A Fist Foray Into Non-Essay

22 Mar

I’ve been known to occasionally say,
“He needs a punch in the face.”
It’s usually just a general observation,
perhaps regarding a General (once, I think)
or a senator or a president or
maybe just that guy who is always “that way.”

Whomever I’m with at the time looks aghast,
aware of my Tae Kwon Do,
my Courtesy and Integrity and Self-Control,
and says something like,
“I’m sure you could do that well,”
unsure what else to say.

I’ve never been punched in the face, nor punched anyone there,
nor anywhere, for real, at least, as opposed to play.
There have been a few errant fists in training:
“Ooops, I’m sorry, “ I hear, or I say,
and the shiner exclaims, “At least they’ll be a story to tell someday!”

I have been kicked, too,
ten thousand times, I imagine,
and have kicked others:
the breath gone, or ribs bruised,
or a Weeble to the head
that made me Wobble but not fall down.

And the sword . . .
A bamboo whack above the protective shell,
the purple welt under the arm,
or the wooden hornet-sting on the wrist,
or the “thank god for armor” thrust to the throat,
that stops you in your tracks, head snapped back.

Fists of stone can break your bones, but words?
They are much safer to throw, you know;
at least a far as the law is concerned.
Sling what you will but don’t throw a kick!

Have you felt the word that left a bruise,
or broke a bone, not for real, but the other kind?
Have you thrown a phrase that stopped a heart or crushed a soul?
Deliberate or stray, there’s always a story to tell.

What about a kick to the gut,
when what happened took the wind right out of you,
or made your head spin, or dropped you cold?
And, you know, an attack to the back is against the rules,
yet people get away with it all the time. Have you?

The ninja might be the most deadly of all.
Invisible, absent,
silent and still,
yet day by day, nick by nick,
their dagger brings death by seventy-times-seven cuts.
Even a cowardly ninja can simply suppress sustenance
for body and soul,
since it’s always easier to defeat a weakened enemy,
or just kill them through attrition.

Was it Bruce Lee, or maybe Gandhi, who asked,
“When is a punch not a punch,
a kick not a kick,
a cut not a cut?”

Maybe when it’s from the true Warrior,
open hearted,
who stands in front,
hands at sides,

Some Serious Thoughts on Playing Around

1 Mar

Some things just go together, right? Baked potatoes and sour cream. Valentine’s Day and flowers. Politicians and lobbyists. L and bow (movie reference, Robb? Leave it in the comments!). Eggs, avocado and kimchi (take my word for it, they do.). And then there is dogs and play.

After saying goodbye to our old Labrador mix last June, in October we came across Chester, a pure-bred Golden Retriever. All six-months-&-thirteen-days of Chester got into the rear seat of our Nissan on October 23, 2018. We originally planned to adopt-a-mutt; opportunity said otherwise and we re-homed Chester from an 81-year-old woman who realized that Chester was more dog than she could handle. Uh: yeah.

Right from the get-go we had 50 pounds of puppy jumping and grabbing, grabbing and jumping. Fun and tiring. Frustrating and enlivening. Go go go. Play play play. Lots of walks, runs and chews.

Chester got to meet his cousin Lincoln and play (aka wrestle and chase) for the first time. Chester ran free on the golf course, fetched frisbees and balls and, when snow came, swam through snow and jumped up snowbanks.

As I’ve seen Chester grow and develop, gain size and strength and coordination and skills, add muscle and visibly change shape, get smarter, be in the moment and enjoy whatever-it-is-that’s-happening, it occurred to me one day, “Hey, look at all of that amazing development, and all he does is play.” No weights, no program, no structure, no gym. Just play.

Chester doesn’t seem to be terribly concerned with exactly how fast he’s running, or how often he runs. He runs when he feels like it, as hard as he feels like it, and stops when he feels like it. Sometimes he jumps onto something, just because it’s there. He enjoys it doing it. And he gets faster.

Chester doesn’t seem to be concerned with how far or how fast he can drag the whatever, or how many times he tries, or exactly how heavy it is. He just pulls and struggles, gets it or not, tries and tries and maybe tries again. He has fun (according to the wagging tail). And he gets stronger.

Chester doesn’t seem to be terribly concerned with the outcome of his wrestling play with Lincoln. He gets in there and tries. He works. He experiments. He is excited by it. And he gets better. Strength. Endurance. Timing, Coordination. Understanding. No classes. No program.

Chester plays and he improves. He isn’t following a structure or schedule; he’s not concerned about balancing competing plans and priorities. He doesn’t seemed concerned accomplishment or image. He just plays.

He not only enjoys, he seems to be in joy. That’s a nice place to be.

Speaking for myself at least, I do feel that many of us often do a lot of violence to ourselves over plans and progress. We abuse our bodies and bash our psyches. Violence, force, discipline, shame — to self or others. Those approaches can work to help get the job done . . . as does beating an energetic, disobedient dog. Just because it works doesn’t mean it’s a good approach. I think there are better ways.

We all know the energy of play. Being in the moment, doing, producing. I’ve done it in the Taekwondo gym, on the yoga mat, on the rowing machine, at the keyboard, and in the factory at the conveyor belt and on the loading dock. I even played in a hospital room. Play as action.  Play as mindset.

