Monday, March 30, 2009

Walking the Perimeter

The man who runs this facility is a good leader. He might be fairly new to the field and that makes him ripe for rookie mistakes, but he is good with people.  I don't work for him, I advise people that work for him. The people I advise are far enough up the food chain to be considered 'inner circle'.  This puts me in the position of being expected to do 'inner circle' stuff- coffee with the big man in the morning, lunch later.

I usually avoid it and I am usually successful at avoidance. The advantage of having multiple projects going and multiple people to advise is that I can usually find some work pressing enough to skip lunch.

I don't dislike this man at all. In fact I think I have enjoyed every minute spent in his company.  Wise, gracious, educated and a true leader he has a lot to teach me.  But the idea of spending time with the inner circle puts me on edge. It always has.  Today I figured out why.

Today, as a special event, the greatest living vocalist of this ethnic group, a blind, white-haired old man, was going to sing with the inmate musicians.  Everyone was required to be there. I listened to the first two songs and slipped out.  The music was enchanting.  I'm not a musician and could never really explain the differences in tone and rhythm that make this music sometimes sound like the best of spanish guitar mixed with a Japanese music scale (but not quite) and plaintive sounds that feel like bagpipes but sound better.  I could hear this, alone in the desert, and it would affect me even deeper.  Great stuff. Still, I slipped out.

I wasn't allowed to. The big man noticed and summoned me back and made sure that I had a seat in the front row.  There was nothing authoritarian about it, either. It takes great leadership to make someone do something that they don't want to do without them feeling 'bossed'.

So I listened and got more antsy and...

I like the people. I liked the event. I didn't want to be there.  This wasn't new. Even being told how important it could be, I've always avoided socializing at work, always avoided meeting with all the brass. Half convinced myself that it was shyness (which is bullshit).

The thing was, if everyone was at dinner, who was walking the perimeter?  

It was never about not wanting to be with the inner circle- even in the old agency I liked most of them.  It wasn't an avoidance strategy like I had assumed it was.  There was a job that needed to be done.  Someone who didn't need supervision needed to either do or monitor the job.  That would be me.

I never felt a need for the bonding aspect, either.  When I took a job or joined a team, I was in. Never felt a need to get to know my buddy or develop rapport so that I would have a reason to do things right. If I couldn't see the reason I didn't apply for the job in the first place. At the same time, I recognize that this bonding is a pretty common thing.  It is one of the basic tenets of military training, that soldiers fight for each other, not for causes.  For most high-intensity teams, bonding is critical. So it was symbiotic, in a way.  The people that needed the bonding were free to bond and I could walk the perimeter.

It became such a habit that even here, where it is expressly not my job, something felt 'wrong'.  Stuff has changed. Time to change with it. I can still walk the perimeter on some stuff but it's time to learn some of the things I missed at the countless 'functions' that I was too busy to attend.

Friday, March 27, 2009


It is a small place, just big enough to bury a couple of kings, really.  Thirty feet up a cliff there is a hollow, clearly carved, and a small square opening.  Carved symbols are high above the opening on either side and another larger carving is directly above the door. It shows two men, facing each other, bows on the ground before them.

"This is four thousand years old," says the man who brought us here, "It is Zoroastrian."
He appears shocked that I know the name, and the names Ahura Mazda  and Ahriman.
He smiles. "Come, I will show you the most beautiful place on the Earth."

That's a hard sell. I've seen Crater Lake and rafted the Illinois River and stood in the mountains near Quito and scuba'd off Ambergris Caye... and there are less known places that I have found more beautiful.

Where he takes us is beautiful, though. A jagged, three-way canyon with a waterfall and flowing stream that look like magic in this parched land.  Local families come here to picnic and they want their pictures taken with a real live American.

Then onward, to caves that were inhabited by people before there were humans ( a sophistry I enjoy: neanderthal remains have been found here), where a leader's son was born not too long ago and rebels/freedom fighters/terrorists have run and fought and hidden until very recently.  
The caves are well up a steep hill, the kind you can get up without using your hands much.  It is a good hike/run and I get to the top a little smug. The accompanying soldiers and most of the security detail are far behind- only one kept up with me to the top. Not too bad for an old man, but the knee with the screw in it will nag me tomorrow.  That's tomorrow.

The view is spectacular.  The cave is huge- tall and broad and dry- but relatively shallow. Smoke from millenia of fires have blackened the ceiling.  We kind of scatter, depending on endurance and inclination.  The rock is spectacular, like welded tuff but harder, perfect for climbing.  So I climb a little.  Take more pictures.

The others call me to a smaller cave opening.  They tell me that the cave has never been bottomed, no one has ever explored it to the end. They say you can smell the methane and it would be deadly.  I recognize the smell, though. It's bat shit.

