The following are my compiled blog posts about preparing for my black belt (shodan) test in aikido.

Dec 10, 2007

I figured I would post regular updates of my progress toward shodan, but it turns out to be really difficult to write about. Probably because this isn’t one of those confessional baring-of-soul type blogs. It’s so much easier to rant about bad TV.

I’m told preparing for shodan brings you face to face with your baggage. I thought I understood that as a concept, but now it’s happening and it’s harder than I thought it would be. I thought what I’d have to contend with was laziness. I thought I would just have to find the will to do 100 rolls, to train hard for an hour or more. But what I’m really up against is my own cowardice.

I hate admitting to be a coward. I hate admitting it to myself and to whoever reads this. But it’s the truth and there’s no getting around it.

Exhibit A: I was riding the bus, I guess this was a few months ago now. A young Latina woman was talking on her cell phone in Spanish. I was sitting right across the aisle from her, near the front. The driver was grumbling, finally pulled the bus over and told her, very aggressively, that she couldn’t talk on the phone because it was distracting him. He was totally out of line. It wasn’t exactly a Rosa Parks moment, but I’m the one who always says the anti-immigrant xenophobes need to get a grip. Suddenly here I was face to face with one in full xenophobic nasty mode, and I sat there like a lump of seaweed. I could have just told the guy to take it easy, I could have pulled out my cell phone and called somebody (like the Tri-Met office for example) but I was scared. Someone in the back piped up and told the driver he was being an idiot, but not me or anyone else.
I hate being scared. I hate the memory of that bus ride. I hate lacking the courage of my convictions. I hate being part of the silent apathetic majority.

There are other instances which I may go into later. I used to wonder, what would I do in a crisis? Would I make the right split-second decision? Would I enter, blend, throw and pin? No. I would sit there like a lump of seaweed.

I can’t get my black belt this way. It shows in my technique. I move too far from the attacker, I compromise my posture trying to avoid the strike, I cede control of the situation. My techniques are not sharp enough, not clear enough, not assertive enough.

I believe it is possible to change one’s nature. I just don’t know if I can do it in the next couple of months.

Dec 20: Sick

Marcie caught a cold over a week ago and is still coughing. A few days in she ran a fever and lost her voice. People at work have told her of a bug going around that takes 2 or 3 weeks to get over.
I caught her cold Sunday night. So far I’m not doing too bad. I’m coughing a little bit this morning, but apart from a sore throat I’ve felt pretty good the last couple of days. I’m hoping against hope that we can both get over it by Monday, when our Christmas guests arrive: Marin, Steve, Mary, and most likely two kittens. Then at dawn on New Year’s Day I’ll be jumping into a chilly river with my dojo. Not something you look forward to when sick.
My training will be interrupted by the holidays anyway, with the dojo closing up next week. Still I’m not thrilled about having to miss training this week. I was too sick to go Monday night, I went on Tuesday but took it real easy, and I’m going today but will have to take it easy again. All this after sensei telling me on Saturday it’s time to turn up the heat. However, he’s happy with my progress, previous post notwithstanding. I may actually pull it off. It seems crazy to think I could get my black belt in a month, but it will probably always seem crazy until 6 months after I test.

Jan 7, 2008

I’m testing on February 1st. I keep thinking that if I’m not ready we’ll push the date back, but that’s not how it works. The way it works is, we set a date and I get ready by then, whatever it takes. It seems impossible. One month to transform my technique from uncertainty to clarity? One month to know when to extend and when to receive? One month to relax my shoulders, to get comfortable on that razor line away from getting hit, to have good solid posture and balance, to move gracefully on my knees? There’s no way.

I’m not good at being under pressure. I keep finding ways out of it. Like, they say you grow into a rank after you earn it. So if I’m not quite there at my test, it’ll be okay. But that attitude doesn’t help me. The pressure is important, necessary for the kind of transformation I want to achieve. Nobody ever changed their nature without pressure.

This test is not just about me. My sensei has to sign off on it, and his sensei (Frank Doran) as well. I know, it sounds all Return of the Dragon; the honor of my master is at stake! But it’s true.

My sensei once said about training while you’re exhausted, focus on the moment. Don’t worry about if you can get up in ten minutes; can you get up now? Chances are you can. That’s a difficult mindset to maintain, but it seems like good advice for this whole process. I can’t imagine achieving what I need to achieve in the next four weeks, but I can go to class and train hard on the intervening days.

I’m always kind of irritated when people talk about personal issues and say “I’m working on it.” Work on it by doing it. If you want to change your behavior, change it. If you can’t change it, you’re not really committed to changing. Practice the change until it becomes habitual. Changing one’s nature is, in one sense, an incredibly hard and long process. In another sense, it happens instantaneously. You don’t build up to being more forgiving or more courageous or more decisive. When the time comes to act, you act, either in the same old way or in a new way.

That’s how I’m looking at training. Practice like a black belt, fully committed, and eventually it will become habitual. By February 1st? Hard to believe. It’s probably best not to think about that, but just train as hard as I can as much as I can in the meantime.

Jan 14: Everything is a Referendum on my Entire Life

I bought meat today.

Beef. For stew. I was at the store, I wanted to make Marcie something for dinner that wasn’t based on rice or noodles, because that’s all we’ve been eating lately.

