Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Choosing Martial Arts for your Kids : A Primer for Parents

As summer dwindles to a close, many parents are considering just what after-school and extra-curricular activities their school-aged children should participate in this school year. Physical activities - like karate and organized team sports - are often at the top of many "Let's get Johnny and Suzy involved in something" lists, which can be a very good thing, indeed. But because it's important to know what you are getting yourself and your young ones into, there are a few important things you really need to consider before you go out and buy a gi and sparring equipment including:

1. Check out the school alone before you bring your child in for a look. Just like any facility your child will be spending time in, make sure it is clean, safe and generally comfortable. Walk through the changing area/dressing rooms and actually use the bathrooms. Look around/listen to how instructors are speaking to the students and each other. Are the classes chaotic and unorganized or structured and informational? Are students encouraged to ask questions and participate by helping demonstrate techniques or expected to just do without explanation? Would you feel comfortable leaving your child there without you? If something feels off about the environment or the instruction, trust your gut. If you're fine with what you experience, stop in next time with your child.

2. Not every 10-year old is/Not every five year old isn't ready for a structured, physically challenging activity. Since you know your child better than her/his instructor does, you're probably the best judge of whether or not Junior is capable of following instructions in a group setting, sitting still/waiting his turn effectively and functioning without your hand-holding for a 30- to 45-minute class. If you aren't sure about your grade-schooler or if the instructor needs convincing about your pre-schooler, ask if your child can take a trial class to see if s/he can make it through comfortably. Many schools offer a week of or at least a few classes for free to help you figure out if the class works for your child and your family's lifestyle. Don't buy any equipment or sign any long-term agreements until you're sure the school/program is a good fit.

3. Learning any martial art is designed to take a long time. Really, the martial path is all about the journey, not the destination - and a fast trip is often not the generally recommended road. Any school or program promising to make your child into a black belt in X number of years is one you should probably run from as quickly as humanly possible. Also, let your child know that the martial path is all about delayed gratification and the Puritan Work Ethic. The hard work put in will certainly pay off, but that payoff isn't always immediately apparent - which is why is is so important that your child enjoy the time they spend in class. Children can get frustrated or "Are we there yet?" bored easily if they don't know what to expect.

4. Make sure your child is dressed appropriately for class. Whether or not instruction happens in a traditional setting with uniforms and belts/sashes or in a church basement with t-shirts and sweatpants, your child should have what s/he needs to actively participate. Watches, rings, metal headbands, jeans, pencil skirts, big belt buckles and the like can restrict movement or make for safety hazards on the mat. Also, don't rely on the instructor to keep tabs on necklaces and bracelets during the class. The best rule of thumb is to not wear any accessory not used on the mat to the training hall in the first place. 

5. Be mindful of after-school programs that offer a martial arts component where everyone must participate. Again, if your child isn't really feeling martial arts, any session where they must participate will not be pleasant for them at all, which will make for a bad experience for them, their dojo/dojang mates and their instructor. You know that feeling you get before heading into a mandatory work-related meeting that you really don't want to go to in the first place? They'll feel the same way every time Karate Day approaches if they don't want to be there. If your child has tried the class a few times and it really isn't his/her thing, talk to the program director about finding an alternate activity.

6. This is your child's activity, not yours. Just because you always wanted to study martial arts doesn't mean your child does. Sure, the discipline and character-building that martial arts instruction provides is great, but it doesn't necessarily mean your child will be as anxious to learn to do new stuff like punch/kick things and scream like a banshee as you might have been. If Suzy shows a genuine interest in joining a class, great! But if she tells you that she's not sure once she gets there AND really seems out of sorts during class AND keeps expressing to you that she doesn't want to go back AND you are more enthusiastic about going than she is, it might be time for you to sign up for class and find another activity for her.

7. Remember: It's supposed to be fun. Martial arts instruction has some built-in stressors - like the pressure of learning forms, understanding bunkai, promotions and remembering dojo etiquette - but it still should be enjoyable to the folks participating, whether they are 5 or 55. Generally speaking, participating in class and other martial arts-related activities (tournaments, seminars and/or visiting other schools) should be something your child looks forward to. When it isn't a happy experience anymore - and not just because the expectations are higher or the curriculum challenges are getting tougher - it may be time to think about exploring new activities.

