Monday, December 29, 2008

Waste Not, Want Not

Going over the fiction I wrote for nano and I have to cut two pieces. They just don't really fit.
So, hey, I'll post them here. Just some introspection from the main character:

Bad guys.  The best definition that I ever heard was, “My team are the good guys.  The other team is the bad guys.”  It’s simple and sometimes you need a simple way to look at the world.  I usually prefer the law enforcement term “threat.”  It’s dehumanizing without a value judgment.  It’s immature to require your enemy to be less than you.  I can kill someone who I profoundly respect.  The reason that they need to be killed has nothing to do with who they are, it has everything to do with what they are doing.

So I like the term threat.  I am stopping what they are doing, the ability to do harm that they represent.  Stopping the person is incidental.



Get this. People do not commit suicide because of the shitty stuff that happened in their lives. They commit suicide from thinking about it too much.  Being alone? Generally bad, unless you stay really busy.  Alcohol and opiates? Bad time for depressants.  Uppers, a little coke or meth? You start to think that you need them to have a normal amount of energy and in a little bit that becomes both true and not, because you wouldn’t know a normal level of energy if it bit you.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Danger and Fear

Martial arts, combatives training, is part of my risk management strategy. I have spent the better part of the last two decades in close proximity with people who regularly use violence and intimidation as tools to get what they want. Most of this time has been spent unarmed and out-numbered.  I need to manage a certain level of physical danger.

Every skill I acquire, every new technique or idea hits a very clear filter: will it make me safer? Will it increase my chances of getting out of a bad situation intact? I honor tradition, but I don't really care about it- a single family in Japan has kept a tradition alive for over 350 years that has been the core skill of my close-quarters survival. They have my deepest respect and gratitude, but it was the effectiveness, not the age or lineage that earned my respect. Get it? Same with wisdom and athletics and anything else.  They are cool, but not what I need from my training.

The thing is, in my risk management strategy I am managing danger. I get paid to do stuff where stupid people, people who don't pay attention and people who are simply unlucky get hurt.  This shit can be dangerous. I work my ass off to minimize that, predicting and preventing every contingency I can... but any martial skill I develop is for the sole purpose of not being the one zipped into the body bag or waking up in the emergency room.

Most martial artists are not managing danger- they are managing fear and that is an entirely different thing.

Steve Barnes, in his wonderful introduction to "Meditations on Violence" writes:
"... legions of young men swamped martial arts schools all over the world, seeking to be strong, to be brave,  to be capable-- to, in other words, deal with their fear that they would not be able."

I think I could write pages about fear. I don't respond to it the way most people do, though I used to. Most people acknowledge fear as a bad thing and will do a lot to alleviate the discomfort.  I don't usually bother.

Fear isn't real for me. That doesn't mean I don't feel it or that I like it. It simply means that I've had joints popped and small bones broken and an eye gouged and concussions and compared to those, fear isn't real. I have a definite need to avoid the damage, avoid the danger. Fear is just white noise in the background and sometimes a tool.

For most people, fear is a stimulus, a negative stimulus, and they will do what they can to alleviate that negative stimulus. Any animal would do the same. But since fear is mental, it can be alleviated mentally.

You need to be able to do things to mitigate danger.
You only need to think you can do things to alleviate fear.

Compare a blackbelt that took two years to earn in a non-contact system and a blackbelt that took eight years where you had to fight five blackbelts full contact in succession and beat half of them... they alleviate fear just the same. They don't mitigate danger the same.
Note this- danger can only mitigated. There will always be danger and no matter how hard your training is, how realistic, if you are confidant you can handle whatever you will face, it has become a talisman, just as delusional as an easy blackbelt.

Confidence is the result of fear alleviation. It can never be known as over-confidence unless it is tested and failed. If one stays away from danger, the talisman, the confidence, the alleviation of fear are all good things.  If a strategy for dealing with fear alone runs into danger... it's probably just as well that the hindbrain steps in and shuts things down.

A danger management strategy shouldn't lead to confidence.  The more you know about danger, the fewer answers there are. Words like 'always' and 'never' have a way of disappearing from your vocabulary. Confidence is a short step, at most, from complacency, and complacency is the number one killer in danger zones.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Elements of Risk Management

First, "Five Dragons" got it. D was the 500th post on the blog, DI the 501st. I was starting to worry that no one would get it until DIV, which would have shattered my illusions about your general brilliance.

This is a lead-up to something I want to write later, so there may be a few things that seem unconnected. Bear with me, my subject (violence) is pretty complicated.

