Saturday, March 31, 2007

Post-Test Summary

Test is finished. Not sure yet, but I think it was my best test yet. Need to wind down and review in my head. Christine and the kids both did fantastic as well. We're all pretty shot. Some friends ar coming by for a post-test soiree, after which I imagine I will sleep like the dead.

More later, or tomorrow, or something.

Mood: Happy, shot
Now Playing: Nothing.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Another Gup Test, Another Paper

Well, three months have gone by and it's time once again to test for my next gup level. I'll be testing for 4th gup (green belt 2 stripes) tomorrow afternoon.

No real concerns at all this time out: there really isn't that much more on this test than I had to perform last test. One new hyung (Pyang Ahn Sa Don), 3 new wrist grabs, 2 new one steps, and that's about it. Of course, I learned a lot more than that in class, (lots more kicking techniques, for example -- no idea why spin wheel kicks aren't included on this exam aside from the one we do in one step 11/12) and I'm sure it is expected that my techniques show improvement over my last test, but overall it's more or less a repeat of the test I took back in December. So, fairly little stress, overall.

Physically, I think I'm set too. No serious injuries to deal with for a change! I'm a bit achy -- think I pulled or strained a muscle in my upper back the other night and it's giving me some movement issues, and I strained my left calf muscles 2 weeks ago doing jump kicks and it's still annoyed -- but these things shouldn't really impact my ability to perform all that much. My lower back issues that were causing referred pain down into my right hamstring and inner thigh seem to have resolved to an acceptable degree: there is frequent discomfort, but nothing I can't deal with. Ankles and knees feel good. And I've been working on my stamina for a couple of months at the gym and it's paying off as well -- not getting winded as easily, definitely feel more energy throughout my workouts and training sessions as a result.

So yeah, this test is more about just getting it done and supporting my family and friends on their testing. Christine and Trevor are both going for 7th gup (orange belt, 1 stripe), and Miranda is going for 5th gup (green belt, one stripe), as are my mom and all of the other green belts I train with. As usual, I will be testing with only one or two kids -- no other adults at my rank in the dojang right now. Meh. On this test it hardly matters, since the vast majority of the test overlaps with the 5th gup testing.

After this I go into a mandatory 6 month wait until testing for red belt. At least I think it's mandatory -- some folks have said that testing can occur more quickly if our instructor decides you're ready, so I suppose it's possible I could test for red belt sooner. Honestly, I'm not really in a rush. The only reason I'd really want to test sooner would be if it meant I got to test and rank with another adult, so I'd finally have a training buddy whose progress and training would be in parallel to my own. It would be nice to finally have another adult who is learning the same stuff I am.

I don't even think that's a possibility, though -- there's only one other adult 4th gup, and the only reason he's not testing for 3rd gup this weekend is due to a shoulder injury. He's back to training, so I'd be surprised if he wasn't permitted to take the makeup test in a couple of weeks and allowed to advance. So yeah, seems likely that I will continue to be the solitary adult at my level for the foreseeable future. I guess if it really bothered me I could hold myself back from testing for a few months and let my fellow green belt adults catch up, but I'd rather stay on track unless an injury or something similar forces me to slow down.

Anyway, in a way I think the extra waiting period is instructive in and of itself. Tang Soo Do does not get easier as you progress. The techniques become more and more demanding, and the amount of curriculum you have to keep fresh and demonstrate regularly becomes pretty immense over time. I think that if we don't learn to pace ourselves as we advance, learn to be patient and allow ourselves adequate time to grasp the new lessons and techniques we are learning, then it's a recipe for frustration and burn-out. Better to learn to wait and be patient rather than continue to think these techniques can be reasonably mastered in only a few short months.


So, as with previous tests, this gup test comes with another test paper. This one was a walk in the park for me. The topic is "Which is your favorite of the 8 key concepts, and why?" Considering the name of this blog, the choice was simple, and considering tat I've been exploring this concept frequently for nearly 16 months now I didn't have to do very much "new" writing. Instead, I just grabbed a bunch of previous entries and reworked them into an essay that summed up my thoughts on the matter. So if you're a frequent reader this essay will probably seem familiar. Anyhow, here it is.


