Monday, April 30, 2007

A Fine Distinction

Over on the Uechi-ryu forums a guy who uses the name 'fivedragons' made a great point. It was more or less a throw-away comment and may not have meant as much to others, but it resonated:

"I don't think "karate" is really meant to teach someone how to fight. I think the deal is that someone decided that it would be nice to know how to break another person. "

Sometimes we look at things on too grand a scale. To teach someone to fight we teach strategy and tactics, how to read an opponent, how to move, what to do and even how to think. To teach self-defense we add violence, predator and crime dynamics; awareness and intuition; action triggers; escape and evasion; legal requirements and psychological survival and recovery. Throw in martial arts and it gets even more complex: philosophy, ritual, history and (too often) politics- sometimes even a value system with its own code of conduct. Add sportfighting and you need to teach rules and rankings (you exploit the rules in a tournament exactly the way you exploit any other aspect of the environment in any fight)... ideally there will be something about sportsmanship in there, too.

But when it comes to that ohnomoment you are going to use your human body (or a tool) to break another human body. That is a deadly simple set of skills.

Drilling with my son a few days ago I asked him to characterize what I was doing, trying to get him to see the theme- that in each movement I was trying to find the most efficient line, the fastest way I could get a weapon to a part of his body that could injure him (side note- this winds up with some pretty peculiar positions, so training time is spent elsewhere on the heavy bag or the striking post to figure out how to maximize power- so not only can you hit from three inches away while bent slightly backwards and twisted to the side but you can break something from there).

Another drill- G is short and I forced her head down and she tried to fight it. There was too much leverage for her to have any hope, but it was an instinct. By simply accepting what was, she could snap my knee from the inside with either her shoulder or her elbow. She was trying to fight, trying to maintain a comfort level of maneuverability and options that she was used to...when she could and should have just broken me.

Not fighting: breaking people. Keep it simple.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Bay

The criminals in San Francisco, the ones I met anyway, seem pretty stupid. The second time one tried to sell me drugs I wanted to shake the little weasel, "Pay attention you moron: I'm a middle-aged guy with short hair and no accessories except a functional watch. Do I need to tatoo 'cop' on my forehead?" The panhandlers were pretty good though, almost always telling a story instead of just asking for money, throwing out lines for a hustle but usually smart or sensitive enough to tell when the fish wasn't biting.

The city itself was beautiful, especially from a distance. The weather was perfect, clear and windswept. The architecture was fascinating. The palace at the Exploratorium stunned me for a few minutes: I could imagine a hundred years after the passing of our civilization this building becoming the American Angkor Wat.

Close up, the city was less appealing- people sleeping on sidewalks (but wearing new designer tennis shoes), much dirt, bars on many windows and almost all shop doors could be gated, the smell of urine everywhere and in the corner liquor store the few bottles of good whisky had dust on them.

I walked for miles over two days- Chinatown streets and alleys (pornographic pre-paid phone cards and tourists getting some early afternoon action behind a massage parlor); North Beach (Little Italy, but I didn't stop for cannoli); The financial district and BART (I confess- I was looking to see how many buildings I recognized from GTA3 San Andreas); a single long loop from Nob Hill through Haight-Ashbury (a good IPA microbrew served by a stunningly beautiful six foot waitress who had eyes that were bright and clear but I couldn't tell if they were green or blue); through Golden Gate Park (with the stupid drug dealers and the slightly clumsy guy practicing spear kata); Up to the Presidio and through it on the hiking trails; down to the lagoon and the Palace of Fine Arts; over to Ghirardelli square and then once again up to Nob Hill and the hotel.

So- been away for awhile. Hostage negotiations training in Central Oregon, one day back on the computer (only a few hours, the rest spent hunting for missing dogs) then off to San Francisco to learn about the legal aspects of Internal Affairs investigations. Home late last night.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Words and Music

This story won't be perfect- I'm far from my library at the moment:

Once upon a time, Mark Twain's wife grew disgusted with his cussing and decided to do something about it. After an especially voluble and eloquent outburst from Mr. Twain, Mrs. Twain repeated back every bad word. Twain looked up from his breakfast and paper and said, "My dear, those are the words, but you don't have the music."

