Squirrel Power!

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I was near the fireplace insert in my basement office/personal dojo when I heard a startled squeak and scrabbling sounds. “Oh no,” I thought, “Rats.”

Using a jo I thumped the drop-down ceiling and the wall, eliciting more squeaking and scrabbling. The sounds came from the fireplace insert. I looked inside and saw pellets – not wood pellets but squirrel pellets. Not rats. Whew! I heard a growl that I’d never heard before but it sounded similar to other squirrel vocalizations. A quick wiggle of the flue lever confirmed the flue was partway open. That explained the droppings. I opened the flue all the way.

While I was on the phone with a pest control company I noticed a flicker of movement. Squirrel movement. I quickly closed the flue and peered through the glass door of the fireplace insert. In the shadows crouched a soot-covered squirrel. It was scared out of its gourd but it still growled at me and made disapproving “tok tok tok tok” sounds.

Bear with me, I promise I’ll relate this story to karate. Well, OK, specifically self defense.

Pest control folks refused help me until after the weekend. It finally occurred to me that the local wildlife rehabilitator could have a solution. I called and the procedure was simple.

I cut a small hole in what would become the top of a box. I took the additional precaution of covering the hole with waxed paper. It just so happened I have a work light that was perfect for placing on top of the hole, but a flashlight would do the trick too. Using a beach towel and a bath mat I made the rest of the area dark and reasonably secure. Cautiously I opened the fireplace insert door, made final adjustments, and waited to hear the scrabbling sounds of a squirrel checking out the lovely noisy wax-paper packet of peanut butter I’d left in the back of the box.

I waited a long time.

When I came back from a bathroom break I heard scrabbling noises in the box then growling from within the box. Dang, the squirrel was right near the flaps of the box. I would have to take a chance. Slowly I moved the towel and bathmat aside. I could see the critter hunkered down. He was absolutely terrified but he definitely was trash talking me. I took a chance and slowly moved the flaps of the box inward, shoving the squirrel and trapping him inside the box. That squirrel was furious and scolded most vociferously.

Needless to say the squirrel cussed up a storm as I tilted the box (making sure to hold the flaps securely shut), carried the box outside my house, then tilted the box again. When I opened the flaps of the box that squirrel took off like a shot. After the squirrel vanished I found it utterly adorable that this little creature still found the spirit to growl, talk trash, and cuss me out in spite of its obvious terror. My heart melted.

I have a new respect for squirrels. Knowing that a bite from a squirrel is a serious matter is one kind of respect. That’s respect for one’s own safety and the safety of one’s family. Another kind of respect is admiration. A squirrel’s agility, speed, and climbing abilities are indeed remarkable. But there’s another, deeper kind of respect which acknowledges your heart has been touched and you’re better for it. That squirrel’s bravery and knowledge of self defense resonated with me.

The little creature was frozen with fear but it was prepared to fight me to the death. The squirrel thought it was highly likely that I would kill it but by golly it was going to take a piece of me with it. I’ll be honest, the squirrel’s desperate attitude was a bit intimidating. I didn’t know what to expect – would it suddenly leap up and maybe claw my face? Would it bite me? This squares with what I’ve heard in many a self-defense seminar: standing up for yourself gives a potential attacker a reason to look elsewhere. Even if you look like a harmless bit of fluff you can still make someone bigger than you think twice about messing with you.

And yet the poor little thing was scared out of its gourd. That’s natural. Of course if some scary person steps out of the shadows you’re going to have a very visceral reaction. You might even freeze like the squirrel did. A “freeze” reaction isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might preserve your life. It might give you a moment to assess the situation. A terrified freeze reaction doesn’t necessarily spell instant doom. I have no doubt that if I’d messed with the squirrel or even lingered too long shutting the flaps of the box he would’ve found it in himself to spring out of his tense posture to attack me, run, or both.