Not an exhaustive list by any means, but this is enough to get you started on deciding if martial arts is right for your child. If you have any questions or are a martial artist or parent who has tips for those trying to decide if martial arts instruction is right for their child, feel free to add them in the comment section below.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Wow - Didn't See That One Coming...

Last week, Training Partner Ed gave me a call. We usually teach together at the dojo at least once (and sometimes twice) a week and since we try to train together at least one other day each week, I thought he was calling to see what my schedule was so we could do some kata and/or bunkai drills.

Training Partner Ed and me right before
the sparring portion of our shodan grading
(May 2009)
Imagine my surprise when he told me he had decided to put his house on the market and move his family to South Carolina where he owns property. "The cost of living is much cheaper there," he said. "What's the point of having land when we're not even using it?"

As a mom in the homestretch of paying college tuition, I can totally relate to the cost of living thing. Although his oldest son just started middle school and his youngest is only in grade school, they will be flipping their tassels and moving into some institution of higher learning's dormitory before you know it. The sooner the savings starts, the easier it will be when it comes time to register for classes. It sucks to work just to pay bills, it really does. I'm happy that he and his family have found a solution for life's treadmill, I really am.

Doesn't mean I won't miss him, though.

Ed and I met at the local YWCA where I'd gone to train one day because their huge aerobics rooms had mirrors that my dojo didn't to help me be truer to my angles when learning kata Saifa. He was on the treadmill next to his wife when I walked into the weight room with a Goju t-shirt on. I'd only worn the shirt once before (it was a gift) and Ed, who had just moved to our little hamlet from New York City, nearly broke his neck getting off the treadmill to ask me where I trained. That was 2007. He started coming to my dojo shortly after and we've been friends ever since, training almost daily together in the year leading up to our shodan test, which we made it through side-by-side in 2009. We eventually left that school together and open another two years after that.

Ed with gifts from his wife
 just after his shodan grading. Notice the
big smile and the shiny new black belt
around his waist :-)
When I say he is my dojo brother, I mean it in every sense of the word. He's pushed me hard on the mat, made me want to be better at this martial thing and made me want to slug him a few times, too. I can definitely say I really am a better martial artist for having met and trained with him - but I'm also a better person.

So, yeah, waving from the curb as he and his family drive away from it for the last time won't be easy. Part of me hopes his house stays on the marketfor a minute and he'll be stuck in the frigid cold of the great State of New York for at lest another year (or two, or 10), but that's, of course, just selfish me thinking out loud.

In reality, I wish him the best: a happy, healthy life full of all the things he and his family deserve. It's kinda sad that has to be done 800 miles away, but that's what martial life encourages you to do, really, doesn't it - broaden your horizons and think outside of any given box, right?

He better write/email/text/send training videos/visit/invite me to his kids' graduations and weddings, daggone it. Plus he promised to lead the "Dance Felicia's urn around the church" brigade if I check out before he does, so he better not forget how to get back up here, LOL...

The thought of him not being just down the road makes me more than a little sad. Hopefully I'll have another few months or so to get use to the idea, at least.

Doesn't mean I have to like it, though (insert pouty emoji here)...

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sandan: The Brand with the Three Stripes

Last Saturday, my school held its annual year-end grading. This time, I was on the floor grading, too.

I hate grading. Worse than going to the dentist. Worse than doing my taxes. Worse than dealing with my ex. Yes, it's that bad - and if I never had to do it again, I'd be totally fine with that.

But since yondan Training Partner Ed tossed my name in the hat, I was added to the candidate's list. Groovy.

My training - in an actual dojo - has been a sporadic mess due to my looks-like-retail-but-it-ain't work schedule. When grading was first mentioned, I thought it was a joke.

Right after my hair exploded...
Then came a request for a karate bio, which had to be submitted via email and include previous grading dates, rank earned and ranking instructor. After that was approved, a 50-question test was emailed to me. It was designed to be research-based (in that you were supposed to look stuff up) but it was hard. I mean REALLY hard.

