Playing it Safe with My Wife

2 Apr

I had begun rock climbing some time in the past year. I’d done a number of top-rope climbs in Southeastern Missouri and Southern Illinois and I was eager to progress to my first multi-pitch climbs. Along the way, separate from my climbing circle, I’d met my wife-to-be.

I lived in St. Louis and Bonnie lived in Washington, DC, so I could easily pursue my new passion out of sight. It might have been out of her sight but it was not out of her mind. Bonnie was not very keen on my climbing. It seemed dangerous to her and, as she explained, she wanted to keep me around; she kind of liked me.

Bonnie moved from Washington to St. Louis so we could pursue our relationship in a new way. Continue reading

Two-Dozen Things I Learned Doing a 30-Day Yoga Challenge

10 Feb

1. I do better the more aware that I am.

2. The more aware I am, the more I discover; I notice things I’d not noticed before, I notice more subtle sensations, I become aware of the next layer, I notice interconnections.

3. The more I practice with awareness the better I get at practicing with awareness.

4. Strength is found in drawing to center, not in brute force flying out, wasting energy. Continue reading

957 Words About Beginning and Staying

31 Dec

I recently unearthed from my personal library George Leonard’s Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. I purchased the book 15 or 20 years ago because I’d come across an article by Leonard, a precursor to the book, in the May 1987 issue of Esquire magazine as part of their Ultimate Fitness series. (Follow that link to the issue in the Esquire archives, if only to enter a Wayback Machine to 1987.)

I only started my current, serious round of martial arts training in 1993 (at age 33) and came across that article sometime thereafter while digging back for that Ultimate Fitness series. I wasn’t terribly fit and was grasping for any secret fitness leg-up I could find. The mastery article presented concepts pertinent to me at that point in my martial arts journey. With perhaps a year and a half or so of practice under my (Purple-Trim?) belt I was at the point where many students might drop out, due to the “Brown Belt Blues” phenomenon.

Getting to Purple-Trim belt — or Third Gup — means I had put in consistent practice and had progressed through six belt levels in that time, testing about quarterly. I’d done a lot, learned a lot, and realized that now things were about to get real. In a way I felt I’d survived but a lot more was yet to come. The students I’d observed from other, older schools who were at these three levels before black belt (Purple-Trim, Brown and Red Belts) were serious, talented and experienced. Now I was entering into that group?

I had a glimpse of possibility, but also a sense of getting out while I could. I’d come this far OK; why chance it? Get out while I was on top, be happy with getting to that point, and gracefully exit. That’s what I’d done in my younger years: four different starts and stops in two different Karate styles and Tai Chi. A couple of belts in (or the equivalent time in Tai Chi) and then convincing myself that I should stop with whatever was the excuse of the moment. Maybe the excitement of the brand-new endeavor was gone; maybe I was chickening out. Had I stuck with my training back then, I might have been a multi-level black belt in Karate by my mid-thirties, with the lessons and gifts that would have provided, rather than a Third Gup at thirty-five.

The experience at the senior Gup levels is not one of only learning more stuff and more difficult techniques; it is also an experience of further-developing in the techniques and principles learned so far. More time is simply spent practicing and working to get better. There is more time between those last promotion levels and then to Black Belt. It’s work and time.

I shared a copy of Leonard’s article with my instructor and we talked about it a number of times. I don’t think I ever told him that I was toying with a graceful exit; I’m not sure I was even fully cognizant myself of my inclination at the time. He and I talked about the three archetypes whom Leonard describes when referring to people who either drop out of their practice or who end up “treading water”, making no improvement. (The Dabbler, The Obsessive, and The Hacker.)

To whatever degree I was considering quitting, I never really considered it further after those discussions about the article. That was partly because I realized the degree to which I’d been a regular Dabbler and Obsessive; I didn’t want to leave and have my instructor think of me as a Dabbler!

More than simply avoiding those archetypes, I was reoriented to continue on by the mastery concept Leonard presented. Mastery means living on the plateau, the long times of no discernible progress while simply practicing for the joy of regular practice. The path of mastery is practicing. More than simply hacking or messing around, it is intentional practice, with the vision to improve over time. The reality is that much of the time there is no discernible progress. Until there is. Then there’s another long plateau. One must simply practice to practice.

There is no excitement of the new endeavor (what attracts The Dabbler) and no rush of new techniques or new belts or regular, noticeable improvement (what keeps the Obsessive). There is no hacking, just showing up and going through the motions. There IS intentional, regular practice, with lots of time of nothing: no improvement, many bad days, no new techniques, no belts or awards. Just practice.

