blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
In just about six weeks, Sirens will begin in Denver. This year's theme is Lovers... so of course I proposed a fight-related workshop.

(Hey, I wasn't the only one! Amy Boggs is presenting "Love is a Battlefield: Weapons and Methods for When Love Goes Wrong.")

The workshop I'll be presenting is "The Movement You Don't See." We'll be discussing and using pieces of kata to explore and understand things like power generation, grounding, and the like. It won't be about "pretty" kata, but its practical applications. And though movement will be a part of it, intensity will be low. I want participants to understand and be cognitive of the internal experience of fighting stances, strikes, and the like. Once we add the adrenaline of intensity, those thoughts are processed differently. If there's time, I'd love to go over some of the "hidden" pieces of kata and its grappling implications.

Here's an added cool thing: Anyone can sponsor a Sirens workshop or panel for only $35. Alas, it's too late for sponsors to be listed in the program, but if you sponsor "The Movement You Don't See," I'll make a grand sign indicating your sponsorship--your name, or "in memory of," or, "in the name of," or "prefers anonymity." Heck, I'll make the sign no matter who you sponsor!

So if you've the inclination, head over to the Sirens page on sponsorships and support, and check out the listing of Accepted Programming. $35 is all it takes!

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blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

In the comments to Making the Nice-Guy Challenge a Safe One, [ profile] mrissa and [ profile] scallywag195 both shared questions and perspectives I wanted to answer in more detail. That "more detail" ended up being much longer than I thought... but here it is!

Questions from [ profile] mrissa first:

My question is twofold:

1) In what context would his actions have been reasonable in a class/mat setting? In what context is "respond as though someone who is not in pads etc. is the actual attacker" the correct scenario? If this was a mismatch of reasonable expectations, I am having a hard time seeing where his expectation was reasonable.

The short answer is, "When Sensei says so."
Read more... )

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Topic the First:

4th Street was a great experience this year--a great and glorious disproving of my usual silly pre-con anxiety of "This time no one will acknowledge my existence." For me, the most wonderful parts are between and/or triggered by the scheduled events. It's the conversations about why some authors successfully cross genre lines, examining creeping biases, opening publishing opportunities, determining themes, working with and as a beta reader, and and and... Truly, I LOVE those free-ranging conversations. I love even more that I can share them with folks who equally love them.

Part of me would be just fine with a con that had a mere three conversation-launching panels a day, and that's the fault of fascinating people who are willing to share their thoughts and experience outside the panels.

As always, there is never enough time to talk at length with every person I'd like to. That's the downside to knowing a small handful of really cool people; they keep introducing you to other cool people! And though I did make an effort to be more deliberate in spending time with a variety of folks this year, I missed a couple folks I deeply wanted to chat with. (I'm looking at you, John Wiswell!) Alas, I think this is an unfixable thing for me, for even if the con were a day or two longer, I tend to hit the Wall of Introvert Overload at around 72 hours. I simply lose the ability to be intelligently sociable with more than one person at a time at that point.

Topic the Second:

Sirens Conference! My afternoon class proposal was accepted!

I'll be presenting The Movement You Don't See. The (still unofficial) description is:

Fight scenes require more than cool choreography, but not everyone has years to invest in fight-training before writing their epic adventure! Here's your chance to learn lesser-known physical details of fighting through the practices of kata--the martial arts training tool of choreographed techniques.

In this movement-filled workshop, you'll discover the internal landscape of a fighter--the grounding, power generation, body awareness, and exertion your fighting characters experience in action. Whether writing a training montage, or an experienced fighter's battle, having the "insider" experience will add depth and realism.

Physical activity is included, but not required. Observers and listeners are welcome.

Yes, it's exciting to present at Sirens, but it's also exciting to share why kata is such an effective training tool for mind-body awareness and self-defense. (Check out The Purpose of Kata for a preview on that.) It's the little things that matter, and I'm so looking forward to passing a few of those things along. How a pelvic tilt affects the strength of a block, how the angle of the back foot affects the strength of a strike, how the lift of the shoulder affects stamina... All these things and more.

Honestly, I wish I could get a two-hour block of time. :)

Topic the Third:

I'm in the process of putting reader feedback together with writerly goals to determine my upcoming project schedule. For me, determining a schedule that is both satisfying and realistic (and it's the latter I fail at, alas) required breaking down the projects by wordcount. The process revealed I've an estimated 1,135,000 words to write if I want to complete everything on my list.

This is exciting and comforting! Truly, I could fail to generate a new idea for about three years before running out of material. I'm set for the near future. :)

Topic the Last:

That hip dysplasia thing.

Remember when I fell down the stairs a couple months ago? Yeah. Well, I just assumed it happened because my left knee and ankle have always been weaker and more prone to injury. Come to find out that is true... but the reason it's true matters. When the left hip suffers from inflammation, it puts pressure on the nerve running down the front of my thigh, and the nerve doesn't then function properly, which causes the left leg to collapse. It's like trying to do push-ups with one arm having "fallen asleep."

The fact the nerve pressure isn't causing pain is actually a bad thing, in my opinion. If I felt pain, I'd know to take it easy. Instead, my "warning" that something is wrong usually comes in the form of the leg collapsing. That fall down the stairs isn't the first time it has happened, but it was the first in a series. Even now, as I'm sitting in a restaurant to write this, the front of my left thigh is getting that "falling asleep" sensation because I've sat in one position too long.

But here is the COOL thing. [ profile] mrissa introduced me to a physician who also has a martial arts background, and who understood in a heartbeat my internal crumbling over this whole thing.* I'm still not at all ready to roll into surgery (not only for personal reasons, but financial and logistical ones), but her quiet words and empathy carefully tunneled through a wall others have beaten upon for quite some time.

She's one of those folks I wish I would have had more and more and more time with, truly. Medical stuff aside, she's a cool person.

So there's the lesson I can pass along today: One way to get someone to do something they don't want to do is to understand fully and deeply why they don't want to do it, and share that understanding without judgment.

There is no Topic the Fourth. I'll see what I can come with another time. :)

*Yes, I hid out to cry after our conversation. Truly, if you ever want to see my cry, don't try to insult or hurt me. Be nice and kind and empathetic. Does the trick every time.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

It is easy — terribly easy —to shake a man’s faith in himself.

To take advantage of that to break a man’s spirit is the devil’s work.

–George Bernard Shaw

Train or talk about martial arts and self-defense long enough, and someone will invariably want to test you.  It’s usually annoying or amusing to varying degrees, depending on the person’s attitude, but it can sometimes be frightening.

I’ll talk about that frightening aspect next month.  This time, I want to talk about a specific sort of challenge most often laid down before the new student whose combination of budding knowledge and excited inexperience makes them vulnerable to emotional undermining.

It happens early on in training, usually in the first month or two.  A student who has been doing well walks into class with a little less confidence.    A little less enthusiasm.  Why?

“Sensei, my boyfriend wanted to see me do that wrist escape we learned last week, and it didn’t work!”

This sensei hates when this happens.  The disappointment and self-doubt in a student is painful to see, and even more painful for the student to feel.  All the student’s excitement over learning something new—the poise of gained confidence in one’s ability—broken down in a few minutes by someone who professes to care.

I hate it.  I hate with vim and passion.

It isn’t always a boyfriend.  It might be a husband, father, mother, sibling, or school classmate.  But no matter the role, the person sees themselves holding the same position: a superior whose station must be reinforced, and whose station is threatened by the student’s sense of consent-based self-determination.

Oh, sure, some of those folks will claim the most-est and best-est of intentions.

  • “I don’t want you to have a false sense of security.”

  • “You need to know you can’t always win.”

  • “I just want to be realistic.”

And sometimes the comments are more direct and honest.

  • “I told you that karate stuff wouldn’t work.”

  • “Don’t start thinking you’re all that special.”

  • “You’re pretty stupid, thinking you can beat me.”

But no matter the spoken reason, the underlying motivation is almost always the same:

  • “To prove myself stronger and smarter, I must prove you are weak, incapable, and less worthy.”

Yes, I hate it.


Teaching self-defense as a years-long curriculum accessible to students of diverse ages and abilities requires deliberation and forethought on a different scale than a weekend empowerment workshop.  (Not better or lesser, mind you.  Just different.)  So one of the first things I teach students under the “self-defense” topic is a collection of basic hold escapes—what to do if someone grabs your wrist, elbow, shoulder, or shirt front.

The simple techniques teach a skill, certainly, but also the rules and expectations of working with a partner.  Students also learn the principles of leverage and torque, grounding and balance, general body awareness, and the connection between the decision to take action and the resulting consequences.

Hold escapes are a very big deal.

