Thursday, June 17, 2010

Genesis of an Art

Zan and Zu Pike

I get asked this now and then -- where do new arts come from? -- and while I can't get specific about most martial arts -- speaking here of older ones, not those of recent creation -- I can get general.

Generally speaking, a martial art can arise from all kinds of reasons. Probably the most likely are 1) a perceived need for something better or 2) a philosophical shift in the mind of a player.

For example, if you live in a culture where everybody is forbidden to carry any kind of weapon and few people carry them, what is apt to develop is different than it might be in a society where everybody hauls a sword around or is packing a gat. If every man-jack and his kid sister has a knife tucked into their sashes and a razor in their shoe, it would behoove one to come up with methods to deal with short-blade attacks.

Yeah, I know, well ... duh! but some folks don't see the connection. I have heard from more than a few martial artists in the US of A who have allowed as how they don't carry any kind of weapon other than their bare hands, and they won't -- don't like 'em, don't see the need.

If they are that good, I surely don't want to mess around with them. I suspect most of them are less adept than they think they are.

So a stand-up only fighter runs into a grappler and gets his ass handed to him. Surely anybody who wants a functional art in that circumstance is going to try and come up with ways to deal with wrasslers?

A fighter from an art that favors kicking range might have trouble if he runs into somebody who prefers elbow distance and who can get there. And in order to get there, the elbow guy has to figure out how to get past kicks, too.

On the philosophical end, you might have somebody who has a workable system, but who looks up one day and realizes something about it limits its attractiveness. An art that needs speed and power probably works better when you are twenty-five than when you are seventy-five. At forty, you look up and wonder if you will still be able to do it thirty or forty years down the line and realize that if you can't, you better find something else. Or alter what you have and make it something else.

An art that offers extreme violence might run afoul of a mindset that wants to do minimal damage to an opponent. You injure somebody gravely, and it bothers you. So bash-'em-with-a-brick morphs into toss-'em-into-a-soft-lawn. You can make the change from a jutsu into a -do. Maybe you don't need some of the tools, so you stop working with them. I understand the early judo players were every bit as kick-ass as the ju jitsu players for most places they needed to be.

You either have to adjust your opponent, or adjust yourself, or some combination thereof, and if he's waving a knife and your art doesn't have a way to deal with that, something has gotta change.

See a need and deal with it. And if the current method isn't doing the trick, you try and come up with a better way.

Beat a better path and the world will build a door to your mouse trap ...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Martial Arts Seminars: Pro and Con

I've spoken to this before, but a question came up, so ...

For the purposes of this discussion, "seminar" here means an intensive training session, ranging from a day to a few days. The focus can be sharp -- one instructor offering specifics about a single art; or several instructors trading techniques from multiple arts.

Generally, I feel, students of a particular art get more from a single teacher in their system working from what they already know.

On a typical weekend gathering, something like this: Students and teachers arrive on Friday evening, do meets-and-greets. Sessions start early Saturday morning, run all day, different teachers leading the class, or, if it is large enough, breaking into sub-groups with teachers rotating through. When the Saturday session is through, students and teachers hang out, eat, drink, have a fine ole time, crash, and then crank up again Sunday for a half-day before everybody heads home.

An example of a larger one was the Las Vegas gathering for Guru Plinck's students in '08. I spoke of it here, and that included some comments as to what I found most and least valuable about it.

The gist of that report was that having a chance to meet and cross hands with others in one's art, or arts that are in the same general ballpark, is high on the list of good things. The camaraderie can be great. That guy you thought was an idiot when you read his postings on the net turned out to be okay in person. (Or vice-versa.) You get a chance to see people who have a lot of years training and who have put their spins on how best to do it, and how what you know works or doesn't work compared to that.

I think newbies tend to benefit from multiple-art seminars more than folks with a lot of training in one style, and that's because they don't have all that baggage to get in their way.

If you don't know anything about a subject, it's all new and you can get into it without a lot of unlearning. If you are several years deep in an art and you have internalized the principles, then training that goes against those principles tends not to stick. If you are a good student, you will listen to the teacher and make an honest attempt to do it the way s/he tells you to do it. You are supposed to leave your rank and sense of superiority at the door, but it's harder to leave your skills there, whatever they are.

