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Before I start, I'd like to give a warning to anyone reading this. Many people, especially on the internet, find semantic arguments to be inconsequential and pretentious. Little is more common on an internet message board than to see an argument dismissed as "just semantics". What follows is an entry about nothing but semantics written by a guy who is obsessed with semantics, so don't read any further if you're one of those people who find discussions of semantics tedious and annoying. What's more, please don't leave a comment unless you're prepared to have a dry conversation about words with the guy who corrects your use of literally on Facebook. I am that guy. You have been warned.

Aikido is a word that carries a lot of baggage with it. It is, in some mouths, the name of a particular Japanese martial art, but there are many people who seem to want it to be so much more than that, who are not satisfied to see the word confined to the dojo.

This is, as far as I can tell, a phenomenon unique to aikido in the martial arts world. None of my taekwondo buddies ever tried to convince me that the movements of a dancer or a golfer might be just as validly called taekwondo as our martial art, but these exact claims have been made to me of aikido by some extremely knowledgeable aikidoists.

Much of this kind of thinking must be credited to aikido's founder Morihei Ueshiba, in whose writings we find such cryptic lines as: "The Art of Peace has no form--it is the study of the spirit," and: "Any movement can be an aikido technique." Clearly, Ueshiba intended aikido to be more than just a martial art.

This is, in many ways, a very good thing. Ueshiba wanted us to learn more from him than rolling, throwing, and twisting wrists: he sought to show us, through the lens of his martial art, a way to live and move in harmony with the world around us. And there's certainly no need to explain why some more of that in this world would be a good thing.

For all that, though, Ueshiba's vague and idealistic explanations of aikido create some rather daunting semantic problems. First of all, a word for something that "has no form" and which can be applied to "any movement" is a word that has very little meaning of its own. Furthermore, it's hard to justify using such a word as the name for a particular martial art with a particular lineage and technical focus.

Word nerd that I am, such semantic problems bother me more than they bother most people, so I have always tried to use the word aikido as specifically as possible. When I say (or write) the word aikido, I mean Morihei Ueshiba's martial art, whose primary technical basis is Takeda's Daito-ryu aikijujutsu and the practice of which Ueshiba intended to serve as an expression of the principle of aiki.

Some spiritualists might find a definition like mine too confining, and some traditionalists might think it diverges too far from the founder's own way of thinking. The inevitable question is: can't someone who is  dancing, negotiating, or playing a sport be closer to the the principles of aikido than someone who is practicing Daito-style grappling techniques? It's a reasonable question, one that has been issued to me as a challenge by many people who know much more about aikido than I do.

My answer has less to do with aikido than with language, and so I think C.S. Lewis, one of modern history's great authorities on language, can make my point better than I can. In the preface to his book Mere Christianity, Lewis details the demise of a useful word:
The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone 'a gentleman' you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not 'a gentleman' you were not insulting him, but giving information...But then came people who said--so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully--'Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should?...' They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing...To call a man 'a gentleman' in this new, refined sense becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is 'a gentleman' becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object...A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes.
The aforementioned spiritualists and traditionalists are, of course, absolutely right when they say that aikido's principles are far more important than its lineage and its techniques. But I think they cause a great deal of linguistic trouble when they decide that the principles, rather than the lineage and the techniques, ought to be the basis for how we use aikido as a word.

If I say, according to my understanding of aikido principles, that the dancer who moves in flawless harmony with his partner is performing aikido, and furthermore that the martial artist in the dojo who does not grasp the underlying truths of his art is not performing aikido, then what have I communicated? Since there is no clearly articulated and agreed upon list of the principles of aikido, all I have really managed to say is that I approve of the way one task has been performed but not the other. In that case, aikido has, as Lewis explains above, ceased to be a term of description and become merely a term of praise.

If, on the other hand, the word aikido simply names a martial art that was founded by Morihei Ueshiba and gets most of its technical curriculum from Daito-ryu, I can use it to communicate, with reasonable specificity, a particular kind of activity. As an added bonus, this "coarse, objective" definition does not require any judgments on my part about what is and what is not a real expression of the true principles of aikido (judgments I would not feel the least bit qualified to make).

