Thursday, May 19, 2011

Martial Art Musing

Broad, sweeping, all-encompassing generalizations–including the one I am about to make–are, in my experience, wrong more often than not.

Here's the one under discussion today:

Martial arts don't work for self-defense.

I heard that one again recently, and I had to smile.

This is, not to put to fine a point on it, demonstrably horseshit. All anybody needs to is provide one example where a martial artist used his or her skills to survive an attack and the black and white statement is false. 

A swimming pool full of white paint becomes, however slight, gray when you add a cup full of black paint. 

Having used a martial art to defend myself, I can personally attest to the statement's invalidity.

Now, once you start ladling in the qualifiers, the statement changes. Some martial arts won't work some of the time. I'm good with that. (But not "most martial arts." That requires knowledge I don't have–I don't know most martial arts. And neither does anybody else, so that one ought not to be used.)

Perhaps somebody might say, "In my experience, I've never seen a martial art that works for self-defense." That I can buy.

But either/or needs an absolute level of certainty that doesn't exist when this argument gets trotted out. There may not be exceptions to every rule, but there are plenty such to be found here. Any one will do.

It is amusing that most of the time when you hear this statement, it is pronounced by somebody with a fairly deep background in martial arts. They learned something, took it onto the street, and it didn't work the way they expected. So they revised their technique, adjusted it, made it into something that would fly.

Which I read as, "My traditional martial art didn't work in that instance."

However, the repair is, by my measure, still a martial art; it's simply an improved version, and it's how martial arts came about in the first place, and how new ones have been created ever since.

Shift it enough, it's not traditional any more, but where does one draw that line? Three hundred years? Fifty? It's still walking and quacking like a duck, and calling it an eagle doesn''t make it so.

Hey, that block didn't work, I got a broken nose! But when I changed it, thus, now it does work, and next time somebody threw that punch, I didn't get a broken nose and I decked the sucker!

Serious folks who train and alter their stuff to improve it? More power to them. Sometimes they come up with ways that make things better. 

Sometimes, they are just cherry-pickers who think one from this art and two from that one are all they need, and such can be blended together without any worry about their underpinnings. Sometimes, they are probably right.

Sometimes they are simply wrong. Not everything can be isolated and kept functional. If you take the salt out of a bread recipe and put it on a plate, you don't have a different kind of bread, you have salt.

I'm not a bad-ass streetfighter. Never claimed to be, never was, never will be. Lot of guys out there who can take me out without raising their heartbeats. But I do know a bit about martial arts, and I'm here to tell you, sometimes they work just fine. If you are going to make claims, then don't overstate them. It just makes you look ignorant. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Revisiting the Iceberg

I know a guy–probably most of the folks who drop round here know him, or somebody like him–who has been swimming in the Sea of Violence so long he doesn't have to hold his breath when he dives under the water, because he has developed gills. 

He's not like most of us. He doesn't think like most of us.

People in martial arts, who train long enough, and especially those who use their training, eventually can get to a place that is usually referred to as "beyond technique." That's not literally so, but it can be to a level of functionality that is like zanshin or zen or some altered state wherein they Just Do It. They move with optimum efficiency, they are focused (and not focused, if you understand what I'm driving at here), into that realm where it all starts to look alike. They don't choose one from column A and two from column B, they don't have to think, the tools are part of them. This is mastery of motion, and not limited to the physical actions once things commence, but an awareness that permeates most everything they do, most of the time.

How great that must be. 

These folks are going to be outstanding players, with abilities that will seem almost magic to somebody watching them. Not somebody with whom you want to fuck around.

There are all sorts of old sayings about who can do and who can teach, but the two don't always go together. Because you can do it doesn't mean you can easily pass it along; and you can teach a thing without being able to do it yourself–look at any world-class gymnastics coach if you don't believe that. Doing and teaching are related, but not the same skills.

The ideal is somebody who can do and who can teach, and those folks are rare jewels. 

Brings us to the iceberg. I've used the story for years, talked about it, put it in books, and here, but a recap for those who came late to the party:

In a children's aikido class I watched many years back, the teacher, who was second or third dan, spoke to the students, using an iceberg as a metaphor. About how what you saw above the water was only ten percent of what was there, and how ki was like the ice below the surface, and how one could access that hidden part, and why. It was a great metaphor, he delivered it well, and from where I sat, it was a terrific teaching tool. 

Then a little boy who looked to be about five raised his hand. 


"What's an iceberg?"

Sometimes in martial arts–or in anything, really–the teachers are so far along that they lose track of the fact that newbies might not know what an iceberg is. That a reasoned, well-delivered lecture on a five-strike combination ending in a takedown will blow right past somebody who doesn't know how to make a fist. 

That Just Do It is a waste of time when you are speaking to folks with no knowledge about how to Just Do it. 

You can't run a track race in the Olympics until you learn how to walk. 

Which is why you use baby steps. Why you check the level of the students to see what they know, then build on that. That before you can transcend the rote, the drills, and the pre-set one- and two-step dances, you have to go through them. 

People who think you can skip over all that and get right to zanshin? I don't believe it.

I don't think they believe it, either. They just forgot what it's like to not-know.

(This is part of my on-going argument about why a world-class teacher better spends his time with students who are advanced enough to not need as many baby steps. It's not that the teacher can't teach beginners, it's that anybody who knows the basics can do that; but who is able to teach the advanced class?)

As a writer, I often break the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Sometimes on purpose. I do it for an effect, and because I know what the rules are, but choose to ignore them for my own purpose. I'm not trying to score a good grade in Mrs. Cowsar's English IV class, I'm trying to communicate with a reader, and if I want to use ellipses when I'm supposed to use dashes, if it serves my purpose, then I'm going to do it, and when the copy editor gets all excited and changes it, I'm going write "stet" in the margin and put it back the way I had it. 

Who you want covering your back in a dust-up is a master. But he or she might not be the person you want training you, unless they have that skill, as well. 

Find somebody who can do both? Buy a ticket and win the lottery.