I and my more senior students are always the students’ first partners.  Once the basic maneuvers of a escape are taught sans contact, we start grabbing students. We start off with the tight grip and quick release meant to build competence and confidence.  The better the students’ technique, the more difficult we make it to escape, and we adjust it for each student.  The goal is to encourage, and require, progressive improvement.

We set and enforce standards, and most importantly, tell students to not only respect their boundaries, but to enforce their boundaries with calm skill.

It’s called “teaching.”

Then comes the moment the student, excited and confident, goes home to a person who isn’t all that excited, let alone passing supportive of the student’s martial arts training.  That person listens to the student talk about the cool wrist escape she learned just an hour or so ago.  And that person sees the opportunity to prove their own superior strength.

So that person offers to be a “partner,” and grabs the student’s wrist with as much force as possible (and usually with a grip or angle the particular wrist escape isn’t designed to counter).  The student struggles.  The student, who has known the technique for all of a couple hours, and practiced the technique a couple dozen times at the most, fails to break the full-power, all-strength hold of their supposedly supportive partner.

That “partner” happily reinforces the student’s sense of failure and weakness.

The student feels like a failure.

The other person feels fantastic, having confirmed their superiority.

I.  Hate. This.

Truly, the person who feels the need to subjugate a person they supposedly love and care for is, in my eyes, the weak and frightened one.  It’s the person who’d mock a teenager for learning the difference between the gas and brake pedal before speeding onto an ice-covered highway.  It’s the person who thinks it’s funny to drop someone into a warzone before they’ve learned how to load a rifle.  It’s the jerk who believes proof of strength lies in how well they can beat up someone in handcuffs.

It’s punching down.

It’s weakness.

It’s pathetic.

So… after a year or so of teaching, and seeing this drama play out over and over, I made a couple alterations to the lessons.

Yes, I still teach hold escapes.  Yes, I teach them with the same limitations.

Then I tell the students the truth:  “Someone is going to test you.  Someone will want to see if you can really, truly, escape.  And someone will want to prove you can’t do anything at all.  If you try the hold escape, and it doesn’t work, it isn’t because you failed.  It’s because the person holding you thinks they have to beat you.  And that person thinks your fear of hurting them is greater than your fear of being hurt by them.”

Really, that’s the truth of it.  I’ve seen it in the smirks and eyerolls these “supportive” partners give when the student explains to me the hold escape didn’t work.

The Snarky Partner depends on your passivity.  She wants you to hesitate.  He wants you to be afraid of trying.  She wants you to let a loud-mouthed person prove his superiority. He wants to demonstrate his strength is really oh-wow cool.  She wants to make certain you doubt your strength and courage.  He wants to demonstrate how unworthy and incapable you are of determining consent.  The Snarky Partner wants, above all else, to undermine a person’s confidence in self-direction, self-defense, self-determination.

And it doesn’t matter if the Snarky Partner doesn’t actually, deep-down wish you harm.  Because all those things the Snarky Partner wants to prove are the same the attacker wants you to believe: you’re weak, you’re unsure, you’re not worth your own fight.


It isn’t unusual for the Snarky Partner to be the one who accompanies the student to the dojo.  In my experience, the Snarky Partner sometimes goes to great lengths to ensure they’re in attendance because they want to watch the class—to see what the students are taught, how the students are taught, and to find out “tricks” that can be used to encourage a student’s failure.

Whenever possible, I hold my Snarky Partner speech right in front of the watching family and friends.  (Once, I even took the empty center seat in the front row of the observation area because one parent had, week after week, demonstrated his inability to understand by yanking his small son around and laughing at him.) I’ll talk specifically and thoroughly about the Snarky Partner, how to counter that person, and—most importantly—how to either dismiss them as irrelevant or use them as a self-teaching opportunity.

That’s usually enough to end the home-based Snarkers.

But out in real life, where it’s possible you’ll encounter a person who needs to bolster their own ego at another’s expense, chit-chats from Sensei don’t much work.

If my students are children, I must tread a bit carefully for numerous reasons.   They might have abusive parents I haven’t yet sussed out (and I’ve sussed out more than a handful, my darlings), so I must keep in mind the consequences a child might face if they resist a parent.  They might face a challenge at school, where defending one’s self against physical attacks is considered horrifyingly dangerous and grounds for suspension or expulsion.  They might lack the support of a backbone-empowered adult (like the father who let his son be beaten up, day after day and year after year, because he was afraid they’d be sued if his son fought back).

So I tell them this:  “Karate is something to be proud of, but not something to brag about.  If you tell people you know karate, some bad person will try to prove you don’t.  It’s better if you keep your knowledge here, at the dojo, and don’t try to show off to others.  But if you are ever afraid, and if you ever have questions, you come talk to me, and I promise to keep what you tell me safe.  And if you have to use your karate to really, truly defend yourself, I will back you up.  Just remember that the longer you’re here, the more you’ll learn, and every person who is a sensei wants to help you because we were all white belts, too.”

If my students are all adults, I tell them something with a bit more… oomph.

I tell them about Snarky Partners and their usual motives.  As you might guess, I almost always have at least one adult student who’d like to explain why a Snarky Partner doesn’t really mean to be snarky.

“Could they see you were upset?” I ask.

“Well, yes.  But it was just a joke!”

“Were you laughing?”

“Well… no…”

“Then smack ’em upside the head to make them stop!”

There is often some awkward laughter at this point—mostly over the idea of inflicting a small amount of physical discomfort on someone.

So I add this: “The Snarky Partner is hurting you and shaming you.  There is nothing morally wrong with making them stop.  And if that person thinks it’s all right when they hurt you, and not all right when you stop them, you need to think about what that means to you and your children.”

Yes, I do indeed say that—flat out, without mumble-speak censoring.

Because it is true.   Because I hate seeing folks who ought to be supported and encouraged have to instead explain away the overbearing snickering of someone who is being mean.

Some Snarky Partners really don’t understand what they’re doing to their partner/child/spouse.  They do indeed think dragging a weaker person around is just plain funny.  And a subset of these folks take well to being told and will change their behavior.  I’ve even had a boyfriend approach me to ask the best way to help!

Those are the easy ones.  The tough cases require a bit more of a direct approach.  So I go on to explain one of the foundational concepts of successful self-defense: you don’t have to make an attacker let go.  You can instead motivate them to let go.

Ram the heel of your hand—the hand they’re not holding—right between their eyebrows or under their chin.  Or grind your knuckles into the back of the hand holding you.  Or set your foot on the side of their knee and say you’ll kick if they don’t let go.  Or just give them an open hand slap across the mouth.   Yank on an ear.  Poke them in the armpit.  Spit.

No, the Snarky Partner will not be expecting any of those things.

They might try to tell you that as a way of excusing the fact they let go, to make you feel bad for making them stop their bad behavior.  They might even fall back on, “That’s not fair!”

Which…  Oh, ye gads.

Really, my darlings, I cannot even force myself to write about that piece of ridiculousness.

Y’see, self-defense isn’t about being stronger and tougher than an attacker, or even working some clever technique against an attacker.  It’s about doing what the attacker doesn’t expect and gaining the few precious seconds you need to escape.  But most importantly, it’s knowing—deep down and without a doubt—that you are worth defending.  That you’re worth your own defending, and you don’t need someone else to defend you in order to understand your own value.

The Snarky Partner doesn’t like that much.

They can go on not liking it for as long as they wish.

You don’t have to go on with them.

This article originally appeared for patrons only at Patreon.  Because they’re wonderful patrons, they support making the articles on self-defense and fight scenes available to everyone within a month of the original posting.  So if you find it valuable and helpful, thank the patrons, and consider becoming one yourself!


blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
This article originally appeared for patrons only at Patreon.  Because they’re wonderful patrons, they support making the articles on self-defense and fight scenes available to everyone within a month of the original posting.  So if you like it, thank the patrons, or consider becoming one yourself!

Before I hit the tactics, I want to share this most marvelous video by Karate Culture on the grappling techniques within traditional Okinawan kata.  If you’ve read my articles for awhile, you’ll know I’m not a fan of teaching throws as a universal self-defense technique because their application is limited mostly to people who are quite able-bodied, well-trained, and being targeted by a single attacker.  That doesn’t mean I don’t like, train, teach, and use grappling!  Just check out the awesomeness of that video.  You won’t regret it.

And now…

1. Applying good craft to writing fight scenes is 95% of the battle.

Grammar is about writing well and properly—a necessary skill if we want readers to sink into our stories rather than decipher odd and misleading sentence constructions.

But storytelling?  That’s the craft I’m talking about.

You understand how to structure a scene, describe a new setting, and define a character’s role in the secondary world you’ve created.  You know how to portray a character’s stroll through the prison yard or verbal argument in the mess hall.  You’ve shown the joy they feel partaking in gardening, the intrigue of hunting for secrets in a library, the fear of creeping through a forest on a moonless night, the simple process of walking from personal lodgings to, say, the riverfront.

