Sunday, March 20, 2005


Hello again! Back to the blog after a break. I’ve been busy writing elsewhere, having signed onto an email list that is busy, to say the least; I think addictive is the word most commonly used by those on it. A memo to myself to carry a notepad and remember to use it for blog ideas! Sometimes I just forget it’s there, and a moment of inspiration passes and is forgotten. I’ve had half a dozen ideas for this blog this past week, but once that quick hit is gone, it’s hard to get back. The good news is I travel in small circles, so like the saying, what goes around comes around.

Some circles are bigger than others; a friend who has trained extensively with Dan Inosanto recently said that Guro D’s teaching progression was about a 2 year cycle to get back to material previously covered. This is one reason people who train at that academy might look different from each other, depending on what they got and when in their training they got it. I’ll say this – it takes real genius to keep that much material in circulation. Maybe I underestimate what I’ve learned over the years, but I just stick to simple things because there is always more to do right there. I remember how back in my Kenpo days, there was always more to learn, never enough time to really master what we already had. Come to think of it, that’s about how my flamenco guitar studies feel right now!

In looking at the paths to mastery, what are the key elements? First let me define mastery. My dictionary says it is “1) dominion; also superiority; 2) possession or display of great skill or knowledge.” Both of these are definitions that are applied in martial arts, and they should be synchronistic. Sadly, there is no guarantee the meanings are applied congruously. Dominion refers to a hierarchical structure of social control; too often in martial arts people are concerned with title and rank in order to impress people, pull in students, make more money. Sometimes the title “master” is well-earned through achievement, or bestowed by those appreciative of one’s talents. Other times, titles that are bought, inherited or self-designated may or may not represent actual mastery and are merely window dressing.

The second meaning of mastery is akin to the Chinese understanding of kung-fu, great skill acquired through hard work over time. It does not necessarily mean, as some people try to make it, a magical state of cosmic enlightenment, though that might be nice; by such a definition, the word would be almost meaningless because how many people have that? No, that brings it back into the realm of social mastery or dominion. In truth, most people who are masters of something are simply the best prepared students of the genre, in control of certain parameters of knowledge but by the same token, aware of the limitations of what they don’t know. Mastery is a path of growth, and in the process of gaining whatever else we learn, hopefully the process polishes us as well.

Earlier this morning I read an interview with Nate Defensor, an FMA teacher in the Chicago area. He has an impressive and wide-ranging set of teachers. When asked what quality set them apart, his response was “overwhelming confidence.” This is a great answer, and a big part of the mystery of mastery. To possess skill or knowledge means personal ownership of that thing and a belief in yourself as the possessor. All too often people feel inadequate, comparing themselves to others without recognizing their own innate talents. Modesty can be a good trait in honest self-evaluation, but diminishing oneself is as much a distortion of the ego as self-aggrandizement. It is through experience that we grow what we know; again, as Mushtaq Ali points out, a heuristic learning process. Confidence comes through successful repetition, great confidence through progressively nurturing those skills to higher levels of competency. Ultimately it is not so much how much we know as how well we know what we know. Getting lost in material is wandering in the desert; knowing one thing is like having a star to guide one through the wilderness. Knowing that you can locate that star and navigate allows one to go anywhere, and that is the transition from confusion to mastery. This looks inward for self-validation, not outwards to gain approval from the world. The only dominion that really matters to a master is over oneself. That is where confidence resides.

* An interesting observation on the Defensor interview. He says the older teachers like Cabales were focused on wisdom and tradition, while Dan Inosanto wrote in his first book that Angel was “a true master of the physical art.” While Angel might have had some traditional views on things, I’ll go with Guro Dan on this one. Angel was a master tactician and a detailed and thorough teacher.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Blogger Game - Q&A

As a link in a personal communication chain, Mushtaq Ali joined this blogger game (rules at the bottom) and I opted in. Hmm, I wonder if there is a way to use traceback to link all those responses? I bet there is, so I’ll ask someone more internet savvy like Mushtaq. It’d be fun to follow the progress of this thing in both directions.

Here, then, are the questions posed to me:

1.You were fortunate enough to be a longtime student of GM Angel Cabales, what is your favorite memory of him?

