Thursday, June 12, 2008

Unconscious Learning

Following up on the Jade post:

In 1967, my then-pregnant wife and I packed everything we wanted to keep into two trunks and two suitcases, sold or gave away everything else, and got on a plane to L.A.

There were two reasons for this: One, to get away from our families and establish ourselves on our own. In our youthful arrogance, we felt as if our parents were looking at us and saying, "Look, how cute -- they're married!" We were nineteen, by God, and adults!

So funny now to think about how much we thought we knew then.

The second reason was because I much wanted to continue my martial arts training, and in a place where there was more than one option; in Baton Rouge at the time, there was one karate school, and you had to go to the Y to study judo. In the karate school, we mostly studied forms, and we didn't spar -- our teacher thought it was too dangerous.

You can't learn how to fight practicing on your own in front of the mirror.

It was either L.A., San Francisco, or New York City if you were looking for Asian martial arts in those days, and I had a grandmother living in SoCal, so off we went.

It was an adventure -- no job, not much money, but we were just turned twenty and bulletproof. We played until our money ran out. I got a job, first place I looked, working backup/inside sales for an aluminum company. We moved out of the hotel, found a ratty apartment, and we were gold.

After visiting maybe twelve other MA schools, I began training in Okinawa-te. Place was close to our house, and I didn't have a car, only a little Yamaha motorbike. (First car we got, just before my son was born, was a '61 Corvair, aka The Death Machine, Usafe at Any Speed, with the driver's door roped shut because that side of the car had been bashed in.)

The sparring at the Okinawa-te class sold me: it looked brutal -- and was. I figured my Goju training, also Okinawan, would be useful. (It wasn't, but no matter. There we were.)

I was training three or four nights a week, consecutive classes each night, totaling three hours, and working at the aluminum company in my white shirt and tie, weekdays and some Saturdays.

The Okinawa-te dojo was old-style. You bowed when you entered the building. Took your shoes off inside the door. Bowed when you stepped onto the mat. Bowed to the teacher. Bowed to your fellow students every time you did anything.We bobbed up and down like one of those little perpetual motion birds that dips its bill into a glass of water ...

I didn't think anything of it. It was part of the trip. The bow was to show respect to the school, our teacher, our opponents, and we just did it without thinking.

One fine morning at work, I was summoned to the VP's office, to collect some worksheets for a bid we were working on for Boeing or Hughes or Douglas, I can't recall which. As I reached the doorway, I stopped, and automatically bowed.

I was horrified. Ohmigod, people didn't do that in this country! What if somebody saw? They already thought I was a weirdo, but if I was doing my Mr. Moto/Charlie Chan imitation, how much weirder would that make me?

It shook me, because I realized for the first time that doing something by rote over and over without thinking about could seep into your life, and not necessarily in a good way.

In real combat, range habits can get you shot. Stopping to collect your dropped magazine or to pick up your spent brass because that's what you always do at the gun club are bad ideas if somebody is shooting back at you, but people do it. You fight like you train.

This is why bowing, taking a stance, and always backing up when your fellow martial art student attacks, then counter-punching can be a dangerous sequence. That's how we did it in Okinawa-te, and it took me years to unlearn that when I got into silat. Backing up works in some cases. In some, it gets you creamed. You need alternatives.

The closer you can get in practice to how you might see it outside the dojo, the better. Street clothes, various terrains, starting from neutral or every day stances, like that, are more apt to be useful -- come the dill, as Mack Reynolds used to say.

Wait! Wait! Let me take my shoes off! You didn't bow! You cheater!

Any kind of training less than full-out, no-hold-barred will have, by its nature, limitations. The alternative is that every session, some folks won't leave class under their own power, and the authorities frown on that. If you keep breaking your toys, pretty soon you don't have any left. (Or you get broken, which is not any better ...)

So the balance is how to train at less than full-out, and to learn what you need, which is tricky. You can wear protective gear, alter your aim rather than pulling a strike -- hit somebody in the chest or shoulder instead of the nose -- and practice slowly and with less than full power until you and your opponent can speed up, hit harder, and deal with it.

At this stage of the game, if I miss a block and get thumped, it's my fault. I know that the guy is trying to hit me, and I have the skills to stop it, so shame on me if I don't take care of it.

In boxing, the referee says this before every match, it's the #1 rule: Protect yourself at all times. The bell isn't a stone wall, and lot of guys have been sucker punched after the round ended.

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