Friday, October 20, 2017

Application of Kata

It may be irresponsible as a novice karateka (karate student) to publish writings about martial arts. But, as writing is my best way of interacting with the world, and of processing information, I hope that humbly acknowledging that my understanding is green and limited, I may be able to offer some insights into ideas and situations that others like me may encounter. As I revisit my own experiences, it would be exciting if another instructor were able to extrapolate some useful piece of feedback which enabled them to provide some useful bit of instruction which they had not considered before.

When I write to process information I tend to use big words and complex sentence structures. My fortunate command of grammar and vocabulary in the English language helps me get closer to the most accurate descriptions I can make about what I observed and what I experience. That's not necessarily useful for people who are not usually readers.

When I write to inform or persuade, that is, when I am teaching, my diction and structure become far less complicated. I think for most people it's the other way around, but for me the ability to simplify my thoughts for the sake of communication didn't come until much later in my life. That means, if I am able to write something down simply, I have probably worked hard to process whatever concept I'm trying to deliver.

As I grew up in a complex way, I had to develop complex ways of managing my interaction with a world of experiences far beyond what was appropriate for a person of my age and developmental level. The English language offered tremendous benefits in order for me to be able to describe complex concepts as directly as possible, given how many different words and ways are available for describing any one thing.

Poetry is concerned with the economics of language, with the deliberate manipulation of diction, tone, connotation, and so on. Reading and writing poetry offered sound methods for me to learn to say more, and more directly, by saying less. Library books were free, and thank God they still are. I never would have developed this incredible communication skill had I not accessed those resources.

I'm not sure if my aptitude as a polyglot has anything to do with some sort of linguistic superpower that other people don't have. My absorption of different languages likely came about because the simplicity of fewer words and organized sentence structures offered avenues for me to conceptualize and communicate with others more easily because I simply had fewer words to work with! To this day speaking in a foreign language offers tremendous relief from the stress of trying to communicate what I'm thinking.

If you combine hearing loss, a multilingual word bank, severe isolation during developmental years, and being a highly sensitive person, you have a beautiful recipe for communication challenges. However, I have overcome those challenges one by one using therapeutic, adaptive, and educational methods. It's unbelievable how strong a communicator I am now, but still surprises me how taxing communication truly is.

Communicating in a foreign language, especially in sign language, removes a lot of that pressure because I simply don't have the vocabulary to overcomplicate things in my head before I even stop to think about them! Thank God for small favors!

In the dojo I'm almost completely deaf. I don't strain to lip read as much as I used to because I now have a better understanding of the basics. I can watch and follow with less stress, which opens up intellectual space for me to consider what moves I may need to adapt for my safety and for efficacy. That is, the only language I'm using most of the time is body language. I sometimes forget to speak when I didn't understand or I have a question, which can be a little bit embarrassing, but I have to laugh! That's not the worst problem to have, is it?

All this to say, karate, especially Goju Ryu, has rather an impressive legacy of simplifying and translating karatedo (the way of karate) with clarity while maintaining its original concepts across languages, cultures, and time. That's no small achievement!  Karatedo must survive diverse accents, egos, dialects, wars, natural disasters, economics, and time itself. Higaonna-Sensei has given his entire life to this preservation and proliferation. He is not only a martial arts practitioner, but also a teacher, a communicator, a cultural attaché, a historian, a storyteller, a curator, and an archivist. Imagine what kind of energy it takes to be all of those things? That's, of course, on top of being a husband, father, uncle, community leader, a national cultural treasure, a worldwide hero, a teacher, a friend, and a decent human being? How much does it take out of one person to put a check in every one of those boxes?

No one person could single-handedly accomplish all that, which speaks to the importance of being able to communicate with others, and more importantly, to do so with humility. I imagine that at some point early on, Higaonna-Sensei had to figure this out. It was probably hard to come by this knowledge and it probably hurt. Japan, and particularly Okinawa, carefully protect their cultural legacies of working together with others in order to achieve great things, but everybody has to decide for themselves what that means to them. Higaonna-Sensei humbled himself, collaborated with others, gave them room to work, resources, respect, and gratitude. Learning how to do that isn't easy, whether it's your culture or not.

