Saturday, December 29, 2012

For the Love of Movement: An Ode to Newton's Second Law

Last Friday, my throat was a little scratchy. On Sunday morning, the voice was totally gone. By Monday - Christmas Eve (which meant everything, including my doctor's office, closed early) - I had chills and dizziness. When I finally was able to get in to see the doc two days later, I found out I had a flu-like virus + a bacterial respiratory infection AND a lovely oral fungal infection. I had hit the germ trifecta - and left the pharmacy with a bag full of stuff to help make two of those nasty critters go away.

I've slept more in the past week than I even thought possible. Trips down the hall to the bathroom or kitchen felt more like marathons than simple walks. My appetite fell off (one meal of chicken with rice soup a day was all I could muster) and showering to change into fresh PJs took all the strength I had, I was so totally void of energy. I was really, really sick.

Suffice to say, I didn't train during my almost week in microbial hades. Usually, forced breaks from training make me cagey, but this one wasn't so bad. I guess all the sleeping made free time I could have used for training non-existant, really. But in addition to helping my body shore its resources and prepare to fend off the germ invasion, the sleep had another therapeutic value: I actually dreamed about karate a lot. Kata, bunkai, evasion/counter techniques, kihon - yep, all of it frequently made appearances in my REM cycle. My body may not have been physically able to do anything martial, but that didn't stop my mind, I guess. That's kinda cool, I think.

Since today was the first day in the last few that I woke up feeling almost kinda normal, I actually did push-ups, air squats and kata! It feels like it's been so long since I've done that and I had a brief moment of panic - like suppose I can't remember how or simply can't push my body off the ground? - but it passed quickly. There's something quite liberating about actual movement, y'know? Reading (or dreaming) about kata is one thing, but actually doing it is something else entirely. It's very profound.

If this upward health trend continues, I might actually do - gasp! - some abdominal work tomorrow, who knows? An object in motion and all that...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sexist Bull...Shido

This flyer was posted on FaceBook by my friend, Kate. An international and national kata and weapons champion, she competes regularly on the NASKA (North American Sports Karate Association) circuit but almost always has to travel to other states to do it - which can be expensive and time-consuming (if she has to drive). So she was understandably excited that a local tournament (only about an hour away) was offering cash prizes for female kata black belt grand champions. I was kinda jazzed about the kumite prize money myself - until I read the flyer a little closer and saw that while the men's black belt grand champions stood to win $500, the women could only win $250. She said that as unfortunate as it was, it was also sort of the norm in tournament land because there are usually close to three times as many men competing as women.


Now, I understand the economics of promoting and running a successful tournament - cover your overhead (space rental, insurance and award costs) without going in the red - but I hafta admit that I was quite taken aback by the blatant award disparity - especially since the entry fee - a whopping $75 at the door - is the same for everyone.

I found the promoter's page and asked him why women GCs were only going to be awarded half as much as the men. He wrote:
"Please don't take it as disrespect but the Women Division is too small to generate the [same] cash award. Most promoters don't offer money for a Women's Grand Champion, not out of disrespect but generally, your second round is for the Grand because of the lack of women in the division. Small tournaments in quality locations are hard to generate prize money. I am doing my best to fix all the issues with New York tournaments [and] prize money is at the top of the list."

I admire his honesty and his efforts, but the excuse seems to be...well...just that. I've never competed in NASKA or KRANE-rated tournaments, but the local and regional ones I have competed in have never given anything but equal awards for men and women, be they 6' tall trophies, shinny cups, gold/silver/bronze medals, artful plaques or prize money (check out the Ocean State Grand Nationals tourney's award listing for instance). Truthfully, I'm not sure I could, in good conscience, compete in a tournament where women earned less than men in the same categories.

Usually how it works in local tournaments is this: black belt divisions are split by age group (18 to 29, 30 to 39, 40 to 49 and 50+). Martial artists in each division compete against each other then the winners go head-to-head for grand championship in kata, kumite and weapons. In all fairness, I've competed where there were 10 women in the 40-49-yr-old group for kata and weapons but only three for kumite, meaning there are only two fights to win before qualifying for the Grand Championship - but I've also had to fight four rounds before GCs - and in the championship fight, there are more rounds (two instead of one) that are longer. Imagine working your booty off to win the title only to be told your victory is worth half as much as the person in the next ring who did the same simply because he happens to be a guy. Exactly - so forgive me if I appear offended by that concept.

The promoter of next October's tourney said that if there are as many female competitors in the black belt divisions as in the male divisions, he will make the prizes equal, but whether that means the same number of competitors or having to fight the same number of rounds to make it to Grand Championships wasn't clear. And honestly, why should it take all that? If it's about the money, why even bother to award cash prizes at all? If the goal is to increase the number of female black belt competitors, why not send the "we really want you to come!" message by taking what is available for prize money, putting it into one pot and splitting it equally between the men and women (and children, for that matter)? Or how about halving the marketing budget by nixing the full-color glossy posters up there and using some of those ducats towards prize equity? It doesn't seem that hard to me at all, really. Am I missing something here?

And here's the kicker: other female competitors didn't really seem too phased by the idea of lower prize money for women. A few of them even said it's what they expect because it's ALWAYS been that way. One young woman even commented that since she considers the male black belt fights "more entertaining" to watch, she thought they should earn more (I had to re-read her comment a few times just to make sure I understood her correctly). And to them I say this: just because we have been conditioned to accept less, it doesn't mean we should - and if we do, we will always be awarded less. It's just that simple.

BTW, guess who's planning on putting together an all-female tournament next October? :-)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Delving into "The Way to Black Belt"

This is a re-print from our school's blog:

Although one of our students finished "The Way to Black Belt" by Lawrence A. Kane and Kris Wilder a week after she got it and others are in the throws of finishing the first few chapters, no one has been able to put their thoughts about it on paper yet. So for now, let's start with mine.

It's interesting reading the first two chapters as both a karate student and an instructor - especially since I instruct and get instruction in two different schools. And as I'm currently looking for some way to change my learning environment (specifically: expanding into more kobudo and eventually traditional Okinawan Goju-ryu), the book came at just the right time for me.

I'm currently a nidan in USA Goju so earning a black belt is not my goal, but the information detailed in chapter one - on knowing what to look for in a potential school and instructor as well as setting/reaching goals - is most useful. While I'm transitioning, Iain Abernathy's SMART technique - or creating goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound - has fast become my mantra. It and the "action plan" listing at the end of chapter one are also helping me figure out whether my current struggle in my learning environment is simply a training plateau or something else all together. I'm a bit more earnest in jotting down specifics in my training log as a result.

Next week marks my foray into seeking additional instruction by visiting area dojos. Reviewing "Chapter 2: Find a Good Instructor" has between helpful - mostly because I found my first school (which I left shortly after earning my black belt) by total happenstance as the class met weekly in the community center where I worked. But it's also helping me when I wear my "Sensei" hat as I strive to ensure that I embody those "characteristics of an exemplary instructor" outlined in the chapter.

I'm just starting to move through "Chapter 3: Know How You Learn" but for me, it's been so far, so good :-)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Contemplating Kata

Yesterday, training partner Ed and I, along with one of our students traveled to a tourney in NYC. I dragged my gear bag along - complete with my "competition" sparring stuff - in case there actually were "executive" (read: old) female black belts there, but there wasn't a long line of 45-yr-old females waiting to jump in the ring, surprise, surprise.

What I did see, though, was an amazing karateka in the children's division. I'm not big on 10-yr-old black belts normally, but this young lady had the most amazing focus and technique. She was obviously not just going through the motions and looked like she had been training her whole life. The same could not be said for other competitors, though. There was one young green belt - perhaps 15 or so, I guess - who actually did Unsu, an advanced Shotokan kata. He was full of spirit and very loud kias, but although his stances weren't bad for a relative beginner, for Unsu, they were not that great at all. I guess there is a reason why it's an advanced kata.

With the exception of an 8-yr-old brown belt who was very much on pointe, most of the other underbelt kata I saw was filled with lots of stomping (?!), ear-piercing kias and not much else. Although they looked really menacing while they were killing bugs on the floor, I kept waiting for some semblance of kata.

Another trend yesterday was the screaming of the name/style/sensei/kata presentation speech to the judges. Not an "I'm full of karate spirit!" type of yell, but an edgier, barky, almost rude type. Some even yelled up close then screamed the name of the kata again shortly before they began. And to step the rudeness up even further, too many folks felt bound and determined to let the judges know that they disagreed with the point calls during kumite. I'm talking incredulous stare-downs, outlandish hand gestures and outright questions to the center judge about his ability to see. I'm not quite sure what to even say about that.

Just so we're clear, this isn't a slam on large tournaments at all - but rather a commentary on the competition mentality. Any karate pratctioner who has ever competed knows that kata in open tournmanets tends to be a bit more, well...dramatic...than usual. For example, there are probably a few more kias tossed in when judges are watching than there normally are. Game faces are in place and practitioners try their best to bring the heat. But shouldn't that be the goal of kata done in the training hall sans judges as well?

