You Really Don’t Have That Kind of Time

The other day I heard a rumour: an ex-student said that I should never have been asked to teach, and hinted that I didn’t deserve my black belt.

I should say, before going on, that the student in question was never my student. He was a student in my dojo years ago. He may or may not have observed my teaching; I have no idea.

A few years ago, a comment like this would have pained me. And it does. But not much. Since turning fourty (yup), criticism bothers me less than it used to. I worry less about what people think. Maybe it’s because of the proverbial onset of middle-age and its fallout. I can’t help but think that I’m probably halfway through my life (with any luck I’ll live as long as my French grandmother, who at the age of ninety-two continues to live at home, wear heels, and apply orange-red lipstick – but who knows?). Having a sister with special needs has always made me experience a higher-than-average sense of mortality, which has increased as I get older. A passage comes to mind, from one of Anne Lamott’s books, where she asks a friend if her butt looks big in a dress she’s trying on. Her friend (I can’t find the passage, but I seem to recall that she’s ill and that she wears a headscarf to hide the effects of chemotherapy) says: “Annie, you really don’t have that kind of time.”

Right.

I do, however, consider criticism, the way a scientist might consider lab results. In this case, I thought about why someone would make a comment like that. “Jealousy,” my friends told me. “Definitely jealousy.” Maybe. Maybe not.

I considered the merits of the statement. No question that, in our school’s taxonomy, I’m a junior black belt. I’ve been training for about fifteen years (split up into two segments, which were separated by six years) while others have been training for twenty-five. Ten years equals a huge number of practicing hours. There’s no question that I have a long way to go before attaining the kind of skill belonging to senior black belt students. I have a lot to learn. And, frankly, we all have a lot to learn. Plus there are some things that I’m just not good at. I’m terrible at rolling, for example (although recently I’ve been getting better as a result of practicing in the local ravine. Last week a dog thought my rolling was an invitation to play, and came to me wagging his tail, begging to join in).

My co-instructor rolls extremely well. He makes a kind of game out of it: As he walks, he sing-songs to himself: “lalala, I’m just walking along….” (I love this) And then he rolls. A beautiful move. It’s the kind of roll where you barely touch the ground and at the end of it you hop up as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. I can’t do this kind of roll. As I said, I have a lot to learn.

Which brings me to a question I’ve pondered for a long time. Should a sensei promote someone based on their abilities or on their potential? My first sensei used to do both. Sometimes, I would watch someone’s promotion test, and I would think, “hunh, that person doesn’t seem ready to receive his blue belt (or purple, brown, or black belt).” A few weeks later, that person would demonstrate a kata and, low and behold, she looked like a blue belt (or purple, brown, or black belt). That sensei seemed to anticipate when a student was nearly ready to acquire the next belt level; it was uncanny. I love this approach. It slots nicely into my philosophy regarding how we should relate to others. For shouldn’t we always perceive people in terms of their best selves?

Which brings me to the question of whether I deserve my black belt. When I first received it, I didn’t think so. Now, after three additional years of practice, I do. And in any case, isn’t a black belt not a state but rather, an attitude—that is, of self-reflection and of dedication to self-improvement?

I consider myself a good teacher. I don’t always have perfect technique, but I’m pretty good at breaking things down for my students. Occasionally, I might even be funny. I like to think of the words of a parent in Pamela Druckerman’s book Bringing Up Bébé, that, “overall, I’m good enough.”

And really, when it comes to taking criticism to heart, I just don’t have that kind of time.

***

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been blogging for a while. I’ve been finishing writing my book, a collection of short stories entitled This One Because of the Dead. Yesterday, I finished a substantive revision of my last story! Only some fine-tuning left. You can read some of these stories online:

Siblings

In the Afternoon

Luck

best, Laure

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Board Breaking 101

The instructor stood in front of the class. “Today,” he said, “Only brown belts and black belts will break boards.”

The previous week, he had asked the class for a show of interest. My hand shot up: I had always wanted to break a board.

I had been offered the opportunity only once, several years ago. It had happened during a bad week. Two days before that class, an ice-climbing friend of mine had died in an avalanche in Alaska. I had attended the funeral the day before.

That first opportunity, I felt shaky. From the front of the room, the then-Sensei seemed to eye me, as if expecting me to give the board-breaking a try. Feeling that I didn’t have the necessary focus for the task, I chose not to. Afterward, when I mentioned my dilemma to Sensei’s wife, she agreed with my decision. “Times like this,” she said, “karate should take care of you.”

Now, another opportunity presented itself. The instructor greeted me personally at the entrance of the dojo and asked to speak with me. “I’m worried,” he said. “About your reverse punch. I’m not sure you’ll be able to break a board.”

