Prediction vs. Reality

Monday, January 9, 2017 was the first day of class at the college.  This is a physical education class that people take for credit.  It’s rare for students to take both quarters that are offered, even more rare for a student to audit in order to attend beyond the two quarters.  How I became involved is a long story – and as of last Spring I’m the highest-ranked student and therefore have some responsibilities.  It’s a rewarding experience to help introduce young people to Karate, and I always hope that they remember the class fondly and take up the art again after they’re done with our little class.

I’ve decided to do something a little different this week on this blog.  I wrote down how I anticipate the first class will go.  Then I wrote about what actually happened.

Here’s my anticipation, written Sunday night (1/8/16)…

I’ll tear myself away from the busy front desk at the office, reluctant to leave my co-workers to deal with the crowd of students who always come in during the first day of class.  But my involvement in the Karate program predates my job and one of the conditions I laid down when I was hired was that I can flex my hours in order to continue to be involved in the Karate class.  I’m anticipating seeing at least two of our International students in the dojo.  I don’t recall what they look like, but I’ve memorized their names.  I’ll surreptitiously peek when Sensei does the roll call.

I’ll stop at my car to retrieve my gear then hustle to the locker room.  My transformation from office professional to karateka begins with switching my bifocals to contact lenses and ends with tying my belt and shoving my feet into flip-flops.  I’ll experience some sadness when I remember students who I won’t be seeing this quarter.

It’s quite likely after I bow into the dojo that someone will ask me for a hair band or a Band-Aid.  That always seems to happen the first day of every quarter.  I always keep things like that on hand for those who need them.  I’ll put my gear down in a corner by Sensei’s bag, shuck my flip-flops, then help Sensei put tournament mats down on the floor.  I’ll explain how the mats are supposed to be laid out to eager students who are anxious to help.  Once this task is done, I’ll ask people to remove their shoes and socks.  I’ll probably do that two or three times before class starts.  If I’m lucky, I might get to practice kata.  I think I’ll do Rohai Shodan – an old lady balancing on one leg (sagi ashi dachi) is kinda impressive.

Sensei will call us to line up, and I will take my place in the Sempai position.  I will remember three people who used to be in that position.  I will do my part in the opening ceremony, pausing so that Sensei can explain each step.  Then Sensei will ask me to lead warm-ups.

I like to be cheerful and human.  I’ll introduce myself briefly, and probably make a wise crack like, “You guys are lucky – I just got over the worst flu ever, this is my first workout since before Christmas, so I’ll go easy on you today.”  I will take maybe five or ten minutes to hit major muscle groups.  There’s no need to kill myself or them.  We get only an hour anyway, so it’s best not to spend too much time warming up.

I’m anticipating three or four students taking the second quarter.  I don’t remember which of them tested for their orange belt last quarter.  No matter – the ones who didn’t test can still learn their new kata (forms).  Sensei will tell me what he wants me to cover, and he will take the newbies – typically we have about eighteen or so each quarter.  I get to teach the second-quarter students on the first day.

I think Sensei will want me to review kihon (basic movements).  I like to hammer in the Japanese terms, so I’ll be sure to incorporate that as we go.  Given the tiny group I’ll have, there will be plenty of opportunity for me to give feedback and advice to refine their movements.  Sensei might tell me to teach them their new kata.  They will have two to learn, but one is just a variation on what they’ve already learned.  I will be running out of time after we go through the first kata, so I won’t be able to do more than briefly introduce the other kata.  I’m really hoping, though, that Sensei will tell me to do kumite (sparring) with them instead of kata.  I’d love to do some drills that involve the defenders stepping away at an angle to set up for a counter-attack.  All too often we drill in straight lines, which means defenders go straight backward.  This results in students thinking stepping backward is their only option.  I want to expand their horizons at this stage.

