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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I visited 24FC for the first time in a couple months last night, and was saddened to discover that the site had been archived and Rob would no longer writing new articles.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.