I realized all that was required of me to go wherever it is I might go with Taekwondo was to show up and give it my best shot that day. I had instruction, I had support, I had opportunity to push it to my edge. Most of all my part was to simply show up and train. Again, and again and again. Roundhouse kick, roundhouse kick, roundhouse kick again. I was to train with whatever intention I could bring that day, each kick, each class, each time — and to enjoy those cool new techniques when they are presented!

I’ve still slipped into dabbling, obsessing and hacking in different endeavors since then, including in my Taekwondo. Still, the path of mastery has remained in me, in Taekwondo, in my marriage, in my spiritual life. I have it in mind as I continue with yoga practice, and as I try to follow each breath in meditation sessions, and as I take intentional small, regular actions to improve situations I am in with people, in my work, at church, in community service: show up, take action with intention, accept the place, repeat, repeat, repeat, appreciate the gift when it comes, then keep at it some more.

You Make Me Feel Like a Natural . . . Klutz

26 Aug

I’ve been learning a new set of Taekwondo forms, the Taegeuk poomsae.  (Poomsae means form or pattern). My particular Taekwondo lineage used an older set of forms, the Palgwe poomsae, and never introduced the Taegeuk forms, even though they were developed as updated forms in the 1970’s. Given that the Taegeuk poomsae are now the standard for our worldwide associations it’s time to make the shift!

The Taegeuk poomsae are color belt forms, one for each of eight color belt ranks (gup), yellow (8th gup) through red (1st gup). Even as someone who practices five black belt patterns, I am challenged in learning these forms.  Memory is required; I find that I need to be patient and focus on one form at a time, otherwise things start to get jumbled. Equal to that challenge is performing new movements both individually well and in flow from one to the next. Ironically, I find the biggest challenge in what is the very first movement in the very first pattern for the lowest rank belt. That movement is the walking stance.

Walking stance. How can something that sounds so natural be a challenge? I walk throughout the day, every day, and have since about my first birthday. That’s fifty-six years of walking. I currently take at least 10,000 steps a day, thank you Fitbit. I get lots of practice walking. Walking is quite natural. Walking stance, not so much.

In the older Palgwe poomsae there are no walking stances. In the five black belt poomsae I practice, there is only a handful. Further, the original way I learned to perform the walking stance (again, what’s with the learning walking?) is apparently not the way it should now be performed. What the heck? How does one even need to learn to do such a natural stance in the first place, and then be instructed to do that natural movement a different way? Can’t I just do what’s natural?

I’ll be honest: moving from one walking stance to the next, turning into a walking stance, doing the simplest of arm and hand techniques while moving into and out of a walking stance has been making be feel like a klutz. It feels to unnatural.

I’ll be honest again: nowhere in any writing I’ve come across or in any instruction I’ve been recently given have I been told to just naturally step into a walking stance; it is a natural-sounding stance that one has to intentionally move into.

In all of the other poomsae I’ve practiced, we are in stances that are not natural stances to everyday life, except that they are natural to completing the action at that moment so as to make it effective. This could be the case with an elbow strike or a baseball swing:



If this way of standing might be natural and effective at that moment, I certainly don’t walk around all day like that. I walk more naturally all day.

This morning during my spiritual time it occurred to me that natural is not natural! That was fresh in my mind because in the leadership seminar we started conducting this week we worked with the participants to recognize and identify with their driving purpose, their deepest-held values, their true self, and to begin to act in accord with that. To act according to their true nature, or act naturally, if you will.

Every spiritual tradition I’m familiar with leads me toward living according to my true nature. As my true, or natural, self I can live and interact with the most freedom, the most joy, the most honesty, and even the most effectiveness.  In order to accomplish certain ends (e.g. to get someone to do what I’d like) or meet certain needs (e.g. to feel and appear smart and capable) I might want to contort myself into certain ways of acting, certain situational stances, that might feel right at the moment but which are certainly not in accord with my natural self. The difference between my everyday postures and the front stance example above is that I might think I am doing the most effective thing, but my stance is actually wrong. To be most effective in life I know I need to be most natural. For living, natural comes by speaking and acting according to my driving purpose, my deepest-held values, my truest and best self.

Now there’s the rub: just like in the Taekwondo walking stance, natural is not natural! I have to be intentional about doing natural. I must pay attention and practice being natural. I have to be honest about the discomfort I experience in being natural. I have to be honest about the times I fool myself about being natural. I have to be courageous to step out into a natural stance and trust that it will work for me, and when it feels awkward to come back and step into it again.

