What is the 50 State Challenge? Want to join the Challenge? Email me here.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Coffee, Trolls, and Seattle Antics

The Space Needle as viewed from Volunteer Park.

Seattle is not the cheapest city to visit, and I'm trying to do this project on a budget. Fortunately I had friends I could rely on for transportation and a couch for sleeping.  They were also very cool about helping me run around and experience Seattle.

One of those friends raises alpacas!

I skipped the Space Needle since here are plenty of nice views available for free.  When the sky was clear, the colors were remarkably vibrant.  Crayola has nothing on Puget Sound.  I joked that I wanted it to rain during my visit or I wouldn't be getting the full Seattle experience.  When the rain finally came, it was accompanied by a wind storm that dropped giant trees on cars and left us without power for a day.  Others fared much worse.  Having survived the Ent Attack of 2015, I stopped joking about the rain.  I still felt completely free to mock the Fremont Troll, though.

It's a troll, eating a car, under a bridge.  Because of course it is.

Felicia Day was in town.  My friend's poor luck meant he wouldn't be using his tickets, so I got the chance to meet her.  It's hard for me to articulate why I like Felicia Day so much.  I find her work entertaining.  It doesn't hurt that she has built this online community based around what she loves, all without the benefit of a celebrity family or being born into money.  Nope, no reason at all why a novice blogger like myself might like Felicia Day. She kindly signed my... whatever you would call this thing.


When visiting Seattle it is almost required to go to a Starbucks, since that's where it all got started.  One of my English students in Korea, a girl by the name of Luna, gave me a Starbucks gift card on the last day of class.  It's certainly a thoughtful gift for any soon-to-be jet lagged recipient, and the Korean Starbucks assured me I could use it in America. This turned out not to be the case.  So instead, I just looked like a doofus in a Starbucks. Which, for someone whose usual order is "candy that you drink and it keeps you awake," that's not a particularly unusual condition.

"Yeah, I'm going to order.  I just gotta take a picture of my gift card in front of the other gift cards."

Even though I was trying to limit expenses wherever possible, I did splurge on a ticket to the EMP Museum.  It's a museum dedicated to music and science fiction.  Not music IN science fiction.  It's two separate things.  The giant screen playing Michael Jackson videos is next to the Star Wars costuming exhibit.  You could say the museum has a little bit of a personality disorder.  It was a lot of fun, but I learned the disheartening reality that my knowledge of sci-fi weapons is not what I thought it was.

I don't know about you, but I couldn't name very many of these.

Everyone told me I absolutely had to go to Pike Place Market.  They also said the main attraction was seeing people throw fish.  I saw plenty interesting shops selling everything from antiques to novelty puzzles to literally profanity-inducing fruit and even seafood, but I could not find a single projectile sea creature.  My legs were tired from exploring and I was ready to call it a day.  I looked over at my friend, who seemed to feel the same since he was no longer swearing about delicious peaches and was sitting down to rest.  I told him, "I don't think we're going to see any fish throwing.  I think it's a prank Seattle residents play on visitors.  They tell everyone to see the fish throwing just so the tourists go around looking like idiots."

Tourists do not need help looking like idiots.  We do it just fine on our own.

As soon as I said that, the workers in the fish shop behind me started tossing a fish around.  But I didn't get a picture!  I'm leaving it as an exercise to the reader to figure out if I actually did see fish throwing, or if I just decided to join the Seattle prank and help spread false rumors of aerial fishmongering.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Spending October in Korea

I am very excited about the 50 States Challenge, and I have big plans for it, but those plans have to go on hold for the time being.  I have worried about this greatly, since after visiting only one state, I am going to spend my entire travel budget on a trip to Korea.  It makes it seem like I'm not serious about the 50 States Challenge.

Here's the problem.  I usually visit Korea in August or January, or both if I can.  This is because I can teach at an English camp, which pays enough to cover the cost of the plane ticket and my expenses while I'm there.  They also provide lodging and some meals. It's usually a really good arrangement.  However, this year the camp I usually work had an explosion of interest among teaching applicants, and they filled up before I even sent my application.  So I had to choose between not going to Korea this time, or paying for the trip out-of-pocket.

