Monday, August 29, 2005

Louisiana, 1927 by Randy Newman

sung and played so beautifully by Marcia Ball, available from Alligator Records

Louisiana 1927

by Randy Newman

What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain
Rained real hard for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The river rose all day
The river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood
Some people got away all right
The river have busted busted through clear down to Plaquemines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Louisiana, Louisiana
They're tryin' to wash us away
They're tryin' to wash us away
Louisiana, Louisiana
They're tryin' to wash us away
They're tryin' to wash us away

President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand
The President say, "Little fat man, isn't it a shame what the river has done
To this poor cracker's land"


Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Difference Between Teaching Women's Self Defense and Martial Arts: Part I

When we say we teach self defense people ask "What kind? Tae Kwon Do? Karate?" We always have to give them the ten cent explanation on the difference between martial arts and self defense. Since my last post was about AWSDA it's as good a time as any to bring the topic up.

What are Martial Arts?

Historians like to joke that the only trouble with the Holy Roman Empire was that it wasn't holy, it wasn't Roman and it certainly wasn't an empire. A similar problem exists with martial arts. Most can't agree on what's martial, and people are fuzzy on what they mean by art.


A lot of ink and electrons have been wasted over the years debating whether "martial" refers to "what soldiers do", Asian or pseudo-Asian traditions which employ certain tropes or something else entirely. People get incensed about whether today's mixed martial arts competitions count, whether non-combative systems like Aikido should be given a seat at the table and so on. When they hear "Taught to the Navy Seals" or "Real Street Fighting" some people's blood pressure rises. Other people's eyes glaze over.

The argument goes back thousands of years. Ancient Greek philosophers argued over boxing versus wrestling. Were wrestling's victories over boxing in the pankration a sign of grappling's superiority, or was wrestling just a sport because it wasn't useful on the battlefield? There has been a good double handful or articles in the Journal of the Asian Martial Arts (one of the few martial arts publications that's not a simple-minded comic book) on what exactly a martial art is. Most of them come down to some sort of single-axis continuum with purely spiritual budo on one end, then self improvement and fitness, competitive sports somewhere in the middle, self defense further on and military training at the other end. Even scholarly groups like the International Hoplology Society with its complex typologies and intricate jargon comes down to "Combat is what soldiers do. The rest of you are just wanking about. We'll let the cops in by courtesy."

Then there is "art". Usually apologists for kata that have lost their meaning or techniques that don't work against a resisting opponent will talk about how that part is the art, a form of pure esthetic self expression. The self-proclaimed artists argue that the hit 'em and choke 'em crowd are low browed Phillistines. The combatives and competitive types argue that the first sort are doing interpretive dance, not anything remotely martial. The name calling and shouting start about a minute later.

I'd like to pull back a moment and consider the terms "martial" and "art" a little more. Martial refers to Mars or Ares, the Greco-Roman deity of war and battle. He was attended by Fear and Terror and drove men to battle madness. We note that Nike, Spirit of Victory, attended Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom.

The battles and conflicts a person fights depend on his or her life.

A soldier's training reflects the war he or she is likely to fight (or at least the last war the army fought). It includes techniques and training methods that are designed for groups of mostly young physically fit soldiers to fight against other groups of more-or-less similar people to attain tactical or strategic ends that usually have nothing to do with their personal aims. Any member of the team or in fact the entire unit is expendable in pursuit of the mission. Losses in training are acceptable if the cost-benefit analysis shows that they lead to a better chance of the unit fulfilling its objectives.

In a post on his bulletin board Marty Hayes of the excellent Firearms Academy of Seattle (actually in Chehalis) has talked about his experience as a police officer. More than once he has pointed out that while soldiers often make excellent cops, police and military work are very different and require different tools and training. It's not just a matter of tweaking the rules of engagement. The jobs are fundamentally not the same.