We all are moved by different motivations: love, improvement, competition, achievement or profit. We can be quite serious about those ends. Yet I think play is a missing element that brings a powerful spirit to all of those things.

When Bonnie and I first moved to Minnesota we took a cross-country skiing class together. Neither of us had been on skis. In northern Minnesota it seemed like a way to get exercise during long winters. As she and I spent more time falling and getting up than actually moving forward, I was getting frustrated and saying naughty words. Bonnie, struggling to get back up yet again, began laughing uncontrollably. I blurted, “How can you be laughing?” She replied, “Don’t you think this is just hilarious? It’s so ridiculous it’s funny!” She continued to laugh and smile and shake her head the rest of the way back, which I recall involved walking. And we never skied again.

Had I approached that experience as play, I might have relished the exploration of the activity and appreciated the great core development of standing back up so often! I recently got my first-ever snow shoes and I’m looking forward to playing with those for the first time in the back yard this weekend. With Chester.

I  now take Chester for a walk and sometimes we sprint. Sometimes we walk. Sometimes we run for a fast minute or two. No particular plan or expectation. And I’m getting faster and gaining endurance.

I practice yoga. I stop before the final place in an asana and explore. I push to the final place and I accept it with a smile. “Hmmm.” or “Cool!” I push past it and I fall and laugh. I start following a video and then I might start just doing what I want to do instead at some point. I play.

During the day I might see that the time has crossed over into the new hour and decide to do some pushups, or some type of body movement or Taekwondo action. Not planned. Just play; see what happens.

Students in Taekwondo classes sometimes get frustrated as they attempt to learn a technique and berate themselves for being too slow or uncoordinated or out of shape or old or not cut out for this. More and more I respond, “Just play with it.” Play takes away the pressure, reduces the stress, puts one in the moment, frees up the mind and spirit to explore and discover. Whether learning a Taekwondo spinning kick or working with a team on a deadline at work, I think play can bring out the best in us.

Of course, teaching kids in Taekwondo can be a great opportunity to keep an element of play in one’s life, (sorry, no video!) as can working and playing with kids in any case. You can even integrate kids into your own workouts. (That’s not me, of course; thanks to a different Correia for making his little cousins’ day!)

A Taekwondo master colleague and I are preparing for our respective next rank promotion tests (5th and 6th degree black belt). I initially found myself being anxious about age, rustiness of technique and physical condition, and how that will play-out during an intense test of skill. I might look incompetent, mess up, not pass! I found myself intimidated and frustrated as I began to practice things I’d not done so aggressively in a while.

And then I changed my mindset and began to play.

I’ve begun playing my way through practice, and I’ve begun to look at the test experience as simply a different arena of play. That doesn’t mean I won’t apply my best skill to defend against attacks, my best focus and power to breaking, my best intensity to forms and sparring. It just means I’ll train and test like Chester!

The Taegeuk in the middle of the South Korean flag represents balance and harmony. More than simply balanced amounts of opposites (heat and cold, activity and rest), I see the notion of harmony as indicating an integration or a resonance together of things that aren’t the same. Rather than work then play we can have work and play or even work as play. Anyone properly oriented to FISH!® in the workplace knows that the principle of PLAY! is a whole lot more than just being silly or having fun. It’s finding the energy that’s needed to take things to new levels and open things up for people to offer their best.

How am I going to prepare for and pass a high level Taekwondo test? How am I going to push myself to reclaim a higher level of physical fitness and preparedness? How am I going to avoid stressing out over all of the challenges and all of the speed bumps along the way?

I’m going to play with my dog!

(Please, I encourage you to leave a comment, share your experience: where or how you play; how you make play in various circumstances; when you are challenged or forget to play. Maybe our collective experiences are playing together, and helping all of us better make or find play!)

A Canine Blessing

3 Sep

IMG_8536 2On this past June 29 we said goodbye to our sweet Eko. Our 12-year-old yellow lab mutt was truly the sweetest dog in the world. We picked up Eko as a pup from a rescue home two-and-a-half-hours away. He and his sister had been found wandering in the woods, emaciated and tick-infested. Sometime into his second year, he contracted a serious auto-immune disease (Pemphigus Vulgaris) from which he made a full recovery after months of deterioration and seemingly on the brink of death. I remember 13-year-old Tricia exclaiming in tears one night, “Eko’s going to die, isn’t he, daddy? Why does he have to die, daddy?” Ugh!  All of that and he was still so sweet. Continue reading

A Bully and A Coward Walk Into a Summer Camp

6 May

Call it the summer between fourth and fifth grades. It just happened.  He called me queer eye.  (I was born blind in one eye and it looks “off.”) I called him blubber boy (ironic, coming from a fat kid, but he was fatter).  I never did know who started it.  Steve and I circled around each other amidst a gathering circle of other boys.  “Fight, fight, fight!” Lord of the Flies at (Catholic) Cathedral Camp.

I’d never been in a fight and really didn’t want to be in one; Id’ always been afraid of getting beat up. Now there I was, and Continue reading

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.

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