Tuesday, February 28, 2017

tacit conspiracies

I recently stood in a line-up. The socially dictated lineup of a receiving line. I don’t like them. I don’t really know anyone who enjoys standing in a tidy row as everyone else walks by to a) make some level of physical contact and b) mumble scripted praises or condolences. And as much as the banal socially scripted interchanges are irritating and boring, the opposite can be worse in the receiving line ritual. That one person who stops in front a specific person in the lineup and dives into a heartfelt conversation. This isn’t the ritual and everyone is left uncomfortably flat footed while traffic progressively backs up on down the line.

This is an odd ritual when you think about it. Most people don’t enjoy the process whether in the giving or in the receiving of the scripted touch/remarks. But it happens anyway. Most often in funerals and weddings. Two of our biggest rites of passage are marked by receiving lines.

The people in the lineup are on display and the people who come to have a look carry their own expectations of what they want/need to see. These expectations are distinctly driven by culture and tribal protocols and it took me a few minutes to realize I was breaking one. My own discomfort with being on the display line blurred over into small gestures of discomfort on the other end so I didn’t catch it right away. It was a well-attended funeral, I had a lot of time to figure it out. In polite society the cues signaling awkward discomfort are less blatant. People smiling or tilting their heads in gestures of familiarity with fleeting bracing at the jaw. One shoulder tipping away, or making eye contact but breaking it and looking quickly down or off to the side to the next person in the line. To name a few.

The offending gesture was me extending my hand out for the expectant physical contact. I did not know 98% of these people and the obligatory hugs are generally held for people who can at least demonstrate a degree of facial recognition. Some of the elderly women reached for the pat-pat hug anyway. They skipped right over my extended hand. Okay. No problem. But the other two responses were most dominant and followed the rules of polite, Southern, conservatively religious society. Don’t touch the strange woman.

Particularly the men. My extended hand was usually ignored by the men. When it was received there was no handshake. Take just the fingers, hold them for just a moment, release them. It took a particularly awkward guy for me to realize I was the source of the discomfort specifically – beyond the general no one wants to be here business.

Oh. I get it. I’m doing this wrong. That was the revelation – I can be a bit dense sometimes.

The rest of receiving line wasn’t any more comfortable but at least now I had something to do. Try and read the body language ahead of time. Who is going to shake my hand, who isn’t? This is not a place to trot out personal expectations.

On the long ass drive home the next day, I had a lot of time to think. A question materialized.

When is tacit consent [to a tribal protocol] and act of kindness and when is it conspiracy?
The receiving line at a memorial service is a no-brainer. This isn’t about me. It’s not about acknowledging women as equal partners in a productive, advancing society. Forcing the men to shake my hand just makes me an asshole.

What about in other environments? Just taking the handshake rule, male uncomfortable touching female = no handshake. Reading the body language that says “this is wrong” gives me, us, a choice. I can extend my hand and leave it out there and the person who doesn’t take it is the asshole. It’s obvious if not to anyone else but the two of us. How do you choose? Who’s the asshole? I have answers and places I use the handshake rules as a litmus test. It is an instantaneous data dump about the other person. Will they shake my hand? At what level of grip? What level of contact? For how long? What’s the eye contact? Posture? Structural positioning? So much information.

There is a new series coming out – don’t remember which network is producing it. The title is The Handmaid’s Tale. Based on a book* I read well over a decade ago. Disturbing book. Disturbing because it takes this gray zone decision making and demonstrates what happens when tacit consent to a protocol/rule/expectation slowly becomes conspiratorial agreement to participate. It’s not unconscious. The monkey self-justifies the agreement. Go along to get along. Don’t make waves. It won’t be that bad. This isn’t a hill to die on.

And then we wake up one morning and discover the entire social structure has shifted and to go back on that conspiratorial agreement will cost you everything. The book is disturbing because it is entirely possible.

Which hill you die on, is your decision. Key word here – decision. It’s a choice. Your choice. If you, me, if we don’t take the time when time offers itself up for a good think – if we don’t take the time to consider the hills, and upon which ones we want to battle to the death, gray zone ambivalence wins. And like it or not, whatever shackles you find about your ankles, you agreed to it.

*The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985. Author: Margaret Atwood.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

are you sure you want to teach that?

I'm probably earning myself a special place in martial arts hell with this post but sometimes the ridiculous needs to be addressed even if it means tipping sacred cows.

Watch this. At least the first few minutes-

I get it. Meaning I understand it. Understanding does not make it good. It is a popular attitude in the martial and combat arts training world Popular does not make it right.

This is bad business.

I don't mean bad business as in poor financial and organizational strategy/implementation. It's actually maybe good business for that. I mean bad business in the idiosyncratic use of the phrase.

