2020 Karate Thanksgiving

Written on Thanksgiving Eve, 2020.

As I type I am still in my gi. Dried sweat makes me itch from time to time. I smell a little ripe. After class I didn’t feel like stretching (bad, I know). Instead I jotted down some notes and then finally downloaded karate and fitness related files from my email. As I organized all of my files into folders I ran across a video I had taken of myself after an online class. I had just memorized a short kata in class. At a couple of points in the video I saw that I had to stop and remember what the next movement was. I was quite obviously dog tired to boot. And yet… I took the time to make that video. I realized then that as lousy as 2020 has been, I have retained my passion for my favorite hobby. I have a lot to be thankful for.

And yet… 2020.

I don’t mean to be a whiner: rather I want to acknowledge the negative in order to contrast with the positive. So I’ll list what 2020 threw at me and write my thoughts.

1) 2020’s attack: No in-person classes. I miss my dojo family. I miss chatting after class and getting together for meals. A little moving picture in online chat isn’t enough.

Each dojo in our organization has made its own decision about online classes. Bottom line is now I could attend so many classes each week that I probably would become dangerously exhausted. I’m also training with karateka who I used to see maybe once a month, some maybe once per year. And I’m training under multiple sensei – which means I’d better pay attention when they all give me the same feedback.

As I mentioned before, I’m building quite a treasure chest of computer files. Notes, pictures, videos… All emailed out either before class or maybe in answer to a question I emailed to a sensei. I love having all these resources! Since the pandemic began I have doubled the number of files I have.

2) 2020’s attack: No sparring. I can’t pressure test anything I come up with. I worry that if I have lost my ability to read intent and react quickly maybe I won’t be able to walk away from a real fight.

Not being able to pressure test anything I come up with for sparring sucks. Still, I’ve learned some good drills. Whenever we can meet in person again I should see results from practicing those drills. Also just tonight I’ve learned more about the connections among kihon, kata, and kumite. I can explore that while I wait. I’ve also made a cardboard dummy that has held up rather well. I have to be careful with “Cheapskate BOB” but then again, I have to be careful with my real training partners too. None of this is a substitution for real kumite, but it’ll get me through.

As for losing any ability to read intent and react quickly – since when have I been in a real fight? My first and only fight was in 1984 – and honestly it wasn’t much of a fight because I only used just enough force to make my point then walked away. 1989 doesn’t count either because I only gave a guy a light elbow to the gut (his wife gave him worse). Most of the time I’ve been able to completely avoid fighting. Honestly, worrying about it will probably cripple me more than not practicing for a few months.

I am thankful that I can at least do some kumite-related things on my own. And I’m grateful for the brutal techniques in kata, which I’m hoping never to use in real life application.

3) 2020’s attack: No tournaments. Nationals was supposed to be a five hour drive from my home – and my parents and uncle were looking forward to a little road trip with me.

I’m thankful that so far my parents and uncle have not come down with COVID-19. I am thankful they are alive and safe.

A week or two before lockdown I judged and competed in the only tournament of 2020. It had been a few months since I last saw some friends in other organizations. I’m glad I had that one chance to see them this year. I’m also grateful for the hard-earned medals. Sometimes in the past I’d get third place medals just for showing up. Not this time. I am thankful that even if there was only one tournament this year, it was a good one.

Right before lockdown I was doing my yearly cramming for the online tests I have to take to renew my USA-NKF judging license. I usually pass the test on kata rules the first or second time around, but kumite rules are another animal altogether. I failed the kumite test at least two times before everything was shut down. I have to admit I am thankful I don’t have to take those tests again for who knows how long.

4) Space limitations. Some kata take up a lot of floor space. Skinning my foot on the brick fireplace is painful.

I’m lucky to have what space I have, so I shouldn’t complain. During online classes I’ve seen karateka making do with smaller spaces. There are those who envy my basement room. Besides, I can practice kata one segment at a time – which is a good exercise even when one has all the space one needs. I am very thankful that I have more room than many.

5) No chance to test for my next belt rank – Shodan.

Testing for dan-rank candidates happens once per year. So yeah, no test for anyone i-kyu and above in 2020. It’s a bummer, but I’m OK. Who knows – maybe this wasn’t the right year even without this stupid plague. And I have been and am now enjoying preparing for the challenge, whenever it will be. I hope I’m making improvement in some very key areas. I feel like I do need time to work on stuff, so I’m willing to be patient and work my ass off.

