One bad night.

September 8, 2011

Coming into class last night, I learned that Sifu is in the hospital. He’s having surgery for an ongoing issue. The surgery went well, but he will be off the mat once more as he recovers from this latest complication. Our love and best wishes go out to Sifu and his family.

Classes will continue, taught by senior students and black sashes. I am not of a high enough rank or skill to teach even a kids class, of course, but I will do whatever I can to help my Sifus and my school during this time.

On a personal note, last night fucking sucked for me. It was one of those snowball nights. One little thing goes wrong and it irks me. More things go wrong and I become increasingly frustrated with myself. By the end of the night I was done in. I just couldn’t bring it back into the groove. I was challenged to let go of that frustration and just move on, and I’m here to tell you, it was a challenge that I failed. It stayed with me all through that second hour and on into the night. I got my ass kicked sparring; I couldn’t move for shit and I continuously left myself wide open for some well-deserved shots, shots that seemed effortless for my partners and ridiculously – and I mean ridiculously – elusive for me. Trick #5 was frustrating and difficult, I never did get it right. Form #3 left me feeling wonky and lame, to the point where I said ‘fuck it’ (literally, I said out loud, ‘fuck it) and just went back to the forms I know well. When I got home, the feeling that nothing was going right lingered throughout the night. It was just one of those days. I know I’m not the only one who has them, but it sure does feel that way when we’re stuck in the middle of one.

Knowing what my wonderful Sifus have been through and continue to go through, it feels incredibly petty and childish and stupid to bitch and moan about having one bad night. I don’t mean to complain about it, really I don’t, but only to get it off of my chest and out of my head.

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Blue-Green Sash

August 29, 2011

We tested on Saturday and I was awarded my Blue-Green sash. Of all of the tests I have taken, this one seemed to be the most grueling, as it should be. Three students went up for their Black sashes, and all three of them passed their tests. All three are exceptional martial artists, and all three definitely earned their sash after that test.

During the four-hour test, not one of them was given a break other than constantly performing forms on the sidelines. The most demanding part of their test was the sparring. They sparred for so many rounds I lost count. After each round a fresh sparring partner was called in to push them harder. Towards the end, they were sparring black belts and being taken to the ground. They were nearly drained, at times it seemed like they could barely lift their arms, but they kept fighting. It was impressive.

I was tested along with two of my fellow advanced students, and although we did get breaks, some of those breaks were either performing structure sets or sitting in toilet bowl on the sidelines. Anxiety about this test didn’t really set in until the night before, and it remained there pretty much until the end of the test. Here are some brief highlights of the test:

  • Hardest part: Toilet Bowl. My legs were on fire! I was relieved to get back on the mat and test or dummy, which I was given many opportunities do to. Toilet Bowl sucks! What I did notice, though, was that performance anxiety was lessened when I was able to get out of that toilet bowl.
  • Hardest hit: During the black belt testing, I was able to spar with each of them at least once. They had been sparring for quite a while and were nearly drained when I took a good elbow to the face, just under my nose. It caught the bottom of my nose/top of my teeth. I’m sure that elbow wasn’t meant to be thrown at my face, but it was a good hit nonetheless. When your that drained, control starts to slip. Glad I didn’t lose a tooth on that one – half of an inch lower and I probably would have.
  • Favorite part: Forms. As far as I can tell, I only really botched up one small section on form #2, but I recovered, performed the step I missed and continued without stopping. On concentration #2, I was able to complete the form with held breath for the first time, and it felt good. Some of the black belts on the panel told me that my forms were very good, so I was happy with that part. Forms are about the only thing I consistently practice at home.
  • Trickiest part: After #1 kicking attack, I was asked to do it again. I haven’t done this trick nearly enough and knew it was going to suck, and it did. Actually, when Sifu called for me to do this, I did #2 instead, which worked well I thought, but it wasn’t what he asked to see, then after botching up the right trick, I was asked to do it again. I’ve kept a notebook that lists the tricks and how we perform them, and wouldn’t you know, kicking attacks aren’t in the notebook. They will be soon! Another trick I almost botched was #4, which is such a simple trick. I felt like a dope but got through it. Oh well.
  • Scariest part: We three advanced students testing for colored sashes were the dummies for the three advanced students going for Black sash. For their knife tricks, Sifu brought out a bowie-knife instead of the rubber training knives. For a second there, I thought that Sifu was going to put that bowie-knife in my hand. Of course, he did not, to my great relief. That was the only part of their tests where the three senior students dummied for another student. Nobody was cut, but it was tense. When we do knife tricks, sometimes the blade slips, sometimes I’ll catch the blade with my hand. It’s even flown out of the dummy’s hand and across the room. The reality of it sinks in of what little control I actually have demonstrated. Glad it was them and not me!

