Sunday, May 14, 2017

Attempted Brain Dredge

Sometimes I hate not thinking in words. Usually it's a superpower. But right now I'm struggling to explain something that I see as...gestalt is the best word I can come up with. Stayed up all last night trying to find the words. Sometimes words would bubble up and I can explain a piece of it, but sometimes the words open another tangent that's relevant.

Roughly, meaning is important. Syntax is the effective ordering of symbols to deliver meaning. Grammar is an attempt to codify syntax to make it both easier to deliver meaning and easier to detect sloppy syntax. Until grammar becomes it's own thing.

Roughly, fighting is to have an effect to serve the goal. The principles (leverage, structure, etc.) and building blocks (power generation, strikes, takedowns etc.) are the means to achieve that goal. "Form" is an attempt to codify the principles and building blocks. Both to make fighting easier to teach and to make it more efficient. And it works, until form becomes it's own thing separate from effect.

Good grammar is never wrong, exactly. And it's never wrong to punch with good form. This is (sort of) axiomatic because because good form is supposed to be what a punch with perfect body mechanics looks like.

This is where I hit the wall. It's an image, partially visual, mostly kinesthetic in my head, but the words that surface are a mess:

Communication can happen with absolutely no proper grammar or syntax-- Think comforting an infant. And fighters can be devastating even with no recognizable form and shitty body mechanics. A 2x4 upside the head doesn't need a lot of skill. But that in no way means you should eschew skill. A 2x4 plus good body mechanics is better than a 2x4 with shitty body mechanics.

It doesn't hurt to comfort an infant using grammatically correct phrases, unless your focus on being grammatically correct makes your language stilted and unnatural. Then the kid will get weirded out. It doesn't hurt to fight with good form, because good form is just good body mechanics. Unless you are so focused on doing things "right" that your movements become stilted and unnatural and you get your ass kicked.

A focus on form, whether in grammar or fighting, can cover up a lot of ignorance. If I can't refute your arguments, I can make fun of your spelling. If I don't have any real understanding of how the human body works, I can focus on form the way I memorized it-- knowledge memorized substituting for understanding. With understanding, I can teach you to hit harder, with knowledge I can teach you to look like my sensei did when he was hitting hard.

When form/grammar become it's own thing. This is looking like a universal. Grammatically correct nonsense is still nonsense. Punching air while looking right is still punching air. We create these systems to make things better, to make a specific goal easier to accomplish. Whether that goal is conveying information or knocking someone down. But in almost every case, certain people are drawn to become masters and keepers of the system, and to them, the system becomes the goal itself. Has there ever been a piece of great literature that was grammatically perfect? I'm sure Shakespeare had someone correcting his grammar. In fighting and SD, these are the couch sitters that will tell you you survived wrong.  Universal-- I'm thinking of ways that bureaucracies originally designed to solve problems become self-perpetuating machines, sometimes at great cost. Cough*Rotherham*Cough.

And that's even assuming the form is based on what we think it is. Kicking with the instep is less likely to injure your target and more likely to injure you than kicking with your shin... but it makes a slapping noise that is much harder for a referee to ignore. "Ain't" was a forbidden word in my grade school. Not because it was unclear, but because our teachers wanted us to sound like s specific socio-economic class.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Like A Scientist

I've been struggling, for years now, with not being in sworn service. It shows up here on the blog, but it's more evident in the times I can't or won't or don't write. In private conversations. Or staring out over the horizon.

Teaching is fun, and (on paper) life is amazing. Four countries this year already and a new one day after tomorrow. Of the classic travel lines (Arctic and Antarctic Circles, Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, Equator and International date line) I've crossed all but one in the last six months. Amazing home, ardent love. Life is amazing. But for the last few years it has felt muted. Dull. Adrenaline makes life feel more real, and none of this ever has or ever will feel as real as going head to head with a bad guy or heading off a riot.

K and I are experimenting with new things this year. Simple things mostly. Have had most of a week to talk to Toby and spent the night before last in a sleeping bag without a tent north of the arctic circle. I feel transition coming on. A good one.

We all age and change. And, can't speak for everyone, but I suspect it's common-- there's a tendency to focus on an image of the past. Sometimes it works out. I trained so hard in martial arts because long after it was true, every time I looked in the mirror I saw the tiny, scrawny kid, the smallest kid in the redneck school. But most of the time, it's almost like we focus on whatever will make us feel worse. Or maybe it's just me.

Bragging alert: At my peak, I got the physical fitness awards from both Army BCT and the Academy. I could do over 110 pushups in 2 minutes, did a 10:50 2-mile, hand-over-hand a 10.5 mm climbing rope. At 5'8" I could jump and grab a basketball hoop and once kicked the net. That whole time, I thought I was weak and small.

