Archive for April, 2010

A Reliable Wife

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick is a relentless page turner. I was annoyed during the first couple of chapters because it felt like the same ideas were repeated over and over, but suddenly new information was revealed new information that made me reconsider everything that had been told. After this, the story had a grip on me that didn’t let go until the end.

This is a crime story about very damaged people. It was shocking to read that the author based all of the major characters on different aspects of himself. These are all people that have lived deliberately debauched lives. The existence of living for only selfish physical pleasure is presented as deeply depressing and the result of abusive circumstances. The characters, for at least some of the time, see a hedonistic existence as the best way to escape the pain they feel in their existence. Contentment is only found by the simpler, safer but less exciting existence of stable loving commitment to others. Those who can’t accept this lesson die.

This sounds simplistically moral, but the author does include minor characters that experience madness, pain and death without any sense of higher justice. The many characters reap what they sow, but I don’t think that the author is trying to imply that a virtuous existence is any guarantee of a good life.

The writing is mesmerizing and very sensual. While there is long discussions of the sex lives of the characters, I didn’t find it erotic to read as there was always a feeling of how damaged these people are. The sensuality comes from feeling the pain these characters experience so vividly. There were some distractions: one of the characters is portrayed as so wealthy that nothing can’t be bought, the setting was in some ways to simple, without the complications and randomness that would make it feel more real. The whole story happens on a stage that is designed and built by the author as a closed world. This closing off of the story from complicated and random real world made the story more engrossing while reading but made it less meaningful for me on reflection.

I recommend this book because of how engrossed I was while reading. I plan to read Robert Goolrick’s memoir The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life to find out how this kind of damage plays out in a real life.

Aikido Strategy

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Naive understanding from before training

Before I started Aikido, my understanding of the strategy used came from conflict resolution experts that claimed to be using the Aikido strategy applied to interpersonal relations. This model followed a three step approach:

  1. Observe the energy of the attack.
  2. Blend with the energy of the attack.
  3. Redirect the energy of the attack.

I have a very clear memory of reading this in the years before I started training. While model may work for conflict resolution in the workplace, I don’t think that it is very useful for physical combat. Naturally, if you don’t see the attack at all you can’t defend yourself, but this model suggests a very passive defender that is in the wash of violence before taking control.


During my earlier years of training, I saw the strategy as the way of not fighting or the way of non-resistance. Some of my instructors would describe this as letting uke do what they want to do to take control. This strategy describes well the experience of learning basic Aikido techniques; if you are meeting the force of your partner you are making a mistake. This is the main lesson of what some people call “solid training”, where your partner grabs strongly in a static position and you find a way to move avoiding their strength. In tai no henko training, this entails letting uke establish a firm grip before attempting to turn. This is important training to understand kokyu, but it doesn’t represent a complete strategy for combat. As Sugano Sensei once said, static training teaches you what to do, but not when to do it. Another problem with solid training as a model for Aikido strategy is that it doesn’t represent a resisting opponent who would change the attack as soon as they felt you move, but a training partner helping you learn correct technique.

Sen sen no sen

When I began training directly with Yamada Sensei and Sugano Sensei, I began to understand the importance of timing in their technique. They didn’t stand passively waiting for an attack, but instead controlled the attack before the first contact. I had read before where shomenuchi ikkyo was described with nage starting the technique with a strike to the face, eliciting a response from uke that allowed the technique to continue. I understood the timing of many techniques as the defender starting the movement to control the attacker from the beginning so that they are responding to the defender. Some might see this as a break from their ethical understanding of Aikido, but I don’t think it changes anything; the technique still requires violent intent from the uke and most techniques emphasize control instead of damage. I have heard some karate students describe this as sen sen no sen, early timing or preemptive attack. To train for this, I try to practice as I have witnessed my seniors; starting to move so that I lead the attack instead of waiting for it to happen. This is particularly important in multiple attacker situations where if you wait on your partners, they could all reach you at the same time. The only way to control this is to move first forcing an attack from the uke of your choice.


This past Winter Seminar, Sugano Sensei was describing very basic technique. Describing tai no henko training, he said that it represented control over the contact with your partner. In this description, he used the term ki musubi. I am most familiar with this term from ki musubi no tachi, a paired form with bokken. I understand it to mean tying ki, where musubi means a knot. So the connection of the grip like a knot tying your ki to your partners. But he further explained that there are two ways to understand musubi, a knot or to create. I don’t know enough Japanese to know whether these are two meanings of the same kanji or if they are homonyms, but his explanation of the creation meaning was that by setting the combative distance and presenting your wrist, nage is creating a situation that ties uke‘s and nage‘s energy and movement together before contact is made.

So now my understanding of the strategy of Aikido is summarized by ki musubi. It isn’t allowing the attacker to decide the timing of the attack so that the defender is only responding. It isn’t attacking first to elicit an attack. It is instead creating and controlling a connection between combatants. This model for understanding how the techniques work builds on the previous ideas and unifies them.

For some time now, I have been starting the classes I teach with tai no henko practice. For this practice, I have beginners start with a static position to learn how to move but I have intermediate and advanced students start at a distance to work on timing. I don’t yet know how to demonstrate the idea of ki musubi as part of this practice, which simply means that I don’t have a deep enough grasp of the concept. I can only see the surface of it and I don’t know yet how to integrate into my practice, but I also know that you first have to see where to go before you can go there.

Which only leaves one question: Does it work in combat? or Is it practical? I don’t know the answer because I have never had to find out, but really that’s a different discussion.

Trotsky: a biography

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Trotsky: a biography was a very difficult read for me. I wanted to read it because interest in communism because as a left leaning liberal, communism is the most significant blot on the history of liberalism. I am proud to call myself a liberal because of liberalism’s noble heritage of extending rights into larger and large portions of society. Abolition and civil rights are the greatest examples of this, but also the efforts of progressives and liberals to use the power of government to deal with the worst examples of market failure (pollution, exploitation of low wage workers, monopolies, consumer fraud, etc). However liberals and progressives had a blind spot to the threat of communism, particularly in the years before World War II. Later, liberals began to define themselves in how they differ from communists, but the taint of prior acceptance remains even today as we see critics calling President Obama a socialist and worse.

Leon Trotsky is portrayed in this biography as so certain of his reasoning that he felt justified in using extreme violence to push aside all obstacles to his goals. As it became clear that Stalin was committing atrocities against is citizens to cement his power, Trotsky became a hero to western communists because he was in the opposition and had an explanation of Stalin’s mistakes. The thesis of this book is that these supporters ignored the fact that Trotsky engineered some of the worst atrocities of the USSR when he was in position to shape policy.

This book ably proves its point, but it failed to make its story compelling to this reader. I enjoyed learning about Trotsky’s childhood and early revolutionary career and the closing chapters had some excitement where Stalin’s assassination attempts play out. The bulk of the book, from years just before the October revolution to Trotsky’s deportation, were tedious to read. I can’t believe that this is because those years were unexciting, Robert Service is just not a very good story teller. The book might have been more interesting to someone who already knew the ins and outs of the disputes among the Bolsheviks. I still can’t tell you what was the substance of the dispute between Trotsky and Stalin (is it really possible that they just didn’t like each other).

The research that went into this book is significant and I am glad this book exists, I just wish that had left it to historians and book reviewers to read instead of slogging through.