Saturday, September 16, 2017

Setting Goals

It sometimes helps an activity to have defined goals. Not always -- go-with-the-flow and see where it leads is valid, but a sharper focus can be useful, and achieving various platforms on a long climb, helpful.

In martial arts, there didn’t used to be colored belts. They came to be many-hued in judo, primarily because the creator and head instructor, Kanō Jigorō, looked up and realized he had so many students he couldn’t keep track of who knew what. With standardized ranks denoted by colors for each, he could walk into a satellite dojo with a hundred students and know at a glance where, within a certain range, each student was.

If you are wearing that purple belt to keep your gi closed, then you know katas x and y, but not z.

Later, other arts adopted the scheme, and the secondary reason wasn’t long in coming: Breaking a two- or five-year arc into shorter, recognizable segments via belt colors was encouraging. A student looking at the long journey of a thousand miles might find several segments of much smaller distances easier to essay.

Six months to get that yellow belt was achievable; five years to that first black belt could seem daunting.


This brings me to my musical education. On my current instrument of choice, the tenor ukulele, I have in my repertoire a couple hours’ worth of material I can play from memory. Thirty songs, plus maybe fifteen instrumentals. This gets revised and adjusted — some songs I used to know I don’t play often enough to do so without looking at the words and tabs. Some new ones I am learning will replace older ones I don’t find as interesting. The set list evolves.

But the goal thing: I am going to crank up the Blue Yeti microphone and the QuickTime video recorder and see if I can’t get a recorded version of each piece I have. 

That’s the goal. Not planning on cutting any albums, but I have been dabbling with this kind of thing off and on for years, first with the guitar, now the uke, and a couple of times, it has come in handy. Seeing how you do a thing is a good way to learn how to do it better.

I had a pretty good version of “Dixie,” on the guitar that I recorded and stuck on YouTube. Still holds up, though I can’t play it on the guitar now. When I saw that the Ken Burns Vietnam thing was about to air, I remembered that I used to play “Ashokan Farewell,” which was the main theme for The Civil War series, on guitar, then ukulele. I let it slip away. When I went back to revisit and relearn that one on the uke, I had a video reference of me doing it, so I could look at the tabs and see where I held my hands when I could play it. 

No long-term use for these videos comes to mind. Probably I’ll put the best ones up on YouTube, though I don’t expect much of an audience, but that’s the point. The point is, it seems like a good idea in this moment …

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Check this Out

Not available yet, but ain't it cool?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Funny Guy

Back when I spent a lot of time going to science fiction conventions and had duty as the toastmaster, or MC at the costume thingee, I worked up what I thought were some pretty good stand-up routines and snappy patter. Three of my favorites were:

Redneck in overalls with raygun

The Man With Nine Wives

Best Job in the World: Being an Optometrist in Metropolis (This one began with me reciting the opening for the old George Reeves TV Superman show, with a tape recorder playing me humming the music for that show as b.g.)

“Faster than a speeding bullet!” (Dum-de-dum-de-dum-dum-de-de-dum)

I was, I thought, a pretty funny guy. 

We have company coming up for the eclipse in a couple days, and my wife remarked that maybe we might want to buy a couple new towels. 

Me: Um, well, we’ll have to wash the new towels like five times before they get here. In two days.

Her: No, we won’t. Once will be enough.

Me: I went to see my buddy and his wife a few years ago, and his wife bought some new towels for me. I don’t think she washed them at all, though she might have, once. Have you ever tried to dry off with a new, unwashed towel? You might as well use a giant sheet of Saran Wrap covered in Scotch Guard. You do better sluicing the water off with your hands!

Her: I’m sure you exaggerate. 

Me: No, no I do not.

Her: Well, you can get what color you want. Those nice blue ones.

My wife is the sweetest, nicest, most lovable woman in the world, bar none, but like many women, she thinks that men worry about things like what color their towels are. 

Don’t you think the blue ones are nicer than the tan ones?

Uh … yeah, of course. Sure, I do. The blue ones. Definitely.

Same way I do while sitting at supper and getting into a conversation about the dinner plates: Don’t you just love the pattern on these dishes?