You successfully write action as part of building plot and character.

Fight scenes are no different.  Really, truly, my darlings, they are no different.

The fight scene isn’t something separate from the story itself, no more than describing setting or revealing backstory or creating the dialog of an argument is a break from forward action.  Apply the same tools of craft you use everywhere else.

2. Communicating combat principles is more important than relaying combat details.

I’m certain someone will ping me for saying so, but it’s true.

The make and model and emissions output and towing capability and average heat generation and speaker alignment are the most important elements of a car chase, right?  Or maybe it’s the composition of the road’s asphalt, angles of the corners, temperature of the tires, and the history of road construction that readers most want to know about while the bad guy speeds away, yes?

Oh, please, no.  While all those things will impact a car chase, rare is the reader who wants to have all those elements related in detail in the midst of a car chase as if they must soon solve a word problem based on the available listed data.

Do you want me to tell you how the materials of the tires interact with the hot pavement on that Texas road?  Or do you want me to describe how the stink of burned rubber and smoke made me grit my teeth and squint as I chased after the murderer who knew the Texas backroads better than I ever would?

Don’t get mired in step-by-step instructionals on body positions and fist trajectory. Use instead the principles of fighting.  Speed, mass, leverage, and momentum.  Pain, focus, struggle, and fear.  Expectation and surprise.  Determination and exhaustion.  Landing the punch is damned important, but the consequence of the punch and the reason it was thrown is what moves character and story forward.

Besides, a reader shouldn’t need to pull out a slew of action figures to envision what’s actually happening.  (On the other hand, you might need those action figures, depending on the complexity of the fight.  I’m not ashamed to say I’ve staged stuffed animals on my office floor to keep track of things.  A little sheepish, maybe, but not ashamed.)

3. Do not mistake sport fighting and performance fighting for actual fighting.

The past few decades have seen an incredible rise in tournament martial arts, particularly for children.  As a result, a great many martial arts schools teach primarily techniques with an emphasis on strikes and kicks that will score points, and discourage, through penalties and punishments, techniques intended to end a fight quickly by seriously injuring your opponent.

These rules are appropriate for the setting.  Few parents want to see their middle school child get her throat smashed in and her knee dislocated.  But the rules have consequences when the distinction between sport-centered training and fight-centered training is smudged over student-teacher generations.  In a high-pressure hurt-or-be-hurt confrontation, those students won’t go for the fight-ending attacks unless they have been trained to fight in non-tournament settings.

There is also an entire tournament track for martial arts weapons performance, some of which involve setting routines to music.  There are staffs and swords twirled and tossed, or nunchaku whirled in tight circles around the body, and there are often jump-kicks and back-flips thrown in for flash and dash.  These have as much to do with the act of fighting as rifle drill teams do with shooting, or majorettes do with stick-fighting.

Yes, they all take skill and have roots in combat training, but no soldier is going to start twirling and tossing his gun in the middle of a fight.  And critical and high-stakes fight scenes shouldn’t read like a retelling of a tournament.

When characters fight to prove ability or dominance, sparring techniques and targets are appropriate, just as it’s considered appropriate to punch a person playing grab-ass without consent but not considered appropriate to carve remove the person’s windpipe.

But a trained fighter trying to avoid being killed won’t expend a bunch of time tagging the villain’s jaw and punching to the gut.  Knuckles to the throat work much more quickly.  Fight scenes shouldn’t be one-blow affairs, but a person fighting for life itself is highly motivated to keep trying to make it so.

Indiana Jones opted out of using his whip to defeat the sword-spinning man in the marketplace.  And Han shot first.  Smart characters.

4.  The most interesting fights focus on revealing weaknesses, not forcing greater strength.

I never much liked watching sport fighting.  It all looked like little more than two people bashing on each other until one just couldn’t take it anymore.  Then I learned what went into a fight—angles, footwork, targeting, drills done so often the body moved without hesitation, experience that turned those base reactions into flowing responses—and realized brute strength was the lesser power in comparison.

Such it is with writing the fight scene.

We like to watch the protagonist find the strength—of body, of will, of heart—to drag herself to her feet one… last… time… to take down the villain with a final, all-encompassing blow.  We cheer the grit, the perseverance, the determination, the spirit of well-earned triumph.  The final battle!  The climax!  The victory over self and enemy!

But the truth is, the protagonist wins because she also finds, attacks, and exploits the villain’s weakness—just as the villain has done to her all along.  Rather than expend all your writerly energy building up the protagonist to impossible levels of power and strength, invest it knowing too the villain’s weaknesses.

What the characters choose to do with each others’ weaknesses usually creates greater depth than forging a bigger, badder weapon.

A battle of power against power requires constant escalation, and that stops being interesting after awhile.  Searching out and evaluating weaknesses is a twisty, curvy process of surprises and unpredictability.  It happens quickly in hand-to-hand combat, to be sure, but it happens nonetheless.

(This is applicable to plots, too, btw.)

5.  Know the expectations of your target audience.

This is where all the possible nuances of advice items #2 and #3 come into play.

Readers of different subgenres hold unique expectations of how worldbuilding or technology or character emotions should be presented, explored, and emphasized.  The same goes for rendering fights and action.  It isn’t a matter of one subgenre wanting more or less of a fight than another. Rather, readers expect different aspects of a fight to play greater or lesser roles in the narrative.

A paranormal romance reader wants a fight scene that is just as well written as a military SF reader does, but wants different pieces of that fight to receive more attention.

The differences expose why one reader bounces off a flashy, drawn-out fight scene that other readers rave about, or finds depth and realism in a fight scene that seems to have little physical description amidst a great deal of emotional reactions.  And that understanding circles back up to the first point: fight scenes require the same considerations of craft as any other part of the writing process.  Know what your readers expect from your action scenes, and construct them accordingly.

Questions?  Comments?  Disagreements?  All are welcome!

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
The marvelous Tam MacNeil (Go check out her books! She’s awesome!) brought up on Twitter the advantages of freelancing—namely, making your own schedule to make best use of one’s most creative hours. (She brought up the downsides, too, but let’s not speak of those right now…)

(My, I’m feeling parenthetical today.)

My own most creative hours have almost always been in the evenings. Truly, I blame twenty years of theater for training my brain from childhood to work in the make-believe world of rehearsals and performances more nights than not. Heck, when I started writing in earnest, I even kept a notebook backstage so I could write between stage-time.

After theater came karate.  When I started training, then teaching, karate way back when, it cut into my writing time a few times a week, but I adapted. When my teaching went fulltime… Ouch. I mean, I adapted somewhat by using afternoon hours, but it always felt as if I was really rolling just about the time I had to stop writing to put on a gi and head out to the dojo.

Writing after teaching wasn’t very productive. Really, teaching well and with energy is a creative process in itself, and I don’t deny there’s performance art involved in keeping the attention of dozens of students over the course of the evening. Four hours on the mat, teaching the way I do, didn’t always leave much energy for writing.

So now I’ve been in Colorado about five months, not teaching at all. This is so weird and disturbing to my internal clock and creative brain. Between five and six o’clock, I start fidgeting, pacing, cleaning the kitchen, running kata while I wait for clothes to come out of the dryer, thinking I might want to paint all the walls and install a drop ceiling in the basement… You get the idea.

Just as theater trained me to be creative during certain hours (and to preferring late nights over early mornings), teaching karate taught my body to spend the evening in physical action.

These two trained behaviors are now in conflict, you see. I cannot write well while punching a heavy bag. Alas.

Of course, the brain can be retrained, and it’ll take time. I’m still holding out hope I can find a place to train in the next couple months, but that’ll be only two or three nights a week. The other nights will require work. My current workaround is to leave the house around “teaching time” a couple nights a week, giving in to my body’s need to go somewhere for work, and spend time in the local coffee shop or pub. Doing this ups my productivity immensely, but costs money. The coffee shop gift cards I received for my birthday do help. Alas, I have no pub gift card, so must keep that an occasional treat. :)

(No, the library is not an option. It’s a traffic-filled drive to find a branch open past 6pm.)

So that’s what I’m able to do: trick my body into believing we’re leaving for work so the brain will hit the proper writerly space. I’m rather curious what it would take to change forty years of “nights are for creativity” habits, but not so curious as to struggle to write in the early morning… unless that becomes the sole option at some future date.

(Sends out please-no-not-that vibes.)

I blame theater in general, and working with Shakespeare’s works in particular, for many things in my writing—the black box, the starting place of dialog, the focus on character, my penchant for tragic death, and my love for the wise and noble fool. Now I blame it for when my writerly brain is most willing to cooperate with me.

