Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Gory Details

For the writers of fiction:

In November, my lovely wife has arranged for me to talk to a large group of writers, readers and people who want to write. "What do I say?" I asked.
"Talk to them about the things that they write about but they don't know. What criminals are really like, how and why they fight, what it feels and sounds and smells like when you're fighting for your life. They same things you try to tell martial artists."

Oh. That stuff.

We had to put down Gazelle, a paralyzed goat. Put down means "kill". Maybe it means, 'kill for its own good, for the cessation of pain.' I went out early in the morning and dug the grave. It is a sin in my family to waste meat, but since the paralysis was probably due to loss of circulation the meat may not have been safe. I dug the grave close because I know that limp bodies are much harder to move than stiff ones. I took aim from about a foot and a half away with a .40 caliber semi-automatic handgun and pulled the trigger.

First note: "Putting to sleep" ie euthanization from drugs is the procedure used in a veterinarian's office. It looks very peaceful and is much easier on the grieving owners... but one of our family friends, a veterinarian in Eastern Oregon did her doctoral thesis on euthanasia. She said it looks peaceful because of the effects of the muscle relaxants but that the EEG showed unmistakable signs of panic as the animal slowly died... whereas a shot to the head went from normal to flatline instantly. She said that some people can't take the responsibility of killing their own animal, but if they can a gunshot is more humane, though it can be messier.

The shot was very loud in the morning quiet. I'd aimed for the sniper spot, the brainstem. We are taught that in a hostage situation a direct hit on the brainstem will make the threat go limp, so they will not reflexively clench their hands and pull a trigger. I missed. I'm a very, very good shot with a handgun. That means that on my best days I'm about half as good as a TV hero. The miss (live targets move or I may have rushed the shot out of fear that Gazelle would move) was about an inch from my aim point, missing the brainstem but entering the brain cavity. It was a special expanding bullet and didn't exit the skull. Gazelle started shuddering and twitching.

She was dead- CSF (cerebral spinal fluid) and blood had erupted from both ears and her nose at the shot. Her eyes were fixed. I touched her eyeball and there was no blink reflex. She was dead, dead, dead. But the brainstem is old and animal and it kept her legs jerking and her heart beating and her breath going in little raspy gasps. For about a minute. I think I watched that long because I was convincing myself that she was dead and I didn't screw up. But Kami was there (my excuse?) and it was hard on her to watch (oh, no, couldn't be hard on me... I've been butchering animals since I was a kid! Bullshit. It's still hard. I just do it more efficiently and with more respect and with clearer reasons now). So I fired again, this time hitting the sniper spot, and Gazelle went limp instantly.

People don't die much different.

Is this what the writers will want?

Friday, August 26, 2005

0230 Hrs

Brilliant moon last night. It was some hours after midnight and I'd not been able to sleep when there was a shriek from outside. Probably a coyote or owl found a meal. The shriek was repeated. The animal that was food wasn't dying easily. For a moment I was afraid that it was one of the cats and I couldn't sleep anyway... so I slowly got out of bed to keep from waking K, grabbed the glock and the MP light and a pair of sandals and went out to the sound.

This isn't about rushing into danger or some bullshit like that. I did manage to surprise a pair of racoons (and heard the rest of the family in the blackberries) and startle a big deer out of the garden... and we have had cougar, bobcats and possibly a black bear (judging from the scat) in the area.

This is about moonlight and warm night air on bare skin. A moon so bright that you can see the path and dodge the blackberry vines that reach for flesh. Using your ears more than eyes and your nose.

I was clumsy and out of practice. It's been years since I truly stalked in the dark. My world has been one of people and lights for too long now- brightly lit corridors and dorms and cells populated with criminals. Home is work too: making sure that the people I love are happy and safe and growing. Between the two are the commutes and teaching JJ and teaching for the agency. Somewhere along the way, my world became about people instead of about solitude.

I truly care for the people my life is about, so there are no regrets on that score- but I do miss the solitude. The energy that used to go into running for hours through the desert at night now goes into waking up and making commitments and, occassionally, scouting or fighting. The perception and skill and patience that used to be for stalking into the midst of a herd of deer now goes to really listening to a drunk or drugged or violent or mentally ill inmate and slowly, carefully influencing him or her to be, for the next little while, sane and stable and respectful. It's a great challenge that I still love. My skill is still growing.

