Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cutlery Lust / Early New Year's Resolution

Just stopping in for a quickie post. The holiday season has been the usual busy blur, and has mostly been wonderful. A bit too hectic, as usual, but fun all in all. I'm in the midst of a truly heinous attack of Cedar Fever, however, which is making the tail end of 2008 about as miserable as could be. And when I'm miserable, my thoughts turn to those of...

... well, food, really. Or, more precisely, cooking. I love cooking when I'm down. The process, the preparation and planning and procedures. It's all a wonderful distraction from whatever's bothering me. Plus, I really get a lift out of making other people happy with food. Most people really enjoy eating, after all, and I've found that the best way to defuse tension is to give people something to stuff in their mouths. It's very hard to argue when you're chewing on a tasty morsel of something yummy.

And maybe that's why I'm so utterly and completely, head-over-heels in love with these:

Shun Elite chef's knives.

My god they're beautiful.

Here's the description of this line, from the KAI website: "Shun Elite is an innovative combination of aesthetics and performance in kitchen cutlery. Handcrafted in Seki City, Japan, the center of the ancient samurai tradition, Elite’s stunning design is directly inspired by the artful aesthetics of samurai swords, down to the smallest detail. The blade is made of a unique core of SG2, an exotic powdered steel that’s hardened to 64 Rockwell (compared to the 56-58 Rockwell of European kitchen knives), resulting in an exceedingly sharp and smooth edge. This amazing metal means that Elite knives stay sharp several times longer than comparable stainless cutlery. The knife is then clad with two layers of SUS410—a softer stainless steel that provides strength, flexibility and corrosion protection. The only thing more beautiful than the knife in your kitchen is the way it performs in your hand. Hand wash. Lifetime warranty."

These things are gorgeous. I was literally salivating over a set in the Sur la Table yesterday. Besides being astonishingly sharp and strong knives, they are utterly and completely beautiful. The gleaming edge, the wobbly line where the powdered steel coating meets the core, the deep black pakkawood handles, the exquisite traditional Japanese styling, every detail made me Want Them. And while the Ken Onion series may be more voluptuous (that beautiful Damascus-look steel, the lovely curved handles -- I'm sure they feel fantastic in your hand) and the Alton Brown series more ergonomically designed for extensive kitchen use (that nice little angle on the blade must take a lot of stress off the wrist when doing extensive knife work), I have to just accept that my aesthetic sense is hopelessly Oriental/Asian Influenced, and these things look like something a True Samurai Chef would use to whip up something spectacular.

So, I'm making my first New Year's Resolution. Not of the self-improvement sort, although I will make some of those as well, but of the life-improvement sort. I haven't bought myself new knives in over 12 years. I'm still working with the Henckels set I assembled over the course of a year back in 1995-1996, and while they're hanging in there, they need to be professionally sharpened and even then their edge is getting woefully worn. It's time to rebuild, and over the next year I am going to assemble a complete set of these beautiful pieces of sharpened steel.

Yes. Yes I will.

And if anyone has an extra $1000 lying around and wants to help get this process going quicker I'll be most obliged ....

Mood: Wry, tired, allergic.
Now Playing: Nothing

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Proctoring / Learning to Fly?

Spent pretty much the entire day today proctoring gup tests at our dojang. First gups are reponsible for proctoring the gup tests (calling the various techniques that those who are testing must perform throughout hte test) while the yudanjanim and kodanjanim present (cho dans through 3rd dans and 4th dan on up, respectively) sit at the testing board and grade the participants. Prior to the last dan test there was only one other gup in our dojang who was my senior, a teenager named Kent who is about 3 months ahead of me, but he just tested for dan and therefore no longer has to proctor (n fact he assisted in grading on two of thes tests, event though he hasn't officially been promoted yet -- that occurs next month). So, as the now-ranking senior 1st gup in the dojang it fell to me to ensure that the tests were adequately -- and correctly -- proctored by the red belts who showed up to help out.

Obviously, I take this stuff pretty seriosuly, so I committed myself to being present for the entirety of all three tests today. Testing started at 9:30 this morning. I only participated in the actual protoring of the orange and green belt tests, while on the white belt test I simply assigned various sections to the young red belts who were there to help out and tried to make sure any questions they had were answered. Happily, all three tests went smoothly, proctoring errors -- by myself and others -- were minimal, and we wrapped up by 5:00.

It was a terrific day of testing. Two very large testing groups -- 19 students for the white belt test, and 22 for the orange belts test -- followed by a very small green belt group (only 6). The students in each and every test were uniformly well prepared and solid. The orange belts really could have used a bit more energy for their test -- by halfway through they were losing focus and concentration, and when the kids started sparring it was literally silent in the room. Not a kiyap to be heard during SPARRING! So while they did well, the testing board made sure to warn them that failing to keep the energy up throughout the test would really start messing them up as they advance, as when the tests start getting really challenging (especially the red belt test) they're gonna need that juice. Regardless, everyone performed skillfully and well.