The last two days have been spent at Hostage Negotiations and Survival training. The instructor has an impressive resume. An incredible resume, really- he has been teaching this for longer than I've been in the business, connected with some of the most impressive law enforcement agencies and organization in the nation for almost as long as I've been alive... but listening very closely as he told his story nowhere does he mention ever actually negotiating a hostage situation, never actually surviving as a hostage.

He's an incredible speaker, a raconteur (hope I spelled that right) entertaining as hell... but everything is just slightly off. For the first day, it wasn't that the information was bad, it was just that it was thin. Paraphased concepts from other sources I recognized, and some other things that are disputed by experts presented with great personal conviction. It was the words as he learned them, but it was missing the music of experience.

Today was bad. The Viginia Tech tragedy came at a timely moment, as he saw it, and he worked hard to connect the events (sketchy as the details are at this time) to his teaching. It didn't wash. The more he talked the more it became clear that he planned for a clean and theoretical world where the existance of one double murder would somehow automatically presage an active shooter scenario two hours later; that he just wasn't up to speed on current active-shooter procedure.

He presented information on debriefing hostages that at first made no sense to me. There are basically three types of debriefings: tactical debriefs, where you get the information you need for further negotiations or tactical assault/rescue; after-action debriefings, where the stakeholders figure out what went well and where to improve; and critical incident stress debriefing, where you do what you can to mitigate the psychological impact of the events. All three of these have distinctly different goals and protocols and they require different training. He had jumbled them all together as if they were the same thing.

He then moved on to his own special and copyrighted classification of hostage takers. It was bad. Not just a little wrong or a bit off, but actively dangerous to implement. A sociopath is not the same as an antisocial personality disorder. And Hannibal Lector was not a great example of how either of those really operates in the world. Grrrrr.

There were experienced officers in the class and some seemed to be eating it up. I worry for them, and for the people that they will train. Other officers who had a lot of experience in booking or psych were also perturbed. Today we were told with authority that you can't talk people down in crisis. Not every time- but I've done it scores if not hundreds of times.

I turned to Bob, "Are we special? Are we doing the impossible every day and we don't know it? Or is he just flat fuckin' wrong?"

He shook his head, "I know what you mean. I don't think we're special but the others look like they buy it."

I don't have a good answer for this one. This guy is one of the most acknowledged experts in the country. I don't believe a thing he says.

At the same time, Matt and Bob and I aren't special. We've dealt with a lot of crazy and violent people, a lot of emotionally disturbed people in crisis- what would be called Crisis Negotiations- but we've never negotiated a hostage situation. Direct supervision jail + booking + tactical team + years as the point sergeant for the mental health inmates... that's not special, or at least it shouldn't be.

No good answer for this one.

Monday, April 16, 2007

What Might Have Been

Sitting across the table, she talks of the time, over fifty years ago, when she was brought to LA for a screen test and how her mother forbid it. I've seen pictures of this woman. In her teens and early twenties (even now, in her seventies) she had a bone structure that would make Lauren Bacall weep with envy, an infectious smile, elfin beautiful and a dancer's fitness.

She talks of the end of a promising professional ballet career when her ankle was damaged beyond complete repair. And she speaks of her plan to join the Navy and become a Registered Nurse and how her mother forbid it because, "Only whores and lesbians join the Armed Forces and you will not drag your family name through that." One culture's view at one point in history.

So she sits and she wonders how her life would have been different- money, fame, meaning? Whether she would have accomplished something. I am biased, of course, because I feel that she did accomplish something by giving birth to me and any change in that delicate web of chance would mean my non-existance.

