Friday, August 28, 2009

Sensei Cindy

Rob took some pictures of my black belt test - mostly at the end. Apparently phone cameras aren't too good at action shots so there's a lot of blurring, but several of them are fun anyway. This one is from the self-defense portion of the night. Mike, a very sweet TKD black belt is the guy going for a roll.

Last night was my first night teaching as a black belt. Sensei called (a whole five minutes before I headed out the door for class) to say he would be late, and possibly might not make it at all. Sensei D wasn't there when class time rolled around, so I was on.

I was surprised how much difference a week and a change of belt color made. I've taught classes now and then ever since I was a blue belt (and taught one as an orange belt, but that was special circumstances), so I wasn't expecting a change from prior experience. Instead, the students (all three of them, but still), treated me perceptibly differently, and perhaps in response I was a lot more confident. I tried several exercises I've known about for a while, but had never tried in class before. All of the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves and were learning things at the same time. I even got our teen brown belt guy to do a little bit of grappling and enjoy it - normally he responds to any teaching of joint locks, grappling, or escapes with barely concealed boredom.

Sensei D showed up very late in the class (last 20 minutes), but didn't join in. Instead he watched and took some photos with his phone, which he e-mailed to me later. He had no commentary on the class at all, which I will chose to interpret positively.

School started Wednesday. Both kids like their teachers thus far. Robbie had a bit of a bus disaster on day 1. He had never ridden a school bus before, so he hadn't realized he needed to remember the bus number (even though I told it to him at least three separate times). When he couldn't find his bus after school, he nerved himself up to ask the principal, but spoke so quietly that the man misheard him and put him on the wrong bus - not even one going to another part of our neighborhood, but one going to a completely different town. It took us about 90 minutes to retrieve him, during which both Robbie and Mommy were fairly upset. His bus number is written down in his school planner now, and day two went smoothly.

Aaron is trying out for the school cross-country team next week. I'll be flabbergasted, but extremely proud if he makes it on (endurance is a continuing problem for him). The elementary school open house is next Tues., but we haven't had any information about the middle school OH yet.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


I made it! I'm both wired and limp with relief right now, so excuse any babbling.

The test went very smoothly. The only kata I blipped on was Wansu, which seems ironic since it's my favorite kata and usually my best. I think because it is my favorite I wasn't worried about it and thereby didn't drill it as obsessively as the rest. Basically I put in double nukite instead of the empi (knife hands instead of an elbow strike), which is a move from Sunsu. I knew I had flubbed, but didn't interrupt the flow of the kata, and when Sensei asked at the end of the kata, I knew right where I had screwed up, so he seemed all right (other than teasing me about my nerves).

Self defense went very well. Rob got some good shots, so I'll put them up if he ever gets around to e-mailing them to me (camera phone). Oddly enough I did several notches better at self defense when paired with Mike (who is substantially bigger than me) than against smaller opponents. I did okay with everyone, but Mike went down clean and hard every time. I think when I'm dealing with somebody big, I don't waste any effort muscling through the technique, which is a definite fault of mine when dealing with smaller people (which is most of the other people in our dojo right now). Poor Mike! At least twice I took him down too fast for him to get his arm around and fall properly, so he was a little battered by the end of the evening. Fortunately he's a good sport.

Afterwards we trooped over to Sensei's for pizza, soda, and caipirinhas (an interesting drink involving lime juice, sugar, and cachacas - a Brazilian liquor Rob brought back from his last trip). We watched videos from the World Tournament - I really have gotten faster with my bo since then! I don't feel faster vs. my memory, but I look really slow to myself now. Watching me and the woman who took 2nd (I was 4th), I was struck that the difference all seemed to be speed and conviction. She did a lot more things wrong than I did, but she was fast and confident doing them, while I was hesitant looking, even as I was doing things correctly. It was interesting watching.

It's late, and I should head off for bed, but I'll leave you with the essay that I turned in last week. Some of it may seem familiar, as I borrowed ideas heavily from the essays I have put up here. Enjoy!

