Wednesday, February 21, 2007

New Year, motivation

Last Sunday was the Chinese New Year. May you have an Auspicious Year of the Pig!

To celebrate, those of us in Sit's inner circle went out for a really bang-up lunch at Lucky Wok. We had steamed fish with ginger slaw, beef with broad noodles (a favorite which Sit has offered to teach me how to cook), tofu hot pot, and assorted other delicacies.

Kung-fu brother Matt was in town, and introduced us to his new girlfriend, Serena. She's petite, Chinese, and very pretty. Interestingly, she looks as much like him as a person of another race and gender could look.

As a result of knowing that a visit from Matt was imminent, I FINALLY finished the vinyl weapons-carrying case I started making for him almost a year ago. It's the third such case I've made, and it turned out quite handsome, black with white trim. He seemed pleased. I was just glad to have it out of my workspace and out of my life.

I've been feeling remarkably cheerful and motivated lately. After finishing the weapons case, I reclaimed several items in my wardrobe by doing some simple alterations. I've written a bit, although production is hampered by internet connection problems. My computer is seven years old, and browser compatibility is becoming increasingly difficult.

Meanwhile, the SP and I are gradually developing a lingo and a pattern for practicing together, in our home, as a married couple. This is more tricky than it may sound. For me, practicing in front of my husband is rather like performing certain grooming procedures in front of him--like waxing, or cleaning out your navel. There are just certain things one prefers to do in privacy, partly because it's so undignified and partly because you don't want your beloved to know you are less than perfect. But it's becoming rapidly obvious that if we want to do these things (practice tai chi, not clean out our navels), time and space constraints dictate that we do them in front of each other--or better yet, together. So we are making progress.


We had an unusually large class on Saturday, one of the biggest I've seen. We had twelve guests from the local "Communiversity" program, all adults. Some had previous experience with other teachers in the area. Personally, I hate that kind, because they come with these preconceived notions. Many of them are Sinophiles, and they tend to be gauche and fawning. Sit is pretty patient with them, but he does not suffer fools.

One guy was tall and gawky, like a scarecrow. Terrible posture (actually I was looking around at all the visitors that day, and they ALL had terrible posture. Whatever snotty remarks I make about our regulars, at least they've learned to stand up straight). Scarecrow-guy claimed he was a student of a particular grandmaster, when in fact he'd been to one of said master's workshops a few years back. He collared Sit after class and started asking him questions. I wasn't close enough to hear the conversation, but the tone was one I've heard many times. "Don't you think," the Sinophile will begin, and then spout off some simplistic statement about a half-understood fragment of Zen/martial arts/Buddhist philosophy that the Sinophile picked up from a Discovery Channel special, and call upon Sit to confirm it. And Sit will look at the poor slob in his politely incredulous way and say, "No!" with an undercurrent of Where the hell did you get that?

I saw Sit do a little demonstrating on the scarecrow, in the process of this conversation, with a great many exclamations of, "No--no!" thrown in. Later Sit told me and the SP he remembered the guy. "I remember his structure," Sit said. It was not a compliment.

Another visitor was a young woman around my age, a bit shorter than me, cornsilk blonde, rabbity-pink complexion. She seemed reasonably fit, but shapeless, and again with the poor posture. When Sit directed us to pair up, I did a few exercises with Rabbit-girl. Turned out she'd done a few years of kickboxing with one of the SP's old teachers, a guy we'll call DL.

DL took some lessons from Sit way back when. It was through DL that my SP found Sit. Both Sit and the SP speak highly of DL as a kickboxer and fighting instructor, but he is definitely not a tai chi guy.

Rabbitgirl was strong, and very tense. Every move she made was stiff and jumpy, and she had no grounding. I could have pushed her over rather easily, I think. She thought she knew the tai chi form, because she'd learned it from DL, but her postures were all wrong and there was no flexibility in her. Sit worked with her a bit after class, too, and adjusted her stances, tried to get her to relax. She told him she'd been with DL for four years and Sit said, "It doesn't matter how long you train, you got to have a good teacher or you never be good!"

Afterwards he came up to me and the SP and said, "What a waste of time!" which gave us a good snicker.

It's a double-edged superiority, however, because however much we may believe that Sit is the real deal and competency will come with time, both of us know we aren't there yet.

Since the class was so big, with so many guests, Sit switched over to workshop mode. He demonstrated a few of his standby maneuvers, the ones that usually impress people, then had us pair off and try them. Now, there's a curious aspect to these moves: beginners tend to have good luck with them, in part, I think, because they absolutely believe that they have just learned some fabulous Oriental secret and they have no reason to suppose it won't work. It's not until later, when Sit's breathing down your neck about peng and the mind and the body-turning that suddenly everything gets a lot more difficult, even when you know you've done it before.