At this point, other objectors are likely to chime in, arguing that since there is no agreement about which styles have truly preserved their Ueshiba roots and which technical curricula are correct, even the kind of definition I suggest will not produce universal agreement about what is and is not aikido. These objectors are correct, but their objection is ultimately irrelevant. My purpose here is not to extinguish all discussion about what fits the definition of aikido, only to provide a definition that allows us to have the discussion. If aikido is no more than a set of subjective principles, there is no discussion to be had.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Dad's Discovery

His passion is protective, compassionate, so he underlines my frailty, my naïveté; whereas I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness,who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.
- Anaïs Nin

Now that I'm the father of a girl, I'm starting to pay a lot more attention to the way I talk and think about women. I've started to wonder whether the things I think and say about women are things I'd want people thinking and saying about my own daughter. It's been a revealing experience, especially in the dojo.

Despite my best efforts, it would seem I'm still a little bit of a sexist out on the mat. Maybe not an old-fashioned "women belong in the home" sexist or a gangsta rapper "bitches and hos" sexist, but still a kind of sexist. The way I train with female partners is clearly different from the way I train with male partners.

Specifically, I am a weaker uke for a female nage. I am less likely to throw a munetsuki strike with conviction at a female nage. I am less likely to make an honest attack with a ken (sword) or jo (staff) against a female nage. And perhaps worst of all, I am more likely to capitulate to a female nage's technique.

The sin here is twofold: first, I am not giving my female training partners the respect they deserve, and second, I am depriving them of the best they can get out of their training.

I, of all men, should know better. Both the clubs where I train have female head instructors and female brown belt students. I've had multiple opportunities to train with Chicago's wonderful Yuki Hara Sensei, a woman of great skill and great strength. Even off the mat, I am surrounded by strong, independent women: my wife, my mother, and many of my friends and former coworkers. I have no excuses.

I have written before about how the martial arts can work like a mirror. They give us an opportunity to see ourselves more clearly. Not for the first time, I'm decidedly dissatisfied with what I see in that mirror.

So what's a man to do about it? It's unlikely that such a tendency manifesting itself in the dojo is isolated to the dojo alone. It's probably something that creeps into all my relationships in life. Could I some day sell my daughter short the way I have my training partners? It's an unsettling thought.

The solution, I think, is what Buddhists call mindfulness, and what we in Japanese martial arts call zanshin. I do not consciously esteem women any less than I esteem men; my mistake is a subconscious one. The answer, then, or at least the beginning of the answer, lies in getting out of the subconscious: getting off autopilot, paying attention.

I'm going to have to start asking myself some questions. For starters: am I treating the person across from me like a martial artist or a fragile vessel that I'm afraid of breaking?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Re: Ki to the Highway

He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.
- Proverbs 28:13

By far the greatest generator of traffic on this blog to date has been last July's entry "Ki to the Highway", specifically, the extensive and sometimes contentious discussion it generated on AikiWeb. I owe a great deal to that little bit of controversy.

For those of you who never read it, the piece rather presumptuously labels the entire concept of ki as nonsense, at best obfuscating the real physics behind the martial arts and at worst leading some martial artists to silly and even dangerous delusions; it suggests that martial artists stop using the word altogether. To put it gently, for all that the piece as brought me a lot of attention, it has not made me many friends.

The concept of ki (or chi) is positively sacred to many martial artists, so it stands to reason that some readers were none too happy to hear me, a humble novice, assail it. And in hindsight, perhaps I was a little too harsh in doing so.

I visited my old aikido club back in November, and after taking class and sharing baby pictures, I spent nearly two hours hanging out with an old training partner and talking about anything and everything. He is a reader of this blog, and brought up "Ki to the Highway" in the course of our conversation.

He is an acupuncturist, a profession I took about as seriously as pet psychic before I met him. He is a trustworthy, educated man who speaks the language of biology and anatomy, not magic. He told me that in his line of work chi is part of the standard terminology, a term the ancient Chinese used to encompass lots of different things for which scientists would later find more specific names.

He made a strong case that chi was useful to the acupuncturist as an all-encompassing term that summed up several different things whose scientific name and explanation would certainly be more specific, but also much more cumbersome.

In light of this, I think I must back off a little on the harsh anti-ki stance I took in "Ki to the Highway". If what my friend says is correct, then it would seem possible for a martial arts instructor to use the word ki effectively as a summation of several different physical, bio-mechanical, and psychosomatic factors, so long as both he and his students are not ignorant of what those factors really are.