The is a crawl for the first little bit. Uncomfortable for a hiker, maybe, but nothing special for a caver. It opens past that. I go past a bat nursery, careful to stay on the main path. The cave has obviously seen a lot of human traffic and I find it hard to believe that no one has seen the end.  It is hot in there, something I'm not used to in a cave.  It probably is the cave maintaining the average annual temperature of the world around.  I can't go forever- no water, no partner and only two lights.  I'm breaking all of the Caving Commandments, probably, so I eventually turn back and meet the others who waited outside.

Instead of retracing our steps, we angle down to the bottom of the canyon upstream from where we left the vehicles.  It is fun, running and jumping among the rocks, like being a kid again.  The bottom of the canyon is a dry riverbed.  Somewhere in maybe a hundred yards of thick brush it magically turns into a clear stream, five feet deep in the one pool I measured. A huge spring must be right there.  The rebels must have appreciated that.  The tail of an
 exploded RPG by the side of the trail is a pretty solid reminder. Nothing in this land is easy or perfectly safe.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Broad and Narrow

Van Canna is a senior practitioner of Uechi-ryu.  He frequently posts on the Uechi BBS.  He can be obnoxious and rude and send people into tooth-gnashing rages.  I dearly love the man.  He wrote something recently that goes to the core of a basic difference between different styles of training, different styles of thinking:

However, if I were lost on a mountain side and, after asking directions to one person how to get down, he were to say: ‘just follow the sun and your ‘homing instincts’ and you will get there’ _ 

Then if asking the same directions to another person and he said ‘follow the sun along particular pathways _ as I will show you how to recognize’ I would take the second person’s advice.

It made me think of survival training.  There are two general ways to approach it.  Some instructors get very specific: this kind of wood makes a good fireboard, these plants are edible. And some teach you how to find out for yourself: how to test wood with your thumbnail to estimate it's suitability, how to tell if a plant is likely poisonous.

Directions off a mountain, survival, self-defense.  If you can get particular instructions for your particular situation, it will always be superior.  But, if you don't get to choose which mountain you will be lost on or which biome you will crash in or what will attack you, the generalist training is more likely to help.  Learning to pay attention, general principles, general strategies. Or templates, specific techniques.

Pay attention is easy. General principles? For survival: thermodynamics, hydration.  For Combatives, structure and power generation. Just examples. General strategies? For survival, Shelter Water Fire Food, in that order. Regardless of climate hypothermia will kill you faster than thirst, thirst faster than starvation.  For combatives two of the classics are "do damage" and "disrupt balance."

If you know what you are getting into, you can train for it specifically. That's one of the big advantages of training for tournament or training a cultural art.  In classical JJ I knew exactly who my bad guy would be.  If you don't know, that's a different set of priorities and a different way to train.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Just one example of how life changes training- Concrete.  
If footwork is critical to your style (and I have yet to see one where it isn't) then footing, the ability to trust your connection to the ground and to efficiently move your body when you press the earth is pretty damn important.  Most martial artists practice with good footing as a given. Not always- some take care to play outdoors and on uneven terrain.  Some who frequently practice outdoors in all weather learn about slick wet grass and sometimes gripping mud.  Knee deep snow.  Broken rock.  And good footing isn't always good footing. Almost every judoka I know has broken or dislocated his little toes on soft mats. 

Finished concrete with a light layer of dust is slippery.  Very slippery if you are wearing good boots.

Finished concrete is also a good reflector.  There is an element of hunting or ambush to a lot of fights.  Practice in paying attention to shadows and reflections can give you the edge no matter which side of the dynamic you play.

Falling-   You learn to fall on stuff that is much softer than concrete.  I'm cool with that.  With diligent practice ukemi work just fine on concrete. I've taken a full flip on asphalt at about 30 mph without a scratch and a full power throw on concrete with a 260 pound man landing on top without a bruise.  The skills translate, but mistakes or poor skill has a much higher price when the surface is harder.

Impact tool and pain compliance- the earth is an impact weapon. IMO, it's usually stupid to hit people in the head with your fist.  I find it stupid and inefficient to do so if there is a substance much harder than your fist right next to the threat's head.  Wall or floor, driving a head into it probably works better than hitting with your hand. For one thing, you can get the body weight of both people into the strike. For another you can sometimes entrain the threat's flinch reaction into the force.  Someone flinching into a door jamb demonstrates amazing short power.
Rough concrete also hurts quite a lot. There is a huge difference between kneeling on an opponent's jaw on a mat and kneeling on the same jaw when it is backed by gravel over concrete.

That's all pretty basic and obvious if you think about it.  Here's what I'm really getting at:

There are things that are true on mats that cease to be true on concrete. More than that- the mats imply a lot of other background that change everything.

I trained with a man, one of the best in the world at what he does, who insisted that the ground and pound was the "worst possible scenario."  Probably everyone knows, but just in case- you are on the ground, on your back. The opponent is straddling you and raining down blows to your face.  This 'worst possible' scenario wouldn't even make my top ten.  Five or six guys kicking would make it worse.  A knife would make it worse. Being face down would make it worse.  Being on top could be worse if I think I'm in some kind of wrestling match and the threat has decided it's a knife fight... on and on.

