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Yesterday—March 8, 2012—Gracie Barra Vancouver hosted a pretty remarkable seminar. Sadly, two of the five guest instructors weren’t able to make it, one due to illness and the other due to the fact that life is busy and shit happens. I am not too disappointed, though, because we still had Flavio Almeida, Marcio Feitosa, and Luca Atala (who incidentally runs Gracie Magazine) all on the mats—all three world champions, I believe—which is skill and knowledge enough for any seminar. Additionally we had three of our own established blackbelts—Tim, Rodrigo, and John—and two brand new blackbelts: Will and Evan (both of who rather amply deserve them). It’s not often you see eight BJJ blackbelts on the mat all at once.

I also received a promotion, though a less dramatic one—I’m now, after about 4½ years of training (started in October 2007), a BJJ purple belt. I’m not sure how to feel about that. On the one hand I am proud, because it’s been a long journey and I have gained a tremendous amount. On the other hand I feel awfully self-conscious because I feel very strongly that I don’t really deserve it yet. But then, I gather most people feel that way when they get promoted…and it’s been said that a new rank isn’t something you get when you are the level that belt represents, but rather something you need to grow into. And that makes sense, of course—obviously even the average purple belt must be better than the average brand new purple belt! I started feeling like I deserved my blue about two stripes in: Halfway. Maybe this will be the same.

When Rodrigo was awarding the belts, he said a few words about everyone who received one—most for the blackbelts, of course, who have been at it for about a decade, but some for us new purple belts, as well. He recounted how, early in his tenure at the school, I had come to him depressed and dispirited, and complained how I felt my game was not improving at all; how I would never get anywhere; how I was close to quitting. I’m pretty sure he misremembered that last part: I don’t recall ever wanting to quit or give up. But it’s certainly true that it felt for a long time like there was a plateau I would never rise beyond, and it was a pretty low plateau to be stuck on, at that. Time (and Rodrigo) have certainly proved me wrong on this point. Regardless of what I or anyone else might think of my skill relative to what a purple belt ought to be, I’ve risen a very great deal above that level—in skill, in confidence in the skills I have, and in confidence that I will continue to grow and improve. I’m still very aware of my limitations, but I no longer feel like I’m stuck. I’ve spent too much time improving to think that there’s an end to that road.

So whether (as I am told) I deserve it now, or whether (as I feel) I have quite a lot of growing into it left to do, it remains a milestone on that journey, and I know that I will fully deserve it—grow into it, and eventually even outgrow it. Some day.

I got a chance to roll for a bit with Flavio Almeida, which was quite an experience. I’ve rolled with a couple of very, very good guys, but not very much. “Supa” Dave Rothwell, but that was so early in my whitebelthood that I had no ability whatsoever to judge what he was even doing. Rodrigo, obviously, much more recently. Now Flavio. It was a very different experience.

It’s hard to judge, of course, what part is style, what part is what he felt like doing at that particular time, and what part is him going easy on us poor noobs. Still, Rodrigo plays a thousand-ton crushing top game, moving about half an inch at a time and giving me less than that to work with. He moves very slowly for the most part—but will explode with huge, quick transitions as soon as the moment is right. Flavio’s game, on the other hand, was extremely smooth and yielding. There was, as I had occasion to remark, a lot of “jiu” in his jiu-jitsu: Jujutsu (the more modern Romanisation) is often translated as “the gentle art”, but I gather ju doesn’t quite mean “gentle”, but refers to something that yields before and adapts to a stronger force rather than opposing it directly. This was very much how Flavio rolled: When he chose to, of course, he got on top and put on as much pressure as he wanted, but he spent a lot of time allowing his opponent to push or pull, simply going with that energy and momentum to transition into some other position, giving the opponent a brief moment to reflect on what a bad idea it was to provide that impetus, before moving on to the next one.

I had the opportunity to watch him do this before I rolled with him myself, and in consequence I played a very conservative game. Since I could tell he’d go with every push and take advantage of it, I tried to make my own game one of inches; if he would turn every bit of energy I supplied against me, then I should give as little energy as possible. At the level he chose to go on against us mortals, I lasted a while, even earning one of those Nice! exclamations one issues in response to something good and unexpected, when I managed to block a sweep. Afterward I was told I had a nice, tight defence—which was very pleasing regardless of how well I realise that he was of course being very nice and generous about it; if someone like Flavio really wants to get me, I don’t think my defence would even register.

I really liked to see (and feel) that ju part. It’s something I want to include more of in my own game, and I sometimes try in my own halting manner when rolling with beginners.

Quite a bit of the seminar was taken up by various speeches and thank yous and promotions, but still the bulk of the time was technical instruction. I took a few hastily scribbled notes during water breaks in order to help me remember what had been taught, which I will set down here in order to hopefully cement them a little better in my mind. I doubt it’ll be terribly helpful to anyone who didn’t get to see the demonstrations, for which I don’t apologise—this is chiefly for my own reference!

  • Perhaps my favourite part of the seminar was an extremely simple way Luca Atala demonstrated to defeat the spider guard. On the one hand there’s an element of “Why didn’t I think of that?”; on the other hand he emphasised and demonstrated some details that I hope will stick with me for a long time. In particular, he emphasised the need to tuck your elbows in, and showed how the spider guard can largely be neutralised simply by tucking your elbows, gripping if possible just below the knee. Nothing revolutionary, but solid, and the demonstration helped remind me or inform me of some details I was missing.

    The pass from here was very simple: Once you have neutralised the spider guard, transfer to a two-on-one grip on a leg and stretch that leg out while passing, keeping two-on-one until you’ve established side control.

