Friday, August 29, 2008

Vested II

The days are long and full and lots of the nights are spent writing reports. Last night I had a rare chance at a "no time limit" internet access, so I went for it, dead tired and all. End result is that I wrote only part of what I intended. Here's what got me thinking:

We all believe certain things. I'm not sure whether belief is on a scale or binary. I think it is binary- one either believes in a specific god or doesn't; either believes that a specific political decision was good policy or self-serving corruption. I don't see a lot of people believing sort of in a god or that a decision was mostly good policy but partially corrupt. But maybe they do and the language just doesn't express it that way.

But people can certainly be more vested in a belief than other people with the same belief.

I was talking to a man the other day and we share a lot of the same beliefs and concerns. We have a similar vision of what a good life entails and similar concerns about how aspects of civilization endanger that vision. The obvious difference is that these are just things I believe and these are part of who he is.

(It doesn't matter what the belief is- whether he wears hemp and birckenstocks or boots and knife and compass, there comes a point when it is a costume, a person crying out "this is me, this is who I am.")

So that was the obvious aspect- how others will see you, identify you. If you are too vested it seems irrational and your opinions, right or wrong, are easy to dismiss. If you don't vest in your opinions (and I tend not to- many strong beliefs have vanished in the flames of real life over the years) you get read very differently.

Some, the self-absorbed, just assume that you agree with them.
Some see silence or a lack of strong opinion as wisdom. Maybe.
The thing that struck me though, is that the strongly invested mistrust people with less investment. As if they expect that being labelled is proof of belief.
It is a test, I think. Trying to find someone to join their mental tribe. Just a thought.

This probably should have been an edit to last night's post.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


"Manage your expectation level," I was advised. Not 'manage your frustration' or anything of that nature. It is good advice- frustration comes only partially from events, a lot of it comes from expectations. What you do is what you do, but the outcome may or may not be what you expect. Martial artists work to limit luck- the floors are clean and uncluttered, the number and type of assailant is generally known- all things I've written about until they make me tired. But in martial arts, in fighting, in life and in teaching you can never control anything completely. You don't get to pick the ending of the story, not even of your story (except suicide, perhaps).
When the ending isn't what you wanted how much it hurts will depend on how much you were counting on your chosen ending. Invested. Attachment. All the same, see?
But you have to deal with the ending you get.

Today was rough. Things have been going really, really well and I was feeling very proud. Through luck or good groundwork done by my predecessors I had avoided most of the problems I had been led to expect. Until today. I asked a simple question and the answer didn't quite work so I asked another and another... when all was done I was a little sick and disgusted and not feeling my usual optimism. (I am an optimist here- I have a deep faith in what individuals are capable of when things hit bottom if they are only given half a chance.)
So I have to decide how disappointed to be. I'll let the feelings wash through me- they are useful, data points in themselves. Then I will get back to work. There is an opportunity for huge growth in this abject failure. I just need to show them, sincerely and persistantly where the growth lies.

This will work. I'll be optimitic again soon.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Thanks, Steve

For the excuse to tell a story. Steve just posted something here that got me reminiscing. Long ago, in my prime, when I was a martial athlete but thought I was a fighter (and thought the two were the same thing), I could do some pretty impressive tricks. At 5'8" I could jump kick a basketball net. I enjoyed sparring two people while handcuffed (loved kicking). If I was feeling froggy I would do ground fighting without using my hands (that's challenging, folks- but the expression on a black belt's face when you tap him is priceless).

I was much older and hanging out at Stan's dojo. Workout had been sporadic with over-time and on-call obligations and shift work so I was feeling old and slow. There was a new kid there. He had a black belt in something else and had come to Stan to fill some holes in his skills. I watched him warm up and I was frankly jealous. Very flexible, pretty fast (bragging again- in my twenties I had ever met one person who could approach my speed. Later, at James Demiles' kwoon I had the opportunity to play with some of the timing machinery he had developed and had tested a certain guy named Lee on... I was 14/1000 of a second slower than Bruce's record in a long punch in my mid/late 30's. Done bragging, for now.)

So the kid was fast and flexible and I was feeling like an old fart, not an athlete anymore, just a dinosaur, practically extinct and creaky... and the kid asked me to spar. Which I secretly wanted. I love playing, and for some reason I like it more when it looks bad.

So we bowed in and he moved... and I knocked him down. And he got up and he moved and I took his spine, and his dead zones and...

