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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drive

A few weeks back, I received a compliment. I was in karate class, practicing Sanchin kata. The scene went like this:

Fellow colleague and instructor: “Ma’am: beautiful, flowing arm movements on the take-off.”

Me, flushed with pleasure: “Thank-you, sir.”

My energy picked up. I went home feeling newly committed to karate. This was in contrast to the previous weeks, during which I’d been experiencing a sense of lethargy during practice. For months, I’d been receiving mounds of (well-intentioned) criticism, and this had taken a toll in the form of my diminished drive vis-a-vis karate.

I’m not the strongest karate-ka in my school. Far from it. I have much to learn. When I tried to improve my rolls two years ago, I ended up injuring my neck and going through months of physical therapy. And my spinning wheel kicks make me look like a Weeble. You know: those egg-shaped toys that, as the Hasbro commercial says, “wobble but don’t fall down”? My average skills are probably one of the reasons why I have a complicated relationship with karate.

Although it’s not obvious to most people, I’m extremely competitive. I like to be the best at, well, everything. This has obvious drawbacks. For one, I sometimes experience an ugly hatred for those who are better at karate than me. Perhaps hatred is too strong a word. It’s more like powerful resentment. Toward, for example, karate-ka who have some sort of immunity to attacks of nerves, which I experience every time I demonstrate a kata. Those are the ones who go up in front of a tournament audience so that they can show off their moves. Who are these people, I think, upon encountering this bizarre phenomenon. And why can’t they just go away? (Okay, I only think this in my very darkest moments).

In his book, Drive, social scientist Daniel Pink argues that intrinsic motivation keeps us interested in a pursuit longer than extrinsic (reward-based) motivation. Intrinsic drive also purportedly produces the strongest results. That makes certain sense to me. I’m certainly not doing karate because of my enormous talent for it: I don’t garner many compliments these days. I practice karate because I love it. This passion keeps me going back to class, week by week. As to whether my passion has improved my technique, well, I’m reserving judgement in this regard.

This morning, I came across some notes I took of a conversation I had with my son when he was three years old. I wanted him to go with a babysitter and was trying to disengage him from my leg, to which he clung, a koala to a bamboo tree.

“You will go to the park with J—,” I said to him. “We’re going to say goodbye.”

He looked up at me, serious. “Ya,” he said. “And Mama will go to karate and Abba will go to work.”

Yes, indeed. And Mama will keep on going to karate.

 

On Risk

I am not two people, I am one.

Photographer Annie Leibovits, on the confluence of her art and life.

 

I’ve been thinking about risk.

A decade ago my husband and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. He loves mountain-climbing. He loves the journey itself, the actual climb. I like getting to the top. (Our differences became evident on the slopes of an Ecuadorian volcano, where we had our first, near-break up fight. There is a photo taken of me on the slopes of Mount Tungurahua: my hair is flattened by a downpour, and I’m smiling through gritted teeth at my not-yet-husband. Incidentally, the volcano erupted half a year later).

As to Mt. Kilimanjaro, I wanted to see its ice cap before it melted. On the way up, we suffered from unpleasant mishaps. A torrential downpour destroyed our camera. We experienced extreme nausea caused by altitude sickness (so much so that, on our third day, despite a six-hour climb to the summit, I couldn’t force down a single bite of breakfast). Our guide turned out to be an disagreeable man who, when he deigned to speak to us, did so with a crankiness bordering on dislike. In the end, though, we made it. After three days on the mountain, we summitted and watched a sunrise at an altitude of 19,341 feet.

Over a decade ago, when I started a PhD in Comparative Literature, I decided to learn a language from scratch, while completing my degree. This didn’t work out. I had underestimated both the amount of work required by the degree, and its rigour. Although I learned a new language, I didn’t complete the degree. There were, of course, other factors at work that made it difficult for me to finish the project. But my struggle also had to do with the difference between calculated and reckless risks, and the fact that, in taking on too much work, I’d tackled a reckless risk.

For a while, I risked little. Then, last summer, a karate instructor told me that my side kicks were too careful. “Let your side kicks fly,” he said. “Forget technique.”  On my next side kick, something shifted. My hip spun out, my body followed. My mind emptied, and I lost my sense of self. I embodied one of karate’s principles, “Mu-no-kukoro”, “mind without conscious thought.”

I promised myself to reacquaint myself with risk. A few weeks ago, I decided to start performing kata again. Although I’d been teaching for almost a year, I had not been demonstrating my kata. This was unfair to my students: I wanted to demand as much of myself as I did of them.

But when I went up to the front of the class to demonstrate Kanku Dai, I faltered. I felt like I did twenty years ago, as a white belt learning Tai-Kyo-Ku Shodan, when I forgot which way to turn. I was an octopus trying to dance. (I often tell my kids that Mama cannot meet everyone’s needs all at once and that she is not an octopus, but perhaps, on this front, I’m wrong).