In academia, the one adage always heard is this: knowing the format of the test is half the battle. I had no idea what the format of the test would be at all. Training Partner Ed worked with me - as he has for every grading since sankyu - on self-defense and kata bunkai and the like. Bunkai was a bit tricky because some of the last katas I've learned are straight Goju-Ryu, not USA Goju, which made some movements and angles different. We ironed out the wrinkles for about three weeks before the grading, but my brain was fried.

On grading day, the format was pretty similar to almost every other grading - cup-emptying warmup --> kata ---> bunkai, but the bunkai was a bit different; they had each of the four black-belt candidates (two for sandan, one for nidan and one for shodan) do a kata of his/her choice and extrapolate three techniques from the kata and demonstrate the bunkai with ukes. J, the other sandman candidate, chose Superempi as his kata (one I'm still learning) and really did the daggone thing. I chose Shisochin, but had six techniques to demonstrate. Two friends/fellow karateka, Peg and Allyson, stepped in to assist, but the seniors quickly chose the big fellas with the HUGE hands to uke for me (do the grabs and chokes).

Still not done with me, one of the first senseis I ever worked with - one who gave me hell as a white/green/purple belt and who is also a godan in small-circle jujitsu - announced that he wanted to see more "ju" techniques as opposed to the "go" techniques I'd shown. He walked up to me, grabbed my gi collar and told me he wasn't going to let go unless I made him. He checked to make sure I was able to breathe OK then told me to begin when I was ready. I used a wrist manipulation/lock he'd shown me many years ago on him and - surprise, surprise! - I was able to peel his steel-trap hands off my gi, lock his elbow and take him to the ground. He was an amazing teacher, so I knew it would work, but I was still surprised it did if that makes sense...

Thinking I was in the clear, Hanshi McGrath  announced that he wanted to see one more technique: an escape from a rear choke. Ironically, one of my students who is in the corrections academy was going over rear chokehold escapes the night before with Training Partner Ed, who is a retired corrections officer. The two escapes they'd worked on were fresh in my head and had I thought about asking Ed if he was wearing a cup, I would have gone with the second one (a slap ---> grab of the gonads before spinning around with said gonads still in hand, LOL). Instead, I went back to "go" and ended up on the floor with Ed, who just didn't stop once I got his hands off my neck. I'm talking leg locks and all that. It was actually kind of funny once Hanshi said "yame!" but while he was trying to flip/trap me, I kept thinking "What the heck is he doing?"

Tameshiwari was next. Ed called my breaks - ax kick through two boards followed by a haito. Here's what he got: http://youtu.be/0qkiNnFyUEQ

My son, Squirrel, was there to take pictures and video, which was greatly appreciated. Most every sensei I ever trained under was there as well, and felt really good to see my students do their thing and actually leave the dojo with all my teeth, LOL.

And some amazing baked chicken wings someone made for the Holiday Party that followed. Yummy :-D

The best part? No grading talk for four whole years at the very least!!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Learning from the Abduction of Carlesha Freeland-Gaither

On Nov. 2, 2014, a 22 year-old woman named Carlesha Freeland-Gaither was kidnapped as she walked home from a family function in Philadelphia a little before 10PM. Her abductor approached her after she’d crossed the street and appeared to ask her a question before accosting her and dragging her to his car as she kicked, screamed and tried to get away. In the struggle, she lost her glasses and her cellphone, which were found on the sidewalk near the shattered glass left behind from the passenger window she managed to kick out before her abductor drove away.

Here’s the footage from building surveillance cameras that were rolling during the attack: 
Carlesha was found alive in Maryland a few days later, but we all know this situation could have been a whole lot worse.

While I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to blame the victim of a crime - because a woman SHOULD be able to walk down the street without being accosted – I do think it’s important to examine what could have gone differently.

First, the attacker drives along the same street Carlesha walked down(before turning off), indicating that he may have seen her before he parked. He gets out of his car and walks to the corner he knows she will soon cross. At about the 1:30 minute mark, she passes him and keeps it moving, but, after a brief pause, he follows her and appears to say something to get her to stop and turn around. Suddenly, he gets very close to her and, at the 1:51 mark, he grabs her and drags her down the block toward his parked car. The trip to the car took about 15 seconds – probably the most terrifying seconds of Carlesha’s life.

