Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ivy, Disillusionment

This morning, while washing a few dishes left over from last night and getting my morning coffee together, I glanced up at the window above my kitchen sink and noted, with some dismay, just how poorly my two ivy plants are doing. A week or so ago my friend Pennie noticed that they were not doing so well (well, “they’re dying” were her exact words). I’ve been too busy and/or preoccupied since to address the problem.

The two plants have grown together over the past 7-8 months, their vines becoming hopelessly intertwined. Over the past month or so, the color in the leaves has gone from a vibrant green to a pale greenish-tan, the texture of the leaves becoming dry and papery, the vines themselves looking wooden and inflexible. I’m not yet sure what’s wrong, but my best guess is that the roots are rotting a bit, and the vines are dying as a result. Either that or they're choking each other out, but I think it's the roots. They’re mostly in shade throughout the day, and I may have been over-watering a bit the past couple of months.

So later tonight I’ve got to take 15 or 20 minutes to take them out back, prune off as much of the dead growth as possible, and get them into more direct sunlight to get the soil a little less sludgy and encourage them to grow. Before it’s too late.

These two ivy plants came into the house when my kids received their first holy Communions over the past few years. One each, one year apart, as a symbol of their faith. Of course, neither kid ever bothered to do much in the way of tending to their ivy plants, and Christine has something of a Black Thumb, so the task of keeping them going has fallen to me. There are folks who would find this a bit ironic, I’m sure. I’d say that’s because they can’t be bothered to look deeply enough, but whatever. I digress.

As a symbol, ivy=faith is a bit too “on the nose” for me: Tend your faith, and it will grow. Ignore it, and it will, over time, wither away. But while it may be a tad direct and obvious it’s also appropriate. Symbols are useful mostly because they give us a way to examine things that are ephemeral or difficult to grasp -- principles, concepts, emotions, abstractions -- by assigning aspects of these concepts to concrete, real-world objects or situations, and drawing parallels between the two. And lately I’ve encountered events in my life where the symbolism of ivy may be useful.

George Carlin said “Scratch a cynic, and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” This is something I’ve come to understand about myself over the past decade or so. Most people would describe me as a cynical person, someone with a somewhat mocking attitude about the world at large and institutions in general. A wise-ass. Nice, but edgy. But as was recently pointed out to me by a friend who I deeply respect, despite a sort of crunchy exterior I am both an idealist and an optimist, perhaps a bit too much of both for my own good. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt time and again, assuming best intentions for whatever action or lack of action they take.

I guess when it comes to people, you could say I subscribe to the Anne Frank perspective: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Of course, a lot of folks would say “Well, look how that turned out for her.” But regardless, that’s my take on the world. I really do think people in general try to do the right thing when they can. Or at least, I want to think that. The fact that it doesn’t work out that way so often leads to quite a bit of disappointment on my part. Disappointment in people in my life who claim to represent certain ideals, but who ignore those ideals when they’re not convenient. Disappointment in institutions that claim to uphold principles that I hold dear, but that make it clear that those principles are only of worth when they are useful.

And thus the cynicism. The snarky reaction of a wounded idealist.

I’ve lost a lot of faith in some people I placed a lot of trust and affection in over the last few weeks, and also -- as a result -- in an organization I hold in high esteem because it purports to uphold ideas and concepts that I hold dear and try to live by. And as an idealist, and an optimist, loss of faith in people and institutions I believe in is a very bitter pill to swallow. It takes a lot for me to stop giving the benefit of the doubt to people or institutions I care for, and once I’ve crossed that line it’s very difficult to get past.

I’ve been told I’m carrying a chip on my shoulder about this stuff, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it as carrying a weight, a burden. I really want to let it go, move on. It’s just that simply letting go is not that easy for me, and never has been. Not because I'm holding a grudge, but more because I have trouble giving up on the possibility of a better resolution. And when events get discussed again they can feel startlingly fresh with just a few words. I'm a passionate person, and I get stirred up easily. I need to let things lie still for a while before I can let them go. I need to know things are dead and finished before I can bury them. I don't close doors easily, nor burn bridges, not because I want a pound of flesh, but because I still hold out hope that what I feel can be made better.

