Sunday, 31 January 2010

Number check

Very briefly, as there's nothing special to mention at the moment, here's the bodyweight numbers update for January.

I started the month at 13st (82.5KG) and ended it at 12st5lb (78.5KG) with a brief interlude where I was 12st3lb (77.5KG). That was the morning of the day of 'freedom' for January and the additional 2lb went on that day!

To break the diet for the day I started with a latte and two croissants, my tuna & rice lunch was supplemented with a bottle of coke zero and 4 choc chip muffins (£1 from Sainsbury's!) and I ate a lovely meat/veg noodle dish for dinner at Tyepyedong along with a beer. Later on I stopped off for a pint at the place near my house, bought a double decker from the corner shop with the last of my day's £20 budget, ate some more chocolate and a couple of cereal bars at home, then finished off the day with a couple of pieces of toasted pitta bread and some cheese. Lovely!

The following day I felt a little rough and when I did the workout DVD my legs hurt like hell during the hindu squats but thankfully I'm back to my version of normal now...

More interesting stuff next time. Promise.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Lazy entry: second-hand Q&A

I'm on the mailing list of a few websites and was just sent a questionnaire by a fellow member of one of them as my profile mentioned an interest in martial arts and he's doing some preliminary research for a project. I've removed the gumph about 'have you used your skills in a fight' because the answer is 'No', but the rest is a tidy version of what I sent him.

Q: What is your age and physical condition?
A: 37 years old; condition isn't bad, by which I mean I'm one of the fittest in my peer group but I am not now nor have ever been in what I would call 'athlete level' condition. Being single gives me an advantage: I don't have to devote time or energy to anyone else

Q: What is your level of interest in martial arts?
A: I've been training for over 17 years and I can't imagine life without it.

Q What arts do you practice? Why? Was it what's available or does it fit a particular need?
A: I currently only practice Taiji - I feel very lucky to have found the system I train in as it has a clear and direct lineage straight back to the Yang family.

Q What arts have you practised, and which did you start out in?
A: My first martial arts practice was approximately 3 months of karate at the age of 12. I stopped because the class moved to a new room in the sports hall - one with a wall of mirrors - and it became immediately obvious that I would never be able to manage the postures or kicks properly (I have problems with both hips, the left being more severe, for which I spent a couple of years on crutches as a kid). I also took ju-jitsu during my first year of University, then switched to ki aikido in my second year and stuck with that, off and on, for 10 years. I also took one or two introductory classes in kendo and in 2-3 variations of wing chun. In my late 20's I developed a fascination with bagua zhang and attended a 2-evening seminar lead by a pupil of B.K. Frantzis, who told me I needed to do some chi gung to 'open the energy gates' before studying bagua zhang properly. I enrolled in a qi gong class a month later and after a year of that I reached a plateau, which is when one of the other attendees recommended the Taiji class. I started the beginner's class and within 3 months had dropped the qi gong. Over the next year or so I allowed the ki aikido to tail off.

Q: If you switched arts, why? Was the first not what you were looking for, did you move and had to switch to what was available, etc?
A: I answered some of this above! I started the karate because like a lot of kids I felt small and weak and was afraid so I wanted to learn to fight. I started the ju-jitsu because, having watched a Steven Seagal film and seeing that a person could fight effectively using a 'throwing' art that didn't require hip flexibility I could never attain, it seemed like a good chance to finally do some 'real' practice. It was also one of the martial arts on offer at University. I switched from ju-jitsu to ki aikido after the first year because I was tired of feeling like I'd been beaten up twice a week by people who were unnecessarily rough in their practice. After a few years (basically after attaining my first black belt) the ki aikido got to be less and less satisfying: the head instructor wasn't learning from anyone better than himself and he wasn't doing much personal practice apart from general fitness work, so we were all heading down a dead end! It seemed to try to be spiritual and practical at the same time, thus watering down both aspects so much that neither was properly worked on. The senior students fell into two camps: those who followed the teacher unquestioningly, thus learning his skills and also taking on his insecurities and faults; and those who could see the faults and became more uncomfortable with the degradation of the quality of the practice. I was in the latter camp. The qi gong impressed me in the first class and within a month of practice I began to notice improvements in the aikido due to its influence. However, after a year I realised that even if I kept going for a much longer time I wouldn't derive much more from the practice as it wasn't focused or disciplined enough to encourage further development. Within a month of starting the Taiji class I found another noticeable improvement in the aikido and dropped the qi gong class entirely. Gradually, the depth of the taiji practice became clear, as did the benefits of practising a system with a clear lineage and a teacher who is still learning from an even better teacher himself.

