Sunday, November 30, 2008

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Changing Views

When you look at a rock, you see a rock. Except not really. You are seeing light in the visible spectrum bouncing off the rock and triggering some cells in your eye which translate...
Philosophers can argue about whether what you see is really the rock or not, or whether the rock exists and they can eventually drown in the bullshit that they generate. That's not where I'm going here. The visible spectrum gives you some information. Touch gives you some information and the information may well be different than sight. Same with taste. Same with different lights. Same with touching moving weight versus static texture.

How you look at things are models.  The model, the map, is never the territory. Maps (it is getting harder to use words sometimes- the map, the vision, the expectation, the construct, whatever you call the thing in your head that you deal with) are useful, they are not real.

A good friend, someone I admire very much, said he would love to train with me.  It tickles me, because I'd love to train with him, and also because he is the 'perfect student'-  he's done the years to get technique and movement down and would be ready to play with the things that are intriguing me- that's one of my weaknesses as a teacher. I'm selfish and want to learn: classes wind up being something more like exploratory playgroups than anything else. I'm okay with that.

My mind started racing right away, and this is the part I want to share.  Once you strip down techniques to what they are as opposed to how they seem, there's maybe two full days of techniques.  Everything there is to know about jointlocks takes about an hour. Maybe two for take-downs. Timing, targeting and weapon conformation for striking is pretty simple. Power generation can be done in a couple of hours depending on how well they get the feel of some of the bone/structure or internal types, but the big high-gain systems are easy. Another hour, maybe, for contact/response ambush survival. And on and on, moving bodies on the ground and standing...

It seems like a lot, but it also seems like short shrift. To someone who has spent years studying a locking art and still gets surprised by new things it can get taken as an insult that 'everything' can be covered in an hour. It can, though. It's just a different way to draw the map.  The advantage of working with a really experienced martial artist is that he has already done the thousands of reps and knows this stuff.  It then becomes a way to get a simpler and more stream-lined concept into his or her head.

That's background. This is what I would like to play with- starting from just a mixing it up sparring/rolling session:
  • Just go for it and break it down- techniques and tactics. Did you have a strategy? Look at how critical reflexes and conditioned specific responses are here.
  • The exact same thing, but think of it now as energy coming in, not fists. Instead of manipulating a body, manipulate the energy. See what this makes easier, how you have to think and not think differently.
  • Oh, by the way- talking about manipulating bodies? You've been moving your fists and feet. Now move his. Own him, make everything he does part of your plan.  When you get this for the first time, it makes you giggle.
  • Find and exploit the dead space.  There are active and inactive parts of his body- can you get all or part of you in the inactive spaces, find the areas where the active parts aren't?
  • Point of action. Almost everyone is naturally drawn to what is going on. Sometimes your best opportunities are nowhere near the struggle. Move your attention away from where it is drawn.
  • Start to bring in the third factor- environment. Start playing with walls and tables and clutter and found weapons. Frisk fighting, where you maintain the full sparring/rolling mode but are also going through his pockets looking for weapons you can use. (Somewhere there is a picture of a guy named Steve- we'd been doing judo newaza and I suddenly sprung away and he tried to follow but he couldn't since I'd used his obi to tie his elbow to his knee. It was pretty funny).
  • Some of this is easier blindfolded.
That's just playing from sparring.  There's more: Violence dynamics, how and why fights happen. The patterns, what to look for. Longitudinal violence- where did this really start and where will it end, if ever? Changing the question- is this a fight because I decided it was going to be? Because the threat did and I'm blindly following? Can I change that decision?  Changing the context- similar, but much broader- if the fight is about X can I change the value of X to something not worth fighting over?

This last is the big part because fighting is not about physical skills so much as it is about people.  This man has a lot to teach me about people and I would love to see the synergy of the two of us playing with this stuff- and playing is the key.  It's the best way, IMO to learn deeply.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Costumes and Jewelry

There's a lot going on right now- with a lot of travel time and transitions. Middle East desert to rainy (but beautifully clear and windy yesterday) Pacific North West. Too little time alone with family, followed by a huge weekend (three days, about nine hours sleep) at the Oregon Science Fiction Convention- Orycon.

There will be more to write about that soon. There are good friends that I seem to only see there and some to whom I owe great gratitude for short talks. More later.

