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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.