Karate in the Age of Instagram

In my usual forays around the internet today, I came across this article about how Lush UK is abandoning social media. Their reason?

“Increasingly, social media is making it harder and harder for us to talk to each other directly,” the post read. “We are tired of fighting with algorithms, and we do not want to pay to appear in your newsfeed. So we’ve decided it’s time to bid farewell to some of our social channels and open up the conversation between you and us instead.⁣”

And honestly, this is refreshing to see. If a big brand like Lush is tired of fighting with the monsters that own Facebook and Instagram, then it doesn’t feel quite so bad to be a small dojo swimming against the algorithms all the time.

I worked as a social media manager in my past life, before I ran away from corporate to become an instructor, and it was a constant battle of shiny, happy updates and vapid copy, my English degrees weeping on the wall while I used hashtags and SEO-friendly babble to sell books, or book launches. To this day, I still cannot abide hashtags, which are an abomination unto the flow of language and conversation.  Seeing them anywhere other than on a phone keypad and Twitter, where they started their rise, and where they should stay, gives me hives on the inside of my skull. Billboards, whatsapp chats with friends and family, cheesy t-shirts from Mr Price – I barf in my scorn.

But, if you want to play the social media game, you have to play by the rules, and that means hashtags if you want your post to be discovered. And so, on Instagram, I dutifully put in the hashtags, even if it feels like I’m trading parts of my soul for it.  And there’s nothing worse than one line of copy, and a paragraph of hashtags, and that’s one of the reasons why our dojo instagram account doesn’t have 10,000 followers.

Of course, I could just buy followers – it is easy enough, and costs less than one expects.  Risky, though.  And predictably, that article goes on to piously state:

Take the time, energy, and money that you would’ve dedicated to buying followers, and focus instead on building genuine relationships with a real audience. If your content is engaging and authentic, your loyal followers will spread the word and engage with your brand without needing any bribes.

Aye, there’s the rub. In a longer post. I’ve written about the day-to-day schedule a Sensei might have, but to paraphrase here: when you are running a business, it takes up the whole day when you’re doing it with all your heart.  But on social media, no one can see your hard work. By its very nature, it demands that everything is effortlessly beautiful. All is glamorous and charming, all the time.

But by karate’s nature, and that of any martial art, it’s definitely not glamorous. This isn’t yachting in the Bahamas. There are hours and hours of slog – of cleaning and administrating. Of drills done in the morning, when the dojo is quiet and it’s the only chance I have to train.  No one wants to see that. Up and down, repetition after repetition. Who cares? Only me, and definitely not Facebook.

And what about the complications of posting about my students? Sharenting is the new term for when parents overshare about their children online, and there are concerns about the creeps who hang around, looking for information and pictures about kids. Also, there are those who take it to extremes, like the Kardashians:

Last week, it was alleged that American celebrities Kim Zolciak-Biermann and Kim Kardashian (both of whom regularly post pictures of their children on the internet) appeared to have… enhanced recent photos of their daughters, aged four and five. Their stomachs had been slimmed, their skin had been smoothed, and it was claimed (by gotcha account @Celebface) that Zolciak-Biermann had changed the shape of her daughter’s nose, and lifted her buttocks.

Classy.

Now, I teach a lot of really super cute kids, who look adorable in their karate suits. Do I post pictures of them posing to shore up my dojo ‘brand’? Absolutely not.  I don’t even post pictures of my own child online, because I don’t like the idea of any of those tech giants having any more say or information on my life than they already have. I am especially strict about others posting about him online. Why would I then have separate rules for my students?

As it is, I post only pictures of the top or backs of their heads – no faces, no tags, and no identifying markers.  Instagram, and its users, obviously don’t swoon over this kind of content. It’s safe, and boring. Nothing cute about the back of someone’s little head.

There are also legal issues around privacy and photography – this is the South African law around it, and worth noting is this:

You have the right to take photos of anyone or anything if it can be seen from a public area. This includes parks, city streets and sporting events or concerts. This also allows for any private property or buildings to be shot from within the public domain. Any person and member of the public is basically wavering their right to anonymity or privacy by appearing in these areas and are therefore fair subject matter for images.

This makes it interesting when you are dealing with parents taking photos of kids. It may be important to have a conversation about not sharing photos with other people’s kids in them, unless you stick an emoji over their face, as some people do. (Which is weird, but better than blurring their faces so that it looks like a documentary.)  Here are some good guidelines about posting pics, and overall, my rule of thumb is that I try not to post standalone pictures of kids, and these days, only group photos, at a distance, where the faces are small and no one is tagged.

All of this is even before we have a wider conversation about social media and its inherent problems, like how it is linked to the exacerbation of mental health issues in teens, or how it favours right-wing parties. Is this even something we want to be a part of?