The position has a lot of emotional resonance, though. It's considered one of the most dominant positions in that sport.  Many people have seen fights in gradeschool end up this way. A lot of people feel helpless when they are straddled and go completely defensive, hoping it will just be over.  In a training hall, it is a very bad position. Less so on concrete.

People trying to take your head off don't hit like people trying to score points.  They also don't hit like people who are trying to skillfully maintain some defense and balance. Power and rage. This is one of the reasons why blocks and covers don't work quite the same against an assault (even assuming you can get them in place in time).  Practiced against someone sparring, playing all the details of range and maintaining a defense and a critical distance line and focused on preventing harm to himself as much as on dealing damage, the defenses are more communication than barriers: Punch - parry- 'hmmm, that line is closed, try something else'.  A full power swing will often blow right through this type of defense.  A 'beat' style fencing parry probably wouldn't work all that well on an axe.

 Then the concrete comes into it.  When the backstop is concrete anything that misses has a price to pay.  Fully committed, full power, threat can cause his own crippling injury. You just have to make the threat miss. Shifting your pinned hips is usually enough.

The environment is part of it, but people don't think (much less fight) the way that they train or spar.  Because of that disparity, another layer creeps in- what you are training against is not what you may have to use it against. In some cases, if you recognize it and exploit it, that makes things easier.  The ground and pound is a bad situation in the ring, but it is one of the cases (if you are ready for it) where real life gives you some advantages.

Monday, March 16, 2009


"It's not there."

I sighed. "Don't use the search function," I said.  For at least the fourth time.  He hit the search function again, trying to show me what wasn't there.

"It's not there," he repeated.

"Partner, we're looking at source material in three different languages. No one transliterates it the same. I can think of six different ways an American would try to spell the name you are looking for and there's a real possibility that they would mess up the order. Our naming system is different than yours. A computer won't pick that up."

He said he understood, but every time I glanced over I could see the little "find" box. I'll have to redo all of his work later.

How do you teach someone that they are smarter than a computer?  Computers are great for certain types of problems, but there are certain problems- the complex, fuzzy ones and the ones with subtle patterns where the human mind is much better adapted.  But people get these ideas about what is hard, like math, and if computers make it easy and never make a mistake and smart people are good at math and computers are better...

Math isn't easy (clarification- higher math isn't easy for me) but it is simple. The processes are pretty much laid out.  Other problems- like people and conflict and language, most of the human-sized stuff- are really complex, but it is a kind of complexity that our brains are trained to handle  This guy, my partner, is brilliant. Fluent in three languages and working on his fourth, lots of interests, an advanced degree in a technical field and he worships the power of technology.

There's a part of me that enjoys the tedious detail work of analysis. I especially like it when I can invent or choose my own methods and sources.  I've done some work here where just a little niggle back in my brain said to look at something again... it's rewarding in its own way.  Some detail that no one else may ever really see or use, something that will be buried in a long list and filed and probably forgotten. But something a computer would never have caught, would never have felt the niggle at a name that was clearly wrong. Not long enough to correlate strange spellings and common pronunciation errors and how Americans try to write sounds that they can't largely distinguish the differences between* and family naming custom in the native country and BOOM a whole new door opens.  So it's probably useless, but I find fun where I can make it.

* The 's' in Saddam and the 's' in Hussein are entirely different letters with entirely different (to Arabic ears) pronunciations. I can't tell sin from sad (those are the names of the letters) in conversation.

Friday, March 13, 2009


The thanatos is strong tonight. I may edit this later to put in the links that will help this make sense.  Freud said that there were two competing drives, the drive for life and the drive for death, Thanatos. Like a lot of things, Freud got it half right.  Most people don't have a drive for death- most have a drive for intensity, maybe, and the intensity of danger is more alive than most have ever felt.  But...

I walked the perimeter of the camp tonight. Overcast, no stars. Smoking a cuban cigar and listening to music. No real danger, not here, deep on a Peshmerga base. The music is about battle and loss.  What did Oscar Wilde write about the Irish? "...the race that God made mad, for all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad."

I'm feeling it tonight, missing the battle joy, feeling the depression of the inevitability of life, of aging.  Wishing to meet the man who can kill me.  Not to die so much as to die in absolute battle joy, on the very edge of what a human can experience- perfectly focused, every atom of my being in a single strike or a single sight picture and presssssss... then the clean burning pain from the wound I didn't see coming.  I've been close enough to know the feeling (have I really? Wouldn't it be new, more, different than near death?) of burning pain of the wound and creeping cold of the shock and the fear of the big dark... but, tonight I am hungry for it.

There is so much more to see in this world and the world is so beautiful... and yet I am weary.