I'll admit that I sometimes put different effort in when I'm first learning a kata, when I'm working on a kata and when competing. In front of judges, there is no thinking about the kata - there's just doing. Things flow a little differently when I don't have to think about the next technique or where my body has to go next - because I've already done that thought during the training sessions. In the confines of a ring, it becomes almost etheral in a way that I don't always feel during training (except when I'm working Sanchin kata). Maybe that's because the learning process calls for starts and stops, bunkai examination and flat cadences, I dunno. But it seems odd that the rote "in the moment" kata appears for me most when I'm presenting it to folks I don't even know and who don't know me. Perhaps the goal should be to flip that script.

When I was watching that 10-yr-old do her thing in the ring, I got chills - and the distinct impression that she always does her kata the same way. As it sould be, I'm thinking...

I wanna be like her when I grow up, I really do :-)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Second Verse...Same as the First?

Even before Hurricane Sandy did her dance up the US east coast - forcing my family and lots of others in NY, NJ and CT to stay inside our homes for a few days - I'd been in a bit of a funk. I'd told my honey I was having a karate crisis and we'd even chuckled about it, but the sadness of it all was very real to me. See - I've been struggling on the path for a bit, now. Something is definitely missing - and what is there seems quite broken.

Here's an example: My learning school is an hour away from my home. For three and a half years, I planned my schedule around 7PM Tuesday and Thursday night classes, breaking my neck to finish all my work and family stuff so I could get out of my front door by 6PM whenever possible. But in the last few weeks, my mindset has been "If I make it, I make it and if not, well..." On Election Day - after rushing around all day and even hurrying to vote so I could be done on time - I sat in my driveway with my beloved at 5:45PM and told him that I just didn't feel like going. So I didn't. I felt absolutely no guilt or anxiety about my last-minute decision at all - just relief. To me, that speaks volumes.

Yes, gas in my neck of the woods is a crazy $4 a gallon and after transportation to and from is factored in, a two-hour class actually nets me closer to five hours which are huge time and monetary commitments - but those aren't really the reasons I'm staying close to home these days. Being totally honest, it's the actual class itself that's giving me pause.

You may have noticed hints of it in my past few posts, but since writing about it has proven as difficult as talking about it (the latter actually makes me cry), I've tried to sort of kept it out of this space. That's beginning to feel very dishonest these days, so I think I've gotta just write it out already.

For a lot of reasons, my learning place has become a very unfriendly environment. It goes way beyond being gigged for the most minor of things (because I EXPECT to be corrected and taught - that's why I train, after all). The best way I can explain it - and hard as it is for me to say this - I feel like I'm being bullied on the mat. That is NOT what I expect to feel when I'm training in an art I've come to love as much as anything I've ever done in my life.

Does it matter that my sensei is dealing with some seriously tough emotional issues? It shouldn't, but it does, as it is causing some very weird and uncharacteristic behavior from him on the mat. Although I feel very badly about what he's dealing with, I'm just going to say the most politically incorrect thing imaginable: I can't really see what that has to do with the students when we're training. As callused as that sounds, I see it like this: we ALL have crap on our plates. It should be no more acceptable for an instructor to make the envorinment for his/her students an emotional mine field than it would be for a student to do the same to his/her fellow karateka. As hard as it is to do, shouldn't that stuff all be left outside the dojo door along with our shoes and attitudes?

The vibe has definately changed - so much so that there have been many, many classes in the last several months where I've driven home in tears - and that simply shouldn't be. On my desk scrawled on a note pad is a quote I found somewhere and jotted down: "Karate is supposed to be fun. If it feels like work, you're doing it wrong." Right now, it feels like work in a sweat shop. In the middle of sweltering August heat. Without an open window. And it most certainly sucks.

Don't misunderstand - I'm not expecting side-splitting hilarity in class, but I don't think I should be feeling like walking out 15-minutes after bowing in either, because that has never, ever, EVER been my reality. A not-so-great class every now and again is to be expected, but when those occasions become the rule rather than the exception, something may be amiss.

I'm just...tired...but really sad, too. I left a not-so good (instructionally speaking) school for this one - because of the amazing level of instruction and mutual respect, and I've stood by/sallied forth even when not one of my black belt training partners was able to (due to work and life responsibilities) or willing to do the same - but now I can't steel myself to go to class. Three and a half years ago, I thought I'd never have a need to ever even explore another school. Today I'm Googling area dojos. How the heck did I get here...again?!?

Karate is a leisure-time activity - not my profession - but it is very, very important to me. I miss that I'm only teaching these days and barely sharpening the tools in my toolbox or acquiring any new tools. I miss my training partners - even the ones who no longer train there - and I miss the way my school used to be as well, I really do.

Addressing this with my sensei at this point is not an option, as this is not a conversation that can take place over the phone or via text message and I can't make it down before or stay too long after class to chat because of my work schedule and travel time. I keep having the same debate with myself: is the point of a sit-down an attempt for me to help foster change or is it just to make my feelings known in an "I must get this off my chest" sort of way? Is either even productive or necessary? How will that (whatever THAT is) be perceived and received? Experience has burned me badly; it wasn't received well the last time I was here.

Right now, on this Thursday afternoon, I'm watching the clock to figure out what I can juggle/move around in order to be out of here on time to get home and pack my gear bag. Today's not too crazy a day, so it can be done. But the question becomes "Do I want to?" - the same as it was on Tuesday, last Thursday and the week before that as well.

But, as I used to tell my son when he was having issues with his grade school friends, if the same situation keeps happening over and over again, you should take heed. It can't always be everyone else's fault. This is the second time in as many schools where I've felt like I didn't belong or that I've over-stayed my welcome. But it can't always be someone else's fault. I'm sure I have some onus in this as well.

I just don't really know anymore...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lines in the Sand

What is your line in the sand - you know, that thing which you absolutely will not tolerate? I'm not necessarily asking about the thing that will make docile you become a fighting machine - just the thing that makes you say "Aww - HELL to the NO!" Do you have any idea?

One of my lines is bringing or causing harm to my child. Been there, done that - so I know it revs my Mama Bear Mode engine and makes me go from 0 to 60 in about .4 seconds. It's not pretty, but as my bark really is much worse than my bite, no physical altercations have resulted to date (although I did think about choking my ex-husband waaaay back when the divorce was getting underway). Hey - sometimes a healthy fantasy life is one way to avert catastrophy.

It's becoming more obvious that another line for me is being talked to like I am a three-year-old. No Cybil-like morphing happens, but...well...the same level of pissivity is there without a doubt. Condesension is so unnecessary IMHO and I just don't understand exactly how some have lived long enough to be so darn good at it.

I especially hate it in the dojo. I may be young in my art (coming up on eight years), but the reality is that at the end of the day, I'm still a grown-behind woman. Talking to or treating me any other way makes me shut down and not even want to participate or contribute anymore.

I realize that some folks think their time on the mat is time to work on some self-esteem building by trying to earnestly take others down a peg (in an effort to build themselves up) - but, seriously?!? Work that crap out with whomever it is you're pissed at, not with the person you are standing in front of in the training hall. Last I checked, the dojo was not the place to let your inner demons out to play.

If an instructor is "going through," that does not give him/her the right to take it out on you. "Student" is not the same thing as "Peon for Which I Can Vent My Pent-Up Frustrations" - nor should it ever. There's a reason that silliness is only allowed in military boot camps and fraternity/sorority pledge lines.

But how should such foolishness be handled? Etiquette and rei are important and richly protected/expected traditions in the dojo. Is it even possible to keep the craziness at bay while still observing the rules of the training hall and not killing your instructor or uke?

Just wondering - before I end up losing it...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Circle of Life: Karate Style

Two different folks have commented on my karate in as many days. "You really know what you're doing!" they've said. These are not folks who have been studying martial arts for as many years as I've been alive, as my senseis have (one has only been training for a few months and the other has never stepped on the mat at all and just happened to be passing through the dojo when I was asked by my training partner to do a kata last Friday night) - so to them, my Empi Ha kata presentation looked all trecherous and bad-ass. But I'm sure if my Sensei was there to witness my presentation, he probably would not have seen the same things as those who gave me kudos did.

I remember when I was learning Empi Ha - a USA Goju kata that has a blazingly fast 11-point attack shortly after it opens - I thought "How will I ever learn that when I can't even SEE what the heck it is that's being done?!?" But I learned it very slowly and, once the bunkai was demonstrated and interpreted, it wasn't such a mystery anymore. Then of course I did it over and over and over again, as most of us are want to do when we are learning a new form. Pretty soon, that 11-point attack - which is done on both sides before it transitions somewhere else - became rote. Fluidity followed and a deeper understanding of it came in drips and drabs after that. It always seemed like a work in progress (as I still have my issues with it), though. I guess that's the point.