Well, I'm training with Grandmaster Park in Korea.  I figure for many of you reading this, that doesn't mean anything to you.  But try to imagine having an instructor who was good to you at a time when you desperately needed someone to be good to you.  Imagine having the chance to train with someone who has been deeply involved in martial arts since taekwondo was first finding its identity and even before the name "taekwondo" was conceived.  Imagine having an instructor who not only taught you, but went out of his way for you to a degree that could never be called fair.  Or maybe you have an instructor that awesome and you don't need to imagine.  But suffice it to say there is no force on this earth that can keep me from meeting up with him like I promised back in January.  Even if I have to put the 50 States Challenge on hold.

I've trained with him every chance I get, but only once
did it make the front page of Taekwondo Times.

The other exciting opportunity on this trip is training in taekyun with Master Do Kihyun.  I talked about this a bit in a previous post, and this trip will be a continuation of what I learned from him before.  He told me once that the nearest taekyun school to where I live, as far as he knows, is in Vancouver.  That's only a 30-hour drive away.  As you might imagine, I don't mind travelling for an opportunity like this.

Of course, it's fun, too.

So, why October?  Two reasons.  First, the flights are cheapest in October, whereas August and January are peak seasons.  Unfortunately, that's a stressful concern.  And second, I've always wanted to go back to Korea in October.

The first time I went to Korea, I was there for a year.  I got to experience each yearly occurrence once.  Each season, each festival, each holiday.  The one exception was October.  I got sick in October, and it took me the entire month to get over it.  During that time, the weather was gorgeous and there were a ton of festivals and events, but I couldn't attend any of them because I couldn't exactly breathe.  I told myself that someday when I'm rich I'll return for the month of October and do it properly.  Well, I'm not rich, but I'm motivated.

How I spent my first October in Korea, except without Darth Vader.

I'll have a lot to tell about this trip, and I hope you enjoy it.  I'm anticipating stories about travel, culture, martial arts, and history.  I also have a couple more posts from Washington that will go up soon.  I will be posting one article per week until I run out of interesting stories to tell, but I am all too aware that when I get home, I'll to have to spend some time earning back all the money I'm pouring into this before I can resume the 50 States Challenge.  I hope I don't have to go into complete radio silence while I'm doing that, but if I do, know that I will be back.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Lessons in Seattle

I expected that over the course of this project, I would learn a lot of physical skills and a few nonphysical ones.  I still hope to do exactly that.  Certainly there is a lot to be learned in martial arts besides movement, so maybe I should not have been surprised that most of the lessons here were not physical in nature.

I told Kris Wilder what I have told every instructor I've ever trained under:  "I am happy to try to learn whatever you try to teach me."  He took that more literally than most and spent that training time teaching me about teaching.  He is perhaps better known for teaching physical skills, but if you have read Sensei Mentor Teacher Coach, you will understand why I did not feel cheated by this at all.  (And if you have not read it, you may want to fix that sooner rather than later.)

It seems that after watching me teach on the first day, he got it in his head (correctly) that I would want to teach martial arts for a living someday.  Since he was happy with how I ran class, he focused on the meta-skills of teaching.

Seven Basic Actions instead of kicking for this class.

First he showed me his method for planning a class.  He keeps notes for each class in a subtle file on the wall.  The template is split into three sections, warm ups, basics, and skill drills.  He has pencil markings over a week's worth of pages for what he plans to cover. His lower level classes are just reductions of the main lesson plan.  Even though he stressed the importance of planning, he also highlighted the need to stay flexible.

