Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Almost There / What Does Tang Soo Do Mean To Me?

Three more days. That's all. Just slightly more than 72 hours from now, I'll be attending the pre-test training clinic with Kwan Jhang Nim, and then 4 hours later my cho dan test will begin. And then, sometime later -- anywhere from 5-9 hours based on previous tests I've seen, depending on how well our group of testing candidates hold it together on test day -- it'll be done.

And that's that.

My nerves have pretty much settled down -- I'm not worried about the test so much as anxious to get it started. I've gotten pretty good and quieting my own doubts. A few weeks back, if I made a small mistake in training I immediately started fixating on it, working myself up into a lather about the potential for making that same mistake on the test. Now I've gotten into a pretty good place in that sense, just accepting that I'm going to make some errors, and that the important thing is that they not effect (or infect) the rest of my day.

The main concerns I still carry are small ones. I worry that I'll mishear one of the Korean terms in line drills and perform the wrong technique. I worry that my jump kicks won't be as high and tight as I'd prefer. A couple of minor issues with a couple of moves in my Bassai and one of my self defense techniques have bubbled up, forcing me to rely more on thinking about the technique when I perform it and definitely creating the opportunity to blow it if I think too much. Most of all I worry that when put on the spot to perform a specific one step, called in Korean, I'll buckle under the pressure and blank out. But frankly there's just nothing I can do about these things except keep rested and sharp up until test day, trying to keep my head clear to minimize the potential for these errors.

And frankly, if they occur, the worst outcome would be having to retest on some small things in class. While my goal may be to pass my cho dan test outright, I am absolutely certain that I am well prepared enough to pass with minimal retesting if necessary. Aside from injuring myself I really can't conceive of a test day scenario that results in my having to retest in 6 months. I've never had trouble on a test before, and while this test in unique in that our Grandmaster and a number of additional Kodanja from our region will be scrutizing us -- unlike my previous gup tests, where a single dan member handled your grading, on the dan test every Kodanja on the Shim Sa panel grades every student -- ultimately the only reason that should matter is if I let it matter. I'll be fine.

So now, I just want to get on with it. I may post an entry before the test, or not. I've kind of moved into a sort of "que sera sera" mindset on the test, so I'm not really feeling that I need to work out anything in my head. I just want to coast through the next few days, train a couple of times to keep stuff fresh and sharp, eat good, drink plenty of fluids, and get lots of rest. So I don't really anticipate a need to blog anything out.

But there's no doubt I'll be posting something about the experience not long after.


As with all of my previous tests, this test comes with a writing assignment. This topic is interesting in that it comes full circle, returning to the topic of the very first paper I wrote when I began training, in preparation for testing for my orange belt. The topic, "What Does Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan Mean To Me," is obviously a pretty big one. Open ended. Fraught with meaning, particularly in the run-up to a cho dan test. This coming full-circle, transitioning from the gup levels to the dan levels. Big Stuff.

And frankly I wasn't too thrilled with my essay this time around -- not so much because of the content, but because I felt I had expressed so much of it before. An unfortunate side effect of writing this blog is that much of the content over the past 3.5 years has been about what training in this art means to me, so I felt like I had very little that was new to bring to the paper. I spend a lot of time thinking about and living inside this topic, and as a result writing this paper felt more like an attempt to distill and summarize a couple of hundred blog entries instead of finding something new to say.

Regardless, I think I expressed the topic well and I am not unhappy with the result. Just not excited either. Perhaps the testing board, who I doubt read this blog, will see this with fresh eyes -- I know that I'm too close to it to have anything approaching real perspective.

Anyway, here it is.

What Does Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan Mean To Me?

Gregg Primm
Gup # F07135
It takes more courage to reveal insecurities than to hide them, more strength to relate to people than to dominate them, more ‘manhood’ to abide by thought-out principles rather than blind reflex. Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in muscles and an immature mind. -- Alex Karras

In December of 2005, when I first began studying Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan, I told myself the reason I was beginning to train was so that I could spend more time with my kids. While this was true, I realized fairly quickly that training could actually benefit me in three distinct ways that I very much needed:

  • It would enable me to spend more time with and to connect with my children

  • It would provide a way to make new friends and connect with other folks in my community

  • It would help to build confidence in order to overcome (or at least better manage) some of the insecurity that has plagued me for most of my life

