Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Well Lookit' That / Waiting?

So, if you look at my little red belt illustration over yonder, you'll notice it's now got a nice little blue stripe on it. Attended class last night, and at the end of class I was promoted. Yay me! It's amazing how much work a 5" strip of blue electrical tape can represent.

Now it's time to start buckling down and learning my next form, Chil Sung Sahm Rho. Haven't been officially shown it yet, but I've seen it so many times -- and have the videos from the TSDMGK as well -- so I've been doing a bit of side prep to try to get ready for it. Very confusing form -- should be a real challenge to get looking good.

Aside from that, I already know the majority of techniques I'll need to test for 1st gup -- the next 6 months will be dedicated to getting my new form solid and getting all of my previously learned stuff up to the level of performance that is expected of a 1st gup. Lots of work to be done.

I had a thought after class last night, though, about the experience I had during this last test -- how frustrating an experience it was to test under such low energy conditions. How unsatisfying a day it was, in spite of my knowing, absolutely, that I performed well and even met nearly all of my own perfectionist expectations. And it got me thinking about my next test. About how, unless something unexpected happens -- like some new 2nd gups moving in an dtraining with us, perhaps cross-ranking soon -- in 6 months I will be testing with this same group. Actually, that's probably not even true -- if anything, I will be testing with on 2, maybe 3 of them. At least 2 of the kids were simply not ready to test this time around -- and that was after they wre held back form testing for an extra 3 months already. The chances of them really buckling down and getting themselves solid for the 1st gup test -- the test that is commonly believed to be the toughest test a TSDMGK student undergoes until at least their Ee Dan test, some even say until Kodanja -- are realistically slim-to-none.

So, I might be testing with only 1 or 2 kids next time around. No adults, again. This worries me. That test is going to be hard enough as it is -- if I can't rely on the other candidates for energy, it's going to be a miserable experience. And I really don't want that.

So, in the back of my head I've started considering perhaps asking to delay my next test bya few months, so that I can test with the other adults who I will later test for Dan with. This group includes my mom and my buddies Rich, Eric and Mark (hopefully -- he blew his knee out a few weeks ago and needs surgery, but will hopefully be back to training in time to get back on the schedule). I dunno if I can actually make myself wait -- I'm not one to sit and delay when I'm ready to test -- it's hard enough to be patient for 6 months, let alone adding 3 more to the mix. But the thought is there.

Mood: Beat (wind storms last night kept me awake until 3:00)
Now Playing: Nuthin'

Sunday, February 24, 2008

2nd Gup, Almost

Ow. My legs really hurt. My lats and upper back as well. Gotta love the day after testing.

So, the test was ... an interesting experience. It was, unfortunately, everything I feared it might be. The kids, with one or two exceptions, had absolutely zero energy on the mat, a problem that was compounded by our first proctor also having abslutel;y no energy or volume when he was calling the commands. From the very first moment, it was a struggle to keep up the energy levels on the mat. I kiyaped as loud as I could, trying to urge the other testing candidates to to follow my lead, but sometimes it really felt like I was fighting the tide out there.

And before this test, I never encountered first-hand just what it's like to feel your energy slowly leaking away over the course of the test. I'm not talking about physical fatigue -- that's to be expected. I'm talking about your focus, your drive, you sense of confidence and commitment. By halfway through the test I felt mentally and emotionally drained. I was putting out as much energy as I could to keep the energy levels on the mat and of my fellow students up, and I wasn't getting any of that energy back from the majority of students out there with me. It was exhausting.

And then we got to forms. As a group, the 2nd gup candidates (my group) did well -- most of us got through Pyang Ahn O Dan first time and were allowed to sit as our fellows redid it to get it right. We all got Chil Sung Ill Rho correct the first time. And Bassai we all had to do twice, but it was because we didn't stay together as a group the first time through -- basically 2 of us did it one speed, 2 of us another speed, and the last student was kind of off in his own world.

Master Riley actually said I was going too fast on it, which I though was funny since I was the big old dog out there with all the kids and usually I'm the one who feels like he's struggling to keep up. But the main point I think was that it's very hard to stay together on a fast form like Bassai, so for testing purposes it's imperative to go slow enough so that if people get out of sync they have time to adjust. I was doing the form at tournament-speed, which is obviously an error.

So the second time through I did it about half-speed, and with a very consistent rhythm. The kids fell into it quite nicely, and we got through it fine that time. Annoying though -- I've never had to do a form twice on any of my previous tests. That's the end of my "never had to do a form twice on a test" run. Oh well.