A private citizen has different concerns. He or she doesn't normally perform arrests or get involved in artillery duels or block clearing. The conflicts tend to be one-on-one or one-on-many and are usually concerned with self defense or fights over status. Success is usually along the lines of "I'm not being chased, shot at, stabbed or punched."

All of these are battle of one sort or another. So are gladiatorial combat whether in the Roman Coliseum, the Capoeira Roda, the Octagon or the Kalari.

One of the greatest problems in these definitions is cachet or ego. There is a heirarchy with a set of practices fitting neatly into one or the other categories. And there are implicit values associated with each level. People make a great deal of exactly which warrior society or army used or uses their stuff, the fact that their system is entirely defensive and non-harmful and so on. Of course, everyone is anxious to put his or her practice at the top. Chip Armstrong draws a clear line between "professionals" and "amateurs". Others are careful to distinguish between "martial arts" and "martial sciences". These days "Reality Based Self Defense" is a very popular term, although I prefer Terry Trahan's less pretentious Weaselcraft.

I'd like to put it in perspective and say that "martial" refers to battle. Not necessarily what soldiers do, although it includes that, but individual or group interpersonal conflict. It could be military, civilian self defense, police work, agonistic (competition including sports) or ludic (play, a practice where the quality of the interaction is important).


These days when most people think of the word art the image includes sculpture, music, painting, dance. What academics call the Plastic and Performing Arts.

It's easy to forget that the term once had another meaning. Merriam-Webster puts it this way:

Pronunciation: 'ärt
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Old French, from Latin art-, ars -- more at ARM
1 : skill acquired by experience, study, or observation art of making friends>
2 a : a branch of learning: (1) : one of the humanities (2) plural : LIBERAL ARTS b archaic : LEARNING, SCHOLARSHIP
3 : an occupation requiring knowledge or skill art of organ building>
4 a : the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced b (1) : FINE ARTS (2) : one of the fine arts (3) : a graphic art
5 a archaic : a skillful plan b : the quality or state of being artful
synonyms ART, SKILL, CUNNING, ARTIFICE, CRAFT mean the faculty of executing well what one has devised. ART implies a personal, unanalyzable creative power art of choosing the right word>. SKILL stresses technical knowledge and proficiency skill of a glassblower>. CUNNING suggests ingenuity and subtlety in devising, inventing, or executing cunning>. ARTIFICE suggests technical skill especially in imitating things in nature artifice>. CRAFT may imply expertness in workmanship craft of a master goldsmith>
Decoration and beauty are part of it. Learning and skill beyond mere technical competence are at the heart of it.

It's this sense of "art" where martial arts begins to have some meaning. There are many tasks a soldier or fighter can learn to perform. There are further levels they might reach where the skills are internalized and the practitioner goes beyond simply carrying out the functions mechanically. He or she can apply and extend them as required by the situation.

My Silat teacher, Guru Stevan Plinck, put it this way when we first started studying with him:

There are five broad stages in a martial artist's development.
  1. The Novice. Doesn't have any form or skills. Can't fight unless he already knew how
  2. The Beginner. Has form but no skill. Can't fight but thinks he can. Can get hurt trying.
  3. The Practitioner. Has form and skills. Can fight. Will be recognized as competent by other skilled people who will recognize his teacher's style.
  4. The Advanced Practitioner. Doesn't show form anymore. Still shows intention. Does what is most efficient at the moment.
  5. The Master. Form has completely dissolved away. No intention. The skill is an inseperable part. Confuses and amazes the hell out of everyone who isn't at his level.
Somewhere around the later parts of stage three Art in the older sense begins to creep in.

Martial Arts

So where have we gotten? Martial Art in the sense I'm talking about is great skill in things related to conflict between people. A particular curriculum and set of training methods can be a vehicle for achieving art if the practitioner is skilled and motivated enough.

