Sunday, August 30, 2009

Fear and Trepidation

Some disjointed thoughts on fear:

Dealing with fear, terror and trepidation, all the little variations on an emotional reaction to a bad thing is more complex than I would like it to be. Trying to explain to K the other day that I haven't felt real fear (if you define fear as the monkey in your brain screaming, "Oh my god we're all gonna die!!!!") in a long time. It's more trepidation- something else, definitely not a monkey and not screaming- giving a long suffering sigh and saying, "This is not going to end well." And then you get to work.

Here's the question- is there really a difference and if so, where did it come from?

Little background. I'm a believer in the James-Lange theory of emotion, which states roughly that we make up the emotions after the fact. Not:
1) See the bear
2) Get scared
3) Run
More like:
1) See the bear
2) Run
3) Realize that you were scared

There are a lot of subtly different flavors, but there are only a handful of basic hormone cocktails that your body dumps into your bloodstream in times of stress. Your palms sweat, your knees shake, you forget to breathe, there's a rushing sound in your ears... If you just saw a bear, you know you were afraid. If you just saw a beautiful stranger, the same symptoms can seem like love at first sight, or at least infatuation*. The emotion, in the sense of the label, how we explain it to ourselves, comes well after the chemical reaction.

So, when people talk about dealing with fear, dealing with adrenaline, what are the tools? What are we really talking about? The chemical or the label?

There was a long space where I was almost completely burned out. Getting trapped upside down in a kayak in icy water was annoying. Good odds I was going to die and pretty sure it would be an embarrassing way to die, but the hormone cocktail trickling into my veins really didn't rise to the level of fear.
That's different, though. It wasn't some trained skill or even being inured, there was a physical issue- my body wasn't producing a normal dose of adrenaline. It allowed me to think more clearly, which worked out fine. But it wasn't a good thing. Not healthy at all. Plus most of my hobbies quit being fun.

Normal times, I still feel the symptoms, if I have time. If I know things are going to go bad, there's a little burning sensation in the back of my head and it feels like my ears are trying to stand up like an alert dog. Sometimes the palms get sweaty. My voice doesn't get squeaky like it used to (except for the first few seconds public speaking). I haven't got the shakes, even a finger tremor, in years. It doesn't feel as intense as when I was a rookie, but how do you tell if there is less adrenaline in your system of if the level of adrenaline just doesn't seem unusual? Do I not get the shakes because my body doesn't want to, or because I have more practice controlling it? Is there a difference? Functionally, maybe not, but if there is a difference in mechanism it means different ways to achieve the condition (assuming you would want to.)

Emotionally, what adrenaline there is, doesn't feel like it used to. It used to be heavily based on a fear of injury or death or (and this is huge, but almost never explicitly stated) helplessness or impotence: If I hit this guy with everything I have and nothing happens; if he destroys me without breaking a sweat like I am nothing, then what am I? What did all this training or working out really mean? It's a very sub-surface thought and very, very common. Most of the fear in a fight, especially a one-on-one, is social, not physical. Subconsciously, I think that this fear drives a lot of training and gear collecting and other types of macho posturing. (Not all training is macho posturing, but whether it is or not depends on the student, not the training.)

That social fear of helplessness doesn't seem to enter into it much anymore. If I think about the hormones beyond just noticing them hit my system, it usually translates as performance anxiety- what if I look stupid to the officers I have been teaching? It's less personal, less about my health or identity and far more about their faith in my teaching.

One piece of that is huge- 'just notice the hormones'. There really isn't any need to label them. Most of the time I don't, and that seems to work fine. How much of the cognitive deficit in stress situations is because the human monkey is trying to come to terms with an emotional state instead of just feeling it and moving on?

* And you can reliably trigger this in another person, consciously inducing the feeling that often gets translated as 'romantic love.'

Monday, August 24, 2009


It's good to be here. The sun is shining but not blazing. Green as far as I can see and as deep as I can feel. A few good friends. The family is wonderful. Not quite ready for the big social things- begged off of an SCA event, but made it to a wedding.

