Friday, October 26, 2007


De-escalation is the step when force is imminent (how's that for 'soft' language- more real: if you don't do something now the fight will be on in a few seconds). It is "talking 'em down". It ranges from sympathy to weird non-sequitors to treating a threat like a thoughtful question to pure intimidation. It is a skill, and a more varied and more versatile skill than anything physical. But it is a skill, not an answer.

Some memorable successes:

"Turn your head to the side."
"Why, mother fucker?" He glared hard.
"Cause you look like you're thinking about fighting and you seem like a nice guy, so if you do start to fight and I smash you into the wall right there, if you turn your face to the side you won't break any teeth."
His glare changed to something more puzzled.
"It's just a courtesy. You seem like a nice guy and you don't need any dental bills. Just turn your head to the side."
"I won't be any trouble."
"I appreciate that."

"Mr. N----, please hand me the weapon."
"No you piece of shit. come here and take it."
Hurt tone, "But... Mr. N---, I said 'please.'"
"Oh, all right."
"Thank you."

"What's your goal today, partner?" This is one of my universals. Most of the people who want to fight are unhappy, without really thinking about why, and want to do something, without really thinking about what. Once they put into words what they want , e.g."I wanna go home" they often clearly see how fighting is not a step in that direction.

The dude has already kicked the door off a squad car.
"What's his name?" I ask the arresting officer.
I shake my head, "What's his last name?"
"Uh, Jones." (Names changed)
"Mr. Jones, you ARE going to go through this process but you are in absolute control of two things: How long it will take and how much it will hurt. I'm for very fast with no pain. How about you?" This worked, but there are problems with it. People in altered states of consciousness (not just drugs or alcohol or mental illness, anger and fear and dehydration and injury can all have similar effects) usuall can't follow long sentences. Keep things simple.

"You're fine. I'm part gypsy and gypies can't be turned into vampires." Needless to say, that got a big "Huh?" which lasted long enough to get cuffs on. Also, needless to say, this is part of a much longer story. Use your imagination. This is also where I learned that things that freeze the threat's brains can also freeze your partner's. When I got the cuffs on, my partner was still looking at me with his mouth open.

Not just for de-escalation of a fight. There is a critical moment right after a very bad thing and sometimes you will have to deal with someone on the edge of shock. Not physical shock, just the information and the implications of that information (the violent death of a loved one, for instance) can smash the identity. Will smash the identity, more realistically. The words then need to be for growth and positive action.

"I know this hurts, but your children need you know more than ever. They need you to be the strong one." The implication that no matter how shattered you feel you are still stronger than someone is empowering. Taking the steps to help another helps process the woumd without wallowing in it.

When it is being transformed into a righteous anger, an honest, cold focus: "Bullshit. You need to take care of her. She needs you to be there. You run off and do something stupid, look for some vengeance and you know what will happen. THEN she'll be alone and then will be forced to deal with what happened to her AND what you did to yourelf. Don't you dare do something stupid and try to make this about you."

This is a good skill, one of the critical skills in critical situations.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Robert Anton Wilson (I think) once wrote that everything man deems to be good- loyalty, integrity, self-sacrifice, acting for the good of the community- the things we loosely gather under the label 'humanity' were things that we learned from dogs. That dogs, in the end, were domesticated wolves- intelligent, cooperative, loyal pack hunters. Humans were domesticated primates- intelligent, sneaky, self-involved, violent...

Mark Twain said that if you lift up a dog from the streets and make him prosperous he will not bite you, and that is the primary difference between a dog and a man.

Loyalty. Love, in many of it's forms. Intensity. The understanding that the pack/team/unit/agency/family/organization is more important than ME are the traits that make dogs what they are. A good dog will give his life without hesitation for any member of your family. He will not care and maybe not even realize that he is a different species. It doesn't matter. He exists to protect.

He will lie awake all night listening for intruders. He will live in the cold eating dry food. He will be ecstatic at some kind word or a good run or a little pet, but he doesn't need it.

And a healthy dog will never challenge you until there is no other choice. He understands that the pack works better with an older and wiser alpha. Unlike humans, dogs rarely overestimate themselves or their abilities to lead. They don't show ambition in the human sense.

