Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Introduction to the History of Our Version of Silat in America, Sorta

Pentjak Silat -- also spelled "pencak," with the "c" now taking the "tj" sound, for reasons having to do with Dutch colonialism and Indonesian nationalism -- is a fighting art from Southeast Asia.

There are myriad variants of this stuff. Every other village -- maybe all of 'em -- in Indonesia has its own homegrown style, hundreds, maybe thousands of different one used to exist. Many of these have been lost, many more homoginized and blended into others.

I'll speak generally here, with the caveat that such generalizations don't cover all the specifics -- there are exceptions.

Without going back to the beginning of recorded history, a brief bit of background.

First, the term: Pentjak silat means "the motions of fighting." The first word refers more to the form it takes, the second, to fighting per se. And it's a fairly new term. A hundred years ago, that wasn't what it was called. Just as Native Americans called themselves by their tribes -- Sioux, or Apache, for instance, and then subdivided those names into others -- Lakota or Chiricahua or Mescalero -- and there were no "Indians," thus did the Malaysians and Indonesians names their local arts.

While there were indigenous arts, usually based on the blade, Indonesians were and still are big on incorporating useful techniques from other styles. Thus the Chinese-Indonesian communuity's fighting art, based on what is usually called kung-fu, though that's another whole ball of wax, and called kun-tao, was often blended into what would eventually be called penjtak silat. Until the Dutch were kicked out of Indonesia, many silat schools went by the generic term of kun-tao or bersilat. And everybody would borrow stuff from everybody else -- if they thought it worked.

A fighter who saw move that worked, of course he'd swipe it. All martial arts have a thief in them somewhere, even the original one, whatever it might be, where moves of animals were often copied.

Um. Anyway, to shorten the story, the version of this art I study is called Pukulan Penjak Silat Sera(k). (There is some controversy about the "k," and I won't go into it here. But it is silent anyhow, so the final word is pronounced "Seh-rah," and that "r" is soft.)

This art comes from Java, more specifically western Java, and is probably a variation of Tjimande (aka "Cimande"), which is one of the oldest and most-practiced of the Javanese fighting systems. There is much contention about this, too, but this is what we believe. Anybody living in that region of the country would have likely come across Tjimande, and if they didn't steal from it, that would be unusual.

The art is named for the creator, known as Bapak Sera, which is yet another point of argument.

Silat Sera was brought to this country by the brothers de Thouars, Dutch-Indonesians, of whom there are still three living in the U.S.: Paul, Willem, and Victor. There is another brother, Maurice, and various cousins living in Holland.

In our style, Paul is the most senior U.S. teacher, and is given the honorific "Pendekar." This is a loaded word with a lot of different meanings, depending on whom is doing the defining, but suffice it to say that for my purpose here, it means he's the head of the system.

The brothers are a contentious and cantankerous lot (as silat players generally seem to be) and currently most of them a) aren't talking to each other b) aren't talking to their own senior-most students.

One of Paul de Thouars senior-most students is Stevan Plinck, also Dutch-Indonesian, born in Holland, but raised in the U.S. Many in the art consider Stevan to be Paul's finest and most accomplished student, me among them.

Stevan is my teacher. I've been training for something over ten years now.

Generally, teachers in silat are referred to in the U.S. as "Guru." Sometimes "Maha Guru," which in our context, means a particularly-gifted teacher, even though that is not the literal meaning in Bahasa Indonesian. Good teachers don't call themselves "Maha," but sometimes their students like to show a certain level of respect, and will use the term. I do so, and if people don't like it, too bad.

The art arrived here with the brothers in the early 1960's, and was considered a "closed door" system for some years, i.e., it was not offered to the public at large, but only to select students, who were usually Indonesians or Dutch-Indos.

Eventually, that changed. Daughter-arts, essentially stripped-down versions of the mother art of Sera(k) were developed by Paul and Victor, and used to screen American students. If you stayed long enough to master the skinny daughter, you might be introduced to the more voluptuous mother, as it were.

Our version of the art looks something like a combination of wing-chun boxing and grappling, though it is neither, the principles being radically different. It is based on the knife, and -- generally -- involves closing, smothering the attack, striking as necessary, and finishing with a takedown or throw. There is groundwork, and it is designed to deal with armed, multiple opponents.

To read more about it, go to Maha Guru Plinck's website, and check out the pages that Todd Ellner and Tiel Jackson have graciously put there: http://www.pencaksilat.com/

A few words about the image: Paul's logo is a garuda (eagle) with a tiger's head emerging from the bird's chest, with the eagle's talons wrapped around a pair of traditional Indonesian weapons, short tridents that are somewhat like the Japanese sai.