I wrote at length about these goals in my first testing paper back in March 2006, and honestly little has changed since then. Happily, all of these things continue to form the core of what Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan means to me. These past few years of training have provided hundreds of opportunities for my family to grow closer, and now that my wife trains as well we are truly a martial arts family, growing together through the art and enjoying the shared experiences and challenges. Regarding building up my confidence and reducing feelings of insecurity I feel more confident and comfortable with myself than I believe I have ever felt. And the relationships I’ve formed and the fun I’ve had, and continue to have, with my fellow students are tremendously rewarding. In fact of these three, more than any other aspect of my training, I’d have to say that it’s the fun I have in learning the art and the camaraderie I have with the other students that keeps me coming back 3, 4, 5 times a week.

So, a lot of it comes down to one simple thing: Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan is fun. This is not a small thing.

One of the things that I found happened when my wife and I decided to have kids is that my understanding of who I was and what my role was in the home changed radically. After dating for 10 years, we got married and for 6 years or so it was just us. But when we decided to have a child that changed my position in the pecking order of importance in the household. Obviously the needs of a child come first, followed closely by the mom (since she’s the primary care provider). Which left me in a distant third place. And this obviously only compounded with the arrival of our second child a year and a half later.

Now, I don’t mean to make this sound like I’m whining about this. I was happy to put the needs of my wife and children first and foremost in the list of things that needed doing, and to just take the role of provider/breadwinner. But at the same time, I found that over the next couple of years I started feeling like I was losing track of who exactly I was, aside from being “the one that works.” And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I resented my family for this, there were days when I couldn’t help but feel like I was sitting in the backseat of my own life, watching it pass by.

Basically speaking, I just plain wasn’t having much fun in my life, and I started getting bitter about it. This continued for a few years, without any particularly good results. While I was pretty much content with my home life most days, I found I was getting more and more cynical and pessimistic at work. My overall outlook was very negative, and my attitude was pretty dark and angry most of the time. Frankly, I think it was just a matter of time before it started really infecting my home life as well.

Once I started training, though, a lot of this negativity began to fall away. Having something so new, so different and challenging, but perhaps most importantly something that was completely about improving myself, about forcing myself to work and sweat for small advances, was incredibly freeing. I’ve always told people that one of the biggest surprise discoveries I found in training was just how incredibly relaxing training can be, because for the duration of class time everything is so damn simple. Get dressed. Get on the mat. Do what you’re told to the best of your ability. The 75-90 minutes or so I spent on the mat each time I trained rapidly became a time where I could really let the tension and stress and frustrations I felt at work, or sometimes even at home, fall aside. And I quickly found that after a little time on the mat my problems just didn’t seem so big anymore.

Training in Tang Soo Do has had a few very specific benefits for me as well, in meeting some challenges that came my way in my professional life the past 3 years. About two and a half years ago, after working at my company for almost 7 years, we were acquired by another large company who subsequently laid off my entire team a few months later. This was a bit of a harsh blow for me: I’d never lost a job before, certainly never been "let go" from one. In the months leading up to my last day at this job and in the 6-7 weeks of unemployment that followed, the dojang was immeasurably helpful in keeping my head on straight, in helping me to not let my anger and frustration get the better of me.

It wasn’t a great time, regardless, but I am certain that without Tang Soo Do things could have been far, far worse. There was a time, not long ago, that my reaction to being laid off would have consisted largely of a) lashing out at the people around me and b) drinking myself half-blind every night. Instead I just plugged away and tried to stay positive as best I could. In a fairly short time I managed to get work with many old friends I’d worked with at my last job.

While this solved a short-term crisis, it opened a new can of worms, as several of the folks I worked with had some fairly negative attitudes about me, based on my own negativity and anger from years before. At first this worried me, but then I realized I might be able to use this as an opportunity to prove I had grown and changed in the past few years of training, both to them and to myself. I’ve called this period of time my “Year of Bassai,” because much like Bassai is intended to help us break down our own egos, this period really required I just get over myself and accept that I had a lot of things to make up for, that I’d hurt some feelings and done some damage in my past. I took a long hard look at myself and I wasn't all that excited by what I saw. 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 realized 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 crap, apologize for being a difficult jerk to work with for a while there, and don't do it anymore. Grow up. Move on." And that's what I've tried to do, ever since taking on my new job. And it’s having some great effects – I’m doing more interesting work, and having more fun doing it, than I’ve done in years. My career has moved in some really interesting new directions. But perhaps most satisfying of all, friends that I know I’ve crossed in the past have told me, straight out, that I’m a changed man. That they can really, truly see the difference training has made in my life. If that’s not a good thing, I don’t know what is. I'm certain that without the humility I have realized through training the none of this would have happened.