Through the remainder of the video, you see her fighting back and trying to get away – until about the 2:15 mark when it looks as if he picks her up and puts her into his car. But it doesn’t even end there, as an eyewitness says she kicked out both back windows in an effort to escape before he drove away.

Once she was grabbed, she did everything right, including making noise and fighting – hard – to free herself.
But it seemed as if the trouble started before she was grabbed.

Awareness dictates that familiarity with what is going on around you is of the utmost importance. Once he stopped her with whatever it was he said, he got way too close way too fast. He did come up from behind, but he was close enough to reach out and touch (which he did) by the time she really had a chance to react. 
And most attacks happen just that quickly.

Again, I’m not saying it was her fault at all, but anyone you don’t know who gets within an arm’s distance away is probably too close. Keeping that distance between you and a person you don’t know – especially when you are alone at night – is always a good idea. If they move close, you move away. Keep your outstretched hands in front of you when it feels like a threat may be eminent. A bit of verbal de-escalation, in the form of saying “Look, I don’t want any trouble. Stay away from me” can be used, too.

But the speed with which she was accosted would make a reaction to stop it tough, because the shock of being attacked usually takes more than a few seconds to recover from.

Still, it’s important to do something – like Carlesha did - rather than doing nothing. Her reaction (immediate screaming) and the struggle it caused, made folks notice something wasn’t quite right with the situation.

But a word about the other bystanders (including the person in the car who watches for a few seconds before backing up): it stands to reason that if you see someone being dragged to a car while screaming “Help me!” that you should call 911 immediately. And if you are in a car at the top of a one-way street, perhaps you could even do something other than watch the drama unfold while waiting on the police to arrive. At the very least, get a license plate number.

Again – because an attacker watching you usually has an advantage, be that the element of surprise, a weapon or the fact that he/she may be a whole lot bigger and stronger - waiting until they attack may be too late. Being aware of what is going on nearby – that guy you pass on the corner, the dark shadow in the doorway, the van parked next to your car – might just save you from being attacked in the first place.

So let’s say you see someone who makes you feel uncomfortable as you approach. Cross to the other side of the street. If he/she crosses too, cross back. If they do the same, turn and walk in the direction you came from. It may feel ridiculous, but I say better paranoid and alive than too trusting and abducted.

The reality is that not everyone survives being taken to another location – and I’m very glad that Carlesha did.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


I visited a dojang for a TKD earlier this week that I've visited a few times before. It's always a good class - especially since they work lots of kicks and stances.

After class was done, as I bowed out and started to walk down the hall to my gear bag, one of the adults leaned over and asked if he could talk to me for a second.

"Y'know - I've noticed that you change out of your dobak in the hallway after class. You do that A LOT. Not sure if Goju is just different that how we do things here, but some folks might be upset with that," he said.

"With what?" I asked.

"Your changing out of your dobak in the hallway."

My first instinct was to remind him that I wear a doGI. My next was to apologize for making him or anyone who might happen by and see my arm uncovered uncomfortable. I did neither.

For the record, it's not like I'm in a push-up bra and a thong in that hallway. I wear a Lycra tank top that goes all the way to my waist and bike shots that don't end until the middle of my thigh under my gi always. I wear those things to absorb sweat (I detest a sticky, wet gi sticking to me when I'm trying to move around the mat) - but also because many of the places I train don't have changing rooms - only bathrooms for folks to change into and out of their martial arts uniforms, just like this particular dojang. And, no, the idea of peeling off my gi while standing barefoot next to a toilet bowl is not my idea of a good time. Besides, since the entire class cannot usually fit into a bathroom at once, it saves me time as I don't have to wait for an available stall.

Then I understood what he was basically saying: HE was uncomfortable with me sitting on the bench across from the bathrooms in that dead-end hallway taking off my gi top to put on my t-shirt then removing my gi bottoms to slip on my sweats. I wasn't quite sure what the issue was about that, but I was pretty sure it wasn't mine.

So no, I didn't squeeze into the ladies' room to change. I just waited until he dipped into the men's room before I slipped out of my gi top and into my t-shirt. I'm all for "when in Rome..." - but I do have a problem with being made to feel guilty about someone else's discomfort. Still his reaction - and that he felt the need to talk to me about it - was surprising.