And whining alert: Now over 50 years old. Lots of injuries over the last fifteen-- knee, elbow and shoulder dislocations. Long term effects of concussions. Some arthritis from broken fingers. Bones out of place in feet and ankles. Spine acting up making the hands spasm and go numb...

I've been looking at the past as a lost thing. News alert, the past is always a lost thing. Can 55-year-old Rory ever be 25-year-old Rory? Of course not. Trying to get back to a past physicality is just as toxic as a violence survivor who thinks that who they were before the incident was the "real" them and measures their progress by how far they retrogress to that "real." It's bullshit. It's a bullshit way to think. It's.Not.Useful.

 Can 55-year-old Rory ever be 25-year-old Rory? Nope. But, you know what? Nobody has any clue what 55-year-old Rory can be. No one knows what the limits are. It's never happened before. This is something to explore, not to plan. I've done the fighter thing. And the teacher thing (Don't worry, I'll continue that for a bit). The next transition will be to scientist, experimenter and explorer. What's possible? What's fun? Already feel my inner world shifting. This is going to be an interesting ride.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Scales and Interactions

Anything in the human world is a complex interaction. I have a history, a set of assumptions, a suite of facts and things I want to believe are facts, communication habits and patterns, etc. And so do you. Somewhere in the interplay between our complexities, we communicate. To a degree.

And almost everything is on a scale. Clarity of communication can be non-existent or poor or good or very close to perfect. And the clarity can be impaired at either end (I can write poorly or you can read inaccurately) or in the middle (radio static.) And clarity can be deliberately manipulated. I can choose to lie or be obscure, consciously or not. You can choose to hear something other than what I said, consciously or unconsciously.

At some point, and it's probably on a scale, choosing (manipulating) your own perception becomes the superpower of reframing.

All of this means there are some very important things that will never have a clear answer. Where is the line between education and brainwashing? Deep training changes the student at a fundamental level, and with changes that big, informed consent is impossible. There's an arrogant answer that as long as you teach "the truth" it doesn't matter, but all educational systems have believed that their mythology was objective truth. Do you really think you've evaded a trap that has caught everyone else?

Where is the line between toughening up and abuse? I feel very privileged to have had my childhood. I like who I am, and my childhood gave me the tools to function and stay sane in some relatively nasty conditions. My wife thinks my childhood was "horrific."

If you embrace the power of reframing, the recipient can literally decide if an event was good or bad, can choose the effect the event has on his or her (or my own) life. Except, what about the cult member who is perfectly happy in a life of isolation, deprivation and control? Why is it okay for me to reframe my childhood as a positive thing, but not for another adult to reframe his experience as 'joy in service?' When does reframing shift from empowerment to dodging? Where is the line between assistance and enabling?

At what point does my cheerleading ("I got over X, you can too!") Become disempowering ("So why haven't you got over it? What the hell is wrong with you?")

Speaking about this becomes murky, because not everything that is deliberate is also conscious. There are many people choosing to be assholes that never let that decision rise to their conscious mind where they might have to face responsibility. What's the best way to interact with someone who chooses to lose when I want the person to be successful?

To some extent, this is all mental masturbation. And a by-product of magnification. You can look at anything with too fine a lens and the problem becomes impossibly complex. Too coarse a lens and the problem is too blurry to see. There's a sweet spot.

Living as a human is an action. You'll never cover all of the angles, so you learn what you can, get as good as you can, and act. Over-analysis leads to inaction. Never pretend  that the complexities don't exist, however. That's one of the ways you get people doubling down on failed solutions.

Friday, March 17, 2017


The longest fight I have ever had lasted over an hour. At no time was I in any danger.

The thing was, we were dealing with an inmate who wanted to hurt himself. Lighten up for even an instant on pressure and he would start slamming his own head into the floor. Lose a grip on his wrist and he would try to gouge his own eyes.

In most situations-- self-defense, combatives, whatever-- you have a goal. Get to safety. Get the bad guy in cuffs. Whatever. In almost every case, the threat's goal is irrelevant to your goal. If the threat wants to play with me as a toy or see what someone looks like as they die or get enough cash for the next hit of meth or heroin or crack, that really doesn't affect my goal to get home in one piece.

Get this: most of the time your goal is NOT to deny the threat's goal. Most of the time your goal (go home safe or threat goes to jail) are antagonistic to the threat's goal purely as a side effect.

But, rarely, your goal is to deny the threat's goal. Your focus shifts from winning to denying the threat his idea of a win.

This is strategically dangerous. One of the golden rules of tactics is to never play the threat's game. But when you are trying to deny the threat his definition of the win, you've already ceded most of your strategy. There is no pro-active way to work from this paradigm. When your goal is denying the threat's goal, you have already let the threat define the goal. The threat controls the battlefield and has the advantage.