Afterward, the instructor gave me some corrections. I had to implement them while the class looked on. I was mortified. My kids and I had recently watched The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps, I thought, someone will throw a bucket of water over me, and I’ll melt away.

Implicit in risk is failure. If I don’t want to fail, I shouldn’t risk. But this flattens life. And of course success is born of risk, too.  As is learning.

Last week I understood that training is not enough. I must also practice demonstrating kata. I’ve always struggled with performance, in its various permutations. The only instance I didn’t mind performing was during high school theatrical shows. But in that case I was on stage in the guise of someone else. Karate is another matter: when you demonstrate kata, you showcase yourself.

I’m going to keep taking risks, in karate and elsewhere. I could use some practice in failure. Worst case scenario, I’ll learn something.

Standing on One Foot

Are you a woman, or a mouse? (Annie Dillard The Writing Life)

 

When to practice karate? This is always the question. I’m constantly trying to fit in all the things I enjoy doing, things that define me.

I finally have the time: since September, my children have been enrolled in full-time school. Ah, the joy of experiencing, for the first time in six and a half years, a long stretch of time: the hours between 9:30 and 3:00 (or, more realistically, between 10:00 and 2:00, for I need time to clean the kitchen, shop for groceries, prepare meals. Not to mention the time needed to eat that indispensable second breakfast.) But seriously, I’m convinced that every stay-at-home parent remembers that first day when their children stay away from the house for an extended period. I mean, a WHOLE DAY!

My main problem is that once I start doing something, I don’t want to stop and move on to something else. Do you know “Eureka,” that 1980s TVO cartoon on the Laws of Physics? There was one called Inertia. Inertia: that’s me. I always picture myself as the pebble in the cartoon: once you give me a push, I keep on rolling.

In practice, that means that if I start my morning off by writing, by afternoon I’ll still be writing. On the other hand, if I start my day seasonally categorizing my kids’ clothes, by the afternoon I’ll still be kneeling on my daughter’s purple rug, sorting through an unholy mess of bottoms and tops (my mother-in-law, bless her, is a passionate shopper who raised three boys, and is therefore thrilled to overbuy for her granddaughters), trying to decide if the hole in the bottom of her tights can actually be seen if she’s wearing a skirt over top, and, if so, if she can get away with wearing the tights another season (I’m the opposite of my mother-in-law – I dislike shopping and I hate throwing things out.)

Also, if I start my morning doing karate, hours later I’ll still be doing karate. After finishing last year’s summer day-long karate training, I felt primed to continue training for three more hours.

Because of my innate inertia, I make it a point to begin each morning by writing. Since September (not counting Jewish Holidays – why oh why are there so many darn holidays, and why, again, are we sending our kids to a Jewish school?), this has been my schedule: return home from school drop-off; eat a second breakfast; drink a caffeinated beverage; write for three hours; and eat lunch. The afternoon is a mixed bag of reading, meal prepping, grocery-shopping, tidying our narrow front hallway (ancient Victorian houses, sheesh), and doing anything else that needs to get done. All this to prepare for that moment when my lovely, high-energy children crash through the house, demanding that I fulfill their urgent needs. Yesterday, while I sat by the local pool watching my eldest take her swimming lessons, my three-and-a-half year old tried to get my attention by poking my, umh, chest, a practice I put a stop to immediately.

I am not like the extraordinary Carrie Snyder, an inveterate multi-tasker. Last spring, I read in awe that she was entertaining a sick kid (one of four), meal prepping, and proofing her latest book—simultaneously. (The Juliet Stories is nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award. You can find Carrie at http://carrieannesnyder.blogspot.ca/.) I could never do this kind of multi-tasking. Never. For one, I hate interruptions. For another, there’s that small problem of inertia.

I’ve somewhat come to terms with the fact that I’m a long-distance runner, rather than a sprinter. And I’m embracing my inertia. I’m also starting to think that a much nicer way of talking about my inertia is by referring to it as my aptitude for intense focus.

All this to clarify why I start off each day by writing.

But where does karate fit in? I have three priorities in my life: family, writing, and karate. The order I put these in depends on mood and need, either mine or my loved ones. But how to include all three, more or less on an equal basis?

And how do I fit in all my other passions? I’m an exercise junkie, and I love running, swimming, doing yoga, and muscle training. Above all, I love walking. When I was little, my dad and I used to take long walks through Toronto ravines, and I’ve kept the habit of doing these walks. On these walks, my mind works out all sorts of problems, particularly those related to writing.

So.

At the moment I’m managing to fit in karate practice twice a week, always in the afternoons, on no fixed day (this is in addition to two, formal evening classes). On other days, I go to the Yoga studio. I swim. I walk.

Yesterday, in one of Toronto’s ravines, I stopped walking and let loose some punches, for practice. Just a few moves: I was wearing my long, wool fall coat, probably the most expensive item I own (bought three years ago on Boxing Day), and I was nervous about tearing it. I was also embarrassed, and surreptitiously looked around the ravine to make sure that no one was looking. Would someone, seeing me, assume I was not in my right mind, someone who, in my husband’s words, was “reacting to internal stimuli?”

