Let’s Test It!

I’ve been studying karate for nearly five years now, and I don’t think I’ve shared this story before. When we’re sparring, students are required to wear the appropriate protective gear. No head shots, for example, if you’re not wearing head protection. For males, a sports cup is mandatory, for reasons that probably don’t require elaboration.

When I was buying a cup, I had no clue what to get. The only sports I’d done as a kid were one season of track in high school and some Pee-Wee/Little League baseball. I’d never had to deal with a cup before. I’d heard lots of horror stories about them: they were uncomfortable, didn’t fit, and didn’t really keep blows from hurting as much as they reduced the pain to manageable levels.

No, thanks. This geek did some research and came up with the Nutty Buddy. This was a cup whose inventor stood by his product by taking 90mph fast balls from a pitching machine to his crotch. After reading around, I was sold. It was more expensive, but hey, not feeling soul-crushing pain is worth it, right?

Here’s what happened next, as I sent it to Nutty Buddy:

My order arrived on the day of a sparring class. That night, I prepped for class a little early so I could figure out how to get my Nutty Buddy put in place. Having bought the “Build Your Own Package” option, I had everything I needed, and soon I was all dressed in my gi, ready to go. I walked out from my bedroom to the living room to pick up my gear bag and was met by my son, then 11 years old. “Do you have it on?” he asked eagerly and I nodded. “Great, let’s test it!” he said as he executed a perfect front snap-kick to the boys. It was a great kick, too – one of those kind you can’t be thinking about, you just have to let it rip. He immediately realized what he’d done and started apologizing, but was shocked when I laughed. The only thing I’d felt was the shock. The Nutty Buddy lived up to the hype, and I knew it was worth every penny.

No matter how prepared you are for life, sometimes you only know whether something’s going to work by just doing it.

How To Develop Patience

“Lord, give me patience, and give it to me now!” I’m willing to bet most of of us have heard that joke (or some variant) at some point in our lives, but it underscores a serious question: how does one go about learning to exercise patience?

I’m no guru or saint, so I can’t answer the question for you, but for me it turns out the answer comes from a combination of two life experiences: my six and a half years at 3Sharp, and the nearly two years I’ve been studying karate. At 3Sharp, I learned how to do a lot of things that were beyond my initial comfort zone, developing deep technical presentations (and delivering them to large audiences), scoping and producing large technical projects such as books and whitepapers, and doing a large variety of work from hands-on consulting to research projects.

I’ve talked in previous posts about the physical benefits I’ve seen from karate. However, two weeks ago I tested for my 5th kyu belt (the second of my three green belts) and that experience made me aware of some deep changes in my personality and character. The step from 6th kyu to 5th kyu was particularly hard for me, and it took some time to sort out the two reasons why.

The obvious cause was schedule. I took two months off of karate at the beginning of the year, due to a combination of factors. That’s a hard gap to come back from; I had problems after the three week hiatus I took because of the MCM class. After two months, I just didn’t feel that my presence in class was doing any good until I had the privilege of watching two of my friends from the Mukilteo dojo earn their black belts one Saturday morning in February. I walked away from that experience feeling a new level of commitment to karate. After all, I told myself at that point, if I study hard, I’ll get to 5th kyu sooner or later, and that’s half-way to black belt!

The other cause was technical. The test kata for 5th kyu (Pinan Shodan) is the karateka’s first introduction[1] to a well-known and complicated set of katas, and while most of it seems to be straightforward, there’s a lot boiling up from underneath the surface. Carlos Sensei began introducing us to a series of drills based around Pinan Shodan that unpack a lot of useful theory and practice from the first eight moves of the kata. There’s this very difficult pivot/kick/double punch move right in there (I dub it UberHardMove) that is a key element of the kata, and I was having a hard time getting the pivot, kick, and punches all coordinated together and working the right way without falling on my ass. In fact, I had such a difficult time with it that I can remember sometime around the end of December thinking that maybe I’d found the wall beyond which my lack of coordination was not going to let me pass. In addition, there’s some pretty gnarly tuite that goes along with all of this and I found that I felt horribly weak on my tuite all around, let alone with the techniques I was supposed to able to demonstrate some proficiency at.

