But Still. I’m So Sorry.

I read something the other day about anticipatory grief, and how globally we are all mourning present and future loss. Not just the lost lives, the covid dead, but things, and events, and traditions.

This Grown and Flown article encompasses the pain us parents are feeling all around the world. There is so much we are sorry to see – the missed graduations, matric dances, and big matches. At least my son is little and hopefully won’t be too affected by everything we are going through. All he has had to endure so far is a birthday in lockdown, and frazzled parents who are trying their best but can’t get it right or together every day.

Dojo life has been put on hold, for who knows how long. In South Africa, we are unlikely to be allowed to operate until maybe level 1, and even then, only under very stringent conditions. And I respect this, and applaud the efforts made by our government to try keep us all safe. The dojo, unfortunately, is the kind of place the ‘Rona would love. Lots of communal surfaces, physical interaction, shouting and hugs after class. Keeping students safe, and alive, comes before any grading or kata.

But still. I am sorry.

I am sorry, for the gradings that will have to be changed and taken online, all the thrill and pressure gone. I am sorry for the students hoping to grade to black belt, who were hoping to make this coveted grade after so, so many years.

I am sorry that you can’t be with your dojo mates, with the friends you’ve made over the years and shared memories and snacks and gradings with. For adults, the friends you’ve made at the dojo are ones you’ve bonded with in sweat and self-conscious laughter and shared gashuku adventures. They’re people that you might only see in the dojo, but damn if you don’t miss them when they’re not there.

I’m sorry, for all the cancelled events. The tournaments, the trials, the gashukus. The Olympic dream, that so many have dreamed of, karate’s one shot at gold medal glory, has been deferred. It doesn’t matter, in this moment, whether sport karate is the same as traditional; what matters is that so many athletes have been training for so long, and they have been robbed of their time to shine.

I am sorry for all the instructors who will have to close their dojo doors. I am sorry for all those lost pockets of martial arts, regardless of style. It is heartbreaking to see instructors lose their day jobs, and/or their dojo too. I am sorry for the students who will lose access to the benefits of martial arts, to the mentorship of a good instructor and the proving ground that is the mat.

There is so much we have already lost, and it has been less than six months. With more than 200,000 dead and waves of trauma rippling across the planet as economies tank and livelihoods are lost, we are all living through collective turbulence with no frame of reference for how we should handle it.

What gives me hope, though, is that the men who gave us karate lived through the horror of world war, and Okinawa was an especially brutal theatre of war.

Because of the Battle of Okinawa, a great number of very talented karate instructors and students were killed. Miyagi Sensei himself lost three children (his third and fourth daughters, and his third son). The neighbourhood had been reduced to scorched earth, and all the valuable Karate and Kenpo equipment and literature that had been collected over the years was lost in the fires. It was a time of overwhelming grief and mourning.

Okinawan Den Goju Ryu Karate-Do, Eii’chi Miyazato, 1978

Miyagi buried his children and his most promising student, Jinan Shinzato. He lost his home, his dojo, his collected works. And yet. He returned to the work of karate, continued to teach and realised that for karate to survive and be of use, it had to be shared. And now, more than 60 years since his passing, his style still continues, all over the world, across dozens of countries and languages.

There will be losses. There have already been losses. But I also have seen a wellspring of hope, and a resilience shining through. We can get through this, but not alone. Instructors must now rely on more than just good karate knowledge – we need to be creative, resilient, humble and patient. We need to find new ways to teach, and flex our different skill sets, and hold on with our entire spirit, even if it’s just by our fingernails, we must hold on.

Karate has survived two world wars, Spanish flu, numerous recessions and the worst McDojos in the world. It will survive this. I’m not worried about karate – I am worried about you. The student. The instructor. The dojo parent. Wherever you land in the constellation of people that make up a dojo, I worry. I hope you are okay. I hope you have your health and your livelihood.

We will do everything we can to make sure we are still here when this blows over. From hardcore social distancing to extra work to online classes, we will do our best to make sure that Goju Ryu Karate Centre does not close its doors after 42 years.