It reminds me of my father at a time when I was barely old enough to remember- he'd been offered a job in Borneo. High paying, great responsibility, great adventure. I was excited about it, mom did her research and looked forward to it... and Dad decided, in the end, that the risk was too high and his family deserved and needed the security of a life in America. But sometimes, when he was drinking, he would think about what might have been. And that would make me think: what might I have been? What languages, what cultural knowledge, what advantages and skills and experiences from a childhood far away? Or just malaria and an early death?

On the same day I talked to my mother, there was AJ. AJ was, without doubt, my first mature love. The first woman that I loved as a man instead of a hormone-raged adolescent; the first time that the love was combined with a deep respect and liking- had there been nothing romantic, she still would have been my best friend. But I was young. We were both young and neither of us had the skill to make the relationship work through the whirlpools and rapids of learning how to be adults. We didn't know how to deal with our own histories and intensities. It ended (badly? any end would feel bad).

AJ visited, spending time with my wonderful children and beautiful wife (they like her almost as much as I do) and just for a second in the midst of this, there was a wave of what might have been. It hit hard. Less for me, I think. Just as AJ was my first mature love, Kami is my last. And I owe my marriage to AJ, because it was in realizing I didn't have the skills to keep her that I worked so hard to develop the skills and make the decisions to keep my marriage to Kami strong and deep and true. Love is piece of it, but even love requires skill and insight and maintenance.

We can drown in the might have beens. Sometimes it is sweet, and bitter, to think on them. But cherish what you have, because that is real.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Winning Creates Reality

When I was a pup, one of the questions that newbie martial artists would argue over for hours was, "Which is more important, speed or power?" The arguments would cover everything from physics to strategy. The answer was obvious to me. Speed is more important. I almost always won and I wasn't strong but I was freakishly fast, ergo...

Bodies change over time. As I age, my speed has decreased and my strength has increased. To make it worse, I frequently spar in slow motion with younger guys who are going full or nearly full speed (to work on my efficiency)... and I'm still winning most of the time.

The Gracies insist that fights end up on the ground.

I insist that fights happen at close range with great brutality.

John Anderson finds almost all of his fights finish with a hook punch.

Barry McConnell insists that the fight goes to the first one who can get a weapon in to play.

There are many, many good fighters and they all have a secret: "Destroy the base." "Control the center." "The firstest with the mostest is the bestest." "Take your time." "Finish it quick."

That's a lot of secrets and they even contradict each other.

Here's what's going on: a superior fighter creates the kind of fight he will win at. A Gracie will take the fight to the ground, and they will do it reliably and often easily. A less skilled person with the same strategy may get knocked out trying.

I think infighting is the way things happen, but that's largely because I am an infighter and I force the altercation into a close range affair. With Barry, he will win a knife fight because he will damn well turn it into a knife fight. See the pattern here?

Winners win. Good fighters are good fighters. In most instances a good wrestler would have been a good boxer if he had put the same amount of effort at the same age into the other art.

People who become extraordinary fighters tend to be disciplined and creative both. Disciplined people work hard and get good at stuff. Creative people tend to figure out how to use the stuff they are good at.

Many years ago, when I was young and fast and a kicker, I would spar two people at a time while handcuffed. (I know, bragging again, but there is a point). I had speed, I used speed and I did everything I could to manipulate sparring matches (I didn't have a lot of real fights back then) into games of speed. When I developed skill at throwing and grappling, I manipulated the fight into games of balance and space. In the transition I found out that I was far more comfortable than almost anyone at infighting range and for years I have successfully manipulated fights to resemble what I like best.

Just like the Gracies, and John and Loren and Mac and Mauricio and Mick and Barry.

See the transition- person to skills to strategy. This is who I am, this is what I'm good at, this is how I will use it...

