Friday, January 29, 2010

Mastering the Sword

One of the profound differences of opinion dividing me and many 'sword' martial artists is their attitude toward the whole relationship between the sword and the one wielding it. This, difference, oddly enough—or maybe not so 'oddly', because there's some fundamental life-philosophy involved—also applies with many of my fellow 'writer' and 'film-maker' buddies—though 'buddies' is a definite misnomer here.

With regards to the sword it is the notion of 'mastery' of the weapon as a major goal of whatever discipline is being practiced. In some schools, like MJER, this translates into the use of swords—and also a focus on other weapons, like the Naginata—that are too large for the practitioner ever to establish a relationship with the weapon that makes it into an integral part of the practitioner's body.

I've seen this trend close-up, and I've seen what it does to the mindset of the practitioners subscribing to it. Once you know what you're looking for, once you've asked the right question, the signs are everywhere, and they're not even subtle. Maybe one should also add that it's difficult to say which one is the chicken and which one the egg: the mindset; or the choice of sword and what to do with it.

Like the Needledick that I noted a few blogs back, the obsession with trying to 'master' ever larger swords has a definite phallic element about it. And mastery of ever-larger objects as an indication or proof of one's prowess with regards to whatever, results in diminishing the person doing it. Reminds me, in a way, of many Australian drivers' obsession with cars with noisy exhausts, that signal anything from "here I come" to "look at what a powerful engine I've got".

Of course, I do appreciate the desire, especially with many koryu schools, to preserve traditions, and these may include the use of large weapons, like Naginata or Bo (6-foot-long staff). But that's something completely different, for many of these weapons had a definite fighting tradition. As did long swords, of course, but these had very specific fighting purposes; which applies to the European versions as well. And in the truly 'martial' context, it wasn't ever about 'mastering' a weapon, but about learning how to use it well enough to competently dispatch enemies.

This is not the case today, where koryu teaching isn't done for real-life fighting, but, in countries like Japan, for mostly 'cultural' reasons. In other words, it's play-fighting at best; mixed in usually with, especially in the West, 'self-development' stuff and some semi-serious self-defense 'application'. And because it isn't really everyday-life 'practical' or necessary—because true 'warriors' are few and far between in the urbanias of today all over the world—the pshycological elements of 'sword mastery' are far more important than the practical ones.

Indeed, big swords are highly impractical. As Otake Risuke, of TSKSR, points out, it's about speed. Watching Otake Risuke do the TSKSR kata, one cannot be helped but be dazzled by the lightning-fast and deadly-precision execution.† He never gives the impression that he has 'mastered' the sword, or that he has a mindset that includes the notion of 'mastery'. Instead, his sword—a short and manageable one!—appears integral to his body, requiring no thought about how to use it. This is, no doubt, also a result of many years of daily and intense practice. But I have also seen other 'masters' from other koryu do demos, and it just looks different. I find it hard to put a fingfer on it, but maybe it's about the separation of sword and body being just so much more in evidence. There's 'mastery' there, but there is no integration.

I'm all on the side of 'integration'; of Sword and Mind as One. It's not about 'mastery', but about one-ness. Familiarity, to the point where the sword feels like a part of you, no matter where it happens to be: in the scabbard lodged in your belt; in the draw itself; in the cut, its hasuji and trajectory; the flow of its movement from one cut to another; its feel and balance as it is being held while at rest. Even if it's standing in a corner or resting on a stand, the look of it should have that 'familiarity' element, as if it weren't distant at all, but right there, in one's hand. A totally trusted friend—if anthromorphic terms are required—but not a servant or slave. An inanimate object with a close connection to one's own mind.

It doesn't have to be a particular sword, though that is, of course, an extra element of the intergation thing. As long as another weapons bears sufficient similarity in terms of size and handling, the feeling is there. It is, in other words, an intimate connection between a person and a whole class of objects, not just a particular instance of that class.

I doubt that all that many sword practitioners have thought about their relationship—physical, mental, emotional, philosophical—with the sword to the degree required to aid with integration. Not in today's world anyway (with there probably being a lesser degree of such reflection in the dojos of the West; but that may be an overly hasty generalization); not with todays weapons-of-choice; not with today's attitudes toward the martial arts as what in effect is a mix between 'sport' and 'combat' training. Either that, or it's about infatuation with some other culture and its 'traditional' ways; which is all wrong as well and doesn't do anybody any good.