In long-term conflicts, "denying the opposition" has a more profound side-effect. Once you define yourself by your enemy, you can never win. Labor/management.  Israel/Palestine. To defeat your enemy would cause your raison d'ĂȘtre to die. And thus, you.

Note for a future post: positive versus negative, in definition and goals.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

No Bullshit (Virtue)

Saw an ad offering "No Bulls**t" self defense training. That's laudable. That's the goal. For that matter "No bullshit" should be a goal for training and talking and thinking and living. But it's not that simple. The no-bullshit life is a goal, but if you ever think for one second that you've achieved it, you've just started bullshitting yourself.

We all have biases-- biases in the way that we perceive, process, think, plan... You probably know some of your physical habits (when you cross your arms, is the right or the left on the outside? Are you left or right eye dominant? Which shoe goes on first?) but not all of them. You probably know even fewer of your mental habits. And even fewer of your perceptual habits (hint-- I bet if you examine the last several big meetings of strangers the handful of people you remember will have certain things in common.)

The bullshit never goes away. Humans know surprisingly little. We have a lot of stuff in our heads, but the things we know to a certainty is a very small subset. And many of those are useful, but incorrect. The sun doesn't actually rise in the East, the sun is stationary and the earth spins...and that's not true either, because the sun isn't stationary, nor is the galaxy.

I'm never certain how much bullshit has crept in. I can't be. If I only taught the things I'm 100% scientifically certain of, all of my knowledge could be summed up with "1+1=2 as long as you limit it to inanimate objects; and things with a higher number on the Mohs scale will scratch things with a lower number."

When I teach a technique, I can be fairly confidant because I've used it. But really? Take a throat strike. I've used it exactly once. Spectacularly successful. Would absolutely use it again in the same situation... but if I read a "scientific survey" trying to extrapolate from a sample of one I'd laugh my ass off.

"No Bullshit" isn't a state. It's a scale. And a process. And that makes it one of the virtues.

We tend to have a binary way of looking at the world. Is a thing good or bad? Hard or soft? Right or wrong? I find that immature. Most things are scales, not states. Not good or bad, but better or worse. End state thinking leaves no room for improvement. "Excellent" can be improved on, "perfect" can't.
If you did a move well, you can get better. If you did the same move right, you can't.

Calling something a virtue recognizes that if it is a scale, it can also be a process. Virtuous people are not the ones being good, they are the ones striving to be better. Every day. "No bullshit" as a virtue is a commitment to challenging your own assumptions, back-tracking your beliefs to first sources. It isn't the contentious skepticism of trying to prove people wrong to score points, but to cut away all of your personal wrongness to continuously build a stronger foundation.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Vic and Toby

...and me.

This will be (probably) the last of the MovNat AARs. Talking about training methodology.

I've written about Toby before. And here. And here. And teaching in general here. That's Toby Cowern of Tread Lightly Survival.

Wilderness survival, assault survival and movement have a lot in common. They are simultaneously complex and simple. Specifically the problems can be mind-bogglingly complex, but the solutions, in order to work, have to be simple. All three subjects are perfectly suited to the way people naturally think and move. All three subjects are almost in direct opposition to the way people are socially conditioned and taught to think and move. All three subjects wire to and work from the part of our brain that functions at primal levels with deep joy and deep pain. Almost all of civilization is specifically targeted to make these three subjects alien: We have grocery stores and central heating to avoid using wilderness survival skills; police and laws and eradicated predatory animals so we don't need assault survival and; cars and forklifts so we don't have to move and carry.

Just as there are principles in survival, and in movement, there are principles in teaching. My favorite teachers (and Vic moved onto the list) get that.

Good teaching is principles-based, and we've covered some of that in the last post.

A good teacher doesn't tell you what to think, but shows you how to think. Toby's "non-prescriptive" answers. Vic would ask the right questions, like "Where is the tension in your body? Is that helping or holding you back?" Or pointing out that if you want to move north, having your legs or feet moving west probably isn't helping.

It's about the student, not the instructor. The only reason I have any real assessment of Vic's physicality is because he attended a VioDy. At the MovNat seminar he demonstrated very little and his assistants demonstrated the minimum necessary to get you started, then the participants played. The ability of the instructor was irrelevant, the class was all about increasing the ability of the student.

At the instructor level, knowledge is insufficient. You need understanding. There was one technique in MovNat (part of the broad jump) that didn't jive with my previous training. When I asked why, the instructor (Stefano) was able to explain the reason behind the difference-- the environment in which my previous training was the right answer, why it would be right, when it would still be better than the MovNat way and the reason behind the MovNat difference. When instructors have just memorized technique, they don't have the tools to explain and are left with mere dogma. With understanding you can pass on the rules, and the exceptions, to the students.