Imagine the time and energy it would have taken in the 1980s for Higaonna-Sensei to have written out, typed up, edited, published, advertised, and defended a series of books that claimed to preserve the most fundamental concepts of a globally recognized art? Imagine the discourse, the pushback, the edits and revisions, the financial complexities, the communication barriers! Imagine having to interpret, reconcile, translate, and unify these concepts from direct observation, Fujianese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Okinawan, Japanese, English, and beyond, all while running a school and raising young children! That's not to mention maintaining his own health and training!

Communications is a multibillion-dollar business in the Information Age. Higaonna-Sensei did this work without the convenience of modern technology, within modest constraints, and without the ease of instant communication technologies.

If you ever get the opportunity to read his books, please consider these things that I'm sharing. I don't just appreciate these books because I liked Higaonna-Sensei when I met them, or because he's a nice guy, because it feels good to own collectors' items that detail ancient secrets to being a bad dude plain English, complete with photos and diagrams. I appreciate these books because they were produced under tremendous pressure, with modest resources, and they came out pretty darn close to perfectly. How exciting is that!?

Everyone has to move through their own karate journey and make it work. We have to take our abilities, the instruction of our Sensei (head teacher), the guidance of our Senpai (senior students), 

On the Balance of Kata, Bunkai, Kumite, and Iri Kumi

The first iri kumi of a martial artist with disabilities is the battle to seek and find a school and instructor who will take them on, without preoccupation for their disability, their ability, and any perceived potential liability.

At the bottom of this post is a list of people of all sorts of cool abilities. I thought about them during this post and think it will enrich this post if you check out the links.

[Image: a river bank in Japan with trees in the foreground and a stone lantern in the background. Colours are different shades of green under a mid-day overcast sun. Text in picture: "Karate becomes a sport when those who are teaching it forget that it is an art."  -Karate Viewpoints]
[Image: a river bank in Japan with trees in the foreground and a stone lantern in the background. Colours are different shades of green under a mid-day overcast sun. Text in picture:
"Karate becomes a sport when those who are teaching it forget that it is an art."
-Karate Viewpoints]

A facebook thread of friendly  "chest thumping" got unexpectedly philosophical with questions about who is practicing something martial and who is practicing art.

Loosely defined, here is what the words mean from the title of this blog post:
  • Kata - a series of movements commonly referred to as the textbooks of karate
  • Bunkai - ways to use movements from the kata in fighting
  • Kumite - "grappling hands" 
  • Iri kumi - free, controlled exchange of technique, often continuous hard contact

It was said, paraphrased, that those who do not practice iri kumi are not learning to fight, they are learning an art.

For a second, it hurt to think that, if I didn't practice iri kumi I was not practicing the martial part of the art that preoccupies my life. I am used to being told that I am some one way or another, as are most people with disabilities. But the more I thought of other martial artists with disabilities who motivate and challenge me, I became anxious about our inherent right to learn to protect ourselves by any means possible. 

Probably I will spend the rest of my life contemplating the following four questions, on and off again.
  1. Where is there room in how martial arts is defined for different people--from within and from without?
  2. Are people with disabilities who can't regularly practice iri kumi, then, only practicing an art? Is there room (and there may not seem to be) that it may also give them a fighting chance?
  3. Everyone is fighting a battle, and people with disabilities are at constant iri kumi vs. life. But so is everyone else, so how is our existence framed when viewed from the non-martial arts lens?
  4. If I didn't have so many projects already I would take time to to look through my materials and see what Higaonna-Sensei has to say directly about kata, bunkai, kumite, and iri kumi. Beliefs grow and develop over time, like it or lump it, but it will be helpful for me to keep looking both back and forward. Any particular points of interest?

I am especially grateful for every person, group, school, and organization that welcomes students of all ability levels.