Q: What is the level of intensity you practice? I.e. how many times a week, in a class, seminars, or solo training?
A: I attend 1-2 classes a week (2.5-4 hours), do 1-3 solo practice sessions of 20-60 minutes per week and attend weekend workshops and other seminars as they become available (and as work and money allow) so that can be 1 weekend workshop in a year or 2-3 weekends plus an 8-day seminar with the head of our system.

Q: What martial arts would you like to practice if you had time or they were available where you live? Why?
Q: There is a bagua zhang school nearby where I intend to participate in one of their monthly Saturday classes to get a better feel for the art and to see if the martial aspects are stimulating (the taiji is not martial at all even though the push-hands practice is an important part of the class so an occasional workshop where I can allow my ego free rein would be fun!)

Q: Do you study weapon arts? As an adjunct to an unarmed art, or as a weapon-based art (Escrima, Kobudo, Kendo/Kenjutsu, Western fencing etc)?
A: I used to work with bokken, jo and iaito as part of the aikido as we had to learn some weapons kata, including iaido kata and partner exercises, as part of the syllabus. The taiji practice does not include weapons as the taiji is not a fighting system and weapons are therefore irrelevant.

Q: What other sports or exercise do you practice, and how do you feel they relate to your martial arts practice?
A: I go cycling once or twice a week for cardiovascular fitness and have just started following a callisthenics workout DVD 2-3 times a week as the taiji and cycling don't work the upper body at all. The cycling and callisthenics (and swimming and hiking during the summer) give me cardiovascular fitness, endurance, strength (especially in the upper body) and definition that the Taiji doesn't. My Taiji skills are not yet good enough to allow Taiji to be my only training - hopefully that will come in 10-15 years.

Philosophical questions:

Q: Do you feel there is a philosophical/spiritual component to your martial art?
A: Yes, very much so.

Q: Could you describe it briefly?
A: It's a little difficult as the system is a true system of inner development. My teacher reminds us that the form is there only as the foundation - he says it is (as is all real taiji) simply 'a framework within which to engage with the process of change'. The practice begins with work on the body, gradually brings in work with the mind, and encourages work with the emotions. We are aiming for a 'higher state' which can be achieved through working on any of the three aspects deeply but which is better when all aspects are worked equally. We constantly aim to go deeper so the practice starts with the external choreography then moves through muscle state, forces within the body, then the energy in the body, all the while working on deepening the mind. Before all these stages are completed, talking about anything 'spiritual' is mere lip-service, and these stages take several years to work through.

Q: How does it relate to your understanding of Objectivism/libertarianism?
A: The ultimate aim of taiji is to aid the individual in their progress from physical to spiritual, from profane to divine. As you are working on yourself, constantly challenging yourself, building on your true strengths, eradicating weaknesses, aiming for perfection, the art truly is about freeing yourself from the constraints placed on you by the conditioning of your early life and the society you live in. Taiji is about freedom.

Q: Where in the four-five focuses of the Martial Arts does your interest lie? (More than one choice is OK.)
1) Self-defence/professional use of force
2) Tradition/physical art self-discipline
3) Spiritual/health
4) Sport/tournament
5) Demonstration
A: 3, 2, 1 in that order. 4 and 5 are superficial nonsense

Q: Is there anything you'd like to say about the place of martial arts in your life?
A: I can't imagine walking any other path.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

In defence of Robbie Williams

This is a riposte to a comment made about Robbie's latest and greatest BRIT award. The commentator said something like “Robbie Williams being given a lifetime achievement award? What is the world coming to!” Well, let's see.