It's a pity that this is so. Still, it is unsurprising, I guess.

Actually, I noticed that even TSKSR seems not to practice this philosophy throughout the organization. On a demonstration DVD issued by the school, very little of Otake Risuke's explosive technique remains. It's all become rather flattened and ritualistic; which might well have been intentional because of the desire to demonstrate the kata in a decorous, rather than Otake Risuke's highly charged, manner.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Martial Arts Teachers

One of the issues raised in John Donohue's novels is that of the relationship between a martial arts teacher and his—usually 'his'—student(s). Donohue obviously has been through some soul-searching in the regard, just like his main character, Connor Burke. The relationship is ambivalent, though probably more so now, and more problematic, too; especially in what they call 'this day and age', where so many things are in flux.

The most interesting and potentially controversial relationship is, of course, that between a student who has been with a teacher for some significant time; and where both, teacher and student, are what you might call 'strong personalities', with the student not some fawning, adoring co-dependent, but a definite person of his own, whose attitude toward the teacher alternates, sometimes with a high flipping-frequency that makes it look like both states actually existed simultaneously, between admiration/respect and suspicion/dislike.

There's also the issue of how 'close' students come to their teachers, or teachers to their students. What to teachers expect of their students, and what do students want out of their teachers? What are their separate and/or common agendas for this relationship?†

In the martial arts, maybe more so than anywhere else, teachers are likely to demand a great deal of blanket obedience, at least on the dojo floor. The more serious this gets, and the more the teacher sees himself (herself) as a 'sensei' in the true sense, the more profound and far-reaching the 'obedience' factor is likely to become. There is, in other words, a definite attempt at control of the life of another person, who in turn must agree to be controlled in such a way, even if s/he doesn't really like some of it. But there must be a degree of trust that overcomes the student's reluctance to subject herself to the teacher's whims; and 'whims' is the right word.

A lot of teachers in this area also subscribe to a doctrine, which is also found at military schools and modern-day acting schools. In these systems the theory is that in order to train the student, one must first take him or her apart—psychologically speaking—and then putting them back together again. This is a form of narrative-altering, also known as brain-washing, which I find profoundly objectionable. It offends my sense of the dignity of a person. Only someone who wants to be altered and who chooses to undergo such a shredding-followed-by-reconfiguration—for whatever reasons that are his or her own alone—should be subjected to such treatment.

I'm much more of a mind to build on whatever is already there—even if it appears 'bad'—and to use this to make the student, and allow the student to make him or herself, into a more whole person, with part of their strength of character derived, and taking its energy from, their 'dark side'. Of course, the prerequisite for this to work must be a student who has a desire to 'change' from whatever they happen to see themselves as being at the time. Which also means, at least in my book, that, just as an example, accepting someone into a dojo, who basically just wants to learn how to beat the crap out of people and become a latter-day variation on the Musashi theme (wandering self-important, though very skilled, thug, looking for fights), and who doesn't have that desire to be other than he is...that's actually not a good thing. I would probably find it difficult to justify it that a student of mine, trained by me to indeed beat the crap out of people, actually ends up doing so without a reason that I could justify myself as having and being abkle to accept.

Which makes the idea of opening a dojo very problematic indeed, especially in this culture and the urban environment we're living in. I don't know how I could do it without really constantly watching and controlling what to teach to whom and when; plus reserving myself the right to say to someone "Sorry, but what you seek, you won't find here." Which has its own issues, because how can you tell for whom there's real hope and for whom there isn't, and you'd better send him off to the nearby Ninja joint? Haven't you assumed a responsibility by taking the student on to begin with that bars you from acting in such a way? And what right do you have anyway, to judge a person as being basically one who should not be taught such things—or, conversely, those who are OK to be taught? Isn't sending them off to some kick-the-crap school not possibly more irresponsible than trying to nurture them to more complete human beings?

I've had such thoughts many times, and maybe I'm overthinking things. Or maybe I'm not. But I think the business of equipping people with the ability to seriously maim others, or worse, shouldn't be a 'business'; not the usual kind anyway. By selling this product—this skill, if you will—one automatically assumes a kind of responsibility of how it is used. Of course, you can't 'control' it, because everybody is their own person, and ultimately you shouldn't be held responsible for what your students choose to do with what they've learned from their teacher—though society may end up doing just that! Everything has consequences, most of them unpredictable, and many of them not even thought of.