He also talked about how important it is to "read outside of your industry."  He said that he learns things outside of martial arts that help him with his martial arts every day, because he has made a habit of exploring other fields.  He told stories of making connections overseas as an accidental byproduct of investigating cinematography, and at worst it has been "a neat little dead end," as when he learned the neurology of how the eyes focus while studying magicians' tricks.  He cited Malcolm Gladwell as a perfect example of success through exploring other industries, as his books tend to illustrate broad concepts by in-depth excursions into a wide range of fields.

If you have not read Outliers, you should fix that immediately.
Seriously.  Stop reading this blog and go do it.

But most of the instruction came through stories and examples.  He told me about how he motivated a young student with severe attention difficulties by making sure the kid knew he wasn't in trouble when he heard his name called again and again, but instead it meant that he was about to hear something important that would help him learn and excel.  He told me about his rules for managing disruptive behavior.  Kids who need a time-out sit at the edge of the mat, but if they leave the mat they have to go home.  It draws a concrete line between being in class and not.  He even told stories about how to deal with upset parents and how to kick a student out of the school if a severe problem can't be solved any other way.

He also told a story about how he helped an adult student overcome a drug problem and clean up his life after getting out of jail.  When I suggested telling this story in detail on the blog, he seemed to think the story was not unique enough to be interesting.  While I have to respectfully disagree on that point, what he said next was plenty interesting by itself. He said, "That's not what teaching is about."

Kris Wilder, between classes.

He went on to explain that the goal is not to help people change, but to help them find something inside of them that was already there.  This launched us into a discussion about why people sign up for martial arts classes.  If you ask them, they will often say they want to learn self defense.  But why do they want to learn self defense?  Most of them do not face violence on a regular basis, so most new students' desire to learn self defense doesn't come from a fear of what will happen if they don't have those skills.  Instead, they often hope that this will be a solution to something that is missing in their lives.  For example, everyone has an innate need to feel competence.  Someone who does not feel competent at work or feels unappreciated there might seek to fulfill that need through martial arts.  In other words, students are already looking for something inside themselves.  The instructor's job is just to help them find it.

With kids it's different, of course, since sometimes they join because of the parents' interest and not their own.  He suggested a scenario where a kid's parents are "the Charlie Brown teacher," where it becomes the instructor's job to reach the students in a way the parents can't.

But he also pointed out that even though the objective of teaching is to reach students and help them find what is already inside them, reaching more students doesn't necessarily make you a better teacher.  Sensei Kris puts his money where his mouth is on this one.  He runs a small school, both in square footage and number of students.  By keeping it small he hopes to reach his students more deeply.  It's also worth pointing out that I never once heard him boast of his students' skill, but he was happy to tell stories of their achievements outside of martial arts.  There are no trophies or other tokens of students' karate accomplishments on display, but he does celebrate the students who have left him to go to college by displaying their schools' pennants.

The accomplishments of West Seattle Karate students.

In the end I interviewed Sophal and told his story instead of the one about getting out of jail.  It turned out to be another story about finding something within that was always there.  That was clever on Sensei Kris's part, but then he went all Mr. Miagi on me.  At one point in an unrelated conversation, I told him a story from when I was a kid.  One summer I taught a girl in Special Ed how to read, not knowing that everyone else had given up on her.  My point was that she obviously didn't deserve to be given up on, if a grade-schooler like myself could help her.  Sensei Kris suddenly took a serious tone and reinterpreted the story as evidence that I have always been a good teacher.

Now, please bear with me while I recap:

1.  Sensei Kris knew that I was not terribly confident about teaching his students.
2.  Sensei Kris was trying to teach me about teaching.
3.  Sensei Kris asserts that teaching is really about helping people find something they've always had.
4.  After hours of instruction on teaching, Sensei Kris finds a way to suggest that this is a skill I've always had.

I see what you did there, sir.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Sophal's Story: Professional Achievement through Childhood Dreams

Sophal Keo is an assistant instructor at West Seattle Karate.  He has stories to tell about being impressed by the strength of punches from instructors in their 40's or 60's.  He also has a lot to say about the importance of understanding how to do things correctly and understanding why they are done that way.  But the story of how he got to where he is leaves all that in the dust.

