Thursday, October 30, 2008

Doing It Wrong

I see the flash of steel and I close, automatically, x-blocking low, keeping the arteries and tendon side of my forearms on the safe side, using the contact to pivot to the safe place off his flank. The near hand stays in contact, I am actually controlling his weapon arm with a touch behind the elbow. Left hand slips up fast to take his chin and through his chin his spine while my knee flexes to pop his knee….

“No, no, no, “ The instructor says. He demonstrates once again- a telegraphed swinging thrust coming too big and from too far away, snatched out of the air with both hands. Done at full speed and power there is a good chance that both of his thumbs would be dislocated without stopping the thrust.

A bad start to a bad finish. These are level four techniques for a level six situation. Iffy wristlocks when lethal force would be not only justified but prudent. Are we stupid, slow or monolinear? No, of course not. So why pretend the bad guy is? Because he must be for the techniques to work.

I’m in a bad mood anyway. I want some pain. I want to feel some impact. I would like a couple of guys in armor so that I could unload just a little. I get like this sometimes- craving something real, even negative as long as it is both intense and real. I want to be slammed into walls and slam back, stand toe to toe with someone bigger and stronger just to prove that the normal subtle stuff I put him down with last time was choice- I’m willing to play big boy games with big boys, too.

Yeah, I get like this sometimes. It will pass and I will be my usual mature and low-key self soon. Maybe in the morning.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Since I arrived in country I've heard dozens of stories about the rainy season mud. It was prsented as the horrific, epic, man- and truck-swallowing morass of goo.

It's nothing. I mean it's mud and there's a lot of it and it's thick. If momma told you not to get your feet wet, you'll get in trouble. It might be a good idea to leave your shoes outside...but it's just mud.

Which got me thinking. People aren't used to mud. A lot of the people here, outside of camping or mountain biking (both recreational activities where you take the weather into account) probably have spent most of their lives on pavement and in places engineered to draw excess water away. It's not that this mud is special, this is just the most serious mud they have seen.

Cue the music and fade to flashback: Where I was raised it was a mile and a half to the nearest stretch of pavement. It rained there sometimes and between the dirt roads and the animal enclosures and having to tend a garden (deep rich soil makes for deep rich mud)we got a lot of mud. We drove in mud that was slicker than black ice and pulled vehicles out that were buried up past the axle.

One of my best memories is of a varsity football game in Spray, Oregon. Spray played in their rodeo arena. It was their homecoming game and there had been heavy rain the night before. The entire football field was deep, thick, nasty horse and cow shit mud. It was the funniest game I ever played- we were only able to move in slow motion and at the same time we couldn't stop. It was hilarious and we had the added bonus of ruining Spray's Homecoming by stomping them. Take that, Rocky!

Mud here is mud, no doubt about it. There's probably a ghastly amount of fecal matter in it, too. But it's just mud. For the fantasy writers out there- this was normal: slow and uncomfortable and slippery and things getting stuck.

Mud and chaos and blood and stuff- the regular stuff seems epic if you are seeing it for the first time. Sometimes we don't appreciate the distance that civilization has managed to keep 'normal' away.

200 years ago if you had a sibling, it was a less than 50% chance that you and the sibling and the mother would all be alive at adulthood. People write and whine about the trauma of losing an elderly parent when, in most of human history, few got the chance to be elderly and by the time that became a problem you would have washed and prepared other corpses, people you knew and were related to.

Same with violence (I really hate not having my library here) an anthropologist working in (melanesia, micronesia, indonesia or polynesia) was impressed with the peaceful tribe he was studying, since he hadn't seen a murder in the months he had been there... until he started asking and found that almost every woman in the tribe was a widow whose previous husbands had been murdered. Same with war- how would we deal with something like Sekigahara today with 60,000 killed in six hours hand to hand?