I never buy beef. I don’t eat beef. I don’t believe in the factory farms that raise and tend cows like they were car parts. I looked for buffalo or lamb from some decent local farm, but they don’t have such things at Winco. And so rather than make another trip to another store, I took the quick and easy path. That’s no way to be a black belt.

Of course, I make no distinction about chicken, turkey, or eggs. Which is ironic, because what started me on this whole thing was the scene in Baraka when the chicks get their beaks branded. I was vegetarian for most of 1994. Well, a chemotarian; I pretty much lived on Doritos and Mountain Dew. Clearly that’s not a sustainable lifestyle. I was too lazy to be a real vegetarian, and I was dating a committed carnivore, so I relented on birds and fish and pigs and goats before long.

But I never went back to beef. If I’m a guest somewhere and they serve me some, I don’t make a scene. If I’m at a McMenamin’s that uses local, humanely-raised beef, I might get a hamburger. Beyond that, I won’t participate in the beef industry. It’s the one concession I haven’t made in my long slow slide from college weirdo to working class schmo.

So today I buy a friggin pound and a half of mass-produced cow chunks?? Not good. Sliding too far.

What I really ought to do is work harder, make more money, so we can switch entirely to local organic food critters. I have no problem with eating animals. We are part of an ecosystem that includes predators and prey. But I do believe that animals can feel misery, and the least that we owe them before we kill and eat them is a comfortable life and a little respect. Fortunately there are independent farmers and ranchers raising livestock with respect and care. So why am I not shelling out the few extra dollars for chickens that weren’t hatched onto a conveyor belt into nonstop suffering? I have no excuse. Here I am, not living the change. Again, not a black belt.

On the plus side, I did something else today counter to my desire, which I believe was the right choice. I cancelled a 24 hour comic session that was to be held at our house this weekend. I love doing 24 hour comics, and I really wanted to invite some artists over and entertain them and have a good time, but to do it now is just crazy. The animation studio that had promised me a lot of work starting in February is actually starting the project already, and they want me to get cracking. Also, our house has decided to start falling apart, and it wouldn’t be very cool to be laughing it up drawing comics while Marcie is fixing the pipes. Plus, hello, I’m supposed to be training as hard and as often as I can this month. I can’t sacrifice a whole weekend.

I consider 24 hour comics a kind of training, a kind of practice in pushing past barriers, but it’s not the kind of training I need right now. There are very specific moves I need to be practicing. I hate for my artist friends to see me as a flake, but in this case it’s the price that must be paid.

Jan 20: Forward Rolls

I did 110 rolls!
I had not cracked 90. I’d been thinking, if I can get to 90, I can get to 100.
I can do this.

Jan 28: Penultimate

I test on Friday.
Saturday we had a mock-test, a trial run. I remembered everything. I struggled a little with the ushiro variations, but I came up with enough. Koshi nages and tanto doris were surprisingly smooth. I got specific corrections on kote gaeshi and juje nage which lead to some clean-up with ushiro. I worked on those things yesterday with Cody, hopefully will get a chance to work on them some more tonight. I’m doing 100 rolls consistently at practice. I never want to do it, I always dread it, but I can do it.
Only three more training days before my test. I’d like to have two more weeks, but then of course I’d have to keep it up for two more weeks. And there would only be more corrections, that’s how it works.
The date is set. The die is cast. There’s no going back.
I often think about climbing Mera Peak, in the Himalayas, back when I was 18. Summit day, I trudged up the glacier, thinking with every step, “This is my last step. I can’t possibly take another step. I’m going to stop right here.” And then of course I took another step. It helped that I was roped to my dad and he was up above me, not stopping. No one is roped to me now, but the whole dojo is committed to my success.
I know I can do it. I want to do it well. I’m not going to do it as well as I want to, that’s just a fact. I’m not as talented as Mike or Glenn or Joe. I’m going to blow it on something, but I’ll do it again and it will be okay.
The trick is to stay positive. It’s not necessarily a question of pushing through exhaustion (although there is some of that), it’s more pushing through the anxiety, the fear, the uncertainty. Focus on the moment. Do I have what I need to get through this moment? Yes I do. Stay in that place. Keep the positive energy pouring out.
It’s almost time.

Feb 4: How It Went

It went well.
My test lasted a full hour, which I should have expected, but didn’t. It felt much shorter. I made a few mistakes. Sensei corrected me once, on getting into position for tanto dori, knife at the throat from behind (“don’t turn your back on him, he’ll get behind you”). I backed into ushiro a couple of times during jiyu waza (“freestyle”), which a senior student had admonished me not to do the previous Saturday. Aside from that, I was happy with my performance.

I got lots of positive comments on management of energy. All that conditioning training paid off. Before we began, Sensei said nervousness is just energy; use it. I took that to heart and tried to keep my nervous energy contained and focused. It worked; halfway through I felt I would explode with heat, while spectators in the dojo (I heard later) were freezing cold.

Other comments: I increased my movement and use of the space for rondori (multiple attackers). I didn’t rush the techniques. I maintained composure throughout. Sensei felt I had worked hard to correct all the things he and others had advised me about in the previous weeks. I know I let a couple of my kote gaeshis collapse inward, but for most of them I kept uke stretched out. Something to keep working on. On the whole, I felt much more in command of the techniques than normal.

Now the real training begins….

P.S. Today I’m making stew with organic, free-range beef.


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