Friday, January 11, 2008

Storming the Fortress

Here I am, halfway through January and this is my first entry of 2008. I'm convinced that, when the calendar turned to the new year, someone somewhere magically shortened the days, because ever since New Year's Day I feel like my every waking moment has been filled to over-stuffing. Wake work train sleep repeat x5, plus 2 days of wake train work (around the house) and socialize (some) sleep. Repeat. Add to this general non-stop activity the overall miserable cedar fever season we're having here in Austin this year and you can just imagine what fun I'm having. My eyes feel pretty much like they've got sand in them all day, every day, especially when I blink or close them. And I spend about 3-4 hours each days sneezing. Perhaps I should have taken my cedar (juniper) allergies into account when I opted to purchase a house in CEDAR FREAKIN' PARK.

Arrgh. It should end in a couple of weeks.

Work is a madhouse -- my good friend Joan has come on board as our VP of Marketing (and thus my new boss) and as a result things have gone from "busy but unfocused" to "super busy and highly focused" almost overnight. I'm getting in early in the morning, leaving well after 6:00 most nights. and then I head home, visit with my family for about an hour, and then go train.

I am SO glad it's Friday.


Training this week has been interesting. My instructor is up in Connecticut, training with the high level students in our organization and attending this year's kodanja training/testing. Kodanja is held once a year, and it is the nearly one-week long test during which invited 3rd dans (sam dan's) in our art are permitted to test for 4th dan (kodanja). My instructor is not testing this year -- he tested two years ago, just a month or so after I started training with him, and will therefore not be eligible to test for at least a few more years. but many studio owners choose to attend the training and test anyhow, simply as a way to challenge themselves and obtain intensive training time with our Grand Master, Charles Ferraro.

Quick digression, and for the uninformed, some info: Kodanja is a particularly grueling series of days of training followed by testing. And when I say "days" I mean pretty much ENTIRE days of training. Typically, the students that have been invited to test will begin training on Wednesday morning, early (say before 9:00 or so), and do not stop until 3:00 or so in the morning (i.e. around 18 hours later). Afterward, you shower, and grab some sleep, and then training kicks off again at around 7:00 or so (if you're lucky you'll get about 3 hours of sleep). This keeps up for four days although I believe they are cut loose early on Saturday night so they can get at least 5-6 hours of sleep before the test.

Then, on the last day (Sunday), the kodanja candidates participate in an all day test in which they have to demonstrate total competence and ability in pretty much Every Single Bit of the Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan curriculum. To give you an idea of just how much curriculum this is, consider this list of techniques I had to demonstrate for my 3rd gup test, late last year:
  • Approximately 2 dozen hand technique and hand technique combinations (soo gi)
  • Approximately 1 dozen foot technique and foot technique combinations (jok gi)
  • 10 forms (hyungs) -- 3 gichos, 5 pyang ahns, 2 chil sungs
  • 10 basic one step sparring techniques (il soo sik dae ryun)
  • 14 intermediate one step sparring techniques (il soo sik dae ryun)
  • 15 intermediate self-defense techniques (ho sin sul)
  • Sparring, breaking, terminology, and philosophy/history
On a good day, that test takes about 3.5 hours, more if anyone has any difficulty. And these tests are done as a group, meaning if one person is having difficulties the honorable requirements are that the entire group keep working with them until they succeed or are asked to leave the mat, so if even one person is having a hard time a 3rd gup test can easily go 4 or 5 hours. Now, consider: That's what I had to demonstrate after just about 21 months of training. Folks invited to test for kodanja have to have been training for approximately 14 years. And while the number of foot and hand techniques don't really grow all that much, the forms and other curriculum become more and more challenging and complex.

So yeah: it's kind of a big deal. If I am fortunate and stay on schedule without serious injuries I hope to be invited to test for kodanja in or around 2019-2020. Which means I'll be somewhere around 51 or 52.

Holy crap.