People I've thought about during this post:
  1. My Sensei, who took me on and we made a plan to be safe; who requires that I (we) understand the techniques as they were written for able-bodied majority, and that I (we) find adaptive ways to perform techniques effectively at any functional level:
  2. Higaonna-Sensei, who remarked that it looked like I was having fun; who took time to make suggestions about how he would like to see kata and techniques performed.
  3. The ever-growing number of karateka with disabilities in my dojo, which we all celebrate with joy that we can be such a place where all are welcome.
  4. John Marrable-Sensei who paved the way as a Goju Ryu karateka with a visible disability and looks to be absolutely lethal:
  5. Ikkaido Federation
  6. Olando Rivera's Warriors for Autism:
  7. SuperCelu, my hero:
  8. Andrea Harkins, The Martial Arts Woman, who featured my narrative in her first anthology:
  9. Chris De Wet-Sensei, who helps me face the reality that not all experts will have the answers I need, and that I have a responsibility to find those answers for myself, which will empower me to help others grow:
  10. Michael Downs-Sensei who helps me focus on helping others grow by acknowledging both my disabilities and capabilities:
  11. Me (here I am! Hi! I did think of myself.)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Push The Bag

We do an exercise with the little kids where they have to push the bags. We adults hold kick shields in front of us, the kids have to push us up and down the dojo. When they "get stuck" (i.e., we resist), we encourage them and laugh with them, or gently cajole them, whatever they need. When we make huge progress (i.e., we take several steps backward so they feel like they got a really strong push) we celebrate and congratulate.

Push The Bag one of the more time-consuming activities, but it's easily one of my faves because we are encouraging them the whole time, no matter what happens.

We encourage one another in the dojo no matter what happens. It just so happens that during Push The Bag we get to do a whole lot of it, one-on-one, which really improves our relationship with that one child. It's special to me.

Nothing big and profound today to write about, just this nice thing.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Bottom line: Respect Others, Respect Where You Come From, Respect Yourself.

A woman held a Japanese-style tea party for her daughter's birthday. She wrote it up in a blog post ( Years later her blog was reposted on Tumblr, and was soon under fire for cultural appropriation. 

A Japanese person responded with exemplary kindness:

Unexpectedly, and having studied Japanese culture and language for half my life, it's become a part of who I am, how I see things, and how I carry myself. Strict adherence of Goju Ryu karate to Japanese (well, Okinawan) culture has reinforced and strengthened that aspect of me.

Yesterday I unwittingly bowed in Japanese style to a nurse as she left, while I thanked her for coming in Korean language. She smiled and said, "ah, you bow to thank me, that's a nice Japanese tradition!" I think she was trying to politely tell me that they don't bow that way in Korea--a very tasteful way to impart that cultural point! I told her it's because I've grown up with Japanese culture and don't even realize I'm doing it anymore. We had a good laugh and she said, "Sayonara!"

America does not have a culture. Compared to much of the rest of the world, America has a young and manufactured national identity. We have only begun to forge traditions of our own, and have not yet existed long enough for them to be time-honoured. In fact, to come to America an immigrant even has to renounce their culture and language, called naturalization. This has never sat well with me. What values do we offer them? The nondescript word, "Freedom," maybe hot dogs, and that's about it.

My mother taught me to value English language and writing skills because that's what families do when they immigrate to America. She didn't teach me to value English because it was beautiful, or because America had a legacy of protecting its linguistic heritage (as do France and Iceland, for example). It's just what we did because we lived in America, and her grandmother had to work hard to learn English. As my mother taught me how to read she would often recount the day her grandmother had finally acquired enough English to read the newspaper.

Beyond that, I was acculturated as Italian-American, not just American. The way I learned to live, be, and see myself is through the lens of "how it was done in the Ol' Country." Family is all you have. Learn to pronounce your foods in Italian. Learn the Italian sayings. Grate your cheese in the cellar. Bake enough bread to share. To my bottomless regret, my grandparents never taught us to speak their Sicilian dialect because they didn't want the children to understand what the adults were saying. The Italian dictionary was useless.

Mix all that in with spending summers in Canada, which speaks English but still requires French. Add in the holiday visits from Jimmy The Greek and his tremendous spreads of Greek food laid out for us. 