Still doesn’t make me want to perform or direct again.

Unless, maybe, someone needs a Volumnia.


blairmacg: (belt)

(The following article originally appeared as content for Patreon backers on November 21, 2015.)
This is an odd article to write, and not at all what I expected to be writing.  After all, I've a fight scene break-down in the works, a post on chokeholds in the wings, and an interview set for after the first of the year.

But right now...  Well.

On the morning of November 21, I sent messages of encouragement and excitement to a past student of mine preparing to test for her Sandan rank (3rd degree black belt), and exchanged cheerful notes with my own teacher, Shihan, of more than a dozen years, who'd be overseeing the test.

Then all my karate contacts on all social media platforms went quiet for a few hours, as one would expect during a long and demanding test.  But what followed was not the  outpouring of celebratory pictures and comments tempered with tales of hardship.

Instead, I found a smattering of brief comments, then a bunch of longer ones, expressing loss and grief.

Shihan's sensei of four decades had died unexpectedly, and Shihan had found out ten minutes before bowing onto the mat to evaluate the efforts of almost three dozen students prepared to prove themselves worthy of the black belt.  He made the announcement to students and observers, dedicated the day to Hanshi, and began the test.

Had it been Shihan who'd passed away, he would have wanted the same thing.  And you know what?  So would I.

This is not an article about my loss and grief.  Truly, I met Hanshi only a scant handful of times so my sense of loss is removed, more of an empathetic reaction for those who were close to him.  This writing is instead about continuity and legacy, understanding how those things contribute to the formation of a fighter's mindset, and how a fully realized mindset creates an authentic fighting character.


The style in which I've trained for fourteen years is indeed a family style, founded in 2001 with Hanshi's encouragement and approval.  The founding couple have four sons, all of whom run at least one dojo. Three of the daughters-in-law also teach.  Six of the nine grandchildren hold a junior black belt; two are still far too young.  The eldest grandchild, who became one of my own first students way back when, earned his adult black belt at the last test I observed before moving to Colorado this year.

When the family gets together, a large chunk of time is spent adjusting details of form, sharing discoveries made through studying historic materials and diverse styles, discussing stories of martial artists who'd influenced them, and making modifications to teaching methods that improve student learning and achievement.  There are in-depth discussions and physical demonstrations on a million other details that would eventually be handed down to thousands of students.

Ten skilled martial artists with collective experience exceeding 250 years...  Believe me—when I was fortunate to be present at those gatherings, I knew enough to understand how much I'd learn, as a martial artist and a writer, by silently absorbing every single moment.

As you might imagine, such a tight group of primary instructors results in an amazingly high level of training consistency throughout the style.  The angle of punches in Pinan Shodan is precisely the same for every student at every dojo.  Every dojo teaches the same methods of utilizing body mechanics over brute strength.  All students learn the same wrist control to deliver nunchaku blows.

That level of scrutiny is essential to preserving the best of martial arts study and evolution, and to ensuring every student is held to the highest standard.  Truly, it's pretty simple to make a student smack the top of their foot against their opponent's head.  It takes a trained and focused teacher to teach a student how the angle of the stabilizing knee will affect the kicking leg's targeting and control, how the turn of the hip should be engaged, what the tension (or lack of) in the upper body will produce, where the hands and elbows should be during the kick, and what the body should prepare to do next.  Establishing and demanding that level of exceptional consistency and results is also essential to the continuation of smaller family styles.

But after sitting on black belt review boards dozens of times over the last decade or so, after watching hundreds of students from all the dojos test side-by-side, I can usually surmise each student's primary instructor after watching a single kata or a handful of self-defense techniques.  The differences lie not in technique, but in style and bearing.

The rhythm of a fight.  Whether the student most often breaks right or left.  If the student strikes or throws first under pressure.  It's in the way deference is given to instructors, how confidence is shown in a fight or in answering questions, and how community support is expressed even in the midst of harsh competition.

And we discuss and reinforce the behavior we most want to see in our fighters, because we understand the strongest fighters have the potential to be the most resilient leaders.

So our students are the ones who lend their weapons to fellow tournament competitors who forgot theirs.  They're the ones who'd give up their own class time to help a struggling classmate earn the next level of kata, spar with students half their size in order to teach and encourage, hug a classmate who was crying over the death of a pet, or pull me aside for an awkward conversation of concern about a fellow student who was being teased at school.

And as we worked on strong a kiba dachi, or talked through the impact of weapons bans on karate's development, or compared the way to throw a classmate to the way to throw a enemy, we talked of all those things.

Y'see, what we teach creates continuity.  How we teach creates legacy.  That's why instilling values in a fighter is a fundamental goal of any instructor or any style at any level, even if the teacher doesn't realize it.

In the writing world, influence matters.  Sure, there are the "masters" of our genre, who are widely or narrowly recognized as ones who impacted the field, whose works are foundational to understanding the evolution of a genre.

But then there are writers who influence us in more personal and, frankly, more important ways—the writers whose support and encouragement pushes us to strive for improvement, who demand we do our best, who teach us how to interact with fans and other writers, who believe we have the ephemeral gift of storytelling that will move readers as deeply as they themselves have been moved.

Influence matters in the fighting world as well.

Yes, there are the masters most students learn of early on—those who founded their particular style, or whose identities have become more legend than fact.  But, also as in writing, the most important influencers are the ones much closer to us in time.

The teacher who gives our first hard-earned nod of approval, who shows us how to deal with the pain of injuries, who teaches us how to interact within a rank-based society, who believes we can find inside us the grit and confidence to stand firm when faced with a terrifying fight.

To view the totality of fighting is to understand the interplay of continuity and legacy.

Just as surely as the body has been trained, so too has the person's character.  When we respond, how we respond, and why we respond is coached and modeled by those of higher rank and technical skill.

Students who are bullied and mocked throughout their training will come out the other side a wildly different fighter than one who is supported and cherished.  A person taught to treat their attained skill as a new responsibility will behave differently than one taught to treat it solely as a personal accomplishment.  New people are seen as potential community or presumed enemy.  Interruptions are potential or possibility. Creativity is enthusiasm or disrespect.

So despite the impression given by certain how-to books or zealous students of the All-Perfect Superpower Martial Arts Style, technique and ability demonstrated in a fight are secondary—in both real life fighters, and the fighters in fiction—to the person's character as a fighter.  And that character isn't formed by hours on the mat or studying old documents or watching (if they exist) grainy films of masters. It's trained into the fighter by present and present-day influencers who provide context, purpose, and connection.

In other words, believing technique makes a great fighter is like believing good grammar makes a great storyteller.


Chances are you're a reader.  As a reader, you'll have specific reactions to events or conversations because you're reminded of a story or character.  You'll have specific priorities when you pack for a trip, purchase furniture, consider lighting, allocate your resources, and a million other things.

You're a reader even when you're not reading.

And don't even get writers started on how writing permeates their lives!

It's no different for fighters.  And yet, writers tend to take on their fighting characters in compartmentalized ways.

Some of that comes from the great distance between what many writers know about fighters and fighting, and the level of fighting they want to include in their stories.*  Some is caused by the rabbit-like proliferation of "How To Write Fight Scenes" books, and the tons of articles that define a fighter's "mindset" as what the character does and doesn't think about in relation to a fight.

So writers end up creating characters who fight—and some who fight very, very well—but who aren't fighters if they're not fighting.

This is wrong.

There are all sorts of stereotypical "tells" used to attempt demonstrating a fighter's mindset: Always know the exits, never sit with the back to the door and/or always sit with your back to the wall, take cover after a loud noise...  While none of those things are inaccurate, they're collectively as deep as signaling your character is a "reader" by adding glasses, a ragged paperback, and a tendency to ignore one's surroundings.

That's just not good enough, my darlings.

"Mindset" isn't what comes and goes when violence is present or absent.  Mindset is what the fighter understands about where she fits in the world. Mindset is constant and ever-present.  Legacy and continuity—the way-back of knowing a fighting style's origins and evolution, the present-day influence of one's teachers—is what provides everything but technique.

And, no matter what those fight-scene books infer, technique is not mindset.

In Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee, you'll find a martial artist whose fight training seeps into every aspect of life.  The main character has been trained to be aware of every detail of his body and physical responses during a fight, and has been taught by example to be an example to others.  Lee extends that natural awareness into every scene.  She gives the reader an authentic fighter whose mindset is fully expressed and incorporated into the character's life.

In Gemini Cell by Myke Cole, you'll meet a highly trained military man who must endure impossible circumstances, and yet even his humor is that of a fighter determined to win.  There is one moment, when the character chooses reading material, that encompasses everything about the character's fighting mindset.  His choice not only sticks it to his primary opponent, but connects him with his past and underscores the balance of his strength.  It is a fabulous moment of deft craft that you'll recognize the moment you read it.

