Saturday, May 06, 2017

Twin Oaks

Sometimes, you get a notion, a scene, or an idea, a character, and if you are a writer, you have to — must — write it down before you lose it. If you wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant notion about anything, by the way, best you try and write it down in some form you will be able to use to recall it, because if you don’t, it will be gone in the morning.

This piece? I dunno where it will go, have no story or book upon which I am working into which it will fit without some stretching and prodding, but I had to write it. I wanted to give it the ring of truth, to make it something that somebody could read and nod and say, Yeah, I can believe this happened. 

How writers do that varies, but precise details in the right place can sometimes sell it.

Um Anyway, here it is:


Things change.

In the spring of 1881, Lucas and Katherine Stillwell borrowed money from family and a small bank they would outlast, and bought a hundred and sixty acres just west of the Sabine River, in Jasper County Texas. Good farm- and cattle-land, and since they were both farmer folk, they expected they would thrive.

Thrive they did.

On the way to the house they built, right next to the dirt road, there were two oak trees about thirty yards apart, probably a hundred and fifty years old, those trees, and almost identical, and the Stillwells saw these and named the place “Twin Oaks.”

They weren’t the first to name a farm that way, nor the last. 

Children were born and reared, crops sowed and harvested, cattle run, chickens and dogs roamed the yard, cats ate mice and rats in the barns. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was, by and large, good, and the family prospered.

In the fall of 1919, a late-season, dying hurricane blew through East Texas and the tree nearer the house caught a hard gust and crashed down, thick roots peeled up like a boy pulling up a weed.

A week later, Lucus Stillwater, fifty-four, had a heart attack and passed into the next world.

In the summer of 1941, lightning from a major thunderstorm struck the remaining oak tree and split it more or less vertically down the middle to within six feet of the ground. Bugs and disease found their way inside, even though it was patched with concrete, and during a winter storm three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the wind and rot combined to topple the remaining oak.

Four days later, Katherine Stillwell had a massive stroke that paralyzed one side of her body and took her speech. The family put her into a wheelchair, and she lingered until the spring of 1942, dying from pneumonia.

They buried her in the family plot next to Lucas and the two babies who passed over shortly after birth.

Now, you might well think this story is a metaphor about trees and people, but it isn’t. The trees and the Stillwells going as they did? Probably just coincidence, and if it wasn’t, that still isn’t the point.

The story is about change. Nobody born after 1919, save for the grandchildren who would sometimes ask, or some mildly-curious passerby who might find a local who knew, had any reason to know why the farm was called “Twin Oaks.” They might have guessed, but they wouldn’t know.

It’s still called that, by the way, what’s left of it. Most of the property got sold off the developers in the 1950’s, there’s only a twenty acre parcel left upon which the house sits, and the only surviving great-grandson sold that when he up and moved to Los Angeles in 1978, to become an actor. He changed his name, and since he was good-looking and a quick study, he got steady work in the movies and on television — you’d know him if you saw him, oh, yeah, that guy, I’ve seen him! Though he was second male lead a few times, he never had a starring role in a movie. He did get his own television show in the late 1990’s, and it was renewed for a second season when he was killed by a drunk driver going the wrong way on the 405.

Like the trees, the Stillwells of Jasper County, Texas are all gone.

Things change. That’s how it goes.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Thump 'n' Bump

Past three days, I was at a silat seminar in Battle Ground, WA. 

“Silat” here being the short version of Pukulan Pentjak Silat Sera Plinck, a Javanese martial art that features hitting, kicking, elbows, stabbing, cutting, and other ways of whacking people who mean to do you harm.

By the third day of a three-day camp, one tends to be tired, sore, and with a full cup. Given the quality of the teachers and how much they know, it sometimes feels like drinking from a fire hose, but the hope is that some small amounts will get retained …

Maha Guru (which for silat players, means “Great Teacher,”) Plinck is the best-qualified and most excellent teacher of our art, hands down. What he shows and how he delivers it is, simply, superb.

We were honored to have Guru/Sifu/Sensei/etc. Cliff Stuart up from SoCal, sharing a small fraction of his wisdom. Guru Cliff has black belts in, I think, fourteen different arts, a long career as a bodyguard to celebrities who needed such, and who has forgotten more than  most of us in the room combined will ever learn. His compliance techniques, for those times when you don’t want to have unconscious people bleed on your client’s nice carpet, were really impressive. 