I also remember seminars and gradings with the rest of the clan when I was a shiny-new white belt watching the more seasoned karateka move with a grace that I never imagined my choppy, mummy-step movements ever duplicating. I'm sure I spent much of those gatherings with my mouth open in awe, absolutely amazed at what I witnessed - that is, when we weren't forced to avert our eyes and face the wall, LOL.

Somewhere along the line, Mummy Me got lost and my movements changed. The more I moved, the easier it became to move. The understanding of those moves just seemed to follow. It's not that I'm a savant or anything (I'm probably one of the least naturally coordinated individuals to ever walk upright, trust and believe), I'm just a firm believer that it is possible to train a body to do anything if you do it enough. Practice might not make perfect - because perfection isn't something that is ever attained in the martial arts, although we all aim for it - but it does make good karateka better.

The interesting part is that I am still watching my seniors and oooohing and ahhhing over their movements, my students are watching their seniors and doing the same. This weekend, when we took our students down to our sister dojo in NYC, we got quite a few comments from non-gi'd observers about the way our newbies moved. One compliment was directed towards the student I mentioned above who's only been training for a short period. She says she wants to flow like everyone else and doesn't yet realize folks are watching her and admiring what they see. It is a totally cool thing to observe.

The cycle continues...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Way to Black Belt

Shortly after training partner Ed and I started teaching at the Salvation Army, a parent asked if we'd ever start a class just for the "mature" learners who wanted to delve into the art but who didn't necessarily want to do that while standing next to his or her child on the mat. We began our adult class a few months ago just for that reason, but sadly our inquiring parent, Mr. Dixon Guzman, passed away suddenly before he could gi up and join us. We thank him for the inspiration.

The adults meet each Wednesday evening from 6:30 to 8PM. We work kihon, kata, kumite and self-defense on a regular - and did even after Ed's shoulder surgery and while I was nursing a bum Achilles. The adults are dedicated - even coming to class through the heat of the Northeastern US's summer - and they train hard, which is nice to witness because their passion is infectious.

About a month ago, Kris Wilder sent out some info about the new book he'd written with Lawrence Kane called "The Way to Black Belt" - and specifically about how'd they were looking for a group of martial artists to read it and give it a run. As I enjoy their work - especially "How to Win a Fight" which I reviewed last year - I wrote back and told him all about our group. He sent enough copies for each of our students and we will begin distributing them tomorrow night. We'll post our progress on the school's new blog and I'll update a bit here as well.

And if you're in the Orange County, NY area and not doing anything this Wednesday evening, come come join us :-)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Learning Place

I have a confession to make: this week marked the first class I've been to (at my learning school) in a few weeks. My absence had a little to do with crazy end-of-summer/back-to-school schedules - but it had more to do with me not really "feeling" class for a minute due to the level of comfort in the dojo as of late. Or, more specifically, the lack of it.

It seemed like a big block of classes before my respite was a blaze of chastizements and corrections. My kata stances - in every kata we did - were consistently either too wide or too narrow. My body allignment wasn't right. My movements were off and my self-defense and kata presentations lacked umph. When I tell you that nothing I did was right, I really mean that nothing I did was right. I even got gigged for not being as sharp after my achilles was all better as I was before the injury sidelined me. It made me wonder if there was anything that I was doing even close to right.

I'm not one who needs lots of phrase and back-patting to feel like I've accomplished something, but hearing "Nope, that's wrong!" all the bloody time is very emotionally draining. It got to the point I was scared to do anything at all because I knew the criticism - as constructively delivered as it was - would fly. Yeah, I know that sounds whiney as all get out, but it's how I felt, and it made me less than enthusiastic about the hour drive to class while eating dinner from my lap on the way there, only to deal with being barked at for two hours before driving another hour home. So I stayed home and worked kihon or kata or technique combos with the heavy bag in my garage.

But then it hit me: I was maintaining - perhaps even sharpening some of the tools in my toolbox - but I wasn't actually learning. And that's not a good thing.

So I made plans to get my body back to class, but I knew if I went back with my head in the same place as it was, frustration would result and I'd be just as uncomfortable as before. That discomfort was affecting my passion for my art - and Sensei told me long ago that if the heart wasn't right, my art wouldn't be either.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I made a pact with myself: I would REALLY try to see the criticism as the earnest attempt that it was to make me the best possible martial artist I could be. When I walked into the building Tuesday I was actually talking to myself, saying "You're going to take whatever is handed to you and use it as a stepping stone to help you get to where you want to be" over and over again and making it my mantra.

Almost soon as we began, I was slammed...err, corrected...while doing a kata I've known for about five years. Sensei went through it with me stance by stance and showed me exactly where my front stance was shorter than it needed to be and what the unbalance would net: ending at lest three feet off from where I needed to be. In my head, I was thinking "But that's where I've ALWAYS ended!" but I focused to try to receive what he was giving me - and I'll be darned! I actually ended where I started for the first time ever when doing the kata. Perhaps his 40 years of training trumps my meager eight after all - imagine that! He really is quite an amazing instructor, but I have to be open to that instruction to be truly teachable learn the lesson.

What I had forgotten in my "He's picking on me!" pity party was that although training is about me, it really isn't at all. Learning to reduce the "you" (so that the underlying thing that is REALLY what it's about can take center stage) is difficult, but very necessary. It's very humbling, too.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I am so far from being the perfect karateka that it isn't even funny and I still have a great many lessons to learn. But I'm cool with that, because that there is always, always something new to learn is the very reason I love karate as much as I do. I'm growing, which is important, I think. But maybe growing down, like the rice stalk that bends low to the ground as approaches maturity, is just as important as growing up. There are no quick fixes here - but that's what I signed up for :-)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

In the Name of Realism

For my 23th birthday, my mom bought me a pair of diamond studs. She probably couldn't have given them to me at a more appropriate time in my life either, as I was dealing with a new career that was starting to stall and I'd just ended things with my first, real, long-term boyfriend. Suffice to say that with all that and the fact that I was 150 miles from home, I was feeling less than celebratory when my mom called to wish me a happy birthday that January evening.

"Did you open your gift?" she'd asked, referring to the little box she'd sent me back to my new "home" town with after I visited my old one for Christmas. Stuffed in a bag I hadn't even unpacked yet, she made me open it while we were chatting. My "thank you" must have sounded a bit uninspired, I imagine (I thought they were rhinestones).

"They're real, you know," she told me. I couldn't believe that my mom, a homemaker (or "domestic engineer" as she called it) from a tiny town in the middle of North Nowhere had actually spend so much on such an extravagant gift for me - which is exactly what I said.

"Why?" she asked, completely baffled. "Don't you think you're worth it?" I know there was a very pregnant pause as I thought of how to answer. On that day, I didn't think I was - and it made me cry like a baby.

Since that day all those years ago, I've worn the studs almost every day - whether rocking my work attire, lycra bike tights and a tee-shirt or dressing it up for special occasions (which is easier than you think as I have two holes in each ear. And don't worry - I do clean my studs regularly!) - because, channeling a product slogan I still hear from time to time, I am worth it, but that's another story :-).

My mom passed away 20 years ago, so those studs are, of course, very special to me because they were one of the last things she gave me. I've worn them to every post-colligate track meet I ever competed in, every road race I've ever run and to every trip to the gym I've made in the last two decades. I noticed yesterday - as I was looking for a particular photograph from my son's baby book to send him (after I scanned it) for his birthday - that I even wore them the day he was born! And yes, I wear them to karate class. Never had an issue with them in my sparring gear or anything like that, either. The few times I have taken them off for class (when grappling or working choke escapes for instance), I've been really, REALLY worried that they were going to get lost or left behind somehow, which made it kinda hard to concentrate on practical technique applications.

Some folks train where there are strict dojo "no jewelry" rules. Most of my training partners are smart enough to remove their watches, big rings, necklaces and dangly earrings when we step onto the mat, but wedding rings and small studs have always been allowed where I've trained. Always.

Lately, training partner Ed had been on a tear about the wearing of jewelry at the Salvation Army where we teach. He's become quite insistant about it, too, saying he and I should come to the dojo jewelry-free to "be the example" for the students. Now I'm all for setting the standard, but I'm not sure how I feel about this new "no jewelry" rule - although it has less to do with my studs than you think. (No, really!)

Think about it for a minute - if the crap ever really goes down and I'm not exiting the shower, on the treadmill or in the dojo, I'm probably going to be wearing a watch, a bangle bracelet, a necklace and a belt because I put all of those things on everyday when I get dressed. I don't think any adversary will allow me a few moments to remove my hoops and watch before he or she attacks, right? So, maybe it isn't that horrible a thing to know how to move around with all that stuff on. I'm just sayin'...

But I've said the same thing about shoes and pencil skirts - "girl clothes" if you will - as well. I want to know how to throw a mae geri with a Timberland boot and a heavy parka on just in case a situation has to be handled as I'm trudging to my car in the snow (I do live in a place where that could actually happen as our winter wonderland season lasts from November through March; heck, we've even had snow storms in April). Why should jewelry be any different?