I maintain that I have never seen this done properly, and furthermore that I will never attempt it. That said, there are probably a few people out there who are smarter than I am using the word ki in the right way, and it would be wrong of me to simply dismiss them offhand.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Great Non-Issue

Robbie Rogers
The buzz on sports radio for a few days last month was footballer Robbie Rogers. He came out of the closet and left professional soccer, setting off the latest round of sports media debates about whether or not professional athletes are ready to have homosexuals in the locker room (The previous round came in 2007, triggered by John Amaechi).

I am sometimes a sports radio listener, and so endured these rather silly conversations, and I came away shaking my head. There is still a homophobic contingent in sports media, or at least a contingent that sympathizes with homophobic athletes, which functionally amounts to the same thing.

I'd like to know why on earth anyone thinks it matters who is "ready" for homosexuals. Homosexuals are real people; they are among us, whether we are ready for them or not. Do we think we can make them disappear by declaring we aren't ready for them?

A lot of people weren't "ready" for Jackie Robinson, but that didn't change the obvious fact that he belonged in Major League Baseball. The readiness of the people around him had no bearing on his being, by every objective standard, one of the best second-basemen in the history of the game. If there are homosexuals who are good at sports--and, clearly, there are--then our readiness for them is irrelevant.

Moreover, what's not to be ready for?

I have no patience for adults who still cling to the childish notion that there's something dirty or weird about gay people. Many of us thought this way as children because our parents treated homosexuality as a taboo subject and our schoolmates threw the words "gay" and "faggot" around as all-purpose insults. But we all grow up, and we all have access to the information we need to see how silly we were as kids. Asking athletes to tolerate homosexual teammates is nothing more than asking them to act like grown-ups.

And if they can't be grown-ups, that's their problem. The rest of the world won't wait for them, and shouldn't have to.

Who am I to say, you ask? Well, I may not have any great insight into the mind of professional athletes, but as a martial artist, I am an athlete of sorts and I do use a locker room. And sometimes there is a gay man in that locker room.

One of the instructors at my old aikido club is gay. I train with him whenever I visit my old club, and trained  with him at a recent seminar. He's a brilliant martial artist, and it's a pleasure and a privilege to train with him. I wish I could train with him more; his approach to ukemi is wonderful, and that part of my aikido is sorely lacking.

Out on the mat, I trust this man with my safety. As an uke, I give him every opportunity to hyper-extend my joints, to poke my eye out with a weapon, and to slam me (either back- or face-first) into the mat. I risk it gladly, secure in the knowledge that all his skill and experience are protecting me.

And yes, he and I change together the men's locker room. If there's any embarrassment or discomfort about this on my part, it's because he is in much better shape than I am despite being at least a decade my senior.

The fact that he is gay is a non-issue, a peripheral personal detail. Our relationships outside the dojo are material for post-training chatter, but they are largely irrelevant to what we do on the mat.

Perhaps it's ignorant of me to say, but I don't see why everyone can't see this issue the way I do: as a non-issue. There are no gay cooties to catch and there's no reason not to trust homosexuals as teammates (and if you're afraid of your gay teammates coming onto you, gentlemen, remember that women having been enduring men's awkward advances since the dawn of time--it's only fair that we might have to take a little of the heat).

I have a gay teammate. He's a damn good teammate, and I'm lucky to have him. It's sad to imagine the number of people who miss out on teammates like this because they're just "not ready", whatever the hell that means.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Observations From a Seminar

The YGH prepares for a tachi-dori (sword defense) technique at the seminar.
I went to my first real aikido seminar this past weekend, a weapons intensive seminar led by Mark Uttech (4th dan, head instructor at Aikido of Marshall). It was in equal measures fun, educational, taxing, and terrifying.

The seminar lasted two days. Each day consisted of a three-hour training session, a two-hour lunch break, and then what was supposed to be another two-hour training session (it was closer to two-and-a-half hours both days). Most of Uttech Sensei's teaching was aimed specifically at weapons techniques, though he did mix in some tachi-, jo-, and tanto-dori (unarmed defense against weapons) and finished the seminar with some pure taijutsu (unarmed) techniques.

I don't think I could encapsulate the whole experience in a blog entry that comes to a single point (as my entries usually do). Instead, what follows is a list of things I learned and observed during the seminar.

Talk is Cheap

Uttech Sensei's teaching is rarely more verbal than it has to be. Many of the times he showed exercises or kata, the only words we got from him at all were, "You try it."

I was brought up in a very verbal aikido club, a place where everything was extensively explained. This suited me nicely because I am a very verbal person myself; I love words. When I am alone I talk to myself out loud because I start to miss words. This blog itself is little more than a way for me to get my words fix.