When we first created the Tactical Team, Ron (who had the vision) was very explicit about the team's purpose. It wasn't just to win fights or wear cool uniforms or feel special or even to maintain or regain control. The team was intended from the beginning as a tool of risk management. Risk management, simply, is handling bad events. Bad stuff happens. They are called bad stuff because the consequences are painful or expensive. Sorry if that seems too simplistic, but this is one of the areas, like much of violence, where people complicate the simple stuff and simplify the complicated stuff.

It's not called risk prevention. It's not called risk mitigation and it's not called risk stomping. You manage risk. The first step to managing risk is predicting all you can. If something is predictable, it is preventable, as Gordon Graham likes to say. This means understanding as much as you can about how things go bad. Learning your vulnerabilities. Knowing your environment. Studying how things have gone bad in the past. If you don't know what to look for (or refuse to look) you can't see bad stuff coming. If you can't see it coming, you can't prevent it.

And here's the first semi-unrelated but crucially germane tie-in: I constantly hear martial artists talk about "the tool box" and acquiring 'tools' or skills. I almost never hear them talk in  any informed way about how violence happens. They try to acquire a complete set of mechanic's tools without the diagnostic skills to tell a blown transmission from a flat tire. All the tools in the world are useless if you can't tell when you need them or which ones to use.

An example. Gordon breaks things down into "High Risk/Low Frequency" "Low Risk/Low Frequency" "High Risk/High Frequency" and "Low Risk/High Frequency".  If something is not risky (and that can be a relative term) if it's not dangerous, there isn't usually a need to spend a lot of your training time on it (we're talking survival skills training here).

So the LR/LF and the LR/HF aren't serious risk management problems. It's also true for HR/HF stuff. If there is something particularly dangerous that you do every day, you probably don't need to train on it much. The fact that you have been doing it daily for a while is a good indicator that you know how to handle it.

That means leaves the rare nasty stuff. That is where you really need good, solid training. Training is necessary when experience is rare and stakes are high.  This is, or should be, intuitively obvious. Yet if you break down most martial arts training, the time is spent on relatively LR/HF stuff: Monkey Dances and dueling. Stuff you can walk away from if you keep your ego in check. Those are extremely low risk on the continuum of violence.

(Unfortunately when many instructors drift into HR stuff- weapon defense, multiple opponents and ambush survival- the lack of experience really, really shows. Often it is fantasy and sometimes suicidal.)

So- Prediction. Prevention. Train for the dangerous.

Then mitigation. Sometimes you get blindsided or overwhelmed. No matter how bad you are at risk management, there is one common denominator: if you get nailed it will be by something you didn't see coming, unless you are stupid, ego driven and on some level a willing participant. If you are not skilled at risk prediction and prevention, the trouble you get may be relatively obvious and easy. If you are skilled...

Laurence Gonzales in "Deep Survival" makes the observation that given enough time, bad stuff will happen and systems will fail. The more that is predicted and prevented, the rarer it will be, but it will still happen. One of the side effects of skill in this arena is that when it goes bad, it will be pretty damn weird.  It makes for great stories if you live.

Mitigation boils down to prioritize your losses and what you will protect. Think the 3 P's in order: People, Process, Property.  In a major disaster it means that you get everyone out safely before you even think of saving knowledge (e.g. computers, secret documents) and only after those are protected do you even consider saving stuff. In personal encounters with violence, you do whatever you have to do to get (yourself and/or others) out alive. That is more important than pride, more important than preserving your reputation. Those imaginary things are far more important than your wallet or your car.

Training for violence then: Prediction. Prevention. Train for the most dangerous. Keep clear priorities so that you can adapt when the first steps fail. Practice all those steps, especially adapting.

It's not as hard as some people make it sound. And it's fun.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Do The Math
Here's an example- closed fist strikes to the head.  I know, personally, five people who have been sent to the hospital for broken hands after closed-fist strikes to the head. A total of nine incidents (two of them were not fast learners).  One of them had been a trained amateur boxer. How many people have I known who needed medical treatment after receiving a closed fist strike to the head? None. Zero. Zip. Nada.

Falling and hitting their heads? Yep. Being directed into a wall or piece of furniture? Sure. Head butting? Both accidental and deliberate. Even slaps (I didn't go to the hospital but should have, dizzy and puking for almost three days) C did, with a ruptured eardrum as well as a mild concussion.

So is it a good technique/system whatever if you are far more likely to be injured by using it than the bad guy? (BTW, two of those people have permanent disability.)

Another example, "In the old days a good day just meant everybody made it home alive." Trouble is I know exactly how many people died doing that job. Then there is the math- if good is better than average and good means no deaths and nothing more, than an average day involved deaths. He was probably trying to sound tough to the rookies, but he just wound up sounding ignorant to anyone who had either done the job or could do simple math.