But they are wolves also, and when pushed to the edge, abused or damaged through training- taught or forced- they can be very, very dangerous. The teeth are sharp and the teeth are in your service, unless you force it to be another way.

Some humans always see the wolf, and they fear dogs. Some always see the loyalty. Some see the loyalty and feel the power, that they can push and tease a wolf and he will take it, like a good pack animal will. This kind always acts surprised when they torment the dog until he bites... then they squeel to have the dog put down.

It makes me very tired.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Good students are rare. They may not even exist by themselves. The good student is really a matter of "fit" between student and instructor. Dave, my sensei in jujutsu, was an extraordinary martial artist and an outstanding teacher... for me. Years after he retired I ran across another of Dave's old students who felt Dave was a terrible teacher: "I never understood a word he said."

Some of that was what made him such a great teacher for me. He never told me everything, just enough. He always left things for me to discover. He always set the bar right at the edge of my ability. Despite the fact that the other student felt Dave wasn't a great teacher, the student developed a lot of skill, which says something. Which may be a subtler distinction, that teaching students and teaching subjects are different and it is possible to be good at only one of those... except with some students.

Some instructors are extraordinary and can form a connection with almost any student. A small number of students are extraordinarily adaptable and can learn from many different styles of teacher. In that sense, being a good student might be a skill.

Poor students have a struggle. There are some students who have trouble in any study. Maybe uncoordinated in a physical skill or their brain doesn't process information the way the teacher transmits it. They may have difficulty learning by seeing, or hearing or touch. Maybe poor memory or poor cognition... they have a rough road. But occassionally you get a poor student who sticks with it and that long, slow road can produce a deep and durable practitioner. Moreover, the best teachers were often poor students: the extra practice, the extra explanations and ways to envision add up, and often leave someone who knows more ways to explain than anyone who struggled less. I, for one, most value the skills I learned in the subjects that didn't come easily.

The gifted student has a talent- speed or coordination or the right attitude for the study. They rarely last long. It's a cliche but what comes too easily is valued too lightly. If a student is too successful early, they often quit or decide that they know more than they do. It's a natural thing, people want to be 'good enough'. Training after all is tedious and hard work. It takes great inner discipline to try to improve and refine when you are already winning. Some confuse victory with skill. They may be successful for awhile and may even convince others- but all these talents fade, some with age, some with injury. When the talent fades the skill is shallow.

'Promising' is almost always a euphemism for lazy. The promising student has the coordination or the intelligence or the (insert attribute here) to be GOOD... if they would only get off their asses and practice. You shouldn't get these if you only teach people who want to be there.

If you teach martial arts, you will run into damaged students. Some are victims of violent crime or early abuse, and for them what goes on in class has extra inner dimensions. It is challenging and requires, from the teacher, discipline, compassion and insight. It is really not a job for amateurs. Other damaged students have been damaged by previous training. Sometimes it is physical- old injuries. Sometimes tactical, as in the student has been taught that a style based on dueling is exactly the same as self-defense. Sometimes it is more sinister. I've had instructors in other styles give a conspiratorial smile and say, "The secret is to hurt them the first day, dominate them early so that they never get up the balls to challenge you." Teaching the students to lose in a bullshit dominance game. More subtly, the student who can't stand to lose or can't stand to lose to a woman is a particularly dangerous form of damaged.

Bad students are thankfully rare. In the business world they are called "poisonous personalities". These are the ones that aren't satisfied to be unhappy themselves but must spread it. The ones who hurt other students or complain rather than train or try to set a personal agenda. Again, very rare unless they are attending unwillingly.

There are another category, too- the special students. Sometimes they fall into one of the other categories. One of my friends has alway had a "project student" a completely hopeless case that he would spend years and unlimited energy trying to bring up to an acceptable skill level. I assumed he was doing it for penance, but in retrospect he was probably simply paying back the instructors who never gave up on him when he felt hopeless. My special student was the Friday Student- who taught me about teaching.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Long talk today with Mac, sipping coffee in the autumn sun and talking and thinking. It's always a priveledge- his insight and experience are vast, but that's only a part of it. He looks at problems in different ways, ties them in with different phenomenon than other people might. Talking about an old subject with Mac is new. Talking about a new subject is extraordinary.