  • Flavio and Marcio demonstrated different pieces of the spider guard game they’d picked up from Romulo Barral (I’m afraid I don’t recall who demonstrated which part; I think maybe Flavio showed the sweep?). It was based on a spider guard grip where one arm was released and that grip was transferred instead to a deep collar grip. Hip out to turn, so that my far leg is on the opponent’s bicep; shift under them to get lifting power. (This was a tricky part for me.) If they don’t base out, this is a slow but sure sweep in its own right, shifting them over me.

    If they do base out, here’s where the sneakiness begins: If I have a right spider hook, turned so my left side is toward them, then pass my left leg around their right leg, angled so that the front of my knee can collapse the back of theirs. Pinch my knees together for leverage, push forward—and over they go.

    If, on the other hand, they base out far, using their right arm, the submission off this setup presents itself: Square back up and slip the right leg under their (non-controlled!) arm, while sliding the right spider hook over the shoulder: Triangle.

  • Another part focused on posture control from top side or half guard. The emphasis here was that if the opponent’s head is driven down, it breaks their posture and takes away most of their power. One application was: Opponent turns in; I place my top hand high on their head, and swim my other hand under their arm for an overhook, reaching for my own wrist. If I now walk around their head, I will flatten them back out. (For drilling: They turn back in; I repeat going in the other direction.)

    From here was a half guard submission that I’ve seen before but never mastered. Sadly I didn’t master it last night either. It involves stuffing the half guard in just the same manner as above, then using my right hand to feed their left lapel to my left (cross-face) hand. Then, dive my right hand through an overhook and under their head to reach that lapel—this is hard; you have to reach very deep and I found it tricky to have enough gi material to grasp. If this is accomplished, there’s a trianglish choke achieved by sprawling out, using my chest on their triceps to force their arm into their neck.

    A simpler but very interesting option from here is to stuff the half guard in just the same fashion, then swim my right hand for an underhook and flatten them out (into a fairly standard top half position). Then, keeping control of the arm with that underhook and blocking their head with my left hand, step over and hook the head with my left leg—locking my ankles together if at all possible (kind of like a triangle about their head and right arm). From this control position, the straight armbar on their left arm is trivial. My drilling partner and I played a bit with this from a regular half guard setup (rather than coming off the head/posture/stuff thing), and found that it works though it’s harder; when it doesn’t come off a flattening action, the bottom person may be in a position to shift to his left side and escape out the back door.

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Although I started BJJ way back in autumn (September?) 2007, and even though it’s a competitive sport, I had until now never once competed. The chief reason is that I’m just not that interested. I’m not naturally athletic, I’m not that talented, I’m unlikely to win anything, and I don’t enjoy competition per se.

But on the other hand there are good reasons for competition. Competitive combat sports are the best martial arts, and by competing you are forced to develop your skills to their highest level. Perhaps some train to compete; for me that’s upside down, and competition is a means to an end. The single biggest weakness I have in my jiu-jitsu is a lack of drive—initiative, assertiveness, determination, will to win. My biggest common mistake is to respond to something not going my way—someone begins to pass my guard, moves to establish knee-on-belly, what have you—with an attitude of resignation: It’s just rolling, after all; doesn’t matter who wins or loses; this isn’t going my way, may as well let him have it. Obviously this won’t do for competition, but it really won’t do if you want to regard the martial art as a martial art. Giving up can never be an option (short of the point of tapping out due to absolute necessity, of course). And I do want to regard my jiu-jitsu as a proper martial art, so I have a great need to cultivate a more determined mindset.

And that’s why I wanted to compete, and go to the competition classes—to learn to fight to win; to apply the techniques I’ve spent years learning aggressively and with purpose; to cultivate the mindset where, win or lose, I will not give an inch without at least trying my best to fight for it. (Win or lose—because there will always be people better at jiu-jitsu than me, but that’s no excuse not to fight as best I can.)

So on October 11, I signed up for the November 5 CBJJF BC Open and started going to the Friday evening Competition Team classes. I was briefly stymied by a minor ringworm infection that kept me out of the gym for a week, but apart from that I trained hard and I trained a lot. With only three weeks to go before the tournament and no prior experience, I decided not to attempt to cut or particularly manage my weight, but go in for the experience and let the chips fall where they may.

I think those three weeks of training improved my game more than any three ordinary months of training ever have. I do not say that it improved my skills¹, because of course I can’t pick up or dramatically improve skills acquired over four years in mere weeks; but it improved my game because it provided both focus, venue, and opportunity to fight to win. I have a long road ahead of me and perhaps it’s still my biggest weakness, but I’ve never before made a focused effort to address it and I am a different jiu-jitsu fighter than I was a mere month ago.

Of the tournament itself, I have less to say. I got up bright and early, ate my usual breakfast as I knew I was in no danger of failing to make weight, caught a train partway and a ride the rest of the way. The tournament started at 9:00 and blue belt divisions were first. I fought in the medium heavyweight bracket (181–195 lbs), which is really too high for me, but that’s a worry for later. My first match turned out to be my only match, against a very tough opponent². He ended up establishing mount pretty early in the match, and despite my best efforts at bumping and shrimping I just couldn’t bump him and couldn’t quite make enough space to get a knee in and improve my position. On the positive side, I never just resigned, and I did survive for several minutes with a strong opponent on top of me without ever giving away either the choke or an armlock; instead I lost (decisively) on points.