The green belt test was a true pleasure. As I said, it was a small group. Only 6 people, 5 kids and 1 adult. 1 6th gup, 3 5th, and 2 4th going for their red belts. The green belt test is where things start getting really tough, particularly in the case of those 4th gups testing for red belt. Lots of material to cover, lots of opportunity to get lost or come off the rails, particularly for kids. But these guys were all exemplary -- well prepared, solid grasp of all of the fundamentals, and level headed. Their energy was fairly solid throughout, although it flagged a bit toward the end. I think that's as much a statement about the much larger dojang space we now inhabit -- almost 1900 square feet of mat space -- as it is about the candidates. It's tiring trying to fill that much space with energy, especially for such a small group. Regardless, they got through it all without any serious issues at all and the test finished in record time -- under 2 hours and we were out of there.

But by far my favorite part of the day was the white belt test. I had several adult friends testing for their orange belts -- Vickie and Aaron, who are my testing buddy Kayleigh's parents (Kayleigh, 9, is the only other student in the school who I have tested with every single time I have tested since orange belt), and Pieter (my exceptionally talented physical therapist friend who is also Miranda's judo instructor and the dad of another 1st gup I've tested with, Ben, who like Kayleigh is also 9). So, it was fun to watch for those reasons alone.

But while watching the test, something occurred to me: Today, December 13th, marked exactly 3 years to the day since my first Tang Soo Do lesson. Three years ago I first stepped onto the mat and struggled with fear and lack of confidence and a body that just wouldn't do the things I was telling it to do. And here I am, a 1st gup deeply engaged in as much of the art and the dojang life as my life and time permit, proctoring exams and looking forward to my own dan test, less than 6 months from now. I looked at the white belts, some of them struggling with movements I now find almost second nature, and I felt this swell of pride. Not in myself but in them. It reminded me of watching my kids taking their first wobbly steps. I remember seeing my kids' awkwardness, their stiffness and tension and wobbly gaits, and all I could think was "well, there it is. They've learned to walk. It'll only be a matter of time before they can run."

And this felt like that -- I felt this odd excitement, like I was witnessing the beginning of something fantastic, and felt so fortunate that I could be there to see it, and that I'm going to get to watch them (at least the ones who stick with training) learn to skip, then jog, and then run. Who knows, some of them might even be almost able to fly one day. I just know that I'm so incredibly lucky to be able to experience it along with them.

Mood: Tired, a little misty
Now Playing: Nothing

Monday, December 01, 2008

Felling Great Trees

The other day I found myself thinking about my Tang Soo Do training, and my impending dan testing (May, if all goes according to plan). I was thinking about how I've seen, time and again, people who seem so dedicated and committed to their training attain their dan status, receive their blue belt in recognition of their efforts and accomplishments, and then ... well, vanish. After 3-4 years of commitment, 10 tests of gradually growing difficulty and intensity, hundreds -- even thousands! -- of hours of training they receive a new belt and decide that they're no longer interested in continuing.

This happens a LOT with children and teens, obviously -- very often they and their parents, who typically do not train, see the blue belt as the primary goal of training. Their reward, if you will, or their graduation. We live in such a reward-driven society that this is certainly not unexpected: I know from my own experience that motivating kids to keep focused on training during the 6-month periods between tests at the higher gup ranks can be a chore. Once we hit dan, the wait stretches to years, which from a kid's perspective clearly seems almost infinite. When you've only been on the planet for 11 or 12 years, the idea of doing something without what is perceived as a reward until 2+ years later must seem incomprehensible. So, that I understand. I hope to keep my kids focused on training -- I think with my daughter it will be doable, but unless something changes in my son's attitude I have a feeling that training past dan will be iffy at best, at least for the foreseeable future.

So, kids dropping out I get. But what of the adults? Adults start training for such different reasons than kids -- very often, as in my case, it was an opportunity to jump outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself, to do something completely new. Others see it as a chance to feel safer and more secure. Or as a chance to do something with their kids that is beneficial for the entire family. Or it's just exercise. As often as not it's a combination of many or all of these things, to varying degrees. And from my fairly limited perspective, adults that make it past 4th gup and get their red belt seem likely to see things through to dan, and seem less likely to just stop training altogether as soon as they get the blue belt around their waist.