After class I’ll help tear down and stack the mats.  If there isn’t another class or sports team coming into the room, I’ll have a little bit of time to practice kata, and Sensei might stay to help me, or at the very least he might practice his own kata.  It’s always a treat for me to watch him, as he’s vastly better than me.  Watching him reminds me of what I need to be working towards.

Now let’s see what really happened…

When I bowed into the dojo, Sensei had not put out the tournament mats.  Blocking the door to the equipment room was a cart full of hand weights.  Sensei had stacked foam shields against the wall.  I bowed to Sensei and asked about mats, and he said we wouldn’t be using them today.  I filled out the waiver form that I have to fill out every quarter, then directed new students to remove shoes and socks.  Much to my surprise, I only had to ask students to do this once.

I had loads of time to practice kata while students filled out waiver forms.  I found out the really bad flu I’d had over the winter break had really taken a toll on me.  I had a lingering cough and got winded easily.  Still, movement felt good after seventeen days of not working out.  My balance wasn’t what it should be and I wondered if my inner ear was affected by the medicine.  I was relieved to find I hadn’t forgotten my kata.  The new students who had already filled out their waiver forms watched.  I didn’t care about messing up – I found that my need to practice outweighed my desire to look cool.  Besides, it’s good for students to see that I’m not perfect and it’s good for them to watch me patiently work through something that I just flubbed.  At one point Sensei gave me a refinement to work on.

Sensei finally called the class to gather around.  He talked about what to expect and introduced me.  This was definitely a departure from the normal first day.  Usually he has this talk just with the new people and I get to teach the returners.  I spotted an acquaintance in the crowd.  I was not expecting her there at all and I was very happy to see her.  She is a black belt from Japan, she’s my co-worker (in another division of the office I work for), and she and I have been training together at another dojo.  I recognized a couple of returning students, and was just a little dismayed that there weren’t more.  We lined up properly and Sensei walked us through the opening ceremony.  He led so that he could explain everything, so I didn’t get to do my bit until the closing ceremony.

After he led a brief, light warm-up, Sensei had us students partner up and I paired up with a returning student.  We grabbed the big foam shields.  Sensei demonstrated how to hold the shield and I was flattered when he had me kick it in order to demonstrate exactly why one needs to hold the shield properly.  WHAM!  I always feel so powerful when I can land a good kick on something solid.  But we weren’t going to do kicks.  Instead, Sensei walked the class through elbow strikes.  I’d never done elbow strikes outside of kata, so this was a treat for me.  I found myself thinking about my hikite (the hand that pulls back to “chamber” while the other strikes) and about my hips.  Sensei came over at one point to tell me to not “pose” at the end of the technique – strike and pull back immediately.  “You’re not a beginner anymore,” he said.  Well, technically I am and I will most likely still feel like I’m pretty wet behind the ears when I finally do get to tie on a black belt.  That said, Sensei’s point was that I need to think beyond the drills in order to build better habits.  It’s a recurring theme with me, and he’s not the only Sensei who’s been saying it to me.  I guess I’d better stop being afraid to build on the drills.

Sensei wanted all of us to remember how much power we were able to generate and said we’d re-visit elbow strikes the last class day so that we could see our progress.  Later, at home, I thought about my hikite and my hips, and I realized I still had a tendency to “muscle through” the technique.  My best strike that Sensei saw and commented on was one in which I felt loose until the moment of impact.  I have some work to do.

We ended class with the hand weights.  Sensei walked the class through the motions of punching, and we did this wit the weights.  I found out I was still fairly strong even after half a month of illness.  Putting the weights aside and punching for real felt great, especially when we added kiai.  Unfortunately, we were running over time at that point.

Sensei had us go through the closing ceremony a little more like how we usually do it on the first class day, so I got to do my bit.  I helped put equipment away and he asked my opinion.  I was flattered he asked.  I told him I thought that jumping right into bag work was a great way to start the quarter.  I observed that we seem to lose a lot of students after the first day, and speculated we’d be keeping more this time around.  I asked a couple of questions of my own.  College Sensei has been asking my opinion more in the last few months – it’s pretty obvious he’s starting to train me as someone who will become a Sensei herself.  I’m honored that he’s prompting me to think about the dojo as a whole.

