Monday, December 10, 2007

Today's Martial Arts Topic: Affect

A long time back, when dinosaurs strode the Earth, before Martial Talk, before Instant Messaging, before HTTP, when e-mail addresses (if you were lucky enough to have one) had !s in them, I did Kajukenbo. Al Dacascos was in Portland. He'd moved his school from Murray Road to Highway 8 right across from the Lexus dealership and the Dairy Queen. One of the new features of the school was notebook pages and lists of requirements for every student at every level.

I couldn't stand the half handwritten half typewritten badly photocopied pages. So I typed them into MacWrite and printed out master copies. Strange things happened because of that. I ended up editing the IKF newsletter for a couple years and tried to make working class guys from Hawaii sound like college professors - a challenging job of editing. They also had me go to a couple of the yearly meetings and write them up making it sound like everyone got along swimmingly and peace, love and brotherhood were the orders of the day.

These are martial artists we're talking about. Let's say that a bit of selective blindness and some out-and-out lying was required. Watcha gonna do

The first meeting was in a hotel. Tiel and I were supposed to direct everyone to the meet-and-greet as they arrived. It wasn't hard. A few people were wearing Kajukenbo t-shirts of one sort of another. But the rest? There was a look, an affect that was very common. We didn't miss many. There was a sort of walk, almost a swagger, that a lot of them had. There was also a certain sort of erect carriage and highly developed forearms that set them apart from everyone else.

I think Tiel had it pegged. She was talking about a group of the senior practitioners and said "They're Palama boys. They grew up on da Islands and some of them never did adjust to the mainland. Most of them [one group] except X and Y and Z are still kids. They take their martial art seriously, but they're basically tough guys, brawlers who are up for a fight on Saturday night." There's a quality to the way a lot of them move that reminds me (surprise, surprise) of a lot of Kenpo stylists. It's like the torso is a solid gun platform, and the arms and legs moving around are the guns. I don't know how to express it.

Now, that's not to say that all Kajukenbo practitioners are like that. Not at all. But when you compare a chunk of them to a lump of other martial artists it sort of stands out in the aggregate.

Just recently I was reading an Australian kids' book called "Toad Rage". That led to thinking about Cane Toads and the last thing I tried to put in the Kajukenbo newsletter. And that finally led to thinking about the Kajukenbo Look and what stands out in people from other styles.

Some. I don't know exactly what it is that screams "Cop" in a person's bearing, but Phil Messina's people all seem to have it, even the ones who are not in law enforcement.

The smug superiority and false politeness of just about every single Ki Society Aikidoka I've met never fails to set my teeth on edge. It's led to more than one unfortunate but amusing incident

When Tiel met three koryu practitioners who teach under the same instructor here in Portland she said "Thugs. Well behaved, educated amiable thugs." And she's right. They're not that sort of person, but they sure carry themselves that way.

Krav Maga was a special case. When I took it for a very short time I talked to the guy leading class, and we've had conversations with other ones. They all agreed that if you don't have the right affect you aren't going to make instructor. Now, that's a little extreme, and I think it's unnecessary. But it's their party, so they can do what they want to. I think it's interesting that they're aware of the fact and use it.

A few things really stand out in the Thai boxers we've hung with. They don't swagger. They don't tend to brag. There's a certain value placed on politeness and humility though not subservience. There's also a serious "Show me" attitude. You make a claim, you'd better be able to back it up. That and the sort of toughness that comes from knowing you're fit, strong and can take it as well as dish it out.

It's sort of similar to the MMA guys. They look and act like, well, serious athletes in an extremely demanding sport. Excellent overall muscular development and a certain confident grace in movement. You tend to find the arrogance of the serious competitor coupled with very good sportsmanship.

A lot of people who do FMA don't have much contact with Filipinos. Still, there are things that rub off. A few years ago I would have said "quarrelsome". To some degree I still would. Hey, I call 'em like I see 'em. And I see 'em like I was There's more at work. And I think I've figured out part of it. In a lot of the "Chopstick Culture" Asian martial arts - Korea, Japan, China - there's a very hierarchical tradition. You have a rank, a title and seniority. That tells everyone (including yourself) who and what you are within the group. Things and people move in well-defined ways.