Basically, he was moving much faster than I was, but like Steve writes as you get older, you have to get better at some other stuff, and that stuff can be pretty good. Position, properly applied, can overcome some big disparities in size, strength and speed.

Ruthless timing mimics speed- if he is moving fast and I am moving at precisely the right time, the advantage is mine.

Efficiency is a source of speed and power, sort of: If you are twice as fast as me but I only have to move a third as far, I land first. This one sounds off- you and your opponent are at the same distance, so you have the same range, right? So his targets can't be farther away than your targets, right? But they can, depending on how you have been taught to see weapons and targets. An example using generic Mcdojo karate: Uke throws a left lunge punch at me and I parry it to the outside with my right hand. In this particular pattern, uke will then throw the reverse punch with his chambered left fist- I, however will let my parrying hand bounce off the first punch and palm heel him usually about in the orbital socket. Closest weapon, closest target. If he is really fast, it just increases the damage to him. Bonus. Other side of the equation- a tight ugly mix-up- a clinch but looser and dirtier. Almost every time I am in that position, one of the weak points in his knee is less than four inches from my own and they never (so far) see it coming- but there is a definite technique to it, especially if you don't want to cripple someone.

Hmmm. Where were we? Ruthlessness. Position. Efficiency...
Then there is telepathy. Sort of. Simple fact is that if you've played a lot, (with a wide variety of people) most things won't surprise you. People are pretty damned predictable. Don't count on it in real life- be prepared for things to go south- but most of the time you can see not only what is happening but what is about to happen. It's easiest to learn, IMO from blind-folded infighting, but you can get a taste with a staff. Generally, if you make an attack with a staff there are two comfortable directions to move afterwards and one is slightly more comfortable (natural, easy) than the other. Try it, if it isn't obvious- I think you'll see what I mean. There are more variables in a human body but not more than you can handle, most of the time. And people have fighting personalities that you can read in a few seconds and they very rarely deviate from those unless they have an excellent coach or a major epiphany.

NB- This has applications but I am NOT talking ambush survival here. Different animal.

So thanks for the memories, Steve.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Triune II

I am really missing my library. What follows is from memory, so don't get too upset if I get the names/quotes/sources wrong. I'm happy to fix them when I can.

I think it was in Desmond Morris' Manwatching that he put forth the triune theory of power. He postulated that there are three basic types of power:

The Power to Get Things Done: This is money and connections and political power. The movers and the shakers, the force behind all large change.

The Power to Decide Who is Cool: This is really social power, the power to make something a fad or to declare it passe. To decide who is "in" and who isn't. To decide what matters.

Atavistic Power: The ability to apply violence. Thug power.

He said (and I can think of a few exceptions, but remarkably few) that no one can hold more than one of these types of power. Political players and money men sometimes court Hollywood and are sometimes endorsed by Hollywood, but they never become part of that group. Hollywood could declare Bill Clinton "cool", but Bill couldn't declare anyone else "cool".

Conversely, for all of the actors pretending to know enough about world affairs to express an opinion and the various aid concerts and consciousness-raising events the social power group never seems to actually change anything. Maybe because they miss the fact that feeling about something is not the same as doing something. Hmmmm- and this may be the core concept here: action versus emotion, doing versus feeling. One type of power influences human assessments, the other influences actions.

"Atavist" means "throwback" and atavistic power is a throwback to more primal, violent times and emotions. Thugs, by themselves, don't change anything (Hitler had other people do his thuggery for him) [but this is one of the places I find a few exceptions. Saddam Hussein did change things and wielded enough power to cow an entire nation. He did a lot of that through informants and secret police and torture and rape camps. But he also enjoyed, sometimes very publicly, killing people himself. He was training his sons in the same vein. Vlad Tepisch was another.]

Atavistic power is generally incompatible with the other two types because it is a power to prevent others from doing, not a power to do yourself. Atavistic power controlled by a political animal can clear the way for some major change- but it usually (in our culture) triggers a very bad reaction from the "cool choosers."

Just thinking out loud, here. It's a model I have found useful- it sometimes explains some things. Like all models it may be useful but it is not a pure truth. Play with it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Sometimes, I feel a vague sense of guilt. A co-worker asked about my family, if I was married. I started to gush. It's hard to talk about Kami without gushing. I don't usually show much emotion, but even after all these years and being half a world apart just thinking about her makes me feel breathless and far away and something slightly different and better than human.