My primary motivation is teaching, not rank. Once upon a time there was a 13 year old girl who learned how to make a proper fist. Then she learned to punch and she suddenly knew she had something to use if the bullies at school escalated to physical abuse. Once upon a time there was a middle-aged woman who wasn’t sure she was going to survive her first class in decades. I want to do for someone else what was done for me. It would be nice to have credentials, but I can wait until I have “mastered the basics.”

And on that note I am thankful for all my sensei, senpai, dohai, and kohai who have helped me along in my journey so far. I am grateful for karate and martial arts friends outside my organization who have competed with me, trained with me at seminars, and cheered me on even if we’ve never met in real life.

Training Online

Before COVID-19 closed everything down I had a habit of showing up early to class in order to take advantage of floor space. Since then my husband and I made some changes to our home so that I now have more room than ever to practice karate. Space isn’t a consideration anymore when it comes to how early I show up for class. But it’s still good for me to keep the habit of showing up early. In the process of adjusting to online classes I learned that I can get lost in what I’m doing and lose track of time. Ironically, I dislike having to keep track of time and I also hate having to remember to set alarms. Accordingly I now get Zoom up and running right away when I come in. This means I could be right in the middle of figuring something out when a sensei comes online. Invariably I get some feedback – which is good! The first couple of times this happened were unsettling to me. In the generation I grew up in, people on TV couldn’t hear or see you. We figured this out by the time we were four years old. The first time I was startled by a sensei’s appearance and subsequent feedback the first thought that popped into my head was, “Big Brother is watching me.” I had to laugh at myself.

Maybe I was too young when I read George Orwell’s chilling dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four (written in 1948). I was 14 years old in 1984 when I checked out the novel from my high school library. I thought it would be cool to read Orwell’s vision about the year I was living in. That book scared me more than the classic horror movie “Alien.” As an introvert I have always valued my privacy and my time alone. The pervasiveness of the “telescreens,” the TV screens that were also video cameras, creeped me out. We didn’t have that technology in 1984, and frankly I hoped we never would. We have the technology now and it’s not all bad.

Unlike the people living under Big Brother’s watchful gaze we are using our “telescreens” mostly for benign and beneficial activities, including martial arts. After a couple of weeks of practicing on my own I started pining away for my little dojo (karate school) tribe. I know how to practice on my own, I’ve learned about conditioning, I know at least some of what I need to work on. I value having time and space to breathe and explore. But it’s not enough. Those first two weeks of quarantine before our sensei(s) got online classes up and running were kinda miserable for me.

But, but, but, but – there’s tons of videos out there, right? I could learn from anyone, right? Yes and no. If I were starting from scratch in a new martial art I would be at a severe disadvantage without a live instructor. If I did not have a good foundation in that art I would simply be mimicking. Mimicking will not get you very far in any martial art. I know – I’ve helped teach a very gifted dancer who is amazing at mimicking what he sees. But even he needs an instructor who is right there, who can see things in three dimensions and who can move in three dimensional space. Not to mention touch – not just to correct but to feed and receive techniques. Physical contact is something we marital artists cannot do right now, and at least in my state we won’t be able to do for quite some time to come. At some point I will need to test the new things I’ve learned on real people who might just show me exactly where things break down.

What I can do with pre-recorded videos is I can gather and analyze information. I love bunkai (interpretations of kata), so I’ve been watching videos about bunkai. I understand that there will be differences between what I see and what I was taught due to style differences. I also understand that one practitioner’s bunkai is not necessarily going to be in line with another practitioner’s bunkai – and that’s OK! I do have to understand the bunkai my own sensei (instructor) taught me and, someday, I will teach others what was passed down to me.

Here’s the thing – I don’t go watching videos about bunkai for kata that I haven’t memorized. But I do confess that a couple of years ago I did use a video to learn a new kata. I was supposed to be learning that kata. I made sure the video was from the same series of videos recommended to me by one of my sensei(s). I’d seen it practiced in the dojo so I had a rough idea of what to expect. I most certainly did not rely on the video alone to learn the kata. But there was one huge advantage the video had over live instruction. I could turn my back to the screen and watch the video using a mirror.

Long-time followers of this blog might remember that I am challenged with directional dyslexia. I have any number of coping mechanisms. As I predicted a few years ago I have a pretty good grasp of the basic principles of karate. I’m sure that’s exactly where I’m supposed to be on my journey right now given my current rank (i-kyu). But still… it’s a huge relief to be able to let go of right and left from time to time. Of course this doesn’t work for kata but it does work for learning complex drills. I had no idea of the scope of my learning challenge until now. It’s probably like someone who was born with impaired hearing getting a cochlear implant. Except… I can use the implant only intermittently and I’ll have to give it up at some point in the future. Totally worth it.

