My Whole Life I Wanted to be Hip – Part I

hide-and-seek

My hip odyssey began during the summer of 1969. I wasn’t quite five years old, and I was just a few months shy of starting kindergarten. The day began innocently enough; I had finally been given permission to play with the “big kids,” and hide and seek was the name of the game. I thought I understood the game correctly. One person turns around, covering their eyes and counts to 100. During those 100 seconds, all the other kids would find a hiding place and wait to see if they were found. I found the perfect hiding space amongst the trees next to the red wood fence that ran all the way around the Aurora Drive-In Theater, just up the street from my house.

After what seemed like hours (probably only 20 minutes…), I emerged from the tree line only to find myself abandoned. At first I thought that I had hidden myself so well that I had stymied all of the big kids, and they were looking for me somewhere else. Furtively, I crept out of the woods and up to the side of the street. With no one else in sight, I pondered what to do next. Should I go and find them, sneak up and yell surprise? I knew about the secret code “All-y all-y in-come-free!” – the signal that whomever was “it” was at the point of giving up, and it was time to re-start the game. But was there a secret code to call out if no one found you?

I walked across the street to one of the kids’ houses; they had a two-wheeled horse trailer parked in their yard. Like any two-wheeled trailer, it was perched on the tongue of the trailer hitch, the back side of it way up in the air, suspended over two wheels. I used to love watching my dad work on cars; he would jack the car up, grab a bunch of tools, then slide underneath and proceed to get his hands greasy and dirty. I liked the idea of being a mechanic and fixing things, so I dove under the back end of the trailer and began getting my hands as dirty as I could while I was “fixing” the vehicle.

I was completely unaware that while I busied myself under the trailer, I had actually been “found” by someone still playing the game. Only after all this had happened did I find out that the goal was to ditch me from the beginning; finding me under that trailer was just another opportunity to torture me. My oldest brother was the ringleader at the time, being virtually the oldest child in the neighborhood. It was his idea to surprise me while I was hidden under the trailer. They all snuck up to the tongue side of the trailer and rammed into the side of it in tandem, sending the back end crashing down, crushing my right leg under the weight of the vehicle. As soon as it was knocked over, they all clambered up on top of it to really smash me into the ground.

While they jumped up and down on top of the trailer that was crushing my leg, I could hear their laughter at the great practical joke they had played on me, oblivious to the terrified screams emanating from beneath their feet. While the whole incident probably only lasted a few seconds, it felt like hours to me. They jumped and laughed and I wailed and writhed until the ruckus brought out the mother of one of the kids who lived next door to the horse trailer. The kids instinctually fled and she immediately drug me out from beneath the vehicle. She scooped me up in her arms and whisked me in to her living room where she lay me down on the couch and proceeded to ice my already blackening leg. Within a few minutes, my entire leg turned black beneath my cut off jean shorts. The edge of the vehicle had impacted on the upper part of my right femur, but the discoloration reached my toes. I remember the intense fear of not being able to feel my leg coupled with the discomfort of being in a stranger’s home, surrounded by strange smells and a language I didn’t understand. She and her family were immigrants, having recently arrived from Greece, and the strange and foreign nature of those surroundings plunged me further in to panic. It was my first time in the home of a family from another culture.

My memory after this is quite fuzzy; somehow, I was ferried back to my mother’s house less than a block away, but I have no recollection of it. I don’t remember going to a doctor to have my leg examined (my mother has no memory of this either…), nor do I remember being immobilized by the incident. I’m certain that I must have spent some time after this sitting still, icing, limping for a while until it healed enough for me to start putting weight on it again, but I can’t say for sure. Somewhere over the next few months, this entire incident had been filed under “horse trailer” in my mind, and nothing else was said about it. I remember when the last of the discoloration left my body; the lingering bruise was at the point of impact, an indelible stamp up high on my right leg in a straight, horizontal line. Along with my persistent limp, that scar should have served as an inescapable reminder of that fateful day and how it would affect me for the rest of my life.