He wanted to explore the idea of creating a martial art specifically for and by law enforcement officers. It won't work. Every black belt with a badge has done it or tried to do it to some extent. Too much territory is staked, and it's not really that new anyway, and the very idea triggers scepticism... That said, there are some unique aspects to what we have been teaching our officers over the last years. Not new things, necessarily, but new ways to teach them and new ways to think about fighting, survival, and defensive tactics.

So we thought and talked today about what was critical, what was core, what is unique about our approach and how it could be presented.

The pages of notes I brought were soon over-written. Concepts. Advantages. Lesson plan design. Thoughts on teaching. Thoughts on ranking. Mac focused on core principles, one step deeper than I usually think, trying to get the concept of structure put into words. Structure, if you don't do it, is a way of moving (easiest seen in striking), where the bone and tendon, not the muscle, does the work. Start from structure. Utilizing yours. Disrupting the threat's. The handful of principles that apply universally, and only then moving on to technique... not individual technique, but intuitive classes of technique. You can learn over three hundred named wrist locks, but in the end, there are only three ways to do it, which can be combined into 3x3x3 and compounded... everything else is window dressing. (Or eight ways, if you want the simple version). People literally spend years on locks, but every real thing there is to know can be taught in an hour or less. Same with takedowns. Entries. Striking takes a little longer because there are so many ways to generate power and some compound and some contradict.

It might work. Not as a system or a style. That would be impossible to make unique and would run into ego problems. But we have proven a new way of looking at, thinking and teaching: one that works very well in the chaos of combat (and not just for us, relative rookies have used it with success). It might work.

Agencies are beauracracies- they can't help it. They are like organisms. I wonder sometimes if our agency realizes just how far out we are on the cutting edge of effective teaching, or what they did when they let a small group with probably a hundred years of martial arts training, a thousand+ actual encounters between them and some very unorthodox, practical ways of gaugung success and set them free to design.

What we've done is awesome (modesty check, but I've seen the standard and we are so far beyond that ball park that you can't see it). What we will do has the potential to change verything.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Brotherhood

We trained today, the team. We have new members and they were getting a first introduction to some of our basic skills. Just a taste. There are a lot of obligations coming up and time is limited. They needed the basic skills for the most likely scenarios and they needed to feel the intensity, the speed and the chaos.

Everyone teaches on the team, everyone learns. I sat back at one point and just listened and I had to marvel at the skill and the insight and the experience of this small group of men and women.

"Raise it to here and all the force focuses on the shoulder."
"Spread them out and they lose their leverage."
"You don't need to worry about the hands if you take their legs."

Out of context the simple phrases won't mean much, but in action these are secrets and observations that martial arts masters dream of.

To be part of a team that no longer gets tunnel vision in an ugly fight; a group of people where it is just obvious that you will learn to control your sense of time and slow things so that the action seems to be in slow motion; that can see nuances of opportunity and shift gears as a team in action without a word spoken...made extra special by the fact that new members are coming into this arena and it might (probably will) change their lives and their ideas of possibility and impossibility forever.

There are other types of elites that share a different world. A LRRP veteran will get information from a smell that I will miss. A veteran paramedic will identify a problem that will be invisible to me. Each of these elites and each type of elite share a bond, a brotherhood.

Don't misunderstand- 'brotherhood' is used in broad ways by criminals. I mean it literally here, not as some kind of thuggish cult. Just as people raised together understand the subtext of family dinner conversation and share much of a world view, people who depend on each other in teams and share intense experience become a sort of family, sometimes stronger than the birth family.

We have a good family. A strong sense of mission, a strong sense of ethics, a strong sense of compassion, all aimed at solving sometimes unbelievably violent problems. The new ones will be good. Welcome to the team.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Refinement and Nuance

Competence is quick, nuance is slow. Going from zero to sixty, metaphorically taking a completely new student from no skill to useable skill is relatively easy and relatively quick. Everyone makes huge gains when they start a new study- the learning curve is steep, and that can be addictive.

