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, nome 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.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

…And Dance by the Light of the Moon

I did it. I finally left my "this place is literally making me ill" job to go back to freelancing full-time. Doing anything as a freelancer is like a feast or famine crap shoot - but freelance writing/editing pretty much always equals "Food is over-rated anyway!" Especially in my little neck of the woods and in this economy, it's tough, tough, tough to make it outside the walls of corporate America and keep roof overhead with lots of bosses instead of just one. Suffice to say I had a plan (which promptly didn't pan out as planned) then quickly made another.

That "other" was going back to newspaper work. Understand that, although I am a journalist, I haven't done much newspaper work - other than covering the school board shenanigans of a district a few towns over - in a while. My first job ever was delivering newspapers when I was in eighth grade. After college, I came home and worked as a staffer for that same paper for over a year. And while going through my divorce, I kept roof over the head of my then six-year old son by covering the city beat (both crime and government) at another newspaper. I've always liked the pace that is working for a daily or weekly paper, so when my current plan crashed and burned, I turned my job hunt radar to area newspapers. I've been an editor now for almost three weeks, replacing a guy who'd been with the company for over 30 years. The work is fun, the co-workers great and the pay is even better than I expected. MUCH better. I'm happily doing what I love again, and it feels great.

The only issue I'm having is the hours. My days off rotate - which is fine - but it means my dojo days have dwindled down to a precious few. Once upon a time, I was in the dojo four to five days a week between teaching and learning. This past week, I was only able to squeeze in one class. Sigh…

But of course that does not mean my training has stopped. My kitchen dojo never closes, and many a night in the past few weeks I've gotten in, kissed my Beloved, petted the dog and kicked off my shoes for kihon and kata. I've also done the same in my pajamas before I headed out of the door. In a way, it forces me to be extremely disciplined as I have to plan my training in advance (just showing up in the kitchen without a plan isn't an option) and resist the urge to watch TV for that first hour I'm home. About the only thing that hasn't changed is my lifting schedule, as my gym is open 24/7, so the cardio and moving of heavy objects (yep, picking things up and putting them down) gets done. My new schedule also makes me appreciate my actual dojo experiences a bit more because I know it might be a minute before I get to see and work with sensei and my training partners again. I do have a tourney in two weeks. I'll only do kata - and since the women's executive division is mighty tiny, I usually get to the grand championship round, which is a very good thing. Winning would be even better (as they give a cash prize), but, one can't have everything.

In addition to finally being rid of the old place of employ and the angst it was causing, I get to really give my son something that will help him move down his own path: fully paid tuition and room and board. See, part of my problem at the old gig was the pay - and how, as a result, I HAD to do freelancing gigs just to make the ends meet. It was getting harder and harder to pay his college fees and the worry about how I was ever going to be able to afford his HUGE (I mean, it's gargantuan) dorm fee was constant.

Near the middle of last month, I went to see him in a college production. He's a Dance/Performing Arts major and had decided to challenge himself last semester by not only taking a class in a style he had never studied before, but by auditioning for a school production in that style. Not only was the show really, really good, my son was amazing! Now, trust me, I'm used to seeing things from him during performances that make me "Ooooo!" and "Ahhhh" - but nothing like this. It was obvious that he'd gotten so much better with his lines and his movements than was just six months before (and I wasn't the only one who noticed; a choreographer in the audience sent a text to one of his instructors DURING THE SHOW to ask who he was!! OMG!). When the houselights in the auditorium came on, I just sat there in kind of a stupor, thinking that he really, truly BELONGS on stage because, well, to put it simply, he is a dancer. Before that performance, I'd thought of "dancer" as something he wanted to be, not as something he was. He needs to learn his art and hone his craft - and here, at his chosen college, was where he seemed best suited to do that. As his parent, it was up to me to find a way to help him.

Just before he loaded up his hooptie (the very old and kinda rusty car that gets him back and forth) to head back to school today, we sat and talked about school a bit - and I assured him that it would be paid for without a loan. It felt really good to say that, it really did.