Imagine seeing a huge monster looming over you. Imagine being shoved into a room and the room tilts, sways, then tilts again. It’s a scene straight out of a nightmare and would scare anyone. That squirrel very wisely got outta Dodge when I opened the box. Getting away to safety is a valid and, I would argue, best option for self preservation.

So… A stupid rodent who got itself trapped in my fireplace, all talk and no action… A squirrel who was frozen with fear… A squirrel who ran away and didn’t stay to fight… That’s a brave creature? You bet it is. Bravery doesn’t depend on circumstances, on anyone else’s opinion, or your own emotional state. Bravery is finding that spark inside you and making a choice to survive and/or help someone else survive.

Bringing it home to karate. The squirrel had many tools in its self-defense toolbox. That squirrel had strong back legs for jumping, sharp claws for scratching, and a bite from a squirrel is a serious matter indeed. Did the squirrel need to use those tools? No. Would the squirrel have been more brave if it had launched a full-out assault on me? No, it would’ve been a dead stupid squirrel because I’d have killed it. Using “cool karate moves” isn’t always the best course of action. “Knowing” karate puts more self defense tools at your disposal, but your best tools are your instincts and your belief in yourself. In other words… Squirrel power!


Years ago during one Gasshuku (weekend camp) I asked every single yudansha (“black belt”) what they’d do differently if time were turned back and they were beginners again. The most common answer was, “I wouldn’t abuse my body like I did.”

During my first karate journey when I was a teenager, I didn’t know anything about recovery. Before the days of the Internet the most readily available source of information on that topic would have been buried deep within books about jogging and running marathons. Besides, when I was a teenager I could bounce back quite readily. I didn’t have a concept of a recovery day.

Now that I’m, ahem, over half a century old… I don’t just bounce back. When I started my second karate journey at age 44 I still had no concept of recovery. But over time I’ve accumulated some knowledge here and there. Disclaimer: this blog post is about what works for me. I hope it’ll give you some ideas, but it’s not meant to be a scientific paper. I’m not a sports professional. I’m just a slightly lumpy middle-aged matron with, as blogger Jackie Bradbury puts it, “a strange little hobby of acquiring bruises for funsies.” I have to say this – talk to your doctor, nutritionist, whatever, yada yada.

Training in karate is hard. It’s meant to be. Go to a McDojo and shell out the dough if you want an easy black belt. Sometimes karate training is harder than usual. Maybe you sparred with eight people in less than an hour for a tournament, for a belt test, or for fun/learning/practice. Perhaps you had multiple training sessions over the course of a weekend. You could be ramping up for a tournament or belt test. Or, like I did, you’re stepping on the mats for the first time in 27 years. Honestly, age doesn’t make a difference in whether or not you need recovery time. It’s just that you feel the need more acutely when you’re older.

Here’s what I like to do for recovery days following a harder-than-usual event. Again, talk to your doctor, nutritionist, whatever, yada yada.

For me, recovery begins before the event. I usually have a recovery day (no athletic activity) once per week. It’s usually the same day each week, but I sometimes shift it to two or three days before the special event and one or two days after. Hydration is always crucial, but I keep an extra-close eye on my water intake before, during, and after. Ditto for nutrition and stretching.

I’ve started to see the value of stretching after each workout, especially after something that’s harder than usual. For multiple training sessions over a weekend, I suggest saving stretching for after the last seminar of each day. This is anecdotal, and it’s just me, but I’ve found that stretching after a harder-than-usual thing cuts my post-event-feeling-like-crap days way down – we’re talking from about a week cut down to maybe three days. During those feeling-like-crap days I sometimes let go of my own practice/workout times and only go to class. I try to take a complete recovery day immediately after a hard event. Sometimes that doesn’t work because I have class the next day (my dojo meets only 2x per week). When that happens I simply take the next day off.