It's easy to be a student in a martial arts school. I know it doesn't seem that way to most students. Teachers appear to have all the fun. They can boss students around; be a whimsical as they please under the mantle of apparently flimsy excuses like 'keep-you-on-your-toes inscrutability'; stand there and do nothing but look and direct while the rest of the class sweats and strains and hurts; set tests that appear totally unrealistic; and so on. And that is, in some—maybe many, but in any case 'too many'—instances, very probably exactly as it appears. Teachers, especially of the martial arts variety, usually got to where they are by having significant egos and high opinions of themselves; though how these arose are different questions altogether. They may overtly, and possibly even internally, pay humility-homage to masters yet higher up the food-chain than themselves, but they're pretty damn sure, by the time they open a dojo and start signing their name with the prefix 'sensei', that in their nick of the woods, pond or backyard, they're pretty hot shit. Those who work within a framework of an organization, be it a ryu like MJER or TSKSR or some martial arts organization of a much more secular, political and practical streak—and, yes, the boundaries are usually very blurred!—have a further issue with their position within hierarchies. All of this makes for serious distractions from the real job of martial arts practice and teaching; plus everything that should go with it.

In a country like Australia, representative of current Western society and its trends, paradigms, politics and socially-expecteds-and-acceptables, the teacher-student relationship largely defined by the business-end of things—the students purchase a product and the teachers deliver it, or not—as well as the simple fact that, excluding co-dependency relationships and their relatives, the personal engagement between teachers and students has a certain degree of professional uncommittedness. Teachers, by and large, are like...well, preachers maybe. Professional manipulators of the social structure of a flock, as well as, in this instance, the job of teaching them certain skills and, say in the instance of someone like a Head-Master or high-ranking sensei, coming for a teaching visit or a seminar/workshop, ensuring that either the style or whatever the sensei considers he should transmit gets taught as it should.

But it's still basically like the pastor during and after Sunday Mass. I've looked carefully, during the visits of Style Masters or high-ranking sensei—all unquestionably superbly skilled and intelligent; and invariably alpha-male—for more than just the pastor and skill-teacher. Every now and then I saw flashes of it, and I've even seen instances where a Style Master exhibited a sense of 'care' for something else than his style—but it was only 'flashes'. The visitors usually strive to deliver the goods as they understand their 'goods' and how they should and need to be delivered, but it still always had an air of essentially detached professionalism.

This makes sense, of course, and how could it be different? It's the result of an excessively large Student/Teacher ratio and nothing can be done about it. And if you want to run a dojo around here, or just about anywhere, you'll soon find yourself aiming for the highest possible S/T ratio, because that's how you pay the bills, even if you're non-profit. It's like a sports club, but what's OK for a sports club simply isn't for a dojo. That's what I think anyway. And I may be wrong. It's been known to happen. But anything above, say, S/T=5, give or take two, and you're forced to turn on 'pastor' mode more than is good for you. And the more levels there are in the student body, the more difficult it gets. I know there are are crowd management techniques and delegation of teaching to lower grades, but it changes the whole dynamic; and though it's accepted practice and there are apparently cogent reasons for delegating in such a context, I have a gut sense that something's not right about all this.

Gotta think about this more. Much more.

† BTW, having said all that, there are relationships here that contain little of the kind of emotional input I hinted at above. In some instances it's really just about one person teaching another some skills that the teacher simply knows better. There may be a bit of ritualistic behavior involved—especially if the training context is somewhat formal in terms of etiquette, as tends to be the case in a lot of dojos of Japanese derivation, and also from other Asian contexts—but this isn't the level of teacher-student involvement I'm talking about here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Solitary Sword Sessions (Iaito and Bokken)

Yeah, alliteration. Couldn't resist.

So, following on from the previous blog, here are some more details on what I ended up as a general scheme for sword sessions, done entirely by myself. This system developed over several weeks of trying this and that, and wanting to get a handle on things again. On a purely practical level and ignoring philosophy and such like, the aim of the practice is to make Sword and Mind As One. Ken Shin Ichi Nyo.