I'm not so attached to "affective vs. effective", jutsu/do, military training/civilian self defense or any of the others. The biologist's way of looking at things seems more natural. Come up with classifications or categories that are useful for answering the questions you want to ask. Apply them as appropriate and don't insist on them where they aren't. Don't get too attached to them or apply them beyond their scope.

Judo and Tae Kwon Do are Olympic sports. One is a form of belt and jacket wrestling. The other is a type of foot and fist boxing. But they are also taught to soldiers as part of military training and police as aspects of defensive tactics. They are not terribly useful on a modern high-tech battlefield, but they promote physical fitness and aggression. Tae Kwon Do was explicitly created as a symbol of nationalism and Korean identity. So what are they? Martial arts? Martial sports? Military science? Obsolete combatives? Police defensive skills?

Perhaps the correct question isn't "Is this a sport, a martial art, a method of self improvement, police work or military training?" Better ones might be "What are the characteristics of this set of skills and teaching methods? What are they being used for in this case? How well do they accomplish that task?"

In Part II we will take a look at self defense and what most people think of as martial arts and how the two relate to each other.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Women's Self Defense - AWSDA Convention 2005

I went to AWSDA's annual convention and seminar last week after a two year absence. It reminded me why I always find it so valuable.

Anyone who wants to learn martial arts just has to look in the phone book. There are dozens of schools. In this medium sized city I can find everything from Internal Chinese traditions to UFC-ready mixed martial arts and obscure Southeast Asian systems. If someone wants to train or compete it's all right there. A person with the inclination to teach can end up with his or her own classes pretty easily learning education skills by example, but that's a topic for another entry.

Women's self defense is harder to find. Many dojos have a class, usually an introduction to the martial art they teach. Some police departments sponsor programs. Our local PD has a very good one. Finding a teacher who specializes in it is difficult. And there's a huge variety of courses. Some teach only physical skills. Others stress verbal de-escalation. Some are designed for teenage girls and others for senior citizens. There really isn't any standardization because there isn't a standard WSD student. Different approaches will reach different women.

There also isn't as much opportunity to learn how to teach the material. Most instructors make take their best shot at curriculum and pedagogy in light of their background and personal inclination. It can be very difficult to figure out what to teach and how to present it. Lord knows Tiel and I screwed up more than one class when we were starting out. I can only hope our good intentions count for something in the final reckoning.

That's why AWSDA has been such a godsend to us. The American Women's Self Defense Association, now changing its name to the Association for Women's Self Defense Advocates to reflect its growing international presence, brings together an incredibly generous and diverse group of people. When we've had questions about anything from finding an instructor to dealing with trauma-induced flashbacks in class or efficient techniques for specific applications there has always been someone in the network who can help.

Perhaps the best service they provide is the annual training seminar. Every year AWSDA members in a different city host a combination of convention, networking meeting and training event. We've always enjoyed it and have reformulated our own courses several times in light of what we've learned. Typically the event starts with an all-day training for AWSDA's proprietary short term rape prevention course. The next three days are filled with two hour blocks of instruction in a variety of topics. A series of meetings and group meals rounds out the program.

We've been to about half the AWSDA but missed the last couple due to health issues. It is interesting to look back and see how the event has developed. When we first started out most of the instruction centered around physical techniques. There were some undeniable rough edges in organization and presentation.

It was still worth every minute and every penny.

By this year almost all these issues were worked out. The organization was smooth. Member concerns from years past had been addressed. And there was a great deal more variety in training. Of course there was still a lot of good technique being taught. I went to excellent courses on edged weapons defense and escaping from bear hugs. But I also attended units on verbal de-escalation, Post Incident Trauma, the use ofNLP in teaching, boundary setting, identifying priorities in combat, how to prepare for an assault by a known attacker, mental preparation and theoretical perspectives on violence against women.

Then there was opportunity to sit and talk story with some very remarkable people. Their willingness to share their experience so generously and candidly was priceless.

Next year's seminar will be in Phoenix, Arizona. We plan on attending and would urge anyone interested in women's self defense to do the same.