Japanese culture and etiquitte aside, our feet are shoeless and arms/necks unadorned on the mat to keep from hurting our dojo mates and instructors, although keeping from hurting ourselves is part of it, too. But if the three broken and one dislocated toe I've managed to hobble away on in the past few years is any indication, being barefoot can be just as bad, I think.

Trust and believe, I'm not going to class in a big medalion or gargantuan hoops - just like I wouldn't fall in with a pair of Stilettos or a mini-skirt on. But there has to be a happy medium somewhere as far as realism in training goes, right?


Thursday, August 23, 2012


A few weeks ago, my beloved had me pick him up from the car repair shop as his vehicle was having a "check engine" light issue. When he got in my car, he asked if we could swing by his brother's house for a bit because he HAD TO meet him at 2:15PM.

His brother - the oldest of 10 - is quite a big wig in the Air Force. A little over a year ago, he retired from the NYS Air National Guard as THE person in charge of over 5,000 service members in the state, which is the nation's largest ANG. His retirement ceremony and the celebration that followed had top enlisted men and women from all over the place, all there to pat "Chief" on the back, celebrate the military accomplishments he had amassed in his almost 38-year career and wish him well in his retirement. At about six feet tall, he looked quite daper in his dress blues with medals and ribbons gleaming and his gig line tight.

But when we arrived at the house, my beloved, Chief's wife and I had to help him get out of the car, up the few stairs in the foyer and into his favorite recliner because he couldn't walk. 2:15PM, I found, was the time he usually arrived home from radiation treatments for a tumor on his spine that was causing the inability to move his legs.

Not that long ago, Chief had had chemo for lymphoma. Although I'm not sure if he ever really went into a remission, you'd never know it from his demeanor. Lovingly stern, he was the anchor of the family and the one all the siblings went to for advice or to share news, both good and bad. His was the voice I heard on the other end of the phone the night he called to tell us that their father passed away. He was also the one who had put together the specifics for a family cruise this October, setting up the travel agency handling the arrangements and emailing his family members information on what to do to reserve their spots. Vibrant and full of life, he went from military fit to walking with a cane, then walking with two canes, needing a walker and finally a wheel chair in a little less than a month.

Last week, my beloved and Chief's son moved his bed, wardrobe and recliner down stairs so he could get to them without having to tackle the stairs of his split-level ranch home. It was becoming more difficult for him to assist with his arms when he was being helped from one part of the house to another. So all the while I was pouting about being unable to run and do kata because of an achy achilles, Chief and his immediate family were dealing with that.

Monday night, my beloved called to let me know he was going to be late for dinner because he was en route to the hospital. Seems Chief had had some difficulty breathing and they were heading to the emergency room via ambulance to see what was going on. By the time they got there, Chief was in a lot of pain. They gave him morphine to help ease it. He passed away not long after.

Only 61, he had a lot of life left to live. A husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend to so many, he left quite a mark during the time he was here. As I helped his wife, son and my beloved put together his obituary for the newspaper, that was the thing that stood out the most.

We looked through dozens of military pictures to find just the right one for his funeral service program. Not one for smiling when he was seated in front of the flag in his uniform, he always told the photographer that he needed to take at least one with his pearly whites showing so his wife wouldn't be upset. The one above was chosen because of the serene look into the camera with only the slightest hint of a smile. It seemed to fit.

Yesterday, his wife showed us a picture the two of them had taken together on a recent vacation. Chief wore a pair of shades and a hat to sheild his head from the beach sun. He was hugging his wife and had the absolute biggest smile on his face. That seemed to fit, too.

I'm sure he's smiling now - and will be tomorrow as his family and friends gather to remember his life and be with others who will miss him greatly. Perhaps it will be as celebratory as his retirement gathering last year was. Hopefully, after the tears have subsided a bit, we'll be smiling as well, remembering Chief's life and how vibrantly he lived it.

Rest in peace, Chief...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

25 to Life

Friday night was a hot one here in the northeast US. Class was held anyway - complete with more frequent water breaks and an extra fan as we do not have air conditioning in the Salvation Army gym we use as our dojo. I'm still on the disabled list and taught from my trusty chair, but I was sweaty by the end of class - though not as much as my students. Suffice to say it wasn't the most comfortable evening to be training.

As we have a tournament coming up in a few months that will be, for some of our students, their first ever, we got into a little kata presentation after our invigorating warm-up. Because of our lack of cool, conditioned air, our students wear their school t-shirts and gi bottoms to class. School t-shirts are all they are allowed to wear on the mat other than their gi tops (and we sell them at cost, so there is no money to be made from their comfort) - simply because it is a way to keep the uniformity and discipline while keeping everyone from suffering from heat exhaustion. It works for us.

One of our teen girls who has not gotten her t-shirt yet and wears her gi top to train, stood up, got herself to the middle of our make-shift ring and told training partner Ed and me - her judges for the day - about her style and kata without a hitch. But what she did next in actually presenting the kata was almost just as flawless. Sure it needs work, but her kata showed the two things we stress most to our young charges: that to an observer, it should look like the practitioner is in a fight and that he/she is winning that fight. We gave her her "homework" (the main things she should work on to improve her presentation for next time), which she accepted before bowing and returning to her spot against the wall.

After class, found her and told her just how solid her presentation and kata were. She humbly thanked me and said the most endearing thing ever: that she could honestly see herself doing karate for the rest of her life. A good student on the mat and in the classroom who is respectful to her instructors as well as her dojo mates and her family, I have no doubt that she will continue to train for a long time.

But then, just as young people are want to do, she changed the subject and began talking about her love for martial arts movies - especially those with female lead characters. We spent the next few minutes comparing notes about her favorite ("Chocolate" - which I have not seen) and mine ("Kill Bill" - which she has not seen). We are exchanging DVDs next week :-)

I've seen those I train with and instruct do amazing things on the mat, including compete/grade with confidence and amazing skill. As we also check the report cards of our students, I know what it feels like to see that "is a pleasure to have in class" comment from our students' teachers. But it's a whole different animal hearing a student expresses her desire to continue on the path you've simply pointed her towards.

"Thanks for a great class, Sensei," she said when our chat was done.

No, kohai, thank you :-)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Making "Due"

Five days into my three-week karate respite, my Achilles is feeling a little better - thanks to physical therapy exercises and religious ice/heat treatments. While I was packing up to head to karate class last night (don't worry - my plan was to simply spectate and take notes), I had an ephiphany: just because I can't really sink into a long or horse stance right now doesn't mean I can't still train. Class seemed like as good a time as any to work hojo-undo, so along with my folding spectator's chair, I tossed my tonfa, sai and jo into the car (my car is in the shop and my bo wouldn't fit into the rental). While my son, Squirrel, my training partner, Kathi, and Sensei worked on kata, I did a few drills from my chair. No stress on the tendons at all!

On Monday, I did my abdominal work and headed to the gym, just like I do every Monday. Although I was unable to run, bike or jump on the elliptical for cardio, I was able to do my regular arm program and only needed to modify my leg lifts a bit (for example, since I couldn't squat, do leg press, hip sled or calf raises, I did abductor, adductor, leg extension and leg curls instead). Easy breezy! - although I'm still a little sore today from working the inner thighs, LOL.

Injury has also made me remember a technique I used in my track days: visualization. Back then, I'd take "practice jumps" in my head while cooking, driving or during work breaks. This morning, I ran through Gankaku kata in my head while icing my Achilles before work. Between physical therapy sets, I did the upper body techniques in the entire kata from a chair in my kitchen. Gotta love good ol' Mother Necessity :-)

Tonight, I'm scheduled to help teach the adult Salvation Army class with training partner Ed. Trust and believe the warm up and kihon will be all about jabs, reverse punches and back fists - and they'll be demonstrated from my handy-dandy chair. Why not?

Right before my shodan grading, my Sensei completely tore his Achilles tendon. He showed up to support me in a cast, and I found out later that he'd taught in that cast from a chair in front of the room almost from the day he was released from the surgery that repaired his tendon. Weeks later, when I'd finally made it down to train with him and his students in what is now my school, everyone was use to hearing his cast click across the floor. It was hard to make him stay in that seat much of the time, but he never missed a class. Not a single one. At the very least, his students are due to follow that lead, I think.

That means I have no excuse not to train. And if I hafta crawl across the dojo floor to make it to that chair, I will.

Train what you can while you can, I say. Making "due" is absolutely better than doing nothing.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Injury Time Out

My very first discipline was track and field. I started running in sixth grade and never really ever looked back. High jumping paid for my college education and enabled me to travel all over the county and some of the world. I qualified for a few national teams and was fortunate enough to make it to the U.S. Olympic Trials twice, which was pretty cool. My honey is a track coach, so even though I'm not training like I was back in the day on the track, it is still very much a part of my life.