'Sword' means both, shinken and bokken, real and wooden sword. This guiding phrase would be the name of any dojo I'd establish, if ever. I may expand on rationale behind this at some stage, but for now it'll have to do. Let's take it as a given for now. The purpose of sword training therefore would be to become so familiar with it and its use and handling and just its presence, that it would indeed not only become an extension of one's body but also one's mind—all of which has a number of biomechanical and psychological ramifications. More on that later, too.

So, with this in mind, here's what I do. Note also that training takes place outside, usually in the early morning or at dusk, because of the temperatures. This may change in winter, when temperatures are lower, and it can get quite chilly in the morning. I have ample space to roam—we're talking 'acres'—all grass, some of it dense and some not so dense. I keep a suitably large area cropped short enough, so I don't have to concern myself about snakes, which like longer grass, especially in the summer, and also because that way I know where I'm stepping. The terrain is sloped to various degrees; never really flat, which makes for interesting practice. None of this nice polished dojo floor.

Basic training consists of four parts, which usually take between 45-60 minutes, depending on circumstances. The phases—except for the first one, which is the most predictable—may be of different lengths.

Phase 1: Suburi (cutting air).

Done with a iaito, and used as a warmup. Start slowly, 50-100 cuts per cut-type. Include the standard ones, but also add those usually neglected. Aim to get the iaito to make a sound cutting the cut every time, indicating a good hasuji. If it doesn't, repeat the cut, and only when it's done right, continue counting. Cuts speed up through the cycle of cuts, but only to the level where the quality of the cuts remains untarnished. I don't believe in people getting themselves sweaty with crappy cutting. It teaches the brain bad sword habits, which take too much work, and wasted time, to unlearn later. I've seen it happen time and time again.

Basic rule with iaito training: if the cut doesn't have a good continuous sound, evidencing a satisfactory hasuji, you haven't made it and need to repeat it until you get it right. No exceptions.

This is followed by a few rounds of happogiri, plus some ghost-tameshigiri. The latter is something I first introduced into my lessons while still in Dunedin. You pretend you have really a tall cutting target, taller than yourself, and that you have to cut it up into thin slices, according to these patterns, but with more cuts per pattern if this is suitable. The purpose of this exercise is to get the cut at every level to be accompanied by a satisfying sound from your iaito, indicating that your hasuji in correct for all cuts. As you move your arms up and down—and down and up, because the practice includes returning to the starting level—the biomechanical shifts mean that grip and cut that work at one level don't work at another.

Phase 2: Pretend-Fighting.

Using a bokken.

In one area of the ground are a number of holes, in concentric circles with varying radii. I punched these with some stakes. Into these go arrangements of varying numbers of thin bamboo sticks, about a man's height. Some still have thin branches, because it's wild bamboo we cut at a friend's place. The sticks are pretend-enemies and the branches can serve as pretend-arms if required.

Once the sticks are set up, there follows a series of what amount to scenario developments, of, if you will, fight narratives. You stand this way and that with relation to the sitcks and run through the narratives that suggest themselves, trying out as many as possible. This is a bit like what you do when you try to narrate the background to standard kata in the dojo; only this is much, much more complicated and demanding.

Basically this phase is all about fight tactics, practiced withput anybody present. The absence of people superficially might make this appear like it is pointless and artificial, but it isn't. On the contrary: it's a self-training exercise in a skill that's immensely important when you're faced with real unpleasant people, who want to beat the crap out of you. You learn here to create quick narratives that represent situation-assessments, and to grade them in order of probability, practicality, fatality and so on.

I usually develop these narratives by going through each that occurs to me slowly, with an almost Tai-Chi like speed. The ultimate aim is, of course, to then play the same thing faster and faster, until each adversary takes less than a second to process; optimizing your movements as you go on, adding close-contact elements into the mix, making your moves more efficient and learning not to develop tunnel-vision, and so on.

The bokken may be in a scabbard and have to be drawn, or it can just be in your hand. This is an exercise in planning for serious self-defense, at close quarters—even though using the bokken—and also at a distance, pretending that your opponents may have anything from no weapons at all, to knives, to sticks, to swords to handguns to shotguns. Endless possibilities, and each requiring different tactical considerations.

Phase 3: Throw-and-hit Practice.