I realize this is, in some ways, foolish, and that the most likely result in the long run is disappointment. More disappointment. But I can’t help myself. When I’ve wronged people around me my principles, my ideals, compel me to directly address those I’ve affected with my behavior, to try to soothe those I’ve impacted with my choices, to try to fix things. I foolishly expect that others I’ve invested with my trust and respect will do the same. More often than not I’m proven wrong in these expectations. But regardless, that’s how I approach the world. It’s not an easy path, but it’s the one I’m on. And I realize the only one I’m hurting with this is myself.

So, back to the ivy. Those plants are pretty much dead, so part of me just wants to chuck ‘em, maybe buy a hardier decorative plant that I won’t need to work at to keep healthy, or that I won’t need to tend to in order to restore to health. But I think their roots are still OK down there, somewhere, under the damage, and it’s worth the effort to try to fix things, to cut away the dead growth and encourage them to grow again, healthy and green.

The ivy grew for a few years, but apparently it didn’t grow in a healthy way. Maybe it grew on a foundation that couldn’t support it. Or perhaps it was tended incorrectly. Too much attention. Not enough. It’s dying. Maybe it would be easier to just say screw it. Rip out the roots. Destroy what’s left. Or I can prune it back. Try to protect the roots, give them a chance to grow again, grow in a better way this time around. Try to figure out what I did wrong last time, and learn. Maybe I’ll be disappointed. Maybe the damn thing will die anyhow.

But I guess it’s in my nature to just try anyhow.

Mood: Contemplative
Now Playing: Patty Griffin, "Flaming Red"

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Test: The Good Parts

Not long after writing my blog entry from yesterday I headed over to the dojang to watch my son and daughter in their class for a bit. Master Savidge, a good friend who surprised us by traveling down from Connecticut to sit on the Shim Sa for our Cho Dan test, had requested we make sure to bring our kids to the 5:00 class, as he wanted to compliment my daughter on her performance on the test. He taught them a terrific class, warm and encouraging, and finished up by holding boards for the kids who needed to retest their board breaking.

I helped him hold the boards. It was a good moment, and after some of the negative aspects of the test that I wrote about yesterday, this helped me to start seeing things in a more positive light. Despite the less satisfying (downright unacceptable, in my opinion) qualities of some aspects of the test, there were many great moments as well. My heart broke a bit Saturday afternoon, because I saw a side of the organization I'd never seen before. A tolerance for unnecessarily mean behavior by someone simply because of their rank. Someone using "upholding excellence" as an excuse for being a bully. I saw our art made small. But that wasn't the entire day, and that wasn't the entire experience. With a bit of distance, this has become easier to see.

It was a grueling day, no doubt. We started the day off with a 2 hour clinic with Kwan Jhang Nim, beginning at 10:00AM. Attendance was huge -- at least 55 people, maybe more. Happily, this was not an overly demanding clinic -- more or less the same clinic I've attended with Kwan Jhang Nim 2 or 3 times before, focusing on improving kicking techniques, with a pretty cool training portion that was designed to improve use of front leg side kicks in sparring. It served as a solid opportunity to warm up, and we Cho Dan candidates were able to preserve the majority of our energy for the test.

After the clinic we had a little less than 2 hours to burn before the test. This was when my nerves finally really settled in. About 30 minutes before the test I started kind of freaking out. I started thinking about all the things that could go wrong. About the horse stance punching in neh portion of the test, and how much I hate that. About the fact that my left thigh muscles felt strained and weaker than my right, and as a result my stances might not be as good as I prefer.

So yeah, basically I started to panic. My butterflies had butterflies.

We got to the test. It started a bit late -- about 2:20 or so. And after we bowed in we found out just how the test was going to be run. Because we had so many cho dan candidates testing (about 20, pretty evenly split between kids and adults) they chose to split the test into two groups -- one adult Cho Dan candidates, along with the older ee dan and sam dan candidates, and one kid's group. And the kids went first, which meant we got to sit ahn jo and wait.

And wait.

And wait some more.

They ran the kids through the entire firs half of their test -- line drills, jump kicks, forms, and endurance drills (the horse stance punching I mentioned earlier) while we sat. The kids had some issues (not the least of which was he browbeating they took a few times) but all in all they held it together and got through. I'd obviously have wished for a more positive experience for them, but on the other hand there's no doubt that they earned their ranks. Took about 1.5 hours, and then it was our turn.