Like most former Olympic hopefuls, I anxiously awaited the start of the games in London. Unfortunately, I was watching the opening ceremonies with my left foot elevated and wrapped in an ice pack. Seems a little "light" sparring gone awry a few weeks back followed closely by Super Summer Seminars (a weekend of karate that translated to 16 hours of training in two days) left me lame - sidelined with a slight tear in my Achilles tendon. My ortho says I should avoid training for at least a month in order for it to heal/not completely tear or become a chronic injury. If three weeks of physical therapy, icing and wearing sneakers with lifts everywhere (goodbye summer sandals, sniffle, sniffle) don't help, he's going to make me wear - gulp - a boot like that one up there. So not the fashion statement I was going for...

It's tough for a person who has always been active to HAVE TO sit down for a while. The last time I was off the mat for longer than a week was in 2007 after my reconstructive surgery. For six weeks, I wasn't allowed to walk, bike, run or even bend over very much. It was absolute hell - one I got through with lots of karate instructional videos, movies and books. This time my forced respite is only about half as long, but I have a feeling it will be a little tougher to get through, simply because a very real deadline looms in the distance: The Diamond Valley Classic tournament in late October. It is scheduled two weeks earlier this year than last and I've still got some real work to do - including a kata to tighten and polish and sparring to drill. The three months between now and then translate to two for me - and I'm most unhappy about that.

But I'm glad I listened to my body and went to see a doctor as soon as the pain and swelling started. I usually try my best to ignore that little voice in my head telling me to cool my jets and take it easy because something doesn't feel right, but this felt different, so I trusted my gut. I will be the compliant patient by icing like I'm supposed to and following the therapist's instructions. I have to - because that boot is hideous and goes with absolutely nothing in my closet.

Off to ice before bed :-)

Friday, July 13, 2012

What If?

Imagine a martial world with no belts - where there was no outward display of the last weigh station you'd encountered on your path. Suppose there was just a piece of rope holding your gi top closed. Would it alter how you do what you do in the dojo? Would it change how you act and react to your trainng partners/dojo mates? Could it change how they act and react to you?

Being the forgetful soul that I am, I've gotten to class only to realize I'd left my belt on my bed, in my car or in the gear bag I left at the office too many times to count. The third or so class after I tested for shodan had me beltless in the dojo because I'd left it elsewhere a day or two before. Did it change my technique at all or make me any less a karateka somehow? Other than the self-conscious feeling being obi-less gave me, I'd have to say not even a teeny bit.

Some schools and styles have the entire ROY G BIV rainbow connection happening where kyu-equivilant obis go. Others give stripes on existing belts to mark progress. Not knocking either, but, other than the economics behind the need to purchase a new belt (and sometimes a new gi with new color accents) for that new rank, what difference does it make?

Rank means differnt things to different people - and it means different things here in the land of McDojos than it does elsewhere, I'm sure. Charles James discussed it in a recent post on his "Okinawan Fighting Art: Isshin Ryu" blog; perhaps what he says is right: "What is in your heart is of more value than what color of cloth is around your waist." So strap that top closed (or wear a t-shirt or heck, even no shirt) and get to training already.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fatal Femme or Femme Fatale?: A Woman in the Martial Arts

For those of you who've grown tired of my babbling, I've officially dubbed July as "Guest Post" month :-) A few martial artists will be sharing their thoughts and opinions here so there won't be the blog equivilant of radio "dead air" while I collect my thoughts for a bit.

First up is a piece by Annette Singer, a martial artist who met and began training with Shifu Christopher Goedecke - the head of The Winds School of Karate - back in the early 80's when she enrolled in his college self-defense course. Although it was written over 30 years ago, her essay mostly reads like it was written much more recently. Maybe some perceptions are just simple truths that transcend time, who knows?

A Woman in the Martial Arts
By Annette Singer

I should have realized that first day, when I erringly crossed my gi top right over left, that I had entered a man’s world. After all, men button their shirts on the left side, and evidently close their gis in the same manner. I hastily fixed my top and, before I knew it, found myself standing at the end of a long white belt line — one of the handful of women in a room steaming with the musky odor from the swarm of male bodies that dominated it. The impact was staggering for, having sought out Karate in hopes of discovering a new strength, I instead found myself completely overwhelmed by a world in which I felt the female had no place. The masters, as well as the students, were almost exclusively male, and the values, priorities, and goals they espoused seemed completely masculine in orientation. It was not long before I realized that as a woman, I was coming into the dojo with a completely different framework of reference.

Although I spent my early childhood wrestling with three brothers, playing “Cowboys and Indians,” then later advancing to “Cops and Robbers,” I was accustomed to assuming the submissive role. Any girl who wanted to romp with the boys was doomed to play an Indian, a robber, or whoever the conquered party of the day was designated to be. Fate for the tomboy such as me usually involved being trussed to a fence in the backyard, sentenced to burning at the stake, and abandoned there until mother noticed my absence at the dinner table. As I grew older, the high incidence of sexual crimes against women only served to reinforce the ingrained concept of a female as powerless to protect herself against the advances of a male. Perhaps it was a desire to be able to protect my own autonomy, a fear of victimization or of having my personal space infringed upon that attracted me to Karate in the first place. Paradoxically though, one day of workout rendered me even more intimidated by male prowess than had previously been the case.

Initially, I consoled myself by saying that it was my own lack of comparative strength that rendered me feeling so totally inept. After all, white belt men could execute ten knuckle pushups for every one of my feeble attempts. When they punched, their gis flipped crisply, while my limp, rolled-up sleeves sagged lifelessly. It was only a matter of time, however, before I realized that the major setback was not my physical limitations, but my own deep-rooted inhibitions.

It has been stated that half of knowing what you truly desire is acknowledging what you must sacrifice before you can obtain it. I had only been studying Karate a few days when I ascertained that in order to become accomplished at the art I would have to modify some of my own ideas of what being “feminine” involved, and redefine “womanhood” for myself. The first battle was learning to kiai.

One learns at an early age that yelling is unladylike, that nice girls don’t sweat, and that punching is only for men. Nevertheless, daintiness gets one nowhere in the dojo, so by the end of one week I was suddenly enticed by the prospect of spontaneously giving everything I had. I reached back for the part of me that as a child had screamed war cries, clamored up trees, and kicked the bully who squished my pet caterpillar, and found, to my surprise and delight, that the wild little heathen was still there. Over time, the search also unearthed a level of intensity and an ability to discipline this energy that I never had dreamed existed within me. Having been given a taste of this passion fruit, I found it not unlike an aphrodisiac that sparked an all-consuming love affair between me and Karate. Now when the air was pierced by a myriad of voices kiaing, mine was unmistakably among them. When workout concluded and my belt was saturated with perspiration, my hair plastered to my scalp, I no longer feared that these conditions posed a threat to my mystique as a “femme fatale.” Rather, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Within a short while I found myself with some of the closest male friends I had had since my tomboy days. Oddly, enough, with society’s mores about physical contact set aside, there was nothing barring the way of a good solid male/female friendship. This is not to suggest that once my own attitudes about myself changed, the whole world changed with me. I still faced struggle after struggle with misconceptions and stereotypes, not only outside the dojo, but inside as well.

It was a wintery Saturday afternoon. Home for the holidays, I was practicing kata in our musty basement. Kiaing, by now, was a natural form of expression for me, and actually, this particular day, the dust in the air prohibited any blood-curdling howls. Therefore, I was not ready for the impact this would have upon my father. The cellar was cold, so I finished a brief workout and, arriving at the top of the staircase, was just in time to hear a hushed voice demand of my mother “What has happened to my little girl?” He might as well have cried, “They have created a monster!” A female friend of mine faced a similar reaction from her boyfriend. While he had previously enjoyed roughhousing with her, he refused to once she began to study Karate. I have personally observed that many men relish the idea of being able to overcome a woman physically, and that any threat to this ability is strongly resented. Nor is this type of attitude only found outside the enlightened walls of the Karate school.

One of my earliest encounters with dojo discrimination was when I was a yellow belt. I had been instructed to spar as a learning experience with a tall, husky black belt who greatly resembled a muscular teddy bear. Expecting a real challenge, if not instant death, I really attacked with vigor, only to find that he would barely even block my techniques. I was no powerhouse, but I distinctly remember that at least one roundhouse kick to the solar plexus evoked a gasp of shock from my reticent opponent. He never once retaliated, however, and when he later complimented me on my ability, I demanded in frustration why he refused to fight back. Sheepishly, he informed me that he had always had a great fear of hitting a woman. Even more aggravating than this attitude is that of the pseudo-gentleman who refuses to spar with a female at all. How can a woman hope to learn to defend herself against a larger, more powerful opponent if even her fellow students refuse to help her? Nevertheless, I have discovered over time that if a woman is aggressive enough when sparring with the reluctant male, he will eventually feel threatened and retaliate, if for no other reason than because he feels that he is expected to be superior in the match. It is ironic that the very social conditioning that causes a man to avoid striking a woman also goads him to fight his hardest once he has decided to engage himself in kumite with her.