Using a bokken for this, ususally in a scabbard, though sometimes just holding it in two hands, one hand on the grip and the about halfway down the 'blade'. If the bokken is sheathed, this is a practice designed to take the mechanics of drawing the sword out of the equation and learning how to focus on hitting something with it. If it is not, it can be made into a different kind of timing exrcise of various levels of complexity.

The target are bamboo sticks, usually of the thinner variety—though the ticker ones also have a use, because they behave so differently—about a foot in length. They are thrown into the air in different ways—straight, spinning, higher, lower, closer, further away—and should be hit, preferably in the center, by the bokken as they come down. The starting aim is to hit them as late as possible and to do it in such a way that the bokken is drawn and the cut follows immediately. If you have too much time to set it all up, that defeats the purpose: you're supposed to learn how to draw lightning fast and at the same time have a clear notion of just how fast it is and how that relates to the target as it comes down and where it's going to be and what angle it's at and so on. I ensure that all kinds of cuts are used, single- and two-handed. The aim is also to have the grips on the bokken right and one's cuts precise and effective; that the sword comes out gracefully; that it comes as close to the ideal way of doing this as possible.

There's also the variation where the aim is to shred the bamboo in as few powerful and precisely-placed cuts as possible, again with the best possible technique. All of this is excellent practice at all levels, and variety is ensured. This is never boring and excellent cardio-workout besides.

Phase 4: Warm-down and Drawing Practice.

There are many ways of drawing the sword—and cutting from the draw—that aren't taught at the traditional schools. I always found that irksome, especially once you've advanced a bit in your practice. It's also counterproductive to limit oneself to the limited set taught and considered a part of this 'style' or that. Familiarity with the sword requires that it becomes an instrument used in all possible configurations, including those involving the draw, and associated with a whole plethora of possible body positions and movements.

And speed. Speed is essential, and I try to work myself up to go as fast as I can, without bad habits showing up, like not drawing the sword completely before cutting, which is usually accompanied by a little "snick" sound where there should be silence. Oh, yes, and drawing as quietly as possible overall. Another challenge added to the mix.

As a warm-down therefore I go through an increasing number of possible draws and variations on these themes. It requires inventiveness and focus, but isn't as athletic as Phase 3 tends to be, and so serves as a warm-down very well, without actually one losing focus. I hate wasting my precious training time doing things that appear to have no real use.

I also make sure that the many different ways of chiburi and noto are taken into account. Again, styles tend to focus on only one or two. I tend to string the TSKSR and the MJER chiburi together with MJER noto at the end; or sometimes use just the TSKSR style, followed by their style of noto.


That's basically it. No actual kata are involved, because I don't have the time, and I use this practice both, as a development of Ken Shin Ichi Nyo, as well as a work-out. For the moment it does fulfill its purpose, and it's fun besides.

Blog's long enough. More later. Maybe.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Martial Arts Matters

Coincidence or plan? Blind chance or hidden variables? Or maybe there's some blind chance and some stuff driven by hidden variables; it's just that we cannot tell which is which? That seemed so obvious to me once the notion had implanted itself in my head, that I'm baffled at the complete absence of serious discussion of this possibility just about anywhere!

Do we just notice things that we are prone to noticing, usually because of their significance to us, or is there actually something to notice?

What about Tarot cards? The I Ching? Clairvoyance? Is it all suitably tweaked 'interpretation' and what amounts to utterly unscientific—meaning, for many people, 'not real' or 'dumb-ass superstitious'—waffle and/or psychobabble smoke and mirrors?

Where do you stand with regards to such matters? Or maybe just some of them, but not all...

What's it got to do with Martial Arts? Well, it's certainly got to do lots with martial arts and me.

It so happens that at the beginning of December '09 I finally started up sword-work again. Not in a dojo context, because I came to the realization, finally and for good, that there's no dojo in Brisbane that can teach me what I really want to know. Everybody has their schemes and agendas and, occasionally weirdo, philosophies; and there's the invariable 'Master' somewhere, who often also appears, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain cuckoo. Add to that a bunch of 'local' 'sensei'—mainly self-styled; the 'sensei' mainly in their own heads, and usually signing themselves as 'sensei' anywhere they get a chance to, which is always a bad sign—with vastly overinflated assessments of their own importance, and maybe you can see my problem.

So, I started the 'work' by myself, and more of that further below.

About the 'coincidence' issue though...