It's a beautiful day here- windy and sandy with a sky that looks like polished steel.
< onblur="try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}" href="">First picture upload!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I was going to explain enlightenment- you know, "abiding non-dual awareness" today. Maybe later.

Instead, Chris called me out on sophistries.  Told him we should save it for a long talk over a beer, but he just couldn't let it go. It's sad, really. ;)

To recap: It started with my assertion that to mindfully learn to crush throats is incompatible with compassion; that learning violence to increase your peaceful nature is an oxymoron.

Chris pointed out that compassion extends not just to the threat but to the people you are protecting.

I said that sounded like a sophistry, and a good subject for a long conversation- with beer,

Ta-dum... Chris said a sophistry would be pointing out that compassion means "suffering with"... and here we are.

This really should be a long, rambling talk with lots of time to make sure that we all agree on the common ground and take care to see when meanings diverge blah, blah, blah. Nope. This is a blog, so it's going to be a monologue. 
First using words they way they are defined is not sophistry, it is simple communication. So there!  Glad that's out of the way. On to the meat:

People do what they are going to do.  When they do it, they usually have a very definite reason.  Simultaneously, they also have a lot of excuses and beliefs and 'shoulds' and accepted perspectives and bullshit running around in their heads. None of these are the actual reason for the action, but we/they often believe they are.

If you are going to take the bad guy out to protect yourself or your family, that's a perfectly good reason. You don't need any more than that.  But if you have trained under some myth of a "compassionate warrior" one of those bullshit stories running around in your head will be that what you just did (broke a bone, snapped a joint, concussed a brain) must, in some way, have been an act of compassion.  You can just look at the guy laying on the ground screaming, puking and bleeding and have a pretty good idea the compassion wasn't for him... so you convince yourself that compassion for the people you saved is just as valid and you can hold on to your compassionate warrior badge.

Chris is right to point out that compassion means "suffering with" (I would have held it at just 'feeling with' but he's right).  You can't suffer with everybody. The best example is the way some teachers, counselors, medics or just friends can really be there with you in the dark times.  I have never seen anyone exhibit that level of compassion to more than one person at a time. Part of the power lies in the focused personal attention that it requires. When someone tries to feel for everybody and everything, it is indistinguishable from angst (which I privately call 'emo whining bullshit paralysis'). 
This deep attention is also critical in combat. I don't always have to be completely in the (head, heart, spirit, motion, whatever it is, all about him) of the threat, I can also (and prefer to be) completely within myself, totally in my action.

So, in the moment of delivering damage, you aren't thinking about the people you are saving. If you aren't thinking about them, you certainly aren't 'suffering with' them.  This is why it smelled like a sophistry to me- it sounded like the words someone would tell themselves to keep a label.

Protecting people is reason enough. You don't need to pretend that you were doing it with a certain type of emotional involvement or for a separate reason that you have been told is "the warrior ideal." (Not you, Chris- see the next paragraph to know what you stepped in).

A level deeper- someone wrote recently that training for fighting was exactly the same as training for enlightenment.  That turned my stomach (and it was probably why I threw in the original line.)  I have my own definition and understanding of enlightenment. It is not warm or fuzzy or particularly comfortable. Taking my understanding off the table and going with the  enlightenment-lite (ala Yoda or Kwai Chang Cain) of mindful awareness and compassion...

If you are studying combatives, martial arts, what have you, you are learning to break a person. Let's up the graphics a little: You are practicing techniques to make a human being scream in pain. To stop them from breathing until their brain cells start to die. To make organs bleed and limbs snap so that they never work again. You are studying the art of manufacturing cripples and corpses.  This is not compassionate. Pretending that caring for others counts as compassion against this is just whistling in the dark.  This is why they are incompatible with enlightenment-lite: in order to pretend you are studying violence compassionately or for compassionate reasons, you must choose to not think about this truth- you give up mindful awareness.

(For my definition of enlightenment it doesn't work either because you can't artificially learn truth. IME.)

But, it can give you the confidence to walk into the places where the deep truths are a heartbeat away. It can become a step, it can't be the entire journey.

Enough on that. I owe Chris a beer if I'm ever in his neck of the woods.
I also owe Bobbe a Chimay (is that the really nasty, sweet trappist beer?) for the best review of the book ever.  Sorry about page 90.
Also Scott (or coffee, if you don't do beer) next time I'm in San Francisco just for the line "He talks to us as if we were a bunch of girls sitting around in our nighties at a pajama party."

Lastly, a beer (or coffee, or scotch, whatever. Something.) for the first person who figures out the title of this post. (Payable when I am in the winner's city or he/she is in mine).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Domination, Weak Personalities and Weirdos

This all started with violence and dominance and good comments that were just a bit off but all seemed to be connected at a level I couldn't quite access.  Here's a try, just thinking out loud.