Guru Muda Max (“muda” meaning young here), is the newest of the teachers, and whose enthusiasm and skill was a delight to behold. Given that Max is Italian and teaching in English, it was even more impressive. He brought with him a crew of Italian players who had waay too much fun. 

There were other ranked instructors training who, while not listed on the program, nonetheless helped teach the rest of us as the days flowed, notably Don Lee and Derek Sasaki. 

I did a class in how to use a cane if you are impaired enough to need one to stay upright. One does what one can ...

There were twenty-some of us, ranging in age from twenty-something to pushing seventy, and, for once, I was only the second-oldest guy in the room.

A fine time was had by all. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Thing in the Cave

A few stray thoughts on self-defense that have burbled up from the Stygian depths …

The hindbrain. The lizard brain. The auto-pilot.

It’s what keeps you breathing and alive. That’s its job, and mostly, you aren’t aware of it. You can’t control it, it’s just there. Your heart beats, you breathe, your temperature adjusts itself, automatically. 

We have, hardwired in, a reaction to lethal danger, if we see it coming. It’s down under the rational brain, covered with however much civilization a particular person might have, but it is there in all of us.

When the tiger comes around the corner, the guy in the Volvo runs the light and smacks into you, the foot slips on the edge of the cliff? The lizard brain shoves the thinker aside and takes over, because at its base, that is the part of you that wants you to keep on living.

It will have primarily three ways of dealing with perceived death: Freeze, flee, or fight.

Depending on what the danger is, the hindbrain makes its choice. It’s not always right, the three-item menu. 

If the big cat hasn’t seen you? Freezing is sometimes the answer. Predators can be sight-hunters, attracted by movement, and many a rabbit survived because something that would eat it passed by without noticing it was there.

If the big cat has already seen you and is stalking? Freeze is bad. You need to break this, and:

Flee! Hie your monkey ass up a tree, or into the middle of the deep water, or inside a hole, and do it fast, because you can’t really outrun most of the things than can eat you.

And if the threat is too close to freeze or flee, then you have the last-ditch, you fight. You don’t have a lot of natural tools that will deter a four-hundred-pound thing with teeth and claws, but you might have a weapon that will. Pick up a big rock. A stick. A Thompson submachine gun …

You can be a statue, an impala, or the Thing in the Cave, and them’s the choices the lizard offers. I’ll get back to the Thing in a bit.

If the mugger is human, maybe you can reason with him, but if he is already swinging the bat or thrusting with the knife? Too late for discourse: 

I say there, fellow-man! Can we not discuss this as rational beings? Perhaps we — urk!

There is a thing in self-defense circles called the OODA loop. There are guys who are much into this (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), but that's only how they explain it, not a conscious and deliberate pattern they go through by the numbers when somebody jumps out of the alley and goes booga-booga! in their faces. That might be what is happening -- and that could just as easily be SOGB -- Shit Or Go Blind -- or any other combination of words that tell you what is unconsciously going on. 

The words are the map, not the territory. Thoughtful reflection has its place, but said place it is not when the shit hits the fan.

Hmm. There is a fan whirring in the corner. And a fellow standing there, both hands filled with feces, grinning and winding up. 

That’s when reason works. Before the throw. 

Oh, my, look at the time! I think perhaps I will just move on out the door here, hey?  See you later. 

As Rory Miller, a man who is passing adept at explaining and dealing violence offers, the best thing is not to be there, but if you are, running early and often is the next best thing.

Thinking is good. When push comes unexpectedly to shove, however, cognition is stagnation.

If you think, you stink. Literally, in this example.

Other than generally, you can’t plan out what you are going to do in advance, because you might think you should zig when zag is the thing. Well, if I see somebody about to toss feces at a fan, I will leave. That’s strategy. Tactics are, how do I leave? What if somebody is blocking the door? 

Let’s talk about what to do if you are in the room and metaphorical shit is about to be launched at the fan. 

Being able to move fast and adroitly are a good abilities. You need to have those before you get there.

If you play a sport and you want to be good and get better, you probably train for it. In cases of attack, you can train for that, too. 

Whichever physical ability you train for, the key is fairly simple: You go through moves over and over until you can react to a stimulus fast. You really don’t need know about how the universe was originally formed and then zip from the Big Bang to the task at hand. 

Conscious thought is considerably slower than reflex. You can’t quite get to pure reflex, but you can get closer if you practice.

Closer to reflex = faster.

It’s called “muscle memory,” though that’s not strictly accurate, but you use it to walk, ride a bicycle, throw a dart or shoot hoops. You coordinate mind and body and focus. Eventually, you don’t have to think about it at all.