Costumes and Jewelry. It's been said (a lot!) that whenever an agency sets up a Tactical or Negotiations Team, the first order of business is to design a new patch. I never really understood the impulse but I saw it, fairly frequently, and whenever the gear guys (and it's usually spearheaded by the guys who are into toys) started talking about a new uniform or patch or badge or making challenge coins I would shut it down by saying, "That bullshit is just costumes and jewelry. What are we going to do about training?"

Just walking down the street, there are people wearing clothes and people wearing costumes. You have a 'swoosh' on your t-shirt, it's a pretty good bet that you grabbed a t-shirt that fit. You're wearing clothes. Every single thing you wear has the swoosh, plus maybe some jewelry, it's probably a costume. If the colors match, definitely a costume. More subtle, but you will find people with signature clothes- always wear black shirts or BDU pants or a specific hat. It's only subtle for people who don't see them every day.

It all boils down to identity. Your identity, who you think you are (and in many cases that has very little bearing on who you actually are) comes from somewhere. Maybe it is like writing fiction. Good characterization involves some depth- action and history and different ways to think and relate to the world. That can be a lot of work to write. A signature hat and a few stock phrases are much easier. Two dimensional is easier to write than a real human. Is it easier to live, too? Safer?

Do people do this to themselves? Becoming a cowboy means eating a lot of dust. Hard work and long hours in shitty weather. That's without the hours of practice it takes to become a Doc Holliday with a revolver. Much easier to just buy the hat. Marine BCT is TOUGH. Much easier to shave your head and get a tattoo... some of which are outside of regs, anyway. Want people to talk about you? Doing something amazing is hard and often dangerous. Growing a huge mullet and then slicking it back with fistfulls of grease also gets people talking about you (saw this in the airport. OMG it was funny!). Sure, they aren't saying good things, but they are talking...

I have my own tendency to go the other way. I have a duster that I love- it's warm and dry and I love the feeling of it flapping in the wind and, were it ever to become important, I could conceal a freakin' cannon under it... but it looks so much like a costume, draws so much attention that I rarely wear it. When I first started teaching seminars I wore black BDU pants and a black polo shirt- Mac had suggested it as a good cross between stuff that looked professional and stuff I could move in. The first time I heard students refer to me as "the man in black" it was time to retire the clothes. It wasn't my intention, but it had become a costume. My aversion to costumes (and my fetish for functionality) is possibly just as much a glitch as someone else's need for them.

Are costumes bad? Maybe. If you have a message and they get in the way of the message, if your students are talking more about what you wore than what you taught, yeah. If your boots are shiny and your rifle is dirty, yeah, it signals some messed up priorities. If the costume is something you hide behind- "if I dress like a tough guy people will respect me" yeah. Tell you right now, when you walk into the gym tatted up and chewin' and strutting, people are thinking 'punk' not 'ooh a real man!' they are just too polite to say it out loud. If you are relying on your costume to send a message that you can't with your words or actions, it may work for you but from my point of view it's false advertising. It becomes very bad when you start to believe your own bullshit.

NOTE- this is not about the Con. People dressing up for fun is a whole different animal- FUN, that's the point.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Perfect Moments

Something I wrote during the long period when internet access was limited:

A few years ago, in Boston out walking with Jeff and Sioux. It was early spring but the sun had been shining and it was warm but with the fresh rain smell. We were walking through Little Italy, a little hungry, and the owner of a restaurant (wish I could remember the name) corralled us and brought us in. The entire front was open, for the first time that year, he said. The restaurant was empty, too early for the dinner crowd, light Italian music. We had a bottle of wine that wasn’t on the menu, something special, the owner said. I had proscuitto-stuffed veal.

Smell of rain and sunshine, sweet music, good friends, good wine and food. There was a lull in the conversation and it hit me, body mind and soul, that this was a perfect moment. Absolutely content, there was nothing else that I wanted. Every nerve and muscle felt completely at peace. A perfect moment.

Yesterday I had another, drinking cardamon tea and eating flat bread with cream cheese and jam in a noisy, crowded office. A gun strapped on, speaking only a few words of the language and only three people there spoke mine. Thick choking dust. No music, no wine… and it was perfect. A feeling of peace as deep and profound as the wildest battle-joy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


40 reviews on Amazon so far. Not bad.

Kami talked me into doing Nanowrimo this year (see how I blame everything on her?) I think the actual conversation was more like-
Me: Should I do nano this year?
K: If you want to.