First thought: Violence is about dominance. Dominance (a very big thing with many levels) is the primary; violence a tool to achieve it.  There are so many ways to dominate others that are lacking in violence or only offer the faintest hint of threat- but they still are an attempt to force someone to submit, to show not just respect but acquiescence. The passive-aggressive co-worker who stalls production or grumbles just out of hearing is just as coercive as any other kind of bully, only too insecure to expose himself to the risks attendant with just saying his heart. There is no such thing as a peaceful protest- just under the surface is the threat that this mass, these numbers could turn into a mob if they do not get what they want, and skillful protest organizers know that their power comes from fear and they use it.  It is a very dark thing to watch people march and scream for peace and love.  "Political correctness"- threats of litigation and disciplinary action under the guise of compassion and tolerance.  And what is this tolerance where any ethnicity (or creed or gender or orientation or...) is encouraged but only one opinion is allowed?  The essence of the entitlement mindset is "I should have the power to do anything I want, that's freedom, but you should be prevented from responding in any negative way because that is oppression." Reverse it and obviously the math doesn't work.  It can be a very free-hearted, smiling evil. 

This dominance is dark stuff and subtle and pervasive.  For some people it is darkly addictive, too.  To make someone else do what you want is power. Whether the coercion comes from whining or claiming a victim status or passive aggressive bullshit or naked violence it is power.

We all sense this in some levels. It's possible that one of the attractions of martial arts is that it might promise a way to navigate this mess.

Someone once said (George Mattson?) that people join martial arts schools for self-defense but they stay for other reasons.  It may be a notch deeper than that.  With it's hierarchy of ranks and traditions and rituals for dealing with dangerous physical action (how do you hand a sword to a warrior?) It seems perfect for making the subtle, shadowy dominance game distinct.

Does it work that way?  Not so much.  If you really want to learn how to navigate the world of dominance hierarchies I suggest you join a highschool football team.  The very hierarchy and obvious aspects of dominance in a dojo simplifies the picture, much like the violence in a dojo is simplified to be understandable.  Here's the first connection, Mike's question about the weak personalities that are drawn to the MA (and don't get your panties in a twist. Not everyone who does MA is weak and there are many good reasons to study, so obviously I'm not talking about you.) (Steve, you were right when you said no one ever recognizes themselves when you write them into books. Weird.)

Just at a physical level, and there are some of these, you get people who want to learn to be tough guys, but do it in a way that doesn't hurt.  Looking at it from this desire to understand dominance, I think there are many, many more who want to face fear without feeling any. They want to learn to deal with danger in a perfectly safe environment.  They want to take on the dominance voluntarily so that there is no coercion in it.

Many martial arts attract people who want to have their cake and eat it. People who believe that they can learn to deal with violence without ever feeling pain or fear; or that they can learn the deepest secrets of life in one of the most artificial environments on earth (taught by a guy wearing the underwear of another continent and century). And, compassionately, do it all without hurting anybody else, either.

Worg wrote about the weirdos in martial arts, some of whom develop high levels of skill. My first reaction was that we don't know each other's definition of skill, but that's not necessary. That idea goes right here. All of those things in the paragraph above are considered simply immature to people who have to work for a living.  Things come with prices. Things are attached to other things.  Most people (fortunately) have never had to think that surviving an attack probably involves dealing with pain and fear, but if it comes up it seems obvious enough.

This 'specialized immaturity' is drawn to martial arts.  It's cool for a number of reasons- most people know relatively little about martial training and they assume (or simply never thought about it) that the practitioner is in to pain and danger much deeper than most really are.  It is one of the few places where this kind of immaturity can get recognition and even subservience from others- have you ever seen a martial artist who you personally know couldn't fight a gifted fourteen-year old preen when someone said, "You're a blackbelt? Man, that's awesome. A guy would have to be crazy to fuck with you."
It's also self-reinforcing. As long as everyone in the little MA community plays along (and they aren't playing, they really believe they are doing something great) you earn the respect of your peers, too.  So, Worg, it's one of the few environments where this mindset actually has the opportunity to develop serious skill.  It's not always the skill they think they are developing, but it's okay.
There's more going on in some cases. At high levels or in obscure or imaginary arts, the practitioner can just make up what 'good' is.  The hierarchy master/student thing has led to pretty serious brainwashing in some cases- literally where the techniques only work on students of the person demonstrating them. That's sad.  Funny from the outside, but sad, too.

Still haven't quite pulled this all together.  More to think on later.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Teaching, Perhaps

Thinking about teaching and martial arts and fighting and what I really believe.