That I was surprised was kind of surprising as well, but whatever. It's not like I haven't experienced crazy in and around the training hall before.

And I'm pretty certain that it won't be my last time, either.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Chick With Sticks

The newsroom where I work no longer has
an operating press. In that huge space is
where I sometimes practice my weapons.
I've been training with the bo for about five years, sai for about three and tonfa for close to two.

Bo was a great first weapon for me because it helped me learn what it was to use it as an extension of my body. But because two hands controlled the bo, it wasn't apparent that my dominant right hand was significantly more coordinated than my left until I played with sai for the first time. Not only were they heavy as all get out, but my left hand looked quite sad doing drills because the dexterity and strength just were not the same as on the other side. My then sensei suggested starting with my non-dominant hand for sai drills and having it "teach" my dominant side - something he learned accidentally as a natural lefty. It worked - and I still do single-hand drills on my left side first to this day. Because the tonfa are lighter and use a lot of wrist flexion and extension, doing sai drills before I start tonfa drills/hojo undo has helped with my dexterity and strength.

A few months ago, I started taking drum lessons. I've played for a bit, but wanted to study them the same way I study karate: with folks who also study - and teach - theory. I've noticed a lot of similarities between the two - sticks not withstanding - including:
  • The sanctity of the practice hall - On the mat, all the stuff that happened before you got there - work, the bills, the needed oil change and other stuff we call "life" - is supposed to remain outside the door. For that block of time, the mind clears and martial thoughts take priority. It's the same with the drums - as the focus has to be on the task at hand to keep the mistakes to a minimum. True, no one will get hurt if your foot misses the bass or the cymbal crash is forgotten, but the beat you're supposed to be keeping/accentuating will get lost in the sauce.
  • Upper/Lower body separation - In karate, there are plenty of times when your arms are doing one thing and your legs are doing another. Behind a trap set, it certainly is the same. The concentration it takes to pull that off - and keep pulling it off - is incredibly intense and is remarkably a lot like kata, kumite or two-person bunkai drills.
    My tonfa - which my Beloved calls "chair legs" :-)
  • The basics are the foundation to everything - With the drums, basic structure - control (tempo, and volume), accuracy and sometimes power all make the music. It's the same in karate. It takes all hands and feet working together to make it work - because a strong bass but a weak snare is useless. It's the same as throwing a perfectly-place kick but falling over before the foot can return to the ground. Kihon is kihon, it really is - whether it's barefoot on the dojo floor or sitting down behind a snare.
  • Practice makes for a perfect experience - Just like the kata in my kitchen (while my Beloved and Squirrel are asleep) that begins with drill warm-ups, practice is a necessary part of musicianship as well. My musician brother talks about the importance of "shedding" - that nose-to-the-grindstone practice in the figurative shed behind the house where the kinks get ironed out and the real work gets done. As a classically trained violinist (I began playing at age 7), I have an idea of what it takes musically to connect with your instrument (because I didn't do it with my violin, which is probably why I don't still play today). Things aren't anywhere near perfect because of practice, but the art of devoting time to picking up those sticks every day makes for a much better experience.
  • When you're thinking about it, you're not doing it - This may just be unique to my quirky brain, but being in the moment and suddenly realizing I'm in the moment makes for a mess. In the dojo when it's randori time and I'm thinking about what to do next, that pause between the thinking and the doing is when I'm getting hit or having the technique flipped around and applied on me. Same is true with the drums: thinking about it is the surest way to guarantee that it will fall apart in 3...2...1 seconds. When I'm doing it, I'm totally in the zone. And when I'm there, the only way to the other side is to keep going.
  • My snare practice pad 
There is no "best" side - My first sensei's favorite saying was "In karate, you've got your good side and your other good side." What he meant was this: if your strong/dominant side is incapacitated or busy holding your baby/shielding another from harm's way, your non-dominant side needs to pick up the slack post haste. And when you can't, it's obvious which side needs some extra drill time. It's the same on the drums. I'm left-footed but right handed, which already means my kit is a little unorthodoxed - but it also means I don't have the luxury of changing hands to do anything. My left side is not nearly as loud as my right when both are on snare, so guess which hand gets a little more drilling time during warmups?
  • Being quiet is not allowed - It's usually pretty difficult for new karate students to get into the idea of loud, unabashedly free, roof-moving kiais. Instructors encourage screaming like a banshee on the mat because the voice can be just as much of a weapon as the rest of the body. There's no effective way to kiai quietly, just like there's not really a quiet way to play a percussion instrument - there just isn't. Still, it doesn't stop me from trying, though (I'm as shy in the rehearsal hall as my new students are in the dojo, what can I say?). What I hear most from my instructor during my lessons is "I can't hear your foot." So, just like karate spirit yells, consistency is key. If the tom, snare, high-hat, crash, ride or bass fades to a dull roar when it ain't supposed to, something will be missing, which is totally not good.
  • The journey is more important than the destination - Martial arts is definitely a life-time pursuit. It's not meant to be something done for a few months or even years then put on the shelf until the spirit to dust it off and try again hits you. It's supposed to take a long time to learn, understand and even longer to master. Music is the same way. I know folks who have been playing since they were barely able to walk and still - 40 years later - talk about stuff they still need to work on or learn. Similar conversations happen in the dojo, with karate folks who've been on the mat for decades. 
And like karate, the best part about learning to understand this instrument for me is that there is always something new to learn. Hopefully, the learning will continue for a long time to come.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On Michael Brown: A Conversation with Squirrel

