Edge to the Whetstone

A blog of ten thousand hours.

November 11, 2012: The Guangzhou Seminar

The seminar was held in the university’s echoing, cavernous gymnasium, where puzzle mats were laid out. There were 51 attendees, including 12 Aikikai participants from Macau and a local Aikikai dojo, in addition to the Wadokai students from Guangzhou (who were also our indispensable interpreters). After warmups, Sensei showed Sayunage from a wrist grab. Shihan Chad showed the “Sinawali” punch drill, and then Sensei followed up with Iriminage. Shihan Sonny showed Kubinage (if I remember right). I showed Tenshinage off a punch from Shihan Franklin. It was great to have guys from the local dojo running up to bow in and work with me. They said I explained things well, a welcome piece of positive feedback, given the language barrier.

Shihan Sonny took this picture:
Iriminage Guangzhou

It’s always a bit of a challenge remembering everything that happens at a seminar, when you’re participating. I get caught up in the waza (that is, the technique) and the great energy of it, and then am really tired at the end and it’s a bit of a blur.  Then, years later, I’ll be sitting in church (this mostly seems to happen when I’m sitting in church, although it happens when I’m in the kitchen cooking, too) and will suddenly remember a technique Sensei showed years before, in a seminar or at Summer Camp.

It’s an odd experience. It may happen because when I watch Sensei do technique, I do my best to just look – not analyze, not think, but to focus completely. Just watch and absorb. Then the waza sinks in, and when I do technique, I have a sense of how “Sensei-ish” it is, and what I need to adjust to get closer to the model, imprinted while I was absorbing the technique. Analysis is fine (and helpful) for learning from less definitive teachers.  I reserve the “filterless” absorption for a very, very small number of teachers – not even a handful – and Sensei is the first of these. I would add that this does not always seem to help one when you are first learning an art, but I recommend practicing it as early as possible, because once your hands, feet, and body “stop talking back to your mind,” this way of learning will become invaluable when used judiciously.

A side note about technique names. In traditional Aikido, Japanese is the technical language of technique, as it is in Judo and any number of other Japanese arts.  I’ve heard arguments against this – some say they don’t understand why Japanese is used instead of English, or why the traditional names are used at all.

Japanese names are very useful simply for clarity – it’s a name, and it means a specific thing or class of things, and beats the heck out of “the move that goes like this” for clarity and brevity. In the Wadokai, they form a common set of terms, both technical and philosophical (and these two things are more closely related than one might think), across the organization. Also, in some cases technical words convey a cultural meaning or cause students to learn about the culture via the language, which doesn’t happen if everything’s conveniently translated into English.  In Wadokai Aikido, we also learn a whole group of concepts and philosophical terms that actually end up being extremely critical to effective Aikido – and some of these only translate part of the way into English.  It took me a while to figure out how important the concepts behind these “tough vocabulary words” are to describing what has to happen in and around the technique to give it that subtle, scalable effectiveness that is the hallmark of our style. But it all starts with learning the proper names of techniques…in Japanese.

November 9, 2012: Saturday Morning Musings in Guangzhou

A Starbuck’s is an oasis of quiet this morning, after yesterday’s extended rides on the excellent Metro system here. Indeed, it’s as if all the world’s subways have standardized on the London Tube-model maps with their clear colors and rounded geometry that reflect not much of reality but are blessedly simple to follow. The metro rides on the way to Foshan presented prime opportunities for people-watching. The ladies of Guangzhou are stylish in an idiosyncratic way. While the Chinese seem to harbor an odd affection for uniforms at work, mufti involves mixing pieces, a general tendency to sexiness that somehow skirts trashiness. The skirt will be short, the top, prim. And the shoes are amazing.

Foshan itself spoke to me of places that may have been familiar to my family long ago: communal houses with a balcony overlooking the central courtyard, dark wood, tile roofs, some “Chinese Gothic” ornamentation. It was a little sad, too, like a vase assembled from the shattered parts of several, with pieces missing. In a chronology of Ip Man in the museum, “1937-1945: He had a hard time.” I’d like to know the Mandarin phrase that translates to, “No kidding.” A lovely Buddhist shrine, located near the latrines, still had worshipers and fresh joss sticks in the sand.

The Lion Dance was astonishing, the two-person beasts creating living animals with joyful, cocky personalities as they lept to balance on pillars, tested a bridge before walking over it, looked at the imaginary water flowing under it, and lapped a drink of invisible water. When Shihan James, Sensei Ken and I went up to purchase commemorative scrolls from the lion, a (rather loud) murmur of amazement swept through the crowd. 3 foreigners! And one so massive!