Pattern? They have a pattern? 

We have been using these dishes for twelve years!

Um. Oh, wait, you mean these dishes. Sure, I … love this pattern. Hey, look, it’s almost time for the news!

So I decided to shower before I headed to Costco. I was thinking about what I needed to buy, getting a new belt for the vacuum cleaner and all, and of a moment, I looked around. Did I wash my hair? I honestly couldn’t remember.

That ever happen to you? No? Just me? Well, crap!

Maybe senility is setting in, hey, Steve?

Could be. 

Which is why I have learned to write little notes to myself on the yellow sticky pad on my desk. Because memory is a sieve; if it is on the pad, I will see it eventually. 

Which is where the picture above came from. The note I wrote to myself to remind me to write this piece ...

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Trousers: A Free-Form Ramble

Steve Perry

“I grow old, I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled …”
T.S. Elliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The clock is winding down.
Yeah, so? Who wants to live forever?
Me! Over here! I do!
Or, maybe just for, you know, two or three hundred years? Or, even, a hundred and twenty or so, but in good health and full possession my of physical and mental abilities? 
I don’t think I’d get bored, haven’t been that in ever so long.
Moot point. These live-forever things are not going to happen, because that’s not how the system works, never has, and barring a major shift in physiology and medicine (and probably physics) never will. I mean, even if we overcome every obstacle and become disease-free and accident-proof, (and bulletproof), there’s the sun’s nova, and the end of entropy, and running out of coffee and all.
We Baby-Boomers expected something else. We were the biggest demographic going through time in this country, we were catered to, and we took that as our due. We produced the hippies–here, right here!–and our alternate reality was that the world was going to change to suit us.  Sociology was going to shift, we were going to the Age of Aquarius; disease, even death would be eliminated, and we would stand at the shining front of humanity going forth to sail among the stars.
Nobody saw Disco, Nixon, Bush, or Cheeto coming. Nobody thought that our wave would wash ashore as others before us had, and then just … ebb.
More Elliot, last line of The Hollow Men: “This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang, but a whimper.” 
Though the jury might still be out on the “bang” part, because, you know, there is this loon who can access the nuclear launch codes and push the world-ending button. (If you still support this clown, I can only wonder how you managed to read this far.)
So, anyhow, the future came, and brought with it a fair number of shining miracles, but it was not the reality we thought we’d get. 
Now, we have to make the best of what we have, and in the case of humans, the current condition in the U.S. means men average three-score and seventeen, and women, a few years past that. A blip, our time here, blink and we are gone. We are children of the universe, as Desiderata has it, we have a right to be here, only … not for long.
The Reaper is always with us. He takes some of us at birth, some as children, others as young adults, but he really gets the scythe swinging as we start on the downslope past middle age. By a hundred, nearly all of us have been harvested. Another twenty, maybe twenty-five years? The rest of us are fertilizer, pushing up the daisies. That’s how it goes.
That’s a thermodynamic given:  Can’t win, can’t break even, can’t get out of the game. 
The question I’m addressing here is, once the lamps begin to dim, the microphones fuzz, the wheels grow creakier, what do we do with our remaining time? How are we relevant in our dotages? How best to have Golden Years?
How do we deal with the alternate reality we got instead of the one we expected?
Mens sano in copore sano, sure, sound mind in sound body, only at ninety, one out of two is aces, two unlikely. The Messiah may or may not be coming, but the end of the road for thee and me surely is. Every morning we wake up, it is closer than it used to be.
You Gen-Xers, and Millennials can yawn and tune this out if you want, but there is something here you will eventually need to know. It will apply to you.
When I was younger, I lived for a time across the street from a man who retired that summer. He spent his days, as nearly as I could tell, sitting on a glider on his front porch, watching the world go by. No reason to get up in the morning save habit, and I thought, he’ll be leaving the party soon. 
I moved, but kept in touch with my next-door-neighbor there for a time, and sure enough, the old guy across the street passed away a short while later. Maybe he was already ill, can’t say, but what I saw, he had given up. The parade moved along without him, as it does. 
The old guy who was a few years younger than I am now. 
As an early Baby-Boomer, I’m well down the darker side of the mountain, and  while I’m spry–and have been hearing the damned-with-faint-praise compliment for some years now: “You’re in great shape, for a man your age!”–let’s face it: sixty might be the new forty, but ninety is fucking old. You can be a remarkable track athlete at that age, better than a thirty-year-old couch potato, but a young jock will lap you all day.