It takes a different kind of teacher and a different mindset on the part of the student to take that competency to a higher level. Perhaps yet a different one to increase the skill still more.

Some go into 'refinement' and that can be rewarding or a trap. You can look at anything through steadily increasing powers of magnification and find endless variation and information. The rock at normal sight is a rock with a given shape and substance. At ten times magnification there are previously unseen cracks, stresses and topography. At a hundred there are many different crystals in complex matrices.. and on and on until you are dealing with particals at the edge of comprehension, or dealing with things that can only be experienced indirectly (aside- this also happens in long-term relationships with spouses or coworkers: things too small to notice in the early months and years become glaring in the selective memory as the easy parts become unnoticed, taken for granted).

Refinement is rewarding in that it is a life-long endeavor of improvement and discipline; a trap in that these details can become more important than the basics and the original reason for studying at all can be forgotten.

I separate nuance from refinement. Refinement can be achieved merely by looking harder. Nuance requires looking in a new way. An example is 'fighting emptiness'. At close quarters it is usually instinctive to attempt tp match strength with strength and a lot of skill training goes into maximizing the use of leverage or exploiting subtle vagaries of momentum and balance. Fighting emptiness is learning to see where the opponent _isn't_, where he has NO strength and begin working in and from this space. It usually requires no new skill, but opens up a vast world of application. Nuances can jack up the learning curve (especially as measured by successful application) back to a beginner's learning speed.

In fighting and martial arts, your competence can be my nuance and vice-versa. If you have studied a system based on delivering crushing power, manipulating the threat's balance and momentum may be an advanced study for you, possibly almost mystical. It is right there and always has been but is invisible until you are taught to see it. Conversely, if my style centers on balance and momentum, the application of crushing power may be a mystery. Both competencies work, both nuances increase the effectiveness.

You will find advanced nuance in many things, some are the same with different names. The concept of fighting emptiness is familiar to me from judo, jujutsu, aikido (thanks SOL), Chen Taiji (thanks, Ted), Japanese swordsmanship and even once in a karate class long ago. Searching for nuance is one of the big advantages of cross-training. There are only so many ways to move a human body- but there are an infinite number of ways of understanding, explaining or teaching the ways. And there are a near-infinite number of ways of prioritizing them, often based on what the skills were dealing with: your village worries about being unarmed against a sword? Better not be there. Your tribe carries out duels with knives on sloping muddy hills? Better learn to slice while crawling. Your culture has hundreds of years of unarmed one on one duels? Gonna have lots of nuance and refinement in those systems... but the nuance will be different than the clans who have spent hundreds of years in a perpetual civil war.

The hard part, when you quest for nuance, is integration. Refinement can be hard too. When you are playing with atoms and crystals it is easy to forget that the problem is human sized. Nuance, though, must be integrated.

It can be hard. The most common example is teaching grappling to strikers. They immediately stop striking the second they hit the ground. They create an artificial separation of these skills: in this situation, these skills; in that situation, those skills. It happens with cops, too. They take a "tactical groundfighting course" and completely forget weapon retention, available force options, radios, the environment and sometimes the mission, going for the submission instead of either the escape or the cuff.

The skills must be played with, the insights allowed to play off of each other with gentle reminders from the teacher when an area of nuance is missed. In most arts, going from zero to sixty, the instructor is teaching you to move. At sixty to eighty, the instructor needs to teach you to see.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

A Tradition Dies

We were too late for the early morning ferry, so we left Victoria very late, driving down through Washington State in the dark. It was late and everyone was hungry but we held off for an extra half hour to hit one of our traditional places.

The last couple of years have been very quiet in some ways. Obligations and on-call stuff at work have hugely eaten in to leisure time. Injuries make rough country hiking and caving and climbing and anything cold far less pleasant than it used to be. Shift work makes it hard to connect with old partners for long adventures. Most have matured into respectable jobs with very regular hours...but they don't have nearly as much fun! The people I do spend time with, family, for some strange reason like comfort and 'touristy' stuff- museums and shopping and cuisine.