Sophal Keo, living the dream.

Sophal is the son of Cambodian immigrants.  Being only two years old when he came to America, he was blissfully unaware of the conditions his parents faced before that. Because of their experience, they strongly objected to violence in any form and raised their family accordingly.  While Sophal acknowledges a certain admiration for their adherence to their principles, he also tells of frustration when they disapproved of his interest in martial arts.

"I rebelled," he says.  His parents pushed him to achieve in school, to no effect.  His grades suffered from lack of effort.  Never having performed well in school, he thought of himself as a failure.

The turning point was during his senior year of high school.  It was a major assignment where each student had to choose a goal or project.  Sophal set the goal of getting his yellow belt in one month.  Since it was academic in nature, his parents finally relented.  He signed up at West Seattle Karate and indeed did achieve his yellow belt within the time he set for himself.

"It was a boyhood dream come true."  He loved it and stayed with it.  But he also has an introspective assessment of what happened.  He cites that senior project as the first time he pursued his own goal instead of the goal of a parent or teacher.  His success inspired him to achieve.

He recalls the realization that he was completely capable of achieving in academics if he only applied himself in the way he did with karate.  He turned his grades around and not only went to college, but graduated with a double major in Accounting and Supply Chain Management.  He now has a successful career as an auditor while working toward his CPA.

Bachelor of Science degree in hand.

I asked him what he thought would have happened if he hadn't done that senior project. He paused, as if the question were too daunting to answer.  Then he said, "I wouldn't be myself."  He can't imagine things being so different.

Today Sophal is a big believer in the value of martial arts instruction to students of all ages.  He summarizes his main takeaway from his own experience succinctly:  "Be diligent, put effort, and always make goals."  He's quick to point out, though, that there's more to martial arts than is illustrated by this story.  "There's a lot you can learn in martial arts, not just that one lesson."

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Teaching Kicking at West Seattle Karate

When I realized my first stop on this project would be West Seattle Karate I was certainly excited, but I noticed one little problem.  I'd be teaching a group of students who were accustomed to being taught by Kris Wilder.

Between Kris Wilder and myself, one of us gets invited all over the world to teach seminars, and one of us came up with a hairbrained idea for a travel project that is, for some reason, actually happening.  I imagined students who learned from him regularly and thought they must be very happy with their normal instruction and might find me to be a disappointment.  A week later, I was certain that he had yellow belts more skilled than me.  A week after that, his yellow belts were all ex-marines who ran their own schools.  By the time I arrived in Seattle, I was envisioning a host of time-traveling Samurai from feudal Japan, who between their active careers in Special Forces and their side jobs as karate instructors, had no patience for my underwhelming kicking advice.  Thankfully my overactive imagination knows to sit down and shut up once class begins.

The first group:  novice karate students, or deadly ninja masters of disguise.
Who knows?

For all my worrying, nothing bad happened.  It's a fools errand to make any blanket statements about a group of students, since they're always individuals first and a class second.  But one trend I noticed at this school was that the higher the belt, the more eager the learner.  I hope I can foster that trait in my own students someday.

Very eager learners.
Given the broad assignment of teaching some kicking, there were a lot of ways I could have pared it down to a single lesson.  Eventually I decided to focus on pivoting.

In my opinion, pivoting often isn't given the attention it deserves.  It can seem like an inconsequential detail that can afford to be overlooked until the larger movements in the kick are mastered.  However, there are some very good reasons to correct it sooner.

First, correct pivoting can prevent injuries.  I know people who have done permanent damage to their knees because they kicked with poor pivots for years before correcting what seemed like a minor stylistic detail.  In fact, they were creating repetitive stress injuries by throwing their body weight against their knees at an unhealthy angle.

The second reason to correct pivots early is because it makes it much easier to correct the kick itself when the pivot is right.  When a student is having trouble with a kick, correcting the pivot almost always fixes the kick.  This is because when the standing foot is in the correct position, the hips usually fall into the right position with no effort. Conversely, if the pivot is wrong, it's almost impossible to kick correctly because the hip positioning won't allow it.