OK, I tried to avoid it, but now I hafta write about the Ferguson situation.

Yes, I'm a mom who with a son who is only two years older than Michael Brown, the young man who was shot to death by a police officer less than two weeks ago.

As an editor, I spend lots of time each day sifting through wire stories about the unrest and police activity going on in that small town in Missouri. And because there is a television in my workspace, I'm also able to catch press conferences and the like during the day as well.

I gotta tell you something: this is making me sick.
Lesley McSpadden (R) and Michael Brown Sr. (L), parents of 18-year-old Michael Brown,

I'm not going to wax poetic about the travesty that is shooting an unarmed teen to death - not at all.

I won't try to pretend I can do anything but feel helpless when I see the faces of his parents in the photographs that come across my work computer screen.

I will not say how my stomach drops when the footage of the police in riot gear, shields and tanks with scope riffles roll across the television screen.

But I will say this: my son, Squirrel, is beginning to stress about it. And that simply is not OK.

Today, he sent me a text message asking if I'd heard about the latest shooting, this one in St. Louis, which is only a few miles way from Ferguson. His choice of words told me he was upset and not really too sure of what to do with this information.

Turns out he'd spent the last hour or so watching CNN. He'd convinced himself that the latest shooting - specifically the way in which it was covered - was designed to only do one thing: justify the police action (unruly man brandishing a knife is lawfully killed when he refuses to obey a police order). He called it "death by suicide" and couldn't believe how quickly the media jumped on it.

I told him what I tell my journalism students: timeliness - stories of similar vein happening around the same time - is one of  the seven news values that help editors and TV/radio news producers determine if a story should be covered. Because the dissemination of information was a major problem in the tiny hamlet of Ferguson, the larger metropolis of St. Louis did not make the mistake of even tying to appear that there was information being hidden. The press was around because there was breaking news down the street in Ferguson. St. Louis, probably learning from Ferguson's mis-cues, got the information out to the public via the press as soon as they could. Yes, the investigation is ongoing, but transparency is important to help people know what's happening and figure out a way to deal with it.

We chatted for a long time. By the time we were done, he was calmer and a bit more understanding of the process. Yes, he was still upset, but seemed able to find a place to put that, if that makes any sense.

We will talk about it again tomorrow, I'm sure.

But that we have to again tomorrow, is not OK.

Neither is the idea that we even have to have reminder discussions and talk about "what to do if" and think about safer courses of action (he's a martial artist, too).

That is the legacy of situations like this, unfortunately. Teachable moments are usually one-shot deals, not gifts that keep on giving.

I feel that sinking thing that lets me know I can't protect my almost 21-year-old child from everything.

And it absolutely sucks...