Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

It's not often these days that I could be bothered to pick up a book with the word "Jesus" in great big gold lettering plastered all over the cover but I found myself compelled to make an exception when I spied the name of the author, no less than one of my favourite heretics, Philip Pullman. Even more intriguing, perhaps, was the back of the book, on which was printed in large friendly letters:


And nothing else. No summary, no praise for His Dark Materials, just those words and the little publisher's logo and UPC bar code modestly tucked away at the bottom. That pretty much said it all, really. A retelling of the life of Jesus in a manner that will most undoubtedly draw a deluge of stiff letters from pious, God-fearing people who'd never actually consider reading this book, and who'd need to be told repeatedly to at the very least pay attention to the four little words on the back.

It's written in a very simple style, similar to the NIV Bible itself, with short, unembellished sentences collected in a series of bite-size chapters. For the most part, it adheres to the story as told in the New Testament, with a very significant difference, being that here Mary gave birth to twins, named Jesus and Christ.

The stark simplicity of the text leaves much room for the reader to colour it with his own interpretation. Being as atheist as I am, I see in this book the story of Jesus as an outspoken, simple man of lofty principles and good intentions and his brother Christ, timid, scholarly and full of love for his brother, and how the story of their lives were raised far beyond the reality by a mixture of the hopes of the people around them, Chinese whispers and careful manipulation of history.

Having witnessed any number of silver-tongued individuals attain positions of power with little more than the gift of the gab and a sufficiently ignorant, unquestioning audience, this book tells quite a lot of how gods, prophets and messiahs are constructed out of a dash of good intentions, a truckload of false hope and a pinch of deception. I read it and I see an old story repeated, one of good intentions, born of the noblest part of the human spirit, twisted and corrupted into something far beyond the expectations of the initiator, both in the best and worst possible ways. It is much akin to planting a mysterious seed in a garden in the hope it will bear fruit or flowers, then finding the garden overrun with vicious, thorny creepers punctuated with stunningly beautiful blossoms.

That aside, there is much food for thought to be found in certain chapters, such as Christ posing the questions (usually attributed to Satan in the New Testament) to Jesus in the wilderness, and Jesus' confrontation (With God? Or his own faith?) in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here's an excerpt from Jesus' time in the garden:

'You're not listening,' he whispered. 'I've been speaking to you all my life and all I've heard back is silence. Where are you? Are you busy making another world, perhaps, because you're sick of this one? You've gone away, haven't you, you've abandoned us.

'You're making a liar out of me, you realise that. I don't want to tell lies. I try to tell the truth. But I tell them you're a loving father watching over them all, and you're not; you're blind as well as deaf, as far as I can tell. You can't see, or you just don't want to look? Which is it?'

And so on and so forth. Go on, guess who shows up after that... If the Dark Materials trilogy is any indication, Pullman also makes known his opinion of organized religion during the Gethsemane monologue.

Anyway, I won't spoil it for you. It is not a long book, easily wolfed down in a single sitting and it does what any good piece of writing should do, which is make the reader think. I sense it is as likely to offend as it is to enlighten, depending on the mind reading it, but whatever the case may be, perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind is what has been written on the back cover: This is a STORY.

Monday, May 10, 2010

HK Open revisited

I neglected to mention previously that we managed to record our performance in HK and that I've gotten my grubby paws on the DVDs of said recording last week. Having viewed my fights a few times, I was quite chuffed to observe that there were brief moments, barely lasting a few seconds, when I relaxed enough and actually struck with the snake-like speed and precision of a real kendoka.

As I mentioned before, as a 2nd kyu, I fully expected to bumble about looking like a right muppet for the first few times in an international tourney. That I managed to actually pull off something looking like serious kendo, even if only for a few fractions of seconds at a time, in such a prestigious tournament was quite a bit beyond my expectations and so, verily, I am chuffed.
Perhaps of greater importance, though, was how the video showed me very clearly what I was doing wrong, i.e. the tenseness, the sluggish footwork and the excessive use of the right arm in what I call (translated) "Destroy the Old World" attacks, named for the resemblance to this poster:

Yep, my hammer technique is excellent. Pity it isn't worth a damn in kendo...

Anyway, that's it for now. Maybe one of these days I'll figure out how to clip out my fights from the DVD and post vids...

Hong Kong Open, part 2 of 2

Day Two

Woke up this day with the aftermath of Day One etched in every muscle. Not good. Seeing as my one and only tournament legal shinai was ruined* I borrowed one from a teammate**. Poor devil broke a toenail rather painfully during goudo keiko...

Anyway, day two was dedicated completely to the men's 5-man team event. Now, the previous men's event was 3-dan and below. Today, no upper limit, so we'd be running with the big dogs. Well, eaten alive at any rate.

15 seconds. That is how long I lasted in my first fight of the day, against someone from the Beijing Japan Club. I think he may have been Japanese, because I couldn't make out his name on his zekken (name tag), which is quite normal for me when I'm wearing contacts, as Japanese names will often crowd the zekken just enough that I can't read it from across the shiaijou. One could argue that during the shiai, I'd be close enough to read it, but believe me, I hadn't a split second to waste staring at the other guy's groin. Anyway...

He took the first point within the first 5 seconds, from my right kote. From the moment we started, he quickly circled to my left. I'd never encountered such an opening before, so it took me completely by surprise when he darted forward, reach under my shinai and struck a perfect blow on my right kote with such precision it might have come out of a textbook. And he did this, from my left, from somewhere around my 11 o' clock.