There was much more to the test than just these highlights, but honestly, this was one where I was just happy when it was over. I was happy to have passed, I was bruised and scuffed, I was drenched with sweat, I was drained, my face stung, and I felt pretty good. In the end, though, I was just relieved that we do not have class on Sunday!

Trick Dummy

August 19, 2011

I’ve been spending a lot of time on the mat working on tricks, but as the dummy. Lately, I’ve spent a lot more time being the dummy than I have working on my own technique! It’s all good, though, for a number of reasons.

Working with lower-ranked fellow students on beginning tricks gives me opportunity to share the things I’ve learned, and to help them correct errors in the same way that I was helped to correct those same errors. It solidifies my knowledge that I have learned the trick.

With my blue-green test coming up on only 8 days (sheesh!) I had hoped to really work on my tricks, as class is the only place to practice them. You need a dummy to practice a trick, and you need someone who is of equal or greater rank to practice it well. New students or lower-ranked students don’t go as fast or hit as hard, and so are not acclimated to getting their wrist seriously cranked or being taken down aggressively. That’s why it takes an equal- or higher-ranked dummy to really practice tricks well. There is a core group of us of, all close to the same rank, who often stay after class just to work on tricks. During this time, we can work on whatever we need to, and we have the whole mat to flail each other upon without worrying about sending our dummy headlong into some unsuspecting student. We can share different bits of knowledge that we’ve picked up from our Sifus or from higher-ranked students. There is definitely a lot of learning that goes on after class.

Friday is usually a much smaller class, though with test date coming up, I’m betting it will be fairly full tonight. Friday is the day where we generally go a little harder. One instructor that usually teaches Fridays really likes to bang it up when I’m working on tricks with him. I love it. He really wants me to be able to do these things at speed, and I’ve found that working with him is so much harder – and that’s the point. He pushes me to the next level of training, because he really, really wants us to have the ability to do these things outside of class in a real-world situation, should the need arise. The situations he brings when he dummies are real world applications, and they get progressively harder. For example, Trick #3 is designed to redirect the a punch to the head when your attacker and you are literally face-to-face. We practice it face-to-face, and that punch comes faster as we go along. It’s the application of a trick I’ve become comfortable with at slower speed, but it’s an attack that would never actually happen at slow speed, so he pushes me to get it working at a real pace. I love it. It’s freaking hard some days, but I love it.

I am surprisingly not nervous about testing – yet. I always am, but right now, I am not nervous at all. Instead, I’m looking forward to it. Here’s hoping it remains that way.

It aint pretty.

August 11, 2011

As we are gearing up for test day at the end of this month, a part of every class turns into a testing environment. You don’t know when you’ll be called to demonstrate a technique, you don’t know who will be attacking you or with what, and you don’t have time to prepare for it when it happens. Sifu will pick someone, throw out a knife or a club or call out an attack, and tell you who to deliver it to. And then you go. No bow, no setup, no nothing. You defend yourself or you get hit. This puts us all on the spot, induces a certain amount of anxiety, it’s a heck of a lot of fun, and I’m here to tell you, it aint pretty.

[Minor edit: In all fairness, the upper belts often make their defense against even surprise attacks look pretty – I am only referring to myself when I say….it aint pretty!]

When we have time to set ourselves up and we know what attack to expect, we can make things look pretty. We can gauge critical distance and get in the right stance, we wait for our partner to bow, signalling that they are ready for the attack. We can perform the trick, end it with practiced ad-libs, and we can make it pretty. When someone is coming at you swinging a club at your head with no warning, it changes everything. We don’t have time to think, okay, it’s an overhead swing so I’m going to X-block and step left and bring his swing down to an armbar, then take him off of his center line and lay him out. Instead it’s more like, “Oh fuck! Club swinging at my head!” And then we do whatever it takes to not get hit. In my case, I was not set up to step left as in #1 left club, so I stepped right and blocked the arm swinging the club with my left, while I took the attacker by the back of the neck with my right hand and forced a clumsy but effective helicopter. Was it the right trick? Absolutely not, for the attack (club swinging straight down). Did I get my head knocked off? Nope.