This is an easy one, a funny memory I can still see in my mind’s eye. I used to drive out to Stockton weekly to spend the day with Angel, usually arriving mid to late morning. Sometimes we’d work out a little, or run some errands, and frequently we’d go have lunch. One place we went often was Gertie’s Mabuhay CafĂ©, which was located in the old community center. It was the kind of place with history seeping from the picture-covered walls, and old men playing cards, talking or reading. Wednesdays were all-you-can-eat smorgasborg, and Angel would ply me with food until I was stuffed, then we’d go work out. Sneaky guy! Anyway, this one day we’re there and suddenly Angel stands up and in a loud voice announces “This is my student Jif (his pronunciation of my name) from Oakland and he says he wants to marry a Pilipina!” OH MAN! I slumped in my chair and said “Angel! NOOO! I just got engaged!” I felt like a tasty crumb at a picnic after the ants get the scent. Everybody, and I mean everybody, in the place got up and started coming towards our table. “I’ve got a niece in Manila ...” Darn, I could sure use his help now ... but anyway, he let me twist for a minute or two while he grinned, and then he said to everybody “Nevermind. He’s found somebody.” I got some congratulations and everyone went back to what they were doing.

2. Someone gives you a million dollars, what is the first thing you use it for?

A bit tougher, mostly because a million bucks doesn’t go very far these days. Of course, never having seen a million bucks, I’d be happy to find out, and I’ve certainly thought about this. I look around the world and I see so many problems, that money could be gone in a stroke of the pen. Knowing how hard people close to me are struggling, my choices would be charity close to home. There are also a few personal issues I would want to address, like paying off grad school debt. My house needs maintenance, some of which, like old carpets, might be contributing to my ongoing health problems. I haven’t taken a real vacation in over 15 years and there is someone in Kuai I think I’d like to visit; that one would probably stay on the wish list. All together, these would be perhaps 3% of the total. After that, I’d want to help my ex-wife, still a friend, who could use some seed money for a home or investment property. I have an ex-girlfriend with two kids (not mine!) and grad school debt; I’d want to help her too. My older siblings are struggling badly. My brother just had two major cancer surgeries this past month, and my sister has some degenerative physical conditions too. Rather than give them money outright, I’d want set up a trust so at least they’d have some stability. I’d also set something up for my mom, who has been the one helping them through these times. Finally, I’d put something in an education fund for my daughter and my two youngest nieces. If anything were left, maybe I’d try to get health insurance again for a year.

3. Everyone is excited to read the book you will write, what is it about?

Shoot. Everyone’s busting me on this one! I should get offline and lay off my flamenco guitar lessons … The book I want to write is, of course, about Serrada Escrima. There is so little available, and it isn’t really in-depth. Angel used to say he wanted a book that students could take to the park to use as a reference to train. What I want to do is a more detailed study, really write a technical analysis of the system. It’s in my head, I need to get it out on paper. Angel described a pocket booklet, so maybe I could include a quick guide with the complete book, like the ones that accompany the main user’s guides for electronics such as cell phones.

4. What is the best movie ever made?

Wow, this is the toughest question, because it’s so subjective and depends somewhat on genre. Best martial art movie? Best love story? Best cinematography? My choice combining all three is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” First, I loved the story line, and it was beautifully filmed. The sword fighting was exciting and exceptionally well choreographed. The special effects were novel at the time, and though the actors seemed a bit unfamiliar with wire work in the early scenes, by the end it looked seamless. I loved the fact that the strongest characters in this film were women who could really do martial arts; to this day I cannot comprehend why Michele Yeoh didn’t receive even a nomination for best actress, because in my opinion her role carried the film, tying together all the other characters. Finally, on a purely personal level, this came along at a time in my life when I was going through some issues of loss, and the struggles and choices of the heroes and heroines resonated powerfully in me.

5. You discover you have the power to speak to animals, how do you explain humans to them?

Who says I don’t?!! I also don’t think animals need to have humans explained to them. They know us better than we know them. They have to live with the consequences of our impact on their world. Like other victims of oppression, they come to know quite well the moods and nuances of those who control them. Domestic animals shape themselves by conforming to our structure and whims, while wild animals try to avoid us. Animals live in a world dominated by instinct and emotion. It is highly experiential, grounded in past memory, expressed in present time. Perhaps the biggest difference between animals and humans is a lack of future consciousness. Except for simple things like anticipating dinner, they don’t really think ahead. Even something like knowing it’s time to migrate with the seasons is in awareness of present changes. Don’t underestimate animal consciousness, though. They might not have our powers of reasoning, but by the same token they are less likely to conflict themselves. For them, feeling and response are directly linked, and this flow is a goal humans strive to recapture through things like meditation and martial arts. I guess I’ve turned this around to explain animals to humans, but then we’re the ones reading this, and we’re the ones who need to find the compassion to understand those over whom we hold the power of living or dying. In a sense, animals exist as metaphors for our own inner selves, expressed as archetypes or totems. The more we understand their needs, the clearer we will see the effects we have on all life on this planet. Maybe then we can start to understand ourselves as well.