Being relaxed instead of tense is, when it comes to moving, usually better than not. So, doing a thing until you don’t have to consciously think about it but just doing it is a good thing in this instance.

Another way to get relaxed, coupled with the practice of waving and stepping, is visualization.

Back when I was doing a brief stint in aikido, coming up four decades so ago, there were a series of exercises, such as the unbendable-arm, the unbreakable circle, or the too-heavy-to-lift excercise. If you haven’t seen these, you can look them up, but what they do is effectively increase your abilities to do certain physical tricks.

Aikido didn't invent these. There were people doing vaudeville routines a hundred years ago who showed the dead-weight versus live weight stuff quite well. One smallish woman who would stand there and have two large men from the audience try to pick her up and grin while they failed.

The aikido visualizations were great as focus tools: "Imagine there is a steel rod as big around as your arm coming from your elbow and buried deeply in the ground. It runs through your arm to your hand, where it branches, so that each of your fingers is a steel rod extending into the ceiling and through the roof. Your arm is held in place by these bars, which are far too strong for any man to bend . Keep this in your mind while I try to bend your arm ..."

There was a master’s thesis I saw once that offered the physiology behind the trick, and narrowed it down. It said, "Relax your arm and channel all your focus into your triceps; allow no tension in the antagonist muscles of the biceps ..."

Same deal, but harder to visualize initially for most folks.

Once you knew what it felt like, you could do it without either set of props.

The problem is, of course, in keeping the focus when somebody is boxing your ears, even in a controlled environment such as a sparring match. Like that Mike Tyson quote -- Everybody has a plan -- until I hit them -- the ability to hold onto that thought was iffy as soon as the dance got active. To get to the level where you could maintain that focus would require a great deal of comfort in one's skills. 

I have come to believe that visualization is a good a training tool, but limited in the real world. If you can use it, and the repetitions of a physical move to achieve a relaxed pattern of movement, then that is where it serves best. When you have done it so many times you don't need to think about it, it's not a visualization anymore but reality.

Which brings up the old reliable standby, the Multiple P-Principle: Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance ...

So, back to the Thing in the Cave now:

The Thing lacks discrimination. Once it kicks open the barred door, it doesn’t think, it does. You will be faster, stronger, more impervious to pain, and able to override the safety governor that keeps your motor from blowing up and your wheels from melting down. Blood, hormones, natural painkillers, they all flow in copious amounts, and to different places than normal. 

Injury, the Thing knows, is better than death. Friend, enemy, if you are in the way? The Thing is a Berserker, it cares not, it only wants to keep living, and until it knows that is gonna happen, it won’t stop until it — and you — are safe or dead.

When the smoke clears, you will have survived or not. If you have, you might well have serious damage to your body. Torn this, ruptured that, broken these. A high cost, but probably better than the option.

You know the story of the little woman who lifts a car off her child to save it. Mostly, you don’t hear about the subsequent surgery to fix a fractured spine or shredded rotator cuff. You can have super-power for a few seconds. It will cost you to do it.

I used to think that it would be a swell idea to be able to tap into this consciously. To open the door and let the Thing out at will.

Eventually, I realized why this was a bad idea, but it took getting older and recovering from injuries to bring it home. That plus the peek into the room where the shit is about to hit the fan.

Say you are walking down the sidewalk one fine evening and two guys on the other side cross the street toward you. 

Consciously, you have time to consider options. Muggers? Lost, looking for directions? Panhandlers? Going to the door just behind you? Could be many things, and wheeling up the iron portcullis to allow your Thing out is only valid in one instance. There are other ways to avoid a confrontation until you are sure you need to turn the critter loose. Wrong, you get to go to jail for assault and maybe murder, and therein, deal with whatever injury you will likely get. If you speed up or slow down and the two don’t change direction, maybe they weren’t coming to rob you. You at least delay the meeting. If they keep coming and you are relatively certain of evil intent? You might be able to run. And if they persist? 

Hello, muggers. Meet my friend, the Thing. Only, you don’t have to open the door, if it gets to that. The Thing will know.

If you train to the point of near-reflex, what you might do is leave a sword or warhammer where the Thing will find it. It might pick the weapon up and use it. Might not, but since you can use those things until the Thing is freed? 

That’s the notion of self-defense training. It might be there, and you might be able to pick it up and utilize it. 

Long way to get to this simple statement, but sometimes, that’s the road …