If I have sen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants. – Sir Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton was onto something. All of us, every last one, owe much to the generations that have come before us. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the martial arts, none of which would exist without the masters who came before, who developed their arts, refined them, and passed them on.

Less obviously, we are equally dependent on those who came before who are not giants. For every giant of the past, there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands, who while not great themselves nonetheless learn and transmit, passing the martial arts on to their students who in their turn become teachers again. Not every martial art great began their learning at the feet of another giant – if only the giants taught, martial arts would have died out many times over.

Nor does every martial arts giant start out knowing what they will become (few of us ever do). Some never think of themselves as giants at all, but simply as a sensei, as any martial artist can be a sensei if they have the will to be so, a solid foundation to teach from, and a concern for the learning of those following after them.

I wasn't thinking of any of this when I walked into my first dojo in September of 1996. I had never heard of Isshinryu, or Tatsuo Shimabuku, or even Okinawan karate as distinct from other forms of karate. I barely knew there was a difference between karate, judo, aikido, and "all that other stuff"; it was all just martial arts to me. I went because my neighbor wanted to go and because I was curious, as I am curious about everything. If Trish had wanted to try a local pottery class, or ballroom dancing, or learning Latin, I would probably have gone along just as readily.

The first evening was stunning, in a more literal sense than that phrase is usually meant. Trish and I were given what amounted to a two hour intensive self-defense class. It didn't have a lot to do with the system of Isshinryu, except that like our style it was practical, direct, and occasionally brutal. By the end of the night I was probably two or three times more capable of defending myself against an attack than I had been when I walked in. I was also covered in bruises, and by the next morning so sore I could barely move.

It was when I came back the next night that I began to learn something of Isshinryu – how to chamber a kick, how to make a proper fist – all the minutiae that make up the letters of the Isshinryu alphabet. But over the next year and a half, the most important things I learned at Mr. Gabbard's dojo had to do with what I wasn't.

Firstly, I learned I wasn't a coward. I had always been afraid – not of pain, per se, but of my potential reaction to pain. That I would retreat, collapse, or otherwise behave shamefully in the face of it. At Gabbard's I learned that I could be hit and hit hard, and still come back fighting.

Secondly, I learned I wasn't very good at karate. That the analytical mind and sharp memory that carried me through school and in the work place was helpful, but not sufficient for karate. Regardless of how well my mind understood what I ought to be doing, it didn't mean that my body would follow through. It still took repetition, and drill, and getting it wrong many, many times before I could get it right. Isshinryu was hard. It didn't come naturally, and that wasn't something I was used to. Weirdly enough, this made it all the more interesting to me. Every step of improvement I had to earn and it felt like an accomplishment in a way that academics never had. Not being intrinsically good at karate didn't mean I had to be bad at it forever. It just meant that I had to work that much harder to become good.

Those lessons were the ones that stuck when I left the dojo. I got pregnant; we moved across the country, and I couldn't seem to find the opportunity to start at another dojo. My fitness levels dropped, I slowly forgot my hard-earned sparring skills, eventually I forgot how to do most of the kata, but I remembered what I could do when I put my time, effort and energy into it. Mr. Gabbard had given me my first view of a wider world of martial arts by letting me stand on the shoulders of his experience.

It was six years before I would restart my training in Isshinryu with a teacher quite different from Mr. Gabbard, and in a very different dojo. I started as a white belt again, which was appropriate given how much I had forgotten. Yet the white belt sat a little oddly, because I did still have those lessons from my first go-around that I had never lost.

As I began my karate journey again, the oddly sitting white belt began to teach me something itself. In my first incarnation as a karateka, I had not cared particularly about rank (or at least believed that I did not care). But as I began to dig my skills out of my rusty memory, I noticed something. I wasn't a white belt anymore, even though I wore one. It felt like I was playing pretend to wear it when I came to class, and I began to realize that I wanted my belt to reflect what I could do. That was when I realized that I did, after all, want a black belt. Not because I cared what color I had tied around my waist, but because I coveted the skills and mind-set that would make any other color seem as bad a fit as the white belt was at that moment.