Here's how you can play the interview game:
1. Leave me a comment saying "interview me." The first five commenters will be the participants.
2. I will respond by asking you five questions.
3. You will update your blog/site with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions. (Write your own questions or borrow some.)

Friday, March 04, 2005

No bad dogs; bad handlers

Today there was another incident at the dog park, the second one in perhaps three weeks, involving the same professional dog walker allowing the same unleashed pit bull to attack my 4-1/2 month old puppy.

In both incidents, my dog was intimidated by a dog twice her age and size that was grabbing on and biting. The first time we encountered this dog, my puppy rolled over submissively on her back and showed her throat, at which the bigger dog grabbed her by the neck and started shaking her around. I watched for a moment to see if they were playing, but it was clearly one sided, and my dog was NOT having fun. When I asked the dog walker to please take control of her dog, she began giving me a lecture about how this was how dogs learn bite inhibition. Excuse me? My dog is not an experiment for her charge to practice upon! I replied that my dog didn’t seem to be the one having to learn bite inhibition, as she was in the other dogs grasp. She finally called her dog over, acting all exasperated. What a favor she was doing ...

For the past few weeks I’d been carefully avoiding this person, going in opposite direction when seeing her. There are no other large dog parks anywhere in the area, so my choices are limited, and frankly, I have as much right to take my dogs there as she does to walk other people’s dogs. I try to go to the park when I’m less likely to run into her, but since she has packs of up to six dogs three times a day, she’s there a lot.

Today as I entered the park, she was right there, washing off several of her other dogs. As soon as I recognized she had the gray and white pit bull, I called my dog away. Now I don’t have anything against pit bulls as a breed, and many of them are sweet. In fact, my puppy plays with other pit bulls at this same park regularly. They can be aggressive towards other dogs, but I’ve owned Malamutes in the past so I know that you have to be responsible for monitoring your dog’s behavior. Interesting concept, very unclear here.

As we were walking away, her dog came after us. Once again, he began by exhibiting over-excited behavior; my dog plays with many, many dogs wherever we go, so I watched to see if they’d be ok together. Within perhaps 30 seconds, I was once again concerned over the behaviors. The other dog was getting more and more aggressive, grabbing my puppy by the ears and scruff of the neck and pulling, hard. My dog was trying to turn away, her tail was down and her lips were pulled back, teeth bared. This is something I have never before seen her do, but I recognize fear and stress behavior in dogs.

At this point, I called to the dog walker, who was perhaps 60 feet away, to call her dog. Immediately she begins lecturing me again that this is normal behavior, without making a move to rein in the animal. If it is so normal, why don’t I see other dogs doing this to my pup, or my dog exhibiting fear only of this one? As the woman prattles on about dogs “learning bite inhibition” I started getting pretty mad. “It’s YOUR dog biting mine! Call it off NOW!” She keeps blabbering about how I don’t know what I’m seeing up close with my own eyes, but I know my dog is scared. Normally she runs, jumps, rolls over, does all kinds of puppy play behavior with other dogs, and this isn’t it, so I decide to corral her to have some control over this situation. As I step in to take hold of her harness, the pit bull grabs her by the back of the neck and literally drags her away from my grasp. At this point, I’m not going to just watch this escalate, so I step in and shove the other dog away. Surprised, he lets go and jumps back.

Now this woman is REALLY mad, starts SCREAMING at me to “NEVER TOUCH ANOTHER PERSON’S DOG!” I yell back “Well, then CONTROL YOUR DOG when asked!” Here she starts doing the predictable thing, blathering to anyone around that I don’t know a thing about dogs. Now I’m not claiming to be a big expert, but I’ve been around dogs for 50 years. My sister has been an AKC handler for 40 years, even became a judge. She’s raised Malamutes, as many as two dozen at a time, and trained and handled just about every breed you can name, so I’ve been around a LOT of big and potentially aggressive animals. At one point I lived with two Malamutes and a Doberman, each of which weighed 80+ pounds, so I know how to control a lot of muscle on leash, and I’ve broken up my share of dog fights. Yeah, I’ve even been bit a time or two.

Hmm, why is it the person whose dog is being aggressive always blames the other handler? So here I am, leading a scared puppy away on leash, her dog is still running back and forth off leash, and she’s screaming at me about how ignorant I am. Yeah. If anything happens between us again, I’ll just call the cops. I have their number in my cell phone now. What will they do? Er ...