Hear me, world, for I am weary
I have heard the muezzin at sunrise
And broken the bones of the enemy
Loved well
Lived hard
Seen the sunrise over sands that Ali walked
Been challenged by the Ravens of Odin
And earned the brotherhood of the Wind
Shown mercy
Felt pride
Warriors feel the Death in me and step away
Children and wolves relax
"You are like a fox," Shewar says
Different meanings
In different languages
Orange skies and blue, and the aurora
Green seas, and blue, and stormy gray
The blue white blue white flash, spinning
True brothers and
Enemies become friends

I turned off skype tonight. Kami is the one thing that makes this fade, but it would be too hard to hear her voice. Not tonight, love. I need to feel this, not deny it.  It will pass. There is so much to do. Good works, I am literally saving people, but...

Always 'but'.  The animal in me would wander into the mountains, into the desert. That is who I am. The man in me must help others, fulfill obligations.  That is who I have promised to be.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stupid Questions and F'n' Morons

Both of these came up while writing the series and I didn't want to break the flow.  A while ago, Johann asked about techniques for breaking up a fight.  In the course of the answer I referred back to the question, saying " No weapons on any side is not only an assumption, but downright stupid. "  It sounded harsh, and Johann took it like a gentleman.

Here's the thing: People ask questions in different ways for different reasons. At some level people know how rarely a martial arts answer is the best answer in a real life situation. Maybe consciously, maybe subconsciously, they tweak the question to get the answer they are comfortable with.

The world is big and full of stuff.  In order to practice specific skills, martial arts usually limits those variables: Clean up the floors, know the number of opponents, it either is or is not a weapon drill...  That is all important to developing a specific skill but sometimes you need a general skill. You need to practice cheating.  You need to practice seeing and exploiting variables.  That makes hierarchical systems uncomfortable, because a good cheat can overcome a big disparity in strength or speed... or skill.  That is very threatening to people who have spent years developing skill.  You hear them sometimes when a champion gets shot or someone racks a shotgun in a demo- "Are you saying this is all worthless?  All meaningless?"

No.  But it's not the whole picture, either.  

My concern, when someone presents the problem as "assume that there are no weapons on either side" is that they are ingraining two bad thought habits. One is assuming what the bad guy does or has.  It is a way to rewrite the question so it is easier to answer, and a way to create an answer it is easy to be lazy with, to feel confident it will work provided one variable (that you have no control over) breaks your way. It is training to rely on luck. I love luck. I don't rely on her.
The second bad habit is possibly even more limiting. The world is full of stuff.  How many places can you sit or walk without something at hand that you can use as a weapon. I've been toying with water bottles lately.  They're everywhere here.  That assumption sets a habit in your brain to not look for better options, to try to find the martial arts solution to the problem.

It's not just in material and space, either.  There's time, too. I was presented with this scenario once: 

It's about 0130, you're walking on the sidewalk. Ahead of you you notice two guys acting suspicious near a parked car. They are squatting low by the passenger side door and looking around suspiciously. As you get closer, about 15 feet away, one notices you and turns suddenly with a screw driver held low in his right hand. What do you do?

Classic fishing for a MA answer. Seriously, you see two guys acting suspiciously and you get closer?  Why not call it in on the cell phone from a distance?  The best answer for this scenario happens earlier than he would accept an answer.  The guy who presented the scenario wasn't going to accept that it would take an idiot for this to happen. He had dreams for his killer kung-fu fantasy solution and he wanted it confirmed by others.

No one will ever see the whole picture, but some see more than others. The earlier you see it, the more options you have. The deeper you see it (terrain, strategically, emotionally, communication level) the more options you have. The clearer you see it, the less likely you are to make a mistake.

So, I've said it before again and again and again: we are all blind to some things, to some degree. Please, please don't practice blindness.  Not when thinking about violence. The stakes are too high.

In the last of the Circles posts, Mike made a comment that he would have fallen into the "Fuckin' moron" category long ago. He wouldn't.  A true FM can't even imagine that he might be wrong. They have the answer, know The Truth- and facts, experience or even common sense are no hindrance to their proselytizing. Ignorance is not knowing stuff. Wisdom is knowing you don't know stuff. Idiocy is thinking you know stuff. FM status is reserved for those few who insist on knowing stuff that's not true despite evidence.

We all have stories about them and it's really not that big a deal. They just make me tired and influence where I spend my time.

So, Johann, there was a piece of your question that could lead to some very bad habits. That doesn't mean in any way that I think you are stupid. And Mike- no worries. 

Aside- I realize that this shows up on Patrick Parker's site which is kind of a family thing, so I edited the title. Sorry, Pat. Hope I caught it in time.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Seventh Circle

It's all over. The cops have shown up, sirens blaring... or they haven't. The ambulance has rolled away, or it hasn't. Whatever adrenaline you had built up that didn't burn up in the encounter does so now and you might get uncontrollable shakes. It's all over. But it isn't. 