So, I'll find a way to get the training in, I know it. If my 20-hr-old can hold down his part in the studio and in the classroom (he had a 3.5 GPA last semester), the least I can do is my part in the dojo.

And I'm pretty sure it will all be OK.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year's Wish

Wishing a happy and healthy budo-filled 2014 to you and yours!

"Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors and let each New Year find you a better [person]."
 - Benjamin Franklin

Monday, December 30, 2013

Think Like a Cockroach

cockroach photo:  roach.jpgThe week between Christmas and New Year's Day is generally a slow one in karate land with not much in the way of regular classes happening. But one of our friends in NYC was holding class in his basement dojo and invited Training Partner Ed, myself and a a few students down tonight. And of course, we jumped at the chance.

Master Dave takes his karate very seriously, teaching in three different locations in the Bronx at least six nights a week. Because we travel over an hour to get to him, he likes to make the time we spend with him "special" in an "I don't think I can do another roundhouse kick" sort of way that makes your hair drip sweat. In addition to being a walking Goju and Shotokan kata encyclopedia, he is also famous for his "two minute drills" - where he fills the last few moments of every class with karate-related aerobic stuff designed to make you see what you're made of (or puke trying to find out). I aways leave his dojo wondering how I am able to even walk out - because not everyone does.

Tonight, after a invigorating warmup and some kihon, Master Dave had us work some lead leg kicking/lead hand punching speed drills. Speed was the operative word because fights on the street and in the ring happen fast. No one wants to get caught thinking of a confrontation-killing combination instead of moving to avoid, block or lay a hand or foot on an adversary. Openings, he said, don't come along all that often, and when they do, they don't tend to stick around very long. Good fighters look for openings and move in before they disappear. Great fighters find ways to create them.

"You have to think like a cockroach," he said "- because a cockroach will always find a way to get in."

Even the best fighters on the planet make mistakes from time to time by leaving something open while trying to block or counter - even if it is only for a fraction of a second. Finding that crack in the armor and moving in before it gets plugged up is the key to holding your own, he said. Then we spent the next hour following up defensive/blitz-stopping side and front kicks with lead-hand/rear-hand combos designed to help us think like a cockroach and get in - by any means necessary.

Next we worked more upper-body kihon with a makiwara, checking each other on form breaks and hitches that could telegraph intentions to an adversary. "Remember, the person in front of you can be a cockroach, too. He's trying to find a way inside," Master Dave said, reminding us that each shoulder dip before a reverse punch or slight drop in the lead hand before a jab is not much different than a gap under the pantry door: an entryway to the goodies on the other side.

Yeah, cockroaches are creepy, dirty little buggers that freak most of us out, but thinking like on when your dukes go up isn't a bad idea at all.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

So Long and Farewell...

Today, a training partner tested for Nidan while many of the instructors I've trained with over the years came to watch. It was followed by our annual Holiday Party (called such because not everyone who trains with us celebrates Christmas) and gift exchange. A bittersweet day for all of us - and not just because it was the last class of the year. It also marked the last class at our current location.

Training Partner Ed on Opening Day
We started at the Salvation Army three-and-a-half years ago. Since the first six students walked in that day, we've grown to close to 50. We've trained hard in our tiny space, sweating through kihon and kata and prepping for tournaments and gradings. We've laughed as much as we've cried - over birthday cakes, farewell parties and even a few funerals.

It's been a beautiful almost-four years, it really has. But we've outgrown our space - both physically and emotionally - and will be moving to a new location in January. It's sad, but it's time to move forward.

The last Friday class at the SA :-(
We've truly had some great times in the Salvation Army and seen some incredible growth from our amazing students, some of whom have trained with us since the beginning. We even started an adult class that focuses more on self-defense after a parent of one of our teens suggested it because he'd always wanted to train as a kid but his family couldn't afford it and he felt sort of odd starting next to his 12-hr-old son whom he'd have to call "sir." Unfortunately, he passed away suddenly before we could get the class up and running, but I think of him every time the adults bow in.