Funny thing about people, though, they always want it to be logical and seem like they scientifically worked it out from a logical strategy first. You got some little dude who challenges all comers and is tough enough to keep fighting with a broken arm. He does what he's good at, he arranges the matches and each individual fight to take advantages of his strengths (who wouldn't?) and he wins... but when he teaches the awesome unbeatable strategy comes first, then you fill in skills for that strategy and believe that it will work no matter who the person is... though it clearly doesn't.

People are funny.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"Milles Enfantes"

Which either means "a thousand babies" or "baby steps". For a long time it was our unofficial motto. When Ron was first putting together the tactical team he had to fight a beauracracy that didn't like change; other agency members who didn't want an elite; people who felt it would be 'unfair' and possibly a violation of labor law to only include people in good shape who could fight; and a huge lack of information. Very few other corrections systems had teams. Most of those were little more than getting the biggest guys, putting them in armor and giving them big sticks.

The fact that there wasn't a lot of information didn't prevent people from trying to sell it. One of the vendors Ron interviewed included MBE in the alphabet soup of letters after his name.

"What does that stand for?" Ron asked.
"Member of the British Empire," the vendor said proudly.
"You're a whack job," Ron said, "get out of my office."

The vendor we originally went with was worthless, but we didn't know it for a while.

Here's a thing, as I try to shepherd this motley crew in a transition from an extraction and riot control team to a full service team that can handle anything up to technical hostage rescue: If we define a successful hostage rescue as one in which the tactical team had to go in, none of the hostages or team were injured and none of the hostage takers escaped, name an agency that has had two successful hostage rescues. Then go on-line and do a search for, say, "hostage rescue training". Where do all of these experts come from?

Starting the team was like that- lots of ignorance and lots of people willing to sell imaginary knowledge.

Baby steps. As we learned and trained, Ron would say it often. Baby steps. "You guys will never be activated." Then one day we got the pagers. Baby steps. "Well, you got the pagers, but you'll never get a budget." Small the first year, but we got a training and equipment budget. "You guys will never be called out." Six months after the inception, we had our first call-out. A full scale riot. We coordinated with another agency for the breaching capability and it went well. Tactically perfect. Upper management in our own agency were overheard saying, "Who were the guys in black? What do you mean we have a team for stuff like this? Why didn't I know about it?" Baby steps.

The training and recruiting picked up piece by piece.

A large scale disaster drill: "That's all well and good but who around here has the capacity to hold and control a large group of people in an uncontrolled environment?" "We can," Ron said, "It's basic jailin'"

"What resources do we have for high-risk transport of high-profile offenders?" Ron raised his hand: he'd arranged specialized EVOC and training with a Federal unit who handled those missions.

Urban disaster rescue and body search from the Office of Emergency Management. WMD classes from FEMA. Instructors for almost every less lethal platform on the market. Combat lifesavers. First responders. Commercial driver's licenses.

A sergeant from the enforcement tactical team- within our agency but outside the jails- had his feelings hurt. A neighboring jurisdiction had asked for my team, not his. "You're nothing but a cell extraction team," he sneered (or maybe pouted.)

"Look around. Every one of your officer survival classes is taught by one of us. My team is teaching you to shoot, to fight and to search buildings."

Baby steps.

Craig's going away party was this morning. He's headed for greener pastures and I hope the best for him. In all the years we've bled and sweat together I never once had to look over my shoulder to see if he was there.

Part of his farewell speech (we're mostly brawlers, a long speech from us is about ten sentences):
"Over the years, we've experienced something that very few people in this world have," he frowned a bit, "and they probably shouldn't..."

Henry the Fifth's St. Crispin's day speech was in my head: "We few, we merry few, we band of brothers, for he that sheds his blood with me today is my brother..."

Good roads, my brother.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Through the Looking Glass

You have to deal with what is, not what is supposed to be.

Thinking about rape survival and teaching self defense and we all skirt the edge of the real problem. Everyone has defensive strategies and skills for dealing with conflict. These skills have been honed over a lifetime and they are efficient and well-practiced and trusted... and they are keyed to an environment and a specific society.