But I miss the night wind on bare skin. I walk like a city dweller now- heel toe, heel toe. It takes longer than I remember for my eyes to adjust between bright moonlight and deep shadow. I smelled the air last night, but didn't taste it.

Definitely out of practice.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Just workin'

The work day starts a half hour early, sitting in a conference room with medical staff, security staff and counselors as we discuss the needs and treatment plans and how we are going to run two dorms totalling 127 severely mentally ill inmates for the next four days.

We apprise each other of the ones who haven't been taking their medication or are prone to violent outbursts- we list all the problems we can see coming and map out responses. I get tasked with developing rapport and gently modifying the behavior of two who will be trouble soon, I'm the Jedi Thug and "the Force has great power over weak minds".

My radio squawks and I'm sprinting before I'm consciously aware that this transmission is different from the others: through the code-locked door, to the outer and inner sally port door waiting for ever for Central Control to buzz me in. "What's going on?" Someone yells, following me out of the meeting room. "Back-up to Dorm 5". The first door buzzes and other officers push in, slowing things down, slowing me down because the inner door can't open before the outer door closes.

At last, and I'm in the jail proper, sprinting. The Dorm door is open, officers are already there and three inmates are in cuffs. I call Central to clear the back-up.

A white supremacist and two hispanic gang members. I stay with the big white guy- he's the most agitated, still adrenalized and volatile. I walk him out, to medical, take the cuffs off as he's examined, careful to make sure that he and the other fighters don't cross paths. He knows me, like most of the criminals and convicts in the area. He's relaxed. At one point we discuss the scarring on our knuckles. He volunteers that his are from boxing. He doesn't ask about mine. He's bleeding from his ear and the doctor on duty uses dermabond (essentially super glue) to close the cut. The fighter says, "If my nail had been longer he'd be bleeding down his throat right now."

I cuff him back up and take him to Segregation, "the Hole" which in our facility is clean and painted in cream and beige and light blue.

I check my watch while walking out- the first hour went pretty quick today.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Stupidest Person in the Room

I've had this experience twice.

Once upon a time, many, many years ago we noticed that too many of our friends had birthdays in August. After a summer or two of spending every weekend at a different party and still missing many we decided to have just one big birthday party- the August Babies Birthday Bash.

At one of the first ABBBs, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting in a room as my best friends earnestly discussed the problem: If King Kong was real and he had fallen from the Empire State Building, would his skin have ruptured on impact?

In deadly seriousness and frequently resorting to calculators and paper, they discussed this- a software engineer with a second Master's in physics; a Doctor of Biochemistry who sings like an angel; a techno geek who can make a radar out of a microwave oven and collects obsolete computers; a chemist/caver/climber; a pilot/rally driver/shaman; my lovely wife who was studying Engineering Physics when I met her because regular engineering didn't have hard enough math; there were more- bikers and EMTs and LAN administrators with uncanny social skill...

It suddenly occured to me that I was the stupidest person in the room. It was a warm feeling and greatly contented. I still can't explain it, but there was no insecurity, just the sensation of honor to be welcome in company of that quality.

Three years ago I went to Montreal for the first time for a Martial Arts symposium. I wanted to meet Fabien Senna, if only to meet a French guy who teaches Chinese martial arts in Japan. We met late at night in a Crepe restaurant in Vieux Montreal, Old Town. A table full of talented martial artists. Over the course of food and wine it dawned on me that everyone at the table (except me) spoke at least three languages fluently. Everyone (except me) had a day job in highly technical fields. Once again, I was the stupidest person in the room and once again, it was a great feeling of humble contentment.

Maybe that's how my dog feels, curled up in the sun, "I'll just be me, pal. You be the smart one. You can open the cans, I'll take care of my thing."

Friday, August 19, 2005

Sif and Tyche

Sif, wife of Thor, is the Norse goddess of battle skill.

Tyche is the Greek goddess of luck, twin sister to Nike, the goddess of victory.

A very few of my friends have heard me whisper those names under my breath just before doing something either incredibly fun or incredibly necessary. It's not a prayer so much as a reminder. No matter how well prepared you are there comes the moment of action where luck can play a deciding role. You can slip in unseen sweat or blood. You can go into a situation thinking it is one thing and find a trap.