Sorry, off the subject of mud. But the principle is the same- normal measured by your experience can make things seem epic that are just normal. That's the way it is. Not much pavement, no storm sewers and you get mud. Mud is slippery and dirty and you can get stuck in it. The epic thing isn't the mud, it's a society that has been able to bring itself to a place that people are shocked and horrified by mud.

It's a very good thing. Just a little weird from my point of view.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Other

Read a review today of the book and it got me thinking- more about ripples, more about what each person brings to an experience. The review was positive and even said I was insightful- uncomfortably so on some of the gender differences in violence. But the reader was disturbed at the way that I presented violent predators as "other". That this attitude, taken to extremes could justify terrible abuse. That it might be something I need to do because part of my job has been to use force on another human being and, separate from policy or law, I have to justify it to myself.

Good points, and these are things that I do have to keep in mind. You have to step back, you have to be able to step back and remember and see what things looked like before you'd seen them a hundred times.

But there is an assumption here, (or maybe I am reading it wrong, but I've heard it enough that it is worth discussing here). At some point a lot of people decided that all people are pretty much the same. Whether it is Sting singing, "The Russians Love Their Children Too" or a thousand different variations on the idea.

It's one of those things that is both very true (we couldn't communicate without a huge amount of commonality) and very untrue (which may be the source of a lot of miscommunication, FWIW).

There are- or so I have heard I haven't actually met one since the seventies- people who will say that men and women are just the same and any differences are purely cultural. That's horseshit, obviously. I apply this to violence and it is uncomfortably, but usefully insightful. The reader is cool with it because of familiarity with men and women. Intimate familiarity allows you to understand and appreciate the similarities and the differences.

If you count waking hours over the last 17 years, I have spent more time with criminals than with any other group. That is not an exaggeration in the slightest. I know them and they know me, well enough that force has become very rare. I know the common ground and whenever verbal communication has a chance, I work from the common ground. It is very effective.

But a predator is different. I go back in my head to one of my first criminals. He raped and sodomized an eighty-year-old woman. Who among your friends, the people that you know really well, could do that? Most wouldn't be capable of it even (or especially) with a gun to their heads. That is a difference, a profound difference. Almost all normal people experience a feeling called 'shame' and it is a different feeling than regret for the negative consequences of an action. Even most low-level, non-violent career criminals do not feel or even truly understand the concept. That is a difference.

Linguists and anthropologists have theorized for years that language limits cognition and conception. That is something that is very apparent when you find yourself working with a different culture.

Riddle me this: What's the difference between management and leadership? Only managers think they are the same thing. I can't write about stuff I learn here, but a very huge implication hangs from that question.

"Your" doesn't mean the same thing all the time to normal people. Your shoes you can use or throw away or trade for drugs. Most people recognize that these rights, derived from 'your' do not extend to 'your' daughter... but I've had a criminal completely unable to grasp why there was a difference between using his shoes and using his daughter. They were both 'his'. That is what 'his' means, right?

Some of these differences are so fundamental (the shame one, for me. It was right in front of my face for ten years before I read Fleisher's "Beggars and Thieves" and suddenly understood that all the bullshit talk about 'respect' had everything to do with face and status and nothing to do with conscience) that they are almost impossible to see, the way that some people miss a near-by elephant because the mind sometimes won't wrap around an animal that big.

No two people are completely other. No two are completely the same, either. To deny either of these facts is to leave yourself vulnerable. Probably more important, to deny either of them is to blind yourself to part of the world. Not all differences are to be cherished, nor are they to be feared- but if some one cannot see something that is obvious to you, such as the difference between management and leadership, there will be a disconnect. To ignore that disconnect in the name of brotherhood will prevent you, forever, from bridging that gap. This is common ground that has to be built, not found.

Simultaneously, if someone has a capacity that you lack, especially a capacity that you lack specifically for the good of society (because if you have the power and the inclination, there is no difference between your daughter and your shoes until somebody steps in and stops you- this is a brutal jungle thing and the distinction is implanted for the good of society. It is artificial, but right) to ignore that difference not only maintains your personal vulnerability but empowers the predator and makes it safer and easier for them to move among prey.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Having the book out is like watching ripples in a pond. I’ve now heard things discussed- the flaw in the drill, fighting to the goal, the complexity matrix, the monkey dance- as if they were just stuff. Stuff any martial artist should be aware of, just basic things.