Overall, it is just easier to avoid all of this nonsense and risk, and unsubscribe from the unrelenting demands of social media, and especially Instagram. I know its 2019, and everyone, including their pug, is expected to have a social account, and a following.  There’s even the careful monetisation of parenting, with moms (90% of the time, its moms) sharing how ‘exhausting’ parenting is, yet they have the time to make those damn cutesy letterboards with funny quotes and have perfect hair, and still be influencers getting paid that sweet dollar dollar for their twee posting. Parenting isn’t anything like that, and yet its now the new norm.

It all feels hollow, and pointless, and so antithetical to what a dojo is all about that it seems cheapening and soul-destroying to play the likes game. Because that’s all it boils down to: more likes = better, and how can I compete with someone who spends hours upon hours cultivating a careful artifice to attract those tasty likes?  And why should we be forced to compete?

It is important that students are not taught that their looks and image are more important than what they do. There is far more value to the qualitative life than the quantitative one, and social media actively promotes the worst in all of us. What message do we send kids when we post only their best, or use their tempers and failures as funny posts to get likes and comments?  Karate is about long-term goals, the daily work of attending class and practicing. It is the integrity to work when no one is watching, to do the lonely, simple work that progress requires. It is also important that students are taught not to value someone’s training based on their posts. Some people will post literally every time they put their gi on, but that’s no indication of how hard they work, and what kind of person they are on the mat. Social media is the opposite of the simple life called for in the dojo kun, and while it might help us promote our dojos to passing customers, it can easily distract us from what is important: teaching good karate and values.

I would much, much rather take the time to send photos I take of the kids in the dojo directly to their parents, so that they can enjoy seeing their kids’ progress. Especially for the parents who work full time and can’t come watch their kid train. I think that is a much better investment of my time than choosing hashtags.

A Day in the Life of a Sensei

Morning:
“Ah! What a beautiful day! I think I’ll go and train and -”
*phone starts vibrating*

And then pour in the Whatsapps.

What time is the grading next week? When are the dojo shirts arriving? Suzy Q has gymnastics/maths/chess trials today and will miss karate later. My account looks wrong – are you sure you can add properly? Have you spoken to my child yet about the bullying at school? What time is the training seminar? I know its for black belts, but maybe my kid can come anyway? Is it holiday hours yet? What’s happening with the tournament? Any chance you could do private classes, but for like, free?

Ping, ping, ping. Then various whatsapp groups for parents and students start blowing up because someone shared something utterly idiotic they saw on Facebook, which is usually kind of racist and awkward. Apologies are made, rebukes issued and with a sigh, the phone is set aside for the moment.

Day adequately derailed, the Sensei decides to check in on email, sees four million emails regarding team selections, federation meetings, gashuku arrangements and offers from shady martial arts gear companies promising good prices. There’s an email chain with far too many people CC’d in, and some people still haven’t learned basic email etiquette despite being old enough to pay tax. There isn’t enough coffee to deal with this inbox right now, so the Sensei decides to catch up on old school paperwork.

But where to start? Updating the student database? Filing the medical info cards? Sending out accounts? Then chasing accounts that remain unpaid for no clear reason? There’s newsletters to be printed, grading certificates to be signed, testimonial letters to be written. There’s events to organise, forms to collate, merchandise to be ordered, and and and and and — oh god, is that a sneeze, but I got my flu vaccination and and and —

Well, at least, that’s how it feels.

Every dojo is different. Every dojo has its own challenges and offerings. The bigger the dojo, the greater the admin. Some instructors have to work full time jobs and then still teach at night. Those of us who are lucky enough to do it on a full-time basis sometimes miss out on the normal things other people take for granted. Weekends, for example. Some of us are studying, working and teaching. I’ve juggled a counselling course, freelance writing and teaching this year. I know instructors who work at schools, hopping from one to the other, driving all day. Some are just trying to get a foot in the door, just starting out in a tiny dojo with no equipment but with so much heart and passion that they don’t charge a fee that’s fair to them as well. The starving artist trope extends to martial artists as well, as unfair and unnecessary as it is.

And it can be a good kind of busy, when you’re doing it right, and for the right kind of reasons. I love being a daywalker – my day is flexible, until roughly 3pm, when it’s time to prep for class, have that last cup of coffee (and a chocolate) and then teach for four to five hours. I sleep in a bit (because I hate mornings) and at least when I do admin at my desk, no one can tell me that a unicorn onesie is inappropriate workwear.

Of course it’s stressful – we are always worrying about litigious parents, bills, this student’s progress, that one’s troubles at home. We try to keep our qualifications current, and pay huge money to go train with our seniors to keep our skills honed. Never mind the cost of a grading in whichever home dojo we belong to overseas, which can easily cost a couple hundred dollars a pop, just for the certification. Never mind the plane trip and somewhere to sleep that isn’t a bench.