On the other hand: the harder you train, the luckier you get.

It's not a prayer because the prayer to Sif is practice. Every drop of sweat in training, every ragged breath, every new manual, every hour spent with a new instructor is a prayer to the Goddess of Skill.

The prayer to Tyche is just as all consuming and simple- her prayer is to open your eyes to the randomness all around and seize it when it breaks your way, endure it or turn it around when it doesn't. With constant practice it becomes a habit and you find yourself seeking chaos where others reach for the comfort of the known and predictable.

The best fighters/officers/medics have an awareness of variables that is difficult to teach. They may start with a plan but they understand the fluidity of the situation and step off the plan the minute it becomes counter-productive. They let go without hesitation.

You can only prepare so far. Some things you will never be completely ready for no matter how hard you train. When the call comes you go in with the training you have. That's the job. There are some who fear the chaos of life so much that they train and train and train and never test it, never play in the muddy waters of life, never risk the chaos... and that's a waste.

Skill and luck to you.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Best Things in Life

The feel of smooth skin over firm muscle.

The smoky taste of good scotch on a mountain under brilliant stars.

The floating, satisfied exhaustion of a grappling match or ten with a really skilled, strong opponent.

Looking over students who you know will be better than you.

The understanding gaze of wide gray eyes.

Rapturous exhilaration of free fall- from a plane or judo or at the top of a bungee bounce or in a dream.

The pride and awe of your own children from birth to the present- I helped make them... I still am.

The feeling of rough rock under your fingers and sun on your back and wind in your ears and emptiness beneath you.

Stories with friends and brothers around the bonfire late into the night.

That moment when avoidance and defusing has failed and the battle is on: the rush of fierce joy and fear as civilization falls away and everything for the next few seconds will be completely real.

The first cup of black coffee right after teeth are brushed.

The smell of sweat- sex sweat and workout sweat.

Running under the wing, paragliding, and your feet magically leave the ground and you are running for a moment on air.

Snorkling in clear warm water and suddenly realizing you have no idea how long you have been down and it feels like you could hold your breath and keep swimming forever.

Smell of campfire smoke in your lover's hair.

Squishing mud with your bare feet.

The water from a hot spring falling on your back in a little waterfall as cold Pacific water laps at your feet: the hot and the cold, the smell of sulfur and salt.

The world is a big place, and full of many things. Most of those things are beautiful if you look and listen and smell and feel and taste.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Providence and Cape Cod

Did anybody miss me?

We flew to Providence, Rhode Island last Thursday for good friends, good food and three days of brawling on Cape Cod. So much to write and think about and let settle. Images.

Finally meeting Norm Abramson. I've admired his posts for two years now, his incredible knack for asking the right question and draw out a deeper meeting... meeting him and realizing that the only thing I knew about him was this gift of asking questions. Shy as he was, it wasn't enough to get a conversation started.

Talking under a burning sun with an old war horse, critiquing the frauds we had met in the martial arts and philosophizing about how to inject the truth about violence to people who only think they want it.

"I'll be back in two years," the young man said. "I'll have some stories of my own, then. I'm going to Iraq." Good luck and be safe, soldier.

Sitting and drinking scotch, talking to a man who brought a system of karate to America and one of his earliest students- nearly eighty years of experience between the two of them. Long after the rest of the attendees had gone to bed, the die-hards stayed up, talking about physiology and technique and history and management. Psychology and fatherhood and old injuries. Just talking, the most precious memory of this weekend.

The Bahamanian contingent with their quick laughs, beautiful ladies and serious karate.

Brigette who will be a fine boxer, watching her fighter's heart as she took on again and again two nationally ranked MMA fighters in their ground fighting arena.

Rolling with those two fighters, exultant and feeling my age both, sore and happy. The completely destroyed shirt....

Raffi, a great natural teacher with stick or knife or empty hands.

Taking students who don't know me and introducing them to infighting then blindfolding one of each pair. Their delight when they understood they could feel what was about to happen, what was open and what to cover.... the laugh of a yondan who suddenly sees the power of a small wave action in his knee or hand.

Breaking my own rigidity of belief in what a karate kata is and should be, learning how much variation is allowed and encouraged in this system.