We are sorry that so much is going on, and we can’t fix it. But we will do everything we can to still be here when it is over, and try pick up again where we all left off, ready to welcome our students back to the tatami.

When your body gets tired, fight with your heart, and remember who you are.

Courage in Karate: The Role of Vulnerability

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

We so often take it for granted, as instructors, as seniors, what it takes for our students to keep returning to the mat. We have long forgotten that once upon a time, stepping onto the tatami required great courage. While seniors tend to suffer from Imposter Syndrome, our juniors and new students still face fears we have since forgotten.

In her work on shame and vulnerability, Brene Brown talks about how vulnerability, the willingness to try despite not having all the answers, enduring the risk of emotional, physical and mental exposure, is the driving force behind courage and growth.

“The willingness to show up changes us, It makes us a little braver each time.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

How vulnerable the new student is – all these new faces, this towering presence of a Sensei, these older kids who know what to do. All the rituals that have to be followed that make no sense. Why the bowing? Why can’t I wear socks in the winter? Why is everyone shouting this weird word all the time?

I think we forget so often that it takes great bravery to join a dojo. To learn something utterly foreign in so many ways, and to stick it out day after day after day. We so often forget to praise this, the consistency of showing up. The bravery of putting on mitts and sparring. The harsh spotlight of performing a kata alone. And to do it all as a tiny kid, or an adult who has forgotten what it takes to learn something new.

Perhaps one of the most important ways we can support our students and not lose them is to celebrate this daily bravery. To recognise that they are putting themselves out there, willing to learn and so terrified of failure or humiliation. I’ve been on the mat so long and so often that I’ve forgotten that once upon a time, every single move was difficult. I was not born with great natural talent, but sheer bloody-minded dedication got me to where I am today. It is important that we remind ourselves of how far we’ve come, and to not expect the same of our fledgling students. I know that it is not my place or journey to find the next Miyagi. But what I want to do, as an instructor-in-training and hopefully as an instructor one day, is to help others find their authentic selves through karate. To help them find a new confidence, a place to belong, and develop personal strength and integrity. In the modern world, karate is still a valuable tool for self-discovery and self-improvement. To treat karate as an instant answer to self-defence problems is short-sighted, and parents who think it’ll magically cure all behaviour issues without input from their side are wasting their money. It is a great sadness that many parents expect their kids to pick karate up instantly, not knowing how difficult it actually is. They fail to acknowledge this, and in so doing make their kids feel inadequate.

The most important thing we can encourage in our students is bravery. Bravery will take them far in all they do. It will help them take risks and endure difficult things. That bravery comes from vulnerability, and as teachers, it is our place to celebrate and support that immense act of courage. 

“Wholeheartedness. There are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness; facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

For more on vulnerability: 

Paulo Coelho and Book Piracy

This week the Guardian covered Coelho’s impassioned plea to his fans to pirate his books. He argues, and rather well, that people who might not have bought hard copies did so after reading pirated chapters. His sales are remarkably high; The Alchemist alone sold 12 million copies. The piracy leak sent his sales skyrocketing, so it is understandable that he would be an advocate of book piracy.

It is difficult to measure the effect of piracy on any medium. This blog post at Freakonomics suggests that the actual cost of piracy might be very low, since those who are pirating probably can’t afford the product anyway. Removing piracy won’t solve the problem of financial difficulty. We can’t really work out how book piracy affects sales, and since people have been sharing books for years the damage may be neglible. I do feel that putting digital rights management (DRM) on books will do for books what it did for music: cause a further rippling of piracy. After all, that’s one of my major gripes with the Kindle: those books would not be mine and can be revoked or deleted remotely. This has happened already with 1984.