We’re also doing multiple rounds of sparring each class. Some fellow students are testing for their student black sashes, which is an awesome thing, and it’s going to be a good test for them. Accordingly, they are being pushed the hardest of all – they get no breaks or down time during class, while us underbelts get to swap out sparring with them in 1 minute, punishing rounds. Not that we don’t get punished ourselves – the higher our rank, the more we are called on to do, which is as it should be, but everyone is being pushed. I’ve found that Tai Chi breathing exercise (#1 breathing) helps tremendously when I am completely winded and gasping for air. Instead of taking huge, fast, hyperventilating breaths, I at first tried to just slow my breathing with long, slow, deep breaths, but I soon realized that this was doing little to slow my heart rate, and it exacerbated my feeling of anxiety. Lately, I’ve found that those slow, deep breathes combined with the movements from #1 breathing have a completely different result, in that I am able to concentrate on the movement and bring my heart rate down much more quickly and easily. Maybe it’s just a fluke, but it sure worked for me last night. Going from 60 to 0 instantly seems more taxing and difficult for me than going from 60 to 25 and just cruising, if that makes any sense at all.

Wimp Lo

August 4, 2011

“I am bleeding, making me the victor!” ~Wimp Lo, from the movie Kung Pow

Frequently, a friend of mine will ask how my training is going. I never mention specific techniques, tricks or forms, but instead I only ever seem to talk about the recent injuries I’ve sustained.

“How’s kung fu?”

“It’s great, man, I’m loving it. My shin is bruised and I landed hard on my shoulder last night, but the ankle and wrist are good today.”

My friend usually says something like, “Ha ha, I wouldn’t want to mess with you!”

I’ve known him a long time, and we both know that I’ve been in very few fights while he has been in many. He’s a far more experienced fighter than I am, he’s in much better overall health, and he’s a much, much stronger guy than I will ever be. He’d most assuredly beat my ass in a fight unless I got some very lucky, very damaging strikes in, very early, and even then, they’d only have to be damaging enough to buy me enough time to get my ass away from him. We both know it. But, when he says these obviously untrue things, he’s not trying to be a dick – he’s trying to be a good, supportive friend by encouraging me to keep at it. It made me stop and think, will there come a time when I’d be able to take him? It can’t be all technique, can it? What else am I missing?

My friend is a very confident guy, he always has been, and it seems to me that with that confidence comes a certain comfort with aggression that can be held in check or let off the chain at will. He knows he’s fit, he knows he’s capable, and he doesn’t boast or brag about it – it’s confidence, not bravado. A huge part of self defense, then, must be in building that kind of confidence. I’m a middle belt, usually happy with where I am if eager to continue moving forward, but I also know that, practically speaking, where I am likely provides me with little real protection from someone who’s strong, experienced, and aggressive. Skillset aside, I simply don’t have the confidence.

My friend is more than just confident, he’s also very strong. Unfortunately, I’ve not committed myself to any kind of bodybuilding or weightlifting program, and I absolutely could stand to build some upper body strength beyond the usual 30 pushups per class. I have not yet, to date, been able to sustain the level of commitment for, say, a P90X regiment. I am officially a P15X graduate because I simply did not have the discipline to stick with the 90-day program. I made it through those 15 days just fine, I enjoyed it and I actually saw a wee bit of improvement in there, and then on day 16 I just – stopped. The truth is, I’ve never had the desire to ‘pump up.’ A friend recently sent me a photo from 25-odd years ago of a bunch of us sparring with boxing gloves – or more accurately, a bunch of them. I was the skinny kid in the background, with no biceps and no abs, drinking beer and having a great time while everyone else was working out. Minus the beer, it seems like not a lot has changed since then.

That being said, I am commiting myself to doing something more substantial than the everyday warm-up exercises. Now I just need to determine what that is – if it’s only the upper-body P90X workouts, then that will be what it is, and off the top of my head, that sounds like a good start. I think the most important thing right now, though is that I start doing something. I may just find a little more confidence within myself , and that, as they say, is how it starts.

RIP GM Doug Bailey

July 27, 2011

My teacher’s teacher, GM Doug Bailey, passed away in his sleep last night. RIP, GM Doug Bailey.

Angles & Armbars

July 21, 2011

Over the next month or so, I’ve scheduled some one-on-one time with Sifu. Come to find out, I get two Sifu’s for that time, so right on for me!  Ok, I guess that makes it two-on-one, but I digress. The point is, I am priviliged to have some time set aside where I will have undivided instruction from two very excellent teachers. At the beginning of my first session, Sifu asked if I had some ideas of what I want to work on, and I went straight to my twin Achilles Heels – Angles & Armbars. I know, it sounds like some kind of nerdy MMA role-playing game, but these two concepts have been among the hardest for me to consistently execute with any degree of skill.

