A Self Defense Seminar

I’m not making fun of the seminar with this image, although I do find the image amusing on several different levels. It’s just that when I was searching for “self defense” images most of what I found was 1) white ladies beating up black men (racist), 2) ladies kicking guys in the crotch (um, there’s more to self defense than that), and 3) ladies attacking guys who are wearing outfits that match their own (black tank tops mostly).  Apparently rapists try to find ladies whose outfits match theirs – so don’t dress like a rapist and you won’t get raped.

A couple of weeks ago the community college where I work shut down all normal operations for Professional Development Day. Faculty and staff members ate free food, listened to a speaker, and then ate more free food. After lunch we had our choice of one of several seminars. Most seminars were geared specifically towards faculty, but there were a few that weren’t. Among the choices was a self defense seminar.

So why would I need to go to a self defense seminar? Surely by now I can at least manage to give someone a bloody nose, right? I have any number of really brutal techniques hammered into my muscle memory from practicing kata (forms). I’ve hit and kicked bags using my fastest speed and all the power I have.  And I’m a brown belt – that’s right before black so I should be pretty badass already, right?

It’s true that I was hoping to pick up at least one new technique. I did – swiping thumbs across an opponent’s eyes in lieu of gouging.  I also learned a combination of techniques that could very well work “in the street.”  I had Japanese names for nearly every technique the instructor taught and most of the other techniques were very slight variations of what I’ve already learned. I felt free to expand on a couple of things – for instance swiping thumbs across the opponent’s eyes (from the opponent’s nose outward) led very nicely into the double kidney strike featured in the kata (form) named Bassai Dai. On the surface it looks like I didn’t get much out of the seminar.

I remember being at a seminar on leadership and the speaker said that if he spends hundreds of dollars to spend four hours cooped up in an airplane, spends hundreds of dollars more on a motel room, food, and transportation, then sits through five hours of a seminar that cost him a couple hundred more dollars and all he learns is just one thing that sticks with him for the rest of his life… It’s totally worth it. Yes, that one combination of techniques will stick with me, as will my expansions and improvisations on other things that were taught. But that is certainly not all that I gained. I gained a lot more.

My main objective in attending the self defense seminar was to learn about one-off self defense seminars. I’ve never been to any self defense seminars. Teaching self defense seminars is something I might want to do in the future.  There are huge differences between studying a traditional martial art and taking a one-off self defense seminar. This was an alien world to me. I’ve taught new beginners in Karate with the presumption that they’ll stick with the Karate class for at least a month or two, if not longer.  I lead them through a gradual progression of skills.  Teaching people you might not ever see again is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. I wanted to learn how it’s done.

I was very glad that we didn’t line up in rows as we would for a formal Karate class. The instructor had us standing in a circle. This meant that I could observe everyone in the room. There was a glaring gender disparity – a male instructor, one male student, and about twenty female students. The male student was smirking a lot – I would like to think he was smirking at the thought of how much well-deserved pain an attacker would receive but I have to admit it’s entirely possible he was mentally mocking the proceedings. The women showed a wide range of emotions. Some were a little nervous but warmed up nicely, and a couple of these turned out to be quite ferocious later. A few women had perhaps taken a self defense seminar before – this was familiar territory. One woman was overconfident and later ended up hurting her foot against the punching bag. And one woman was silently soaking it all in and evaluating absolutely everything (that would be me).

I paid attention to everyone, not just the instructor. I listened to the questions that the students asked. I evaluated the answers the students gave to the instructor’s questions. I myself stayed silent – this was my time to learn. I asked myself later how I would reach the students, “where they were at,” so to speak.  Because I picked up on techniques and combinations quickly I was able to look around to see how well the students were learning them. When students rotated through stations to practice on punching bags, a BOB (man-shaped Body Opponent Bag), and a kick bag there was plenty of time for me to observe others as I stood in line.

I surmised that even the students who were not generating much force with their techniques would still hurt a real person with what they were doing. More force, of course, would be ideal but the main point of a one-off self defense seminar is that even just “stinging” one’s opponent can give one an opportunity to escape or follow up with another technique. This wasn’t a continuous marital arts class where ideal body mechanics could mean a tournament medal or moving up in rank. This one-off seminar was about giving people a few tools they could use to save their lives.