Finally, training has also opened me up to new friendships in ways I'd forgotten I could be. Before I started training, it had been at least 12 years since I really felt like trying to really connect with a new friend, to really work on forging a lasting friendship with someone I knew. Not that I was a hermit or anything like that -- but I hadn't felt any desire to get close to someone else, or let anyone get particularly close to me, in more than a decade. The reasons are pretty mundane -- nothing terribly unique. Got screwed over by a number of folks I thought I had solid friendships with. It hurt like hell. I put up a bunch of walls and sort of decided that getting close to new folks just wasn’t worth the trouble anymore.

But not long after I began training -- perhaps as a result of my own growing self-confidence -- whatever resistance I put in place that kept me from wanting to make new, close friends started falling away. Since then I’ve made a number of very close friendships, most significantly the friendship I’ve established with Sa Bom Nim Hoke Nunan. Of the things that Tang Soo Do has brought to my life, my friendship with Master Nunan is the thing I value most. Besides being a fantastic teacher, Sa Bom Nim Nunan is a fantastic human being and a genuinely good person. I consider him one of my closest friends, and at 41 years of age I honestly thought I was incapable of making friendships this close again. This is a blessing indeed.

Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan has given me many, many gifts in the past few years. It's brought new friendships into my life, strengthened and deepened my relationship with my family, filled me with excitement and pride as I work to grow in the art, and given me new tools and skills with which I can better deal with the challenges of life outside the dojang. I never expected the profound changes that training in our art would bring to my life -- I entered the dojang thinking this would be little more than a challenging new kind of exercise, and almost 4 years later I honestly have trouble remembering what life was like before I began to train. I am so very grateful to my instructors and my seniors for their guidance, and to my friends and family for their support and for standing with me as I've begun this journey. I never realized how fortunate I am, how many good things there are around me, and in my life. The art has opened my eyes to these things, and so much more. I am the luckiest man I know.

That's what Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan means to me.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wear and Tear

I'm at 16 days and counting until my Cho Dan test, and it's driving me nuts.

Now, let me explain. I feel solid and well prepared. Aside from adding an extra coat of polish to my hyungs, ho sin sul, and il soo sik daryun, I don't feel there's much else I can do to prepare for this test. I think I'm solid. I think I'll probably make a mistake or two early on, in line drills, as I typically do. I'l mishear something in Korean, or will lose focus for a second or two and wind up executing an technique incorrectly or exceptionally sloppily. But then, having gotten that initial error out of the way, my nerves will settle down and I'll have a good test. That's how this stuff tends to go for me,

But the waiting is driving me nuts. I'm training like crazy, 5 or 6 days a week, not because I feel that I won't be ready if I don't train like mad but because I feel like if I don't keep busy and keep my mind off the test then it will never get here. Or I'll start freaking out, second guessing myself all over the place. Arrrgh!

Of course, the downside of all this training is I'm really kind of physically drained a lot of the time. I feel good, but my stamina while training is kinda lacking. I'm tending to run out of steam a bit too quickly, although I recover quickly as well. But my muscles, particularly my thigh muscles, are not exactly thrilled to be getting such a thorough working over so regularly. And my ankles and knees are considerably less pliable and more creaky than usual. As of next week I'm going to have to scale my training way back, just to ensure I don't go and injure myself while trying to distract myself. Which will undoubtedly have the wonderful side effect of making the last week running up to the test seem to last 3 or 4 months.

I say it again: Arrgh!

Of course, I should be able to distract myself with other things in the meantime, not the least of which is planning the post-Dan Test Party, which will be occurring at my house. I am currently obsessing about how many people, how much beer/wine/juice to acquire, how much food, when will the test end, when will the party begin, and what on Earth will it be like to have the Grandmaster of our organization in my house.

Now, Kwan Jhang Nim is a really nice guy, and I've met him on numerous occasions so I'm not worried about it in a realistic way -- it's really more just nervous energy manifesting as OCD by whatever means possible. No doubt this will continue for the next couple of weeks, without fail.