Angles: I get the concept, as it is relevant to most things in Tum Pai. We’re all about protecting the center line and exploiting that of our opponent. It is in the execution where I start to run into problems. Quickly stepping off the line of attack, attacking the opponents weak line, actually seeing these lines in practice and in sparring, has been challenging for me. It is something I need to work on. When we’re sparring, our partners are also looking for these lines as well as protecting their own, and so I imagine it is more difficult to find and exploit against my fellow students, particularly upper belts, than it would be against an untrained or undisciplined combatant, or even against someone who is trained in a more linear art. In any case, it was among the first areas where I feel I need work.

Armbars: Some days, I hate armbars. For instance, the two-hour days where everyone on the mat is slippery with sweat and I can’t keep a grip on my opponent’s wrist to save my life are incredibly frustrating. However, even on the best of days, armbars have been challenging for me. It’s one of those things that hardly ever feels quite right, and so many of our techniques rely on them or finish with them it’s not something that can be ignored. Upper belts seem to make them happen seemingly effortlessly, while I’ve always struggled or had to muscle my opponent just to make them materialize. I know I’ve been doing something wrong, or more likely many things wrong, as I can hardly ever get these techniques to work. So that is the second thing I put out there that I’d like to work on.

Accordingly, Sifu chose tricks that utilize Angles & Armbars, and the three of us drilled them for half an hour, and it was awesome. I walked out of the school that afternoon with a wealth of knowledge that I can now put into practice in class. So many questions answered, so much to bring to the next class and drill, drill, drill. Sifu took the concept of angles and we started putting it into practice. From there he built on that concept within the same trick, more angles and exploiting the weak line, and from there the armbar is introduced. So many things I’ve been doing wrong there, no wonder it felt awkward every time. By the end of that first session, it started to feel right. Needs a lot of work, for sure, but I am on the right path. I’m looking forward to practicing all of the things I brought away from that first session. And I’ve got more two-on-one sessions to come.

There’s nothing like personal instruction. Sifu is a tremendous instructor on the mat, but having these dedicated sessions is, to me, priceless.

Meditations on Violence

July 12, 2011

I just finished Rory Miller’s  ‘Meditations on Violence‘ and, as any good book should, it got me thinking. This isn’t a book review, or even a book report, but I only want to express some of the thoughts and feelings I have on the subject of violence.

In addition to the insights on how violence happens in real life, as opposed to on the mat, Rory’s book has helped me to gain a lot of perspective on why I do the things I do. I found myself questioning, again, my own motivations for training.

As far as self defense goes, I believe myself to be well ahead of the curve. I don’t drink anymore, I don’t frequent bars or clubs, and I don’t use drugs, so I have no business visiting shady neighborhoods or areas where I might be seen as an outsider. My life is pretty fucking insular – even boring. I work, I train, and I spend time with my family, and that’s all good enough for me. If the greatest part of self defense is being aware of risks and not putting ourselves in risky places in the first place, I’ve come a very long way from where I once was.

So what do I have to worry about? Why do I feel the need to bang myself up? The answer is not as simple as ‘because I like it,’ although that has become a huge part of it. I know I’ve got more compelling reasons than that.

I’ve never been a warrior. In the very few actual fights I’ve ever been in throughout my adult life, I ‘lost’ every time. I was always shitfaced, stumbling drunk, and, in all fairness, partially had it coming. At least the guy who beat my face into the blacktop for talking to his girlfriend thought so. I thought it was a harmless conversation at the time, while she, apparently, did not. Was his reaction over the top? Probably, but if I’d been in control of myself, none of it would have happened in the first place. So yeah, I take credit where credit is due. I put myself in a position to get pummeled, and I paid the price for my stupidity.

I’ve been intimidated by guys much larger than myself where it didn’t end in physical violence, and I don’t like the feeling. I would not have been able to defend myself, and we both knew it. In short, I was made to feel like a pussy, because I was a pussy.

Rory’s book highlights for me how guys like that could spot me coming a mile away. Hindsight being what it is, I can look back at who I was and what I was doing during those moments, and what I see is the perfect victim; small, weak, unsure of himself, and, usually, drunk.

So, what do I expect to change with martial arts training? First and foremost, I train for myself. For a long time, I hated myself. Some days I still do. I hate my weakness. Removing alcohol from my life has gone a long way towards making me a safer, better human being in all respects – but it isn’t enough. I still have weakness. I still have low self esteem. While not as true today as it once was, I still feel weak. Paraphrasing Rory from the last chapter of the book, people like me can either chose to accept our weakness and become comfortable with it – a valid choice – or we can grow. I don’t want to choose to accept it. I choose to grow. More important to me than just training to beat the shit out of someone else, I guess I really train to beat the pussy out of myself.