Martial artists are among the worst teachers because most have so much untested ego vested in it.  I read something interesting lately that compared martial arts to the S&M/B&D scene.  The difference being that people into bondage and stuff are aware of what they are doing to each other and have safeguards built in.  They tend to be very explicit about boundaries.  They deal with the power dynamic right up front.

There is an often unrecognized power dynamic in martial arts. The sensei/student relationship, especially with some of the weak egos who are drawn to martial arts (more analysis of that on request) is ripe with dominance. Everyone recognizes this. Where else in America would it be socially acceptable for one person to call another 'Master'?  But there are some more subtle threads in this as well.  Conflict is about dominance. Sometimes for one participant it is about survival, but even there the threat is trying to dominate. Don't read a value judgment into that. I like numbers and surprise and scary-looking equipment because if I can dominate psychologically there will be no need to dominate physically, and physical domination is where people get hurt.

In a martial arts class, stripping away the window dressing, you have one alpha male (who may be an alpha only in that one context) attempting to teach others how to be alphas.  You should be able to see the problems with that and predict some of the outcomes: the teacher who wants tournament winners but savagely 'demonstrates' on students who are doing well against him; instructors blindly imitating what they think a 'wise warrior' or 'man of knowledge' would look, act and talk like; the pretending to spiritual secrets when physical skills start to fade...

If you are an alpha teaching someone to be an alpha, you cannot keep your position and be successful as a teacher both. The math doesn't work. That may have something to do with the arcane hierarchies that are invented.

Fighting is also hard to teach.  It is about breaking people.  You can dodge that as much as you want, but the essence of a martial art is how to do damage to another human body. The problem is that if you actually break people, you run out of students.  You have to teach fake stuff and you have to teach a lot of fake stuff to safely acquire the real stuff.  Then you have to keep the real and the fake stuff separate in the student’s heads. Then they need to be able to access the right stuff, the real stuff, when they need it completely disregarding the fake stuff that they learned it with.  That is not an easy thing to teach.  Really, really hard in fact.

It is even harder if the instructor doesn't really have a clear idea of what he is teaching- obedience and respect (what I think most parents really want when they sign up little kids for lessons) are exactly the wrong mindsets to instill if you don't want your children victimized.  Mindfully learning to crush a throat is incompatible with compassion- no matter how hard you visualize or how deep your meditation on your skills, if the first time you break someone's bone or make them scream it bothers you, you weren't honestly mindful- practicing violence to acquire a peaceful nature requires a willful blindness. Practicing violence to be safe enough so that you and others can live peacefully is an entirely different matter.

To top it off, and this is entirely from my point of view at this stage in life, most instructors don't teach right.  Not necessarily poorly. I mean that they are neither teaching what they think they are teaching or what the student is expecting.

Some teach like it is a product:  "I have a skill, I must give you that skill.  That is teaching."  I don’t see it that way any more.  That mindset winds up in one of two similar places.                                                       Either:

1) A rigid precision where a perfect technique looks and feels a specific way. Hell, I don’t move the same way or even think the same way in different fights.  What makes a good punch a good punch is a huge mash of power generation and distancing and target prep and conformation that you only have partial control over.  Rigid precision is neat because you can work for decades on minute details and always feel like you are progressing.  It’s just that applying it to fighting is like measuring something with a micrometer that you need to bulldoze. It is sharpening a sledgehammer.

2) Trying to clone the instructor.  You will never be me.  You will never fight or think the way that I do.  Sorry, but that’s the way it is.  My duty as an instructor is to get you to fight better than I do. To survive and win in situations that I might not and I really don't give a damn if you look like me when you are doing it. If I try to clone myself in you and you don't have my strength or speed or will, I am dooming you to fail. It's a flawed platform.  Unless you are extraordinary in your own right it won’t work (an extraordinary student can make great progress despite a shitty instructor).

To me, the teaching process isn’t a commodity.  I have little to give you.  Learning is growth.  Teaching is guiding growth.  That is all.  I need to work with the student as they are and lead them to the place that they want to go (ah, the place they want to go? Or the place they think they want to go? Or the place they need to go- usually three different things.) Even if they have a talent I lack, as an instructor and strategist I should be able to teach them how to exploit it and build on it.

This works at the apprentice level or with private students.  I love doing it with seminars because it just becomes a big “here’s something to think about and play with for a year or two” and benefits everybody.  The dynamic can be awesome.  But what I like to teach could never be a system without becoming a product.  Once it is systematized there are things inside and outside the system.  There becomes a right and wrong way.  Not, like in real life, grades of effectiveness from, “Damn, that was sweet!” to “So, I bet you’re feeling pretty stupid right now.” (That's the verbal scale, the physical ranges more from 'nothing happened' to ...some pretty horrible stuff. A coffin for yourself is not the worst possible outcome.)