So it is her fault. I can rarely bear to read fiction and now I'm writing the stuff. It's a typical action adventure psychothriller magic realism erotic cross-cultural love story. 27,197 words as of today.

Single digit number of days before I board a plane for a brief trip home.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Truth Will Set You Free

Kris Wilder is putting together a new book, tentatively titled: "The Deeper Questions: Why We Train in the Martial Arts." He kindly asked me to write a section for it. I finished writing it and I am afraid that most people will see it as dark and depressing, but it isn’t. It, like many truths, is a key to a wonderful freedom. There are a handful of hard truths, very real, very powerful things and it seems that most people’s lives and civilization itself is often a sad and desperate attempt to make these truths less true.

The most famous? Possibly, from the Buddha: “Life is suffering.” Or, my favorite paraphrase, from The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell something.”

Maybe that’s a big truth and maybe it’s dark and maybe it’s scary, but it is profoundly liberating. Getting handed a shit sandwich with life isn’t that big a deal… but the idea that it’s not normal, that the sandwich of life is supposed to be roast beef with bacon and cream cheese lightly toasted with brown mustard… The little cry baby belief that it is personal, that it is about YOU, the illusion that the universe knows or cares who you are…that’s the part that hurts. The suffering, if it is that, lingers in the gap between the expectation and the reality.

Most humans through most of history have had a pretty rough deal. You don’t see it in America much (no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that the country is awash in poverty and homelessness and violence- the math doesn’t work when the greatest health risk to the poorest Americans include complications from obesity). We are programmed, it seems, to think that our lives are hard, and they are. But only compared to an ideal that never really existed. Things, stuff, money, don’t mitigate suffering (though they can mitigate pain or deprivation, but those aren't the same) , they just focus your imagination on different things to suffer about.

I’m trying not to talk out of both sides of my mouth here. There is real pain: tasers hurt. Old bone breaks and medically installed hardware hurts in your joints when things are cold and humid. You will lose friends that you love. But most of the suffering comes from elsewhere, from an expectation that joints aren’t supposed to hurt or that friends are eternal. That is the difference between grieving and wallowing. Both are about you, but one is honestly about what you lost and the other is about what you thought you had a right to keep.

Accepting this truth and a few others allows you to live…more? Harder? Better? It allows you to love harder because you are busy loving instead of whining that things aren’t perfect and love is ‘supposed to be perfect’. It allows you to play and learn getting better every day instead of wasting time and emotion trying to figure out how good you are or if you are ‘good enough.’

What do those phrases even mean? What is a ‘perfect love’? What would it look, feel, taste, like? It can’t be both perfectly smooth and exciting. And ‘good enough’? For what? To who? If you ever perfectly achieved it, then what?

Most of the big truths are like that: the totality of the statement is bleak: “Life is suffering.” “You will die.” But each of them is a key. When you quit wasting energy attempting to evade the inevitable; when you quit building a structure of lies to protect yourself from the truth you can live at the level of truth.

Caveat emptor, though. It’s really not for everybody.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Power of Decision

There are things that don’t translate until you have done it. We all had very clear ideas about what kind of parents we were going to be right up until we actually had kids. You can’t really explain being a parent to someone who has never done it.

I was thinking today about working out. I’ve been working heavily on cardio and flexibility, but honestly it is mostly out of boredom. Fitness is important to survival, even to combat (though not as much as you might think) but for me, in my personal experience… not so much. I’ve taken down bigger, stronger, faster, more flexible people.

How? I just decided to.
That’s such a weak statement.

Sometimes people expect decisions to have power. They tell themselves that if the stakes were high enough, they would never give up. That they could give it one more rep “if I had to.”

They expect magic because sometimes it works. I can pretty much decide what kind of day I will have or how a given conflict will end. But it’s not the decision. It’s the sensitivity to hundreds of variables that I missed in the past and paid for. The ability to change the question in the process of seeking an answer. The ability to know the difference between what is true and what I think is true or what the threat thinks is true.

And the price. This alone may be why crunch time comes to failure so often. If you make a hard decision “I WILL take this guy down!” it’s probably going to hurt. Some decisions hurt a lot. Some cost far more than a sensible person is willing to pay. When it’s just words in your head, “I’ve made up my mind!” it is easy to forget that everything comes with a price. When you are paying the price, sometimes in pain and blood with the decision not yet done, it’s easy to change your mind. Which is pretty much the opposite of making a decision.