Karate isn't something Training Partner Ed and I do a few nights a week - it's truly a way of life. Out mission always has been to pass that ideology onto others. We understand that all of them won't be training for the rest of their lives, but the hope is that a few will. Someone has to be around for us to hand the reigns of the dojo over to!

Our group after the grading. 

I wish we could stay - because that space has become a second home to so many - but we can't. The environment has changed as have the number of folks who are interested in what we do there each week, so we have to move along to bigger and hopefully better things. It's just time.

We'll miss you, Salvation Army. We really will.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Get to the Karate Already!

Since I'm still on post-nasal surgery restrictions that limit my physical activity, I've only visited my teaching dojo a few times to say hello to my students/training partners and "walk the mat" (meaning not participating, just giving instruction and correction during the class when I am in gi or sitting and observing silently when I'm in my civvies) in the last few weeks. I popped into the adult class one night last week and was a little disturbed by what I saw.

Class begins at 6:30PM. Our senpai - a barely 20-yr-old who's been a shodan for about five months or so - was leading the warmup. Spirited and agile, he was taking our 30 and 40+ "executives" through burpees and minute-long running-in-place high-knee drills. Not in gi (because I actually had to return to work), I said hello to a few folks watching and chatted with training partner Ed for a while before looking at my watch. At 7PM when I was about to head back out the door, they were still jumping around and hadn't even begun stretching yet. The class ends at 8PM.

None of the adult students are sedentary - even if they can only get to the dojo once a week. Ancillary training - from boxing to weight-lifting and running - is done by most all off them on their off-dojo days (heck, one student, a 38-hr-old green belt, does CrossFit in the morning on karate nights). In other words, there were no couch potatoes who only sweat 90 minutes a week on the mat. And although a good "Let's get those muscles nice and warm/loose before we start hitting and kicking things" warmup is a very good thing, too much of a good thing just ain't good for you, IMHO. Personally, when I only have 90 minutes to get some karate training in, I want to spend as much of that time actually doing karate as possible - and I've gotten pretty annoyed in class when instructors didn't see it the same way, which made for less than pleasurable karate experiences.

When I was a kyu, my then sensei used to lengthen the class warmup as we got closer to grading - so much so that it wasn't unusual to have a 40-minute jog/jumping jack/push-up marathon the week before testing. His theory was that the "cup-emptying" workout we were going to be put through at the grading should feel a bit familiar. I understood where he was coming from, but didn't agree - mainly because I was getting my cardio and weights in during the rest of the week and kinda figured my dojo sisters and brothers were doing something similar as well. Plus my other discipline (track and field) had engrained in me that there are strong, strong benefits to tapering your training before upcoming big, arduous contests. My sensei's plan was totally contradictory to that, it seemed.

The next sensei I trained under had spurts where he would try to work us into puddles of sweat before we actually began the karate portion of class. There were quite a few classes where we warmed up with lots and lots of burpees and squat thrusts followed by minute-long planks and "scoop" pushups that made me wonder if I'd somehow stumbled into the aerobic kick-boxing class. Again, I got what he was trying to get us to do, but I just wanted to get to the karate already.

I've also been to classes where students were expected to warmup on their own before class actually started. That meant you needed to get there early enough to do whatever it is you needed to do so you were ready for whatever kata, makawari or other drills Sensei dished out. It developed out of necessity (the sensei taught a boxing class before karate and one started and the other ended at the same time, which made it necessary to be efficient with the little time we did have to do martial stuff), but it made sense to me, as the 19-yr-old college students who trained on one side of me had different physical needs than the 40 and 50-hr-old executives who trained on the other side. Not that there weren't smattering of conditioning exercises/drills during class (like, say, 20 pushups after a kata or 20 round house kicks between bunkai drills), but the business of the day was about karate, not preparing to do karate.

When I teach, of course there is a bit of time reserved for getting the blood flowing and stretching before we start drills or whatever else is on the agenda, but it is not the entire focus of the class and it never usually takes more than 15 minutes or so. Yes, it's necessary to warmup, but I just don't get the "go hard or go home" calisthenics that seem designed to show little more than the fitness level of the person leading the class.

Get to the karate already, please...