For most women- for most people- these defenses are social. They are ways of avoiding confrontation, not solving it. Ignoring. Appeasment. Flattery. Self-deprecation. "I'm on your side"- teaming.

When the environment changes from a social situation where conflict is pending to a violent or predatory situation where the battle is on, every single one of these sets the victim up for failure, more clearly labels the victim as a victim. Possibly worse, when it is all over and the bruises have healed, these failed strategies will be remembered as cowardice or compliance and compound the survivor guilt until the victim may even convince herself that she 'deserved' or 'wanted' the attack.

So there is the first challenge in teaching: how do you teach students to recognize when they have stepped through the Looking Glass? It is a new world on this side and everything you think you know, all the ways the world is supposed to work no longer apply. What worked for you all those years on that side will not work for you here.

Explaining this is one thing, but that's the easy part. You can read books and watch movies but the old part of your brain is very smart and very cautious. It knows what has worked in the past. It sticks with what it knows. No matter how bad the situation is, the old part of your brain only knows that what you have always done has never gotten you killed and any change might. The old brain doesn't accept that the world is different on this side of the Glass.

How do you teach this? How do you get even trained people to do dangerous things (and any action, including doing nothing, is a potentially dangerous choice in an attack) while fighting their own survival instincts? Make no mistake, the caution of the old brain and all the various adrenaline effects are survival instincts and were better options through most of human history when the danger was being eaten by predators than a spinning back kick or a nifty fingerlock.

Comfort level- everyone has a lifetime of experience in the normal world. Very few have more than a few minutes in the other. We understand and know the rules in the normal world. We don't understand the rules or the physics or our own perception in the other- we just don't have enough experience to figure it out.

I have more experience there than most, but I've never been deluded enough to think that I know the truth or that I can predict anything beyond the most basic things. Think about this- I've had well over three hundred jail fights. Big number, huh? That's probably less than five hours of experience, in a subject that is probably as complicated as language. Far more complicated than driving.

How do we get students to see when the world changed and how do we get them experienced enough to function in a world we hope they will never see?


One of my friends wrestles daily with the problem of racism. He sees it in voices and attitudes, in movies and audiences, in economics and every single person's world view. He is logical and clear: it's not a one-way problem; There is a measurable distrust of anything different; Even if that distrust leads to 3% misunderstanding or 5% of taking extra precautions, it is real and it adds up and it can multiply over generations.

5% of mistrust in business over several generations can result in a profound lack of positive adult male role models. That compounds, too, like interest on a bad debt.

I think he is also aware of the "racism double-binds". Crack and flake cocaine are chemically the same. The penalties for posession and distribution, in many jurisdictions, are wildly different. Is it because crack is used more often by poor black folk in the US and flake tends to be used by richer white people? Is it racism? Or is it because for every death associated with the flake cocaine trade (often a user, richer and whiter) there are at least twenty in the crack trade (almost always poor and black)? Would it be racism to treat the drugs as the same and do nothing to prevent these killings? Can it be racism both ways?

Which will do more damage in the long term- the repressive racism of Jim Crow or the paternalistic racism of Affirmative Action? Treating men like dogs or treating men like children?

This puzzled me, especially with my friend, because he is truly extraordinary on many levels. He is largely responsible for me not just drifting in life, distracted by shiny objects. He is succesful and grounded; a celebrity in some circles; fit.. and still experimenting with his art, his mind and his body. He has shattered barriers... and I expect someone who is so himself to no longer see the labels other people put on him. But he does and sometimes it haunts him. He wonders what he and his life would be like without that three or five percent mistrust and with a strong male role model... I'm pretty sure it would suck- he doesn't do 'easy' well and thrives on challenge and being told 'that's not possible'.

Monday, my new boss set an expectation- the training at the end of the month is going to be very 'cerebral' and she really wants me to pay attention because she knows it will be hard. It will be 'academic' and she knows that 'will be hard' for me...

