Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Frog in the Shallow Well

I read this story to my daughter the other night. I've read it before, but somehow this time it jumped out at me. Those of us studying martial arts have all been the frog. Some folks jump back in their well, cursing the turtle. Others find their way to the sea, only to hear about the ocean...

The Frog in the Shallow Well

a Chinese Fable

Once a frog that lived in a well bragged to a turtle that lived in the Sea.
"I am so happy!" cried the frog, "When I go out, I jump about on the railing around the edge of the well.
When I come home, I rest in the holes inside the wall of the well.
If I jump into the water, it comes all the way up to my armpits and I can float on my belly.
If I walk in the mud, it covers up my flippered feet.
I look around at the wriggly worms, crabs, and tadpoles, and none of them can compare with me.
I am lord of this well and I stand tall here. My happiness is great.
My dear sir, why don't you come more often and look around my place?"

Before the turtle from the Sea could get its left foot in the well, its right knee got stuck. It hesitated and retreated. The turtle told the frog about the Sea.

"Even a distance of a thousand miles cannot give you an idea of the sea's width; even a height of a thousand meters cannot give you an idea of its depth.
In the time of the great floods, the waters in the sea did not increase. During the terrible droughts, the waters in the sea did not decrease.
The sea does not change along with the passage of time and its level does not rise or fall according to the amount of rain that falls. The greatest happiness is to live in the Sea."

After listening to these words, the frog of the shallow well was shocked into realization of his own insignificance and became very ill at ease.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ice Is for Dead People Part 2 - better not to need it.

I'm not one for superstition - I believe more in "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." But when significant things in my life happen in 3's, that tweaks my radar.

We do martial arts. We suffer through the mental, emotional and physical pain of failure to get better. In order to improve, sometimes we have to be brutally honest with ourselves to understand the limits of those abilities.

Ignore the subtle stuff at your peril

I know a guy who had a heart attack last year. Mid 50's, thin, exercised regularly, non-smoker, normal blood pressure, and except for high cholesterol, most definitely not your poster child for heart disease.

He was taking an aikido class and was working on a technique at slow speed. He said he wondered why he was short of breath given the level of exertion and eventually stepped off the mat. After his breathing went back to normal, he got up to get a drink and said he felt a little nauseous and a touch dizzy. While sitting there drinking water, he said he felt a slight tightness in his chest, like the feeling you get when you have a chest cold. I asked him if he had any numbness or pain in his left arm and he said all he felt was a little tweak near the brachial artery. He thought it might be the onset of a case of the flu.

Anyways, he told me the shortness of breath was something he'd never felt before and with the other symptoms, it motivated him to call his cousin, who happened to be a cardiologist. After a short discussion, he said the doctor agreed it was best to be on the safe side and get checked out at the Emergency Room.

A friend drove him to the ER where he was promptly examined and after a battery of tests, the doctors discussed the discharge of their apparently healthy patient. It was then that my friend passed out, providing the doctors with an obvious diagnosis and earning him a quick trip to the Cath Lab. He had 2 stents put in 2 separate arteries.

He was smart and lucky. He acknowledged the symptoms, assessed the situation, headed to the ER and was fortunate he only had an intermittent blockage so there was no damage to his heart. He's back to regular training, but not in aikido. Not all is the same though, because he said that physical recovery from his life-threatening experience was easy - he was never in any physical discomfort. But, dealing with the other stuff is a bit more difficult.

So the 3's?

Seattle paramedic, late 50's good physical health - after hearing the friend's story, took a test to screen for coronary artery disease. Totally asymptomatic, but a high score led to other tests and a procedure to insert 8 stents. Still on active duty. Learning points - if you have risk factors, trust your gut. Intuition has served him well over the years. Preparation meets opportunity? Sometimes you're just lucky.

Nephew of TNBBC member - 24, died of a heart attack. Too young. Too sad. Learning points - there were risk factors, but you don't expect them to be critical when you're that young. Minimize your risk factors, at any age. Life is precious, grief can be devastating. Pray his family can get through this with the support of other family members, friends and their faith. You just don't know sometimes.

Aikido teacher - late 60's, good physical health. Knew of former student's heart attack adventure. Developed symptoms on the mat and thought it might be a heart attack. Drove home and had his wife drive him to the ER. 4 stents inserted. Learning points - scores points for recognizing symptoms. Minus points for not calling 911. Time is not your friend.

What would you have done?

How would you have handled the above situations? I have a couple of thoughts to guide you if after virtual simulation you were in need of ice.

You don't die from embarrassment. If you don't feel good, call 911 or have someone take you to the ER. As martial artists, we know our bodies well, so do not ignore things you've never felt before, particularly the subtle ones. Get it checked out! Some things you cannot tough your way through and contrary to the common belief of the young and young at heart, you are not invincible.

Situational awareness is not just about the bad guys. Be aware of those around you. Maybe you're ok, but if someone exhibits mental confusion, difficulty breathing, chest pain, unusual physical issues like slurred speech, facial abnormalities or weakness in extremities...they might be having a stroke or a heart attack. You make the call they can't...now.

