Monday, January 19, 2009


I really enjoyed reading this piece. It's the invocation given the Right Reverend Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, as the "kick-off" to the inaugural event. I try to avoid politics and religion on my blog but as I read this I realized how many of the things Reverend Robinson called for apply to all of us, regardless of faith, or political leanings.

I also saw in his words some of the things I tell myself, frequently, in trying to prepare myself for training, testing, competition, or just in trying to allow the lessons of Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan to be more than just exercise, more than just a hobby to me, but to be a transforming force in my life and the lives of those around me. I was moved by how many of our 8 Key Concepts are reflected in the Reverend's words. So while this entry in my blog might be slightly more of a politically/religiously oriented one than I would typically engage in, I think the messages are universal.


A Prayer for the Nation and Our Next President, Barack Obama

By the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire

Opening Inaugural Event
Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC
January 18, 2009

Welcome to Washington! The fun is about to begin, but first, please join me in pausing for a moment, to ask God’s blessing upon our nation and our next president.

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will . . .

Bless us with tears — for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless us with anger — at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort — at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience — and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility — open to understanding that our own needs as a nation must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.

Bless us with compassion and generosity — remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable.

And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.

Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand — that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.


Mood: Sniffly, sneezey. Damn allergies.
Playing: Santogold, "Santogold"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Blessings of Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan

I really need to get back on the ball re: blogging about my training, here. It's not that I have little to say, but rather that the things that have been on my mind and that I most want to discuss touch on some issues of privacy about other students, so I consider them off-limits here. This is frustrating, as it's pretty much impossible for me to just move onto a new topic when there's another one that's dominating my thoughts. So, instead, I've spent quite a bit of time wool-gathering, trying to figure out just how to approach these topics without breaching confidences. The only real answer is to keep things very generalized, but that also feels somewhat unsatisfying. Regardless, I think it's more important to protect the feelings (and, in some cases, the personal lives and families) of others than it is for me to feel fulfilled in something as esoteric and ultimately unimportant as my own blog, so priorities, priorities, priorities.

The main issues that have been bouncing around in my head revolve around the responsibilities of the teacher to the student, particularly in regard to how that teacher represents the goals of the organization to which they -- and their students -- belong. In many martial arts organizations this is not so much of an issue, as most "modern" American martial arts schools don't have a particularly strict focus on intellectual or philosophical codes or personal development aside from the more general, physically-oriented high-level goals. Better physical fitness. The ability to defend ones' self. The ability to wrestle or fight in tournaments effectively.

In and of themselves these are all perfectly fine goals, but I've always felt that they are also fairly unlikely to result in any sort of significant change in ones' life beyond short-term improvements of one sort or another. If anything, their very specificity leads directly, in many cases, to student boredom. Without an emphasis on applying the skills learned in the training hall to other aspects of ones' life, to abstracting the physical gains and placing them in a more holistic context, then this is all just another form of exercise that will be replaced by a different physical activity when the novelty of "Doin' Karate!" wears off.

Without a larger goal then, training in the martial arts really isn't all that different from any other structured exercise regimen, and without an effort on the part of the instructor to encourage students to embrace the art as something life-changing as opposed to simply health-improving, it's unlikely to result in a lifelong commitment to the specific art. Now, obviously, this is in many ways perfectly fine with the instructor, who is as often as not also the business owner as well. Students typically sign multi-year contracts, which even if they allow for breaking of the contract typically include a penalty for doing so (and those are the good ones). If a student chooses to stop training then the instructor doesn't really suffer any direct or immediate negatives. If anything, they get to draw some more cash out of a student who requires absolutely none of the instructors time or resources. If the owner is focusing adequate efforts on marketing and signing up new students them turnover is at worst a non-issue and may actually be beneficial financially. The quickest path to profit is to focus on new enrollment, lock students into contracts, and then passively encourage turnover by running a program that allows all but the most dedicated students -- i.e. the students who least need active instruction -- to become unmotivated, stagnant, or bored.