Cleaning and yardwork make the transition easier. Things that need to be done, but also things that bring the place back to 'mine'. I felt a little like a stranger with the new furniture and not able to find my tools. Cleaning and mowing and weed-whacking (how did so much get overgrown so quickly? Was I really gone that long?) returned a sense of ownership (not quite the right word, I'm not very possessive.)

Then, at the end of the day, a fine scotch on the deck looking at dusk through the vines.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Crass Commercial Announcement

(and a little whiny moralizing, too...)

I will be officially off contract tomorrow.  That means I'll be available starting in September for seminars, private lessons, consulting and I will consider contract work.

This is weird- I've never charged for teaching before. Seminars were either an honorarium, which rarely covered expenses, or just expenses and a T-shirt (though John Darby always insisted on giving me money.)  Classes were a small mat fee left for the person who owned the space we were using.

There's been a lot of ethical armor in that concept- accusations of self-promotion don't fly as well when there's no money in it.  No accusations of watering stuff down to keep students because I didn't want to keep students, I wanted connections with people who were willing to work to be extraordinary.

No plans to do anything any different, but I am curious how the dynamic will shift. Internally and externally.  Or I could just hunt up another contract and table this for a year or so.

Friday, August 14, 2009

High Level Skills + Intensity

He is an up-and-coming lieutenant in a foreign service.  He heard a story about something I did the week before and so he tracked me down to ask about some one-on-one training time.  He wanted close-quarters handgun.  Or knife throwing. Sigh. We went with the handgun.  Four count draw, dry fire, firing from retention, moving and shooting, scanning.  Because he was a leader we also went into how to train: faults to watch for, what would happen if his men ever needed to shoot as a team.

At one point he threw up his hands and said, “I am so angry. Everything they taught us was wrong!”

If you look, you’ll see that that one statement has driven a number of recent posts. 

To an extent, people read what they either want or expect to read. Many people have interpreted MoV as a scathing critique of traditional martial arts and think that I’m attacking them here.  Sometimes.  But I wouldn’t stick with something for (OMFG! It will be 30 years soon! How did I make it to this age?) so long if I thought I was wasting my time.

Back to the lieutenant.  What he had learned at his basic training were the fundamentals of pistol marksmanship. They weren’t wrong, they were just incomplete.  Beginners need to learn safety.  It’s stupid to accidentally kill yourself.  They need to get some feeling for success and how the weapons work, so they become a stable platform.  They learn grip and sight alignment and sight picture and breath control and trigger press.

They learn these fundamentals in a context that makes it easy for the instructor to monitor and easy for the student to correct- good lighting, good footing, hearing and eye protection, safety monitors and not moving.

Those environmental basics are rare as hell in real life.  Gunfire is loud and muzzleflash can be blinding in low light.  Often not only is the footing bad, but it may be too dark to tell how bad.  And you’d better damn well be moving unless you already have good cover. If you do have good cover, think about moving anyway because the threat should try to flank you.  And cover geometry can be counterintuitive- cover is often better the farther you are away from it.  Said it was counter-intuitive.

There are details that came at a price- when and how to fire from retention; why the weapon should be canted out when at retention.   Details that aren’t on the beginning syllabus.

Combat shooting, whether raiding or counter-ambush, is a whole different animal than range training.  Honestly, range training is probably closest to assassination skills, which aren’t that useful for good guys.

And there are things that work very well on the range that are ineffective in real life.  I was a weaver shooter for decades, trained that way from a pup.  But there are three significant flaws in the weaver- it is almost impossible to maintain while moving.  It points the biggest hole in your body armor (armpit) right at the threat.  Most damning is that according to research no one has been able to pull it off in a firefight.  An assassination maybe.  I wish I could reference the study (library not here!) but in reviewing all the videorecorded gun encounters he could get (which I had a hard time believing was a lot…), the researcher couldn’t find a single one where the person fired from a weaver, even if he had trained weaver for decades. (Some corroboration from, if memory serves, "Men Under Fire".)