First of all he's being given an 'Outstanding Contribution to British Music' award, not a 'Lifetime Achievement' award, so if you're going to take pot-shots at someone at least get your fucking facts right. Secondly, he is in fact a highly successful singer and recording artist who has had a career in pop music since he first appeared with Take That in 1990 at the age of 16 . That's nearly 20 years of making a good living and constantly working at what he does, which is much more than can be said for the purveyors of rampant mediocrity that are wheeled in front of the masses on hideous reality television shows like X-factor. I had the severe misfortune to catch about 30 seconds of one episode of the last series and witnessed the Jedward twins ruin an already bland Wham song with a display of ineptitude that would have had them booed off the mic at a karaoke party in Butlins.

Now, I'm aware that not every participant in talent shows is a useless wannabe with delusions of competence and there are some people who do deserve the attention they get - if you sieve through enough turds you will eventually find a diamond so by sheer weight of numbers you're going to get someone who can actually perform. Shows like X-factor are only superficially there to find that diamond, polish it and let the faceless herd enjoy the fact that their favourite won the competition. The existence of these shows is really a combination of other factors, the most important being that they're basically very cheap soap operas. They appeal to the same crowd for the same reason: the audience get wrapped up in the emotional 'journey' of the participants and it is that emotional connection that keeps people's attention, not the talent of the performers. In the case of the Jedward boys (and probably many others who I've never heard of as I'd rather make a sock-monkey out of my foreskin than watch that drivel) it was clearly the rather limp British version of under-dog worship that got them so far.

The Japanese love an under-dog too: the strength of will to keep going in the face of insurmountable odds is an attribute to be admired even if the protagonist loses the 'battle'. In the UK it's more of a voyeuristic schadenfreude where the public likes to see someone who's useless so they can point and laugh at the competitor, applaud in patronising fashion when the talentless turd fails, and sit back smugly thinking that they (the audience member) could probably have done better if only they had been bothered to try. It's typically British to want to drag down successful people – look at just about any tabloid newspaper article for evidence of this – as it's much easier to take a bite out of someone else than it is to face your own insecurities, get off your backside and make a fucking effort to do something good.

But I digress. Rather than allowing the 'does he deserve the award' argument to be made on the fan/detractor level of “I like his music so he does deserve it” versus “I don't like it so he doesn't”, let's take a look at a few facts.

Robbie started in Take That in 1990 at the age of 16. With Take That he shared the success of 3 BRIT awards (they won a fourth for a song recorded when he was in the band but he'd left by then) and record sales of over 19 million. Since going solo he's won another 10 BRIT awards (not including the OCBM which gives him a record-breaking total 15), six ECHO awards (another record) and many others from the UK as well as France, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands, Mexico, Hong Kong and other places.

His first solo single was a cover of George Michael's 'Freedom' which charted at number 2, twenty-six places higher than the original, and his first album went double-platinum. Since then all of his albums have been multi-platinum selling and his total album sales to date are over 55 million. He's had more number one albums in the UK charts than any other British artist, which makes him the best selling British artist in history, and when tickets were released for his 2006 tour he set a world record by selling 1.6 million tickets on the first day. His most recent record was set last year when his BBC Electric Proms gig was broadcast to 250 cinemas in 23 countries, netting him the world record for simultaneous screenings of a live concert. It was also transmitted live to various radio stations around the world for an estimated total audience of 33 million people.

Any negative comments will simply be someone's opinion of his music, not his achievements, or more insipidly their opinion of his character, looks, sexuality, or any other nonsense which doesn't actually bear any relation to his work. Is there anyone who deserves this award more than him but hasn't yet won it? Maybe, but if so they'll get it next year so no-one's actually lost anything.

Does he deserve the award? Yes, he does. It doesn't matter if you like it, if you like his music, or if you like him as a person; he's done the work, he deserves the reward.