Preparing to show an assassination technique, I point at an attractive young lady student, "Who would like to kiss this girl?" They freeze, these karateka... not at all sure what they just heard or what they are supposed to do.

Related- "Biting is perfectly acceptable in this drill," I told them and they all choked.

I think we should work on contact next year. Not just the hard contact like boxing but touching. It's integral to jujutsu, integral to all real fighting but the karateka balked at it twice with me, once when my wife instructed them to put their hands on their partner's hip to feel the motion.

My Wife! Kami the slave driver warming up an entire camp of karatekas with slow, tortuous belly dancing exercises. For a few minutes, most actually had it and I had the privelege of seeing a hundred rough, tough karate fighters swinging their hips in a decent cabaret shimmy.

It was a good place, a good time, made so by good people.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


I'm getting excited, which is unusual. It's a good feeling, with a bubbly stomach and a grin pulling at the corners of my mouth. K and I are packing for a trip to the East Coast, leaving tomorrow. For three days we will be brawling and contemplating, learning and teaching. Grass stains, mud, sweat and sunburn. Old friends, new friends and new stories.

Several years ago (5?), just learning about this Internet thing, I found out about forums. There are a lot of forums out there, many catering to Martial Artists. Like martial arts, many forums are populated by youngsters with active fantasy lives, inadequacies or (worse) delusions of adequacy. There's a huge population of wannabes following the latest trends, whether that is koryu, MMA or WWII combatives. The wannabes tend to be both rabidly fanatical and ignorant.

There are also older martial artists with good heart and deep experience. Men like Robert Carver and Jeff Burger and Jeff Cook at BudoSeek! Or Fabien Sienna and David and Jaime at Cyberkwoon.

Very rarely there are the few for whom violence is not a hobby, but a tool and they can afford no illusions, Like Tony U and Mauricio and Cliff. People I can talk to and learn from. People who understand when I say, "Ugly night. Won't be able to talk about it for three years."

One of the boards was designed for a specific style of Okinawan karate, Uechi-ryu. Do I study Uechi? No. Do I study karate? No. But the board struck me with its sincerity and its passion. There were people looking into the history, even trying to find and teach the Chinese roots of the style and people comparing it to and criticizing it from the perspective of modern sports training and modern research on violence. There were people doing medical research and tying it back to their tradition and others working on the new system of hand to hand combat for the USMC. They squabble like a great big family. They take care of each other like a great big family, too.

Last year, by luck, I happened to have the time of the annual Summerfest off from work and had done so much overtime that I needed a way to spend the money. I cheerfully announced that Kami and I could and would make it to Summerfest 2004. George, the patriarch of this huge brawling clan asked if I'd mind "teaching a few classes" while I was there.

I was honored of course, but also intrigued and awed- the Uechi clan only knew me from my typed messages. The leap of faith, to invite someone to teach who could have been some delusional, disease-ridden, obese, crippled, addicted... anything was, to me, amazing. (I also really had to fight the urge to hire a scabby panhandler at Logan airport to impersonate me). They sent a limo to the airport. It was a great weekend.

The doctor turned out to look much younger and less wise (looking) than I pictured him. The one who I'd imagined as an older, fiery Sicilliano was a fine, Old-World gentleman. George, the patriarch, was much as I'd pictured him- laid back, alert, busy, charming and friendly. Mostly busy.

We brawled and played and drank and talked. Vinny and Henry and Wes and Mark and Cindy... so many names, so many real moments. We watched, in the person of David Mott some of the finest kata I have seen.

We fly out tomorrow to repeat the process. I'll teach these karateka about locking and dumping and infighting. Kami will teach how the mechanics of Middle-Eastern dance relate to karate and we will learn. If all, goes well I will learn Sanchin kata enough to play with it on my own as a new meditation for the next few years.

Type more when we return.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Friends and Brothers

It was an eighty foot cliff of ugly, weathered, moss-eaten rock. I looked it up and down, scanning for routes and holds, reaches and slide areas. "I can climb it," I said.

"Maybe. Of course you'd be stupid to try." Jake thought for a minute. "That's never stopped you before."

True. I started up and he mumbled something under his breath that sounded like 'idiot'. It was the kind of climbing I loved- no ropes, no safety, no sight-seers. It was natural rock and sky; it was random with unpredictable winds and wet spaces and weak holds that could and did break on you with too much weight. I would call it a 'cat save' when my hold broke and I was able to launch or fall to another.