But that doesn’t make dojo or range training wrong.  I go to the range. I practice my dry-fire and failure to fire drills.  When I have access to a good instructor, I go to my martial arts classes.  Nothing is wrong, but it is incomplete.  So when I practice my dry fire, I know what I will see when the projectile hits flesh and I know what it will do to my mind and body- because I have experienced it.  Once.  When I go to classes I know when I am practicing moving and when I am practicing breaking people.  Often, in my experience, the instructor does not know that crucial difference.

It gets wrong for me in two ways: when the students insist that what they do is what there is.  When they are taught that the real world changes nothing (One of the best grappling instructors in the world talking to a room full of LEOs: "No, we've never actually tried this in body armor and duty gear, but that wouldn't change anything." Sigh), that there is a one-to-one correlation between the skills they practice safely with their friends on their nice clean mats and being ambushed by someone who uses violence professionally or is in a rage.  The other 'wrong' is when the techniques become centered around the artificial aspects.  Altering techniques for safety is inevitable, but when the altered technique becomes the right way and the effective technique becomes the wrong way, it doesn’t work for me.

So I practice the pieces with as much awareness as I can of the totality, and the absolute certainty that there is a lot of that totality I haven’t seen yet and I will inevitably fail and have to improvise.

Adult Content

One of the best things about the recent contract was the opportunity to meet people who had been exposed to many things that I have not.  When an experienced operator talks about firefights or senior members about getting blown up (colloquial for getting hit by an IED) or getting caught in a middle-eastern riot, I listen. 

There are things I have trained for and read about that aren’t quite right.  They seem fine until someone who has tried it under fire points out the fatal flaw.  There are issues of context- (e.g. the rule for standard convoy ops/witness protection/high-risk transports is to abandon a disabled vehicle because they are bullet magnets.  That’s different when your vehicle is armored.  That changes a lot of protocols).  There are also issues of level and intensity.

Sometimes very high-end skills are qualitatively different than regular high-end skills.  It takes a paradigm shift to make that leap to the next level.   A sniper doesn’t touch the rifle the way a hunter does.

And intensity.  You can go ostrich and hide your head in the sand, but until and unless you can walk a 4x4 suspended between 17-story buildings as easily as you can do it at ground level, everything you have trained will be hardier, scarier, slipperier and less effective when it is real.

That’s easy to deny, too, because there is a lot of bullshit out there.  Things that are told and passed on from student to instructor that don’t make a lick of sense if you think about it for even a second- like a 90% one-shot stop ratio for a handgun.  For the statistic to even be possible 90% of shootings would have to be one-hit affairs, which we know isn’t true.  But someone you trust told you and you had your ‘sensei is always right’ hat on and went into child mode.

That’s where I’m going with this.  If your training is a religion or a talisman for you, you’re wasting your time here. If your panties get in a twist because I’m attacking a portion of your identity, you probably won’t be happy reading this stuff.  Because I don’t care about your twisty panties.  These are just observations from the field and connections that I’ve made.  Take them, use them, skip them… whatever. Because you aren’t wasting my time. I’m writing this for me, this (whatever 'this' is on a given post) is what I am working on or working through right now.  Chiron is where I do my thinking out loud.

There are lies to children.  It came up in comments a while ago.  If you need a bedtime story to make yourself sleep better, that’s not what I’m providing here.  If you want clean, easy answers, I’m sure there is a ‘master’ somewhere willing to sell you some.  I respect you as adults- to be able to deal with messy stuff with no right answers and high stakes; unsatisfying endings that would never play on a made-for-TV movie; ambivalence; the uncertainty of complexity.

There are other voices writing and talking about this stuff- almost for sure someone is closer to what you want to hear. 