Oh, and the first friend who had a heart attack? He told me later that he was actually training with a doctor at the time things started going south. Even when made aware of the situation by overhearing my friend's conversation with his doctor, there was no real offer of assistance. Learning points - take care of your training partners to the best of your ability. Reread the previous sentence and the previous post. Sometimes you wait for others to step up when you may be the most qualified simply because you care enough to do something. That's budo in my book.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

So, tell me a bit about yourself… Wait, you don’t need to, I’ve looked it up myself.

One of the things Bernie Lau told me was “Anyone is capable of anything at anytime.” This was told to him by a sergeant in the Seattle Police Academy when he was a recruit. Given the behaviors we see in leaders in all walks of life, it’s a very true statement. I’ve kept that in mind over the years, it helps keep me from being surprised very often.

One of the things tied to the above idea that I consider important is who gets in the dojo. A lot of things about problem students are very clear in retrospect, but no one had taken the time to connect the dots and see more of the picture.

All too often this is due to the attitude of people in charge of a dojo. There is no thought as to who gets in and who doesn’t, and leads to problems in the dojo. I guess if you look at this from the point of view of “Another student! Yea!! It’s getting easier to make the rent!” it is understandable. Add in the misguided belief that martial arts is about helping people, and you get a messy situation happening all to often.

But my perspective was and is to create a place where the group reinforces the learning process and social aspects of who fits with the group. This doesn’t mean there are not arguments and bickering, it means those involved in an argument get over it quickly and get back to practice.

Towards this end, to filter out those who potentially could be problem students, I do a background check by making use of the wonderful tool called the internet. I check the social networking websites, newspaper article archives, and make use of searches with government public information records.

What’s the point of this? Well, the steps of this background check process tells me:

Social networking – What someone’s interests are outside martial arts. This is a strong tool to see if the potential student will match up with your dojo and class. I’m leaving out a whole lot of detail here. Think about how you are presented online in your own social networking pages. Wonder why you didn’t get me to respond to your inquiry about joining the dojo? Maybe your Myspace page with links to Bondage and Sadomasochism groups had something to do with that. Don’t laugh, I'm not kidding.

Newspaper Article Archives – If someone made the news for good deeds and community work, I want to know that. If they did something really stupid or criminal, I want to know that too.

Government public information records – Criminal and court records are public. This gives me a good idea of habitual behaviors and any actual convictions. While a conviction won’t necessarily cause me to turn someone away, it depends on the individual and the incident.

This last search method is also not free in many cases. So if you are a teacher, be prepared to spend some money when you vet your potential students. Usually, by the time I get to spending more than $20 on a search, it’s pretty apparent the student probably won’t be worth taking in anyway

Is it worth it? I believe so. I’ve seen one or two immature students destroy a whole dojo in more than one instance. Usually, the instructor either ignored the problems, or coddled the problem student thinking they were helping. By doing so, they drove away the majority of other students or caused the dojo to fragment into factions. By comparison, spending $10-$20 for this background check is cheap when contrasted to what one bad student can do to drive out other students or to avoid potential harm inflicted on another student.

Lastly, I use my gut feeling from talking to the person and their reactions to me. This is probably as important as all the rest of the information I gather combined.

Why take the time to do this? Do you teach kids in your dojo? Have you got co-ed classes? Isn’t it your responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for your students? Isn’t the instructor responsible for controlling what happens in the dojo, both in terms of social and teaching concerns? To me, it’s simple. You take the responsibility or you risk possible harm to students. Want to get sued for neglect?

I can think of one dojo in CA where they kept a student around who was known to have issues with women since they felt it would help him get better. Of course, the two women who caught him peeking at them in the dressing room may have felt differently about the matter. I’m sure the third student he groped had stronger feelings on the topic. Want to know the reaction of the dojo leaders? “Oh, he’s been spoken to about the incidents, and he’s promised to not do it anymore.” 

In the above instance, I would not have allowed the student in the dojo at all. The dojo is not a place of therapy. Training can be a vehicle to personal growth if done correctly, but therapy is best conducted someplace outside the dojo and not by the instructor. Ellis Amdur has written about this topic, do some reading on his writings about the dojo and why it's not for therapy and why we should be working on ikkyo.

All this is done to help me get a better idea of whether a student may be a problem or not. I may have turned away potentially good students. I’ve let in a couple who just turned out to be a bad fit in personality for the class. So I’ve been wrong, I will be wrong again I’m sure. I simply do the best I can to make sure I’m not wrong often.

What I can tell you is by vetting who gets in the dojo as best as I can, we have no petty personality issues despite a very broad social dynamic. Students know the reason they are in class is to practice, and drink cold beers and Irish or Scotch whisky after class. I don’t know of very many other groups that can say the same without some sort of filtering system as to who is allowed in the dojo and having that reinforced by the entire group.

Oh, and you do realize this filtering of potential students will limit the size of your dojo don’t you? And it will cut down the rank and testing fees you collect and the mandatory seminar attendance income as well. Balance who you let into your dojo against your dojo needs and good luck.