A Sensei is so many things – janitor, nurse, counsellor, accountant, career guidance coach, wailing wall, mentor, caterer, event manager, teacher and role model. Even when we don’t want to be, we are always in a gi. We are always aware of our actions, for the smallest misconstrued comment can blow up, and any lapse in judgement can bring the mobs down upon our dojo. Whatsapp statuses must be carefully written, personal Facebook posts reconsidered. It becomes a habit after a while, this careful self-policing, but there are days when I really would like to use that sweary image as my whatsapp avatar.

Our students often look to us for a good example, and there are days when I sometimes lie on the couch and see if I can catch popcorn with my mouth forty times in a row, and I’ll do this for an hour. I’m not always the shining example of adulthood that my students perceive me to be (although I’m not sure anyone is).

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But when the kids come barrelling into the dojo, so excited to train and be on the mat, shouting over each other and basically carrying on like labrador puppies on a sugar high, it all melts away. The drama, the politics, the admin, the fears, the anxieties. I could be in the blackest, foulest mood, (and I often am when I am hangry around 3pm) but the minute they arrive, it all makes sense.  

It’s amazing, when you think about all the things an instructor has to do, just to be able keep teaching your little one how to do a face block. After all, that which gives light must endure burning, and everything I do is for the students, because without them then I really am just a karate bum.

So, please be patient with us when we don’t respond to your text at 11:30pm about something that really could wait until tomorrow morning. It might seem like we have easy lives, because “you only teach for four hours”, but there are mountains and mountains of invisible work that go into what we do, and yes, we do lie awake at night and worry about our students too.

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Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

So, it is Boeke and Booker season, and since I do try to stay au fait with what mainstream Western literature is being name-dropped, I petulantly demanded a copy of Unlikely Pilgrimage because it was nominated for the Booker and likewise was the darling of many store managers. While most of the time I believe that no one else has my taste in books, (so much solipsism) I am always curious as to why a particular book generates its own press through the love of readers rather than the marketing machines of publishers.

When one considers the sheer number of books published every month, it takes something for it to be lovingly handsold. Sometimes, it’ll only take one bookseller to promote the ink out of the damn thing to get it going amongst several bookstores. This was particularly evident with Night Circus, a debut author’s Nanowrimo work that probably would have just stayed under the radar otherwise but was picked and loved hard before its release date. (Its themes lent itself well to store decoration too. That always helps.)

Which brings me to Unlikely Pilgrimage. Don’t get me wrong; I loved this book. I polished it off in one sitting, and not just because I was avoiding housework. If it were a movie, it would be blatant Oscar bait but that isn’t a slur against the qualities of the book. Let’s look at the basic premise. An old man in an unhappy marriage with a shrew of a wife gets a letter from a friend he hasn’t seen in 20 years. She’s dying of cancer and just wanted to let him know and thank him for his past kindness. It sets off a journey of thousands of miles, which Harold starts off in yachting shoes (I didn’t know such things exist, but clearly I’m not rich enough to know that) and with his wallet and phone.

Inspired by a girl in a garage foodstop (in the movie, she’d be played by Zooey Deschanel, she of the poorly spelt first name), he decides that by walking to Queenie, he will save her. His journey is followed by thousands on social media and the news, which is a touch I rather enjoyed. He undergoes physical change (oh, Hollywood loves that) and is ultimately redeemed by the challenges he undergoes. He is as middle-class as…whatever middle-class British people love. Oxo? Downton Abbey? Tea?

Harold (who should be played by Clint Eastwood) is not an inherently loveable man. He is emotionally stunted and grew up with an absent mother who really can’t spell and a drunken father who somehow manages to bed many women despite being utterly revolting. I admit that bothered me a great deal, since non-functional alcoholics are not known for their massive charisma and desirability. Harold’s wife, Maureen (played possibly by Meryl Streep in this Oscar-nominated tale of moving courage etc), is less than impressed by his departure and blames him from afar for everything that went wrong ever. Their stories play out apart from each other for most of the book, and as Harold walks, he shares with us the many fuck-ups of his life while Maureen realises that absence makes the heart grow fonder and that maybe over the years she’s slipped into the easy groove of being a harridan of a woman. The whole ‘things don’t grow here’ metaphor was a little heavy-handed, but otherwise Harold and Maureen are fairly well fleshed out in a world of books where we don’t get treated to to this kind of thing. Which is ridiculous, since only movies have to condense characterisation to five lines.

That being out of the way, the writing really is quite tender and lovely. There are kind lines, like ‘it was as if the world only put its lights on when Harold was near’. I am a sucker for sweetness, and this book is full of it. Like Wonder it emphasises the kindness of strangers. It also has some transient characters who are genuinely moving. Take the example of the elderly man, who takes a train to see his young lover every Thursday, and weeps that the man he loves has holes in his shoes and his feet might be wet.