Most of the people I work with are serious martial artists and most have some deep damage (sometimes damage they have been trained to think of as strength) from that.  Healing is growth and can be learning.  It’s very organic. 

It’s also not for everybody. Sometimes the expectation of what the relationship should be really gets in the way. If you really want Master Po or (who was the guy in the Karate Kid?) you probably won't be happy with a smart ass in boots who keeps telling you 'you already know how to move' and 'sailing through the air is fun!' and 'what were you feeling when you did that?'

Deep learning is growth. It's not about increasing information- what you know- so much as changing who you are. Sometimes, often, you can't even articulate what you've learned. It bypasses a lot of that verbal level of your mind. A student and I sat down with a notebook once after class- she’d mentioned that she always brought a notebook and never wrote in it because there weren’t any words.  Sitting down and looking for the words it was over two pages. 

That’s not the kind of teaching that people are usually used to or like- but the part of your mind that thinks in words is somewhere between useless and counterproductive in a fight.  It’s not you anyway, it is just some words in your head.

So, I’m not teaching here.  There are a couple of people I roll around with.  Growth may happen. It’s all good.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


As long as I am in an airport, waiting for a connection and with time to kill, it looks like a good day for a double- not martial arts or crime, just stuff. Feel free to skip it.

My lovely wife scheduled almost every minute of my free time for the R&R so an amazing amount got done- there was even a little rest and relaxation.

Orycon was critical. Exhausted, (only saved from jet lag by my secret method of not sleeping at all before I fly) and booked.  Mark and Kai- two of my favorite humans; the Steves, both of whom extended some human understanding at a great time. Jim and Andy were far more mellow than usual and let me play fourth in one of their endless debates. Carol and the third Steve, thanks for keeping K sane. Mary can teach you more just sitting in her vicinity than some professors. New people like Bart. Many more names I will forget or never learned or...

Coffee with Mac and visits with Mike. R&S and that branch of the tribe made it up to visit. Kris set aside a class and Lawrence dodged meetings to snatch a few hours of talk (and both gave great advice on the big question- what next?). Colleen- shukran.

A short trip into the old workplace brought out some friends I have sorely missed- and Kurt made sergeant too. Good choice.

There are more I missed. Most of my friends have very busy lives, sometimes interesting bordering on hellish, which is part of why I like them. Next time.

Velvet Hammer

There are two things I love about PDX, the Portland airport. One is the free wifi. The other is Coffee People.  Coffee People used to be a chain of coffee kiosks in Portland that made things like Black Tiger and the Depth Charge. My favorite was The Velvet Hammer, a rich espresso cinnamon mocha.  They did milkshakes, too, some with gritty powdered espresso beans. Very nice.

Despite the fact that Coffee People's product was better in every way to a certain chain that shall remain nameless but has the initials STARBUCKS, they pretty much died out. Except at the airport.

A really good coffee can take some of the sting out of saying goodbye. A little, anyway.

I think these long (deployments? missions? aah- absences) absences would be easier if I didn't love my family. That's probably obvious, but it doesn't work out that way.  The people who have the hardest time with the separation live with this fear and mistrust of what their spouse or children might be doing.  In that sense, it is much easier for me. I miss my family, but I don't worry about them much. The usual worries that bad things might happen, but no worries that they might instigate badness. It's not in them.

But still, I miss them. Some of it is the greedy missing of not having someone to hold at night or children to pounce or people to share stories with. Some of the miss is deeper. My children are turning into extraordinary people very quickly right now.  I am jealous of every second that I miss.  My wife is making great strides personally and professionally.  That's part of the rub and part of the depth of our love- I also like them an awful lot. If there was no blood or marriage tie, no years of shared experience I would still be fascinated and work to be friends with this incredible little group of people.

That's pretty cool, but it makes it hard to leave.

Even though it wasn't hard to leave. Leaving is moving and as long as I'm moving it's pretty easy just to do what needs to be done and I don't really feel the musing and maudlin emotions that hit me later.  Like now, sitting in an airport.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


Again thanks to Steve-

"Sound suspiciously like you are saying not only is the map not the territory, the territory is not the territory, either ..."

Not at all, but this is huge.  If we needed examples we could draw them from tracking or martial arts or social contacts or anything, but this is really simple and doesn't need that.  No one sees everything.  The world is too big and each instant of time is almost infinitely complex. Even if you could process the whole range of colors, sounds and smells simultaneously, you still couldn't see behind your head or hear the noises beyond human range.

In the same place, different people look at different things.  Two very good observers can see the same event and point out entirely different suites of critical information. How they observe, their styles, are often habits and can be trained. This is good.

The territory is the territory. An obstacle is an obstacle, but whether your first inclination is to look for a way over, around, under or through is largely a matter of how you look at the territory.  