One more pleasant surprise was in store for me as Sensei and I went to grab our gear bags.  One more of the college’s International students asked Sensei if he could join the class.  This student has been studying at the college for awhile now, so I knew who he was – and he’d been in to the office earlier that morning.  I love seeing the realization dawn on a student’s face when he or she recognizes me, and this time Sensei got to see it too.  Yes, Linda Lee Danvers is Supergirl and vice versa.  I checked that the student knew how to add classes online, then went off to practice kata while he chatted with Sensei.  Finally it was indeed time to clear out.  This quarter we will have the room for twenty minutes after class, so that will be sufficient to take up tournament mats and maybe sneak a little kata practice in.

When I got home I found my elbows were sore, red, and had little patches of skin rubbed off.  I’ll heal.  I had to drive the elbow strikes into the “body” rather than clip the chin as I’ve practiced in kata, so I’ve learned a valuable technique for when the opponent is quite close.  Given the force I’m able to generate, this technique could disable or at least drive off an attacker.  The lingering ache in my elbows actually felt good in a way.  The pain is a reminder that I’m grabbing life by the horns and holding on for the wild ride.

OK, so I learned technique and got high from the endorphins (which helps reinforce the lesson that this Karate stuff is lots of fun).  But there are deeper lessons learned from this first day of class.  This is my eighth quarter of being involved with the college’s Karate class, and the first day has always been pretty much the same every time (except lately I’ve been in the role of senior student).  I learned that there is always room for improvement.  It’s perfectly OK to experiment, to try something different with a class.  College Sensei outranks me vastly and has decades more experience in karate and in teaching karate to others, but he still seeks to be better.  His students, including me, will reap the benefit of his willingness to improve.  College Sensei knows my ambitions – he knows I want to teach.  He is setting an example for me.  I’m very glad to have these lessons.

The Value of Struggling

In the science-fiction movie “The Matrix,” the main character’s brain was connected to a computer and he was thus able to learn anything almost instantly.

“I know Kung Fu…” he gasped, astonished.

“Show me,” the leader of the humans challenged him.

The two mens’ brains were hooked up to a computer and a fantastic battle ensued in the virtual world.

Most of us don’t like hard work if we’re doing something we’re not at all passionate about.  This was evident in a conversation between two boys after class one night.

“How do you like Karate?” an orange belt (low rank) boy asked a new beginner.

“I thought we’d be learning cool stuff.  This is boring,” the new beginner boy griped.

Get this – we’d been learning take-downs that evening.  Take-downs are cool.  I’d taught the new beginner boy every third class for a few weeks so I already knew he liked the idea of being able to do Karate but he wasn’t willing to put any effort into learning it.  I hope someday he’ll be doing something for the sheer joy of it, even if it’s difficult to learn.

What if we could hook up our brains to a computer and instantly bypass all the boring, difficult things that come with learning a skill?  I know I’d choose to be a house flipper, a jeweler, an actor, a singer, a flautist, and a harpist.  But what if learning could be instant and two thirds of the world’s population became professional harpists?   I wouldn’t be anything special.  No one would go to concerts.  The value of the skill would be diminished.  Let’s narrow the scope a bit.  What would it mean for me personally to not have to struggle to learn something?

Notice I didn’t say I’d learn a martial art instantly if I could.  I’ve learned lessons from struggling that I wouldn’t have otherwise.  If you’ve been reading my blog and/or training with me, you’ve seen the lessons I’ve learned from sweat, tears, injury, frustration, embarrassment, fear, and even dyslexia.  I’ve had to re-build techniques and even calisthenic exercises from the ground up because I found out I need to fix something.  Yes – starting over from scratch as if I were a white belt (new beginner) again, stumbling all over myself trying to incorporate that one little change that will improve my Karate, practicing until whatever it is I’m working on becomes second nature.  The pride of accomplishment is my reward, but there is also a lot of satisfaction in the process itself.  I know I’m growing in skill, but more importantly, my character is being molded and shaped.