Very little about right/wrong. Lots about better. Tied to the above point. I don't think I heard anyone being told they were doing anything wrong, but a lot of, "Try this, I think it will work better." There are lots of good teaching reasons to stay away from criticism.

And, tying into both of the last two points, there was no appeal to authority. It was all experiential. Never did Vic have to tell us something worked. When an instructor candidate pointed out a detail of your alignment or structure, there was an immediate, visible improvement. You only have to tell people something worked if it didn't actually work.

Vic was also cool with variation. I was one of the minority that had better balance with shoes on than off, and carrying a weight at chest level than at waist level. Extraordinary instructors are cool with not trying to force the statistical average onto the outliers.

Just as there is a natural movement for a human body, there is also a natural learning. Humans, like all animals, learn best through play. There's some stuff you have to talk about, and some stuff you want to play with in the gym, the studio or the lab. But playing, ideally in the real environment, is what locks in a skill. I led this post off with pointing out that some of the things closest to our evolutionary path are complex problems that require simple solutions. Play is the way we cut that Gordion knot.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Movement Principles

In combatives, you'll hear people talk about the principles of a system, or principles-based training. That's fine and dandy right up until you ask a senior practitioner exactly what those principles are. If you're lucky, you'll get crickets. If not, you'll get the normal word salad of someone who has been pinned down in their ignorance and needs to fill it with words. You'll get goals ("Don't get hurt.") Or strategies ("Do the maximum damage in the minimum time.") Or tactics ("Close and unbalance.") Or philosophical generalities ("Become one with your opponent.")* Basically tripe. You can't really have a good conversation about principles-based training until you've defined what principles are-- and separated them from goals, strategies, tactics and aphorisms.

There's going to be a core set of principles in any physical endeavor. One of the really gratifying things about the MovNat seminar was not just how principles-based it was but how much the principles mirrored the ones I understand.

The lists will never be exactly the same. Time doesn't function the same in a fight as it does running or climbing. Balance and gravity have other levels when you are simultaneously a bipedal creature and half of a quadrupedal creature.

Something isn't eligible for my list of principles unless it 1) fits my definition 2) applies to striking, grappling and weapons and,  3) there are no exceptions. The MovNat class with Vic pointed out that some of them applied to all movement. And that was pretty cool.

Caveat. What I am about to write comes from my perspective having taken a class once. Don't take this as anything officially MovNat-y.

Structure, momentum, balance and gravity. Four key principles and they all interact.

Life is a constant battle with gravity. Gravity is a force, and sometimes the enemy, and almost always a tool. If you need to resist gravity, resist it with bone, not muscle. That's one of the essential applications of structure. Muscle gets tired. Bone doesn't. I use structure for unbalancing and immobilizations and takedowns and... Vic used it for lifting, carrying, catching, traversing, climbing. Just that I saw. In two days.

Exploiting momentum is one of the key principles, especially when you are outmatched in size and strength. I tend to use it to make people miss and hurt themselves and fall down, but also to increase my own power. "Motion defeats strength" to quote Jimerfield sensei. Vic used it to keep motion going with less effort, to extend a jump and to slow one down and in a climbing thing--

I used to embarrass my kids when I'd take them to the playground and climb around more than they did. One of my tricks was to go to the swings. The big ones where steel poles making an inverted V on the ends to support the main beam that the swings hang from. I'd put one hand on each of the V supports and climb to the top just by swinging side to side and letting my hands move up. It was a way to climb with almost no muscle-- just structure and the momentum of the swing, which relied on gravity. Hadn't thought of that as principles until Stefano demonstrated almost the same technique for traversing.

Balance. In a lot of ways, balance is just the interplay of structure and gravity. In judo we spent a lot of time playing with the science of keeping our own balance while stealing the opponents. But there are times to lose your balance as well, times when falling serves you. Sutemi waza, for instance. Or falling on a locked elbow (someone else's). Balance is not just a principle, but a skill, and Vic had some balance games I'll be playing with for a while.

Gravity is a tool. The iconic application is the drop-step. Done properly it is a speed, power and range multiplier that doesn't telegraph. It's one of the first things I teach. Turned out to be one of the first things Vic taught as well, but as a way to effortlessly and quickly fall into a run. Or a sprint, depending on how much you commit. And a way to control your speed, without working to move your legs faster or thinking about lengthening your stride.

Still playing with thoughts from the class. Will be for awhile. Probably talk about teaching methodology next.

 And, pro-tip, if you have the right partner and the right kind of post-workout smile you can get a full body tiger balm massage out of it. Awesome.

*To be fair, one of my principles is a soundbite philosophical generality, but I use it because it allows me to file a bunch of different related principles-- ranging, action/reaction speed, manipulating perception and realities of timing and distance, working in negative space, etc. all under the label "Control Space and Time."