My mouth opened.

“You should use a kick,” he said. “That will work better.”

I thanked him and turned away.

Oh, how I wanted to stomp. Vast were the realms of self-pity. Also: internal grumbling and sulking. How was it possible that my punch wasn’t good enough?

Could it be that the instructor was off the mark? I’m tiny, I thought to myself. One of my punches probably looks more like a hole puncher trying to poke through paper than the heavy-weight, gong-like slams of the gargantuan men. No doubt, the instructor is not able to envision the tremendous power of my awesome punch.

I wanted to cry.

There was something else. I’d often thought about board breaking, and I’d always thought I’d do it with a reverse punch. Since the ability to break boards depends, by and large, on what is happening in the student’s head, I wanted to break this board using the technique I’d always visualized. I didn’t want to imagine a different technique. In my various daydreams, I had been sure of my success, and I wanted to capitalize on my imaginings.

I thought of my good friend and career counsellor, Ayelet, who likes to tell me to find opportunity in every difficult situation. Perfect, I thought. This is good. This is great. What an opportunity for humility! And for learning. Let’s not forget learning.

I left to seek out an experienced master. Pulling aside a senior student, I explained the situation. I sniffled and tried to look calm and not like I was begging him for reassurance. I channelled my inner Anne Lamott.

He looked at me with great compassion. He explained that each instructor has his or her own focus. This instructor focuses on strength, he said. In the end, I had to use my own judgement. “Don’t take it personally,” he said.

I restrained myself from hugging this kind man.

I marched back into class. I was going to break a board. With a reverse punch.

The rest of the class gathered. My daughter sat on the floor with the other children. I didn’t dare look at her. I needed all my powers of concentration. Oh goodness, I thought. Here is where I let my daughter down. Disappointment and years of therapy will follow. For both of us.

One by one, senior belts broke boards. Boards shattered, not with a splintering crack, but rather with a dry “pock” sound. All of the students used a reverse punch. One woman kicked a board, failed, and then broke it with a punch.

My turn came. I punched my board. Once. Twice. Nothing happened. I kicked it. Still nothing. I turned and sat back on the floor. I crossed my legs and didn’t look at anyone. I didn’t weep. If anything, I felt my determination harden.

Another person went up and punched the board. The board did not break. Even from where we were sitting we could see that her fingers were raw and bloody from raking the wood. (I’m sure that it would never occur to any of you to hope that she not break the board on her next try.) She tried again. The board broke.

“Anyone else?” the instructor asked.

My voice seemed to come from somewhere else. “Can I try again?”

“Sure.” The instructor held the board, and I pushed against it a few times, testing my form. “Don’t let me push against you,” he said.

The following thought crossed my mind: I don’t care if I break my hand, I’m going to break this *#$*#*$*# board. 

I punched. “Pock.” The board broke.

My daughter beamed.

Turns out I wasn’t grounding my back foot enough when I punched. This is very instructive. Crucial, when you think about it. What if I were attacked in the street, and I didn’t ground my foot in enough?

And it became an opportunity to talk to my daughter about perseverance. “You see?” I said. “I didn’t succeed the first few times. Only on the fourth.”

Of course, I’ve caught myself miscounting the number of times I failed to break that plank. In some stories I’ve said three; in others, two. And I’m going to frame the two wood pieces. I took these home, of course.

After all, it’s not every day that a person breaks a board.

 

 

 

 

Surviving Criticism

Aside

For a certain kind of arty girl, reading Plath was like reading the French existentialists. She let us see that the way we felt—that ache of being alive—was something that other people felt, too.

Meg Wolitzer “My Mademoiselle Summer” (New York Times, Sunday July 21, 2013)

Several weeks back, people noticed something wrong with my technique. When I moved, the upper and lower parts of my body didn’t work together. My punches were driven by my shoulders rather than coming from my core. My techniques were top heavy when they should have emerged from the floor up. They were right. I was ungrounded: my blocks and strikes were weak.

I worked on correcting this problem. I did katas in slow motion. I practiced in front of a mirror. I started each class with a mantra. “Ground yourself, ground yourself, ground yourself,” I whispered.

No-one noticed.

“I’ve spoken about this before,” an instructor said. “You need to work on this.”

“You don’t say,” I thought.

Sometimes, when an instructor gives an instruction, other students raise their hands to give additional feedback. If we’re working on upper blocks, for example, someone will say, “Don’t forget to move your hand diagonally across your chest.” Or, “Remember to breathe.” On occasion, after a student does an excellent kata demonstration, someone will make a comment that focuses on what the student has done wrong.