For the adults, I'd say things went far more smoothly. The level of preparation was high, and was quite evident. Line drills passed without incident as I recall (frankly I kind of get zoned out when I test, and as a result I don't have particularly clear memories of the specifics of the day -- I kind of go into a bubble in my head and just focus and do). Jump kicking and forms both got done with a minimum of problems (we had to do Naihanchi Chodan twice -- actually they stopped us midway through the first time, which was fine with me, as I was sort of off in the weeds on it and would probably have screwed it up eventually if they hadn't stopped us).

And then there was horse stance punching. I LOATHED this part of the test, just like I loathed it on every gup test prior. It's pure misery, and it never goes smoothly. From a deep horse stance, we execute alternating side punches as rapidly as we can (the suggested minimum is 4 punches per second) for ... well, it depends. The test form says 30 seconds, but it always goes longer than that. I'm told we did a full minute on Saturday, but I don't know for certain. We also were stopped partway through our first attempt to correct a few of the students' technique. Of course, the clock is then reset, so it's just extra pain.

Ugh. Even thinking about it makes me sick. I managed to get through the whole thing, focusing as much as possible on just remembering to breathe. That's the trick -- if you don't remember to breathe in and out every few seconds you'll do fine for about 15-20 seconds but then your body starts getting oxygen starved, and suddenly ... your arms just won't go. The only choice is to stop punching for a second or two, gulp some air, and try to get started again. Obviously this would probably result in a "opportunity to retest" so of everything, this is the one thing I was going to get through no matter what. I never want to have to do this crap again! I finished up, slowing down somewhat by the end but not having to stop at all.

Everything from the base of my neck to the bottom of my hips hurts from that part of the test. I hate horse stance punching!

Anyway, then the adults got to sit down (more like collapse, really) and the kids got back up for the second phase of their test. At this point we'd been testing for around 3 hours already.

Next up was one steps, wrist grabs, and sparring. Kids first, meaning more sitting for the adults. Now, maybe sitting cross-legged is easy for kids, but my knees just can't handle it for very long. As it was, my legs went completely to sleep during an extended period of sitting during the clinic that morning. I'd managed to keep that from happening during the beginning of the test by infrequently switching which leg was crossed on top, and occasionally just uncrossing my legs to give my knees a break. Now, after line drills and jump kick drills and forms and endurance testing, my legs were getting seriously cranky. Cramping all over the place, aching like mad. I finally just had to give up keeping them crossed for more than 5 minutes at a time or so. The kids did all their stuff, and about an hour to an hour and a half later it was our turn again.

So, the one steps and wrist grabs portion of the test was sort of the big "question mark" portion from our point of view. This seems to be the portion of the test where the testing board likes to throw curve balls, testing to see just how well you've mastered your techniques. Random calls, having the candidates do techniques from the opposite side from typical, etc. Everything called in Korean or Chinese. Sometimes putting individual folks in the spotlight for a minute, calling one technique and having the candidate perform it with as little delay as possible. Things like that . A bit more pressure, more of a mental test of concentration and focus than a physically demanding chore.

Well, that was the case for us as well -- both the kids and the adults. Whereas often the testing board will call a specific technique in Chinese (just the number -- for ordinal counting we use Chinese) and then watch as all of the candidates perform it, they instead just had us roll through all of of one steps, much like we'd done on previous gup testings.

Once those were finished (for some reason I wasn't allowed to complete all of my one steps, despite not making any errors of which I was aware -- I wasn't failed on it, so I guess they just assumed we knew them well enough and allowed us to move on), we move onto randomly called wrist grab techniques. This was the most mentally stressful part of the test, with the proctor telling us which hand to grab, and then calling a number in Chinese that corresponded to a specific self defense technique. The candidate would then have to perform the technique correctly and hold the last movement until allowed to return to ready position. I'm especially proud to say that I made no serious errors on this part -- I was incredibly nervous at this point, convinced I was going to freeze up and blank out. But I managed to stay focused and did the correct techniques throughout.