I could divide this stage up easily, by time and by effect, but that would be too much, so I just lump it together here as the seventh stage, the Aftermath.

You may be injured.  Hell, you might be dead, but in that case nothing I write will really have an impact and I hate wasting time. You might be crippled.  There will be physical effects after a fight, usually. I think one of my reasons for preferring positioning/controlling/open-hand arts is that they do less injury to me, and I don't know after one fight if I am done for the night or if there will be more.
So, even if you win you may have to deal with a concussion, a face not as pretty as it used to be, a hand that you yourself broke when you disregarded the big bone/little bone rule.  Those are the easy and obvious things. You might not notice a knife or bullet wound until you collapse.  I've long suspected that a soft spot in my lower abdomen is actually a mild hernia from a long ago fight.  My left eye is blurry years after the encounter where it was gouged. A deputy from my agency died about twenty years after being shot in the head. Complications from the wound. Twenty years.  Sometimes it is never really over.

Who attacked you?  What kind of life did he lead?  Were fights and needle drugs and bad hygiene just business as usual for him and does the blood pouring down his face and your torn knuckle mean hepatitis or HIV?  When your elbow contacted- nice, solid, good technique- and the shattered stumps of his teeth penetrated your skin- did the bacteria cross over that will put your life in danger in a few hours?  Septicemia.
You can't ignore the aftermath in your training- what good does it do you to win if you go slam a beer and get some sleep afterwards and wake up with an arm the size of a watermelon, a fever and red streaks running up the vein?  Have you really won if you knocked the bad guy out but need to choose between death and amputation? (I have some good pics of this, but they aren't my copyright, so I can't post them. Ask, if you see me with my laptop.)

Ignoring all the diseases and potential joint and back injuries and all that weirdness, when you hit someone, two surfaces are contacting at the same speed. Your fist is imparting just as much force to his head as his head is imparting to your fist.  The force on both sides is the same.  The key is that different tissues absorb force differently. Even if you won, significant force has been dealt to your body- even if you dealt it. Something to think about- have you been training to impart this force wisely, maximizing damage to the threat, minimizing damage to yourself?

Then the emotional aftermath.  It hits different people differently and on a lot of levels.  I don't get much of the standard PTSD aftermath. I don't have flashbacks or panic or sweats or nightmares (not yet- am I immune or simply haven't reached my threshold?). On the other hand I can rarely sleep for longer than four hours and don't feel that I have much in common with most people.  For me there is a real sense of disconnect- especially with martial artists and theorists.  It doesn't come up much on this blog but it used to when I was more active on BBSs, I would catch myself not wanting to even engage, just thinking, "Fucking moron, believe whatever makes you happy," and then go strap on guns or body armor and go to work.

The people it does hit hard have had their entire identity destroyed.  I could go into that in great detail with more space and time.  People spend their whole lives figuring out who they are, making up a story.  In an incident of extreme predatory violence, everything they have come to believe, everything they have ever counted on no longer is true.  The world, people and even the self are not what they are supposed to be.  That last is the hardest.  Win, lose or draw people rarely live up to their mental image of who they should be.
There is a lot here, stuff to know for your self, stuff to help others.  There are things that happen at low levels, too. There are prices for walking away.

There are even emotional consequences of fearing violence and not facing it.  That is probably what is being expressed in the kool-aid drinking or the panicked weaseling when a piece of data challenges received wisdom.

So much here.

Physical effects, emotional effects and lastly... legal.

Is there a line between force and violence?  I personally feel that this is one of those things that people hold in their heads to make it more comfortable.  Fist meets flesh, head impacts concrete. Force. Violence. Tomayto. Tomahto.

The same physical action can be criminal assault or legitimate self defense.  How well you understood the first circle can make the difference in the aftermath between having issues and having issues in prison.

Aside- possibly the worst legal advice I have ever heard is to leave and hide your involvement after a use of force. Some instructors actually teach this. A cover-up makes it very hard to prove that there was no intent.

There are two legal systems as well, with differences in evidence and levels of proof.  There may be nothing criminal, not even any question of prosecution. That doesn't preclude a civil suit, or the threat of a civil suit which is sometimes enough.

All three of these are on the table after a big use of force- medical, emotional and legal complications.  Skill in Circles 2-6 all combine to remove or mitigate the potential medical results. If you avoid the situation, no injury.  A good OC, a minimal freeze and fighting skill are all about minimizing damage to yourself.  The emotional aftermath is affected most by three things- understanding your own heart and your own beliefs at level one; realistically knowing and preparing for the after effects (studying the seventh circle before you get there); and how you process the events.  The legal aftermath will depend on whether you understood the laws pertaining to force and whether you had trained with respect to those laws.

To sum up: If you want to call it self-defense, all seven of these circles are important. If any of them are unfamiliar, study up.  Being good at one of them will not protect you from a failure in the others. They all connect.