I also signed up for the blue belt open division, because why was I there if not to get experience, rack up as many minutes on the competitive mats as I could? This was much later in the day, and by then I was starting to feel rather low energy for the early morning and not having eaten much; there was pizza available, but this didn’t sound like something I’d want in my stomach while fighting, so I stuck to a few bananas, a couple of small whole grain muffins, a protein shake, and some Gatorade; not bad but hardly real food. Still I went in and did what I could. My opponent this time was, I think, a bit lighter than me, but gave every impression of being a good deal more experienced. Just as in my first fight, I ended up in an inferior position pretty quickly. I’m happy to note that I didn’t resign just because he ended up in side, but fought as hard as I damn well could to avoid being flattened out and giving him those positional points (and that positional advantage for submission). Sadly, while I succeeded reasonably well in not being flattened out, I succeeded less well in preventing him from choking me out, and lost to submission.

Still, in spite of 0 for 2, and although it’s possible I may change my mind once I see the video, I felt and feel pretty good about it. So I lost my two fights. I expected to lose my fights; I went to get my first tournament over with and for the experience and for all the improvements I thought I would see thanks to the competition team classes, and I got all that I wanted. In addition, I know that I was disadvantaged in my first fight because I’m effectively fighting above my proper weight class; the cut-off was 181 lbs (in gi), and I weighed in at a mere 183 lbs. (I’m surprised I lost so much weight in just a few weeks of simply eating healthier food; a month ago I weighed in at 190 lbs! A few more months of this and getting below 181 lbs by February will happen automatically, no cutting reqiured.)

I suppose there are three take-home points from this tournament for me, though the first two were already obvious: Viz., that I need to be more aggressive when appropriate, and that I need to improve my escapes from inferior positions, especially mount and side control. The third, though, is this: Tournament fights really aren’t that scary after all. They weren’t really any harder, and not that much more intense, than the rounds we have in competition classes. And in those classes we fight round upon round, back to back; and then I start off already tired from at least one prior class and the warmup for the second class to boot. By comparison, these competition fights aren’t so big a deal! I can do that!

I also felt part of a team in a way I never have before. I’m lousy at team spirit, so if I felt included it means that the team dynamic is operating remarkably well. Funny, that, in a sport that is ultimately individual, where we spend practices strangling each other with gusto… Most particularly, Kabir, a purple belt coach, encouraged me to compete, gave me some advice on game plans, answered questions, and was miscellaneously supportive.

Moving forward, I think I shall compete again. It’s not that I enjoy it so much, although I have to say that I enjoyed the day a great deal more than I had expected; but it worked wonders for my game to prepare for one, and I really don’t think that source has run dry or will any time soon. If I keep training with this kind of mindset, and at least part of the same intensity, I might even begin to feel like I deserve my belt… I also think it will be interesting to see how I perform with a bit more preparation, and after having been on a healthy diet for longer, in a lower weight class. Leaner and meaner, if you will.

¹ I have improved one skill: I have greatly improved my mounted cross choke. After watching this video, I was reminded of or recalled a few details I had been taught before, but tended to forget: Climbing high in the mount, using the first grip to pull the head up to defuse the bump, and crucially, the different way of obtaining the second grip, which tends to take quite a bit of fighting for. Watching Rodrigo also illustrates important principles of using your weight properly. All of a sudden, I went from sinking a mounted cross choke every month or so to getting nine or ten in a night. Before, the mounted cross choke was something I would pretend to go for in the hope of exposing an arm for an americana; now I go for the choke every time and ignore the arm unless it comes on a silver platter.

² When I say that my opponent was tough, this is not inference just from him beating me, but also from watching his fight with Chad. The latter is a member of my school, and has this habit of winning everything—for instance, I gather that he won our weight class and the blue belt open weight division yesterday, and no one is surprised. When Chad beat my opponent by so narrow a margin as 2–0, that qualifies that opponent as tough in my book!

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I really, really should have done this a long time ago—at white belt, when I felt less pressure and because I’d be better now with the experience under my belt. Still, better late than never. After four years of practicing BJJ and disgracefully not competing, it’s time to pop that cherry and compete in the CBJJF BC Open on November 5.

It’s not so much the competition itself—maybe I’ll enjoy it, maybe I won’t; I’m hoping I will but don’t have high hopes (I tend to get too nervous when competing in anything to enjoy it). Still, it will be valuable experience and both the training leading up to the tournament and the tournament itself will force me to address the biggest weakness in my game: The lack of will and drive to win, the tendency when things go south to lie back and go Meh, what does it matter? It’s just rolling. What else—we’ll see.

Wish me luck, and remember me fondly or not at all (don’t waste time on bitterness, people). Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need a training montage or something.

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So after having my legs hurt along the inside of the tibia after running in SwordFit, I went to a doctor and described the pain. A brief description later, he asked whether I have flat feet. Clearly he had generated a working hypothesis and was making a prediction based thereon. It was a pretty good working hypothesis, as I do indeed have flat feet.

The pain was shin splints, an inflammation of the connective tissues about the tibia (the Swedish term, benhinneinflammation, literally means “bone-membrane inflammation”). The solution, the doctor assured me, is custom-made orthotics to provide some arch support and prevent over-pronation.

Fair enough, so I found a place that makes orthotics, and I made an inquiry to my insurance company (the extended health provider through work) to see what they would cover. It turns out that they will cover orthotics (up to $200, I think), but only if I provide a Biomechanical Assessment, which has to come from a podiatrist, chiropodist, or chiropractor(?!). So I have to see a podiatrist. So of course I want a referral to a podiatrist, to get everything covered by insurance I possibly can…

So I got my referral and my podiatry appointment—it was pretty quick, actually, I only had to wait about a week. Today I saw the podiatrist, a Dr. Polonsky, who was a remarkably personable fellow. He concurred with the earlier diagnoses and agreed that orthotics are indicated, but also noticed excessive tightness in my gastroc/soleus group, which is not something obscene but refers to the gastrocnemius and associated muscles in my calves. He was troubled by the limited dorsoflexion of my feet and suggested that this probably contributes to the problem.