But not only did I do just fine without all the extra words, I see too in hindsight that I didn't even notice they were missing. Uttech Sensei's aikido (and mine, for that matter, as long as I was under his tutelage) didn't need the extra words. Nothing seemed to have been left unsaid.

When next I train, I'm going to see what happens if I try to talk less.

I'm Out of Shape

My exercise regimen has been spotty at the best of times since my daughter was born, and I felt it at the seminar. By the end of the first day, every part of my body ached. I spent the last hour-and-a-half of the second day silently pleading for the whole thing to be over because my body had just given up.

To be sure, ten hours of aikido in two days is rough on anyone, but by the end of the seminar my ukemi was so sloppy it was getting dangerous. At the very least, I need to get into a regular routine of cardio and stretching. Aikido may be a relatively low-impact, non-competitive martial art, but it can still beat the hell out of you if you're not in shape for it.

Weapons Make for Good Zanshin

I have written about zanshin before; it's something I usually have difficulty with. Cultivating the attitude of martial awareness that is essential to good aikido isn't always easy in the course of what is essentially a recreational activity.

But weapons seem to change that. Much as my mind would like to stray to my wife, my daughter, music, the book I'm reading, the video game I'm currently working my way through, or a thousand other things, there is no ignoring a sword in my face. It helped keep me focused and ready.

This, I think, is one of a few very good reasons to keep weapons training in aikido.

My Bokken Might Be Too Heavy

In general, I like a bokken to have some weight to it. If it's too light, I have a tendency to whip it around with my right arm and my technique just goes to hell. But on the other hand, spend a weekend training with a very heavy bokken and your muscles will let you know about it.

What I'm using right now is E-Bogu's Top Quality White Oak Aikido Bokken, a thick, heavy Iwama-style sword. At the time I got it, it was the only bokken E-Bogu packaged in an aikido set (bokken, jo, and weapons bag); that appears to have changed since then. It's a fine weapon, especially for the price, and I'd still recommend it to anyone who doesn't want to splurge on high-end hickory stuff, but it did get heavy after a while.

I got the opportunity to use a few other students' swords, and found that there are some that have enough weight to give me the feedback I want but aren't quite so thick and heavy. Of, course, they were all extremely expensive-looking weapons, and I probably won't be in the market for a new bokken for years. But someday I will go looking, and now I have a better idea of what I'll be looking for.

There are No Strangers at a Seminar

There were a few people I knew at the seminar: one training partner from my current club and a couple current and former members of my old club. The rest were strangers, but I quickly discovered that the seminar atmosphere breeds familiarity at a very accelerated rate. This is true on multiple levels.

By the middle of the second day, I had a good feel for everyone's style and level of experience. I knew whom to seek out as a training partner if I needed someone who really knew how to do a good tsuki with a jo. I knew who would take it easy on me and I knew who would give me everything they had. I knew who would help me through something complicated and I knew who would need my help (at this stage of my aikido development, there are far more of the former than the latter). In two short days, I had a feel for everyone's aikido, as if I'd been training with them for months.

Similarly, at lunch and in the locker room, I talked to many of these total strangers as if they were old friends, and it didn't feel weird at all. Much of the conversation was about aikido, to be sure, but we also talked about food, about our kids, about movies, about anything and everything. One guy let me use his phone and another his charger when my phone went dead.

"Nice to meet you," is something we all say out of courtesy, but never before have I said it to so many people and really meant it. It doesn't seem strange at all to call these people I've just met my friends. I guess seminars just do that to people. This one did, at least.

One Final Note

This is in reference to my last post, in which I told the story of an instructor from my old club insisting on a strictly enforced attitude of seriousness and solemnity when training with weapons. I'm happy to say Uttech Sensei had no such ideas. He is a man who is always smiling, occasionally vulgar, and capable of laughing uproariously without warning. His love of his art and respect for his teachers run deep, but that doesn't stop him from bringing a feeling of childlike joy to everything he does in the dojo.

It's a good thing, too: holding a perpetual, silent frown in reverence to weapon-shaped pieces of wood for two days would have been insufferable.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Harmlessness of Humor

Nor think a joke, Crape, a disgrace,
Or to my person, or my place;
The wisest of the sons of men
Have deign'd to use them now and then.