So, anyway, getting back to the present. Because my instructor is off in Connecticut we've had guest instructors all week. By guests I mean that our higher ranking students have been stepping u pand teaching class in his absence, which has created some pretty exciting learning opportunities. While I very much enjoy and prefer learning from Sa Bom Nim Nunan, I've found that getting a chance to train under other instructors from time to time can be a really good way of dusting things off and making you see them in a different light. Different instructors have different approaches to material and different ways in which they get their points across. This week I've been fortunate to train under Mr. Daniel Delanela, one of our Ee Dans and a remarkably gifted martial artist. I often say that when I grow up I want to be Mr. Delanela, although I'm pretty sure I've actually got a year or two on him -- hard to say, honestly, as he is from the Philippines and Filipinos, like so many people of Asian descent, tend to have a "looks really young but could be 80" thing going on. Regardless, he's spectacularly talented, and a terrific teacher to boot. I hope he'll consider taking on an occasional class in the future, even if Sa Bom Nim is in town.

One thing Mr. Delanela mentioned in class the other night was how when students reach red belt it becomes more and more important that they spend more time considering why it is that they train, what they feel they are getting out of training and whet they feel they bring to the dojang as a senior student. this is something that's been on my mind a lot lately, honestly, as I approach my 2nd gup test. I train as much as I can, and train hard. I'd train more often if it weren't for all these pesky family and career thingies getting in the way . But why? Part of it is camaraderie, certainly: over the past 2+ years I've made many very good friends via our dojang, most especially the friendship Christine and I've found with Sa Bom Nim and his wife Pennie. I enjoy the challenge of training as well, and the satisfaction I feel when I know I've performed a technique or a form well, or have sparred a particularly good match.

But there's more to it that that. I really feel I'm becoming a different person because of this art -- not completely different, obviously, I'm still me. But I feel like so many ways in which I approach other people, and the world at large, have changed as a result of this training. I'm less skittish in social situations, more able to just be at ease around people -- I especially noticed this when I attended my first trade show last month and had to do the handshake/meet and greet/Q&A thing for my company. That sort of totally artificial social behavior used to unnerve me to no end, but this time around it was a walk in the park. I'm also more likely to speak up when I first see problems, instead of either ignoring them and hoping they'll go away or tolerating them until I can't anymore and finally explode. I feel like I'm so much more of an even keel.

but there's more, too. The form I'm currently learning is Bassai, a traditional form that was created over 500 years ago in Southern China. One interpretation of the name Bassai is "storming the fortress," and while this form is a very forceful and dynamic one, which might lead you to think that the fortress in question is one made out fo stone sitting on a mountain somewhere, in fact the fortress it is referring to is one's own ego. This is a form that is meant to help us deconstruct ourselves, to unlearn negative attitudes and behaviors and just, well get over ourselves. It's very challenging, very fast, yet requires flexibility and relaxation to perform well. One's limitations become readily apparent when learning Bassai, and it takes a lot of work to get it right, far more effort to get it good.

i've been working on bassai for nearly 5 months now, and I think I'm finally "getting" it. I mean, I knew it at 2 weeks and could perform it accurately (if not well) within a month. But after 5 months, I feel like I am getting to understand it. The way the movements flow together. The rhythm and pace and mood of it. and I think part of this is due to my entire last year being something of a year of Bassai in my life. Losing my job and my subsequent challenges in getting rehired forced me to take a long hard look at myself and my approach to work, and I wasn't all that excited by what I saw. still, it took moths for me to finally "get over myself" and mend some bridges in order to get my career back on track. I was carrying a lot of anger around due to how poorly things went at my last company, but I couldn't admit that I'd taken a lot of that anger out on my friends and co-workers, not through anger and abuse but through negativity and sarcasm and harsh comments that were jokes but which still stung. I had to realize that the way I see myself is not always the way others see me, and that others will continue seeing me in a negative light unless I give them a positive version of myself to judge.

This was a big thing. Not an easy pill to swallow, I'll tell you. Sometimes it's very hard to look at yourself and say "you know, drop the bullshit, apologize for being a difficult prick to work with for while there, and don't do it anymore. Grow up. Move one." and that's what I've tried to do, ever since taking on my new job. I think I'm doing OK, but I don't spend a lot of time waiting for people to tell me so -- I just assume that if I keep putting my best face and foot forward they'll notice.

This was, I think, a pretty big effort at storming my own fortress, and I hadn't even been taught Bassai yet! But the lessons are at the heart of our art, and the heart of why I think I continue to train and study so hard, despite the sacrifices it forces me to make. Tang Soo Do changes lives, and I know it is changing mine for the better.

Have a great weekend, y'all.

Mood: Chipper, but ready for the weekend
Now Playing: "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

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