So, now I need two things:

  1. I need to see the podiatrist again to have casts made of my feet, in order to make the orthotics. I’m not sure exactly when, but it may be as early as tomorrow!—he won’t know until later in the day whether his schedule permits. If so, I’ll probably miss Mastery tomorrow, but I think it’s worth it. If not, it may be a week or so.

  2. I should start some regular stretching regimen—nothing crazy, just a couple of minutes a day (I believe he actually suggested three minutes, though no great sense of precision was conveyed), so I need to come up with a good set of stretches for the gastrocnemius, or gastro-solius group, or at any rate my calves, which (a) works and (b) is short and simple enough that I have any hope of actually sticking to it. (He also suggested that a stretch known as the dead bug might help with some of my lumbar issues.)

Progress is being made, I suppose.

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June 10, I wrote on Facebook:

There’s nothing quite like a major sporting event to dial my everyday alienation and misanthropy up to a seething hatred for humanity.

As I witness the howling, drunken masses lurching down the streets, banging on the (large, expensive) windows of streetside businesses, I imagine I know what the Romans envisioned when they said “Hannibal ad portas”; and wish I didn’t have to admit to membership of the same species.

I also had another exchange running something like this:

Person A: Y'all may hate it, but strangers don't usually look so happy to see and physically engage with you.

Me: When “physical engagement” comes in the form of a stranger rushing at me, screaming and waving their hands about, I don’t get the vibe of happiness—I feel physically threatened. I can’t read people like that; I have no understanding of their thought processes (if any), and I’ve had people jeer at my obvious lack of enthusiasm before: Only wonder how long some asshole is going to be drunk and irate enough to take a swing at me for it.

Person B: You have felt threatened by people wanting to high-five you?

Me: Maybe? The problem is that it’s a matter of perception. To you they are people wanting to high-five me. To me they are drunken idiots with all the predictability of dingos; with their concern for the safety of others demonstrated by window-banging (and yesterday also my kicked-over bike), and testified to by the sirens of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances; and with their friendly inclusiveness to strangers shown by angry jeers at the slightest hesitation to exhibit a simular hysteria. But mostly it’s the unpredictability: You view them as “people wanting to high-five you”; I view them as people caught in the grips of some mass hysteria that I cannot begin to comprehend.

I’m not saying that my perception (except for the asides) is objectively true, but that’s not the point; I’m not trying to argue that I’m right and you’re wrong. I’m just saying that if you read my comment and thought that my thought process was “Ah, that guy wants to high-five me—shit, what do I do?”, you misunderstand the issue.

Today, I suppose, my concerns are vindicated, though I don’t feel particularly smug about it: Next time, my reply would simply be June 2011.

Yesterday, a team of people hired from various places around the world to represent Vancouver¹ in a pointless sport² lost a match in said pointless sport to a team hired from various places around the world (including Vancouver, I gather) to represent another city. In response to this, a bunch of contemptible rabble among the 100,000 people gathered downtown to watch the event engaged in various criminal acts, ranging from violence (there were stabbings, head traumas, many fights, and one fan of the opposing team somehow fell off a bridge) to widespread property destruction and looting. How bad was it? I’m not going to embed any picture or video because it’s too depressing. If you wish, you can browse YouTube videos or Google Images. It’s awful.

Today that area of downtown is dominated by the glimmer of shattered glass on the pavement, by boarded-up voids where >$1000 plate glass windows previously covered storefronts—and on a more heartening note, by crowds of gloved volunteers carrying brooms or garbage bags.

Last night my primary response was a sort of general, impotent anger at the whole thing, and (once I knew people were safely out of downtown) a fear that something important would get damaged: There were fires just across from the central branch of Vancouver Public Library, housing about 1.5 million books³; and of course there’s Academie Duello (where, too, I keep my rather expensive practice sword). Today, though, after seeing the aftermath, that anger is mostly replaced by sadness. Don’t get me wrong: I’d like to see the core looters lined up and shot in the face with rubber bullets and/or tear gas grenades, and I’m petty and vindictive enough to find the image of a rioter hit in the groin with a flashbang grenade hilarious. But mostly I’m sad that something like this happened, or could happen.

I also find it sort of frightening. True, out of the 100,000 or so hockey fans who thronged downtown yesterday, probably no more than a few dozen or scores were there to cause trouble—but when trouble began, the crowds became mobs, as I gather crowds do. The looting was not committed by only a few people, nor were all the people who were beaten assaulted by people who came there explicitly to cause trouble. A tiny minority came with malicious intent; a much larger minority was caught up in mob mentality; enormous numbers of people were not directly involved but stood around, taking pictures, and incidentally getting in the way of the police (the Vancouver Police Department has only something over a thousand officers total); it was so bad that the police denied entry to some areas to the fire department because they felt it was so unsafe that it was better to let some fires just burn.