My present instructor is incredibly well-attuned to the difficulties a woman encounters in such a male-oriented environment, and perhaps his philosophy of teaching is the most conducive to growth. He treats every student as a separate entity and, thus, in his class there are not 25 men and three women, but rather, 28 individuals, each with their own personal strengths and weaknesses to discover and contend with. This attitude generates an atmosphere in which students exhibit a mutual respect that is not dependent upon belt level, age, or gender, but instead reflects an intrinsic appreciation of the uniqueness of every human being.

I do not in any way mean to imply that men and women are identical physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Differences in upper body strength, hip structure, and hand size account for just a few of the physical advantages and setbacks a woman faces when she studies Karate. In addition, I believe that women approach life in a manner that is highly intuitive and sometimes even mystical. Because she is so sensitive to the fine arts and beauty, Karate can take on an added dimension for her. In contrast to having to seek the aesthetic outside herself, a woman can suddenly create the fluidity, unity, depth, and spontaneity so characteristic of art through the intricate movements of kata. The beauty then becomes an extension of one’s own body, culminating in an exhilarating experience unequaled by any other.

When viewing the rising trend of women studying the martial arts, it is necessary to recall that all human beings are two fold entities—both physical and spiritual in nature. Karate is an art form that guides the two to work in harmony, a goal to be sought by men and women alike. The true battle is that within oneself — an arduous and frequently painful task. Karate can be a means of attaining that end, and while a woman must resign herself to the fact that her belt will inevitably insist on slipping back up to her waist, the greatest endowments of the martial arts—enlightenment and self-knowledge will not be denied her if she truly strives to achieve them.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Girl Power: An E Squad Adventure

News flash: I'm female! Not an extreme "girly-girl" female (although I do rock the occasional haute couture - complete with heels, manicured nails and enough sparkly stuff to blind a rabbit), but I do feel naked without toe nail polish. And although I have trained with a few female senseis, my instructors for all things martial (and track-related way back in the day) have mostly been male. I've never been in a training environment where everyone on the mat - the students and the instructors - were female. Sometimes, when the testosterone in the dojo gets to the tipping point, I tend to daydream about how cool it might be to train in an all-female space.

Please don't start the chest-thumping arguments about how realism in self-defense is best attained when the person you are working wrist grabs, locks, strikes, blocks and take-downs against is bigger/stronger than you. I get that - but my desire to experience an all-female training environment has little to do with the physical and technical aspects of the art (heck, it isn't that difficult to learn to hit something/someone HARD using your hips) - it has more to do with the vibe/energy in the training hall. Not that it is any better or worse, but I'm sure it is different, for lack of a better term.

In other words, taking a step off the the strength-based "Do it hard or die!" path that modern - OK, I'll say it: Western - Martial Arts seems to sometimes overly emphasize intrigues me. But don't get it twisted: feminine does not equal weak in my opinion, nor do I think female instructors are automatically nurturing, soft and sweet. The training may not automatically be better, either - just...different. Or so I imagine it might be, as, again, I've never experienced it before.

Last weekend, I came close. Two women from a sister dojo came to our side of the river to train with us. Our little space is usually filled with a bevy of 6 to 18-year-olds on Saturday mornings and it is a good thing, I think, for them to see the folks their instructors train with and under on a regular basis. It is also good for them all - both the young ladies and the young men - to see as many powerful, dynamic and graceful women on the mat as possible giving instruction, doing drills and getting sweaty like the rest of us.

After a little bo, our students bowed out as did training partner Ed, who had to run to a family function. The three of us women had lunch planned for after class, but we decided to work a little kata before we changed out of our gis. So we did - and I even learned from my training partners - a fourth-dan, international bo and empty-hand kata competitor and her shodan student - the bunkai of a kata I've been dying to learn more about. Suffice to say a good - and interesting! - time was had by all. It was a very good thing.

I love all my training partners - the males and the females - because they help make me a better martial artist by challenging, encouraging and prodding me to ask "Why?" and "Why not?" always. But there's something about being surrounded by nothing but women that is hard to put into words. The energy isn't better, it's not worse. It's just...different.

Looking forward to training with them both again :-)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Clearing the Fog: Working Out of a Karate Rut

As a writer, sometimes the words just don't flow. You know it as writer's block and it is absolutely one of the most difficult and frustrating things any wordsmith encounters. It happens in some way, shape or form to every writer, I'm sure - and I've found that the only way out for me is to keep writing, as contra-indicated as that seems. When that big cloud of nothing moves in, I try to head it off at the pass by entering a poetry contest or submitting something to a new market - be it pet or tech-savvy publications (all are a little outside of my comfort zone). Hey - the worst that could happen is the editors or contest judges aren't feeling it and don't publish my piece; it's not like they can take my first-born or anything. And by the time the contest winners are announced or the publications have sent out the "Dear Contributer" emails, the fog has lifted and the words are usually flowing from my fingers again.

Ironically, I do the same thing in karate. When in a rut - be it a training stagnation or a post-competition or post-grading lull - I find things to concentrate on to get my mind out of the ditch, give my body a chance to rest or even to try something new, like small-circle Jiu Jitsu, Aikido or Krav Maga. What I've discovered, mostly via trial and error, is that a new goal or challenge helps me re-focus and approach my training from a different perspective, allowing the fog to get gone already.

Well, karateka's block has recently decended on my path. I'm in a karate rut and I'm planning on kata-ing myself out of it.

From my friends at Harlem Goju, I learned a beautiful Shotokan kata about six months ago that they require all of their shodan candidates to learn called Gankaku/Kankaku (it used to be refered to as "Chinto"). I learned it from Master Dave Thomas who, like me, is tall with long limbs. The kata translates to "crane on a rock" because the single-leg balance movements resemble what the majestic bird looks like when it is preparing to do its thing. Those movements, Master Dave said, would allow me to fully use both my arm and leg length in a way no other kata (of the 20 or so in my Goju repertoire) could.

Another great thing about the kata is from a purely competitive viewpoint: since Goju katas are not known for their high kicks (most of our kata kicks are below the obi; heck, one of my absolute favorite katas - Seiuchin - has no kicks in it at all!), competing with them at open tournaments (where practioners from Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu and other styles are letting the spinning hook, high crescent and vertical roundhouse kicks fly) presents a bit of a challenge. Gankaku has a bevy of face-level side kicks and even a big tobi mae geri (jumping front kick) to boot :-) See for yourself:

The balance required is amazing and looks so effortless when I watch the kata. A bit of a different story when I'm doing it, but I'm flowing it everyday and oiling the sticking points. Polishing it in hopes of competing with it at the Diamond Valley Classic in November is actually helping me chip through my current karate block.

In karate, there is always something new to learn, tweek, refine or tighten. I can frustrate myself to distraction waiting for the fog to clear or I can move around and look for a way to MAKE it clear by learning something new, tweeking, refining and tightening things I already know.

I'm chosing the latter :-)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

By Any Other Name...

After my very first class following my nidan grading, training partner Ed handed me a new belt he'd ordered a few weeks before, embroidered with two shiny new red stripes. Although it is absolutely beautiful (it is much thicker and heavier than the belt I was given at my shodan grading) and I was quite flattered he'd thought of me, I promptly tucked into my gear bag where it slipped underneath my sparring gear. For class two days later, my very first black belt - Ol' Faithful (the brand without the stripes) - was the one I tied around my waist.

The next week, Ed had switched bags and forgot to grab his belt when he packed his gi. When we got to the dojo - which is an hour away from home - he asked if I had an extra one he could borrow, so I left both the one he'd given me and my old one on top of my bag when I dashed into the locker room to get changed. I had a mild panic attack when I came out and found he'd taken Ol' Faithful and left the new belt for me to wear.

Now, I'm not even remotely superstitious or feel like my obi has any magical powers or anything, but I hafta tell you that tying that new belt was a hard thing for me to do - not just because it was so stiff, LOL, but because it was so BIG and had TWO STRIPES on it. Strappng it on felt a bit pretentious, like I was shouting to anyone within earshot that I was a nidan now, damnit! - and that just ain't me.

Everyone in the room was at the grading. They saw me do kata, miss one of my breaks, get pummeled by the seniors I sparred and eventually get a new certificate. But no stripes were added to my belt during the grading. It seemed to go without saying that no further outward recognition of the new rank was needed - which was totally fine with me.

But as I stood there trying to tie that new belt and remember which side the stipes had to start on to end up where they belonged (hey, it had been years since I'd had any stripes, for crying out loud!), I felt so conspicuous and, well...showy.

There are only a few folks I train with who wear their full rank on the mat. My sensei is not one of them. We all know his rank - but most importantly, he knows his rank. Although some of the other seniors I train with occassionally don their stripes for promotions, seminars or other formal functions (and I don't see anything wrong with that), my sensei never does (and I don't see anything wrong with that, either). It is what it is.