Conversely, in the Mi Guk Kwan there is a lot of emphasis placed on the historical and philosophical foundation of our art, and on one's success in the physical aspects of our art being dependent on expression and embracing of these underpinnings. There is a tremendous amount of focus placed on reinforcing this attitude in our organization, and certainly in the approaches to training and instruction undertaken by all of the instructors I've had the privilege to study with. Ironically, this approach makes their jobs much harder (in that it requires far more instructor/student interaction in order to be applied properly) and also makes it much more difficult for them to "cash in." This is not to say that it's impossible to do well financially -- it just means that it's trickier to do so without personal sacrifice and long-term commitment on the part of everyone involved.

If the appeal of your organization and your school is personal growth and self improvement through the martial arts, then by definition these are long-term goals. They aren't going to occur after 3 months of sweating it out, and part of the instructor's job is to demonstrate -- by their own example, and through their own conduct -- their own daily commitment to these principals. If they aren't doing so, honestly and forthrightly, their students will know. And ultimately their students will not realize the benefits that are obtainable through these arts, probably because they'll move on when they figure out that the "ideals" that are claimed as goals by the organization are in fact little more than window dressing to their instructor.

Recently, I heard about an instructor in our organization who had chosen to integrate his testing with the testing of another tang soo do school in his area. This tang soo do school was not part of the Mi Guk Kwan -- not shocking, as we are a fairly small organization -- and there were significant differences in the curriculum as well as the manner in which specific techniques were being performed in the course of testing. And this is a big deal. We're not talking about basic white-or-orange-belt level curriculum here: we're talking about 3rd, 2nd, 1st gup-level stuff. These students have been training for 2-3 years to learn the curriculum on which they are being tested. These are stringent, demanding exams in the best of situations.

So the question becomes one of why? Why did he choose to test his students alongside a bunch of students from another organization, especially one whose techniques differed substantially from our own? What was there to gain? This was not an exhibition or tournament -- it's a test. This is possibly the least appropriate situation to mix with other schools or organizations imaginable. There is no way that this decision was made in the interest of his students -- that's obvious.

So the question remains then who, exactly, stood to benefit? The obvious answer is, of course, the instructor or instructors who chose to run the test in concert with each other, without regard for the effect this would have on those testing. The reasons they chose to do this are hard to guess, but I'd assume they were derived from financial and marketing opportunities coupled with an attitude of "It's my school, I'll do as I want." No one else stood to benefit in any manner.

In my eyes that's a betrayal of both the students and the Mi Guk Kwan itself: the message that cavalierly joining up with another school that is not of your organization for something as organizationally specific as testing sends to your students about the importance you place on their testing experience, and importance and significance of your organizations curriculum, technical content, and philosophy. Of basically telling them that while they are trained exhaustively to do things a certain way, because at this level there is in fact a Right Way and a Wrong Way to do things, this isn't really actually true or important. By doing this their instructor indicated that all the focus on personal enrichment and rigid discipline and militaristic hierarchy was just talk, because when push came to shove their instructor, the person who directly represents the Mi Guk Kwan to them, decided he didn't want to be bothered with that stuff.

And if their instructor -- someone who theoretically has devoted a significant portion of his life to pursuing the benefits of training and who represents the ideals of the organization to which he belongs -- isn't going to live it, why should his students believe for one moment that it's important and powerful enough to change their own lives? Because clearly it didn't change his.

I've always felt that the Mi Guk Kwan places a pretty heavy burden on its students. The curriculum load is heavy and the techniques demanding, yes, but it's emphasis on intellectual and philosophical development make it heavier still. This is not a complaint, mind you, but rather something I admire about it. I am thrilled daily by the challenges the Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan has placed before me.

But this episode has also shown me how the Mi Guk Kwan places a heavy burden on its studio owners as well. There are lots of short-cuts to greater profitability they could take in other organizations that in ours are simply not acceptable and which are not permitted. The lure of easy money is a hard one to ignore, and I consider myself so very fortunate to be associated with instructors who choose to ignore it day in and day out. And to be part of an organization -- in America, of all places! -- that continually places the needs of the students ahead of the shortest route to profit for the studio owners is a blessing indeed.

Mood: Distracted
Now Playing: Santogold, "Santogold"