And people wonder why I feel ill at ease and unsafe when hockey fans run howling at me? True, the proportion that go out and riot is tiny; the proportion who will take a woman’s refusal to high-five as a reason to slap her ass is tiny⁴; the proportion of people who will even yell Fuck you! in my face for having the temerity to read a book in public while waiting at a train station⁵ is still quite small—but when some hyped-up asshole runs at me, it’s not immediately obvious to me that they are one of the happy, harmless ones. I’m uncomfortable around large groups of people and don’t know how to interact even with placid ones; I’m unable to read large ones; I don’t want to be in the same city when I have any reason to think it may turn violent—and around hockey events, there’s always reason to think it may turn violent.

Someone mentioned the notion of Vancouver having its franchise revoked, being banned from the NHL. I hope that happens, and not merely out of spite and personal dislike of hockey (see ²), but also because if the city cannot run this sort of thing safely and without numerous injuries and massive property damage—in spite of what I gather was a rather heroic effort by the overwhelmed police force—then it should not run it at all.

¹ Cf. Mitchell & Webb.

² I personally dislike hockey and fail to see how anyone can possibly find it entertaining, but I concede that it’s really no more and no less pointless than many of the things that I enjoy for no sensible reason but simply enjoyment, of course, like watching sketch comedy, listening to music, and so forth. The point is not that people are stupid for liking hockey but that it’s a profoundly stupid thing to get so worked up about.

³ How many books are a human life worth, and vice versa? If they’re rioters or looters, I’d rate them about even with Harlequin romances.

⁴ Not hypothetical.

⁵ Not hypothetical, but only unpleasant, rather mildly compared to the above. The book, incidentally, was The Eighth Day of Creation.

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Given that I don’t know that many people, I am surprised that I ran into so many people this weekend. It seems that I ran into more people I know, than I actually know.

Friday, while at Steamworks with Sarah, I ran into someone I recognised from BJJ (who no longer trains).

Saturday, I rode the Skytrain home together with Rosie, one of the front desk people at Academie Duello. I happened to mention that I go to St. Augustine’s¹ a fair bit. When she mentioned she was going there with a group of people later in the evening and I should join them, I said sure!, because, well, obviously. I was rather surprised, then, when I arrived slightly earlier than her only to run into Katie, another front desk person at Academie Duello, who was there to meet up with yet another Academie Duello person (not a front desk one, but still someone I recognise). A pleasant evening was had (though I think I am beer-ed out for another week).

Then today I walked the short distance to JJ Bean and, thence, to the Skytrain station (had some errands at Metrotown)—during which period I managed to run into two more people I sorta-kinda know, one from Academie Duello, and another whom I met elsewhere but who has briefly trained there (though she was unable to fit it into her regular schedule).

Curious, very curious, and amusing all around.

¹ The first time I was there left me with a sour taste of someone I presume to be the owner, who was unapologetic about having bungled a reservation. Nonetheless, 40 craft/microbrew beers and good food a five-minute walk from home, with good service no matter what the owner may be like: Hard to resist.


Sep. 25th, 2010 02:04 am
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I’m on the bus. It is about 1:30 am. I sit down where I can see other passengers because while I try not to be paranoid, I also try to have some situational awareness at 1:30 am on a Friday night. So, when I sit down to read the Wodehouse I have with me, I make sure that I neither bury my nose in it nor look like I do. Across from me is an attractive young woman, engrossed in something on her mobile phone.

Another stop. A large, slovenly man steps on board: Sweat pants, looks unclean, missing front tooth. He speaks to the attractive young woman; he sounds like he’s drunk or drugged. His presence is clearly unwanted and uncomfortable. Still it’s nothing overtly offensive. He tells her she looks good, what’s her name?, his name is such-and-such, shake hands; where is she from?, he’s from so-and-so…I’m sure you can imagine.

She’s uncomfortable, but fends him off with minimalistic courtesy: Answers questions briefly, not coldly; offers no more, and leaves no leads in her replies. He persists somewhat.

I’m uncomfortable. I don’t want to watch this. That is, I don’t want it to be happening. But what can I do? Part of me wants me to look the man in the eye and tell him I don’t think his advances are welcome. But, realistically, what good will that do? If he were inclined to take a hint, he would have taken one already. If I step in—what will be the woman’s first thought? Gratitude that someone takes her side? Annoyance that someone is presumptuous enough to think she needs protection? Concern and upset that the situation will escalate? —As, of course, it may. This is a large, drunk-or-drugged man making clumsy advances toward a woman; odds are excellent that even a diplomatic approach will be either ignored or met with belligerence, and I am hardly capable of diplomacy.

So I say nothing, do nothing. It’s not cowardice; I’m not afraid, whether or not I might be after due deliberation. At the time the notion doesn’t occur to me one way or another; it’s not courage either. On a public bus, other people around, me with a sturdy umbrella—significant risk of personal injury does not occur to me at the time. Rather, I think: What good would anything do anyway? If I do nothing, the attractive young woman will continue to politely brush off the man until either he or she gets off the bus. If I speak up, I will perhaps make her remember the bus ride as the horribly upsetting one where a shouting match or a fight broke out, rather than one of the many bus rides on which she had to brush off some drunk, obnoxious lout. Or maybe she’d think of mine as the uniquely offensive gesture, as the stranger who decided that she couldn’t take care of herself.

So I do nothing and say nothing; not because I don’t want to, nor because I don’t dare to, but because I figure that the odds are overwhelming that if I do anything, it will improve nothing and perhaps make matters much worse. I get off at my stop; and I walk the rest of the way home to write this. And for the moment I don’t particularly like the world we live in.