When I get home, I refuel. A little product endorsement here… What I really like at the end of any workout (1x per day max) is Ultima Replenisher (https://www.ultimareplenisher.com/ ). If it’s not mealtime, I have a snack. Bananas are packed with nutrition. I often throw in a source of protein such as cheese, nuts, or pea-protein snacks. Before bed after any workout, I take a calcium/magnesium/zinc supplement. Muscles use calcium to relax, and magnesium helps prevent “Charlie horses” (cramps) in the middle of the night. Talk to your doctor, nutritionist, whatever, yada yada. There are other ways of getting your muscles to relax.

Dealing with tense muscles is easy. I can’t say enough good things about a good long soak in a warm bath with Epsom salts before bed. I love it when I don’t have to set a timer and can just soak until the water gets too cool. This is best done right after a tough workout, but if you don’t have access to a tub or the time to just soak, get ‘er done as soon as you can. It’s bliss. If you can afford it, massage is wonderful. If you can’t afford a massage therapist, wait for a sale (Black Friday is coming up!) and get a handheld massager, a foam roller (I like the one with bumps), or both. I don’t use these as often as I should, but believe me, they provide a lot of relief.

I’m not sure if this is scientifically proven or not, but I believe in “a hair o’ the dog what bit you” when I’m sore the next day. If you’re not familiar with that expression, it means that drinking a little bit of whatever alcoholic beverage you got drunk on will supposedly cure your hangover. When it comes to exercise, it’s more than just an old wives’ tale for me. If I’m sore from holding a stance, I’ll hold that stance for a few seconds the next day. If it’s crunches that made me sore, I do a maximum of 4 reps. It seems to help. Again, you’re recovering, so don’t do a workout – rest, even sleep, is crucial.

I once saw a meme that read something along the lines of, “Naps, I’m sorry I treated you so badly when I was a child.” If you can find a way to work a nap into your recovery day, do it. I’m refreshed even after 15 minutes, although I prefer 30 to 90 minutes. Set an alarm if you need to.

As you can see, recovery is an art in and of itself. For us, ahem, older athletes it’s vital. I would argue recovery is vital for young whippersnappers too, it’s just that us old folks run into a brick wall if we neglect it. Building healthy habits now, no matter what your age, will contribute to your longevity in the art of karate.

Blind Spots

We all have ’em

Last night, two of my fellow Shodan(s) – first degree black belts – came to the dojo. Unfortunately my dojo sensei (head instructor of a school) missed them. Of the three of us, I am the lowest in seniority but my dojo sensei left me in charge so I didn’t quite know about the etiquette of the situation. We all managed just fine.

There were more sensei(s) than students. We traded off teaching duties. I multi-tasked like crazy. I worked one on one with a student while listening to my peers give feedback to the other student. If I overheard feedback on something that the other student was doing I looked for it in whoever I was working with. And for awhile I put myself out there.

We dismiss our new beginner after an hour and then for the final half hour of class we focus on a student who’s been with us awhile. At that point last night it was three yudansha (“black belts”) to one student. I became a student for awhile. I had already told my fellow Shodan(s) that I needed them to look for any blind spots that I might have. After that first hour my peers had a side by side comparison – a student who I’ve taught for the last three weeks and myself. There are things I need to work on for myself, things the students need to work on that I have been blind to, and yes, things that both the students and I need to work on.

I’ve drifted away from our style’s standard in a couple of techniques. I was blind to a few things that the students need to improve in. Those two students are happy and doing well for their respective ranks, so obviously I’m not a complete failure. It’s just that having another pair of eyes (or two other pairs of eyes) helps tremendously. Ideally we’d have the dojo sensei there, but for a season that’s going to be intermittent. But in the meantime, I know who I can count on to point out what I’m missing. Yes, my peers who came last night, but even more than that – all of us yudansha know we can count on those who are higher ranked than we are.