Stevan's logo honors the design, but changes it to American tropes: The bird is a red-tailed hawk, the cat is a mountain lion, and there is a Bowie knife and a trident in the hawk's talons.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dog Philosophy (The Dog Whisperer)

I've been a dog owner most of my life -- my parents had dogs, too -- and I like the critters. Better than I like a lot of people, to be honest. But learning how dogs work has been a long and slow process. (Not just for me, it seems, but for the world in general.)

Each time we get another dog, we try to apply the lessons we learned from the previous one, to make the dog's life, and ours, better.

Currently, my wife and I have two dogs -- a very old German Shepherd and a young Cardigan Corgi.
We lost our female shepherd Cady a year or so back, and she was the dog of a lifetime -- smart, funny, and spoiled. We loved her, but we couldn't take her anywhere there were other dogs because she went into a barking frenzy and we never learned how to stop it.

We loved her, but we weren't the best owners -- she could have had a much richer life if we could have taken her places like an outdoor cafe to lie at our feet and enjoy the passersby.

So with the new pup -- Jude -- we started socializing him early. Puppy classes, walks where we'd run into other dogs, visits to the pet store, like that, and so far that has worked -- he doesn't woof at others, and he gets along well with them.

But Jude is hard-headed and wants to be dominant, and we've had to work to keep him from taking over.

Enter Cesar Millan, aka "The Dog Whisperer," (National Geographic Channel.) We came across him in the New Yorker, liked what we read, and then found the TV show.

What he offers seems to be common sense: Exercise, discipline, affection. But more important, perhaps, is his admonition that dogs are not humans in fur suits, but animals with their own psychology. He teaches what he sees as pack-leader behavior. And his idea seems to be that you can have a well-behaved dog without breaking his spirit or hurting him, and you do it by becoming the alpha dog of your own pack.

Essentially, teaching the dog's owner how to be a dog ...

Cesar is from Mexico, got his training informally, no degrees. A lot of what he does seems to be intuitive, and based on his experience with particularly aggressive dogs. And in the dog-training world, he gets a lot of flak. Some of this is due to honest differences of training philosophy. Some of it is probably due to jealously -- here's this uneducated guy from Mexico who has his own TV show and books and seminars doing pretty well for himself essentially telling folks what seems too easy -- exercise your dog, correct him when he does something you think he shouldn't, and love on him when he behaves well.

I've had dog trainers look at me and go, "Well, duh!" but you speak to a passing parade and if you haven't heard it before, it can be a revelation.

Some academic dog experts come absolutely unglued at these notions, and sound and look like Donald Duck having a temper tantrum ...

I don't expect that that man is perfect -- nobody bats a thousand -- and now that he is well-known and well-0ff, there have been a couple of lawsuits. One from somebody about his dog, the other from a business partner who wants credit and/or money. I can't speak to the merits of these cases, but I find it interesting that such things tend to crop up more often once somebody gets a high profile.

And I'd like to see some episodes of the show with outtakes that better demonstrate the idea that you aren't always going to solve a dog's problems in a twenty-minute segment of an hour-long show, because certainly that won't be the case.

What I have found is that the techniques Cesar offers (with all the disclaimers that say not to try this at home without a professional) have been immediately helpful with my Corgi pup, and I'm happy that I came across the guy.

Worth a look if you have a dog that has problems. In my opinion.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Martial Arts Philosophy

Meher Baba, the Indian sage, offered a bit of wisdom about fighting. He spoke of the non-violence of the strong. You don't bother anybody, but if somebody attacks you, you have an option that the weak do not have. You can fight back.

Even Gandhi spoke to this. He said that non-violence did not mean cowardice, and if the choice was between violence or cowardice, he'd pick violence.

I have always liked this concept. If you can kick serious ass and you know it, it means you don't have to do it just to prove something, either to yourself or others.

You can be pretty much a pacifist, in that you don't initiate violence against another, but you don't have to cower, if push does come to shove and you cannot avoid it.

The first rule of fighting safety is, whenever possible, run away. They can't hit you if they can't catch you. But if you are out walking with your slow-moving granny or your toddler, running isn't really an option. If you boogie and leave them behind, it might make the next family get-together somewhat awkward ...

Baba's philosophy works for me morally, and it also works legally. In most places in the western world, the law recognizes that citizens have a right to self-defense. If some thug attacks you, you may protect yourself with any and all means necessary to accomplish the chore.