What would I lose by being able to learn Karate instantly?  I’d miss out on all the lessons in perseverance.  I wouldn’t have been lifted up by the encouragement of quite a number of people.  Leadership skills and learning how to be a teacher depend on other people – those wonderfully unique people who are your mentors, peers, and students.  Respect is so much more than saying “Ossu!” (“Yes Sir!”) and knowing who comes up from a bow first.  Respect is relational and grows over time.

Perhaps the biggest thing I’d miss out on are the lessons in empathy.  I need to be aware of what my kohai (plural – lower ranked students) need from me because I too once struggled (and maybe am still struggling) with the same things they are.  I need to be aware that my sempai (plural – higher ranked students) and sensei (plural – black belts) have some very awesome skills but they are still human and need appreciation and encouragement just like everyone else.

No computer or, if you prefer, magic wand could give me these very human lessons.

Culture Shock

“That expectation is appropriate for [certain circumstances], but is unrealistic for [this particular situation]…”  Sensei (my instructor) patiently explained.

Surprised, I thought to myself, “Wow.  Back when I was a teenager training in [that other organization]…”

I stopped that train of thought immediately, recognizing it as a symptom of culture shock.  I have a background from a previous karate organization.  Some things were the same or similar, and some things were different.  Culture shock can either be a roadblock to learning or an opportunity to open a productive discussion.  I chose the latter and was glad I did.  I gained insight which I will use to shape my future words and actions in the dojo.

Me circa 1983

For those of you who don’t already know, I trained in a different Karate organization for three years when I was a teenager.  I participated in only two tournaments and I didn’t use the opportunity to make connections with karateka (karate students of all ranks) from other organizations like I do today.  The Internet didn’t exist, so there were no online martial arts forums.  And let’s face it – I wasn’t as “seasoned” in life as I am now.  My perspective was very limited.

Let me stress that from my point of view, there is nothing wrong with the organization I was once a part of or how they did things back in the day.  Having that background has given me a great boost when it comes to navigating things like etiquette and work ethic.  It’s just that every once in awhile I run into things that are handled differently and I find I have to adjust my thinking.

You’d think that a 27-year-long “vacation” then subsequent training for two years, six months, and six days would have eliminated any preconceived notions of how things are “supposed to” work when it comes to the “culture” of the organization of dojos (karate schools) I currently train in.  Nope.  I still have a lot to learn and I think I will always be learning because my past did shape me – yes, in a positive way, but it was different.  Not better, not inferior, just different.

I remember the first time I recognized the signs of “culture shock” in myself.  It took me weeks to come up with a good way to open a discussion about something I’d seen.  I formulated a polite question and carefully chose who to ask.  I was scared out of my gourd that I’d cause offense.  I needn’t have worried.  The sensei (instructor) was every bit as sensitive to my need to know as I was sensitive to not be judgmental in any way.  I gained a lot from the discussion that followed.

I can definitely respect “new” and “different.”  Even if I happen to think something was handled better in the other organization “back in the day,” I am willing to adjust, adapt, and patiently wait for evidence that the “new” way works best for “my” dojo under today’s circumstances.  The way I figure it, some day I’ll have a black belt and I’ll get my chance to dust off some things from the past to see if they’ll work.  Either I’ll fall flat on my face or I’ll succeed.  Meanwhile, I continue to ask carefully crafted questions.

I’m getting better at recognizing “culture shock” and more at ease with opening dialogs.  I find it helps to ask questions and to not bring up how things were done at the other dojo.  The first line of our dojo kun (school code of ethics), which we recite at the opening and closing of nearly every class, instructs us to be humble and polite.  This is a great guideline for navigating the tricky waters of culture shock.