There is value in learning different ways to look because some problems are easier to solve from a different perspective than your regular one. I was a very visual learner.  That is still there, it is still a tool, but there are situations, particularly close-quarters fights where kinesthetic thinking -touch- is superior. Faster, more sure. I can tell you how to move someone to the weak side of their base and draw diagrams and demonstrate, but once you feel it as sort of a 'gravity hole' it is obvious and everywhere. 

There is a side effect/bad thing that gets thrown in here and it is something that I write about a lot.  In this post I am talking about accurate observers and tools for them.  Be very aware that some people (I think most, in certain circumstances) are not observing when they think they are. They are treating their plans and preconceptions and templates as data. They believe so strongly that X is the way things happen that they will respond as if X were happening when Y is.  This isn't limited to "you guys" or amateurs or martial artists.  Everyone brings something to the table- sometimes it is experience and some times it is knowledge separate from experience and sometimes it is folklore masquerading as knowledge.  The only defense against this is to let it go as soon as you realize you are wrong.

E.G. If you knew X was going to happen and it didn't, let go of that belief and find a way to survive. You can reconcile shit later.

Otherwise, though, experience and knowledge add to the process.  They are how you choose what needs to be looked at and how you interpret what you see. Some people work hard on being exposed to enough different things to help with interpretation.  That's great.  I've seen far fewer who practice different ways to see.  There are huge gains to be made when you learn to see things that are invisible to you now.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Changing Views

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Costumes and Jewelry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Perfect Moments

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


40 reviews on Amazon so far. Not bad.

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Truth Will Set You Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Power of Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


At about 35,000 feet as we approached this area there was a haze. It looked like a cloud bank, except it was the wrong color. "Is that smoke?" I asked, "It can't be dust this high." But it can, of course.

When the dust storms come in, the morning light looks yellow, not quite a lemon yellow, more sickly. In the evening everything is a bright orange. It looks like a bad science fiction movie special effect for the surface of Mars. It is eerie and beautiful and alien and exotic.

Change things slightly, a little darker, a little smokier. High on a wall are curls of razor wire. Caught in the razor wire are trash bags and tattered sheets of black pastic flapping in the wind. It looks like a clothesline in Hell.

To the naked eye in the orange dusk the motes of dust are invisible, too fine to even taste. The first pictures look bad and I frantically clean the lens trying to wipe off the water marks. The lens is clean of course. The flash is illuminating dust looking like light bubbles in the picture. I turn off the flash. I will treasure those pictures.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Case You Haven't Noticed....

I haven't been writing here very much. It's a combination- very busy, sometimes long days and reports and projects, other writing (making some headway on the next book) and very intermittent, very limited internet access.

I'm also in a delicate place- this blog was originally a place I could go with some anonymity to write about my world, to try to work out some things on the screen that were hard to work out purely internally. In the last few months, I've felt obligated to post things, to keep writing for you, whoever you are. The internal motivations have been edging towards external- that's not something I need in my world right now.

The things that compel me to write are still happening- they have been significant and frequent, as you would expect in a place this different. But the things I would most like to write about, the OMG WTF just happened? stuff... I can't write about. Both common sense and my contract prohibit it. It's very cool, it just has to stay private for some time.

So, if you read regularly, don't expect a lot of volume for a while.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


This is one of the Twilight Zone posts. There is some weird stuff that goes on in the world and sometimes you just notice it, but sometimes you get a glimpse at a pattern... and sometimes someone gives you a clue.

I'm reading a book- not that unusual. But this one puts forth the premise that the body can sense things that are bad for it (ranging from toxicity to malevolent thoughts to negative people) and one of the body's reactions to that is for the muscles to go weak. It's hitting very high on my BS meter, hence no title and no recommendation in the post.

But...but... there is a phenomenon and you can see it in martial arts and real combat and conflict and a lot of places. It is a basis of some of the 'martial magic' or 'kool-aide' drinking set- you know, the stuff that only works on students who have been trained for it to work or the "no-touch knockouts" that require a detailed explanation before they will work. They don't work on people who don't know they are supposed to pass out. Stuff like that. But there's also another level. It's still a trick, sort of, but the kind of trick or ability or force that you can use on people in real life and sometimes in real combat.

A lot of it feeds into the concept of zanshin. I don't want to explain and quibble over definitions. For my purposes zanshin is an effect of internalized experience. The effect shows itself in a determined focus and it can be sensed by other people.
  • Internalized experience: people who have been through a lot of shit and absorbed it are different than people who haven't.
  • Determined focus- a fuzzy way of saying that they have learned to act decisively and with everything they have and are.
  • All but the most oblivious people can tell who not to fuck with.