So if you're writing about people who fight—who have supposedly trained to injure, maim, and kill others—you'd best understand and determine how training and perspective will affect every single other incident, interaction, reaction, and decision.

The driving priority might be kill the enemy or it might be defend the weak.  The ability to harm another human being might be taught in the context of attaining power or preventing harm.  Personal achievement is a reason to expect the deference of others, or an opportunity to share something new.  The world is presented as filled with dangerous people in need of constant vigilance, or a mostly peaceful place with occasional eruptions of violence.

Or all those principles, abilities, achievements and assumptions might be presented as opportunities to find the balance between what you expect from yourself and what you expect to teach others.

In light of all that, you'll understand why "sits with the back to the wall" is an incredibly simplistic storytelling tool.


On November 21, Shihan made a decision to once more train the character of his highest ranking students, and members of his own family, who'd come to demand excellence, endurance, and determination from those who sought to be honored with a black belt.  In doing so, he offered everyone present an opportunity to learn and understand a way to deal with personal loss when others are depending upon you.

Certainly many of the younger students and newer families would understand the outward reason, the stated reason, for dedicating their test to Hanshi's memory.  And they wouldn't be wrong to accept honoring his memory as the reason to move forward with the testing of all their skill and might.  That is indeed what fighters are expected to do for those who have passed on.

But the older students, the ones who'd been around long enough to understand the cultural priorities of our style and dojo, knew the reasons tucked beneath the surface and understood the day's black belt test was a reinforcement of the purpose that connects past with future.  They understood that continuing with the test despite their own shock, hurt, and wonderings of why was only in part about honoring the dead.

It was also about the students and families who'd worked hard, planned for the event, and were ready to prove themselves part of an unfolding lineage built on martial excellence and inclusive humanity.

Because we don't fight for the past, and we fight just as much as we must for the present.  What we truly train for, what we believe is worth risk and sacrifice, is the fight for the future.

And that mindset matters far more to a fighter's choices than how well they can throw a punch.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
As most of you know, I've spent the last year or so dealing with the fallout of deteriorating hip dysplasia.  For the most part, daily life isn't deeply affected--evening stiffness, a bit of a limp when I'm tired, and an occasional wince-worthy pinch if I step wrong. It's my martial arts training that took the biggest hit. Multi-hour sessions of intense training are a thing of the past, as are sharp sparring matches, most kicks above the knee, and anything that requires lots of torque or pressure on that joint.

Considering all that, I'd pretty much given up on testing for my Sandan rank (aka third-degree black belt). Yes, I could perform the material... if I could spread my demonstration out over a few days. But an hours-long high-intensity test? Erm, no. Not only was it doubtful I could get my hip to hold up for that long, I was certain I didn't want to create more damage than I could properly recover from.

And it totally bummed be out--even moreso because I'd been on the verge of testing way back when my elbow dislocated. The complete healing of those ligaments overlapped with the decline of my hip and... well. That was that.

Thus you can imagine my shock and my weepiness when, after I ran the belt promotion for my own students, my teacher announced my promotion to Sandan.

And, unbeknownst to me, my adult students had put together a little celebration for it, too. Cake, drinks, everything for all the students and parents. I came home with little red-icing fingerprints on the back of my gi from kids hugging me after cake. :)

So. There it is. Sandan. Me. Whoa.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Inspired by the lovely blue of Stephanie Charette, I decided I wanted to play with some color. Alas, I can't get in to my favorite hair gal for a couple weeks, so it will have to wait. Besides, she's getting some sort of new product in and wants to experiment with it first. I'm not sure if I'll keep my hair auburn and go with burgundy ombre, or dark brown with deep purple ombre.

I don't know if I'll need to walk into a more conservatively professional environment for consulting/teaching by September, so it needs to be something I can trim off, if required.

On the other hand, I'm moving to frickin' Denver--far away from the Land of Limits and Laments. There, purple hair is no reason to point someone out on the street unless it's too say, "Cool hair!"

Yes, the more I think about it, the more I want the purple.

When I told my son I was going purple, he told me he'd checked into getting some deep blue in his hair, but opted to save the money for a con he's attending next weekend instead. When I told him I thought the blue would look awesome on him, he said, "You know, some people can't believe you don't freak out over stuff."

Apparently, the list of unbelievable things that don't freak me out include tattoos, frank discussions about sex and attraction, staying up until wee hours, cussing, and having different opinions.

The last one brought me to a full stop. It is amazing, among my son's age-mates, that a parent tolerates--nay, encourages--kids to have independent opinions. Contrary ones, even! And it is sad that it is so.

Around here, I can honestly say it is not religiously and politically driven. Truly, my parents--my father in particular--are extremely conservative and regular church-goers. But they raised their daughters to challenge the world, not mold themselves to it, and they offered themselves as our earliest quintains in verbal jousts. Some topics were touchier than others, and differences in opinion didn't mean we didn't have house rules to follow. But our very thoughts weren't expected to align with our parents!

No, around here, the drive to conform and carry on is instead cultural--as deeply set as the assumption big-city living is inherently immoral and leaving town will result in heartache. Conformity is its own high virtue.

I've sat here for the last half hour considering the words I just wrote and wishing I didn't have to leave my young karate students behind.

Last week, I told the students in my women's class about my upcoming move. To say I was unprepared for the emotional reaction is an understatement. We ended up going out for drinks for two hours after class. I keep making mental notes of things I want to see these women achieve, or groundwork for achievement I want to see in place, before I move.

During regular classes, I catch myself calculating when this or that student is likely to be testing for their black belt, and wondering if I'll be able to travel back to sit on their review boards. I wonder where they'll end up in life, and I hope there will be someone to remind them they have choices and options and can ask questions of smart people and never have to apologize for dreams that don't fit in the confines of a small town.

The most insidious "inspiration" quote I've heard used around here is, "Grow where you're planted." It's often on posters alongside pictures of a single flower blooming between cracks in a sidewalk, or on an expanse of parched earth, or some other such appropriately challenging environment.

Yes, yes, I understand it's supposed to be about acceptance and inner peace and doing what you can where you are. But it's a pretty screwed-up message to give people who are in toxic, stifling, and abusive environments. It's basically saying, "Look: you had no power to choose where you were born and raised, and you have no power to go anywhere else now that you're an adult, so you might as well just make the best of your crappy situation and get on with doing what you can until you die right in the same place."

Or, perhaps, "You're screwed, but it's immoral to want anything more."

You know what would be better? "Choose where you want to grow." Then you can have all sorts of wonderful conversations about choosing rich soil, the right amount of sunshine, and good companions for optimal growth.

And I doubt that scrappy little flower bloomed all alone in the crack of a city sidewalk so it could be lauded from afar as a shining example of tenacity and humble virtue. It would likely prefer a bit more soil and little less trampling instead.

And, perhaps, a touch of purple hair and transplant.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Is it a sign of aging that everything that happens in the present triggers memories of the past?

We held our last Black Belt Test of the year yesterday. It was a pretty clean test, and all 40-odd candidates passed. One adult man testing for Sandan (third degree) broke a finger during multiple attacker self-defense, alas, but taped it and iced it and finished the test anyway.

One of my adult students tested, and did a fabulous job all around. He started training with me over three years ago, around the same time he'd started college with little firm idea of what he wanted to do. Now, in the fall, he'll be heading off to law school. Double win!

Another candidate, a fifteen-year-old girl, started classes with me shortly after she'd turned four. She was hyperbolically girlie, complete with concerns for her mussed-up hair and the possibility of icky dirt on her bare feet. When upset about something, she'd press the back of her hand to her forehead and sigh. Her family moved when she was eight, and just returned to the area last year, when she resumed training. Now she's taller than I am--so tall, in fact, she did her self-defense against the adult men.

She. Rocked.

And as I watched her, I kept seeing that little red-haired girl who once curled up the mat to sob the first time she tried sparring, who squealed with joy and jumped up and down when she earned her first belt stripe, who used to hug me around my waist at the end of every class.

She went to karate camp last summer--a sort of junior-counselor-in-training--and met up with Dev. It took them three days to connect the dots and remember they used to play with Pokémon cards together. Now they're best buds again, and even spent half of GenCon hanging out with each other. Our families celebrated over dinner together after the test.

Then there's the young junior black belt, on the verge of getting his driver's license, who started classes with me when he was six. The nine-year-old boy who was a newborn when I first started training his mother. The two women who began training with me seven years ago who are now Nidan (second-degree) getting ready for Sandan next year. They've just started a women's-only class of their own at another dojo in our system, modeled after the one I'm running at my dojo.