Couple of weeks ago, an old friend of mine, who is about my age, definitely isn't into martial arts—though he would benefit from it greatly, especially sword work—but who reads a lot, came across the works of one John Donohue. The latter, apart from being a 'martial artist' also writes novels. I'm just going through the three he's written, and will review them when I'm done.

Apart from being great thrillers, the books also contain a goodly portion of martial arts philosophy—not all of which I agree with, but which nonetheless make one think about things again, even if only in contrary response. But I can see where the guy's coming from; a different place than myself—more on that in another blog, too—but still not a bad place. Too testosterone-charged for my taste, but that's what happens in those kinds of disciplines. Not enough of the female element. You wouldn't believe, would you, that all males start off as females in the womb...

You may not think of this coincidence—me starting up sword practice again and my buddy reading and recommending those books to me—as particularly significant. But it was, because I keep on thinking about what shape and philosophical and practical form to give to any dojo that I might establish myself. These thoughts and reflections are with me a lot, but they were going nowhere fast and somewhere only slowly.

As usual, that was due to me asking the wrong questions. This, by the way, is the case with just about everything for everybody that tries to do something and seems to be getting nowhere; or who seems to be getting somewhere quite fast, but definitely onto the wrong path. But somehow, reading the first of Donohue's novels, Sensei, other questions emerged; and that set me onto a different track with regards dojo issues.

The first question coming to the fore was: What are you actually qualified—in a real sense—to teach?

By 'real sense' I mean what of 'substance', if you will, am I qualified to teach, and what does 'qualified' mean anyway? Just being a 2nd Dan in some, albeit venerable and centuries-old, martial arts tradition—in my case Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu—doesn't necessarily mean that I'm actually 'qualified' for any damn thing. Not in my book.

You may 'have qualifications' in this and that skill, and it may appear that you 'know' a shitload of stuff—but does that mean you're qualified to go and open a dojo and tell people, "come in and learn from me"? Not in my book.

You may have passed a number of exams in certain certificates that attest to your 'qualifications' in the teaching area; but does that make you a teacher? Not in my book.

A 'sensei', translating it literally, is someone who has been born before—before those he is a sensei to. 'Birth' in this instance usually implies some spiritual dimension, being 'born to something'; or a dimension of skill or practice; or, if you will, of what is sometimes known as 'walking the path'. In other words, he or she will have gone somewhere you haven't yet, and therefore may be able to show you the way. Of course, all of us walk different paths, but a lot of the lessons learned by one person apply to others. If the 'path' includes specific elements, such as 'martial arts' ones—even without going the whole hog and declaring martial arts to be something pompous like 'The Path' (of the warrior or whatever); which is something I consider seriously misguided and narrow—then a 'sensei' should definitely be able to guide you along certain sections of it; or not, if s/he thinks that maybe you need to really figure this or that out by yourself. 'Being born before' carries an implication of 'having gone along here before'. Anybody who wants to be a 'sensei' therefore, and anybody starting up a dojo by implication makes him- or herself into a 'sensei', better make sure that he has the qualities and qualifications required to be able to say, "Yes, I have been there before, and I can help people along their path(s)."

That's a tough one, and I'm not certain I can say that with sufficient confidence to go ahead and establish what you might call a 'meaningful dojo'—or even what that implies and what's needed for the existence of such a place. This isn't paralysis-by-indecision, but a matter of responsibility. It occurs to me that, in general, establishing a dojo of any kind, advertising its existence and trying to get as many people as possible to come and visit and train in it—train for what?—isn't quite as trivial a matter as a lot of people appear to see it as. I don't mean 'trivial' in terms of economics, or venue or insurance matters; but trivial in terms of...responsibility maybe. Advertising one's wares, of any ilk, always implies a promise of quality and relevance to those the advertising is directed at. You can't do that with martial arts training, except in terms of maybe self-defense skills or something along those lines.