I’m glad that people care about the quality of technique in our dojo. Rigor is good. In a self-defense situation, my ability to defend myself depends on the precision of my blocks and strikes. Also, karate is an art, and I strive for perfection in all the art forms I practice.

But critique can be hard to take. I started leaving classes feeling discouraged. I considered taking a break from the dojo. Most of all, I wasn’t having fun anymore.

Around the same time, something happened outside the dojo that made me reflect further on the subject of criticism. I was walking my kids to school. My daughter (age seven) had broken her ankle and was hobbling along (at a brisk pace, trying to pretend she was just fine, thank-you) in a walking cast. My son (age four) zipped ahead of me on a scooter.

On the parent monitoring scale, I’m probably smack in the middle of the “helicopter parenting” and the “laissez-faire” poles. On my book shelf, Anthony Wolf’s The Secret of Parenting sits beside Tom Hodgkinson’s (yes, the editor of The Idler) The Idle Parent. On the walk to school, while I let my kids go ahead of me, I also watched them, particularly my son, who has a tendency to forget that I’ve asked him to: “make sure you can see Mama at all times.”

Suddenly, a man in his late twenties who was walking in the opposite direction did a little sidestep and circled around so that he could start walking beside me. I flicked my eyes at him, all the while trying to see my children, who were weaving in and out Bloor Street’s morning commuters.

“You should keep an eye on your children,” he said.

“Pardon?”

“Your children.”

“Right,” I said. By now, my son was at the intersection of Bloor and Spadina. He had stopped a few meters before the street, as I had instructed him to do, and was looking back at me. “I am, thanks.” I hurried forward.

“You don’t want your daughter to break her other leg.”

“Actually,” I said. “She broke it on the playground.” I was distracted, trying to keep an eye on both kids. My daughter was now approaching her brother. Soon, the light would turn green.

“Oh,” he said, still walking beside me. “I can’t blame you for that, then.”

I turned to him. “No,” I said. “You can’t.”

He looked at my face, changed his mind about what he was going to say next, did an about-face and walked quickly in the other direction.

One way to deal with a critic is to confront him, head-on. If you think someone’s wrong, tell them so, as I started to do in the above instance, before the helpful stranger decided that he’d rather not deal with a karate-ka in a bad mood.

As for criticism in the dojo, if you disagree with someone respectfully, things should go well. Either they’ll politely disagree with you or they’ll apologize for being over-zealous in their teaching. (When it comes to dealing with a Sensei, however, you should use your discretion. Never criticize a Sensei in front of others. If you strongly disagree with him, you may want to approach him privately, and always with careful respect. My experience is that in the case of disagreeing with a Sensei, you should first address the matter with other, more senior students.)

In my case, I knew that the criticism was fair. I needed a means of improving my technique while preserving my love of karate. In other words, in my karate practice, I want to keep making room for joy.

I was once in a meditation workshop with Zen teacher and poet Peter Levitt. One of his students, a middle-aged woman, complained about her struggle to run her own business. She was sitting on a mat, her neck curved foreword, her brown hair hanging in separate strands around her shoulders. “I’m working so hard,” she said.

Peter gazed at her. “Try to work soft,” he said.

These days, I’m pursuing the soft core of my karate practice. I practice basic katas. I’ve slowed everything down and use my breath, not only to guide each technique, but to revel in it. Sometimes, I take a break from the dojo. I do other things: I hike, swim, run, play piano. Each time, I return to class refreshed, eager to meet again what attracted me to the art in the first place, and to find new ways to practice.

As for class atmosphere, my co-instructor and I have decided to focus on giving positive feedback to students. After all, educational research shows that positive feedback is more effective than negative critique at motivating students. We want to demand rigor from our students, yes, but we also want to enable them to experience the joy of practice. We want our students to have fun.

A couple of weeks ago, I joined instructors and students at a local pub to mark a colleague’s retirement from the dojo. People ate and chatted. Their stories often surprised me, revealing aspects of their personalities that the dojo’s conventions, which required a certain impersonal interaction, usually hid. These are nice people, I thought. They aren’t criticizing me to be mean, but to be helpful. By the end of the evening, I felt tenderness for everyone: for myself and my imperfect technique, and for my colleagues and their well-meaning criticism.

Clearly, I thought, if one is feeling bogged down by criticism, if previous strategies have failed to stem the flow of self-pity, one should break bread with one’s colleagues.

 I’ve been working on something new. Coming soon:

 

KARATE GIRL (A serial comic strip, in collaboration with talented illustrator Hannah Wachs)