"Wow," The co-worker said, "You're really in love. How long have the two of you been together?"

"Twenty-two years."

Yeah. In a profession that sometimes seems to eat marriages like candy. Over the last weeks I've listened quietly to people complaining about their mates, their children. Sometimes angry, sometimes confused, sometimes just bitching. I listen quietly because I don't know what to say. If you won a lottery that couldn't be shared, what do you say to the poor?

Kami is peace and grace and beauty. I am sincere to the depths of my soul when I say that the universe exists for the sole purpose of creating her, and with all of the universe's infinite mystery,wonder and beauty she and she alone makes it right and complete.

Years ago: "They can't promote YOU to sergeant!" the crusty old deputy told me.

"Why not?"

"You've never had a DUII, you don't have a drinking problem. Hell, you're still on your first marriage. You ain't even a real cop, much less a sergeant."

14,000 miles a way I feel closer to her than some of my friends have with their mates ever. We have had more true intimacy holding hands than some have ever felt in their most ridiculous passions and obsessions. We have done amazing things together, but she makes even the simplest things amazing. Only with her have I felt the excitement that rivals free fall combined with a perfect sense of loving harbor.

When I first considered asking her to marry me it was all wrong. In my arrogant youth and stupidity I had seen a plan for my life: if I was absolutely dedicated, absolutely fearless and fought the good fights and if I was lucky enough to survive I might be rewarded in my old age with someone like this, someone I could only dream of.

So here I was, young and I had done nothing much and here I was being offered the gift and dream of a life time. The gods don't work that way. They are harsh and dangerous. It didn't make sense. So I vision quested and had a dream- a majestic woman, a goddess in robes and crown, beautiful but with the kind of beauty that could burn you if you looked at it. She was impatient and arrogant and asked what I wanted. I told her what was bothering me- I had not come close to earning a reward like Kami.

The goddess laughed, very cold and said, "You arrogant little man. You are a reward for her." And was gone. I woke up and have spent the rest of my life trying to be worthy to be her reward.

And so, when someone asks who is the most dangerous person I have ever met, the answer is simply "My wife." Anyone can kill me. She has the power to turn the world to ash.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Data Point

Conversation, end of day trivia, half business, half social. "Do you have plans for the weekend?" "Any documentation that you need?"

Gunfire. In the building. I am moving, putting stuff down, drawing weapon, moving towards the sound... No one else is moving yet, my head is crystal clear and everything is in slow motion. Tactics and odds. Data: Why only one shot? No return fire? Maybe nothing (relatively nothing, suicide or negligent discharge) maybe no one else has unfrozen yet. I feel my partner behind me as I clear room, room, room.

Last room. A weapon on a chair, a badly shaken man. Accidental discharge. Clear the room, make the weapon safe, check for injury. Then leave it to the person who owns the problem.

Return to the office, take up the thread of the conversation: "I don't think you finished what we talked about at lunch..."

Sunday, August 10, 2008


One of the big puzzles in self-defense training is the big gap between how we will imagine we will act when the shit hits the fan and our actual performance. A lot has been written on it, a lot of good research and even good speculation. In our fantasies we are cool-headed and courageous, efficient and dangerous. All too often, in the reality, our hands sweat and our knees start to shake and our brains just won't work, not the way we think they should.

Here's a thought from left field:
What if cowardice is a habit?

What if the big mystery is not the gap between fantasy and reality? What if the big mystery is why we expect bravery when we practice a thousand tiny acts of cowardice every week?

Do you know what I mean? All the people that you love but have never said the words to. All the things that you want to try "some day." The big chance that you didn't take because even though you hated it, you were secure where you were. All of the things that you have done in the name of safety, security and comfort no matter how bored or dead it made you feel. The times when you thought "someone should do something" but decided that the someone wasn't you. It wasn't your job, wasn't your problem...and you lay awake that night thinking of what you wished you had done.

Little white lies- my father used to tell me, "Every lie is an act of cowardice. You never lie unless you are afraid of the person you are lying to." You can rationalize your way around it, but it is dead true. All of your little white lies are a fear of how the person you are lying to might react.

Maybe the mystery is as simple as that. Do the right thing. Live hard. Take chances, and take the consequences that go with them. Dare. Don't sit in comfort wishing for adventure. Maybe just the habit of doing the right thing even when it is scary will translate to self defense. And even if it doesn't, you will have done some fine livin'.