It took a long while to get near the top, but there was no sense of time, just the numb and limp fatigue in your fingers and forearms and the awesome feeling of being truly alive with every sense at full pitch and everything riding on your own skill and courage.

The trouble was at the very top. The last three feet of the stone ridge carved out by the sea was covered with wind blown soil and gull shit and grass. Loose dirt, no holds. My ascent had destroyed most of the foot holds on the way up, there was no way down.

Sometimes, when you are trapped like a rat, you'll get a really, really stupid idea. If you can perform the stupid idea with absolute purity of intent, you can create miracles. It occured to me that I was a martial artist. As a martial artist I could throw myself into the air and launch a pair of nukite strikes (hand spears) into the soft dirt, pulling myself up over the slope. With seventy or more feet of nothing between me and the rocky shore, with absolute intent I launched off with my legs and struck...

I already said it was a stupid idea. The power of the strike would launch me away from the cliff far more efficiently than my stubby fingers could penetrate soil.

A big hand wrapped around my wrist. Jake was lying on top of the ridge. "Hold on, " he said. He pulled and I scrambled until I was lying on the crest. "Told you it was stupid to try."

"How did you get up here?" I asked.

He pointed along the length of the ridge, "There's a path. I think it might be invisible to people with testosterone poisoning." Point taken.

"You just saved my life."

Jake shrugged. "That's what friends are for."


A year ago, a new voice came into a cyberspace I spend time in. He wanted to (If I remember accurately) "say hi to all my brothers in blue". I told him I had a green uniform and a black one, that we might be cousins, but I've bled with my brothers.
I was thinking about Jake when I typed it.

Friday, August 05, 2005

New Ways

My Friday student is special. I teach her about violence and criminals. She teaches me about teaching and about myself. I'm getting the best end of that deal. We work principles and concepts and scenarios. Very, very little technique, almost no repetetive technique. It feels odd because it is so different from the way that I was taught. I mentioned that and she dragged out the feeling into words:

Every truly great fighter that I know has followed a very similar path in their growth. To be clear, I'm not talking about tournament champions or martial artists- I'm talking about fighters. A man who stopped a jail riot by breaking the ring leaders spine. Another who was stabbed and... broke the guy's spine. A person who took down an enraged, violent drugged-up threat, a threat who got the first move at close range and put him down without injuring him, controlling with his knees alone and politely asked him to stop resisting. An old, old man who had retired from jobs in the military and the civilian police force immobilizing a threat that two hot young martial artist bouncers were struggling with and doing it without spilling his coffee (thanks, Jim).

The path was the same- they trained hard for many years on technique. Thousands of reps, thousands of applications and sparring bouts and matches. Then they were exposed to real violence- not a single incident, but extensively usually working as cops. They realized how little of their training matched reality. The ones who didn't become good, quit training. The ones who became great fighters started ruthlessly stripping down their training: comparing each thing they were taught to what they used, always aiming to simplify and make more adaptable.

When I first started teaching, I had this list of what I wanted students to know at each stage. Looking at that list, there are techniques on there that I don't even teach or think about anymore. Specific, detailed techniques that don't fit with any practical strategy.

What I am trying to do is skip the first two steps with my students.

Instead of learning a hundred or more joint locks, they learn what makes locks work (which takes less than an hour to cover completely) and play with the idea, melding it with their own natural movement. They hopefully learn the dynamics of violent encounters instead of memorizing possible attacks and scripted responses.

The students should be spared the second stage. Rob asked me what I wanted from teaching in an e-mail. Part of my reply: "It's very important to me that you both exceed my level of skill- but without the blurry vision from a scarred cornea, arthritis from broken fingers, screws in the knee, fingers that go numb if the arms are above the head at night and memory loss from concussions. You guys do not, IMO need to learn from experience if you can run on a broken fibula or reduce a shoulder dislocation in a fight and keep going. It was important to me to know, but I'm paying for the knowledge and always will be."

I don't want them to pay. I do want them to have the skill.

So it feels like wandering in the darkess. It feels right and good and efficient to teach this way. It would be easier if I could point to one person who has already done it.

That's what the Friday student dragged out.