The real problems began when the 1st gup candidates had to do their forms. Of the three of them, only one (my classmate Kent) was solid and consistent throughout -- he made a couple of errors, but never froze up and always knew exactly where he went wrong and he corrected his errors on his second tries when necessary. The other two students, though, were far less composed. One had what appeared to be a very bad case of nerves, which happens, but which can really trip you up if you let it get too far up in your head during forms. All of a sudden, things you've done a thousand times before become unclear and confusing, everything starts running together, and then you're in the weeds. Still maanged to pull it together, but it took a long while. The other student, though, was a mess. Forgetting things all over the place. Just sort of wilting out there. It took forever to get through all of their forms.

And we sat. And sat. And sat. Both of my legs went completely to sleep. And then, when we got up again, it was time for horsestance punching -- an endurance drill, where we throw approximately 6-8 horsestance punches per second for about 45 seconds. In the best of circumstances this drill kills me because I tend to forget to breathe properly by about halfway through. But this time it was even worse, because both of my legs were a sleep and I felt like I was going to fall over. I died at bout the 35 seconds mark, my arms just sort of turning to spaghetti. I rallied after a bout 5 seconds and finished OK, but I was annoyed.

After that, it took me nearly 15 minutes to get my energy levels back up. Luckily I was paired with my friend Rich (who had come to the test specifically to be my partner for the sections of the test that required a partner) for the remaining portions of the test and he helped me get my mind back where it needed to be. By the time I finished demonstrating my one steps (only had to perform numbers 15 and 16, so that was a break at least -- Rich is 6'6", so dropping him is pretty tiring) I began to feel better, and after wrist grabs I was solidly back on the rails and ready to finish strong. Sparring was a ball -- for me and for my partners, I'd say -- Rich and Kent each took a turn, and we all put some stuff out there that got enthusiastic reactions from the folks that were watching and judging the test. And the history/terminology portion was a cakewalk for me, although the kids were largely unprepared and missed lots of things. Luckily, I knew my stuff cold so I was able to keep things from getting too ugly, but it was frustrating.

But then, there's the end of the test, and it's a total anticlimax. No advancement, no stripe awarded that day. We finished terminology and closing comments by the judges, lined up, bowed out, and were finished. So, fo rhte moment, I am still a 3rd gup.

This is not unusual at all -- the protocol followed by our organization is to not award new gup levels on test day unless all of the students have successfully completed the test. Several students failed portions of the test, and will have to get them right in class before they can be awarded their new rank. So no stripe for me, yet. I know I passed the test and did well, so I'm sure Master Nunan will be awarding me my stripe in my next class session (Monday night, probably). And I totally agree with this protocol -- there's no need to humiliate students who know they have not performed well by making them stand and watch while the others students get their rank. But still, it was the first time this has happened to me. Definitely ended a rough test on something of a down note.

Regardless, I did well. Aside from some minor critiques of the way in which I perform one of my kicks by a couple of the dans after the test (outside to inside defensive kick -- I do them more or less correctly, but the way I do them also makes them slower and much harder than they need to be) and some advice on how I'm switching my hands during kicking from Master Riley, I was told by enach and every person who judged or watched the test that I did very well. And I know I earned my stripe yesterday.

Anyway, some pictures. Almost all of these are from the forms portion of the test -- just seemed to be the only ones where I wasn't all blurry and/or making some sort of slackjawed stupid expression. Still, I think I look pretty good!

Oh well. On with the day. Im sure I'm feel better once I have that piece of tape on my belt.

Mood: Mildly melancholy, with a solid dose of ouchiness
Now Playing: Neko Case, "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood"

Saturday, February 23, 2008

White Lily / Test Papers

What Fassbinder Film is it?
The one-armed man comes into the flower shop and says
"What flower expresses days go by? And they just keep going by endlessly, pulling you into the future? Days go by, endlessly, endlessly pulling you into the future?"
And the florist says, "White lily." -- Laurie Anderson
That sums things up lately. I'm busier than I think I've ever been, both at work and at home. When I get this busy I feel like I'm so active and proccupied that I must be missing something. Like I've forgotten do something, but I can't put my finger on it. Sort of an existential version of "Did I turn the stove off?"

At the job I'm redesigning and rebuilding our corporate web site using Joomla, designing a booth layout for several upcoming trade shows, creating signage for several other shows, working on product photography and graphics, ordering a variety of tchotchkes and gewgaws for our sales force to distribute for branding purposes, and adding fairly comples animation sequnces to a bunch of Power Point presentations.