- Charles Churchill, The Ghost

I visited my old aikido club a couple weeks ago for their annual Kagami Biraki new year celebration. It has become a tradition of sorts that I and my guitar serve as entertainment during the dinner portion of the festivities. The preceding aikido class was led by two guest instructors followed by the club's own most senior instructor, a seventy-something man who fits nicely into the C.S. Lewis "lovable old ass" category.

Understand, before I go on, that I speak of the man who first introduced me to aikido; though I am about to disagree with him, I hold him in the highest regard.

In the final segment of the class, he showed us some tanto-dori (knife defense) techniques. Before setting us loose to practice, he made a point of saying, "I don't want to see anyone smiling or laughing--this is serious. When there's a weapon involved, you don't get second chances." He told us too that the worst thing he ever heard in the dojo was his own instructor (the man who founded the club and first brought aikido to Wisconsin) saying, "You got cut!"

I kept silent, of course, but I take issue with this kind of posturing in the dojo.

The martial arts instructor's desperate exhortation, "Don't laugh; this is a matter of life and death," is wrong on two counts. First, it probably isn't a matter of life and death, and second, even if it were there would be no shame in laughing about it.

If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: aikido is not realistic combat training. What I do in the dojo is practice antiquated and sometimes unnecessarily complicated techniques in stylized ways. In doing so, I become a fitter, happier, more centered, and perhaps a little tougher person. Now, that's nothing to sneeze at, but it's nothing to treat like brain surgery, either. No one is going to live or die because I have the proper palm-up hand position going into an udekiminage, and that proper positioning will be achieved or not independently of whether or not I am smiling at the time.

What's more, I'm not sure I buy into the idea that anything is too important to be undertaken in good humor. I suspect even the doctors performing the aforementioned brain surgery occasionally tell jokes.

I recently discovered on YouTube a wonderfully entertaining and enlightening lecture given by John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) on the subject of creativity, in which he underscores the futility of talking at length about creativity by repeatedly lapsing into sequences of "light bulb" jokes (How many _____ does it take to change a light bulb?).

One of the things Cleese finds most stifling to creativity is forced solemnity. He draws a clear distinction between seriousness and solemnity, asserts that seriousness does not demand solemnity, and then goes so far as to question the usefulness of solemnity at all (mind you, this is a man who used the words, "Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard," while giving the eulogy for his best friend).

I'm not sure I'd go quite so far as Cleese, but I'll go on the record saying that very, very few things are too serious to be laughed at. The Holocaust, maybe. Aikido, though--even aikido done with knife-shaped pieces of wood--isn't on the list.

Now, I'm not advocating goofing around when we should be training. Our time in the dojo is limited, and we ought to make the most of it. But anyone who's worked in a high-stress job with deadlines to meet knows that a little humor doesn't slow one down: in fact, sometimes it's the only thing that keeps one steady enough to meet those deadlines. Even if our tanto-dori were real preparation for a knife fight (which it probably isn't), there would be no reason to think smiles and even the occasional laugh would make us any worse at it.

As a case in point, ask any military veteran about the jokes he and his buddies used to play on each other. You'll discover that the men and women who really are training to put themselves in harm's way are often the biggest jokers of all.

We've established, then, that strict solemnity makes us neither safer nor more skillful, at least so long as we aren't frivolously wasting time. Why, then, do so many martial arts instructors expect their students to act like Trappist monks at Mass?

I think Cleese comes close to an answer for this question in the above lecture when he says, "The self-important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor."

Now, there are a few people in the martial arts who really are self-important. These are people I've complained about before (here, for example): people who need the ego-stroking that comes with being looked up to, being given ranks and awards, and being addressed with exotic-sounding titles, or people whose income depends on projecting a fiction-inspired image of themselves as warrior priests. These people need the martial arts to be serious business so that they can go on being important.

But my old sensei, cantankerous though he can be, is not so pompous or selfish as to demand solemnity for his own sake. What he fears will be "punctured by humor" in this case, I think, is not his own ego, but the importance of the legacy left to him by the cherished instructor who was also his best friend. His reasons, to be sure, are much more noble than those of the self-important show ponies I discuss above, but I still think he's wrong.

Aikido, in and of itself, just isn't that important. My family is important. My home is important. My faith (confused as it is) is important. These things are all considerably more important to my life than aikido, and even they aren't too important to laugh about.

With all that in mind, I, humble fifth-kyu that I am, say laugh on.

How many aikidoka does it take to change a light bulb? Two, unless light bulbs learn how to grab our wrists.