Like the wave on the shore, we ebb.
We fade away.
The old become invisible, something the young step around without a second glance. Don’t think so? 
The cotton-top old lady, or the little old man wearing a hat in the car in front of you, barely able to see over the steering wheel? Going thirty-five in a sixty-mile-an-hour zone? Have you never thought, What the fuck, Gramps, get out of the road! I have. Still do, now and then.
It’s not just the growth-rings, but the mindset. Even if you don’t forget what your car keys are for, you will have, by dint of living, built up a certain amount of experience, even–dare I eat this peach?–wisdom, and you will as a result have likely pulled in your edges. You know places you don’t want, nor need, to go. 
Been there, done that, wore out the T-shirt three decades back, thank you, I’ll pass. That four-chord baby-heartbeat rock song the kids think is waaay cool? Heard that swiped riff before your Momma was born, sonny, and if I say “Teach your grandfather to suck eggs?” you won’t have a clue what the hell I’m blathering on about. Who would suck an egg? Ick!
Yeah. Ick, indeed.
Let’s go do something new and exciting Paw-Paw! Get out of your rut!
Yeah? Whaddya got?
Uh huh. Uh huh. Yeah. Keep going. Nope, nope, ate those, saw that, drank too much of them, and, is there a toilet there? Let me check my iPee app …
It’s new and shiny to you, son, I don’t begrudge you wanting it, but I got sated in that particular cuisine some time ago, and now it gives me gas …
Here’s the trick, if you don’t want to wind up like the guy across the street in the porch swing? 
You do have to have some room in your cup. And, if you haven’t heard that far eastern homily? Here it is:
Once upon a time, there was a zen master. A rich and important professor, accustomed to being the smartest man in the room and in charge, went to see the master.
“I need,” the professor said, somewhat imperiously, “for you to teach me the ways of zen, so that I may be enlightened.”
“Let’s discuss it over tea,” the master said.
So they sat and the master began to pour tea for the professor, and in a moment, the tea welled and spilled, but the master kept pouring.
“Stop! Can you not see the cup is full?”
A zen grin: “Indeed. And just as this cup is too full, so are you too full. You must empty yourself before there will be room for zen.”
Yep, you need room; on the other hand, if you are past middle age and still in one piece, you must have learned something useful along the way, and your experience and knowledge are not necessarily things you want to dump to make room for something new.
Newer is not always better. If you forget your history, you could wind up repeating it. 
But, say it again: You do need some room. Some of those experiences and attitudes might not be serving you as well as once they did, and you can move those aside. Those attitudes that worked for you when there were water fountains marked “White” and “Colored,” maybe you can tuck those into a trunk and stow it.
It’s tricky, keeping the best of what is old and trying to get the best of what is new.
After thirty-odd years of banging about in seven or eight martial arts, I settled on one, and have spent a couple decades and some training in it. 
Now and again, during this period, I attended martial arts seminars given by teachers outside my chosen art. 
This is instructive in a number of ways, though usually not in learning many new techniques. A three-day session of six or eight hours a day is rather like trying to drink from a fire hose–too much material in too short a period, and I’m lucky if I remember more than a couple of things–and don’t tear my lips off.
As somebody with a fair amount of instruction in my art, like as not I will watch a teacher offer something different and look at it askance. Really? No offense, I will think but not speak,  if I do it that way, it will likely get me killed.
When one has any depth in any skill, whatever it is, the tendency is to view something that seems at odds with what one knows with a certain amount of skepticism. If you believe what you are doing is best, than something not-that will, ipso facto, be less-than best.
I have to allow that I could be wrong in what I know. Belief is not necessarily fact. If I go to see something different, I don’t argue, I do what I am shown and see if there is any resonance for me. I need to see if maybe I missed something, that what I know isn’t perfect. Never hurts to check.
If there are three teachers from three different systems showing me how to hold a stick, I can be certain they won’t hold it the same way. No, no, put your hand here, not there. They will contradict each other, and as a student, I just nod and move my grip. That’s why I went. To see. 
Chances are, I will go home and continue to hold that stick the way I already know how to do it, I confess.
The older you get, the more depth you have, the less likely you are to change your mind. I know this works, it has worked, and I expect it will continue to do so. If what you offer doesn’t measure up? Why would I change it?
Still, the cup needs to be partially empty. A little bit.
There is always the guy who comes not to learn anything new, but to show how what he already knows is better. He will gum up the works with rude questions, or refuse to apply the technique, replacing it with what he does. If a game has rules and you won’t observe them? You are wasting everybody’s time.