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A few weeks ago, I came home from judo and jiu-jitsu feeling fine, went to bed, and woke up with a sore knee. It wasn’t bad, and there was no swelling, so I didn’t feel too concerned. It’s stayed a bit tender for the past several weeks—no pain for the most part, except when extending it fully, or when subject to lateral strain (as e.g. a couple of times in jiu-jitsu last night, when I had to tap out to positions that would not ordinarily be any concern). It was still mild, but it was time to go to a doctor just in case, in particular because I’ve never suffered knee injury and so I don’t know what’s appropriate to shrug off and what to get checked out.

The doctor, after asking and prodding and looking, seemed quite confident that it was merely a light strain or sprain of the medial collateral ligament (MCL)—no tear and no tendon damage, and it’s quite normal for full recovery to take three weeks or so. Thus, I will continue to play it safe in jiu-jitsu and tap out to discomfort (stupid to make it worse), but there seems to be no reason to be very concerned.

This established, I exchanged some remarks about British comedy in general and Monty Python in particular with the doctor, and left. Now back to work.


Aug. 25th, 2010 02:20 pm
haggholm: (Default)

When Sherlock Holmes met his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, at Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem, he died—but popular outcry persuaded Conan Doyle to revive him with an early retcon, explaining his survival thus, in Holmes’s words:

When I reached the end I stood at bay. He drew no weapon, but he rushed at me and threw his long arms around me. He knew that his own game was up, and was only anxious to revenge himself upon me. We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds and clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went. With my face over the brink I saw him fall for a long way. Then he struck a rock, bounced off, and splashed into the water.

The baritsu that Holmes refers to was most likely¹ a real martial art called Bartitsu, a portmanteau of its inventor’s name, Edward Barton-Wright, and jiu-jitsu (in more modern Romanisation, jujutsu). Naming it by a portmanteau was highly appropriate. Bartitsu was created in 1898 or so as an amalgam of

  • British boxing (‘scientific boxing’, as it was grandiosely called at the time; though bare-knuckled);
  • savate (French kickboxing, with shoes);
  • la canne (lit. ‘the cane’; French stick-fighting);
  • and of course jujutsu, which Barton-Wright had learned in Japan.

You can read more about Bartitsu at Wikipedia or many Bartitsu websites, and you can read my own review of the first class here. Me, I’m just trying to decide whether I want to stick with it. It was fun, and will presumably continue to be fun. It’s on Saturday afternoons at 3 pm…when I am already down at the Academie Duello, since my fencing is from noon to 2 pm—I would not sign up if it meant adding another day, or another commute, to my martial arts hobbies; this does neither. On the other hand, that’s another two hours of my Saturday to dedicate, and another $40/month to my already-substantial martial arts bill.

Decisions, decisions…

¹ We may never know, of course, but I feel that no discussion of Bartitsu is quite complete without mentioning Conan Doyle if for no other reason than that the association is so firmly entrenched. In any case, marketing claims that Bartitsu is the martial art that Sherlock Holmes was famous for mastering are silly. It’s mentioned once, misspelled, in the entire Sherlock Holmes canon. On the other hand, it is often remarked that he is a skilled shot, stick fighter, and most especially a very gifted boxer. That was the martial art of Sherlock Holmes.

haggholm: (Default)

Here’s me, looking un-photogenic as usual, hanging out with a niche celebrity:

PZ at the pub

Note that I’m rocking my Warrior Plumbers t-shirt by Raptor Bandit Industries (Christopher Hastings et al, also responsible for The Adventures of Dr. McNinja).

On a perhaps more interesting note, here are someone’s thoughts on PZ’s talk, itself.

haggholm: (Default)

I’ve been doing regular no-gi for months now, and (I’m sure I’ve said this before) it’s been tremendously good for me. In gi, my worst fault was that I was too slow and passive. In no-gi, with sweat and low friction and no gi to grip and hold on to, the game is much faster and being slow and passive will cause you to lose immediately every time. Having immediate feedback has helped me become much more active, and this helps me just as much in gi as in no-gi—the latter just proved an easier forum to develop this attribute in.

The other week I had several things click. After over two years, I suddenly felt like I understood triangles (I’m not saying I am good at them, but as the world’s slowest learner it seems to have taken over two years before I really understood the basic principles, in particular how to move my body to cut the angle—and with my somewhat short and thick legs I have to get that angle right to close my triangles at all). Underscoring that, minutes after telling someone I’ve never, ever landed a triangle in rolling I tapped someone out with an inverted triangle. I don’t even know how to do an inverted triangle, in theory; I couldn’t demonstrate it. But apparently, the principles have somehow been sufficiently ingrained in me that when the opportunity presented itself (during someone’s failed guard pass), I just went there without thinking about the how. (I also caught someone else in a triangle that I would have finished in another ten seconds, but for the fact that the bell rang. For someone who failed to catch anyone in an effective triangle in two years, two in a week isn’t bad.)

I had a similar experience with a weird sweep I pulled off when, for some reason, I decided to stay for the beginners’ class (after my regular intermediate and advanced classes); it was similar to a pendulum sweep but involved my rolling back over my shoulder and landing in reverse kesa gatame. I don’t know if it has a name and I have never done it before or since, but it seems I’ve gained enough experience and perceptiveness that, when I felt my sparring partner off balance, I reacted instinctively to use that to sweep him, however unorthodox (or just unfamiliar) the move itself may have been. Click!

Similarly, working an ankle pick that I can’t recall ever working before, with a beginner, it took me all of one attempt to gain sufficient understanding to explain to him why his first attempts didn’t work. Not talent, but a few years of training has ingrained even in my martially challenged brain some understanding of balance and off-balancing. Click! (The beginner in question then proceeded to get it right and won’t be struggling with those basics for two years…)

I’ve now decided to at least try to make a habit out of going to three classes back-to-back, rather than (as before) two, if I can; certainly at least once a week. There are three reasons for this. One is that more mat time is good; more experience is better. Another is that I could really use some work on my cardio and endurance, and I can think of no better way than to simply do more BJJ.

