Saturday, October 11, 2014

I visited a dojang 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 in the hallway. 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 do gi. 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 sound), 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 click - because a strong bass but a weak high-hat 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-grinstone 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 or 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 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 say 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...

Monday, June 16, 2014

It Ain't Her Fault

What do you get when a few journalists together in a newsroom and a poorly written press release about an attempted rape comes off the fax machine?

Lively debate.

Here's the scenario: the police beat reporter mentioned that the release included a comment from the district attorney's office about the party the victim went to the night she was attacked and that she may have - GASP! - actually consumed alcohol at said party. The release said she was asleep when her attacker snuck into her room and tried to rape her. Yep - asleep. Not "passed out." Not "highly inebriated." Not "sloppy drunk." Just. Asleep.

The reporter and I had the same question: why was it necessary to mention that she'd gone to a party and possibly drank the night she was a victim of a violent crime?

Allergic to nonsense...
We saw it like this: had the crime been an attempted robbery and she asleep when it occurred, would the fact that she drank have been mentioned? Honestly, I was surprised they did not mention the type of nightgown she was wearing during the attack.

The other two editors didn't agree. They did not see the terms "alcohol" and "party" as faulting the victim, but only as indicators that she was unable to defend herself. "It just goes to illustrate what a scum this guy really is because he attacked someone who obviously could not defend herself," the desk editor said.

Remember, the information said ASLEEP.  Not DRUNK. Another editor said the wording used probably showed that she was drunk because if she wasn't, she might have been able to fight back. A sleeping person, he said, would surely have been able to react.

But nowhere in the info we got did it say she was unable to react. Or that she didn't. That seemed to me to be total speculation.

And as a result, the reporter did not want to include it in the story. The desk editor overruled her - but suggested that she discuss it with the managing editor if she still had a problem with it. The words were still hanging in a bubble above us - like in a cartoon - and the reporter was out of her chair and on her way to do just that. And guess what? It was decided it was OK to include the info about the party as long as it was attributed to the DA who said it.

And my mouth is still hanging open.

Let me fill in some blanks: the other two editors and the managing editors are male. The reporter and I are not.

Did that have anything to do with the idea that the three of them didn't quite seem to get the victim blaming/slut shaming the DA was trying to push via the release? I'm sure it had a lot to do with it.

And I was HOT for the rest of the daggone day.

Just so we're clear, it is never ok to make the victim of any crime the reason s/he was the victim. I have a real problem with the idea that women in sexual assault situations are somehow the exception. What she wore, what she consumed, whether she kissed the assailant are TOTALLY irrelevant when force is involved or a "no" is ignored.

Asleep in your bed in your own home seems like a place to assume you are relatively safe. The assumption of fault on the part of the sleeper is a stretch in my book.

But, I'm sure the DA is betting that more folks in the possible jury pool will be swayed to think that somehow, the victim does bare some onus because, well, she had the audacity to go to a party and possibly drink the night she was attacked. And you know what? The DA might be right.

And that's a total, total shame, IMHO...

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Sandan testing has been mentioned. My reaction, of course, was "Are you kidding me?!?"

I don't care if I never, ever grade again. Seriously. As long as the learning doesn't stop, I'm good.

My training has been spotty - other than the outside-the-dojo ancillary stuff. Solo tonfa training, however, is going well, but that and teaching are all I do in gi these days - thanks to my job schedule.

How ironic is it that just as I begin to settle into my "gotta get it in when I can so I don't get rusty" mindset, THIS gets put out there.

Truth is often stranger than fiction, I guess...

Sunday, March 23, 2014


"Every day you learn something new."
- Dennis Brown (musician)

Last year, I went to a tourney in Philly that was one of the worst I'd ever been to - for "executive" competitors, anyway. It made this over 30 girl feel like a total afterthought once the entry fee was paid. But the training partners I went with - all in their 20's - had a great experience, as their rings were run smoothly, none of their center judges took phone calls during the competitions, everything in their respective rings went off without a hitch and their judging was relatively fair. What was a crappy tourney for me was actually a pretty good one for them.

This weekend, I went to a tourney that I'd heard offered lots of competition for senior competitors. The flyer was on my fridge since September and I was pretty happy it fell on one of my off weekends from work. II was happy to see lots of grey-haired judges because I was hopeful they'd be competing as well. And many of them did, which was great for the MALE executive ranks. Not so much for the females.