After 9-10 hours of that each day I come home to a flurry of activity in the house, as Christine prepares for the upcoming Destination Imagination competition -- she's a team manager, and Miranda is on the team, so there's lots to be done and we're in the home stretch. Plus we just wrapped up the school spelling bee, and the we have all of our usual commitments with the kids (Tang Soo Do, piano lessons, advanced study projects, plus carfeully scheduled time for them to actually, you know, play and stuff). While these are largely Christine's burdens to bear, I try to help her as much as I can in the time I have available -- she's taken on a lot, and is substitute teaching to top it off, so the least I can do is try to make it easier when I can. So that adds a lot of honey-do's and errands to my days.

And to top it off, today is my 2nd gup test. I've been training 4 times per week to ensure I was ready, and I'm quite comfortable and confident that things will go just fine. This test isn't nearly as challenging and all-encompassing as my last test -- or my next one, which will hopefully occur in about 6 months. Some fairly challenging line drills, with all of the commands being called in Korean. Jump and jump-spin kick drills, also in Korean. 3 hyungs (last test I had to perform 10). 4 il soo sik dae ryun (last test was 24, including the basic ones). 6 ho sin sul (last test was 15). Some improvised self-defense and random throws (just like on every other test in the past 18 months). A couple of rounds of sparring. 1 board break (ee dan dwi chagi -- jump back kick). History and terminology. Overall, a fairly easy test, compared with some of the others.

And even though I know I'm ready, I have jitters as usual. I think the main thing I'm nervous about this time is that this will be the first time I test in front of Master Riley. Master Riley is my teacher's teacher, a fantastically gifted martial artist and a hell of guy to boot. While I know I know my stuff, I just want to perform it well enough to make my teacher proud in front of his teacher. This will mostly depend on consistently keeping my energy levels high throughout, going all out and full-power, loud and solid, for the entirety of the test. I know I can do that -- my energy is usually pretty strong throughout.

My main worry is that the other students in my group might not bring that level of energy and commitment to the test -- once again I am testing with a group of kids. Not an adult in sight. One of the kids is young teen who trains in with the adults all the time, and he's really quite good, but he's also testing for 1st gup, not 2nd, so I won't be working with him for much of the test at all.

The majority of them know their stuff cold, so I'm hopeful that I won't spend a lot of time standing in a front stance waiting for the next move to be called while one of the other students works through some confusion or difficulty they are having. I am expecting that I will wind up doing each of my forms twice, since even if you get it right the first time if anyone in your group messes up the usual protocol is for everyone to do the form a second time, but that will be OK. The big issue will be that kids tend to not put a lot of energy out on the mat when they are nervous, and that will be exactly opposite of what the judges are expecting from us. So, as the senior, I have a feeling I'll be putting out most of the energy for the group, all day.

Regardless, I'm looking forward to getting through this, if just to get it off my plate.


As usual, test day brings more essays. This time out we had two topics, one on the importantce of assistant teaching and the second on the history, meaning, and significance of Bassai, the form we learned at this level. For the essay on Bassai I used a slightly updated and rewritten version of a post from last month, as I felt it said more about my understanding of Bassai than a list of facts and figures ever could. No point in reposting it, so here's a link if you're interested in reading it. As for the other paper, text follows:

The Importance of Assistant Teaching
I feel it is important for senior students to assistant teach for a variety of reasons. Briefly, assistant teaching provides:
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • A chance to sharpen one’s own understanding of their own techniques
  • The opportunity to contribute to and participate in the growth and well-being of the dojang
Practice, Practice, Practice

One thing most students encounter as they advance through the ranks is some difficulty remembering their basic techniques while also attempting to learn the more difficult and challenging techniques they are learning with each new gup level. This is particularly important as we approach tests where we will be required to perform all of the techniques we’ve learned previous instead of just the techniques we’ve learned recently (such as when testing for 3rd or 1st gup).

It can be very difficult to maintain the focus and discipline necessary to learn more difficulty techniques when we are also spending time trying to recall simpler techniques we may not have actually performed in weeks or even months. Assistant teaching gives senior students a much-needed opportunity to practice the more rudimentary techniques, such as their basic one-steps and gicho forms, while demonstrating these techniques to less advanced students. This helps to keep these techniques fresh while also providing guidance and motivation to the lower ranks.