Which is Your Favorite of the 8 Key Concepts, and Why?

Shin chook is, by far, the Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan concept with which I have most identified and connected. This is not to say it is my “favorite” in the sense that I enjoy it the most – the key concepts that I am most fond of and comfortable with would almost certainly be yong gi (“courage”), chung shin tong il (“concentration”), and kyum son (“humility”). Rather, shin chook clearly presented itself as the key concept that poses the greatest challenges for me, both in and outside the dojang.

Many of the 8 key concepts come to me fairly easily, at least on a basic level. Courage, concentration, endurance, honesty, humility are all things I try to exercise in my daily life already. This is not to say I excel at or am a paragon of any of them, but I do feel that I understand them, at least on a basic level. And then there’s control of power and control of speed. Control of both power and speed are things that I feel comfortable with, if only because I know that these are obviously skills that grow with time and commitment and because I don’t feel that either of these concepts present enormous challenges or obstacles in my life.

Which leaves shin chook.

When I first began I began training, the one comment I heard over and over again was the meaning of shin chook. When I started training, every single movement I made was rigid. Tense. Doing simple line drills and basic forms would leave me gasping for air and exhausted because I wouldn't remember to breathe when moving and I'd keep my entire body, every muscle, tensed the entire time. So, for my first 6 weeks or so, every time we were doing line drills or forms, at some point Sa Bom Nim Nunan would stop me and explain shin chook. Relaxation tension. Relax throughout the movement and tense only at the final moments in order to increase your speed and power and endurance. Staying tense prevents you from moving with speed or accuracy, and prevents your blows from striking with the greatest force. And so on.

So, from the get-go shin chook presented itself as the key concept that poses the greatest challenge for me in the dojang. And, while working through this issue in my head, it occurred to me that my inability to relax, and to tense only at times when tension will be both necessary and effective, is not exactly confined to the dojang. I spend far too much of my own life tensed. Ready to spring, but to no effect. And as this limits my ability to perform within the dojang, doesn't it have corresponding effects on my ability to progress in life in general? What purpose does being rigid serve? How does this overall tenseness limit my ability to move through life, to progress and grow?

I am, by nature, something of a perfectionist, and as it became clear to me just how much shin chook -- or the lack of it -- affect my life, I realized it was the concept that I most needed to explore at length, both on and off the mat. So while I can’t say it’s my favorite key concept in the usual “gee, this is super!” sense, I can say that shin chook has consistently presented itself as the most important and significant way in which I can employ my martial arts training to improve and enhance my life outside the dojang, and that therefore it is the most important and meaningful of the 8 key concepts to me right now.

Over the past year, I think I’ve made some progress in applying this concept. But, while the advances may have been fairly small, the impact has been significant both in training and outside of the dojang as well. I can breathe more easily, for starters, and sparring has become way more enjoyable as a result. I’m also not sore and achy all the time anymore. It took me a while to realize that throwing punches and kicks when you're all tense is a great way to ensure that you’re be sore pretty much all the time, and I’ve made a lot of progress on just relaxing more during class and not being all tight and wound up while training.

The changes in my approaches to everyday life have been more significant, though. For example, when some recent, highly stressful situations developed at my job I found I was far more able to deal with them effectively than I was just a year ago. A friend of mine at the office even noted, without any prompting from me, that she really felt that my training in martial arts had made clear, observable changes in how I approach things these days. She noted that , while I'd always been fiery and passionate about my work (well, about everything, really), my passions were now tempered, far more focused and controlled, more like tools to be used to create solutions instead of explosions of energy without direction or purpose.

So I think I’ve gotten some very solid indications that I’ve made some meaningful progress on shin chook. Still, shin chook remains my biggest obstacle, and I often wonder whether I will ever be able to really and truly just relax, on or off the mat. I just wish I could “figure it out,” that it was just a switch that I could flip and suddenly, whammo, I could be relaxed and at ease. I simply don't understand how to do it. I know I'm tense, I know how it feels to be relaxed, but the idea of relaxing while actively engaged in something (even something I enjoy) eludes me. In my head, I equate relaxation with passivity and rest, not with activity.