Live hard. Live true.

I wanted to add a quick edit:
Have the courage to listen to intelligent people you disagree with. Don't take the easy path of listening to what people on your said claim that the other side says. Find an intelligent person who disagrees with you on an issue you feel strongly about and listen. Just listen. You are strong enough for that.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Writer's Block

Just for the record, I don't get writer's bock. I can always put words down, it's just that sometimes they're crap. To me, anyway. Writing is so many things- recording events and interpreting them, therapy and teaching, sharing knowledge and emotion. I like my writing best when I am excited, when I am playing with a new idea or see a twist in the world that changes everything.

The things that I am finding now are sometimes big, shifting my view of how the world works several paces- and there are very few that I will be able to write about for a long time. I've always been taught that language affects and to an extent controls thought processes, but I have concrete examples now. Examples that some of our 'obvious' insights are culturally derived and culturally controlled. That some of the values we have been taught are universal are demonstrably not. Some of these I knew but until you see it up close, see the effects, and see the indifference to affects that would enrage or sadden you, you don't really know. I knew the words before, I hear the music now.

Here is one I can share, in very vague terms. There are things that we look at from a world and culture away and interpret them through the lens of politics and big money when the decisions on the ground are made much lower on the Maslow's Hierarchy scale. In the United States we see the actions of others, high and low, through the lens of our own motivations: profit, power, acknowledgement. For the most part we have never been in a place where people starve (much less a place where it is normal). Everyone has an opinion, and we express it pretty freely (there are a few places in my home state where a republican bumpersticker will reliably get your car vandalized, but that's about it). In a place where associations and opinions result in murder (unpredictable to you, but far from random) politics and the flow of funds aren't the big motivators that we expect them to be. Simple survival requires a different attitude to what is said and when and to whom.

And one I will write about someday: Violent bloody butchery does not scar the sould of a people nearly as much as a lower level of destruction brought about through betrayal.

So, access is limited, many of the things that would be cool to write are off the table...and most of the rest doesn't feel fresh or fun to write, but I'll keep plugging away.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Sacred Space

Reading "Filipino Martial Culture". In it, Mark Wiley quotes an anthropologist discussing the concept of "sacred space": this is where you go to become something more, where you go to learn things that have a price, things that change you. He talks about crossing the threshhold and it reminds me much of my training in martial arts: bowing on entering the dojo wasn't about religion or even respect. It was a signal to myself to leave the mundane world outside. Out in that world existed relationships and money problems and minor frustrations. Inside this space was pain and sweat and blood and knowledge. Far more important things, far more real things.

There is a sacred space in combat, and in climbing and in, potentially, everything. I don't think the sacred aspect is about risk or even learning. It is about living.

Most people don't pay attention most of the time. How does your foot feel in your shoe right now? What is the nearest human movement you can hear? Whose breath, other than your own, can you hear? What are you smelling?

What makes training sacred is that you cannot do it in the usual mundane haze of inattention. I've seen oblivious students but they rarely last long under a good instructor. When you are learning dangerous things being stupid or being unaware is painful. It hurts and, in my opinion, it should.

This attention is what makes the thing sacred. A moment lived in attention is lived. A year passed in mindless repetition or safe in the comfort zone has only passed. It is wasted.

So it's the goal to live. Simply to live at all times. Dangerous places make that easier, long time spent where attention is required helps to make attention a habit. This habit of attention, in turn, makes the whole world sacred space.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Coffee and Weddings

Yesterday, there were clouds in the morning. Dust and haze are common but these were the first clouds that I have seen in a month- high and thin, maybe, but a shiny white. One of the interpreters said that he had only once in his life seen rainfall in the summer. But it snowed in Baghdad last winter, so anything is possible.

A package arrived- notebooks for practicing script, shirts and workout clothes, and coffee: San Fransisco Bay French Roast. This morning has been a little slice of nostalgic caffeinated heaven.

Having a regret. Missing the family is a fairly solid one- but Kami sent me pictures of Mike and Deirdre's wedding. I absolutely hate weddings, but I am sorry to have missed this one. Mike in a tux. That is power, Deirdre! The bride looked great (as always!). Mike is one of the people I most admire, the man I would adopt as a blood brother if I could and it is great, even in a picture, to see him look that happy.

Not regretting the other stuff I am missing- the dryer and pump both went out and my lovely, smart, wise wife has handled everything deftly.