By rank, I sit just a tad above the middle of our review board. To my right are people I've known and trained with for over a dozen years. To my left are people I've had a hand in training, some for a decade. And now in the junior ranks are the children of those higher-ranking folks on my right, two of whom were not even born when I started karate, and other almost-adults I've watched grow up.

Just... wow.

And on a humorous note...
Since my Sandan test was delayed last year due to the dislocated elbow problem (and is now delayed indefinitely because of the hip problem), I'd shared at the time with one of my test-mates that I'd always wanted to try something... different... during multiple-attacker self-defense. Just to see what the reaction would be. And I told him my idea.

He thought it was a marvelous one. I told him to go for it.

So when he came up to the line for his own test yesterday and gave me a nod, I knew what was coming. Five men lined up to attack him. He put up his fists. Shihan shouted out the order to begin. The moment the five men charged, my friend yelled, "Stop! Back off! Leave me alone!" The attackers hesitated in confusion, and my friend smacked them all before they figured out what was going on. My friend took a bow to laughter and applause.

For some reason, no one was surprised I was the one responsible for the idea. Your voice is a powerful weapon, I always say. :)
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
If you talk about martial arts long enough, someone will eventually say, "What's the point of kata? You can't use it in a real fight. The only thing kata is good for is tournaments."

I mightily disagree.

Kata is, in simple terms, a series of choreographed movements -- punches and kicks, stances and turns, blocks and attacks and evasions. From the outside, it looks as if one fighter is taking on multiple attackers coming at her, one at a time, from different directions. Many martial arts use them as a training tool, with some arts and schools putting greater emphasis on them than others.

A friend recently asked me about the purpose of kata. I gave a short answer, then realized how different today's answer was from the answer I might have given ten years ago, or even five years ago. My understanding has changed -- not only because of my training, but because of my teaching experience.

At first, kata serves to instill rudimentary body awareness and muscle function. We're talking very rudimentary here. The student must learn, at the bare minimum, to be aware of and in control of what her body and all its parts are doing at any given moment. Most people can stand up and throw a punch with their left hand, but will not be able to say what the right hand was doing without looking at their right hand. Ask if the knees were bent or straight, or if the chin was lifted or tucked, and she will have no clue. Ask her to keep track of all those things while moving from one technique to the next with at least a smidgeon of intensity, and things quickly fall apart.

Taught properly, kata teaches such total body awareness. In my experience as an instructor, it takes most students six to twelve months to perform a basic kata with something approaching body awareness. Even my most athletically gifted kids will take awhile to reach awareness. Certainly they can perform the techniques sooner than other students, but unless they can connect the mind to identify and verbalize, they've essentially learned only half of the kata's first lesson. Body awareness, you see, is another way of saying "focus," and an athlete who can't think through what the body is doing is like a general who knows the best tactics but has no strategy. Deadly, perhaps, but pointless unless someone else tells them what to do.

That first level is where some instructors stop. The student memorizes a pattern, puts effort into throwing techniques that look good and works up a sweat, and the instructor calls it good. That's both the cause and result of all the "Kata is useless!" cries that come up. Let me go deeper into what kata is intended to accomplish, and you'll see why stopping there misses so much.

Kata teaches muscle memory for fighting techniques, and how the kata is taught -- from breath control to muscle tension to transitions between obvious techniques -- will influence how the student fights under pressure. A basic kata will include an overhead block. It's an extremely versatile technique, able to be used as "just" a block, a block on the way to a strike, or a block after a hidden strike. Or it can be turned into an arm lock, a forward momentum throw, a trip-and-throw, an evasion of a weapon... You get the idea. But none of those can be carried out against a determined opponent making a committed strike if the correct muscle memory isn't there. If small pieces are off -- one foot angled wrong, the hips canted, the arm disengaged from the core muscles -- chances are high the attacker will overwhelm you.

Self-defense drills are fantastic, but speed and form are more difficult to control, and drills are practiced with people who know what you're going to do next. Attackers in the classroom (usually) have no desire to be broken, so will follow the energy-lead of the student they're attacking. It can allow even the best students to get away with less-than-strong techniques. (Very strong students often get away with extremely crappy technique, but that's another post entirely!)

Correct kata doesn't let students cheat. If your stance is incorrect, I'll be able to push you over with my fingertips. If your stance is correct, you'll remain rooted even if I thump you in the shoulder.

And once the student can run kata with proper muscle memory -- as well as strong pacing and intensity -- that memory begins to show up in sparring and self-defense. Progress in self-defense is accelerated by the time invested in kata. The student, especially the student who thinks kata is boring and sparring is most awesome, is usually the last to see the connection, even though she stands to gain so much sparring and self-defense skill.

So: Kata provides body awareness, conditioning, and muscle memory, as well as the components of those skills like balance, coordination, focus, strength, and agility. But there are two other benefits I want to emphasize—things I hear too rarely discussed even among talented fighters.

First, kata conditions ligaments and tendons, which increases strength and power while decreasing incidence of injury. Ligaments and tendons are those connective tissues that create a moveable human out of meat and bones. Alas, they are often forgotten in the quest for strength as measured by muscle-isolating gym machines. The trouble is, muscle strength increases at a faster rate than tendon/ligament strength, which can lead to injuries, plateaued development, and weird situations like very muscle-strong bodybuilders being unable to throw a ball any reasonable distance.

In martial arts, muscle-over-connector emphasis leads to stiff movements (and stiffness is usually just a poor proxy for force), sloppy form (as the student tries to create false momentum through a "wind-up" or some such), and painful injuries at the joints.

The repetition of kata sidesteps the notion of building muscles in isolation of natural movement. It teaches tendons and ligaments and muscles to all work together, to contract and relax in the optimum order, and to support each other to increase strength and reflex while reducing injury. And since constant muscle tension isn't used to generate power, the student's oxygen reserves remain higher. The result is power that seems to be greater than the person's strength and stamina that outlasts the opponent. This is not spiritual magic. It's practiced internal and external coordination.

(PSA: If you're a martial arts student getting injured a great deal, find a different instructor and a different school. Seriously. Unless you're an ass who refuses to follow any and all directions, you're suffering injuries because of the way you're being taught.)

Second, kata teaches you to move with your center, and your center to move with you. Sounds simple, doesn't it? It isn't at all. Without a solid center, forward movement is most often initiated from the shoulders, and rapid changes in direction result in loss of balance, injuries, or falls. In other words, we move our upper body and forget to take our legs along. Kata teaches you how to move from and with your center.

Not only does this make everyday life more comfortable, it's essential in a fight. A fighter who knows how to hold her center won't lunge to the side and leave a leg sticking out, or raise the shoulders before a strike, or lead with the chin (which results in blocking with one's face...). Holding center makes it possible to throw someone bigger and stronger while making it difficult for someone bigger and stronger to throw you. Trust me – if you lose your balance, someone else will find it, and Finders-Keepers rules in a fight.

Sure, there are lots of ways all these lessons can be taught and learned. Fighters learn them all the time from drills, from sparring, from trial and error, from any number of methods that provide the means to feel the difference between stability and rigidity and an opportunity to repeat it endlessly. If your student has innate athletic ability, you can get spectacular results by providing some general guidance, letting the talented student find the "right" posture, then reinforcing it with small corrections and encouragements.

But if your student is clumsy, uncoordinated, and distractible, that's a setup for failure. The student gets frustrated. The instructor gets frustrated. By the time the student hits brown belt (often around two years of training), the difference between athletic and non-athletic become much clearer, and no one is so clear on the difference than the non-athletic brown belt. Many brown belts quit because they don't see any improvement, and are given little instructor guidance other than, "Keep trying!"

So what's the real answer? What's the thing that can keep those students going and growing? What's the super-secret method, developed over decades?

Kata. Not because of its strikes or kicks, or blocks or turns, or any of its component techniques. Not because the student learns choreographed movements in a controlled environment.

And why kata so valuable?

Because everything outlined above--the techniques, balance, coordination, centering, and flow of movement--teaches people with little or no natural athletic ability how to be capable fighters. Armed with those tools, the instructor doesn't have to wait around for the One True Student Of Great Talent. The student doesn't have to give up learning what comes easily to others. Kata is the perfect self-defense training tool for the student who struggles.

That's it, right there. The true and hidden purpose and application of kata.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
I've mentioned my hip dysplasia before. (Here's some general info, if you want it.)

Martial arts training -- specifically the ligament-strengthening it imparts -- has done a fantastic job of reducing my incidence of partial dislocation to almost nil for years. I'd been feeling pretty happy about it, really, since I'd been told in my 20s that I'd likely need a double hip replacement by the time I turned 40.