If being natural was natural, and everybody was being natural, everything would be more perfect in life’s interactions. If my Taekwondo walking stance was natural, my poomsae-life would flow smoothly and be more perfect. But it’s not. So, I act with intention to be natural, until it’s natural.


In the Pink (in 473 Words)

9 Aug

Every morning, one of my gratitudes is to have the health and physical capability that I do. Rather than think in the context of limitations related to birth, genetics, and age, I try to take a moment of thanks and appreciation for what I have and what I am capable of. I also throw in a “thanks” for the health and well being of those I love as well. You could say we are all in the pink.

As I think of being in the pink I also am now wearing pink. It’s a good reminder of how fortunate I am with my health. But it means more.

Beginning today, publicly, it shows my role as one of the Northland’s Real Men Wear Pink ambassadors for the American Cancer Society. Please, click that link. Between now and September 30, the day of the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, we men are tasked with not only showing up places to raise awareness about breast cancer but also to raise at least $25,000 toward the cause, at least $2,500 each. It’s a bit of a fun contest among us.

This isn’t for me. This is for the women I know, love, care about. The women that you know, love, care about. About a year ago Bonnie and I gave deep thanks that the lump in our 23-year-old daughter’s breast was of no consequence.

To make my minimum goal, I need your help, and I ask some of you to step up in a big way: I need 25 of you to gift $100 each. (In fact, 24; I gave the first $100.) If you can give, or stretch to give, that amount, please do. Let’s get this done. Think about the women you know, love, and care about, and help me in my challenge.

Any gifts will add up to an amazing contribution to the cause. Of course, it will all help me show up well in the competition! (aka Win With Me!) If you can’t be one of those 24 donors, then please give something. In Taekwondo we learn that in self-defense, with the challenge before us, regardless of our capability, we do something. We do what we can. We act. We don’t just stand there; we respond, regardless of what we can do. Cancer sucks. It may hit women we care about. Please do something to help.

If the more than 700 people in my contact sphere each gave $4.00 I’d surpass the mark. Go to my personal page and donate. $1.00, $3.00, $10.00, whatever. There is tremendous power in everyone acting. What can we all do together? Perhaps many acting together is how I’ll reach my goal.

I’m also having some fun with this in my Taekwondo realm.  I’m taking a risk to step up, in the pink, very literally. It started on vacation at the Mackinaw Bridge and will continue throughout this challenge. Old, slow and — for those who know —obviously forgetful. But really grateful I can!

Master Po and Mad Eye Moody Meet Up in Minnesota

30 Jul

I’ve noticed it a lot more the past three years or so. I’ve noticed people talking to me and not looking directly at me, in the eye (well, they are, but they’re not). I’ve realized people whom I’m not looking at sometimes think that I am (and I can sometimes tell they may find it disturbing). I’ve noticed people, mostly younger, not looking at me at all after looking at me; something seems to bother them.

What’s up? My eyes are messed up. My right eye tracks off to the side. I’ve been blind in that eye since birth. It’s always been off-kilter but as I’ve gotten older it’s gotten worse, particularly when I’m tired. I’m in a perfect position to be that old, creepy-looking Walmart greeter guy in fifteen years. Heck, I could be Mad-Eye Moody by then. (I should be so lucky!)

I’ve even got a friend of many years who seems to not as often look right at me when we talk, and who definitely spends more time glancing over his left shoulder where my Mad Eye is pointed. (Actually, Mad Eye Correia sort of has a ring to it.)

These things also happen in Taekwondo classes, particularly with younger students and newer students. I can be talking to one student and they think I’m talking to some other student to their left.

The vision in my “good” eye is really poor, and I also have bad astigmatism. About three years ago I needed bifocals for the first time. I’d always worn a contact lens for athletic activity, and sometimes for daily wear, but since the need for bifocals arose, I wear my large, thick, expensive glasses during normal activity, and wear the contact lens only for Taekwondo class or other aggressive athletic activity, but it kind of sucks; when I wear it I never see anything quite right.

If the eyes are the window to the soul then my window has mud on it. As I have adapted to seeing more poorly and with greater inconvenience, I’ve also more often felt disengaged with others because of the sometimes change in eye contact. Here’s the thing: I have lost confidence these past few years because of this. Yes, the mature Taekwondo master has lost confidence. It’s the thick bifocals. It’s the self-consciousness of the Mad Eye. It’s age. It’s change.

When I was a kid growing up, I was totally into the David Carradine Kung Fu TV series. As a very husky kid with bad vision, I was particularly taken with Shaolin monk Master Po who was old and blind, but amazingly capable, and wise. I felt maaaaaybe it was possible for me to be a master someday. Really, I did think that.

