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Archive for October, 2009

Karate: The Way of Elvis

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

People often ask me if Kung Fu, or specifically mantis, is the only martial art I’ve done. My initial response is yes. I’ve practiced Mantis exclusively since 1982.

However, before I found the Fu, I found Karate . . . Elvis Style!

When I was six, I watched this huge man shatter a brick with his fists at a park demonstration, advertising for a weeklong, beginner Karate camp. I begged and my parents signed me up. I fell asleep that night, excited about breaking that brick.

At 8:45 the next morning, sixteen kids ages six to twelve, and parents, lined up outside the community center. Class was to begin at 9:00. By 9:20, the instructor rolled up in a loud, dirty pale yellow Volkswagen Van. Smoke billowed from the tailpipe. He and his ultra-skinny hippy girlfriend got out and walked to the front door. I was confused. This wasn’t the same guy I saw demolish the brick in the park. This guy looked like Elvis. Not the heartthrob of the 50’s Elvis; the slob of the 70’s Elvis.

Wavy black hair, bushy sideburns, gut to his knees. He sported a tight baby blue terry-cloth jogging suit. Coffee stains streaked the front by the zipper and sweat stains ringed the armpits. Shiny white Nikes with a blue stripe covered his feet, unlaced. His girlfriend had stringy blond hair and her long was neck hidden behind colored beads. She wore a green halter-top, short-short cut-off jeans, and was barefooted. Her toenails were painted red, white, and blue. With no apology for his tardiness, Master Elvis said he was the karate teacher. He unlocked the community center door and told our parents what time to be back. Miss Elvis just hummed and laughed a lot, like some imaginary friend was telling her jokes.  

Once inside, he divided us into two lines by height. Some kid asked where the man was who broke the brick. Master Elvis sneered at him, chewed on a toothpick and said the man was just his helper. “I’m the master teacher,” he said. “And today we learn how to punch.”

Cool, I thought. I waited for him to grab one of the bricks stacked next to the door and punch it in two. Instead, the big man stood before us, rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck side to side. Miss Elvis was impressed. She said, “Whoa, baby” every time her big Teddy Bear moved. She sat cross-legged on the floor braiding her hair.

In one smooth move, Master Elvis spit out the toothpick and unzipped his baby blue jacket. More belly fell out, stretching his white undershirt to the max. Kids in the front row gasped and stepped back.

He looked up and lifted his hands as if receiving instructions from Heaven. He started this weird breathing. Everyone got quiet. His massive body swayed. I was afraid he’d fall over and land on the short red-headed kid in the front row. He dropped his hands and stopped sucking the air. He had a scowl on his face like he’d just bitten a pickle dipped in peanut butter. I thought he was getting sick. Suddenly his arms snapped to the sides, his thumb-sized index fingers pointed in each direction. His leg began to twitch. I’d never seen Caine on Kung Fu do this before. A few kids giggled.

Faster than I thought a fat man could move, Master E pulled his arms to his hips, yelled Keeya, and punched the air. The only girl in the group cried. He did this several times and within seconds sweat poured off his round red face.

Master E told us to go find a mattress and punch it until he said stop. He collapsed on a small chair and had a smoke. Half his butt cheeks hung over the sides. Along the wall behind us were rows of pee-stained mattress stacked to the ceiling. I found out later, that on weekends, homeless people slept at the community center. We must’ve moved too slowly to the mattresses because he screamed NOW and we ran for it. The girl cried even more.

I punched the side of a mattress until my hands cramped. One kid cut his knuckles on protruding bedsprings and bled everywhere, and at least three kids fell victim to an avalanche of falling mattresses.

Elvis sat, sweated, and smoked. Miss Elvis braided her hair and hummed California Dreaming by the Mamas & the Papas.

Finally, our master teacher announced he would break a brick using the punching technique that he’d just “taught” us. I just wanted to get away from the filthy beds. My hands stunk.

With the strut of a lone rooster inside chicken pen, Master Elvis walked to the bricks, stacked three on the floor, did his whole Keeya dance-leg twitch-thing, then slammed his fist down.

The brick didn’t budge. He said someone talking, made him lose focus. He tried again. Nothing happened. Three attempts later, the bricks broke and so did Master E’s hand. He wailed curse words, cradled his bleeding hand to his chest. Miss Elvis said, “Whoa, baby”, and ran to his side. Now everyone was crying, including Elvis. He told us to call our parents. Karate camp was over. We raced for the only payphone next to bathrooms.

Miss Elvis wrapped her man’s hand in his baby-blue jogging suit jacket. It turned purple from all the blood. He moaned and stumbled as she helped him to the van. Before he climbed in though, he managed to light another cigarette. She jumped behind the wheel and floored the gas pedal. Void of adult supervision, we just stood there in awe, watching the van skid out of the parking lot.

Elvis had just left the building.

Investing in Loss

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Now when I say, “Learn to invest in loss,” who is willing to do this? To invest in loss is to permit others to use force to attack while you don’t use even the slightest force to defend yourself. On the contrary, you lead an opponent’s force away so that it is useless. ~ Cheng Man-Ching

The two kung fu students faced off ready for a friendly bout. The senior student led with his dominate right side. He knew that his right back-fist combined with his right side-kick were unstoppable.

The younger student also led with his stronger right side but he felt less confident than his opponent; he was wearing a blindfold. His balance unsteady, his sense of direction completely off kilter with no idea of where his classmate was standing. He hoped he didn’t look stupid.

His goal of today’s match was to keep his guard up until he made contact with his si hing (older kung fu brother) then use feel to determine where an opening for a strike or kick may be. Even though the fight was to be slow, this took considerable amounts of concentration.

The instructor said, “Begin.”

The younger, blinded student stood; his hands up waiting to feel his si hing’s arms or legs make light contact – thinking he would then ride his brother’s attacking limbs back in on recoil and simply return the strike.

Faster than a blink, the older kung fu brother lashed out with a back-fist, smashing his younger opponent’s nose, followed by a spinning right side-kick sending him into the brick wall.

The young student collapsed to his knees. He felt like his navel had collided with his spine. He couldn’t breathe. Blood flowed from his nose beneath the blindfold, splattering the floor.

Obviously, the si hing did not practice the “Invest in Loss” discipline. Although he clearly held the advantage in skill as well as eyesight, his intent was to show off his techniques, not help his brother.

In order to master the art of mantis fighting, or any martial arts really, the student MUST invest in loss.

In the example above, the seeing student should make light contact with the blind one such as touch his stomach with a “strike”. Blind student feels he’s been hit, too late to block, so he must yield to the blow then grab the hitter’s arm and slowly counter. This teaches both students: The blind student feels which way his body should move in reaction to the blow and then how to set up a counter move. The seeing student also sees and feels how his opponent reacts to his attack and counters thus teaching him how to move and counter. And on and on it goes.

In the past 14 years of teaching, my kung fu has grown exponentially. Why? Investing in loss. As a Sifu, I must continually invest in loss. What good would it do for me to bust-up my students and then continue the evening lesson as they’re being wheeled out to the ambulance. Neither of us would ever grow.

To paraphrase the great motivational speaker Zig Ziggler, “Help enough people achieve their dreams and goals, and yours will be achieved as well.”