But I'm not a self-defense guy in the sense that people would understand it. It's a significant part of any martial arts training, of course, but the mechanics are only a tiny fraction of it. But anybody coming to training advertised as containing 'self-defense' would expect training in those above all. There are a gazillion people out there, who are better 'qualified' than I am, who can beat the shits out of each other and any unwary and even a wary attacker, and who'll gladly train up people for that purpose. But my view of self-defense and the general social activity we call 'fighting' is that the most important skill is to know how not to fight to begin with, and that the most important body parts involved are your feet and legs, and next down the line your face and your tongue. Because you need to be able to run away if you can, and if not, being able to defuse a situation with suitable facial expressions and body language and the right words and so on. That's the first and most important thing you need to know. But if that doesn't work—and you really to do your best to make it work, because in the aftermath you'll be judged by your society on how much you genuinely tried!—then you need to turn on your Dr. Hyde nature, which has to lie there, dormant and waiting to be unleashed in case it's needed, and become the most fearsome and ferociously terrifying dude or dudette your opponents have ever faced; and finish them off without mercy or hesitation before they even know you started getting serious.

That, however, is not something you can teach people as readily as a nice jab to the throat or kick to the knee or crack with a bokken on something that'll inflict suitable pain and disability. And these days people want results, which martial arts, the real kind, will only provide with patience, persistence, insight, a desire to learn and understand, and practice and practice and practice.

I'm wondering if there's something inherently wrong with the whole notion of hawking martial arts like some 'product', competing for the disposable income of your potential clients.

"When the Student is ready, the Master will appear," goes the saying. But maybe it's also a case of "When the Master is ready, the student(s) will appear." Who knows?

Gotta think about that some more. Meanwhile, this blog is long enough, and I'll talk about solitary sword practice and how one can do this meaningfully in my next blog.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The World's Largest Needledick

Seriously, I can't be the only one who immediately thinks 'phallus', right? A $20 billion one at that. The largest erection in the world. I wonder if it's representative—if not in size—of certain anatomical attributes of those ordering its construction.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Seeing AVATAR — *** Major Spoilers! ***

This article is about AVATAR, the movie. Don't read on if you haven't seen it and are one of those people who really, really don't want to know anything about it before you do!

But if you're still with me...

Here's the plot summary copied from

When his brother is killed in battle, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge's intentions of driving off the native humanoid "Na'vi" in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na'vi people with the use of an "avatar" identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand—and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.

Avatar is the re-telling of familiar stories, such as might be found in e.g. Pocahontas (the 1995 Disney movie and its sequel) or Dances With Wolves. I also detected themes explored in Australia, none of which should come as a surprise.

Having said that, the movie is neither of those; though it demonstrated that certain story subjects are indeed 'timeless'. Add to the mix a goodly dose of Bush/Cheney bashing, some heart-felt Gaia-esque mysticism, and the whole thing becomes 'topical', though it has a time-transcended air about it.

The technology used to create the movie is mind-blowing. I imagine a major mainframe farm chewing up more power than a small city, churning away on the frame-by-frame rendering—double, because of the 3-d requirements—for weeks on end; contributing majorly to greenhouse gas creation. But who cares? The results are stunning, almost seamless; and that includes the 3-d, which, to the immense credit of the creators, becomes virtually invisible early in the story, with the latter absorbing almost all of your attention. Well, at least it did it for me, though I can imagine—actually I know this for sure, judging from the comments of some of the people with me—that a lot of folks, and not just geeks, will be distracted from the tale by the technology involved in presenting it.

"Best special effects ever," is a typical kind of comment—which, of course misses the mark. Nowadays it's getting to the stage where people expect ever-better verisimilitude in the special effects department. Avatar was right up there, setting a definite new standard that others will have to spend a lot of money on trying live up to it.

The movie had enough potential and 'message' material to satisfy just about everybody who wants to push a current politically correct agenda—and piss off those who aren't into 'green', or the apologists, no matter how slickly they put their case, for economics trumping the rights of people to their established of life. It's easy to see endless indictments of US military might, the military and soldiers in general, greed and multinational corporation driven exploitation with political support, and so on blahblahblah. I heard that kind of stuff from some of those I went to see it with. About par for the course and fatuous to boot.

Avatar stands out, however, by transcending the specifics of such current-issue politics-mongering. I'm not sure it was meant to proselytize, or not, or what the director's intentions might have been. I don't know if he was aware of the irony implied in the character of the indigenous people, who may have had a close connection to 'nature' and their planet—said planet being covered by what may well have been a true, sentient, organism, rather than the rather contrived 'Gaia' concept; more like Solaris—but who were no peaceniks themselves; like was the case with a lot of those colonialized, for reasons that ultimately boil down to 'profit', in Earth history—and not just, and this needs to be noted, by 'Western' powers.