This cultural mélange taught me that English isn't all that important, there are lots of ways to say the same thing. The key is to make sure communication is taking place, and that you understand other people's cultures.

America is the jackpot in a global roulette game in terms of what kind of person you'll meet next. Culture is how you are brought up to be, and is inextricably linked to identity. Why would we not want to celebrate that? How could anyone wish to homogenize that? Who of sound mind and good nature thinks that's a good idea?

No, I will never condone blackface, or the Redskins, or the word cracker. But I'll practice the Native American custom of thanking animals for their sacrifice; I'll give reverence for black Americans who endured the Civil Rights Movement and lived to tell about it, and I might just bow when someone leaves my house. I promise to never take on a novel custom to make a spectacle of it. I also promise to never stop exploring other cultures to learn about how I can better understand others and grow as a person.

Where do you draw lines between cultural appreciation and appropriation? What do those terms mean to you?

Bottom line: Respect Others, Respect Where You Come From, Respect Yourself.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Nests, Eggs, and Winters

My friends and I visit a Buddhist temple each August to pay respects to Atom, our dearly departed brother, brother-in-law, and friend. One year, as we sat on the back porch with the Abbess Dai-En-Sensei I pointed out a bird's nest, and got a good lesson about dreams deferred, about the choices a parent has to make. The story was not intended as a lesson, it was just table talk. Such is the care with which Dai-En-San chooses her words--a listener can't help but grow.

Last fall a mother bird lay her eggs in that nest. It was too cold for them to survive on their own, so she had to stay and keep them warm. If she stayed to keep them warm, she would starve to death. If she starved to death, there would be no one to feed the eggs when they hatched. and they would die. So, she had to let them go and take care of herself, but she could lay new eggs.

Parents have to decide what to provide for their children. Throughout the world families come up short and parents watch their children go without the bare necessities. In other situations a family might be well able to provide for their child, but they have to decide whether to proceed with the child's birth, given that the child will suffer tremendous pain and ultimately an untimely death. Lately, some families have nobly chosen to have those babies anyway, in order to donate the organs to other babies in need. There are so many different types of families and struggles, but the story gives me some hope.

I can't safely carry children of my own, and though it is possible, my children would have a 50% chance of inheriting Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. The plan between my ex-wife and me had been that she would carry the children. She left to pursue those dreams with someone else and I was a wreck. Without wanting to I go over in my heart how old the baby would have been, what they would be doing at this age, and so on. It haunts my dreams and my days. But as the marriage had become saturated with untruths, it's better that those eggs never hatched. But I have no idea what lies ahead.

Reproduction is one of the fundamental biological properties of life, so I try to go easy on myself for having a visceral desire to raise children, even though I know it would be very hard for me to do. I would not be alone in doing the work, though.

My own struggles with having a family are a part of what brings me to karate. I love working with the children on weekends. I haven't been able to do it for several months and I miss them. When I work with our children in the dojo I watch them walk out the door with their mommies and daddies. After my wife left I had to step out to my car to scream as the tears and snot flooded my face. I retched from the stress and heaving, it was a lonely time. I still hold back my tears when I work with the kids, but it's gotten a little easier after four years.

All the same, I love watching them grow and learn. I feel myself connecting with them as they tell me their thoughts and stories. I feel their trust in me and in our school, a safe space for them to learn and grow. A lot of families make big sacrifices of time and resources to be able to bring their children to karate, so I want to give everything I can offer to benefit them.

Today is Mother's Day. It's a hard day for me. But I'll see my own mother in a few weeks and I look forward to that time together, I'm still her baby bird.

Happy Mother's Day to those celebrating. Gentle thoughts of caring and comfort to those not.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Higaonna Morio-Sensei and the Teaching Life

I would imagine Higaonna-Sensei, being a humble and quiet man, has had to do a lot of soul searching to feel comfortable with being in so many photos and videos. I'll bet that, at some point, he made the decision that he would have to allow himself to become widely known and loved all over the globe, because he had a message to teach and a promise to keep for his own Sensei. I'll bet he's had to be careful not to abuse his power or take advantage of the privilege that he's been afforded.