But over the last few months, there have been... signs. The left leg is growing a little weaker. The left hip is constantly uncomfortable. The right hip doesn't ache so much, but the misalignment from hip to ankle is getting worse. Worse, as in, almost impossible to align a bent knee over my toes in all but one position. I tried to demonstrate a spin kick in slow motion and had the left leg give out.

So. It's time to stop acting as if it'll go away. I can either keep doing everything I'm doing and make it worse faster, or I can modify/stop doing many things in order to preserve the joints as long as possible and, quite possibly, stop hurting all the time.

I'll be heading to a chiropractor at the end of the month -- one who specializes in working with joint issues and body alignment. In the meantime, I have a list of things I'm not supposed to do for awhile. We're going to see if stopping certain activities will reduce the pain.

No squats, jumps, sit-ups, or leg-lifts. No deep stances, and great caution with stances that put a greater load on one leg than the other. No high kicks or kicking a target. DEFINATELY no side kicks. No dodging (as in sparring and active self-defense). No running.

I can still run kata, as long as I mind my positions and torque. I can still teach and coach. AND I CAN STILL PUNCH. :)

On the non-factual side... Can I admit there's still a little voice in my head telling me I'm a wimp? That if karate really mattered, I'd push through? That telling the voice pushing through would be stupid results in that little voice making fun of me?

Yeesh, ego can be a terrible thing!
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Tonight I ran the first promotion for my women's class. They have brand-new yellow belts now, and the positive experience of showing their kata and self-defense to their family members.

I kept cutting my gaze over to their kids, all of whom were closely watching and smiling. It isn't often kids get to see the process of their parents working toward a goal, let alone performing in front of others. Considering the number of pictures of the kids were taking, and the enthusiasm of their applause, it was just important for the them as it was for their moms.

Tying on their new belts tonight was an awesome experience I'm fortunate to share with these brave women. They're already changing. A mere ten weeks into the experience, and they're already so much more comfortable with their own abilities. One has decided she wants to learn nunchaku. I can't wait to see what they'll be doing by the end of summer.

Last night's dojo-wide belt promotion was equally wonderful, but for a different reason. Y'see, about a year ago, I took on an autistic student. He was twelve years old and had very rough physical coordination. He never spoke more to me than a barely-whispered "Yes, ma'am," rarely looked at me, and very rarely responded to direct questions.

His progress has been phenomenal. He now gives me brief answers to questions like, "What did you do in school?" When I put the stripes he has earned on his belt, he will look me in the eye and shake my hand. But he hasn't been able to run an entire kata on his own, not without someone either calling out the pattern (turn and low block, step and punch, etc.) or performing the kata beside him.

So he and I had a private lesson Wednesday night and worked on something special. At promotion, I came out on the mat with him and asked him to do kata with me just as we had the day before, with him pretending to be the teacher helping me learn the kata.

He put his toes on the starting place, waited until I took a place a few feet away, and began. He called out every single movement just as I had been doing for him, he spoke loudly enough for everyone in the dojo to hear it, and he performed the movements himself. I didn't say a word. I didn't move before he did. And he did the entire kata without a single mistake.

And he gave me a high-five at the end and burst out laughing.

And all the students cheered and all the parents clapped.

And this sensei cried.

I love my job.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
After a stumble-start last fall, my experiment with a women-only karate class is off to a fantastic new start. The first class was on Tuesday, with seven women in attendance.

Most uncomfortable moment: Making it clear to my own (male) teacher that he needed to leave the dojo before we started class. I'd made it clear to the women there would be no men, no husbands, no children in the dojo at all.

Most awesome moment: When everyone walked out the door saying, "See you next class!"

Once upon a time, I was uncomfortable with offering a women-only class. I'm a staunch believer in men and women training together, and see huge benefits come from that. Then I chose to listen to the women who expressed a passing interest in karate, but never actually took a class.

Body image. Fear of judgment. Fear of failing. Fear of being the worst one in class. Discomfort with a physical sport. Discomfort with being seen enjoying an aggressive sport. All those reasons and more, I heard over and over from women who murmured their interest in karate to me when no one else would hear them.

I pride myself in creating a safe and supportive environment for new students who are, more often than not, nervous stepping on the mat. I've had kids cry crocodile tears at the start of class, and beg to come back for more by the end of class. I've had adults hesitant at the beginning because of physical limitations realized at the end that I'll work with them to reach their goals. But whatever atmosphere my methods and personality create, it wasn't safe and supportive for a subset of women who wanted karate training enough to mention it, but feared it enough to never try.

So I set out to create that environment. No men. No witnesses. That was a big deal for all of the women who committed to showing up. Then we talked about the physical stuff, and I shared my Ultimate Karate Dork stories as well as the problems my hip dysplasia caused. We talked about things women don't often discuss with men: boobs that get in the way, post-pregnancy body problems, hitting other people.

On the mat, we not only worked hard on technique, but we laughed. Laughed and shared and enjoyed everyone's company. We started on the basics of dojo etiquette, chatted about the boundaries of Sensei-In-Dojo and Blair-In-Supermarket, and acknowledged that it feels very strange to say "Yes, Ma'am/Yes, Sir" at first. We worked up enough of a sweat that everyone was at least a little sore the next day. And we spent time listening to one woman sharing an issue she'd been struggling with all day, and we offered support.

Unlike six or seven years ago, when most women I spoke with wanted "self-defense" without all that "karate stuff," these women want the whole thing. They want to earn the black belt. They are working hard, asking questions, making mistakes and corrections.

Three to six months from now, I suspect they'll all be ready to transition into the standard classes at least once a week. By then, all those preliminary fears will have been encountered. Best of all, this group of women is helping me refine these ideas by giving me honest feedback.

...and I have to back up, because my hopes are running away with me. :) The true test will be how many of those seven women commit to a longer-term program. The decision point will be this coming Thursday.

In the meantime, I am thrilled with the two classes we've had so far. I come home happy, energized, and grinning. It feels like the beginning of a community.

And in the writing news, I suddenly wondered if I should end Sand of Bone 20K words deeper into the larger story. This is not all that helpful to my stress level, alas.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Other than Dev's so-minor car accident, things have gone well.  Not flash-bang-gee-whiz awesome, but well enough I'm ending the week with a feeling of contentment and relief rather than the usual exhaustion and guilt.

First, I called in a favor at the dojo and had another teacher take all my classes Tuesday so I could have my prime writer-brain time for revisions. I've never done that. I felt guilty for about an hour, then I got over it. The gains in revisions were huge.

The days I did teach were awesome. Sometimes good classes suddenly click, teacher and students all in sync, and that's what it's been.

Remember some time ago, when I mentioned my karate classes had nearly reached a 50/50 female/male ratio? Well, that balance took a bit of a tumble when we moved to the new location. But as of this week, I'm closing in on a 60/40 split. All four new students I signed up in the last two weeks are girls. Next week, I start up my women's only class again, and have five women already signed up to try it out. This pleases me immensely.

(Shihan, who partners with me to teach at my dojo when he can, mentioned the sudden influx of females. I smiled. "Welcome to the matriarchy, sir!")

And the revisions are going swimmingly. The novel doesn't suck. I think it's really holding together--surprising to me, considering how much I thought this story felt like a patchwork quilt assembled by a platypus. I've a third of the novel yet to tweak and two new little scenes to write. My original goal was to finish by midnight. A more realistic goal would be to finish by tomorrow.

Tomorrow night. I've a karate tournament to attend for much of the day. Five of my students are competing. I am not. Both of those facts make me happy.

Sunday will be my entire weekend. I plan to clean house, fill at least three large bags with stuff to donate, and start my seedlings.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Thank goodness I flew home yesterday! By the time I touched down in Indy, it was about forty degrees -- a mere thirty degrees below what I'd been living in for the past week, so hey -- and there was sun. This morning, the wind chill is in the subzero region, snow is falling, and winds are gusting. Schools are closed and flights have been cancelled. A woman interviewed for the local news this morning summed it up. "I'm over it! I'm over it!"

Truly, I'd be very sad if I hadn't been able to get home. I missed my son!

Speaking of the son, he did just marvelously on his own. He had to navigate extremely messy roads in town and in the city, manage his time when schedules changed unexpectedly, do the raw-food feeding for the dogs, and keep up his school work. But he has figured out that, when the time comes for him to move out, he doesn't want to live alone. And he said he'd much rather travel with me next time than stay home alone.

And the conference! Amazing! Extremely high expectations were set before a group of driven, professional educators, and nearly everyone rose to the challenge. So many times in the last decade, parents and teachers have told me they wished their classrooms could run with the same focus and discipline as my karate classes. Now I have strategies to make it happen that is grounded in high regard and respect for the student, that respects the students' voice and choices, AND gives teachers a way to step off the frustration-go-round. Coolest of all? The strategies are what I've been using for years in karate classes. For me, the week's learning was less about hearing new things as it was learning a translation of things I already knew.