The system I am affiliated with just duked this one out per policies in the U.S. Think about this. We had debate and argument about setting policy about who you could and could not train with and where you could/could not do this training. The reason for the debate in the first place was a policy that was put in place limiting who instructors were permitted to train with - as in - you can't train with anyone who teaches anything similar to what we teach.

(Pause. Let that sink in long enough to gauge how you both think and feel.)

The policy has been repealed. So that's the good news. Humans prevailed and the monkey brain possessive territorial chest beating took a back seat.

Look, I get this. I understand the sentiment because I see it everywhere. And I get the context of loyalty. And I get the feeling of pouring into a student. I have a twinge when I lose one to a different training program. That twinge happens because my emotions in the moment run binary. You train with me, you respect/like me. You don't train with me you don't like/respect me. Even in my language "lose a student" you can see the monkey wanting a say in the conversation.

I also get this: You are not on the mat as an instructor in any training system for you. That's the hard reality. You are a service provider, a teacher. A true master feels the bitter sweetness a parent feels when their kids take wing. When they fly and mature and move on. It is bittersweet. Revel in it. It means you did a good job.

One of my younger female students is getting ready to test for her fifth rank. She's been training with us for over 2 years. She is super talented and smart. I am proud of her. All of the instructors are proud of her. She is so smart in fact, that she realizes a lot of her Krav could get her expelled (high school kid). She also realizes that even though BJJ (hello Master Gracie), is more complicated to learn, she sees that it has solutions she might get away with at school without risking expulsion. This is significant because she plans on going to college and getting expelled for violence does a real number on your chances of college acceptance.

So she now adds in a little BJJ to her training. And there's that little twinge. My monkey looks up and looks around. But if we look at our students as sons and daughters (not only in the video, I have heard this language used in other systems...like my own), then we must truly long for the moment when our children, oops - students take wing. This is not metaphoric, not really. Take the girl at our school getting ready for this 5th level -

Her elementary school had frequent lockdowns due to shootings near the playground. She goes to high school in the same area. Shit happens in the hallways. Kids are smart, sneaky and good at knowing where the holes are. Where the adults are not. Her krav, what she gets from us, will work. It may also kill her chances of getting into the universities she wants. She's smart, intelligent and has enough training to be able to discern. She looks at her BJJ as critically as she looks at her Krav.

She is taking wing. I have male students who do this too, btw.

Gracie's lecture speaks to our loyalty needs. Our need to be loyal and our need to be honored by someone else's show of loyalty toward us - big needs. Dangerous needs in the context of self-defense.

I respect Mr. Gracie. Deeply. I can both respect him and see the deep, dangerous flaw in his mindset. As a student, if you tell me I betray you by learning everything I can from anyone I can - including instructors who teach the same thing you teach, you are telling me I am not smart enough to be able to operate under my own agency. Legislating my loyalty will not produce a warrior willing to go shoulder to shoulder with you in battle. Legislating my loyalty will render me incompetent. I will only be able to act if it pleases you. I will be able to defend myself, my loved ones only if that defense measures against my master's accepted policy.

again: legislating loyalty perpetuates incompetence and punishes power with banishment.

are you sure you want to teach that?

Monday, February 13, 2017

rookie mistakes, monkeys, mongrels

disconnected. poorly planned, long-ass thoughts to ensue-

Monkey brain

1. Monkey brains don't like making rookie mistakes. Human brains see them as tremendous opportunity.

          a) monkey brains whine and fuss and generally worry about "how it looks"
          b) human brains wonder things like, why did this happen? what created the problem? what are the solutions? are any of them permanent fixes? and so on

2. Multi-Conscious events are funny experiences. Funny "ha-ha" funny and funny "odd" funny. Monkey brain and Human brain co-existing at the same time in the same experience and conversation ... that's a funny experience.

Context: participated in 3 days of training and several exhaustion drills. Day 3, final exhaustion drill - pushed hard and pushed to a failure point. Found it. Showed up as rookie mistake in a skill I have (oops - thought I had) down cold. Have taught the "correct' pattern so many times I can literally do it with my eyes closed and recite the checkpoints with zero concentration required.  I can apply it, adapt it and respond to the Threat on the fly - correctly.

And yet there it is -bigger than Dallas - on film for the world to see (gotta' love Facebook) -rookie mistake.

Too many thoughts and rabbit trails and possibilities to chase down, including how I feel about training and public videos. I'm only going to hit a few, for which you will be grateful; I'm sure.

Running down the ins and outs of the rookie mistake, the monkey/human split in the AAR was a cool moment. Both brains formulating my conversation simultaneously makes for a somewhat schizophrenic conversation during problem solving.  Monkey is whining - Human is playing with the puzzle pieces. 