Some very flexible people can make a kick look right while not pivoting correctly.  Even in these cases correcting the pivot is beneficial.  By getting the standing foot and hip into the right position relative to the target, not only is the knee protected, but it also ensures that the strongest muscles are powering the kick.

This was my thinking as I filled the classes with drills, technical details, tips and trick for kicking.  I also got to tell a couple stories and the occasional joke.  Overall it seemed well-received, and thankfully my concerns about starting this project were groundless.  In fact, I was lucky to start here.  They were a great group, Sensei Kris was kind in his hospitality, I learned a lot and it was a lot of fun.

Not to mention donating 400 pounds of food to hungry children!
The first entry in the Statebook!  I know I missed some
people because I kept forgetting to tell people about it.

Taekyun - Inside Jegi and Outside Jegi

For each class I teach in the 50 States Challenge, the goal is to include one technique that I learned at the previous school in the Challenge--something I've learned that I'm passing on to a new school.  But what about the first school?

The last time I traveled out-of-state for martial arts, I went to Korea and studied taekyun under Master Do.  Adding a little taekyun to the lesson seemed interesting.  Since I was asked to teach kicking, it was reasonable enough to add it to the lesson, considering "taekyun" literally means "contest of kicking."

I am not a black belt in taekyun, but Master Do gave me permission to include what I know of taekyun in my lessons for this project.

Master Do and someone else... I forget who.

Taekyun, like judo or taekwondo, is both a martial art and a sport.  What makes taekyun stand out is the how closely it is tied with dance.

Master Do is quick to point out the aesthetic similarities between different cultures' traditional dance and their fighting styles.  In Michael Rosenbaum's "Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge" he expands on the intersection of martial arts and dance, citing examples in pentjak-silat, capoeira, Langkas of Filipino arts, Motobu-ryu karate, and sword dances from all over the world.

In taekyun, dance is used as a vehicle to teach timing.  All martial arts require good timing. Just like balance, speed, precision, and power, it's a fundamental that every martial art has to teach.  Taekyun is the only martial art I've ever studied that teaches timing first. The way they do this is by making it as simple as possible.  Instead of practicing your technique against a non-compliant opponent moving according to his own agenda, beginners time their movements to a steady, predictable rhythm that they can hear.  Later they take away the music, make the movements more complicated, and base the timing off of an opponent's movement instead of a predictable rhythm.  But for the beginner, it starts with a step.

Start with the feet shoulder-width apart, turned slightly outward if you like, and keep the knees and hips relaxed.  On the count of 1, step forward with your left foot, then drop the hips to make a little bounce.  On 2, you do a technique.  For now just lift the left foot and bounce the hips down again.  On 3, put the left foot back where it started.  Then do the same for the right foot on the next 3 counts.

Each time you step forward, your stepping foot should go to the tip of  the triangle.

There are a lot of different techniques that can be done on the second count, and in fact there are variations on the stepping as well, but for the purposes of what I taught in Washington, I kept it simple with an inside jegi.  

A jegi is a traditional Korean toy, similar to a shuttlecock but used like a hacky sack, and that's where this technique gets its name.  The movement looks a lot like someone is kicking a small ball into the air, although the application is not a kick at all.  

The outside jegi is a little more challenging.  The heel comes up to the outside of the body. When most people first try this, they keep their knees and upper legs mostly stationary and just bend the knee to flip the heel up.  To do this movement correctly, raise the knee along with the heel.  It should produce a distinct feeling in the hips.

While both techniques are great for warming up and conditioning the hips, they are not strictly exercises.  The application for both is to whisk the foot away when an opponent attempts to sweep the front leg.

If you want to know more about taekyun, resources in English are hard to come by. Fortunately some Korean videos are still interesting even if you can't understand what is being said.  This one shows part of a taekyun tournament, and this one includes demonstrations of techniques that are not allowed in competition.