What was funny for me at this point in the test was just how tiny the world seemed to have gotten. I was hardly aware of anything else outside of myself and my partner. I'm trying to remember what else was going on in the test at this point -- how well my friends were doing, how the audience was reacting to what they saw, etc., but it's all kind of a blank/blur. I think that was part of why I was able to plow through the self defense despite being so nervous -- I just sort of blanked out everything else so that I could concentrate despite the stress. This was an interesting experience -- I honestly didn't think I could do that. So, huh.

Sparring was just basic test sparring -- light/no contact, mostly a game of tag between partners, with each of us taking opportunities to show some techniques and have a bit of fun. Two rounds, and then done. After that the Ee and Sahm Dan candidates had to do 2- and 3-on-1 sparring, so I volunteered to help chase a couple of them around the mat for a few rounds. More sweat, more aches.

Then, Q&A with the testing board. At this point we'd been on the mat for 6 hours. The Q&A was ... not overwhelming, in my opinion. Fairly rude criticism from the Sa Bom I mentioned yesterday, without any positive feedback or guidance of any sort that I can recall. Some terminology quizzing (I was completely skipped over, there -- kind of annoying, as I knew the answer to every single question that was asked and yet still got rolled into the group when it came to being criticized for not knowing the answers) some additional feedback and probing questions from another Sa Bom and Kwan Jhang Nim.

So after about 30 minutes of that, it was time to try to break, and then wrap things up. Breaking was essentially a non-starter for the vast majority of Cho Dan candidates, myself included. Primarily due to fatigue (although I still say that the boards had a role in it -- damn, those things seemed way harder than normal) only one of the Cho Dan candidates managed to break their boards, triggering a retest pretty much across the board. For my part, while I could generate plenty of power, I just couldn't seem to get the snap at the end of the kick that would pop through the boards. The Ee Dan and Sahm Dan candidates had mixed results as well. Bad board mojo all around.

And well, that was it. We started at about 2, and about 6.5 hours later we were done. It was a long, long day.

And it just kept going from there, because I'd volunteered to have the post-test celebration at my house. So after a few pictures with the classing participants we blew out of the dojang, ran home, and started putting out food and drink for our guests. Within an hour we had about 40 people in our home, including the majority of the Shim Sa (and Kwan Jhang Nim as well) and many of the testing candidates and their families. Cool time for all, with a bunch of the pictures from the test being shown on my kitchen computer and lots of post-test discussion and goofing around going on. Once things thinned out a bit (around 11 we were down to about 18-20 folks altogether) it was time to break out Rock Band and just goof around for a while. Then, finally, at about 1:15 the last guests left.

And of course I still couldn't sleep. My brain was still on overdrive, so I wound up goofing around on Facebook until past 2:00. And woke up at 7:00 the next morning in a fairly prodigious amount of pain. Everything hurt. EVERYTHING. Arms, legs, upper back, lower back, knees, ankles, wrists, neck, abs, sides, top of my head and bottom of my feet. Arrrgh. That describes pretty much all of Sunday and Monday.

Anyway, I hit the dojang last night and did my retest. Happy to say that whatever was messing me up on test day was long gone, and with a single kick I finished my test. One jump back kick, three boards, no problem. The holders said that they barely even felt the impact as the kick was placed dead center and the boards just sort of exploded. SWEET. And with that, I was done. I've already begun to learn some Cho Dan level material. Won't be wearing my new belt or blue trimmed uniform until our official promotion ceremony (looks to occur sometime in August) but that's fine. I know what I am. I know what I did.

So all in all, it was a remarkable experience. I'm incredibly proud to have tested with both my daughter and my mother, although odd as it may sound I was only able to "enjoy" being on the test with them in an abstract sense. I got so focused and stressed out during the exam that I was only tangentially able to observe their performance -- especially my mom. As I was on the mat at the same time as her, I was only vaguely aware of what she was doing at any point in time. But they both did beautifully, earning the right to wear their blue belt with energy, spirit, and discipline.

I'm glad to have gotten through the negative aspects of the test. I was very depressed about it for two days, but I think that by doing my break I was finally able to allow the test to be finished. And now I can finally just ... train. I don't have to worry about another test for at least a couple of years. Not that those years won't fly by, I'm sure, and there's certainly plenty to learn before then. But I'm gong to enjoy training just for the sake of learning for the first time in ... well, in my time as a martial artist. Up to now everything has been about the next test, the next test, the next test. Now I can just learn for awhile.