Regardless, while I know I have a long way to go I also know that I've already come a long way. And while I may spend too much time getting all twitchy and tense, I'm way more relaxed and confident and open to just enjoying myself, both in training and in life, than I was this time last year.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Random Lunchtime Thought

Went and had some Italian food (NYC pizzeria-style Italian, not "real" Italian) with a few friends for lunch today. While shaking grated cheese on to my pizza, I had a sudden flash of odd, but interesting, inspiration.

Wouldn't it be cool to create a collection seasoning and condiment dispensers/shakers that had bells or chimes built into them? So when you shook the item it made a little jingly sound? If you used good quality chimes -- like the ones used for high-quality tuned wind chimes -- all tuned to a single key but with different notes in the scale for each item, you would wind up with a sort of randomly generated musical performance as the room filled with people, with bursts of sound occurring sporadically as various courses were served. And you could select specific notes for specific seasonings: lower notes for pepper, higher notes for salt for example. If the kitchen noticed lots of high-pitched jingling they'd realize that maybe a touch more salt was in order. And the key that was selected for each collection could underscore something of the mood of the restaurant: a bright major key for energetic family-oriented places, perhaps something is a gentle minor key for a more romantic or understated ambiance.

Anyhow, just a thought.

Mood: Kinda goofy
Now Playing: A Perfect Circle, "Thirteenth Step"

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fault Lines

Bad mood today. Must have slept in a bad position last night, and as a result I awoke with a nice sharp pain in my back, just to the left of my right shoulder blade, and a really stiff neck. Waking up in pain is never a good way to start a day.

Headed to the gym to stretch, and to work on my hand and foot techniques. I've got a test coming up in about a week and a half, and for some reason my technique seems to have fallen off in quality over the past week or so. I feel far less confident in stuff I've been doing for months than I did just two weeks ago. My hand technique combinations are feeling a bit awkward, while many of my foot technique combinations (especially ones that involve spin back kicks) feel downright sloppy. Two weeks ago I felt solid, and now I feel tentative at best. This was apparent last night, during class, when I felt I just couldn't pull my crap together. I did alright -- no truly egregious screw-ups, and I'd say everything was performed to a satisfactory, if uninspired, level. I was ... adequate.

But over the course of the evening I came to realize that try as I might, I just couldn't focus and control myself as well as I usually can. I wound up bailing out on sparring, mostly due to my right leg hurting quite a bit, but in no small part because I felt that sparring poorly would have just compounded the sense of "shoulda' just stayed home" that was starting to creep over me by the end of class. But of course, I instead felt like a bonehead for not sparring, so damned if I do, damned if I don't. I'm pretty good at walking myself into these Catch 22-like emotional states when I'm tending to go that way anyhow. Damn moodiness.

Anyhow, so, this morning was about getting to the gym, and stretching to relieve some of the back pain, and then working my techniques a bit to try to tighten them up. I managed to snag the back studio at the gym, which was dark and unoccupied, and worked line drills on hand and foot techniques and forms for about 45 minutes. And frankly, I did fine. Plenty of room for improvement, but I know the techniques and I can perform them as needed for testing. But what I also figured out is that it's my head that's getting in my way right now. And it's not a lack of confidence, and it's not frustration at my ability to perform.

Instead, I think that the lack of structure and stability in lots of other aspects of my life has started to permeate and affect all of the other aspects of my life, including my training. My job is a big source of this right now: Still no real indication of what our short- and long-term goals and prospects are. Still no real indication of whether the demands I laid out with my manager regarding new roles and responsibilities will be agreed to by his boss. Still no indication of what the plan is in regard to filling the positions of all of the folks that have left over the past month. And still no indication that these guys have realized just how badly they've screwed the pooch in handling this situation. Just an ongoing atmosphere of dull, buzzy tedium and frustration.

And emotionally the workplace atmosphere is getting under my skin as well. Too many familiar faces are no longer in the room. People I'd worked with for 3, 4 5 years or more, who I saw everyday, are simply not around. And given the overall lack of direction and activity right now there isn't much happening to distract folks, myself included, from the simple fact that the feel of the room has changed radically. The personality makeup of our group has been seriously destabilized, and it's going to take a while to feel comfortable again. This becomes particularly obvious during lunch, when awkward silences cast a glaring light on just how much the usual conversational ebb and flow has been interrupted and changed.