This does not cover revenge -- if the attacker ceases his attack after you punch him in the nose and runs away, you don't get to follow him and continue to kick the crap out of him. Nor stab, nor shoot, and all like that. You are allowed to use only as much force as necessary to stop the danger to yourself or your loved ones (or even an innocent bystander you might not personally know.) No more that that. None. Zip. Zero.

As soon as you see that he ceases to be a danger, you have to stop.

As you are the person on the scene, you will have to determine what amount of force you deem necessary; however, you should be prepared to defend your decision in a court of law, because it could very likely end up there.

If your drunken Uncle Harold takes a swing at you at the Christmas party, generally speaking, you don't get to pull out your .44 Magnum and shoot him until you run out of ammo. If you are five-one and a hundred pounds and he is Goliath on steroids, maybe your lawyer can make the case, but you need to realize you might be betting your life on the verdict.

Plus the next family gathering is going to be awkward ...

That said, chosing a method of self-defense that works is the next topic. My choice, after years of trying all manner of marital arts, is an Indonesian art called penjak silat. My version comes from Java, and the full name is Pukulan Penjak Silat Sera. Sounds like it should come with peanut sauce, but it's actually a blade-based fighting style that involves striking and grappling, with the finishing moves often being takedowns or throws.

There are other arts that work well, this just happens to be the one that called to me.

Silat is still fairly uncommon in the U.S., only a relative handful of teachers and players. I've written about it at some length in my fiction: Silat is featured in the Tom Clancy Net Force series of novels, as well as my own recent book, "The Musashi Flex."

More on the specifics of the art later.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Guitar Philosophy

Like a lot of guys my age, I got a guitar in the sixties, learned the requisite three chords, and thought I was gonna be the next Bob Dylan. A buddy with about the same ability and I and his wife formed a folk trio and wrote some dreadful and pedantic protest music, which we croaked at anybody who would slow down enough to listen. Did a couple of coffee house gigs, hootnannies in the park, like that. Where have all the flowers gone? Eve of Destruction. Blowin' in the Wind ...

Cut a demo tape long ago and far away, but I suspect it went straight into the agent's garbage can the second we walked out the door ...

We were awful. Couldn't play, couldn't sing, but since that didn't stop Dylan, we figured what-the-hell.

Thing is, we couldn't write, either, and he could.

About 1968 or thereabouts, my buddy went to Leavenworth for eighteen months, as a result of taking a long vacation from the Army without their permission, and I stashed the guitar next to the file cabinet for the next thirty-odd years.

A couple years ago, after watching my silat teacher play -- he's a world-class guitarist -- I decided I need some other way to be creative besides writing, so I dusted off the old guitar and started trying to teach myself how to play. On a scale of 1-10, I'm probably about a 2.5. I know a few simple instrumental tunes, and I can sing along with a few others. I spend an hour or thereabouts a day practicing, and the dogs haven't run off yet ...

I do like listening to guitar players who know how to do it, from classical to pop to rock to blues to country to, well, pretty much anybody who can nail it down. Like silat, I won't live long enough to get good, but we do what we can with what we got.

Which brings me to my header slogan: If you do the best you can, nothing else matters worth a damn.

I have several of those slogans which form the core of my life philosophy. Three of them are posted over my desk, the fourth is on a little brass plaque on my gun cleaning kit.

"And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." (Lennon and McCartney, last line of the last song on the last Beatle album.)

"Minimize expectations to avoid being disappointed." (From a Chinese fortune cookie.)

"Lesson for the Millennium: Be in the moment." (My version of Be Here Now.)

"When you know who you are, you know what to do." (George Emery, the Emissaries of Divine Light.)

There are worse things to live by ...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

So, Why Blog?

That would be the question for me. I don't want to put up an online diary. I get plenty of exercise flexing my fingers already. There's a whole bunch of stuff I can stick into my fiction I don't need to expound on in a blog. Pay is way better.

So why come here?

Well, I can offer advice on a couple things I know a bit about. I can wax philosophical. I can (as I suspect a lot of professional writers do) use a blog to put off Real Work. And writers all know that Real Work consists of putting pages into a stack, or at least into a computer folder -- research, email, surfing the web, and blogging don't count.

So, that's what I see this as being, least for now. Maybe I can be be part of the solution and not part of the problem; maybe my experience, (as Bob Fosse has Ben Vereen say in "All that Jazz") "on the great stage of life" might be useful to somebody going down a road I've already traveled.

And -- let's be honest here -- sooner or later I want to do a non-fiction book that will probably consists of essays I've written. I have a bunch of those in files already, but if I put them up here, they get pre-read -- maybe -- and maybe some useful comments added. So maybe this is as much a book-in-progress as anything.