If he's anything like the teachers I know, he's also given up countless experiences, freedoms, and luxuries that come with the poverty that teachers often incur, with everything they earn going​ back to their students.

I wish there were a way for me to see Higaonna-Sensei again. I miss him a lot. I would tell him all about how my Sensei is careful to follow his work, how in our school we pay attention to character as much as to technique. I would tell him that I'm still loving karate and that I'm doing fine. I would tell him that I'm even more enthusiastic now about karate than I was when I began, and that it's led me to a healthier and happier life.

Most of all, I would thank him for all he's recorded and written to officiate the legacy of Goju Ryu Karate-Do, that we are listening.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Higaonna-Sensei's Time

I dreamt that Higaonna-Sensei visited my dojo on my testing day. He looked so healthy, happy, and energetic that I kept my nervousness about testing in front of him under control because staying calm and collected in times of conflict is his #1 lesson.

In my dream I passed to my 2-kyu, but he had much to say about what improvements I needed to make. He gave me a technical analysis of what to modify so that my disabilities weren't in the way of my efficacy. He a gave me strict feedback about where I was clearly getting in my own way for fear of injury or fainting.

How I wish I could remember anything he'd said! We spoke mostly in Japanese and I was preoccupied with translating, and with not getting overwhelmed by how generous he was in his time with me, when there are so many people who would kill for that kind of time with him. The only way I could focus was to know that the only way to honour those people was for me to focus, work extremely hard, and to do everything I knew to make Higaonna-Sensei happy with his student. I received a glut of his time and attention.

This has got to be, in part, a manifestation of how I felt during MCF2014 in Tampa, Florida, USA. I'd had a number of difficulties and was driven to tears several times from the complications.

On the first morning of training I had accidentally come to black belt training. I arrived late, so I wheeled to the back and parked my chair against the wall, doing gentle juunbi undo (karate warm-ups) and trying not to draw attention as the karateka in the wheelchair with lights on it. Nakamura-Sensei politely informed me that this was the black belt class and I'd read the schedule wrong, but he invited me to sit and watch, which I did, soon finding myself a fish out of water. I was 5-kyu at the time, a blue belt.

The day before I found myself sitting in the dining room of the hotel at the table next to the senior instructors. Higaonna-Sensei and I faced each other from our respective tables and exchanged informal head bows, with smiles throughout our meals. I knew who he was and now I knew he was curious about who I was. At the time the only other wheelchair user I'd ever heard of was John Marrable-Sensei in New Zealand. I'd only seen Marrable-Sensei in pictures, but I knew he was out there in the big world, and from his representation I gained infinite gusto about representing myself in my wheelchair to break barriers and stigma.

Within seconds of Nakamura-Sensei's invitation Higaonna-Sensei walked up to me, cutting right through the lines, all the way from the front of the class. He did not rush, and his face was neutral. He did not look at other students as he walked, but came straight to me. We bowed. With no delay he held out his hands. They were covered in scars, knobs of arthritic and glycated tissue, and dry patches where I presume blood and water could no longer compete with the chronic assaults on the capillaries that carry nutrients to the surfaces of his hands.

"Whatever you do, do it a hundred times," he said, as he rapidly opened and closed his massive paws into fists. "every day. Then you will be strong. Just one hundred times. Okay, good."

Just as quickly as he came he was gone, back to teaching the black belts.

Later, outside in the Florida sun, we were taking photos with him and with students from our respective countries and I passed out from the heat. A fellow karateka happened to be a paramedic and helped me inside to safety. I collapsed on a patch of floor off to the side of the stairs and he helped me start my IV pump. It became apparent that I had worried Higaonna-Sensei because he came to me when he was through with photos, an entourage behind him, to see if I was recovering okay. When he saw that I was in good hands he gave me two thumbs up and went on with his day.

It isn't easy to be "the one in the wheelchair." It can feel like I'm getting extra attention I don't deserve, and like I'm taking away from other students. Someone's I just have to be humble about it, other times I have to fight for it to get my own needs met. It's important for the instructor to be aware of your needs, especially in matters of safety, but also in matters of equally access.