But yet I've also seen adults who were among the most talented and devoted martial artists I've trained with just ... stop altogether. They have valid reasons -- family demands, work demands, money pressures, and so forth. But frankly I think these are often the excuses folks make in order to excuse themselves from making yet another long-term commitment. So, if these folks, folks I looked up to when I began training as examples who I want to be and how I want to be in my approach to Tang Soo Do, can just walk away, what happened? What changed? More importantly, I wonder what my attitude will be after receiving my promotion.

As I've trained for the past 3 years, my attitudes have changed, deepened, grown in unexpected directions, but have largely remained undiluted by time and effort. I still love training, I still think of the dojang as a sort of a home for my spirit, a place where I am finding a peace and focus that I've never felt in my life. But is this any different than what these other folks felt? And yet ... they moved on.

So, I've been soul searching. And as often seems to happen, I find that when I soul search and look for answers they present themselves in unexpected ways. This time it was in running across an old blog entry by a woman named Rachel, whose blog is wonderful and far too rarely updated. Here's a link to the original blog entry -- I'm paraphrasing Rachel's story in a manner that better relates to how it spoke to me.
A Zen teacher from China moved to Tennessee and once he arrived he bought a little old house with a big old oak tree on the front lawn. On the day he moved in several of his neighbors told him "That tree's overgrown and old. You've got to chop it down or it might fall on your house."

He nodded, in his inscrutable Chinese way, and said, "Good. I chop."

The next morning he went to the local hardware store and bought a hatchet. One of his neighbors came by and saw him chopping away at the enormous trunk of the tree with the tiny little hatchet and laughed, saying "You can't do it that way. It'll take forever! I'll go get my chainsaw and we can have the tree down in half an hour."

But the old man shook his head and said, "I chop."

His neighbor rolled his eyes, but left him alone, figuring that after a few hours of this futile chopping the old man would have had enough and would come asking to borrow his chainsaw.

But the old man didn't ask for help. Instead the next day, and every morning after, at 9 am for exactly one hour, everyone in the neighborhood could hear a steady chop chop chop from the old man's front yard. It got so that if he missed a morning they'd come over to see if he was okay. He went from being "that crazy Chinaman" to being part of the community.

Eventually he explained to some of his new friends that this is how he taught meditation: every day you chop away just a little more, and sooner or later a great tree falls.

Well, after months of this it became clear that the great tree was finally due to fall. On what was clearly going to be the day the tree would finally come down the excited neighbors all gathered around to witness the last few hatchet chops. And after a few minutes of chopping with the hatchet, with a mighty creak and splintering noise, the tree crashed to the ground.

The entire town erupted into applause, everyone thrilled and excited to witness the culmination of the teacher's slow and steady efforts. Finally, after the cheering died down, one of the neighbors came up to the teacher and asked him, "Well, the tree is down. What will you do now?"

"Make firewood" was his reply.
Reading this simple story moved me remarkably. Now, that in itself is not a big accomplishment, really -- I'm easily moved. Ask anyone who's ever sat through a Disney movie with me and they'll tell you that I cry at the drop of a hat. But the story spoke directly to the concerns I've had about my approaching dan test, and my training going forward. I found myself grinning, and yet with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I felt reassured.

I saw how my training can be so like what the teacher was doing -- slow, methodical, time consuming, and hard for those around who do not train to understand. I thought about how silly the neighbors must have thought the old man was, at first, and how silly I often have felt over the past few years, this big dude hopping and stomping and sweating on the mat with all these little kids around. I thought about the sense of community that the teacher's efforts brought to himself, and to those around him even though they didn't really understand why he was doing the things he did, and of how I've felt my own community grow and flourish in the past few years.

But most of all I saw that in achieving what can in some ways be perceived as the ultimate goal of undertaking a task in the first place, you can actually provide the basis for an entirely new goal, one that never would have been possible without the initial efforts. The symbolism of the goals -- although this is supposedly a true story, so the symbolism is in the interpretation, not in the tale itself -- really spoke to me: how much like adults who begin training in martial arts the initial efforts are more or less self-defense oriented (protecting himself and his house from the potential destruction that the tree posed), but in felling the tree he created a new journey, one that would enable him to live a better life (using the fruits of his earlier efforts to, through additional effort, warm his home).

And I saw that this next stage in the teacher's plan -- like training after dan advancement -- would be far longer, and require far more commitment in terms of hours. If it took the teacher months to chop through the trunk of the tree, it will obviously take years and years to break it down into firewood. But regardless of the time it will take, while it may take a larger total amount of time to achieve the actual commitment is essentially the same: one hour each day, until the task is completed. The goal is attained simply by returning to the task at hand again and again.

So now I'm left wondering: What would the teacher's next task be, after making the firewood? I like to think he uses the wood to cook supper for the town. Opinions are welcome....

Mood: Thoughtful
Now Playing: "Baraka," Original Motion Picture Soundtrack