Things like this really tend to get to me over time.

On top of this, home has been chaotic lately as well. The kids had spring break, and we've had Christine's parents visiting for about a week or so, and as a result all the usual patterns of our home life are disrupted as well. It's not that I feel like having house guests is a bad thing, but it definitely takes all of our usual schedules and patterns and ways of doing things and throws them into disarray. And given the lack of stability and consistency at work these days I would really benefit from having my home-life feel more same-old/same-old. Unfortunately, not gonna happen just yet. Thing will get back to normal soon, but in the meantime home schedules will tend more toward the random and our patterns and schedules will tend toward the "dynamic."

And well, with that much instability in both work and home, I think it just makes sense that it's affecting my dojang time as well. This stuff all interlocks, and I much as I wish I could turn off the negative parts of the things that take up the vast majority of my time each day when I get my hour or two of training time in, in some ways that's just unrealistic, especially when they are so consistent and persistent and unresolved. So, my ability to focus and concentrate are being hampered as a result. It's really pretty simple.

The trick, I think, is to not let this frustrate me too much, to not read too much into this. I know my technique is better than my performance over the past 3-5 days would indicate. I also know I tend to be a perfectionist, and I tend to judge my own performance far too harshly. I have pretty good reasons to not be at 100% right now -- I need to remember to let myself off the hook a bit every now and then. Every day doesn't have to be My Best Day Yet.

Mood: Cranky
Now Playing: Siouxsie and the Banshees, "Twice Upon a Time"

Thursday, March 15, 2007


Had a gorgeous, foggy morning here in Central Texas today.

At about five minutes of eight, Christine and I took a ride over to the dojang to drop the kids off for their second day of Spring Karate Camp. Four hours of non-standard Tang Soo Do martial arts training -- some judo, some haidong gumdo, some sparring, some jumping drills. Interesting stuff to spice things up a bit during this week that would otherwise be spent sitting around the house, staring the TV or the computer or the Wii or the Xbox. Anyway, as I was saying: gorgeous, very foggy morning. Visibility not better than a couple of hundred feet, clearly identifiable objects rapidly dissolving into grayish shadows as we drove. Breathtaking.

I love the way the world looks on foggy days in the same way I love the way the world looks right after a particularly solid snowfall. I used to think that it was the look of the snow that was so engaging, but today it occurred to me that it's not so much the snow itself as it is the way the snow obscures parts of what is familiar. Hiding the details of what we see everyday and take for granted. Refining aspects of the old and making them, temporarily, brand new.

Fog works in much the same way: stripping away color, reducing all the noise of fine detail and revealing larger, more general form without all the background distractions. I think it's easy for us to miss the incredibly beauty of things that are all around us, every single day, just because there's simply so much of it.

It's sort of the opposite of the old cliche "can't see the forest for the trees." I think sometimes we're so used to living smack dab in the middle of the forest that we forget that each of those trees is a unique, remarkable, and amazing thing, too, and focusing on the trees can reveal things that the whole forest cannot. Sometimes it takes a little change in the weather to remind me to shift my perspective and look closer.

Mood: Mellow
Now Playing: Brian Eno, "Ambient 1: Music for Airports"

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Anger, and Passion

I'm spending a lot more time feeling angry lately than I have in a long while, and I don't like it.

As anyone who has read this blog over the past few years knows, for the first year or two of its existence I used this blog as a venue to vent my spleen about a lot of things that were frustrating and angering me. First and foremost among these things was my job, and my continually escalating astonishment at the ways in which the company I'd helped build and for which I'd sacrificed an enormous amount was being mismanaged and driven into the ground. In the end we were ultimately bought out by a larger company, and the asshats who'd managed to screw things up so badly were richly rewarded while I -- and pretty much every one of my co-workers -- were given a pittance of a "reward" in exchange for the 4+ years during which most of us had put our personal lives, families, and career paths on hold in exchange for the pipe dream of dot-com-era wealth.