After class the instructor spent time with me to answer my questions and to give me pointers about learning and teaching self defense.  I really appreciated that.  I have a lot to think about, research, and learn in the years to come. As I’ve said before, my vision of my Karate future is kinda fuzzy right now. Perhaps teaching one-off self defense seminars is something I can specialize in after I earn Shodan (black belt – and along with that the credentials to teach without in-person supervision).  I treasure both male and female sensei (instructors), but not every woman shares my sentiment. Some women prefer to learn martial arts and self defense from other women. Maybe that’s a need I could someday fill.

Aside from all that, this seminar was just plain fun.  Most of you who are reading this understand the “weird little obsession with acquiring bruisies for funsies” (as Modern Arnis blogger Jackie Bradbury puts it).  So you know how much fun it is to try empi uchi and teisho uchi out on a BOB. You know how much fun it is to try something new, or to put familiar things together in new ways.  Some of you teach so you know the satisfaction of watching first-day beginners learn something (even if they’re not your students, LOL).  You know how fun it is to pick up new teaching ideas. And yes, it was fun to hit things and yell.  That never gets old (in the proper context, of course).


P. S. – I have the opportunity on Saturday to go to a more advanced self defense seminar.  Different instructor, so this will provide even more learning opportunities.  All I have to do is get over this stupid sinus infection that has been plaguing me all week.  Stay tuned!

A Change of Perspective

Bear with me – I will get to Karate in a few paragraphs…

When I was a kid I thoroughly enjoyed Beverly Cleary’s books. Her characters are fictional, but the neighborhood in which they “lived” is real. I cannot go to the fairy-land of Oz but I can go to Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon. So I did.

My first stop was Grant Park, a few blocks south of Klickitat Street. In that park are sculptures of two of Cleary’s main characters: Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins. With a jolt I recognized that my imagined images of the characters did not match the reality of the sculptures. For the first time, I saw the characters through adult eyes.

The sculptor captured these characters perfectly. I was nearly in tears with the beautiful realization that this sculptor knew the subjects quite well. But up until that moment I thought of Ramona Quimby as being the same height as I am, and Henry Huggins as taller because he’s older than Ramona. But I am now taller than Henry Huggins. I no longer see Ramona as an equal and Henry as greater.

I took pictures from Ramona’s perspective and from my own. Ramona from a child’s perspective could be looking up at the sky in a moment of exuberance, not really aware of the presence of another. From adult height, she could be looking me full in the face, hoping that I will echo her happiness and validate her joy.

The sculpture of Henry as seen from Ramona’s perspective almost seems to sigh, “Ramona, what are we going to do with you?” His expression is a mixture of big-brotherly love and half-amused annoyance. Perhaps he looked like that after he pulled Ramona out of the sticky mud. But if I look down on him from my adult height suddenly he’s explaining what happened – “Yes, ma’am, I know I’m late… It was Ramona. Again.”

The statues didn’t change. My perspective and my interpretation changed. When I was a kid, these were children who were my equal and greater. As an adult, I see them in terms of how they might relate to me as a mother or teacher.

OK, nice story, what’s this got to do with my Karate journey?

If you haven’t been reading this blog for very long, you might not know  that I trained in Karate from age 13 to age 16 or almost 17. At age 44 I started again. Yes, my perspective of karate has changed and my interpretation of what’s going on in my internal and external world in connection with karate has changed just as radically as my view of Beverly Cleary’s beloved characters.

I remember the first five minutes of my very first Karate class very distinctly. I knew I was part of something wonderful. Within fifteen minutes I was empowered – I’d learned how to make a fist and punch. I carry that feeling with me whenever I help with new beginners’ first classes. This is a great reaction, but it was all about me.  Now my perspective on this event has shifted from the “then” to the future, from just myself to others.  I want this memory to fuel my words and deeds so that I can help create similar memories for the new students who I am helping.  I’ve shifted my perspective on other long-ago karate experiences too.