“Culture shock” can be turned into a driving force for learning and growing or it can get ugly.  Sometimes the strong emotions evoked can take one by surprise, and these emotions are, admittedly, tricky to wrestle with.  The good news is that one has a choice of how to respond.  It’s an important choice.  I’ve seen a student with a background from another martial arts school fail to work beyond his culture shock.  During his short-lived study he chose all the wrong responses to what he was experiencing.  It wasn’t long before he was asked to leave.  This could have been avoided.  In contrast, no one has even so much as assigned push ups to me for asking questions, so I’m probably on the right track.



SPLAT!  A tall strapping young man hits the mats.  A woman who stands a head shorter and who is easily old enough to be his mother put him there.  How does this happen?

I do have more strength than the average woman my height and age, and there are people who I can muscle down to the ground (admittedly, these are mostly teenage girls).   But not this young man.  Working with young giants forces me to bring timing and positioning together to create leverage.  When everything goes well, taking someone down feels effortless.  I call it the magic of leverage.  I’ve learned to stop and evaluate what I’m doing if I feel myself bringing my strength into play. My strength won’t budge a young giant.

Leverage doesn’t apply just to takedowns.  One can shatter joints, take away a weapon, or render someone powerless to go anywhere but where you want them to go.  Leverage definitely comes into play even in basic blocks we teach in a new beginner’s very first class. By blocking, one is manipulating someone else’s limb, using leverage to divert its path.  I’ve done just a teeny tiny bit of weapons training and you bet there’s leverage there, especially when it comes to disarms.

One time I came away from learning an empty-hand vs. bo disarm asking myself, “How practical is that?  Who the heck carries a bo down a city street?”  Then I realized all I had to do was adjust the technique slightly to disarm someone with a baseball bat or tire iron.  The leverage used would vary only by the length of the weapon.

Creating leverage isn’t easy, especially when you get into some of the fancier takedowns, disarms, etc.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve failed miserably to create leverage, or stood patiently while a partner tries to get me down to the mats.  I have no illusions about my ability to actually use anything more than a couple of the simplest takedowns “in the street.”  I simply have not drilled these things enough with a live, resisting partner at a speed and in a context that would be similar to the way things go down in real life.  I don’t have the precision, timing, or reflexes yet.  This is where experience and years of training come in.

There is one aspect of leverage that I absolutely have mastered.  I’ve mastered having fun with the magic of leverage.  I feel a certain amount of glee when I’ve got someone at my feet after I did something that felt effortless, or when I’ve taken away someone’s bo.  Practicality (i.e. will it work “in the street”) is secondary to me.  Leverage is cool, and I love geeking out over it.

A Karate Thanksgiving


Yes, of course I’m thankful for the usual – friends, family, good health, my country…  But this blog is about my Karate journey, right?  So here is what I’m thankful for in Karate.

03_Image2I’m thankful for my Sensei.  The word “Sensei” is both the singular and the plural form of the word that means “one who has gone before” (i.e. teacher).  Because there have been changes in my home dojo (school) and because I do visit other dojos and assist with the college PE Karate class, I’ll just lump everyone in together – “Sensei” and “you” can be both singular and plural so I’m going to run with that.   Sensei – I appreciate the time you take to make sure I understand what to do.  You’re very patient with my flaws and you always take the time to tell me how I can improve.  I am thankful that you truly appreciate the art we study because a teacher who loves what he or she teaches is the best kind of teacher to have.  Your encouragement and instruction mean a lot to me.  Thank you.

karate-312474_640I’m thankful for my Sempai – those who are higher ranked than I but aren’t black belts yet.  Again, this is both singular and plural, and I’m going to run with that.  I am thankful for your help.  You have invested your time in me and have helped me succeed in climbing even to your own rank.  You push me hard when we’re paired up in class and I appreciate that.  You serve as good examples to me and you’re my companions on the journey.  Thank you.

beltgreenstripeWhat about those who are the same rank as I am?  Well, most of them are senior to me and I still call them Sempai.  So… That leaves one person who promoted at the same time as I did (a couple of months ago).  I am thankful for her as a person and I am looking forward to training more with her in December.