What ended up happening, though, was that the two-month time-out did me unexpected good. I didn’t go to class during that period, but I kept practicing karate around the house. (Just ask Steph and the kids; they’ll tell you that it can be difficult to get me to knock it off and stop interfering with whatever they’re trying to do.) And what I did during that time was to take UberHardMove and break it down into components, the way I had previously been shown as a blue belt[2]. I combined that with specific suggestions given to me by both Carlos Sensei and Liam Sensei and picked UberHardMove down to bare bones.

When I finally came back to class, I came back finally believing that the whole concept of me one day earning my black belt wasn’t the world’s best joke. I came back believing that I’d already invested nearly two years and I was willing to invest even more. I didn’t have to be perfect; I gave myself permission to suck. I knew that I was going to make stupid mistakes that I wouldn’t make (like mixing up techniques in lower level katas) if I’d been in class the whole time. I knew that my endurance was going to be awful. I knew that there was a lot of rust to scrub off and deal with and that it wasn’t going to happen immediately. I knew that I needed to let my instructors know that I desperately needed help with my tuite techniques. I knew that I was going to have to have them explain the same things about UberHardMove multiple times until I finally grokked it. In short, I accepted failure without accepting being a failure.

That was March. I tested near the end of May. Somewhere in there, I became proficient with my tuite. I learned a measure of peace with UberHardMove; I’m still not great at it, but I mastered it enough to move on to the next lessons[3]. Perfection is in fact is a bad word in our household. We think the concept of perfection is one of the worst lies that the Adversary ever got humans to accept.

When you stop trying to be perfect – when you give yourself permission to have flaws and failings and determine to be honest about them and learn from them rather than try to cover them up – something amazing tends to happen. You accept “doing your best” instead of “doing it better than everyone else.” You accept “that’s enough for now” instead of “that’s not good enough yet.” You develop a sense of faith that over time, your progress will trend upwards. With that faith, you can draw valuable lessons from your mistakes and missteps. You stop fighting the basic physical and neurological limits of how your body and mind acquire new proficiencies and start working within your limits to expand them instead of struggling against them to tear them down with brute force. You acquire patience – new and fledgling, but the seed of something that starts to affect how you deal with all of your life.

I’m no paragon of patience, but I can see clear changes. For example, I’ve been spending far less time playing Call of Duty on the Xbox in the last month or so. I have a better understanding of how that experience has been frustrating instead of fun and relaxing and I’m less willing to give in to that anymore.

I don’t know where this will go ultimately or at what pace. I can honestly say, though, that I’m okay with that. Will I get my black belt? I don’t know; there are many circumstances that could prevent or delay that. However, I certainly want to, and I finally know I’m capable of doing it, so I wouldn’t bet against me. But I also know that’s just another waypoint on the journey. It’s not an end. It’s a marker where I can say, “See what I’ve done so far? That’s pretty cool. Now I’ve learned enough that I can get serious about learning this stuff and helping pass it on to others.”

Two months ago, I’d have said I couldn’t wait for that day. You know what? That’s not true. I can wait. I will wait. And I will do so profitably.

[1] In our style, at least. There are other styles that place another Pinan kata before Pinan Shodan.

[2] In a nice twist of synchronicity, the person who showed me was at the time was a helpful brown belt from Mukilteo who ended up being one of the two black belts I got to watch test. He has continued to be an amazing source of inspiration for me through what is now a large number of discouraging situations. Hi, Max!

[3] It’s not going away; I still practice it, and I know that it will get better as I learn more. In fact, those final four moves in Pinan Nidan where I’m in a cat stance might be helpful here, hmmm…

A Psalm for Karatekas

Last night I went to my first karate class in several weeks. On the way, my brain reinterpreted Psalm 23 from the viewpoint of a karateka. Enjoy.

1 The LORD is my sensei; I shall not fear.

2 He makes me work out with white belts; he leads me through katas.

3 He perfects my form. He leads me in the path of new techniques for the sake of advancement.

4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for his teachings are with me; my kama and bo staff comfort me.