What happened next is a little difficult to explain. I never really forgot about the accident, but it shifted in my memory from this horribly traumatic violence that had been inflicted upon my body to something benign, even banal. The damage that was done to my leg left a deep swath of scar tissue in my young muscles. My quadriceps had been “pinched in half” and the scar tissue was deposited along a broad, thick  horizontal band in a desperate attempt at keeping the upper and lower halves of my quads together as one piece. The resulting tension in my leg needed to be balanced, so my body recruited surrounding muscles to keep everything in tight. This was all put in place as my body was initially healing, and as a five-year-old, I had no idea that I needed to release that tension. My limp simply became a part of my world and my injury’s importance faded into the background of my memory along with the emotional trauma that had inflicted it.

Through my martial arts training experience, I have come to understand the relationship between fear, trauma, and pain. Muscles recoiling against a painful event (like having a trailer dropped on your leg) often are later recruited by the afflicted area to help immobilize the trauma site. This can assist the body in preventing further injury to the affected site. Wincing away from pain is more of an emotional response than a physical one. Most people naturally recoil from pain, pull back and scrunch up their brows, maybe even yell out, and understandably so. When the physical trauma couples with the emotional response, the outcome can be a materialized emotional blockage that becomes physically stored in your body. This is how my body responded to this event, albeit without my knowledge or consent. My right hip lost a significant amount of range of motion; the scar tissue on my leg became buried deep under new muscles, and I eventually forgot how traumatic the whole experience had been.

There was a lot of violence in my childhood; but this was the most extreme thing that happened to me as a child. By the time I was eight or nine years old, I had effectively buried the whole experience in my subconscious mind, a kind of PTSD. While my mind had blocked out the event, my body still carried the scars – and the effects of those scars. It was always hard to move in my body; I ran funny (or so I was told over and over). I wasn’t particularly graceful either, often tripping and hurting myself. I was also lopsided; I always walked a little lean to the outside of the outstep of my right foot. But I never knew why I limped, it was just a difficulty moving that I had. Had I remembered my experience at the bottom of the horse trailer, I may have put it together that my imbalance was due to an extreme event in my life.

The human mind is a curious thing. When our world doesn’t make sense, our minds will fill in the gaps to come up with a relevant story that explains it to us. We need to make sense of our world, and if part of the information is absent, whatever is left is assumed as the whole truth. My mind came up with the only answer that it could at the time. I never realized that I limped, nor did I remember the scar on my leg. I did know that I had a lot of tightness in my hips, and it was painful to stretch. The only possible explanation was that I was lazy and afraid of pain.

I didn’t think there was anything different about me; I assumed that everyone had the same pain when they stretched. I thought there were simply those who had athletic prowess, and then there was the rest of us. I spent a good chunk of my childhood with my nose in a book. I stayed as sedentary as I could, and I was further teased mercilessly for it. Chided as uncoordinated and lacking any gift for physical activity, these taunts helped me explain my inherent klutziness. I always tried my hardest; but since my very best efforts yielded milquetoast results it became increasingly clear to me that my agitators were correct – I was better off in the corner with a book. This root part of my personality became an integral part of the bedrock on which I began to build my sense of self. It would take Marine Corps boot camp to help shake some of this illusion apart.

I was able to walk in to the Marine recruiter’s office on my own two feet; no one ever questioned me about my limp. The physical I was given at my inception did not include MRI’s or X rays of my legs. No one noticed, and I had not thought to tell them about my scar tissue (had I known about it, undoubtedly they would have looked). I was destined to be a musician, having auditioned for and been accepted by the USMC Drum and Bugle Corps. Boot camp made me punch through every physical barrier I had ever known before. I still ran funny, but I could finish 3 miles. Many of the psychological hurdles I had inadvertently placed in my own way had to literally be kicked out of the way for me to make it through the physical rigors of boot camp. On the surface, I just kept doing everything as fast and as hard as I could, but deep down I still heeded my tormentors’ words – I would be better off in the corner with a book.

Part II coming soon!