The angst that came towards the end of my first Karate career and how my mixed-up interpretations colored my perspective of karate is unpleasant to think about. I can blame some of this angst on undiagnosed IgG subclass 2 deficiency that left me vulnerable to every illness the littlest children brought to the dojo. I can blame some of it on the clinical depression I was hiding. Most elements, though, were my own darn fault. An honest talk with my sensei would have helped me to make the needed changes in training and in attitude. Even without a diagnosis the connection between assistant teaching the little kids’ class and me being almost constantly sick was obvious. The best solution was not to quit karate but to stop teaching four year olds. I feel bad about quitting, and yeah, I’d like to forget everything that was behind my leaving something I once loved. But all that mixed-up teenage “stuff” is part of my journey too.

My perspective on all that teenage drama has changed. For one thing, my life would be different now if I’d stayed with karate then. I would have a different degree from a university closer to home. I might or might not have married – certainly not to my husband of almost 26 years, whom I met in college in another state. Our two daughters would not exist. And maybe, just maybe, by now I would have retired to have children or quit because I was burned out, injured, or whatever. That’s a sobering thought. Even more sobering is that if I could somehow erase all that unpleasantness, doing so could be detrimental to someone else. The memories of that sour teenage perspective sting me, but that pain could someday drive me to help someone else grow past their own angst and burnout.

I won’t spend many words on how I view and interpret Karate now – at least not in this particular blog post. The joys, sorrows, triumphs, and struggles of my present journey are recorded in this blog. I hope that the overall theme of growth pervades each post. Sure my techniques are getting better, yeah I’m earning belts and the occasional tournament medal… But there’s so much more to Karate than what one can see with physical eyes. I didn’t recognize the mental/spiritual side when I was a teenager, but those aspects impacted my life nonetheless. What little training I had then impacted my future life in so many ways. The subsequent life experiences which benefited from those early years in the dojo are now helping me and my dojo. Further growth in the discipline of karate is helping me in my personal and professional lives. What goes around comes around.


Shifting Dreams

Like most karateka I have a long-term goal of earning Shodan (first degree black belt). I’d like to earn more degrees after that too. But there’s so much more to Karate than the belts. For quite some time I’ve known what I’d like to possibly be in the future – sensei, referee, coach, bunkai expert… But the main focus of my hopes and dreams is gone.  The good news is that big dream could shift and morph into something else.

For most of the last three years I’ve dreamed of being a junior instructor at two particular dojo. I was very heavily invested in those dojo, but due to circumstances beyond any karateka’s control those dojo don’t exist anymore. From what I know of the history of our organization in this state it’s not unusual for dojo to move or close down and for new ones to open. The shifts so far have been due to changes in the host facilities. There are worse reasons for dojo to shut down and we’ve been very fortunate to have never experienced anything truly dreadful. Still, it’s hard and I do mourn a little when I think about those two dojo.

I admit part of why I dreamed of teaching at those two particular dojo is because I felt the pull of being desperately needed. I had responsibilities beyond the rank I was because there was no one else. Maybe I naturally felt this was my destiny because that’s the way things were when I was a teenager. I trained for three years under the auspices of another organization. When a group left that organization, one of the two dojo sensei went with them. He left a big gap, especially because the dojo sensei was pregnant with her first child and needed the help. She saw potential in me – a scrawny little intermediate-ranked teenage girl. I began teaching “first lesson is free” people, getting new white belts ready to join the main class, and leading the opening ceremony and warm-ups. As an adult re-starting Karate, when I found myself as one of two senior students in one dojo and the senior student in the other it was natural for me to dream along the same path I had been and was going.

Most people would say the dream has died. I don’t think “died” is the right word. Maybe that dream is like a seed – it has the appearance of being dead, but someday I might come back to the spot where I laid it aside and I’ll find something new and beautiful growing there. But for right now I can’t base my dreams on a desperate need because there is no desperate need for me right now.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am very much valued at my new home dojo. I do still contribute significantly to the functioning of my dojo. I very much appreciate having many people who outrank me instead of just one or two. I’m thoroughly enjoying a good balance of giving and receiving. I’m sure I’ll find a new niche I can grow into. It’ll just take time. I still need to develop skills both in old areas and new and it’s nice to have the time and space to grow. I’m sure someday there will be some path that I can claim as my main road – a path that will benefit others as well. It’s just that right now my vision of the future is pretty hazy. And that’s all right for the time being.