I don’t know how many people have read the book or how the concepts spread- over the internet, in discussions, in classes, at seminars- but with the power of the web I can actually see them spreading. I don’t know if you can have any idea how cool that is until you do it. Makes me feel useful.

Side thought- reading the reviews it’s amazing how much stuff people choose to see in there, too. How what everyone reads isn’t a book, but this weird mix of any given book and their pre-existing worldview. I would have expected that if it had ever occurred to me to ponder on it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Punishing Success

Heard a story last night. In various forms I have heard this story many, many times. It is a piece of something that Asher and I are discussing so I want to think about it here.

Currently, the man is an instructor in his martial art of choice. The story happened several years ago when he was a talented novice (he would never use the word talented- he is far too modest, but I have seen his appetite for work and if he trains this hard at this age he would have been called 'talented' when he was young).

He was the only student that day and the instructor invited him to spar. He still speaks with awe of his first instructor’s speed and skill (I would bet that he has far exceeded his instructor, but we never see our own growth clearly). The instructor toyed with him, a fast flurry (ah, I thought, you tried that trick with me- spiking the OODA loop). Again and again.
The kid was good, though. He thought about what was happening, made a plan, and executed the plan. He tagged his instructor solidly.

His instructor did nothing right away.
The next time there was a class with more students he called the young man up ‘to demonstrate’ and proceeded to beat the hell out of him. All, of course, to teach. No evil ego-bound payback here.

The message was received. Not just by this student but by all of the students. The student, now an instructor in his own right, sincerely loves the art. Decades later he still justifies and defends what his instructor did.
You can’t justify it.

The purpose of any combatives is to teach you to effectively apply force to another human being. It covers a lot of levels and one of those levels is to figure out what is going on, make a plan and execute the plan.

He did that. He did it so well that he almost knocked his instructor down. Not only did he do what he was trained to do but he specifically did what that instructor had taught him. What would have been cause for celebration with my students (and the first time you nail your instructor is a very good thing!) was a cause for punishment bordering on –no, bullshit- clearly abuse.

Do you really believe that the lesson learned that day didn’t stick in the back of this man’s mind? Wally Jay says, “Pain makes believers.” It also conditions people more deeply than almost anything else. It only takes once to learn that the stove is hot and it will take an act of will to touch the red hot burners again. It only takes once to teach a student that success is punished, that winning is pain and humiliation. Winning.

There’s a lot of tactically and technically screwed up things in that particular style, but those can all be overcome or adapted. But this- beating your students so that they are afraid to win unless it is on your terms, and your direction, your way…

I don’t even have words for the disgust that I feel.

How many martial artists have been through this? I have, fortunately always from an instructor I already had some contempt for and I could see where he was hiding behind the rules… what lessons would I have taken away if I had been a na├»ve kid who thought this was IT? How many students are being taught to win, but conditioned to loose? Do the teachers even realize it?

Sunday, October 19, 2008


I’ve written some dark stuff, some important stuff lately and it will be posted here as I get time and access.

Today is so not the day for that. It is a truly glorious day. Maybe not just a day, everything has probably been going on for some time, but the accumulation hit today like a happy avalanche.

My son, who I love dearly and probably don’t tell enough, has taken the initiative to contact a Marine recruiter. It’s not a done deal, of course, and the (many) choices will be his. I am so proud. Maybe he is trying to outdo his old man- taking a tougher course younger (Marine at 17 or 18 versus Army at 22). So what? Orion, if you read this: From the moment that I held you in my arms and took you out in the rain while you were still wet from birth I knew that you would be better than me in every way. One of the great joys in my life has been watching you choose the kind of man you will become. Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes and swells my heart just to see the power, grace, intelligence, will, and possibility in you.
Never doubt my love or my faith in you.