Among the FMA there's a lot of organizations and some fancy titles and ranks. But it's more fluid. I swear that every guy who had a fight with his teacher moved to the other side of town, made up a new salute and became the Grandmaster of his own slightly modified system that had absolutely nothing to do with the guys across the way

It's less like a beehive than a wolf pack. In the hive your duties will change, but who and what you are is always rigidly defined. Among wolves it's all about respect. The respect you get and your position is always up for negotiation. Back down from a challenge, and you've negotiated yourself downwards. Make too many challenges and you're a troublemaker. Challenge too high or too low, and you're not to be taken seriously.

I think that's why there's a stereotype that eskrimadors will fight at the drop of a hat, and if one doesn't drop they'll throw in their own. It's not entirely or even mostly true, but it stands out compared to a number of other traditions. And I think that's a good part of why.

When we did more FMA we picked up on it. We took more things as challenges and were more ready to see how our steel was tempered. Of course, we were also almost twenty years younger. But that couldn't have anything to do with it. Nah Tiel definitely picked some of it up from Suro Mike Inay's group when she studied there.

Just to pick an example, we had a table at the Oregon Knife Collectors' show once years back. A guy who later made quite a name for himself started talking trash about Guro Inosanto. "He's got some sticks, but that's it. He doesn't have any real martial arts." Now, people talk trash about Guro Inosanto all the time. It's usually pretty clear that it's a reflection on the guy doing the insulting, so you let it slide. At the time Tiel took it as an insult to her teacher's teacher and therefore a challenge. She was more than half serious about grabbing her sticks and seeing how the guy's steel was tempered. No matter how that fight would have ended it would have been bad for him. "Famous martial artist whacked upside the head by 120 pound gal" or "Big strong martial artist beats up woman half his size"

The point isn't who would have won the fight. It's that she had that FMA attitude of "Don't make challenges. Never back down if you are challenged."

Or there was the story Sifu Tony Ramos told about when he was working as a cop in Vacaville. The PR-24 had just come out, and everyone was getting trained. When the instructor uttered the sneer "Well, I see you're still carrying a baton," it was like a Greek tragedy. A Greek tragedy right after the main character has insulted Blind Tiresias and gone against the Will of the G-ds. I knew how the story goes after that. It ends a short act later with the instructor laid out on the floor.

These are generalizations. Obviously. Obviously. Obviously. No doubt. But there's a surprisingly large kernel of truth in some of them. You can learn a few things from the exercise. It's hard to say how much is self-selection and how much is induced. That varies from school to school and person to person.

One thing that's pretty clear is that nobody is qualified to apply the lens to his or her own style. It's like trying to see the surface from the inside. And all of us know we've got a case of "What I do is great. If there were something better I'd be training in it," when we're being honest. I know there's a Silat affect or a couple of them. But I'm too close to see it myself.

So what are some of the things that strike you about different traditions or styles? What can you look at in the practitioners that stands out and distinguishes them from other martial artists?


Steve Perry said...

Oh, I dunno, Todd. In our version of silat, we are all well-mannered, polite, self-effacing, talented, adept, and self-aware.

Scholars, gentlemen and ladies, all, not a bad apple in the barrel.

Of course, that's only the group in Cotten's garage.

Once you get down into the vicinity of La-La-Land, they are as mad as hatters and completely On the Wrong Path, a buncha skirt-wearing-know-it-alls ...

How's that for being able to turn the lens upon our art? Pretty good, hey ... ?

Michael B. said...

To be honest with you I truly have come to a point after all these years that I do not give two shits and a dixie cup what anybody does. It simply does not effect me. I mind my business and do my dead level best to learn, train and teach the arts I have chosen, outside of that it really doesn't matter. It takes all kinds to fill the ranks of martial arts systems, from neanderthals to book worms, over analyzers to don't give a hoots and trying to peg them would be like driving a bus with flat tires (cumbersome and to no avail).

Dan Gambiera said...

I agree Mike. What I'm trying to get at is how what we practice affects how we carry ourselves and present to the world outside of training.

Steve Perry said...

So what's with the BANDWIDTH BANDIT .Gif images on this posting? You lift those, or are you trying to keep somebody else from lifting them?

Dan Gambiera said...

Sorry folks, the images didn't show up in the editor, but the "bandwidth thieves will be tentacle-raped" messages showed up in the final copy. Odd.

Anyhow, they've been removed.

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