The Roots of Quantum – Part III

There are other aspects related to the search for technique; the second part lies in the application of movement. There is a purpose for the technique to exist, and that is found in its function. Traditionally, many empty handed Martial Arts (those that do not primarily use weapons) have matured as a system of self defense. In other words, the underlying purpose of the technique developed by these styles is to ward off a potential attack. There are many reasons to study Martial Arts; some seek exercise; others desire a more spiritual path; others want to compete, while still others wish to develop self defense. But no matter the reason that an individual chooses, if the impetus of that style is based in self defense, then the movements are going to reflect that idea in their structure. Certainly the philosophy that guides the progression of any basic strategy employed would also be affected, as would the general direction of the style itself. The thing that troubles me and seems to put these martial arts at odds with themselves is this: Self defense implies victimization.

SF Dojo

I would most certainly classify victimization as a fear. I was constantly put in a place of victimization as a child, hence I lived in fear – it was one of the things that drew me to the Martial Arts to begin with. After years of studying, I would still think strategically like a victim; afraid of going to strange new places; always on the look out for my potential attacker. I never left the country because I was afraid. I wouldn’t try new restaurants, or go places that didn’t seem safe to me (which was pretty much everywhere). It took years of unraveling to see that I was creating all of that myself, and it had been reinforced in my movements; stored in my muscle memory; locked in to the very structure of how I thought. As a Martial Artist, I study my movement to perfect my technique. In order to use your mind to break down and refine your movements, you must think in terms of how and where you get your power, consider distance, leverage, trajectory, physiology, targets, and of course application. This means that if you continue to refine a technique that is rooted in fear, then with each refinement and iteration of that technique you bury your fear even deeper in your consciousness; in essence, giving it a nice comfortable home complete with whirlpool bath, gourmet kitchen and 400 thread count sheets to lay its head on.

Of course, the deeper the root of your fear is buried, the harder it is to find, realize and begin the long unraveling of its insidious hold on your life. Over the first ten years of my martial arts career I continued to hone my thinking around these fear-based movements, and eventually my power was so tied into my fear that the two were inseparable. Making the choice to leave behind my fears at that point required a complete revamping of how I saw myself and my source of power. The outcome of that transformation was the birth of Quantum Martial Arts.

The Roots of Quantum – Part II

Although I had pursued martial arts for many years, it took over fifteen years for me to see myself as a competent martial artist. This sense of falling short of my expectations was nothing new to me; I had played the trumpet since 4th grade, and picked up the guitar in my sophomore year, but even after 25 years of doing that, I never saw myself as an artist. Even though it was me playing that trumpet, I believed that I was cheating in some way; at the very least, I was falling far short of my potential.Trumpet

It is my contention that we are all moved by forces unseen. Some of us state that we are only a particular way because of some circumstance from childhood, or that we come up with logical reasons for doing what it was that we do. But my reasons for continuing in the Martial Arts were all based upon my experience of the world at that time. I didn’t want some individual to “pass me up”, or I was afraid for my safety, or my self image was so fragile that it needed the propping up that Martial Arts seemingly provides. Then there were times that I continued and had no idea why I was still doing it – I just was. It is only with the grace that hindsight gives, or that time affords us, that I can see so much more clearly now. The truth of my life is that I have a gift, and that gift has brought me to an understanding of movement and timing. As these concepts gradually increased in depth and scale, they also brought me to pursue the gifts of truth and leadership. But mostly, I have developed the gift of sight. At the time, it seemed that the motivations I conjured up were the truth, but only because I was covered in fear. Fear stops you from seeing who you are. Fear disconnects you from your body and your mind. The very life of fear depends on you not knowing the truth –

Nothing can touch you.

Nothing can own you.

Everything is going to be all right.

Master Evans gives a 'grasshopper talk'
Master Evans gives a ‘grasshopper talk’

None of those ideas can exist while fear stands in the way. But oddly enough, fear plays a central role in the development of those ideas. While fear can stand in the way and block your view, it takes an act of faith and courage to move past your fear – hence a chance to see that while fear can present itself in a visceral way, it also allows the opportunity for exercising faith and courage. Fear can cause us to hide away from ourselves and try to stay the same, or fear can give the impetus to grow and expand beyond all previous limitations. While it can be the one thing that stops you from living a courageous life, it is also the one thing that allows it to exist.

Or, at least I thought that I had fabricated it.