I miss the fellowship. I miss all the things that I cannot do without other people.

There are some learning methods I’ve picked up during this time of quarantine that I will continue to use in the future. It’s far easier for me to take videos of myself in my new space so I’ve been doing way more of that. This tournament season is shot but I’m using my judging skills on myself. Normally I have pen and paper handy in my gear bag so I can scribble notes after class. That’s fine, but I’ve learned that sometimes I need more. Nowadays after class I sometimes open up a video of myself or of someone else in one monitor and in the other monitor I’ll type notes. This is especially nice to do for kata. I can remember far more about the feedback I received when I have a video (even if it’s not me or my sensei) to jog my memory. And who knows? Maybe after all this is over the karate organization I belong to will use online classes for supplemental training.

P. S. – Ironically, I’ve become a minor character from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. I am now the “Physical Jerks” lady on the telescreen because I lead an early morning online fitness class via Zoom. I was scheduled to start this class in person at an athletic club the very week we were shut down due to COVID-19. I went online instead. What can I do but laugh?

Coping with the Pandemic

Folks, my world is being shaken by COVID-19. My life is changing every single day. The college where I work is a ghost town and next week almost all staff will be working from home. I really miss the students, who are taking their classes online now. Trips to the grocery stores are depressing – empty shelves and people keeping their distance are real downers. I can visit my parents only if we’re outside and at a distance from one another. Even before COVID-19 my husband and I were thinking that declaring bankruptcy could be a viable option, and now it’s looming. My dojo hasn’t met this week. I feel like my world is shrinking, imploding. I am stunned by how much has happened in so short a time.

I took a week off from working out. I needed the time to wrap my head around the new reality and to grieve a bit for the things that need to be set aside for the time being. I came to the realization that I did not need worries and anxieties about Karate on top of everything else that is going on right now. I knew those worries about my Karate were actually quite silly. Ordinarily, I could easily dispel those anxieties with any number of coping mechanisms and just plain hard physical work.

I just didn’t have the energy this past week.

So I let go. Sort of.

I prepared for the weeks to come and these preparations solved a multitude of problems. My husband needs quiet as he works from home – which he’s been doing for several months now. I need an area big enough to accommodate kata (forms) practice. My husband was in a big basement room with an outside entrance to the driveway. I was in a teensy bedroom in the basement. We were using the wrong spaces.

This past weekend my husband and I concentrated on making the teensy basement room into an office. My husband now has a door he can close. No one will traipse through with sacks of groceries. We focused on getting that office functional ASAP. My new workout room was a complete disaster area for most of this week. And that’s OK.

Like I said, I needed time. Emotionally and psychologically, I was drained.

I know exercise is good for what ails you, but sometimes it’s hard to get the motivation to do so. I assured myself with the fact that I never intended to set aside exercise and karate permanently. I knew all I needed was to come back rested and with a fresh perspective on the little hangups that seemed so enormous while I was dealing with the grief and strain caused by the COVID-19 situation.

Wednesday night I felt guilty that the exercise/craft room wasn’t quite done yet. Throughout the week I picked through craft stuff and boxed up quite a bit of it for the thrift store, but there were still a few piles of stuff on the floor. I decided the space didn’t have to be perfect to be usable. I shoved what remained of the mess into a corner of the craft area. As I worked I realized that I was happy. I vacuumed the floor and went to bed excited about resuming my workouts.

The new, bigger space is wonderful. I only have to do a little scootching when practicing the kata (forms) which require the most space. I never realized how annoyed I was at the constant scootching I had to do in the little room. Thursday, when I worked out for the first time since the last class day, I felt free and I felt… Flabby.

Oh well. I guess I’ll just have to set the bar a little lower than it was for just a little while while I rebuild. I’ve lost a little ground physically. Mentally, though, I’m back. Yes I’m sad about the cancelled classes, yes, I feel lonely for my little tribe, and yes I am frustrated that tournaments are being cancelled left and right. But now that I’ve wrapped my head around the other things that are going on in my life I’m ready to deal with this.

I have to stop feeling guilty about the week I took off because it gave me a little bit of breathing room – a little time to gradually work through some things as I prepared my new and better workout space. Of course I’m going to miss my fellow karateka, but I also know how to work out on my own. Prior to the cancellation of what would have been my next tournament I was, like every year, tearing my hair out trying to pass the online test for renewing my kumite (sparring) judging license. Now I have quite a lot more time to study (God knows I need it). I had one excellent tournament before everything was shut down and the 2nd and 3rd place medals I won were good, solid wins against some excellent ladies. Even if all the tournaments are cancelled this season, I will still have the good memories from that one tournament. Most importantly, to me anyway, I have more time and space to improve my karate in preparation for my Shodan (1st degree black belt) test.