Decisions, for most people, never really go beyond words in their heads. They aren’t really decisions about actions and consequences so mush as statements of belief and self-worth: "I would never stand by for that!" But most people do stand by when things are risky. Who stood up for the people sent to Auschwitz? Even when the risk is not physical or not present. How many people just watch Kitty Genovese be murdered?

Statements of self-worth in the comfort of your home are worlds away from the actions and the risks of actual application.
Once you have made decisions at this level, though and in your soul understand the price and have already paid it, decisions are a different thing. They carry weight and power.
But it is completely different than just saying the words.


Reading a mass of stuff right now. Clausewitz' "On War". I've tried to plow through it before but it is dense. The pattern is that I read it and the sheer quantity and quality of information; the concepts he was able to put into words that pure theorists never get; the connections between what he saw in 18th century big war and what I've seen in brawls, blows me away. But the density: between the language, the amount of information... when I catch myself skimming without really understanding, I put it away for a while. I think I will be able to finish it soon.

Also reading a collection of Hadith, and working on the Arabic script (where I have discovered that if I go slow it sticks, but if I try to memorize three letters in one day I lose five). But the lettering is beautiful and I can sound out (approximately, the short vowels are omitted) most of what I see around me.

And "The Unthinkable" by Amanda Ripley. I think it will be a good companion to Lawrence Gonzales' "Deep Survival."

The point- there are a bunch of subtle things that I have found to be more and more important over the years. I've written about concrete thinkers and how they have trouble dealing with force issues and why inexperienced people try to get too much information (or rarely too little); they often don't clearly understand when they should be planning and when they should be moving.

That stuff. In Clausewitz he talks about character. He talks about some pretty specific traits and I've bookmarked a lot of the book. But one of the things he talks about is that in a battle, you have no idea what is really going on. You have reports, but you have no idea how reliable those reports are. The more information you have- and check this, some of the information will be good and some will be wrong and you often have no way of knowing which is which- the MORE uncertainty is inherent.

Clausewitz uses the word 'character' to, in essence say: some personalities are okay with that. Those personalities won't necessarily be great or even good generals, they will make mistakes. But the ones who aren't good with that, who maintain denial that big decisions (or, in personal combat, quick decisions) happen in an information fog, they are effectively paralyzed.

One way to train around that is scripting- 'x means you do y' which is a very good, very reliable system- except that when it fails, it tends to fail catastrophically. And it can be used against you and...

It also, IME works differently at different levels. Magazine changes and immediate action drills can be scripted. Small unit tactics are awesome when they are drilled. But the actual actions, what you are going to do when you get shot at, has too many variables to script. Larger scale group activities increase chaos which increases the role of luck, and adaptability becomes one of the key character traits in a leader.

Clausewitz states that of all human endeavors, war is the one in which chance plays the biggest role. It's big in fast, close ugly stuff, too- and one of the things the aggressor tries to minimize. One of the things that you limit when you are winning and you introduce if you are losing. Managing chaos- that's a deep subject.

Character. I'm only a little way into "Unthinkable" but already it has come up. There are types of people who die and types who survive. For all the allegations in the news, the people who stayed in New Orleans when Katrina hit and defied the evacuation order were NOT disproportionately poor or disproportianately of any ethnicity. They WERE disproprtionatey old. They did not like changes to their routine (as if 5 feet of water wasn't a change). They were inflexible.

How fast you flip out of denial might well determine if you live, and it reflects Clausewitz' writing on war and my experience with bad guys. Flexibility as a character trait. Ability to act with minimal data, as a character trait. Ability to jettison a plan as a character trait. Comfort with unreliability as a character trait.

We see our character, our personality, as 'who we are'. Amanda Ripley points out that very, very few people have ever seen themselves in a major disaster and have no idea about their own 'disaster personality'. So that aspect changes.

The question for me- I see these traits as critical skills. Physical skills are important too, but you need these traits (and some more I will have to list someday) in order to access those physical skills. Can these be taught as skills? In psychology, some of the basic personality traits are considered very 'robust' meaning they rarely change much. Do these fall into that category? Is that category a truth or a convenience? How do you give or awaken these in someone who may never have felt real fear and give them permission to act?