I met incredible people from diverse backgrounds, talked martial arts with folks from different styles, discussed the evolution of education, debated legal issues, and listened to stories about military experience, law enforcement challenges, personal struggles, and a thousand other things. And that was in addition to the conference!

Now, I'll be taking a few days to review the administrative side of things, then I'll be setting appointments. (Actually, I already have two appointments for next week, but don't want to add more until I feel more grounded in some of the business information.)

And tonight? Well, karate has already been cancelled, meaning I've taught a mere three of the last thirty days. Also meaning I get to write Sand of Bone!
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
I spent part of last night's teaching with a young student frustrated by her inability to do a new kata well when first learning it. Then I spent another part of last night self-examining when and why I'm able to graciously accept criticism and correction, as well as when and why I'm hurt and offended by it -- and what years of being publicly, pointedly, and professionally corrected during karate classes and tournaments have done to my attitude toward repetition, failure, and contentment.

Then I read this, posted by one of my Viable Paradise classmates LaShawn Wanak, and wanted to share it with everyone.
blairmacg: (belt)

True or false: “If you have to fight, you’ve already done something wrong.”

If you’re male, or female but educated in self-defense primarily by males, you will say True. If you’re female, aware of the dynamics that most commonly lead to real self-defense situations, you will say False. If you teach self-defense, and want your students to understand those dynamics, you will say, It’s a pile of crap, and believing it could get you killed.

The whole, “If you have to fight” notion has its place. When you’re teaching and training aggressive young men who believe physical strength is the measure of their worth—and are itching for the chance to prove themselves worthy—getting them to control their impulse to fight is necessary. It’s also valuable for teaching the basic principle of self-defense: avoiding a confrontation, by reading the situation and/or removing oneself from it, is an excellent protection technique.

But in the real world, it’s of little practical use, and believing its absolute truth can indeed get you killed.

I imagine the originator of the quote assumed most fights would be between two men—likely an escalation of a disagreement, or perhaps an interruption of a criminal act, or even a war undertaken when negotiations went sour. So sure, your first step should be to deescalate the situation and avoid violence. Maybe the quote is meant to imply folks who don’t want to be attacked should avoid attack-rich environments–the clichéd dark alleys and isolated parking garages. Okay, fine.

But it ignores the fact the majority of “fights” women will face in life don’t happen in dark alleys and scary places. A woman is most likely to be attacked in her own home, without warning, by someone she knows.

And if you teach self-defense or martial arts, and you don’t know that fact, you are putting your female students in danger.

By telling a woman she should always avoid a fight, you encourage her to let dangerous situations escalate beyond what she might be able to counter. By telling a woman the fight is an indication of failure, you insult the woman who decides to fight when attacked in her own room, in her own bed, by a man who has deliberately earned her trust.

And if you believe having to fight means you’ve done something wrong, I don’t want you on my side should a fight ever come around. I want the partner who knows it takes both parties to resolve a conflict, but only one to decide violence is a better idea. I want a partner who knows from experience that life and people are unpredictable, the bad guys don’t let you choose when an attack happens, and you don’t always get a heads-up before someone takes a swing.

Fighting back is a choice, not a failure.

Coming next: We Already Knew That on the odd habit men have of discovering sparring techniques aren’t effective in a real fight, and the assumption they should tell the women-folk (as if women weren’t already acutely aware of it).

Crossposted at Blair MacGregor Books.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
The dogs started their raw food diet last week, chowing down on chicken quarters every morning. Yesterday they had rack of lamb as a treat. In the evening, they have a raw apple, carrots, or banana. They both believe this raw food thing is the bestest most wonderfulest idea ever.

Despite all the reading and research I've done on raw feeding over the last year-plus, I still couldn't shake my fear of feeding the dogs raw chicken bones. Thus I sat on the back porch as they ate, ready to intervene at the first sign of trouble.


Ty the Wonderdog had no trouble at all--expected, since he lived on the farm for years and dined on... whatever he and the other farm dog sniffed out in the woods. Seriously, there was a patch of meadow up the hill from our house we nicknamed The Bone Yard because it was the dogs' favorite place to stash their treasure when they could eat no more. I once found a... a thing that so grossed me out, I was determined to get rid of it. After a couple attempts the dogs foiled, I decided to dump it in the fast-moving river, figuring the coyotes that roamed in the woods down there would eventually grab it. That was not to be. Instead the dogs swam down the river to retrieve the thing and return it to The Bone Yard.

So yes, Ty is quite accustomed to raw food.

Gambit was another matter. He was absolutely certain he should love-love-love the chunk of raw meat in his mouth, but he couldn't figure out how to eat it. By the time Ty was licking his lips in satisfaction, Gambit was just starting to experiment with tearing off little nibbles. Ty looked on as Gambit went from nibbling to gnawing. I'm sure he would have pitched in to demonstrate technique, if I hadn't been watching. But in the end, Gambit succeeded in finishing his meal.

Seven raw meals later, it's obvious they're not having trouble with bones, or any other part of the meal. Gambit still takes longer to eat his portion than Ty, but danged near any creature would take longer to eat than Ty.

As for the miscellany:

I've been scolded about working my arm too much--a scolding brought about because I was stupid and re-injured it and am back to wearing a soft brace all the time.

Related to the above, I'm sitting on the Black Belt Review Board today--very excited to watch one of my students test, and excited/sad to watch three adults of my own cohort test because I was supposed to be testing with them.

We shall see how much progress I can make on Crossroads before the end of November. Yesterday was my day to believe everything I write is junk. Stupid junk. Stupid, derivative, incomprehensible, boring junk. But I've been here before and, just like my occasional certainty I'm a clumsy and substandard karateka, the feeling passes.

The above feeling was shown the door this morning, when I got a note from a friend that said his coworker liked my first book and wanted to know when the next one would be coming out.

And, in the most important news of all... DEV PASSED THE WRITTEN DRIVING TEST AND NOW HOLDS A REAL LICENSE. This means that, on Sunday, I can hand him the car keys, he can drive himself to and from work, and I can stay home.

It also means the beginning of fret-festivals every time he leaves the house on his own. I'm assuming the edges of that worry will dull over time, much the same way as every other fear.

Lastly, and least importantly, I've been feeling restless again. Truly, I should have figured out how to have a career as a travel writer. It's been months since I've traveled more than 50 miles from home. I'll be heading to Denver in December, but will be staying with family, so that doesn't really count.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

If we’re paying attention, what we write tells us a great deal about ourselves.

This little dialogue exchange and I went back and forth for two days:

”Besides,” Luke said, “I’d hate to tell the Old Man I let you leave town without even getting a little sparring in.”

“Nothing manipulative about that statement,” she muttered, and narrowed her eyes when he gave a guilty shrug.  “First of all, you don’t let me do anything, Sensei Luke.  Second, don’t call him the Old Man anymore.  I don’t like it.  Respect matters.”

She expected him to give the eye-roll of irritation or the cocky grin of indulgence most men would have responded with.  Instead, he offered her a solemn nod and met her gaze.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Text me the address,” Jack said.  “If I’m still in town, I’ll drop by.”

Why was it so troublesome?

I was worried the main character, the woman who goes by Jack, would sound too bitchy.

That’s a problem, really.  My problem.  I don’t much like discovering how deeply certain biases sit in me.  It isn’t comfortable.  But it is real, so there ya go.

There isn’t a thing Jack says to Luke that isn’t true.  Luke is being manipulative, he has no right to imply he has authority over her despite their relative rank in martial arts, and calling a past teacher the “Old Man” does strike Jack as disrespectful.  But she isn’t asking Luke to change, nor is she offering him the chance to realize he ought to change.  She tells him—point blank—what’s wrong with what he is saying.  There is nothing “bitchy” about it.

I say many things like that in real life, but I realized I say them with the notion, “And if you think I’m a bitch for saying so, I don’t care,” in the back of my mind.  That’s a problem as well, but a realistic one.  People–and more often than not, the “people” refers to women–who draw lines and limits without couching them as optional deeds or giving the other person “credit” for acquiescing are often named pushy, humorless, angry, bitchy.

My decision to self-publish was and is driven by many reasons.  But at the core, the decision comes from wanting to tell my stories my way, as professionally as possible, and connect with readers who like them.

Jack is a woman who has decided she will no longer put up with the little falsehoods expected of a woman who gets along by getting along.  She doesn’t want to play nice anymore by couching honest criticism in sweet diplomacy.  She still has plenty of insecurities, faults, and demons from the past, but she’s going to call bullshit when she hears it, and she expects the other person to be adult enough to handle candor.

I’m sure I’ve come across these writerly decisions before, but I can’t remember being quite so aware of it.

Crossposted at


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