Monday, August 10, 2009


Balancing offense and defense is largely a sparring artifact.  At hand fighting range there is a sensitivity and a flow to sparring- the fist comes in, you glide it off line with a touch and snake your own strike over the top and he raises his elbow and/or shrugs his shoulder weaken the strike...

You don't commit your weight to a strike in sparring, largely because you don't want to do any real injury and partially because you have been convinced by your instructors how easy it is to destroy the balance of an over-committed attacker.  Being cautious from both ends, we train our attacks to be weak and don't realize it. Reps are reps.  A thousand reps of weak attacks hones the skill of attacking without power.

That's only a piece, because the defenses that we learn are based on these uncommitted attacks.  And they work well here, for what it is worth.  But the physical and emotional difference of a truly committed attack is amazing.  It will blow through many of the sparring defenses.  It can freeze you and take away the subtle glides and evasions.

It's not a difficult problem, the fully committed attack. The physics are pretty simple, the stuff that works works pretty reliably.  But it is so rarely addressed in training (more, I think, because it is not very safe and most people cannot summon the emotional intensity on demand) that when it happens it is an alien thing.

Many of the things that don't work in sparring are beautiful for the fully committed attack.  Some of the old stuff has what you need- imprecise enough to cover a wide area, gross-motor based, closing and leaving you in good position... and some of these very same things are suicide in  sparring.  The x-block that Steve and Scott rightly decry is a godsend when you see a flash of steel arcing towards your belly with a frothing, angry, PCP or meth dosed freak behind it.

And this is the thing.  Monkey dances, sparring, dueling are fine.  But someone trying to slaughter you, whether a predator working from ambush or a domestic situation yielding to rage, will be the fully committed attack.  With all of the threat's weight and speed, no holding back and with the psychological intention of introducing your insides to the cold air.

This leads to risk training. It's a little tweak for some, terrifying for others.  Every so often you must practice defense in an environment where if you do it wrong, you will be injured.  A full power, full speed baseball bat strike to the head. Preferably from someone with the skill to put himself in a rage mindset for a single blow and then come out of it.  The old two man kata, at higher levels, had a huge element of this.

And here is the test- if uke attacks with full power, speed and rage and tori screws the defense and uke in any way is able to regain control and not hurt tori, then uke didn't have the right mindset to begin with. The training would have been 'off', valueless.

I'm not suggesting this training method, because it is not safe.  I do it as tori. I will do it as uke if I know that tori completely understands that I will not pull in any way and his own survival is entirely in his hands.  I am reluctant to risk a manslaughter charge for training, especially if it is for someone who may choke or not understand.  The stupid and clumsy need not apply.

But there is a lesson there.  Especially if you can be both, the fully committed attacker and the defender.

Saturday, August 08, 2009


121 degrees a couple of hours ago.  Lots of doing nothing right now.  Paperwork, turning stuff in, sending stuff away.

Operational areas, for me, are easier than administrative areas.  There's more to do and 121 doesn't feel as sticky and nasty when I have something real to think about... but much of the world is run by lists and right now it is my turn to add stuff to lists.

Internet access is iffy and will be for a short while.  When access solidifies I'll write more.

Right now, shut your eyes and identify five sounds, five touches and five scents.
A jet taking off.
Generator humming.
A nargila bubbling.
People around me typing.

The edge of the table against my wrist.
Sweat trickling down my back.
Shoes wrapped around my feet.
Wrist watch slipping to the side.
A light breeze on my forearms.

Nargila smoke- orange mixed with watermelon.
Only three scents. That is my weakest. I can't smell myself without trying right now, which is probably good.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


I have to apologize to JJ- That's US Deputy Marshall JJ to you-  he taught me something very profound once that I have since embellished and internalized so that I no longer know what was my add-on to his thought.  So what follows, especially the good stuff, is JJ's and he deserves the credit. Be safe my friend.