5 He prepares testing for me in the presence of my fellow karateka; he adorns my waist with new obi, my gi fits better.

6 Surely discipline and health shall follow me all the days of my studies, and I will dwell in the dojo of the LORD forever.

Two karate blessings

These past 14 months that I’ve been a karate student have given me a number of deeply satisfying moments, including the joy of sharing an activity with my daughter. Last Tuesday, however, proved to be an especially fruitful class for both of us.

Starting in September, the YMCA agreed to try out dropping class fees for YMCA members, and as you might imagine, we immediately saw a small but steady wave of new sign-ups for class. As a result, for the first time in a while, we have a good number of new students – white belts. As a result, we spend a large chunk of class time going back over many of the basic techniques in more detail than we’ve gotten used to. Those of us who are higher belts get to work with the white belts one-on-one during many of these exercises. This proves beneficial to everyone – they get a personal workout, and we get a mirror to more clearly see how well we’ve mastered the basics (or not, as it usually happens).

The first blessing was working with a gentleman who has been in class somewhere around a month. He and I were working through one-step exercises: one person performs a basic punch attack while the other defends, then we switch roles. We do this with seven defenses. As you work through the ranks, the defense techniques get more complicated, but for white belt one-steps, it’s pretty simple. Or so it seems now after a year; they were quite challenging when I first started and I got to re-experience that working with this gentleman. During our practice, he had one of those epiphany moments and what had been a struggle suddenly turned into AHA! with a clarity we both felt. It was an honor to be working with him in that moment.

The second blessing came about indirectly because of some misbehavior. You see, our protocol and customs direct us to pay attention and not engage in side conversations or monkey business when sensei is teaching. (Turns out there are no exceptions for “if you think you already know this” or “if you’re bored.” I checked. Who knew?) Well, several of us – including me and Treanna – weren’t quite paying attention to that one, and the senior student got called on it. I later told Treanna that he’d taken one for the team; we all were equally guilty of inattention. As class was drawing to an end, though, Treanna engaged in another breach of protocol that earned her some gentle ribbing. (She might read this, so I won’t tell you what she did. This time.)

Being a vigilant father and role model, I immediately realized we had what the experts call “a teachable moment” here. So we cracked open our karate notebooks and made a date to come back tonight after dinner, both having read the protocols, and discuss what we’d found:

  • There are three basic sets of protocol in our notebook: white belt (people who’ve just joined), blue belt (9th kyu, or your first belt), and orange belt (7th kyu, or your third belt). After reading them, we decided that they all have the common themes of respect, safety, and responsibility.
  • We think that white belt protocol focuses mainly on the what habits I need to become a student (discipline). That is, all of the guidance seems to be directed more at helping the newcomer gain the structures he will need to effectively learn karate.
  • We think that blue belt protocol focuses mainly on how I become a member of the community (identity). This comes after the first belt (typically earned after several months) and the guidance is more focused on becoming aware of and fitting into the dojo structure.
  • Finally, we think that orange belt protocol focuses mainly on how I give back to the community (service). This comes after three belts and around a year of study – a good foundation from which to be able to start learning to progress by helping others.
  • As a final note, we saw that there was no specific protocol for further belts. We speculate that’s because the student in green and brown belts is expected to do the same things she is already doing, just to a greater degree. And once she gets to black belt – that’s a watershed mark, and sensei will teach us what is expected of us on that day at the proper time.

If you’re not in a martial art, that’s probably boring and generic. To Treanna and I, though, it seemed pretty profound, and I think we’ll walk back into class tomorrow with a new-found sense of focus and commitment.

A Path of Nines

Nine months ago I stepped outside of my comfort zone and started a month of karate at the local YMCA. I didn’t expect to renew for a second month. It turns out that I love it. I’ve gotten to the point that I start dreaming about the things I’m doing, which is scary on one level and very cool on others. At any rate, I’ve had a lot of thoughts that need more time to flesh out and probably will only interest my fellow students, but I do want to share a few correspondences I’ve noticed lately between karate and the number nine.