As a kid I was neither capable nor confident in the physical and sports realm: overweight, poor vision, blind in one eye, no dad or other male role model to mentor me, no siblings. I was on my own. Couldn’t hit a moving ball, couldn’t catch worth a crap, couldn’t shoot a basket, slow, always picked last.

At least as I grew, some of those skills came along as my body and brain figured it out better, but I was years behind the curve. I became passable, and occasionally competitive, in the recreational realm, particularly once I lost some weight. I learned to drive a car, I did different jobs that required some physical skill (some were even risky, given machinery and such), I tinkered with martial arts a couple of time, and then started serious — meaning I never quit — Taekwondo training at age 33. Why had I quit those earlier times? I didn’t have the confidence to stick around until I might hit the tough stuff, or maybe fail. The irony is that I usually seemed to do well.

When I tested for Fifth Dan in 2010, I’d recently turned 50 and the two guys I tested with had both just turned 30 or so.  They were testing at an age that was younger than when I’d even started training. I peaked around age 50, while those two guys were complaining that they were past their prime. We did the same test and accomplished the same challenges, with them 20 years younger and each with two good eyes!

During these past 24 years I’ve had to train in fast action, turning action, turning to my blind side; I’ve had to hit and break boards and put out candles with turning and spinning kicks; I’ve had to judge distance and hit small moving targets, such as the wrist on opponents in Kumdo sword arts; I’ve had to wield a sharp sword to bare torsos; I’ve had to do a version of this. I’ve done all kinds of stuff with no acknowledgement, never mind preferential treatment, of anything being different. Just like Master Po!

I’ve done quite OK. So why the heck would I be losing confidence now? Granted, I’ve had a tough three years with all kinds of life and livelihood challenges and changes, stuff that made me tired and shook my inner self deeply for a time. I’m also less practiced in Taekwondo technique and have let my conditioning slip as well; so now I’m now older, slower and suckier.

Still, there has been something uniquely discouraging and disorienting in the vision changes. In both the athletics and overall life, seeing, judging, and adjusting is harder and less reliable than it used to be. I’m not as confident in doing things as I used to be. Further, not insignificant is the entire change in engagement with others related to the Mad Eye situation, be it their posture or my self-consciousness.

So what? Well, I’m not sure. Maybe I just want that all off my chest, to write it so I can better process it.

What’s next? Well, I’m beginning to take on some new challenges, physical and professionally, which will push me out of my comfort zone and which, achieved or not, will lead to growth and development. Regardless of vision, age, physical capability, or Other People’s Reactions (now to be known as OPR), I’m stepping it up, pushing forward, taking control, and choosing my attitude. We’re rolling into new territory and making new commitments with our new business. I’m preparing to take on a promotion test for 6th Dan (in New Jersey, for heaven’s sake!). I’m getting reengaged in physical training. I’m focusing on personal and spiritual work in new ways. I’m starting a new Rotary Eclub; we’re going to do great things together and have some fun in the process. (Interested in finding out more? Email me!). I’ve committed to being an ambassador as part of Real Men Wear Pink (click to contribute, please!).

Maybe that’s the So-What point: regardless of challenges and circumstances, regardless of things outside of our control, regardless of other people’s reactions, we can always choose our attitude; we can always take action in the realm of what is in our control; we can always respond to other people in a positive and supportive manner; we can always be grateful for what we can do and for what we have. And, we can always stretch ourselves beyond where we are, because without stretching we don’t grow.

Ya think this all explains why I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for the underdog Taekwondo student? And just so you know, I own the entire Kung Fu series on DVD.

When What Is Isn’t (Like a White Pizza)

21 Jul

This is and isn’t An Unlikely Master blog entry. (Insert your preferred emoticon here.)

I’ve begun a separate blog so that I can freely write in the spiritual space without feeling I need to hold back for fear of being too spiritual or religious. Even if the difference between what I might write here versus there could at times be subtle, I feel I need the freedom and safety to “just go there.” I envision the new blog as a bit of my own online spiritual journal along with sometimes just sharing the prayers, readings, essays and thoughts I encounter.

For those of you who would like to read and follow my pizza creation in process —because I really don’t know what ingredients will get thrown on top during the preparation — I introduce you to Be Cool to the Pizza Dude. I’ll still be writing An Unlikely Master as well. Maybe the two will come together some day, a precursor to my retirement work ( “Whoa! It turns out the pizza dude was this old tae kwon do master leadership guy . . .”)

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