Discovery.  Big guy - by comparison to me - REALLY big guy. Big guy who knows what's coming in the defense to the threat and compensates. Avoids the reality of an incoming strike by structuring out and leaning back so the strike inherent to the defense can't land (mostly because a little bit of leaning back with all that long-ass range is all it takes to get away from me). Big deal.

But it is. Because the rookie mistake could cause serious injury to the defender - in this case, me.

Back to the co-existing brains. Human brain says...does this need to be fixed? This is a training dynamic - maybe an artificial artifact. My partner knows the skill and knows the defense equally well. He can anticipate my every move because he has trained it at least as deeply/often as I have. We are all in the stress/exhaustion drill. He's as tired as I am and just doesn't want to get hit. As we debriefed the FUBAR moment he says "at that point I'd taken a lot of shots already in that drill and I was just done getting hit".

Avoiding the strike is easy with me - the range difference between us is huge. Just lean back but leave the weapon fully extended at arm's length ( the weapon I now have a hold of) and viola! I am in a very bad position and add to it the exhaustion drill - I make said rookie mistake.

Debriefing with my training partner, he ticks off correlations for the mistake.  In a real situation the Threat isn't standing there with exact knowledge of every move before you make it. With this kind of size differential, he's not expecting you to get into this position (for the strike) in the first place. This is happening because we know you're going to hit us/me so we're moving out of the way first, before the strike - so there's no way you can make contact. Training artifact because the "attacking" partner isn't doing anything else to avoid the strike. He's letting the rest of the defense play out from this odd body position and the weapon hanging out there in space with no efforts at retention or adjustment. So - yeah - weird artifact.


Human brain says maybe it's not something to dig into, fixing a training artifact so the skill "looks right" may create a deeper problem in a real circumstance. Monkey brain says ... no, wait. We HAVE to fix this. It's a big-ass rookie mistake. And I shouldn't be making those mistakes any more. It looks bad.

Where's the linchpin? find the pivotal moment in which the mistake comes to life and fix it. You know, so we don't ever get caught on video making this mistake again. So...we start picking it apart. Find a potential solution. And this is a little human brain action too because human brains like to solve puzzles but the human is kinda' working for the monkey.

At the Meta Level the solution venture has merit because it speaks to rapid adaptability and creating a deep physical program that cannot be degraded by exhaustion or deep stress. -AND_

The harder I train. The tougher the training will be. The tougher training, the harder the drills and the more mistakes I should be making. If you, me, if we never do anything in our physical training that is a mistake, we never learn anything new. And the rookie mistakes in an advanced practitioner are the best. This is human brain awareness.

In the moment of the mistake - I saw it happening and my reaction time v. the visual input...you're fucking this up....couldn't catch up to each other so I laughed (and swore) and kept going. It was fun. The drill kept going and the drill continued to be fun.

The fun I had training into drenched-in-sweat-breathing hard-no time to think reaction work disappeared when I saw the rookie mistake broadcast out later as part of a public montage of the training event. This is not a fault conversation. It's an internal one and it's fucked up but it does a beautiful job reminding me of how strong the monkey can be.

Annoyed. I want to fix the mistake. Permanently. And am fully aware this is my monkey brain's desire to avoid public finger pointing and all the status games martial artists play (because we have nothing better to do?) The monkey convo stands in direct opposition to my human brain that finds the greatest lessons in mistake-making.

And it all boils down to this one question - does the rookie mistake require fixing?
Yes - be aware that the situation creating the golden moment of fuck ups could happen in a real encounter, albeit the possibility is rare due to the artifact that created it. Yes, because I want the level of nano-second adaptability that would have allowed my brain and body to work more simultaneously in seeing the mistake before it fully bloomed. This is about training. I like to train. This is easy.

No - it's a training artifact. The stimulus - response combination is a by-product of working with someone from within my system who knows the technique, is equally tired, and creating an artificial stimulus rarely seen in the wild. Creating a fix may make a real encounter fail at a faster and more dangerous level.

Then down another rabbit trail I go. Can we train past training artifact mistakes in a way that makes both brains happy? Possibly. Maybe. I think the only way to train past or through an artifact-driven mistake like this is to train with a group of people who all have the same deep respect for the rare opportunity created by a rookie mistake.

Why I think this is the mandatory element for rookie mistakes to become awesome learning events? Even the most senior black belts in a system have to be comfortable enough with the psychological safety of the training space that they can make an error in a rookie level skill - and be okay enough with the mistake to poke around at the whys and hows of it and ask all the questions and never judge the mistake (or the person). Without that, the mistake gets buried and tucked away like a mongrel tail between the legs of a shamed creature. Nothing gets learned. No discoveries with the exception that deep practice is punished.

Only problem is, I suspect in many organized systems in the martial/combat world - this culture doesn't exist. As long as there are people drawn to martial training who need their egos bolstered by standing on the mistakes of their colleagues, the monkeys win - the humans lose.