The Wushu demo in the courtyard was mostly a classic example of a martial art transformed into acrobatics. the “swords” whipped about like thundersheets used in an orchestra, there wasn’t enough extension in the strikes or cuts to do much more than annoy, and transitions between movements were full of gaps. But there was one Sanchin-like form that was suddenly real, the gripping motions and extensions visibly powerful. One wonders if the true forms simply aren’t shown to visitors, or if they’re indeed not remembered. One certainly could not fault the fitness or acrobatic quality of the practitioners, but I think of Alfred, who used to practice Judo with us when I was in seventh grade. He had practiced Chinese Boxing, and his forms always looked, to my young perspective, usefully powerful – coming out of a kicking backflip into a fighting stance.

On a T-shirt: “With great love comes courage.”

Dinner last night at a favorite tepanyaki restaurant of Shihan Sonny’s was a great celebration. I can’t remember seeing so much delicious food – wave after wave of sushi, fish fried in butter, shrimp, coconut bannana flambe’. Saki, beer, tea. It was like a big, rowdy international family dinner. I went over to drink sake with a table of ladies from Guangzhou, who explained that Guangzhou is very traditional, and expressed concern that if they became too competent, no one would want to marry them. It is, unfortunately, a reasonable concern, even in this late age. One must decide what one wants, and be willing to duck under the wave, but continue to train. Otherwise, what do you have? And it is difficult but not entirely impossible to find a man who wants a partner rather than a…what? Reflection? Sigh. This makes me grateful for the men who are kind and respectful.

November 8, 2012: The 7 deadly sins of the Guangzhou subway

After navigating our way through the fare machines (with the kind assistance of the local Aikido students who guide us, and likely feel like they’re herding cats), we board the subway.  The Guangzhou subway looks pretty much like modern subways anywhere.  You can almost imagine yourself in one of the newer stations in London or in Washington, DC.  But there are some distinctive differences, for example, the signs posted near the doors.  They show stick figures lying across the seats, swinging from the handholds, and generally misbehaving with remarkable elan and attitude. Below, in Chinese and English:  “No lying, no swinging, no climbing….” A total of seven behaviors in which one should not indulge while riding the Guangzhou subway.

I have the momentary mental image of sedate Chinese people entering the subway late at night, and mysteriously transforming into the sort of reprobates who would swing vigorously on the hand-grips, climb on the poles as if on a playground, and insouciantly recline across the seats.

The question is, would one ever think of doing these things on the subway if not for the prohibiting signs?  I vaguely recall a Lao Tzu quote about more laws leading to more thievery, but really?  Perhaps the Guangzhou metro is in fact…a very swinging place!

On the flip side, long yellow signs on the station escalators exhort, “Take care of the elderly and children.”  A good and virtuous thought if there ever was one, in any context.

November 7, 2012: Guangzhuo Day 1

Slept like a rock last night. The room is quite nice – a suite really, in the style of a nice European place, with the spare duvet softening the bed a little. In fact, the entire hotel resembles a traditional European hotel from perhaps the 1920’s or 30’s.  Built of grey stone, set back from the street in a small gated courtyard with a modest water feature, with large round windows on the upper storey and a comfortable marble-floored lobby.

My window overlooks a construction site, trailer-like prefabricated worker dormitories alongside. There’s a crane (the Chinese national bird, ha), as well as men moving dirt with shovels and wheel barrows.

Giant dim sum lunch today, with a 3-foot lazy susan bringing exquisite treats around the table, which seated a dozen and a half people comfortably. It was in a private room in a 3-story restaurant that’s frequented by the hoi palloi here.

I’m finding the bit of Mandarin I learned helpful, with a caveat. I used the Pimsleur Mandarin audio CDs (which I recommend) – learning while driving to and from work, and at lunch. As I worked through the lessons, taking several days on each to learn it well, I wondered if I would be comprehensible. I would imagine asking for directions, or greeting people properly, and practiced not mumbling. Well, the results were a bit funny. First, one gets The Look: “This is an obviously not-Chinese person who appears to be speaking Chinese.” Then, the reply with a lot of Chinese I don’t understand (glad I learned how to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying” – I use that one a lot).  Turns out my accent is pretty decent for a beginner, the downside being that people assume you know more Chinese than you do. So I’ll have to continue to study when I get home.

We’re now on the way to get a massage.

Turns out Chinese massages are not like American massages. For one thing, there’s no soft music or scented candles, and, while I like a Swedish massage that will dig in and work the knots out of a fairly-muscular-for-my-size back, the lady who gave me the massage went a bit overboard. This was not an experience I would care to repeat. On the other hand, the Wadokai guys who went to get massages at the same time (in a separate room, of course) had an utterly uproarious experience that they will have to relate themselves. Really. Ask them sometime.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed a small dim sum shop, where ladies were preparing delicacies in rattan steamer baskets three feet across, stacked up a dozen high. These were the very big brothers of the humble six inch version I use over the wok in my kitchen.