A simple example: In Sera Plinck, we generally try to cover both high- and low-lines. One hand high, one low, one near, one far. Even if both hands aren't always positioned that way, mentally, you designate them so that both lines are theoretically-covered. The right hand might be higher than is optimal for low coverage, say, but you know that it's your low-line and have it ready to move where it needs to be.

Obviously there are going to be transitions where this won't be possible, and you hurry to get there, but the only time you leave a big opening on purpose is when you are inviting an attack, trying to draw it in, because you have something in mind.

If you are attacking high-line with a knife, and the other guy throws up an X-block, then everything from his armpits down is open and if you have any training with a blade, chances are good that you can exploit that. Plus you have your back-up hand. He'll be playing catch-up, and action is faster than reaction, so chances of him getting his hands down before you gut him or use your back-up aren't really very good.

So when you go to the seminar and a teacher gives you a technique wherein your low-line is left uncovered, you are apt to feel uncomfortable. You know that you could go there if your opponent offered it thus, and the temptation is to do that.

Another problem is in arts that are similar but not the same. The kali instructor tells you to hold the stick this way. The escrima guy offers his method, which is different. Either might work, but both teachers are adamant that their version is correct and anything else is wrong.

When I was starting junior high school -- called middle school now -- we had a study block called MAS -- music, art, and speech -- each of which ran three months. In the first music class, the teacher asked rhetorically, "What is the universal language?" Her answer was, "Music." Standard notation was the same everywhere in western music.

Music is the universal language. We all nodded sagely. Of course.

Later that morning, I had a shop class, drafting. (This was back in the day when the boys all took shop, and the girls, home economics.) So coach -- and all male teachers were called "coach" then -- said, "What is the universal language?"

My hand shot up. I know, I know! "Music!"

Coach started at me as if I had turned into a giant horsefly. "Music? If you are trying to tell a chinaman how to build a house you gonna sing it to him? Not music -- pictures! You draw him a picture -- that's the universal language!"

I came to suspect in later years that the music teacher and coach got together and set this up to make us feel stupid, but in that moment, I surely felt like a fool. And I remembered it all this time.

What is correct in the moment depends on who is asking and what s/he believes is the answer.

And listening to the kali guy and the escrima guy, both of whom were offering stuff that didn't really jibe with my silat principles? It wasn't as confusing, because I had long since come to realize that one size seldom fit all, but still, it is something of a conundrum to newbies when they hear the contradictions.

So while I tried to do what the various teachers offered at the seminar, and respected that their way wasn't necessarily wrong, just different, there were times when I just shook my head and kept my mouth shut, even when I was pretty certain that trying a technique their way would get me smacked flat or maybe killed. Based on my knowledge that if they tried it that way, I could probably smack them flat or kill them, and I'm not even very good at this.

It's generally not encouraging when you look around the room as somebody is showing a technique and you see students grinning behind their hands at what is being shown. Yeah? Right? I'll do that when hell freezes over, thank you very much.

I admit it: My teacup, while not altogether full, is, at this point in my life, not empty, and being able to empty it in this situation simply isn't possible. It took me a fair amount of time and practice to replace my Okinawa-te responses with those of Silat Sera, probably a couple of years. I know I won't have the wherewithal to do it during a weekend seminar.

There are people who see this as a major flaw. That I'm locked into stuff that will cause me more trouble than it will solve. They could be right, but I don't believe it. If an art is going to be useful at speed and power, it can't rely on conscious thought once action commences. You won't have time to think, so if you haven't built something almost reflexive, you'll be behind the speed and power curve. Either you figure out a short-cut or you don't catch up. Waiting to figure that out on the fly and in the moment doesn't seem likely to me.

And finally, the problem with doing a two- or three-day intensive session is information-overload. If you come away with one or two useful things, you are doing good. It is, as I saw recently on a martial arts website, like trying to drink from a fire hose. Plenty of water there, but moving at such speed and pressure that it will be hard to quench your thirst.

These days, I mostly confine my seminar experiences to those taught by my teacher, or as in the case in Las Vegas, others who have mostly been his students and who have branched out. Life is too short to learn everything ...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Argumentative Martial Artists

Been quiet on the southeast Asian front of late, thank goodness, and this is not an attempt to fan any fire from the embers, but to address something I got an email about:

Amongst martial artists, arguments about any and all things connected to the subject happen almost as often as anybody talks about it.

Why, my correspondent wondered, is that?