OssuI’m thankful for my Kohai – those who are lower ranked than I am.  Yep, both singular and plural.  Thank you for being my guinea pigs.  I am not now nor will I ever be a perfect teacher, but I am improving my teaching skills because of you.  I’m learning how to figure out what you need from me at any given moment.  Some of you think I’m a hero and I’m learning to look past my discomfort with that and channel it right back to you by showing you the way to be a hero too.  I love seeing you stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things – that is truly heroic.  And yes, two or three of you are teaching me a lot about staying patient and encouraging, but don’t worry about that – it’s good for my character.  I am truly thankful that you forgive me my flaws.  Just like you, I’m still in process and I will get better.

I’m thankful for my online acquaintances – I’ve never met you in person.  I’ve never trained with you.  But you’ve been there cheering me on.  You’ve often given me valuable tips and you’re always encouraging me to be my best.  I have a blog because two of you encouraged me to start one, and as I “grow up” in my art, I appreciate having a record of what I’ve been learning along the way.  Thank you.

jwofficeI’m thankful for my job and my co-workers.  No, I don’t get paid to do Karate.  I’m an office assistant for the International Student Programs office at the local college.  I’ve written about the connection of my job to Karate here.  I’m funding my Karate expenses with this job, and that alone is something to be grateful for.  I very much appreciate it that my supervisor flexes my hours so that I can assist with the college Karate class.  I am glad my co-workers don’t run away screaming when I mention Karate for the umpteenth time in a day.  And it’s always fun at the beginning of every quarter to see the look on international students’ faces when they realize who is making them do push ups (it’s that lady from the ISP office!) or who is telling them they need to fill out a form to see an advisor (it’s that crazy Karate lady!).

FootRI’m thankful for kihon (basic movements).  Building strength, building endurance, learning finesse…  Kihon has all that and more.  There’s always something to refine. Combinations of kihon are like puzzles to solve.  How do I make my body transition from this to that?  Yes, I’m thankful for what many consider to be “boring.”

140919_Graphic1I’m thankful for kata (forms). Ohhhh yes, even the kihon kata have a lot to offer.  I’m constantly telling myself that I shouldn’t look like a white belt (no rank) doing kihon kata: I should look like someone my own rank doing it.  I’m thankful that any given kata takes time to memorize and loads more time to refine.  This means I’ll never be bored because there will always be something to work on.  I love, love, love bunkai (interpretation of kata).  This movement could shatter a joint, or it could be a block… Wait, what if I do this with it?  I love the showmanship that goes with performing kata in tournament.  Part textbook, part war dance, part pounding lethal movements into your muscle memory…  Kata is all that and more.  I often find that practicing kata helps me let go of negative emotions – it’s like a moving meditation.

black eye 2015 Joelle White
Bruises are fun!!!

Even though I get hurt sometimes, I am thankful for kumite (sparring).  I used to be terrified of sparring, particularly against anyone more highly ranked than I am.  Now I welcome the chance to be pushed beyond where I think my limits are.  Sure I get trounced quite often, but I wouldn’t learn anything if I were constantly top dog.  I’m learning to conquer myself, really.  If I undermine myself during sparring with negative thinking I stiffen up, miss opportunities to score, and I might even find myself hyperventilating.  I perform better and reduce my chance of injury if I calmly assess my opponent and wait for or create opportunities to score.  I’m thankful that I’m starting to take baby steps in understanding that a good chunk of kumite is about conquering oneself.  I’m also thankful that I can pass along that knowledge by sparring with my kohai – even if it means putting my hands behind my back to let the most timid person in class gain confidence to go ahead and hit.

In a nutshell, I’m thankful for all the ways I’ve grown in mind, body, and spirit and for those who have been with me on this journey.  Have a great Thanksgiving!