One thing I have learned from 47 years of spinning around on this planet is that one has to adapt and change to circumstances. Dreams and visions of the future keep us going but it’s not the end of the world when they have to be changed. Sometimes it’s OK to be in a place where one is looking for a new vision. For now I’ll just keep going for the sake of the love I have for my art and for my fellow karateka. I’m sure the rest will fall into place at the right time. Looking back, I can see that it always has.


What’s really funny about this blog post is I wrote the draft before reading Andrea Harkins’ recent article, “Find Clarity in Your Life” and discovered that what I was writing dovetailed beautifully with what she had to say.  I’ve been reading her blog for three years now so it’s no wonder I ended my article on the same note as hers.  I must say, Andrea is an excellent teacher 🙂

Charting My Progress

I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of information about my belt tests. I record when and where I earned rank and who presented me with which new belt. Because one can program spreadsheets to calculate, I have it keeping track of how many days total I’d been training when I earned each belt and how many days elapsed between tests. I decided to make a graph with the total days training on the X axis and the days elapsed between tests on the Y axis. Here’s the result:

Lower left corner is Day 1 of training, upper right corner is the day of my 3rd kyu test.

When I was done I suddenly remembered Jackie Bradbury’s article, “Martial Arts Growth is Not Linear.” I felt foolish for trying to capture my progress in a line graph.  I thought wryly that at least I had learned a great deal about how to efficiently draw a line graph in GIMP (an image editing program).  I was about to give up writing a blog based on this graph.  Then I looked at the shape of the line.  It looked familiar.  I had something to write about after all.


This is Mt. Rainier, a 14,411 foot (4,393 meter) tall dormant volcano. Whenever the weather is clear I see it from my living room window. I had to laugh when I observed that my line looks a bit like Little Tahoma, a “bump” on the side of the mountain.

I haven’t “climbed” much of the “mountain” at all. I have a long steep way to go – and in fact, I will never reach the “summit.” Actually, in martial arts, there is no “summit” – there is only learning until you die or quit. Any analogy breaks down somewhere.

I “stood” on the top of “Little Tahoma” between 8th and 7th kyu. It looks like I coasted along until 5th kyu. Then I hit a challenging slope. The graph ends with my test for 3rd kyu. With tests coming far less frequently in my future, the slope of the line might not continue to mimic Mt. Rainier.

But let’s run with this analogy for awhile.

If you look to the left of the box in the picture of Mt. Rainier, you’ll see I had to climb a bit even before I reached the point that represents the start of my Karate journey. I had to wait for better financial footing before I could join my daughter.  That was my best excuse for quite some time. I thought of myself as too old, too fat, too out of shape. I thought I had to be as young and athletic as I was years ago when I trained, and I knew I was a long way from what I once had been. Once the financial issues were gone, I decided to get back on the mats. I had to overcome a lot to even put on a gi and bow into the dojo for the first time in 27 years. I was intimidated by how much work I had to do to even catch up to where I once was. It turned out I handled it and I am now much further up the “mountain” than I used to be all those years ago.

Tracing the journey on the graph is interesting. It turned out that prior experience helped me rocket through the no-rank white-belt days and the first two kyu ranks. The length of time I spent as 8th kyu was about right for that rank, but I distinctly remember something holding me back. I was intimidated by the upcoming test for 7th kyu. At 7th kyu we tie on a purple belt. That was the color of belt I’d last worn as a teenager. For some reason I thought I did not compare favorably to my younger self, thus I might have consequently hindered my progress. No matter. I sailed right through 7th and 6th kyu.

The line tracing my “mountain” dips down through the purple-belt period, meaning I was taking less and less time between tests. I decided to look back at how I trained during that period. Just from scanning blog posts alone, I see that I did quite a lot outside my “home” dojo. Any one of those activities would give anyone of any rank a boost, but the timing was fortuitous for me. I had just enough understanding of the art to incorporate what I learned. Therefore I was very well prepared for those particular tests.

Some of the opportunities I took advantage from 7th to 5th kyu are closed to me now  but most of them aren’t. I will still benefit from wonderful “extras” like seminars, tournaments, and training alongside those competing at USA Karate Nationals. Sure some doors have closed but one new, very significant door has opened. I will, as often as possible, be attending bi-monthly brown belt training at our organization’s Hombu dojo (about 3 hours drive). My first is in December.