Last weekend, I headed to a tournament in Connecticut and met a karateka I'd only known before via the Internet. A fellow Goju practitioner, she and I talked about all things karate between rounds of her watching the competition me jumping into the mix for kata and kumite. When I noticed that one of the judges in the ring we were watching had eight stripes on her black obi, I asked my compadre what she thought about the wearing of full rank after shodan. She said she thought practioners should always display who they were - meaning it may be a bit disengenuous to suit up in an unadorned black obi if you are actually a yondan - and that makes sense to me.

But still I wore Ol' Faithful last night to train. It is what it is, I guess.

If you a nidan equivalent or higher, do you wear your full rank on your obi when you train? When you compete or travel to other places like seminars to learn? Why or why not? If you haven't yet gotten that second or third or sixth or eighth stripe, will you wear it/them when you do?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What's In YOUR Gear Bag?

My gear bag weighs about 15 lbs. My training partners call it the McGyver Bag - because it's got so much seemingly obscure/useless stuff. But you know what? When they need a band-aid, nail clipper, hair tie or Tiger Balm, guess who they ask?

Here's what's in mine:
gi & obi
sparring helmet, gloves & kicks
cloth shin guards
2 mouth guards
extra sports tank and bike shorts (what I wear under my gi)
my white belt :-)
a ziplock bag of hair ties, scrunchies and barettes
a tiny first-aid kit (mostly band-aids and neosporin)
a notebook and a few pens
a few business cards
lip balm
a small plastic bottle of apple cider vinegar (it does wonders for cramps/spasms)
a tube of vaseline
nail clippers and a nail file
a one-use cold pack
tape (electrical and athletic)
various knee, hamstring, ankle and wrist braces
two Ace bandages
Tiger Balm
whatever MA book I happen to be thumbing through (currently: "Women in the Martial Arts")
a hand towel (for sparring-induced sweat)
a few bandanas
a pair of slides (for bathroom runs before and after class)
a pair of wrestling shoes (been training in them lately)
hand wraps
a bottle each of water and PowerAide
a few Slim Jims for protein replacement :-)

I think that's it - but you can see why it weighs so much...

What's in your gear bag?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Nidan Grading: The Hazing That Wasn't

The grading was yesterday. It was easier than I thought it would be in spots and tougher than I expected in others, of course. My ribs and the intercostal muscles between them are sore from a few "taps" I received during sparring, but besides that, a small egg on my left leg (someone's bony shin went through BOTH of our shin guards) and a slightly sore great toe on my right foot, I feel great physically.

The format was almost identical to any other grading I've been a part of or witnessed: kata --> self-defense --> tamishiwara --> kumite. In total, it took four hours, but I was not moving around for all that time. Actually, after the invigorating (read: CUP EMPTYING) warm-up, I sat for almost an hour watching kata and self-defense presentations for all 20+ kyu graders and the two shodan candidates, which sucked, as I like to stay warm once I've warmed up/stretched. My back got super stiff and by the time I stood up, I was really tight.

Self-defense was the trickiest part as being attacked by a line of folks (one at a time) - as opposed to doing the techniques with just one uke - was a new grading experience for me. It was definitely "think on your feet time" and it went much better than I expected. I guess all the obsessing over it really helped, LOL.

The higlight of the day was breaking a board with an axe kick - something I've never tried before. When Obasan asked to hold the board for my kick, I was nervous for a split second about missing and actually clocking him in the head, but I forced it out of my mind, concentrated on a tiny speck on the board and let it rip. It was only one board, but it snapped like a twig. One of the other breaks - the same one I've done since my 6th kyu green belt grading: a reverse empi - didn't go so well as the first attempt sent my elbow skidding off the side of the board. Truth is, I was so pumped for the axe kick that I forgot there were other boards to break. Duh! - but the second effort netted a better result. It was pretty cool.

Like all the other black belts in attendance and in gi, I had to line-spar the kyus. Although it wasn't too taxing until we got to the under-belt teen boys (who all seemed to think it was a fight to the death, LOL), I still had about 12 or so 30-second fights before it was my turn to go head-to-head with the senior dans, so I was a little taxed. Each of my seniors started gently but turned up the dial quickly - although they all did acknowledge good techniques that landed, which was great. They were super encouraging, but a minute is a long time to tangle with a seventh-dan who outweighs you by a grip - and I had to do that five times before stepping into the ring with Obasan. Twenty-something and lightening fast, I just knew he was going to chew me up and spit me out in front of the family, friends, spectators and students that were watching. He kept setting me up for hight hook kicks (as in to my head) followed by the most amazing ridge-hand I've ever been hit by, LOL. Suffice to say I saw it coming but could do nothing to evade it at all. Not sure it was going to be my last fight, I was kind of leary about attacking him all out - and he made me pay for that with several strong reverse punches to my ribs near the end that made me pause for a second before I could put my hands back up. You know the technique you just got hit with was a good one when everyone in the room covers their mouth, grimmaces and says "Oooooooh!" all at once. But then the time was up, he hugged me and announced to the room that I was one strong, tough karateka. :-)

And then it was done. The same seniors who were beating me senseless a half-hour before were hugging and congratulating me. It was great to hear the word "Nidan" after my name for the first time, it really was.

One of my instructors was unable to make it to the grading. He texted me last evening to congratulate and ask how I felt. "Legitimate" is what I texted back. Because he was there when I began at the school as a brand new shodan, he knew that I had had a lot of correcting and "re-learning" to do when I arrived. He saw that there were things I should have known then but didn't, and he knew how I'd had to work to alter my path and get to where I needed to be. In other words, he knew exactly what I meant.

"You should," he replied. "Nothing was given. You earned it." That made me tear up a little. OK - it made me tear up a lot :-)

Off to place my new certificate in a frame :-)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Babes: Images of Female MAs

A recent post on the Martial Talk forum asked female martial artists to give their thoughts on how we are portrayed in the media via photos in marketing materials, websites, catalogues and the like. For a while, women were really getting into it and giving their thoughts and opinions on how they think the type of images seen the most are good or bad for the art.

Then a female member posted the above picture of Kyra Gracie and the conversation shifted to the sexualization of female MAs. And again, the comments from the ladies were well-thought out head nods in agreement or equally as well-thought arguments to the contrary. Not everyone thought alike, but how they expressed it was civil.

Then a few male MAs chimed in and my head almost exploded.

For the record, although BJJ is not particularly my cup of tea, I have mad respect for any woman who suits up and trains in anything martial - be it boxing, karate, Krav or Jujitsu. From what I understand, Ms. Gracie is quite the powerhouse with a reputation for being one of the best in her art. Note that I am tossing confetti and cheering loudly for her accomplishments - but I'd be lying if I told you that the above pic doesn't totally rub my feminist sensibilities the wrong way.

One guy in particular - a BJJ practioner - argued that Ms. Gracie has inspired many women to begin training AND that she is really a role model because she is beautiful, skilled, beautiful, feminine, beautiful and very good at what she does. Did I mention he thinks she's beautiful? To further illustrate his point, he later posted at least three pics of women in booty shorts, full makeup, low-cut sports bras in psudeo-sexual poses. All the pics, he said, were excellent examples of women in martial arts because they show beauty and health. When I argued that the main problem with the depiction of female MAs is the sexualization, objectification and the lack of diversity (where are the brown women? The over 40 women? the non-size 2's?), he told me that my disdain smacked of jealousy and was, in fact, degrading to women.

So there is no ambiguity here, this is what I tried to say on the thread in a nutshell: I have no problem with beautiful women who train (afterall, I AM a beautiful woman who trains! Not to toot my own horn, but I think every woman is beautiful). What I do have a problem with is the idea that the photographic representation of female martial artists is always petite, white, 20-somethings in sports bras and exposed bellies or in skin-tight dresses and heels holding exotic weapons in their manicured hands. When someone's ideal of a female martial artist reduces us all to eye-candy, realism goes out the window, IMHO. I don't care if said MA has gotten the whole world excited about the art she studies, if you push pics of her in a push-up sports bra that dips to her navel and gi bottoms below her hips, her "role model" factor will always take a back seat to how she looks. Period.

Since forever, beautiful women have been used to sell everything from floor cleaners to anti-depressants, using some advertising executive's idea of feminine/sexy to convince the world that the product or service they're hawking is necessary. But what it really ends up doing is making us all feel inadequate because we don't look like that (heck, NOBODY does these days as even leggy supermodels are Photoshopped to death). Statistics show that the self-esteem of adult women drops significantly after they spend just 10 minutes thumbing through a fashion/pop/celebrity magazine and too many girls as young as eight have considered dieting to loose weight. Perhaps there is a connection? I'm just sayin'...

I don't know personally anyone who trains in a pink gi, much less a skimpy sports bra and leggings, no matter what art they study - not that there is anything wrong with that, but to me, being a woman is more about draping myself in pink or wearing anything form-fittingly unpractical when I TRAIN. On the mat, I wear a gi - just like my male training partners and my sensei. In the gym, I wear bike shorts and a sports tank top, not to show off curves but to get my run/lift/crossfit on without dehydrating. Is it too much to ask folks looking for images for their karate equipment websites, catalogues and karate websites to aim for a little realism? Gheesh...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Meltdown: Path Full of Weeds

This picture is of my favorite flower, the Tiger Lily. Around these parts, it can be found almost anywhere there's dirt between July and mid-August. I guess that would kind of classify it as a weed, but because it is so colorful and hearty - and it won't grow in my yard, for some strange reason - to me it is has the same WOW factor as an Orchid or a Chrysanthemum.