And Amen to that.

Mood: Satisfied
Now Playing: Nothing.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Test

So, the test.


This is a complicated topic. Unexpectedly so.

Well, first things first. I did very, very well. I have to do a retest on board breaking -- there was seriously bad board breaking karma in the room, and all but one of the Cho Dan candidates was unable to break on test day. I think it was a combination of crappy wood, fatigued testing candidates, and tired board holders. No matter -- board breaking is hardly a core principal in our art, nor is it something that typically presents much of a challenge for me. A 3 board jump back kick is a tough break, but I've done it easily in the past, and I'm not worried about being able to do it again. Will probably do so tonight, and that will be that. I am very proud of my performance.

Miranda did beautifully. Line drills were solid, and her jump spin kick drills were out of this world -- she was getting unbelievable air (see below). Unfortunately she froze up a bit on Naihanji Chodan and will have to retest on it -- it took her three tries before she was able to get through it, so retesting is appropriate. She was quite crestfallen after that, and had a bit of trouble getting herself back on track, but ultimately she was able to demonstrate all of her techniques well. Like me, she was unable to do her break, so she'll be retesting on that as well. I'm not concerned -- she did beautifully, and I am insanely proud of her.
And my mother did beautifully too. No serious errors of which I am aware (although honestly I couldn't really watch her, as I was sort of busy at the time...). She also will have to retest on board breaking, but that's it. In fact, as a group I am extremely pleased with everyone I tested with. I've seen far worse Dan tests in my time, and I've seen better. There were some bumps, but all in all the group showed tremendous spirit and accomplished what they set out to do.

So yeah, barring anything unexpected, we will all be promoted to cho dan shortly.

So, I should be overjoyed, right? All the work and dedication and sweat and tears paid off. But I'm not. I'm ... conflicted. Because what should have been a day of joyous energy and excitement turned out to be ... well, simply put, it was not a good experience.

In fact, parts of it were downright shitty.

Basically, we had a Sa Bom on the board -- no names here, but this was someone I would have until recently considered a casual friend -- who arrived for our test with what would appear to be no other goal than to fail everyone. EVERYONE. And to humiliate and browbeat the candidates. Yes, this included the kids. And if you think this behavior had a negative effect on the ability of the candidates -- of the kids in particular -- to test well, of course you'd be right.

I'm still a bit too close to this to accurately and adequately convey the testing experience I had. I'm still processing, trying to separate my own experience from the rather profoundly negative feelings I've developed after leaving the dojang and having a chance to think long and hard about the attitude of this Sa Bom and having spoken with so many other parents that witnessed his utterly shameful behavior.

I continue to be dumbfounded by his arrogance, his almost comical lack of humility, and his absurd dedication to demanding excellence to avoid "watering down" the techniques of our art while simultaneously showing a complete and utter disregard for or ignorance of the principals that are supposed to be the underpinnings of our art. But mostly I'm disgusted, and disappointed, at how one person could so thoroughly poison what should have been a truly great day in my training, in my daughters training, in the lives of our family and friends.

I also wonder just how much damage was done to our students by this man. If there was a single moment in the test that was encouraging and motivating, I honestly can't recall it. Kids are resilient, so perhaps this won't stick, perhaps they weren't demoralized by this idiocy. I hope not.

So, what to do? Well, letters will be written to our leadership, at the least. My wife and I have already drafted a letter that we will be sending shortly. I can't even consider staying quiet on this. I'm a fixer by nature, and I can't just sit idly by and assume that this will go away and get better somehow. Beyond that, I don't know. I'd say that a number of friendships have now been permanently severed, certainly on my part, as a result of this.

While I may have done very well on my exam, I take the behavior exhibited by this Sa Bom as a personal attack on me and my family -- my WHOLE family. All of my friends. Their children. My dojang family. And frankly, anyone who tries to dismiss or in any way excuse his behavior can consider themselves excused from my life.

So, that's what I've got for now. I'm sorry if it's not the rousing test experience story you were hoping for -- Lord knows it's not the one I wanted to tell.

But it's the only one I've got.

Mood: Bitter.
Now Playing: Nothing.