Not long after we were acquired I did a lot of soul searching about the events of the previous couple of years, and came to the conclusion that I desperately needed to re-evaluate things. Anger was running my life. I was bitter, and it was affecting me in lots of ways, none of them good, some far worse than others. I needed to stop turning all this frustration back in on myself, needed to stop beating my breast and screaming in anger about how unfair everything was and just ... do something about it. Either learn to live with it, or move on.

The first step was to begin rethinking my blog, and to try to make it into something that actually provided something other than a bucket to hold my bile. I went back and deleted a whole lot of old entries, ones that were almost solely devoted to venting my spleen without any actual effort to resolve or learn or illuminate. That nixed a solid 30-40% of my blog, and a lot of pretty clever writing, but sometimes you have to cut away some healthy tissue to clean out an infection, so there you have it.

It was also during this 2-3 month period of personal re-evaluation that I stumbled on Sa Bom Nim Nunan's Tang Soo Do studio, and while I don't believe God or fate or whatever directly steps in and intervenes in our lives, fixing things or protecting us from harm, I firmly believe this was an instance of God opening my eyes to a new path and offering me the opportunity to walk it, if I chose. Providing me with the tools I needed to rebuild myself in the way I wanted, if I just chose to take hold of them and start working. A real world example of God helping those who help themselves, if you will.

So I jumped on the path, and I've been walking it for nearly 17 months. Simply put, Tang Soo Do has changed my life. I've rejected the anger that used to define the way in which I approached things, and I feel so much stronger and more in control of my life and myself as a result. I am certain I'm a better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better man because of this art. Anger isn't running my life any more, and that alone has made my life a better place.

But lately, I find anger creeping back in. Work is not a good place, right now. Lots of resignations, and management's done an amazingly poor job of settling anyone's concerns and fears in their wake. Without going into specific instances (it would take way too long) I could sum it up simply this way: through botched attempts at communication, coupled with a subsequent complete lack of communication, they've made the majority of people here feel worthless and without value in the wake of these changes. Well, most of us don't actually feel worthless or without value, but we certainly get the impression that our Corporate Overlords don't see us as worthy and valuable, that's for sure. We are beneath their concern.

And yes, this is making me angry. Angry in a way I haven't felt for a long while.

But I recognize something new, here, though. I have figured out why I'm angry, and it's not really at them, per se. I mean, they're idiots and worthy of little more than scorn. But the anger is coming from lack of control, not from anything they're doing to me. I am angry that I have to sit here and wait to figure out what to do next. I am angry that I can't just walk away, like so many of my co-workers have walked away, to a new and exciting project, because my skills don't fit their immediate needs. So, some bitterness and regret there.

But I'm also angry that I won't just jump on the job market out of spite, essentially saying "screw you guys, I'm goin' home!" and join in contributing to chaos simply for the satisfaction of knowing that I made things worse for them in response to their not making me feel valued. Which isn't actually a lack of control, really, but more like being angry at ... being responsible. At not wanting to make a bad situation worse just to screw some management types over. People all around me a scared shitless by all the stuff that's going on, and I'm just annoyed at being treated poorly by faceless executives that don't even know who I am. Quitting and flipping the bird over my shoulder as I leave would just take a bad situation and make it worse, with no real upside for me except the brief satisfaction of knowing that, once the dust settles, these jokers will realize just how much I did and just how many folks they'll need to hire to replace me.

In other words, a professional version of "you'll be sorry when I'm dead!" Yeah. Real mature. Ego stroking of the highest order. And meanwhile, other folks I like and want to be OK would wind up being in even worse shape as a result. So yeah, the anger needs to just settle down and shut up.

When things started going south before our acquisition a couple of years back I was very angry, because the thing that had driven me for the first 4 years I was here was passion. And anger is, simply, misdirected passion. It's the drive and focus that got you here being compressed by the realization that it's being squandered and destroyed by self-centered blowhards and self-absorbed liars. It's the energy that is released by the collision of ambition with incompetence.