'Being close to nature' or whatever need not imply peacefulness and never has—just like 'being civilized' or being possessed of a 'culture' does not have as a logical consequence that the society concerned and its members have reached some more evolved state on the scale of social evolution. Is Cameron aware of this, or was he pushing some hyperborean social message? Who knows, and in this instance who cares? The movie's genius lay in transcending the instances and making what lies behind them visible. Again, whether this was intentional, or fortuitous and due to the director's ability, is a matter of conjecture. People will argue for both sides of the case.

I don't subscribe to the 'Gaia' theory, though Earth's geological, atmospheric and biological systems do have some potent self-regulatory properties. These are, however, completely non-sentient—at least I haven't seen any evidence whatsoever for them being anything but 'phycial'. But I think that it is possible for worlds such as Avatar's 'Pandora' to exist somewhere in the universe. Planetary organisms, even entities such as planetary 'brains', possibly sentient ones, are not impossible by any means. As such I didn't consider Avatar pure fantasy. Indeed, Pandora reminded me a lot of the planet 'Cadwal', from the eponymous Jack Vance Trilogy (starting with Araminta Station), which was even more strongly and radically conservationist than Avatar.

The true 'fantasy' element of Avatar, if you will, lies in the fact that, in the end, the good guys win. Here Cameron's narrative, though otherwise close—including in the sounds and cadences of the natives' language—to a retelling of stories from European-Amerindian colonialist encounters, deviates drastically. The good guys can win. Greed can be defeated. People can succeed in having their way of life as they want it; and they can beat the crap out of technologically advanced invaders. It's what we all would like to be true, though on Earth and throughout human history it has invariably turned out to be false. The right of people to have a right to their home and way of life—something that, on a smaller scale, has been depicted in that classic piece of Australiana, The Castle—should be respected as much as possible. Not because it's in some absolute way 'right' that things should be so, but because in our gut all of us feel that this is the way things should be.

I say 'all', and maybe I'm being too inclusive. Maybe far too inclusive. Because when it comes to the crunch, people tend to be far less tolerant than one might expect if they really followed their gut feelings. Indeed, their sentiments in such cases tend to be oriented toward said freedom from interference applying to them, while 'others'...well, that's different, right? Like, don't we have a duty to liberate the oppressed and socially unenlightened barbarians of the world? Abolish the oppression of women in Afghanistan, and such like...

Yeah, easy this is not, and rife with hypocrisy it is as well.

Still, in Avatar, there is a victory for those fighting vastly superior technology, which is in the service of those ruled by naked greed. And we all (?) cheer and feel good about it, and leave the cinema uplifted, because this gives us hope. And the people go home to their lives, ruled by the ever-encroaching and tightening web of the nanny-state they live in. Don't they see the bitter irony? Don't they see that, were they to fight for their right to live their lives without the nauseating, suffocating interference of 'the State', they would be soundly slammed with the iron fists of the police states that have become the de-facto condition of even the so-called 'liberal' societies of the Western democracies?

I loved Avatar from what politically is best described as a 'Libertarian' point of view.

Libertarians are committed to the belief that individuals, and not states or groups of any other kind, are both ontologically and normatively primary; that individuals have rights against certain kinds of forcible interference on the part of others; that liberty, understood as non-interference, is the only thing that can be legitimately demanded of others as a matter of legal or political right; that robust property rights and the economic liberty that follows from their consistent recognition are of central importance in respecting individual liberty; that social order is not at odds with but develops out of individual liberty; that the only proper use of coercion is defensive or to rectify an error; that governments are bound by essentially the same moral principles as individuals; and that most existing and historical governments have acted improperly insofar as they have utilized coercion for plunder, aggression, redistribution, and other purposes beyond the protection of individual liberty. [link]

Though these principles are unrealizable in any 'real' society—for the same reasons that anything that demands universal consideration of the rights of others is unrealizable: human imperfection—they are worthwhile working towards in approximation. Avatar's world, despite it's imperfections, is oddly close to perfection despite of it—and maybe, paradoxically, because of it; because only in an imperfect world can the concept of 'justice' exist as a contrast to the 'injustice', social and contingent (e.g. good people die, while assholes are allowed to live on), that appears to be a ubiquitous feature of our experience.

Great flick with too many levels of possible meaning to fully encompass it. All of which is the hallmark of a damn good story.