Sometimes I see my martial arts training the same way. To me what looks all bright and beautiful is really nothing more than a weed. Right now, my pending nidan grading is starting to feel a lot like the weedy end of the spectrum.

The grading is only 11 days away. It seems like there is so much to explore/examine/tighten still that it can't all be done in 11 days. Just last night in class, we worked on tamishiwari - board breaking. We hadn't had the re-breakable boards or the makawari pads out in a while, but I was informed that I should have been conditioning my hands in preparation for the breaking my grading would contain all along. I had no idea there would be breaking because I've never been to a grading at my "new" school, although I always had to break boards at other promotions. So, in addition to the running, lifting, kata, self-defense and weapons training I'm somehow managing to do every day, I'm supposed to condition with the makawai X number of times a day per hand as well. Great.

I specifically asked weeks ago if there was anything I should work on to prep for the grading and makawari conditioning was not mentioned. It really isn't a big deal, but it really is if that makes sense. Eleven days is not a lot of time to condition at all, much less to plan board breaks that are fluid and "logical." I almost feel like I'm being set up to come up short, which isn't cool. Every day there seems to be a new surprise about what will be part of the grading. Last week it was the long line of senior dans that will be lined up for kumite near the end of the test. Honestly, it was beginning to feel more like a hazing instead of a grading. Isn't preparing for a new level supposed to be something that is enjoyed and looked forward to, not something that is dreaded?

I've heard all the arguments about how I wouldn't have been invited to test if my instructors did not feel I was ready, but today, I just don't feel ready. And I don't want to go into the test feeling like I could have used another month or two to refine and prepare. I've trained in some way, shape or form every day for the last seven weeks and frankly, I'm nearing exhaustion. I'm about ready to pick a spot on a map, drive to it and take a vacation from all things martial for a minute. Seriously - I'm THIS.CLOSE to bowing out completely.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012


That's for Ippon Kumite waza ku, which, for a looooong time, was the bane of my existance.

Our ippons are simple one-step defenses from a straight punch. Number nine involves stepping back into a long stance with a high block before stepping in, "shearing" the carotid arteries and clasping the hands behind the uke's neck to squeeze said arteries. Next comes pulling the uke's head into your shoulder to both disorient and set up for a knee or two to the thighs or mid-section (whatever is available). Once your adversary is nice and woozie (remember, those carotids are still being squeezed), there is a release that is more like a slight push followed immediately by a double palm strike to the crook of the shoulders. It is quite beautiful in a violent sort of way when done correctly. When I did it, however, it looked like a sad, sad mess. Let's just say it more resembled the karate by the numbers that fellow blogger Michele discussed than it should have...

Part of the problem was that I learned it as an underbelt was totally different than the way I described above. It always seemed really awkward and ineffective in a "I would never do this technique in a million years" kind of way - because it was really awkward and ineffective. Always off balance when setting up for the knee strikes, I had to rely on physical strength, which meant it probably wouldn't have work for me on someone even slightly bigger/stronger. Because I hated it so, I worked it only in preparation for gradings when I'd need to show that I had a basic understanding of it, which I guess I faked very well. As soon as the grading was done, I stuffed it waaaay to the back of my toolbox and forgot it was there until the next grading was coming up. I know, I know...

But in the last few weeks, we've worked all the Ippons quite a bit in class as Sensei has helped us prep for our grading later this month by getting us to tweak and refine them so they are both sharp and effective. We all know they are just simple defenses/set-ups for other techniques from just one type of punch, but that set-up is where the good stuff begins. I see that now and it makes complete sense in a way it didn't use to before.

I always use to wonder why I needed to learn a lousey technique like number nine just for show. If I couldn't use it effectively, then what was the point? Trust me, I asked those questions when I was learning this technique at my old school way back when, but they were never really answered. Instead, it was communicated that the technique wasn't what was ineffective, but that the way I was doing it was. Back then, it WAS ineffective FOR ME. The adjustments that were made to make it a whole lot less of a strength-based technique helped me understand and actually learn to like it. Yep, the light bulb finally illuminated.

In these last few weeks, I think I've done this technique about 300 times. It is flowing much, much better, but I had to break it apart and slow it way down to make that happen - and I mean r-e-a-l-l-y slow. Last night in class, I had an "a-ha!" moment doing Ippon #9, which lead to doing it as close to smooth as I've ever done before - finally! - although that "OMG! I'm doing it!" feeling left as quickly as it came. One out of 300 is a pretty jacked-up average, I admit, but it is a start. That little glimmer of light gives me hope - and confidence to keep trying to work and eventually perfect it.

"Excellence isn't an accident, but a habit," educator Marva Collins said. "The thing you do most will be the thing you do best." Back to the shed to make number nine that habit I go.

Monday, April 23, 2012

30 Minutes

Let me preface this post by saying that track and field is my "other" discipline. As my family lined the streets of Manhattan to watch my uncle run the NYC Marathon when I was an eighth grader, I felt nothing but admiration for all those passionate people plodding along in their running gear. I signed up for the track team tryouts the next year and barely survived the first day. We only had to run two miles on the road and I was the absolute last person to make it back to the school. I didn't stop, but I do remember the person I ran with WALKING beside me - and keeping up. It might have taken me forever, but I somehow managed to keep going.

That ended up being a very good thing. I started high jumping after I made the team (turns out they didn't cut anyone that year) and fell in love with the sport. Thanks to a lot of hard work and a few very good coaches and camps, my jumping improved and track and field ended up paying for my college education. Success in NCAA Championships, Penn Relays and a US Olympic Trial followed.  I went through a lot of running shoes in those 20+ years, but believe it or not, I never really liked to run. I did it because 90% of the high jump is running. Never one to just lace up my trainers for a leisurely jog, I ran road races and competed on my school's cross country team to get stronger for the high jump. Today, I run so I can do what I need to do on the mat. To me, running was and still is sort of a necessary evil.

My honey is a nationally ranked track coach. He and his teams have won nine national titles and are known for all of the top athletes - including a national record holder and an Olympian -  that do very well in high school and go on to collegiate and post-collegiate success, due in large part to his tough workouts and high expectations. He and I actually met on the track while going through our respective divorces; he had just begun training at the field house where I was also training for another Olympic Trial run 12 years ago. So, of course when I mentioned that I wanted to tweak myself cardiovascularly before my upcoming nidan grading, he was all over it. "I could coach you," he told me yesterday. But my schedule is so crazy that I can't really squeeze in any additional training sessions. "All I'll need is 30 minutes a few times a week," he said.

This morning when we met in the gym, it took me all of 15 seconds to realize he was completely serious - and all about business. First - just to add to the fun - he had me lift weights before we got started which is totally opposite of my normal routine. He started me off with a 10 minute run on the treadmill at a moderate speed but a slight incline. Not only did he run on the treadmill next to me, he COACHED me the whole way, telling me how it was better to hurt now than after five of the 10 or so fights I'll probably have on grading day. After six minutes or so, my entire body went numb. I gently asked if we could go eight minutes instead of 10. He actually laughed and reference my track days of old. "You've been here before," he said oh-so-sweetly. I thought about giving him a back fist to the head but I swear, I couldn't lift my arms.

That treadmill was relentless. It was difficult. It was grueling. Plus my arms were screaming from the weights I'd just lifted. Then, he actually had the nerve to toss his shirt over the timer so I couldn't see how much time had elapsed. In my head, I called him a bunch of names, but I didn't have the strength to utter any of them out loud. My "Zen place" had totally left the building. Suffice to say it was not one of my better moments.

As the last few seconds elapsed, he told me I'd only have a three minute rest before staring 30-second intervals. On the treadmill. With the same incline. Only much faster. And the rest period was almost non-existant. The goal was four at a ridiculous pace but I couldn't complain or negotiate because it was time to get to work.

I truly love this man, but I was soooo hating him each time my meager rest period was almost up. He had transformed into the Gestapo right before my eyes. I wanted to kick his stop watch across the gym.

But I didn't. I kept running knowing that the pain would eventually end. And it almost did - except each interval was at a faster pace than the one before it. But before I knew it, the workout was over. He let me catch my breath before announcing that I still had a five minute cool-down to go. Yep, he's that tough.

When I was finally allowed off the treadmill, I looked at my watch. Exactly 30 minutes had passed since I'd started running. I'd survived but I still wasn't sure if I wanted to kiss him or kick him in the shins.

He hugged me and told me that Wednesday would be a little tougher as all the intervals would be a mile faster than the speed I'd run for my last one today.

So I kissed him. That was the only thing that saved his shins.