I’m very likely to see the line of the graph climb higher because the tests will be progressively harder and I will, as most karateka, take longer and longer periods of time to prepare for those tests. I already see this in the length of time I spent as 4th kyu.  The chart in the future won’t look exactly like Mt. Rainier, but I find it interesting that thus far there’s a resemblance. I’ve climbed “Little Tahoma,” and enjoyed the little downhill slope. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the climb I’ve started now. Yes, it’s hard work, but the view of where I’ve been is spectacular and I can see some interesting things on the slopes above.

Taking the Heat

Usually the thrift store is a pleasant place to shop. Most of us shoppers are in the same boat – we are, to varying degrees, just trying to make ends meet. Sometimes my fellow shoppers and I will even exclaim something like, “Oh my gosh that vest is perfect for you,” if we see someone waffling over an obvious bargain. In all the years I’ve been shopping at a thrift store that is located in a “bad neighborhood,” I’ve never been in any danger until just the other day. But then again, I rather put my foot in it.

A man in line in front of me was in the middle of his purchase when it was revealed that the sale price did not apply to one of his items. The cashier explained the store’s system of labeling, and the man began to argue.  He didn’t have a sound argument, but that didn’t matter to him. Everyone knows that nobody is so stupid as to not understand how that store’s price tags work, or to get angry because a sign “implied that everything in the bin was on sale,” when clearly it was one of many similar signs scattered throughout the store.  I’ve long since known that adult bullies will say anything and it doesn’t matter if they don’t have a leg to stand on. As long as they stay away from certain words they can later say that they didn’t actually say anything threatening.

Any bully’s words are merely a noise – the real communication is in the tone and in the body language.  The threat was there. The guy wanted the sale price, he wasn’t getting it, so he used his voice and size to intimidate the petite young cashier. The counter between them didn’t offer much protection for her. Timidly the cashier asked if she could process my transaction while they waited for the manager. I only had four items so the bully reluctantly agreed. But he used the extra time to harangue the cashier.

Here’s where I put my foot in. I wanted to give this cashier some breathing room. My intent was to deflect the heat from her while she waited for backup to arrive. I chirped pleasantly at the man, “Did you know that the green tag discount is store wide?” It wouldn’t have made one bit of difference to that guy if I’d said exactly what I said or if I’d called him a filthy name or if I’d said, “I smelled fried fish when I drove past the restaurant.” He turned his wrath on me. He knew my game as well as I knew his. He knew I wasn’t going to allow him to bully the girl. I was getting in between him and what he wanted.  At this point he showed his true colors to all the world. As I went through the motions of purchasing my items I kept watch out of the corner of my eye as he vented his rage at me, and not the petite cashier.

It’s said that women are better at multitasking than men. I don’t know if that’s true, but I am thankful for the ability. Part of me was automatically doing a familiar task – paying for a purchase. Part of me was monitoring the gentleman’s position and body language. Part of me was scanning for other threats – perhaps the gentleman had a friend nearby. Part of me was taming my dark desire to lash out verbally and physically. I controlled my breathing, let go of tension in my body, and repeated the mantra, “Always be the better person. Let him dig his own grave.”

As my transaction was processed, any time that man’s attention turned back to the cashier I drew it away again. A sympathetic, “Hmm, yeah, I can see your point,” and letting him rage at me again. A sigh of aggravation when he dug his own grave even deeper. Everyone nearby had his number by the time the cashier handed me my bag and receipt.

I backed out of the door – no way was I going to turn my back on him. The manager arrived as I crossed the threshold, and I presume security was on its way as well. I took precautions to “disappear” once I was out the door – I sidled along the brick facade away from the glass doors. I then took a roundabout route to my car, keeping other vehicles between me and the glass doors. Pickup trucks, vans, and SUVs blocked me from view perfectly. I breathed a sigh of relief as I slid behind the wheel of my car and locked the doors.