  • There are nine belts, or kyus, between rank beginner and black belt in my school of karate (which is part of the All-Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Matsumura Karate and Kobudo Federation, or OSMKKF). As of tonight, I have passed three of them. That makes me 7th kyu — what you might call orange belt, except that we don’t actually use the orange belt (or even stripes on the belts); we just have three blue belt kyus, three green, and three brown. I like this because it helps minimize rivalry between students.
  • The blue belt kyus use the same basic kata, with what look to be minor differences for each kyu — mostly in the blocking techniques you demonstrate. The footwork, though, is the same, and it requires you to face the nine cardinal points of the compass (the normal eight plus the center position for the beginning and end of the kata). All too often we learn the specific steps of the kata and don’t stop to think about how the overall pattern looks or rhythm flows. That’s the kind of stuff I’ve started dreaming about, and man, it is cool!
  • I have learned to examine the first kata at a whole new level with each additional kyu, and I have been told that this will continue. So the very first kata they teach us unpacks to at least nine separate layers! No wonder it takes years to really master this stuff! Some students make the mistake of thinking they’ve learned everything they need to know from the earlier levels; I’ve already had at least case of figuring out how a current technique I was mastering applied to an earlier technique, making both of them stronger as a result.
  • In a typical Tuesday evening workout, I will practice various katas an average of nine times. This typically includes polishing the kata I will next be testing for and learning the basics of the next kata. There are days this does not feel like it is enough — and that would be right. So we practice at home too; in fact, there are certain parts that I find myself practicing at work as I walk back and forth from my office to the kitchen or to co-workers’ offices. (Apparently I look really funny walking through the lobby practicing punches.)
  • For my next kyu, I start to fold in weapons work (which is the kobudo part; karate is technically only bare-hand work). I will first work with the bo staff, which is six feet or 72 inches tall — nine times eight. I’m tremendously excited to be working with the bo; somewhere in my head, the iconic definition or avatar of martial arts got associated with being a bad-ass with the staff, so now I feel like I’m finally stepping into the heart of what it means to be a martial artist. Intellectually, I realize this is silly, but it still feels true.

Don’t worry; I’m not trying to seriously assert that the number nine somehow has some sort of mystic foothold in karate (that would be number ten, which in Japanese is ju, and controls our workouts). I just noticed these and was amused. What’s been more awe-inspiring has been noticing the changes in the last nine months:

  • I’ve continued to lose weight. Granted, I’ve not experienced the same dramatic pace as I did in the first month, but it’s still a slow and steady drop. This is really cool given some of the interruptions and stressors I’ve had during these nine months that have wreaked havoc with my karate attendance.
  • My overall muscle tone has improved. You probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but I certainly do. Certain actions are a lot less effort than they used to be, and there is visible muscle definition amongst the remaining layers of pudge.
  • My endurance has increased. Right now I’m at that point where if I miss a week and a half of karate, I definitely feel it, but if I attend regularly I can make it through the workouts and not feel completely beat up. More importantly, I’m better able to keep up as the speed of some of the workouts increases; if I slow down it’s to perfect technique, not because I can’t do it.
  • My reflexes have improved. This has been the startling one for me, because as long as I can remember my reflexes have sucked. I’m still no Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee, but the other day I knocked a glass tumbler off the counter and caught it without looking directly at it. Whoa!

By some counts, these last nine months have gotten me a third of the way to black belt. I don’t feel that way; I feel that they’ve set my feet on a path that I’ll still be walking for years to come. I’m not worried about belts or kyus; that’s sensei’s job to track, not mine. I just have to get through each workout, each kata, each set of one-steps, each class having given my best and learned everything I can. The rest will take care of itself. I’d never have caught that glass if I’d been trying to learn it as a trick, but by focusing on each step while I’m at it, I’ve gotten my body — as out of shape as it still is — to a point where I can do things I’ve never been able to do before. And that, friends, is magic.