The third reason is that going specifically to the beginners’ class is helpful to me. As someone with (I still firmly believe) much less than average talent, rolling with my contemporaries can sometimes be a bit dispiriting. There are lots of people who started long after I did who are by now much better than I am. This tends to give me the illusion that I’m making no progress. But that’s not true, of course—I am making progress, just not as much as people who train harder or have more talent than I do. Going back to rolling with beginners gives me a better sense of how I have improved relative to a fixed point (viz., the general skill level of untrained people or people with <N months of experience) rather than a moving target (individuals who are also improving, perhaps faster than me). And I realise that though many of these beginners are probably much more talented than I am and will swiftly overtake and surpass me, right now I can kick their asses. That tells me nothing about them (they will learn, after all), but does tell me that I have learned, because a year ago I could not have kicked the asses of (say) many two-stripe white belts as I now can.

As an addendum, I also think that fighting beginners is good because it allows me a chance to work very weak techniques, like sweeps that I have no chance at all of pulling off on people at my own skill level. My pendulum sweeps are so weak as to be nigh nonexistent; therefore I look for them when I spar beginners. (If I attempt them at people around my own level or better, my attempts will not only fail but also lose my position in a comically inept and disastrous fashion.)

I generally feel that, contrary to the dictum of some, that always fighting the best opponents available is not a great way to proceed. Instead, I want to fight people who are somewhat better than me, or anywhere down from there in skill. Of course I need to fight people who can beat me, to challenge me and force me to develop my defence. Of course I need to fight people at my own level so I can get some properly competitive rolls. But I also feel that I need to spar with people below my level of experience because it gives me a chance to work the techniques I’m particularly bad at, and because it keeps my self-assessment realistic rather than hopelessly pessimistic. (Similarly, in fencing, I like to take the opportunity to fight left-handed when I’m facing a raw beginner.)

This is not to say, of course, that I take some sort of sadistic pleasure in beating up newbies and making their lives miserable. On the contrary, while I do try to score once or twice to avoid getting lazy, I try to give them opportunities to exploit so that they don’t suffer my own problems (getting so used to failure that I tend toward passive defence), and to point out the one or two most glaring problems they have, if any present themselves. (I try to resist the urge to lecture, as it’s rude and I’m poorly qualified; but I figure that it’s OK to say Make sure you pull with your knees or First and foremost, break my posture.)

From the very beginning I’ve described my progress in martial arts, and jiu-jitsu in particular, as perseverance in the face of a daunting lack of talent. I still think it’s an apt description, but I also now think that, slow though that journey may be, the first results are finally becoming visible.


Apr. 4th, 2010 12:49 pm
haggholm: (Default)

If you read my journal at all, you not only know that I now do judo, but may even be getting tired of hearing about it. Alas, you’re out of luck! —I’m here to talk about it some more, because this is my journal: I write about what I like and feel like, and I like judo, and I feel like judo…

My Gracie Barra BJJ gym first started offering judo classes in January, when a couple of judo instructors were brought in for one class per week—this was soon increased to two. Judo, of course, sharing a history and a huge set of techniques with BJJ, ties in very well. With a focus on stand-up fighting, throws, etc., it complements BJJ—which focuses on groundwork, chokes, joint locks—very well. I get the impression that our gym was reasonably strong in stand-up in stand-up already¹, but clearly it could be improved substantially with the addition of instructors who specialise in it.

Of course, judo is an eminently capable martial art on its own: Like BJJ, it has a rich history and culture of competition, and competition is a great way (perhaps the only way?) to keep a martial art honest, by weeding out ineffective techniques, and with tournaments preventing the idiosyncrasies of any one school from any cobwebs entering the picture.

Of course, since I don’t compete—never yet have, though I probably should²—the main reason why I decided to take up judo was that I thought it would be fun. The fact that it merges seamlessly with my jiu-jitsu is nice, but hardly a make-or-break feature… Well, I’m here to tell you that I was right: Judo is so much fun!

Initially I found it a little bit intimidating, since I had little confidence in my ukemi and didn’t like to take falls. I still have to force myself to relax sometimes, but a couple of months of judo have taught me that falling in randori really won’t kill me—though sometimes it kind of sucks when the other guy is a judo guy with the judo tendency to fall with and on you. I weigh close to 190 lbs all by myself; I don’t need a similarly-sized guy adding his own falling body weight on my ribs as I hit the ground…

It’s also the first martial art I’ve taken thus far where I feel like I’m actually sort of getting it right away. Karate, BJJ, and fencing all were and remain struggles. I don’t really mind that, but it’s nice to see a change.

I should hasten to add that I don’t imagine that my feeling that judo is so far easier to pick up is any indication of talent. Rather, two years of BJJ has equipped me with a basic repertoire of judo throws that I’m not very good at, but basically know, so that they can be brought up to a useful level fairly quickly in a more conducive setting—in classes that focus almost entirely on stand-up, with coaches who rightly regard it as their specialty… Judo is said to be very difficult to learn, and I’m quite sure I will hit a wall sooner or later and start struggling with the usual plateaus of progress and learning, but right now I’m coasting on the fact that I’m not starting from square one. And while I am fairly at peace with progress-in-spite-of-lack-of-talent as a useful challenge in martial arts, it’s nice to learn something without struggling for once.