If our organization’s chief instructor for our state had visited my dojo last night he’d have seen everything my peers did and more. This is not a bad thing. Feedback means everyone will improve. An outside pair of eyes brings a different perspective, and it’s even better when those eyes have seen decades’ worth of students come and go. Not to mention those who are more senior to me, including my dojo sensei, are quite familiar with everything that goes along with being a newly-fledged sensei. Is it any surprise that some of our yudansha are managers in their professional lives? They have the “soft skills” in spades, and believe me when I need to pick their brains about that I do.

It would be the height of arrogance for me to think that now that I have that pretty belt tied around my waist I know everything and can start my own dojo (school). I have my foundation, yes, but until I build more on that foundation I’m not equipped to take someone to Shodan. I’m still wet behind the ears.

A couple of days ago I watched two videos of myself presenting the same kata. The earlier video was taken at my test for 2nd kyu (2 ranks below 1st black). The other was taken at my Shodan test a few months ago. I had to pause the earlier video two or three times because I was rushing the kata back then. On the flip side I saw a couple of things in the later video that I need to work on in the weeks to come. My overall impression was that I didn’t really understand that kata all that well back then. I suspect that if, five years from now, I take another video of myself doing the same kata I’ll see just as big a gap, if not bigger.

Even videoing myself has its limits. I know some things to watch out for, I know some of my habits. But I’m lacking experience and I will need help along the way. There is absolutely no substitute for someone who has years more training on me being right there in real life, 3 dimensions, telling me exactly what it is I need to do to improve, learn, and grow.

We all have blind spots as teachers and students. Those blind spots exist to allow others to share their experiences. We need people who see things through a different lens, especially mentors. I need that input to keep going on this journey. Shodan to me means my bags are packed and I’ve taken the first step on the path outside my door. I don’t want to be stuck there, never seeing what’s down the road, never picking up souvenirs, and never being able to help a fellow traveler because I haven’t the foggiest idea of what lies beyond what little I can see from my doorstep.

What You Missed

You see me greet your child with a smile before class. You see me wave and smile at you when you pick up your child after class. Here’s what you don’t see…

Soon after you left a family came into the dojo. You didn’t see their smiles or hear the happiness in their voices.

You didn’t see me take something I learned in a seminar and adapt it for whoever happened to be in class that day.

I don’t really blame you for not seeing me wince when I demonstrated a technique. I did my best to hide discomfort from an injury I sustained during the rare times when I get to be a student.

You missed me advising an older adult student on how to adjust their stance to work around a stiff foot that was injured a long time ago.

You didn’t see me teach a class that included different ages and ranks, juggling their needs and making sure that everyone learned something valuable.

You didn’t see the look of pride on my face when your child demonstrated that they had memorized their new kata.

You didn’t watch your child fearlessly spar with someone older, bigger, and more advanced in rank. In fact your child deliberately chose that student.

You didn’t see your child’s reaction to the news that they are going to be testing for their next belt.

While you were busy taking pictures after your child’s belt test you missed the quiet conference held among the “black belts” in a corner of the room. We received feedback about our students. In the months to come we will be adjusting our teaching.

I gave your child a flyer about a special event and I emailed you. You and your child missed the event. In fact you’ve missed all the special events we’ve had since your child started – including potlucks, seminars, tournaments, and, sadly, your child’s friends’ belt tests.

You see my black belt with the cool embroidery but you have no concept of what it means to earn it – or what it took to earn it. And you don’t know this, but I am still striving to learn and grow in my art.

You have no idea that I started karate when I was older and more heavyset than you.

You’re still sleeping when I get up to practice.

You haven’t seen all the tears that flow whenever there’s bad news about a member of my karate family.

And you have no idea that us “black belts” would much rather help you learn karate alongside your children than see you zip off to who knows where. We do know this is the norm for most students in our dojo but that doesn’t mean we don’t wish it were different.

Parents… Adults in general… I am far more than a rather expensive babysitter. Please don’t take me for granted.