Empty hand

In my previous post, I talked about taking a class at the local YMCA. You may have noticed that I didn’t mention which class I was taking; that wasn’t by accident. I didn’t feel like talking about it until I knew it wasn’t going to be another fad.
Well, last Tuesday, sensei awarded me my 9th Kyu blue belt, so now I feel comfortable announcing that I’ve been taking Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Matsumura Karate for the past couple of months. I started it in the beginning of July, the same week of personal vacation that the kids started their summer introduction class. Since that time, I’ve lost 20 pounds — desperately needed — and have started to gain some measure of confidence that I can do this. I’m no prodigy, but I can plod step by step really well, and I’m already seeing huge benefits to my physical coordination.
More importantly, I’ve discovered three very important things about myself:

  1. I am no longer afraid of pain. I walk into every class knowing that the workout is going to wipe me out and that it’s going to, on some level, suck eggs. I am always right — I’m badly winded, have sore muscles, and more than once have been so dizzy I almost passed out. Yet I keep coming back for more, and I’ve finally gotten to the point that my brain isn’t desperately trying to find excuses for skipping class.
  2. Somewhere along the way, I’ve started to internalize the philosophy of “one step at a time.” I haven’t really dwelt on the whole “Devin with a black belt” thing, because that’s a heck of a lot of work and is way beyond my capabilities now. Heck, being asked to test for my blue belt was a surprise (albit a pleasant one). Our dojo teaches that it’s discourteous to ask sensei if you’re ready to test; he knows when you’re ready and will tell you. For the first time in my life, I have absolutely no difficulty in following that advice. I really do not look beyond what sensei tells me to do in a given class; I’m content to work on that and trust sensei to keep track of the big picture. (For my autistic self, this is a HUGE step.)
  3. Probably the biggest one: I enjoy this. It’s probably one of the most physically demanding things I’ve ever done. I’ve spent hours of time at home slowly walking through each phase of the simplest technqiues. A simple step-double punch technique is really hard for me, because it involves coordinating so many things — hand positions, feet placement, breathing, wrist rotation, proper fist alignment, and more. I don’t find this stuff at all easy, and now I have lots of things to keep track of. My response is to treat it like choreography for theater — break it down into small components and practice each of those. Unlike dancing, though, when I put the pieces back together, the results aren’t laughable — and I’m totally enjoying the process.

Since the classes are at the YMCA and not a dedicated dojo, things are relatively informal. We’re tied in with several other dojos in the area (most of them also in YMCA facilities nearby) and are part of a bigger federation. The teachers and students are all great; very supportive and not at all competitive or dismissive. I don’t feel ashamed for letting my health slide for so long; I just feel like I have help in going where I want to go. I’ve gotten to the point where I look forward to each class.

The beatings shall continue until the anatomy improves

One of the reasons I’ve been a lot quieter on the blog front for the past month is Call of Duty 4 (actually, let’s be honest; that’s one of the ways I’ve chosen to spend a lot of my free time since Christmas). However, at the beginning of July, I added a new reason: I started taking a class two days a week at the local new YMCA.


This class has been kicking my butt, but it’s been good for me. Our main teacher — we’ll call him PT — is a doctor and can’t always be there. If that happens, we have a backup teacher (named ST). Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of ST, and his warmups usually have me breaking a good sweat. Well, PT was back tonight…and oh my GOODNESS, he is a LOT more grueling. I actually got dizzy and had to step out for a minute. My shoulders hurt, my legs hurt, my arms hurt, all in that “OMGWTF you did WHAT to us???” way that really lazy muscles get.


I do not like this. I do not like barely having enough energy to drive home, eat, and make it through a shower. I do not like being this out of shape. It seems that PT doesn’t like it either, and he’s determined to help me fix all these things. It’s a good thing I’m tired of being slothful and rotund; I know that, left to my own devices, I would never drive myself this hard. The class is small and I like the other students, enough so that my poor body image is outweighed by my desire to not look like a complete wuss in front of these people. And they have been very helpful and supportive.


I guess I get to continue this course of action. The only way out: make there be less of me, so that it doesn’t hurt so bad when PT gets his hands on me. I’ve even started noticing that I’m cutting down on the snacks and treats at work and at home — I look at them and find myself thinking about how they’re going to make PT’s next workout that much harder.


Yay for progress?