Going to be on the move in a couple of days. Yet another language. Should only be for 2-3 weeks but I have no idea what the internet access will be like.  I'll post some more stuff when I can.

Friday, March 06, 2009

The Sixth Circle

Here it is. The fight.

I kind of want to end this post right here. It would be poetic, but incomplete. It's good to read into stuff, to stretch your brain. If this wasn't a subject that stirred so much fantasy I'd feel more comfortable with that.

The fight.  If you have trained well in martial arts now, in this circle, it can come into play. With a couple of caveats. Okay, a lot of caveats.  

First of all, you have to survive the Fourth and Fifth Circles.  If you got gutted and never even saw it coming, all the fighting skill in the world comes into the equation too late. If you stand there frozen telling yourself in your head what you should be doing as the fists and feet come in your skill won't play.  To increase your chances at the Fourth Circle you have to have the second down cold. It all connects.

More addendums and caveats- you won't be at your peak, probably. Assuming you have the lithe carriage of a martial athlete on a good day, almost no one will be stupid enough to hit you on a good day.  That means you will likely be exhausted or injured or sick (or drunk) when you most need your skills.  At minimum, if you do the sensible thing and warm up and stretch before practice... well, you probably won't be warmed up and stretched.  And, of course, when and if you recover from the freeze you will have all those annoying physical, mental and sensory deficits that come with a huge surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones.  So you won't be fighting with the same body that you have trained.

Especially if you missed on Stage Two, the attack may not be like the fights you have trained for. That's just on the physical skill versus skill level. If you've trained exclusively against long range linear punches and kicks the pitcher of beer upside your head or the liverpool kiss may come from nowhere.

The Sixth Circle is also where a lack at Stage One will destroy you.  If you've been trained (and are lucky enough) to disarm the threat and use his own knife on him, you may pass self-defense and step into manslaughter.  If you have been coached again and again to deliver a "finishing blow" after you put your opponent on the ground, you have been training to commit assault (possibly felony assault depending on how you "finish").  Or the inverse- if you have practiced throwing a single perfect technique and waiting for the ref to call it- you will have a tendency to do it here.

There are rules in a fight.  Not only have you internalized some form of moral code since you were a baby, you have seen an etiquette and flow to conflict your entire life and you have internalized a script of how violence works with your martial arts.  So has the bad guy. Even sociopaths have subconscious rules, scripts. Habits.  It won't be a matter of "there are no rules in a street fight" or even that you are hampered by the rules of civilization and the threat isn't. It is an interplay of your (usually subconscious) rules and the threat's.  Your expectations and the attacker's script.  Sometimes of your trained blind spots and the threat's actions.

The environment can be a huge difference. It's unlikely to happen on a mat or in a ring with a good floor and no obstructions and limited yet clear space. That's not a bad thing, if you've trained for it.  The world is made up of weapons and opportunities. The difference between a hazard and a tool often lies in who uses it first.

Other than these little items, and probably a dozen more I am too tired pull up to my conscious brain right now, the fight is pretty much what you have trained for. Hopefully.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Fifth Circle

If you get hit by surprise, you are going to freeze. How long you will freeze will depend greatly on your training and who you are, but the freeze will happen.  I get the feeling that someone will want to argue that, so I will state it as simply as I can. If your head was someplace else, digging for your keys in your pocket or looking for your car in the lot or scanning the crowd for a friend and something slams into the side of your head it will take you a measurable amount of time to switch gears. You may have to deal with other things, too, which will lengthen the freeze.

Remember that the circles both work together and prevent each other. IF you were paying attention at level two, you avoided the situation altogether. If you missed avoidance but saw it coming on and had a chance to escape or de-escalate (level 3) you either avoided it, averted it, or at minimum knew it was a possibility and hopefully could engage on your terms. If you failed or missed those two levels, you got surprised, already have been injured or grabbed and you will need to switch gears.

That's one of the beauties of the fourth circle, by the way. If you have conditioned properly you will still freeze, but you will freeze after your counterattack. Hormone-induced freezes happen at the speed of blood. Social freezes happen at the very, very slow speed of conscious thought. A conditioned response happens at the speed of nerve.

So if level four works the threat has to deal with the freeze, too. Whoever unfreezes first has the advantage.

So here is the fifth skill you need for self-defense. The ability to break the freeze. Skills and strategies for making yourself move despite some issues of hard-wiring and social conditioning.

All aspects of violence are hard to research.  Wiring people to sensors is a pretty good indicator that something is about to happen and the true surprise aspect is off the table.  Modern ethics in human experimentation means that the feeling of danger won't be quite real.  Self-reporting of what people remember and experience is notoriously unreliable.  A few have been exposed enough to write reliable reports after the fact and at first glance they would seem like good sources, but that much exposure to violence definitely causes some changes in thought and personality.  The best sources may be useless for generalizing to other people.