Some of you are thinking to yourselves, “Oh I would have totally let him have it,” and I’ll bet you wouldn’t really, but what you mean is that you understand how I felt. Some of you are scared for my safety and don’t want me to ever put myself in the line of fire again, even if it does help someone else. I understand that. But some of you are appalled at my admission that part of me was hoping that gentleman would try something physical. To you I say: until you’ve been in that situation yourself, you will never know what you will feel. If I denied that emotion, that dark hope, I would be denying that I am a human being. I am not a robot or a Vulcan. In my defense, I kept control over that darkness. I didn’t let it determine what happened. I’m not a scumbag for having that feeling but I would be a scumbag if I let that darkness erupt for no good reason.

So what about this dark hope that the gentleman would try something physical? Where does the desire to crush him come from? Could it stem from times in my life when I was powerless? Maybe it’s because my parents spanked me (I’m rolling my eyes at this)? How about all those years that I was verbally abused in school? Does this darkness stem from long ago having to end ongoing physical abuse by fighting back because absolutely no one else helped me? Is it something left over from evolution, or, if you prefer, sin nature? Improper potty training? A frustrated desire to have, um, relations with the gentleman? Apologies to the late Dr. Sigmund Freud, but I’m howling with laughter now. Ahem. To continue. Does that darkness stem from all of the above? None of the above? Does the origin of this darkness really matter?

Yeah, it does matter – at least insofar as I know where NOT to lay the blame. Sadly, some people would lay the blame squarely on my training.

That dark hope doesn’t come from my Karate training. Training in how to mete out violence does not automatically mean a person will turn evil. That dark glee that can arise at the prospect of fighting someone “for real” is not taught by any of my sensei. It’s something deep within all of us. It can surface during the course of training, particularly when one is being pushed hard during kumite (sparring). But here’s the thing – we are taught self control. We have a safe space, a controlled setting where we sometimes come face to face with the darkness within us. We learn how to conquer it without harm coming to anyone. How can we learn self control if we never are pushed so hard that we feel that darkness rising within us?

I guarantee you that darkness will come out to play when you are confronted with a real situation that has the potential to escalate, even if you’re not capable of taking someone down.  If I had no training whatsoever, I’d still want to destroy that person.  If I’d had no training I wouldn’t have had much self control.  I’d have fought back not by manipulating the guy, but by screaming and posturing.  The encounter would not have ended well.  But because I’ve faced my dark side in a safe setting, that dark hope is not unknown. It doesn’t scare me or control me. I know I can choose not to escalate.

Yes I escalated the situation in the thrift store a bit but that was to take the heat away from someone who was not equipped to handle it. Keeping the bully’s interest without making the situation worse was a fine line to walk.  That man was most definitely doing what author Rory Miller refers to as “The Monkey Dance,” so I knew I was playing with fire.  The outcome was good, fortunately.  Even so, I paid the price. I had a doctor appointment shortly after I left the store and the evidence of the encounter was very obvious. I was shaking from the adrenaline and my blood pressure was up a little. Fortunately it went down by the end of the visit. I saw a new doctor who doesn’t know me from Adam, and the clinic didn’t have my records yet, so just to be on the safe side I have to go back another day to have my blood pressure taken yet again.

The darkness whispers that it’d be fun to try out some of those cool joint-shattering techniques, but the aftermath of even the whisper of darkness is anything but fun. I don’t like it. I also had to process some other emotions when I got home. Self doubt. A desire to never go back to that store again. Just plain exhaustion – mental and physical. Yeah, I cried. I didn’t sleep well that night. Could’ve, would’ve, and should’ve haunted me. But it was worth it to help that cashier get a bit of breathing room.

As for the bully… I actually do hope that someday we could sit down over a beer and discuss how peace and harmony is better for one’s health. Go ahead and call me a naïve, starry-eyed dreamer. I can’t even begin to imagine the toll such rage takes on that man’s body and I truly hope that he doesn’t have a heart attack. That’s exactly where he’s headed. I feel sorry for him and for those who care about him (hopefully someone does). I hold nothing against him save that he intimidated that young girl. But I’ll still keep a wary eye out for him around town. Forgiveness, after all, doesn’t mean one should become stupid and blind!

Unwittingly this gentleman furnished me with a blog post at a time when I was facing a bit of “writer’s block.” Ironically, perhaps I owe him one.

For further reading:  Conflict Communication: A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication by Rory Miller.