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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.

Fly Like an Eagle . . . If You’re An Eagle

28 May

A couple of weeks ago I came across reference to “The Tortoise and The Eagle“, one of Aesop’s Fables. (It’s really short; read it now!) It got me thinking about my fitness mindset that’s been evolving over the past year or so.

Beginning last Fall I started paring back most of my other fitness activity and started concentrating more solely on yoga. This focus is the funneling of a number of considerations, all filtered through one primary lens: I’m 56 years old. Before you think, “Oh, aging Taekwondo master starts wimping out” let me explain.

Before starting Taekwondo at age 33 I’d never been an athlete or fitness enthusiast of any sort and, beyond practicing Taekwondo, I really didn’t start any broader physical conditioning activity until age 42. That’s when I had my first opportunity to take part in a training trip to South Korea, along with a team of other black belts of various ages. We were led by our Korean Grand Master, about 60 years old at the time, former competitive athlete and military veteran, a true phenom. Our invitation letter welcomed us to “Hell Training” and stories from those who took part in earlier trips affirmed the accuracy of that expression. I had less than four months to get ready (crazy-short time) so I got to it: running (in fifty-below wind chills), training with weights, dropping fat (nearly 20 pounds). I went to Korea and did pretty darn well, actually, surprisingly. I returned home and kept up the training in good measure (not nearly so the running).

These past several years I haven’t kept up with the weight training on nearly the same basis; likewise, my dog walks largely have become only walks, without the running/sprinting part quite as frequently. This easing-off happened because I was finding that I had to keep myself fresh for Taekwondo classes in case I was the guy who had to lead training and set the pace. I had to keep some gas in the tank. I couldn’t find a balance of activity that worked for me for all contingencies. Age seemed to be weighing in on the matter.

About a year ago I heard an interview with Christopher Sommer, former U.S. Junior National Team gymnastics coach. He talked a lot about people’s tendencies to go at things too hard, particularly before setting a proper foundation. These quotes came out as Sommer talked about easing into training and small steps of progress over time: “We need to go slow now in order to go fast later” and “If you want to be a stud later you have to be a pud now.” The bottom line: don’t let ego screw things up.

I was particularly struck by something Sommer said: “I like yoga.” In 2017 many of us know a lot more about yoga’s challenges and benefits than the years-ago impression of skinny dudes from India folded over backwards.  A lot of it  seems similar to gymnastics and a lot of it is hard. You can get stronger doing yoga, and do so in a way that adds to, rather than subtracts from, other qualities such as flexibility and mobility.

In my prime of weight training and conditioning work I never really hit the results I’d hoped for. That’s because I either wasn’t clear on my goals or had competing goals.  I was doing both too much and not enough of different stuff. As Confucius (maybe) said: “The man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” Why would someone even try to catch two rabbits? Because they think they can. Back to ego. Perhaps I simply needed to be smarter, know more, but my ego kept me from using information in front of me. Others’ information and experience. Because . . . I knew better.

Five to ten years later I have new goals to consider and a new balance to find. I need to think about the one rabbit I need to catch in order to eat tonight, and get clear on how to do that. I have to drop the ego so I can see the smart choices and take the right actions.

My goals are to be able to move well for many years to come — even Taekwondo level, as best I can — and be strong enough to allow me to do what I want to do, in the dojang, at home, on the trail, with kids and grandkids. I want to be THAT grandpa, the one who can still move smoothly, crawl around, hop across rocks, climb trees. I want to be a role model of an older Taekwondo practitioner, or of a former one. I want to fix or strengthen weaknesses I have, still undergirding for the future. The comprehensiveness — and requisite patience — of yoga seems to be a tool to get me there, one of them at least. Still, Chris, remember: one rabbit. Remember: pud now, stud later.

This doesn’t mean I won’t add in some other goals or training tools at some point. It doesn’t mean that I won’t do something competitive and push things to a limit (hopefully, with smarts, to avoid injury). But, since I’m beginning to stretch toward THIS and THIS, that’s more than enough for quite a while, combined with yet-improving my Taekwondo abilities. That, and some occasional sprints that leave Eko behind when I’m walking him, and hopping rock to rock up and down the trails around Enger. And an occasional tree climb (don’t tell my wife).