Technique notes:

A game of footsweeps ending with hiza guruma seems to be my strongest randori game so far. I often try to go for uchi mata, but I’ve yet to hit it. I have more luck with harai goshi. In uchikomi/nagekomi practice, harai goshi is often my strongest throw…though some days some wires get crossed in my brain, or something, and I can hardly do it at all.

My most satisfying throws tend to be o goshi. However, it seems it only really works for me on people taller than I am, when I can more easily fit in my entry… I do like the throw a lot, though, and even moreso since it works unmodified without a gi.

¹ Though as I’m not really involved in competitions in any way, my word is hardly authorative.

² I’m sure it would do me some good, but it’s hard to feel gung-ho about it when the argument pro sounds like the motivation for eating your broccoli.

haggholm: (Default)

I only wish I could smile properly for the camera, but alas, my affected smiles look afflicted. That aside, I think I’ve finally found my style…

See my vest!

See my vest! See my vest!
Made from cotton and polyest

Apologies to The Simpsons.

haggholm: (Default)

Tentatively, my jiu-jitsu schedule will be Mondays (5 Intermediate, 6 judo) and Wednesdays (5 pm Fundamentals, 6 pm Intermediate No-gi). This, to my chagrin, involves getting up earlier in the morning (as I must leave work earlier to make the 5 pm classes), but there you are. I also rather wish I had more than one Intermediate gi class per week, but no other times work nearly as well.

Today, therefore, I went to the no-gi class. (No-gi means no jacket is worn, and rules forbid grabbing any clothing.) I think it’s fair to say that I have no no-gi experience at all—I went to 2–3, maybe 4 classes, over a year ago, but that’s it. And the game is very different. The obvious difference is that a lot of techniques are rendered entirely impossible—no more collar chokes, for starters. A less obvious difference is that even techniques that don’t rely directly on grabbing the gi are rendered easier by it, as the rough cloth gives good purchase. No-gi is, in a word, slippery in comparison—and is therefore a lot faster. It also makes submissions harder to secure, as a grip that would be fine if it had the traction of gi on gi to rely on may be useless when it’s sweaty skin on skin (or, as I prefer it, rashguard on rashguard).

It was a lot of fun, and it was very exhausting. It also went better than I expected, because my favourite techniques from the gi happen to be ones that carry over well—my number one go-to technique is the americana (a.k.a. paintbrush, upper key lock, figure-four shoulder lock, or ude-garami in judo)—americana from side control, which works fine with no-gi. From the back I don’t often go for gi chokes, but prefer the simple rear naked choke—which works in no-gi. I even made a decent though not-quite-successful couple of attempts at omoplatas, which I generally never go for. (My opponent rolled out of them before I could flatten him out, but I was at least close, and I didn’t lose my dominant position.)

I always prefer techniques that work with or without the gi, for psychological reasons, I suppose; I like the notion that my techniques work regardless of what an opponent may happen to wear. (It also works better in horseplay and rough-housing with friends and lovers…)

Monday I will get my first taste of judo. That’ll be interesting, and I tentatively regard it as the second silver lining to the (unfortunately mostly detrimental) schedule changes I’m having to make.

haggholm: (Default)

Whenever I see a gay or lesbian couple
walking down the street, hand in hand
I smile
because it makes me happy to live in a time and place, where
for all its faults
they are able to do that, unafraid.
Then I try to hide my smile
because I don’t want them to feel regarded as a spectacle.

haggholm: (Default)

…Was pretty good. My energy levels are back up to normal (credit to Dr. Bressler!). Today I went to two classes back-to-back for the first time in ages, and though I’m fairly wiped, I feel good. Of course my cardio is still pretty bad, but it always was; at least I can make it through two classes again…

On a more ambiguous note, I received the fourth stripe on my white belt (which means that the next time I get any kind of promotion, I’m a blue belt—I expect this to take a while). It’s more ambiguous, first, because I have a lot of lingering doubts as to how deserving I am, and second, because it has been my unspoken resolution for quite some time that I want to compete in at least one tournament before I get my blue belt. It may be the only tournament I ever go to—I can’t envision myself becoming a regular competitor—but I don’t want a blue belt without at least knowing what a tournament is like; and I regard it as fairly important to a martial artist to have tested his techniques under pressure.

And, if I’m ever going to compete, I may as well do it while I am near the top of a belt division in terms of experience: Better to make an attempt as a senior white belt than to enter as a junior blue belt. I expect to lose in short order either way (and hear a lot about my self-defeating attitude both before and after), but as a senior white I can at least feel like there’s a point in trying.

So that’s a somewhat nervous thing to contemplate in the near future. I will definitely have to work on my cardio for that, whenever I do it.

haggholm: (Default)

Lately, I have begun to think differently about failures and shortcomings when I cook. Where I used to think Damn, this is not as good as it could be (or Damn, this is terrible!), I now seem to think things like Next time I should use more salt, or I should change the balance of root vegetables in this stew, go a little easier on the white pepper, and let the potatoes simmer just a little bit longer. This seems significant—not so much because I’ve gained more knowledge (though clearly I have, if those adjustments have any merit, and they seem to), but more because I regard a sub-par dinner as a learning experience rather than a soul-crushing failure.

As for this weekend: Today’s seafood stew is really pretty mediocre, but will feed me adequately for a few days of work (stews have the advantages, after all, of being easy to make in large quantities, and re-heating rather well); last night’s herb encrusted flat iron steaks were excellent, even if they could have used another little bit of that sea salt. (The cut helps, of course. Flat iron steaks are beautifully marbled and, well, basically the best beef you can get, as far as I am concerned.)


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