My beautiful wife, the one with the power to make or unmake my world has sold her first story. Magically, she is now an author, no longer ‘just’ a writer. I have watched the struggle, the work, the discipline that she has spent over the years. She has always been one of the miracles of the world, a soul that you could feel like the essence of peace, even while she struggled or hurt. Now thousands and maybe some day millions will catch tiny glimpses of the heart that she has shared with me. They will see it in words that she has spent years learning to polish. I envy everyone who will come to know her for the first time.

I learned today that Mike has finally been promoted to sergeant. If there is one act that stirs some hope for the future of my old agency it is this promotion. Mike is one of the finest men I know: tops in integrity, intelligence, courage and even a sneaky compassion. Tactically and technically proficient. Hands down, even as a deputy, he was the best leader in the agency. His unbelievable competency actually seemed to engender fear in some and I have no doubt that it delayed his promotion. That is over now. It’s still a jungle, but the agency now has a true leader, a meat eater to deal with the dark stuff with skill and even nobility.
So Mike, if you are reading this and you are willing to do me a great honor, head down to HQ and ask Ron if you can have my old badge. The sergeant’s badges aren’t numbered, but you’ll recognize mine from the scratches down the face. That would be cool, and even feel a bit like I am still there. Welcome to the club, Sgt. Phelps. NPNBW!

Last, very small, the book hit #1 on Amazon for MMA books (that’s odd) and #4 in martial arts. It doesn’t seem to mean anything, Amazon rankings change so fast I can’t figure out what they are based on... but #1 still sounds cool, meaningless or not.

Great, great day.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Facing Facts

I think I need to face the fact that I am no longer a martial artist..
Dead time here gets pretty dead. Not much room to wander, working out more then twice a day feels excessive. I like to read and lay in the sun, but there is a limit. If the internet was up, I’d be calling friends at weird hours or researching.
So in a fit of boredom I stepped into the only martial arts class going on base. The instructor is skilled at what he does. It’s a decent class and a good workout. But it’s not me, not anymore.

I used to love this stuff- the precision, the repetition (sort of) the feeling that I was learning to do stuff exactly right. Now it just all felt slightly off. Artificial.

From the very start- warm ups. I quit doing warm ups over a decade ago because, tactical operations aside, I have never had a chance to warm up before a fight and I want to train with the body I will have. It’s also an incentive to stay slightly warm and stretched constantly- doing isometrics whenever you are sitting, stretching the spine and hips in such a way that no one notices.

Then basics- there has been some degradation there. It’s been a long time since I practiced punches or kicks or “blocks” on air, in a static line, or in bare feet for that matter. After years on ballistic and structured striking and infighting, I’m slower and less precise in my basic tsukis and ukes than when I was fanatically training under watchful eyes.

I didn’t really feel like an alien until the instructor started explaining things, talking about "bad guys" and "real fights". On every single particular, he was wrong. Let me amend that, to be fair. Every single description he gave of ‘what will happen in a real fight’ or ‘what a real opponent will do’ did not come close to matching my experience.

It was hard to keep my mouth shut, and that, in and of itself is reason to go back- the double discipline of keeping my mouth shut and emptying my cup to learn something else.

It’s a balance, though, because time spent here will actually degrade my ability to defend myself unless I put it in a different part of my brain. I used to love this kind of stuff, but it is so clearly not what I am any more. For 27 years I've been a dedicated practicing martial artist. Over the last years it has changed. I'm still practicing, still learning, but what I do doesn't look or feel anymore like 'martial arts'.

So if what I do isn't martial arts, what is it and, by extension, what am I?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I think. For the little poem(?) Peter.

There is a possibility that I might have semi-reliable internet access in the near future. Without the 1/2 hour time limit and the inability to cut and paste from a memory stick.

No guarantees, but I may be able to post some of the stuff I have been writing soon.