When I was growing up, dim sum was the most special of special occasion foods. We would enjoy it in family gatherings in Oakland. My dad could tell from a person’s accent when speaking English what Chinese dialect they spoke, and would do his best to address them in their home dialect. So we would get terrific food most of the time. My mom would sometimes buy frozen dumplings and steam them up at home, and we all liked it when she decided to take this delicious approach for a short-cut dinner.

But here, one can have dim sum for breakfast in the hotel!  This seems an incredible luxury.

November 7, 2012: Travel Tips while Approaching Hong Kong

We’re approaching Hong Kong! This was one of the most pleasant long flights I’ve had, because (following the thread of the journey so far), I decided to fully enjoy the “not having to do anything” state. I reviewed a Mandarin lesson, watched two movies (enjoyed “Brave” recommended by my daughter), read a book, napped.

By way of “travel tips:”
1.  For long flights, bring a kit that contains:  an inflatable neck pillow that cradles your head, an eye shade, and earplugs and/or noise-canceling earbuds for your smartphone/music player. This will allow you to sleep.
2. I tucked my down jacket, made into a pillow by stuffing into its own integrated stuff-sack pocket (a very nice piece of gear from Eastern Mountain Sports) under my legs at the edge of the seat, putting my feet – sans shoes – up on my leather backpack/purse as usual. As I have a long waist and long legs, this helped me nap comfortably.
3. But don’t sleep too much or you hazard bad jet lag. I napped enough to be rested, but not for the entire flight.
4. 2.5 hours before landing, everyone else will be asleep. Go to the galley and drink a full glass of water. Then go to the washroom, wash your face, brush your teeth, put on some moisturizer, makeup, deodorant, and comb your hair. Adjust clothing layers for climate you’re landing into. Everyone will wake up about 2 hours before, so this is perfect timing.  You’ll land feeling refreshed, hydrated…in short, presentable.
5. I tend to pack everything into “kits” – small bags each containing items sorted by use.  For example, the “on-plane comfort kit,” “makeup kit,” “entertainment kit,” “snack kit” (containing high-protein snacks to avoid eating a lot of junk).  All of the kits go into my well-traveled Katana leather backpack. The kits allow me to quickly put my hands on what I need when squashed into the plane. I learned to do this when packing ruck sacks – if you don’t, everything goes to the bottom and you spend precious sleep/eat time rummaging.
6. Keep a pen close to hand along with your passport.  You might carry a spare or two, as your seat-neighbors will want to borrow.  As they will now, that it’s time to…fill in the immigration card.  
We’re landing!

November 6, 2012: EWR

Fled to Gallagher’s, a fairly convincing steakhouse near the gate in EWR’s C Terminal. Really glad I re-booked to an earlier flight in from BUF – I always forget that the transition from national to international flights requires re-transiting security (what fun!). With my original flight, I likely wouldn’t have made the connection.  It’s easier if both flights (national to the hub, and international to destination) are on the same airline, but but unfortunately I couldn’t do this.

So having chosen a wine (a Talus white), despite the scandalous hour (noon), I’m enjoying a decent steak salad, with mushrooms, bacon, onion, mushy tomatoes, and Roquefort.  Casing the terminal for possible lunch spots, I passed the gate for an earlier flight to Hong Kong. Chinese folk everywhere, naturally. I find myself looking for those distinctive mannerisms of my Dad. Are they his alone, or common to some cultural wedge? It occurs to me, a bit late, as usual, that this trip may be a little different for me than for some of the folk I’m traveling with. I feel like I’m looking for something of who I am, where I come from. My husband says, “You’re American. You’re what, a quarter Chinese? You don’t even speak the language. They’ll think you’re a guailo.” Point taken – pale skin, red hair, greenish eyes.

Internally, though, it doesn’t quite resonate.  My father was born in the US, not too far from where I live now, but he grew up in China from about age 4 until he was 16. He was a fine linguist – he spoke four Chinese dialects fluently, could get by handily in Japanese and Vietnamese, and was literate enough to read dynastic histories in traditional Chinese, in addition to reading simplified characters.  He studied Latin in high school – I once saw him engaging a train conductor in casual conversation after about a week in Italy. He was also very interested in history of all kinds, particularly military history, had an incredible memory for facts and a way of making them come alive with back-stories and humor.