Two years ago, this same woman had two very big, healthy looking Rottweilers on a nearby beach, and they started bullying a sweet older Golden Retriever that I saw there regularly. It got so ugly, people were backing away. I had that sick feeling that this was going down, right here and now. I told the Retriever’s owner “this looks bad” and she looked scared to step in. She and I both began saying to the handler “could you please get your dogs?” She was in a conversation with someone else, had her back to her animals, and just glanced over and breezily said “Oh, they’re ok.” SHEESH! They're not the ones at risk! I’ve seen dogs get ripped apart. It’s fast and it’s nasty. Either of those Rotts were bigger and tougher than the Golden, and they were egging each other on. After a couple more forceful complaints, the dog walker got exasperated that we were interrupting her conversation, so she went and leashed the animals, at which point the shaking Golden ran back to his owner. The Rottweilers just looked hungry and annoyed at losing their fun.

A couple of weeks later I stopped taking my old Labrador, who was about 13 at the time, to this beach because of an incident. She was lying on her back on the sand, just rolling and scratching her back, and an unleashed pit bull ran up and grabbed the top of her skull and started shaking her like a martini. I ran up and threw a kick at the dog; didn’t even connect, but again it let go and backed off to look at the situation. The owner, far down the beach, starts yelling “Oh, you want to kick my dog? Why don’t you try again!” I said “Your dog attacked mine. She’s old, doesn’t fight.” The lady says “Oh, well then she’s going to die soon anyway, so why does it matter?” Unbelievable …. I called the Albany cops, they said I had to contact animal control from Berkeley. Berkeley animal control said, no, we don’t go out there. It’s their problem!” I called back and the dispatcher said “Oops, I gave you wrong advice. Where are you?” Three hours later, after finally going home, some beat officer calls me and says “I’m at the beach and I don’t see this dog!” Whoa, kinda hard to figure THAT one out!

So, back to today, I call the park police to get advice, gave a full description of the woman (twice - and she’s licensed with them) and they said “Call us next time, and no, you can’t touch someone else’s dog.” Once again, the bureaucratic mentality at work – Do nothing, leave it to the (absent) professionals. I simply said “It’s the other persons responsibility to control their animal when requested, and I’m not going to stand there idly and watch my dog get shredded.”

It looks like I’ve been given a simple scenario. If my dog is attacked, I can call for backup that might be hours away. The dog handler has no obligation to control their animal, and if I try to save mine, I’ll be liable for whatever happens. Every several months a small dog gets killed at this park by big dogs running loose, and the owners then round them up and disappear into the city. Nobody has ever been caught or prosecuted around here after such a clean getaway, but the system seems more interested in the rights of the negligent owner than the life of the innocent dog.

Ain’t it sweeeeeet?

No, not really ….. Few things get me madder than blatant abuse covered up by willful delusion. This really pushed my buttons, in case you can’t tell …..

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Small hour ramblings

Doing a quick late night email check, found a comment from a guy comparing flow drills from Kali Ilustrissimo and Krabi Krabong to Serrada. I watched the clips he was referencing, and yes, there is a flow that reminds me of Serrada. I was also reminded of what it was like for me when I was learning the art. There is a process of recognition, that by identifying what we see with what we already know we accelerate our learning curve. However, there are different levels of learning, from superficial mimicry to deep creative intuition. Thinking about what he wrote, I came up with a short definition of two phases of understanding relationship between arts:

Seeing similarities is important for recognizing what is going on.
Seeing differences is important for analyzing what is going on.

While the first phase is the heuristic process of experiential learning to which Mushtaq Ali refers in his blog, the second is the ability to discern subtle variations, not just between systems but between styles of individual practitioners. Thus a beginner will see the broad outline of something and get it because it reflects what he already knows and can see, a classic example of projection, a reality that reflects who we think we are. A more sophisticated person goes a step beyond, using knowledge as a reference base to discover the parts that are not known.

We can see this in a child's development and use of language. At first the child may say "car" to anything that moves on wheels, move on to "red car" and then "nice red car, finally graduating to "Ooh, cool red Ferrari!" The ability to discriminate between things leads to specificity. In martial arts, or sports like football, it is important to be able to analyze and break down an opponent's moves and tendencies, their strengths and weaknesses.

Just as Bruce Lee's punch once again became just a punch, so too can our perspective on association versus differentiation. Having learned to nuance details, one can begin to ignore the smaller points because one's heuristic field has filled in the gaps so thoroughly as to bring up few new surprises. One can scan the big picture, grasp the essence of the whole, and intuit the details on that fluid creative level. One no longer sweats the petty stuff, transcending knowledge with understanding. Thus one can go full circle in approaching a subject. It's like those black belts that get so worn out they fray and become white again. It's why so many masters are humble, because they've gotten past judgementalism to once again have a beginner's mind.