Then I remembered my old Sensei, Konzak Sensei, speaking about courage. “Are you a man, or a mouse?” he would ask. I’ve always amended this to “are you a woman, or a mouse?” (Yesterday, I was thrilled to come across this same aphorism in Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life.) So I kept throwing out punches. Then, noticing my shoes were caked in mud, I stopped punching and continued walking.

I’d love to hear from all of you—readers, mothers, karate-ka—about how you include exercise in your routine. And how you manage your numerous passions. In the meantime, I’m embracing something my friend and skillful career coach, Ayelet Magen, says. Balancing is like standing on one foot, she notes: you wobble, move from side to side as you struggle to stay upright.

 

 

 

 

 

Imagining Kata

Theoretically, there is always time for karate. In reality, this isn’t always the case. For the last few weeks, I’ve been sick (I’ve caught every virus the kids bring home from school, and other things on top of this). I decided to take a few days off karate to allow my body to rest.

Some time ago, I asked a wise friend and karate colleague who has a very demanding day job how he keeps up his karate practice. He told me that he doesn’t always have time to physically practice karate, but that he always has time to imagine karate. He suggested that I do the same.

The way to go about this is this: you close your eyes, pick a kata, and imagine each move sequentially. Don’t skip moves. Persevere until you reach the end of the kata. Initially—my friend warned—you’ll find that you get distracted from your task, that you can only complete two or three moves before your mind wanders.

No kidding.

I tried this technique months ago to overcome insomnia. I would pick a kata—for example, Ken Zaki Sho Dan—and I would close my eyes and try to picture the kata’s opening moves. I would get through the first few moves, and then I would start thinking of other things—say, whether I had brought in the stroller from the rain, or whether I was being too strict with my daughter when I made her finish her school lunch at snack time (I started imagining my children wracked by eating disorders—obviously I was being a terribly irresponsible mother).

If I was lucky, I would mentally get through the first five moves of the kata, right up until the last punch in the first series of blocks and punches. In my mind, that punch was strong. It was effective. It was like an exclamation point on the end of a sentence. The only problem was, I couldn’t get past that punch. I couldn’t imagine the turn that follows the punch.

I would try again. Again, my mind would tune out. Then, because I’m pigheaded, which occasionally has its uses, I would give it another shot.

I began to know the beginning moves of several katas extremely well. I could practically do them in my sleep. The problem was that the second half of several katas was missing. It became obvious that droves of imaginary attackers were succeeding in beating me up.

After several months, I’m getting better at my mental practice. Now, I can mentally practice a kata in its entirety. I can also picture increasingly complicated moves. For example, I can envision the double block of Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan. For a long time, I couldn’t do this.

I’ve noticed that being able to do kata mentally is correlated to my success at doing it physically. I’ve become better at effecting the double block of Ni Fan Shin Sho Dan because I’m now able to picture it. The converse is also true: if I can’t imagine a move, there is a strong likelihood that I can’t do it, either.

An interesting by-product of this practice is that I seem to have acquired a better working memory. I retain more stuff than I used to. This has improved both my ability to write (my descriptions are more accurate) and to navigate daily life (I can now retain street addresses, which means that when I’m our family’s designated navigator, I can do my job, which leads to less bickering with my husband, which, in turn, produces a calmer marital relationship—amazing, what mental karate practice can do)! I have no way of proving this correlation, of course, but I think it’s true.

So, here’s to imagining more and more complicated kata.

Beginnings, and Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan

Lately I’ve been jogging to a local city ravine, practicing karate, and jogging home. Yesterday, I had a hard time getting out there. We’re leaving on a trip and I had suitcases to pack and a house to clean. It was hard to justify karate practice. I reminded myself that beginnings are always hard, whether it’s practicing karate or playing with one’s children (don’t get me wrong: I love reading to them and doing sports and music with them, but getting down on the floor and playing dolls/action figures with them does not particularly interest me). I have found, however, that once you get past the starting phase in anything, it gets easier, and you start to have fun.

So I went on my jog, and I did some karate, and I started having fun. I practiced Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan kata, which we’re working on in the dojo. The following is some of what I’ve learned so far:

Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan

  • fully complete each down block. It should extend past the side of your body.
  • Make sure each strike is powerful, even when you speed up the kata
  • The forward-facing punch, which may or may not be called a “reverse fist punch” (there was some discussion in the dojo as to its proper name – comments on this are welcome), should come straight out and aim for one’s nose
  • When you bring your leg up to dodge an attack, make sure to bring it up high enough i.e. Your foot should go up to your knee (you’re avoiding a sword, and you probably want to avoid getting your foot chopped off)

I welcome comments from all your karate-ka out there. All the best, LB

Poem

On occasion, I’ll include poetry entries. Here’s the first:

Be soft in your practice. Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in its course. It will go its own way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight. It will take you.

 

Sheng-yen (b. 1931)