While I lack his linguistic facility – as with everything else, I learn languages slowly – I have his tenacity and respect for hard work, and also a ghostly sense of China, through his stories and the food my mother prepared for him.  He was scrupulously fair and very English in his support of the underdog, but he could also be thoughtlessly prejudiced about people he didn’t know. He seemed to me a combination of a person who was assimilated, and yet still somehow Chinese.  I remember the pictures of him presenting during ITT’s trade mission to China. He seemed so animated, physically expressive in a way we didn’t see in his English-speaking self. As if he were a long-caged cheetah, set free. How ironic if he were more Chinese to English-speaking folk, and more English to the Chinese!

So I worry that China will disappoint me.  My biggest fear is that I’ll go there, and come back irritated. My father was old-fashioned, mostly in a good way, traditional. I wonder if many of the things he loved most about China’s culture are gone now.  Perhaps he is a “liminal person,” and I won’t find him anywhere.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012: Liminal State (Outbound)

The liminal state. My personal definition is a time when there’s nothing you have to do. An in-between time. By the gate at BUF, headed for Philly, to Newark, to Hong Kong. Feet resting on everything I need (notionally) for 3 weeks of adventure – about 30 pounds of gear, for climates ranging from the 90s to the 30s (F). I’m interested to see how the packing job works out.
One way or another, though, minus some ancillary purchases it’s done.

I’m loving this opportunity to take the mind out of gear. This just doesn’t happen much – I’m fortunate to have a life that is mostly rich and engaging. Ongoing low-grade exhaustion can be a problem – boredom rarely is.
So when I’m on a flight, or at the hair dresser, or the rare times I’m at home alone with nothing pressing that needs to be done, it’s nice to think about anything I wish. It’s nice not “being” anyone for a short while – not a product manager, a dojocho, a wife, a mom. I love being all those things, but I also love being…not. Being just myself, and not doing much. Refreshing.
I find at these times I come back a bit to myself. It’s easy to write, for example – nice to know it’s still here.

Floating over a thin snowfield of clouds, a ribbon-band of orange fading into sunrise on the left sIde of the plane. Flying to China, my father’s family’s ancient home. I almost can’t believe it. I should nap, but I can’t.

Sunday, October 27, 2012: Taking a Flier

I’m trying out my “tech for trip” for China in this journal entry. I’ve hooked my BlackBerry up to my PlayBook via remote to try out using the BlackBerry keyboard to compose Journal entries on Docs to Go. So far, so good.

So, why am I here at home in my PJs with my feet up on the ottoman in the kitchen – sharing said ottoman with Tulisan (currently washing his paws with single-minded attention prior to settling in for a nap)?

It’s a good question.

I’m trying to get ready for China – acquiring stuff, getting packed, taking care of logistics. I have an odd ambivalence. It doesn’t seem like “vacation.” When I talk with some of the other Aikidoka going, they are focused on “yippee, what an adventure,” but – typically – I’m thinking worst case, preparing for what could go wrong. Sigh. Rev Cathy re-framed it nicely at church – “That’s great, what fun!”  And I realized what a precious thing it is, to go visit this place that I still think of as a “root place.”  I worry, though about how I’ll be accepted there – Chinese last name, but speaking only a tiny bit of the language, red hair, green eyes, tallish. One time my dad was doing business with a Chinese man in the US, who, on meeting me, commented casually to my dad (in Chinese) that he “must have married a barbarian.” My dad, who was rarely overtly angry, was furious, and we never visited that shop again.

For the past couple of decades, it’s been seductive to lose myself in work for other people. I’m good at what I do, and I’m allowed to create and design, and lead, at least within limits. But it can come to feel like a kind of dream, a place you go to earn money and forget the stress of what you’re actually put on earth to do.  I could make an argument for “right livelihood,” and bring up the example of Saito Sensei, who was a train conductor for years while running Iwama Dojo.

But then this adventure beckons. When Shihan Sonny told us about a trip to China with Sensei back during Summer Camp 2012, I didn’t have a question in my mind that I was going to go. Wasn’t sure how I was going to manage it, but figured that one way or the other I would. It’s been well over a decade since I’ve taken more than a couple weeks of vacation, and when I have, it’s always been around Christmas, and I mostly stayed around the house. When you travel 50-75% for business, travel is not necessarily associated with adventure. Adventure-free travel is generally deemed desirable. Just get there, see the airport, the hotel, the conference room or trade show, the occasional restaurant, get home safe, try to catch up once you get back to work. There was also a bad memory of being laid off (along with  my entire team) during a vacation. But the prep for this trip feels like running towards the edge of a cliff, with a winged gizmo of dubious reliability strapped to one’s shoulders.

Much different.