Adult black belt competition was dead last. They had lots of age group categories (19-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59 and 60+) for kata, weapons and sparring, but while there were male competitors to fill every bracket, there were only four executive women - a three of them were in the 19-29 division. The promoter's brilliant idea was to put the women together and make it one big "over 18" category. When I asked why, he chastised me for not pre-registering (so he would know how many women would be in each division - which I don't get, because even if I would have pre-registered, I still would have been the only woman in my division) but finally did me the "favor" of allowing me to compete in my age division - like he did for the lone 60+ male competitor. 

Here's the thing about the lone senior male: he presented his a weapons, a "soft" form (no idea what that is) and a regular empty-hand form solo - which allowed him to win his division and make it to three different grand championship rounds. When the women were finally called (after all the executive men did weapons and empty-hand forms), the center judge of the ring told me that since I would be the automatic winner, he was sure that I "didn't just want to do a demo" and thought, in the interest of saving time, I'd be fine with just presenting in the Grand Championship. Funny how no one was worried about the time being lost when Mr. 60+ presented three times by himself (they even presented him his award the same way they normally do: with all three judges greeting and congratulating him after his "win" and been announced; for me, the promoter's daughter handed me the award as I was straightening my gi. "Nice job," she said as she skipped away.). Part of me wanted to insist on being allowed to present my kata in my division - just in the interest of fairness alone - but I worried that my insistence would have been seen as arrogance - and that the judging in the Grand championship would have reflected that.

I should NOT have had to worry about that.

For those of you keeping score at home, it went like this: 
Although we both "won" our division, senior dude paid $55 to enter, presented kata six times and competed in Grand Championships three times while I paid the same $55 and was a "one and done." He probably had a decent tourney while my experience there absolutely sucked. There's something not quite right about that - but the something new I re-learned this weekend is that a "good tournament" is a totally relative experience.

I'm so tired of wasting my time, money and gas traveling up and down the east coast to get to these tourneys only to find that I'm not really the type of competitor they are marketing to. It sucks to be seen as unimportant to the folks putting the tournament together, it really does.

So, although I really hoped to be able to compete until my 50th birthday, I'm calling it quits a few years early. This will be my last season doing this tourney circuit stuff. If I hadn't already committed to a few tourneys this summer, I swear this weekend's disaster would've been my last. 

It's such a shame that a desire to compete and the ability to put in the training time and get to the competition site isn't nearly enough. 

To every karate tournament organizer out there who doesn't make sure the five-year-olds and the 50-year-old females have the same kind of quality experience at your tournament as the 6- to 18-year-olds do: shame on you. Sexist, ageist and "you aren't as important" implications are pathetic and have absolutely no place in anything martial at all - even if it is "just" a regional tournament.

It's Women's History Month here in the states. This just doesn't have to be my history any longer...

Monday, March 17, 2014

Dusting and Cleaning

Last month, we traveled to a tournament in NYC. An annual event, it is free, well-run, free and a great way for our students to see a competitive martial environment without any fears (by us and parents) of them getting injured due to poor ring management/judging. Did I mention it was free?

Pulling off a fee-less tourney is not easy. Other than the space usage rental, the biggest expense is undoubtedly the awards. Think about it: awards for top three in every division adds up. So how did the tourney organizers supply awards without having to go into their pockets? Simple: they recycled trophies from their association's students and replaced only the placards/plates on them.

Consequently, some of the awards were smaller or larger than others. You'd think that would hardly be a "thing" - especially at a free tournament - but it was.

While waiting for the assigned ring to begin for three of my students, I overheard a mom saying the following to the woman standing next to her:
"He won, but look at the size of this trophy! It's not nearly as big as the one the kid who won in the 8-10-year-old beginners ring got! Can you imagine?"
Did she forget that she paid not one thin dime for Junior to compete - nor was there a spectator fee for her to watch Junior do his thing?

Typically, tournament registration fees range from $45 to $75. If mom, dad, nana and pop-pop come to watch, they pay about $10 each just to get in the gym door. Even if Junior wins and takes home a ginormous trophy, the family is quite a bit in the hole once travel expenses and lunch are factored in. Should the size of the trophy the main issue here?

Competition should be about testing your mettle in a relatively safe environment - at least that is what we pass along to the students who do compete in our school. Sure, be happy if you happen to pull off a victory or even place, but be just as happy that you had the courage and fortitude to step into the ring in the first place.

Besides, the bigger the award, the more you have to dust. Seriously.

In the interest of cutting my household cleaning duties in half, I think I need to donate a few awards towards next year's event.