Perhaps most prominent for me going forward are two truths that have formed in my heart during prayer. One is the importance of joy being a motivation, in this case, doing physical activity that meets my needs and challenges me, yes, but which brings me joy. I shouldn’t work at something I don’t like, or go about something in a way that steals the joy of doing it. I don’t want to let ego take me places or lead to results where my motivations are somehow rooted in impressing or appeasing others, or to pat my own ego-self (sometimes known as younger-self or master-self, in my case) on the back. Find the way of joy and freedom.

The second sentiment is that my current body and its potential are gifts and I am to use them in service to others, both now and in the future. When picking an activity or setting a goal, when doing an honest, ego-free assessment of the potentials and risks to my body, the benefit or drain to my spirit, my commitment of time, I should ask myself, “Will this allow me to better serve others?” The alternative is to let myself become wrapped up in some ego narrative and rationalize away all kinds of conditions and consequences. With the gifts and opportunities I’ve been given, I want to make it about being able to better love and serve others.

It’s 12:50 on a Sunday. Time for this turtle to move along and work on that stud thing.

PS: As always, visit our North Shore Taekwondo site and ask yourself (not your doctor) if Taekwondo might be right for you.

One small step — for man, and woman

21 Aug

I started dieting yesterday. I’m going to drop 10 pounds in 10 weeks. I’m not following any particular diet. I’m just eating less, eating more sensibly, and making sure I get  a bit more exercise each day.

It’s hard not to notice the number of people who have jumped onto the nutrition shake band wagon. The shakes are pretty low-calorie and while folks are using the shakes they drop weight really fast. That surely excites them, so they stick with it a while and lose an even more remarkable amount of weight (I won’t go into whether they are likely losing mostly fat, or losing too much muscle as well). So, I see some such folk after six weeks and see a remarkable change.

Skip ahead two months. I see the same folks, with the extra weight back on.

Why does this happen? It’s simple: They don’t just eat an apple.

I’ve learned/am learning the hard way that small changes maintained over time have a much bigger and lasting impact than crash approaches. Big diets rarely make it a month. Even if they last longer, one’s return to regular eating is, well, a return to regular, not-so-good eating, which leads back to square one.

I’ve generally stunk at push-ups. When I’ve tried to work them hard in certain rep/set schemes, I never got better at them. Do you know how I got better at them? Just doing a few here and there throughout the day. It started with five: before breakfast, after lunch, returning home from an errand, during a commercial. Never more than that. Easy. Just frequently. Then it was ten at a time. Then sometimes more. Even though I never pushed it hard, it helped me to be able to do an easier twenty, and then past that to twenty-five or thirty. Just a gentle, regular pushing(up) forward.

What do most people get with a big, hard exercise push? A crash: overdoing it, then too many recovery days, then no habit, then stopping. Maybe injury, which postpones everything. Usually discouragement.

Back to eating that apple. When folks have asked me what I suggest to eat better and lose weight, I tell them two simple things:

1) If you tend to eat french fries (or potatoes/hash browns/whatever), don’t. Just don’t order them. Substitute fruits or vegetables if possible. Nine out of ten times is fine.

2) Eat an apple. Get in the habit of eating an apple a day, anytime, but particularly with good timing, such as a between-meal snack when hungry, rather than eating some crap, or before a meal, to help avoid eating more of other stuff that’s probably not as good for your waistline. Heck, eat an apple before a couple of meals.

I can guarantee that if you have some extra fat to lose, just doing those two simple things will take you there. Not overnight. Not this week. Maybe not a whole lot this month. But the small change of eating an apple (and not eating fries) will take hold. It will be a positive habit with good LASTING effect and benefit for months and years.

Whatever you’re thinking you want, or need, to do for betterment in your life, don’t go crazy for a big, immediate sea change. Just take one small action, on a day-by-day or instance-by-instance basis. Let it develop and work its magic over time. Once that small change takes hold, usually after a month or two, then make another, and keep at that one. Over the course of a year, that’s anywhere from six to twelve changes that are part of your life that weren’t there before.

As I’ve matured as an instructor, I don’t tell students more things to work on or change; I tell them less. Often it’s only one thing. Until they start to get that one thing, I resist telling them a different thing.  It doesn’t overwhelm them or make their head spin. It helps them focus. It teaches patience. It makes it do-able. It helps them improve and succeed. That one thing, combined with the multiple other one things I tell them over time, gradually and eventually lead to the most remarkable change.

Just eat an apple.

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