Robbie Williams
A British success story
Fucking deal with it

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Twin town: Auburnville

Lee just popped in for a visit as he was in town anyway and of course a lot of our conversation was about writing, mainly his - see "Explore Auburnville" for more information and to sample the writing yourself. Something he said triggered a memory and I showed him a couple of pieces of flash fiction I'd written ages ago but with which I'd done nothing. He liked them and, quoting the phrase "Don't apologise for your work", suggested I put them on my blog rather than leaving them hidden on my laptop. So, here they are.

Setting Sun
The Sun was just starting to set, so he took the pan off the stove and turned off the heat. The trick was to get the Sun right – after that everything else would fall into place. The last batch was so half-baked one of the planets developed an infestation that eventually destroyed the whole system. Such a waste of a Sunday afternoon. He put the pan on on the ledge of an open window and smiled as he watched the explosions gradually building into chains of fusion reactions. Yes, you had to get the Sun right.

The Punch
This would teach him – nobody spoke to me like that and got away with it. I could feel muscles tensing in chains starting at my feet and rising through my body, building power that would erupt through my fist and smash that smug grin of his right through the back of his head. My eyes closed involuntarily in preparation for the impact which, after an eternity of waiting, simply never came. I opened my eyes to see ... nothing. Just as his bunched fist crashed into my now exposed ribs I realised what had happened. He'd ducked.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Don't trust the numbers...

So here we are again: same shit, different decade. As before I've jumped into the New Year by embarking on a strict diet that gets more restrictive but slightly easier to cope with each year. As well as the usual avoidance of anything milk-based or containing sugar, wheat, yeast, alcohol or caffeine, I've also added fizzy drinks to this year's 'banned' list. That's because last year I ended up drinking lots of caffeine-free diet coke as it was a 'naughty' item that I was actually allowed. Daft. And as before I have a lofty list of goals to achieve this year but this time I'm more sure of what I can realistically achieve so although there's a lot to attend to (of that, more later) I'm aiming for targets that will stretch me without going too far.

For whatever reason, the diet is easier this year. I suspect this may be a combination of several things including: a more positive attitude to this year as a whole, deliberately getting more sleep so I'm properly rested (and of course you don't feel hungry when you're sleeping), and the simple fact that I did something very similar last year so there are no surprises this time around. I weighed myself on January 1st: 13 stone exactly (83KG) and again on January 11th: 12 stone 7 pounds (80KG). As I've done less exercise than expected (no cycling due to the bad weather) and have therefore only been doing the "15 Minute Hell" calisthenics workout twice a week as well as attending Taiji classes twice a week, I suspect 6 of those 7 'lost' pounds were just junk food working its way out of my system and there's only been 1 pound of actual fat lost. That means the weight loss ought to slow right down now and be a more gradual pound per week or thereabouts. If I hit the target of being under 12 stone by June that'll be a good boost.

So, when the ground is properly free of ice and therefore safe to cycle on again, the aim is to build up to the following weekly schedule by mid-February and then just increase the intensity and/or duration of each activity:

2 Taiji classes plus 2-3 personal practice sessions of 20+ minutes
2-3 calisthenics workouts
1 bike ride of 60+ minutes
Stretch after every workout (ideally aiming to be able to sit cross-legged comfortably)
Maintain diet, apart from 1 day a month of complete 'freedom'

Languages: 2+ hours of learning/practice each week (In descending order that will be French, Greek, Mandarin, Japanese. The Mandarin & Japanese will cross over with Kanji practice) and yes I am allowing a cheat: watching a foreign-language film will count as one of those two hours.
Writing: add more to this blog and see what else I can do in terms of articles/essays.
Handwriting: work on my usual handwriting and also learn/practice more kanji
Reading: continue working through book list.
Technology: Make further progress with Apple software, learn to touch-type.

Emotional: use Sufi "evoke/observe/analyse" work as learned at Taiji.

Right, that's enough lofty ponciness for one blog entry. So far I've lost more weight than expected, kept up around 2/3 of the physical stuff, some of the intellectual and some of the emotional. I'll update progress as the year goes by. Finally, I REALLY need to get a new job so I can afford to start paying off my credit cards. I have a 3-month window in which to do this before the money situation gets very serious...