Sharpening One’s Own Understanding

One side benefit of working with less advanced students is that it forces us to examine our own technique a bit more closely, and to think about the techniques from a different perspective.
For example, as I’ve advanced I’ve found that my approach to forms has changed quite a bit. Forms that, when I first learned, I thought of as little more than a whole bunch of steps in a row, instead seem to have storylines or rhythm and flow, and I tend to approach them from a sort of narrative direction, trying to find a way to integrate the pieces into something that works as a whole, almost like a story. And while this is, I think, a good way to approach forms, sometimes getting lost in the “flow” of the form can make me forget to focus on keeping the individual movement within the form crisp and distinct. By helping less advanced students to practice and learn forms it forces me to deconstruct them again, to focus on the components as much as the whole again.

Assistant teaching one steps and wrist grabs provides their own insights as well. When I’ve worked with less advanced students on basic techniques I’ve found that I often have trouble communicating what I’m doing verbally. My usual tendency is to resort to just demonstrating the technique over and over again, which usually works. However, I’ve found that if I stop and take a moment to try to articulate verbally the specific movements in the technique and then demonstrate them (“step out with your right foot into a front stance while doing a reverse punch to the abdomen with your left hand” – demonstrate -- “bring your hands to your right hip and make a triangle with your fingers” – demonstrate – “and then throw an open hand block to your partner’s arm with your left hand while knife hand striking their throat with your right hand” – demonstrate…) it serves two purposes: It helps the student really break things down into easier to digest pieces of info, but it also forces me to stop and think about the specific components of each technique I gain a better understanding of them and can more effectively teach them to others. For some reason I have trouble knowing when a person standing opposite me is moving in the correct direction when they are doing one steps (i.e. ar they stepping out to the correct side, are they moving the correct foot or punching with the correct hand, etc.) so these opportunities are really beneficial to me, and hopefully to the students I work with as well.

Contributing to the Growth and Wellbeing of the Dojang

This one is pretty obvious, I think. When senior students make time to assistant teach, either during official classtime or simply by working with other students during their spare time off the mat, it helps to build the sense of community and family that a dojang needs to thrive. When we’re first getting started in the abilities of our teachers – who tend to have a LOT of experience behind them – can be daunting, almost demotivating in some ways. It is easy to look at the capabilities of the Sa Boms and Kyo Sas who teach us and think “there’s no way I can do that, ever,” especially when we’re struggling to master a technique that they make seem like child’s play. Working with other students who have only been training a year, maybe just a few months, more than me, who were able to do these things really helped to bolster my confidence when I felt as if I might not be able to progress. I can only assume this helps other students in the same way, and I’m certain that this helps with retention over time.


Anyway, wish me luck.

Mood: Good, but slightly jittery
Now Playing: Laurie Anderson, "Life on a String"

Monday, February 04, 2008

Mellow Monday

As planned, I took today off. And I mean OFF. Yesterday afternoon we hit the grocery store and bought supplies for our day "in." Then a couple of friends came over for an un-Superbowl get-together (just not a big football fan, although I'm pleased the Giants won) and I was in bed by midnight or so.

Then today, I:
  • Slept until 8:30
  • Made espresso (for me) and an iced latte (for Christine), as well as a pot of really tasty coffee
  • Watched Ratatouille with Miranda (man, I love that movie)
  • Played backgammon
  • Ate a delicious grilled cheddar cheese with turkey bacon on sourdough sandwich for lunch
  • Watched The Golden Compass (again with Miranda -- Trevor was perfectly content working with Lego's all day long and really didn't seem to want to be hanging with us)
  • Baked chocolate chip cookies from scratch
  • Played some Rock Band
  • Made a big pot of spaghetti sauce
  • Had a leisurely dinner
  • Set the kids up for nice long whirlpool baths with aromatherapy mint & ginger foaming stuff in the water
  • Got the kids in bed
Now Christine and I are going to finish off this lovely low-pressure day with an HD on Demand movie on our new TV (Spiderman 3 -- our expectations are very low, based on reviews, but we're just looking for something mindless and whiz-bang to watch on our HD set). The only time I even left the house today was to bring the garbage can and recycling bin in -- otherwise, I've been a perfectly happy shut-in for the entire day.

We all agreed that this is something we need to try to do at least once every couple of months. While I'm much happier keeping busy than having lots of time on my hands, we tend to run ourselves ragged with all of our activities and whatnot. A day off to just do whatever it is each of us wants to do, even if it's nothing more than staring at the TV or computer or just messing around in the kitchen, is the perfect antidote to some of the accumulated stress we put ourselves through.

Back to normal tomorrow but with, I think, a much brighter outlook.

Mood: Mellow
Now Playing: Blade Runner, "The Esper Edition"