Teaching instructors and leaders is different than teaching troops.  Leaders have to understand well enough to improvise, know the rules well enough to break them.  They need to know the 'why' of a thing pretty deeply.  Troops should know it too, of course, but part of concentrating that time at the instructor/leader level is so that they can pass it on at their discretion.

So, today, teaching basic skills to a leader I had to give him some background.

1) Anything you teach, anything you practice must have a tactical use.  If it is not useful, why are you practicing it?  Case in point- returning a katana to the scabbard quickly, smoothly and without looking is one of the hallmark proofs of extreme skill.  News flash- getting you weapon into the holster fastest has never won a fight.  There is no tactical use for disarming yourself quickly.  To be fair, the ability to secure your weapon without looking allows you to pay attention to potential emerging threats, and that is a good skill.

2) You must be able to perform the skill moving.  Fights (unarmed, guns, knives, swords or clubs) are not static affairs.  They are conducted moving.  You will be moving and so will the threat.  If you have to freeze in order to strike hard or stop in order to shoot accurately, what you have is not a combat skill.  If your opponent must freeze for an instant to give you time for your disarms or locks to work, it is not yet a combat skill.

3) Your skills must work when you are scared.  I can almost guarantee that if you ever need serious close-quarters survival skills, you will be scared.  That affects your mind and your body.  If the techniques you rely on require wide peripheral vision, calm planning, precise hand movements, or even a fairly complicated coordination of hands and feet they very likely won't work.  Levels of fear change with experience and somewhat with internal wiring- if you choose to believe that this doesn't apply to what you do, you are counting on being a mutant. Best of luck to you.

4) It must work whether you can see or not.  Not just because bad things happen in the dark but because you can't waste time looking at the weapons on your belt or checking to see which way your magazines are turned.  Something else, like the threat's hands, may well be in your face.  You won't get the choice that the threat will even be in front of you.  Some things, like shooting, require some vision (country western songs aside) but there is a reason why so much time is spent on low-light and poor visibility shooting. Reason being, that's how most of them happen.  Touch is reliable. Anything you can do by touch, you do by touch.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Integration Blues

While waiting for critiques on the first draft of book two, I've been working on the next one.  Frankly, it's driving me nuts. I'm trying to explain the nuts and bolts of why things work.  There is a reason why some small people can make joint locks work in a real fight and some can't.  There are physical and mental nuances that effective fighters do differently than ineffective fighters.

I'm trying to pick out the most important of these nuances, most of which are just applied physics, and explain them in a way that makes them useful.  That part is really easy.  Where it gets tricky and frustrating is that nothing stays in its neat little box.

Each thing affects the other thing.  Structure is important (but sometimes structure is utilizing free-fall, the exact opposite of rigidity), but compounded with exploiting gravity, and ... and ... it is amazing.  Combine and practice some of the principles right and you have contact telepathy.

None of it should be completely new to most well-trained martial artists-- but some of it will have been just lip service and some is in the motion but not really explained or understood by the instructors.  Structure is a good example.  I've known many people with excellent structure who didn't know it.  It was just something they picked up by training and when they became instructors they assumed that everyone just 'picks it up.'  Some do.  I think most don't, and it's one of the reasons why many students never live up to their instructors.  Learning some of these very critical nuances are left up to luck.

All of these are in the physical drills of almost every art that I have seen, but you can get through the drills, you can get through the entire syllabus of most systems and never actually learn or understand the stuff that is in there. You can do the techniques 'well enough' or even very well, and entirely miss whole principles.

But it is frustrating to write.  All of the chapters so far refer to multiple other chapters... so which goes first?  Each chapter starts with an experience where that particular principle was critical, but almost all of the principles played a role in almost all of the stories.  Leverage points make better sense if you understand base and Center of Gravity first, but base and CoG are easier to grasp if you understand leverage.

It's going to take a lot of work from the readers, I think. I'll make it as easy as I can, but in the end people can only effectively read one thing at a time, so the flow will never be the same as a force incident where multiple things are happening at multiple levels.

Training people is much easier than writing.