Anyway, a couple of years ago, this one restaurant was our after-adventure stop for anything we did in northern or north central Washington. The death march to Cave Ridge? Oh yeah. Olympic Peninsula? Mt. Ranier?

It was a 24 hour prime rib joint. It looked like a dive- dimly lit with a questionable salad bar, cranky waitresses and a menu heavy on meat. Paradise. We had a lot of good meals there (ever had a cajun-blackened slab of prime rib? Too hot to eat, too good to stop.) A lot of good times. DGM threw caution to the winds and tasted alcohol. LG was slightly less vegetarian there.

I don't remember all the times we would walk in grubby from crawling in caves sometimes with tattered knee pads around our ankles, shredded jackets and occassionally bleeding; or still soaking wet and cold from rafting or diving at Hood canal. the waitresses wouldn't even blink. Sit us down, menus, coffee without asking. Honestly telling us what was good...

So with hungry kids and all, we put off eating a little longer.

There's a new owner. It used to look like the place a truck driver would go to get his heart broken. It's now a family restaurant, too bright, too much light. Smaller booths with lower backs. The salad bar still looks questionable, but it's no longer charming. The wait staff is all young. They don't argue and barely talk. Cajun-blackened steak and their in-house steak rub are no longer on the menu. The owner is there, too talkative to the (very few) patrons and mean, almost viciously insulting to his staff. And the foods not even good. I actually bent a fork holding down a rib eye steak.

It was a little sad. I could imagine ghosts of old conversations and laughter drifting by on their way into the past. Never again to be.


On the ferry from Victoria, by chance, we were treated to a dance troup from New Zealand- a demonstration of Maori dances and singing. It was a privelege and an education.

So much there and so few of the tourists (I feel) saw it.

Long ago, the Maori were one of the most sophisticated martial cultures in the world. Not technologically- their tools were of stone, wood and bone. Perhaps not even pragmatic- though they had missile weapons they eschewed them for combat with humans. But their children were taught to fight and to kill from an early age. They were a society without writing that had formal schools- not just for the military arts but for many things. One of the early European explorers stated categorically that no fencing master in all of Europe would stand a chance against a Maori graduate of their stick-fighting colleges. High praise from an enemy who considers you a savage.

So I watched the dance- beautiful fluidity of hula suddenly broken with staccato violent action and stamping and war faces. Defensive positions of arms and legs that would be familiar to any fighter. Breathing patterns that only a handful would recognize combined with strikes to their own bodies... for rhythm, of course. Far removed from the kote-kitae toughening exercises and the Sanchin testing they so strongly resembled (Sarcasm).

One dance, a challenge dance, was one of the few where dancers touched each other. Plain as day in this dance was a strangle and spine twist... with the short stabbing motions of a dagger from the off hand. It was from behind, swift and controlled. A pure killing technique preserved and taught in dance. So many little things- marching in step, with and without noise; war faces; exploding from peace to battle action; no separation- the fertility dances also had combat...

Unsure how the others in the audience saw it. Unsure if even the dancers really saw it (but I watched one move, later, separate from the dance and it's hard to believe that he didn't know he was a fighter). The elder who was escorting them was more concerned with their survival and future, I think, than their culture's past. He'd watched too many destroy lives in crime or drugs or stupidity (a too common thing in the aftermath of a colonial world) and was more preaching connection. In our culture it sounded like family value platitudes to many of the audience... but it was what a wise man saw as the best hope. Time spent with family. Connecting to something greater than one's self. Service. Discipline.

Did the audience feel, on some level, that they were watching a tradition of a truly fierce people? Of all the native cultures I have read of the Maori alone were not afraid of or even impressed by the muskets of the explorers. Had a Cortez or a Pizarro attempted a military victory over the Maori, their expeditions would have simply disappeared, footnotes in history. It was slower with the Maori. They were allowed to trade for tools and weapons. They liked the steel tools and the muskets. Like many colonized people they used them on each other to settle old feuds rather than standing together against the new threat.

And so their children's children's children dance for the amusement and donations of a crowd. It was a precious gift for those who looked.