Dear reader, my answer to the question, “When will you test?” remains the same: I am preparing for that test, have been since November 2018. Frankly, nothing is certain given the COVID-19 situation. I’m hoping for the best – that all this will be a memory in a month. But… Reality is that I will have to be clever and diligent in my study, and I might have to wait quite a long time to test (which could be true anyway regardless of any stupid virus). God knows I have a LOT to work on. And thanks to the little break I took this week I am ready to buckle down again. I am hoping this discipline will help carry me through the challenges in the weeks and months to come.

Intermittent

As 2019 winds down I am making some choices about how I spend my time. Some of these decisions are tough, some are easy. 2020 will see me letting go of some things and ramping up others. Unfortunately, dear readers, I am letting go of posting on this blog regularly. I will be intermittent at best. Years ago I started out blogging quite frequently – and later recognized my need to scale back. I’m at a similar place now.

I love writing. The discipline of writing about Karate has been beneficial to my mindset and practice. I have enjoyed interacting with those who left comments. There’s also a bit of accountability involved – if I say publicly that I do something or will do something I’d better do it and keep on doing it until I change what I’m doing for the better. Those who have been reading this blog for awhile have seen growth as a result. But blogging biweekly has been something of a strain the last two months.

I’ve reached crossroads not only in my Karate training, but also in my personal and professional lives. I’m not going into the personal and professional crossroads here – except to say I anticipate great things in the coming year. This blog is about Karate, so here are the details of my Karate crossroads.

I’ve already been scaling back in Karate. A little over a year ago I had to let go of helping out with the college PE class. I suppose I could have made it happen but it would have squeezed out other things in my life. Other karateka stepped up to the plate and I’m glad to see them taking on the responsibilities. Earlier this week I let go of my involvement with our karate booster club, which I’ve supported for most of my karate career. I’m still “on call” and anticipate returning in 2021. I don’t plan on competing and judging at Nationals until things settle down in my personal and professional lives. I’ve scaled back some things but I’ve been ramping up others.

I have been actively training for Shodan (first degree black belt) since November 2018. That’s when one of my sensei(s) told me to start training as if I had that invitation to test. I hadn’t yet tested for i-kyu (my current rank). For about 13 months now my mindset has been, “What do I need to do now to make Shodan happen?” While I wait for the formal invitation to test I sometimes tinker with the structure and content of the workouts and practice I do at home. I know I’ll continue to adjust as new things come up, and that’s OK. I anticipate this hard work will pay off and lead to big things – if not in 2020, then some other year.

But blogging isn’t one of those big things. I’ll maybe check in a few times in the coming year, write an article here and there…

When I first started this blog I drifted between aping other bloggers and trying to find my own groove. It didn’t take all that long for me to figure out that autobiography and introspection came more naturally to me than anything else. I don’t know why some of my earliest posts drifted away from my original idea to record my Karate journey right from the start.

I pretty much got the idea to start blogging after I read Smile at Strangers and Other Life Lessons by Susan Schorn. I loved this book. It spoke to me in many ways. Yet I wanted to know more about what she experienced when she was a beginner like me. When I started this blog I wanted to document the beginning of my Karate journey from the perspective of a beginner, not retrospectively, as Susan Schorn had. It’s OK – the whole point of her book was lessons she’d learned, and honestly she got right to the meat and skimmed over the baby food. I just wanted to do my own thing.

And I have.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t “arrived.” I haven’t “finished.” I don’t consider myself to be in some sort of a “holding pattern” while waiting for the invitation to test for Shodan. As this blog’s banner says, ” I will always be beginning something new and will always be discovering my abilities. ” I’ve probably promised before now that this blog won’t stop when I reach Shodan because Shodan is a new beginning. Yet here I am trying to keep way too many balls in the air. I need to let go of posting regularly.

Honestly, there’s not all that much more I really want to write. I fear repeating myself. I know there’s nothing wrong with learning the same lesson on a deeper level, but I have trouble making repetition into a good blog. Also, as I’ve written before, there are some things that are best left private. Sometimes these things are negative, sometimes these things simply involve someone’s privacy… These things are part of life in the dojo and therefore are also part of the karate journey. I’m also finding myself increasingly reluctant to write about some of the most exciting things about learning and growing in the art of Karate.