I’m a passionate believer in the freedom of information, as I’ve shared before, but I would be unforgivably naive if I assumed piracy wasn’t having an impact somewhere. Everyone pirates, intentionally or not. But to counter Coelho’s argument, some people are happy to read thousands of lines on a screen rather than shell out for a book. Again, if they can’t afford the book then the publisher won’t be making money anyway. But I am willing to bet this blog and my signed copy of The Night Circus that there a great number of people who are quite happy to get digital versions of a book and never buy the hard copy. Geeks are particularly comfortable with just not paying for media. Most of the ones I know are in an income bracket where they can afford nice things, but would rather not buy them. This attitude has done some serious damage to the manga and anime  industry in the West. The closure of Tokyo Pop USA is a prime example. Here’s ten more companies that have closed down. Don’t forget about Bandai. Why buy an issue of Bleach or Naruto for R100 upwards when it can found freely on the net? Anime episodes proliferate as long as people are willing to translate and host them. But the problem lies here: the same market that reads/watches manga/anime is nearly entirely made up of people with access to torrents. Unlike TV series and movies, watched by a broader demographic who might not know how to download a folder, geekier things tend to be watched by the geeky. And the geeky often do not like to pay for things they can take.

It seems like a terrible thing to say, but consider who keeps the terabyte drives full of shows and documentaries and audio books. Its not the average parent, and its not the average yuppie. In a Venn diagram these groups might overlap but sadly the same generation howling for the freedom of information is doing some damage to the companies that need their support. I know I said earlier that we can’t always measure the effects of piracy, but we can at least see some evidence that a lack of buying interest is harmful.

Which brings me back to books. Sure, Sir Terry Pratchett has sold tens of millions of books and likely gets royalties from reproductions of his work. I am willing to bet that he is one of the most pirated authors on the planet because I am yet to meet a geek that isn’t a fan. But how many people have bought his books because they wanted to have it to hand? How many of them are content to load pirated pdfs onto their tablets and read that way? We don’t know. We can’t know.

The book industry is in the middle of either death throes or rebirth, depending on who one asks. Some say that self-epublishing is a ponzi scheme about to crash; some say that eBooks will rule the world. Some say that hard copies will always triumph and others will argue that bookstores will be defunct within five years. Already many of them are being treated as displays for online stores, and the closure of two decent book stores in SA so far in 2012 is not heartening. Kindle sales were up 175% from 2010, this past Christmas season. With the massive complexity of this industry, which is different in each country, we can’t really measure the effect of piracy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it, especially when there seems to be so much on the line.

Margaret Atwood on Writing and Publishing

In this article about her book Negotiating With the Dead, Margaret Atwood best describes how very difficult the publishing game can be.

Even if we avoid signing promissory notes, there are many pitfalls. There is, for instance, the publishing system, and its growing domination by the bottom-line bean-counters. “We don’t sell books,” one publisher said, “we sell solutions to marketing problems.” We’ve all heard the story about the writer whose first novel hasn’t done well, and who then presents a second one. “If only this were a first novel,” sighs the agent. “Then I might be able to sell it.” Moral: a publisher will gamble, but – increasingly – only once. Gone are the days – when were those days anyway? – when a Maxwell Perkins-like publisher2 might support a writer through two or three or four financial failures, waiting for the big breakthrough. Nowadays,

He who writes, and makes it pay,
Will live to write another day.

This isn’t news to someone like me, and it may seem incongruous considering how many absolutely terrible books get published. As my dear mentor Molly Burkhart told me once, getting published doesn’t provide all the answers, and it doesn’t put the demons to rest. It is a gate-keeping industry, understandably concerned with its profit margins but nearly always to the detriment of most authors. I’ve discussed before how the industry is anti-gay and subtly racist, and perhaps this is why self-publishing (especially through Amazon) has become the biggest threat to the industry as it stands. While I have my issues with Amazon, I also have them with the publishing industry, and the latter could stand to be revised a great deal.

Or perhaps, as I’ve lamented in this post, maybe its just the readers we have to blame. After all, aren’t they the ones who dictate to the market, and therefore the authors? Your thoughts?