So I began my climb back up, learning karate the same way one gets to Carnegie Hall – practice, practice, practice. But this time, I had a more specific goal. If I wanted to be a black belt, rather than simply have one, what did that mean? What made someone a black belt?

Here, I ran into Mr. Rodeghier's oft repeated maxim "Black belt means sensei." He says it often enough that it clearly resonates with him, yet looking around the larger martial arts world it's easy to find people with black belts who are clearly not sensei. Some of them have formidable skills, far beyond what I have, yet those skills are not transmitted. Others, not always the most skilled themselves, are clearly fabulous sensei with a gift for teaching and transmitting the essence of their art. So, if black belt means sensei, and yet the two categories don't completely overlap, then what is the difference between them?

The difference is in the orientation. A black belt is a symbol of the skills acquired in your journey as a karateka. Not that it's the endpoint - far from it. But it symbolizes that you know the basics of your art; you are a serious student. To use an analogy, it symbolizes that you know your ABC's and have learned your spelling, and now you're ready to start writing. A sensei needs to know these things, but being a sensei has very little to do with what you actually know, and everything to do with who you feel responsible for. If black belt means sensei, it's because a sensei is a black belt who has looked beyond him or her self outwards to the students coming along behind and decided to take responsibility for helping them along the way. They put their students up on their shoulders and let them see further than would be possible otherwise.

I stand where I stand on my Isshinryu journey because of my sensei. Regardless of where my journey takes me from here I want to emulate them, to boost the people who come after me along their own ways. Because even if we are not all giants, it is still a worthy goal to have shoulders strong enough to stand on.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

One Week And Counting

We're getting close. Very, very close. I turned in my black belt essay Thursday evening, and am holding my breath waiting for Sensei's opinion on it. I'll post it up here once the test is over, but if anyone would like an advance peek, just let me know, and I can probably e-mail you a copy. I've now gone over all the required bits for my test with Sensei privately on about four separate occasions, so it's pretty clear that I know what to do. The only thing left is to practice, practice, and then practice some more.

I've done three rounds of Sanchin with beatings thus far, and so far so good. Sensei and the other testers have not been hitting as hard as they will on the test (I have no idea who will be beating on me at the test.), but I've also had at least a little room for harder hits in all the rounds so far. I definitely got some interesting looks and questions this last Sunday at church when I wore a sleeveless blouse without thinking much of it, and there were clear fist imprints on both arms. Oops!

I don't know how many people will be there at all. At a minimum we'll have the current students (about eight all told), Rob, Dad Wood & the boys. At a max, we could be adding several people from the TKD studio we shared space with before (they've got the time & place, and several people have said they wanted to come), some of the previous students who know me, and possibly some non-karate friends as well. So it could be a tiny little group, or a fair shindig. We'll be putting down the padded floor, which is good, both for my knees sake, and for the people I'll be dumping on it during the self-defense test. I've long noticed that when I strain my knees doing Kusanku, it's invariably when I'm working on a surface I'm afraid to come down on. So for practice purposes, I currently only go all the way down kneeling when I'm on a soft floor, or when I'm outside - this seems to be working well so far. I haven't had any knee twinges in a couple of months.

The upcoming test is rather eating my life right now. Everything I plan to do seems to start with "After the 21st..." Fortunately the boys don't go back to school until the 26th, so I'll have five days to get them situated for supplies afterwards. Registration is this coming week, though, so I'll have to deal with that.

Robbie earned back his right to wear his yellow belt on Tuesday, and is (rightfully) pleased with himself. He forgot remarkably little for almost three years off. Sensei says he can start on Seisan on Tuesday, which is good, because he's quite bored with the Taikyoko's at this point, and Robbie bored is never good for discipline.

If I remember correctly, though, my brown belt test got almost two months of extra good behavior out of the boys (something about Mommy smashing through concrete). I wonder if this test will have any similar salutory effects?