Don’t be that full-cup guy.
My path forward needs this realization: I tend to get too set in my ways. And without that bit of room for something new, I’m not playing the game. An old bumper sticker from about 1970: Concrete People: All mixed up and turned to stone.
When I began this essay, I had thought that it would be political. A piece on how to deal with the current political and sociological shitstorm in which the United States finds itself; advice on how to get active, make a difference, be part of the solution and not the problem. Which organizations to send money to, which marches to attend, grassroot-ery, like that. How we, as older people, could use our hard-won knowledge and experience to help the young move forward. 
Not going there, and here’s why: The young have to reinvent the wheel for themselves. We can’t just give them fire, they have to figure it out on their own. Always been that way. Can’t tell you the number of parents I’ve talked to who would move heaven and earth to help pave the rocky road for their children, only to discover that it is indeed zen: If they don’t experience it, the rocks aren’t real.
Can you remember rejecting your father’s values? Thinking that he had no clue as to how wrong his beliefs were for you?
I can remember that. 
Alternate realities. His. Yours. Never the twain to meet.
So, there might be young folks who appreciate your old-guy wisdom, but mostly, they won’t. Because what you have, they don’t. They literally can’t.
Old Man, you don’t understand what it is like to be me!
Actually, Young Man, I kinda do. I have been young, and I have been old. It’s you who is missing a piece of the puzzle. Come back and see me when you are my age and let’s revisit it, hey? Oh, wait. When you are my age? I’ll be dead.  Maybe you should write it down, keep it tucked away, then read it to yourself when you get closer to sundown. 
Read a short story some years ago, don’t recall the title, nor who wrote it, but the gist is this: A young couple come to a town, but it’s a Children of the Corn kind of place, full of doddering, evil, old people. They are trapped by the oldsters, the pair, and in dire peril, going to be sacrificed. They overcome the dangers, nearly fail, and barely manage to escape. And as they leave the village, safe, triumphant, one of the old men cackles out after them: “You’ll be back …”
Man, what a jolt that was.
We know that, us older folk. The young people who are going to live forever and be unlined and unbent? They don’t know it. They can’t, because … zen. If they survive, they will likely learn. Remember the parent’s curse: Some day, you’ll have children. I hope I live long enough to see it.  
What goes around, comes around. 
Um. So where am I going with this? Do I have a point?
Here: If you want to be relevant as an old man or an old lady, if you want what you do to have some meaning? You have to alter your own reality.
It starts at home. Before it matters to anybody else–and that really isn’t the point–it has to matter to you.
You have to find it. Something that makes you grin when you think about it, something that you look forward to, something that gives you joy.
Doesn’t matter what it is. Doesn’t matter what others think about it, when you get right down to the real nitty-gritty. 
If it is a thing you do alone, fine. If you can share it with others, better, because social interaction has value. 
It can be a job, a hobby, whatever. If the politics of our time disgust you? Step up. Put your money where your mouth is, paint a sign, march, and if you can’t do that, park yourself in a chair and wave your placard with enthusiasm. 
Not your thing?
Volunteer at the shelter. Drive somebody to church. Help the the old lady next door who is in worse shape than you collect her mail.
Learn to play the ukulele. Sing at an open mike. Take a yoga class. Learn tai chi. 
Read to children at the library. 
Crochet hats for the babies in the premie ward.
Learn Spanish from the TV soaps on the Spanish channel.  
Plant flowers. 
Something you always wanted to try, but didn’t have time? Take a shot, never going to be a better time.
Something you never thought about before, but it just popped up? Go for it.
I can’t tell you what that should be, nobody can, but if you can’t find something that calls to you? You are, as Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max said in The Princess Bride, “ … mostly dead.”
If all you are doing is marking time, if there is no there there? You have nothing to offer to anybody else. You aren’t relevant.
You can be, you can do, either works, both can, but it’s up to you. 
When I was in first grade, our report card marks were either an “S,” or a “U,” for “Satisfactory,” or “Unsatisfactory.” I was a clever lad, my grades were all esses, save for one: Under the category of  “Uses Time Wisely,” I once got a “U.” I was pushing seven years, I had of plenty of time, I shrugged that off. What did that old lady who was my teacher know? The old lady who was twenty-two.
Now? Now, if I live to the average age for a man in the U.S.? A bit over seven years is how long I have left. Hoping to beat that, of course, but best to use my time wisely, I’m thinking. 
The clock is winding down. 