We are moved by forces that we will never understand, but the more fear that you have to block your way, indeed the more investment in fear that you have, the less you will understand those forces and how they exert themselves on you. I did not make up the idea that I train to heal; I actually do train to heal. While it was true that I was already experiencing those aspects of my training, I was incapable of seeing or realizing their existence. By coming up with something that sounded reasonable to me at the time, I started down a path that I can never turn around on, and have since found all of these amazing resources tucked up inside a good reverse punch.

But it is quite another concept to seek out technique. The search for technique can be thought of in two parts.

One is the search for unhindered energy running cleanly through your body that is articulated as a dynamic expression of accurately focused power. This is the very real, physical attribute of technique; one that can be tested on boards, concrete, target pads, heavy bags. But there is also a look to good technique. When energy runs unhindered through a physical body, the path that it travels is beautiful. A true expression of power without need, want, or fear has the grace of dancing along with a full exposure of self; indeed there is a nakedness to it, for those who have eyes that can see. For me, the look of a fully supported leveraged movement virtually invokes a portrait by Davinci, with angles and vectors written out on aging parchment, showing ratios scribbled in the margins. But even for those who are not adept at seeing such things, there is a profound difference between a raw beginner attempting to contort their body in what would seem a very unnatural way to force energy out and a seasoned practitioner who has learned to release the things that stand in the way of that flow of energy and allow themselves to be naked. A question that I have asked myself over and over again is this: Is it the practice of the technique itself that refines that movement? Or is it the releasing of that which stands in the way of the natural flow of energy in the human body? In my estimation, it is both; and it is neither.

More about technique next!

The Roots of Quantum – Part I

The pursuit of Martial Arts has defined my life. My entire adult life has been spent passionately following a thing of great interest to me. When I first walked into a Dojo, there was no thinking involved. I simply did it. There was no impetus, no conscious motivation, and no driving force that I could discern at the time, nor that I can currently recollect. I simply walked in and never considered not doing it. After joining the Marine Corps (as a bugler, no less) I was stationed in Twenty-Nine Palms, California, affectionately known as “The Stumps” to the Marines who inadvertently found themselves there – you can only imagine why. Twenty-Nine Palms is in the middle of nowhere, located in the High Desert of Southern California. The closest city that resembles civilization is Palm Springs which lies down the hills of the Morongo Basin and about an hour and a half away. Other than that, there were jack rabbits, Joshua Trees, scorching hot days in blistering heat, mosquitoes, tattoo shops, bars – and one Martial Arts school.

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

At that time, Twenty-Nine Palms consisted of about two thousand people living in town, and about eight thousand Marines living on a base 4/5 the size of the State of Rhode Island. The Marines would run what they referred to as “combined arms exercises” out in the desert, far away from civilization. These live fire exercises were conducted in conjunction with the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as services from other countries. Some of our favorites were the Koreans. As the only Tae Kwon Do school in town, when the Republic of Korea (ROK) Marines landed, during their time off they would come and seek us out.

Unfortunately for me, I had put about as much thought into joining the Marines as I had in taking my first Martial Arts class; basically none. This was a very tough time for me, full of the kind of inconsistencies that only the military can justify. Some of our favorite jokes at the time now seem very Zen to me, such as the term “military intelligence”. While I was enlisted in the Marines, I played a lot of taps in cemeteries for broken boys in boxes. I also was used as a recruiter’s aid at high schools and such. We performed in countless parades and field shows and traveled extensively. Some of the gigs we showed up at were weirdly bizarre, but for the most part my three year odyssey in the hands of the United States government was a time of conflicting ideas and non-sequiturs. There were many days when absolutely nothing made any sense. Looking back on it, although I was not what you would call a “model marine”, the people in charge of our unit were mentally unstable and full of self doubt. Without going into greater detail, suffice to say that I was seeking something to keep my sanity. It has been my experience that the human mind grasps for anything that it can to help maintain a semblance of balance, especially during trying times. Most of the young marines stationed on that base did one of two things in an attempt to maintain that balance. Some became alcoholics and lived at the bars out in town, participating in the intense drama that is small town life. Others became “PT monsters”. PT stands for physical training, and many of us found solace in going to the gym, lifting weights, wrestling, or, for some, Martial Arts.