Publisher on Author Crime

Because I’m almost permanently wired into the world of books, publishing and writing, I am coming across more and more stories of writers being malaligned by their publishers. More writers being strong-armed into ridiculous contracts and made to feel grateful for it. It is ridiculously competitive and based less on quality as marketability. As Sarah A. Hoyt mentions on her blog here,

In fact, if your book had been completely blank, or a compilation of nursery rhymes, it would have got exactly the same distribution and sales as it got with your words in it. You didn’t choose the cover. You didn’t choose the price. You didn’t choose the push. You didn’t choose the distribution.

More importantly and more than likely, the person who chose these things chose them NOT based on the book – which they might or might not have read – but on YOU and their perceived marketability of YOU. (And let me tell you, as a reader, that’s many shades of wrong.)

Most people don’t know your book even exists, and therefore they can’t ask for it. And if they do, they might get told it can’t be ordered.

(The whole post is fascinating, and an excellent shorthand for what’s wrong with publishing in general.)

Then there are the authors I spoke about in my post on the opening Amazon’s publishing branch. Add to this the story of Doranna Durgin, who is being forced to buy ALL of her books in the warehouse if she wants the rights back.

What’s going on here? Without authors there is NO publishing industry, and yet most of them end up languishing in the mid-lists forever despite being brilliant. This attitude seems a little self-defeating in the face of what might be the death spiral of publishing as we know it. I usually read mid-list titles as those are the ones that proof copies are provided for, and more often than not it is far superior to the majority of the top-list crap. I mean, credit due where it is, but James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer and Danielle Steel don’t produce great literature. (See their ranking on Forbes in my post here.) I’ve beaten that poor horse to death in the previously mentioned post, so for now I’d like to deal with how authors are being conned and guilted.

The best examples of the pitfalls of the publishing industry are made clear on the Writers Beware page. There are impossible clauses buried in the contracts offered by the major houses, more commonly in the littler houses trying to entrap good authors. So many people are desperate to get published that there are numerous vultures waiting to feed on their desire without giving them the credit they deserve. People who ask for a small ‘consulting’ or ‘reading’ fee and who promise to get the book published. Agents who swear they know the right people and charge either a consulting fee or demand 30 printed manuscripts. Usually the author pays the fee rather than the printing cost. Luckily my fingers were saved from some burning thanks to published author sisters and dear friends, Molly and Joely Burkhart, who warned me that no author pays upfront to get their book published. Agents and publishers take the fee off sales, never off the author directly.

Which is why book piracy makes me sad. The author is already making so little (3-8% of the cover price), it just seems cruel to snatch even that from them after all their hard work. I once read a pirated copy and felt so terrible that I have long since stopped the habit. (Also, the quality is just so bloody awful.) The only free books I take now are proof copies from book reps and from Project Gutenberg. And the more I read about how publishers treat any author that isn’t a mega-star, the less enamoured I grow of the industry. So, follow the buzz (right here, of course) and support the authors that write fresh, bright fiction so that one day the Forbes Top Ten doesn’t read like a litany of mediocrity.

For further insights into publishing from a self-proclaimed Penmonkey who made it and writes about it, visit these posts from Chuck Wendig at Terribleminds.com

Toxic Tempers and Fevered Egos in Publishing

Writers are the 99%

(His site is truly a treasure trove of insight and coffee-snorting humour, and he deserves his success as a writer.)  

If every journey begins with a single step…

…then each blog must begin with a single word.

Welcome to my second attempt at blogging. Those in the know will remember the emo-fest that was my undergrad blog, Admiral Adventures. In an attempt to reestablish myself as a serious writer, it is time to reinvent and try again.

What can this blog offer you? Perhaps clearer insight into my screaming left-wing ways, or why I keep going back to the dojo despite sucking so massively at both Aikido and Goju Ryu.

There will be stories of hope! Redemption! Failed recipes and the laughter they bring! But mostly, the posts will be glimpses into my somewhat unusual and sometimes quite ordinary life. I don’t expect a massive cult following, but if you want to stay, you are always welcome, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you.

Welcome to the Dojo.