Monday, July 10, 2017


Jude, 13-weeks

The price you pay for kittens and puppies, they say, are cats and dogs. They usually don’t mention the hidden surcharge, that of old cats and dogs who go into decline.

They are like the Flash, our furry companions; they live at a different speed than we do. They rise sooner, and fall earlier.

I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to lament this. And it is a lesson when you go through it that the cycle of your beloved companion is the same as yours, condensed in time enough so that you might experience it several times in in a human-span, if you choose to season it with critters. 

I have Cardigan Corgis, Jude and Layla, come to live with as our previous pair of German Shepherd Dogs faded and transitioned. 

GSD’s are not long-lived, if you have one who gets past ten, consider it a gift. Cady left at eleven, Scout was almost fourteen, and like Mr. Bojangles, I can still grieve more than a decade after they died.

Because they were so beloved, we held onto them too long. We fought tooth and nail, threw everything science had at what took them down, and the war dragged past the quality of life they deserved. In the end, we came to realize it, and let them go, but as anybody who has loved a dog or cat knows, this is hard.  

We didn’t mind cleaning up after them when they couldn’t make it to the door; nor helping them stand when they fell. That’s part of the process, part of your duty. But you have to pay attention, you have to listen and watch. At some point, they will let you know.

We learned this lesson with Cady.

Jude is twelve; Layla, eleven. Corgis generally live to be 12-15, and that being the average, that means some leave sooner and others, later. Jude is beset with arthritis, hips are bad. He’s unsteady on his feet, and no longer able to walk distances or hop up onto the curb. Everything is slow and stiff, and where we would walk a mile or two daily, we are now lucky to make it a block or two before he runs out of steam. We stay on the flats, we use the wheelchair ramps at the corner, we walk both dogs, bring Jude home, and take Layla for a longer walk.

We have rubber-backed throw rugs all over the house, because Jude has trouble standing on a smooth floor. 

When he falls, we cringe. He looks perplexed. How did that happen? 

Come on, Jude. You can make it up. 

He is on medication, a special diet, oils, and we are doing everything available to keep him comfortable for as long as we can.

He needs to keep moving, so we urge him along, but the time is coming when he won’t want to go. He still gets excited at dinner, he eats well, that has always been his reason to get up in the morning, but where once he would hear a cookie crumb fall and hit the floor from the other room and be there before the second bounce, now his ears are duller, his vision cloudy. 

If the time comes when food won’t call to him? 

This is how it goes. 

I hate this. I fucking hate it, but it is the cycle, I have done it before, and we might have one, maybe two more dog cycles left in us.

Not easy watching that puppy grow old and tired, but we knew it was going to be that way when we signed up.

Is it worth it? Yeah, we think so. 

If you love your dog or cat? That’s the big price you pay.

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 …