The other reason these trick-moves tend to work for beginners is because they use leverage and momentum. So the novice whips her arm around hard and fast, and Wow! that really works!

Those of us who have been doing it longer know that you have, in fact, entirely missed the point by doing it hard and fast, but none of us (except occasionally the SP) can do it properly while moving slowly and softly, which is what Sit wants us to do. It's a very strange phenomenon, done properly: Sit can move you without you hardly being aware that you're being touched, much less moved. None of us are that skilled. And leverage and momentum will only take you so far: against a larger, stronger opponent, they won't work, particularly if that person has had martial arts training.

So I'm working with Rabbitgirl, who was pretty well matched to me in strength, and she could do these escapes using leverage and speed, but I can't yet do them correctly and I wouldn't do them incorrectly, so it probably appeared that I was very low-level. That was okay, I just did a couple other tricks I know, to save face. Even Sit will say, "If he very strong, and it won't work, do this." So I did. And Rabbit-face was duly impressed.

Still, I want to be able to do it correctly. I keep thinking that for as long as I've been doing this, I should be better at it, if only to represent my teacher well. Beyond that, I want to do it right. It's cool stuff, and it's fun, and potentially useful. That's why I took up tai chi in the first place; that's why I've kept with it.

So partly because of that, partly because of upcoming competition in March, and partly just 'cause it's the time of year when the days get longer and we all wake up from the winter slump, I am feeling motivated to practice. I have been practicing, doing basic Six Elbow drills down in the lunchroom at 2 o'clock and drawing strange looks of envy and contempt from the slobs at the vending machines. I have also been practicing in my head, going over the sequences of the Internal Form. I think I've finally got the first two-thirds of it memorized. I suck at it, but oh well.

This weekend, the SP dug out some old videos of Sit and former students doing demonstrations in various venues. At a guess, those videos were at least ten years old. I got to see demos of the old prodigal students, the legendary and apocryphal ones, including a couple I've mocked in this blog before. And you know what? They sucked, too. I'd estimate those guys were probably at the same level I'm at now, but they've stopped. They were bad in some of the same ways I am now, and in some totally different ways. And judging by what I've seen from their now-students, they've found whole new ways to be bad which I hope I never develop.

What was even more amazing was watching Sit do his form ten or twelve years ago. There are light-years of difference in his structure and movements between then and now. Of course he'll freely admit that he's changed things over the years; I can name some things he teaches differently now than he did when I first went to him. But overall he looks to me more efficient, more the embodiment of what he claims we should be striving for.

So if I start practicing now, how far can I expect to progress in ten years? It's kind of fatiguing to think I'll be forty-three, but hey, if I don't practice, I'll still be forty-three! And not nearly as slim or healthy. Now there's motivation for you.


Abby Franquemont said...

So my sensei when I was a teenager used to tell a story about a student who went to the master, saying, "If I train with you, how long do you think it'll take me to become a master?" And the master thought about it, and said, "10 years."

"Okay," said the student, "and what if I train twice as hard and work twice as hard?"

"20 years," the master replied.

I think about that any time I'm having an attitude with myself about how I should be better at something for how hard I'm trying.

Holly said...

Heh. Sit occasionally tells us not to practice too much, also. A little every day, is his motto. He says that after an hour your mind gets too bored and you get sloppy.

I try to remind myself, too, that learning is a strange, non-linear thing, particularly when you're doing complex systems involving mind and body. I never have been an every-day writer; at my most prolific I averaged maybe twenty days a month, but even after long periods of inactivity I come back to the writing with increased understanding. I estimate it took me about sixteen years to figure out how to tell a story; given the other similarities I've seen between writing and tai chi, I've got another ten years of tai chi before I approach comptency.

Holly said...

Sorry--overlooked something. Yes, I'm familiar with Kong Chi Wah's footage. And I know also that Sit choreographed the external forms he teaches from now. If I understand it correctly, the whole of Kong's tai hui was the internal form and the staff form. But Sit goes to pains to make this distinction; he refers to the external stuff as "kung fu" and most students never hear the term "tai hui" until they've graduated to indoor students.

In my mind, you see, taking parts of different forms and bastardizing them and calling them your own is akin to literary plagiarism, and is deeply offensive to me. If, on the other hand, you incorporate parts of different styles, but take care to give credit to those who taught you these things, that is appropriate and acceptable.

I don't know how Mike teaches. All I know is that you guys put up videos on YouTube and labelled them tai hui, when you have just admitted that they are not.

I did not say that Sit was the only one to know the system. What I meant to say was I thought he was the only one of Master Kong's students teaching in America. I think now there may be another in California, but I doubt it matters to anyone reading this blog.