Disclaimer: This comes from several years of observation and is not tied to my recent change of status and subsequent responsibilities. If you recognize yourself in this either as a parent or a sensei it’s because everything I’ve written about is all too common.

Spring – New Growth, New Beginning

The transitional seasons of Autumn and Spring are my favorite seasons. I’ve already mentioned how in October 2021 the changing leaves of Autumn reminded me of the transition I was about to undergo: namely, my test for Shodan (first degree black belt). In that same blog post (written a couple of months later) I related that I was enjoying “winter mode,” a time of active rest. These days the frenzy of Spring blooms parallels the growth I am discovering in my karate.

Trees change themselves in very deep ways before, during, and after winter. I’ve spent the last few months in process too. I’ve been working on my upper body by using weights and I’m continuing to condition the rest of myself. Of course I’ve tweaked my practice/workout times as I’ve done many times before. I wasn’t too happy with a few things I did during my test so I’m fixing them. In addition I am learning two new kata (forms). But something deeper has changed. I feel more comfortable in seminars (still online for me). Learning new kata is getting easier although directional dyslexia still makes that process interesting. I’m starting to actively develop my kumite (sparring) during my practice time instead of just throwing myself into a “fight” and hoping for the best. From one of my new kata I’m learning about movements that, yes, serve a purpose, but they are also transitions to something else. I’m hoping that will help my sparring. The explosion of flowers on the trees has made me more keenly aware aware of the beginning of this new phase of my karate journey.

Many people both in and outside of the martial arts world think that if one has earned a black belt one is a master and “knows karate.” In other words, learning stops when you tie on that pretty new belt. Balderdash. Shodan, or first degree black belt, literally means “first level.” A friend once told me his sensei said “black belt” means your bags are packed with everything you need for your own journey. Both before and after my test I’ve been told pretty much the same thing by my own sensei, with the addition that I’m now responsible for the pace and direction of my further development as a karateka (one who studies karate). Many of the yudansha (“black belts”) in our organization have made it clear that if I need help with something or want to know more about something all I have to do is ask.

Being able to ask for and receive help is vital. Yes, I am now called “sensei” (teacher) and that means I have all the responsibilities that go along with that. Let me make this clear – “teacher” implies a relationship. I don’t think of “sensei” as a title so much as an expression of my duty. I am responsible for teaching what I know and for the development of any students who are under my care. That could be for a few minutes of a class, an entire hour, or for all the classes during the course of a few weeks.

Due to various reasons the dojo I belong to has only four karateka and now isn’t the ideal time for us to seek expansion. Starting in mid May my sensei will need me to shoulder a good bit of teaching until sometime this coming Fall. I think the world of my two kohai (lower ranked students) and am honored that for a season I will have a significant impact on their development. I hope to see them each advance a rank or two in the coming months. Since we began to meet sometime in mid-July I’ve gotten to know these two students quite well and I’m looking forward to guiding them in their journeys. And who knows – maybe we’ll have a brand new beginner or two just to give me an additional challenge. Bring it. I know I can yell for help if I need advice, an additional instructor, a substitute instructor, or even a guest instructor.

Every once in awhile over the past few months it’s just been me and my sensei in class. I have come to treasure those times. Since early 2020 the focus was push, push, push for my Shodan test and I had an extra year of that. Now I’m seeing the “flowers” of all that effort. There are some really fun things that my sensei can teach me now that I’m at this stage of development. I’m not talking about secret magic woo-woo stuff that only “black belts” get to learn. It’s just that some things are easier for more advanced belts to learn and that’s where I’m at now. Of course there are things I don’t do perfectly and I have some areas that need work. But the ideas and the questions and the exploration of concepts are all coming more easily to me now. And I see that my sensei is enjoying teaching this brand new Shodan.

I hope some day to be in my sensei’s position. I hope some day I’ll see one of my students earn Shodan and beyond. My future students will be the fruit of the early springtime flowers that I’m seeing in myself now.