I wrote a little about this long ago. My best stab so far is a short paper on types of freezes. It will be part of a book someday, probably.  Just in my own experience (direct and people I've trained or counseled) I've identified five different general types of freezes and eighteen sub-categories.  Eighteen different reasons for standing there while you get pounded or stabbed.

Sounds like a lot, I know.  But we've already talked about how simply switching gears is a measurable freeze- and that assumes someone who knows a bit about fighting and has something to switch to.  That's a different freeze than not being able to figure out what you are facing- something so novel that you don't have a reference point, like being shot with a magazine; or something so incongruous that your brain won't wrap around it like a flying blue shark with glasses. Or the very common freeze of wanting to know 'why' or the sudden desire to make a plan when damage is already coming in.  Five different ways to freeze there, but all largely mental.  There are physiological freezes, too, and socially conditioned ones and freezes that cross borders.  Once I started thinking about it, eighteen didn't seem that far off the mark.

Some of the freezes are prevented in training.  The more you are exposed to, the fewer things will trigger the novelty freeze.  What you learned about level two will prevent or mitigate the 'why' freeze.  OC, as far as I know, can't be conditioned as complex responses to changing stimuli but you can train, or merely make it a habit, that if you are being hurt you are fighting.

Some freezing can be prevented or mitigated by giving students a realistic understanding of violence, giving them permission to separate who they are in the civilized world from who they need to be when bad things happen.  That doesn't mean to pretend that laws and ethics don't apply (see the first circle) but to understand that violence and violent people are fundamentally different than debate or a friendly sparring match.  Most people know that intellectually, but when stress hits the human animal has a tendency to look for an equivalent and go with what worked then- even if it was a family argument.

Prevention is good.  I will happily spend five hours in training now, while I have five hours, to save a half-second when I really need it.

But you can't prevent them all. You also have to learn to break out of a freeze.  Breaking a freeze is hard.  Freezing works more often for more prey than running or fighting.  The old part of your brain knows this.  It doesn't have a lot of faith in any of this new-fangled training.  Breaking the freeze directly pits your will against your hindbrain.

This is back-engineered. This is how I remember breaking out of my own freezes and meshes pretty well with others who were aware enough of what went on internally to talk about it.  It also points up  some things that were very common in people who stayed frozen.

1) Recognize that you are frozen.  It's harder than it sounds. Sometimes a really bad freeze feels...nice. Warm and floaty. Crystal calm.  You can feel completely aware of every detail around you and even compliment yourself on how clearly you are thinking and how calm you are.  You might even have very logical reasons for doing nothing. Here's a clue- if you or someone you care about are taking damage, you are frozen. Recognize it and act.
1a) There's another form of freezing, too. I call it the adrenaline loop. It is freezing in action. Doing the same thing over and over even though it is not working or you can see death on the horizon.  This is a direct will vs. hindbrain contest.  Remember how the hindbrain doesn't trust that new-fangled idea of training? It's also not big on the idea that you can think ahead. It can sense death and all it knows, all it accepts, is that what it has done so far hasn't gotten you killed. It will vote to stick with the plan.  Catch me at home or a seminar and I usually have a very ugly video of this in my bag.

2) This is the part I get handwavy about. Once you recognize you are frozen, you make a conscious decision to do something- almost anything- and you do it. Scream. Hit the guy. Something.  This is handwavy  (everyone gets that, right? the one step in a complicated process where everyone just hopes that things work out and the person explaining waves hands around in an attempt to distract you from the fact that he really doesn't have an answer?). I know what I've done. I know this can work. I have no idea if telling you is enough. I have no way of inspiring terror to the point of a freeze in students and then coaching them until acting is a habit.  I can tell you you must take conscious control of your body, but I look around and see how few people seem to have conscious control of any aspect of their lives and I lose a bit of hope.  If you are frozen, act.

3) Do it again. This may be personal, maybe pretty universal. This is deep in that area that is hard to research. In my experience, I tell myself to do something, do it and I'm still fighting the hindbrain. Do it twice, however and the hindbrain accepts that the change hasn't gotten me killed and lets me get to work.

That's the pattern for me. Recognize the freeze. Make myself act. Make myself act again.  Then I can enter the sixth circle.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Fourth Circle

If it goes physical, the next three stages apply to what would be called 'the fight'. All three of the next stages are very different things. Not all will happen, not in a Monkey Dance or a mutual fight- the dueling thing. But in an assault... yeah.

Stage four I'm going to give you some credit. I will assume that if you see something bad coming you will avoid it. Yeah, that takes some common sense and maturity but I believe in you. Really.  What this means, practically, is that if you got assaulted it was a surprise. Maybe not a complete surprise- you might have known it was bad or it was going bad- but the first contact (fist, stick or boot or...) was a surprise. Otherwise it wouldn't have gotten in.