One example is the "no touch block" which works pretty reliably, but there are some people it doesn't work on and you can sense who they will be.

Another one is the body hardening techniques that Kris uses and demonstrates. They work pretty well and he can do them moving, which most of the "internal arts masters" I've had the opportunity to work with couldn't. But where he will let big strong people hit him, I notice that there are people he won't invite to test it. I'm not even sure that he is aware of it, but they fall into a certain pattern- big is fine. Strong is fine. Multiple black belts are fine- but the cold vicious and crazy, even when they are acting nice don't get the chance.

I have made people feel weak just by standing close to them and smiling. Grappled with people much bigger and stronger who couldn't seem to apply any of their strength.

I said this was twilight zone stuff, so here goes: the book speculates (actually states, unequivocally) that dangerous and toxic substances and even thoughts cause an immediate and measurable muscle weakness.

What if a person can develope the zanshin, the presence, to cause this weakness at will in another human being? (Or to strengthen them, it's all the same) What if these demonstrations of toughness are actually an ability to weaken someone else by becoming an elemental danger?

Don't get hung up on it. Any post that mentions the twilight zone is for wild speculation. So much could be explained by this- all the victims that said the attacker looked at them and they couldn't move; all the victims who struggled instead of fought. How fear makes you stronger most times, but in some interpersonal conflicts seem to make you weaker. My success at some stuff that, crunching the numbers, I had no right to walk out of (like today. Cripes.)

I've felt that weakness and know that if you fight anyway, you can recover. The weakness is an illusion that falls away if you can survive long enough to do it. Does it relate to permission? Does the human animal sense that this person is higher in the monkey hierarchy (read more zanshin) and it would upset the tribe to win?

This is at best a half-formed thought, but that's why I blog, to poke at stuff outside the narrow confines of a single brain.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Vested II

The days are long and full and lots of the nights are spent writing reports. Last night I had a rare chance at a "no time limit" internet access, so I went for it, dead tired and all. End result is that I wrote only part of what I intended. Here's what got me thinking:

We all believe certain things. I'm not sure whether belief is on a scale or binary. I think it is binary- one either believes in a specific god or doesn't; either believes that a specific political decision was good policy or self-serving corruption. I don't see a lot of people believing sort of in a god or that a decision was mostly good policy but partially corrupt. But maybe they do and the language just doesn't express it that way.

But people can certainly be more vested in a belief than other people with the same belief.

I was talking to a man the other day and we share a lot of the same beliefs and concerns. We have a similar vision of what a good life entails and similar concerns about how aspects of civilization endanger that vision. The obvious difference is that these are just things I believe and these are part of who he is.

(It doesn't matter what the belief is- whether he wears hemp and birckenstocks or boots and knife and compass, there comes a point when it is a costume, a person crying out "this is me, this is who I am.")

So that was the obvious aspect- how others will see you, identify you. If you are too vested it seems irrational and your opinions, right or wrong, are easy to dismiss. If you don't vest in your opinions (and I tend not to- many strong beliefs have vanished in the flames of real life over the years) you get read very differently.

Some, the self-absorbed, just assume that you agree with them.
Some see silence or a lack of strong opinion as wisdom. Maybe.
The thing that struck me though, is that the strongly invested mistrust people with less investment. As if they expect that being labelled is proof of belief.
It is a test, I think. Trying to find someone to join their mental tribe. Just a thought.

This probably should have been an edit to last night's post.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


"Manage your expectation level," I was advised. Not 'manage your frustration' or anything of that nature. It is good advice- frustration comes only partially from events, a lot of it comes from expectations. What you do is what you do, but the outcome may or may not be what you expect. Martial artists work to limit luck- the floors are clean and uncluttered, the number and type of assailant is generally known- all things I've written about until they make me tired. But in martial arts, in fighting, in life and in teaching you can never control anything completely. You don't get to pick the ending of the story, not even of your story (except suicide, perhaps).
When the ending isn't what you wanted how much it hurts will depend on how much you were counting on your chosen ending. Invested. Attachment. All the same, see?
But you have to deal with the ending you get.

Today was rough. Things have been going really, really well and I was feeling very proud. Through luck or good groundwork done by my predecessors I had avoided most of the problems I had been led to expect. Until today. I asked a simple question and the answer didn't quite work so I asked another and another... when all was done I was a little sick and disgusted and not feeling my usual optimism. (I am an optimist here- I have a deep faith in what individuals are capable of when things hit bottom if they are only given half a chance.)
So I have to decide how disappointed to be. I'll let the feelings wash through me- they are useful, data points in themselves. Then I will get back to work. There is an opportunity for huge growth in this abject failure. I just need to show them, sincerely and persistantly where the growth lies.

This will work. I'll be optimitic again soon.