The next point he took was also a kote, but for the life of me, I couldn't see how. You see, a kote strike targets only the area on the forearm closer to the wrist, a strike zone about 6 inches wide. When the arms are in the default stance, i.e. chuudan no kamae (middle stance), with the shinai pointed towards the opponent's throat (or eyes, depending on the sensei), the right kote is in front, and hence a valid target. The left kote is not. When the shinai is raised high to strike, say, in a large overhead cut, or jodan no kamae (high stance), the left kote will be in front of the right, and hence it becomes the valid target. Either way, on both kote one is meant to attack the wrists.

What happened in this case was he struck me but I had moved forward quickly enough that his shinai didn't contact my wrists, but clearly went across my knuckles. I was all set to continue trying to take a point back, but I saw the flags raised in his favour! Most vexing, but there was nothing I could do. For the life of me, I do not know why he was given that point. Still, that first point gave me something to think about.

My 2nd fight of the day, I must confess, I feel a little guilty about. While my helmet was off, I could clearly see my opponent was a significantly older man, definitely over 50 and smaller and lighter than me. I had little doubt he was also many years my senior in kendo, and so concluded that there was no reason for me to hold anything back and my best bet would be to use my own physical advantages, that is, my bulk and brute strength.

This fight was possibly my most aggressive of the tourney. I charged and knocked him back, I hammered down blows on his head again and again with all the strength I could muster, not to score, mind you, but it was a calculated attempt to wear him down and keep an eye out for the first sign of weakness. Twice I dealt smashing attacks onto his men (head), each time 2 strikes in rapid succession. Then it appeared! And I wasted it... Once again I aimed a crushing blow on his head, knowing he'd block, and he staggered under the force of it. There was the opening! But in my excitement, I'd simply attacked his head again, and it was easily, if shakily, blocked. It was a split second later that I realised that what I should have done was follow up with a hit to the do (body) while his shinai was still up protecting his head. Ah, well, the moment was lost. I'd knackered the both of us, and neither of us could take a point until time ran out. And thus passed my first fight in an international tournament which I... uh... didn't lose!

And thus ended Day Two. There was goudo keiko after that, of course, but I'd reached my limit by then and just really wanted to have a shower and lie down for a bit. Oh, and have some beer...

On a side note, the friend I borrowed the shinai from and myself were pleasantly surprised to find the shinai I'd used during this fight was in remarkably good condition, barely even a splinter! Not sure about the other guy's shinai, though... I have since gotten my grubby paws on 3 Beesangs.


So what did I learn from all that? Well, apart from the vast gulf between 2nd kyu and 8th dan, of course...

My most glaring error in Day One was zanshin, or the sorry lack of it. Repeatedly I was able to set up clean killing blows, yet was denied ippon due to lack of zanshin. So what happened? Ideally, a blow with zanshin should strike the target clearly and sharply *then* follow through. Normally, this means hitting and running past the opponent, denying his chance to counterattack. Alternatively in a hikiwaza (an attack while pulling away from the opponent) one should back away quickly and smoothly after the strike.

I could not perceive it at the time but what I'd actually done was set up the blow (I'm quite chuffed that I had the presence of mind to do that), then hit and try to push my shinai as deep as possible into my opponent's skull. Now, while this would have made for quite a spectacular kill were I using a live blade, with a shinai it looks hopelessly ugly. It basically looks like I hit and then stop dead in my tracks. I essentially have the first half of ippon, but the remaining half is woefully absent. Suffice it to say, half an ippon is, for the purpose of shiai, as good as no ippon at all.

In Hong Kong, I witnessed a lot of solid kendokas applying many different approaches to taking ippon. I saw short little ones, bouncing around the shiaijou, darting in and striking before their opponent could react. I saw tall, strong ones stand still as statues, who'd quietly wait for their opponent to make the first move and counterattack in furious blur of motion. I even saw a few wielding 2 shinai, 1 long and 1 short, nito-ryu, quite a rare thing and fascinating to watch. I saw all these and realized how raw and unformed my own kendo is, and found myself looking on at these master swordsmen and wondering "Would that technique work in my hands?"

That having been said, apart from the 3-person Men's event, almost all the winners were Japanese. Many are in their 30s or 40s, and have been practising kendo 2 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week since middle school or, at a rough guesstimate, at least 7,500 hours. Compare this with my own time in the dojo, averaging twice a week over the last 3 and a half years for a total of about 700 hours. There is only so far one can bridge the gap in experience with strength, spirit and guile.

As such, since Hong Kong, I've thrown myself into training with much more enthusiasm, constantly analyzing myself for what I'm missing, my weakness, my strengths and training accordingly. There's only so much time available for the dojo each week, so in between, I concentrate on simple strength exercises because, yes, I do want to hit harder and faster. Hard and fast enough that, even if I miss, it will be highly intimidating for my opponent. For the moment, though, this is all pie in the sky. 2nd kyu is nothing to shout about. Until I drag my raggedy ass to shodan, I'll be paying extra attention to basics and form. Cunning tricks and the like can take a back seat until then.

* The other two are these scruffy made-in-Taiwan things. Brand unknown. No markings other than a little "Made in Taiwan" sticker. Approx 540g (510g is tourney lower limit). Lousy balance. Dirt cheap. Great training fodder. Apparently they were too narrow at the tip for tournament use.

Beesang, from Kendoshop. Wonderfully light (a little over 510g) and tuff enuff to endure a day of my heaviest blows practically unscathed.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stray thought

Today I found myself looking at stuff I found around the house and wondering how it would do as a target for practicing kendo strikes. My gaze lingered on my 2-year-old nephew perhaps a little longer than I'd care to admit.

Anyway, part 2 of the HK Open, coming soon, 'onest guv...