In case I haven't made it clear, the seven circles are stages of training. They mirror what happens in conflict, are based on that, but this is a map of training, not of the field. Yeah, things will pretty much break down in this order.... I'm rambling. General warning: Models are never reality. They are useful, they are not absolutely real.

So, stage four. The sucker punch.  Given that action beats reaction and all the cool stuff about the OODA loop martial artists tend to hand wave past this stage.  Some traditionalists say, "Mushin will take care of it." and some RBSD guys have said, "You can't do anything about it so there's no point in training for it."  In this case, the traditionalists are closer to the truth.  Closer.

There are some things that any good martial artist will train to reflex.  It will be based on style and instruction and inclination. Sometimes it is simply a block, sometimes a block and counter. Some judoka will respond with their favorite throw before they have consciously registered the opening. A very good ring fighter will strike at openings almost before they appear.

This is basic Operant Conditioning training. Stimulus/response stuff. If you have seen this in the simple things described above you know that it exists and you have an idea of how it works. OC is a style of training.  It is what you need for the fourth circle (I'm still up in the air on calling them circles or stages or whatever. I'm thinking book, so send your suggestions.)

The problem with OC is that it tends to get trained pretty specifically. An overhand right requires, in most styles, a different response than an overhand left or a kick or a straight right.  A sudden assault may be an overhand right, or a kick or a stab or... Training for each possible attack may take years and will never cover all possibilities.

So here is the stage four training- practice one move for most sudden attacks. Sounds too simple and there is more going on, but that is basically it. I'm not going into technique here. I have predilections. So do you. The Stage four techniques that you practice must serve your preferences, not mine. In general a perfect technique will better your position, worsen the threat's position, do damage to the threat and prevent damage to you... my idea of bettering my position is based on being an infighter. If that's not you, my particular favorites may hamper and not empower you.

As I said, it's more complex. I teach each student three techniques. One for an attack you see. Not an attack you identify. That takes too long. Your intuition tingles, the threat starts to move, you move. I only teach one to each student (unless they plan on teaching) and I try to tie the action to their natural flinch. There are two natural flinches for something coming at your eyes. If you find out which one the student has (and on people who have trained a long time it is harder, years of conditioning alter the natural response) you pick a response based on that.

The second is for the attack you feel. Something hits you in the back of your head. Someone grabs for your weapon. Arms come around your neck. Something slams into your kidney. One technique that works for all of these. You've taken the damage, you need to get the initiative back. The technique you teach/train has to respect the fact that if this is a blitz, it won't stop with a single attack.

The third, again, is for an attack that you feel, but it overwhelms you by breaking your balance forward.  I wish I could come up for a single response for attacks from behind that worked for both dynamics, but I haven't.  

So each student gets one response for attacks from the front (defined as anywhere in the visual field, anything you see before you feel) and two for attacks from behind.

They have to be practiced in a realistic environment- that means the stimulus must be an attack, not a sparring lead with feints. One of the things that makes this hard to practice to reflex is that you have to guard against instilling a 'pull'. You are laying something in pretty deep and you can put bad habits, like pulling or stopping, right in with it. Generally, my students practice on me (more experience at avoiding damage) and I wear armor.

Stage four integrates with stage five. If you get hit and you weren't expecting it, you will freeze. You will have to deal with a cascade of stress hormones. However, if your training at stage four was effective you have already counterattacked. This evens the playing field. The threat wasn't expecting this and now may be frozen also. (Part of stage two is understanding how threats think, how they have a plan and experience with a certain type of attack, how that attack is designed to prevent or minimize resistance. A counterattack is rarely in the plan.)

Koolaid drinking at this stage? Part is mentioned above: "You can't do anything so you might as well not train." is the form of koolaid drinking based on, "My instructor didn't have an answer and he is the right hand of god so there must not be an answer."  Expectation of mushin is also a form of koolaid drinking. True mushin does exist but is levels beyond what most people describe. Maybe in another post, a twilight zone post, I'll try to pick that apart. 

But something I call 'false mushin' happens pretty frequently. If the attack looks very much like something a person has trained, the practitioner's reaction will kick in without thought. Because it happened without thought and was successful it pretty much fits the description that most practitioners have of 'mushin'... but it is just an OC response.  It relies on luck, the luck that what you trained for is what you will get.

Something else sometimes happens. Raise your hand if you've heard this story: "I been training for awhile, you know, and this guy was being a jerk and he said some shit and I said something and suddenly he hauled off and just out of nowhere I kiai'd and threw a punch and I pulled it an inch from his nose and he slunk off..."

The person who does this sees it as a major success and it is. Sort of. A drunken idiot who wants to Monkey Dance can be intimidated by a pulled punch and a yell.  What I see in that story is that someone had trained pulling to the point that when their reactions kicked in to a real threat, the pulling came right along with the technique. If they had been facing a predator or even an experienced MD fighter, all the threat would have learned is that he didn't hit, that he had trained not to hit, that it would be perfectly safe to kick the living shit out of him.