But this time around, y'know, it's just a job. I like it most of the time, but even at its best it's just the thing I do that pays me well and enables all of the other things in my life that cost money to occur. And that's all it really is. If I join up with a new startup sometime soon that's a different thing -- being directly responsible for helping to build something new, from scratch, is more than a paycheck, and it deserves and requires a different level of personal commitment. I'm ready to do that again when the opportunity presents itself, but this company in no way deserves (or rewards) that level of sacrifice. Likewise, it in no way deserves a passionate emotional response when things aren't going well. The only appropriate response to corporate ambivalence is reciprocal. They pay me to work, not to care. And the work is getting done. If they want me to care enough to help fix the things that they've broken through mismanagement and neglect, though, it's gonna cost them.

And if they won't pay, then I'll be moseying along. I'll leave when the time is right, especially if they don't do something to restore some sense that I'm a valued resource. But I'll do it in a way that helps me without harming my co-workers, all of whom are likely as frustrated and powerless as I am at the moment. I may be frustrated, but turning that into anger, real anger, will just make things worse for everyone.

There's no need to turn my frustration into anger. It's just a job.

Mood: Oddly calm, now
Now Playing: Massive Attack, "Collected"

Friday, March 02, 2007

Spread Thin

It's been a pretty damn challenging week.

Following all of the stressful events of last week, Miranda and I decided on Saturday to head down to Canyon Lake to see a bunch of our friends and classmates test for stripes on their red belts. It was a rough test -- a number of folks froze up, or worse yet arrived unprepared -- and as a result it kind of dragged on. Miranda was oddly subdued, too -- hanging out in the back room of the dojang watching TV rather than playing, and complaining of a headache. However, once it wrapped up we had a BBQ and she seemed to perk up. Once we got in the car to head home, though, she conked right out, and by the time we arrived home she was getting warm. By the next morning she was running a 103 degree fever, and Monday she was diagnosed with a nice case of the flu.

So she's been home all week. Luckily, her fever has responded nicely to the good ol' alternating acetaminophen/ibuprofen dance and otherwise her only symptoms have been a nagging cough. So she's more bored and sleepy than anything else. However, because she was home with the flu Christine couldn't do any of the school drop-off for Trevor nor any of her other usual tasks that she takes care of at the school, and instead it all fell to me, which did a terrific job of nixing my entire week of gym workouts and also got me into the office an hour earlier than usual every day.

Now, sometimes that wouldn't be a bad thing. Getting in early when things are busy can really pay off. It looks good, and I tend to get more done in that first hour or so when no one else is around than when people are popping by and hitting me with questions left and right. But considering the recent lemming-like stampede for the exit that was staged by the managers and architects, the atmosphere at work isn't exactly conducive to calm reflection or productive efforts.

Quite the opposite, actually.

So, the extra time in the office has had a pretty negative effect. I'm spending a lot of time contemplating what to do next, getting alternately depressed and angry, and then reiging myself in rather than sitting and dwelling on things I can't control right now. I'm really trying to help maintain some calm around this place, but after over a week of no info I'm just disgusted and annoyed with the whole mess. So instead I'm sort of biting my lip and holding out until I head home, saving the frustration for channeling into my dojang time. This mostly works -- actually, I had one of the best classes I've had in a while last night -- but it's still something of a Band Aid solution. The situation at work isn't getting any better just yet, so as a result it's a daily problem to be dealt with. And since I'm not training tonight (unlike every other night this week. And last Saturday. And Monday through Thursday last week, to...) I was already worried about the stress buildup effect.

And now, to top things off, Christine seems to have caught the flu as well. Running a 101-102 degree fever. Coughing. Splitting headache. So yeah, now next week will very likely be a carbon copy of this week, with me running the kids all over the place, cramming in some time at work (including my annual evaluation with my manager, when I will likely lay out my terms for remaining with the company for anything longer than the next few months), trying to keep up with my training in preparation for testing at the end of this month, plus with the added bonus of trying to take care of my sick wife as well. All the while hopefully not getting sick, myself.

Scientists really need to make some progress on that cloning stuff sometime soon. Either that, or figure out how to make time travel work. I'm rapidly running out of "me" to go around.

Mood: Stressed
Now Playing: Amy Winehouse, "Back to Black"