“He was a chap like himself with a unique pain; and yet there would be no knowing that if you passed him in the street , or sat opposite him in a cafe and did not share his teacake…And what no one knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.” – pg 86

Harold walks, and I loved his determination and all the people he meets. The Slovakian woman who is a trained doctor but works as a cleaner and who is waiting for her partner to come home. The actor who may or may not be Colin Firth, the small scruffy dog that walks alongside him for a part of the way. The book is made up of many small incidents and a fairly wide cast, but ultimately it is Harold’s story and the more he walks, the more we find out about him. I won’t say more than that, other than the ending being well handled without being too saccharine, but I did cry. Especially for this part:

‘You’re right. It wasn’t even funny,’ said Harold, wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. For a moment, he looked sensible again. ‘That was the thing, love. It was ordinary. It must have been funny because we were happy’.

I was finished with that line, especially when I shared it with my Handsome Physicist. Don’t let the Booker-baiting nature of this book stop you. It is a genuinely beautiful read, and it is worth getting a UK edition. It is very English and I imagine a great deal of that will be gutted to make the book palatable to an American audience. The chapter illustrations are also gorgeous. This is a book filled with kindness and the jagged edges of human pain and it is definitely one of 2012’s best offerings.

By Marco Cibola for the Washington Post

Tony Blair, A Journey and the Armchair Activists

Despite the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is basically a handguide to how abusive relationships start, and that Game of Thrones is an airbrushed Medieval Europe where feminism and civil rights are things that happen to other books, I would never call for these books to be banned or burnt. You’d think this would be evident, but it really, really isn’t.

Part of my job is monitoring social media, and on the basis that Tony Blair is speaking at the Discovery Leadership Summit, an impassioned bandwagon-hopper has told us that we have blood on our hands for selling his books, for he is a war criminal. We should do a Tutu and remove ourselves from the equation. Here ends the rant. (Except it was much longer than this, and I don’t think anyone needs that in their lives right now. EDIT: It’s now a loooong Facebook thread all by itself. A guy screaming into the void all alone.)

Now, I agree that Blair is – to use a Valley Girl phrase – a complete tool. He agreed to follow America into a rather stupid and pointless war (although what war isn’t?) and while thousands of Iraqis have died, no one has really taken responsibility. I agree that is entirely unacceptable and there should be some kind of consequence.

But taking his books off the shelf really isn’t the answer.

The guy who wrote in to complain obviously doesn’t know much about publishing or moneymaking, or even common sense, it would seem. Let’s start with the first problem: if we ban one book, and are seen taking a stance on one political view, we will be swamped with demands to ban other books that upset people. We might be told to toss out Dawkins, or anything about the Pope, or a book about Julius Malema or Steve Hofmeyr. The minute we concede any ground in this matter, my time on social media will become exponentially painful as I field complaints about how we stock atheist books, or religious texts or some treatise written by a crazy person that people still study in philosophy.

Secondly, it is not the place of a book store to be the moral guardian of the nation. We have enough self-righteous Brittas around for that. Any place that makes money cannot be expected to toss valuable income down the drain to take a stance that is as transient as it is unnecessary. This is the second half of a very long recession. Bookstores have been particularly hard hit. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll skim off that to say that no sane bookstore is going to listen to three customers complain and toss income potential down the drain. Life must go on, and we do not need to close more stores or retrench more staff. Besides, in three weeks this will have been a non-event and no one will remember that we took a couple hundred books off the shelf (if that many). In any case, if we ban it, Amazon will still sell it. This is a company that sold dolphin meat in its Japanese store; I doubt Blair will bother them much.

Thirdly: Blair is not making as much money off these books as people might think. Once his advance is paid, the publisher (Cornerstone) has to fight to get that money back through sales. The sales aren’t setting the world on fire, which is a pity, since the proceeds are going to the Royal British Legion. I feel sorry for the publishing house, who were probably hoping to make big cash off this so that they could take a risk on a worthy debut author. Remember, publishing houses take a huge risk on any book, and the more money they have to take those risks, the better. Besides, if no one wanted to publish Blair, he could have done it himself. The age of gatekeepers is over.

Fourth: let him embarrass himself in the written word. There’s really not much harm in watching him desperately try to exonerate himself and no one buying it. And nothing destroys a writer’s ego like seeing their book piled high in the back of the warehouse, returned by stores who had customers too smart or uninterested to buy it. The kind of book that gets donated to charities or gets pulped.

Let the bookstore speak, and let the customers make their own decisions. It is not the place of the angry armchair activists to dictate to the buying habits of others, or the selling policies of stores. At the end of the day, banning books is archaic and never seems to work anyway. Remember when Monty Python was banned? And Catcher in the Rye?

It is a lot more gratifying to watch Blair be hoisted by his own petard than to lose out on some much-needed sales.