Good God, I'm a bundle of nerves, here. The 30th can't come soon enough!


Like most martial artists I know, I have several dobakhs that I train in. Part of this is simple necessity -- I work out often, I sweat a lot, so unless I want to do laundry pretty much every single night I need to have a few backups around just to keep from stinking up the joint. However, a lot of folks have what they consider their favorite uniform. For me it's my first "good uniform," a nice heavyweight cotton dobakh I bought when I hit 3rd gup (red belt).

The basic dobakhs we use are a polyester/cotton blend, which is sturdy, but which also doesn't breathe very well. As I said I tend to sweat a lot when I work out, and the polycotton uniforms stick to my skin once I've got a good head of steam going. Once they get sticky they tend to prevent air from circulating under the dobakh, and it gets pretty damn uncomfortable, pretty fast.

The cotton uniforms, on the other hand, tend to be a bit stiffer and to allow more airflow, while also wicking more sweat away from the skin. I still soak the things through, but my body feels way more comfortable throughout my workout. As an added bonus, the crisper fabric makes a much more satisfying "whoosh" and "pop" sound when executing fast techniques. All in all, a way more enjoyable experience while training.

So when I hit red belt -- in September 2007, nearly 19 months ago -- I ordered a really nice cotton uniform, got it trimmed in red by a local seamstress that used to train with us, and had the logo of our dojang embroidered on the back. And I've worn it every chance I had since then, typically at least 2-3 times per week, using my backup polycotton dobakhs in between sessions when the good one was in the wash.

And this, after nearly 2 years, is the result:
The wear and tear on my dobakh has been ... fascinating. The very high quality fabric trim, after several months of smaller tears and holes appearing along the edges, has begun disintegrating. I think the only reason it still looks even passably trimmed is the 5 lines of stitching that holds the scraps of remaining fabric in place.
The color of the embroidery thread on the back seems to have oxidized (perhaps due to using non-chlorine bleach), fading the red somewhat but especially changing the blue. It used to be a vibrant primary-color style blue, and is now a dark slate gray color...
I've worn small holes in portions of the pants and near the seams. I recently tore a gaping hole beneath one of the arms without realizing it while training in Haidong Gumdo (Korean sword) -- didn't notice the hole until a friend pointed it out while I was practicing a form a little while later. I've patched it back together each time, although there's really nothing I can do about the embroidery on the back.

But the worn trim has been something of a point of pride for me -- it didn't get that way by itself. There's a lot of hours of training in that dobakh, and that worn trim is the most visible evidence of this fact. I've had plenty of compliments from other folks who train who understand that all that wear and tear is the result of a lot of dedication and time spent on the mat.

I love my dobakh.

But I can't go to my Cho Dan test wearing a dobakh that looks like that. No matter how much pride I take in it, it would be wrong to get in front of Kwan Jhang Nim and the Texas Kodanja of our organization in something that is so clearly on its last legs. It's not the little stuff that's the problem -- the tears I can fix well enough, and the embroidery is not something that looks anything other than weathered and faded.

But that trim? I can't show up on test day with trim that looks like that. It would be disrespectful, and I'm sure that giving any sense of disrespect on test day would be a tactical error of fairly enormous magnitude which would probably result in an even more grueling test day for me.

So, my options are simple. I could, of course, simply retire this dobakh before the test, and instead wear one of my polycotton backup dobakhs. But frankly, this is supremely unappealing to me. Besides the discomfort factor, there's the simple fact that I have enormous sentimental attachment to my dobakh. I've spent a tremendous amount of time in that dobakh, and I want to wear it to the test. I'm attached to it. It represents my pride and my commitment to the art, the dedication and effort I've shown on the past 3.5 years. It's me.

Thus my only option: I need to get it re-trimmed by test day. That'll make it look spiffy enough that I don't look like a slob on test day. Unfortunately, it also erases some of the appeal of this dobakh for me -- the ragged quality. The nearly destroyed trim is the most clear and obvious evidence of my work, my time, and my sweat that I have. But the thought of not wearing this dobakh to my test is way worse than re-trimming is. And this way it'll look good for the next few weeks, and the following month or so until I am officially promoted and can wear my new midnight blue trimmed uniform.

But I'll miss that old red trim.

Mood: Happy, impatient
Now Playing: The Time, "Ice Cream Castle"