Well. There's a can of worms. Let me lift the lid just a hair ...

It's not just in silat, though we certainly have more than our share of disagreements, but pretty much across the board. Speak publicly of something you do, and a student of another art -- or a branch of your own -- will step up tell you how they do it differently. Which is okay -- until they get to the part about how their version/their teacher/they are all way better than your version/your teacher/you.

I've thought about this, and here's what I think:

Partly, this is due to the natural tendency to think that what you've spent so much time and energy studying is worthwhile, and this bespeaks an honest wish to share your belief. Like a reformed smoker, somebody on a diet, or someone who has found God, you truly want to get the good word out. Paving the road to hell and all, but the intentions aren't bad.

Partly, it's because folks who get into martial arts are contentious, else they'd be spending their time doing something else instead of trying to figure out the best way to beat people to pulp.

In an activity where the goal is to be the last man standing -- or last woman -- when push comes to shove, one wants to believe that what one is studying will do the trick. If somebody comes to your house and allows that what you are studying is a bullshit waste of time and energy, you can see how this might lead to a disagreement. You'd think anybody who had the brains God gave a rutabaga would see how this might be offensive, but somehow they don't. Blinded by their own light.

This often arises from the One-True-Path™ approach -- and one can sum that up thusly: If I'm on the road and you aren't on the same one? Then yours must be wrong, 'cause mine ain't.

One of the problems is that like life in general, there are always a large number of insecure, overly-egotistical, and obnoxious folk in the arts, and a lot of them develop the One-True-Path™ mindset. Like religious fanatics, you can't talk reasonably to them. (I've learned this the hard way myself.)

Yet another problem: Even people with real skills will sometimes pad their resum├ęs; or worse, just offer out-and-out cut-from-whole-fantasy bullshit. If you see this, it makes what they say hard to take seriously. If one gets one's Ph.D from the prestigious Plain Brown Wrapper Mail Order University for $19.95, the credential might not have the same cachet as one that takes six years of study from, say, Eton.

I was once at a rock festival when the founder of a certain universal-life church got up on stage and, with a wave of his hand, ordained the whole crowd as ministers. I didn't figure that gave me leave to start calling myself Reverend Perry and performing marriages and such.

When the TV series Kung-fu became popular, it was amazing the number of schools that'd had "karate" signs in front of them somehow morphed into kung-fu schools overnight.

When ninjas got hot, teachers magically appeared. (Of course they would; they were ninjas.)

When grappling started winning in the ring, a lot of stand-up-only arts suddenly remembered they actually had some grappling, stashed behind that old suitcase down in the basement. Dust it off, and look! as good as ju jutsu!

I'm good with the idea of stealing stuff from other arts. It is a time-honored and perfectly valid concept. That's how you deal with tricks you maybe didn't think much about before. In the end, the good stuff is all mixed-martial arts; everybody borrows from everybody else. What makes it different is how your system puts it together, the principles you use.

But there is always a supply of smoke, mirrors, and bovine feces around, of which some folks feel compelled to avail themselves. And when you see and hear it, sometimes you feel just as compelled to call them on it.

So my advice to my correspondent was simple this: Take anything anybody tells you -- including me -- with a grain of salt.

If you hear something that sounds hinky, poke around and check it out. We live in the information age, if you hunt for it long enough, you can find all kinds of information.

Bear in mind that most older martial arts come from an oral tradition, and the history there is sometimes less than precise. (Ever notice in the genesis stories how the founder of the art, once he came up with the new system, was always unbeatable? Obviously these founders must not have run into each other, or if they did, always fought to a draw ...)

And when you get right down to it, the history isn't that important anyhow. What somebody did in the old country two hundred years ago probably isn't relevant to the guy trying to break your nose next Friday at at bank's ATM. You probably won't stop them with a history lesson:

"Wait! Before you strike, consider what Master Chan said about the mantis and the tiger!"

"Oh. Wow. Right. You know, when you put it like that, the error of my ways becomes manifest! Sorry, dude."

And try not to take it too seriously or personally when somebody starts blowing smoke. I confess that I have spent too many hours getting het up about this, and it is rather like trying to teach a pig to sing: It only wastes your time, and it annoys the pig ...

The Bumper Sticker

I had this on the back of my Miata for a couple years before it finally peeled off. Just next to the peace sign ...