Self defense in general is a very broad subject, and the most important part of it by far is not putting ourselves in risky positions in the first place. If I’m not drunk in the dive bar I used to inhabit when some angry asshole comes in looking for a fight, then I’m in no danger from him. But if that asshole lives down the block from me and happens to wander my way looking for trouble, I don’t want to be the little guy on the receiving end of his anger. I’d absolutely prefer to live my life without that situation ever happening, but, if a violent situation can’t be avoided and a violent person must be confronted, I want to be able to competently damage that motherfucker quickly and surely and end it. I don’t want to fight – but if it comes to that, I don’t want to lose.

I know an Aikidoka. He’s an all-around great guy, one of a small handful of exceptional human beings that I personally know. From what I understand, modern Aikido adheres to a philosophy of ‘I don’t want you to hurt me, and I don’t want to hurt you.’ While I absolutely respect and admire this position, I have a somewhat different belief; I don’t want either of us to get hurt, but if you insist that somebody is going to get hurt, I want it to be you.

All that being said, I’ve got a long way to go towards acquiring that level of competency. I haven’t acquired anything like it yet, and it often feels like it’s a long way off. Last night on the mat, it felt like I couldn’t do a goddamn thing right, and I let it snowball on me. In that two hours I died multiple times, and I kicked myself harder every time. It’s an old, bad habit. I know I’ve got a long way to go – but nobody ever said it was going to be easy. If guess if I wanted easy, I could just be a pussy for the rest of my life.

Notes on Sparring

July 7, 2011

More incorporating tricks into sparring tonight. I love sparring with upper belts. In the end I get pummeled, no doubt, but there is always a learning moment in there for me, just as I hope there is a teaching moment in there for my partner. Tonight I could see my sparring partner including elements from tricks and forms, and I too sought out opportunities to use them. He’d tell me when he used them – “See that? I threw the front kick, you moved, I used the side kick from multiple left trick we were practicing earlier and broke your floating rib.” Awesome.

Notes on Sparring

June 30, 2011

I’ve been trying to incorporate elements of tricks and forms into sparring. What better place to practice the practical application of the art? Practicing tricks with a semi-docile partner is one thing, it’s how we learn the trick and build on its application. Applying the trick to an active opponent seems like another thing entirely, but I don’t feel that it should be. In a fight, an attacker will not be a semi-docile dummy who throws a single strike then stands idly by, waiting to get pummelled.  They’ll likely be throwing multiple attacks and defending themselves with whatever they can. Applying tricks into sparring is an opportunity to work on them against an active opponent who doesn’t necessarily know what’s coming.

The monkey wrench is that Kajukenbo tricks often require hard strikes that enable us to position the opponent in such a way as to complete the trick, and I can’t see that happening in sparring. For example, the first strike in trick #1 involves a hard, fast kick to the groin that ideally forces your opponent to bend forward, setting you up for the vertical punch to the face. If your opponent is not bent over, that next strike is impractical or impossible to reach. In a sparring environment, it doesn’t seem safe or practical to kick your sparring partner hard enough to achieve the desired effect. So, monkey wrench.

As far as hard contact goes, we certainly do get rocked from time to time. Last night, I took a good shot to the chin, a nice little shot to the eye that left me with a raspberry, and I gained a nice lump on my shin somewhere along the line. It’s not as if hard contact is prohibited or even discouraged. The unspoken Golden Rule is, “I’ll only hit you as hard as you hit me,” and after a short time we come to learn who is comfortable banging it up and who is not. Those of us who are OK with that contact tend to seek each other out on the mat when we can, and I don’t mind taking my lumps at all. I see it as a vital part of training. I think someone told me  once that the best incentive to learn how to avoid getting hit is to get hit. Also, if you’ve never really been rocked in a safe environment, such as on the mat, how will you handle it when it happens on the street? Martial arts without real contact seems somewhat contradictory to me. That being said, nobody in our school wants to send anybody home injured, just as nobody wants to go home with an injury. What I’m saying is, we have contact, but we also have control.

Side note: I almost got choked out last night, for the first time. In the middle of sparring during last night’s two-hour class, Sifu shouts “GRAPPLE!” and it was on. My partner had a good headlock almost sunk in on me, but I held my chin down and avoided it – barely. That’s as close as I want to get to that. I’ll be paying attention to not let it happen again!