I’m finding that there are quite a lot of treasures and discoveries that I want to keep to myself. I have been reading Andrea Harkins’ blog for longer than I’ve been writing my own. I recall her writing at least once that there are some really wonderful treasures that are best kept “secret.” These are not negative secrets designed to hurt or exclude. Neither are these “secrets” some sort of woo-woo magic Karate tricks taught only to certain ranks. These little gems are a lot like Christmas presents. Secrecy is best for those kinds of gifts.

Anyhow, that’s what’s going on with me nowadays. I’ve been getting loads of “Christmas presents” all along, but it just seems like it’s getting harder and harder for me to want to try and describe them here in this blog. I’m not a tech writer nor am I a philosopher. My strength is narrative, and my material is limited (out of respect for others) and starting to cycle. That and I need to cut back on some things in my life. Cutting way back on blogging was a hard decision to make, but necessary.

Greater things are ahead. I’ll stay in touch as best I can: intermittently.

Instant Decision

Draw attention to yourself. Sabotage your kidnapper’s vehicle if you can safely do so. Everything I’ve read about abduction, every video I’ve shown my children about kidnapping teaches this. One afternoon while stopped at a red light I was quite surprised to see a car’s passenger-side front door open. A pair of adult legs popped out but no person followed. The legs kicked a little. Something was wrong. I pulled my car over to the shoulder of the road beside the vehicle.

As I opened my car door I could hear yelling. My husband and I got out of my car. I cautiously turned towards the open door of the other vehicle. No weapons were evident – I’d have run away if there had been a gun. The driver had the passenger in a choke hold. Fortunately the driver didn’t have much strength, and the thickness of the passenger’s neck was a blessing. The passenger’s color was good, breathing was unimpaired.

I drew a deep breath and stared the two people down with my best “Mommy look.” With all the authority I could muster, I asked, “Can I help you?”

The driver yelled out their interpretation of what was going down. The passenger, still in a choke hold, asked me to call 911. I nodded by way of acknowledging both persons and backed off. I told my husband to call 911. I knew it wasn’t up to me to sort out their conflict – at least as long as nobody was in any immediate danger of losing life and limb.

I had already assessed my options and resources. Nobody got out of their vehicles to help me. Nobody so much as even positioned their cars to trap the assailant’s vehicle. Obviously I couldn’t count on anyone but my husband. Fortunately, the passenger was doing OK for the moment and the situation was not escalating. I distanced myself by going to the far side of my own vehicle and called 911 myself, keeping an eye on the two inside the other vehicle.

If I’d had help or if there had been a knife, I’d have tried de-escalation. If the victim’s breathing had actually been obstructed by the choke hold, I’d have intervened physically, backing off if a hidden gun or knife appeared. But one thing I really didn’t like about that situation was the prospect of a vehicle turning into a weapon. Any physical intervention on my part could have resulted in me being injured or killed by movement of the car. That said, I’d have intervened in a heartbeat if I’d thought the victim was in immediate danger. But as it was both parties calmed down. After a couple of minutes the passenger shut the door. They drove off.

I have no idea how their story ended. Hopefully they got to their home or homes all right. Hopefully they learned that their actions will get attention.

“I didn’t know what to do,” my husband admitted later.

“It’s OK. You did what was needed,” I assured him.

How did I know what my options were? I think I can credit Rory Miller’s book Conflict Communication: A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication. Heck, even my years in a customer-service job have to count for something. I’ve also had, to date, four other close calls in which I successfully avoided fighting. So I’m kinda getting used to that gig. But I give the most credit to – you guessed it – karate training.

Tournaments. Belt tests. Heck, even just an ordinary class when you’re sparring that one karateka who scares the bejeebers out of you (before you learn that he won’t intentionally harm you). The dojo (karate school) is a place where we can explore our capacity to deal with pressure in a mostly safe environment (injuries do occasionally happen). One learns to get control of that adrenaline rush, to instantly assess and decide, and to adapt on the fly. We learn what our limits are and to adjust accordingly.

I can’t fight a car. That’s one of my obvious limits. But is that limit so obvious to me if I’m half-drunk on adrenaline? Is the possibility of getting dragged, run over, crippled, or killed by a car obvious when I’ve got tunnel vision and that pounding in my ears? We’ve all been there, you know the answer is “No.” Many people recognize the onset of an adrenaline rush and they know what to do about it. Soldiers, police, firefighters, medics, and, you guessed it, martial artists all have their methods.

Then there’s the aftermath. This is when one’s body and emotions kinda crash for awhile. Even a minor incident like this… Whew. Yeah. I needed to process it. You guessed it – writing is very much a medium that works for me. The nice thing about writing is maybe someone else will benefit from the lessons I’ve learned and the mistakes I’ve made.