I have a degree. I write articles. I do statistical analysis (including for her) and read about two books a week (just finished two on terrorism and am in the middle of books on labor law, criminal prosecution and WWII history).

All that pales before the fact that I beat people up (completely aside how often I talk them down or how rarely I injure anyone). Yes I teach and design courses for defensive tactics... but I also do it for crisis communications with the mentally ill.

She sees what I do and who I am every day and I really thought I was adjusting and blending in very well- but for just a minute, I felt something similar to what my friend feels every day. No matter what he does, the people he helps, the world he changes, certain people, maybe most people, maybe everyone, will always see a black man and all their interactions, all of their interpretations of his actions will be seen through that filter, even if it only distorts 3%.

For just a second it was clear that my boss wasn't seeing an investigator or a teacher or a writer. She was seeing a thug, someone whose capacity for violence obviously precluded the ability to learn or think. Obviously.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Worth the Time?

Here's a contradiction in my behavior: I'll fly across a continent to meet a martial artist I've only typed messages to; pick up one at the airport and feed and house him or her for the duration of stay; give up precious sleep and even more precious family time for a few minutes or a coffee with a practitioner...but have absolutely no interest in visiting a couple of local places that are considered to be incredible.

Another invitation will be coming in soon, a cyberwarrior/fanatic has just noticed that I'm located in his hometown and he's eager for me to see the fantastic, wonderful, unbeatable system and world class instructor. I may show up just to be polite, but reaching deep into my soul I'm not picking up a glimmer of interest.

What's the difference?

Simple fanatacism. In religion or martial arts, you have to voluntarily blind yourself to large sections of the world in order to convince yourself that you have the complete truth. Right and wrong changed between the Old Testament and the New ("Blessed is he who dashes the brains of the babies against the rocks" versus "Turn the other cheek"), even things as simple as dietary laws changed just within the Old Testament. Does Universal Infinite Truth change? Which leads to the common dodge, "Human understanding changes." Babies, brains, rocks- not hard concepts. Human understanding hasn't changed that much. And it wasn't a "Stupid humans are going to do it anyway, might as well turn a blind eye..." it was an instruction.

Same with martial arts. Tapping a world class athlete doesn't have any bearing on safely approaching a possibly armed murder suspect. Fighting from the clinch is not the same as drawing a weapon from the clinch or preventing one from being drawn. There are no points for de-escalating the situation in a boxing ring. Facing off and sparring someone is not the same as breaking up a fight between two convicts with seventy more watching.

So I'm eager to meet Fabien and Joe and Toma and Mike and George and Van and Bill and Robert and Tony and Cliff and Mauricio and.... They are all experts (or dedicated students) in what they do. And not one of them, not even once, has gone the kool-aide drinker route and tried to convince me (or themselves) that they know THE TRUTH.

And I'm not eager to spend my precious time with the people who are convinced that if they just show me their special new shiny thing it will somehow revolutionize over twenty five years of training (not counting weapons, military and all that stuff) and over fifteen of experience (only counting jails, not bouncing or barracks brawls or any of that).

Seriously, people- what are the odds that you are going to show me something really knew? I dabbled in muay thai when others were in love with American Kickboxing. I've played with and against Filipino, Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese (of course), and European arts; civilian and military; weapon and unarmed; mystical and pragmatic. The last really new thing I remember was a Yanagi ryu technique for increasing your peripheral vision from about 180 degrees to 270. That's useful.

A couple of hours of playing or rolling or just talking is good (and I've had more better insights over a cup of coffee in one meeting with Joe Graziano than I've had in hours spent with an instructor who was wasting time trying to prove he was a "true Master"- whatever that is). Same thing: I love talking about religion, but not with people who are so locked into their tiny world-view that anything outside their experience is treated as an insult. It's just too much work to protect egos.