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.