Bugler 29 Palms
USMC Bugler, 29 Palms CA

And I trained hard. Every day, without fail I would show up for class, often staying until all hours of the night. I volunteered to clean the toilets at the Dojo so I could have a key and let myself in after hours. I would sweat, yell, hit the heavy bag until I was hoarse, only to turn around and do it again the next day. Acquaintances that I had on the base would invite me out to do something, but I would always turn them down, because I had to go to school. It simply never even occurred to me that I could take a day off. When I did take someone up on the occasional offer to go out and do something else, I always found myself wishing that I had attended class instead; feeling guilty and often daydreaming about whatever lesson I was missing that night.

One might assume that I would have understood that I had a passion for this activity, that I was a duck in water. But that is the queer nature of Martial Arts. Like my childhood, and Marine Corps boot camp, you are never done. There is always something else to do, and you are always left lacking. The intellectual idea of perfection always has a gap between where you are and where you are attempting to go. One of the main attributes that makes an individual a Martial Artist is their acceptance of this fact. More than their acceptance, it must become a welcome facet in their life; something to be embraced, not feared and pushed away; something that, by its very nature, invites change and transformation. Although I felt that I would never be a proficient Martial Artist, I continued to strive with all of my effort and intention on pursuing the elusive way of the warrior.

Master Karasek 29 Palms 1984
Master Karasek 29 Palms 1984

My main teacher at the time, Mr. Mark Karasek, worked as a night security guard at the local hospital in nearby Joshua Tree, California. His shift would start at 11:00 PM and go to 7:00 AM. I would drive up at about midnight when I knew he would be free, and ask him to show me more forms. I asked him to show me things I was not required to know in his school, picked his brain for everything I could come up with. “Why do you want to know this stuff?” he would ask. I would reply with the truth; that I didn’t know; I just wanted to learn more. He would show me a few moves, then go back in the hospital for his rounds, then come back out and show me another few steps until I had leaned the whole thing. I remember the sun coming up many times in those days, still fully energized and ready for more karate the next day. I thought I had no aptitude because I thought that aptitude was measured by prowess and ability. But my gift was not in the form of innate martial arts skills, but rather in the realm of understanding how to pursue something. And pursue I did.

To be continued!

Happy New Year

A new year is upon us once again; this will make the seventh year I’ve been in San Francisco trying to make a dojo happen from essentially nothing. Back in 1995 when I started the Seattle dojo, I did it by myself, with no other teachers to help me, and a mere eight students to begin teaching. It took over ten years to create a viable dojo that could take care of itself, enough to free me to move to California. The big difference here is that I’m not thirty years old any more; even if I were, I would not choose to start a dojo with such a bare bones team to help.

2013 was the year that San Francisco produced our first Red Belt, and created a few more teachers – necessary components for the creation of a permanent full-time dojo. Necessary because, once again, I’m not thirty years old any more. Back in 1995 I worked 12 hour days for years, six to seven days a week. I had no balance outside of the dojo, and it was literally a crazy time to be a part of that era of Quantum. There were many equally positive things that came out of that era, and I while I wouldn’t want to repeat that kind of craziness, I also wouldn’t trade that experience for anything; kind of like Marine Corps Boot Camp.

This is more because martial arts without balance is not really practicing in the true spirit of your training. Your training is there to assist you in becoming a whole person; a whole person is one that engages with life on all levels and lives fully in the moment. We don’t train hard so that we can just do more karate; we train hard to earn our freedom.

As we embark on this new path of creating our permanent home in San Francisco, I am reminded of the adage that “many hands make light work”. Without the support of all of the members of the our dojo community, our endeavor is doomed to fail. But if any number of us loses sight of the importance of balance, we are also doomed to fail; as we have learned from the relentless pursuit of our art, power without balance is a useless thing.

As more opportunities arise to allow every one of you to step up to the collective plate of this endeavor, I urge you all to reflect on how a balanced approach will create a dojo community that will endure and hence challenge each of us for years to come. In any not-for-profit venture, there arises the thought that if you don’t step up to do any given task along the way, that it will not get done. In truth, you must make space for all to have a place to step up and contribute in a way that is commensurate with each person’s gifts and abilities.

As each of you looks for a way to volunteer, remember to balance your approach with all that is needed in your life; this is truly reflective of the martial way.

I am looking forward to a great 2014!