Higaonna-Sensei teaches so many people that he can't possibly get to know all of us. And yet, he took much time to meet with me, to talk with me, and he even asked Nakamura-Sensei to take a picture of us so I would have one. "You look like you are having fun, I see you smiling when you practice," he said.

How I wish I could see him again. I wish he could see how much stronger I am. I wish he could know all that my Sensei has done for me, how Goju Ryu has changed my life, thanks to his proliferation of the practice.

We only get so much time on this earth. May we all use it to change and improve lives.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Taking Risks

Because my Sensei taught me how to do knuckle push-ups correctly I can use that skill to get up from the floor without dislocating my fingers, hands, and wrists. This is why it's important to let vulnerable people try new things and take risks that directly affect them. Instead of getting hurt, I got better, and I solved a very big problem in the process.

A month will have passed since I last attended karate class because I'm moving to a new place, a car load at a time, each day. The ridiculously slow pace of moving has worked out well for my body and kept me able to work the next day. The help has made all the difference, as I am not required to risk lifting or stair climbing with my hands full.

I am trying hard to keep this blog about karate but other elements leak into it. Let's see where this goes. I promise to bring it back around.

If I get hurt in karate I can afford medical care to respond and recover. This enables me to take risks and learn new skills that improve my life. I fall less, bump into doors less, dislocate less, exercise more, and I am more compliant with meds, physical therapy, and splinting. I manage my fatigue more efficiently, participate in social activities, and have a greater overall sense of wellness, all thanks to karate.

Without ACA I am worried about my health. More accurately, I am worried I won't be able to afford my health. It cost me $28/day for saline infusions before ACA, not including my other meds and care. ACA has helped me stay alive, get healthier, and live more independently than ever in my life. I know changes will help some people, but I'm afraid for myself.

People say "[Trump] will probably leave the disability part alone" but if he's repealing maternity care stipulations I'm not so optimistic. It's not even possible to plan for how catastrophic it will be if I lose Medicaid. Before ACA I had to liquidate my retirement to pay medical expenses. I was considering the guaranteed poverty of SSDI and retiring on disability because it was cheaper than working full-time as a tax-paying contributor.

We'll see what happens. I'm trying not to panic, worry has never done me a lick of good. But planning has, and I have no way to plan for what will be financially irreconcilable, based not on fear-mongering about how bad a President Trump will be, but on past experience of how bad things can truly get.

It's bound to have an impact on my karate. I feel like I've got one more year to try everything I want to try, and then I'll have to practice like I'm made of porcelain. Therefore, I'd better hurry up and finish moving so I can get back to the dojo.

In life I've learned not to avoid fear, but karate has honed my skill to also not be unrealistic about what fear is trying to show me. Fear is trying to show me that something may change, that if I can prepare, I should. But if I cannot prepare, I can at least be ready to respond. There is always good work to do, there is always a positive way to respond--even when I'm not happy about it, which is when it matters the most.

Change is a given. It is said to be the thing people fear most. Therefore, as a veteran of change on all levels of life, I am not afraid of much. But I am afraid of the ACA repeal. So what can I do? I can practice zanshin, residual awareness. I can be ready to respond, even if I'm not sure to what, or how to do it just yet.

Trump is taking a gigantic risk, and he's gambling with other people's money, health, lives. In karate I take risks with my own health, not on others'. But my risks are good risks, carefully considered and closely monitored by outsiders with more experience. Even then, I still consider how others will be affected if I get hurt while working with a partner, or on a team. They may feel sad for me, or worry that they hurt me, and that can cut deeply for people with high sensitivity.

There is no silver bullet to fixing health care in America, no matter what side you're on. We have to work through it together. Seeing things get worse will only strengthen our resolve to make things better, but there will be many casualties in the process and I hope I will not become not one of them.

It will be okay. But first, and perhaps for a long time, it will be not okay. How to get through will be a matter of trial and error, like the thousands of kicks it takes to get one great blow, and even that one can be improved.